Prologue

The snap of a twig. The crunch of a leaf. A short intake of breath. The thump of my heartbeat in my ears. He was getting closer. I could see him through the branches of the bush. His bow drawn, an arrow resting in it, ready to be shot.

How did our lives come to be like this? Two friends now left to hunt one another in order to survive. Two friends who know one another inside and out. That was what made the hunt so entertaining. So hard. The Elders were growing bored with us. At first, it was fun. Send two fugitives to hunt one another. The last one standing gains their freedom and a secure job working for the government. Both of our families would be safe if only we killed one of us.

I swallowed hard, watching as the dark haired boy crept forward, his eyes peeled for any sign of me. We used to play an outdated game where one of us would hide while the other hunted us out, placing stupid bets on what we had to do if the other was found. This was that same thing. An outdated game with a lot at stake.

And it was so hard to be the winner.

I gripped the handle of my knife tighter and took a deep, shaky breath. I had to win. I had to be able to protect our people from the cruelty of the Elders. I had to kill him. I pushed the thought of who he was from my mind. I blocked out the memories, both good and bad, of us growing up. I was a hunter. He was a deer. Killing him would bring an end to all of this nonsense. Killing him would make everything right.

Why couldn't we do it, though? Why did we always find a way to escape? We could end this, keep the ones we loved safe and free them from the prison they were being held in by the Elders. It had to end before they were killed and there was no reason for us to die. This cat and mouse game could not continue.

They would end it for us. They would kill our families one by one until there was no one left but the two of us. Then, then they would choose which one of us was stronger and kill the weakling. Just like they did with everyone in the society. The weak ones had to be exterminated. There was no room for weakness in a society that wants to be the strongest.

Then they would kill the one of us that remained when we were no longer useful to them. It could be years, months, weeks, or even just days. What the job they wanted the winner for had not been told. It was just a job that was promised for us. Maybe there was no job. Maybe they would wait until one of us killed the other and then kill the one who lived before killing our family.

We were weaklings, after all. We had given into the lure of crime in a society that did not allow for such a thing. We were not strong. We did not give a good example for the perfect society. We had failed ourselves and our people and the world. We were being taught a lesson. Pin two people who loved each other against one another and see which one doesn't love the other enough to not kill them in favor of keeping their own life.

It was all a mind game. A good mind game.

Slowly, I moved away from the bush, my eyes locked on the back of his head as he moved forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. He had stepped on the twig and the leaf to lure me out. Little did he know that I was going to do it this time. I was going to end all of this.

I moved cautiously, glancing down to make sure I didn't give myself away. He paused, his eyes scanning the woods in front of him, as I crept up behind him. Ten feet. Seven feet. Three feet.

With the knife in my hand, I pounced. He hid the ground with a groan, the bow falling from his hands and the arrow dislodging. I yanked his head up, the knife pressed against his throat. My hair fell down into my eyes, obscuring my view of his face. Just as well. I didn't want to see the fear in those large brown eyes. My heart thudded in my chest as I pressed the knife more firmly against his throat.

"Belle," he whispered. I froze, my body refused to respond to my mind. The woods was silent except for the sound of our heavy breathing. "It doesn't have to end like this, Belle."

"It'll never end," I hissed. "Never. One of us has to die to keep everyone else safe!"

He reached behind him, brushing my hair from my eyes and forcing me to look at him properly. His eyes were full of sadness, but his jaw was set with determination.

"No. I refuse to accept that."

I closed my eyes, swallowing the lump in my throat. His hand wrapped around my wrist, gently yet firmly. He didn't try to make me move. He was waiting. Waiting to see if he would have to fight me or if I was going to give up as I always had in the past.

"Sometimes," I said, drawing in a deep and shaky breath, "you have to accept things no matter how desperately you want to forget them." I tightened my grip on the knife, looking at him now with what I hoped was a look of determination. "One of us has to be the end of all of this."