The Man of Plants and Bones, by Lisa Ankrah

The black-haired girl grumbled as she stumbled through the forest, almost screaming when her skirt caught on a thorn bush. Honestly! Who could live in a forest overrun with thorns and vines? If it hadn’t been the headmistress who had given her the address, Zhi would have thought it was a prank. With a huff, she continued cutting a path with her blade. After what felt like hours, she found a small house in the midst of a clearing. With the sun shining over it and a river running nearby, the abode looked picturesque…until she spotted the golems made of plant, mud, and bones standing guard in front.

Zhi shuddered, but approached the door. When she reached to knock it, one of the golems shifted jerkily and inquired, “What is the nature of your business, human?”

“I’m here to provide your master a temporary job.”

The other golem leered at her, red lights glowing in its eye sockets. After an agonizing silence, it mumbled, “This visitor seems…acceptable. Smells a bit weird, though.”

Zhi gasped, but the door opened before she could summon a retort. She dusted her uniform, then ventured inside. The interior’s walls were covered with various plants, most of them flowers. A few skeleton-plant hybrids scurried around as they did chores, not giving Zhi any mind. Other than that and the lack of photos anywhere, the place was rather…underwhelming. The girl didn’t know whether to be relieved or—

“Disappointed?” a voice asked dangerously close to her ear as something warm clamped onto her shoulder.

Zhi screamed, then slashed backwards with her blade. The person ducked just in time, but the plant behind him wasn’t as lucky. The hybrids turned around, poisonous flowers budding on their dirt-packed bodies as they drew near.

“Easy, easy!” the man said, either to her or the hybrids, Zhi wasn’t sure. Regardless, the former stopped, retracting their flowers.

Zhi used the moments spent catching her breath examining the person before her as he continued to soothe his creations and gather the remains of his plant. He seemed four years her senior at most, with the black hair and narrow eyes common to her people.

Nothing at all like the rumors… “Are you…are you the necrobotanist?”

“Yes, but apparently not a very good one, if my golems allowed such a dangerous person through.”

Dangerous?! You’re the one who snuck up on me!”

The necrobotanist bit his thumb, allowing a drop of blood to fall onto the plant before muttering a spell. The plant slowly fused back together. “Tell me, child: is it really sneaking if it’s your own house?” He turned to face Zhi, “State your business.”

“My name—” Zhi began, but remembered the rumors about necromancers and names, “I’m a student from the Academy. I was sent here to hire you to get rid of a corpse flower infestation at my school.”

The man scrunched up his face at the word ‘Academy’, but didn’t comment on her school. “Fair enough. Just hand me my payment and I’ll be on my way.”

“The headmistress stated that she’ll provide payment upon your arrival.”

What? Oh, no. No, no, no. I get my payment up front or no deal.”

“Listen, pal. I didn’t walk through your abomination of a forest just for you to whine. I know you don’t exactly have a lot of clients lined up, so why don’t you do everyone a favor and march your butt to the Academy to slay some flowers, ‘k?”

The necrobotantist shot Zhi the deadliest glare he could muster, causing the plants around him to slither towards her and the hybrids to return, flowers blooming and expelling dust. Zhi flinched, but held up her blade. While he was sorely tempted to toss her to one of his Flytraps, he knew it would only cause a bunch of Enforcement mages to swarm his house. Spirits know what kind of damage that would do to his business and to the reputation of the fine art of necrobotany.
He sighed, the plants retracting and the hybrids begrudgingly returning to work. “Fine,” he hissed, “Take me to your oh-so-special Academy.”

-Lisa Ankrah