Chapter 24

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            “…and that’s why we’re pretty sure the rumours are talking about me. I mean, I hope they aren’t, but…well, you can see that it doesn’t seem likely,” Rika said, leaning back onto her hands.

            Across from the fire from her, Elthia shook her head. “I’d heard the rumour but I’d never have connected it with you. This…it’s beginning to feel like something out of a tale.”

            “I think that’s how we all feel. Or almost all of us,” Damek said, glaring in Ahisu’s direction.

            The mage, who was sitting against a boulder, well outside the circle of firelight but within his own circle of lanternlight, only turned a page of his book. As soon as their camp was set up and Rika’s lesson was finished, he’d moved over there, ignoring them. Rika sighed, wondering how she was going to get him more involved…

            The bugle of a horn broke the relative quiet of the night, sending all of them scrambling to their feet. From all around them, uniformed men came running, weapons drawn. When they entered the light, Rika felt her blood turn to ice. They were all wearing the same dark yellow uniform.

            She looked to her companions as she set herself into her fighting stance. Elthia was running to the only open spot, arms over her head, only dropping them when she reached the relative safety, her eyes wide as she looked at them. Ahisu had moved towards the campfire, but there were already men between him and them.

Damek stood in front of Rika, eyes steady as he looked at the men around them. He was the one who said, “Turn around and watch my back.” Rika nodded, swinging around, the heat she could feel coming from Damek reassuring. She wasn’t facing this alone.

Almost as one, the soldiers converged on them. Ahisu laid about him with his staff, smashing more than one man’s face in, striking at any vulnerable spot, paying special attention to joints. It wasn’t long before there were half a dozen men moaning on the ground in front of him. His back was being protected by Shetton. Rika was glad she couldn’t see what was happening behind the mage. The screams were bad enough that her stomach had already given a little lurch.

Behind her, Damek was a whirlwind. He never seemed to stop moving, his hands and feet lashing out, every blow drawing cries of pain. He dodged, wove, spun and rolled, all while keeping up constant attacks on the soldiers pressing towards him.

Rika felt fear for her friends wriggle its way into her veins, but did her best to ignore it. She had her own opponents to deal with. While not many men managed to get past Damek, there were still enough that Rika didn’t have a chance to rest. Her attacks, while still the most basic forms, were doing damage. Seeing trained soldiers falling back after she kicked or punched them, Rika felt her confidence grow. This was the first time she’d been able to see the results of all the training.

Head up, and with a wicked gleam in her eyes, Rika pressed the attack, driving the men before her, moving them well away from Damek. He trusted her enough to guard his back, and she would be damned if she was going to let him down. Blocking one man’s blow with her arm, she put all her weight behind the punch she sank into his stomach. She didn’t watch him fold up, just turned to the next soldier.

An explosion of light and heat from the side drew Rika’s attention away from her fight, but it did likewise for her opponents. Ahisu’s other attackers had fallen away, leaving him to face the woman who was summoning fireballs in front of her. Rika heard Shetton’s laughter while Ahisu rapidly drew symbols into the dirt with the end of his staff.

            As soon as he finished one, he started another, not watching as the symbol flared red before what looked like a solid column of steam blasted the other mage. Seeing the frost spreading out, Rika realized it was ice. While part of her wondered how a demon summoner was able to use ice magic, the rest of her finally remembered what she was supposed to be doing. She turned back to the men in front of her.

            While they were still staring at the mage fight, Rika was able to use their inattention to kick one and punch another, sending them both stumbling back. Movement from the side grabbed her attention. A group of soldiers were hurrying in, looking like they’d circled far around Damek. Rika felt a flicker of worry but set herself to face them, chin up. She wasn’t going to be the damsel in need of rescue. This was her story.

            They swarmed her. Rika twisted, turned, punched, kick, and even bit once, but there were too many of them. She found her arms pinned from behind. She tried to turn but someone else got her a leg. In seconds, she found herself being lifted and carried.

            Rika struggled, fighting as hard she could, desperation adding strength to her movements. But they were prepared for her. Fear exploding in her chest, she continued to fight, wishing one of them would fall or get dragged backwards, so they’d trip and she could-

            She felt one of the people carrying her stumble. With a giant wrenching of her upper body that left her stomach muscles sore, Rika got herself half free. Not about to wait for them to grab her again, she twisted and slammed a fist into the person carrying her’s chin. Watching him fall with a feeling of satisfaction, she let her weight drop, making the person still holding her legs stagger.

            With her back against his, she twisted, punching at his side as hard as she could. He cried out and dropped her. Quick as she could, Rika rolled and came back up on her feet, fists up. But arms again wrapped themselves around her from behind, and before she knew it, she was being shoved at another person.

            As a second set of hands closed around her, Rika drew her head back to deliver a headbutt. The sudden rushing sound of air and blasts of wind had her eyes closing themselves. When she opened them, she found she was no longer in the forest.

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