“Daniel!” A voice boomed from somewhere behind us.
Before I could turn my head to see where the voice had come from, someone appeared on the bar of the swing set between Daniel and me in a wave of warmth that contrasted sharply with the cool raindrops on my skin. The scent of smoke filled my nose as a strong arm encircled my shoulders, and as the sky ignited with lightning, I was jerked forward so fast that my head snapped back.
With my hands and knees crashing into the gravel, I heard—I felt—a string of lightning hook out of the sky and connect with the swing set. My eyes squeezed shut against the flash, but I felt the electric charge shoot into me as the lightning connected with the ground under my hands and knees. It stung and, for a strange moment, my body shook with an immortal hunger more agonizing than anything I had ever felt.
Then, in an instant, the lightning was gone, as was the ferocious sense of longing. It wasn’t until the charge left my body that I realized that the feeling hadn’t been mine. It belonged to someone—something—far older and hollower than me. It belonged to the lightning.
Shaken, I turned around to find a tall man standing over me in a dark coat. His skin was brown and fiery like Daniel’s. The heat from his body vaporized the nearby raindrops, wreathing him in a halo of mist and glowing hot energy. He had saved us.
“Dad?” Daniel breathed, slumping back against the ladder to the main play structure. “What—”
But before he could finish his sentence, the dark man grabbed him by the front of his shirt and threw him away from the ladder. For a second, I wondered why. Then, as Daniel sprang off his hands to flip over onto his feet, lightning struck again, this time shooting its skeletal fingers into the jungle gym next to the swing set, lighting it up bright white.
The ravenous electricity didn’t just flow through the metal structure to the ground like lightning was supposed to. It twisted into it, warping the bars until they strained at the screws holding them together. I could hear the steel screaming as it buckled under the electric spasms. And there was that hideous, hollowing hunger again, thrumming through me so hard I felt like it might turn me to dust where I stood.
I tried to take a step back from the thrashing mess of light and metal, but the force of the lightning blinded me, throwing me off balance, sending the Hum haywire in my head. I tripped over my own feet and found myself on the ground as the lightning flickered out, leaving the mangled remains of what had been the jungle gym teetering over me.
I felt that the structure was going to fall before it started its downward topple. I tried to scramble back, but my body wasn’t working right, my hands and heels slid in the gravel and I fell onto my back. The jungle gym was falling too fast now, several tons of metal groaning down toward me. Even with my feet under me, I would never get out of the way in time.
I threw my hands out to stop all that metal before it could come crashing down on my body, but I had never controlled anything that big before, and I couldn’t lock my powers into place when I wasn’t focused—certainly not in the terrified, half-dazed stupor I was in now. I shut my eyes, bracing for the impact.
Then warm hands wrapped around my upper arms. I was jerked back, my heels skidding against the ground, just as the jungle gym crashed down where I had been a moment earlier, sending up a spray of dirt and gravel. Drenched in rain, I let out my breath. I was sitting in the wet grass at the edge of the playground, surrounded by heat. Daniel was holding onto one of my arms. His father was holding the other.
“Not today,” the older tajaka breathed, with a sharp glance up at the sky.
He had Daniel’s same sharp features and luminous brown skin. But he was more than Daniel. Somehow everything about him was more. More solid. More intense. His face was rougher, with the traces of a beard, the lines of a durable smile, and dark, deep-set eyes. I didn’t know why, but those eyes made me sad. Past the ember-like glow they shared with Daniel’s, there was something hard and haunted about them. I remembered a similar look in my grandpa’s eyes—when his warm voice grew flat, when he talked about the grime of the trenches and the faces of lost friends.
His expression softened as he turned to me. “Are you alright, Joan?”
I wanted to respond, thank them, say something, but all I could do was sit there with my eyes open in shock and my heart thundering against my ribs.
“Joan?” Daniel leaned in, concerned.
“Um—y-yes,” I managed finally. “I’m fine.”
“Right. Up then.” Daniel’s father took my arm in a firm grip and lifted me to my feet as though I weighed nothing, even though my muscle density made me almost twice as heavy as a normal girl my size. For a moment, I wondered dazedly if one day my arms would be that strong.
“Dad,” Daniel got to his feet slowly. “Wh-what was—”
“Up,” his father said more firmly. “We need to get clear of this area.” Putting one hand on Daniel’s shoulder and the other on mine, he steered us both across the grass away from the playground. Once we reached the edge of the park, he seemed satisfied that we were far enough from danger and turned his son around sharply.
“On top of a metal structure, Daniel? What were you thinking?”
“You know better than that. I told you not to go wandering around alone. It’s too dangerous.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Daniel pouted, brushing some dust off his jacket.
“Come on, Dad. What could happen?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” his father said with pointed sarcasm. “You could get hit by lightning.”
“I would have gotten out of the—”
“No.” His father was clearly angry, but holding it back under an impressive layer of calm. “No. You weren’t paying a speck of attention. If I hadn’t come looking for you, you would both have been fried alive! I want to trust you to handle yourself, but I can’t do that unless you demonstrate a little vigilance and common sense.”
“I’ve been using my common sense,” Daniel protested.
“Really?” His father raised his eyebrows. “Because before I found you out here courting electrocution, I got a very angry call from your new school saying that you broke someone’s hand?”
“Oh. I—that was—He punched me, okay? I never touched him.”
“Was he faster than you?”
“I didn’t think he was going to—”
“Was he faster than you?” Daniel’s father repeated.
“I—no,” Daniel muttered.
“So, you could have stopped him? You could have gotten out of the way?”
“Then you have no excuse.”
“I didn’t mean for him to get hurt,” Daniel said earnestly.
“Then you should have been more careful. Daniel, please.” He took his son’s shoulders in his hands. “Please. I know it’s difficult to understand when I’ve explained so little, but you have to believe me when I say it is too dangerous for us to be careless right now.”
Daniel scowled at the ground.
“Now we should be getting out of here.” Daniel’s father cast a wary look up at the sky as the rain began to come down faster around us. “Joan.” He turned to me. “Would you mind coming to our house for the evening? You can call your parents and tell them that I invited you over for dinner. I think it will be safer if you stay with us for a few hours before heading home.”
“Um, okay.” I didn’t understand why that would be safer but I wasn’t about to argue with a guy who had just snatched me out of the way of a lightning bolt.
“Let’s go,” Daniel’s father beckoned and I followed him to the sidewalk. Daniel, however, crossed his arms, glared at the ground, and remained planted where he was. His father let out a long-suffering sigh, but looked more amused than angry.
“Alright then, stay there if you want to get soaked that badly.”
Daniel didn’t move.
“It’s okay,” Daniel’s father said in a low voice as we resumed walking. “He’ll be right behind us. There’s nothing he hates more than being out in the rain.”
“Um, Mr. Thundyil,” I said as I hurried to keep up with his long strides down the sidewalk. “Can I ask a question?”
“How did you know the swings were going to be hit by lightning?”
He shrugged. “I’ve been doing this for a while. You pick things up.”
I wanted to ask exactly what he meant by ‘this’ and how one ‘picked up’ on how to predict lightning strikes, but I just said, “Thank you.”
“No need to thank me. This is my job. It’s what I’m here for.”
“And—Mr. Thundyil, what—”
“Mr. Thundyil is my brother. You can call me Robin.”
“Um, okay, Robin. What was that back there?”
“That was lightning,” he said with a smile.
“I know, but h-how did it… why did it try to hit us?”
“Try to hit you?” Robin laughed, those dark eyes filling up with mirth. “You speak as if it was a person and not just an electric charge drawn to the tallest conductive structure in the area.”
“I…” When he put it that way, that did sound silly, didn’t it? Of course lightning would strike a tall metal thing in the middle of an empty field. There was no reason to think it had been more than a natural phenomenon—except that it had felt like more. And lightning didn’t usually send metal structures into convulsions, did it?
“It’s best that you leave our enemies’ motives and methods to me. Your only concern at the moment should be keeping yourself safe.”
“Safe? From what, exactly?”
“I understand Daniel’s already told you that we came to this planet looking for a less than pleasant individual. Unless we manage to stay off his radar, it’s only a matter of time before he attacks us.”
“Attacks you?” I repeated as the cold rain began to fall even faster, soaking through the arms of my sweatshirt. “Like, he’s going to try to hurt you?”
Robin let out another good-natured laugh. “‘Hurt’ is a gentle word for what this man does to those who cross him.”
“Wait—So, am I going to be safe here?”
“I will make sure that you are safe.”
“And what about everyone else?” I asked, thinking of Mama at home by herself. “The people in the neighborhood and this town—are they in danger?”
“No,” Robin said confidently. “Our enemy may be ruthless and powerful but if there is one thing I can say for him, it is that his rage is focused. He will pursue his target with single-minded determination and ignore anyone who doesn’t present a direct obstacle. The only way anyone else will get hurt is if I am irresponsible enough to let them get caught in the crossfire.”
“And this guy you’re after—who is he?” I asked.
“A tragedy,” Robin said, staring ahead into the rain, “a lost boy who began his life utterly powerless, and now wields more power than anyone in the known universe. If you can imagine what that would do to a man’s mind, you have Mohan.”
“Mohan?” I said. “That’s his name?”
“No.” Robin smiled. “I like to give my villains code names.”
“It’s dangerous to call them by their real names when someone might be listening, and it beats calling them Killer 27, Killer 46, Killer 320.”
“What number is Mohan?” I asked.
“Thirty-one. And here we are!” he announced cheerfully as we turned the corner onto our block. Humming a tune, Robin sauntered down the walk to their enormous house, dug a key out of his pocket, and unlocked the front door.
“After you.” He held the door open for me.
Judging from the absolute darkness in the front hallway, I guessed that the blinds and curtains were all drawn, blocking out the light. As I stepped into the house, I felt along the wall for a light switch, found one, and flipped it, but nothing happened. The hallway remained pitch black.
“Um, I think your light is—”
“Oh, we don’t use that.”
As Robin stepped over the threshold, heat rushed past me on either side, followed by a stream of sparks that chased each other down the hallway like fireflies. Then, one by one, those sparks blossomed into yellow-orange lights. It took me a moment to realize that they were candles, standing in straight rows along the walls.
“Whoa! That’s cool!” I said as the last of the flames shivered to life, illuminating the hallway.
“It’s how most tajakalu light their houses,” Robin said, taking his shoes off and setting them off to the side. “On Duna, the firelights are built right into the walls, but we’re improvising.”
“Isn’t it kind of a fire hazard?”
“Not if you control fire,” Robin said. “You can go ahead and take your shoes off. I’m going to go upstairs and get something. My cell phone is on the counter in the kitchen, just through that door, if you want to call your parents.” There was a whoosh, the candles flared up, and Robin was gone in less than the time it took me to blink. And I had thought Daniel was fast!
Slipping out of my wet shoes, I padded down the hall to the kitchen to find the phone. The kitchen was spacious, with vast marble counters and oak cabinets. Open cereal boxes and snack bags littered the countertops and a stack of dirty dishes towered beside the sink. Through a half-open cupboard door, I could see a single frying pan and a pot, but the stove looked spotless and untouched. The adjoining dining room was empty except for a small table and two folding chairs. It seemed as though the Thundyils were just camping out in this expensive house.
Crossing the room, I picked up Robin’s phone and dialed my home number.
“Hello?” Mama’s voice answered.
“Hi, Mama. It’s Joan.”
“Joan, mon ange, where are you?”
There was a bang from the hall as the front door swung shut, and a moment later Daniel entered the kitchen, soaking wet, still scowling. The water dripping from his clothes and hair left puddles on the floor behind him.
“Um, well, I was with a friend at the park,” I said, waving at Daniel, “that new kid, Daniel, but it started raining and we went to his house and then his dad invited me to dinner at their house. Is that okay?”
Daniel raised one hand in way of greeting before squelching past me into the dining room.
“Oh, really?” Mama said. “Well, yes, I suppose that’s fine. How nice of him. When do you think you’ll be home?”
Daniel ran his fingers through his wet hair with a grimace and flicked some of the water away. Then he opened his hand and fire poured from his palm, engulfing his head. There was a hiss as the flames met the water clinging to him, and for a moment, it looked like his hair was ablaze. He let his hand fall, the flames disappeared, and he shook out a head of perfectly dry hair. I took in the clouds of white steam rolling off his head and understood; since Daniel’s hair and skin didn’t burn, the explosion of heat had simply vaporized the excess water, leaving him as dry as ever.
“Joan, are you still there?” Mama’s voice asked.
I realized that I had been standing with my mouth open. “Oh—oh yeah. I should be home before—well, I’m not really sure when I’ll get back, but don’t worry. I’ll be there before bedtime, okay?”
“Okay,” Mama sounded concerned. “I don’t want you staying out too late.”
“I won’t. Tell Papa ‘hi’ for me, okay?” I added because I knew it would make her happy.
“Papa isn’t here, Joan. He left on a business trip this morning.”
“Wait. Another one?” He had just gotten home from a ‘trip.’
“Yeah, it’s—he said it’s really short notice. He’s filling in for a co-worker who had to drop out at the last minute.”
Well, that was a made-up excuse to ditch us if I’d ever heard one. I guess the burnt pizza had been too much for him to handle. Jerk.
“Alright.” I felt a twinge of guilt, realizing that that meant Mama would have to eat dinner by herself. “Well, I’ll see you later, okay?”
“I’m so glad you’re making friends.”
“Oh.” I smiled into the phone. “Y-yeah. I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, mon ange.”
I ended the call and set the phone down.
“I’ll have dinner ready in a few minutes,” Robin said, entering the kitchen. “Daniel, you should get our guest settled in the meantime.”
“Sure.” Daniel slid his backpack from his shoulder and it thumped to the floor with a metallic jingle.
Robin froze. “What was that sound?”
“What sound?” Daniel asked, but Robin was already at the backpack, picking something out of the mesh water bottle holder on the side. His hand came up slowly, clutching a broken hoop of metal—a bracelet, it looked like—hung with bunches of tiny, jangling bells, all of them tarnished with age. Robin’s back was to us so I couldn’t see his face, but he held the thing for a long moment before turning to Daniel.
“Where did this come from?” His voice was strangely quiet.
“I don’t know,” Daniel shrugged. “You bought the bag. Not my fault if there’s weird stuff attached to it.”
“You’ve never seen it before?”
“No.” Daniel eyed his father in confusion. “What? Have you?”
“No.” Robin said and shoved the belled bracelet into his pocket. “I just wondered. Odd thing to find in a schoolbag.”
As Robin straightened up, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard any jingling bells or sensed any out-of-place metal in Daniel’s backpack before. Then again, I had been pretty distracted.
“I’m going to get dinner ready,” Robin said. “Why don’t you two go work on homework or watch TV in the living room? This won’t take long.”
The TV was the only thing in the Thundyils’ living room besides candles. They stood in rows along the woodwork and on the few shelves built into the walls. There were even clusters of them on a few upended cardboard boxes. I noticed a stack of books and DVDs in one corner, safely away from most of the candles, but apart from that, there wasn’t so much as a couch.
“Yeah,” Daniel said, probably able to guess what I was thinking from my face as I surveyed the room, “we didn’t bring a lot of stuff since we probably won’t be staying that long.”
Daniel extended his hand and a spark shot from each finger, connecting with the wicks of five candles on the box nearest him and causing them to flicker to life. With his other hand, he slung a whip-like arc of flames to the other side of the room to ignite a row of candles on one of the shelves. I marveled at his control—though as the lighting of the room improved, I could make out singed spots on the walls where he had overshot his mark in the past.
“How come you guys have so many boxes?” I asked, looking around at the fortress of cardboard and candles they had set up throughout the living room. It didn’t seem as though the Thundyils had brought enough stuff to fill that many boxes.
“Oh, we’re using a couple of them for storage,” Daniel said, walking around to light some of the candles tucked away in the corners of the room, “but mostly they’re for show. We needed to carry them in so it would look like we were regular people moving in for real.”
“If this is just a temporary thing, why not move into a hotel or apartment?” Surely that would be easier than faking moving into a suburban mansion.
“If you were a criminal mastermind looking for someone who could be staying temporarily anywhere in the area, wouldn’t you check all the hotels first?”
“Oh. I guess, yeah.”
“We moved into a wealthy, well-established neighborhood so we’d be harder to find.”
As the last of the candles blinked to life, the two of us settled down on the carpet in their midst. The glow of the fire embraced and surrounded us, making the rest of the world seem distant, even as the rain continued and the wind rose to a howl outside.
“So, this guy you’re looking for… if he finds you first, is he going to try to kill you?” I asked quietly.
“Maybe.” Daniel shrugged. “Probably, if Dad thinks he’s someone worth chasing.”
“How can you be so calm about it?” I demanded, horrified. “Shouldn’t you be scared?”
“It’ll be fine.” Daniel waved a hand. “Dad’s gotten us in and out of worse trouble than this. We have nothing to be afraid of while he’s here. All these years and he’s never let anything happen to me.” He turned to look at me. “And don’t worry. He’d never let anything happen to you either.”
“Alright, dinner’s ready!” Robin announced, entering the room with a tray balanced against his shoulder. “Since we only have two chairs, I thought we’d eat in here, on the floor.” He set the tray between Daniel and me before sitting down himself.
It was odd to think that this warm, friendly father of Daniel’s was actually some kind of super-fighter who spent his life on the run from powerful enemies. That didn’t seem to fit as I watched him distribute silverware, humming cheerfully.
“Here,” Robin handed me a piping hot bowl of soup. “This one’s a little cooler.”
I looked at the other two bowls to see that the soup in them was actively boiling—and it didn’t stop boiling as Robin lifted a spoonful to his lips. It kept bubbling right into his mouth, heated by his hand on the spoon. Now I could see why the Thundyils hadn’t needed the stove; they could be their own.
“This is good,” I said when I tasted my own soup.
“Thank you,” Robin said, “but I didn’t actually make it. I just followed the instructions on the package. I’m getting quite good at reading Old Lindish—or English, as you call it.”
“I thought you already knew how,” said Daniel.
“Well, the Eldens taught me back in Hades, but that was years ago. Now I’m just getting used to it again. All that illogical spelling.”
“Wait—sorry, but what are you guys talking about?” I asked.
“Reading your language,” Daniel said. “It’s impossible. It’s all backwards! And how do you keep all the spellings straight when the rules keep changing like that?”
“Wait, but you guys speak my language—okay, not French, I’m guessing—but English. You speak English.”
“On Duna we call it Lindish,” said Robin, “but, yes, it is verbally almost identical to your English.”
“Verbally?” I repeated. “So, it’s written differently?”
“Very differently,” Daniel said.
“But it wasn’t always,” Robin clarified. “A long time ago, Duna’s Lindish-speakers wrote the way you do, with an alphabet similar to the one you use. In the birthplace of the language, some still do, but the Old Lindish alphabet has largely fallen out of use. In the country Daniel and I live in, nearly half the population speaks Lindish, but everyone uses the Yammaninke phonetic alphabet, like most of the world.”
“It’s a phonetic alphabet?” I said, “So like, all the sounds match the letters? That must make reading a lot easier.”
“It does until you try to read something in Old Lindish,” Robin laughed, “as Daniel has learned the hard way these past few days.”
“Wait, so you can’t read?” I turned to Daniel, shocked.
“Not really, no,” he mumbled into his bowl, glaring sideways at his father.
“You’ve been going to school and you can’t read?”
“I’m trying to learn, okay?”
“No wonder you copied my entire lab sheet yesterday,” I laughed, “I thought you were just being lazy.”
“Oh, shut up. You try reading backwards in a different alphabet.”
“The Yammaninke alphabet reads right to left,” Robin explained, seeing my confusion.
“And what does it look like?” I asked.
“Well, it’s—here, I’ll write it down for you.” Robin got a notebook from Daniel’s backpack and flipped to a clean page.
“So, I’ll be able to read from that?” I asked, looking on as he wrote.
“It might be difficult for you to get a handle on it at first. As Daniel said, it’s hard learning to read backwards, although there are places in Carytha and Hades where the Yammaninke alphabet is written left to right. Besides, something tells me you’re quicker to pick up this kind of thing than he is.”
“Hey!” Daniel glared.
“It’s a phonetic system,” Robin said, “so, learning to spell isn’t nearly as hard as it is in your alphabet.”
“Okay, what is in this soup?” Daniel interrupted, making a face.
“Do you not like it?” Robin asked mildly.
“Well…” Daniel stirred at it, frowning. “I guess it’s better than that instant fish-eyeball stuff Misaki always sends you.”
“Be nice,” Robin scolded. “It’s not Misaki’s fault you have an irrational loathing of Kaigenese food. And she’s never sent us fish eyes.”
“No, just baby octopus tentacles.”
I giggled. “Who’s Misaki?”
“Tsusano Misaki—well, Matsuda Misaki now—was a good friend of mine in school,” Robin said. “She lives far away from us now, but she sends us letters and packaged food from time to time.” He turned to Daniel. “Speaking of Misaki, Daniel, you’ll be seeing her sons soon. They’ll all be at Daybreak with you.”
“Really?” Daniel said in surprise. “I mean, I know Hiroshi and the other one go there, but I didn’t realize Izumo qualified. That’s great!”
“Why wouldn’t Izumo qualify?” Robin asked.
“Well—I don’t know. I always worry about him. I thought he might not be powerful enough.”
“Daniel,” Robin sighed. “There are so many kinds of power. You should know that.” He turned to me and explained, “In a few months, Misaki’s youngest son, Izumo, and Daniel are going to start at the same theonite academy on Duna—the same one where Misaki and I first met.”
I could only nod as Robin turned back to Daniel and the two started negotiating how often Daniel should come home for weekends. As I watched the two of them argue, and laugh, and exchange punches in the arm in the wavering candlelight, I was certain for the first time, that the place they came from was real. Duna wasn’t the fabricated delusion of a couple of lunatics. These were real people, who lived real lives in a real world—that wasn’t this one.
But can this really be possible? a little part of my brain demanded. Had circumstance really just deposited in front of me what Earth’s scientists and philosophers had only dreamed about for centuries? A mob of questions clamored to the surface of my mind. More than anything, I wanted to see Duna, to know what it would be like in a world full of people like me. I wanted to know how they spoke, how they dressed, how they blew their noses. I wanted to know everything.
NOTE: you can see a guide to reading and writing the Yammaninke alphabet here.