Things were quiet in the camp that day, so Swift found a nearby hill to stretch out on and admire the countryside in the sun. A gentle breeze fluttered by, sending the grass and his ponytail fluttering. Everything seemed golden and green, except for the edges of the Yuguo Woods, a dark, foreboding spot marring the farmlands surrounding Yardow Fort City. Swift figured Ramza would lead them through the wood to get to Riovanes Castle.
Swift knew little of what was going on with their army. He only knew they had recently picked up a pretty girl in Yardow, swathed in white silks and smelling of expensive perfume, with an unusual form of magic. Nathaniel had said her name was Rafa. Right now, she was in Ramza's tent. Likely, they were having some deep, serious discussion about tactics and strategy for their travel through the haunted Yuguo Woods. Swift was not included in such deliberations. Ramza reserved those meetings for his lieutenants, like Mustadio and Agrias. Rank-and-file soldiers like Swift were expected to follow orders and tend to Boco and his ever-breeding family of chocobos. Truth be told, that suited Swift just fine. It was only his curiosity about the new arrival that gave him any sort of ambition.
"You're like a sad little goblin caught in an Oracle's Sleep spell," Isolde said, leaning over him, hands on her hips. Her red hair, the same bright red hair that Swift had inherited, streamed behind her in the wind, and her Time Mage robes ballooned about her. Swift remembered those robes from his brief tenure as Time Mage; he'd hated them more than even the clownish Wizard pants.
"Shouldn't you be calculating something?" she demanded.
Swift yawned and fished a cigarette out from his puffed indigo sleeves. He lit it with a Fire spell. "No more than you should practice teleporting about the camp, sister."
"Tch. You know the best practice happens on the battlefield." Isolde toed his side, her small shoes digging into his ribs. "Get up."
"Ow!" Swift flicked the ashes of his cigarette at her. "Stop it! What do you want?"
Isolde brushed the ashes from her blue dress and glared at him. "Rad is having a hard time with the new bull demon he just recruited. You should go help him. Nathaniel is just staring at it and murmuring that 'it's awfully big.'"
Swift rolled over and propped himself up with an elbow, taking another drag from his cigarette. The sweet-sour stench of tobacco wafted towards Isolde, making her cough. He smirked. "Rad, huh?"
"I thought you liked him."
"I do like him, but you—hey!" Swift's face heated, and his stomach dropped. Did his sister know of his preferences? "What kind of like are you suggesting?"
Isolde grinned. "I'm not an idiot, even if I didn't make it to Calculator, little brother." She crouched beside him, and his concern ebbed when she clasped his shoulder. "By the way, well done so far. I think Ramza was impressed in our last battle by how you took down three of the enemy with one Flare spell."
"And one of our own." Swift frowned and took a thoughtful drag of his cigarette, relishing the tickle in his throat. "I'm not getting anywhere near Agrias for a month. She was nearly ready to give up a crystal by the time you teleported over with a Phoenix Down."
"Sometimes we must make sacrifices and take risks in order to achieve our goal. She survived. More importantly, the battle was over quickly."
"Yeah, but if you had failed your teleportation three times, instead of two, Agrias would be dead."
Isolde flicked his forehead and ignored his protests. "But I didn't fail three times. You never got far enough as a Time Mage to appreciate Teleportation. The paths of time and space are like the facets of a crystal. It's easy to be dazzled by them. My magic is not so precise as yours."
"No, it's not. I like being a Calculator, actually, even if I'm not so sure about this apron thingy in the front." Swift rubbed his stinging forehead. "It's number crunching, applying my magic exactly where it needs to go. I do a few quick calculations, and I know who gets affected, and who doesn't, when I cast the spell. It suits me. I just don't know if I like the risks."
"But it is Ramza who makes the call, ultimately. It is in his hands."
"Is it really that simple?" Swift glanced towards the camps, at Ramza's huge tent. "Do you think he would be so desperate to bring us Phoenix Downs as he was Agrias? We're just a couple of soldiers he recruited from a Gariland Warrior's Guild. We replaced those who had served him at the Academy. Will we wind up like them, lying on some battlefield clutching a crystal?"
Isolde frowned, her bright green eyes seeming to grow darker. "Do you really think so little of Ramza?"
Swift sighed and finally stood. "No, not Ramza. But I do think little of most people. It's an ugly world we live in, sister. And even he must make ugly decisions."
"True. But we do what we can to make it better. That's why we're here. And on that note…" Isolde gestured down at the camp. Swift headed in that direction and peered down from the side of the hill. Below, the bull demon stood in one of the pens, roaring in apparent fury. In the pen beside it, the chocobo had bunched up against the fence opposite the bull demon, kwehing rather loudly in understandable alarm. Even Boco seemed alarmed. Rad stood before the bull demon, wearing his light red coat and leather hat, holding his empty hands out in an apparent attempt to calm it.
"Oh, fine. Not like we can do much, but let's go." Swift followed his sister down the hill. Crouched near the pens, behind a tree stump, they found Nathaniel, his bright sun-colored Oracle robes pooling in the dirt.
"Nathaniel?" Isolde asked, blinking rapidly.
"Sh!" Nathaniel hissed, his dark eyes wide. "It might see me!"
Swift glanced in the direction of the bull demon. It was tense, muscles rippling beneath green-gray hide, mallet-sized fists gripping its pickaxe. Rad still stood in front of it, speaking in a strange tongue that Swift could not understand. The bull demon snorted, apparently not impressed by whatever Rad had just suggested.
"Seems to me that Rad's the one that ought to be worried. He's in range of its pickaxe," Swift said, and yawned. His cigarette burned low, so he stubbed it out on the tree stump Nathaniel still hid behind.
"But he's a Mediator," Nathaniel insisted, eyes still wide. "Talking to monsters and whatnot is what he does. Do you know what Oracles do?"
"No," Isolde said, tapping her foot. Her sharp green gaze fixed on Nathaniel, and he seemed to wilt under it.
"Neither do I," Nathaniel squeaked. "Ramza just assigned me to this job class, and I haven't had opportunity to learn much about the abilities yet. I'm a Chemist at heart. Let Rad handle the beast. I'll be here, readying the Phoenix Down."
Swift found another cigarette in his voluminous sleeve pockets, still yawning. Nathaniel was so easily flummoxed. He possessed great faith, but very little bravery, leaving him with a talent for casting magic and hunting for treasure, but quaking when anything with teeth looked askance at him.
"Shouldn't we be checking in on Rad?" Isolde demanded.
"To do what?" Swift asked, flicking his gaze over at Rad, who seemed to be holding steady. Though Rad was the tallest person in all Ramza's small army, even he seemed small before the bull demon. Yet, he didn't seem worried, either. "None of us are trained as Mediators. All we could do is kill the beast."
Isolde frowned. "I could slow it down. Nathaniel could make it sleep."
"Let Rad keep working." Swift gestured at the bull demon pen, ashes spraying from his cigarette on Nathaniel, who looked appalled. "The bull demon isn't charging, at least. How many bull demons have you ever met that were reluctant to bury their axe in someone's skull?"
"Just in case, could you cast a Flare that could kill that bull demon?"
Swift took a drag of his cigarette and spent a moment thinking, reaching into his mana pool for his Math Skill. Numbers and data streamed before his mind's eye, offering information on every living thing in their camp. It was as if a book had opened in his mind and dumped its contents straight into his brain. His fingers itched with magic, and he took a deep breath, blinking to clear his vision. "Yeah. I could." He exhaled, ignoring Nathaniel's pointed cough. "But it would also kill Rad. He and that bull demon share the same level of power."
"There's no way around it?"
"I'm still new to being a Calculator. I don't know enough of the formulas yet to find another way. So my magic is only attracted to certain types of power levels found in people and monsters. Besides, Ramza likely doesn't want me to kill it. We just got it. And, you know, Boco worked out."
"Boco is a chocobo. Not a bull demon," Nathaniel said, reminding Swift of his other talent for stating the obvious.
"And chocobos can hurt you, too. I remember their vicious beaks well. When you're a Wizard, everything wants to eat you. And I mastered that class, remember?"
"But what if—oh." Isolde blinked as the bull demon finally sat down and allowed Rad to examine its right hoof. She smiled after a moment. Swift could guess why: the bull demon, sitting on its haunches, hoof out, crouched forward and snorting, reminded him of their childhood dairy cow. Only larger. And with horns. And with hands that held a huge pickaxe. And capable of sitting like a human. Swift puffed on his cigarette and reflected that perhaps he actually had no idea why Isolde was smiling.
"Nathaniel!" called Rad, glancing back at them, his hand appearing small as it touched the bull demon's paw. "Mind coming over here? Bring a Hi-Potion."
Nathaniel went white as a Summoner's Moogle. "Over there?" he asked, voice higher-pitched than usual.
Swift opened his mouth to make a smart remark, but Rad chuckled, smiling. "Yes. Don't worry, it's safe," he said. "Catillus was injured in the last battle, and it only made him grumpy. He needs a Hi-Potion for his hoof."
"B-but I—" Nathaniel began, until Isolde slapped the back of his head.
"Get your ass over there, you chicken," she snapped, green eyes burning fierce. Isolde was normally a cheerful girl, but she had been born without patience. When she directed her foul-tempered impatience at others, Swift realized that he rather enjoyed this quality in her.
"Yes, ma'am," Nathaniel responded, and hurried over to Rad and the bull demon. Clearly, Isolde frightened him more than a bull demon. Swift actually agreed with him on that one.
Rad smiled and helped Nathaniel unstop the bottle, since his hands were shaking. Visibly gulping for air, Nathaniel poured the Hi-Potion on the hoof as Rad directed. Immediately, the bull demon began to make lowing sounds and set down its pickaxe. The sight of it shaking its horned head, however, sent Nathaniel sprawling backwards in terror. Rad laughed and helped him up. By the time they had brushed the dirt from Nathaniel's robes, the bull demon had fallen asleep.
"Now was that so bad?" Rad asked, after leading Nathaniel back to Swift and Isolde.
Nathaniel wiped his nose. His perfectly straight black hair was a mess. "No. Actually, it wasn't so bad at all."
Rad clapped him on the back, beaming. "Good man." Nathaniel staggered a bit. Rad had, until recently, been a Monk. His solid musculature still bulged beneath his Mediator robes, making him perhaps the most physically imposing mage Swift had ever met.
"Did you see?" Nathaniel asked, straightening his robes, fixing his gaze on Swift. He looked suddenly giddy. "I healed a bull demon. I've never healed a bull demon before."
"Yeah, great." Swift turned to Rad. "So the bull demon will work out, then?"
"Of course! He was only upset about his injury." Rad grinned. "Were you lot worried about me? That's sweet. But there's no need. I haven't forgotten my Punch Arts. I'll be fine."
"But you're not a Monk anymore. Your power has been refocused to magic now. As a Mediator, you're much more vulnerable," Isolde said, sounding dangerously like a mother scolding her child. It seemed funnier since Rad was the oldest present, and looked it, too, with his scruff.
"Fair enough, but I'll be fine." Rad clapped her on the shoulder, causing her to stagger as well. "Good girl."
"If you keep slapping people on their back, Ramza's not going to have enough soldiers left to storm Riovanes," Swift said with a smirk.
"Always with the smart remarks." Rad's blue eyes twinkled. "You on for a game tonight?"
"Of course. I always enjoy beating you, Rad."
"We'll see. I've got a plan tonight. C'mon, I'll show you." Rad rolled his shoulders, a movement Swift very much enjoyed to watch. He beckoned Swift and headed towards his tent.
Ignoring Isolde's smirk and Nathaniel's frown, Swift followed him inside the tent for a game of chess.
As it turned out, Rad did have a plan, but he still lost the chess game anyways. He appeared stunned when Swift settled back, arms crossed. There was little in life more satisfying than constantly thwarting Rad's attempt to defeat him at chess. In truth, Swift found there was little more in life more satisfying than spending time with Rad.
"But the book I read said that move would work," Rad protested.
"You should leave books to Calculators like me. And you also ought to know that the move only works if when you're not facing me," Swift said, unable to prevent himself from punctuating sentences with his snickering.
Rad sighed. "You're a little shit, Swift."
Swift smirked. "Yeah. I know."
"Apparently, I should stick to talking my way out of situations."
"Yeah. For a guy who until recently just punched things in the face, you did really well with that bull demon."
"Well, we're compatible signs, which helps. But I really like doing this job. Being a monk is about strengthening one's body and meditation to calm the mind. It's so internal. But being an Mediator—" Rad glanced up at the top of his small tent, his expression thoughtful. "I can finally make a difference. Words are my power now. I never thought I'd take to magic so well, but I like this kind best. Language is the truest form of magic, I think. We turn sounds into patterns that can make or break entire cultures."
"Yeah, but you're biased," Swift said, waving a hand dismissively. "And I'm not changing to Mediator anytime soon."
"I'm glad. I wouldn't want you to change." Rad's expression grew sober. The lamplight flickered inside the tent, growing a bit dimmer, adding weight to his expression. "You and your sister have been with Ramza since he was part of the Order of the Northern Sky. Though I joined at the same time as Alicia and Lavian, they keep to Agrias's company. And after Gafgarion's betrayal, everyone viewed me with suspicion, except you and Isolde. You two are the only ones who offered me close friendship and made me feel at home here. Thank you."
Swift smiled, warming at the implications. "Ramza fights a worthy cause. I'm glad to be here. With you."
Rad nodded, quiet for a moment, then stood. Or stood as best he could, considering he had to crouch inside his own tent, he was so tall. "We should get some rest. We're to pass through the Yuguo Woods tomorrow."
Swift stood as well, and swallowed. "I—I could stay." His voice trembled, his stomach churned, and his palms felt sweaty. Never before had he offered himself to Rad, or put any voice to his feelings. But never before had Rad voiced how much Swift meant to him. Maybe, just maybe…
"What for?" Rad laughed. "I need sleep more than I need to lose at chess again."
Stung, Swift took a step backwards, practically tripping over his own feet. Rad didn't understand. Rad didn't want him. Rad would likely never want him. Swift swallowed again, trying to force a smile on his face.
"Right. Of course," Swift said with false cheer. "See you in the morning." He ducked outside the tent, his hands still shaking with disappointment. He shouldn't have been so stupid, he shouldn't have said anything, he should've known—
Nathaniel stood outside, frowning. Swift paused and stared at him. It was cool outside the tent, and the night breeze sent their hair and robes fluttering about them. "Why him?" Nathaniel asked quietly.
"What are you talking about?"
Nathaniel glanced at the tent. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
"I don't want to talk about it." Swift turned to leave, but Nathaniel grabbed his wrist. Swift glanced back at him.
"So don't talk. Come with me. I'll make you feel better."
Swift hesitated, then let Nathaniel lead him towards his tent. If nothing else, Nathaniel had always been kind to him, and Swift knew if he went back to his own tent right now, he would only brood over how stupid he had been around Rad. Nathaniel's tent was larger than Rad's or even Swift's, likely a perk of being the last of Ramza's classmates from the Gariland Academy. Nathaniel gently sat him down, then perched on a stool by his Chemist worktable. He studied Swift for a long moment, took off his Oracle's hat, then pulled out a glass bowl and started to mix vials of liquid inside of it.
"Are you making a Potion for my injured feelings?" Swift asked, glancing to the side. Nathaniel's bed was rumpled and unmade, a mess of pillows, blankets, and bags stuffed with herbs and vials of liquid.
Nathaniel smiled as he mixed ingredients. "Always with the clever comments. But no. This is... for something else." He glanced up, giving Swift an odd look, strangely sad. "I can't shake my Chemist job class. I mastered it shortly after I followed Ramza out of the Academy to fight for the Order of the Northern Sky. I felt the most comfortable in it, in collecting treasure and healing injuries and conditions."
Swift studied Nathaniel. When not confronted with mortal danger, he always seemed so thoughtful. Swift leaned forward. "You don't like being an Oracle?"
"No, it's not that. But Yin Yang Magic is not like other magic. But you'll know all about that."
"I never actually became an Oracle. My skills with other classes allowed me to qualify for it, though. I know a couple of spells, but that's it. Never used them, though."
"Ah, well. I do not funnel mana from within me to start fires or even summon something. I affect people. What they believe, how brave they are, what they see, even what they feel. My magic takes the mystical weave of the universe and uses it to change people. I only dislike that as an Oracle, I am expected to participate more in battling the enemy."
"Why is that such a bad thing? We all have to fight the enemy, in one way or the other."
"But not up close. Not so I have to see their faces." Nathaniel sighed and stood, holding the bowl. "I envy Rad his Mediator's gun, and you your Math Skills. You don't have to see what they look like when they die."
Swift shook his head. "You are far too soft-hearted, Nathaniel."
"Maybe." Nathaniel approached him. His dark gaze grew intense with every step. Without his hat on, his long, dark hair tumbled over his shoulders. Though not nearly so tall and masculine as Rad, Nathaniel did not lack for looks. His face was smooth and finely shaped, his lips pink and moist. Swift swallowed.
Nathaniel set the bowl down on the floor, then drew Swift to his feet. He stood taller than Swift, but then most did, even Swift's sister. Without a word, Nathaniel started undoing the buckles to Swift's clothes. In this, he was not hesitant, but then such an act required more faith than bravery. Swift did not know quite what to do or say. He had always disregarded the other man, thinking nothing of his attention.
"This isn't magic."
"Is this how you're going to make me feel better?" Swift whispered, his clothing rustling as Nathaniel slipped it off. Warmth rushed through Swift's body, despite his bared skin.
"Yes." Nathaniel studied him, their gazes locked. Something smoky and intense lingered in Nathaniel's eyes. When Nathaniel ran his hands down Swift's arms, Swift shivered from the thrills that accompanied the touch. He had little experience in this regard, but Nathaniel seemed to know what he was doing. His fingers felt firm against Swift's arms. Swift nodded. "All right."
Nathaniel smiled and leaned forward to kiss him.
Traveling through the Yuguo Woods the next day seemed to go well. Ramza had led the party with Mustadio, Agrias, Alicia and Lavian. Rafa had assisted, as well. None returned seriously hurt, though they had used up all the Phoenix Down supplies. Apparently realizing that laying siege to Riovanes Castle would be no simple task, Ramza ordered them back to Yardow to restock.
Swift followed Nathaniel as he walked through the market, purchasing as many X-Potions and Phoenix Downs as they could afford with their meager funds, which was not much. Ostensibly, he was there to help carry the bags, but in truth, he just felt like spending time with Nathaniel. Swift was not sure what to call their friendship now that they had slept together, but he supposed labels didn't matter. He rather liked the smiles on Nathaniel's face when he drew near now, and imagined the smile on his own face mimicked that.
As they exited the market, Swift and Nathaniel encountered Alicia and Lavian speaking to Isolde.
"In truth, the battle was one of the easiest we've faced of late," said Alicia, in her usual flat tone.
"Indeed," Lavian agreed, her voice more lilting. Voice and dress were the only way to tell the twin sisters apart, for both were identical down to their blond hair, button noses, and brown eyes. "Everything we battled was undead. You should have little trouble with a few Phoenix Downs."
Alicia nodded. "White magic will do in a pinch, as well."
"Easy for you to say," Swift said. He put down his bag of items to find a cigarette in his sleeve pocket. "You're training to master Priest."
"Did you not have a skilled Priest before we joined?" Lavian asked.
"Sure did. She died at Fort Zeakden." Swift frowned at the memory and lit his cigarette with a small Fire spell. Zeakden had been a dark day. He had nearly died that day, helpless as he watched Carmen clutch a glowing crystal as she bled out on the fortress stone, staining her white Priest robes red. If the battle had ended a moment later, he wondered if he, too, would have done the same. Crystals were the only way to ensure a legacy, where something of the dead persisted in the living. Carmen's crystal had burned with the fortress. No one had time to retrieve it.
Alicia frowned. "Well, you must know something of White Magic."
"We all know a little bit," Nathaniel said. "Though we are not often able to make use of it. There are only so many kinds of magic you can cast at once before going mad. When mana fractures, so does one's state of mind. Even warriors must narrow their disciplines."
"True," Lavian admitted, as she specialized in the Knight class. "But if you have the Phoenix Down, and some Fire magic, you should do well."
"I have Fire magic covered," Swift said, waving his cigarette for emphasis. "My Flare took out a number of our enemy at once in my last battle, if you'll recall."
Lavian sighed. "I see you undervalue the virtue of modesty."
"That's my little brother," Isolde said with a laugh. "He undervalues most virtues."
Swift smirked at the twins and slid his cigarette back between his lips. He couldn't be sure, but it seemed like the twins were repressing the urge to smile. Both admired Agrias so much that they attempted to be as serious as she. Swift could understand that, even if it wasn't his style. It was Ramza he admired, but he had no desire to emulate him. Ramza was distant and sad, standing alone in the midst of the mad violence they constantly encountered. As much as Swift respected his strength and purpose, he did not envy Ramza's visible loneliness.
Nathaniel shook his head. "We best head back to camp. I have work to do."
The ladies bowed in farewell. Swift grabbed his bag of supplies and followed Nathaniel out of Yardow. The walk back to their tent was long, but the crisp autumn day offered a pleasant breeze, and the fields surrounding the city still retained their summer glory. Nathaniel did not seem inclined to talk, but he did occasionally cast Swift small smiles.
Once they reached camp, Nathaniel disappeared inside his tent with all the items, as Ramza had him sorting things since before even Swift had joined. He was the Master Chemist, and items were his specialty. Even though he was better at counting than anyone, being a Calculator, Swift did not relish the idea of work, so did not volunteer to help. He wandered about the camp, wondering if Rad might like another game of chess.
Instead of Rad, Swift stumbled across Rafa, standing at the edge of camp with her arms crossed, watching the Yuguo Woods with a perturbed expression. Swift lit a new cigarette with his Fire spell and considered her. She no longer smelled of expensive perfumes, and her white silks bore stains from combat and travel.
Rafa glanced at him, her lips tightening. "You are the Calculator, yes?"
"Sure am. And you're Rafa, right?"
"Yes." Rafa drew her arms tighter about herself and edged away from him.
Swift decided to back off. He could sense when a woman didn't want him near. "Sorry to bother you."
"No. It's okay." Rafa turned to him, brows furrowed. "I'm sorry. I don't know you, and some men are…"
"Yeah, I know. I understand." Swift took a drag of his cigarette again and thought perhaps she might need someone to lead the conversation. It wasn't generally his style to do so, but she piqued his interest. The magic she had cast in Yardow was like nothing he'd ever seen before, like light itself fashioned into a spell. "You're some kind of elite mage, right?"
Rafa paused, then nodded, smiling a little at him. "I'm a Heaven Knight. Despite the name, it's a kind of rare mage, yes. At least here."
"So tell me about it. I'm curious."
Rafa looked down. "Duke Barrington razed my village for my power and that of my brother's. It is a thing not easily spoken of."
Swift spread his hands. "I'm in no position to raze any villages, my lady. I'm just a curious mage. I'm a Calculator. We're not that common, either, though not as unique as you, it seems. But I understand if you don't want to talk about it. We're all here for a reason, and few of them are happy reasons."
"Yeah, even me. My sister and I lost our parents in the Fifty Years' War, like half of Ivalice. We sold ourselves to Gariland's Warrior Guild, hoping to make enough money to eat. I am ever grateful that Ramza hired us and not someone less honorable."
"Your sister. The girl with the same fiercely red hair as yours?"
"We've got the same eyes, too. Her name's Isolde."
Rafa smiled. "Your sister has been kind to me. She makes sure I eat well and helped me draw a bath yesterday. She tells me everything will be all right. That Ramza hired you, her brother, because she begged him that she could not go alone." Tears suddenly filled her big brown eyes, and she looked away.
"I don't understand."
"My own brother is at Riovanes." Rafa wiped her eyes and sighed.
"Oh." Swift didn't know what to say to that. He couldn't even imagine being on the opposite side of the battlefield to Isolde. He didn't think he could even fight. Isolde was the only family he had left.
Rafa took a step forward to him, her gaze intent and her expression earnest. "My power is Truth, if you still wish to know. It is mana itself, but not one that relies on faith. It is magic, raw and pure. It is God itself, shorn of faith, his righteous vengeance flowing through me. I cannot predict where it will emerge, for God does not reveal himself even to his medium. I am a bringer of death, a holy assassin. Unlike my brother, I know God. I can feel him. In that feeling lays the sacred power of Truth."
Swift's cigarette slipped from his lips as he stared at her. If anyone else had told him something like that, he would have laughed. But Rafa's eyes burned unlike any other. She believed in what she said, and that belief allowed Swift a glimpse into her world, a moment to envision what it might be like to exist in her skin. He could not fully comprehend it, beyond thinking it might be like living on the sun.
"That was too much. I'm sorry." Rafa's gaze softened.
Swift swallowed. "No. It's fine. I asked. Thanks for telling me."
Rafa nodded. "And being a Calculator? What is that like?"
"Oh, well. Nothing like being a Heaven Knight. It's magic that pumps data right into your mind, and you have to find a way to sort out what matters, so you can push it back out in the form of a spell that affects who you want to hurt."
"That sounds very demanding. I imagine only certain people can take to it."
Swift smirked a bit. "Well, you have to be pretty smart, I guess."
Rafa laughed. "You are not one for modesty, I see."
"I get that a lot."
"It is not a failing, to my mind. This path we take does not call for modest men, but capable men."
"And women, as Isolde frequently reminds me."
"And women, indeed."
"Well." Swift bowed. "It was nice talking to you. I'll leave you to your thoughts now."
"It was… nice talking to you. Yes." Rafa returned the bow. "Until we meet again."
Swift headed back into camp and soon ran into Isolde and Rad. Isolde laughed as Rad spoke, likely at one of his jokes. Swift frowned. He did not like how close his sister stood beside Rad, nor how he gently touched her arm.
"Ah, Swift!" Isolde said, smiling once she noticed him. She approached him with her pointed Time Mage hat under her arm. It had a small rip in it. Behind her, Rad seemed visibly disappointed that she turned away. "Ramza gave us a message back in Yardow."
Rad smiled at Swift. "He told us that we—that is, me, you, your sister, Nathaniel, and Catillus the bull demon—will lead the way back through Yuguo Woods, to build up our strength before we approach Riovanes Castle."
"Oh, well. That's good, I suppose. Ramza will not be there?"
Isolde shook her heard. "No. Just us. Ramza thinks we're strong enough to handle it."
Swift nodded. He did not feel entirely safe without Ramza and his amazing strength, but Alicia and Lavian had felt Yuguo Woods offered an easy battle. He put his concerns from his mind and turned to Rad. "So, did you want to play chess?"
Isolde smiled and dipped her head, apparently taking the hint. "I'll see you later!" She waved and headed off towards her tent.
Rad seemed disappointed again as he watched Isolde stride away, but when he turned to Swift, he smiled again. "Well, sure. Why not?"
Swift and Rad played chess well into the night. Rad lost again, but he laughed it off, as he always did. Having set aside his lustful aspirations, Swift found his night with Rad more enjoyable than the last. When the hour grew late, they bid each other a good night, and Swift left in good spirits. It did not occur to him that perhaps he should have visited Nathaniel until he passed his tent. Nathaniel stood in front of the tent flaps, blinking when Swift approached.
"Hi," Swift said. "Uh." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I thought you'd still be sorting."
"I finished over an hour ago."
Nathaniel glanced down. "Playing chess with Rad again?"
"I see." Nathaniel sighed. "I'll see you in the morning, then."
"Were you told about us going into Yuguo Woods tomorrow?"
"Yes, Isolde dropped by and told me."
Swift felt awkward and a bit disappointed that Nathaniel didn't invite him inside the tent again. He suspected that was his own fault for spending so much time with Rad. "Well. Tomorrow, then."
"Tomorrow." Nathaniel slipped back inside his tent, the flaps whispering against each other.
Swift sighed. Tomorrow, he could fix things somehow. Figure out how it should all work. The battle would go smoothly, and he'd make sure Nathaniel didn't get hurt. Nathaniel would feel better, and then they could figure out what sort of relationship they should have. He trudged back to his tent in the dark, convinced that tomorrow would be a better day.
Tomorrow, Swift thought the next day, on his hands and knees upon the packed earthen floor of Yuguo Woods, turned out to be a treacherous thief, cloaked in darkness and reeking of rotted flesh. He forced himself up, his vision blurred, and his head throbbing. When he touched his temple, his fingers came away bloody. A hole burned through his memory, and he could not recall anything from the moment he had fallen asleep the night before until this moment on the battlefield.
A bonesnatch lay puddled onto the ground before him, bones scattered on its muddy cloak. The scorching on its remains suggested it had died from a Phoenix Down. Swift only had a moment to wonder if it had caused his head injury before Nathaniel grabbed him by the shoulder, face livid with an intensity he had not displayed since the battle at Fort Zeakden, when Carmen had died. "Cast Flare!" Nathaniel screamed, his voice setting Swift's ears ringing. "There's still too many of them!"
Swift glanced about the battlefield, struggling to comprehend what Nathaniel said through the haze in his brain. The immensely old trees of Yuguo surrounded them, stretching up to the sky like pillars meant to hold it up. Though it was day, little sunlight made its way through the thick tree canopy, giving the battlefield the misty, dark appearance of a tree-lined graveyard. He saw Isolde further out, her red hair bright against her blue robes as she swung her staff at a black goblin clawing at her. A coeurl, apparently Stopped mid-swipe by Isolde's Time Magic, stood nearby. Rad used a Cyclone on both monsters, forgetting once again he was now Mediator, not Monk, and the attack left little impression upon either monster. Both Rad and Isolde looked worse for wear, though Swift imagined they looked better than he did. Another cloaked bonesnatch approached Rad and Isolde, followed by eerie ghasts and huge dryads. Catillus the bull demon, following an order from Rad, swung at them with his pickaxe.
"Cast Flare!" Nathaniel roared again, shaking Swift from his idle observations. Swift realized Nathaniel still held an empty Phoenix Down bottle in his hand—likely the same bottle that had saved Swift's life.
Swift blinked and focused on the pool of mana inside of him, stretching throughout his being, the magic energy that all living beings possessed. Data began to flow through his mind, sets of facts and figures, numbers and symbols. He picked out his best options from the stream, narrowing it as best he could, and scowled. "If I cast Flare, four of the enemy will be hit: both ghasts, a dryad, and the goblin. But Rad and Catillus will be hit as well."
Nathaniel pulled out more Phoenix Downs, smoldering quietly in their bottles. Only two remained. And three undead, including the bonesnatch that Swift could not touch with his Math Skill. If they used the Phoenix Downs on monsters, there would be none left for anyone else if struck down by the other monsters. He looked at Swift with tears in his eyes. "I cannot make this decision. I'm scared, Swift. I don't know what to do."
Something had to give. Swift did not need a Calculator's magic to tell that. He swallowed and tasted bile. "I'll cast it. Use one Phoenix Down on Rad, and the other on the bonesnatch." Catillus would be sacrificed. But better a monster, even one recruited to their side, than a person. Stomach churning, Swift wiped his sweaty palms on his pants.
Swift mentally grabbed hold of his mana, spread it flat, and folded it according to his precise calculations, creating a glittering geometrical shape in his mind's eye. Within the space of a heartbeat, a superheated Flare burst across the field from within him, darting towards the creatures matching his manafolded geometry. The crackle of fire filled Swift's ears. All six of the calculated Flare's victims screamed and fell, their bodies smoking. Swift choked on the scent of burning flesh. Isolde glanced around, her mouth opening at the sight of Rad sprawled out on the ground.
Before either Swift or Nathaniel could take a step, however, the coeurl emerged from its Stop and finished its attack on Isolde. She fell with a spray of blood, collapsed before the hissing coeurl. Swift screamed, but not in words, his heart feeling as if it had imploded.
"What do I do? Oh, God, tell me what to do," Nathaniel said, his breathing slow and short.
Swift forced himself to calm down. Only he and Nathaniel now stood on the battlefield; only they could save everyone. He felt as if someone had shoved him off the edge of a cliff, and he was hurtling to his death. "Go to Isolde! Use Phoenix Down on her, then take care of the coeurl. Have her teleport to Rad with the second Phoenix Down. I'll take care of the bonesnatch."
Nathaniel nodded, swallowing, and dashed off towards Isolde and the coeurl. Swift began to run towards Rad, attempting to live up to his name. Before he even reached halfway, the bonesnatch grabbed Rad with bony fingers, its skeletal face offering a death's head grin.
"No," Swift whispered, his chest burning as he ran. Pain stabbed through his skull from his injury, but he ignored the wave dizziness.
The bonesnatch dragged Rad's still form past the largest tree, moving with unnatural speed. Swift continued to run, passing the grunting dryad, her wicked sharp branches wounding him as if from the lash of a whip. He did not pause to consider the wound on his back, instead keeping after the bonesnatch. He soon found himself in a shadowy forest underworld where no sunlight reached. Only the ghostly light of the undead lit this place. He wondered where Isolde was, if she was safe, if she had teleported to Rad yet.
Swift heard a scream in the distance and noticed a trail of blood. Heart pounding fierce enough to power one of Mustadio's automata, he turned the corner and stepped on something soft and moist. He glanced down and nearly fainted when he realized it was a piece of meat. He stumbled forward, shoes tangling over pieces of shredded meat and bone, as if he had entered into the backroom of a very messy butcher. He tripped over something like a tree root and slammed into the dirt. He glanced back and realized it was no tree root, but a lower leg, white bone emerging from the end where the knee should have been. He recognized the bloody tatters of violet cloth and the gray shoe.
He was tripping over pieces of Rad.
For a moment, the world spun, and Swift gasped for air. Everything he had ever felt over the course of his brief life welled up to the surface all at once. Then suddenly, everything grew still and quiet inside of him. By the time Swift stood, his heart had calmed. His breathing returned to normal. He started to walk again, not really comprehending where he was, but his desire to save Rad still propelling him forward. He passed more pieces of meat and bone, and what he suspected were more limbs, but he felt nothing. He thought of nothing except finding Rad.
Rad, or what was left of him, lay on a patch of dirt. His lower body was missing, and his guts spilled onto the earth like a nightmarish cornucopia. He retained his right arm, and in his hand glittered a crystal. Beside him, the bonesnatch crouched, its skeletal hands bloody from its recent activity, cloak fluttering in the gentle wind. It gave a low, unnatural chuckle.
Swift knew of no calculation left that could touch that bonesnatch, but he still retained the use of his Black Magic. He howled in anguish, his mana flooding from his hands, bursting out with a Firaga that consumed the bonesnatch with a rush of flames. Only the King of flames, Ifirit, could have outdone Swift's Firaga that night. Its bones clattered to the ground, scorched black, its cloak burnt to ash.
Feeling drained of life, Swift sunk to his knees by Rad's remains. Rad's bloodied face was largely untouched, though his expression was frozen in surprise and agony. Char from Swift's fire spells had cooked his torso. The aroma left Swift gagging, though he did not move. In Rad's hand glittered a teal-gray crystal. A lullaby that Swift's mother had often sung to lull him to sleep as a child came unbidden to his mind.
A warrior takes sword in hand,
clasping a gem to his heart.
Engraving vanishing memories into the sword,
He places finely honed skills into the stone.
Spoken from the sword, handed down from the stone...
Now the story can be told…
All that was left of Rad gleamed inside that crystal. Everything he knew, everything he was, everything he felt, everything he wanted to be. Every disappointed look he had when Isolde departed from him, every chess game he and Swift had played, every attempt he had made to overturn the perception that he was as heartless a mercenary as Gafgarion, every moment he had saved a life over the years in countless battles fought across Ivalice. Everything that Swift had admired, everything he had desired of Rad, everything he had ever felt for Rad. Everything. All condensed within that small crystal, reduced to a small gem offering only fading echoes of skills Rad had possessed.
Swift had seen crystals before. For those strong enough, they could produce a crystal from their palm in death, a small, smoldering ember of their life energy. He had even used crystals before to heal himself. But never had he realized how terrifying they truly were. They were deathly shadows, echoes, of people that had lived. Swift rubbed at his cheek. His fingers came away wet.
The rustle of trees stirred Swift from his reverie, and he turned to see the dryad limping towards him, her wooden face filled with pain. He blinked as one of Isolde's a purple-black Demi spell sapped the dryad of her life energy, leaving her swaying, visible cracks in her trunk. A hard wooden thunk echoed throughout the forest, and Nathaniel's magic pole punched through the dryad's trunk. She dropped to the dirt, split open along the grain of her wood.
Swift gazed at Isolde and Nathaniel, feeling as if everything inside of him was as splintered as the dryad. Isolde covered her mouth, her big green eyes welling with tears. "My teleport kept failing—I—I am too late."
Nathaniel silently studied Swift and then considered Rad's corpse. Without a word, he bent down and plucked the crystal from Rad's hand. It glowed brightly, then crumbled to dust, its energy pouring into Nathaniel. Swift turned away and limped towards his sister. She wrapped her arms around him, saying nothing. She smelled of blood and sweat, but Swift could feel life pulsing through her when he clutched her arms.
They camped near Riovanes Castle, hidden inside a gorge between two hills. Ramza himself came to see Swift once Alicia finished healing his wounds. After studying Swift somberly, his violet armor gleaming dully under the lamplight, he sat on the chair by Swift's bed. He leaned forward and folded his hands, brown eyes filled with visible sadness.
"I know exactly how you feel, Swift. And I'm sorry," Ramza said.
Swift looked away.
"It was my fault. I should have been there with you. I underestimated the monsters of Yuguo Woods. We had been lucky the first time through. I should have gone. My decision doomed you all."
"No." Swift looked down at the blanket spread over his lap, a rich blue. He bunched it up in his hands. "It was my fault. I should have been faster. I should have—" His voice broke, so he fell silent.
Ramza took his hands, gently easing the blankets from Swift's grip. He smoothed down Swift's fingers until they went limp, his touch reminding Swift of a mother's. When Swift finally dared to look at Ramza's face again, Ramza smiled.
"Before we lay siege to Riovanes Castle, we will all train a little more. Rafa understands we cannot help her brother if we die. We will grow stronger, so no one else will be lost. And I will be there to guide you. I want you to take the robe of a Priest for the time being, so that you learn more White Magic before returning to master Calculator."
Swift nodded once, still unable to speak. The weight of his grief held his tongue still.
Ramza stood and turned to leave, then paused and glanced back. "We are fighting for what is right, Swift. Rad died a hero. He will not be forgotten." After that, he exited, the tent flaps swinging behind him.
Swift lay down and turned his face into the pillow.
In two days, Alicia declared Swift fit for duty. He dressed in a clean white Priest's uniform right after she left. He had not worn the Priest's robes since before Ramza left the Order of the Northern Sky. They seemed light in comparison to the heavy leather apron of the Calculator. Though he would miss the magic of the Calculator, he knew the only way back to donning its uniform was by learning as much White Magic as he could, as fast as he could. To his satisfaction, his hands did not tremble when he fished out a cigarette from his robes and lit it with his customary Fire spell.
As he walked out to join Isolde at the camp's staging area, he felt oddly calm, even when he passed Rafa, who was praying with Alicia for everyone's safety by a large rock. Swift felt no need to pray. There was very little about their future God would change. He had already determined their fates and did not seem inclined towards mercy. But Swift would see his fate through. No other path was left to him, for he had no home but the one that traveled with Ramza. All this death meant little if they stopped fighting.
When Swift entered the staging area, Ramza stood at a table, considering what equipment to bring. Lavian stood next to him, her armor gleaming under the sun. She nodded at Swift, her gaze unmistakably sympathetic. Swift nodded back, then turned to his sister. Isolde gripped his hand, smiling sadly. Her face seemed smaller beneath her red Time Mage hat. She had twisted her long red hair back into a bun, leaving only her bangs to frame her face, as was more traditional to Time Mage garb. She seemed as if she were about to speak, but then turned as Nathaniel approached.
Nathaniel wore the light red coat of a Mediator, which whipped about him as he walked. The billowing trousers offered the illusion of bulk to his frame, and a silver gun peeked out from a hip holster. He seemed taller than ever, and his long dark hair had been swept back with a single ribbon. Swift wiped his sweaty palms on his white robes.
Nathaniel stopped before Swift and nodded. "A Priest. That is wise, giving you a broader range of magic." He still had not lost his talent for stating the obvious.
"And you're a Mediator now," Swift replied, his voice catching. Nathaniel's shoulders seemed broader in the Mediator coat.
"I am. Ramza thought it would be good for me to capitalize on what I learned from Rad, and he wants me to recruit more monsters. I trained a little in the last encounter we had while you rested."
Swift did not know what to say. Nathaniel was as he always had been, and yet he did not quite the same. Swift felt overwhelmed again, unable to pinpoint any one emotion. He studied Nathaniel's face, searching for a visible change, but could not find one. He could not explain what made Nathaniel seem so different until he spoke again.
"We should play chess later, you and I. You need not worry. I am sure we will emerge victorious from this battle. Ramza is going with us, and we have you as a Priest to protect us."
Never before had Nathaniel seemed so confident, so bold. Swift vaguely recalled that an Orator could use his Talk Skill to make a man braver, and it seemed as if Nathaniel had talked himself into this state. But that was not what truly made him seem so different. He'd offered to play chess. Nathaniel hated chess. It seemed Nathaniel had inherited more than simple skills from Rad. It was as if he had inherited pieces of Rad, showing in his new confidence, his new interest in chess, and even his new job class. Swift's stomach twisted at the realization.
"All right," Swift said, feeling as if trapped in a dream. He accepted the staff Ramza handed him and thought of the chess game Nathaniel suggested they play as his glance fell upon Lavian, Isolde, and Nathaniel, all preparing to depart for their training. Each of them wore the different uniforms of their job classes, like any good soldier, but none of them were like Ramza, who somehow stood out like a thunderbolt with his unique skills and god-like strength. Just as Nathaniel taking Rad's place implied, the rest of them were all interchangeable. Expendable. They were all pawns, and Ramza was their king, the one piece they had to protect. The rest of them ultimately did not matter.
As they marched out to battle, Swift wondered whose game they truly played and suspected he would not understand the answer.