More gunshots follow, loud pops that fill the air, coming from the trees, the ground, the vans, everywhere.
Figures rush around me. Their faces are blurry through my clouded eyes. The scent of fresh blood spreads through the air as bodies drop.
It’s over within seconds. My head is still swimming from the blow, but I can make out several people among the fallen Redeemers. One of them stops by Xander, a few feet away, and helps him to his feet. I blink, shaking my head a little.
Darren, Elle. Where are they? I scan the area in panic, but finally see them. Elle is among the people, who I now see are all dressed in mismatched armor. They all hold some sort of weapon. She’s speaking quickly, no doubt trying to explain who we are, why we’re here. Darren is getting to his feet a distance away. They both look shaken, but unharmed.
Bodies litter the ground around me, their blood painting the dirt red. The trees are silent - the birds have grown quiet - and the wind has stilled. The mysterious people come from the direction of the Sector 3 forest, wading through the Redeemers’ bodies and poking them with the barrels of their guns to ensure that they’re dead.
The sound of a gun cocking comes from above. I look up, squinting, and see a muscular young man towering above me. A black bandana conceals his nose and mouth. Two green eyes stare at me through strands of jet-black hair.
“Hands on your head,” he orders, his words muffled by the fabric over his mouth. His voice has a hoarse growl to it. When I don’t respond, he moves the gun closer. “Now.”
I slowly do as he says. My mind scrambles for the right thing to say.
Xander pushes past the person who helped him up. “Don’t shoot!” he shouts, making a move towards us.
The man swings his gun to point it at Xander, who freezes. I gasp out loud, choking out a strangled “Don’t!”
The man raises an eyebrow at me without lowering his gun. “Why not, Redeemer?”
I blink in realization. He thinks I’m one of them. They’re here to kill the Redeemers, to fight against them. Does that mean that they’re part of the Truth? “I’m not actually Redeemer! None of us are.”
“Oh really?” He lowers the gun slightly. “Then how do you explain the Redeemer uniform? And, oh, I don’t know…” He leans over, grabs my wrist with one hand, and shoves my sleeve back. My tattoo stands boldly against my light skin. “The Redeemer marking?”
I pull my wrist out of his grasp, tugging my sleeve back into place and cursing the Redeemers for putting their imprint on me.
“We’re not with the Redeemers,” Xander pleads, still frozen in place.
“Well, you obviously aren’t,” the man responds, gesturing his gun to Xander’s street clothes.
“We’re escaping the Redeemers, looking for the Truth,” I say.
A woman comes up next to the man, holding a pistol. Unlike the man, her face is fully uncovered. “Trouble, Gray?”
He motions to me. “She says she’s running away from the Redeemers.”
She barks out a rough laugh. “Like we haven’t heard that before. I thought dishonesty was a Flaw.”
He waves a hand, turning on his heel. “Shoot her. We’ll bring the others back to the colony.“ He nods to Xander and Elle.
“There’s another one,” she comments. “He’s also got a uniform and marking.” Darren.
“Then get rid of him, too.”
“Sure thing.” She aims her gun at me.
Xander yelps. Panic seizes me as I race for something to say. “If I were a Redeemer, wouldn’t I have put up a fight?” I blurt out before she can pull the trigger.
She pauses, glancing at the man she called Gray.
“A Redeemer would never pretend to be an ally of the Truth,” I continue. “If we were real Redeemers, we would never deny our positions. They’re proud of who they are.”
Gray squints at me. “If you aren’t Redeemers, then how come you have the marking?”
I swallow. My regret for getting the marking is almost overwhelming. If these people kill us because of it, I’ll have nothing to blame but my own naivety. “I was in their training program, but I haven’t been initiated. I’m never going back.”
They need to believe me. They have to.
“And what about him?” Gray asks, pointing to Darren. My brother is now surrounded by the other men and women. By his expression and gestures, I can see that he’s trying to negotiate, trying to explain that he was helping us. The people don’t look convinced.
“He’s not with them anymore, either,” I say.
“Anymore,” Gray sneers, then shakes his head at the woman. “She can’t be trusted.”
My stomach drops.
“We need to get out of here, before more Redeemers show up. Deal with them, and let’s go.” He starts to walk away.
The woman nods and aims the gun at me again.
She’s going to kill me. There’s nothing I can do to stop it. We were looking for the Truth - these people might be the Truth, and they don’t believe us.
Darren. He’ll die, too.
“They’re killing the people!” The words come without thought; rushed, panicked, trying to be spoken before its too late.
Gray stops mid-step and looks back at me. Although I can’t see the lower half of his face, his surprise is obvious. “What did you say?”
“The Flawed are being slaughtered in secret. There are no Cleansings, no Dormant Communities. Only death.”
He leans back on his heels and shares a look with the woman. They don’t seem surprised at my words.
“We were taken to be Cleansed,” I continue. “We hardly made it out with our lives. Darren-“ I point a shaking finger to my brother. “-he helped us escape. We’re looking for the Truth, so we can join them.”
He stares at me, searching my face for deception. His eyes are a glassy green, like the color of spring leaves. I hold his gaze.
Finally, he looks away. His thumb rubs the side of his gun, almost absentmindedly. “Well, congratulations. You’ve found us.”
I nod slowly. “I…I thought so.” My voice trembles with the words. Are they going to let us live?
The woman examines me for a long moment, then looks to Gray. She says something to him, quietly, so I can’t hear, and he nods.
“Alright, then.” He lowers his gun completely. “You’re coming with us.”
My body instantly relaxes. I start to pick myself up off the ground, trembling slightly. Xander comes up next to me and helps.
Gray tugs his bandana down, revealing the lower half of his face. There’s a fine layer of stubble across his jaw, like he’s not shaved for the last few days. He shoulders his gun and stretches out a hand. “I’m Gray, as I’m sure you’ve picked up. This is Janet.” He nods to the woman beside him.
“Nat.” I shake his hand and give Janet a nod. She’s young, just a few years older than me, with upturned eyes and an intricate display of tattoos climbing up her neck. Her dark hair is short, barely brushing her neck. She gives me a curt nod.
Gray tells Janet, “We’ll take them all to the colony to talk to Carper. He’ll be able to tell if everything they say is true. Make sure the others keep them all alive.”
She nods, then leaves, barking orders at the others. They scatter, beginning to search the dead bodies and root through our van, taking weapons and medical supplies.
They’re looters. Is that what the Truth is? A group of thieves and killers?
I swallow. “So,” I say to Gray. “You’re the Truth?”
“Part of it, anyways.”
Xander eyes the destruction around us. “Do you always…?”
“What, loot?” He shakes his head. “This is a special occasion. It’s revenge, really. Some of our men – a patrol – went too close to the border a few days back. Some were arrested.” He frowns. “The ones who managed to run off said the guards were brutal.”
Revenge. I guess it’s better than a random act of violence, but this isn’t exactly how I pictured we’d meet the Truth.
“And we needed supplies,” Gray adds, which brings hundreds of other questions to my mind. He changes the subject. “Anyways, we’ll be taking you to our group’s colony, where you’ll meet with our Commander, Carper. He’ll make sure you’re being honest with us.”
I wonder how exactly he’ll be doing that. My stomach churns at the thought of interrogation. We have nothing to hide, but they might not believe us. Their recent display of viciousness tells me they’d have no hesitation forcing information from us if need be.
But I can’t show any fear right now. I swallow the lump in my throat and nod.
He studies my face. “You have no visible Flaws,” he says suddenly. “Why were you being Cleansed?”
“It’s a long story.”
“We’ll find out. Follow me.”
It takes a moment for him to gather all of us. Elle hugs me when we meet, trembling. Darren, on the other hand, stands with his back straight. His face is nearly blank, barely allowing any kind of expression or emotion to show how this is all impacting him.
Gray calls to Janet as he herds us into the forest located on Sector 3’s side of the border. She follows close behind.
A group of vans and trucks are parked in between the trees, old-fashioned kinds used before the Bloodletting. We enter the nearest van. The air inside is thick with dust that stings my throat. Worn leather lines the seats. The only viewpoints are a few dirty windows along the sides and a narrow windshield at the front.
“How do they even see?” Elle whispers to me as she sits in one of the ancient seats. She looks at the front and wrinkles her brow. “And what do they use to steer? There’s no control stick.”
I shrug, eyeing the thick, clumsy wheel propped in front of the driver’s seat. “Maybe that?”
“This is an artifact, not a car,” Elle says. “It should be in a museum.”
As Gray slams the door closed behind us, a string of anxiety coils in my chest. This is a bad idea. We don’t know these people. What if they’re actually not with the Truth? They might be bandits, criminals, anything. We could have just willingly become the prisoners of a group of murderers.
My gaze snaps from window to window, searching for a way out. It lands on Darren, sitting behind me. His eyes are alert, but he seems calm enough. When he catches my gaze, the corners of his mouth twitch into a reassuring smile.
And just like that, I know that everything will be fine. If Darren is confident in our decision, then I am too.
We sit in the van for a few minutes before Gray and Janet hop into the front seats, talking between themselves. I watch in fascination as the engine roars to life, rumbling beneath my feet. Apparently, I was right about the wheel; Gray turns it to the left, and the vehicle obeys. The movement is so awkward, so strangely outdated.
Gray manoeuvres the clumsy vehicle around trees and logs, his hands gripping the thick steering wheel.
We thunder deeper into the wilderness as I try to imagine what lies ahead.