The Emerald Mask
Chapter 1 A New Threat
The next day Fiona Murphy hoisted her heavy backpack over her shoulder and shuffled out of the cafeteria the moment the bell rang to end lunch. Most other kids were still eating and laughing, balling up their trash and trying to throw it into the garbage can while the cafeteria monitor’s back was turned. But Fiona’s next class was all the way across school, and she was not the kind of student who got tardies. Ever. And especially not when her first big homework assignment of the year, an oral and written report, was due.
A worried frown crossed Fiona’s face just thinking
about it. This was the first time in her entire life that she knew, deep down, she was about to get a bad grade. Fiona studied hard for every quiz; she always had her homework neatly completed on time. This report, though, had been impossible. Fiona had done her best, of course. She always did. But even Fiona had to admit that this time, her best wasn’t good enough. And that was a very hard thing to face.
It’s too late to do anything about it now, Fiona reminded herself. Better get it over with.
Soon, Fiona reached the Ancillary Gym, the place where her life had changed forever on the first day of seventh grade. Along with three kids she barely knew—Gabriella Rivera, Darren Smith, and Mack Kimura—Fiona had discovered a secret about herself that even now, even after everything that had happened, was still kind of hard to believe. She was a Changer, part of a magical line of shapeshifters that history had forgotten. Changers hold incredible power and can transform into different creatures from mythology. Fiona had learned she was a selkie and could transform into a seal. Darren, an impundulu, could become a massive
bird and shoot lightning bolts from his hands. Mack was a kitsune and could change into a magical fox, just like his grandfather. And Gabriella, a nahual, could transform into a powerful black jaguar. In addition to transformations, each one had special powers that they were still learning how to use. Their teacher, Ms. Dorina Therian, was a Changer too—a werewolf, to be precise—and guided them through their powers and intense training every day.
Though Fiona had been the first one to leave the cafeteria, she was the last one to reach the Ancillary Gym. It was like her feet had dragged on purpose, doing everything to delay the moment when she had to give a less-than-perfect presentation. She took a look at the other students, but nobody else seemed even a little concerned. Gabriella and Darren were chatting together on the bench while Mack was sitting on the floor off to the side, furiously sketching in his notebook, surrounded by comic books.
Just then, Gabriella waved her over. “How’s your report?” she asked. “I barely finished mine in time.”
Fiona smiled—or tried to.
“Too much stuff, right?” Darren asked knowingly. “I swear I could write a whole book about impundulus. What’s the coolest thing you learned about nahuals, Gabriella?”
Gabriella looked thoughtful. “I guess I was surprised to learn that nahuals can use some of their powers, like superspeed and -strength, in human form,” she replied. “I didn’t think that was possible.”
Darren grinned. “I doubt anybody who’s seen you run would be surprised.”
The way Gabriella’s shoulders stiffened was barely perceptible, but Fiona noticed immediately. “What do you mean?” Gabriella asked.
“Come on,” Darren teased Gabriella, oblivious to her discomfort. “You run like—like a wildcat! I mean, you are fierce out there. The Willow Cove Clippers were the losingest soccer team in state history until you joined.”
“No—” Gabriella began.
“It’s true,” Darren interrupted her. “Then you join the team, and . . . What, you guys have a perfect record now, right? Three and oh?”
Gabriella stared at Darren and Fiona for a
moment—long enough for Fiona to see a glint of gold flash through Gabriella’s eyes.
“I thought . . . ,” Gabriella moaned, her voice muffled. “Is it really noticeable out there?” She buried her head in her hands.
All of a sudden Darren realized just how upset Gabriella was. “Hey,” he said awkwardly. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not that obvious. I mean, I probably only noticed because I know you’re a nahual, right?”
“Right,” Fiona cut in, trying to reassure Gabriella. “How about you, Darren?” she asked, trying to get the unwanted attention off Gabriella. “What did you learn about impundulus?”
Darren flipped through his report—it was a lot longer than Fiona’s. “You won’t believe it,” he began. “Making lightning is just the beginning of an impundulu’s powers.”
Fiona raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?” she asked. “What comes next?”
“Impundulus can summon huge storms!” Darren continued excitedly. “I bet that’s why there was a hurricane surrounding the Changer army during the battle last
month. I mean, when you think about it—all those Changers together, in one place . . . We’re lucky it wasn’t worse.”
Fiona shivered. She knew she’d never forget what had happened. A power-hungry warlock, Auden Ironbound, had used an ancient magical horn—the Horn of Power—to bind hundreds of Changers to his will. He swept up the coast with his army under the cover of a hurricane, straight for Willow Cove! Even the First Four, some of the most powerful Changers to ever live, had fallen under Auden Ironbound’s spell. Luckily, Fiona, Darren, Mack, and Gabriella were too young to be affected by the horn. Somehow, they’d managed to beat Auden’s army, but Auden got away. Everyone knew the warlock would be back.
“Hey, Mack!” Gabriella called.
Mack looked up from his sketch, startled. “Sorry. What did you say?” he asked.
“What are you doing?” Darren asked.
“There’s a school-wide art show in a couple weeks,” replied Mack. “Everybody in Comics Club is creating a comic to submit.”
“Can I see?” asked Gabriella.
Mack shook his head. “Actually, mine is kind of terrible right now,” he told her. “Maybe after I figure out a few more panels.”
Mack slammed his sketchbook shut, gathered his comics into a pile, and joined the rest of the class.
“So what did you learn about kitsunes?” asked Gabriella.
“Well, I learned a lot more about our tails,” Mack replied. “Every time a kitsune masters a rare power or accomplishes a heroic deed, he or she can earn a new tail, too. A kitsune with nine tails is basically the most powerful kitsune in the world.”
“Dude,” Darren said. “Doesn’t your grandfather have nine tails? In his kitsune form, I mean?”
“Exactly,” Mack said. “I can’t even begin to imagine all the things that Jiichan can do, or the things he accomplished to earn his tails. But get this—when nine-tailed kitsunes focus, they can actually see or hear anything in the entire world.”
Darren let out a long, low whistle. “No way,” he said, clearly impressed.
Mack nodded vigorously. “It’s true. They just have to know where to look . . . and it can’t be shrouded by magic, of course. That’s the catch.”
“There’s always a catch,” Darren groaned. “Still, that’s an amazing power.”
“Kind of a scary one,” Fiona spoke up. “I’m not sure I’d want to be able to do that.”
Everyone turned to look at her.
“How about you?” asked Mack. “What did you learn about selkies?”
There was a pause before Fiona opened her mouth to reply. Then, just in time, the door opened.
Ms. Therian had arrived.
As she strode across the floor, her long black braid, streaked with silver, swayed behind her. “Your reports, please,” she announced, holding out her hand.
Everyone scrambled to pull their reports out of their backpacks. Fiona placed a single piece of paper on top of the stack. Ms. Therian had to notice how much shorter it was than the others, but she didn’t say anything.
“And now, for your presentations,” Ms. Therian continued. “Let’s start with you, Gabriella.”
Normally, Fiona would be the first one with her hand in the air—but today, she was all too happy to let someone else go first. She listened attentively to Gabriella’s oral report and then Mack’s and then Darren’s. The facts they had learned about their Changer abilities were so fascinating that Fiona almost forgot the dread she was feeling about her own presentation.
“Fiona?” Ms. Therian finally said. “Your turn.”
Here goes nothing, Fiona thought as she stood up. She took a few steps forward and then turned to face the bench. Her classmates were smiling at her—not the sarcastic smiles she saw sometimes in her regular classes, but real, true, genuine smiles.
“?‘The Secrets of Selkies,’?” Fiona began. “Selkies are Changers who take the shape of a seal. They originated in Ireland and Scotland, where tales of selkies have been passed down from generation to generation. Every selkie is born with a sealskin cloak that allows him or her to transform. Without it, a selkie is trapped in his or her human form, so selkies must guard their cloaks carefully.
“Like all Changers, selkies have powerful abilities,”
Fiona continued. “I wish I could tell you more about them, but I can’t. All those human stories about selkies are just that—stories—and mostly romances at that. What I can tell you is that selkie powers are contained within their songs, which cannot be recorded or captured in any way. The only way to learn a selkie song is to be taught by another selkie.”
Fiona stopped speaking abruptly. There was more she wanted to say about that, but the words seemed stuck in her throat.
“Have you seen another selkie before, Fiona?” Ms. Therian asked, filling the silence.
Fiona nodded. “I think so,” she said. “During the battle at the beach, I could feel them—in the ocean, I mean. It’s like I somehow knew they were nearby.”
“Of course,” replied Ms. Therian.
“And there’s this one selkie—I think she’s a selkie—a beautiful one, with a copper-colored pelt,” Fiona continued. “I’ve seen her twice. From a distance.”
“Have you made contact?” Ms. Therian asked evenly.
“No,” Fiona said, her voice almost a whisper. “I’ve been going down to the shore every day for the last
three weeks . . . but I haven’t seen her since the battle.”
Ms. Therian nodded. “I see. You may continue.”
Fiona glanced down at her note cards, but she’d already said everything that was written on them. “That’s all,” she said as her cheeks started to burn with embarrassment.
“Thank you, Fiona,” Ms. Therian said.
“I’m sorry,” Fiona blurted. “I wanted to do a better job. I spent hours researching—”
“You did your best,” Ms. Therian cut in. “You know better than any of us how selkies are called by the sea. They spend long stretches in the most remote areas of the ocean. Sometimes when they return to land, generations have passed. But I have confidence that you will learn and master all the selkies’ powers in time.”
Fiona returned to the bench and stared straight ahead. Ms. Therian’s words had made her feel a little better—and a little curious, too. Who would teach her the selkie songs? An image of the copper-colored selkie flashed through Fiona’s mind. She couldn’t wait to see her again . . . but when?
“Now that the presentations are out of the way, I
have some news to share,” Ms. Therian continued.
From the tone of her voice, everyone could tell that Ms. Therian’s news was big. The mood in the room changed at once.
“The First Four have become aware of a potential new threat from Auden Ironbound,” she said. “There is a rare and precious artifact called Circe’s Compass. It is no mere navigational tool; rather, it can point the way to any Changer, anywhere in the world. I’m sure you can imagine why Auden Ironbound would desire to possess Circe’s Compass—at any cost.”
“But Auden Ironbound—wherever he is—has the Horn of Power,” Mack spoke up, clearly puzzled. “Once it’s repaired, he won’t need to know where the Changers are—he can summon and control them. The adults, anyway.”
“We’re not worried about adult Changers, Mack,” Ms. Therian said. “We’re worried about you.”