Kings spoke in front of her as if she were a piece of furniture. She knows the most powerful nations of the world, and it cannot be coincidence that Fabul is one of four. The world has changed since she last flowed freely above it, but from high above she can trace the outlines of the land and guess at where to search.
An expanse of earth teems with trees and crops, fertile beyond all the rest of the planet. At the edge of a dense forest, nestled against a flowering mountain range, stands the castle Troia. Human settlements spread beyond its walls, guarded only by the trees. They have forgotten to fear the sky.
Barbariccia lowers a thick ceiling of thunderheads over them. Lightning lashes out at the earth, splitting trees and burning the grass. She pulls as much air as she can into a funnel; it is just enough to rip apart a field of crops. The rain she withholds, scattering the clouds while they are still swollen with it.
She settles in the upper branches of a tree and waits. She must not tire herself.
Once the fires are out, the humans mill about inefficiently. Barbariccia waits, watching the gates of the castle. The sun cycles. When she considers how she might do more pressing damage to their fields, a crowd forms at last.
Something kindred emerges from the gates—bound in flesh that is warm brown where Barbariccia is pale gold, male-shaped and horned, but the collar is the same. The thin chain hooked to it is held by a small woman wearing a crown, flanked by a company of women in gleaming armor. Troia is Fabul is different robes.
This piece of what used to be the earth is marched away from Barbariccia's perch, into a scorched field. As ordered, he kneels and sinks his hands into the dirt. The wounded land turns dark, rich, fertile, radiating out from his touch; the charred remains of wheat stalks rise back to life and color.
If the world were right, the earth would crack open and swallow those who attempted to tame it. Barbariccia's claws dig deep into the branch beneath her.
When the group approaches the burnt land nearest her tree, she tenses into a crouch. "Again, Scarmiglione," says the human who must be queen, and her voice is very young; this close, she is clearly no more than a girl. Too young, perhaps, for heirs. The guard nearest her whispered into her ear before she spoke, no doubt because Troia has learned the same lessons as Fabul.
Scarmiglione (so named, so tamed, Barbariccia remembers, and bristles with hate) begins to revive the field. She directs a sharp breeze through his hair, and his gaze snaps upward to her tree as it trembles with the gathering winds. He must understand.
In the space of a breath, she takes flight and forms a cyclone around herself to snatch up the queen and half her guards. Barbariccia scarcely has the energy to control a storm of its magnitude; she twists and veers, ripping trees by their roots and buildings from their foundations, and it is all she can do to keep from devouring Scarmiglione. The wind never demanded precision of itself.
She does not have to maintain it for long. By the time the crowd has broken into a screaming panic, her eye catches the bright shattering of Scarmiglione's collar. Her hair uncoils as she lets the battered bodies fall to the ground.
The first guard to raise her sword is swallowed by a sinkhole. Scarmiglione understands.
Barbariccia alights beside him as the alarm ripples back toward the castle. A low noise mingling a growl and laugh rumbles steadily from his throat. Back arched and eyes rolling, he burrows his hands and feet into the churning earth. Hills burst; narrow chasms yawn; vines climb and cover houses until they collapse under the weight.
"Don't exhaust yourself," she warns, pricking his shoulder with her claws for emphasis. She knows what he feels and must not dwell on it.
His wild eyes roll toward her face. "The rest of—"
"I left mine behind in Fabul. We can't even touch it, and we're outnumbered."
"By these puny creatures?" He shifts the ground beneath a great oak to send it crashing down on the guards rushing toward them. The least agile are crushed. Already he is gray and trembling, though he does not seem aware of it.
Barbariccia grabs a fallen sword and slashes his chest with it.
For a moment he is stunned silent by the blood welling up along the line. Another wave of guards approaches, bearing chains and longbows. Barbariccia finds the energy to blow them back, but not before a tethered arrow finds her thigh. Her blood blossoms when she tears it out.
Scarmiglione is quaking, staring at the blood he has transferred to his fingers. An arrow glances from one of his horns. "Are we mortal?"
"I don't intend to find out." Barbariccia wraps herself around his back, avoiding a pair of horns, and coils her hair around them both. The winds whirl around them fast enough to deflect arrows, fast enough to raise them both above the trees. The shouts of the humans drown in the roar of the cyclone.
Already she is half-exhausted; they will not go far. The tip of her tornado scrapes the treetops, cutting an erratic path of destruction through the forest. Scarmiglione is tense as a fist against her; his sticky chest heaves under her arms, and his heart pounds so fast that each beat blurs into the next. Sweat slicks her grasp. They are horrifyingly alive.
Her cyclone skims over water (insensate beneath her, because the sea is named and tamed) and falls apart on the opposite shore, in a different forest. Scarmiglione lands prone on the dirt with her on his back. The woods teem with the noises of life: rustling, chirping, crawling, buzzing, layers upon layers free of the chatter of humanity. Long ago, all the world sounded like this.
Beneath her, Scarmiglione's breaths slow and calm as he inhales the scent of the untilled soil. The wind curls around her, quietly wild.
Her body reacts on its own, she has learned, electrifying itself regardless of her will. It reacts now to the heat of the body pressing against hers, to the kinship of misery and the memory of their dance.
Has she been lonely? It seems absurd even to consider, but the wind was never alone.
With a grunt of effort, she rolls Scarmiglione on his back. He looks up at her with vaguely curious annoyance until she straddles him.
"Why?" he asks, his tone halfway between weary and wary. "I've always hated it. Did they not demand this of you?"
"They did." She slides her hand down his chest, claws curved just enough to scratch, and feels his body react to her. "But now I am mine. This is mine."
He understands. When she bites his shoulder, his hands grab her hips with enough force to bruise.
They roll, scratching and biting and furrowing the earth with his horns. Her hair catches on the brush and rips it apart; her winds rattle the trees and rain down leaves, twigs, nests. Her body wants, so she lets it take. Pain-pleasure-need blazes through her senses and consumes her thoughts. Beneath the burning of her muscles and the splashing of her sweat and the hammering of her heart, she dives toward a frenzy almost as pure as dance.
She builds and crests and breaks atop him until they are both exhausted. Blood and dirt and woodland debris mingle on their skin. They are wet and sticky and inescapably organic, spent and finite and probably mortal. As long as aftershocks throb deep between her thighs, she doesn't have to think about any of that.
Their breaths are the most nearly human sounds in the forest, but she doesn't want to think about that, either.
Scarmiglione has rolled on his belly again to rest his face against the earth. His gaze is half-lidded, unfocused; a human would be asleep, but Barbariccia need never again watch a human do anything but bleed. She turns her face to the sky filtering in through the trees as the breeze combs the wreckage from her hair.
At length Scarmiglione speaks in a low rumble: "They were cautious with me and whispered of a great calamity in Fabul. When I saw you, I understood what must have happened."
Barbariccia grins to catch the sunlight on her teeth. "We were bound to bloodlines. Break the bond or end the line, and we are free."
"And the others? Has calamity struck Damcyan and Mysidia, as well?" He has heard the same unguarded chatter, drawn the same conclusions.
"Not yet. I found you first."
"You speak as if you have some plan."
She nods and turns on her side to watch his reaction. "When we were four and whole, these creatures were helpless. We will restore ourselves and wipe every trace of them from the face of the world."
For a long moment Scarmiglione is silent and unreadable, and his voice is flat when he replies, "Can we be restored? I've been trapped in his body for so long that I can scarcely remember what I am without it." He shifts away from her, churning the ground with the long horns growing from his sides. "We behave now as creatures of flesh."
She has little patience for herself in such a state, and less for him. "Then when we're as we should be, we'll forget what it was to be trapped in flesh."
He snorts. "And how will we accomplish that? You said yourself that we're unable to free the rest of ourselves."
She bristles. "On our own, yes, but we are still powerful. We will gather what we can of ourselves and combine our strength. Together, we will shatter the crystals and become whole again."
"As once we were," he says slowly, and his longing is too bright to bury under cynicism. "Would that such were possible."
"I will make it possible." The winds blast her agitation through the trees. "Do not doubt me. They have named me Barbariccia, and I will make Barbariccia the name they curse with their dying breaths."
He snorts again but does not argue. "Where would you go next, Barbariccia?"
It is some time before they go anywhere at all; they are tired and wounded and desperately glad not to be alone, and there is nothing human here to molest them. The trees shudder for Barbariccia when she passes and make her offerings of their leaves; the soil opens for Scarmiglione and cradles him in roots. They shape the forest through nurture and violence and whim, as once they shaped all things.
When the leaves redden, they rise to seek Damcyan. Scarmiglione detests flying but seems even less fond of Barbariccia's scorn; he is stiff and silent until her cyclone settles in the heart of the desert.
The birth of a sirocco greets her, plastering sand to the sweat that already beads her skin. She remembers what it was to sculpt the sand and twine with it in a dance of devastation that kept the desert pure; the distant stones of Damcyan mock her now.
She will not dwell on this. Here is a castle, surrounded by sand and nothing else. "We must draw them out," she says, "unless you have strength enough to swallow their kingdom whole."
Scarmiglione looks up in irritation from where the sand laps longingly against his legs. "With this fraction of my power? Why don't you first wear away every stone with your storms?"
"You're too weak, then." He annoys her less when he is incoherent beneath her, but this is neither the time nor the place for that. "We'll find a way to draw them out."
He glowers at her. "Do you expect the same trick to work twice? News passes between these kingdoms."
"Not well," she snaps, but already she has abandoned the idea. If the water were here, the castle would be nestled in a vast oasis. What, then, do these humans need with fire in the dry heat of the desert?
Beside her, Scarmiglione sinks up to his shoulders in the sands. A cactus grows before him with the speed of a man rising from a crouch.
Barbariccia slices the cactus in half with her claws. "Stop wasting your strength and think."
"I am." He gives her a reproachful look as the cactus regenerates and breaks out in little pink buds. "I think that we would be wise to offer an ultimatum."
Her lip curls back in a sneer. "You wish to parley with these creatures?"
"To threaten. We can wreck enough devastation between us to make them believe that we could level their castle if they refuse."
She scowls; the winds whip little storms between her feet and the ground. "And if they do not believe, we will have lost the element of surprise."
"We have lost it regardless. Even Troia was cautious before you arrived."
As long as the sky is open, she can fly away. She can leave him behind if necessary, and it would be his own fault for proposing a stupid plan.
She approaches atop her golden cyclone with Scarmiglione walking alongside below, half-buried in the sand, the great horns on his back poking up like sharks' fins. Storm clouds follow her like a cloak. If they would threaten, they must awe and terrify.
Humans gather on the ramparts beneath the darkening sky. Her muscles ache to rip them all apart with no regard for the consequences, but there must be more humans inside with hooks and chains. She is sick of bleeding for them.
Hovering above their heads, she speaks from the pit of her belly: "You hold an elemental force captive. Release it, or we will raze your pathetic kingdom."
Most of them scurry away, for weapons or reinforcement. "Now," Barbariccia adds. She blasts a turret with lightning and listens with satisfaction to their screams.
What emerges from the castle is not human but kindred: tall, hairless, very like a man except for his small crescent horns and his skin, which shades from a head the color of magma to ash-white limbs. His torso is covered by a red robe, not unlike what the men wear. Red and blue streaks branch like bright veins over what is visible of his pallor. A metal collar encircles his neck.
"That won't be necessary," he says, and Barbariccia realizes that she cannot trace him to his monarch; his collar has no chain. Her clouds groan with pent electricity as she scans for a target.
Sand crests like a tidal wave and carries Scarmiglione to top of the castle wall. The remaining humans scurry away from the edge as Barbariccia whips the sand into a flesh-abrading storm. "Bring us the one who binds him," he intones, "or you will all suffer."
What should be the fire glances between Barbariccia and Scarmiglione, gaze lingering on their bare throats. "Calm yourselves. I, Rubicante, royal strategist, would treat with you on behalf of Damcyan."
The sandstorm falters. Everything about him is wrong; there is no hunger crackling in his voice, no wild fury shining in his eyes. He is nearly a man.
"Your arrival is not unexpected," he continues; "Fabul and Troia have placed marks on the ones they call Barbariccia and Scarmiglione. The ruin you wrought was so great that they desire only your destruction, not your recapture."
That, at least, is right. Barbariccia descends, pulling her clouds down with her. "And let us now do the same to Damcyan. Where is the one who binds you?"
"We weren't finished trying the ultimatum," Scarmiglione rumbles as the remaining humans flee into the castle.
Rubicante sighs so deeply that smoke rides out on his breath. "I've spent centuries transforming myself in their eyes from a beast to an equal. Did you not notice that I walk and speak freely?"
"I noticed that you are still their slave. You wear their collar." Barbariccia hates that she must find words for something so obvious. "You wear their clothing."
In a voice thick with contempt, Scarmiglione adds, "You let them civilize you."
"Yes," Rubicante replies crisply. "I take it that you did not."
Barbariccia whips her sandstorm at him, just to watch him flinch. He disappoints her. "To what end, you fool? Do you expect them to give you up?"
The mob arrives, armed erratically; these are nothing like the disciplined soldiers of Troia or Fabul. They keep Rubicante between themselves and their invaders.
"They wish for me to fight you," he says. "I'd prefer we didn't come to that. Go now, and don't interfere with what I have built."
Maintaining the sandstorm is tiring. Barbariccia lets it fall, and silence presses heavily in its place. "Fine," she spits. "If you enjoy this cage, remain in it forever."
Scarmiglione stalks forward, sending a tremor through Damcyan's defenders, and stops only when he nearly touches Rubicante's skin. Barbariccia strains to hear his lowered voice: "How weak are you, to crave a master?"
Rubicante's jaw tightens. "Are you simple-minded beasts, with no thought but to run wild until you find your destruction?"
"We will be whole again." In frustration, Barbariccia blasts a tower with lightning and blackens its stones. The humans tense.
"How?" Rubicante's tone is dismissive, but if he truly did not care, he would not ask.
She drifts in to whisper, teeth scraping his ear: "Alone, we cannot shatter the crystals that confine us. But if all four of us were to bring all our power to bear against one..."
"If one of us were whole," Scarmiglione adds into the other ear, "we would all soon be whole. Nothing could withstand us."
Rubicante's brow furrows, but he is otherwise still until Barbariccia's breath on his neck makes him shiver. His collar is dull and gray under her shadow and her storm, and her hands ache to shred it.
"You're both mad," he says, but he makes no move to push them away.
She scrapes a claw along his collar until the first tingle of agony runs down her finger. Of course it would be like the crystals. The pain thickens her throat as she whispers, "Who binds you?"
His body jerks backward as if there are hooks in his joints.
"Walk freely, does he?" Scarmiglione mutters, cracking the stones beneath Rubicante. A fireball forming in the latter's stiff palms dissipates as he loses his balance.
"Hold him." Barbariccia rises, twisting her hair around her to block the humans' clumsy projectiles. "I'll find the one who binds him."
She raises the sandstorm behind her as she darts through an upper window in the central part of the castle. The exertion makes her shake, but she has probably blinded half the humans and thrown Rubicante off-balance again. Whoever binds him will find control difficult through an obscuring storm.
Inside is an empty hall. Barbariccia flits back outside and in through another window; whoever controls must have a vantage point. After a moment's reconsideration, she exits and hovers above the castle until she spots a flicker of movement in a tower window. Flames rage beneath her as she blasts toward it.
There is screaming. Good. The window will not admit her, so she lets the sandstorm collapse and puts her energy into ripping her way through the stones.
Several of the humans inside are already running for the stairs. She pulls a gale up against them and knocks them back toward her. Pain erupts in her side; those who did not try to flee are guards, and armed. She forces herself to ignore them and pounce first on what must be the royal family.
They are so small, so fragile. A swipe of her claws is enough to split each open like an old wineskin.
Screaming gives way to shouting. She can eviscerate a guard as easily as a child. The blood pouring out of her must flow from her head, because its steady loss dizzies her. If only she could suck the blood back inside her. There is so much of it, soaking the furniture and drenching the stones.
Barbariccia stops when she is surrounded by unrecognizable shreds of meat. The meat encasing her won't stop trembling. She staggers to the window to see if she has won.
The fire still rages, but now it is turned toward the castle. The humans have fallen either back or still. Barbariccia floats clumsily down like a leaf catching on spiderwebs.
The air is thick with the smell of burnt flesh. She pays it no mind until she is near enough to realize that much of the stench rises from Scarmiglione, who is motionless. Rubicante's discarded robe drapes over him.
Bits of broken collar crack under her feet as she lands. They cannot harm her now.
"I am shamed by those whom I considered allies." Rubicante's voice scarcely rises above the roar of his flames. Everything between him and the castle doors is ablaze. "Their fear made them weak."
"Shut up." Barbariccia kneels and hooks a claw into Scarmiglione's back, just deep enough to pierce the skin. Blood wells up, but sluggishly.
They can tire; they can fall. She doesn't want to find out how far.
"We must flee," says Rubicante. His voice is half-lost in his fire, strung together on thinning breaths. "They have some rudimentary skill with the crystal and are sure to turn it against you soon."
She could fly father if she left them both behind, but what would be the point? She wraps her arms around Scarmiglione's torso and tries to ignore the fluids seeping up through the cloth. "Hold on to me."
When she feels the heat of Rubicante's skin on her back, she coils her hair and blasts into the sky.
They are heavy. She is heavy. Gravity swallows. The tip of her cyclone drags through the sand.
Barbariccia draws in as much air as she can and screams it back out. As Rubicante clutches tighter in alarm, she dives upward until the world recedes into sand and sea and brown-and-white crags. She tips toward the mountains before letting herself fall.
Together, they are too heavy to glide like leaves; they drop slowly, but still drop. Snow-capped peaks rise toward them. Her hair loses its tension and flies wild around her.
The winds cushion but do not break her fall. Her body judders as she hits the snow with Scarmiglione beneath her, and she is scarcely aware enough to wonder if he has been damaged further. The hot weight of Rubicante crushes the air from her.
When he rolls off, the skin of her back tenses against the cold. She lacks the energy to shiver. Stinging chills in her extremities begin to pass into numbness. She can't remember ever before being cold. She hates that she has a memory.
Rubicante's hand burns against her arm. "We must find shelter. I won't survive long in this."
They can tire and fall and stop surviving. Scarmiglione's body is as cold and stiff as the stone.
"Can't," Barbariccia tries to say, but her lips scarcely move and her breath isn't strong enough to bear her voice.
A sigh warms her shoulder. "Don't fall," he says, wrapping a white hand around either of the curved horns on Scarmiglione's back. Blearily, she watches him drag their weight through the melting snow, scraping the rock beneath. No fresh snow falls, but the wind stirs up flakes; they sizzle against him as he shivers uncontrollably, as if his entire body is a single spasming muscle.
Her vision flickers. Her heart beats too slowly to keep track of time. Perhaps they stopped moving long before she became aware that the jostling and scraping had ended.
Rock is above and below and before her, and the cold is at her back. A glowing redness resolves into a molten patch of rock that Rubicante has curled up inside, and the heat of which coaxes a sting back into her flesh. Shivers radiate out from her torso. There is a low buzzing in her ears.
They hold each other's gaze in silence. The winds howl at the entrance to their shelter, reaching just far enough inside to tug at her limp hair. The cloth between her body and Scarmiglione's is damp and sticky; without it, she would not know by touch whether she lay on him or the stone. If he breathes, he does so imperceptibly.
Barbariccia draws her cold-clumsied fingers through his hair, which is wet where the snow has melted. She doesn't know how to keep things alive.
So she stares hard at Rubicante and says, "What do we do?"
"I don't know. Perhaps he would heal if we placed him in fertile ground."
Her instinct is to seek refuge above. She might have aimed elsewhere when she fell, but having a memory does not compel her to trap herself in it. "Can you carry him down the mountain?"
"I scarcely dragged him this far. Do you have strength enough to fly?"
"I can't even move."
Rubicante draws his knees to his chest and rests his head atop them. "Then we shall wait."
Everything about the mountain is detestable except that it is too high and cold to be infested with humans. When the feeble shadow of her strength allows, Barbariccia slides to the ground, holding Scarmiglione's horns for balance, and draws her hair around her body in a cocoon. All she can do after is slump against him. Rubicante still shivers, even inside his molten pit.
There is still noise in her ears, and it does nothing to improve her mood. "I hate this," she hisses at no one in particular, though Rubicante is in her line of sight. "I hate waiting."
He shrugs at her in a gesture so human that it turns her stomach. "Falling prey to your emotions will solve nothing."
At this rate, it may be days or weeks or years before she stands. Her wounds have closed, but an emptiness lingers in place of her spilled blood. Perhaps Fabul has done something with the piece of herself she left behind; perhaps she has entirely drained the reservoir of her power and must wait for rain. Perhaps she will become like Scarmiglione, still and cold and silent or thinned away to an echo in the mountains.
The buzzing slows and deepens until it becomes a whistling whisper inside her skull. Her jaw clenches against it.
"Do you hear something?" asks Rubicante.
"Do you hear something?" echoes the whisper, though not in an echo of his voice; it prickles with mockery and sounds as if it has bounced up from the pit of a deep canyon. Something about it is vaguely, maddeningly familiar.
Barbariccia's hair parts to free her arms, for all the good she would be in a fight. "Did you hear that?"
Her own words bounce amplified around her skull, backed by a loud hum at the upper limit of her hearing. As she tries to wince away from it, she sees Rubicante press his hands to his ears. Scarmiglione has not so much as flinched.
"You both hear," says the echo-that-is-not. "Very good."
Rubicante springs to his feet with flames gathered in his white palms. Barbariccia struggles but only slips lower to the ground, unable to support her own weight. From his angle, she can feel Scarmiglione's flesh fused seamlessly with the stone floor, as if the mountain has begun to swallow him. Her heart is a frantic hammer.
"Show yourself," Rubicante commands.
The voice's laughter ricochets painfully around her skull; her arms shake as she fumbles her hands against her ears.
"Would that I could." The voice is wry, spiteful, probably male. It soaks up emptiness like a sponge and crowds out other thoughts. "I address you now because you have finally intrigued me. How is it that you persist?"
Barbariccia's flashes through her vision as she shakes her head, but the noise will not be dislodged. She bares her teeth. "I don't care what intrigues you. What are you?"
"You should care," the voice replies. "I am all that lies between you and an ignoble end on this mountain."
She cares about "end"; she cares nothing about "ignoble." But Rubicante is bothered about both, and he puts a response together before she has sorted through her exhaustion and her dread and her contempt for a return to having no weapon but words.
"What do you ask of us?" Rubicante, absurdly, addresses the ceiling. "What do you offer?"
"Our goals align. I desire as greatly as you to see this world cleansed of humanity." The voice rises and falls as if he is weaving a spiderweb. "I too desire to see the crystals ripped from the unworthy hands of these primitive beasts."
This is a game of words, and Barbariccia does not wish to play. "I don't care what you desire. What are you? What do you know of us?"
The voice fills her head with a maddeningly languid cadence. "I watched you before you were bound. I know more of you than you know of yourselves. I know that you were never meant to exist independent of your masters. Yet here you are—weakened, fading, scarcely tethered to existence. Impossible." His words echo deep in every hollow of her body: "I can sustain you. Without me you will not last; with me you will never tire again."
Or they can tire and rest, in cycles spanning centuries if they must. Patience is less hateful than servitude. "We don't need you," Barbariccia spits before Rubicante can say anything foolish.
The voice laughs with the brightness of a blade. "Do you not realize what you have become? Do you fancy yourself the empress of the winds, the autarch of flames? What does this blighted despot expect to bow before him now?"
The words sting. She hates that words have power. Claws flexed, she growls, "I am the wind."
"You fool no one, least of all yourself. You are solid flesh, and catastrophically weakened. The winds themselves scarcely recognize you."
If he were solid, she could shred him. She could tear the breath and space from him until he shriveled away. She would find the strength.
"Can you sustain him, as well?" Rubicante's tone is too soft to be challenging. The heat of his hand radiates as he brushes Scarmiglione's horn.
"He will rise under my power."
Barbariccia trusts nothing that is given, only what she takes by force, but she is cold and tired and propped against something kindred that she cannot keep alive. "And the fourth of us?"
"With me you will not tire. Free the demon of the waters with the aid of my strength, and I will sustain you all."
She doesn't trust him at all, and it will be difficult to destroy something more insubstantial even than the wind. Now is not the time to dwell on that. She is now, and she must survive.
With effort, her hand finds Rubicante's. The promise of firestorms flickers between them.
Rubicante addresses the opening of their shelter, where the wind lashes silver patterns of snow. "What do you ask of us?"
"Your services until all human life has been exterminated."
Barbariccia bristles. "We are no servants. We wear no collars."
"I said nothing of collars. I ask for vassals, not slaves."
Still she would argue, but Rubicante's warm hand tightens around hers. What else can they do? If the voice lies, then she will find a way to tear open the throat that forms it.
"Do you have a name?" asks Rubicante. He has spent far too long in the company of humans.
"Zemus." The final phoneme mingles with the hiss and howl of the wind, and the voice grows louder, deeper inside Barbariccia's ears. Its presence yawns wide inside her head until she is achingly aware that she is far too vast for her skin and far too small to be without it. Only a layer of tension separates Barbariccia and oblivion, and she is pressed tight against it. "Make space for me," Zemus says all around her, inside and out, "and I will sustain you."
What else can she do?
The great weight of her exhaustion begins to drain away; she would deflate if energy did not flow in to fill the gap. Power courses through each electric twitch of her muscles. Her hair rises around her as easily as her legs brace, gather, and push her upright. She inhales the sharp cold of the air and exhales the metallic tang of thunder.
The wind is still outside her, still frustrated when it attempts reunion, but it heeds her now without sapping her strength in return. Within the whirling warmth of her hair, she cares nothing for the cold. Her hand is suddenly too hot; she lets go of Rubicante and blows out into the night sky.
In the back of her mind, Zemus's presence presses like a pebble and vibrates at the low edge of her hearing. Barbariccia shakes her head roughly until he laughs and says, "This is how I sustain you."
For now, but not forever. She growls and spins, dragging gusts through the fallen snow. Only the winds near her understand, but she feels them now like extra limbs, like locks of her own hair. The flakes swirl in broken silver patterns like a roiling sea of stars until the rock around her is bare.
With a jolt, she flies back inside the shelter and hovers above Scarmiglione. Where his flesh fuses with the stone of the shelter, a softening rot has begun to spread. Swathes of skin slough off his bones as he pushes up to his hands and knees, groaning like a slow earthquake. His hair drains white and lank as it falls over the exposed bones of his face. When Barbariccia touches the twisted ruin of his shoulder, they both flinch.
"You promised to sustain him." Rubicante's voice is an ember one breath away from igniting.
"And so I do," Zemus replies. "I am not the one who mortally wounded him."
Gray flesh slides like mud down Scarmiglione's arms and fuses with the mountain. What remains on him is a diminished patchwork of skin and bone, sinews and tendons. His breaths are slow, labored, broken by hissing.
They cannot tire, but they can fall; this is worse than life. Unable to bear enclosure, Barbariccia shoots skyward until the mountains are a speck beneath her. Even when the air thins, she is still hyperaware of her flesh, and Zemus is still lodged inescapably beneath it. The storm she wraps around herself cannot blunt her senses.
She whirls halfway between the dead earth and the lunar void, shaking as if she still feels the cold. The thunder cannot clear her mind.
"How much do you know of Mysidia?" Rubicante asks when she returns. The rock shelter is like an oven around him now; she hovers a cooler distance back, keeping her distance from where the wreckage of Scarmiglione has shambled outside to crouch in the melting snow, in the shadow of a crag.
So they are not going to talk about it. Good. "It imprisons the last of us."
"It is a city of mages," Scarmiglione adds. Hisses and gurgles ride out on his breaths, and his voice sounds as if it is being scraped from his throat. Someday she will see to it that every human in Damcyan dies screaming.
But for now she only replies, "Then we will spill the blood of mages."
"I'm afraid it won't be so simple." Nothing with Rubicante is simple. "The Mysidian navy is the fear and envy of the world, and their dominance is such that they must be manipulating their crystal to achieve it."
"Must they," says Scarmiglione dryly.
Rubicante nods, undeterred. "The others have enjoyed only passive benefits; Fabul fears no storms when its neighbors are ravaged, Troia flourishes in what should be a wasteland, and Damcyan neither wants for fuel to burn nor suffers the cold nights of a true desert. Mysidia swallows ships whole."
Barbariccia grows bored. "I wasn't going to attack by ship."
"My point is that we will face no frightened, confused creatures with hooks and spears. They will expect us. We must expect traps."
They do not tire, but when Barbariccia draws a claw along the inside of her arm, she still bleeds. Her gaze cannot rest on Scarmiglione without making her skin itch and throb.
"Then we'll expect them," she says irritably. "Don't tell me you want to waste time making plans."
Rubicante's eyes narrow. "If we do not plan, we will waste more than time."
They watch each other without blinking. Beneath her skin she can feel Zemus pressing, silent but alert.
The tension snaps when Scarmiglione clears his throat. "What good does it do us to plan from ignorance?"
With a satisfied nod, Barbariccia extends her hair and swirls the air slowly around her kindred. Rubicante scowls but fastens himself to her back; Scarmiglione bubbles when he is drawn into the sun, so Barbariccia wraps him in a thick shield of her hair.
When he is tucked against her, the flesh on her nape gathers as if it means to leap off her bones. She grits her teeth and turns her head to minimize what she smells of him.
Then they are airborne, and she will never tire. Her companions' rigid terror scarcely registers against the ecstasy of the sky. If they did not weigh her down, she could almost feel free.
When she lands at the tip of Mysidia's bulbous peninsula, the first stars have burned through the thickening dark. Rubicante and Scarmiglione scramble away as she blasts the briny wind through her hair to rid it of the stench.
Rubicante wraps himself in a thin layer of flame. "Was all of that necessary?"
"No." The smell of the lifeless sea spoils Barbariccia's mood. She calms the air before adding, "They sleep at night. Let's attack now."
Scarmiglione death-rattles behind her. "I reject you as our strategist."
"Wisely," says Rubicante.
"And you, as well." The half-rotted heap of Scarmiglione shambles eastward, leaving soft, sinking ground in his wake. Barbariccia drifts over it and leaves Rubicante to pick his own way. "Let us see what awaits us."
The lights of human settlement glow past the crest of a hill. When Barbariccia rises above it, she sees a vast harbor sprawling inland into a town, which spreads thickly toward a castle. Mysidia is well situated to fend off attacks from the sea, and the continent to the east contains no opposing civilization. Of course, the sky is undefended.
Barbariccia has scarcely begun to ascend before Scarmiglione grabs her ankle and sends a heavy shudder through her body. "Wait. Look closer."
Her gaze flits impatiently. Here are ships stilled for the night, here streets gleaming in the moonlight, and here—here her breath catches, because just outside the castle, the silver light catches the surface of a moat and something sleek and solid breaking the surface of the water. At this distance she is unsure of visual details, but her deeper senses cannot be mistaken. Here is the fourth.
Rubicante's flames wink out in the corner of her vision. "And unguarded?" he whispers. "Surely not."
Flying low, Barbariccia approaches the castle with the others behind her. They halt at the last little bump of cover in the terrain before the ground slopes smoothly toward the moat. She still cannot see more of this piece of the water than that it is dark and sleek, and that the thin glinting curve must mark its neck.
"The ground is soft in the center of the peninsula," says Scarmiglione. "Given time, this castle I can swallow whole."
"We will give you time," Rubicante replies. Barbariccia nods and flexes her claws; anything that tries to escape the sinking stones she will flay alive.
Scarmiglione's fingers digs into the soil. Before the rot has spread even as far as the moat, a bolt of lightning leaps from the castle's ramparts into the kindred creature in the moat. It twitches violently.
The earth's rot ceases as Scarmiglione seizes into a cower.
"This is a trap," Barbariccia hisses.
Rubicante's voice is sharp. "Obviously."
Lightning arcs again into the water. The creature within spasms in silence.
Under Barbariccia's skin, Zemus pulses with interest.
The next bolt is interrupted by Barbariccia's own flurry of lightning strikes against the roof of the castle. Ignoring Rubicante, she drags down the blackening clouds until all the sky is blotted out. Flagpoles rip from the stones.
Rubicante is still talking, but she doesn't have to hear him over her storm. She will not tire. She is sick of waiting. Let the humans know that there will be no escape as the earth swallows them whole.
Behind her rises a roar not of her making.
"This would be the trap," Rubicante says bitterly as she whirls. A vast wall of water falls toward them from the north, tall enough to block the sky, too heavy to be turned aside by the wind. A burst of fire flashes some of it into steam, but not nearly enough.
Barbariccia darts, but she is not faster than gravity with Rubicante clutching her heel. The water crashes down on them with the weight of a landslide, knocking out light and breath. She can't find the ground or the sky with the sea pressing in all around her and dragging her away from both.
Her chest burns from the absence of air. She needs to breathe. She will not become like Scarmiglione.
Bubbles cling to her as she reaches out to the scattered presence of air within the water. Not much, but enough; it swirls fast around her, drilling its way the surface. Up and down reassert themselves. Barbariccia kicks and claws awkwardly, still towing Rubicante's weight, until she breaks into the widening crevice of sky in the sea.
She rises in the inchoate eye of a hurricane. She will give them a storm.
"Think about what you're doing!" Rubicante shouts up at her over the wild rush of waves and wind. "For one moment, think!"
Barbariccia is nearly annoyed enough to kick him into the sea, but her eye catches the castle and harbor of Mysidia, around which the tidal waves flow harmlessly. For a moment she thinks that Scarmiglione must have been swept away, but she spies a dark speck scarcely protruding from a flooded field. As long as he is safe, the humans will not be.
Coiling her drenched hair around Rubicante, she descends and dips the tip of her funnel into the moat. When the sea begins to gather again, she flits to the other side of the castle. Crackling with lightning and groaning with thunder, she is an ideal decoy. She does not tire. Waves hurls themselves after her and recoil from the edges of Mysidia.
Flames flow from Rubicante and ignite everything that is not too wet to burn. When the water is not chasing her, it is splashing frantically over the town and harbor. The entire peninsula roils in chaos.
By the time the castle's towers pitch forward, it is too late for the humans to reverse the process. Barbariccia laughs as the earth crumbles around the foundations, and the creatures that try to flee outside provide targets for flames and lightning. The sea throws itself against the walls, but it cannot compensate for the disintegrating earth.
The center of the land caves in, and the sea swallows the castle in a shuddering gulp that ripples over the land. The void yawns westward to join the sea, leaving behind just enough land to form a mouth in profile. The sea calms. What is left of Mysidia smokes on the northern shore.
Barbariccia hovers just above the southern prong, where Scarmiglione has dug himself into the earth to ride out the rapidly receding flood waters. "I will not do this again," he rumbles, and she cannot be certain whom he addresses; his lidless eyes are fixed vacantly on the horizon. His entire body quakes. "I have lost more than Mysidia. I will not."
Rubicante slips out of Barbariccia's hair and lands where the water is only as deep as his ankles. Steam curls up along his legs. "No more than I would quench flame," he says, earning himself a quick shiver of Scarmiglione's attention.
"Pity." But Barbariccia can't keep her voice level; her mind is too heavy now to revel in Mysidia's catastrophe. Her clouds thin and disperse, letting more of the moons through to bounce their light on the water. She hates that she can smell decay on the air.
"Clumsy," Zemus whispers inside her head, "but effective nonetheless."
"Shut up," she snarls.
As Scarmiglione, coated with fetid mud, drags himself out of his hole, Zemus continues, "Cagnazzo required less persuasion than the rest of you. His keeper has drowned, and he avenges himself now upon all the human flesh that sank with the castle. Once he has accepted the futility of trying to grasp the Crystal of Water, he will rise to join you."
Scarmiglione peers into the black water at the new edge of the land. "Is he whole?"
Then there is nothing to do but wait, and Barbariccia detests waiting. She flies in circles, drawing the wind roughly through her hair to dry it. Rubicante burns like a beacon against the fresh wound of the shore. Scarmiglione digs his hands into the earth and rolls his eyes back into his head, as if he means to means to heal the damage he caused. She doesn't see the point; he will only disappoint himself.
With a thick squelch of mud, the ground near him splits open and vomits bones. Barbariccia halts and hovers a cautious distance away as the skeleton assembles itself into the rough shape of a human, albeit one with gaps in the limbs. The thing rattles as it bows before Scarmiglione.
"Isn't that interesting," Zemus purrs.
Rubicante strides over with a handful of white fire. "Abominable. What do you mean to accomplish by violating the natural order?"
Swinging his bulk around to defend his creation, Scarmiglione hisses, "I will not take the life of the earth; do not begrudge me the dead."
A blast of lightning reduces the thing to a charred heap. Barbariccia cares nothing for order, natural or otherwise, but the sight of animated bones makes her insides twist. Masking unease with a sneer, she interrupts Scarmiglione's complaint with, "What do you need with minions? Would you play at being human?"
The argument and waiting both end when the surface of the water breaks for the dark, slick, kindred creature that hoists itself onto the shore. The flesh of Cagnazzo is less human-shaped even than Scarmiglione; he is smooth and hairless, the color of the midnight sea, and his torso is encased in a ridged shell that makes him look more turtle than man. His eyes are wild, darting, unfocused.
"You're free now," Rubicante tells him, stupidly, as if they weren't all stuffed with Zemus. Scarmiglione is so free that he lets out a laugh like a death rattle.
Cagnazzo laughs, too, or possibly just shrieks. The sounds stretches and wobbles as his body does the same, its contours flowing into something entirely human. An old woman in black robes rises from the mud and says, panting, "I tore them all to pieces. Even the ones that were already dead."
Her manic grin echoes in the curved gash that opens along her throat. With a gurgling laugh, she melts back into a turtle.
A spark of envy burns in Barbariccia; the flesh that binds him is at least flexible. When she tries to fall to pieces and scatter on the wind, she remains still and solid. "You've gone mad," she points out, as if this will make her feel better.
"Haven't you?" Cagnazzo's voice is dark and deep in this form, and hisses like breaking waves. "What I should be, I cannot touch."
"We will find a way." Barbariccia hadn't considered that a way would not simply present it, so she attempts, reluctantly, to harness the power of words: "Now that we are four again, there must be a way to combine our strength and—"
"Together," Rubicante interrupts, "we've accomplished at least as much harm as good. We have scarcely survived one another."
Part of him must still long for Damcyan and the humanity he feigned. Barbariccia bristles with contempt. "I should have left you wearing your collar like a dog." Still his temper does not ignite, which further inflames hers. "I should leave you behind now. What use are you to me?"
Zemus shushes in the back of her skull. "Have you already forgotten? You are all in my service, and my plans require your cooperation and patience."
Scarmiglione growls. "How much patience?"
"You have nothing but time, and we have much to accomplish before my pieces fall into place."
Barbariccia's frustration manifests in a bolt of lightning that scorches a patch of mud. Even before the thunder peals, Cagnazzo's head and limbs vanish inside his shell, which rocks shiver-quick back and forth. Rubicante makes disapproving noises.
When she tries to fly off, she does not. She cannot. Zemus's presence grips her spine like teeth.
"Allow me to direct you," he says dryly. "We have far to go and much to build."
For a long time, she carries. She has no choice.
First she carries her kindred westward to a great tower that shines like the beast that came from the sky. She has glimpsed it before from above, and then as now, there was no good in dwelling on it; there is no good in binding herself to the past. Instead she braces herself against heat and darkness and the loss of the sky as she is forced to follow the walls down below the surface of the earth, where the seas are fire and only Rubicante is not miserable.
The inside is miserable, as well, all cold metal and unbroken walls. There is nothing of the sky; the only light is Rubicante. At the edge of his ruddy glow, steel balls like uncanny mockeries of eyes lie in dusty piles. This place is worse than dead, and Barbariccia abhors it.
Here Rubicante and Cagnazzo remain, tasked with ridding the tower of dust and interlopers and restoring its mechanical defenses. They will probably have built a society of metal eyeballs by the time they have finished; humanity has ruined them both.
Scarmiglione she carries back into the sky and high upon the empty summit of mountain. Here at last, where the air is thin, Barbariccia begins to carry willingly, because she can no longer bear to lack even the illusion of control. Zemus remains in her, but at least not in every twitch of her muscles.
She carries stone and metal in the quantities Zemus demands. Reluctantly, ill at ease, she carries Scarmiglione to places where he can raise masses of the dead, human and beast alike. They follow relentlessly below when she flies back, over plains and through storms and along the bottom of the sea. The only sounds of their work are scraping stones and rattling bones.
They do not tire. The undead wear down to dust, but Scarmiglione is suspended in his decay like a fly in amber. Cagnazzo's fluid form flows back to the same sleek shell and smooth blue flesh. Somewhere below, Rubicante must burn steadily in the midst of rusted metal.
Barbariccia is Barbariccia is Barbariccia, and the wind abhors permanence.
"What are we building?" she asks the heaviness inside her one day, more to break the monotony than because she cares. The undead have laid a rounded fountain that covers the summit, and she is tasked now with raising them so that they can layer their stones upward.
Zemus does not answer immediately; perhaps his attention is elsewhere. "A tower," he says at last. "You should learn to like it; you'll be bound to it."
Snarling, she lets the skeletons fall and shatter. For this she loses control of her body for three days, but she is too angry to cooperate or care. It is Rubicante's fault for for craving a master, Scarmiglione's fault for having flesh too weak to heal, Cagnazzo's fault for failing to free himself. She has fought and bled and compromised and waited, and for what?
For a long time, nothing changes.