Lily Bauer ripped the arrow from the dead man’s back and wiped it on his dirty shirt. She then examined the tip, noting that it had been dulled significantly by the impact with the man’s ribcage. Even so, she couldn’t afford to lose one, as she only had thirteen left, down from the twenty that had originally been in her quiver, so she stowed it away. She couldn’t replace any unless she ventured into a city, and that was a danger she couldn’t justify at this point. She was close to the queen’s cage now. She had a week left to travel, maybe less.
Climbing the rock-strewn face of the steep hill, she found herself at a good vantage point from which to map out the next leg of her journey. She pulled her pencil and drawing pad from her pack, sat the bag against a nearby tree, and flipped the pad open to a fresh page—she only had four pages remaining. Almost like she’d picked the perfect pad to last the duration of her trip. She would’ve called that a coincidence once upon a time, but she knew better these days.
Nothing was a coincidence. At least not anymore.
She gazed out across the expanse of sharp mountains and low valleys that stretched for miles ahead of her, noting the density of the woodland, the sheerness of the cliff faces, how far the snow crept down toward the ground, how fast the waterways flowed. The snow was especially worrying this time of year. It was desperately close to actual winter, and with the sky the way it was, perpetually gray with the ash clouds, snowfall was bound to reach the ground in a matter of weeks. Even days. If Lily didn’t make it across the Rockies before the first major snowfall, she wouldn’t make it at all.
There wasn’t enough food left in her store, and her clothing, while warm, wasn’t enough to survive a brutal winter. And shelter? Forget about it. She’d been forced to leave her tent back in Nebraska.
She spent the next three hours mapping out three alternative routes to get her across the mountains, based on the topography that she could see, and the layout on the map she’d stolen from a gas station on her way into Wyoming. When she was satisfied, she weighed the three based on ease and speed, and ended up picking route three, which had a good balance of both and was the least likely to get her stuck in a place she couldn’t quickly escape from if more hunters showed up.
As she put away her drawing pad, having memorized the first leg of her route, she peered down the hill at the man’s body, lying bloody and still on the rocky ground. His eyes were bulged open, two muddy brown irises around glazed pupils, looking everywhere, seeing nothing. He’d died almost instantly, she thought, the arrow having pierced his heart. Even months ago, she wouldn’t have been able to make that shot. She’d gotten better with the bow very fast.
She’d had little choice in the matter.
Lily collected all her things, bow and quiver and bag, slung her pack over her back, and marched off toward a decline that would take her down into the first valley. The way was a little unstable, littered with lose rocks, but she managed to slip only twice, and she didn’t end up bleeding this time around, only bruised, so when the hill bottomed out at the valley floor, she felt pretty good about herself. Even let out a small whoop of triumph. It kind of reminded her of the way she used to cheer when she scored for her volleyball team back in high school.
She paused, one foot stuck out above the dirt before her. God, volleyball. Feels like forever ago.
But it hadn’t been forever. Only three years. Problem was, a lot could change in three years.
She glanced at the overcast sky and smelled the ash on the air, then continued on toward the tree line.
It was almost funny, in a morbid way. People had spent decades panicking at the idea that the Yellowstone supervolcano might explode sometime soon and suffocate the world in a thick gray blanket. But at the end of it all, after the waves crashed and the ground quaked and the cities crumbled and the bombs fell…volcanoes were pretty much the only things that hadn’t contributed to the end of the world.
Lily felt there was an irony in there somewhere.