Lily Bauer ripped the arrow from her own chest and nocked it on her stolen bow. Then she spun on her knees, ignoring the intense pain resonating through her body, ignoring the blood soaking into her coat, ignoring the lightheadedness that spoke of too much blood lost. The hunter who had shot her was twenty feet away, scrabbling to pull another arrow from his quiver. He wasn’t fast enough. Lily released the arrow, and it rammed into his face, piercing his brain. He went down without a sound.
But there were eighteen more where he came from.
Lily rose, turned, and kept running, even as another barrage of arrows sailed from the trees behind her and struck the ground all around, some coming perilously close to her. There was nothing else to do but run at this point. She had reached the barren clearing around the Taurus Geyser and had no cover in any direction, and with the snow piling up, the wind screaming in her face, all she could do was push forward. Keep going. The geyser was so close. She could see the steam rising up—
An arrow struck her arm, the tip tearing straight through the muscle. Lily cried out and nearly stumbled, but she caught herself, ground her boots into the snow, and growled under her breath, “Don’t stop.”
Heavy footfalls sounded at the edge of the woods, the hunters drawing in closer so they could fire their bows with greater accuracy to offset the wind. The Winter queen was trying to force Lily back with the brutal, frigid gusts of a blizzard, but in so doing, she was stopping her own hunters from landing a fatal blow. However, there were so many hunters now that all they needed to do was keep firing. Eventually, one would land a hit in the right place by sheer luck, and Lily would go down for good.
She pressed on, increasing her pace in the face of the storm. Her mask had slipped over her chin, exposing her face to the air, but she didn’t let the painful sting of the ice deter her, even though her skin felt like it was being flayed away. She ran. She ran. She ran. Around the top of a low depression in the ground. Over a fallen tree that hadn’t been able to withstand the storm. Toward the geyser, taunting her with continual puffs of white in the air.
Just get to the geyser, Lily. You’re almost there! she screamed to herself.
More arrows shrieked by, pelting the snow. One scraped Lily’s ear, landing on the ground before her. But she ignored it. If she stopped and returned fire, she’d become an easy target. The only reason she’d taken down the other hunter was because he’d drawn too close. He’d been at the head of the pack and had gotten a lucky shot in when Lily had been forced to change directions to avoid a dense tangle of trees. Her chest throbbed at the thought.
Lily glanced down to see she was leaving a wide trail of blood. The entire front of her shirt was soaked, and it was dripping from her clothes. The wind was whipping it through the air and spraying the snow behind her with a crimson blanket. There was a lot of blood. A lot more blood than Lily had ever seen herself spill. If she didn’t make it to the geyser in the next few minutes, she was going to pass out.
The hunters roared like beasts behind her, all in unison, the sign of the Winter queen’s growing fury. The wind picked up even more, nearly flinging Lily back, and she had to lean forward, slow her run to a jog, dig her feet into the snow with each difficult step. She weighed only a hundred fifteen pounds, and the winds were gusting at well over seventy now. If she got air, any at all, she’d be blown straight into the middle of the hunter army—and then she’d die.
The wind lessened for a brief moment, and then another volley of arrows rained down. One of them struck Lily’s coat but wasn’t going fast enough to pierce the skin. She yanked it free and tossed it aside. Too close a call. She had to hurry. Had to hurry.
She was coming around the last bend, the ground evening out in the immediate vicinity of the geyser. Roughly fifty feet left to the geyser. She only needed to get within ten, so forty left to go. Forty more steps. She started counting down.
Thirty-nine. Thirty-eight. Thirty-seven.
A knife caught her arm, thrown by a preternaturally powerful hand. Lily kept going.
Thirty-six. Thirty-five. Thirty-four.
Three arrows nailed her in the back, puncturing vital things.
Thirty-three. Thirty-two. Thirty-one.
She lost her footing and nearly toppled, a wave of dizziness overcoming her.
Thirty. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.
She righted herself and pressed on.
Twenty-seven. Twenty-six. Twenty-five.
She tasted blood, and for some reason, smelled smoke. A phantom sensation. Her mind playing tricks as it ran out of blood to function.
Twenty-four. Twenty-three. Twenty-two.
She wondered if Darragh had smelled smoke when the men in black blew up the truck. If they burned him alive. She wondered if she was smelling his charred flesh, reduced to ashes, blown all the way here from Kansas by the Winter queen’s wrath.
Twenty-one. Twenty. Nineteen.
Pain lanced up her chest, both her arms, her back, striking her brain like a mallet, and she let out something that should’ve been a scream but was only a faint gasp.
Eighteen. Seventeen. Sixteen.
She wondered if her father felt pain like this when they executed him for speaking out against the atrocities of the government, for defending freedom, defending the morals he believed in.
Fifteen. Fourteen. Thirteen.
She wondered if everyone who died in the ugly flash of the bombs felt pain, if the ones gunned down in the streets during the riots felt pain, if those crushed in all the quakes felt pain—pain like this, deep and aching and chilling, the sense of death approaching.
Twelve. Eleven. Ten.
An arrow flew right by her face, and she didn’t flinch. There was no point. There was nothing an arrow could do to her now that hadn’t already been done. She was dying.
Nine. Eight. Seven.
She wondered, not for the first time but definitely for the last—why her? Why Lily Bauer, volleyball player? Why Lily Bauer, stupid teenage girl with little dreams? Why Lily Bauer, a relative no one with no special skills, no special drive, no special purpose? The leaf-shaped birthmark was all she had that set her apart from the rest of the world. Why her?
Six. Five. Four.
She wondered…did it matter why?
A last, desperate throw is what did her in. The blade caught her in the neck and tore her half-frozen skin wide open. Lily spun around like someone had grabbed her arm and yanked her, blood spraying out into the snow-filled air, dyeing the flakes bright red. She lost her footing and stumbled—but she didn’t stumble toward the hunters. She stumbled away. Toward the geyser. Stumbled and fell.
Lily hit the ground nine and a half feet away from the Taurus Geyser.
For what seemed like an eternity, she thought that she had somehow failed, or that the entire journey, from runaway to warrior in the woods had been a fantasy dreamed up by a mind that couldn’t handle the reality of a dying world. That Darragh had been nothing but a maniac playing her like a fool. But then, just as her vision dimmed, just as the world grew unfocused, as the blood gushed from her neck wound and drained her dry—she saw it. The growing golden glow of something just behind her. Coming from the geyser spring.
Water exploded upward and out, and the approaching hunters hissed and screamed as they were sprayed with ultra-hot water. To Lily, the droplets felt like a warm summer rain, and she smiled at the sensation, recalling the last time she felt truly warm, the last summer before the bombs dropped, before the world crumbled and was left cast under a sky forever gray. The screams of the hunters morphed into the rhythms of her favorite songs, now lost to a better time. The screech on the winds, the Winter queen screaming in defeat, became nothing more than the nuisance of a mosquito, a shrill little whine you could bat away with an idle hand.
The light grew brighter, and Lily felt a presence behind her. The last summer queen.
She peered up to find a woman bathed in a golden glow standing above her, looking down at her with a sad smile. The queen dropped to one knee and cupped Lily’s face with a gentle hand, warmth resonating from her skin as if fire flowed through her veins. She was the essence of summer in every way, this woman. Storms raging in her eyes, thunderbolts flashing. Hair threaded with green vines sprouting pretty pink flowers. Skin golden like the sun burning bright on a clear-sky day. The essence of a season lost to a world on the brink of annihilation.
Lily tried to speak. Nothing came out but blood.
The Summer queen hushed her, patted her cheek, and said softly, “Nothing more is required of you, child. Save your words for a time when the world needs them. The next long winter. The next cruel war. The next downfall brought about by our enemy. Save your words, and the wisdom of them, the experience, for the next life. For you are the next queen, and it is when you are queen that the world will listen to those words. Listen and obey, and for their obedience—live on.” She placed her hands over Lily’s eyes, blocking off the sight of the frozen world around them. “Now is the time for you to rest. I will place you somewhere the next Winter queen cannot find you, and there you will be safe until it is your time to rise. You will sleep but not sleep, dream but not dream, see the world for what it is and what it can and will be. You will learn. You will grow. And when the time is right, you will emerge into the world as I have today.”
Warm lips pressed against Lily’s head, soothing her even as the throes of death clutched at her chest, trying to dredge up the ultimate fear.
“Go to sleep, child. Sleep now so that you may become the next Summer queen.”
Lily’s eyes drooped, and as her beating heart slowed, her pulse weakened, her consciousness waned, she found no fear in the coming darkness.
The last Summer queen rose from Lily’s side, and with nothing but a whisper beneath the frigid wind, unleashed a burst of power that rocked the earth and melted the snow and destroyed the hunters, every one, and somehow, even, cleared the sky for miles in every direction, driving back the foreboding clouds of nuclear winter.
Lily opened her eyes wide, saw the blue, blue sky and the bright yellow sun and the promise that the world she’d witness die before her would one day live again. She took that promise and wrapped it up and tucked it away in her fading heart. She imprinted the image of the clear, beautiful sky in her mind’s eye, and smiled at the radiance it cast across the shadows of her thoughts. She let that peaceful feeling envelop her, frostbitten toes to blood-streaked head. She whispered to the Summer queen, who stood next to her, regal and powerful, glowing brighter than the sun, “Thank you.”
Then Lily closed her eyes and drifted off toward a long, deep sleep.
When she woke again, she would be the last Summer queen.
And I’ll be ready. Ready to save this world.