The ambush came at dawn.
Lily had been expecting it for two days. She’d spotted the unearthly frost burning the trees along her path as she traversed the heavily wooded valley, the places where the scouts had climbed the trees to get a read on Lily’s location. They always moved like phantoms, the frost hunters, so she could never hear them coming, but it was enough to know they were in range. She could beat them. At least, she could beat five of them. That was the highest number she’d ever seen in a group.
As Lily was packing her bedroll in the early hours of the morning, the cold stinging her cheeks, her breakfast of cold beans setting low in her stomach, uncomfortable, the hairs on the back of her neck suddenly rose. She stuffed the rest of her belongings into her pack, zipped it up, slung it over her shoulder, and grabbed her bow and arrow set from where she’d sat it against a tree. Nocking an arrow, she spun around to face the other side of the small clearing where she’d camped.
Then she waited, adrenaline pumping, heart pounding in her ears. She waited for their shadows. Waited for the gleam of their knives. Waited for the frost to creep into her space.
A man with milk-white eyes leaped from the shadows and slashed his knife toward Lily’s face. She stumbled back but held her aim and loosed the arrow. The tip plunged into the man’s neck, ripping a vein wide open, and the man’s swing went wild, skimming through the air beside Lily’s face. He landed with a stagger, dropping the knife, then clutched at his throat as blood spurted out. Red stained the frosty earth, a growing puddle, too deep, too wide to survive.
The man raised his hand toward Lily, almost as if pleading with her, but there was nothing she could do. And if there was, she wouldn’t help him. He’d taken a devil’s deal, and this was the consequence.
His face went white, lips blue, as the blood drained from his neck, and after less than a minute, he slumped over, the milky whiteness fading from his eyes to reveal glassy brown irises. Lily always wondered whether the men were really conscious under the thrall of the winter queen to whom they’d pledged their allegiance, if they knew what they were doing, trying to kill a young woman in cold blood, if they realized they were trying to help a monster end the world. But as this man died in front of her with a final, pained sigh, she realized it didn’t really matter. Because she didn’t really care.
Three years of this war had made her callous, and she had no sympathy for the devil’s henchmen, regardless of their circumstances. She had more important things to worry about than the souls of the willfully lost.
Lily prepared another arrow and spun around just as two more hunters charged out from the brush. Behind them, a virtual army of shadows writhed in the darkness cast under the dawn. Lily’s heart dropped. There were too many. At least ten. And she only had twelve arrows left. If she missed even once…
She took the man on the right in the eye, the arrow popping the eyeball like a balloon, blood and fluid gushing out. Then she dodged a blow from a machete held by the other man, the blade cutting into the skinny tree behind where she’d been standing. She rolled onto her knees, nocked a third arrow, and drove it straight through the man’s heart as he struggled to yank the machete free. He fell backward and landed on top of his companion, who lay on the cold ground, staring blankly at the sky with one intact eye.
Lily rushed forward and wrenched the machete out of the tree in three quick tugs, then tucked it into her belt. She scrambled over to the dead men to retrieve her two arrows, but the second she bent down, one of the hunters hiding in the darkness of the forest threw a series of knives, and Lily was forced to jump back as a blade whipped by her face and stabbed the tree beside her. She didn’t have time to get the arrows back. The shadows were moving closer. Fast.
The winter queen was getting impatient. She hadn’t wanted Lily to get this far.
Lily quickly surveyed the area around her. Her map was useless now—the approaching hunters were cutting off her chosen path—so when she spied a nearby rise in the ground, leading up toward the nearest mountain, sheer but not too sheer to climb, she made a split-second decision and took off toward it. Hunters were quite good at stabbing and slashing, but they could be confused by complex maneuvers like rock climbing. They weren’t nearly as smart under the thrall as they would be otherwise; the winter queen valued obedience more than thought.
Looks like I’ll have to teach you a lesson then, Lily thought. And then she climbed.