Floral Arrangement Fundamentals: Chapter 26 - Calcified Hearts and Dental Oddities

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"What's the password?"

The phrase wasn't one oft-uttered by Samson J. Marchand IV ("Sam" when he wasn't trapped with overbearing relatives). The Septangle Growery's back door was tucked deep within an abandoned branch of New York's more mundane subway system, protected by broken lights, geysers of steam, and packs of ravenous rats. Such obstacles miraculously vanished during regular pickups, naturally, but none of those were currently scheduled, and the woman standing at the other side of the three-inch metal door wasn't a normal courier regardless.

Feathers of mud-brown hair stuck out from beneath her baseball cap at odd angles, some plastered flat to tanned skin with sweat, others drifting in the tunnel's wind. The cap cast deep shadows over the upper half of her face, though not so deep as to obscure equally muddy eyes that lacked any particular spark of intellect or interest. In fact, she was uninteresting in sum, including one cheek puffy, a threadbare sweatshirt with half-rolled sleeves, and a pair of untied shoes.

"Password, password… like, uh, 'bite the most oppressive thumb,' right? I think?" She scratched her neck and smiled awkwardly at the door's slot. "I'm here for my boss?"

"Is that a question?" said Samson. He sniffed the air a few times and found none of magic's telltale odors. Not the indescribable ones that came with its aptitude, nor that practical traces of chalk, herbs, and viscera. An unlikely sort of agent in their circles.

"I'm definitely here instead of my boss?"

"Who's that then?"

"Ms. Hasegawa? Like, the big boss of the DWS? I'm supposed to meet with your boss about a thing?"

"What kind of thing?" he asked. The woman shrugged in response. A frequent gesture, especially with how unsure of everything she appeared. Samson had no patience for people who assumed undeserved airs, but it was hard to muster respect for those who wallowed in shamelessness. "I can't let you in if you don't even know what you're here for."

"I'm here to give a thing to a guy, who is your boss, and then I take a thing from the guy to bring to my boss. It's not complicated."

"Well, he isn't here. You should've called ahead. Feel free to wait."

"Aw, come on. Don't make me stay out here. I'm gonna, like, melt. I'll melt all over this doorstep and you're gonna have to deal with it. Come on…" That last syllable dragged out to intolerable proportions, soldering on toward some distant battlefield. It persisted, at least until Samson's patience was crushed beneath those marching boots.

"Fine, fine, fine. Fine!" he snapped. The grown woman finally stopped whining like some petulant child. "Did anyone bother explaining the rules to you?"

"Yup!" She smiled widely, winced, and rubbed her swollen cheek. None of it looked right, but that was to be expected after dental surgery. "Uh, no electronics was the big one, right? I left my phone behind. No electronics and nothing, like, fiery? Flammable. Inflammable?"

"Yes, yeah, all that. The plants are sensitive, and they're worth more than your life."

"Hey, I don't need to go anywhere near them. Just stick me in the AC and I'm all good. Actually, do you have a walk-in freezer or something? I must've sweated all my water out just getting down here. It's awful."

"Well, you're trying to come in through the back, there's–"

"What, really?"

"Yeah, if you–"

"Why didn't anyone tell me?"

Samson shook his head and slid the door's observation slat shut with a loud clack. What a pain in the ass. What an absolute wound on her organization's pride. Any group with their salt in the Backdoor's backdoor should be able to find someone better. Still, Mr. Sun would be irked if he offended a potential customer, and irking Mr. Sun felt worse than disappointing his parents ever had. Samson spun the wheel that held the heavy door shut. It groaned as he pulled it open, first discontentedly, then with something near rapture. She had better appreciate his effort.

"Thanks!" The woman hopped over the tall step and clumsily pantomimed a curtsy, if it could even be called that. Standards.

"Take everything out of your pockets," he said. "I do mean everything too, not just electronics. I've got a bin here somewhere for it all. Then you can try the wards, and if those let you through, I can set you up in the break room."

"Sure, sure," she said flippantly while digging through an array of pockets. Keys came out, then a Swiss Army knife, then a handful of scuzzy lint. A rolled-up paperback. An old revolver with no bullets. A packet of dehydrated seaweed. Samson dutifully patted down her pockets, found nothing else of importance, and turned toward the wall of shelving. Certainly, there was supposed to be a holding tray. If it lay buried in the cleaning supplies, power tools, and cans of old paint, that was a different matter entirely.

Something hammered into the back of his knee mid-step. Samson stumbled forward, flailing for stability, and two hands grabbed hold of his head. They smashed it into the tiled wall, then down against metal flooring. His nose crunched loudly, then his orbitals. Before he could so much as groan, a heavy stomp connected with the back of his skull. Once, twice, and another time still. A final crunch echoed through his bones, and even groaning was impossible after that.

"You did your best," said the woman from above his prone form. "Probably bit the wrong thumb though."

"Thank you for meeting me here."

The phrase was one oft-uttered by Mr. Sun, who had gone by many long-discarded names throughout many long-discarded lives. For now, he managed a growery that specialized in an ancient strain of Achillea millefolium that was once favored by legendary figures across the ancient world for its healing potential and other exotic properties. Now, it was largely used by students in local thaumaturgic colleges, but they were better customers anyway. Less likely to die in duels. More eager to refer their friends. It was a marvelously profitable business, diminished only by persistent political headaches. If nothing else, at least those allowed for meetings at the countless cafes dotting the Backdoor like a persistent flea infestation.

The Foundation's representative at this particular meeting was a dark-skinned woman whose black hair remained untouched by the wind whistling between impossibly tall skyscrapers. She was similarly unperturbed by the immobile sun's blinding rays, though they shone directly on the small patio, and clearly could not care less that she was the most hated thing in a seventeen-block radius.

"Naturally." She paused to sip from a small porcelain cup with blue floral patterns that blew back and forth. "I was already in the neighborhood."

"Regardless, thank you. I've always hated to disturb a perfectly good schedule."

"Our organization is nothing if not accommodating." No smile crossed her lips, though that was surely the funniest thing Mr. Sun had heard in weeks. He did it instead, smiling with all the warmth of someone with centuries of practice.

"Of course, of course. Now, if we could… Oh, I'm sorry. I don't seem to have gotten your name?"

"Such things are hardly appropriate when I speak for more than myself. Consider me the Foundation's mouthpiece, if you will. I imagine you have called us plenty of names in the past. By all means, make use of them again."

"It would hardly be polite. I would really prefer something more personal, Ms…?"

"Certainly, it would be terribly impolite." That did earn a small smile from her, blooming and dying as she twisted one of the many simple rings weighing down her left hand. "Our previous representatives have been more than accommodating with their politeness and negotiations."

Mr. Sun slowly sipped from his own porcelain cup and considered his opponent. She surely wanted the same things that the rest had demanded. Exclusive rights to purchase his product, since they had never managed to grow it themselves. Guarantees that it wouldn't be sold to the more militant factions of the Serpent's Hand, let alone other aggressive organizations. Countless other concessions he would never provide. Past negotiators had been brushed off more easily with a bit of magic, but some individuals were simply blessed with natural resistances. Nothing that couldn't be overcome with proper application.

"Of course, I've been accommodating too," he said, unspooling an arsenal of extrinsic forces from within the aether.

"No, you haven't."

"I've cooperated for years."

"Not as such, no."

Mr. Sun frowned just as slightly as she had smiled and probed for gaps in the woman's ontological barriers. An introduction often offered surest access to the inner crevices of identity, but there were other ways. A mind without vulnerabilities was a mind that had never learned. The Foundation's representative sipped coffee again his worms failed to find fertile ground. She hiccuped slightly as his eels vainly pressed against spiderweb crevices. Mr. Sun had never seen a person so profoundly lacking in personhood before, not in his longest centuries.

"My time is limited," she said. "Will you accept the offer you were given or not?"

"No. I don't know who you've spoken to, but I have a personal understanding with your leaders."

"That's not my concern. Will you adopt the changes?"

"Why would I now?"

"Circumstances do tend to change at the worst times."

Egret reached into her cheek with two fingers, pried out a piece of cotton soaked with spit and blood, and flicked it to the floor. One damp piece landed next to the fallen doorman's head. One landed on it. Blood still oozed out around her dental implants, all sprouting back where normal teeth had grown before she met the Overseer, but those wouldn't intrude for much longer.

She wrenched the fangs from her mouth. Long, dark, and twisting, none had any business growing from a living creature. One by one, they squelched loudly when freed from relieved flesh. One by one, Egret slotted them into the six chambers of the Overseer's loaned revolver. None should have fit as snugly as they did by any right.

She snapped the pistol's cylinder back into place, stepped over her victim's prone body, and pushed open the room's only other door. Beyond it lay a corridor lined with thick pipes and bright lights. Bunches of herbs hung along the ceiling, each bound in black twine. Smoke drifted from their smoldering ends to pool in hazy clouds. Egret snorted and batted a free hand against the open air. It sunk through like mud, slow but otherwise unharmed, at least until scraps of skin started peeling away to bare pink flesh. Nearly half her hand stung fiercely by the time she wrenched free.

Magic. Magic, always getting in the way of work. Not the Overseer's magic, naturally, but the invocation of some two-bit tuxedo-mage thinking this would keep her out. No, dedication trumped anything they could possibly muster. Fervent determination trumped desperate ingenuity. Violence trumped everything. Egret cocked her pistol, tongue still probing bleeding sockets in that moment, and fired through the smoky air.

Flowers bloomed in the calcified bullet's wake. With each inch, ten roses. After each foot, a hundred daisies. The corridor sprouted a floral kaleidoscope, sweet smells instantly overpowering that of burnt offerings. Egret stuck her finger over the invisible threshold again, then her hand, and smiled to herself. One foot crushed a bunch of irises as she stepped into the once-fortified hallway. The other kicked a patch of lilies into the air. Keeping track of flower language had always been beyond her, but Egret was certain the corridor could be translated into a hideous scream.

She banged her hand against the locked door at the hallway's other end. Again and again, louder and louder, until someone finally yelled back. Louder still, until they jostled the metal locks holding it shut. Impatience and annoyance could always be counted on to overwhelm caution. The door opened a scant inch. Egret kicked it forward another, driving the metal slab right into a skinny woman wearing an absurd robe. She screamed and tumbled to the ground, settling just as a tall man with more mohawk than common sense rounded one of the large room's many corridors. His hand was already reaching for a twig of pale wood hanging at his belt.

Drawing his weapon should have come before running in, and before screaming like an idiot too. Egret fired her second tooth at his head. It scattered into petals, pollen, and long cerebral stalks that wavered as he collapsed. Egret glanced around the large room as the figure at her feet struggled up, pausing only to kick her down again. An old control room of some kind. Long-dead consoles overshadowed a set of stone slabs that flickered with odd light, showing the sketchy scene of her invasion among others. Egret kicked the arms out from under the robed woman again. Plenty of tables and couches around, but no one to fill them. No one running to do so either. Not yet, at least.

She bit Egret's calf. Too hard for a human jaw, and too hard to easily shake free. They had an odd sort of dance, one writhing away from furious stomps, the other twisting along to keep her leg intact. Though keenly balanced, Egret couldn't help but be dragged downward. They struggled on the concrete, hands seeking weakness, teeth meeting flesh. The writhing lasted nearly a minute, lasting until Egret jammed her free foot into her opponent's neck and pushed away at an angle. A bit of flesh tore free, but not enough to matter. Not when it opened enough space between the two of them. She fired her third tooth.

Otherworldly flowers bloomed in the prone woman's torso, draped in translucent veils and trailing shimmering tendrils. Each smelled like fresh gasoline. Egret pushed up to her knees, then her feet, wincing at her own weight all the while. Expecting any victory to come without a cost was foolish, but it annoyed her terribly all the same. Not the wound, but the thinking behind it. Trying to preserve every bit of ammunition simply because it had been bestowed by the Overseer was foolish. She tongued her bleeding sockets again, looked around, and nudged the door shut. Each lock clacked anew. Each latch bore a sense of finality.

She still had a garden to deal with, and only three teeth remained.

Mr. Sun calmly placed a small stone tablet down on the table and sipped the last dregs from his cup. The flowers on it had long ago wilted, all urging him to return to the cafe for a refill, but there was little chance of that now. Bad news took precedence. His employees were dead and dying. Worse still, his business and very core were in great danger, all at a time when returning would be impossible. Mr. Sun's hand shook as he placed it back in the saucer, but only slightly. History's weight crushed a great many worries.

"My colleagues won't take lightly to this," he said, slowly loosening his tie from its feldspar clip. "Reneging on a treaty is terrible form, especially for your sort. The Overseer Council promised neutrality as long as we did our part to keep the peace. This won't end easily."

"Your colleagues have never felt kindly towards us," said the Foundation's representative, whose range of identities was swiftly narrowing. "Or would you cast the Serpent's Hand in a different light?"

"I negotiated peacefully! Longer than we should have, it seems."

"You created a useful facade of decentralization. 'Ah, no, those kidnappings were the work of radical factions,' your representatives said. 'No, no, those explosions simply weren't our doing. We can't control them.' Did you expect this to end another way?"

"If you know so much, you should know I never played a role in anything aggressive. I only ever offered assistance to those seeking their own path through the world."

"I'm not unaware," she said softly, twisting one of her many rings.

"And?" he asked softer, pulling his tie free entirely.

"Trimming the tree has become necessary."

"New branches will sprout even if you succeed. You can't crush our movement, not truly. You never have. You never will. We will return the moment you look away, and no one will push for peace next time."

"You would be shocked how many times I've heard the same exact same thing."

"So you deny the futility of it? You'll deny the cycle despite every scrap of evidence?"

"I deny nothing."


"I'll simply break that cycle too."

That was it, then. There had already been no easy retreat available, but there would be no peaceful break in their interests either. The world around each representative vanished as they revealed their truest selves. A battle between petty mages was not unlike a common war, replete with weapons of every sort. Were they weaker, they might have scouted, and ambushed, and marshaled their forces for penetrating assaults. But no, arms and tactics were beyond them. This conflict was of a different sort, each combatant unveiling the extent to which their might exceeded any possible proportion.

In that exchange, Mr. Sun was no longer a petty thing of flesh and blood. He was the first fire bound and unbound both. He was the ever-burning temple flame and the profaned embers. He was the bountiful light shining across the world, nurturing lush fields, and consuming them in fickle blazes. He was momentary and enduring both, transient and eternal. In that dichotomy lay an endless font of power.

In that exchange, the Foundation's representative was stripped of shape and form. Her thaumatic mass persisted upon the cafe's iron chair, but it could never be called her true throne. That was built on old stones and older bone, towering high above the graveyards of kingdoms and the mausoleums of whales. Its weight was borne by the world's spine and its people's brows. Its back cast a cold shadow across their free births and shackled deaths. In that oppression lay an endless font of power.

No more attention could be spared for worrying over her identity. None could be wasted worrying over his employees' fates, nor his garden's. Worry distracted. Thoughts diverted. The only path to victory lay in matching his font against her own. Time was the only weapon that mattered when the slightest vulnerability in their iron-clad senses of self would mean defeat. Seconds for something to distract. Minutes for wills to weaken. Time and doubts, those would decide their bout as it stretched on under the static sun, and a good thing too. Mr. Sun unquestionably had more experience living through both.

Tomoe Yamane had been many things in her life. A warrior, once, and what a senseless affair that had been. A poet once, though never in the warrior-poet sense. Her self-published tome had never sold more than a hundred copies. She had been a fry cook, a construction worker, a botanist, and a freedom fighter. Hurting people and helping them came in equal measure, as with so many things in life. Few ever freed themselves from the world's ambiguities no matter their toil.

Now, as she neared her fiftieth year of almsgiving and ailmenting, Tomoe spent her days surrounded by a garden of flowers growing far beneath the city streets. Sinewy stalks and white flowers swayed in the breeze atop their stone planters. Imitation suns glowed from their places along the arched ceiling. A calming sight, if not for the muffled gunshots ringing through the bunker. Unusual sounds, but their nature was plain. One could tell from the gaps between noises. From the dull thumps, racing footsteps, and slamming doors.

It was unfortunate for those doing the running, and at another time in her life, Tomoe would have burst forth from Mr. Sun's garden and done battle with whatever forces had stormed the facility. Wounded by wards as they must be, confused by the subterranean maze, one person could make all the difference. Certainly, victory had been snatched from tighter jaws before. She had her place though. She had her charge. Protect the garden. Protect her benefactor's profits, pride, and permanence.

Tomoe's breaths slowed as the distant noises dimmed. Eyes closed, fingers slowly flexing, she eased her third eye open. Penetrating metaphors came easily to her. The poet's influence, Mr. Sun would have said, but he always did pick the most pleasant explanation. Battlefield instincts, more like. The lasting stain of violence on her psyche. She wasn't above making use of it regardless.

In that state, her mind pieced shreds of information into a revealing tapestry. Three-hundred paces and a left turn down the hallway outside: A body toppled down a rickety stairwell. Each limb banged against grated metal like hammers against a gong. Each drop of blood rang like rain against a wind chime. Rubber soles padded down after it. One-hundred and seventy-two paces away (and one left turn), sunfire raked at concrete walls with shining claws. A gunshot sent perfumed gusts of air rushing down the hallway, carrying along a hummed song. Each note heralded doom in the manner of an artillery barrage. Forty-four paces away, another spell seared the air, burning it black. Tomoe breathed so slowly as to stop entirely as screams followed. They were final, but not in a happy way.

Though terribly harmful to her psyche, she opened her mundane eyes too. Physical and immaterial worlds overlapped in a jumble of substructure and superstructure. The room's door remained a door. The room's door also symbolized the yawning hellmouth. It represented her life's narrowing decisions and swore it could never contain the tides beyond. The steel portal was a well, and a bridge, and a hole in the sky.

Before it opened, it opened. Before its hinges creaked, it swung inward. Thick fingers of immaterial sludge wrapped around its rim and pushed. A head of the same muck poured through, shape indeterminate. Reptilian, canine, and avian in turn, it stared at Tomoe with eyes unburdened by fermenting emotions. A child might have looked at her the same way. A pet might have, so long as it chewed with 155 mm shells and breathed Agent Orange. A pet of that sort, and one who had only ever learned a single, simple trick.

The physical door creaked open. Tomoe brought up her pistol with practiced grace and fired as the leading edge of a body moved through. Her first bullet clipped straight across their forehead. The second drilled through their temple. They kept moving, but not by any conscious intention. A shadow slithered in behind the fleshy shield, its path slick with mucus, grease, and falling feathers. It raised its hand, clutching a gun that was a gun that was a gun on every perceived level of meaning and symbol. It shot once, even as she ducked behind a stone planter, and the world filled with flowers.

Her eyes watered as dust, pollen, and fluttering petals filled the air. The cloud was blinding in every way, but she tracked the assassin's smear all the same. Tomoe fired twice more as they dived behind another planter, then twice more into its surface. Stone splintered with each impact. The yarrow plants screamed with each broken stalk. Mr. Sun wouldn't be happy about that, but he must have been waylaid already. Off behind the shelter, mechanical clicks bore the same disappointment as an empty cookie jar's lid being replaced.

"Hey!" shouted the sludge-made-flesh. "You're Tomoe, right?" The mechanical clicks continued, each hungrier than the last, each less satisfied.

"I am," she said back, slowly moving out from behind cover. Petals rained all around, becoming a dense fog, and crunched underfoot once fallen. The living sore remained in place. Out of ammunition, perhaps, or out of something else.

"I saw you work in Belgrade! Back when they tried to sign the Armistice."

"Lots of people were in Belgrade."

Her faceless foe tittered loudly. Tomoe fired twice, but the better angle offered no more success. Each shot opened windows through the floral veil though, wide enough for her to glimpse a tanned woman with hurtful eyes and a bleeding mouth scramble away. Then the holes closed again.

"Sure, lots of people. I remember you were guarding someone at the big table, standing right behind her the whole time." She tittered again, interrupted only by a squelching sound. Prying a bullet free from flesh, maybe? Tomoe squinted and sniffed the air. Floral, of course, but undercut by warm iron. She edged closer.

"I don't remember you though."

"They didn't let me in the meeting room. I watched through my rifle long enough though. Almost put a bullet in you too, when your bunch were shooting their way out of the city. When you ran away."

In another life, that would have been infuriating. The barb would have set her gut to a boil and loosed steam from her ears. Tomoe was beyond that though. She fired again and again, pinning the woman in place, reloaded calmly, and fired more. A few errant bullets clipped yarrow stalks, but there was nothing to be done about it. Mr. Sun would have to endure the loss, lest he lose even more to this beast.

Her senses sketched a picture of the planter's far side as she neared. Her foe pressed back against it, heart racing. A pistol was clutched in one hand, metal scraping as she steadied it. Not to any end though. Not when it had clicked so impotently before. Hair brushed again stone, softer, but not imperceptible. The woman's head turned one way, then the other. She strained, waiting for the next sound that would give away Tomoe's path. Left or right? Which side should she lunge and snap at, and which could be ignored? Right, the shade so clearly decided. Definitely the right.

"You missed that shot though," said Tomoe. She stepped to the right and crunched loudly on a pile of fallen petals. "And now you've put so much effort into getting a bullet returned." She pivoted to the left, feet nearly silent compared to the soft rustling all around them. Her mind's manic storytelling retreated, along with every distraction it posed. No strange floaters crowded her vision. No distant sounds begged for attention. The next bullet would reach flesh, not the ghastly aura clinging to her foe. It would puncture more than metaphor.

The smell of blood grew as she neared, even with duller senses. The breathing became heavier. Soon, the woman would just be one more body added to Tomoe's towering heap, but it would not be so heavy a burden as the rest. Not after what she had done to Mr. Sun's burgeoning coven. Not with how her plans would harm him. No, not so heavy at all.

Tomoe reached around the corner without looking and shot the wounded monster. At least three bullets found their marks. Maybe more, with how loudly she howled. It wasn't anything so poetic as a curse. A bird's squawk would have borne more pride, or even a mutt's yelp. Tomoe shot once more and glanced around the corner.

She looked down the stubby barrel of a revolver in that moment. The runes carved into its interior glowed ominously. She stared at the woman's gap-toothed smile too. It looked all the worse for its missing canine. Tomoe fired again, just before the revolver's hammer cracked like fracturing enamel.

She didn't fire any more after that.

Overseer-6 quietly sipped coffee from a cup decorated with blooming tulips. A man sat in front of her, or something shaped like a man, but he was slumped and diminished in his seat. Diminished before her, and diminished beneath the skypiercers rising around them. One of several satellite phones on her person rang, sounding only once before she answered it. The voice on the other side was pleasant, faint, and fading.

"Report," she said curtly. Egret's response would have been unintelligible to anyone else, feverish as it was. "Excellent, and you took samples? How many bullets? How many times? Well, drag yourself out of there. I'll deal with the rest. Don't 'yes, ma'am' me. Go."

Ahamdi sighed, snapped her phone closed, looked down dispassionately at her cooling coffee. The cup's floral pattern slowly withered. Well, good. Other branches would be easier to snip after chopping at the trunk. They would have to be, at least if she was to ever threaten the snake itself with garden shears.

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