The Arena (Ultimate Soldier Book 1)

Chapter 1: Lila

 

The sharp smell of crushed grass and honeysuckle flowers hung in the still air. Birds sang to each other across the spaces between trees. There was a root digging into Lila's knee as she crouched in the dirt of the narrow path, her ears straining for any sign of pursuit. A branch cracked behind her and she took off running, the long knife in her belt bouncing against her thigh in cadence with her footsteps. The branches of saplings stung her arms and grabbed at her ankles as she pushed her way through. A flock of birds burst from the trees ahead of her, squawking. She scanned the forest to either side, searching for signs of movement. The only sound besides that of her passage was the beating of her heart in her ears. A gust of wind blew over her shoulder, throwing her hair in her eyes.

The brush rustled in front of her and she skidded to a halt, changing direction in midstride. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw the chest high dog leap from the undergrowth. The dog's long strides quickly overtook Lila's, and they crashed to the ground together in a tangle of arms and legs. They wrestled for a moment on the muddy ground, the dog's growls and Lila's grunts of effort punctuated by the twitters of birdsong.

Lila felt the dog's teeth touch her neck, and froze. The animal's hot breath made beads of perspiration rise on her skin. "All right, you win!" She exclaimed, laughing and squirming out from underneath the dog's body. "Seeker, you are such a cheater."

Seeker's tongue lolled out and the dog's tail wagged. She yipped and bounded around Lila in a circle before plopping her hindquarters on the ground to scratch vigorously at one ear.

Shaking her head, Lila jumped up and slapped the legs of her pants to rid them of the worst of the dirt and grass. "I guess we'd better get to work." She picked up the leather pouch that had fallen from her belt, tripping over a root and having to catch herself on a tree. "Whoops. Come on, lazy bones. Let's go."

Seeker barked and loped ahead down the path. Lila jogged behind the dog's waving tail, pulling her hair back and tying it at the nape of her neck with a leather strip. Lila counted trees as they ran, letting her fingers trail over the knot in one trunk, the scar in another that pointed her to the blackberry bush where her trap was set up. The area was dotted with the two-slotted tracks of a buck deer and the top of the bush had been thoroughly nibbled on. The trap nearby was sprung and there were bits of rabbit fur and droppings scattered about, but no rabbit. Lila popped a handful of berries into her mouth and a few more into the pouch on her belt before gathering up the rope and sticks. She had to stop to pull blackberry thorns out of Seeker's lip before swatting the dog and telling her to behave, then they set off again. They ran along a barely visible path that was just wide enough for Lila's feet and wound between the trees. Many of the trees were over a dozen feet across, with knarled roots that stuck a foot or more above the ground. At least jumping over roots beat hacking her way through the thick undergrowth to either side and duling her knife. They soon came upon a babbling stream of water and Lila searched out a few handfuls of wild onion growing along the mossy banks before they followed the brook upstream toward a looming wall of cliffs in the distance.

Five traps later, with a fat rabbit hanging from her belt, Lila and Seeker turned towards home. The sun was well past its zenith and the rays of light were beginning to take on the orange hue of afternoon. The breeze that rustled through the tree branches barely reached the ground and wasn't much cooler than the heavy summer air. Drops of sweat stung Lila's eyes before she could brush them away, and wisps of hair stuck to her forehead. Seeker's tongue hung out as the dog panted.

As they ran, Lila sang quietly to herself, a lullaby her mother used to sing to her as a baby. The thud of her footsteps on the dirt and leaf litter gave the tune a rythym, the whisper of the breeze and the song of a particularly happy finch providing harmoy to her voice.

Baby mine, baby mine

Don’t you ever fear

Baby mine, baby mine

Mama’s always here.

 

Little one, little one

Growing strong and tall

Little one, little one

Most beautiful of all.

 

Baby mine, baby mine...

 

Lila trailed off and froze as the birdsong around them ceased, leaving the forest eerily silent. Seeker gave a low warning bark and the dog's hackles rose. Behind them a wavering howl rose into the air, causing adrenaline to surge through Lila's veins. "Run!" She shouted to the dog, following her own advice and sprinting in the direction of the cliffs as fast as her legs would carry her. She yanked the knife out of her belt and held it ready in her hands, despite the fact that she knew their only hope lay in flight, not fighting. Seeker snarled and scrambled to follow, quickly outpacing Lila.

As they ran, another howl rose to join the first. Lila pushed through the undergrowth and saplings that seemed to grab at her, scraping her arms and face. Her heart pounded in her ears so loudly that she almost didn't hear the trees rustling behind them. Redoubling her speed, she and Seeker burst into a clearning. Directly in front of them, the rocky cliff soared into the sky, its surface pierced by a black hole a few dozen feet up, too perfect to be natural. A rough wooden ladder spanned the distance between the ground and the tunnel.

"Come on, almost there!" Lila shouted when Seeker turned to look back. She cried out as she tripped on a rock and fell, twisting her ankle and the wrist that held the knife. She growled in frustration as she scrambled for purchase on the damp grass. There was a loud snarl from behind and Lila hurled herself to her feet, sure at any instant that she would feel the fiery pain of teeth in her shoulders. The snarl turned to a pained yelp but she didn't slow down. She whistled, and with practiced ease scooped Seeker up and pulled the dog over her shoulders. She reached the ladder and by sheer force of will pulled herself up the rungs despite the piercing pain in her ankle. As soon as she began the climb a howl sounded behind them, far too close for comfort.

Lila was gasping for breath by the time she reached the top of the ladder and Seeker jumped off of her shoulders onto the concrete floor. As soon as they reached the top, Lila kicked the ladder away and let it crash to the ground. There was a frustrated yelp as Lila turned to look down and crouched at the edge of the concrete where it plunged to the ground below. At the base of the cliff a giant black wolf danced away from the falling ladder, his fur shimmering in the sunlight. He shivered and whined as if in pain, and soon retreated back into the shade of the trees. Lila stayed crouched on the concrete rim with Seeker by her side until the wolf was completely invisible among the tree trunks. She listened as their two pursuers howled back and forth, the sounds growing progressively quieter until they faded into the distance.

Finally, satisfied that the wolf would not return, she rose to her feet. Seeker hopped back as she stood up, the danger already forgotten. Her eyes were fixed on the rabbit and squirrel that swung from Lila's belt.

Lila shook her head and managed a smile, shooing the dog back. "Not yet. You won't starve, I promise." Seeker cocked her head and her tail wagged as she met Lila's eyes briefly before before the dog trotted back farther into the tunnel and collapsed with a huff onto the pile of grass that they used as a bed.

Not far from where the dog lay, there was a circle of smooth rocks that contained the remains of last nights' fire. Lila poked at the embers with a stick, stirring them into life. The day was warm and humid with the feel of early summer in the air, but she needed the reassurance of seeing the one thing the wolves feared above all else--fire. After she had added more wood until dancing flames licked the logs, she crossed to where a narrow stream of water ran down the center the concrete space.

Now that her eyes had adjusted to the dimmer light and the flames added their illumination, she could see more of the huge concrete tunnel where she and Seeker made their home. It was wide enough that the floor seemed almost flat, except where a constant stream of cold, clear water had cut a shallow trough through the lowest point. The tunnel ran straight back into the cliff at a very slight upward angle, its walls receding into blackness after a couple hundred feet. Lila knew that if she were to walk back further into the tunnel, that after a few minutes of walking she would reach a grate, a massive network of metal bars that spanned the entire width and height of the tunnel. The holes in the grate were enough for Lila and Seeker to easily crawl through, but just beyond the grate the tunnel divided into three branches. Further down, each tunnel branched again, with a total of a half a dozen different branches--and that was only as far as Lila had explored. Each branch was half the size of the parent tunnel, and as far as she could tell, none of them intersected with the other. Because of the way the stream swelled each time it rained, she knew at least one branch ended somewhere, but she had never had sufficient resources to take the time to explore to the end of any of the tunnels.

Lila sat by the stream and pulled the dead rabbit from her belt, using the familiar action of gutting and cleaning it to calm her racing heart. She threw the entrails and feet to Seeker, not feeling like watching a pot of boiling water all night in an attempt at making soup. It was too hot for soup anyways. Seeker attacked the pile, inhaling the leftovers until her muzzle was stained red with rabbit blood.

Despite Lila's efforts to distract herself, her heart thudded faster in her chest at the thought of wolves moving about in the daytime, the time that was supposed to be
safe
. The sunlight was painful to them, like holding a hand too close to the flames of a fire. Once she had come across a dying wolf--he was weak with age and lay motionless on the forest floor, his skin blistering and bleeding everywhere the sun touched him. It was the first and last time she had ever seen a wolf not in the prime of life, and that had been many turns of the sun and moon ago. Since then she had ventured far into the forest nearly every day and had never seen or heard any sign of the wolves...at least not while the sun shone.

Night was a different story. As soon as the sun moved from the left hand to the right and set over the great curve of the Cliffs, howls would begin to fill the air. Wolves, their pitch-black fur making them all but invisible in the night, would slink from the forest and prowl and pace beneath the mouth of the tunnel. Every night was filled with their sounds. They knew that prey lived in the tunnel, so close and yet so impossibly beyond their reach. Each night, it was almost as if they set a watch to make sure she did not escape. Yet, each morning when the first hint of sunrise began to stain the eastern sky pink, they would disperse back into the forest and soon the sultry air would fill with the cheerful sounds of birds, the rustling of squirrels in the undergrowth. Even the squirrels and the rabbits knew that they were safe in the daytime, when the sun was up.

Something was wrong. As Lila skinned the fat rabbit, her hands moving almost without thought, the image of the black wolf at the base of the tunnel would not leave her. From his size she knew he was a male. His long, silky black fur had shimmered like obsidian in the sun. Even the smallest of the females weighed more than Lila did, but the males were the larger sex. The size of a small pony, their skin rippled with muscle. They could leap over twenty feet, more than twice as far as Seeker could jump. They were beautiful in a terrible sort of way. They were the only significant predator to inhabit the land within the Cliffs. Any other carnivore larger than a fox had been killed long ago.

They're desperate,
Lila thought. She tugged the fur away from the rabbit's shoulders. It was unusual to see rabbit meat with any appreciable fat layer on it―this one would make a good dinner.
But why?
What could drive a wolf to hunt such difficult prey as her and the dog? Deer may be more scarce than in years past, but she still saw the slotted tracks often enough to know that they were far from extinct. Besides, if it were simply a matter of food, the resident pack would be more likely to move their hunting ground than to hunt in the sun which was so agonizing to them. The wolf's coat had gleamed with health, there had been no sign that he was filled with worms or otherwise ill.
Well, besides hunting in the daylight.
No, there had to be another reason.

But no matter how long she worried at the problem like Seeker with a rodent she had caught, no answers came to mind. The wolves feared nothing. Anything the monsters could be afraid of was too terrifying to think about. There had to be another reason, but for the life of her she didn't know what it was. Maybe it was just a couple of young bachelors that had been chased from their father's pack and whose inability to catch harder game had caused them to jump at the chance of an easy meal. Yes, that was probably it. After all, they had obviously still been pained by the sun. Just perhaps a little braver or less intelligent than most.

Eventually, as Lila reasoned away her fear, her heart and mind began to slow. She finished cleaning the rabbit, placed strips of meat on a large rock in the fire pit to cook, and scrubbed her hands clean in the stream. The skin she washed as well as she could and stretched out in the sun to dry. As the sun slowly moved toward the west, the woods stayed quiet but for the normal daytime noises. It wasn't until twilight that the familiar howls began to fill the air. That night, Lila crouched on the lip of the tunnel, her eyes intent on the black bodies pacing the ground below. Their eyes glowed yellow in the light of the full moon. Everything seemed normal, if any of this could be called normal. Lila tried to extinguish the fire of unease that still flickered in the back of her mind. Eventually she shook her head to clear it, rising and walking back to the fire where she and Seeker curled up on their bed of furs and sweet smelling grasses. Lila drifted to sleep, the light from the flames dancing behind her eyelids in a musical cadence to the sounds of the wolf howls below.

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