She choked and almost lost hold of the tree, but the hellhound let go and leapt backwards to avoid the spear Stil tossed at it like a javelin. The spear missed.

“Cudere,” Stil called, holding his arm out in front of him. The spear shook before flying out of the ground in which it was impaled and hurtling back to the craftmage. Stil spun around and thrust the spear out in front just in time to intercept another bolt from the rider.

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The hellhound growled and snapped at Gemma’s feet; she kept her cloak wrapped tightly around herself so none of it draped. She pulled a fairly sizable dead branch off the tree and dropped it on the hellhound. It cracked in half after hitting the animal’s skull.

The hound snarled, but it held its ground between Stil and Gemma.

Stil faked a jab to the beast’s left before carrying through, turning the jab into a slash that landed squarely on its already-wounded shoulder. The beast yelped and scrambled backwards. Stil was about to finish the animal off with a well-placed jab when he froze. He turned to face the rider before he fell to his knees, letting Gemma see the black arrow that poked out of his left shoulder.

Stil fell face forward into the ground, his breath rattling in his chest.

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No, no, NO!

“NO!” Gemma shouted, leaping from the tree. She landed on the injured hellhound that was dragging itself towards Stil. Her entire body jarred when she hit the animal, making a faint clinking noise.

Panic poured through her, unleashed by the sight of Stil’s bleeding shoulder. Her usual calm abandoned her like warmth in a snowstorm.

Not Stil! Anything—except that!

Gemma grabbed the idea and used it to push her mind into motion. She needed to understand what was happening! There was a distinct pattern to the battle, and more than the obvious tactic that the hellhound attacked while the rider shot arrows. There was something missing—like hems and seams, hidden from sight but stitching cloth together. Wait, could it be…?

“Gemma, run,” Stil grimaced as Gemma scrambled the few feet to him.

“Its weakness is light, right?” Gemma asked, her breath coming in heavy pants as her heart pounded in her throat.

“What?” Stil groaned as the nightmare mount sauntered in their direction.

“The rider and hellhound! They cannot abide light, right?”

“Right.”

“Good,” Gemma said, digging in her pockets as the hellhound dragged itself in their direction.

“What are you doing? Run, you mule,” Stil coughed.

“It’s easier to take apart a piece of clothing if you rip out the seams. We were just stabbing at the cloth,” Gemma said.

“What?” Stil said, confused by Gemma’s babble

The rider was almost on them when Gemma’s fingers closed on what she was looking for. Gemma plucked at least four starfires out and shouted “SHINE! Shine your brightest!”

The prisms glowed with the intensity of the sun, bathing the clearing in light so brilliant, even Gemma couldn’t see. The hellhound, nightmare, and the rider shrieked with pain as the light poured over their bodies, invading every crevice.

Gemma dropped the prisms on the ground and turned her back to the light to pick two more starfires out of her pocket. “SHINE!” she shouted when she realized she faced the blinded, injured hellhound. The animal scrunched its eyes shut and leapt at her, mouth gaping. It latched down on Gemma’s arm, making her scream when its fangs sank into the flesh of her arm.

Gemma gritted her teeth and kneed the creature in the chest, trying to make it release her. It flopped but didn’t let go. Gemma punched its head with her fist that held the starfires. The animal released her and choked, writhing on the ground when one of the prisms fell down its throat.

Light erupted from its mouth, and the hellhound howled.

“Dim!” Gemma shouted.

The star fires dimmed enough that Gemma could see without stars in her eyes.

It was still too much for the nightmare mount; it reared, unseating the rider, and took off, galloping through the dark woods with angry screams.

Gemma glanced over her shoulder at the writhing hellhound, her shoulders heaving as she observed the creature’s pain while light invaded it from the inside out.

Gemma’s fist tightened around an unlit starfire. She ran towards the rider, kicking up snow. “SHINE!” she shouted, grabbing the thrown rider by its cloak.

The rider was even more terrifying to behold than Gemma had steeled herself for. Instead of a flesh-covered face it had a bare skull. The rider’s jaw was square and blocky to support its bloated incisors that were coated with a red so dark and rusty, it was almost black. There were gaping holes instead of eyes, and its breath reeked of sulfur and brimstone.

The rider wasn’t a mindless creature—like the hellhound or the horse—nor was it crazed and mad with greed—like King Torgen. Instead it was a hole of darkness, seeking to devour everything good and righteous in its path.

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