| Being trapped in the compound for fourteen years wasn't conducive to good physical fitness. I'd counted on being able to escape the compound itself before I was forced to halt, but by the time I'd reached the walls, I could barely breathe and had to stop and rest. Lungs afire, panting for air, I leaned over to rest my hands on my knees. The rocky dirt below my feet was dry with the sun and I could see an ant making its sluggish way along down there. I rested the business end of the lightning rod on the ground and leaned on the butt, trying to catch my breath before I took off again. Fear and exertion made me nauseous and I could almost feel the shapeshifters getting closer with every second I stayed still.
After a moment, I forced myself laboriously upright and stumbled on as quickly as I could, gasping desperately and trying to ignore the stitch in my side. All I could truly think about anymore was that I needed to run.
I could hear the patter of light feet behind me, as if the guards had shifted to follow me faster. They probably had.
When I reached the metal gates that shut the compound away from the rest of the bustling world outside, I raised the lightning rod again and fired at the lock, hoping against hope my hunch was correct. Indeed, it was: The metal conducted the electricity brilliantly, melting the lock with its heat. I ran into the gate full force, ramming the thing outward as I fled from the pursuit.
I didn't quite see the gate guard until he'd jumped down in front of me, his own lightning rod raised. I barely even thought before I fired, didn't even stop to see whether I'd done any serious damage. I leaped over his fallen body and continued, feeling inexorable panic welling within me, clogging my throat and filling my mouth with bile.
The compound was settled on the edge of the woods, separated from the town by two miles, at least, of trees. That was my short-term goal. If I could get there, maybe I could rest. Maybe--
"Surrett!" My sirname was roared practically in my ear. While I'd been focused on the trees, the shapeshifter had bounded up behind me. He was nearly on my heels now, so close I fancied I could feel his presence towering over me. I tried to speed up, animal sounds of effort and panic tearing themselves from my throat, but I couldn't force anything more from a body that had spent fourteen years being mistreated and surviving on a diet of meals that were spartan and anything but regular. I nearly dropped the lightning rod as I pumped my arms for more speed, gasping in air that, despite the warmpth outside, burned my throat.
And then skin contacted skin as a hand clamped around my right arm. Screaming in panic, I kicked out backwards, but the shapeshifter was too far back for me to reach. He held me at arm's length, bringing his other hand up to clasp my shoulder harshly. I twisted, trying to aim the lightning rod, but he held me firmly with my back to him. I could feel my eyes burn with panicked tears because I knew that once they had me back, they wouldn't let me go again. Once I went back through the gates, Domitare wouldn't let me have a moment to myself for the rest of my sorry days.
"Come back, Efimia," the guard said in a half-menacing, half-coaxing way, carefully dragging me around so I could see the metal gates again. I felt another pair of hands getting grips around my waist, and the force of their combined pulling was unstoppable.
I couldn't reach either of them with the lightning rod, but the guards' quiet voices in my ear were too much. They weren't even talking to me anymore, but one was commenting to the other that Domitare had said he wanted me brought straight to him. No respite, just straight back to Domitare.
My ears were ringing and even though my chest and lungs felt ready to burst apart, I was hyperventilating, breathing too fast and too much. My vision was blurring around the edges, even though I couldn't feel any tears falling yet. I was almost dizzy--almost glad the guards were supporting me.
I could see a blurred hand reaching around, trying to rest the lightning rod from me. I tightened shaking fingers, disturbed to think that I should lose it.
"Effie!" The voice was in my head, almost fully covered up by the ringing in my ears. I recognized it vaguely, my subconscious giving it the name Caity before I could really register the undertones to her words. She sounded worried.
Metal bars loomed before my fading vision and I knew I was going back where even Caity's memory couldn't reach me. My reeling brain knew I didn't want to go there.
I was only half-conscious of raising the lightning rod and aiming, fumbling as I tried to keep the guards' fingers off it long enough for me to fire. 'You set it on kill,' I reminded myself. 'You set it on kill.'
I fired. I wasn't consciously aware of jerking back with the force of the electricity, letting the rod fall from spasmotically twitching fingers, hearing the guards cry out in surprise as excess electricity carried through my body to theirs. I didn't black out right away and had time to wonder, with a sudden pang of horror so acute it made me sick, whether the lightning rod had been fully charged. The kill setting only worked on fully charged, well-maintained rods.
If it hadn't worked, if this last ditch attempt to free myself had failed, I didn't want to think about what I'd do or where I'd end up. I could remember six years--ever since I'd been fourteen years old--of enduring the mistreatment and privation and carefully formulating my one desperate hope for escape. Ever since Caity had mysteriously vanished--here one day, gone the next--and I remembered vowing, in my rebellious fourteen-year-old way, that eight years caged in that prison was all I'd ever spend.
I'd failed on that count, too.
Dirt flew before my rapidly-blurring blue eyes as if the guards above me were scrambling to do something before time ran out. Perhaps they were even now running to tell Domitare that they'd recaptured me, that I wasn't dead, just hurt ... Or maybe that I really WAS dead, finally, and that he'd have to find someone else to focus upon now that I was no longer an option. Feet scampered around me--how many of them were there? Hadn't there been only two?--and for some strange, inexplicable reason, Caity's voice continued prattling on in my left ear. "She's alive, it's all right, she's alive ..."
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