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Authors: Crystal Velasquez

Hunters of Chaos

BOOK: Hunters of Chaos
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PROLOGUE

My muscles burn as the thick green jungle vines speed by in a blur. But I also feel strong and fluid, like liquid metal, or water coursing down a riverbed. I can run all night, and I have to. The thing I'm chasing—if I don't stop it, death will follow. I feel this in my gut. If I slow down, this creature of darkness will get away.

Though the canopy of dense leaves blocks out the night sky, I don't need moonlight to see. All my senses are on high alert as I bound over fallen trees and rocks. I inhale deeply, smelling everything around me—each wet leaf, every animal that has ever crossed this path. But the musty scent of fresh blood and decay rises above all. The scent of evil.

It's just ahead, so close I can almost taste it.

I cut through some underbrush, the branches scratching at my neck, and come to a clearing beside a rushing river. Without hesitation, I leap across in one smooth motion.

Only when I land gracefully on the other side do I stop to glance back. The river is at least fifteen feet wide. How did I make it across so easily? How? Something is definitely wrong.

I know my prey is speeding away into the dark, its scent fading fast. I should keep running. But I also need to see myself, to look into my own eyes and know that I'm still me. I inch toward the water, leaning forward, stretching my neck. My face is just about to come into view when
—

chapter 1

I
WOKE WITH A START.

The front doorbell was ringing. The sound must have pulled me out of my dream, which had been about . . . well, I couldn't quite remember. But my legs felt sore, as if I'd been running a marathon in my sleep, and for a moment my room looked strange. For some reason, I'd been expecting plants and mud instead of lavender walls and thick gray carpet. My desk near the window was still covered in schoolbooks and glittery pens. The door to my closet hung halfway open, the insides as messy as ever. My aunt had been begging me for days to straighten it up, but I knew she would cut me some slack. Though my parents had died when I was barely old enough to remember them, Aunt Teppy never stopped trying to make it up to me. My aunt and uncle, Tepin and Mec Navarro, never had kids of their own, but they were better parents than most of the people in our little corner of suburbia. Without them, I'd be in some awful orphanage or bouncing from one foster home to the next. Instead I lived in a two-story house on a quiet block in Cleveland. I had my own room, all the books and music I could want, and two people who loved me. I always heard adults say that kids don't know how to appreciate what they have. Not me: I was lucky and I knew it.

A soft knock sounded at my door. “Come in,” I called.

Aunt Teppy peeked her head in and smiled. “Up and at 'em,” she said. “Breakfast is ready. I made your favorite, but your uncle said to tell you if you're not downstairs by ten fifteen, your pancakes are fair game.”

I looked over at the digital clock next to my bed: 10:12 a.m.

“You tell him I said hands off!” I cried, throwing my covers back and swinging my feet to the floor.

“All right,” she answered, shrugging. “But he looks pretty hungry. . . .” She tsked as if my short stack was already history. Then she retreated into the hallway, closing my door with a grin.

I knew this game was just a ploy they used to keep me from sleeping till noon all summer, but it worked every time. I shot out of bed and pulled on some sweats and slippers. After I ran to the bathroom and brushed my teeth, I sped down the stairs, the smell of warm syrup urging me on. I skidded to a stop in the hallway right in front of my uncle, who had been looking down at his watch and counting the seconds. “Ten fourteen. You made it.” He cocked one eyebrow. “This time.”

I laughed as I moved past him and entered the kitchen, my slippers making a
shh shh
sound against the tiled floor.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” Aunt Teppy said when she saw me.

“Morning,” I replied. I stopped to give her a quick peck on the cheek and parked myself in a chair across the island. She had her dark brown hair tied back in a loose ponytail, and she wore jeans and a formfitting white T-shirt. A glass of milk and a plate of warm pancakes were on the counter, waiting for me. She'd added a smiley face made of blueberries. I grinned.

“Eat up,” she said. “You're getting too skinny. Honey, don't you think Ana is getting too skinny?”

Uncle Mec had followed me into the kitchen and now sat at the small round table by the window, the morning paper spread open before him. He lifted his graying black eyebrows and shrugged. “She looks just right to me,” he said. “No one would complain if you ran a brush through that hair, though.”

I smirked and ran my fingers through my tangled mop of inky black hair. “You guys just don't appreciate my punk rock style.” I turned around, poured an almost illegal amount of maple syrup on my breakfast, and dug in. “Anyway, hair brushing is for school days,” I said through a forkful of pancake. “I'm on vacation.”

“Well, good manners are for all year round,” my aunt answered. “No talking with your mouth full.”

I pretended to use sign language, flashing her a series of ridiculous made-up gestures until she reached over and put the fork in my hand. “No signing with your hands full,” she said, grinning. Aunt Teppy had this way of looking at me as if I was a source of constant amusement, even when I was just being myself. I took a gulp of milk and said, “Fine. But do I have to eat with
him
staring at me like that?”

Aunt Teppy followed my gaze to the hand-carved mask that hung on the wall near the island. It was a square wooden face with holes for eyes and what looked like a row of brown fangs bared in a permanent grimace.

“Oh, he won't bother you. Will you, Balam?” she cooed to the mask. “Isn't he just wonderful? What a find.”

She was always bringing home special finds like “Balam.” Unlike most of the homes in the area, which were decorated with store-bought art, ours was full of interesting Mayan artifacts that Uncle Mec and Aunt Teppy had collected on their travels or bought at auctions. They were pretty proud of our Mayan ancestry. Uncle Mec's full name—Mecatl—even meant “lineage,” so I guess he sort of had to be into the culture. But he'd done a good job of passing that pride down to me. Every time they bought a new piece, they'd tell me its history and what it meant, and each story was cooler than the last. That's how I knew the mask in the kitchen was made of cedar wood and represented magical transformation. That didn't make it any less creepy, though. I angled my chair away from the mask and tried my best to ignore it.

“Was that the doorbell I heard before?” I said.

“Oh, right.” Aunt Teppy tapped her forehead. “I almost forgot.” She circled around the kitchen island and picked up a stack of mail from the basket by the front door. “It was Laura from across the street. The mailman put our mail in her box again.” She took a seat at the table next to my uncle and began her daily ritual of sorting through the mail with a sigh. “I swear, if I get one more Publishers Clearing House envelope, I'll scream! Don't they know how
annoying
 . . .” As her gaze stalled on a creamy white envelope, her voice trailed off and the kitchen grew pin-drop quiet.

Aunt Teppy held up the envelope and frowned. She was usually on the serious side, but the look on her face now worried me. Her skin had paled, and she seemed stunned, as if the envelope had spoken to her.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

She glanced up at me, her mouth hanging open for a second. “I, uh, no,” she said at last. “Not exactly.”

I rose from my chair to get a better look, and was surprised to see my own name written across the front in elaborate black calligraphy. In the space where you usually see a return address was an embossed gold seal that said
TEMPLE ACADEMY
.

“For me?” I said. “What is it?”

Instead of answering, Aunt Teppy turned the envelope around so that it faced Uncle Mec. “Honey,” she said. “Hon?”

He looked up from his newspaper, squinting his eyes at first as he read my name. Then when his eyes landed on the seal, they widened. “Is it time already?” he asked.

She nodded sadly. “I knew it would happen eventually. I just didn't think . . .”

“You didn't think what?” I urged. “What is Temple Academy?” Anything that had them this wigged couldn't possibly be good. But they remained silent, ashen faced.

“C'mon, you guys. You're really freaking me out now,” I said.

At last my aunt handed me the envelope and said, “Open it.”

On a scale of one to ten, my curiosity level was at about a hundred, so I tore into the envelope and pulled out a piece of heavy cream-colored paper, folded into three perfectly equal sections. “Dear Ana Cetzal,” it began.

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into Temple Academy's matriculating class for the upcoming school year. As I'm sure you know, this is an honor bestowed on very few. . . .

I looked up at my aunt and uncle, more confused than ever. “What is this?” I asked, holding up the letter. “Are you shipping me off to boarding school or something? Is this your way of saying that you're sick of me?” I could hear the panic in my voice, but I couldn't help it.

“No, of course not!” Aunt Teppy cried at once, rushing forward to pull me into a lung-crushing hug. “We could never get sick of you.”

I glanced at Uncle Mec, who said, “Eh,” lifting one hand and teetering it back and forth like a seesaw.

“Mec!”

“Oh, she knows I'm just playing with her. She knows she's my favorite kid in the whole world, right,
niña
?”

I shrugged—as much as I could, anyway, while still wrapped in my aunt's bear hug—and gave him half a smile. “I guess so. But what is this?”

Finally Aunt Teppy released me and guided me to a chair next to my uncle's. She patted my hand on the smooth blue surface of the table. I know most people had white or wood kitchen tables, but we had an electric-blue one—Maya blue—to represent Chaahk, the Mayan god of rain and agriculture. Aunt Teppy once told me that having blue near the kitchen meant that our cupboards would never be bare. “We should have told you sooner,” she said. “But Temple Academy is where both your parents went to school. It was coed back then, but it's an all-girls school now.”

I held my breath. I never asked my aunt and uncle too many questions about my parents because I was afraid they'd think I didn't accept
them
as my parents. Plus, Aunt Teppy always looked so sad when I mentioned the sister she'd lost. But now that she'd brought it up, I couldn't wait to soak in any information she offered me.

“Really?” I said.

Aunt Teppy smiled. “Yes. They often said that other than having you, their time at Temple was the best time of their lives.”

I tried to picture teenage versions of my parents running through dim school hallways hand in hand, laughing, sneaking kisses beneath stairwells. If that was their beginning, then it was mine, too, in a way.

“Anyway,” my aunt continued, “they swore that if they ever had kids, they would send them to Temple. And just after you were born, they established a trust to cover your education there.”

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