The Power Within
Chapter 1 A New Mission
In a small house across town, Mack Kimura sat across from his grandfather, Jiichan, for breakfast. As usual, Jiichan had prepared a simple Japanese breakfast for them: fluffy steamed rice, scrambled eggs, and a perfectly ripe banana—not to mention two fragrant cups of steaming green tea. But today, there was a big difference. Mack was surprised to also discover a bowl of cornflakes at his place.
“What’s this?” he asked. “No anchovies? No porridge? No miso soup?”
Jiichan pretended not to hear him as he lifted a silvery anchovy to his mouth. Mack tried to hide his smile
but couldn’t quite manage it. For months, Mack and Jiichan had disagreed on just about everything—from what constituted appropriate breakfast foods to Mack’s name. Jiichan had insisted on calling him Makoto, while Mack preferred his more American-sounding nickname. Sometimes, it seemed like they couldn’t agree on anything.
Then, on the first day of school, things had changed forever.
That’s when Mack had learned a shocking truth about himself: he wasn’t just an average, ordinary kid like he’d always thought. Instead, Mack was a Changer. As a kitsune, he had the rare ability to turn himself into a magical fox with a ton of otherworldly powers.
And Mack wasn’t alone. A few other kids at Willow Cove Middle School—Gabriella Rivera, Fiona Murphy, and Darren Smith—were Changers too, though each one was a different kind of shape-shifter. In a special class at the end of each school day, they honed their skills and learned how to control their powers—something that was easier said than done. Their teacher, Ms. Dorina Therian, was a werewolf Changer. She was also one of the First
Four, an incredibly powerful group of Changers who have led Changer-kind for more than a thousand years. To Mack’s complete amazement, he had discovered that his own grandfather was one of the First Four too. A kitsune, like Mack.
At first, Mack thought that Jiichan would be able to tell him exactly how to use his kitsune powers. But Jiichan refused, even though Mack was struggling terribly. He knew that Mack needed to figure it out for himself. But when an evil warlock, Auden Ironbound, attacked Willow Cove by using the Horn of Power to control all the adult Changers, it was up to Mack and his friends to stop him. Using their unique powers, Mack, Gabriella, Darren, and Fiona had dealt Auden a serious setback and nearly destroyed the Horn of Power, too, in their first-ever battle. Best of all, Mack and Jiichan had started to understand each other a little better—which made life easier for both of them.
“So, I guess I’ll be seeing you in Changers class later,” Mack said. “Ms. Therian said that the First Four are coming to class today.”
A somber expression settled over Jiichan’s wrinkled
face. “Yes,” he said. “Makoto, what I am about to say is very important.”
Mack shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He could guess what was coming next: a lecture. A few weeks ago, Mack and his friends had directly disobeyed the First Four by going on a secret mission to retrieve a powerful, magical relic, Circe’s Compass, from the bottom of the ocean—and the First Four were not happy about it. Even though the mission had been, for the most part, a success, there had been even more danger involved when some of Auden Ironbound’s followers had attacked Mack and his friends. Luckily, they were able to protect Circe’s Compass, but the First Four didn’t like being disobeyed.
“You are old enough to understand that trust, once broken, is hard to mend,” Jiichan continued. “Though Yara and I believed you capable in retrieving Circe’s Compass, Ms. Therian and Sefu were very concerned with how you went off on your own. You broke their trust, but the First Four have collectively deemed it appropriate to assign you another mission.”
Mack sat up straighter. That was not what he expected Jiichan to say. “But I thought—” he began.
Jiichan held up his hand to quiet Mack; he wasn’t done yet. “It is no secret that the First Four are not entirely unified about the best approach to your training,” he said. “Yara and I are quite convinced of your abilities. But Sefu . . .”
“Isn’t,” Mack finished for him.
“That’s not what I was going to say,” Jiichan replied. “You must learn patience, Makoto. It is as important as anything else I could hope to teach you.”
“Sorry,” Mack apologized.
“Sefu is worried about the four of you. He fears that your confidence will obscure your judgment. We are well aware that you—all of you—are brave beyond measure,” the old man said. “It is only a matter of time before your learned skills match your inherent abilities. What Sefu worries about is the time in between—when you are yet inexperienced in the ways of Changer life; when you are more vulnerable to the dark forces at play in our world.”
Mack opened his mouth to argue—he would never be vulnerable to Auden Ironbound or his goons; Mack was sure of it—but he caught himself just in time.
“There is no shame in knowing your limits and trusting your allies,” Jiichan continued. “It is a sign of strength to ask for help. Even to refuse a mission if it is beyond your capabilities. Do you understand what I am trying to say?”
“Um . . . I think so,” Mack said, choosing his words carefully. The truth was, Jiichan’s words were almost incomprehensible to him. Say no to a mission? Not in this lifetime, Mack thought. He couldn’t imagine anything that would stop him from battling Auden Ironbound whenever he had the chance.
From the way his grandfather looked at him, Mack suspected that Jiichan already knew that.
“Know your strengths and your limits, and never be afraid to call on an ally when in need,” Jiichan said with such a piercing look in his eyes that Mack had to look away.
Luckily for Mack, he heard the rumble of the school bus just then. He shoveled two bites of cornflakes into his mouth as he stood up abruptly. “Gotta go,” he said, still not meeting Jiichan’s eye. “I’ll see you this afternoon, Jiichan.”
“Yes,” Jiichan said evenly. “Have a good day, Makoto.”
When Mack climbed onto the school bus a couple minutes later, his best friend, Joel Hastings, had saved him a seat, like always.
“Did you finish it?” Joel asked impatiently before Mack even had a chance to sit down. “Did you?”
That was all Joel had to say for Mack to know what he was talking about: the latest issue of their favorite comic, Agent Underworld, which had gone on sale just twenty-four hours before.
“Of course I did,” Mack replied.
Joel clutched his chest and flopped back against the seat. “Killer, right?” he groaned. “I can’t believe they’re going to leave us in suspense like that!”
“I can,” Mack said with a laugh. “You never know if Agent Underworld is going to survive at the end of each issue. That’s how the whole series is written. But trust me, he’s going to be just fine. I mean, the series is named after him! They’re not exactly going to kill him off.”
“You don’t know that,” Joel protested. “What if they do kill him off and somebody new becomes Agent Underworld in his place? It won’t be the same!”
“That’s why they won’t kill him off . . . not for real, anyway,” Mack pointed out. Still, he had to wonder what Agent Underworld—or any other superhero—would do if he or she ever did meet his or her match. Jiichan’s words were still in his mind as he turned to Joel and asked, “What do you think would happen if Agent Underworld didn’t have what it takes to battle Captain Corpse?”
Joel blinked. “But you just said—”
“I know, I mean hypothetically,” Mack cut him off. “Superhero stories are all pretty much the same at their core, right?”
“Actually—” Joel began.
“Hear me out,” Mack continued in a rush. “These stories—they’re almost always about a hero who pushes himself or herself to the absolute limit and ends up saving the day. But what would happen if a superhero’s best wasn’t, you know, good enough?”
Joel nodded knowingly. “That’s when superhero teams come in,” he said.
“You think?” asked Mack.
“Definitely,” Joel replied. “Crossovers, superspecials,
that kind of thing. When one hero can’t beat an enemy, his friends will always pitch in to help.”
“Strength in numbers?” said Mack.
“Exactly,” Joel said. “That actually reminds me of how everything went down in Extreme Marauders. . . .”
Joel was still chattering nonstop about Extreme Marauders as the bus pulled up to Willow Cove Middle School. When he noticed Fiona Murphy waiting at Mack’s locker, though, Joel gave Mack a nudge. “Nice,” he said with a goofy grin on his face.
“Are you serious?” Mack said, shoulder-checking Joel. “Fiona is just my friend, idiot.”
“Sure,” Joel replied, still grinning. “If you say so.” Then he punched Mack in the arm and headed off toward his own locker.
“Hey,” Mack said as he approached Fiona.
“Happy Monday,” she replied, shifting the heavy stack of books in her arms. Fiona wasn’t one to be seen without a few books in hand, but Mack knew why she was lugging them around instead of carrying them in her backpack. Fiona’s backpack was where she kept her most precious possession: her selkie cloak. Without her cloak, Fiona
would lose the ability to transform into a seal. Someone had hidden the cloak from Fiona long ago, when she was just a little baby; after she had found it a few months ago, she vowed to never be separated from it again. Since then, Fiona had been extra gentle with her cloak—she didn’t like to cram too many things into her backpack with it.
Thinking about Fiona’s selkie cloak reminded Mack of something he’d been meaning to ask her. With a quick glance around to make sure no one was close enough to hear their conversation, Mack leaned over to Fiona. “I’ve been wondering—did the First Four find any selkies for you to talk to?”
Fiona sighed. “No, not yet,” she replied. “I know they’re working on it. The problem is that selkies disappear way out to sea for months—even years—at a time. That makes them almost impossible to contact.”
Mack let out a low whistle. “So what does that mean for you?” he asked, blunt as always. “You just have to, like, wait? Even though you can’t learn any selkie songs or powers without them?”
A wry smile crossed Fiona’s lips. “Trust me, I’m not just waiting around,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Mack asked, a little too eagerly—and a little too loudly.
“I have some leads I’m investigating on my own,” she began.
But before Fiona could say more, someone down the hall caught her eye. “Look—it’s Darren,” she said. She waved her hand awkwardly from beneath her stack of books and called out, “Darren! Hey!”
Darren, though, stared straight ahead as he shuffled down the hall. It was like he couldn’t even hear her.
“That’s weird,” Mack said, scrunching his face into a frown. Darren was nearly about to pass them when Mack reached out and grabbed his arm, jolting Darren out of his thoughts. At the same time, the lights flickered ominously overhead. The usual morning chatter that filled the halls of Willow Cove Middle School went silent as everyone stared upward.
Then, as if nothing had happened, the lights went on again, and the students continued getting ready for homeroom.
“Dude,” Mack said in a hushed whisper to Darren, “was that you?”
“Oh—that?” Darren asked, squinting at the lights. “I don’t know. Probably. My powers have been acting up a little, but it’s no big deal.”
“Are you sure?” Mack replied. “I mean, you’re making power surges happen just by walking down the hall.”
Darren glanced again at the fluorescent lights, which were buzzing steadily once more. “They’re fine now,” he said, a hint of defensiveness in his voice. “Maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe it’s just that this dumb school is old and broken.”
Fiona and Mack exchanged a glance. That wasn’t like Darren, who was one of the most popular kids in school and known for his calm, cool demeanor. But before either could speak, Darren shifted his backpack from one arm to the other. “I’ve gotta go,” he muttered, looking embarrassed. “I don’t want to be late for homeroom.”
“Of course,” Fiona said, stepping aside quickly. Darren’s homeroom teacher was superstrict and loved to start the day by giving out a detention or two.
“I’ll see you guys later,” Darren said. Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd of kids making their way down the hall.
“Well, that was weird,” Mack said as soon as Darren was out of earshot.
“Something must be bothering him,” Fiona agreed.
“But what?” asked Mack. “Our last Changers mission was a success. We didn’t even get in trouble. Well—not that much trouble, anyway. And it seems like he’s having a great football season. The team won their last two games.”
“I don’t know,” Fiona said. “But I hope he tells us soon.”