Beware, Warrior of Light (or Darkness, whichever): Major spoilers for Final Fantasy 14 up to Shadowbringers 5.3 are in this dungeon!
An RPG is basically a collection of myriad quests, same as a living thing is just an assembly of organs. It's difficult to write and orchestrate a fulfilling quest, so RPG fans grudgingly wade through the tedious muck in order to reach the good stuff on the other shore. It's all part of loving the highs and lows of the genre.
(Going back to the organ comparison, it's not as if every bit of human kishke is a winner, either. I'll never forgive my appendix for betraying me on the morning of my best friend's 11th birthday party.)
I can't keep count of how many quests still make me shudder at the thought of repeating them. There are plenty of reasons why I might postpone a quest or skip it altogether if possible. It might be tedious, it might be repetitive, or it might be attached to a character I couldn't care less about. But Final Fantasy XIV gave me a whole new reason for bleating "Oh no" at a quest: I was casually asked to return a fragment of a dead, disgraced warrior's soul to his beloved pet.
"No thanks," I said out loud. I had no desire to have my soul shattered by a (sentient, talking) pet/mount who was still heartbroken over his master's ugly fate. Unfortunately, the quest is mandatory, issued to you by your fellow Scion of the Seventh Dawn, Urianger. You can't complete the story for Shadowbringers' 5.3 expansion patch until the deed is done. Uri, I have marked you. I will never forgive you, your children, or your children's children. (Well, the children you theoretically would have had if Moenbryda hadn't…you know.)
Surprise: Completing the quest hurt. I was expecting that much. But the quest also had the unexpected side effect of forcing me to examine a part of my soul that's growing cynical about how and why we love our pets. I guess I owe you a smidgeon of thanks for burdening me with the task, Urianger. You card-slinging weirdo.
The pet you're asked to visit is named Seto. He's an Amaro, a large, grey mount that resembles a feathered wyvern. Shadowbringers takes place in Norvrandt or "the First," a separate world from Eorzea. Much about the First is like Eorzea, but one notable change is the scarcity of Chocobos, Final Fantasy's classic ostrich mount. Amaro, however, are plentiful in the First, and they're the primary choice of transportation for heroes and travelers alike.
Amaro can learn to speak if they live amongst men for long enough, though it usually takes a long time for this innate ability to awaken. Seto—who is indeed named for Red XIII's father in Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy 14 is delightfully coy with its references to past games—eventually learned to talk, but not until long after his master, the warrior Ardbert, died. Even in his old age, Seto is plagued with regret over how he never got a chance to converse with his partner.
Any instance of a pet mourning its owner is heart-rending. It's why we build monuments that celebrate the most selfless, resolute aspects of our furry companions. But the bold between Ardbert and Seto is fraught with tragedy and studded with countless instances where the Amaro ached to comfort his friend with encouraging words before his death but was unable to.
Ardbert, Norvrandt's own Warrior of Light, never received the adoration you enjoy as Eorzea's Warrior of Light. On the contrary, his name and memory are cursed, spoken only with hatred. Whereas darkness threatens to overwhelm Eorzea, Norvrandt is on the verge of being consumed by light—and as far as the First's denizens know, they're in dire straits because Ardbert and his companions slew a foe called the Shadowkeeper, which upset Norvrandt's aether balance and tipped the scales perilously.
Ardbert's intentions were good, and before his mistake, he'd performed countless noble deeds for people in need. Nevertheless, people spit at the mention of his name through much of Shadowbringers. Nobody has a kind memory of Ardbert and his companions. There's only hatred, contempt, and scorn.
But Seto remembers his travels with Ardbert. "He was a good man," he says when he first meets you in Shadowbringers, deep in the realm of the faeries. "He deserved to be happy. I wish I could have told him that, at least."
Before Shadowbringers begins, complicated story events turn Ardbert into a spirit who wanders aimlessly through Norvrandt. He can't touch anything, and he can't be seen or sensed by anyone except you. His friends are gone, and he's been entrusted with a higher purpose that hasn't been revealed to him. But until that moment of revelation comes, he's doomed to wander and watch helplessly as others are killed and maimed by the monstrous "Sin Eaters" spawned by Norvrandt's harsh, cold light.
In time Ardbert finds his purpose, and unsurprisingly, it's tied to your own fate and your soul. By the end of Patch 5.3, Ardbert isn't quite corporeal—but thanks to his new purpose, there's still enough of him to accompany you to Seto's nest when Urianger asks you to return a memento of Ardbert to his mount.
There, for a fleeting moment, Ardbert can take form long enough to hold his gentle friend's huge head one last time. Disbelieving but elated, Seto can finally tell Ardbert everything he's been holding back since they were separated over a century ago.
"I'm sorry I couldn't keep you safe…or even console you," the Amaro says mournfully. "If I'd only learned to speak sooner, I would have told you how much you meant to me. How much I cared."
I grew up with huge dogs, primarily German shepherds. I love all my animal pals past and present, but anyone who's had a pet knows there's that one animal who bonds with you and becomes "yours." My strongest bond was with a German shepherd named Rush (my mother named him, I swear), who latched onto my side immediately. From the days when he was a fat, fuzzy butterball who'd fall into the gap between my bed and my wall (where he'd yip helplessly until I rescued him) up to his final days as a 120 pound giant, he rarely separated from me. My fondest memories are of dialing onto the internet and chatting on IRC while he lay near me, simply gazing at me.
I believe our pets love us, but there's something about a dog's love that's borderline neurotic. Cats bring us dead critters because we're loud overgrown kittens who can't fend for ourselves. It's a tender gesture from an aloof species, but a dog's devotion is absolute. Dogs work for us. They die for us. We need only ask. The older I get, the more I wonder if we're just exploiting a species that's been bred to jump at our every command. I wonder if our own devotion to dogs is pure, or if there's something twisted about it.
Ardbert's reunion with Seto melted some of my cynicism about humankind's bond with dogs. As Seto dipped his head so Ardbert could embrace him, I remembered all the times Rush put his big head on my knee or wedged himself between my arm and body. Not because I ordered him to give me cuddles, but because he was simply happy to be in my company.
Seto's words to Ardbert are what ultimately broke me down: "If only I had learned to speak sooner, I would have told you how much you meant to me." Would Rush have said the same if he'd learned to talk, somehow? I had never even considered that he, or any other dog, would thank me for simply being alive. For being a pal.
(Alternatively, if Rush gained the ability to speak, he probably would've just gone on a single-breath rant about the asshole squirrel in our backyard who taunted him daily. Then he would've said, "Tennis balls taste awesome, you should try stuffing one in our mouth some day.")
Ardbert's time with Seto is short, and so is our time with our pets. As Ardbert held his friend and said goodbye, I remembered the weight of Rush's head slumping into my lap as I said my own farewells on a very dim day. Thus, did a seven-minute cutscene in Final Fantasy XIV remind me that while terrible people exploit humanity's most cherished companions, a dog's love for its owner can still be pure, good, and true.
Thank you, Rush. My partner in crime.