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Marti had trouble telling if Duck or Dodge slid down the snowbank they were using for cover. She squinted at the figure bundled against the cold. "Uh-"
"No sign of Bunny," he said and squatted beside her. "Amy's somewhere in the trees. I can hear the snow falling when she jumps."
"Where's..." Marti floundered. "Er, where's your brother?"
He jerked a thumb behind him, toward the woods beyond the snowbank. "Searching for signs of Hazard. Funny how him and Bunny are gone but we can see Amy plain as day."
She shivered as wind blew past them, stirring up the drifts. "She's a diversion. Finch and Bunny are the ones we should be worried about."
"The devil unknown and all that?" he grinned.
"I suppose." She shrugged. "Anyways, let's bring the game to them, shall we?"
The twin stood up. "Let's. What do you have in mind?"
Marti smiled wide. "Hoping you'd say that..."

A small fire burned in clearing, an oasis of warmth in the deep snow. Amy dropped silently from the tree, her boots making almost no sound and the gentle shiver of the branches covering the soft crunch of snow under her feet. Her knit hat and scarf around her face were white, as were the snug leather pants, low boots and fur-lined jacket.
Marti had spent lots of time with her but never noticed the deadly edge to the woman's grace. Here was a dancer who could snap your neck examining the fire. "Now!" Marti whispered and she flung a snowball at Amy, the twin throwing one from the other side of the clearing.
The acrobat cartwheeled to her right, neatly dodging both snowballs and pausing to scoop up a handful of snow. Marti launched another round which was dodged with the same agility and ducked as Amy fired one at her. "HA!" Amy whooped and ran behind a tree. "You take an alchemist from her lab and what have you? A woman who can't aim!"
"Talk trash all you want," Marti laughed. "We got you!"
"Did NOT!" Amy laughed then squawked as the twin smacked her in the face. "Got me, indeed," she giggled.
Amy and the twin came from the woods, laughing. "Nice shot, Dodge," she said, unwrapping her scarf and shaking the snow loose. "Where's Duck?"
"Looking for your companions."
She grinned and did a fancy flip into the snow, making an angel. "Then you guys are too late. You ever play chess?"
Snowballs came flying from the woods, pelting Marti and Dodge. "Two for one!" crowed a man from the trees. Hazard dropped from the trees with less grace than Amy. "Guess neither one of you play chess?"
"What's that have to do with anything?" Dodge asked, wiping snow from his eyes.
"You sacrifice a pawn for a greater gain," Marti explained, applauding as Bunny came from the woods with Duck behind her and a blue banner in her hands. "The flag! Good job!"
"Thanks." Bunny shivered. "Can we please go someplace warm? I promise to gloat without mercy once I can feel my toes."

Ogre's had thick curtains drawn over the windows against the cold. Warmth enveloped them as they stepped inside, shutting winter outside. Ogre, Kiva, Anthony, Madelyn and Gunter sat around a table discussing something in low voices. Maureen seemed absorbed in stirring whatever bubbled in the metal pot hanging in the fireplace. Tag sat alone in a chair and stared at nothing, a book in his lap and the Malevolent napping across the back of his chair. Amy passed Tag, squeezing his shoulder and scratching the cat before moving to drape over her mother's shoulders like a shawl.
Kiva rubbed her daughter's arms and smiled as the rest pulled up chairs. "Who won?"
"Red team." Bunny sat on a table, swinging her feet. "You guys are looking intense."
Anthony gave her a wink. "Only on the surface, dear one. We do have some questions for you all."
"Oh?" Marti folded her arms. "I am a-quiver."
Ogre made a face. "Marti, relax. We can't send you all in danger-"
"Shut up." Maureen stood up from the fireplace, spoon in hand. Anger, frustration and sadness warred on her face. "Don't sugar coat it. Kids, what they are trying to say delicately is that you are about to be asked to participate in what may very well be your last mission because you very well may die. They mean to smuggle Zell and Jo from the elves."
"Elves-smelves, whatever." Bunny shrugged. "Why can't Aunt Zell just come home? Why isn't she here anyways"
"The elves are proud of their bloodlines." Maureen looked at her hands, sadness winning over face. "I would know. My grandfather was elvin, my father half elvin." She moved aside her long hair, revealing a slightly pointed ear with a jagged red scar across it. "I was at the market in another town with Dad when a group of elves noticed us. One jumped me in an alley and tried to cut off my ears, calling me a 'half-breed brat'." She smiled slightly. "He picked the wrong kid to mess with. Never threaten a kid trained in knife throwing when your balls are nearby." The smile faded. "In Zell's case, it's alot worse. She's a valued servant to a noble who is not going to let her property go without a fight."
"So we fight them," Dodge said matter-of-fact. "Kids need their dad. I don't care what the risks are myself but for Tag, I'll eat fire."
"This is no cake walk." She shook the spoon for emphasis. "These are trained fighters! Skilled years beyond you'll ever have achieved!"
Amy let go of Kiva and faced Maureen. "Aunt Mo, I know you're worried," she said gently. "I know how much it would hurt you to have to bury one of us before our time. But this is for something bigger than us, bigger than our fears. I choose to do this because Tag is a part of my family and you do what you can when you can for your family." She raised her chin. "I'm in."
Bunny slid off the table to her feet. "I've met Zell and Jo. Can't think of another cause to waste my useless carcass on. In."
Duck and Dodge stood up. "In," they said together.
Hazard stood up. "I go where my people go. In."
"I have never seen a group of people take in a complete stranger and label her family before she had a chance to unpack." Marti stood, wrapping her arm around Bunny's shoulders. "I'm in."
"You're a bunch of fools." Maureen wiped away a tear. "You think you're ready to face the elves?"
Bunny shrugged. "Better question is are they ready for us?"
"Thank you," said a voice from near the fireplace. Tag held his head in his hands, shoulders shaking. Amy ran over, letting him collapse in her arms. The cat nuzzled back, purring his support.
Ogre stood up. "Tell you what. Let's see exactly what you guys can do. I propose another game of capture the flag."
"Old farts versus kids?" Bunny suggested.
"I prefer aged," Anthony sniffed and shoved her playfully.

"Are you sure this will work?" Duck frowned at the snowmen lined in front of them.
"Only one way to find out." Marti took stones from a bag and shoved them into the snowmen's bellies. "Just be ready to run. Got your earplugs?"
"Yeah." He rubbed his face. "I had no idea she could sing like that."
"Madelyn has a beautiful voice, to be sure. Glad she likes me." She backed away and closed her eyes, muttering under her breath.
The snowmen shuddered and turned their heads to look at Marti. "Wait," she commanded. "Hazard!" she called upwards. "Any sign?"
"Not a whisper," he called back. "That's what worries me. Anthony likes his flash and glitter but I worry when he gets quiet."
"I'm not worried." Amy strode up from the woods to stand beside the snowmen. "Dad does that to throw his opponent off guard. You expect one thing and he does another. I know where they're hiding."
"Good." Marti handed her a bracelet. "This'll let you command the snowmen. Remember, one word only."
"Okay." Amy wound her scarf over her face and packed a snowball tight before leading the snowmen out of the clearing.
The woods were quiet, peaceful under the white blanket of snow that covered every surface. It was near dusk, the sun turning the sky orange and red. Nothing stirred. No animal tracks marked the path. The only sound Amy heard was the crunch of her feet as she stepped lightly on the path. She stopped, closed her eyes and listened harder.
Something stirred slightly to her left. Without opening her eyes, she rolled into a somersault and crouched down in time to hear what she assumed were snowballs hit the snowmen. Feet approached her at a run, she opened her eyes to see Maureen stop and throw a snowball. Amy ducked the shot and dove for a nearby bush. "Advance!" she shouted to the snowmen.
They stumbled toward Maureen, who dove to the side as a blast of heat melted Amy's guards. Ogre's laugh echoed. "Gotcha, Marti!" he shouted.
Amy stood up from the bushes. "Guess again, Uncle!"
"Look out, Amy!" shouted a new voice.
The acrobat twisted, a snowball barely missing her face. Everyone froze. "Who's there?" she called.
The Malevolent padded from the bushes, his whiskers drooping. "I just wanted to play, too," he said. "But I couldn't figure out how to say it and just followed you." He blinked. "Was that okay?"
"He talks?!" gaped Maureen.
"Wow, upstaged by a damned cat." Bunny and Dodge came from behind Ogre, a red banner held high. "We won, I guess."
"My name is Finch," the Malevolent said. "Can I play now?"
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August 2011


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