• The small group sprinted quietly through the dark alleyway, their bare and bleeding feet barely responding as they ran over the sharp and unsightly things that carpeted the dirty ground. The grimy, forbidding walls watched their progress with cold indifference, yet tried to increase the claustrophobic feeling that the children merely shrugged off. As a mountain of harsh and unbelievably loud voices hit them, they braced themselves and, squinting, slowed their pace as they stepped out into the bright sunlight.
    The crowd in front of them, which constantly occupied the main trading street, wore simple, worn and comfortable clothes; and most of them had their purses half-full. The edge of the foul-smelling street was lined with alleyways and stall vendors who had quick eyes and sore throats. It was a rare occasion when someone of wealth would enter this part of the slums, and if they did; well, they wouldn’t stay rich for long.
    As the children’s eyes adjusted, they glanced around warily, their expressions guarded.
    “No guards. Blend.” A female voice whispered, before the three melted into the bustling crowd.

    Separated from the others, seven year old Hem finally found a way out of the crowd and into a minor side alley. Glancing around, he soon located a rickety and flaking pipe that seemed intact. Climbing agilely up it, he pulled himself up over the sharp edge of the roof and onto the vulgar, unstable surface. Not needing to look around for landmarks, he started leaping from roof to roof, earning quite a few aggravated shouts and curses.
    Grinning as the wind blew through the brown mess that was his hair, he turned his head slightly to watch his faded, but still slightly luminous, green scarf fly high in the evening wind. It was one of his favourite possessions; a gift from the parents he could barely remember. It was also his second most valuable possession, as a merchant had once offered to buy it for five copper coins; a fortune for a child of his rank.
    Not too far away, the gangly fourteen year old boy named Cloud wound his way stealthily through the maze of alleys that worked around the trade street and pretty much made up the slums. His shaggy, matted hair, coloured an unusual silver, was held back from his face by a simple headband made out of a torn, black fabric. His grey eyes flickered calmly over his surroundings, adapted so that he could see the minute details even during the darkest hour. Unconsciously running a filthy finger down the vivid scar that decorated his right cheek, Cloud’s memory automatically called forth the past.
    ‘He was younger than Hem back then, and lived with his widowed mother in a sorry excuse for a building in the roughest part of the slums. His desperate mother had managed to scratch a living in the nearby whorehouse, but they were barely getting by. One day, she didn’t come home. When Cloud had gone to her workplace to look for her, he found a tall, ugly thug boasting about how fragile and breakable he mother was. In a rage, he had charged at the man, but ended up getting slashed by his katana.
    “What can a midget like you do to me?” the man had jeered. A few favours later, the murderer had been found dead, and Cloud had possession of the precious sword.’
    Sighing, he banished the unwelcome memory and sped up.
    Perched on a narrow ledge just above the doors inside of a building, the thirteen year old girl glanced up at the poorly patched-up roof, and then at the makeshift barn doors.
    “Slow as always.” Anko sighed, retying her rebelliously spiky black hair. Her fey eyes watching the shabby surrounding constantly, she checked that the daggers strapped to the underside of her wrists were still secure, before confirming that the lock picks and shuriken were still hidden within the lining of her mud-encrusted boots. Bored, she wondered how long her kin could take as she traced the thin scarred cross on her left jaw, her thoughts drifting to rich tastes and bright colours.

    The cloaked men sat around the uneven, dirty table, as far away from the drunks in the inn as possible.
    “I’ve think we’ve decided on our next target, then.” One man said quietly, his face hidden underneath a thick, black hood.
    “Who would have thought that the rich guy’s runaway kid would be here?” A second voice chuckled darkly.
    “Let’s see who can catch the prize first, you ugly idiots.” The only man without his hood up snarled, his face disfigured, dirty, ugly and intimidating.
    “Yes boss.” The others chorused, as the man with sixty-nine tattooed on his left cheekbone laughed.

    “Sorry we’re late, Anko.” The two boys chorused as they wandered into the barn; the abandoned building they called home.
    “I could have died of boredom while you were gone!” Anko teased, grinning as she watched them.
    “Don’t whine so much; you sound like Hem.” Cloud smirked deviously, before walking over to the only corner of the barn that was intact; a dark, relatively dry area. Marking the place as his was a pile of thin blankets, a battered chest and a few wonky shelves. Sitting down on the blankets, he opened a plain brown pouch that was attached to his battered leather belt and pulled out a loaf of slightly stale bread. Consuming it in a few bites, he unsheathed and started sharpening his katana.
    Murmuring a nursery rhyme that he had overheard from a merchant under his breath, Hem climbed up the creaking ladder and onto the remains of the rotting second floor. Flopping down on the mass of trinkets, clothes, blankets, weapons and other bits and pieces, he pulled out a small piece of crumbling cake from the folds of his scarf and started nibbling it, taking pleasure in sweet taste. Once he had finished, he pulled his beloved bow off of his back and started waxing the gleaming wood, using the bow treatment kit he had stolen from a merchant.
    Smiling, Anko watched them go about their usual stuff. She had eaten and done everything earlier, so she now turned around on her perch and examined the hand-drawn map of the slums, which was a stained, torn piece of parchment that had been pinned to the rotting wood of the wall. Mentally making a note of the new locations of gangs, merchants, and other children like themselves, Anko started planning potential escape routes, safe houses and target areas.
    “Sun won’t be down for a while.” She murmured, tensing then relaxing as Hem yawned.
    “We’d better get some sleep.” Cloud said in an indifferent tone; he rarely showed any emotion.
    “I’ll take first watch, guys. See you when it’s dark.” Anko all but commanded, watching as they put aside their weapons and fell asleep. She felt incredibly protective but guilty when they were like this. They had once been innocent beggars, struggling to survive. Then she had come along, the mysterious runaway, and joined the two together and turned them into thieves.
    ‘No use thinking about it.’ She thought, before her thoughts strayed again. It was going to be a long watch.

    The two cloaked figures waited on either side of the alleyway, both hidden within the thick shadows. As the sun finally sunk beneath the horizon, one man grinned.
    “Not long now, Azra.” One figure grinned sinisterly at his companion from underneath his hood.
    “Be quiet, Ryu, or they’ll know we’re here.” Azra scolded quietly, glancing around nervously.
    “Like someone hasn’t noticed us already.” Ryu rolled his eyes, before falling silent.

    Someone was shaking his shoulder. Someone was talking. Someone was poking him. Someone started jumping on him.
    “Argh! Ok, ok, I’m up! Hem, get off me!” Cloud groaned, rolling out of the way of Hem’s next jump. Scrambling to his feet, he glared at the mischievous-looking Anko.
    “You two are evil.” He accused, unable to stop a smile from spreading across his face as he saw Hem’s ‘devil expression’, as they called it.
    “Yep. Now come on, it’s dark. Me and Hem are already set to go.” Anko teased, pointing to the bow and full quiver strapped to the younger boys back. Cloud rolled his eyes before crouching down and grabbing his katana. As the three walked out of the barn, Cloud strapped his blade onto his belt before grinning at the other two.
    Completely unaware of the cloaked man standing in the shadow of a shattered shed, they started to run back to the maze of alleyways, jubilant at the sense of freedom. As the children disappeared, the man chuckled and slipped into the barn.

    Looking around cautiously, the group of three walked down the alleyway. Not too far from the trade street and near to the richer part of the city, it was an ideal lookout point.
    “I’ll take this point. And remember, Hem, we’re looking for the usual types of targets.” Anko gently reminded the boy.
    “We’ll meet you back here in an hour.” Cloud murmured, though he had a bad feeling. Glancing around, he examined the shadows carefully, but found nothing.
    “Be careful.” He added, looking at her seriously.
    “Silly Cloud, no one can hurt sis!” Hem giggled, before tugging on the older boy’s sleeve.
    “Don’t worry; I’ll be fine, now go!” Anko urged, although her smile vanished as they disappeared around the corner. Unsheathing a dagger with a decorated hilt, she scanned the shadows carefully, frowning slightly as she threw the blade at a darker patch of black.
    “Ow! Azra, you told me she would be easy to catch!” the shadow whined, detaching itself from the wall. Anko smiled grimly as she spotted her dagger wedged into the wall, a scrap of fabric and a great deal of blood accompanying it.
    ‘Are they watching?’ she thought uncertainly, dropping to a crouch and focusing her attention on the cloaked man.
    “And she is, Ryu. You’re just an idiot.” A voice full of loathing spoke behind her. Before Anko could react, however, strong, thick arms wrapped around her shoulders, trapping her arms, and lifted her clean off the ground. Fighting down panic, she started kicking wildly, feeling a brief triumph as her foot collided with a knee.
    “Stop watching and deal with her, Ryu!” Anko’s capturer, Azra, barked.
    “Impatient.” The other man teased, before forcefully pressing a filthy rag to Anko’s face.
    She knew what was going to happen. She had already breathed in the sickly scent of the drug. As her vision flickered and she started losing consciousness, she caught a flash of blond hair on the roof above. Smiling, her body went limp in Azra’s arms.
    The two children watched as the two talking cloak men, Azra and Ryu, carried Anko away. A slight frown creasing his innocent-looking face, the blond boy turned to regard his companion.
    “You go inform everyone else. I’ll follow them.” He whispered, his blue eyes twinkling.
    “Are you sure, Rune? The boss said to stay together and observe them.” The girl said uncertainly, glancing to the rapidly disappearing figures.
    “Go, Ururu! Make sure Cloud and Hem are safe!” Rune growled, before getting to his feet and running silently across the rooftops, his eyes never leaving Anko and her captors. Pouting, Ururu glared at the retreating blonde, before turning and running off in search for Anko’s kin.

    Rune’s frown deepened; he had no idea where these two men were going, but he just dutifully tracked the growing group of cloak-men.
    ‘This is getting worse and worse.’ He thought nervously, worrying about Anko and all of the other slum children. He was only six; what else could he do but follow them?
    Grimacing, he noticed the rooftops were coming to an end. Dropping to his stomach, he peered over the edge of the roof and gasped in surprise.
    ‘How long has this been here?’ He wondered, looking out on a vast, circular space. A large, foreboding building, almost resembling a warehouse, stood right in the centre of the area. This wasn’t what made Rune’s blood run cold, though. The building had armed guards posted outside the doors, inside the windows, and on the roof. Hired thugs and criminals patrolled the ground around it, and Rune quietly groaned as Anko was carried into the building.
    ‘I definitely can’t deal with this on my own. Better talk to the boss.’ he sighed, before a planting a small device on the roof that would create a marker on the boss’ map, and, after committing the place and number of guards to memory, he started running back in the direction of Ururu and their base.

    Cloud frowned as the young girl recounted the story again. He was sure it was true, because she was a part of the ‘slum intelligence’, as they called it. He couldn’t believe it though.
    “So, I guess we better go to your boss and wait for Rune to come back.” He finally said unhappily, his hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed katana. He was just about to drop Hem off at his point before the blond girl had dropped down on them; he cursed his bad luck.
    “How could Anko get caught?” Hem whispered, his lower lip jutting out dangerously. Cloud sighed and laid a hand on the younger boys shoulder.
    “Lead the way, kid.” He nodded at the girl, running immediately after the surprisingly fast blond.
    Before long, they had stepped outside an abandoned shop. As soon as the girl named Ururu had crawled in through a gap in the boarded up window, Hem followed quietly. Sighing to himself, Cloud squeezed in through the small gap. As Hem was temporarily lost in the darkness, Cloud touched his shoulder and started leading him through the dusty shop and towards where the girl was. As she opened a hidden trap door set underneath the mess that covered the shop, Ururu gestured impatiently for them to go first. Pushing aside their petty doubts, the boys picked their way over to the door and started the descent.

    Her head pounding furiously, she quietly groaned as her memory rushed back.
    ‘How could I have been so careless? I should have expected it and been prepared.’ She mentally scolded herself, shivering under the little protection her ragged clothes gave her. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked around carefully, all her few hopes melting away. She was in a small, cold and featureless grey room. There were no windows, and the barely visible door had no keyhole, gaps, or any way of opening it from the inside. Cursing quietly as she realised that her captors had confiscated her boots and weapons, she leant against a wall.
    “Hurry up, Rune. I’m counting on you.” She whispered, hugging her knees to her chest.
    On the other side of the cell door, Azra and Ryu were standing, still garbed in black cloaks.
    “I wonder how the Greek terror will react.” Ryu giggled, looking around for the man with sixty-nine on his face.
    “Who, Deimos?” Azra pulled a face at his companion. “If you mess with the boss, he’ll just kill you.”
    “I know, you’ve told me a thousand times.”
    “Come on, let’s just go and get something to eat. I’m starving.”

    Jumping down the manhole, Rune barely reacted as he splashed into the rancid sewer water. Holding his breath against the vile smell, he waded through the chest-high water, wondering what would happen when, or if, anyone got the job of cleaning up. Despite the darkness, he found the ledge that lined the tunnels and climbed up onto the sticky and slippery surface. Getting to his feet, he didn’t move until he saw a red light flash to his right.
    “It’s Rune, of tracker squad seven.” He called out, smirking slightly as the echo sounded confident and full of authority. Accepting the now lit lamp that was suddenly pushed into his hand, he muttered his thanks to the bored albino before making his way down the path.
    Hem played and chattered with a few wide-eyed toddlers while Cloud lounged against the wall. He had been surprised to find that Ururu had led them directly to her base. He was even more surprised about the scale of the base, though. The huge cavern had been built underneath the entire area of the slums, as well as near the sewer tunnels coming from the city, so it was unlikely that outsiders could find it. Aside from the hundreds of exits that littered the rock walls, paper lamps of all different colours hung around the walls and down from the ceiling, so a dim but colourful light enveloped everything.
    ‘I had wondered where all the slum kids went.’ Cloud thought, looking around at the nerve-wracking amount of children. He hadn’t met their boss, and he didn’t really want to. But, as Hem had reminded them, these children were the most well-informed people around.
    Hearing several cries of delight, Cloud looked around and spotted a different kind of light coming out of a dark passageway that he had guessed that, from the smell escaping it, it was a sewer tunnel.
    “Rune!” Ururu called, waving the blond, stinking boy over. As Rune approached them, his expression was grim.
    “I’ve got bad news and goods news. Come with me; I need to report to the boss first.” He said quietly, sounding tired.

    Half an hour later, two newly formed squads were dispatched. As the girls climbed out of the manhole, they nodded to each other in a brief farewell before running towards their destinations. Squad one had risky but easy orders. Check out Anko’s home, then report back if possible; if caught, they would help out squad two. As the five girls skidded to a stop outside the barn, they unsheathed their various weapons and entered the building in a crouch.
    “Cloak-men.” One black-haired seven year old hissed, jumping forwards and sinking her knife through the figures throat, interrupting him in the process of rummaging through Cloud’s stuff. Vaguely aware of her four other friends fighting behind her, her green eyes widened in astonishment before she dropped to the floor, a needle sticking from her shoulder.
    In another part of the slums, squad two had finished examining the scene of Anko’s kidnapping. Climbing onto the rooftop, they started running towards where Rune’s device was transmitting a signal, leaving subtle markers behind them. Stopping as they reached the end of the roof, they sighed in resignation.
    “Better get this done with. Move out.” One girl murmured in a defeated tone, before they jumped down to the street and started sprinting towards the heavily guarded building. As expected, they were caught within seconds; but, unexpectedly, they were also knocked out.

    Groaning, all nine girls slowly opened their eyes and sat up, a few rubbing tender and painful bruises. They found themselves all crowded together in a small, featureless room.
    “Now we wait for the signal.” The two squad leaders said in unison, before checking the others to see if they were ok.
    Ururu and Rune walked up to Cloud and Hem, nearly the entire population of the cavern behind them. They were all armed.
    “Almost all the preparations are set. We just have to get there now.” Rune grinned eagerly; he hadn’t ever taken part in something this big or exciting.
    “Ok, everyone follow the markers, and then go to your starting points!” Ururu called out to the young crowd. “And be careful!”
    Azra shivered. “I’ve got a bad feeling.” He muttered, glancing down the stairs where they were sitting.
    “What? Those girls can’t cause us any trouble.” Ryu laughed, before tensing and falling silent as a shadow fell over the two.
    “Aw, are the little boys scared of a few babies?” Deimos jeered, his tall form towering above them, before he walked right through them.
    “One day someone will kill him.” Ryu muttered darkly, and Azra sighed.

    Squad one and two fell silent and sharpened their hearing. Thud. They started murmuring, uncertain. Thud, thud. Climbing to their feet, the squad captains held up their left hands, waiting as the other girls got stiffly upright. Thud.
    “That’s the signal, all right. Now!” one all but shouted as both captains turned their left hands into a fist. In harmony, all the girls opened their mouths wide and released a long, piercing scream.
    Cloud shifted her weight onto his other leg as the hand holding his katana started to sweat. The main attack depended on him and his assigned squad. He glanced to the positions of the other squads, before looking back and checking that his squad was well hidden. All the children had drawn their weapons; some staffs, some swords, some maces and hammers – there were more types of weapons than Cloud had ever seen. As the screams started up, he started anxiously scanning the sky, watching for their signal.
    Hem giggled, listening to the screams. As expected, the brutes below looked slightly confused by the sudden and unexpected noise. His squad was crouched at the edge of the north roofs, their bows and crossbows already strung and drawn. As a slight flash of light came from the south roofs, he tapped his foot on the ground; the signal to release a painful and deadly rain of arrows.
    As her squad skilfully and effectively picked off the guards below, Ururu carefully lit an arrow and, fitting it on her bow, sent it flying high into the sky. Her main part done, she reached for another normal arrow and joined in with the attack, grinning widely.
    Anko turned her head to one side, listening carefully. Was that thudding sound arrows? Why were people screaming? Confused and worried, she watched where the door should be, hoping that Cloud, Hem and Rune were safe.
    Spotting the flaming arrow, Cloud raised his katana and made a chopping action in the air. As the group behind him roared a bone-chilling battle cry, they all charged as one into the circular area and started attacking men three times their size. Cloud, looking completely serene in the gory battlefield, easily and swiftly cut through any adult who came within his reach, and soon they were making steady progress towards the prison, despite the sudden amount of wounded and dead; not only did they have to fight without the advantage of numbers of strength, but they also had to dodge the lethal flying arrows.
    As Cloud’s squad claimed the attention of the hired thugs, Rune smirked.
    “So far, so good. Let’s go.” He whispered to the others behind him. All dressed in black clothing, they unsheathed small daggers, knives, shuriken and throwing needles, before starting to stealthily approach the building from behind.
    Azra glanced around in alarm. Girls were screaming, a loud roar was growing outside, and everyone inside had no idea of what was going on. It eventually twigged.
    “Ryu, we’ve got to get out!” Azra gasped, completely unaware of that he would only be confirming their deaths if they went outside. Dragging his confused companion to his feet, he started heading down the stairs, before freezing as Deimos strode out of a side room.
    “Hold your places! How can you be frightened of a few pathetic runts, you scum?!” The intimidating man roared below them, before striding to the main doors. “No measly children can-“He suddenly cut off, the half open doors swinging the rest of the way. His eyes wide, his fat hands gripped at the arrow protruding from his throat, before the huge man slowly toppled backwards, his grubby shirt already stained with blood. As Deimos hit the ground, chaos erupted.
    Reaching the building undetected, Rune’s group started quietly scaling the sturdy walls. Climbing silently onto the roof, Rune snuck stealthily up behind the closest guard, before reaching forwards and running his dagger across the soft skin of the man’s throat. As the corpse fell to the ground, the rest of his squad swarmed across the roof, dispatching the guards with practised ease. Smiling cheerfully, Rune turned to regard the skylight. Sheathing his bloody dagger, he pulled out a lock pick and started working on the lock.
    “Break inside!” Cloud shouted over the thunderous noise of the fight. His entire body burning with exhaustion and his skin and clothes dripping crimson liquid, he parried a poorly-aimed sword before lopping the woman’s head off. Close to his limits, he raised his bloody katana and led the charge against the open door and the remaining bulk of the guard, running over the gruesome bodies of both allies and enemies. Barely reacting as blades and spears scratched and stabbed him, he pushed onwards.
    ‘We’re coming, Anko.’

    Jerking to his feet, Anko strained her ears again. The screaming had stopped a moment ago, but the sound of the fight was even louder.
    ‘I guess the fighting has come inside....that’s it!’ she heard clicking and scraping emitting from where the door should be.
    “Hey!” a childish voice shouted, shortly followed by a groan and a thud. Catching her breath, she backed away from the slowly opening fixture, her heart beating loudly.
    “Hi Anko-Chan!” a group of young children chorused as they flooded into the room. Bewildered, the older girl looked around at the mixture of tired-looking girls and bloodied, armed boys.
    “Come on, guys! No time for formalities! Go carry out your orders!” a familiar voice shouted over the excited chatter, and Anko grinned foolishly as he spotted a blonde head weaving through the thinning crowd.
    “You took your time, Rune.” Anko accused, hugging the small boy tightly.
    “Ugh, can we save the talk for later? I wanna get out of this playground; all the good parts of the invasion are over with.” Rune grimaced, wiggling out of her arms. Wiping away the blood that was flowing from his scalp into his eye, he walked towards the door. Feeling relieved and anxious at the same time, she followed the boy out of the cell.
    Breathing hard, Cloud examined the two shrivelled, cloaked men on the floor in front of him.
    ‘Would they want a prisoner for information?’ He wondered, leaning against the wall, holding his katana loosely. His squad, after being combined with Rune’s, had effectively flushed out and slaughtered the majority of the enemies within the building. Now they were searching ruthlessly for anyone left alive, while Rune collected the children that had been captured earlier.
    “What are your names?” he barked suddenly.
    “I’m A-A-Azra.” The man that had lost his right arm squeaked nervously, his face pale from fear and loss of blood.
    “I’m Ryu.” The other one muttered unhappily, pressing his hand to a wound on his leg, blood running down his entire face.
    “C-can we speak with your b-boss? W-we know the plans of other g-g-gangs, and we’re w-w-willing to c-co-operate.” The man named Azra stuttered weakly.
    ‘Might as well; if they’re not useful, they’ll die anyway.’ Cloud thought, before calling over four unwounded children who were comparing how many they had killed.
    Hem sighed as their allies started emerging from the building. The stench of blood and the screams of the dying hung heavy in the air.
    “Cease fire! Playtimes over.” He called regretfully, before slinging his bow onto his back. Once all of the enemies outside were dead, they had concentrated on shooting down and destroying any attempts of escape.
    “How many did you kill?” someone asked suddenly beside him, making Hem jump. Looking around at Ururu, he noticed that her squad was mingling with his.
    “Lost track.” He giggled, gently rubbing his bleeding hand.
    “Tsk. Let’s go meet the others.” She laughed, before jumping down to the bloody road below, Hem and the other archers following.

    Startled, Anko could only gaze around. Rune had led her through the corpse-ridden building, and now they were standing outside in the circular space.
    “Y-You guys done this?” she chokes out, looking around with sick fascination and horror at the carnage.
    ‘It’s a battleground.’ She thought suddenly, looking around at the varying sizes and types of corpses that littered the ground. Some only had a slit throat, but some were butchered beyond recognition. Before Rune could answer, however, a large group of kids crashed into them.
    “Anko!” someone called out from the crowd.
    “Hem!” she cried, battling her way towards him. Once they had found each other, they embraced tightly.
    “You’re ok! You’re ok!” Hem rejoiced, grinning foolishly.
    In another part of the crowd, Rune and Ururu were talking quietly. But as the chattering children fell silent, they glanced about in alarm. Cloud had just walked out of the building, with two cloaked men and four children in tow.
    “Yo, Rune. Information for ya.” Cloud called, scanning the crowd intently. Spotting Anko and Hem, he sheathed his dripping katana and pushed his way towards them, leaving his small group and the two startled children behind.
    “Hey.” He said quietly, smiling fondly.
    “Hey.” Anko replied, her eyes glistening as she looked up to the blood-soaked figure.

    Rune glanced around again, his face downcast. Despite the fact that they had won, and the fight was fun, they had lost many good kids. Feeling a small, wet slip into his hand, he glanced down and smiled softly as he identified the bloody hand as Ururu’s.
    “Don’t worry, sis. Once we’re recovered, the boss will send us back out to gather everyone.” He whispered into her ear. Earlier she had been delighted at their win, like everyone else; that was, until she realised that everyone was either wounded or dead.
    “Maki-Maki got really hurt and fell. I-Is he gonna come back?” Ururu whispered, keeping her eyes locked firmly forwards. During the fight, right before Rune’s squad had taken out the long-ranged fighters on the roof of the building, the boy standing next to her took a belly-full of bolts from a deadly crossbow. Ururu had tried to catch him, but before her hand could reach him, Maki-Maki’s limp form had toppled from the roof.
    “...I don’t know. Come on, now, we’re not meant to think about the past. Keep your mind set on the present, right?” Rune tried to reassure her, struggling to hold back his own depression. Seeking to distract himself, he glanced around at the wide alley they were travelling down. The survivors were slowly making their way towards the closest, dry entrance that would take them to the hideout, many having to support each other. Despite the fact that the sun had come up half an hour earlier, though, they made no attempt to conceal their movements.
    ‘Let the guards come, if they dare.’ Rune thought tiredly, turning his concentration to the ground in front of him and Ururu as the two led the survivors to the familiar haven.
    Tightening her hold on Hem’s bleeding hand, Anko shuffled and stumbled along with the rest of the children. Her body aching, she glanced again at the younger boy. Even though his exhaustion was obvious, his expression radiated pure joy. Raising her gaze, she examined Cloud carefully. He had numerous injuries, luckily nothing fatal, and was limping slightly. Despite his haggard and gore-splattered appearance, his face held the usual calm, unbothered expression. Ever since she had gotten out of the prison of the cloaked men, she had felt different than she usually did whenever she looked at Cloud. Too tired to figure it out immediately, she settled to just examining his face. Sensing her gaze, Cloud turned his head to regard Anko, his eyebrows raised in a questioning expression. Her face burning as her heart skipped a beat, she dropped her gaze and focused on moving forwards. Smiling slightly, Cloud rested one hand on the slippery hilt of his katana and carried marching forwards, denying admittance to the exhaustion that was threatening to overpower his limbs and trying to ignore the vile smell.
    Coughing, Ryu looked around again, counting the number of small heads that surrounded them. Realising that they couldn’t escape anyway, what with Azra’s injuries, he turned and grinned to his struggling companion.
    “It wasn’t as easy as you said it would be.” He teased, trying to lighten his comrade’s mood.
    “Didn’t know there was an army out here.” Azra grunted, shaking and pale as he held onto his armless shoulder. Wondering whether his friend would survive or not, Ryu looked around the bleak, grimy alleyway that much resembled the one when Deimos had first recruited the two.
    ‘No matter what happens, I hope I get to stay together with Azra. I wonder what’s going to happen now, though...’ yawning as he battered off another wave of exhaustion, Ryu submitted to trudge along with the crowd in silence, his robes soaked in his own blood.

    As the battered and bone-weary children meandered into the cavernous haven, groans of the injured were quickly drowned underneath cries of delight. Several older children, appearing to be around Anko’s age, were waiting in the centre of the base; but this wasn’t what cheered the army of kids up. Covering the floor was hundreds of plates of all types of biscuits: custard creams, digestives, bourbons, nice – thousands of types that would often only be found in the highest and richest of places.
    Depositing the seriously wounded against the smooth wall, the crowd swarmed over the plates, consuming the mass of food in seconds and forgetting about the gory struggle that they had just participated in. Startled, Anko, Cloud, Azra and Ryu stared at the wild scene. Hem had been lost within the biscuit frenzy, and Rune and Ururu had gone to report to the ‘Boss’.
    “I never knew midgets could fit so much in their mouths.” Ryu said in wonder, holding up his barely conscious friend.
    “How can they just eat biscuits like that?” Cloud murmured, looking along the long line of injured souls that decorated the now-glistening wall. Older children fluttered amongst them, carrying some off to unknown rooms, treating some on the spot. All were dressed in a simple black, long-sleeved top and trousers, and appeared to have no weapons. Watching these go around now, the four started to shift nervously, feeling as though they had been forgotten. Then, as Hem trotted back to join them, the superior-looking children that had first been in the centre of the biscuits emerged from the wiggling mass of bodies, beckoning to them.
    Reaching out and taking hold of each of Hems hands, Anko and Cloud led the way after their surprisingly swift guides. Sighing in resignation, Ryu tightened his hold on Azra and followed at a slower pace, his vision starting to blur slightly as the deafening roar of the children echoed throughout the large space and all but destroyed his perception. After navigating to another mysterious entrance, they carefully stepped down into the increasingly heavy darkness, barely able to walk two-abreast; Cloud was forced to walk just behind Anko and Hem.
    “We’re heading down, Azra. We’re gonna reach the middle of the world, soon, then no-one can bother us.” Anko felt a pang of sympathy for the two men, but soon banished the small feeling.
    ‘They’re the enemy. They’re the ones who captured me. But even so, they were probably forced.’
    Trying to ignore her mind, she concentrated on her surroundings instead. The rough breathing of the two men, Hem and Cloud rattled the eerie silence, and their heavy footsteps thudded on roughly excavated rock. A trickle of water could be heard in the distance, and the tangy stench of dampness hung heavy in the air. Submitting herself to another long trek, Anko concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, counting.

    Exactly two thousand, three hundred and sixty two paces later, the ground evened out.
    “Stop. Prisoners, stay here.” A cold, commanding voice growled, the speech broken and fractured. As a painfully bright candle spluttered to life, a heavy iron door creaked as it slowly swung open. Their guide, who had weirdly enough changed to a tall figured completely veiled in a silky white fabric, set the candle on the floor just inside of the room. Worried, Ryu slowly dragged himself and his now unconscious companion into the cell. Wincing as the door slammed shut with deadly finality, he looked around the tiny cell. In the corner there was a tiny, crumpled bed, and apart from that piece of furniture and the candle, the room was devoid of all items. The walls, floor and ceiling were carved by barbarians, compared to the larger cavern, and it was dirtier beyond compare. Setting Azra gently down on the pallet, Ryu sat down and leant against the freezing wall, watching as the small flame of the candle struggled to hold back the demonic blackness.
    “Come on. We’re almost there.” The incomprehensible guide barked, before turned and walking down the passageway at a faster pace. Anko, Hem and Cloud struggled to keep up with the lithe figure, already exhausted beyond compare.

    Hearing the door click open, soon accompanied by a rustling of fabric, Rune and Ururu glanced around in alarm. As the white-veiled guide stepped into the room, they relaxed and breathed out in relief.
    “The three you requested are here, my lord.” He announced, bowing respectfully.
    “Bring them in.” An elegant, female voice said clearly.
    Nodding, he straightened and beckoned, before walking to a shadowed area of the room and exiting through another door.
    As Hem, Cloud and Anko entered, looking bedraggled, bloodied and thoroughly exhausted, they predictably gasped in amazement as they gazed around, causing Rune to smirk and Ururu to giggle.
    The walls and floor were richly-adorned by vibrant fabrics, exotic tapestries, and exquisite paintings. A sublime, detailed map of the city and slums concealed the entire space of the ceiling. A low, broad table, embellished with divine etchings, preoccupied the centre of the room, and held a boundless amount of letters, maps, weapons, books, and other such items. On the further side of it, a transcendent chair made of treated, dark wood and sacred, red velvet sat, holding a dainty figure.
    The person sitting on the chair was another thing altogether. As each of the three pairs of eyes settled on it, their stunned reaction was only to stare and drink up the sight.
    Cloaked in a majestic, silk robe, the fabric - coloured grey and decorated with a pattern of white lotuses – fell down to the floor in folds, concealing the shape of the body as the snowy skin shimmered flawlessly in the light, one petite hand free of the lengthy sleeves of the robes and drumming repetitively on the table, the short nails well-cared for. The immaculate silver hair framed the heavenly face and flowed neatly down to the jaw line, yet a few locks of hair twirled further down, resting slightly on the glossy robes before stopping halfway down the straight, proud back. Slanted, sparkling bronze eyes regarded the three children peacefully, a sharp intellect hidden within their arcane depths. Her red lips curled upwards in a half-smile, and she stopped drumming on the table.
    Rune and Ururu glanced at her, used to her unique beauty.
    “Hey, boss, do you want us to leave?” Rune asked, rolling one shoulder and then the other.
    “No, Rune, I still need you two here; but you can go and get cleaned up, if you want. Don’t take too long, though.” The young woman smiled as Rune and Ururu disappeared behind a violet-coloured fabric, before turning to Anko, Hem and Cloud. Noticing their expressions, she let out a peal of angelic laughter.
    “You look like you’ve just confronted a god!” she teased, before sobering. “I apologise for any inconvenience, but I can guarantee this won’t happen again. Is there any way we can compensate for everything you’ve been through?”
    Anko glanced to Cloud, but before they could speak, Hem giggled.
    “Why are you apologizing? Playtime was really fun!” He bounced on his heels, beaming at the woman.
    “We just want to get home.” Anko said apologetically, smiling slightly at Rune’s boss.
    The woman nodded knowingly. “I understand. I request that you rest and clean up here first, though, while we dispatch a squad to check your place of residence. I....I don’t know if this is an inappropriate time, but would you maybe be persuaded to join us here?” she suggested gently.
    “We’ll think about it.” Cloud stated firmly.
    “By the way, lady, what’s your name?” Hem quickly injected, curiosity burning within him.
    She laughed again, looking amused. “Me? You can call me Haineko.”
    ‘Ash cat? What an odd name.’ Anko thought, watching Haineko carefully.
    At that moment, Rune and Ururu emerged from behind the same place as before, but this time they were clean and garbed in fresh, plain clothes. Haineko straightened, looking over to them.
    “Ah, Rune, Ururu. Please take our guests to their rooms and make sure they get treated properly.” She ordered a slight hint of steel underneath her words.
    “Yes, ma’am.” The two replied obediently, before leading the bemused visitors behind a tapestry and back through a confusing mass of tunnels – the only difference was that this time, they could see where they was going, and they had an inkling of what the future held.

    Perched on a narrow, reinforced ledge just above the doors inside of a vibrant, well-made building, the girl glanced up at the securely-fixed roof, and then at the sturdy, strong barn doors.
    “Slow as always.” Anko sighed, retying her rebelliously spiky black hair. Her bright, fey eyes watching the colourful surrounding constantly, she checked that the new, grand daggers strapped to the underside of her wrists were still safely secure, before confirming that the numerous lock picks and lethal shuriken were still hidden within the lining of her warm, hardy boots. Bored, she wondered how long her kin could take as she traced the thin scarred cross on her left jaw, her thoughts drifting to recent memories of enticing foods, joyous and fun filled nights, and outrageously beautiful rooms.
    “Sorry we’re late, Anko.” The two boys chorused as they trotted into the repaired barn; the place that they proudly called home.
    “You two took a century!” Anko teased, grinning as she watched them enter, looking like city boys in their expertly-made, warm and snug clothes.
    When they had returned from Haineko’s, Rune’s and Ururu’s home after politely rejecting the woman’s offer, they had been shocked. Their shabby, broken home had been renovated and redecorated, and inside they had found many new, stunning items; from clothes to food – no doubt on Haineko’s orders. Their life had reverted to its usual route, apart from the fact that things were much easier now. Every now and then, they visited the cavern full of biscuit-orientated children and white-veiled guides, but, as Hem once stated bluntly, they preferred open air above them instead of heavy earth.
    “Nothing’s really changed, has it? Aside from the small things.” Cloud murmured, walking over to his corner and sitting down on a soft, downy bed piled high with vibrant, warm and delicate blankets.
    “No, not really.” Anko sighed, trying to identify the confusing whirl of emotions and failing miserably.
    ‘Despite what happens, once the dead have been buried and the wounded have been tended to, the fight is pretty much forgotten. Maybe because we know that there are gonna be more fights of all kinds for our freedom in the future, so the past is either forgotten or ignored.’