Chapter One: Sion Zona’s Crime
Raj Worthy lowered her bronze Sword of Fire after a twin flare swirled from its tip and devoured the last house on a remote street in an inferno.
A middle-aged man and woman dashed out, gasping from smoke inhalation. The woman’s turquoise eyes widened upon spotting Raj as the man stepped in front of her and reached for his waist.
Raj flicked her sword and burned a hole through his shirt with an ember. The man’s scream pierced the evening as he dropped to his knees, hands clasped over his stomach.
Satisfaction encroaching her face, she turned to her crew of kids in their late teens, many seeing action for the first time since graduating from basic training. “Get rid of the fire and search inside. If you find evidence implying he returned, I want to know.”
Those in the unit with the mutation to control water directed aqua blasts with their fists, summoning droplets from the condensation. Five from her crew, known throughout South Nordica as the Tamurian Youth, bolted inside.
Raj turned back to the house’s owners, a guy with long, black hair and an olive-skinned woman. Her eyes rested on the still sputtering man before she turned to the lady, who two members of the Youth forced to the ground. “Where’s your nephew, Issa?”
The woman threw Raj a disgusted look, though she trembled in the Youths’ grasp.
Raj approached the man and forced him to look into her eyes with her sword flat, its tip inches from his throat. “Antto?”
The man’s eyes, though wrought with pain, penetrated hers with fury.
Raj’s lips curled into a smile. “What? Do you think I’ll get rid of you anyway? We play fair. Tell us where your nephew is, and we’ll patch up your little burn.” She poked his wound with her sword tip before rounding on Issa. “Well?”
Recognition filled the woman’s eyes as they pierced Raj’s. As if Issa saw a familiar face she hadn’t seen in decades and tried to place her finger on where or when. Even her expression softened.
“Where is he, Issa?” Raj directed her sword toward the woman as adrenaline shot through her veins. Aggression, a fire mutant’s distinguishing trait.
The woman’s nephew committed an unspeakable act, and it was time for Issa and her family to pay the debt if they refused cooperation.
“You have ten seconds before you regret your silence.” Raj set her face inches from Issa’s, wearing a smile. “Either talk or watch me torch your husband and father to your three kids.”
She paced toward Antto. “Ten… nine…” Raj raised her sword over the heaving man. “You better say something. Six… five… the clock’s ticking… three… two… I’m giving you a chance. What’s it going to be?”
The wind whipped and a man with flowing hair and yellow eyes wrapped in a navy-blue cloak with red accents descended, silhouetted against the darkening sky. He soared in a maneuver called a windsurf. His boots rested on invisible air as he sped toward Raj. Lord Tuukka landed, also facing the couple.
Raj lowered her sword. “What are you doing here?”
Tuukka swept toward Antto and kicked him across the jaw. “Taking control.”
“You never get involved in these matters.”
“Is that a way to talk to your Supreme Leader?”
“I always talk that way to my Supreme Leader. So again, what are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here, sir?”
“I’m a ma’am, not a sir, Tuukka. Are you going to answer my question?”
Tuukka drew his golden Sword of Wind and pointed to the line of houses. “They’re your bases tonight. People living in them?”
“I’m sure they’re peering out their windows wondering why a Tamurian unit is in their street holding two occupants hostage. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Search every house. Make sure he’s not hiding in any.” Tuukka turned to what remained of Issa and Antto’s place. “Since you’re frequenting here, do your unit a favor and stop burning them down.”
Raj’s jaw twitched as she jerked her head to the kneeling couple and a spark escaped her sword. He had to leave his little sanctuary in South Nordica’s capital to take control than let her handle things. “What are we doing with them? I wanted to use torch interrogation, but I don’t feel I have the authority.”
“Dispose them.” He threw the couple a scathing look. “I have no sympathy for the blood relatives of criminals these days.”
Raj turned to her soldiers clutching the couple. “You heard your Supreme Leader.” She returned her gaze to Tuukka as the Youth steered Issa and Antto into the surrounding deciduous forest. “How many more are on the run?”
“Zona and Viorunen are the only two running.”
She jerked her thumb to the tree line as gunshots echoed throughout the countryside. “Care to tell me what that was all about?”
Tuukka ran a hand over his watch and loaded a hologram depicting an official document with his signature. “Passed hours before Zona’s stunt.”
Raj ran her eyes down the text. “Families of perpetrators whom authorities deem failing to cooperate with investigations face penalties including but not limited to imprisonment, hard labor, death, etc. No trial?”
“If our qualified experts don’t see the need.” Tuukka flicked his sword at the scorched house. “Zona’s cousins are on their way back and you’re to give them a delightful surprise.”
“Where are they coming in from?”
“Atlantean City, where another anti-conscription riot broke out.”
“I saw. Did they clash with soldiers too?”
“Left the city before the riots began.” A bitter smile encroached Tuukka’s face. “But the media’s claiming they were there. So as far as the normies know, they’re violent criminals.”
Raj traced a circle into the ground with her sword tip as shouts erupted. Her Youth invaded the houses and dragged families into the street, stowing them into parked military trucks.
“Back to Zona and Viorunen. Where was their last known location?”
“Iron Town. They chucked their watches so intel can’t ping them. We’ve never had so much trouble tracking two people.”
“What’s making them so elusive?”
“Viorunen’s a smoke mutant. From what it looks like she’s illegally practiced her mutation as much as Zona’s honed his wind control.”
“She’s vaping herself and Zona from one location to another,” Raj said.
“Meaning they’re traveling together. Wind mutants can’t teleport from one location and reappear seconds later in another like those with smoke, fire, and spirit mutations.”
Raj thought back to this morning when Sion Zona’s wavy hair and fierce, determined face appeared on Tamurian and South Nordican news networks with Viorunen’s. “And intel has no idea where they are, even with the entire colony looking?”
“Tipoffs from all over South Nordica. None of which gave us a solid lead. But I’m glad you came here. He’s bound to return.”
“That’s a faith-based tactic. I came to interrogate his aunt and uncle. If he’s on the run and he knows we’re lodging in his hometown—”
“If the boy’s stupid enough to clash with his authorities, he’s stupid enough to rescue three cousins he’s known all his life. Love goes a long way, Rajae.”
“What if he leaves them to die?”
“Hold his cousins unless we apprehend him and Viorunen. I’m telling you. That boy will come to their rescue.”
“Why not hold the whole family?”
“Those three kids are more valuable than their ancestors.”
“Care to tell me why they’re so valuable?”
“Care to quit sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong?”
“I’ll quit when you quit.”
Tuukka ran a hand down his face as the Youth jostled every home occupant younger than twenty-five into navy-blue buses rather than military trucks. Impromptu conscripts who would face basic combat training to serve in the Tamurian Military.
“Putting fresh meat on the fodder lines as your boss needs them?” Raj said.
“They should consider themselves privileged,” Tuukka said. “No higher honor exists than fighting for a cause bigger than oneself. At least it’s what we’ve drilled into their minds.”
Raj raised her eyebrows and turned from the loaded bus where one of her boys kicked two high school-aged brothers bound in shackles up a ramp. “Tough price to pay because a neighbor wreaked havoc at a conscription lottery.”
“That neighbor faces several charges.” Tuukka jabbed his finger at the still-lit hologram. “Use of illegal element control. Assaulting Tamurian soldiers, resisting arrest. Zona, Viorunen, the Siskonens, and their families are looking at the ultimate penalty.”
Raj opened her mouth to ask who in the world the Siskonens were and what they had to do with—
“Stop with the stupid questions. A unit in Iron Town took care of Viorunen’s mother and grandparents. Our people are searching New Nordican City for the Siskonens’ whereabouts. I hope your Youth is up to their task. Cutting Antto and Issa’s bloodline.”
He grinned at the bus loading the last of the neighborhood’s occupants as the door slammed. A metal mutant molded the lock so a second mutant with equal power at the training depot could unlock it. The mutant gave the departing bus a salute and returned to his post.
“They’ll be honored,” Raj said.
“Station them around the town’s perimeter and search every vehicle entering and leaving the area. Facial recognition tech should make this a simple mission. Once his cousins arrive, arrest them. If he’s killed beforehand, I’ll let you know.”
“Conscript anyone between sixteen and twenty-five heading in and out?”
“The trucks and buses await. Once one’s full, send it off to the nearest training depot. We’ll be needing them.”
A smoke vapor appeared and seconds later, a man with a flattop haircut stood next to Tuukka. “Reporting, sir.”
“Welcome, Lord Cirian. How close are his cousins?” Tuukka strutted a few steps up the now-barren street as if expecting to see a vehicle containing three college-aged kids bounding his way.
“Our tracking intel states they left Atlantean City—”
“How close are they to Wild Valley?”
“Data from Erno Kakko’s mobile device tells us they are crossing Maasta. Anything else?”
Tuukka glanced at one of the now-empty houses. “Trace everyone we know Zona and Viorunen interacted with. Interrogate them for their potential whereabouts and conscript anyone high school and college-aged you come across.”
The next day
Sion Zona pulled Liri Viorunen through a forested path. Next to them sat a narrow stream that widened in the distance. Liri vaped him west near the headwaters to the Ulos River, fifty miles from the city itself.
Vaping distinguished smoke mutants who reached a respectable experience level. It allowed the mutant to change their chemical makeup from solid to gas. Smoke, in her case, and reappear in another location within a two-hundred-mile radius, again, in their solid form.
The sensation of side-along vaping never grew old. Even if Liri did so with him dozens of times since their freshman year at Syndergaard University.
Away from Tamurian eyes within forested and secluded areas during holiday and summer vacations where the cameras situated at every hundred-yard interval on college campuses and in the city streets wouldn’t spot them.
Overhead, drones flew into forests at random, so Sion and Liri looked above and over their shoulders before exposing their mutant ability. If the drones caught anything suspicious, licensed Tamurian mutants arrived on the scene seconds later to arrest the wrongdoers.
And if street cameras caught mutants practicing their ability here in South Nordica, facial recognition and device-tracking gave up past and current locations. Which explained their jaunt into seclusion.
Sion tightened his grasp in Liri’s calloused hand. He weaved through the forested path as the headwater widened.
Liri cast a nervous glance over her shoulder and set her marble-blue eyes into his. Since they trekked miles from civilization, she should find herself calmer. Away from the madness that engrossed them over the past twenty-four hours.
But the glint in her eye spoke fear. She knew the price. Tamuria would stop at nothing to find them.
Sion knelt next to the riverbank. “We just need to find a place to lay low.”
“Where?” Liri said, speaking for the first time since yesterday. “Trinity knows the entire colony’s seen our faces. We can’t pop into any town. South Nordicans loyal to Tamuria, news networks, soldiers, even our professors, coaches, and friends at Syndergaard U, they’re all looking for us.”
“You seriously think our teachers, coaches, and friends would turn us in?”
“About everyone we know is loyal and passionate toward Tamuria. We spent years playing along to keep ourselves and our families out of trouble. Well now, the true Liri and Sion have come out. Two mutants who have clearly practiced their abilities. Breaking every Tamurian law in the book.”
“You’re overthinking it.”
“These people can’t wait to find and snitch on wrongdoers. To them, it’s an example of unwavering allegiance. People wait all their lives for something like this. That includes ninety percent of our contacts. You had to forget yourself. Never stopped to think about the long-term consequences of revealing your mutation in public, did you? You ended our thrashball careers, our college education, and any real chance of us living a normal life, Sion. If you—”
“Liri, our charade would’ve been up the second they drafted us and there was a fifty percent chance of that happening. Our mutation’s listed on our IDs. If they called our birth dates, our lives were finished. They would’ve seen our above baseline levels and discovered we’ve practiced behind closed doors for years.”
She helped him to his feet and rapped once on his forehead. “You don’t think.”
“Did you have a better plan?”
Liri rolled her eyes and stared into the river.
“Hmm? What was it, Viorunen? Stand at attention? Risk conscription?”
“There was a fifty percent chance they weren’t calling our birth dates.”
Sion scoffed. “I saw over fifty mutants. Imagine how many more of them practiced behind Tamuria’s back. There was going to be a riot regardless. Maybe I shouldn’t have revealed my wind control. But at that point every mutant was a criminal in their eyes. And Tamuria wasn’t taking or hurting you. You mean way too much to me and you always will.”
Liri threw him an admirable look, although she tried to mask it with fury. Still, she tightened her grip in his hands.
He broke away and waved her back toward the path.
Something whooshed behind them. Sion wheeled around and morphed into an athletic stance, fists raised. It had to be a Tamurian wind mutant. Or worse, a sword-wielding Wind Master. From where he stood, it sounded like a windsurf.
If he thrust his right and left fists forward, he’d emit a nasty whirlwind and blow whoever appeared before them into the thick trees.
In Sion’s peripheral vision, Liri bent into the same stance, her eyes set. For her and most smoke mutants, it’s defense first. She’d throw a smokescreen before launching an offensive, granting her enough time to grab Sion’s hand and vape them to another location.
Twenty-five yards down the path, a figure stood before them.
Sion stepped in front of Liri, but she held a hand to his shoulder. “What?”
“Don’t.” Liri lowered her hands. “Does that look like a Tamurian to you?”