| My bones were afire from the inside out and I was suddenly ultra-aware of my heart, thumping its merry way along inside my chest. The pain had settled in every last inch of my body from head to toes and was so fiery, so intense, that I could feel involuntary tears tracking down my cheeks.
My first instinct was to curl into myself and try and keep the intense pain at bay, as if curling up would chase it out of me. But it felt as if the agony itself had liquidated my bones and muscles, and I couldn't even twitch a finger. I just laid there while reflexive tears trickled down my face and into my hair and reminded myself that once this was over, I'd be all right again, that this wasn't going to last forever. Such a practical mentality had served me well through fourteen years imprisonment and mistreatment, so I concentrated hard on that fact. It can't last forever, I told myself. Once it's over, it won't seem so bad. It can't last forever.
I was lying on my back on something rough and hard and solid, with my arms stretched out to either side of me, hands open palm-up. For several moments I was blind and deaf to the world, lying in my own personal hell with fire desolving my bones and no way out; then, slowly, noise filtered back in again. Chattering voices first; frantic-sounding rustling. I still couldn't see, but I realized absently that that would be because my eyes weren't actually open. I tried vainly to lift their lids, but nothing happened. I was still completely immobile.
I couldn't remember what had happened before I woke up here--for several moments, I was hard-put to call up my own name from the recesses of a consciousness frightened into hiding by the electric pulse I'd forced its body to endure. I definitely didn't know where I was though; my head ached and spun and the voices didn't seem to make any sense to me.
For endless moments that stretched on forever, I laid there and endured the fire, continually telling myself that once it was over, everything would seem much better. I didn't consciously realize I'd begun to groan incoherently until a voice--whose words I had more trouble processing than I'd ever had before--spoke near my left ear.
"Effie's awake! Damn ... Is that normal?" The voice was male and sounded slightly put off by the pained sounds I was making.
"Brett says so," replied another voice, this one feminine and easier for me to recognize. I heard her drop down on my other side. "He says she'll be in a lot of pain."
"Sounds like it," he responded, still sounding slightly strained, but covering it up with dry sarcasm. "When will she start actually talking?"
"Brett says give her a couple minutes," said Caity's voice. "She should be okay. He says since she dropped the rod right after she fired, there should be no lasting damage."
Things were piecing themselves together with excruciating slothfulness, as if I was just waking up in the morning, but ten times slower. I began to remember the mad dash I'd made from the compound, the guards' firm grips on my waist and arm and shoulder, the way they'd mentioned callusly that Domitare wanted to see me, my desperation, my sudden awareness of the lightning rod still clutched in my hand, my split-second decision to fire at my own chest, and the horrifying realization that my plan might not work anyway ... It came back in little snatches, each bit falling into place to create a full-fledged memory of the moments before I'd decided suicide wasn't entirely out of the question.
As I focused on that, the firery agony began slowly to recede, leaving me worn-out and sweaty, but much more aware of my surroundings. Rocks jabbed painfully into my back, and I could hear birds chattering away in the trees. I almost didn't recognize the sound, because I hadn't heard so much as a cricket in fourteen long, painful years. But memories from long ago, from before I was six years old, brought the sounds slowly back to me. Birds.
Where in the universe WAS I?
Slowly, I tried again to open my eyelids and found that, this time, they moved as I commanded. I opened them slowly and took a quick glance around.
Caity was on my right, just as I'd thought, but it was astounding how different she'd become. She was six years older than she had been when I'd last seen her. She was taller--I could see that even though she wasn't standing up. Her hair was much longer than I remembered it being, the coarse black strands falling more than halfway down her back, and the way it lay accentuated her high cheekbones, giving her an almost angry look. It was a strange contrast to the voice I'd been hearing--worried, maybe, but mostly unconcerned and definitely not angry.
I gazed the other way now, barely able to turn my head, to see the young man on my left. I wasn't sure I recognized him--at least not the way he looked now, though his face stirred a vague recollection in the back of my mind. He looked to be even taller than Caity, with fairly neat-looking light brown hair, gray eyes and a build that made it appear he hadn't eaten for some time; you could clearly see his ribs. It took me several seconds to put a nearly forgotten name to his familiar face. When I did finally figure it out, I decided I must be in hell (which explained the pain still throbbing through my body) and that the electricity had really done its job. He'd been dead for years, as far as I knew. Dead since I'd been seven years old, fairly new to the compound prison, and in dire need of a role model. He'd been so, right up until he'd vanished one day and I'd never seen him again.
Vanished just like Caity.
He answered, visually if not verbily, to the name I remembered him telling me long ago, looking down to see my open blue eyes and then glancing back up at Caity. "She's fast," he commented.
"Always was. You remember, she was always quick on the uptake and got over colds faster than you?"
He shook his head. "Of course I do." He looked back down at me. "I hoped you'd stay out longer. We're going to have to put you back under again."
I decided that I didn't really want to think about why I was having a conversation with someone thirteen years dead, so focused on his statement instead. "Why?"
"You've got a tracking device lodged at the base of your spine, under the skin," he said. "Brett thinks the shock you gave yourself might have shorted it out, but we can't take any chances. They're taking it out as soon as they can."
"Where--" The belated question was cut short by Caity, who answered before I could finish asking.
"In the forest not too far outside the compound," she said. "We're taking a risk, but we have to get rid of your tracker before we do anything or go anywhere else."
I shook my head, still in pain and muzzily confused. "But--"
The crunch of footsteps alerted me to someone else's presence. I glanced up to see an unfamiliar dark-skinned man striding toward us, looking down at us with a reassuring smile. He caught the last exchange.
"Not right now, Efimia," he said, formally using my full first name. "Right now, we've got to put you back under and get rid of your tracking device. We're too close to Domitare for comfort and we can't stay here."
I nodded slightly, mute with confusion and lingering traces of pain. He approached and knelt down with a syringe in one hand. "You should wake up feeling better than you are right now, hopefully," he added as he held my elbow in one hand, kneading it to find the vein.
Anything that would help the pain was all right with me at that point; anyway, I was still exhausted and couldn't quite bring myself to feel real, true fear. I closed my eyes in response, felt the prick of the syringe going in and coldness as the liquid was injected.
I started out missing little bits of time--one minute I was lying on the ground, the next I was being helped bodily along by someone. But as seconds passed the moments of lucidity grew fewer and farther between, and I didn't even realize when I blacked out completely.
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