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He doesn't take another breath.

"Stephen!" I scream. My voice hitches in my throat, and I'm gasping for air. Tears fall as I scratch them away, palms rubbing over my cheeks. My lips contort, sobbing openly.

This can't be happening. This can't be happening. As the sun streams overhead, I feel the need to punch and scream and kill all at once. My hands grab Stephen's shoulders, trying to shake him back to life. All I feel is his weight, his limb spine, his stillness. The entire world must hates us.

Stephen stares back at me, eyes dead. Nausea floods my body next, and my head spins. This can't be happening.

This is the Project's fault. Those monsters didn't think the zaps or the control or the fear was enough. No, they decided to steal Stephen away from me. I bet those scientists, those government Screeners, are laughing at us right now.

"Holland!" someone yells far away. Dense fog muffles the panic, and I'm too distracted by Stephen's pale cheeks, pale hands. It takes another blood-curdling scream to awaken me with a twitch. I glance over my shoulder, blurry tears and cornstalks blocking my view.

"Oh, my gosh!" my voice yells. The deadly pack of inductees surrounds Nicolette, ready to kill her. My hands push me off the ground, and somehow I'm raising my gun. I don't know if I'm defending Nicolette or protecting Stephen at this point.

"Get away from her!" I shout with a rasp. "Stop it right now!"

The inductees ignore me, pointing their weapons at Nicolette. I take three steps forward, sinking my shoes in the soil. My gun aims itself at the whistleblower herself, the dark-haired girl who killed my love.

BOOM.

The girl stumbles, a dark puddle of blood forming above her heart. She falls to the ground, and the people around her scatter. Bullets fire at me, but I'm so numb I stick my ground and shoot back at them.

BOOM, POW. BOOM. BOOM. POW.

Two more inductees hit the ground. Nicolette jogs towards safety, covering her head with her hands. She runs behind me as the inductees slowly vanish from sight. They know it's hopeless to attack us anymore.

The gunfire also fades away, leaving the cornfield with an eery quietness. I wipe the sweat off my forehead and turn around.

"Finished the hunt?" Nicolette asks cautiously.

I nod. Knowing exactly what to do, Nicolette gives me a tight hug. I squeeze back, subtly relieved she's here with me. What would I do without her.

Images of Stephen flash by my eyes, and I can't help it. My hands shake as Nicolette lets go. I glance at Stephen again, lying still as ever. We step closer to him, and I kneel at his side.

Pressing my eyes shut for a moment, I stroke Stephen's hand. I need to stay strong, yet paranoia taunts my thoughts. First my mom, now Stephen and those two other inductees. Who will I kill next? Who will I throw into danger without a care?

Stephen was so good, so kind. But it's not fair. Every time horror strikes, it always wins. My inability to save people doesn't help either. It just causes more casualties.

Nicolette nudges me. In her hands are two white boxes, the purest symbol of death there is. She slides one into my grip.

"It's okay," she offers. "He understands. I can feel it."

My heart comprehends what Nicolette means. It's nearly ignorable, but a small feeling in my chest isn't completely destroyed. It beats continuously, an inkling of hope. Maybe it's not all over yet. Just endure, then mourn.

So I listen to it. I rise from the ground and give Stephen a final goodbye. As much as I regret it, Nicolette and I disappear into the cornstalk field, boxes clinging to our hands. While I walk, I decide I want to call this stupid game to an end. Yet I keep going.

The checkerboard of black pedestals returns into view. Only a few platforms raise teenagers in the air like statues. The smooth faces of the inductees are blank, almost too blank. It looks like they're sleeping with their eyes open.

I spot the platform with Nicolette's name hovering above it. We half-hurry, half-stall towards it, fear plaguing me again. I can never seem to escape the terror and the tragedy. The target still remains on us.

My feet carry me to my own platform, taking large steps to the top tier. The small white box stays pressed against my fingers as I settle on my pedestal.

"You have successfully completed the first task of the Equinox," a voice thunders across the field. Nicolette and I glance towards the leaderboard as our names flash within the top 20 inductees. Dread floods me instead of happiness. It's only the first task, and already I want to quit.

My eyelids blink subconsciously, and I'm back in the strange area of glass boxes. Startled, I step backwards and slip off the pedestal. I contact the pale floor with a thump and groan in irritation. Rolling to the side on the clear floor, my eyes face the endless row of glass sectors. I squint, catching my breath.

At the far end of the row of glass tombs, so small I nearly miss it, a wrist swishes through the air. The trail of blackness is unmistakeable. Only 400 people in the world have those tattoos, and I'm one of them.

My body collapses against the floor, not bothering to stand up. That swish of black ink will be my saving grace, my wish come true. With my heart racing, I watch the black tattoo in the near distance.

-- -- -- -- --
epic cliffhanger/ plot twist? you got it! take your guesses HERE as to what those last three paragraphs mean.

finished the hunt was the winning option by a 9-6-4 vote! continue to comment your choices so you can affect each chapter even more! i love to see your reactions and choices!

Question: Choose a phrase: confirm the hunch, reject the truth, or miss the chance.

Follow-up Question: Choose a color: black, gray, white.

PS: thanks for reading, and stick with me to the end!

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