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 gasped and looked up at Blythe.
"What is it?" she asked, knowing the answer but dreading the words. Her mother's eyes filled with tears and she swayed on her feet. Blythe darted forward and caught her mother's arm. "Let's get you a seat."
Clearing a path, Blythe's family members allowed her to lead her mother to a chair at the table. Blythe went and grabbed a wet cloth, placing it over her mother's head. Her mother's eyes were filled with tears, but none had leaked down her face. Blythe was worried.
"Mother?" she asked.
"What did the letter say?" Blythe needed to know for sure. Her curiosity was eating at her, but she wouldn't press. Her mother would tell her if it was important.
"It's our year," her mother whispered. At first Blythe had no idea what she meant, and then reality slammed into her and she sank into a chair as well.
"Tell me it's not real. It can't be real."
"Oh honey, come here," her mother pulled her into a hug. "We'll get through this."
"But mother, Clara and Sis are married. I'm the only one old enough to go. Mother, I can't do this." Blythe shook her head and backed away from her mother's teary form.
"What's going on here?" her father asked, walking into the kitchen and taking off his hat. His eyes took in the scene and the large 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.
"Father, what are we going to do?" Blythe asked, her hand going over her mouth to hide the sob. She was literally 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?
"If it is true, there is nothing we can do."
"No! I won't do this. Send me away! Maybe they'll pass over us," Blythe was reaching for straws and knew it. Her lower lip trembled and her eyes filled with tears. "They'll hurt me, Father. Don't let them take me."
"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.
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 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 no substitutes and both her older sisters were married. Sis even had a kid on the way. Clara already had twins and had been married for several years. Her younger sister was too young, leaving only Blythe to take the responsibility.
"I can't do this," she said, grasping her father's hands in hers.
"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.
"You're so not helping," Blythe whispered.
"Honey, you have to look at the bright side," Frank admonished.
"I miss Mother already," Blythe sighed, looking back toward the parking lot.
"She already said goodbye."
"You promise to write me? And every month I get to call you guys, so you better answer!"
"We'll sit by the phone all night if we have to, waiting for your call. 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 was afraid of mice for God's sake. 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. 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 doesn'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 twenty one 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, what is your name?" Blythe asked, not seeing a name tag.
"Oh, sorry about that. I get caught up with trying to remember everything and forget my own name. 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. 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 twenty one," Blythe replied. "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 a huge arena and given weapons."
"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."
"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 get 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 a door in thirty minutes, she is still in the Running."
"I could never kill anyone, not even if they were attacking me. I'm weak. I work in a bakery making pastries and goodies. I'm not a fighter."
"How in the world did your family pick you then? 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.
"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 wolf and lions that will be fighting. Next year are the bears and eagles." 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 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. She could see that this young woman was not ready and would never be ready for the horrors of the shifters and their home.
The shifters lived in a complex called Lazarus. It was called so because it took a lot to kill a shifter. Lots of times, the guards had assumed a shifter was dead and went to haul out the body when the creature attacked. They always made sure the creature was really dead before going in for the body nowadays. Lorna personally thought the name fit.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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. "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 lion, bear, wolf, 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 of 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."
"What is Lazarus?"
"Man, you really don't watch much T.V. do you?" Lorna shook her head. "Lazarus is the name of the building the shifters live in."
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.
"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.
"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 wolves and lions 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 800 yards and as wide as 500. 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 ten," 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.
"Of course, should've known."
"Excuse me?" she couldn't help the indignation from his reply.
"Sorry, it's just that I've done this for many years and worked with many girls."
"Oh," she replied, not satisfied with his answer.
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. Just because she worked in a bakery didn't mean she couldn't work on her curves. It was her arms and legs that were weak. 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 was weak and afraid. It shamed her at times, but she couldn't seem to get over it.
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.