The Touch of the Earth
A melody drifted through the forest, a melody at once both reminiscent of times long ago and hopeful for times yet to come. It whispered of the ancient civilizations of the world, the great cities of humankind now retaken by nature, all of them swallowed by primordial vengeance. It promised of a future uncertain, yet bright. Within it was contained the innocent optimism of youth, unfettered by the cares of the world.
The music, flowing from the flute of a young girl, stilled the beasts and brought even the trees to silence. She sat at the base of a particular tree, her tree, she thought of it, and played for the audience that surrounded her. Finally—slowly, delicately—she brought her music to an end, the cadence finishing as gently as a mother touches her newborn. The silence that followed was its own applause, and it was only after the space of several breaths that the noises of the forest resumed. Nature once again took up its liveliness, steadily regaining its momentum after the lull teased onto it by the music.
Moments after nature reclaimed the sounds of the world, a distant crashing came to the young girl's ears. She smiled, disassembling and packing away her flute in her traveling sack, then stood up and began walking toward the noise. As she went, the noise became louder, clearer. It sounded like the romping of an overgrown child, and the gleeful cries that accompanied it did nothing to dissuade that notion.
Soon, the young girl came to a clearing, where a gigantic earth elemental, a golem, was a chasing around a flock of sheep, the way a small human child might harass a colony of ants. She merely stopped and watched, smiling, as the golem continued his play, careful not to harm any of the sheep. When he finally noticed her watching, the grin on his face grew bigger and he sprinted to where she stood, shouting, "Tali!"
"Hello, Kazu. How are you today?" Laughter touched her eyes and tugged at her mouth. Kazu had never managed to get her entire name right, but he was a creature of few words. Besides, he pronounced "Tali" with much more affection than many of the adults at her village said "Taliana."
Kazu beckoned Taliana, and she tilted her head. "You want me to follow you? Have you found more ruins to explore?"
Kazu bobbed his head eagerly and led the way.
After a few minutes of racing after her friend, Taliana finally came to the edge of a precipice which overlooked the ruins of a once grand city.
"Wow," she breathed, "it's bigger than any of the other ones we've explored." She turned to Kazu. "Have you found the way down?"
The golem looked at her in confusion, and Taliana sighed. Being a creature of the earth, things like cliffs or mountains were not a hindrance to him. She pushed aside her momentary annoyance. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t conceive human limitations. She smiled again, her irritation forgotten, and said, "Well. It'll be another adventure, then!"
The golem nodded at his companion, and the two lumbered about, talking in their way--Taliana carrying on a conversation and expertly interpreting the golem's non-verbal responses.
At last, the pair found a ravine which led toward the ancient city. Holding hands, they walked among the moss-choked buildings together, gazing in wonder at the architecture of civilizations long dead. They wandered through what appeared to have been stores, residences, places of amusement. Taliana delighted in pretending to live among the ghosts of the past, posing in empty rooms and dancing through deserted streets.
The sounds of nature continued unabated here, unimpeded by the former human civilizations. Birds chirped through gaping windows, moss and ivy climbed through open doorways as if the buildings were simply stone trees, and small animals skittered throughout the shelters, treating them no differently than natural caverns. Unlike the people of her village, Taliana welcomed the peaceful atmosphere, away from the bustle of humanity. Most of the others seemed afraid of the encroaching greenery, viewing nature as a vengeful spirit, an unconquerable and untamed avatar. The young girl looked up at Kazu. The earth elemental looked down at her and smiled, then spun her around, dancing down the streets. The wind whipped her hair, and she forgot about the silliness of others.
The pair continued through the streets, their pace unhurried. Taliana glanced toward the sun. Well past noon, but still plenty of light in the sky. She sighed. They would have to return soon. Or, she would, at least. Her parents allowed her these excursions only with the strict adherence of a curfew. If she was not back by the village before the sun had set, she would no longer be allowed out.
A flash of color caught her eye, and Taliana let out an exclamation of joy as she raced inside a nearby building. Kazu followed her, not understanding what his friend chased, but content to go after her.
They entered what had to have been a large house before nature had conquered it. Large windows faced streets on all sides, and a gigantic fireplace decorated one entire side of the room that Taliana had entered. She excitedly motioned to Kazu and pointed at the object that had summoned her attention. A vibrant flower grew in the center of the room. Its bright orange was unmatched by the greenery surrounding it, and it stood out as a thoroughbred might among mules. A low grumble emitted from Kazu's chest, a sign of his appreciation. Taliana held her breath at its beauty and approached carefully.
Hesitant to touch the small flower, lest she detract from its beauty, she crouched down before it in wonder. Kazu reached out and caressed it, surprisingly gentle for one so large.
"Kazu, wait!" Taliana exclaimed. In her concern, she returned to a standing position without realizing it. "Don't pick it! It will die!"
Kazu proceeded as if he hadn't heard Taliana, a smile deepening on his face. The young girl needn't have feared. She glanced back down at the flower to see it standing a little taller, a little straighter. The vibrant orange grew richer still, and its leaves curled with sudden growth. Taliana clapped in excitement and gave Kazu a hug.
Her energy slowly waned as she glanced outside. Gazing longingly at the flower, Taliana said, "I think I have to leave now, Kazu. Can you take me back? Let's leave this flower to grow in peace. I never believed we could find anything like that here!"
Her voice grew more distant as the two left the building and began to return home. In the silence, the flower only continued growing.
Their footsteps receded, leaving the ancient ruins vacant once more. The flower, touched by the power of the golem, began to increase the pace of its growth, infusing the power of the earth elemental into its own essence. Slowly, at first, but as the sun set and Taliana and Kazu found themselves closer to home, leaves and petals pushed themselves into existence, insistent in their being. Roots crackled under the already broken pavement, and other, smaller flowers soon spurted from the ground. Seeds sprouted and spawned, quickly covering the building and exploding outward, spreading into the streets and other avenues and buildings.
The seeds began to spread and take root, and more flowers sprang to life, spreading like a virus over the city, consuming it. The petals, still resplendently beautiful, now shone with a malevolence, a baleful sentience. Darkness incarnate, merged with the stolid power of the earth.
The original flower, now so much more than a mere flower, folded outward from its original habitat, now grown far too large for the building to contain it. From its roots grew something approximating legs, and it stepped out into the fading sun. From its leaves twined something that might have been arms, and they quested outward, experimenting their reach, spreading more seeds. From its petals glowed something like eyes, and those eyes focused on the once proud buildings of man. The touch of these humans still infested the land, it could tell. But not for much longer.
Gigantic limbs spread over the city, and a behemoth of wood and hate emerged. One long trunk resembling an arm raised and pointed toward the villages of the humans, as if to say, "Go forth, my children. And destroy."
Taliana returned to the outskirts of her village before her due time, where she said goodbye to Kazu. Kazu was the only reason her parents let her out in the wilderness; even the most ferocious beast would not dare attack a guardian such as him. Even so, the sight of Kazu frightened many of the villagers, and so Taliana had long ago decided it was best to leave him outside the confines of her peoples' lives.
Night took the village not long after Taliana returned. Lights twinkled in windows and the bustle of the day drew to an end. The village settled down, as it had done for at least as long as Taliana's short life.
Distant moanings flitted through the air. Taliana got up from her bed and gazed out of the window, frowning slightly. The moans reminded her of Kazu, but his were usually filled with more innocence and less . . . Taliana shivered. Hunger.
Taliana returned to her bed, discomfited for reasons she could not explain. Not long after was when the attack came.
Giant creatures, as tall as buildings, emerged from the night and instantly began attacking everything within sight. It didn't take long for the screams to split the darkness, and suddenly the village became a frantic hub of fear. Fires erupted everywhere, though Taliana could not discern their source or their cause. From her bed, she could hear her mother and father run into the streets, trying futilely to direct the flow of the chaos about them. She came outside as her father ran off somewhere, waving a sword around his head.
"Taliana," her mother cupped her face in sweaty, nervous hands, "find Kazu and get out of here, get as far away as you can. Your father and others are trying to distract those things to give everyone else time to get to the safe zones, but . . ." Taliana's mother looked around, and Taliana followed her gaze, trying to find her father in all the chaos.
"What about you, Mom?"
"Just find Kazu and leave. Go! I'll help get everyone I can out of here."
With tears streaming down her face, Taliana's mother pushed her into motion, away from the village. Taliana's last sight of her mother was of her running toward the flames, searching.
Taliana couldn't see through all of the tears, and she could hardly hear herself beyond the storm of the fire and the crashing of the creatures. As she ran and screamed for Kazu, her village behind her burned.
At last, she found her friend. He came to her from the direction of the village. Wounds covered his body; cracked rock and broken stone covered his giant frame, but here and there, Taliana could make out strips of wood or other flora caught in the sharp edges of his body that did not come from him.
"Oh, Kazu! Are you alright?" Taliana ran to Kazu and hugged him, and the rumble he let out sounded, to her, as if it contained more emotional pain than physical.
"What happened? Where were you?"
Kazu glanced back at the burning village as he picked up Taliana and settled her on his shoulder. She followed the direction of his gaze, even as Kazu set off at a pace faster than any human could have matched.
No more was said until they were far away, and Kazu let Taliana down into a secluded, little glade. Fear finally released its hold enough for Taliana to speak again.
"You helped them get out." It was more a statement than a question, but Kazu grunted in affirmation, crouching down next to her so that his head was on her level. "Is everyone safe? My mom and dad?"
Kazu's response was longer in coming this time, but he did eventually grunt again. Taliana bit her lip. That meant her friend had helped them all to safety for now, but he couldn't know for how long. She inspected Kazu closer and confirmed her earlier suspicions: most of the damage was internal rather than external. She could only describe the look on his face as despair. "Kazu? What is wrong?"
He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Finally, he took one of the vines stuck to his body, and, ripping it off, set it before her. Taliana frowned and studied it, wondering at the significance. Then Kazu turned the vine over to show a brilliant orange bud, crushed out of life. Still confused, Taliana glanced up at her friend.
“Isn’t that the flower from the ruins that we found?”
Kazu nodded gravely and looked back in the direction of her village, a low rumble emitting from his chest. Taliana remembered how, by Kazu’s power, the flower had begun to grow at an incredible rate. She held in a gasp and looked up at her friend as she understood. By imbuing the flower with his power, Kazu felt responsible for what had happened.
"Kazu . . ."
Taliana knelt down and put her head on her friend's shoulder, and it was in that way that sleep eventually claimed her.
The two wandered for days. They quickly left behind all the country that Taliana recognized. It soon became evident that the elementals were searching for them. They could make out their tall forms during both the day and the night. In the darkness, all of the creatures' faces shone with a light, intense and focused.
At night, Kazu would curl up around Taliana, and the young girl would sleep in the shadow of her friend. Thanks to him, the elementals never came close to finding them. They could not match his ability to blend in with and become the landscape around them. Kazu feared constantly that they would be found out, but Taliana never knew how close it came on many nighttime occasions.
When they could, the pair still stopped to appreciate the beauty of the world around them. It was hard to come by at times, as those creatures, with their awful moans and cries, constantly hounded them, but Taliana took care every day to remember the good things still around them. She was sad to discover that, even so, her perceptions of the world around her were tinted. Peace and serenity still existed, but she now saw an ominousness at times, as if nature were trying to conceal the danger she represented. The anxiety of those moments got to Taliana so much that she had to continue moving.
As for Kazu, his depression followed in their wake. Even the times when Taliana still felt truly at peace, the few times that she felt as at home among nature as she used to, his despair was a black thing that weighed down the atmosphere. She didn't know what to do or what to say. At first, she had commiserated with him. But as the days wore on, and they continued running and hiding, it began to wear on even Taliana's vast patience.
“Kazu, where are we going?” She asked. They still had a few hours’ travel left until the sun set. The most distance they get out of the daylight hours between them and the elementals the better.
Kazu did not respond. The golem simply continued walking, pacing Taliana’s smaller frame. Most of the time, Kazu carried his smaller friend to cover more distance, but Taliana could not sit still for so long and insisted upon running on her own once in a while.
“Kazu? Is there any place that is safe?”
Again, no response.
Irritation nicked at Taliana, but she pushed it down. She resisted the urge to yell at Kazu, but she realized that depression was not a thing that could be reasoned with or intimidated. “What can we do to help them? We have to help them, don’t we? I can’t just leave my family behind, Kazu.” She glanced at him hopefully, but all Taliana received for her troubles was a noncommittal grunt. Kazu was hardly paying attention to her.
"Stop it!" She cried, spinning on him, anger pinching her face. "You stop it right now, Kazu! This was not your fault. It was never your fault. You couldn't have expected this, no one could have. You need to stop blaming yourself so we can focus on fixing this! If you let depression and despair rule, then we can’t beat these things! We have to help my family, my village!"
Abruptly, Kazu turned his head to the side, and before Taliana had the chance to question him, one of the elementals burst through the trees with a roar and attacked, swinging a massive tree trunk arm at them.
Taliana was shocked into stillness, but Kazu acted without thought. He raised a stone arm to meet the wooden one, and the creature's limb shattered upon meeting Kazu's unyielding parry. Kazu let out his own cry and raised his other fist, bringing it down upon his wooden enemy and smiting it to the ground, sending tremors through the forest floor with the power of his punch.
Before she could utter an exclamation of triumph, Taliana saw that the fight was not yet over. The body of the creature twisted impossibly, warping around and through Kazu, trying to break him apart from the inside and outside simultaneously. Kazu and the creature spun about, Taliana's friend ripping away chunks of wood and vine, rage hastening his efforts.
Eventually, the golem stood alone, pieces of his former enemy strewn about him. If he had been human, Taliana could have imagined him breathing hard, but the golem did not need air. Still, she could tell that the fight had tired her friend. No wonder he hadn't been able to take on all of them at once back at the village.
Kazu turned to Taliana. "You're . . . right."
The golem motioned for Taliana to follow him. It did not take them much longer to reach the edge of the forest. Taliana gasped. She did not think that such a thing existed in this world anymore, except at the boundaries of her village. Since nature had reclaimed the world from humanity, she thought that the forest grew anywhere there was land. But here was evidence before her that such was not the case.
The plain that stretched before them was equal parts dirt and rock. A storm cloud covered the horizon, and rain pattered the field before them. Kazu knelt down and opened a hand, revealing the small, orange bud he had first shown her outside her village.
"Dark." Kazu said. He pointed with his other hand toward a solitary tree in the distance, bereft of leaves or greenery of any kind. "Light."
Taliana inclined her head, confused. "You mean . . ." she took a few moments to piece everything together. "There's a flower out there at that tree that is the opposite of this one?" Kazu nodded. "But . . . how do you know this? How come you didn't recognize it before? Why does the dark flower grow in light, and the light flower grow in dark?"
Kazu grimaced and looked toward the tree, far beyond the covering of the forest in which they still sat. "Yes," he grunted in answer to the first question. "Legend. Not sure it existed. Balance." He placed slight emphasis on the last word.
Taliana had to remember the order of her questions to piece together all of the answers. Kazu had explained without really explaining, but that was his way. "Let's get it, then."
She stepped away from the cover of the trees, but when she looked back, Kazu had not moved. "Kazu?"
He motioned at the forest around him, then at himself. "Earth." He pointed toward the storm clouds beyond. "Not earth. Not welcome."
"So I have to get it . . . by myself?" Fear clenched the last few words into a whisper. There were few things Taliana had done and few places she had gone without Kazu by her side.
The golem smiled at her genuinely for the first time in what felt ages. He put a finger gently on her chest. "Courage."
Taliana put her hands on Kazu's finger. He did not mean that she needed courage. He meant that she was courage.
"I won't let you down, Kazu," she said. The fear was still there, but she would not let it control her. "I won't let any of them down."
As Taliana got closer to the tree, the rain and the lightning increased in intensity. She gripped her bag so that it would not be flung away from her by the winds. The young girl paused to glance back at Kazu, who threw up an encouraging fist. She gritted her teeth and walked into the brunt of the storm.
Step by step, the solitary tree loomed closer. Step by step, the storm belligerently intensified. Taliana kept one hand over her eyes to shield her from the rain as she fought for each inch. She lost track of time, in her battle, and though she felt as though her world would collapse, the young girl continued fighting. Thoughts of Kazu, of her family, of her village, spurred her on. She could not let them down.
And then, suddenly, blessedly, her fight was over. She had reached the tree. Taliana took a few moments to lean on the gnarled trunk and catch her breath. As she did, a lightning bolt flashed and reflected off something protected by the twisted tree. She leaned further to inspect it, her curiosity overcoming her weariness.
In the dark recesses of the tree's hollow grew a small flower. Not beautiful, like the vibrant, orange flower back at the ancient city, but neither was it ugly. It was a small thing, a tiny, midnight blue flower. Delicate yet proud, it stubbornly grew within that tree, a defiant gesture to the environment around it. Taliana carefully pulled it from its resting place, and, shielding it from the storm, returned to Kazu. He took the flower from her, handling it as gently as she had, then, grimly, he said, "Return."
It did not take quite as long to return to the city as it had to depart from it - once behind the lines of the enemy searching for them, Taliana and Kazu made better time. Finally, after several days, the pair stood on the same bluff as when Taliana had first glimpsed this city. Toward the center, where Kazu had touched the flower, now loomed a gargantuan thing, with glowing red eyes that seethed with hatred. A dark haze spread from the city, and Taliana imagined it corrupting all that it touched.
"What now, Kazu?"
Kazu held up the tiny flower in his hand; it had taken root within the rocks of Kazu’s palm, and she could see his power working in it to keep it alive.
Kazu did not speak a word, but descended the steep cliff, where Taliana could not follow. Halfway down, her friend looked back up at her, and in that expression, Taliana could read everything: the guilt, the determination, the knowledge that he likely wouldn't survive. Silent tears streamed down Taliana's cheeks, and she let them go unchecked. "Oh, Kazu . . ." she whispered.
The monstrosity roared as it spied Kazu advancing toward it. Its bellow summoned its minions, and with a realization of horror, Taliana knew that Kazu would never make it through the mass that approached him. She closed her eyes and sat down, wondering what it was all for. It would all end here, and all of her and Kazu's efforts would come to naught. Without really making a conscious decision, Taliana reached into her pack and took out the components of her flute, assembling them with a practiced hand.
The music that flowed from her flute spoke of sorrow, but not despair; grief, but not regret. As it ebbed over the city, nature once again quieted to listen to her. Even the roars of the elementals ceased as they, too, paused to listen, entranced by Taliana's performance. The gargantuan in the center of the city turned from Kazu to orient upon her. No sounds issued from its throat; it only watched with a baleful acquiescence.
Plants and animals all stilled at the touch of Taliana's music. The only being that remained in motion clutched a tiny flower in his hand, resolutely stalking forward, toward the behemoth that stood frozen before him. Enthralled by the music, as was everything else save Kazu, it never stood a chance. Kazu gently placed the midnight blue flower near the behemoth's heart.
In the flash of angry light that ensued, Taliana immediately stopped playing and cried out for her friend. Frenzied motion once again reigned below her in the city. A cry of rage and pain erupted from the wooden giant, and soon, Taliana could make out tiny, blue buds cascading up and down its body. All of its minions let out shouts of pain, too, and then they began to crumble. Slowly, at first, the darkness began to dissipate, but as its dissolution increased in pace, so did that of the giant at the center of the city. At the climax of it all, the behemoth let out a massive roar, and the rest of its body disintegrated in a gout of dust and small, midnight blue petals.
Taliana woke to the normal bustle of the morning trade. She blinked the sleep out of her eyes, stretched, and adjusted her nightdress, then walked to the window to let in the morning sunlight. Squinting against its glare, the young girl stared out across the fields and into the woods beyond her village. It had been a few weeks since she and Kazu had delivered the blue flower, and still no sign of her friend. The loss stung just as sharp this day as it had any before.
And just as any day before, Taliana tried to swallow her sadness and get dressed for the day. Kazu wouldn't want her to wallow her days in grief or let her mourning deter her from living. She would never forget him, but maybe it was time to move on. Taliana sighed, the exhalation rife with longing. Perhaps moving on was the very thing she was scared of. It represented closing a door forever that she didn't want closed quite yet. But would she ever be ready for it? Kazu had touched her in a way that was not insignificant.
Taliana finished getting dressed and went about her daily chores, ensuring that the house was kept clean and helping her mother and father when and where she could with the trade that they handled. The atmosphere of the village was back to normal, the sights and sounds as vibrant as ever, almost as if the events of a few weeks ago had never happened. Taliana shivered. She could never forget what happened, but it seemed as if many would prefer ignorance.
In the evening, she took her daily walk to the woods, and, like she had every day for the past several weeks, found her tree, sat down, and took out her flute. She stared at the instrument for a few minutes, then placed it to her lips and began to play. Once again, nature quieted as it listened to her music, the melody playing forlornly through the forest. Her piece soon ended and Taliana sighed. The music helped for a time, but never quite eased the hole in her heart.
The bleating of the sheep from the nearby clearing came softly to her ears, returning with the rest of the sounds of the world. Taliana smiled sadly, remembering her friend romping among the beasts. She could just imagine his playful crashing, hear his innocent chase . . .
But, no, that wasn’t her imagination. Taliana listened a few moments more, then hurriedly packer her flute and sprinted through the trees, the grin on her face splitting wide.