“I’ve been searching for you for some time, you know?” said the guy who wasn’t human.
They were hunkered down in what had turned out to be a small storm shelter, laden with supplies the family who owned the house had never gotten to use. The family had been on vacation in Paris when the first round of bombs dropped and either didn’t survive or were trapped there with the thousands of other stranded travelers. Whichever it was, they weren’t here to use their survival supplies now, so Lily and the nonhuman man helped themselves to the food and drink. The military rations didn’t taste all that great, but there were plenty of them to go around.
The light in the shelter was dim, but it was bright enough to highlight the man’s strange features. His face was extremely sharp and angular, and his ears ended in slightly curled points. His eyes were a green brighter than any she’d ever seen, and his golden hair was streaked with the same shade as well. Tattoos that almost seemed to move ran up his arms, around his neck, and disappeared under the collar of his shirt. And the clothing—he was wearing military surplus gear, but he’d accented it with weapons that appeared to have been plucked straight from a fantasy novel.
There was an undercurrent of fear running through Lily’s veins, but she was more curious than anything else. After having her father hauled away by the government and being on the run for weeks from soldiers who wouldn’t hesitate to kill her, finding something that didn’t fit the rhythm of this autocratic hell that had become her country was a sweet relief. Even if that something was rather strange.
“For me?” Lily asked the man, confused. “Why would you be looking for me?”
“Because you’re the one who has to stop all this.” He pointed up at the ceiling of the shelter, indicating the world at large. “You’re the only one who can.”
“I don’t understand.” Was he crazy? Lily was a sixteen-year-old girl. How could she possibly save the world from its impending destruction?
“I don’t suppose you would.” He ran his hand through his oddly colored hair. “You’ve lived the ignorant life of a human, after all. You’ve never been able to See the world as it truly is.” He emphasized the word “See” in a way that tipped her off.
“See the world?”
“Some people are born with what you’d call the second sight, or the third eye. They can see the things that don’t fit with your neat, mundane human definition of reality. You have the power, but it was intentionally suppressed at your birth because—”
“Wait, are you talking about the supernatural?”
He shook his head. “I’m talking about the fae. Faeries.”
“You’re a faerie?”
“A Summer faerie, yes. And I’m the only one right now too. The only one awake. The rest are hibernating until the rebirth.” He gestured to Lily. “Which is what you’re job is, by the way. To start the rebirth by waking the last queen.”
She stared at him. “I’m still lost.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Let me start at the beginning. Many millennia ago, there was a war between the Summer and Winter courts—a war that ended with the death of the first Winter queen, but also ended with the destruction of the world. The first Summer queen expended the last of her power to partially restore the world. She didn’t have power left to restore it all, and as a result, it took centuries to fully rebuild. When the first Summer queen died, she left her successor with a charge, knowing that the next Winter queen would eventually be born into the world and go to war with Summer again. That charge was to remain in hibernation for a thousand years, storing up as much power as possible, so that when she awoke, she’d have enough power to fully restore the destruction wrought by Winter’s forces.”
Lily cocked her head to the side. “That sounds like a regular fairytale to me, not a real story.”
“Are you saying you think I’m wearing a costume?” He tugged on his ears, which Lily had to admit looked quite real. He wasn’t faking his appearance. He was actually nonhuman. Which did give his story an air of validity.
“Okay.” Lily shoved the last bit of bread into her mouth and chased it with water. “Let’s say I believe this whole Summer versus Winter war story. I’m guessing the current state of the world is due to Winter?”
He nodded. “Whenever the Winter queen returns, she sets events in motion that plunge the world into an ice age. In this case, she used your own weapons against you to set off a nuclear winter, manipulated events, political tensions and what not, until you fired missiles at each other and blanketed the sky in that impenetrable gray cloud.”
“I guess that makes sense.” She was still skeptical, of course, but she couldn’t disprove what he was saying. World political relations had deteriorated startlingly fast over the past few years. The downswing had come out of nowhere too. It hadn’t been predicted. The economic crises, the dozen wars that had suddenly popped up between smaller countries, which eventually snowballed into involvement by the major powers, which eventually led to this mess. The totalitarian overthrow of the US government. The purges of political dissidents. Nukes striking American soil.
It was nice to think that perhaps it hadn’t totally been the fault of humanity. That they hadn’t destroyed themselves on a whim. But still…
“I don’t see what this has to do with me though,” she said. “I’m a nobody.”
“No, you’re the key.” He patted his shoulder. “You have the mark, right?”
For a second, Lily had no clue what he meant, but then it hit her: She had a leaf-shaped birthmark on her left shoulder. It almost looked like a brown tattoo, it was so perfectly shaped. The first time a new acquaintance saw her in a sleeveless shirt, they’d always ask about the mark. She’d forgotten all about it because she’d stopped wearing short sleeves after the weather grew permanently cold in the wake of the bombs. “What does that mark mean?”
The man smiled. “It means you’re the next Summer queen. And that your job is to release the last Summer queen. Only you can do it.”
“Release? From where?”
“From her hiding place.” He dug around in his backpack, a camping style, and pulled out a printed page with a US map on it. A particular area was marked on the map with a red circle. “This place here.” He offered the map, tapping in the center of the circle. The area was in Yellowstone National Park. A long, long way from Leitchfield, Kentucky.
“So you, what, expect me to go and do some kind of magic spell?”
“You don’t need to do anything, really.” He shrugged. “Arrive within a certain distance of the last queen’s cage, about ten feet, I think, and the spells that bind her will unravel, waking her from her sleep. She’ll emerge, wake the rest of the Summer fae from their own hibernation, and then fight off the Winter forces using the massive amount of power she’s been storing over the past millennia. And once the Winter queen is defeated, the Summer queen will restore the world, and all will be well. Humankind—and faerie kind too—will live on.”
“And what about me?” Lily asked, a pit of dread in her stomach. “You called me the next queen.”
He worried his lip. “Yeah, about that. You’ll have to take the last queen’s place in hibernation.”
Lily stood up abruptly. “You can’t be serious. You expect me to go to sleep for a thousand years? Leave my whole world behind?”
He frowned, pensive. “If you don’t, then the next time the Winter queen strikes, the world will be destroyed.”
Lily’s throat felt dry. “How can you make me do this?” She honestly didn’t know whether she believed this whole crazy faerie story, but even so, the idea that she might have to leave everything she knew and sleep until the world neared another apocalypse, and then spend her life fighting evil Winter faeries…it was all just…she couldn’t handle it.
The man sighed. “I can’t make you do anything. I can only ask that you do. It’s up to you to take on your duty as prescribed by fate and become the next Summer queen.”
“But if I don’t do it, then the world gets destroyed?”
“Then I am being made to do this, if not by you, then by some otherworldly force. That’s not…right. I should have a choice here.”
“You do,” he said softly. “And the fact you feel you don’t means you’re the kind of person who will make the right one.”
Lily paused, considering that statement. He had a point. She’d had a sense of righteousness, a sense of justice, instilled in her by her father when she was young. And even though he was gone, locked up, being tortured, or worse, already dead, his body strung up on a pole to frighten all the others from further dissent, she still felt his lessons burning through her mind. If you have a chance to do the right thing, Lily, then do it. And you always have a chance. No excuses.
She turned back to the strange faerie guy and said through her clenched teeth, “What’s your name?”
“Okay then, Darragh,” she said, sighing deeply. “In order to get to Yellowstone from here, we’ll have to walk, since air travel and train travel have been suspended, and there are too many checkpoints for cars. Our best bet is to head to a freehold first, and then use the resistance resources to plot a viable course to the park.” She raised her eyebrows. “Unless you have a better way?”
“Unfortunately not. While the Summer fae are asleep, all their power gets funneled to the queen, so she has a better chance of defeating the Winter queen in one swift, decisive battle. As such, my own power is quite limited at this time. I can help you in a fight, certainly, and perhaps jump us a short distance using the faerie paths, but I can’t teleport us across this country. That would require more than I currently have to give.”
“Right.” Lily tossed her empty ration pack aside and looked at the remaining supplies, calculating how much they could carry with them. “Walking it is then.”