Shadowed Heart

(see disclaimer in Part 21)

The journey down to the southern sage's abbey took a few days. It was a pretty boring few days—I wasn't attacked by any Redwings, most of the monsters had gone into hiding because the war had scared them, and all the clans of Ivalice had temporarily banded together to deal with the threat facing our country. And without anything to really occupy me, my mind was left to its own devices. I worried.

What if something happened to Shara while I wasn't there to fight at her side? To Mewt, since I wasn't there to protect him? What if Kumo got hurt again? What if too many battles were lost and I wasn't able to get back with the Spiritstone in time? What if the Redwings' leader showed up early for some reason, and my friends were caught in a losing battle? What if—what if—what if…?

Worrying so much made me uneasy. Usually I wasn't the type to dwell on stuff like that so much—when the Queen had sent me out before and even when we'd gone on missions together in the clan, I'd never thought too much about what would happen if things went wrong. The only time I'd ever really worried about anything near this much before was when Makoto had gotten kidnapped. But with this war…

Gah, Marche was right about my thinking of it selfishly before. Only, now that I wasn't, my head was filled with gruesome images of what would happen if I didn't succeed here.

I'd volunteered to do this because I'd wanted to see it done myself, because I would've worried about things if it had been entrusted to someone else. But now that I was out here doing it, all I did was worry about how things were going back there.

It was hopeless. I just couldn't win.

---

The abbey was a small one—barely much more than a brick cabin sitting on a particularly bleak-looking prairie plain. It was mid-afternoon by the time I arrived, and the sky was overcast with leaden clouds even though it was a pretty humid day. Heat lightning flashed off in the distance, and I shivered, wishing it would rain a little, make it a bit more temperate outside.

Still, wishing wouldn't get me anywhere. I put my hand in my pocket and briefly clutched the ceffyls, then bit my lip and headed for the door.

I knocked, but there was no answer.

"Hello? Uh, is the Sage of the South there?"

Still no answer.

"I'm—um, I'm coming in."

But as I put my hand on the doorknob, it suddenly jerked back, and someone came flying at me from inside with a wild yell.

I yelped, jumped back off the stairs, and stumbled and almost fell. But I got SaveTheQueen and ExcaliburII up in time to block my enemy's sword strike.

I found myself staring into a pair of orange-amber eyes very similar to, yet different from, my own, which glared at me fiercely for a moment, then widened.

"Ah! You're…?!"

The person who'd attacked me stepped back just as suddenly, straightening up, and I could see that she was actually a girl who looked about Ritz's age or so, maybe a year older, with waist-length silvery white hair that was much thicker than hers, a sweet face with dark brows and big eyes, and a practiced, easy grip on her black-bladed, single-edged sword. She was wearing leather armor that almost completely covered her clothes, and there was a zodiac mark branded on her chestplate. I stared at it for a moment, then recognized it as Virgo.

"You scared me half to death," the girl said, letting her sword rest as she put a hand over her heaving chest. "I thought you were some kind of bandit or something. Don't do that! Here, c'mon, come in."

And before I could even say a word, she'd grabbed me by the wrist and was hauling me off towards the abbey.

It was as nice and homey inside as it was from the exterior—the only thing that hinted at this place's religious origins was the double row of pews in the room next to the kitchen and the stained glass in the wall, depicting the five totema that protected Ivalice's crystals and the Li-Grim that sustained it—Remedi, the Queen.

The girl pushed me down in one of the three chairs at the kitchen table, then poured a tall glass of cider and held it out to me. "Here. Sorry about all that. Drink it, it's good. As you might've guessed since I'm the only one living here, I'm the Sage of the South, known to some as Kespas. You should call me Ajora."

"Uh… I'm Llednar," I said at last. Ajora not only had a lot of energy, but an aura of authority that made it hard to interrupt her or get a word in edgewise while she was talking. "I—hate to spurn any of your hospitality, but… I'm kind of in a hurry. I need a Spiritstone."

Ajora didn't even slow down as she rifled through the pantry; apparently my request either hadn't processed or it didn't surprise her.

"I've brought the Mind and Body Ceffyls, so it shouldn't be a problem, right?" I asked hesitantly, leaning over in my chair and wondering why she wasn't saying anything. "Do you know about the Redwings? They've attacked Ivalice, and if we don't do something, our country will be—"

Ajora looked over her shoulder at me as she put biscuits on two paper plates, and there was a coldness in her eyes that chilled me to the core. "And just why should I help you?"

"B-because… the Rukavi are invading, and…?" My voice trailed off in confusion as Ajora put one of the plates in front of me, setting jars of jam along the table along with a few breadknives.

"I know I'm repeating myself, but why should I care about any of that?" she asked, sitting down across from me and giving me another cold glance as she spread blackberry jam along one half of her biscuit.

It hit me. "You're a Rukavi," I said stupidly, staring.

"That's right. And frankly, I don't care that much for humans. I know what's been going on, and I know that the Redwings are poised to take over Ivalice. I know that their leader, Grissolm, is protected by a barrier not even a biskmatar could get through without the help of a Spiritstone. But I also know some things about the Redwings that you don't. And they're things that don't make me particularly inclined to throw my lot in with a people that despise my kind. Mind much if I enlighten you?"

I shook my head slowly. "If… we understand the enemy, then it'll help," I told her, confused.

"Grissolm is a half-blood Rukavi. He's a bastard child, and he hates all humankind, because his full-blood Rukavi mother was attacked by a human. Put very bluntly, he's the product of his mother's rape, and he's never forgiven humans for his birth. He'll jump at any chance to slaughter your kind.

"Just so that you know, this whole thing with the army of the Redwings wasn't Grissolm's idea in the first place, either. A human paid him to do it, a human from Ivalice, seeking revenge against this country and specifically against your own clan. Even though he's taking a human's money, Grissolm gets to kill more humans this way, so he doesn't particularly care. He can always kill his employer when he's done with this job."

As I stared openmouthed and tried to digest all this information, Ajora started putting marmalade on the other half of her biscuit. "I understand Grissolm's feelings perfectly, although I don't particularly care about humans one way or the other. The dominant races of Ivalice and most other countries as well look down on the Rukavi and persecute them as demons, never mind that this is just the way we are. In past wars, our species has been brutalized by yours, over and over again. Many of the oldest Rukavi can't sustain physical forms themselves and have to possess mortal host bodies now just to stay in this world."

I remembered Ztir talking about the strangeness of the Falgabirds' souls and wondered if this was what was behind it—were they ordinary monsters being possessed by the Rukavi?

"Many more of us, like me for instance, take human shape to avoid notice. Still, once people know we're Rukavi, we have to endure their prejudice. You've seen that for yourself, haven't you?"

I remembered the Rukavi who'd loved the murdered viera and been accused for the crime, and couldn't look at Ajora. "…Yeah… yeah, I have. And… things like that are dead wrong. But I still can't just…"

"As I said, I myself don't hate humans or any of the other races here particularly," Ajora told me. "I've been here for a very long time, and I've seen Ivalice grow and I know that it's not a bad country. But I do know that it's going to take a lot for me to act against my own race. So Verdandi and Colette have helped you. They may be the descendants of my fellow Sages, but they're human. They're only assisting their own species. I don't have a reason to join them." So saying, she put her biscuit back together and took a bite out of it.

"Um… if you don't mind my asking, how do you know about all this?" I ventured. It was very, very hard to question Ajora at all. I knew how she felt—I'd seen my friends picked on enough in Ivalice-the-town, and been picked on enough myself, to sympathize with other scapegoats. Still, everyone was counting on me—and there was Kumo's warning, too. I didn't want anything to happen to this world, even if there were things wrong with the way it worked. "Colette told us you don't have much contact with the outside…"

Ajora laughed through her biscuit, then held up a hand so I'd wait until she finished chewing. "I don't have much contact with humans, yes, but I like to stay informed about the outside world anyway," she said at last. "I've been hiding out here for a very, very long time, despite the way I look to you. I'm Ajora Glabados—that's a well-known name to Rukavi like me. I have my ways to find out what's going on outside this little place. Otherwise life here would get kinda boring, don't you think?"

"Yeah, I guess so." Ajora seemed nice—but she was obviously not going to change her position on humanity in general anytime soon. How the heck was I going to persuade a set-in-her-ways Rukavi to help out a country fighting her people?

Before I could even begin to form a plan, there was a blasting knock on the door.

Ajora rolled her eyes. "Goodness, I'm popular today. What?" she yelled.

"Kespas, Sage of the South—give us the human you're hiding, and don't dare to intrude in the affairs of the Redwings!"

I stared at the door. I'd been followed? I hadn't even realized it—damn, these people were good at what they did! I stood up from the table and grabbed my swords. "Ajora—"

She'd stood up also, and had folded her arms. Her good-humored expression had fallen away, and she was looking at the door with annoyance. "I see you're familiar with one of my names, young one," she said in a voice that suddenly sounded cold and ancient. "But obviously you don't know who you're truly dealing with. I would suggest that you stay out of my affairs, or you will suffer the consequences."

"If you don't give us the human, then we'll come in and take him from you! We will protect our lord, and if you get in our way, you'll get the same treatment!"

Ajora sighed and shook her head tragically. "Children these days have no manners," she said wryly, then smiled at me. "No offense to you, though. You've been very polite to me so far."

I shook my head at her, my heart pounding. "Ajora—I'll head out there and fight them off! Don't worry, just stay in here!"

"Huh?" She stared at me blankly, blinking.

"You've already said that you don't want to get involved in our war," I told her. "If that's true, then you shouldn't have to because of me! I can handle myself just fine. Even though I'm fighting your people, you've been kind to me—and these people want to hurt you because of me, so I'll protect you! Just leave everything to me, I promise you won't have to do anything at all!"

The shocked look on her face said she was going to protest—I'd seen Mewt and Shara wearing that look enough times to know. So before she had the chance, I ran for the door, kicking it open and bursting out into a wave of demonic-looking creatures I'd never seen before with a yell, unsheathing my swords.

"Llednar, wait!" I heard Ajora yelling behind me. I ignored her.

My heart pounding, I swiped at the nearest Rukavi with a yell. There were plenty of enemies in front of me, but no judges had appeared—this far south, their area of influence had probably ended a while back. If I didn't watch it, I could actually die here, just like in a jagd. Remembering the previous owner of my treasured ExcaliburII, I shuddered as I sliced into the masses of monsters before me with a bright blow of Omega.

The ones I'd hit staggered back, but none of them seemed too adversely affected.

No—are they like Lich de Mort?! I can't fight off this many of them—!

One of my many opponents raised its heavy, clawed hand into the air, and I saw fire starting to gather into it.

I looked around frantically. There was nowhere to dodge—if I ran away from this attack, it'd hit the abbey, and then Ajora…

I raised my swords into a guarding position I knew would be ineffective and squeezed my eyes shut. Shara…

There was a deafening sound of impact, but no pain. As I waited, I felt a hand on my shoulder, then opened my eyes again, confused. What was going on—why hadn't I been…?

Ajora was standing in front of me with a calculating smile on her face, her left hand held out in front of her. Her palm looked slightly scorched, and it was smoking, but she didn't even seem to register the blow.

"We told you not to interfere," the Rukavi that had tried to attack me snarled.

Ajora smirked. "And I believe I told you not to horn in on my affairs. Now I shall warn you again: Leave this place unless you want me to wipe you from the face of this earth!"

A few of the Rukavi in the back rows shifted uncomfortably, but their leader glowered down at Ajora, its hackles up. "You will regret challenging us!"

"A-Ajora…" Even with the powers she undoubtedly had as a Sage, how could she…

She moved her hand from my shoulder to right in front of my face. "Hush, Llednar. You've shown me your chivalry—now show me your sense. You've nothing to fear here. I will protect you."

Suddenly, her body was wrapped in a chrysalis of pure power, a deep red that twisted around her form in the shape of rose petals. Strong magewind blasted out from it, and as the Rukavi edged back as one, I found I couldn't keep my footing and fell flat on my behind. Squinting into the light, I sheathed my swords and shielded my eyes, surreptitiously keeping a hold on my hat. If it blew away in this godforsaken place, I'd probably never find it again.

When the magical cocoon ruptured, it revealed Ajora—but she was taller, and looked older, and instead of that leathery armor she was clad in what looked like a second, tougher skin, deep burgundy-brown in patterns and whorls that slicked along the sides of her legs, over her torso and breasts, up to her cheekbones. Brilliant white wings edged in red feathers spread from her back, with a miniature pair at the sides of her head. Her silvery hair spilled out and up behind her, and she spread her arms wide, stretching out fingers that had grown claws, and laughed.

"For, lo! I am Ajora Glabados—Bloody Angel Altima! Look upon my powers, ye mighty, and despair! Beg for your lives if you wish, but know that none of you will be spared!"

Her laughter rose to a hysterical, insane pitch, and the heavy clouds parted, raining black-red forks of lightning onto the Redwings who'd followed me. Brightness flared up all around me, and I covered my face—it'd probably blind me if I looked directly.

I heard screaming and the crackle of electricity and Ajora's laughter, and then—silence.

Cautiously, I moved my arms away from my face and looked out. The short grass in front of the abbey had all been torn away, displaying the sand beneath. Lumps and whirls of glass now lay there, some displaying lovely red smoky patterns that a part of me noticed in a hysterically high tone were traces of the Redwings' blood.

Ajora was standing—er, hovering—before me with her hands on her hips, looking out at the empty glass plains as though admiring her handiwork.

I was scared. Well, any idiot in his right mind would be scared with what had just happened—but still, the Ajora I'd met was in there too, right? Just changing into her true form couldn't make her crazy and evil all the way through, could it?

There was only one way to find out. I stood, swallowed hard, and ventured a few steps closer to her. "A-Ajora, are you… alright?"

She turned to look at me, her baffled expression comical on her more adult features. "Am I alright?" she repeated, then burst out laughing.

Oooohkay. Was that amused laughing, or I'm-crazy-and-I'm-going-to-fry-you-too laughing? No backing out now, though.

"Ahahaha… ahh." Touching down, Ajora crossed the sand and grass to come over to me, then tapped me on the nose with a clawed finger. "You're a funny human. I like you! There aren't many who'd try to defend me, even without being ignorant of my ability to smite anything bothering me where it stands. Alright—that settles it. Since you've impressed me so much with your attitude, I'll help you this once. Show me the ceffyls."

I blinked once, then again, thrown for a loop. With Ajora looking at me expectantly, I hesitantly drew the Mind and Body Ceffyls out of my pants pocket and held them out to her.

"Excellent work… just as I'd expect from descendants of Melmin and Bastra. Here—" And she took them from me, holding them up in the air and pulling her hands away so they'd remain suspended in the air. There was a bright hum, and then a feeling like a solid impact that made the air ripple as the two ceffyls fused into a larger blue gem.

"Take the Spiritstone, Llednar. It's yours."

A little wonderingly, I held out my hands; Ajora dropped hers, and the Spiritstone fell into my palms. It felt pleasingly heavy, and there was still a slight tingle of power in it as far as I could feel.

"Alright, then. Go save Ivalice, and be a hero. Teach these rude children how to behave. And—give my regards to Verdandi and Colette, if you see them again."

"I will," I replied, relieved, as I pocketed the precious stone. "And… thank you."