Chapter 1 Is Redemption possible?
Five days before the first Tournament of Eternal Order
As the Echo train glided across the serene Acacian countryside, John Stasis introspectively analyzed his state of mind underneath the morning sun. It always happened this way. Unable to meditate for nearly an hour, John could no longer isolate the remorse from his thoughts. John believed all words; even unspoken held tremendous power. In this moment a certain word continuously repeated in his mind.
One by one the traumatic events from his past cycled endlessly through his mind. John clenched his fist recalling the hatred he felt for those who had mocked and opposed him. Staring at his hand John opened his palm. Letting the hatred go, John brushed his hands through spiky dark blue hair. He wished he could just as easily brush away the guilt he felt. Just then another word came to his mind.
John laughed at his sentimental foolishness. He had always considered redemption a silly notion. Could such a thing even be possible? Why now, after years of detachment, did John suddenly feel so conflicted about his actions?
I have committed so many trespasses against those I am now forced to ally with. Yet I find myself wishing to co-exist peacefully with them.
John's face contorted. He could no longer stand this draining sensation welling up inside him. As he began to stand up John felt a familiar strain upon his back. John bared the burden of an ossuary; a large jade encrusted silver urn which contained the ashes of his deceased essence monk clansmen. With each passing second that burden seemed to grow heavier on his heart. At his wits end, John removed the leather sling of the ossuary from his shoulder, drawing the attention of his Felidae companion Keiko Litany.
Keiko's pointed ears perked up. Sensing a disturbance, she immediately ceased manipulation of the fire ameno she had been threading. Turning a wary eye toward John, Keiko gathered the magical thread into a bundle around her waist. John had grown more restless since they had arrived the day before on planet Acacia. She knew he always had troubles meditating on a moving vehicle, especially something as naturally fast and agile as this echo train. The caterpillar like train glided through the air along hidden tracks which only became solidified when in range of the trains humming echo. Keiko watched John place the ossuary upon the edge of the train car. A chill ran through her body as he clenched both of his fists. Keiko immediately took on a defensive posture wary of his actions. Expecting conflict, she stood up looking up and down the long cylinder train for potential foes.
"Precept? Are we under attack?"
John didn't acknowledge her question. The wind caught his silver overcoat as he planted olive green combat boots upon the train car. John remained silent as the word "Legacy" written in cursive emblazoned white text across the back of the coat wavered in the wind. Just below this, the sigil of a blackened anvil beneath an eclipsed moon. John reached into the pockets of his silken silver striped pants and pulled out a simple strip of paper. Written upon the paper existed one word.
This word had never been far from his mind. After all this is the word father had used to describe him in the past. Breathing in deeply John held the paper close to his heart. John's mind flooded with thoughts of what he wanted to be in the future. Taking the paper away John looked at it again. The word had changed. He spoke it aloud.
This word evoked a strong memory within him. John began recalling his very first exercise as an essence monk, where he chose this word as the label which best described his spirit. Twisting off the top of the ossuary, John opened it and placed the strip of paper amongst the ashes within. Continuing to watch him, Keiko began wondering why he would place the relic most sacred to him upon the train in such a casual manner. She assumed he had brought her with him on a secret mission for the Raine family at the water shrine. Like always John did not elaborate on the specifics. She had no idea what his true purpose for bringing her with him could be. Closing his eyes and holding his right hand over his heart John bowed his head.
"Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. From this day my brothers, I promise to live enough for all of us!"
With a fierce yell John smashed his foot across the ossuary, propelling it from the echo train far into the distant rolling hills. In awe Keiko watched the ossuary descend and smash into a hilltop. Upon impact a large gray cloud burst forth with a cascading shatter. After a moment it began to drift away with the winds. Despite seeing his burden float away, John still felt some guilt in the moment for breaking his oath. As the last of the essence monks, it fell upon him to bring the ashes of all his deceased clansmen together.
"Forgive me everyone. From this day forward, I wish to be a monk of the essence no longer."
John sighed and fell silent. Keiko heard a distance in his voice that she had never heard before. Wondering if she would be the next thing he'd decide to kick off the train, Keiko gulped uneasily as John turned his gaze upon her. Seeing his foreboding steel gray eyes upon her only served to amplify her anxiety. He studied her features scanning her with renewed interest. Keiko's hands uneasily fidgeted with the long bangs on her otherwise short cut carmine red hair. On her torso Keiko wore a tight black and orange body suit, reminding him of a Bengal tigress. Small but fierce Keiko's style showed off her well-toned slender form. Faint silver crescent runic markings etched into the skin along her collar along with the concentrated intensity in her nut brown eyes, trademarked her Felidae heritage.
Since losing a duel to him back on Celestine years ago, Keiko had served a life debt to John. The remorseless training he had made her endure had combined surprisingly well with her talent for the manipulation of fire ameno. Keiko had done her best to make herself useful to him, if for nothing else to spare her own hide from his wrath.
Is he testing me? Perhaps this is some sort of ruse?
Keiko began tracing her fingers along her waist, readying both of her dual bladed windmill daggers. Nervous she looked out to the rolling plains. The lush green serenity of the countryside did little to ease the dreadful feeling in her gut.
Precept has been acting strangely since we've arrived on Acacia.
Staring at her, John offered no rationale for his actions.
His meditations are troubled, yet I dare not acknowledge this. It could disrupt his focus which would annoy him or worse yet anger him.
Surprised to hear John speak her taken name, Keiko turned her gaze to his. She bowed her head to acknowledge him.
"Yes Precept, what is your will?"
John paused unsure what to say next. He wanted to tell her so many things to give her positive reinforcement. He began to think on how to acknowledge her improvement. But how could he expect Keiko to appreciate any complimentary words from him; especially after all the agony he had put her through these past few years?
If you're serious about this John, about redemption overcoming regret, about consistency pushing through failure, you will have to start with her.
John began forcing himself to smile awkwardly.
"I just wanted you to know..."
He paused and took a deep breath to gather his thoughts.
This is not as simple as I had hoped...
Knowing the importance that John placed on spoken word, Keiko anxiously awaited for him to continue. A loud screech blared through the air as the echo train suddenly engaged its brakes. A convulsive motion from the echo train sent John and Keiko tumbling forward down the train cars. The roof of the echo cart ahead of them shifted, revealing a spiked trap meant to impale them. Acting swiftly John grabbed for Keiko's hand. Securing it, he blasted them both away from the spikes with sonic ameno. They plunged backwards into the hard dirt and crashed backwards whipping up a trail of dust. Taking a bump to her skull, Keiko shook her head dazed momentarily. John continued to hold her hand as a group of people amassed ahead of them.
"Honor and glory to the formless one!"
Still clouded in dust, John pulled Keiko closer to him. He gathered sonic ameno erecting a barrier with it to shield their location. Shards of metal filled the air littering the barrier with shrapnel, which pinged harmlessly against it. Keiko held her mouth coughing as the smoke and burning metal smell overwhelmed her heightened senses. Now shielded from the interference, she turned toward John awaiting his orders.
"Precept, shall we engage the enemy?"
John hushed her speaking in a soft tone.
"Tell me what you sense."
Despite the chaos surrounding them, the clarity of his voice calmed her. Relaxing her mind Keiko felt her senses expand from within the dust. She felt an unnatural presence had gathered to block their progress. In the distance Keiko could hear hurried footsteps rushing away from their location.
"There are six enemies close to us. Another three farther to the north seem to be retreating Precept. I'm not sure what they are however. But they aren't human."
John nodded acknowledging her.
The courier that had stolen the relic from the water shrine must be among them after all.
Otherworldly voices began speaking.
"We'll deal with these off world leeches! No one opposes the formless one!"
"We won't allow them to cleanse the water!"
John tightened his hand over Keiko's wrist. Gesturing outward the smoky air around them dispersed in a semi-circle. They drew deep breaths preparing for the inevitable confrontation. No longer hidden in the cloud of dust their opponents began to approach.
It surprised John and Keiko that servants of the formless clan had returned. In the past they had taken the mantle of nature and growth. Yet these things that called themselves formless seemed to embrace the opposite. Cladding themselves in darkened robes, they each brandished twisted bamboo stalks in a threatening manner. Keiko cringed as her eyes traced the dark mana corruption which had removed all the flesh and features from their faces leaving only a thin shadowy form. The one she stared at pointed at her and began to speak.
"Where the formless walk, death and decay follow! This is the true pathway of nature."
John wondered if they were truly responsible for the theft from the shrine. Anticipating their opponent's imminent attack Keiko turned to John.
"Shall I distract them for you precept?"
John met her gaze with his.
"Think you can keep up with me?"
Keiko's face tightened.
The corners of his mouth arched upward. No matter how daunting the task placed upon them, he had never known Keiko to back down from a challenge. John stood up and pointed to the sky.
"Get ready to fly!"
Saturating his right arm with sonic ameno, John lowered his stance building momentum. Her ears perked up as the humming energy reserves began to build. Keiko read his intentions instantly unlatching her twin windmill daggers from her waist. Keiko spread her arms and sprang into the air above him. As John struck the ground a great geyser of sonic ameno sprang forward propelling Keiko high above the enemy. Airborne Keiko turned upside down to execute the aerial gliding maneuver John had taught her. She spat fire ameno into her palms, which lit the threaded ameno attached to her daggers ablaze. Wrapped in the fiery thread, Keiko clapped her daggers together triggering sparks of wild fire which shot out in all directions. Streaming flares of dazzling crimson light rained down upon the men below. While raising their cloaks to defend themselves from the fiery downpour, John glided past them following through with a burst of sonic ameno. Unprepared for the torrent of wind that gusted in his wake, the formless ones lost their balance. Amplified by the burst of airflow, the wild fire ameno washed through the enemy. The flames began to consume their shadowy robes as it continued spreading among them. Landing nimbly in a crouching position, Keiko awaited John's next move. Still in unison with her movements, he hit her with another blast of sonic ameno, pushing her ahead toward the smaller group of formless in the distance. With momentum Keiko skidded ahead of them coming to a stop. Drawing both windmill shaped daggers, Keiko pushed the extra two blades symmetrically into the other blades to form the dual curved blades she favored for melee battle. Before they could defend themselves, she rushed forward cutting down two of the formless men with four quick slashes. Unfazed, the third formless servant readied his twisted bamboo stalk and approached. He tested her defenses with thrusting motions. Dodging his strikes by a hair's length, Keiko felt her heart skip a beat knowing that the corrupted stalk could do serious damage to her if even one strike pierced her skin. Keiko riposted his final advance and disarmed him and quickly kicked him away from her. As he went to retrieve his weapon John grabbed his arms and kicked him in the back of his knee joints causing him to crumple to a kneeling position. As the formless man clutched the back of his leg, a small lockbox dropped from his grasp. John snatched it out of the air and with precision used a quick jab to cut the lock which fell to the ground in two pieces. He opened the lockbox retrieving a pearl cloth case from within. John looked up at Keiko. John reached down to secure the stolen property tossing it to Keiko.
"A gift? For me?" She smirked.
"Something like that."
The other two men Keiko thought she had dispatched began to stir. John and Keiko backed away as they began chanting in unison.
"All light shall cease upon his arrival!"
Keiko felt her uneasiness peak. Despite the damage John and her had done to them, the formless had shown very few hints of pain or fear. In the distance a few of the enemies they had repelled earlier crawled toward them, some still on fire. The Formless stood once again and closed in for a final stand. John motioned toward the men with his head.
"Keiko, entertain these gentlemen while I work out our exit strategy."
"As you will Precept."
John knelt down as before. He began focusing on building an even stronger concentration of sonic ameno. Keiko grabbed the wispy gray hair of the closest formless man and threw him forward. He crashed on the ground between Keiko and the other formless opponents. Eerily he began to mock her.
"Filthy slink! Go back to Anima in chains where you belong!"
He grunted as she stomped on his back and dug the heel of her boots into his spine. Snarling at his rude remarks, Keiko threw a dagger impaling his hand into the ground. The enemy hesitated momentarily as Keiko began twisting her tongue in a language incomprehensible to them. A crimson glow erupted forth from the ground. Keiko spit into her right palm and wrapped her right hand tightly to the threaded ameno around her waist. The thread blazed bright red as fire whipped onto the grounded dagger. With the thread attached to the dagger, she swung it outward keeping them at bay. Where the dagger struck the ground, a trail of wild fire sprang forth burning in its wake. Undeterred by Keiko's actions, the formless boldly rushed toward her, attempting to leap over the wild fire. Anticipating this, she detached the thread from her dagger and instead attached it to her hostage. The fiery ameno began to consume his body. Laboring while lifting his body weight, Keiko flung him forward whipping him into the others. Her attackers collapsed as the wild fire quickly spread onto their robes. Panting Keiko spit in their general direction.
"That is for making us come all the way out here to find you!"
For emphasis she kicked the fiery ground into them as well, spraying a torrent of flaming dust upon them.
"And that is for using a derogatory term while addressing a lady! Mark my words, Anima will be free someday and so will I!"
Keiko stuck her tongue out at them and waited for them to writhe in agony. To her surprise the formless servants sat straight up and began chanting.
"Green flames and fireflies come for you!"
Somewhat taken aback Keiko sheathed her daggers. The formless men slowly began to stir as the fires continued burning their flesh. She turned back to John who had begun measuring the precision in his strike. John heard the vibrations of another echo train in the distance. He quickly measured the distance and travel speed in his mind. The formless men rose again relentless in their determination. As they began to rush through the wild fire toward them John made a declaration.
"We're leaving now!"
Keiko nodded as John took her hand into his and threw her into the distance. With the formless men attempting to surround him, John turned back toward them striking the ground with his ameno soaked hand. Sonic ameno erupted from the ground in a great geyser, simultaneously repelling the formless and blasting him skyward into the distance. Propelled through the air, John descended onto the top of the echo train and skidded to a stop next to Keiko. Shaking his right hand, the excess sonic ameno faded from it. John ran the hand along his dark green under-mesh bodysuit checking for wounds. Dangling her legs over the side of the car Keiko tilted her head to the side, watching him while enjoying the breeze.
For better or worse, that's my precept!
Focusing on the battleground they left behind, John pondered the identity and motivation of the enemy.
What the hell were they going on about? All light shall cease and green fireflies?
Smoke bellowed into the air as the formless ones skittered to and fro like colony of enraged ants. These corrupted souls had claimed to serve the formless one. John had his doubts. A decade ago the formless group roamed the forests of Acacia to preserve balance and order. They had no leaders and desired no glory for their actions. They simply did as the growth ameno willed. If half of the things John heard about those formless were true, they would be a much more formidable opponent then the formless they had just faced.
Unable to resist the urge to see the contents of the box in her grasp, Keiko pulled out the cloth covering from the jewel box and opened it. Peeking inside the green glow of an armlet covered with jade caught her eyes.
Keiko's ears perked up again. A screeching sound in the distance slowly grew louder. She quickly returned the jaded armlet to the jewel box and closed it. Keiko stood up and shifted her gaze upward searching for the source of the noise. Following her gaze, John saw a dark robed figure upon an aerial glider that quickly approached their location. Energy saturated from a nozzle in the front of the glider.
"Is that the formless one?"
"Precept I think we're in trouble!"
The very air shook as the nozzle of the glider continued charging a beam of energy. It then emitted a powerful blast that slammed into the mountain just ahead of the echo train. A torrent of rocky fragments separated from the mountain and began descending in an avalanche ahead of the pathway to a tunnel. Panic took hold as the echo train raced toward the tunnel. Keiko held fast to the jewel box and turned her stare to John. Looking down from the echo train they saw a long descent to the forest below. Frowning John took her hand in his.
"We have to go! Let's do this!"
Keiko held his hand tightly as they took a leap of faith off the echo train. After a few seconds of descent, the echo train slammed into the rocks causing a massive explosion. Feeling the heat from the blast, the propulsion of the explosion pushed them further out and littered the air around them with rock debris and echo train shrapnel. Concentrating the remains of their ameno into their legs, they landed hard rolling forward as their feet touched the ground. Recovering quickly they began running into the thicket as the screeching noise grew louder above them. From atop the glider the formless one blanketed the forest with a massive amount of growth ameno. Wild thorny bramble began to permeate the area. John and Keiko raced forward in an attempt to avoid the overgrowth. In the distance they saw a gigantic thorny impasse that continued growing as they approached. John blasted sonic ameno into the ground vaulting them upward.
"Keiko! Fasten us together!"
With limited time Keiko quickly attached a single ameno thread to John's arm. Anticipating that they would fall short of the distance needed to clear the massive growth of bramble, John blasted the last of his sonic ameno to propel Keiko well beyond the spiky overgrowth. She held fast to the thread of ameno latched to his arm. Keiko pulled with all her might helping ensure that John would also clear the thorny barrier. Grimacing in pain as her upward momentum awkwardly pulled the thread latched to his arm; John sprang toward her in a sling shot motion. With no sonic ameno left, they could do little to control their trajectory. Helplessly they descended together as gravity overcame their momentum, bringing them down into the leaves of a great tree. The single thread of ameno holding them together caught a large branch wrapping them both around it. They crashed against each other torso to torso. Strained and fatigued, John and Keiko remained motionless as the glider screeches grew louder. Holding their breath, the glider hovered steadily above them just out of sight. It stayed motionless above them. Momentarily they feared the worse. They could hear the Formless one laughing, an eerie whistle in his voice.