Blythe stared at the large envelope in her mother’s hands. She nibbled on her fingernails and tried to ignore her little brothers and sister jumping up and down. The noise was loud in the kitchen and she couldn’t hear her mother’s words as she quietly read the letter to herself. Then she gasped and looked up at Blythe.
Blythe felt her heart stutter, knowing in her heart that one day this would happen. She never dreamed that it would be this soon. She saw her mother sway and quickly moved forward to grab her. She helped her mother to a chair before daring to take the letter from her mother’s white knuckled grip.
Taking a deep breath, Blythe read the letter herself. She felt all the blood drain out of her face. They’d requested her specifically. Blythe had other sisters, but they weren’t eligible. Why me? What makes me so special? I’m only a baker’s daughter. Blythe couldn’t do this. Surely there was another way. Some way around this.
“Mother?” she asked.
“There has to be another way. Some way for them to skip over me,” Blythe muttered. The chaos around her was causing her head to hurt, but she didn’t want to tell the rest of the family at the moment. It was too much too soon. Just this morning Blythe had read in the newspaper that they were sending out the letters today. And then her mother had gone to the mailbox and brought back a golden envelope and reality set in.
“It’s our year,” her mother whispered. “There is no way around this. Others have tried in the past.”
“Tell me it’s not real. It can’t be real.” Blythe shook her head and stepped away from her mother. “I can’t deal with this right now. I just graduated high school. I was supposed to get my own place. I’m not ready for this. Mother please!”
“Oh honey, come here,” her mother pulled her into a hug. “We’ll get through this. This family is tough.” Blythe felt tears prick her eyes. She hadn’t even realized that the room had grown quiet until her father spoke.
“What’s going on here?” her father asked, walking further into the kitchen and taking off his hat. His eyes took in the scene and the golden envelope sitting on the table. “What is that?”
“Frank, it’s our year,” her mother spoke up, tears slipping down her cheeks.
“No, it can’t be,” he shook his head. “Not our Blythe. She just graduated. She hasn’t even been able to spread her wings. We have to do something.”
“Frank, you know there’s nothing to do. We can’t cause any problems with the authorities. If we don’t take Blythe to the Running, they’ll come here and drag her there themselves.”
Blythe felt a sob shake her body. She needed to stay strong for her family, but inside she broken and scared to death. There was no way she would make it. She wasn’t a fighter and could never kill someone. What was she going to do? The Running gave the girls a chance to come home, but Blythe had never held a weapon in her life unless using a knife to cut up stuff counted. She could bake you anything you wanted, but actually picking up a weapon and running from shifters? There was no way.
“I’m so sorry,” her father turned to her and held out his arms. Blythe ran into her father’s embrace, wondering if it would be the last time she ever got to be held by him.
Blythe stared up at the huge arena. It seemed to reach all the way to the sky. She shivered in the cool spring air. Today was the first day of Spring and the day that the Running would take place. It had been a week since her family had received the golden letter that turned Blythe’s life upside down. Now here she was, outside of the arena that would change her life.
A hand on her shoulder had her turning to face her father. He smiled sadly down at her. He’d tried everything possible to get Blythe out of the Running, but there were nothing they could do. Every family had to participate. So this whole week, Frank had been trying to teach Blythe how to fight. She was bad at it and eventually Frank had given up. Her mother wouldn’t even speak of the Running and pretended that nothing was amiss. She hadn’t even been strong enough to come say goodbye to Blythe. Blythe reached up, grabbing the necklace that held a picture of her father and mother. She would miss them so much. Even her annoying little brothers and sisters. She wasn’t sure about her older sisters, but who knew, maybe she’d miss them eventually once it sunk in.
“I can’t do this,” she said, grasping her father’s hands in hers. Reality was hitting her hard this morning. Blythe wasn’t ready for her future to be turned around. She’d planned on going to college and becoming a professional chef. She’d been practicing different recipes at her father’s bakery for the last two years now. Everyone loved them. Now those dreams were dashed. Blythe knew there was no way she’d come out of the arena and get to go back home.
“I’m so sorry honey. I’ll make sure the guards watch out for you. The shifters aren’t all bad. Everyone says they treat their women with respect and they mate for life. They also don’t share, so you don’t have to worry about that,” Frank told his daughter, kissing her forehead. He’d been trying to find the bright side of this situation. Blythe truly didn’t think he’d fully accepted that she wasn’t coming home.
“Father,” Blythe whispered. She felt tears in her eyes again. This would be the fifth time she’d cried this morning.
“Honey, you have to look at the bright side,” Frank admonished.
“It’s hard,” Blythe admitted. “You promise to write me?”
“I’ll write you every week! I’m going to miss my baby so much,” Frank wiped at his eyes, embarrassed to find himself about to cry. Blythe wasn’t ready for this. She was so innocent and so timid. She could barely talk to strangers. How could she face a shifter chasing after her and fighting over her? It was going to open her eyes to a new experience, one she should never have to go through.
“It’s time for me to go,” Blythe said, looking up at the clock. It was 11:00 and the Running started at noon exactly. She still had to get something to eat and check in. She switched shoulders, the strap from her bag digging into the skin. She looked down at her meager belongings and then back up at her father. Man, she would miss him. He’d been her rock since she was a baby. How would she survive without him?
“Goodbye, baby girl. You take care of yourself,” Frank called after her, his hand waving frantically. She turned once and waved, but after that, she kept her eyes in front of her. She knew that if she looked back now, she’d lose it and they’d have to drag her in kicking and screaming. Her family didn’t deserve that kind of bad attention. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the lobby of the arena.
The door slamming behind her seemed to represent her old life separating from her new with finality. Was that a sign she’d never see her family again? A shiver went through her and she wrapped her arms around herself for protection. It was hard to do with her bag weighing her down, but she needed the added comfort. The lobby was so large, Blythe felt like an ant in comparison. She bit her fingernails nervously, shifting on her feet as she wondered what to do next. She’d never been there and didn’t know what to do. Women dressed in all black were running around, asking people their names. Blythe was about to approach one, when one snuck up behind her.
“What is your name?” a red haired young woman asked. She didn’t look much older than Blythe’s nineteen years.
“Blythe Hobbs,” she replied.
“Good, one of the contenders,” the red haired one smiled. “Right this way please, let’s get you something to eat and then I’ll explain everything and answer any questions you have.”
“Um, okay?” Blythe shrugged, not sure what else to do.
“Oh, sorry, I get caught up with trying to remember everything and forget to introduce myself. Anyway, my name is Lorna.”
Lorna led Blythe to a cafeteria that had a buffet filled with different foods. Blythe’s stomach growled and she quickly set her stuff down and started filling up her plate. Apparently lunch was free for contenders. As she ate, she watched other girls come in, led by women in all black. They spread out around the cafeteria and no one spoke to each other. Blythe didn’t recognize any of the women, but that wasn’t uncommon. She counted them and realized that only eight were present and she made nine. Where was the tenth one?
Lorna grabbed a plate of food and sat down with Blythe. “So how old are you?” she asked.
“I’m nineteen,” Blythe replied, blushing though she didn’t know why. “So can you refresh me about the rules?”
Lorna took a bite of her salad before answering. “Rule one, every year on the first day of Spring, ten human females are to be placed in the Running arena and given weapons to defend themselves.”
“What kind of weapons?”
“Different ones. There are axes, bows, swords, knives, rope,” Lorna answered, taking two more bites of her salad. Blythe ate a couple bites of fruit, but her stomach felt off and she was afraid to eat too much.
“What is the second rule?”
“The women are not permitted to harm or help each other. It’s every woman for herself basically.”
“That’s not fair! Why is that even a rule?” Blythe whined. She’d been relying on the other nine helping each other and her too. She needed their protection. There was no way she could use her weapon on anyone, if she even got a weapon before they were all taken. She’d be the first one to get grabbed by a shifter.
“I’m sorry, but we’ve had all the women team up in the past and make it to midnight. The shifters went crazy and demanded the rules be changed. It puts the odds more in their favor. I know it’s not fair, but they don’t want to risk an uprising. Could you imagine if they got loose?” Lorna shivered with that thought and Blythe winced. That would not be good. The shifters were way more powerful and would kill without mercy.
“I’m not really liking these rules. What is the next one?” Blythe reached for another grape and realized she’d eaten them all. Maybe her stomach had settled. She just had to be distracted. This might be the last time she had a good meal. Who knew what kind of food the shifters were given.
“The next rule is actually a fair one. You may like this one. It says if a woman is to kill a shifter, she has thirty minutes of relief to find an exit. If she does not reach her door in thirty minutes, she is still in the Running.”
“I could never kill anyone, not even if they were attacking me. I work in a bakery making pastries and goodies. I’m not a fighter.”
“Were there no other females of age?” Lorna asked, taking a long drink of her juice.
“My two older sisters are married and have kids. My younger sister is too young and I was the only option. Trust me, my father tried to get me out of this. I do not want to end up with one of those beasts. Who knows what they do to the women after they capture them in the Running? I’m literally scared to death,” Blythe admitted. She’d heard rumors about the shifters but didn’t know which ones to believe and which ones were fake.
“You’ll be fine. Just hide. Try to hide your scent and hide somewhere they won’t find you,” Lorna advised. “I had a cousin that was in one Running recently and she made it all twelve hours and was released to go home. She wed the love of her life two weeks later. She was motivated not to be found. She didn’t even have to kill anyone. Try finding some motivation and stay hidden!”
“Thanks, I’ll try. Do they leave us any time to hide before they release the shifters?” Blythe asked, her mind already working on ways to hide her scent and where she’d be better suited to hide.
“You have five minutes to grab weapons and take off before the shifters will be released. This year it is the canine and feline shifters that will be fighting. Next year are the bears and birds.” Lorna threw her hair over her shoulder and leaned back in her chair. Her salad was gone and she placed a hand over her full stomach.
“That’s not really much time,” Blythe soured. She couldn’t do this. Wasn’t there a way out of it? “Is there really no way for me to get out of the Running?”
“No, I’m afraid not. Even if they let you out of it this year, next year they’d go to your house again. I’m sorry, but this is final.” Lorna placed her hand on Blythe’s and patted it comfortingly.
“Great,” Blythe muttered
“The shifter complex is called Lazarus. It got its name because shifters are hard to kill and some guards swear they come back from the dead. Really they just heal injuries that a normal human couldn’t.”
“Next rule please,” Blythe said, trying to take her mind off the Running in less than an hour. She needed to know all the rules perfectly so she wouldn’t mess up. She didn’t really care what the place was called.
“Shifters are not allowed to kill the human women in the arena, but are allowed to defend themselves,” Lorna’s voice turned ominous.
“What exactly does that mean? How far are the shifters allowed to go in defending themselves?”
“Well they’re not allowed to kill you. That doesn’t mean they can’t hit, punch, or kick ya,” Lorna sighed. “Like I said before, just hide.”
“I will,” Blythe swallowed, even more nervous than before.
“The next one is the Running will last from noon until midnight and no later. Women still in the arena will be able to go home as none of the shifters want them or they’ve used evasive maneuvers. This is why I want you to hide. Maybe if you act cowardly and weak, the shifters won’t want you.”
“I really hope they don’t. I’m scared of them. I’ve never seen one in their human or animal form. I’m scared.”
“Not even on T.V.?” Lorna asked, shocked.
Blythe pushed her plate away. She couldn’t eat anymore. Her body wouldn’t accept it and she was afraid she’d get sick. She looked a little green and Lorna’s heart went out to the girl. She wasn’t much older, but she’d seen a lot in her twenty three years.
“No, ma’am,” Blythe replied. “My family doesn’t like television. We only have newspapers and books to entertain us and find out what’s going on in the world.”
“Ma’am? Really? What am I? Forty? Please call me Lorna,” Lorna laughed. Blythe smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Lorna’s laugh dropped off awkwardly and she cleared her throat. “That is weird about your family. But anyway, next rule.”
“How many are there?”
“Seven so far. But it seems there are new rules applied each year.”
“Who brings the new rules in front of the people in charge of the Running?”
“It’s normally the shifters,” Lorna shrugged. “I’m not really sure who amongst them.”
“So there’s like an alpha?”
“Well it seems like you have a little shifter knowledge,” Lorna smiled. “Yes, amongst the species, there is an alpha. I’m not sure if there’s an alpha over all four, but I’ve never met a shifter in person to ask. Not that I would ask that if I ever met one, I’d have more important questions.”
“Like what?” Blythe pressed. She was really starting to like Lorna. She talked enough for the both of them and was friendly enough. She just wished she didn’t have to never see her again. She would miss Lorna and the family she left behind.
“Oh, that’s for me to know,” Lorna retorted. “The next rule is that every household must send one girl. Of course you already know that, so next one. Shifters must remain in human form unless challenged. This makes it a little easier to hide. Their senses aren’t that powerful in their human forms. If they were in animal forms, the entire thing would be over in minutes. So be glad for that rule.”
“I’m glad they’re in human form. I’d probably pass out or have a heart attack if a giant cat, bear, dog, or eagle attacked me.”
“They won’t attack, but they will restrain you. They won’t take any chances until you’re out of the arena.”
“That doesn’t sound comfortable. Do they use ropes to bind our wrists?”
“Pretty much, or whatever they find or have on them.”
“They don’t get weapons, right?”
“Right,” Lorna replied.
“How do you know so much?” Blythe asked. She was curious about Lorna.
“Let’s not spend all your time talking about me. I’m here to help you in the Running. The men don’t like giving up us human females, but they have to.”
“How many rules is that? Is there one left?”
“No, that was all seven.”
“I think I can remember those. No helping and hide.”
“Basically,” Lorna nodded. “You’ll be fine.”
“Where do I put my stuff?” she pointed toward her bags.
“I’ll take them. If you are found, then your stuff will arrive at Lazarus. If not, it’ll be here when it’s over.”
Before Blythe could ask more questions, a loud alarm beeped three times. She resisted the urge to cover her ears. Lorna acted like it didn’t affect her. Apparently she was used to it. Blythe saw some of the other girl’s wincing and one even covered her ears. Blythe smiled in her direction and she got a scowl for her efforts. She lowered her head and turned her attention back to Lorna.
“What was that?” she asked.
“That signifies that we have fifteen minutes to get you to the entrance to start the Running.”
“I’m not ready,” Blythe protested. Surely fortyfive minutes hadn’t passed by that quickly. But looking up at the clock, she realized it really had.
“I’m sorry honey. There’s nothing we can do,” Lorna patted her on the back, pulling her into a hug.
“Here’s my bag,” Blythe pushed it over to Lorna and then got to her feet. Lorna raised an eyebrow at there only being one, causing Blythe to blush again. Her family wasn’t rich and she didn’t have a lot of things. Most of her stuff couldn’t be used in the shifters facility anyway.
“Follow me,” Lorna called, grabbing the bag and walking back through the doors they entered the cafeteria. Instead of turning left toward the main entrance, they turned right, heading deeper into the arena. Blythe heard people talking about the Running and that it would be a good one this year. They said that canines and felines were more possessive and a lot of fighting would probably happen over the girls. A name was mentioned and eyes widened. Blythe struggled to hear, but it was impossible. There were too many sounds buzzing in her ears.
“Here we are,” a man said. “This must be one of the contenders.”
“Hi, Samuel,” Lorna smiled. “This is Blythe. She’s a bit nervous, so be easy on her.”
“Blythe, my name is Samuel and I’m going to be getting your outfit for you.”
“I can’t wear these clothes?” Blythe asked, shocked. She pulled on the bottom of her shirt, suddenly feeling bashful and poor. Her clothes were a little shabby, but they were ones she’d made herself.
“No, dear, I’m afraid not. It is custom for us to provide a new outfit so none of your clothes get bloody and you can’t sneak anything in,” Samuel grabbed her hand. “This way. Say bye to Lorna.”
Blythe turned to face Lorna, but was jerked in the other direction by Samuel’s grip on her arm. Damn, he had a tight grip. She smiled weakly at Lorna and waved before turning around to watch where they were going. She gasped as she saw a window looking out into the huge arena. It was a forest and took up a huge amount of space. The arena was as long as 1000 yards and as wide as 800. There was going to be plenty of room to hide. It was the not being found part that was going to be the trickiest for Blythe.
“What size are you, my dear?” Samuel asked, stopping at a rack filled with clothes.
“I’m a size fourteen,” she whispered, looking anywhere but at him. She definitely wasn’t a stick, but she was slim in her own right.
“Bra size?” he asked. Blythe blushed to the roots of her hair. Why was he asking her these questions? They were embarrassing. Why couldn’t Lorna help her?
“I wear a C cup,” she answered reluctantly.
Another alarm sounded, but this time only sounded twice. “Ten minutes.”
“That soon?” Blythe’s eyes widened. Where was the time going?
In five minutes, Samuel had her dressed in a form fitting outfit. The pants were skinny and tight, showing off her slim legs and tight ass. Her shirt was the same brown color as her pants. Apparently they wanted her to have a forest theme in her outfit. This could work in her favor, so she didn’t complain. She did wish it was a little looser, but oh well.
“Let’s go,” Samuel called. Blythe turned to find him waving at her to hurry. She picked up her pace and jogged over to where he was waiting. “See that door over there?”
“That’s your door. Remember the number on the outside when you walk out. That’s the door you have to find to get out if you kill one of the shifters.”
“We have specific doors?” she admonished. “Since when?”
“New rule,” he shrugged.
“No time to talk, go!” He pushed her toward the door. If Blythe would have been any other girl, she would have spoken her mind to him. He was very rude. But she was who she was, and confrontation wasn’t her strong suit.
She looked around to ask someone for help because her door wouldn’t open when it jerked open on its own. “Maybe it was waiting for noon?” she asked herself. She shrugged, took a deep breath, and stepped inside.