Anna Zeeb’s earliest memory was of running through the sand at night, running with her sister Louise and their parents. In the distance behind them, the tree Ekesme lit up as the guards noticed they were missing. Ekesme was a tree of despair, a place where Humans and Half-Elves were locked up for the sake of breeding. It overlooked a massive chasm, so deep that with the sun directly overhead, only darkness could be seen within. Any born with undesirable traits would be thrown down the hole, never to see the light of day. It was said that the survivors of that place, and places like it, were the progenitors of the Darklings.
At the time, Anna was too young to understand why they were running. Ekesme had been their home all their life, and it was her first time seeing the outside. Not knowing anything else, she simply held her younger sister’s hand and ran after her parents. The night was cold and they were falling behind, unable to keep up with their parent’s experienced strides. As she tried to catch her breath, she was picked up by her father’s strong arms, with Louise also, and they were wrapped up in his thick coat. The coat was large enough to fit both of their small bodies with ease, as they were carried into the night.
In the distance they could hear an eagle’s cry, and their mother’s face seemed worried. The memory wasn’t clear enough for Anna to know what was said, but the adult Anna recognised that her mother, Chloe Zeeb, had been concerned about the Sky-Elf Knights, soldiers that mounted giant birds, following them. Had they been caught out in the open, they wouldn’t have had any chance of escape. Their father, Lucas Zeeb, was an experienced Glass Tower raider, and was well aware of that danger. Without missing a beat, he ran them towards a distant structure.
The Angles Street tower was daunting to look at. It was a circular building and in the dark night it gave the impression of being a towering spear, ready to strike down any that approached. In the many years since Ekesme’s founding, none had ever conquered the nearby tower. The best anyone could do was holding off the monsters that escaped it or surviving the first few levels. Despite that, or rather, because of that, they wouldn’t be followed once they entered.
Their father was fully equipped with a set of Elven plate armour, enchanted to be light and strong, with a sword on his belt and a rifle on his back. Their mother wasn’t in the best of conditions, having been kept in Ekesme for a few years, but prior to that, she was a distinguished raider whose fame and beauty, despite being a Human, caught the attention of her Elfish detainers. After years apart, she once again held her beloved revolver and gun belt. With a weapon in her hands, Anna’s mother seemed more alive, saner even, than she had ever seen. It was at that moment, seeing the power in her mother’s eyes, that Anna first realised that there was something not right with Ekesme.
They entered the tower through a broken window and greeted by the stench of rotting flesh. The room was filled with bloated bodies that had long turned black with decay. Though the bodies of the dead would normally be consumed by towers it wasn’t the only outcome. The reason people would normally wait to see their party members get eaten was because that was still the better option. When they entered the tower, the bodies began to get pulled to their feet by thin web like wires. Controlled like puppets, the bodies would continue to attack until the wires were cut and the bodies were hacked to pieces. If the bodies remained intact then the wires would simply reattach and they would attack once more.
Not only was that more dangerous but the reason it was considered a fate far worse than death was because the Glass Tower System trapped their souls in their bodies while it happened. While most of the time, the souls could only be heard if a necromancy type anima spell was cast, occasionally the tower would give the bodies voice, just so the raiders could hear the bodies cry out in pain from the wire hooks, the bodies rotting, and the raider’s attacks. As could be expected for a tower so close to Ekesme, the Angles Street tower was one such sadistic place.
As the dead screamed and wailed around them, their father pushed them into a wall and covered them with the coat, hopping to spare them even the slightest amount of horror. In that moment, deprived of sight, Anna’s Half-Elf hearing, sharper than a Human’s but more dull than an Elf’s, could hear a squelching tearing sound through the ever increasing screams. Their father’s blade acted like a mirror and reflected light under the coat, tracing his movements as he danced throughout the room. Heavy sounds of falling bodies, pungent smells of rotted blood; those were the sharpest things that filled the memories. Like an infection, those sounds, those smells, infected other memories. As much as she wished to remember the moments spent curled up in her mother’s lap as she read to her, those moments were instead filled also with that haunting smell, those haunting sounds.
It was at that time where Anna first found the smell of gunpowder to be comforting. It was something that she would carry with her for the rest of her life, but the sound and smell of a freshly fired gun, filled her with a sense of security; like she was being watched over by her mother. The metallic sound of spent rounds hitting the ground and the warmth of that metal in the cold were an odd kind of precious to her; she knew it wasn’t a normal desire, but it was at that point that she knew that a life spent around weapons would be the only path that could calm her.
As the room grew quiet, her father told her not to take the coat off and to absolutely not let Louise take the coat off. His voice stressed the importance of it, but it was evident that Louise was too young to catch it. From her perspective, it might have been the reason she looked; she was told not to and it made her all the more curious about what was being hidden. Before Anna could stop her, Louise had taken a peak under the coat and her face turned ash like white with shock. Her sight was blocked off but it couldn’t be unseen. The room was filled with simply too much of what her young mind could only call bad for her to handle, and she seemed to shut down in that moment.
She could hear her mother whispering, over and over, “We just need to hold out till dawn, we just need to hold out till dawn” like it was some kind of wish. Their father however seemed far more composed, saying “Arawn take these spirits as the move forward. May what comes next be more pleasant than what they’ve been through.”
It was at that moment that an endless scurrying could be heard from below, as the spiral staircase that was at the centre of the room spilled over with a sea of rats. Their intended captors were outside, but dared not to enter, but the building was becoming more dangerous by the moment. They couldn’t escape from the rats without be captured by the Elves. While the Elves wanted them alive, their mother had an expression that said she would rather face death. While their mother used their father’s sword to hold back what rats she could, he drew a magic array, unlike any she had seen in her short life. It seemed more like a painting, a piece of art, than an array and it depicted a bird surrounded by a sea of flames, all contained in a double circle.
Many years later, after researching for nearly a full week without rest, she worked out that it was a form of magic casting called a beast array, where those willing to form a connection with one of the great magical beasts could send them life energy in exchange for some of that creatures mana. The young her had no way of knowing, but her father had sacrificed nearly a decade of his life in order to gain the mana he needed for that spell. For short lived races like Orcs and Humans, it was an untouchable spell that would kill its user, but for an Elf a decade or two was next to nothing.
With the array finished, he called out, and their mother, ducked out of the way as two burning, snake-like wings stretched out and embraced the sea of rats. After half a minute, there was only ash left. However, the spell had been more mana than his body could handle, and he collapsed on the spot. To make matters worse, flesh-less bodies started to descend from the floors above. Though they were coming down one at a time, and their mother was making short work of them with her gun, whenever she reloaded, they got closer. In the moment when she realised there were no bullets left on her belt, the skeletons were already within arm’s reach.
She rolled to the side while holstering her gun and took up a position with the sword. But then, her face contorted with dread as they ignored her and instead went for their downed father. In panic, their mother rushed forward and tried to kill through the waves of dead, but by the time she reached him, he had had his chest pierced by a bony hand. Tears ran down her face as she embraced him, not noticing the continued arrival of skeletons.
At that moment, Anna rushed forward and seized the sword, unwilling to lose another parent. To her young body, the weapon that her father had held with a single hand was like a great sword, a weapon of legend, and with it in her hands she would be like the warriors she had loved to hear about. The stories of Cu Chulainn filled her head, as did Conn of the Hundred Battles; with grand inspiration she couldn’t see any outcome but her heroic victory. However, she proved to be just as short sighted as her mother, and while she fought a scream rang out behind her. Clearing back a foe, she turned to see her mother being crushed by her father’s embrace, his body controlled by wires.
That was the turning point of the night, no more was she attacking, but wholeheartedly devoted herself to defence. Even when a perfect opportunity to attack was given, Anna only acted to protect herself and Louise. It went that way for an hour, surviving attacks not only from fleshless monsters, but monsters with her parents flesh. After that hour passed, the first light of dawn struck the top of the tower, and its light filled the whole building through a feature of its design. At that moment, she remembered her mother’s words, that they only needed to hold out till dawn, but also at that moment, her strength was entirely spent.
She collapsed to the ground, waiting for the death-blow to come; waiting for a strike that never came. She looked around to see a warrior wearing some of the finest armour she had ever seen; plate with intricate leaf-like etchings, a round metal shield that moved like an extension of her arm and a spear that seemed to dance like a branch in the wind. But her most noticeable, most memorable, feature was her eyes. Her eyes were a rich maple-amber colour that seemed to burn with confidence and power. She was like the hero Anna thought she could be. With only a few minutes, the mysterious saviour had cleared the room.
“My name is Kat Anaon, Second Shield-bearer for the Order of Morrigan.” She introduced herself with a voice that almost seemed divine, “Your father wanted me to take you to Enoksen. Seeing how well you survived, however, I’m inclined to recommend you to the order.”
With that, they travelled to a small city around a tree called Enoksen. Unlike Ekesme, Enoksen was a young tree, filled with life that seemed to inspire those around it with the need to protect it. In that city Anna and Louise started to learn the ways of the Order of Morrigan, the heroic order that Anna aspired to. They spent every day, running, shooting, learning and otherwise training. It was like that for several years until they had established themselves as true Shield-bearers.
However, things weren’t going well for Louise. It was Anna’s greatest regret that she hadn’t noticed her sister’s pain until it was far too late. Anna was the pride of the training group, the best and most promising member, and like the other top recruits, had already been augmented by the Glass Tower system. Louise however, was simply scrapping by trying to keep up with them, and those around them could only see her as holding Anna back. It was especially the case by the time they became Fourth Shield-bearers. Though Louise would return home with bruises and injuries, Anna simply assumed they were cause by accidents during training, and was completely unable to see the malice that filled their unit.
It wasn’t till a General from Smith Street Village, a border town and trade partner with good relations with Enoksen, saved Louise from being beaten to an inch of her life, that Anna discovered just how bad things had been for her. General Ethan Clark, however, didn’t stop there. He had been amazed with Louise. She had kept pace in advancement with that group despite the rest having the tower system to support them. If the management hadn’t been so preoccupied with Anna, they might have notice that Louise had far, far more potential. Furthermore, despite the everyday cruelty she faced, Louise didn’t only stay there because of Anna, but because she still believed in the order. General Clark didn’t let the opportunity slip, and immediately put in a transfer order, an order that was passed by management without so much as a second glance; they finally were free of their problem.
When Louise left, she smiled happily to Anna. It was the first time she had gotten promoted before her, and even got the promotion on direct recommendation from a general. She left that day wearing their father’s heavy synthetic cotton coat, still far too big for either of them, with their mother’s revolver in her pocket. The gun belt Anna kept, despite not having much need for it, as they felt it connected the two of them together and to their parents. With word spreading that dangers would be approaching the city soon, Anna was actually a little relieved that Louise wouldn’t be there to face that.
Louise left saying simply, “I’ll be back soon, so stay safe while I’m gone.”