After dark, in a town where only ordinary things usually happened, a man stood with his back pressed flat against a tree, while an orange orb of fire hovered in front of his face. He had been caught off-guard. An Ignus man lingered twenty feet back, his arm held out straight, in command of the fire ball.
“Where’s the woman?” he demanded.
The woman watched on from behind some bushes. Darius had gone on ahead to act as a decoy to the tracker while she hid their infant. The people of the Quadrants had finally come for them but they couldn’t be allowed to know there was a baby too, and the woman would have been unable to fight while carrying it.
“I told you, she’s not here,” Darius lied, sounding strained. “We went our separate ways… I-I haven’t seen her for months.” He brought his arms up to protect his face from the heat.
“You’ve got one last chance, then I burn you,” the man rumbled. “Tell me! Where is she?”
The fireball grew larger. Darius slid to his knees to get away from the flames.
The woman’s heart raced as she watched on, her mind foggy with panic—in a few moments her husband would be dead. With instinct taking over, she stepped quietly out from her hiding place and picked up a large rock. The object was the size of a bowling ball, but she was Terrus, for her, lifting it was easy. Without delay, she slung the thing, with great force, sending it hurtling in the direction of the man like a bullet. The projectile struck him squarely in the back, and he was propelled forwards several feet before his body slammed into the earth. The fireball went out.
Darius sprang up, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, searching for his wife in the night. He caught sight of her. Moments later they came together and were off, sprinting down the street to reclaim their child.
“We need to leave town, now,” Darius puffed as he ran beside her, trying to keep up. “If one of them was able to find us… more will come.”
“We don’t know that,” she replied. “I think we should stay here, I’m sick of running like animals… and the tracker might have come alone, he’s no threat now—a dead man can’t talk.”
“Lilah, be serious. We have to leave. Besides, how do we know that man’s dead? If he’s not, he will tell his people about us.”
“Excuse me, but did you miss my rock cracking his spine in two, back there?”
Her husband glanced at her as they passed beneath a streetlight. She raised her eyebrows at him. “Ok, fine. He did look pretty dead,” he conceded. Being in the path of a rock thrown by Lilah was like being hit by a truck, and few survived it. “Well, that’s reason enough to get out of here. His friends will come looking for him sooner or later, even if he was alone. I don’t know how he found us… but if he did…”
“I know, I know. It’s just that… I’ve grown to like it here,” Lilah said weakly. “I’ve finally gotten to know some people and I was hoping…” She didn’t bother finishing her sentence. She knew he was right. The two of them had been in Bakers Ridge for four months. It was the longest they had remained in any one place since they had fled the Quadrants two years earlier. And although she had always known it wouldn’t be permanent, the prospect of losing the life they had begun to build didn’t hurt any less.
When they arrived at the convenience store, Lilah disappeared around the back to gather up the infant from where she had left it, still sleeping peacefully beside some trash cans, wrapped up tightly in its blankets. Soon, they were racing again along the sidewalk, but after a few minutes, Darius took hold of his wife’s arm to slow her. “Did you hear that?” he whispered.
She stopped in her tracks and turned to him, wide eyed, pulling the baby in closer to her chest. There couldn’t be more of them, she thought, not yet, not when they were out in the open like this, and not when they had their baby with them.
“You go on ahead,” Darius said in a low voice, glancing all around. “I’ll lead them away and meet up with you in the forest when it’s safe. If you see trackers, don’t wait for me, just keep running, as fast as you can. Do you hear me? Keep running, I’ll find you.”
Lilah moved at great speed along the deserted streets, trying to stick to the shadows. If the town’s people saw her moving at that pace it would cause confusion, panic, and drawing their attention would only put them in danger too. In no time at all she had passed dozens of houses. Dim light was visible through their curtained windows, hinting at the families within, the ones leading normal lives. Lilah felt a pang of jealousy—this was what she longed for.
All at once Lilah caught movement from the corner of her eye. Was it them? Had they found her? Her hand flew automatically to the knives in her belt and she drew one out as she came to a stop. Holding the baby tightly, her head snapped one way, and then the other, her blade at the ready. Lilah backed into the shadows beneath a low tree in someone’s front garden. She continued to scan the dimly lit street. There was nothing there. She breathed out a sigh and after a few moments realised where she was—her friend lived here. She and Janice had become close during the last long months of Lilah’s pregnancy, and, unable to have children of her own, Janice had been almost as excited as Lilah when the baby finally arrived.
Another sound came—Lilah jumped. It was nearer this time. There still seemed to be no one about, but it was too dark to tell for sure. Seconds later there was a flash of light from the direction she had just left Darius. Her hand shook as she raised her knife. The sound of a motorbike’s engine, speeding along a distant street, made her sink further back into the shadows. But Darius had told her to run.
Lilah wondered if they would ever be safe again, if there would ever be a time when they were not being hunted. She clutched the bundle in her arms and kissed the soft hair that poked out the top of it. There was no way of knowing how far or for how long they would have to travel this time, but the Quadrants would kill them if they were caught, they had killed before and they would do it again. And carrying a baby while on the run was just crazy—it would put them all in danger.
She looked down at the knife in her hand and then at her baby, tears beginning to gather in her eyes. Maybe it would be kinder just to kill the child, the thought flashed through her mind. If the people of the Quadrants got hold of them, death would be slow. The Ignus would burn them, the Aquis would drown them, eventually, the Aeris might use a knife, and the Terrus, her people… she didn’t know what they might do.
The price on their heads was too great.
A short time later, puffing and shaking, Lilah came to the forest at the end of the street. She crouched low in the shadows at the base of a tree, waiting, hoping her husband would turn up. A breeze blew, rustling the leaves overhead and making it difficult to distinguish other noises. The smell of damp soil permeated the air as she puffed quietly, trying to remain as soundless as she could.
Just then, a trail of water glistening in the moonlight caught Lilah’s eye. She drew in a breath and jumped up. It moved fast, with purpose, flowing over the earth towards her. She stumbled backwards a few paces, trying to keep out of its way—she couldn’t let it touch her.
“Darius?” she whispered urgently.
All at once the water came to a stop and began to pool at the base of the tree, and a moment later, the watery-shape of a man rose up out of it. When he was fully formed, her husband smiled at her. Lilah let out a sigh. She was relieved, but equally as annoyed that he had approached her in that way. Darius was Aquis, and when liquefied, he was indistinguishable from any other person from his Quadrant. It could have been a stranger come to kill her for all she knew.
Darius gave a quick scan of the area, then glanced around at his wife. “Where’s the baby?” he asked finally.
“I didn’t have any choice,” she said, blinking back the tears which began to fill her eyes again and blur her vision. She couldn’t look at him.
She hadn’t wanted to do it.
“What do you mean?” Darius moved closer and took her by the shoulders, his expression quickly turning from concern, to one of horror. “Lilah…” he said slowly. “What have you done?”
Rohan pulled his pyjama top over his head and looked down, studying his bare torso. He puffed out his chest and prodded a finger here and there. All puberty had done for him in the past two years was stretch him out like a bean stalk—the taller he had grown the skinnier he had become. But recently, he thought his muscles seemed larger. They had to be, because he didn’t know how much longer he could take being beaten up by Titus.
Titus Blackwell was a hulk of a boy who had gotten more than his fair share of puberty hormones. At just sixteen, he already stood at six foot two and was packed with muscle beyond his years. Rohan could attest to that, because for the last few months Titus had been using his prodigious strength to throw him, and his bike, around on a regular basis. He had battered Rohan’s last bike beyond repair, and since having received a new one for his birthday a month ago, he hadn’t wanted to risk bringing it to school.
Rohan curled up an arm and flexed it, then squeezed at his bicep, and did the same thing on the other side. Slipping a shirt off a hanger, he put it on, and moved around in it a little while he did up the buttons—it felt tight. He was convinced of it now. Although Rohan was still nowhere near as big or as bulky as Titus, his muscles were finally catching up to the rest of him, and he thought now he could at least do something to defend himself.
Rohan wheeled his bike out of the garage a short time later, and with his bag on his back, he rode along the streets leading to the school. He slowed when he neared the side gate and scanned ahead to see if Titus was around. The area was deserted. Beginning to relax slightly, he cautiously made his way into the bike shelter. He bent to see the numbers on the chain and turned them to unlock it from below the seat.
The sound of cracking gravel came from close by, and Rohan jumped. He spun around with a start. He knew who it would be even before he saw him. With a smirk on his face, Titus stood there, arms folded across his chest, leaning his shoulder casually against one of the poles holding up the shelter.
“You’re early, Fraser,” the giant said, watching Rohan begin to fidget nervously. “You weren’t trying to avoid me, were you?” He stood up tall and started to walk slowly towards him.
“Go away, Titus, it’s new,” said Rohan. He felt his stomach clench tight, and keeping a hand protectively on the bike, he moved his body across to stand in front of it.
“Yeah, I noticed,” Titus said, sounding upbeat. “Nice!”
“Why don’t you find something else to do, rather than pushing people around all the time?” Rohan’s voice was raised, having mustered as much bravery as he could. He was sick of this, it had to stop.
Titus strolled closer, the smile still on his face.
“What… you mean like this?” He gave Rohan a sharp shove in the shoulder, sending him stumbling sideways a few paces. Then quickly, the larger boy grabbed for the bike, yanking it out of his reach.
“Leave it alone!” Rohan shrieked in alarm.
Lately, in compulsory sport at school—which was the only form of sport Rohan Fraser did—he had been running faster and kicking further, he felt strong, and with a burst of confidence, he ran forwards. He launched himself into Titus, shoulder first, trying to throw him off balance. Titus looked surprised and stumbled, but only a bit, then with one arm, he roughly swatted Rohan away. His face darkened. It was rare for Rohan, or any of the kids at school for that matter, to fight back. He let the bike drop to the ground.
Feeling his own anger flare up, Rohan gritted his teeth and ran at the bully a second time, but the other boy was ready. Titus lunged to meet him, and in a matter of seconds, had expertly pulled him into a headlock. Rohan struggled and growled, his face turning red, but in that position, there wasn’t much he could do, and when he realised just how firm Titus’s iron grip was, he began throwing punches at any part of the giant’s body he could make contact with. Rohan figured he might as well cause as much damage as he could, because with no way to escape, he knew that soon the damage would be inflicted upon himself.
“Aaagh!” he groaned when Titus’s fist finally found his side, followed by a hard blow to his stomach, and then another, and another.
When the muscled arm finally let go of his neck, Rohan dropped to his knees and pulled his arms into his belly, feeling as if he were about to vomit. He remained there doubled over, staring down at the dirt, gasping in some shallow breaths. The sound of his bike being wheeled away made Rohan want to cry. He felt gutless just sitting there, but he was in too much pain to do anything about it. Forcing his head up, he was just in time to see Titus fling his possession onto the adjacent oval, where it bounced and twisted a few times before coming to a halt. The bully seemed satisfied after that, because he proceeded to stroll calmly away, laughing, not even bothering to look back. Rohan was fuming. He hated being made to feel small, and Titus made him feel that on a regular basis.
Once he was left alone, Rohan staggered to his feet. He groaned and clutched at his stomach while he shuffled out across the grass to retrieve his bike. He wheeled it slowly back towards the shelter and locked it up, at the back, deciding then and there he would not bring the thing to school again, at least not until he could figure out some way to prevent Titus destroying it.
With his arms held across his front, body bent slightly forward, Rohan made his way gingerly towards the school buildings. It still made him feel sick to stand up straight, but he couldn’t bring himself to sit cowering somewhere until the nausea passed. He had almost made it to the restrooms before Eve spotted him. He had hoped to avoid her for a bit longer, not wanting her to see him like this. She ran across to him and threw an arm around his back looking worried.
Eve Lawson was a plain-looking girl with straight white hair which hung past her shoulders. She was pale and petite, but she made up for her size with her mouth and the opinions which came out if it in an inexhaustible stream. Rohan and Eve had been friends since first grade. He had been the small, timid boy who she had befriended on their first day, and Eve hadn’t left his side since. Rohan had never gotten on with the other boys because he wasn’t into sport—which seemed to be mandatory to fit into his gender group—and Eve had never been girly, excluding her from fitting in with the other girls, so it had suited the both of them to remain together.
“What happened? Was it Titus again?” Eve asked, tipping her head on the side to see his face as she walked beside him.
“No,” Rohan lied, avoiding looking at her—it was humiliating.
“You have to tell someone about this. It’s getting ridiculous, you can’t…”
“No,” he snapped, cutting her off.
Rohan turned to head into the boys’ bathrooms and Eve followed.
“Rohan! Beating your bike up is one thing, but beating you up… well, that’s entirely another,” she said.
Six months before, Titus had begun his bullying of Rohan with verbal abuse, but when that had stopped eliciting a reaction, he began to target his bike, and now he had no qualms about beating Rohan up directly.
As the pair entered the building, a younger boy using the urinal raised his head in surprise, then quickly angled himself away.
“You’re in the boys’ bathroom, Eve,” said Rohan flatly.
Ignoring him, Eve came around to stand in front of Rohan, preventing him from walking any further. “Where did he punch you?” she asked, looking down at his belly where he had been holding his arms.
Rohan gave a huff. He hesitated, then slowly edged up the hem of his shirt, but Eve took hold of it and pulled it all the way up before he could stop her. There was nothing really to see other than some red blotches. All the damage seemed to be on the inside, and it felt like it too.
“God, have you been doing sit-ups, Rohan?” Eve exclaimed, gazing at his abdomen. She reached out a finger and ran it over his recently acquired contours. Rohan wrenched down his shirt, frowning, then turned and went across to the basins. “There’ll probably be a bruise there tomorrow, like all the other times. How long are you planning to let this go on?”
He was embarrassed that Eve was a regular witness to his being made a victim. Standing behind him, she stared at his reflection in the mirror, that certain look on her face. He knew what she was thinking.
“No! I’m not telling anyone,” Rohan said, reaching to turn on the water. “I’m going to get him, Eve, myself.” He stuck a hand under the stream, and leaning down, began to drink from it.
“Yeah, right!” she scoffed as she watched him. “Have you seen the size of Titus lately? He’s as big as a house, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Rohan turned off the faucet. He straightened up and turned to face her, wiping his dripping chin with the back of his hand. Rohan himself wasn’t small. He was only two inches or so off Titus’s height, but he was still weedy, and now Rohan thought about it, the perfect target for a bully. Picking on a small kid would only make Titus look pathetic, but picking on a big kid, or a tall one at least, well, that would make him seem a little tougher.
“I don’t care. I’m going to get him,” declared Rohan, with some of the anger in his voice that he had felt earlier in the bike shelter. He knew there was no point talking with her about it. She was a girl—she didn’t understand.
Rohan went around Eve and led the way out of the restrooms. When they walked into their homeroom, the teacher wasn’t yet there, but Titus was, up the back, surrounded by his dim-looking group of supporters. They sat with their feet on desks, laughing and poking fun at each other and the kids around them. Rohan turned his eyes away as he edged into the front row and took a seat, dropping his bag on the floor.
“Sissy-boy,” hissed Titus’s voice from up the back, having let barely a minute go by.
Rohan’s body stiffened. He remained looking straight ahead, wishing that Titus would just disappear.
Eve moved in beside Rohan and sat down. “Ignore him,” she said in a low voice.
But the boy was determined. He repeated his taunt several more times, using different emphases and tones. He went on and on, and on, until Rohan could feel his face turning red, the tension building up inside him. But after a few more minutes of this, it was Eve who cracked first. She spun around in her chair to face the back of the room, glaring at Titus. Rohan’s stomach clenched tight. He reluctantly turned too, and saw the large boy smirk at having at least provoked one of them. Titus puckered his lips then and made a loud kissing noise in Eve’s direction. Her mouth dropped open with indignation and the crowd of boys around him broke into fits of laughter. Titus bathed in his success, a wide grin spreading across his face. Rohan could see that Eve was livid. The big oaf’s eyes remained on her as he uncrossed his ankles on the table. He pushed a foot on the edge of it to tilt his chair, and then began rocking backwards and forwards like he owned the place. Rohan hated him—he couldn’t stand the sight of him.
Eve frowned and narrowed her eyes further, but this only made Titus and his cronies laugh even harder. Then all at once she stood up. Her chair hit the table behind it, loudly, and without hesitation she marched out of the row, towards the back of the room.
“Eve, no,” Rohan hissed after her, but it had no effect. She continued past the rows of tables until she came to the last one, containing the boys.
“Come for a kiss, Lawson?” said Titus grinning like a fool.
Rohan watched on helplessly as Eve strode up to the large teenager sprawled out over the teetering chair. All eyes were on her and a hush fell across the room. Rohan prayed that she wouldn’t say anything to provoke the big bully further, because he dreaded the thought of being beaten up in front of the whole class, after he would inevitably go to her aid.
Titus blew another kiss at Eve. Then he followed this up by poking out his tongue and waggling it at her. Rohan cringed.
“Titus Blackwell,” said Eve, in an even, yet determined tone. “You are an arsehole.” And with that, she took one more step, reached out her hand, and pushed hard on the back of his chair, sending it, and Titus, crashing to the ground.