Gabriella must master a mysterious new ability to save her friend in the sixth action-packed novel of The Hidden World of Changers series!
Fiona, Mack, Gabriella, and Darren are Changers, a magical line of shapeshifters that can transform into mythological creatures, from werewolves and selkies to lightning birds and spirit foxes.
The Changers are reeling from the attack at Wyndemere Academy. Their new enemy, Sakura Hiyamoto, is a kitsune with a unique memory-eating ability, and she’s after Mack. Mack doesn’t remember much about fighting Sakura at Wyndemere, a fact which worries the First Four deeply—Sakura may have altered Mack’s memories without him knowing—or worse, he could secretly be under her control.
With nowhere else to turn, the First Four ask Gabriella for help: As a nahual Changer, Gabriella can spirit walk into Mack’s mind. But spirit walking is dangerous, and a power typically reserved for advanced Changers. To master her ability, Gabriella will need training and discipline. One false move, and her spirit could wander forever. Can she take control of this mysterious new power and save Mack?
Chapter 1 The Third Tail Mack spun around to look at his new tail. I—I don’t remember earning it, Mack thought. He looked to his grandfather for an explanation. Jiichan?
The memory of when Mack had earned his second tail came flooding back to him: It was right after his battle with the evil warlock, Auden Ironbound. He’d saved his grandfather and his friends. He was sure he’d never forget that burst of self-confidence and pride. But Mack didn’t feel proud now. All he felt was panic.
His grandfather and the rest of the First Four exchanged glances. “Transform back, Makoto, and we’ll talk,” his grandfather said.
When he did, the First Four visibly relaxed from their previous ready-for-battle positions. Ms. Therian motioned for Darren to release the force field.
A sudden angry thought burst into Mack’s mind. Was that force field because they were afraid they’d have to fight me? He stayed in the middle of the circle, waiting for someone to say something, his temper flaring again. Why isn’t anyone talking?
Fiona stepped forward and finally broke the silence. “Isn’t this a good thing?” she asked. “Mack must have done something heroic to earn another tail, right? And maybe Sakura ate that memory, which explains why he doesn’t remember.”
Mack felt a little better hearing Fiona’s words, but his grandfather’s eyes still held that worried expression.
“It must have been something really powerful,” Fiona said more forcefully. “Powerful enough that Sakura had to destroy the memory so Mack wouldn’t remember how to do it again.”
Mack wanted more than anything to believe her, but then he saw Jiichan catch Ms. Therian’s eye.
Mack’s panic turned to irritation. They’re having a telepathic conversation about me, he thought. Jiichan promised to stop keeping so many secrets, and now here’s another one. No wonder Sakura—
Mack shook his head to stop the thought. Jiichan kept telling him not to think too much about her. She might have planted ugly, false beliefs in his mind.
Before anyone else noticed what was going on between his grandfather and his teacher, Yara told everyone to take a seat. They all headed over to the bench.
“Before we left for Wyndemere Academy, we told you of the prophecy that the four of you are destined to become the next leaders of the Changer nation. When we, the current First Four, step down, you’ll step up to take on our mantle,” Yara said.
“That’s a long way off, though, right?” Fiona asked. “Changers live for a thousand years or more.”
Yara smiled, her face a wreath of wrinkles. “Yes, a way off, but there will come a time when our leadership will end. You need to be ready when that time comes.”
“We hoped to wait until you were fully trained, until after you had a chance to go to Wyndemere Academy for high school to begin this process. Given recent events, however, we want you to be more fully aware,” Ms. Therian said. “That’s why we promised to keep you informed and involved in Changer affairs. No more secrets.”
Mack snorted to himself. You and Jiichan were just telling secrets—about me!
Ms. Therian continued. “With Sakura back, we’re going to have to make some preparations—”
“You mean prepare for war,” Mack cut in.
There was an awkward pause.
“Prepare for war,” Sefu repeated with a nod. “Sakura’s forces have made themselves known. There were skirmishes over the weekend. We have enchantments to keep them at bay, for now, but they’re already nipping at our heels. The special attention we’ve given the four of you might have tipped them off to the prophecy. That makes you high-value targets.”
“And we already know that Sakura wants to use Mack to hurt his grandfather,” Ms. Therian added. “The four of you must be on guard, ready to fight at all times.”
“Are her forces under some sort of mind control like Auden Ironbound’s were? Did she eat their memories to turn them against us?” Fiona asked.
There was silence for a moment while the First Four pondered how to answer Fiona’s question.
Mack remembered battling—and defeating—Auden Ironbound on the beach in Willow Cove. At least Sakura hadn’t stolen that memory. The evil warlock had used the Horn of Power to force Changers to follow him. Adult Changers were unable to resist his call and were poised to help him take over the world. But the horn didn’t affect younglings. With the help of his Changer friends, Mack had won their first battle against Auden and saved the First Four.
Did Jiichan and Ms. Therian remember that when they were having their secret conversation? he wondered. That I saved them from Auden?
“That’s a very good question, Fiona,” Sefu said. “But that’s not the case. Sakura has to exert a tremendous amount of power for memory eating. It can leave her feeling weak and vulnerable afterward. That may be why you were able to drive her away from Mack with the Queen’s Song, just like you were able to defeat Auden.”
Wow, Fiona gets the credit? Mack thought. Fiona was the one who ultimately defeated Auden and destroyed the horn, but Mack thought his battle with the warlock had been much more difficult than Fiona’s. And Sefu didn’t even bother to mention it.
Mack shook his head again. What’s wrong with me? This isn’t a competition. Fiona is my friend.
“What about absorbing other Changers’ powers?” Darren asked. “I mean, couldn’t she just take all her followers’ powers and become really strong?”
“True, but the best strength is in numbers,” Sefu continued. “She would need an army to take out all of our forces and overturn the world order. She needs people around her who have their powers intact.”
“So the people who have joined her have done so because they want to?” Darren asked.
Sefu nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“But why would anyone turn against the Changer nation?” Gabriella asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Mack felt the wisp of a memory tickling the back of his mind. At the sound of Mack taking a deep breath, everyone turned to him.
“I feel like—like I remember something Sakura said. It was about being free,” he added. “Like how the selkies split—”
Mr. Kimura cut Mack off before he could finish. “It’s best that you don’t try to remember your encounter with Sakura. Your memories might be corrupted, replaced with what Sakura wants you to remember.”
Mack pressed his lips together to keep angry words from escaping. I was only trying to help, he thought.
Sefu smiled at Mack reassuringly before continuing. “The Changer nation provides Changers with support in navigating their daily lives, keeping our powers secret, and building families and communities. But we also have a more central goal of protecting nonmagical people. That’s something the Changers have been doing since the dawn of time.”
“Sakura doesn’t share that sense of purpose,” Ms. Therian added. “She’d rather see nonmagical beings turned into slaves or eliminated completely.”
“So her followers want the same thing?” Gabriella asked.
“Some do,” Ms. Therian answered. “Others have different reasons. There are Changers who dislike having to go on periodic missions as part of their service to the nation. Still more don’t like the way we track the whereabouts of all magical beings, or they believe the First Four are too powerful. We try hard not to overstep our boundaries, but sometimes we have to put these precautions in place to ensure the future of all people, magical or not.”
“Without the power the First Four hold, ordinary humans would be at much greater risk from magical threats,” Yara added. “Without regular service from Changers, magical relics could fall into evil hands, and without the ability to track Changers and other magical beings, it would be easier to commit magical crimes.”
“That all makes sense,” Darren said, “if you only use your power to do good.”
“I agree,” Yara said. “I think this power is necessary, but others don’t feel the same. When the four of you become the next First Four, you will have to tackle these same issues.”
Mack’s grandfather had been quiet, but now he passed out folders with information to each of them.
“To battle Sakura and her army, we need to retrieve certain enchanted objects that protect against mind control. Without them, you’ll be vulnerable to Sakura’s powers; it’s very important that you take the necessary steps to defend yourselves.”
Are you kidding? Mack thought. There was an enchanted object that might have protected me from Sakura, and you’re only telling me this now?
“Why don’t we already have them?” Mack asked out loud. He tried to keep the sarcastic edge out of his voice, but it colored his tone, anyway. “Since we’re targets?”
“Many of these objects are hidden away,” his grandfather answered. “Deeply hidden. Our mission is to find them.”
He turned to Gabriella. “I want you to have the Ring of Tezcatlipoca,” he said, handing it to her.
Mack remembered that Gabriella had used the ring to help fight Auden Ironbound’s followers during their final battle. It only worked for those from an Aztec bloodline, like Gabriella.
Gabriella slipped the ring onto her finger. There was a soft crackling sound, and the air around her seemed to shimmer for a moment, as though she was surrounded by some invisible force field. The ring was made of pure gold and obsidian with an elaborate carving of a man’s face on the front, and beautiful designs along the band. A horizontal streak of black ran across the center of the man’s face. More importantly, the ancient artifact gave its wearer the spiritual strength to resist mind control magic.
“Keep it on at all times, Gabriella,” Mr. Kimura added. “I’ve cast a cloaking spell on it, so no one should notice you’re wearing it. Whatever you do, do not lose the ring.”
Gabriella twisted the golden ring nervously. “I’ll be careful,” she said.
“And, Fiona,” Mr. Kimura said, “the knowledge of the Queen’s Song is also a protection. The two of you won’t fall prey to Sakura’s memory eating.”
Mack and Darren exchanged uneasy glances. I guess we’re out of luck, Mack thought.
It was as if his grandfather heard him. “Over the next weeks we’ll be searching for enchanted objects—some of them hidden away for centuries—that will protect Mack and Darren. It’s urgent that we find them before Sakura does.”
“Saturday night is our first mission. We’ll be traveling to Japan the same way we went to Wyndemere—with a tengu Changer,” Ms. Therian said as the bell rang. “Read over the mission brief tonight and bring your questions to class tomorrow.”
Japan! Mack felt hopeful for the first time since he got back from Wyndemere Academy. He had never been there, but it was his grandfather and his parents’ birthplace. For a long time, Mack had tried to push away his Japanese heritage and the traditions that his grandfather cherished.
But ever since Mack had learned that he was a kitsune, a Changer so rooted in Japanese folklore, he’d felt a longing to go there that he hadn’t yet put into words. Things between his grandfather and himself had been a bit off since he first saw Sakura after the battle with Auden, and the tension was only getting worse. There was a part of Mack that wanted to lean on his grandfather after what had happened, and another part that wanted to push everyone away and be alone. In the last few days, Mack had felt at war with himself.
Maybe I’ll find the protection I need in Japan, Mack thought. Willow Cove doesn’t feel safe anymore.
H.K. Varian has always loved reading about ancient mythology, ruins, and magic. Though H.K. once dreamed of having awesome powers like in Changers, writing became kind of like magic in and of itself. Today H.K. lives, writes, and has adventures in Pittsburgh, though most of them don’t involve battling warlocks, storming castles, or retrieving enchanted objects.