We eventually come to a stop. The scent of pine fills my senses when I step out of the car. A wide building stands in front of me. Its crumbling brick walls seem to blend with the trees, becoming almost invisible. Veins of ivy crawl across walls and into broken windows, disappearing through jagged glass. One corner of the building is crumbling, sloping into the forest floor.
The first thought that flashes through my mind is that this is the perfect place for a murder. No one would hear it happen, and bodies could be easily buried in the moist dirt underfoot. A sickening feeling creeps into my gut, and I begin searching my surroundings for a potential weapon. A heavy branch could do some damage, but it would be worthless against bullets. We would be dead in seconds.
Darren comes up next to me, and the look in his eyes tells me that he’s thinking the same thing.
“Follow us,” Gray says, hopping out of the van. “You’ll be meeting Carper inside.”
We hesitantly follow him and Janet into the decrepit building. The inside is musty and aged. Old light fixtures sputter overhead, casting eerie shadows on the wall with their dim light.
I pause at the entrance of a long corridor. The hall stretches for what seems like miles, lit by more flickering lights. Bars line the walls, slid open to reveal tiny cells. Some of the open cells hold people, who casually talk to one another or lie on beds.
“Is this a prison?” I ask.
Janet nods. “Abandoned since the Renewal. At one point this entire area was a city, but it was deserted after the Redeemers took control.”
As we’re led deeper into the facility, I see more and more people wandering the halls. They come in all shapes and sizes; young and old, some clearly Flawed. I watch them with wide eyes. They look so…happy. The Flawed I’ve seen always look downcast and broken. But the ones here seem joyful and free.
Some people give me sidelong glances, while others don’t even bother to hide their anxious stares. Our uniforms. My cheeks flush, my hand moving to tug my sleeve over my marking. I can’t let them see it; it brands me as one of the Redeemers. I need to get rid of it. Somehow.
We enter a newer section of the prison, obviously the common area. A group passes by, holding weapons of all shapes and sizes. Their voices mingle with each other, endless words colliding in a rowdy need to be heard. I watch their steps, noting how free and light they are in comparison to the Redeemers’.
“How many people live here?” Xander asks Gray.
“Over two hundred,” he answers. “Some are soldiers. The others are ex-Flawed who managed to escape Cleansing or were looking for safety. We’re one of the smaller branches of the Truth - more of a refuge for the Flawed.”
Elle watches the people pass by. Her voice is soft when she speaks. “The media makes the Truth out as a scattered group of conspiracists. You guys are a lot…bigger than I thought you would be.”
“And we’re a small colony,” Janet points out. “There are bigger ones. Also military-type groups - they’re not big enough to make a difference yet, though. The Redeemers keep them in check, all while making sure their existence stays a secret.”
Yet another thing the Redeemers kept hidden. What else have they lied to us about?
They lead us to a quiet part of the facility, away from the business of the central area.
“This is the command center,” Gray explains.
“You have access to this area?” Darren glances at him skeptically.
“Gray’s second in command,” Janet say with a hint of pride in her voice. She gives Gray a smile, and for one moment, I see something pass between them. It disappears before I can pinpoint it.
They take us into a simple room housing a long desk and a few chairs.
“Stay here,” Gray orders before he and Janet leave.
When we’re alone, I stand in front of the desk. Nervousness flutters in my stomach. Darren stands next to me, examining the room.
“Darren,” I murmur, casting a glance at the door. “Can we trust these people?”
He follows my gaze to the exit. “They can't be worse than the Redeemers."
Before I can reply, a tall middle-aged man strides into the room. His face is weathered, showing signs of premature age. The beginnings of an unkempt beard cover defined his jaw. Streaks of gray trace his otherwise brown hair.
As he enters the room, my eyes focus on the left side of his face. A crimson scar runs from the edge of his brow to the flesh of his nose. The streak cuts through his eye, leaving a glazed mass of jagged scar tissue. His scarred eye sweeps across the room with the other, scrutinizing and examining us. The way it moves, blinks, and twitches sends shivers down my spine.
He stops in the middle of the room, hands clasped behind his back.
“I’m Carper.” His voice is worn and dry. “Gray tells me you four were looking for the Truth.”
No one answers, so Darren nods.
He looks at us. “He also says that two of you carry a marking, one completed.”
Darren’s nod is hesitant this time.
“I’m sure you can understand why we would be a bit tentative to bring you here.”
“We’re running from the Redeemers,” I begin, wanting to explain our side of the story.
The Commander’s gaze sweeps to me, his bad eye searching my face. “I’m not finished speaking.”
I swallow and nod an apology, shrinking back slightly.
Carper clears his throat. “We’re a covert colony, doing our best to stay off the radar. We don’t take risks. You’re going to spill your whole story, and then I’ll decide if you’re telling the truth. If I believe you, you can stay. But if I don’t?” He motions to the door. “Then I’ll have Gray take you outside and shoot you all in the head. Understand?”
We stay completely still, staring, until Darren finally says, “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Carper pulls up a chair and sits down. “Now, give me your story – and you better hope I believe it.”