The wind is not the wind.
She—"she" carries like a stubborn scent—can no longer gather up sandstorms and hurricanes. Fire is slack and silent, though she never felt the fire die. She has nothing left to feel. Air that is no longer part of her follows through and around her—her shell is gone, but an "around" remains—and she is the worst of everything, a memory of form.
These millennia have ruined her. She is aware of time. She is aware of her ruin.
The company of her kindred only worsens it. There is no revelry, no frenzy, no orgiastic abandon among them; they are set apart like stars, too distant to dream of touch. She has no whim now for sighs and zephyrs; she has no whim at all, only the frantic, impotent need to destroy.
The air she once was breathes through her. She carries frustration like smoke.
Somewhere in the mind she has been cursed with, in her horrible lingering memory of solidness, pressure creeps in. "Live," it breathes, and she is caught in a thickening panic, weighed down by fear and longing and heavier emotions that she has never understood. She chokes on them and hates that she knows what it is to choke.
"Live, and kill."
She who was the wind coalesces into meat and bone. Her craving must be fed, and in this form, at least, she is accustomed to being bound.
When she has eyes again, they open on Rubicante. He is wearing clothing again, a cloak and headpiece mottled with the same red and blue as his flesh. "You," she says, voice scraping strangely up her throat.
His smile is thin, crooked, complicated. "It has been a long time."
"You felt me end." The tremor in her voice passes down her limbs as her body curls in on itself. "No, this—again. No." The claws she rakes down her own arm leave erratic red trails.
A hand identical to her own catches her wrist and leaves her disoriented until it melts into a deep blue. "This again, indeed," says Cagnazzo into her ear. His laugh is short, sharp, bitter. "Our lord benefactor sustains us."
"Cruelly," adds the voice of Scarmiglione. Barbariccia does not turn her head to see him; the stench in the air and his hissing rasp tell her what she will find. "Apparently, for cruelty's sake alone."
"We'll kill him." She shakes her hair from her face and winces at the cold shine of metal all around them. "Where are we?"
"I assume," Rubicante replies, "that he has succeeding in calling down the Giant of Babil from the red moon, and we are now inside it."
Barbariccia cocks her head, but there is no angle at which he makes sense. After a long silence, Scarmiglione asks, "What has the moon to do with any of this?"
Rubicante furrows his brow. "Lord Zemus's true flesh sleeps there, along with the rest who bound us."
A startled gust blasts through his cloak and nearly costs him his helmet. Metal cracks beneath Barbariccia's clenched talons. "What?"
"You hadn't realized this." Rubicante's intonation falls, and what began as a question does not end as one. "When he spoke of the moon and the mechanical giant with which he means to destroy humanity, did you not—"
"He spoke of no such things to me." Cagnazzo ripples into the shape of Golbez, albeit with an exaggerated open mouth carved into the mask, and drones, "Cagnazzo, go to Baron. Kill the king. Be the king. Kill the man with whom I am inexplicably obsessed. Oh, dear, should I have warned you of his mages?"
As he melts back into a turtle, Scarmiglione rumbles, "He spoke to me of nothing else. I have forgotten the name of the man, but not the obsession."
"Cecil." Barbariccia drags the word out on a sneer. "'Kill Cecil, because I can't. He brought a wizard.'"
Her head rings louder and louder until she expects it to burst from the noise and pressure. "You grow bold," Zemus whispers into the space he has hollowed out. The echoes scrape at her skull. "Do not forget that my power alone sustains you. You exist at my pleasure."
Barbariccia rises and growls at the approaching form of Golbez. Lip curled, she shouts, "Your power bound us!"
"So it did, with that of my brethren." Pale yellow light shines clearly through Golbez's eyes as if his skull is hollow; Zemus speaks, and Zemus alone. "My brethren are fools, but I wished to wipe this planet clean of the filthy creatures that have subjugated you for so long."
Contempt crackles in Scarmiglione's hisses. "And once you have washed away humanity, you would have taken the world and keep us bound for yourself."
Zemus laughs far away, and the noise that comes from Golbez is a delayed echo. One of Golbez's armored hands grips the exposed bone of Scarmiglione's jaw and effortlessly forces it shut. "You exist only to be mastered. From the moment this rock took shape, you have never been anything more than tools awaiting a strong hand."
A flick of his wrist, and Scarmiglione's bulk skids across the floor until it hits the wall. "My brethren helped to bind you," Zemus continues, voice teetering on the edge of mania, "but I alone have mastered you."
He should die slowly, impaled on the bones torn from his puppet. He should see every strip of his true flesh as it is peeled from him. Let him suffer and dread.
Cagnazzo opens his mouth, but Rubicante hastens to speak first: "For what purpose have you revived us?"
"Cecil comes. Kill him."
Zot crashed for nothing. Barbariccia scoffs. "He still lives? You command a force to obliterate all of humanity, yet you cannot destroy a single man?"
Golbez's fist seizes her throat and hurls her face-first to the floor. Zemus waits until she raises her head to reply, "The same man killed each of you. Improve upon your previous performances, or I shall find you of no further use."
With a shimmer like the sun on the sea, Cagnazzo shifts into Cecil's likeness. Grinning wider than his new mouth should allow, he wiggles his fingers as if casting a spell. "Boo. Shouldn't you flee in terror now?"
He hits the wall with such a crack that Barbariccia wonders if his shell has shattered.
Golbez's eyes begin to flicker between burning lights and glassy hollows. Zemus spreads himself too thin. "Enough," he says sharply. "I've an ancient weapon to command. Fail me again, and drift for all eternity in the void." The darkness of his armor fades into the darkness of a doorway, and he is gone. A blue gleam in his shadow reminds Barbariccia briefly, madly, infuriatingly of Kain.
Cagnazzo is shaken but unbroken. Their bodies are, for now, whole.
Barbariccia hovers with her elbows propped on her knees and breathes a long, frustrated sigh. "He will never free us. He will never shatter the crystals."
"Then let us kill every creature that bound us," says Scarmiglione. "The crystals may not survive the loss of that power."
Cagnazzo barks a laugh. "Shall we fly to the red moon, or drag it down to us?"
Rubicante raises a hand for silence. "Do not dismiss either as impossible. As you'll recall, Cecil and his entourage did succeed in killing us all; we might learn from such tactics."
After a dubious silence, Cagnazzo briefly takes the shape of an old man in bright robes, face half-hidden by dark glasses and white hair. "Shall we conscript a wizard, then?"
There is no hint of amusement on Rubicante's face. "They are small, fragile things that, bound together, do not break. If we combined our strength as perfectly, what could withstand us?"
Barbariccia bristles. "We tried that."
"Rather, we worked at odds with each other." Rubicante pauses, but on this point there is no dissent. "I propose that we join our powers freely and dance as once we did."
Scarmiglione's breath rattles in his throat. "We are not as we were."
"I am unwilling to accept that we can never again be." Rubicante extends his hand, and the air above distorts with heat. "Controlling the Giant requires most of his strength and attention. Let him come near the end of his destruction before we fall upon Golbez as one, and he will lack the strength to subdue us."
One cry in four mouths, sixteen limbs on one body, four forms and one frenzy. The shining beast descended from the moon; why can they not rise along the same path? Barbariccia threads her fingers through Rubicante's and burns away a memory of cold and desperation. The fetid earth covers like a landslide. The water rises up from below.
Where their hands meet, steam rises, mud drips, and the wind binds in a column. Barbariccia's hair splays around them, touching even the rotting horror of Scarmiglione. Blood resonates. They have all lived and died alone. For so long, they have not been as they were meant to be.
Flesh longs for flesh and rejoices in the chaos of reunion.
They are muddled, selfless, ecstatic, a roiling tangle of mouths and claws and quivering. Their storm builds like an echo overlapping itself, flesh upon flesh upon flesh upon flesh. This is the closest they have ever come to what they should be—ruined, half-dead, wild, spinning four times half-dead into twice alive. They are the heart imposing itself upon the metal, to beat and beat and beat and beat until the mechanical giant bursts.
Even after they disentangle, they are still together, still slick with one another and raw about the edges. Satisfaction throbs like a shared heart. Curled close, they breathe in sync until they hear the distant clatter of footsteps.
Barbariccia drifts above the floor and shakes out the damp tangle of her hair. The stale air stirs around her. "Together," she says, "let's tear the meat from their bones."
"As a prelude to greater things." Cagnazzo sloshes upright in a deepening puddle of seawater.
As Scarmiglione stretches, his horns scrape dark gashes into the floor. "The return of what should be."
"And the end of what should not." Steam billows around Rubicante's feet as he strides toward a wide platform in the middle of a narrow walkway, where blue patterns glow against the metal. "Let us await them."
"Ambush," he does not say, because he is still Rubicante. It doesn't matter; they are four minds to one purpose. Barbariccia wraps them all in her hair and hovers with them, flesh to flesh to flesh to flesh, in the darkness below the walkway.
At the arrival of footsteps, they rise and surround.
"At last you've come," says Rubicante.
The humans crackle with magic, all five of them. Only Cecil and Rosa are familiar; an old man whose beard blends into his iridescent robe rouses something unpleasant in the back of Barbariccia's mind, but the kindred can remember him collectively after he is unmade. Kain is not among them. Perhaps Kain is already dead.
Barbariccia focuses, sneers, and does not care. "The Giant cannot be stopped."
"But you can!" Cagnazzo grins with all his teeth.
Scarmiglione blocks their retreat and breathes rot at their backs. "This will be your tomb."
Together they circle, a revolution in four arcs. As the humans brandish weapons, they weave one taunt from three voices:
"Our master Zemus..."
"Gifted us with life..."
"To rob you of yours!"
Then Rubicante spoils it, because he wears centuries of attempted humanity like a scar. They can quarrel about it later; for now, they dance.
Hurricane, conflagration, dust whipped fast enough to tear away a layer of skin—Barbariccia whirls them all around her in turn. Humans are nothing alone, so she builds a storm to corner one, a slender man without metal armor. He should peel apart like a ripe fruit.
"Sorry, you're not really my type," he says, and comes within a twitch of losing his head to Barbariccia's claws. He parries her next strike with a pair of swords that then bounce harmlessly against her cyclone. She whirls nearer and laughs.
Smokes flies at her from his hands. Barbariccia disperses it with her breath.
The air inside the Giant is poor for lightning, but she sparks enough to strike one of his swords. He falls stunned, muscles electrified out of his control.
"Edge!" One of the new wizards, a jangling blur of green, darts into the periphery of Barbariccia's vision. In the same instant that Barbariccia's claws at last slice the skin of her prey's chest, the air stirs against her will.
Clouds gather above and darken into a storm. They refuse to scatter. Barbariccia glimpses a shape atop them and recalls vaguely a force that used to bring its own lightning from an incomprehensible elsewhere, long ago, before she was "she," before she was blighted with memory.
Hot white pain sends her tumbling beyond the platform. By the she catches herself and spins the clumsiness from her hair, the man with the swords has been dragged away to be healed. She howls and blasts a gust through the heart of the melee, knocking Rosa and the bearded wizard off-balance.
The green one is chanting, palms cupped together. When her hands begin to rise, Barbariccia rips the air from her and watches her fall, gray and stiffening. But the spell survives; it takes the form of a fireball too swift and vast for Scarmiglione to dodge. Rubicante's cloak catches some, but not enough.
Scarmiglione is burning. When Cagnazzo's waves roll to put him out, the bearded wizard channels magic into lightning. The bolt frightens Cagnazzo into his shell and collapses the rising waters.
Every gust is a firestorm. Barbariccia cannot extinguish, only accelerate. When she feels Scarmiglione's end, the whole world cracks, and the spiral waits for them all beneath. Faster and faster they fall.
The humans rally. They fall and rise and never stay broken, never rip themselves from one another's chests. Even as Barbariccia strikes them down, again and again, they overwhelm Rubicante. Ice streaks the air, smelling less of magic than of elsewhere. Agonies overlap inside her.
Is the broken laughter hers, or Cagnazzo's? Hers now, alone; the water crackles with electricity, and she cannot breathe. She catches Cecil at last in her claws to drag him down with her, but Rosa shapes magic into a blinding white that burns like phosphorus. They are all upon her. She falls and falls and cannot rise.
They will die or Zemus will die or they will all die together. Good.
Barbariccia's body is crumbling around her. She cannot stop. Ruin swallows them all like gravity, and it will never stop.
This is the way the world ends.
The wind is a shallow breath from collapsing lungs. The fire cools and dies no matter how much he is fed. The sea is calm as a corpse. Dead things rot above and below the earth but cannot nourish him. The dance is over. Nothing sustains them.
This is the way the world dies, ruined and free.
What is left of the wind drifts aimlessly. From somewhere far away she still feels the pull of a crystal, now hopelessly out reach; how can she shatter anything when she has only the memory of substance? She hates form. She hates formlessness. For now, she and the stagnant air pass uncomprehending through each other, but only because she still remembers "around' and "through."
Everything is dying with her. She finds no comfort in spite, nor in the slow creep of oblivion. Even her lingering senses of sight and sound are fading. Soon she will be nothing but a tenuous awareness of her kindred, until that too is gone.
Familiarity and hatred flicker through the wind. An electric jolt focuses the kindred together as a shining beast descends from the outer dark. Remembrance chokes the throats they no longer have—not again, not again—but of course it cannot happen again; there is nothing left of them to bind.
No longer can the wind batter the creature's metal hide. Instead she follows it down like a shadow until it settles upon a field and vomits forth its passengers. She recognizes them all; they have all destroyed her flesh.
The bearded wizard has been exchanged for Kain, whose survival taunts her. His golden hair hangs limp down his back with no breeze to animate it. She tries to weave herself through it, but she is only an empty echo.
Rosa too is still alive, still whole, no longer tattered. The wind has no teeth to sink into her skin. She cannot elicit even a shiver.
The humans behold the world with a hushed, misty-eyed joy, as if they cannot feel what is wrong with it. Perhaps they know and do not care, as long as they possess their shining beast. The Giant has stopped and Zemus must have been obliterated; time to gather their species and find a new world to ruin.
Kain is the first to scowl. "There is something ill on the air. Can you not smell it?"
"You just can't be happy, can you?" The one called Edge inhales noisily. "Smells fine to me."
Rosa raises her head and squints into the sky, eyes watering. "I feel it, as well. Something is amiss."
Frowning, the green wizard closes her eyes and clasps her hands. When she parts them, a small white creature shimmers into the space at her feet. Immediately it begins to chitter at her in a language never poured into the minds of the kindred.
When it pauses, she bites her lip and looks up at the others. "Whyt says our world is dying."
Cecil is almost amusing in his alarm: "Were we too slow to stop the Giant?"
The white thing chitters again.
"No, this is... Whyt, I don't understand—Not even the king and queen?"
Edge coughs. "Hey, Rydia, can you summon something the rest of us can hear?"
The white thing bows and vanishes in a brief stir of healthy air; wherever it hails from, it brings a bubble of its reality with it. Rydia holds her hands together and raises them skyward before whirling in the clumsy human approximation of dance.
The dead air bursts outward to make space for the vast black mass of a dragon. Nothing about it belongs in this world; its eyes are stars, its scales the darkness behind closed eyelids, and its scent older and deeper than magic. There shouldn't be enough left of the wind to feel anything, but she yearns to fill those impossible wings, to spin and storm and see whether the dragon can fly with and despite her.
The wizard and the dragon face each other as equals, as if the former would not fit easily inside the latter's mouth.
"Bahamut," she says.
"Summoner." Bahamut's voice is an echo rumbling from an incomprehensible distance. "I cannot repair your world."
"What's wrong with it?" Edge demands.
The fires of Bahamut's eyes shine on a point where the wind finds herself fixed with the memory of what it is to be focused in one place. Something of her rallies; something of her is still real enough to rally.
"You have destroyed the hearts of the four elements that sustain this world," Bahamut replies. Still it looks at the kindred, who are real enough to be sensed. "Without them, this planet withers."
The humans exchange perplexed glances until Cecil says, "The crystals! What has befallen them?"
"Naught, nor do they sustain." Bahamut's great nostrils flare, and the wind is very nearly breathed. "The crystals are power without heart."
Rosa's hands press together at her chest. "Hallowed Father, we don't understand. What hearts are these? What has destroyed them?"
Bahamut's burning gaze passes to her, and the wind moves with it. The stubborn heft of memory brushes the tip of Rosa's gathered hair.
"Long ago," Bahamut says, in a voice distant in time as well as space, "life flourished against all odds on the White Planet. At the dawn of its civilization, when its creatures were scarcely even aware enough to draw the interest of my children, they stumbled upon the magic to bind the planet's harsh elements. With such power, the forces of nature could no longer keep their evolution in check. These creatures shaped the tundra, silenced the storms, raised the deep bounty of the sea, and harnessed fire against the cold."
The kindred stir with shared memory, shared beyond even the sky and the outer darkness. The earth shifts beneath Bahamut's enormous talons; dew slips down blades of grass; where Bahamut's glare falls on dry brown vegetation, a pale curl of smoke rises. The wind disturbs the petals of a wildflower.
"It is an enormous thing," Bahamut continues, "to control an elemental force. The nigh-infinite powers of the elements were focused into crystals, but the animating hearts proved too volatile and complex. The creatures of the White Planet instead fashioned minds and flesh to enslave them."
The humans shift uneasily. Cecil begins, "Then the crystals of our own world..." but does not seem to know how to finish.
Bahamut does not spare him a glance. "When through their own carelessness the imprisoned heart of the waters escaped, it slaughtered much of their population before they regained control. In fear and fury, they destroyed the living forms of the rest. They believed that their crystals' power alone was enough to maintain their planet.
"Of course, they erred in their reasoning, and the dead mass they inhabited swiftly decomposed. I do not believe that they understood what they had done, or they would have been malicious fools to bind your forces as they had their own." The dragon's body, the wind sees now, is only an eclipse of a light that could burn away worlds; its eyes, pinpricks in the shroud. "I, Bahamut, observer of all, have beheld this, and behold again."
What remains of the kindred throbs together. This world is theirs, to live or die with them. This is truth without joy or grief or spite.
Rydia speaks first, haltingly: "The Archfiends—those were our planet's hearts? I remember when the Eidolons became sorrowful, but they wouldn't tell me why."
There is a great deal of shouting, overlapping and out of sync. Amid it the wind picks out Rosa's "But we had no choice," Edge's "The planet needs that guy?" and Kain's dark silence.
Cecil restores order by asking, "What can we do? They have been revived before; can we revive them again without endangering the people of the world?"
Bahamut's wings unfold like the night sky. "No action is without risk. They exist here now, but faintly. If you were to destroy the crystals of their power, this would, mayhap, sustain them in Zemus's place."
Kain stiffens. "They are here?"
"As much as they are anywhere at all." Bahamut's light shines so brightly that it is nearly solid, an anchor for fading senses. "Their endurance is remarkable, yet fast dwindling."
The humans' eyes pass through and over the places the wind feels likely to be. "And if they are sustained," Cecil asks slowly, "the fire, the wind, the water, and the very earth beneath us will be... intelligent. What devastation might they wreak?"
All cities to dust, all human flesh to ash. Let those who survive huddle again in caves, in darkness and terror, or let none survive at all.
"Whatsoever they might choose," Bahamut replies.
"Then what the hell is the point?" Edge snaps. "We save the world just so they can destroy it?"
Rosa's voice is low and tired. "Not all the world, I would venture. It's only humanity that they despise."
"Like that's any better!"
Drawing upon all the strength and memory of the kindred, the wind captures the exhalations of the humans and shapes them into vague wisps of sound: "You... dare deny..." Exhausted, she loses focus. If she had anything left with which to feel, she might be furious, or at least frustrated.
The humans collectively step away from the origin of the sound. "We are fools if we expect gratitude of them," Kain says in tight, measured tones. "They are beasts with the grudges of men. Yet I see no other choice before us."
"Rubicante never seemed to have much of a grudge," Rydia offers.
As Edge harrumphs at her, Cecil meets Bahamut's infinite eyes and says, "We need time."
Bahamut gazes back steadily. "Do you think it my place to grant you more? This world is no more mine than any other. As its champions, I leave its fate to you."
The great bulk of the dragon vanishes all at once, like a lost thought, and the dead air is sucked inward to fill the void. Not even the scent of elsewhere remains. Rydia's body sags; it must have been solely by her power that reality was tricked into finding Bahamut possible.
"I don't believe this," Cecil says quietly. Rosa's hand finds his. "Has all our struggle been in vain?"
There is a long silence, during the wind is not real enough to flit impatiently, until Edge huffs and says, "I think we should fly back to the moon, find Fusoya, and punch him."
Rydia scowls at him. "We have no time for that, and we don't even know if Fusoya was responsible."
"Then we could get him to wake up the rest of the Lunarians and so we can punch them."
"Enough." Rosa stares at a patch of sky; her eyes are nothing like Bahamut's, yet still the wind is fixed. "Is there no joy for you in nurture? Can you be satisfied with anything but our destruction?"
In her ruin, the wind expects never to be satisfied. The kindred stir with her and trouble the grass at Rosa's ankles.
Kain makes a short noise almost like a laugh. "Would you bargain with them?"
No bargains, never again a bargain—but without Bahamut as an anchor, the kindred cannot find focus enough to shape sound. If the world were right, the wind would howl without ceasing.
"I do not believe they wish to die any more than we do." Cecil addresses the turbulence of the grass; the kindred are, at least, still almost real enough to be sensed. "It does us no good to remain here. Follow us, if you can, to the crystals."
They are only slightly more here than anywhere at all. The sliver of the universe they disturb shifts to a space between glittering mirrors that cover walls and ceiling and floor, together reflecting eight crystals into ten thousand and splitting five colors into a spectrum. The wind finds that she can feel something, after all. Proximity to her crystal chokes like smoke and memory.
Time passes, probably. The kindred fall at a curve alongside oblivion, closer and closer without ever touching.
When the wind hears footsteps, it is impossible at first to tell that they draw nearer. Her senses fade and rally, fade and rally, slower and slower like a dying heart.
"Mind the trapdoor," says Edge's voice. Sound and image echo as he and the rest approach, sidling around the most direct route. "So what now?"
Cecil stands in the center of the crystals and ripples out in reflections. The kindred focus above him, scenting the air faintly with soil and salt and soot. "This is our world as well as yours," he says to the ceiling. "Can we not exist in it together, as you sustain it and we are sustained by it in turn?"
The crystals resonate. Suspended between, the kindred are half-real, on the edge of exploding.
If the world were right, the wind and sea would scream "no" in a hurricane lasting for a thousand years. But the fire is a steady, calming heat, and the earth is heavy upon them all.
The hum of resonance bends to the wind's shaping, and she distorts it into fits and starts of speech: "You exist... upon our... backs." Her senses blur; shaping a soft piece of the world blinds and deafens her to the rest of it. "You have... no... right."
Her senses flicker back in as Rydia says, "We didn't do this to you."
Again: "You have... no right."
"We've suffered, too!" Rydia's features are set as stone; this is the face that turns itself unbowed and unblinking on gods. "The war for these crystals has left our loved ones dead and our homes in ruins. We too would be better off if you were never bound."
Brief creatures, with no sense of their own history. The fire reminds the kindred that every human ever to behold their collars is long dead. The wind cannot remember whether it is in her nature to destroy for the sake of memory, or whether revenge was an invention of her flesh. How could she? She did not always bear the burden of a memory.
"You know... nothing," the wind tells them all, human and kindred and self.
Kain's helmet is low; even if her vision were steady, she would not be able to read his face. "Indeed. I know nothing of your enslavement, nor do I know what control Zemus exerted upon your minds. I know nothing of whether you regret."
With effort that nearly exhausts her, the wind rustles his hair. He does not shiver.
"You are not as you were," he adds quietly, without malice.
Edge clears his throat. "Just so you know, Rubicante, if you still had skin on you, I'd take you on alone and win." He stares steadily at the space where the air bends. "Just so you know. But whatever you are now, it's different. I don't forgive you, but it wouldn't matter if I did."
A strange warmth suffuses the kindred. The wind wishes only to be the wind again, but the fire may always burn with the vestiges of Rubicante.
"We cannot bargain," says Rosa. "The life of the world is not ours to use as leverage, nor should it be. But I do have faith. Is destruction all you ever were? What were you, before you were bound?"
Wild and free, nameless and formless, savage and gentle. The wind had no notion of joy, because she had never known anything else. "We are... not... as we were."
Rosa's smile is too small for all the emotions tugging at it. "Perhaps it truly doesn't matter, but know that I bear you no ill will."
If the wind were still Barbariccia, she would bare the memory of her teeth. But she is tired and fading and no longer comforted by spite. "I have... no pity," she replies, a simple statement of fact, "and... accept... none of yours."
Nodding, Rosa sets her hand on Cecil's arm. "We have faith. Cecil, your sword."
The blade that emerges from his scabbard resonates like another crystal. If the kindred still had ears, they would ache.
"Here goes," Edge mutters. "Rydia, if nature eats us, I want you to know that you're the loveliest girl nature ever ate."
Her elbow strikes his side. "Hush."
The world flickers fainter and fainter. The wind is not certain she can be heard as she shapes a scarce hiss of a voice: "Des...troy."
Cecil's sword hangs suspended in the air, just above the Crystal of the Earth. A rueful smile twists his lips. "I break my word to Troia. May the Epopts grant me their pardon."
Then his muscles strain as he hefts the blade and brings it crashing down through millennia of solidness. One of the dark crystals cracks apart a split-second after. A terrible joy rips through the kindred as the earth bursts, expands, fills all the dead land with a shuddering gasp of life.
The humans wobble as the entire tower rocks upon its foundations. They breathe hard even after it stills.
"Keep going," Kain says sharply. "Hesitation worsens it."
The sword descends again and blasts the room blue with the ecstatic shattering of the waters. The kindred shudder after it, from the fading memories of wind and fire to the solid foundation of the earth. The ocean surges in the ancient dance of tides; underground springs rush like blood in the veins of the earth. Every twitch of life the kindred share, every electric glory.
The wind is a breath caught in straining lungs. Another swing, another crack, and she is everything.
The wind is not as she was.
"She" mingles deeper than salt and smoke, but the wind does not resent. They are not as they were. They are as they are, vibrant and real, unfixed in space, dancing without tiring, at long last satiable. Her storms are not eternal. She is infinitely more than storms.
Upon his back, the earth bears the creatures she remembers as humans. The wind and water bear their ships, which invite the fire inside. The kindred remember. Time and memory and language flow through them like an alien dance. Such are humans: small, fragile, brief, the minuscule particles of a storm begun before the kindred knew anything of names.
The wind is the wind is the wind is the wind, but the wind also remembers.
So easily the kindred could wipe the world blank and see what crawls next from it. If a third moon comes, they will remember; they will not toy with it before destroying it, even at the cost of themselves. Destruction is simple, and they are free to mete it out as they please.
They seldom please, however, beyond the collateral havoc when the dance turns most wild. Better to let the humans weave fascinating patterns through and upon them. The wind breathes them as they breathe her.
In the space bound with the name Fabul, they build a tower halfway to the clouds and string it with bells and harps. The wind dances through it, joyous master of all sound, or strikes its delicate trappings with lightning; she does as she pleases. This is worship, perhaps, or a distraction for her storms, or something else human that she has never understood. Fabul, too, is not as it was.
Far below, where the earth juts high and gray into her sky, the wind's whim focuses her on a human standing at the edge of a cliff. Male or female—she has nearly forgotten how to tell. Long golden hair falls in a shining banner, and she is reminded of a name, a time, a dance, a regret. Perhaps it was too long ago to be the same man now; time flows through her, but she does not care to chop it into pieces.
So easily she could steal the breath from him, or blast him from the edge with a gust. The earth will dance with her if she wishes to crush and bruise with whirling stones. So fragile. She does as she pleases.
Elsewhere, the wind spins her cyclones. Here she is a zephyr on a face and a sigh through hair.