IX

The first rays of the morning sun finally appeared, peeking over the pale, bare branches of the snowswept forest. I groaned and stretched, screwing up my face against the bright light that flooded the mountainside. My stiff muscles shrieked their protest, cramped from staying in the same position for so long. I stumbled out of the tree and over to the campfire. I knelt beside Chris and gently shook him awake. His eyes flew open.

"Whoa! Whuzzat! Oh...hi Morgan. God, it's bright," he complained, squinting and shielding his eyes as he sat up halfway. "Is it morning already?"

I nodded, moving on to Ariel's side. "Yep. Come on, sleepyhead. Time to wake up and get a move on."

She moaned softly and rolled over onto her back. "Ow. Stupid sun. Too bright."

"Tell me about it," Chris grumbled in agreement.

Jake was already awake and gathering up the supplies scattered around the campsite. He picked up a handful of candy wrappers and stuffed them into the side pocket of his backpack, to throw away later.

Destiny sat up, shaking her head to clear it. "Brr! It's cold!"

Jake sighed, as if expecting this. "Yes. It appears that the blankets I brought won't be enough isolation against the cold."

"So, Mister Extraordinary," said Chris sarcastically as he sat up and shivered, "what other brilliant tricks do you happen to have up your sleeve? What's your plan now, O Genius? Magic air blankets?"

Jake thought for a moment. "I haven't decided yet. We'll clean up camp and eat on the walk up while we discuss what to do."

We reorganized our supplies quickly, distrubuting food, clothes and weapons evenly among the five of us. Jake kicked the remains of the fire apart, scattering twigs and ashes across the snow. Destiny handed a backpack with food and blankets to each of us, along with some additional gear and the knapsacks containing our personal belongings. Ariel passed out half a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to each of us.

Once all of our supplies had been accounted for and we were ready to leave, Jake stepped into the center of the hollow where we'd camped, furrowing his brow and cracking his knuckles. Guessing his intentions, I stepped back outside of the former campsite, pulling Chris along with me and motioning the other to follow. When all of us were out of the way, Jake opened his mouth and pointed, a wordless exclamation escaping his lips as a flare of brilliant blue light exploded from his extended hand, flooding the clearing with its power. When it faded, the hollow was completely covered with a thick blanket of cold white powder. A small, crested bird hopped by, pecking happily at one of the thick, snaking tree roots. All traces of human habitation had vanished. It appeared as if we'd never been there at all.

After the initial jaw-dropping generally common with anyone unaccustomed to magic, Chris nodded slowly, looking faintly approving.

"Very cool...very cool. I guess this magic stuff really does come in handy sometimes, huh?"

I gave him a small smile. "Yeah."

Destiny snorted, looking around impatiently. "Yeah yeah yeah, Mister Extraordinary has done it again, blah blah blah. Whatever. We still haven't figured out what to do about, oh I don't know, avoiding death by exposure? Whaddaya gonna do about that, eyy Mister Extraordinary?"

"Oh. Well yes, actually, I have decided what to do," said Mister Extraordinary. He grinned like a wolf, his eyes narrowing into slits, white teeth gleaming. He seemed almost evil when he did that. He pronounced the next words gleefully, relishing the idea.

"We're going on a crime spree."

As you can imagine, the suggestion didn't sit well at first with my companions. Ariel had been the first to protest. After an awkward silence, she spread her arms in disbelief.

"That's it?" she'd demanded incredulously. "That's your wonderful solution? A crime spree?"

Surprisingly, Destiny was the one to disagree next. "I dunno, Jake. I mean, usually a crime spree would sound fun and adventurous, but where would we go? Who would we rob? There's nothing around here for miles! And what if we got caught? I mean, we're not exactly Masters of Stealth, and can you imagine how our parents would react if they found out we all got together with a complete stranger-that'd be you, Jake-ran away from home, got lost in the mountains and almost froze to death, then went out and robbed multiple camping/fishing/hunting/outdoor and grocery stores, not to mention stealing deadly weapons from the nearest firearms dealer? The answer is not well."

Chris shifted his weight reluctantly. "I hate to admit it, but she is kinda right. Mostly about the first thing, though. I don't know about getting caught; if we can evade supernatural gangsters with deadly weapons determined to kill us, then we can avoid the human police. But, like Destiny said, who would we rob? We're lost out in the middle of nowhere! There isn't a town in sight, much less a place with the kind of things we need."

"O ye of little faith," said Jake scornfully, triumph showing clear in his superior tone of voice, "do you really doubt me that much? Don't any of you here cruel and mocking humans have any faith whatsoever in my remarkably uncommon ability of not getting us killed?"

Once again, silence had reigned. Destiny raised an eyebrow, hiding a smile. Ariel looked embarrased. The corner of my mouth twitched, but other than that my facemask of stone was unpenatrable. Chris had a hand clamped over his mouth and looked as if he was about to go into cardiac arrest trying not to laugh. I swear I could hear crickets chirping in the background.

Jake's look of victory faded. He pushed out his lower lip in an exaggerated pout. Still there was silence. Finally, he stuck his nose in the air, feigning injury. "Fine, if that's the way you're going to be, than fine. But, be that as it may, all you fiendish, nontrusting disbelievers," he said, triumph creeping back into his voice, "I am not, as you all seem to think, about to lead us to out deaths, for I know exactly where we are and whom we are going to rob. Follow." He marched off without another word, his nose still sticking up in the air. I exchanged glances with the others. Chris still looked like he was fighting back mirth, but he seemed a bit more in control now. A smile had eventually found its way out on Destiny's round, youthful face. Ariel was grinning from ear to ear now. She laughed and tossed back her head.

"Well, it looks like we've got no choice now. He might wander off a cliff by accident and fall to his death."

Chris nodded, sighing. "And what a shame that would be."

So, still laughing, we marched after our fearless leader, each of us trying his or her best to imitate Jake's well-maintained fa├žade of greatly injured dignity, before collasping into giggles again.

About three hours later, after tramping through miles and miles of seemingly endless snowdrifts, we stopped at the edge of a cliff overlooking a huge valley below. A bustling town sprawled out before our eyes. Houses, stores and shopping outlets of all sorts, snow dusting the few ornamental trees scattered around; the place looked like a winter wonderland.

Jake turned towards us, spreading his arms triumphantly and grinning like a maniac. "See? See? Did I steer you wrong? Nooo. Did I say we would find the perfect place to get equipment? Yes. Was I right? Yes. Did you doubt me unreasonably? Yeeeees. Was-"

I held up my hands for a halt. "Okay okay okay. We get it. By some sheerly coincidental twist of fate, you finally somehow kind of managed to get something right. Kind of."

Jake looked indignant. He opened his mouth to retort when Chris raised his hand and interruped.

"Umm, are we going to break in in broad daylight, or do we have to stay here and wait till night falls?"

Jake's face fell. "Oh. I didn't think about that."

Destiny snorted quietly. "Of course not."

Jake frowned thoughtfully. "Well...it probably wouldn't be wise to break in during the day, since we're trying to not attract unwanted attention and all."

We all nodded agreement.

He thought about it some more. "We could sneak around town for a while though, and check out all the places that might have stuff we need. We'll stake out the stores for our robbery, get familiar with the place so we can slip out easier, maybe get some lunch while we're at it, et cetera."

He nodded slowly. I could picture the wheels turning in his head as a plan began to form.

He waved his hand, and the snow fell away to form a large, dry patch of ground. The five of us sat down in a circle and listened keenly to Jake's plan. He traced a line in the dirt with his finger.

"Okay so, here's the idea. They're bound to have a hotel or inn with a vacant room around here somewhere, so we'll snoop around and find a place. We can use magic to disguise ourselves, and sneak in through one of the windows. That can serve as our place to hang while we wait nightfall. Plus we can bathe and get dressed in clean clothes, then once we're all presentable we'll hit the streets, split up maybe, and scout around for some places that have what we need. I'll assign the teams and places to look for once we get in. You four go find us a hotel to break into, while I scout around the perimeter of the town and look for signs of being followed, just in case. We meet at that big sign over there in exactly one hour. You following me?"

We all nodded again. He rose in one fluid movement and clapped his hands gleefully.

"Alright then," his eyes narrowed back into slits, a wicked smile dancing across his inhuman face, "lets rock, team. Or whatever it is you humans say."

"Okay," puffed Jake exactly one hour and two minutes later, "how'd we do? Why were you late? Any injuries? Seekers? Find a place to stay?"

"We found a place," I said, "and there aren't any real injuries-"

"Except for Chris's shoe," interrupted Destiny, dangling a mangled sneaker in front of her. Chris reddened. Jake frowned.

"What happened?"

I snorted quietly. "He was brutally assualted by someone's vicious attack poodle."

"It's not my fault!" said Chris instantly.

Ariel grinned. "He accidentally stepped on this dog's foot and it bit him. Then his shoe came off and the dog ran away with it. That's why we're late. But that doesn't really matter I guess. The important thing is that there are no Seekers as far as we know, we found a nice place with several vacant rooms..."

"Can we break in easily?"

"Yep, looks like it. We're all set."

He nodded decisively. "Good. Where is it?"

"Right behind you?"

He spun, turning to gaze up at the large, brightly lit motel building standing some four feet behind him. "Oh. Right."

We snuck around the back, furtively peeking over our shoulders every few seconds. Jake breathed a sigh of relief as we ducked out of sight from any passing onlookers.

I shielded my eyes and peered upwards. "Which one do we take?"

Jake threw me an exasperated glance. "You never checked to see which rooms were taken and which were vacant?"

"Um...no."

He shook his head sadly. "Fine. I suppose I'll just have to use my special scout magic to do it."

He lifted his hand, drawing a strange design in the air in front of him. A strand of pale blue fire appeared where he drew. He reached out, catching it, then cupped it in his hand, brought it to his mouth and whispered an inaudible spell. The magic darted away and into one of the rooms through the window, melting through the glass like it didn't exist.

Chris's eyes widened momentarily before snapping into an unreadable and carefully controlled expression.

The magic returned a split second later, flickering in front of Jake's face. He blew gently on it, and the fire dissappated, crumbling to dust and vanishing.

Jake squared his shoulders and motioned upward, at two windows side by side. "Those two rooms are unoccupied at the moment. Chris, you and me take the one on the left, the girls the one on the right."

I turned to my sister. "Hey Destiny, you got some more grappling hook action for us?"

She grinned crookedly. "Why not?"

Jake pointed, and the windows exploded noiselessly, shards of glass flying in every direction and vanishing as soon as they came in contact with anything solid. He gave a mock bow and gestured forward.

"Will you do the honors, my lady?"

Destiny stepped forward resolutely, twirling the rope. The grappling hook whirred through the air. I ducked to avoid it, although Jake wasn't so lucky. The heavy metal hook clipped him soundly on the ear.

"Oh-did that hit you? My bad. So sorry," called Destiny innocently, although we could all tell from her tone that it had been completely intentional. I smothered a grin as Jake rubbed his head ruefully.

The hook caught on the windowsill neatly. She tugged it. The rope went taut. She shimmied upwards like a monkey-maybe a little too quickly. She swung in the window and landed with a muted thud and a not-so-muted "ow!".

I snorted quietly in amusement. Chris grinned. Ariel caught hold of the wildly swinging rope and pulled herself upward.

While I waited for her to reach the top, I pulled Yala out from where he'd been sleeping in my pocket. I held him up to my face and whispered a few hushed words in his ear. He squeaked understandingly and flared his tiny wings, taking off from my hand and soaring high into the air and away, until he was no longer visible.

Satisfied that he would be safe until we returned to the forest, I returned my attention to my companions, glancing upwards to see that Ariel was standing by the window, waving impatiently. I took hold of the rope and followed quickly.

Once we were all in, I detached the hook from the bottom of the window and tossed it down to the boys. Chris leaped out of the way just in time, the hook thudding into the ground where his toe had been a split second before. He gazed upward sadly, gave me a look of wounded innocence. I smiled and waved like nothing had happened.

He sighed, shaking his head and turning to hand the rope to Jake. They muttered together for a moment, then Jake tossed his head back and laughed heartily, slapping Chris on the back. They turned and walked to the other window, joking around like they'd been friends for a lifetime. I frowned, wishing I knew what they'd said, before turning and sprinting to the bathroom.

"I call the shower first!" I yelled as I darted around the door.

"Fine by me!" replied Ariel cheerfully. She was rummaging through the mini refridgerator, looking for a snack. Destiny had crashed on the couch and was flipping through channels on the big flat-screen TV.

I ducked into the bathroom, dumping out the contents of my backpack and selecting my best-and warmest-clothes before climbing into the welcome warmpth of the shower. I sighed luxuriously, letting the steam curl around me for at least ten minutes as I reflected on our current situation.

When my knotted and aching muscles had finally been relaxed and I was sure that every trace of dirt, grime, blood and all things unclean had been washed from my body, I stepped out of the shower, shivering as I wrapped the towel around me. I dressed quickly, and blow-dryed my hair, welcoming the warm air as it billowed around my face. Finally, I looked in the mirror.

I saw a tall, statuesque teenage girl, slender but very well muscled, with a tight stomach and proud bearing. Her long, thick, red-gold hair was pulled back in a high ponytail at the top of her head. Long, curving legs were emphasized by black skinny jeans and tall, lined black leather boots. A warm black leather jacket was pulled tight on her shoulders. A shimmery forest-

green scarf wrapped elegantly around her arched neck and draped down across her small but full chest covered by a sky blue V-neck shirt. The soft skin stretched across her high cheekbones was pale and clear, marred only by a silvery, crescent-shaped scar tracing along her jawline. The rosebud lips, pink and full, were set in a confident smile. Brilliant blue eyes gleaming with determination were set above a thin, razor-like nose that curved ever-so-slightly at the end. She carried herself proudly, and her regal, catlike stance was graceful, tense and and battle-ready.

I hardly recognized myself.

I'd known that the quest would change me, physically, socially and mentally in more ways than one, but I hadn't ever expected this much and so soon. Or maybe I'd just never seen myself as clearly as I did now. Either way, the strange and exotic girl staring back at me in the mirror was the easily the most flawless character I'd ever seen in my life.

I stepped out of the bathroom, looking around and suddenly feeling very self-conscious. Destiny looked up briefly from where she was sitting.

"Hi, sis," she said in a completely normal voice, before turning back to her telivison show.

Ariel tossed me a bag of chips and handed me a Coke. "Hungry?" she asked cheerfully. I shook my head in disbelief. Had no one else noticed my sudden change? Or had I been like that all along? I decided to shrug it off and act as if nothing had happened. I accepted the snack from Ariel, crunching down the chips enthusiastically. I passed over the Coke and chugged a Dr. Pepper instead, after tossing down another bag of mini-pretzels, then scoured around the place for more food. By the time I was finished destroying the hotel's vittle supply, Destiny and Ariel had showered and dressed properly, and we were all raring to go.

We slipped out the door when no one was looking, then linked arms and sauntered through the red-carpeted halls like we actually had a right to be

there. Ariel rapped on Chris and Jake's door impatiently.

"Come on, slowpokes!" she called. "We better leave before they find us," she added in a singsong-y, much more hushed tone.

"Looking for someone?" someone behind us asked boldly. We whirled around. Jake was lounging against the wall, arms crossed and feigning boredom. "We've been waiting for hours," he added unnecessarily.

Destiny snorted. "We haven't been here for hours."

"Where's Chris?" I broke in.

Jake smirked and rasied one arched eyebrow. "Why?"

Deigning the question irrelevant, I leveled my gaze, looking him straight in the eye and silently glowering at him until he shifted his weight uncomfortably and looked away.

"Fine," he muttered discontentedly, "he went to jimmy the vending machines for a snack. We ate all the other food in the room."

No sooner were the words out of his mouth when Chris staggered around the corner, balancing a plastic tray filled to the brim with goodies he'd liberated. Ariel moaned and smacked herself on the forehead with the palm of her hand.

"We're supposed to leave the stealing for nighttime, Chris!" she complained quietly.

He shrugged flippantly. "Oh. Sorry. I was hungry."

He ground to a halt as his gaze fell on me. His eyed widened. His mouth opened to say something but no sound came out. Jake snickered quietly.

Well, someone had noticed my newfound perfection.

I was rescued by Ariel, who broke the awkward silence by leaning over and plucking the tray out of Chris's hands.

"I'll put these in the pack with the other food," she said severely. "You can eat later."

He pretended to pout and sulk while Ariel quickly repacked.

I squared my shoulders confidently. "We all ready?"

Jake shook his head and frowned thoughtfully, looking me up and down and rubbing his chin. Finally, he pulled a small, fist-sized sack out of his pocket and tossed it to me. I caught it easily and peered inside.

"Uh...what is it?"

"Spikes," he replied promptly. "You can braid them into your ponytail, so if someone tries to grab your hair in a fight, they will hurt only themselves. Very useful. Almost all of the female elves, as well as the males with long locks, use them."

"Nice," I said approvingly, tossing the sack from hand to hand. "I'll put them in tonight, before we go on our crime spree."

He nodded at me, then turned to the others. "Okay, then. We need to split up. How many of you have cell phones?"

We all raised our hands.

"Do you all know each other's numbers?"

"Um, Chris has mine and I have his," I volunteered.

"I have yours and Ariel's, but not Jake's or Chris's," added Destiny.

We all exchanged cell numbers, then Jake said,

"All right. Here's the plan. Morgan, you go with Chris. Ariel, you and Destiny pair up. I'll go by myself."

He pulled us into a corner, out of sight, then murmured an inaudible spell. His finger began to glow blue. He traced a pattern in the air, and I realized it was a map of the town. He marked the hotel where we were with a bright red X. "This is us. Morgan, you and Chris go that way..." he traced another route, leading north, in green. "Look in all the outdoor stores, any place that has camping and hunting essentials, like flashlights, sleeping bags, possibly a tent, as well as knives and firearms. Also check for grocery stores. We need provisions. They're bound to have maps in here somewhere, so take one with you. When you find a place that has what we need, send out a text or phone call to all of us, then mark off the place on the map so we'll know where to find it tonight. Remember, we won't have time to rob every single store here, so only check the most useful ones. And remember, keep an eye out for Seekers."

"Of course."

He turned to Ariel and Destiny. "You two go this way, along the purple route. Everything I said to Morgan and Chris applies to you as well. We'll all meet up again here at six o'clock this evening. Got all that?"

Ariel nodded grimly. "Got it. Anything else?"

He smirked at me and Chris. "Oh, yeah. No detours, you two."

Chris reddened. I liften my chin defaintly. "Of course not."

Jake rubbed his hands together gleefully. "All right, people. Let's hit the streets."

Now, normally, I wouldn't condone with stealing and/or breaking into a hotel, but in a situation like this, it was different. If Jake was to be believed-and by now I was almost completely convinced that what he said was true-then the world depended on us. We were risking our lives to help the mortals. The least they could do was supply us with the things we needed. After all, a few stolen goods were a small price to pay for the privilege of being able to live to see the next year.

These were my thoughts as Chris and I padded down the sidewalk, eyes keenly sweeping across our surroundings. The town was bright and happy, bustling with cheerful people. They didn't at all seem bothered by the fact that it was snowing in late March, when the thaw should've been and gone long by now.

I gazed around thoughtfully, looking for anything that could be useful to us. I'd snatched a map from the display case just before we'd left, and traced the route Jake told us to follow in red marker. Now, I pulled it out and unfolded it, furrowing my brow in concentration. I tapped the landmark closest to us with my index finger.

"This looks promising."

Chris peered over my shoulder at the map. I was uncomfortably aware of his warm breath on the back of my neck.

"Dare Red's Sporting Goods?" he read aloud. "Maybe. Let's check it out. Is that it right up there?"

I nodded breathlessly. "Yeah, that big place with the black roof."

We walked over briskly and stepped inside, glancing around uneasily. Everyone looked normal to me. Chris marched right up to the large display case in front.

"Look," he whispered. "Lots of knives."

I came over and stood next to him, admiring the weapons. They ranged from small, smooth-bladed pocketknives to serrated hunting knives with leather sheaths. The prices ranged from seven dollars to two-hundred-and-sixty dollars. The glass case looked breakable enough.

Chris grinned crookedly. "This is place is definitely worth robb-er, checking out."

"Perfect," I agreed happily. "Let's see what else they have."

We made our way around the store, inspecting all of the cold-weather clothing, firearms, knives, hunting radios, muck boots, archery equipment, et cetera. I practically had to drag Chris away from the gun rack.

The place was huge, and chock-full of almost everything we needed. I marked it with a big red check mark as we stepped back outside into the sunlight. Chris and I slapped energetic high-fives.

"All right!" he said, giving me another crooked smile, his eyes sparkling with glee. It was so easy to make Chris happy. I smiled back and, caught up in the moment, allowed myself to be momentarily lost in the warm brown depths of his eyes. I wrenched myself back into reality moments later, clapping him on the back as though nothing had happened.

"So far so good. What's next?"

We followed the route Jake had outlined for us, checking into every promising store we came across. None of the others were nearly as fruitful as Dare's had been, but we still managed to scrape up a nice catch. When we were finished, we'd checked off six places altogether: Dare Red's, Tanakora; a nice shop that specialized in camping gear, three grocery outlets, and a small history musuem that contained relics from the Revolutionary War. They had tons of replicas of sword and suchlike, which could turn out to be invaluable.

We slapped high-fives again. Chris checked his watch. "Hey, we've still got about an hour till we meet up with the other guys. Is there anything else we need?"

"Hmm..." I thought for a moment. "We do need to make sure we can be unrecognizeable if they catch us on any live security cameras. We'll wear gloves, of course, and we have some of those, so that's not a problem. We have dark clothes, and Jake can smooth out footprints with magic if he has to. We can also use makeup to disguise ourselves, like smear eye shadow or liner on our faces, and bind silk scarves around our eyes, enough that we can see them but they can't see us. I don't have any makeup on me, though, and we'll have to find a thrift store for the scarves."

Chris help up the map, scrutinizing it carefully. "We passed a thrift store on the way up here, I think it was back by Tanakora. We can ask

around for directions to a place with the makeup. Do you have any cash on you?"

We pooled our resources and came up with fifty-seven dollars and seventy-six cents altogether. I decided that was probably enough to get what we needed without having to resort to theft. We sauntered back down the sidewalk, laughing and shoving each other around like we'd been friends for all of our lives.

The little bells on the door jingled as Chris pushed open the door to the small thrift shop. The curtains were thick and gauzy, with tiny glass

ornaments hanging off of every available surface. The air was heavy with perfume, and the lights cast the room in a dark, golden shade. I shivered involuntarily. Chris pulled a face.

"Creepy," he muttured, half to himself. I was in full agreement. This was definitely the weirdest thrift store I'd ever been in. I peered around uneasily. There was an old woman, wearing a heavy shroud, sitting behind the marble countertop near the front window.

"Bit expensive for a thrift store, ya think?" Chris murmured in my ear. I nodded absently, brushing down the aisles.

We were in luck. I found a whole shelf full of gauzy silken scarves, with all different sorts of colors and designs. I picked out several thick, nondescript black pieces that would go perfectly.

My gaze landed next on the shelf to the far right, which was piled high with jewelry, mainly amulets with strange little runes inscribed on them. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted one that seemed familiar and turned my head to take a closer look. It was another amulet, this one a thin golden chain bearing a polished ebony circle. In the center of the black charm, the elvish glyph for death was inscribed in purple ink. My eyes widened in shock. What kind of a thrift store was this? I grabbed Chris's arm and hauled him to the front, anxious to be out of this freaky place.

As we lined up to pay for our purchase, a thought struck me, and I elbowed Chris in the gut sharply.

"Oh, my sistah shaaall absahlutely ah-dorethese!" I giggled in a high, feminine and strangely accented voice. Chris eyed me oddly, but played along all the same.

"Er...yes, probably. She did say she wanted a black theme and not brown, didn't she?"

I could have hugged him.

"Oh yes, absahlutely. Black is her most fah-vo-rite color ev-ah, and she mustn't have anything but the best!"

I leaned over the counter and pushed the scarved towards the veiled woman. "Ah would like to purchase these, if ye will?"

She cackled, showing her stumpy gray teeth through the headcloth covering her face. "Of course, madam."

I shuddered inwardly. Beneath the veil, her black eyes bored into mine, and I felt certain somehow that she saw right through my little charade.

I gave her a falsely cheerful smile and shoved the cash across the counter as well, trying not to see too hurried as I took the scarves in one hand and Chris's arm in the other, steering him towards the door. The

chimes swayed in the breeze, ringing out in a hauntingly beautiful melody as we swept out the entrance. The lights from inside cast eerie shadows onto the snow, and I could still feel her eyes, boring into my back.

I released a pent-up breath. "Okay, that was weird."

Chris's gaze darted around nervously, like he was expecting an attack any minute.

"Yeah. Come on, let's get out of here."

And get out of here we did, sprinting through the slush like our lives depended on it, not stopping until we'd put at least twenty-three blocks in between us and the creepy old lady.

"So, Morgan," Chris began as he leaned over to catch his breath, "what was that 'mah sistah would ah-dore these' thing all about?"

"Well, if we do get caught on security cameras, they'll probably see the scarves over our eyes, and start asking around if anyone suspicious made a large purchase of black silk scarves. I thought I'd act a little, to make us seem not as suspicious. She'd be much less likely to mention a woman with a weird accent buying scarves for her sister than two shifty-looking teenagers making such a large and conspicious purchase for no apparent reason."

Chris looked himself up and down, frowning slightly. "Do I look shifty?"

I cracked up and pushed him over good-naturedly. "Oh yeah, Chris,

you look like such a crook! Like any minute you might stop and pick up that little old lady over there and throw her into the path of an oncoming tow truck."

He gave me a mock injured look. "And here I thought you were my friend. It's sad, really, the pains you go through for people, and then they turn around and say something like that."

I laughed again and clapped him on the shoulder. "Now, there's the spirit! Trust no one, right? No," I continued, still teasing, "actually you look good."

That part was true. His thick brown hair was tousled in casual disarray, cheeks lightly flushed from our run, deep brown eyes sparkling with mischief. He was dressed simply but well, in navy blue jeans, combat boots, and a dark leather jacket over a forest green turtleneck that emphasized his broad shoulders and powerful, athletic build. He smiled my favorite crooked, cocksure grin, his whole face lighting up like an angel's when he did that. I stopped myself before I could start hyperventilating like an idiot.

"You think so?" he asked, one eyebrow raised. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and tell him he looked better than any other guy in the world, including the inhumanly beautiful Jake.

Instead, I nodded ever-so-seriously and said, "Yeah, like you just fell off the runway and landed on your head."

It was his turn to laugh. "You're cruel, Morgan."

"I know," I said, agreeing wholeheartedly and leaning over to grab a handful of snow and throw it at his head. He ducked, still chuckling to himself, and retaliated. Soon enough we had a full-blown snow-war going on. Nearby pedestrians ducked our stray missiles, laughing good-naturedly and waving, too cheerful at such a beautiful evening to be angry.

Finally we collapsed on top of each other, still giggling hysterically but too tired to go on. I surveyed myself, shaking my head in disgust.

"We're going to be completely soaked, you know," I told him, trying to

sound severe (but not succeeding very well, on account of the hiccups forcing their way up my throat)

He checked his watch again. "Oops. We lost track of time. We're supposed to meet the others in five minutes."

I slapped myself in the forehead with the palm of my hand. "And I completely forgot about the makeup! Uck."

"Oh." He frowned. "That's not good. Come on, maybe we'll find a place on the way up."

We hauled ourselves to our feet and jogged back down the sidewalk the way we'd come.

Luckily, we did find a place on the way up. We stopped by a shop called La Rose's, which specialized in all sorts of cheap, kooky dressup and exotic face paint. We made out like bandits (Which we were about to come in a short amount of hours) and arrived back at the hotel only five minutes late.

We went in through the window again, meeting up with our companions in the hotel room us girls had shared earlier. We all went into group hug mode, with high fives, fist bumps and congratulating cheers all around.

Afterwards Jake stepped back and surveyed us (us being me and Chris) slowly, taking in our dripping wet clothes, flushed faces, muddy boots and triumphant smiles. He nodded at the paper bag I was carrying.

"What is that?"

I held it up for the others to examine. "Disguises."

Ariel and I bumped our fists again. "Nice work!" she said approvingly. "I didn't think about that until much later."

Jake quickly took charge again. He glanced up at the clock. "Okay, everyone. We have several hours of free time, five and a half to be exact. Bathe, eat, sleep, dress properly, do whatever, but stay inside the hotel room

at all times. I checked out this place, and they do not get much business, so we should remain undetected for the present. At eleven-thirty, we all gather here and exchange information. I'll outline the plan. Then we get dressed-I presume you all have dark clothes?"

We all nodded.

"Right. Morgan, you can be in charge of distrubuting the scarves and makeup. Make it so we are all completely unrecognizeable. Then we wait. At exactly one o'clock in the morning, we will sneak out the window and start our crime spree. I'll give you the details later. Dismissed."

Destiny and I exchanged amused glances. Dismissed? What did he think this was, some kind of military class? Well, he probably had plenty of experience with those, I mused.

I showered again, rinsing all of the snow and grime from my skin, then dressed in sweats and a tanktop. I washed my other clothes in the sink and layed them out to dry. I crunched down an apple and some crackers, chugged half a bottle of water, then went and sat on the couch.

I watched my companions through half-lidded eyes. Jake was (of course) rummaging through the mini fridge again. Chris was nowhere to be seen. Destiny had crashed on the big double bed in a halfway closed-off room to the right of the door, and Ariel was sitting by the window, gazing out at the snowy landscape. As I watched, Jake went over to her and put his hand on her shoulder. She turned her head to look up and gaze into his eyes. They whispered to each other, murmuring words too quiet for me to hear. I looked away as an unexpected pang of loneliness shot through me.

I dozed fitfully for a while, jerking awake every so often to look around me again. The last time I woke before sinking into a deep, restful slumber, I faintly registered the sensation something warm pressing against my side, and I smiled before sleep crashed over me like a dark and quiet wave.

When I woke up for good, dusk had fallen over the little town. Someone had pulled the curtains over the broken window. Destiny was still asleep, snoring softly. I could hear Ariel and Jake talking quietly upstairs.

Chris was curled up on the couch beside me, his head resting on my shoulder. Instead of jerking away, I closed my eyes as some strange, hot and giddy emotion that I had never felt before rolled over me. I brushed my hand across his face, gently running my fingers through his hair, feeling oddly protective. I stayed that way, my hand coming to rest on the side of his neck, until the clock struck eleven and the rest of my companions awoke.

We all sat in a circle around the coffee table, listening as Jake outlined his plan. He pushed the table out of the way and spread a mad in the center of the floor, tapping the black circle that marked where we were now. He'd marked all the places worth stealing from with red Xs. There were eleven total.

"Here is what we are going to do. After we finish planning, we all dress in our darkest, most nondescript clothing. Wear gloves, shoes with smooth bottoms if you have them, jackets with hoods, that sort of thing. Morgan is in charge of the makeup disguises. Straighten up this place as best you can. Pack everything up and leave it in one place, on that bed over there. Ariel, you are in charge of that. Put the general possessions, like food and blankets, in those two black backpacks. The rest of you, put all of your gear in the backpack you brought, and give any extra packs to me. We'll put the stolen goods in those. Each of you is allowed a small knapsack to carry with you. Bring flashlights, a weapon, rope, something to smash stuff with, like a rock or small club. We'll start here"-he set his index finger on the X that marked Dare Red's, which was the cloest-"and make our way down. After we've

cleared the place out, we will extimate how much time we have based on how long it took in there. If we there's not much, we will split up, and we can steal someone's car or motorcycle and take that. Savvy?"

We all gave the affirmitave, and the room exploded into action. I grabbed my backpack off of the floor and ran upstairs to change. I chose a pair of black Mudd skinny jeans over thin leggings, black leather lace-up boots that went all the way to my knees and were waterproof, and black cami underneath a navy blue turtleneck. I pulled my black elbow-length gloves over the sleeves of the turtleneck, and yanked on my favorite black leather jacket over that. I put my hair back into a high ponytail again and threaded in the spikes Jake had given me earlier. I strapped my knife to my thigh and crammed a silver wind-up flashlight, a length of rope, a stopwatch, and camera into my leather knapsack. I threw that over my shoulder, grabbed my backpack in one hand and the scarves in the other, taking the stairs two at a time.

Destiny and Jake were downstairs, ready to go. Jake looked strikingly evil, dressed from head to toe in black leather with a black band tied over his forehead. His eyes glittered. Destiny was bouncing up and down in nervous excitement. She, too, had braided spikes in her her hair, and I saw that Ariel had done the same, as she bounded down the stairs after me. She and

Destiny were both dressed in dark, boot-cut Levis and heavy hooded sweatshirts. Ariel's brown Totes dangled by the strings from her hand.

I beckoned Destiny over while Ariel organized the packs.

She sat on the edge of the bed while I smeared eye shadow on her eyelids, brows, cheeks and across the bridge of her pert nose. I bound the first scarf loosely around her forehead, so it hung down over her eyes and nose. I did the same to Jake, also brushing eyeliner over top of his upper lip so it looked like a faint moustache. Perfect.

I looked up as Chris thumped down the stairs, looking every inch the seasoned criminal. He was dressed in black camouflage cargos tucked into

combat boots, with a darkly colored hoodie thrown over a gray T-shirt and a black leather sheath-complete with knife-hanging from his belt on his left hip and a pistol case on the right. I gave him the same eyeliner-moustache treatment that I gave Jake, except I put eyeliner around his eyes too, so he looked less like Chris and more like Billie Joe Armstrong.

Ariel did my makeup treatment. When she was finished, I looked in the mirror and decided that my own mother probably wouldn't recognize me now.

I started as Jake clapped his hands loudly. "Come on, people! It's almost one!"

At the last moment, I remembered to grab my purple Samsung Moment off of the counter and stuff it in my back pocket as I went to join the others standing by the window.

A fierce rush of pride gripped me as I gazed around at my little group of friends. I looked from Ariel; calm and collected as always, to Jake; quiet and commanding, to Destiny; bouncing up and down excitedly, and finally to Chris; dark and handsome, with a strange light of anticipation gleaming in his large, intelligent eyes. Fate had brought us together, and now we were as tight-knit as our own little family, each willing to sacrifice his or her life for the others. This was where I belonged.

Adrenaline coursed through my veins. We were standing by the back exit of Dare Red's Sporting Goods, a good two miles from the motel. Jake put his hand on the door and murmured something. A faint click sounded inside the mechanisms of the lock, and the door swung open.

Ariel crept in first, looking around warily. Chris and I followed, with Jake and Destiny bringing up the rear. "Okay, split," murmured Jake. "Chris with Morgan, Ariel with Destiny and I will go by myself. Remember, don't

overload, because we cannot carry everything. Take only the best and most needed. Weapons, sleeping bags, camping gear. That sort of thing. Try not to make much noise. And-"

"Jake!" said Ariel exasperatedly.

"What?"

"We know, okay? We're not imbeciles."

He flushed red. "Oh. Well, yeah. Sorry."

We each ran off in different directions. I followed Chris as he made a beeline for the knife display we'd seen earlier.

Good choice, I thought, and handed him my baton. "Will you do the honors?" I teased lightly.

"Gladly," he whispered back, and swung the baton. The case crashed open, sending shards of glass flying everywhere. I flinched and shielded my face with my hands. Chris did the same.

Once all the glass was settled, we picked out six of the best knives we could find, as well as sheaths, and stuffed them in a grocery bag. I snatched a small bronze Swiss Army knife with half a dozen blades and stuck it my pocket as well.

After raiding the knife supply, we made our way across the store to the back wall, where they kept the new and used firearms. Chris jacked three pistols and a Crio Super Black Eagle II without hesitation, while I filled another grocery bag with bullets of all kinds. We met up with Jake there, who had already fallen in love with a black-and-camo 12 gauge Winchester pump gun, and passed off our stolen goods to him.

Next I hauled Chris over to the clothing rack, selecting three pairs of cold-weather camo cargos that would surely come in handy on our next snowy expedition. He added a pair of thick, waterproof gloves to the pile. We shoved it all in a stolen Parks & Recreation backpack, along with two pairs of lined Woody Max muck boots. I texted Ariel:

Got weapons+clothes+xtra backpack. U? 3 M&C

She replied almost immediately:

2coats+nice crossbow+arrows n D found sm nice radios/walkietalkies. th ok? 3 A&D

I relayed the news to Chris.

"Are we almost done then?" he asked. I shrugged in return.

"Dunno. I'll ask Jake. I don't think they have camping gear here, though. We'll have to get that at Tanakora's and that other place Ariel and Destiny found this morning."

As if on cue, Chris's LG Alley played Clint Black-

Like the rain I have fallen for you and I know just why you Liked the rain, always calling for you I'm falling for you now Just like the rain...

-and he flipped it open. It was a text.

Yall done? -Jake

I gave Chris the thumbs-up. "Tell him we're all ready."

He looked up briefly from texting the reply. "Rendezvouz at the back exit?"

"Yeah."

He snapped the phone closed and shoved it in his back pocket. "They're on their way."

He slung the stolen backpack with all the stolen goods inside over his shoulder and we raced to the back exit.

Destiny, Ariel and Jake were already there when we reached the door. Chris handed Jake the backpack. He pulled out the map.

"Okay, I am going back to the hotel to put this stuff in there so we'll have more room to carry things. Ariel and Destiny, you go to that camping

store you found and break in there. Chris and Morgan, take the grocery outlet nearby. We all meet up at Tanakora's in half an hour. Am I clear?" he asked as he handed us each a stolen backpack.

Chris saluted and stood stiffly at attention. "Aye-aye, Cap'n, yer all clear, sir!"

Jake's face relaxed in a brief smile. "Good work, soldier. See ya then."

And he jogged off into the night.

The Sam's Food Market wasn't terribly far from where we were, so we reached it in a matter of minutes. It was relatively easy to get into, even without Jake's lock magic. Picks work just as well.

Chris loaded us up on bread, cheese, jerky, dried fruit and bottled water while I raided the cash register. I felt slightly guilty doing it, but I knew it was all for a good cause and that if the mortals knew half of what was going on they'd (probably. hopefully) understand.

We zipped in and out of the food market it record time, which gave Chris the opportunity to 'borrow' a nice pickaxe he'd found in the local hardware store. You never knew when that would come in handy.

Tanakora came next. Destiny and Ariel hadn't found much of use in their other store, only a wind-up lantern, some matches and one flannel sleeping bag. Jake didn't appear overly concerned.

"This place looks like it has plenty of what we need," he said.

It wasn't that big, so we didn't feel the need to split up like we'd done in Dare Red's. We found four more sleeping bags, a lot more matches, a set of old-fashioned flint and tinder, and some thick wool socks. The sleeping bags were reasonably small, so they fit perfectly in the large duffel bag Jake had stolen for exactly that purpose.

I volunteered myself and Chris to go to the history musuem we'd found while the rest of them searched the last couple of places. I wanted to check out that thrift store again. Jake agreed, and off we went.

"So," Chris puffed as we ran down the sidewalk, just as we had hours before, "what's the plan?"

"Whaddaya mean?" I questioned him.

"I know something's up," he told me. "You got that oh-so-innocent face on again, which always means you're hiding something."

I gave him a dirty look. How had he come to know me so well?

"Fine. I want to check out that creepy thrift place again."

"Ugh. I should've known. Why, though?"

I was saved from having to answer by my phone, playing Green Day, which signaled an incoming text.

Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began...

I checked the number. It was Jake.

Wait! Quick, run back to Tanakora and get me a tent. -Jake

I rolled my eyes in annoyance and replied:

What for? 3 M&C

"What is it?" asked Chris curiously.

"Jake wants a tent."

"Uh...why? Wouldn't that be too big and awkward to have to set up every night and take back down in the morning? Not to mention having to carry it all day."

I shrugged. "Don't ask me. I guess it's important, though," I sighed resignedly. "Come on."

We slogged back through the mushy streets to Tanakora and got Jake his tent. At least there were plenty of selections. Together, Chris and I

decided on a reasonably sized, durable forest green number. I balanced the box on my head jokingly before it almost fell off and landed in a mud puddle. Then I carried it safely tucked under my arm until we reached the Rivermont History Museum.

Okay, remember when I called the place 'small'? Well, I lied. It was huge, and I was absolutely delighted with the selection of very realistic weapon replicas they had stored in the basement (Chris, baby, you are a genius).

I curled my hand around the hilt of a long rapier and pulled it out of the scabbard. It fit my hard perfectly, feeling like the extension of my arm. I swung it experimentally. It was wonderful.

Chris tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey look, I found its twin."

Sure enough, he held in his hand an exactly identical rapier and sheath. I crossed the scabbards so they formed an X, and a thought occurred to me. I put my hand in the center, where the scabbards touched each other, and tapped into the flow of magic inside my body. I closed my eyes and pushed out with my blood. When I opened them again, the scabbards had melded into one whole X-shaped sheath. I slid the blades back into them and secured a leather strap to the center where they'd been melded, slinging it over my shoulder. It worked like a charm.

Chris, meanwhile, had acquired a large broadsword that fit his fighting style perfectly. We collected six more swords, two each for our three companions, and I mass-texted everyone:

Got some very nice weapons. All finished here. Meetcha back the hotel 'round 4:30. Th ok w/ u all? 3 M&C

I stepped outside and glanced up at the sky, groaning inwardly. Damn Jake and his tent. There wasn't enough time now for me to go check out the thrift store.

Beside me, Chrus pulled a face, obviously reaching the same conclusion that I had. "Sorry, Morgan," he said, squeezing my shoulder sympathetically. I sighed.

"Yeah. Oh well. Maybe we'll stop by here again some other time."

"Maybe."

I threw one last longing glance over my shoulder before marching back the way we'd come.

We piled all of our stolen goods together on the large double bed. Total, we'd acquired nine knives, five pistols, two shotguns, eight boxes of bullets, two thick coats, three pairs of camouflage cargo pants, two pairs of muck boots, a crossbow and seven barbed arrows, five walkie talkies; one for each of us, two blankets, several books of matches, a wind-up lantern, three wind-up flashlights, the flint and tinder, Chris's pickaxe, nine swords, six Parks & Recreation backpacks, a duffel bag to keep the sleeping bags in, of course let's not forget Jake's tent, and a pair of thick wool socks and a flannel sleeping bag for each of for food, we had a three loaves of bread, a round of cheese wrapped in paper, five apples, five oranges and five pears, fifteen pieces of beef jerky, and two more packs of hot dogs (Go, Chris!) as well as the food from before coupled with what Chris had stolen from the vending machine.

Chris gazed at the heap of stolen items weighing down the bed. "How are we supposed to carry all this?" he demanded in disbelief.

Ariel stroked her chin thoughtfully. "I'll figure it out."

She took it upon herself to distribute the gear. For starters, she gave us each our original backpacks containing our personal belongings. After that, she handed us each a pair of wool socks, a walkie-talkie, a knife, a pistol with a box of ammunition, a book of matches, and a sword-I got my twin rapiers!

-to add to our original possessions. She managed to cram all the food in one large leather pack that Jake had brought, and elected herself to carry that one. I had still had room in my own backpack, so I added two pairs of cargos and an extra knife. Ariel gave Jake the 12 gauge he hadn't taken his eyes off of the entire time, and Chris the Benelli he'd picked out for himself. Destiny took the crossbow and arrows. She and Ariel pulled the thick camo coats on over their sweatshirts, so they were out of the way. Jake put the flint and tinder, the remaining three knives, two boxes of bullets, the extra pair of pants, the muck boots, two blankets-we ditched the ones we'd used the night before, deeming them relatively useless-and Chris's axe in a spare pack, strapping the three extra swords to the back, and shouldered that, as well as the duffel bag containing our sleeping mats and his original backpack. If he'd been a normal human, I would've insisted on helping share the load, but considering he was supernatural and all that, I figured he could take it. He, Chris and Ariel each took a flashlight; Destiny and I already had our own. He carried the lantern, and we left the remaining backpacks in the room.

We'd packed everything up in advance, so after we distributed our loot evenly, we slipped out the window and into the night like dark and silent wraiths. All that remained were four empty backpacks lying scattered around the room and muddy boot prints that tracked across the once-spotless cream carpet. The wind moaned softly as it swept in through the broken window, the glass pieces tinkling an eerie melody as the curtains brushed them by. A cold full moon shone above the creaking branches overshadowing the footprints impressed upon the crisp, clear snowdrifts, but even as the breeze shifted the prints grew smaller and shallower until they vanished altogether, not as if they had been filled in but as if they had never been there at all.