Mandana cut into the thorny brush, breaking away several long branches that cracked underfoot as she moved forward. Having found her rhythm, she began slashing away in earnest, carving out a narrow footpath ahead of her.
Her companions lingered.
Vicki paced, weaving a shallow path of her own in the dirt. Logan fidgeted just as restlessly, but waited with his arms crossed, watching the ball of light that was KayKay bob to and fro among the thorns unhindered.
Melkhiresa stood exceptionally still. Her expression was inscrutable, but her eyes were fixed on the golden tower that dominated the horizon.
Hands stuffed in his pockets, Eli’s gaze wandered between them, the woman ahead of them, and the world surrounding them. Once she’d cut deep enough for him to be out of the way, he followed Mandana to the edge of the brush to watch her progress.
Vicki made another circuit, and stopped.
Eli glanced her way, only to find her bristling and Logan straightening up in sudden alarm beside her. Something brushed his leg, and, looking down, Eli took a step back before he could get cut. Melkhiresa hissed in surprise behind him.
“Ooh boy,” he breathed.
The unearthly thicket was growing back.
Mandana was barely over halfway through and tiring; the gashes in her clothing were seeped with blood. The brambles were fighting against her every step of the way, and now... they were growing back.
Steeling himself, Eli reached out behind him. With a reassuring smile – like he knew what he was doing – he urged Melkhiresa forward. And, trusting him, she went – stepping over the brambles that tried to trip her.
Logan went next without prompting, KayKay suddenly close beside him, and Eli glanced at Vicki.
“You first,” she told him. He hesitated, and she pointed out, “No time to fuckin’ argue, man.”
Vicki was right. And she was stubborn. But she fell in close behind him as he shoved his way through the thickening branches, guarding their backs.
Not that her expertise would be much use.
Bloodthirsty brambles crept in all around them, closing off any escape. But Mandana’s efforts were affording them a way forward, and they crowded in behind her as safely as they could.
Mandana uttered a sharp ah of surprise, the sound itself causing Eli’s heart to jolt up into his throat, as the thorns of a slithering branch caught her scarf. Melkhiresa reached up to free her, but the noble effort was not without slicing her hands. The branch subsequently crunched under the force of Mandana’s sword.
But the jagged branches thinned ahead, even as they crowded in behind.
Mandana frustrated grunts of exertion grew into loud, angry battle cries and her lagging swings grew sharper and swifter as she gained a second wind.
And then the woven wall of darkness broke, and she staggered into the clearing beyond. As soon as Melkhiresa and Logan were clear, Eli moved straight for her Mandana’s side. Slipping an arm around her and catching one of hers over his shoulder, he supported her the last few steps... where her feet slipped out from under her, and there was little he could do other than help her to the ground.
Melkhiresa hovered at first, clutching her bloodied hands, then crouched beside them. Her gaze flicked from Eli to Mandana.
There was concern in his voice, the obvious truth stuck in his throat.
“You have seen me through worse,” Mandana reminded him.
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“Yet, I will heal. You know this.”
Her eyes closed. Longer than a blink. When she opened them again, Eli knew intuitively where this was going and how much he was going to hate it.
“She’s got a point, but maybe one of us oughta stay with her,” Vicki cut in.
“No...” Mandana’s words grew more labored. Almost slurred. “There is no way of knowing what lies ahead.”
She stared at Eli.
He stared right back.
“You know I speak the truth.”
And there was no arguing with a jinn who’d found the truth.
“Alright,” Eli relented, and Melkhiresa snapped her head towards him in alarm. “And we’ll be back for you as soon as we...”
He trailed off, as he realized Mandana wasn’t listening.
She’d slipped off into an exhausted slumber.
Which only meant Eli didn’t have to hide the depth of his concern.
Standing, he toyed with the brim of his hat. Much as he loathed it, she was right. They couldn’t wait for her to recover. But the hollow they were in appeared safe enough, in that it was a natural break in the brambles. Their resilience might even have added an extra blanket of security while Mandana slept.
Melkhiresa remained by Mandana’s side, and set to the task of tucking in her scarf where it had been pulled partially askew. She looked up at Eli, only, it seemed, to be taken aback by something.
“Give me that coat.”
Eli blinked down at her, but started to shrug his coat off even before fully fathoming what she intended. It hit him as she eased Mandana’s inert form into a position a little more comfortable. And, once he handed her his coat, Melkhiresa tucked it around Mandana where she slept.
Once she had, Melkhiresa lingered for a few moments longer, finding Mandana’s fingers with her own. A heavy, uncertain pause, and she swooped down to steal a swift, soft kiss.
Then rocked back off her knees, rolling to her feet.
If Eli was perplexed, it must have shown in his expression, which Melkhiresa met with a primadonna pout.
“What?” She rationalized glumly, “It worked for Sleeping Beauty.”
Still, her worried gaze fell to Mandana. Eli pressed his hand to Melkhiresa’s back, encouraging her forward with a faint smile, all too slowly realizing something he ought to have seen all along.
“She’ll be alright,” he promised her, hoping it was the truth. “The rest will do her good; by the time we get back, she’ll be good as new.”
Melkhiresa swallowed. Then nodded, turning her attention to the cave that loomed ahead of them, oozing darkness.
Eli summoned a spark of fire to light their way.