The Oklahoma freehold was under attack, and the resistance was losing.
Lily and Darragh had only arrived at the camp three days ago, having trekked across the countryside for weeks. Avoiding military patrols. Sleeping outside in the damp, cold woods. Being chased off “private property” by survivalists with high-powered rifles and well-hidden bunkers. They’d been slowed by a rash of snowstorms that had clogged the roads and drifted up to six feet in some places, spurred by powerful winds. Darragh claimed it was the winter queen’s doing, that she could sense them heading west toward Yellowstone and would do everything in her power to stop them from getting there.
Normally, Lily would’ve been skeptical about a claim like that. It was just bizarre. But then, last week, they’d been chased through a patch of dense woodland by strange men with milk-white eyes whose skin was as cold as ice. Lily knew that second detail because one of them had grabbed her with his bare hand, and it had left a hypothermic black-blue scorch mark on her arm. The mark had thankfully faded, but it had faintly scarred. Every time she looked at her skin, at the pale outlines of the man’s fingers, she could almost feel him grabbing her again, aiming his knife at her throat.
Yeah, she believed. There were supernatural things happening. The end of the world was bringing out the real magic. Go figure.
But they’d arrive safely at the camp anyway, escaping what Darragh called “frost hunters” by the skin of their teeth, and Lily’s identity as the daughter of a martyred activist had gained them entry into the resistance. Yes. Martyred. The freehold leaders had informed her that her father had been executed about a week and a half ago. Lily hadn’t known. She and Darragh had skipped most of the towns, only venturing into civilization to scrounge for food. They didn’t have a radio. They had no way to get news.
Lily was still brooding over the death of her father when the distant buzz of helicopters caught her ear. She was at the edge of the camp, sitting on the bank of a small stream, eating a bland grilled chicken breast and a baked potato. It was still the most delicious food she’d had in weeks. The rations and cold canned veggies her and Darragh had carried with them had never been particularly appetizing.
As the ominous sound became an insistent buzz, Lily stuffed the rest of her food down her throat, sucked the rest of the water from her canteen, and then quickly refilled the bottle using the stream water. She could purify it later. Hastily screwing the cap on the canteen, she stuffed it into her bag, which she’d kept close by like always. Then she slung on the bag and clambered up the small embankment to find the camp in a burgeoning panic. She looked around frantically for Darragh, who’d been drafted into scout duty as a way to pay for their stay at the camp, and she was relieved when she found him rushing her way, his own backpack in hand.
When he neared her, she caught something small and metallic glint in the firelight from the many cook fires arranged throughout the camp. “What’s that?” she called out over the growing din of anxiety cast across the background noise of the oncoming copters.
He reached up to her, grabbed her hand, and tugged her along behind him. “The key to our ride. We need to leave. I can sense more frost hunters. I think the Winter queen has possessed the soldiers in the helicopters. If they get a bead on us, we’re done for. What little power I have can’t withstand heavy artillery.”
“What little power” Darragh had was impressive to Lily. He’d changed his appearance with something called a glamour, and now looked totally human. And more than once, during their trip to the camp, she’d seen him pull off shots with a bow and arrow that no mortal could’ve made. He wasn’t a godlike being by any measure, but he had better senses, better aim, and perhaps a tad bit more strength and speed than a human being. His power had saved their lives more than once. So if he thought he was no match for what was coming…
Lily sped along behind him, to the makeshift parking lot covered in muddy wooden boards that had once been a field. The lot contained a mishmash of vehicles, all in various states of disrepair. They were used on missions, and many had suffered gunshots, collisions, sideswipes, and worse. One truck they passed had no windows, just empty frames with jagged bits of glass sticking up at random intervals. The aftermath of a concussive blast. Maybe a bomb.
Two helicopters screamed overhead, then cut a hard right in the air, circling the camp. The first guns fired, from the ground, resistance fighters bearing powerful rifles. They had a handful of RPGs as well, and while the copter crews were distracted by the riflemen, somebody fired one off, and it blew up one of the copters in a deafening, fiery explosion, killing everyone inside. The remains of the copter spun around and around in the air until it crashed in a vibrant, flaming heap of twisted metal right on the outskirts of the camp, not far from where Lily had been eating her dinner.
The side door of the second copter rolled open then, revealing an M134 Minigun. The man at the gun started firing indiscriminately into the fleeing crowds. People went down in wide sprays of blood, bone rendered shards, organs rendered mush. There was nowhere to hide inside the camp from such a powerful weapon, and the people knew it. They all started running for the parking lot. And the Minigun’s trajectory followed in their wake.
“Shit,” Lily muttered as Darragh came to a stop next to a beat-up Ford pickup. “We’ll have to go in the dark, no lights, or the copter will spot us.”
“Got it.” Darragh climbed into the driver’s seat and started the truck. The lights flashed for only a couple seconds before he found the switch to turn them off, plunging the lot into darkness, illuminated only by the backdrop of the now burning camp, the boundaries of the campfires destroyed by the Minigun’s wrath. In that darkness, Lily gasped and let the full horror of the situation bleed across her face. Because she could still see them. The silhouettes of fleeing, screaming people falling as the gun’s enormous bullets ripped them to shreds.
And there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing at all.
She couldn’t risk herself, Darragh had hammered into her thick skull. If she died, the world died with her. Lily was simply more important than these people.
“Lily, hurry!” Darragh called.
What a bad taste that leaves in my mouth, she thought as she climbed into the truck.
Minutes later, they were on the road, traveling through the wide-open plains of Oklahoma in total darkness. Behind them, the smoldering remains of the freehold’s largest resistance camp glowed brightly, the red glare visible for miles. A half-dozen copters circled the ruins now, spotlights out, highlighting every mangled corpse and every poor fool who’d surrendered, on their knees, hands behind their heads, lined up for the slaughter before a group of heavily armed men in black. Suddenly, as if someone had pulled a plug, all the spotlights went out.
Lily knew there would be no survivors.