Circle of Lies
chapter 1 Ana
WE FILED OUT OF THE dorms and made our way to the auditorium for school assembly at eight thirty that morning, grumbling about having to get up so early. The sky was its usual shade of cloudless blue. All around us I could see the distant red mountains overlooking Temple Academy like stone guardians.
Nothing had changed—except that the day before, my whole world had fallen apart.
Thankfully, I had three friends who were doing their best to help me put it back together: Doli Hoskie, Lin Yang, and Shani Massri. When I’d first arrived at this school, I hadn’t been sure I’d ever fit in. Then I met them, and everything changed. We’re all so different from one another, but thanks to Ms. Benitez, we found out that we have one huge thing in common: We are the direct descendants of ancient shape-shifting warriors—Wildcats—who were destined to fight the forces of evil.
I know, that sounds crazy. If I hadn’t seen Doli turn into a puma, Lin become a tiger, and Shani transform into a lion—and if I hadn’t turned into a jaguar myself—I might not believe it. But after we battled the ancient Egyptian god Anubis and the Chaos Spirits he released, there was no denying the truth. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last night I’d gotten a superweird call from Aunt Teppy. I was starting to suspect that something terrible had happened to her and Uncle Mec, and all I wanted was my family back.
“Tell me one more time what your aunt said,” Doli whispered now, pulling us to the side of the entrance to the auditorium. She was looking at me with wide, serious brown eyes, and I realized that I must have looked totally shaken.
I took a deep breath. “She said that they had taken care of me for a decade and they were entitled to some alone time. That I should grow up and look after myself.” My voice broke. The words were so upsetting, so unlike my loving aunt, it was still hard to repeat them without crying.
“Harsh,” Shani said sympathetically, touching my shoulder. “And then she said that they were in Cancún and not to come looking for them?”
I nodded, feeling a lump forming in my throat. Aunt Teppy and Uncle Mec had always assured me that adopting me after my parents had died had been the best decision they’d ever made. Thinking—for even a moment—that I’d
been nothing but a burden to them broke my heart. My only hope was that someone, or something, had forced her to say it—though the thought of my family in danger scared me even more. “Anubis is behind this; I know it. Aunt Teppy was lying because she had to, or was made to,” I said, then added softly, “She had to be.”
Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife, was the head of the Brotherhood of Chaos. A collaboration between different ancient civilizations, the Brotherhood had one goal: to cause chaos, both in the ancient world and, now that Anubis was reviving the Brotherhood, in our world. Our role as Wildcats was to defeat him.
Unfortunately, he was a very powerful enemy.
Shani pulled out her phone and started typing and clicking. “Well,” she said after a moment, “maybe she was lying about the whole alone-time thing, but they really were on a flight to Cancún two days ago.” She held up her phone and showed me what looked like an airline passenger list. About a third of the way down were two very familiar names: Mecatl and Tepin Navarro.
I gasped and reached for the phone, as if just holding something with their names on it would bring them closer to me. “There they are!” I shouted. But too soon my excitement faded and gave way to a cold fear that seemed to coat my skin like frost. Yes, they had definitely been on the plane, but why? I didn’t care what my aunt had said on that call. I knew they
would never get on a flight without telling me. Which meant they hadn’t had a choice.
“How did you get that list?” Doli asked Shani.
“How do you think?” Shani said, giving her a sly look.
Doli groaned. “You hacked into the airline’s server?”
Shani looked around with wide eyes at the students and teachers still streaming into the auditorium. “Gosh, Doli. Say it a little louder, why don’t you?”
“Sorry. But, Shani, you know you can’t afford to get in trouble for hacking again. Were you careful?”
Shani lifted her arm and combed her hand through the patch of blue hair over her left eye. “Look, boss lady, I can either be careful or I can be fast. This time I chose fast, which I’m guessing Ana doesn’t have a problem with.”
“You’re right,” I said, hugging her. “Thank you for doing that. You’re a good friend.” Shani had been kicked out of some other schools—according to the rumor mill it was something like eight or nine—for hacking, among other minor cyber crimes. Principal Ferris had already warned her that if she made one more misstep, she’d be out of Temple Academy, too. It touched me that Shani, who always tried to play it cool when it came to emotional stuff, cared enough about me to take such a huge risk.
Shani hugged me back for a moment and then shook me off. “All right, all right. No need to get mushy. I want to help you find your aunt and uncle, but that’s not the only reason I’m
doing this. If their disappearance has anything to do with the Brotherhood of Chaos, then that affects all of us.”
Lin and Doli fell silent at the mere mention of the Brotherhood. I knew it was on their minds too.
“You’re right again,” I said. “Wow, twice in one day. You’re on a roll.”
Shani began to laugh, but when her eyes caught something behind me, her expression darkened. I turned around to see Coach Lawson approaching, staring down at the smartphone she was holding. Just as she was about to pass us, she glanced up and made eye contact with Shani.
“Miss Massri, how are you this morning?”
Shani stretched her lips into a tight smile. “I’m fantastic, Coach Lawson. And yourself?”
“Wonderful, actually,” she said. “My sister had a baby last night, and she just posted some pictures on Facebook. Would you like to see?”
Shani’s eyes lit up, and she clapped her hands together. “Would I?”
As Shani took the phone from Coach Lawson and cooed over the pictures of the new baby, Lin, Doli, and I exchanged puzzled looks. I didn’t need our Wildcat telepathic powers to know we were all thinking the same thing: What the heck is going on here? Shani wasn’t exactly the warm and fuzzy type who went all gooey over pictures of puppies and babies.
After a few minutes Shani handed the phone back to
Coach Lawson and said, “Congratulations. She’s adorable.”
Beaming, Coach Lawson took her phone back. “Thank you.” Then after a brief pause, she said, “You know, Miss Massri, I’m sorry you didn’t make the tennis team this time. But with a little practice—”
“Yeah, thanks,” Shani said, bobbing her head up and down. “You’re so right. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I hope so,” she answered. “The team could use someone with your . . . fire.” She turned to all of us. “You’d better get to your seats, ladies. The assembly will be starting soon.”
The second she turned to go inside, Lin swung her incredulous gaze to Shani and said, “What in the world—”
“Hold that thought,” Shani interrupted, pulling out her own cell phone and pressing a series of buttons. A few seconds later Coach Lawson cried out.
“Oh no! My phone just went black.”
“Weird,” Shani called. “Must be some sort of power surge. That’s been happening a lot lately, since the earthquake. Try turning it off and on again!”
“All right,” Coach mumbled, her brows furrowed in concern. “I’ll try that.” She walked away, shaking her phone as if attempting to wake it from a deep sleep.
When she had gone, Doli crossed her arms and raised one eyebrow at Shani.
“What?” Shani said, her smirk fading as she noticed Doli’s glare.
“You did something weird to her phone, didn’t you?”
“Who, me?” Shani pointed a finger at her chest, the picture of innocence. But we all knew her too well for that now. “All right, fine. Yes, but she deserved it.”
“Why?” I asked. “Because she wouldn’t let you on the tennis team? Since when do you even play tennis?”
“I don’t. I just figured it would be an easy PE credit. But she blew that for me, so now I have no choice but to take weight training with Coach Hyung, and I’m pretty sure he used to be some sort of drill sergeant in the marines. For that, Coach Lawson must pay.” She drummed the tips of her fingers against one another and let out an exaggerated supervillain laugh. “Mwah-ha-ha-haaa.”
“You know there’s another option, right?” Doli cut in, her voice sharp. “You could try to be mature and show a little good sportsmanship instead of killing the poor woman’s phone.”
“Yeah,” Lin added, raising an eyebrow. “Or just try out again next time, like the woman said.”
Shani scowled. “I could. But where’s the fun in that? Besides, I didn’t kill her phone. I simply installed a virus that’ll prevent her from using Facebook’s mobile app. Annoying, but not exactly techno-cide. Plus, she’s the one who committed an act of attempted murder first. She tried to bore me to death with pictures of that baby.” Shani closed her eyes, hung her head to the side, and let her tongue loll out of her mouth.
I bit back a laugh, earning me an annoyed look from Doli
that said, Don’t encourage her! But I couldn’t help it. Even when Shani was being downright wicked, she still cracked me up. Meanwhile, Lin, who had suffered the consequences of Shani’s phone hacking in the not-too-distant past, just shrugged and said, “Better her than me.”
Finally, we followed the last of the students into the auditorium. Doli hung back with me and whispered, “Let’s talk about your aunt and uncle after classes. We’re going to find them, okay?”
She squeezed my hand, and I nodded gratefully, trying my best to ignore the worry gnawing at my insides. I knew my friends would do everything in their power—including use their magic—to help me find my family. But for now we had to get through the school day and pretend that we were just normal kids, without a care in the world.
As soon as we settled into our seats, I groaned. My former roommate, Nicole Van Voorhies, was sitting a few rows away, and I could tell that the Wildcats weren’t the only ones trying to act normal. Nicole sat at the center of a fawning group of girls. She was twisting a strand of her golden blond hair around her finger and laughing at something Tammy Winston had said. But her eyes were empty, and the rehearsed way she tilted her head back and pumped her shoulders told me that her laugh was just for show. Now that I knew Nicole was actually half-demon, the sound sent chills along my spine.
“Looks like she’s recovered nicely from our run-in the other night,” Lin said, following my gaze.
“Probably because she was too much of a coward to face us in the temple,” I replied.
I shivered again. Everyone had thought that the temple on the far side of the campus that had been revealed after the earthquake was a Native American structure, a relic of the anicent pueblo peoples. But when we’d gotten inside a few nights ago, we’d realized it actually served as the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Chaos. It had become the site of our first battle when a Chaos Spirit in the form of a giant bat had attacked us and brought to life the nightmarish paintings on the temple walls.
If it hadn’t been for all of us working together in our Wildcat guises to trap the bat under the heavy statue of Anubis, we wouldn’t have made it out of the temple alive.
Outside the temple we’d caught Nicole skulking around, spying for Anubis. It turned out Nicole wasn’t quite human. Whereas we were girls who could turn into Wildcats, Nicole was more hyena than girl.
“I can’t even believe she’s here,” I whispered to Lin. “Shouldn’t she be off somewhere with Anubis, wreaking havoc?”
Lin narrowed her eyes at Nicole and said, “She probably wants to lie low for a while after the way we totally ran her boss out of town. I doubt she’s brave enough to do anything on her own.”
That much was true. Nicole had never attacked me when we’d been alone together. Not physically, anyway. But the thing about hyenas was that they hunted in packs. Or so The Lion King had taught me. “Do you think she was serious when she said there were more like her at the school?”
But Lin just shrugged it off. “So what if there are?” she said. “Even in the wild, hyenas would be no match for a lion, a tiger, a puma, and a jaguar. If they’re smart, they’ll keep their distance.”
She had a point, but the thought of a half-demon hyena posse sitting all around us still gave me the creeps. And besides, no one had ever accused Nicole of being smart.
“Good morning, students and faculty,” Principal Ferris said, stepping up to the podium onstage.
Everyone quieted down and muttered a sluggish “Good morning” back. Usually she would say something like, You can do better than that and make us say it again. But today she looked distracted. “I’m afraid I have some rather upsetting news to share. It seems that over the weekend there was some sort of . . . event at the temple.”
Shani and I looked at each other. “About time,” she whispered. The battle in the temple had taken place days ago, and we’d been expecting an announcement like this ever since.
“We are not yet sure if it was an act of vandalism or the result of minor aftershocks, but several of the priceless artifacts that were excavated have been damaged. In addition . . .” Here
Principal Ferris’s voice trailed off as she paused and took out a piece of paper from her pocket. She looked at it and shook her head sadly as if the paper itself had broken her heart. “Dr. Logan has written a letter informing me that he’s left Temple Academy to pursue a project in Zimbabwe. He . . . he won’t be returning.”
At this last bit of news, the room began to buzz with conversation. Jessica, who had a not-so-secret crush on Dr. Logan, cried out, “No!” Of course, I doubted she would have been quite as upset if she’d seen Dr. Logan in his true half-man, half-jackal form, his perfect white teeth and neat hair replaced by jagged fangs and matted fur. “Dr. Logan” was just the human form Anubis had taken to get onto school grounds.
Principal Ferris folded the note and slipped it back into her pocket. “As a result of these developments, the temple itself has been sealed, and the historical foundation has halted any further exploration for the time being. This means that the plans to relocate Temple Academy have also been canceled.”
This time everyone cheered and applauded. No one had wanted the school to move—not the teachers and not the students—so this was great news for them. As for Lin, Doli, Shani, and me, we cheered because we had succeeded in ruining Anubis’s plan to take over the campus and use the temple for his own sinister purposes. In fact, the only person who didn’t
seem thrilled by the news was Principal Ferris.
Shani leaned over and whispered, “By my count, that makes Hunters of Chaos two; Anubis a big fat zero.”
Principal Ferris moved on to less exciting announcements, and then the choir got up to sing the national anthem. Finally the assembly came to a close. Doli stood and said, “Let’s hurry. We have to squeeze in our appointment with Ms. Benitez before class.”
I rose to follow her, but then I saw Jason Ferris standing near the back of the auditorium. “Ferris” as in Principal Ferris’s son. What was he doing here? “Uh, I’ll meet you outside,” I said. “I’ll just be a sec.”
Doli followed my gaze to Jason and snickered. “Fine.”
Shani shrugged, and my friends disappeared into the cluster of students leaving the auditorium. Only when I saw them exit the room did I sidle up next to Jason and say, “Hey.”
Jason turned to face me, and for a second I forgot how to breathe. Sure, those incredible blue-green eyes and that dirty-blond hair streaked with gold made him seriously cute. But now I also knew how brave, kind, and selfless he was. He’d risked his life in the temple to help us defeat the bat Chaos Spirit. As far as I was concerned, Harry Styles had nothing on Jason Ferris.
“H-hey, Ana,” he stammered, giving me an awkward hug.
“Were you waiting for me?” I asked when I pulled away.
“Well, yeah. I, um . . .” He bowed his head, then scratched the back of it, peeking up at me so only a hint of blue showed
beneath his long eyelashes. “I just wanted to ask you, you know, how you are.”
“Oh, uh, I’m okay, I guess.” I twisted my fingers together behind my back, urging myself to be cool. “How are you?”
“Good. Good,” he said. “How are you?”
I giggled and bit my lip. “You already asked me that.”
“I did?” he said, his eyes widening. He stared down at his sneakers. “Oh yeah, I guess I did.” He winced and smacked his forehead, whispering, “Stupid, stupid, stupid” to himself.
I laughed and grabbed his hand. “Hey, that’s my friend you’re hitting,” I said.
He let out a shuddering sigh, looking at our joined hands and then up at me with a half smile. “Sorry I’m being such a dork. It’s just—it’s really good to see you.”
I nodded, feeling my stomach tingle. “It’s good to see you, too. It’s nice to have something to think about besides my aunt and uncle.”
Jason’s eyes darkened with concern, and he moved closer to me. Doli had called him the night before to let him know about the phone call. “Has there been any news since last night?”
I shook my head. “We’re working on it. We’re actually on our way to see Ms. Benitez now, if you want to come with us.”
“I would,” he said, “but I should really go check on my mom.”
We both glanced toward the stage and saw Principal Ferris just standing there with a faraway look in her eye.
“She seems kind of down,” I noted. “Is everything all right?”
Jason sighed and shook his head. “Believe it or not, I think she’s just missing that creep Dr. Logan. She carries that note around with her all the time. I’ve caught her taking it out to read every once in a while, like she’s hoping this time it’ll say something different. I wish I could tell her he was actually a force of ancient evil so she would get over him, but she still thinks he was a stand-up guy. How messed up is that?”
“Pretty messed up,” I agreed, “but it’s not her fault. He had weird power over some people. But now that he’s gone, maybe she’ll get over him.”
“I hope so,” Jason said. “I really want her to be as happy as I am.” He squeezed my hand and gave me a shy smile before walking away. How could I feel so good about Jason, I wondered, and so bad about everything else at the same time?
Outside, Shani, Lin, and Doli were waiting for me.
“Sooo . . . how’s Jason?” Doli asked with a knowing smile.
I felt my face warm. No use trying to deny it. “He’s fine.”
“Then why do you look so confused?” Lin asked.
“Because boys are confusing,” Shani answered for me. “And relationships are already hard enough without your crush knowing that you’re an evil-fighting wildcat who occasionally turns into a jaguar.”
We all burst into laughter. It was funny because it was true.
In the morning light cascading through her office window, Ms. Benitez looked a little faded, like a beloved T-shirt that
had been washed one too many times. She had been out of the hospital for a few days now and had nearly recovered from Anubis’s attack. But she was clearly still weak. In her current state no one would ever suspect that she was really Ixchel, a Mayan goddess of war who’d been battling Anubis for centuries. The plain-looking history teacher with the dark brown eyes and hair, and eyeglasses hanging from a chain around her neck, was just a disguise she wore while she secretly helped to keep legendary evils at bay. In her real form, Ixchel was not someone you wanted to tangle with.
Thankfully, she was on our side.
“Girls!” she said when we walked in. She lifted her thin arms. “Wonderful to see you.”
I noticed that she remained in her chair behind the desk instead of standing to greet us.
“Good to see you, too,” Doli replied, leaning against the wall. “How are you feeling? Will you be back in class soon?”
“I hope so, but I’d like to be at my full strength. Principal Ferris is generously allowing me to ease my way back in. I’ve told her that my weakness is a result of pain medications my doctor prescribed. She’s been very understanding.” She paused, taking time to look at each of us carefully. “But I’m much more concerned about all of you. Are you all right?”
“No,” I said immediately. I took a seat across from her desk. “No, I’m not.” Maybe because I’d tried so hard to shove my feelings down all morning, or maybe because Ms. Benitez
was looking at me in the same caring way that Aunt Teppy usually did, I started to cry.
Doli filled Ms. Benitez in about the awful phone call with my aunt, while Lin found a handful of tissues for me.
“All we know for sure,” Shani added, “is that they flew to Cancún two days ago.”
“Please don’t ask us how we know that,” said Doli, shooting Shani a look.
Ms. Benitez’s color grew even paler. She rose from her seat behind the desk, walked over to her window, and grasped the sill for support. “Ana, I can’t deny—I’m troubled by this. Since your aunt and uncle donated the original vase that imprisoned the Chaos Spirits, I have to wonder if they know about the Brotherhood of Chaos.”
I shook my head, dabbing the tears away from my cheek. Once I’d gotten to Temple, I’d found out that my aunt and uncle had donated a very valuable Mayan vase decorated with stylized cat figures. It was through the destruction of the vase that we’d gotten our powers. “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I didn’t even know they owned that vase until you told us. Of course, they also didn’t tell me until I enrolled that my parents had met here, so it’s possible they have other secrets.”
Ms. Benitez nodded and made a humming sound deep in her throat. “I must tell you that Cancún is a place the Brotherhood would be drawn to.”
“You mean . . . my aunt and uncle might have been brought there for a reason?” I asked. “Something involving Anubis?”
“It’s possible. If they were forced to go there, Anubis may be using them as bait to lure you to a place where the magical scales could be tipped in his favor.”
“Really? Cancún? I thought that town was just full of sweaty beaches and college kids,” Lin said.
“Yes.” Ms. Benitez nodded patiently. “Beaches, college kids, and ancient ruins of temples that house enormous sources of magical power.”
Oh, Lin mouthed silently.
Ms. Benitez turned to me. She seemed to be struggling to choose the right words. “Whether your aunt and uncle went to Cancún by choice or by force,” she said, “they could be in real danger.”
I felt a swift rush of fear whip through me, making my palms sweat and my breath come short. If even Ms. Benitez thought my aunt and uncle were in trouble, then it wasn’t all in my head. If anything happened to them . . . No, I couldn’t think about that. I had to focus on helping them, but how? “What do I do?” I cried desperately.
She stood in front of my chair, and I watched as her eyes took on that mystical plum color that belonged to Ixchel. “You do nothing,” she said. “I will go to Cancún. I have contacts there who can help me find them.”
I breathed out a sigh of relief, feeling some of the tension in my shoulders ease. “When can you go? I know this is a lot to ask, but I’m so worried, and with everything that’s going on, I just—”
Ixchel placed her hand over mine, and I felt a soft pulse of soothing energy flow into me, like a cup of warm tea. “I will go tonight,” she said. “I’m sure Shani can assist me in booking a ticket.”
Shani pulled her phone out of her pocket and started tapping away. “Consider it done.”