Nilien was aware of the pain before she was aware of being awake. Two years ago she’d been laid up for weeks with a fever; this felt like the worst days of that: her stomach miserable, her whole body sore, her mouth as dry as if it had been stuffed with cotton. Her head was pounding, too.

It had been dark. Not just the dark of nighttime; there had been nothing to see, nothing but void. She hadn’t hurt, then. She hadn’t felt anything at all.

She forced her eyes open, glad of the dimness. Sunlight felt like it would be unbearable. The ceiling above her was white plaster, well-scrubbed. She was definitely not in her room at school; she was no longer in the dark void, either.

She was lying on her back in a narrow bed on a thin mattress, covered by a thin blanket. She lifted her hands above the blanket, discovering along the way that, while movement made her stomach queasy, it didn’t hurt in and of itself. Small gifts, she thought. But the fever had come with aches so bad she couldn’t move a finger without pain. If she wasn’t aching, if this wasn’t the fever, how had she ended up here?

Was she even feverish? She lifted her hand to her forehead to check for warmth. Wait. On the back of her right hand was a vivid red mark, something she’d never seen before.

Do you want to live? In the darkness – why had there been such darkness? – a voice had called out to her.

Do you want to live? A light had appeared, and the question had been repeated. It seemed like a silly question now: of course she wanted to live!

She could remember no silliness at the time, just an urgency. Yes, she’d answered. Yes!

Nilien closed her eyes to let the memory wash over her. The darkness, the single light, the question, her answer… Yes. She’d been dying. No wonder she felt awful. And then the light had grown brilliant, brighter than the sun, and then…

That was all she could remember. But now she had a red mark on her hand, something like an elaborate V, and Nilien was absolutely certain that hadn’t been there the day before.

Opening her eyes again, she wiggled her fingers and watched the mark on the back of her hand. She’d wanted to live and she was alive. That much, she was pretty certain of. The mark, the pain, the reason she’d wanted so strongly to live – none of that was coming to her.

“What is going on?” she whispered.

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