It’s Friday and time for Episode 23 of In The Flesh, in which much is revealed about Magda Gardener, but Susan’s discoveries only deepen the mystery behind the woman and her relationship with Michael and the Guardian.
In the Flesh is very dark paranormal erotica. When Susan Innes comes to visit her friend, Annie Rivers, in Chapel House, the deconsecrated church that Annie is renovating into a home, she discovers her outgoing friend changed, reclusive, secretive, and completely enthralled by a mysterious lover, whose presence is always felt, but never seen, a lover whom she claims is god. As her holiday turns into a nightmare, Susan must come to grips with the fact that her friend’s lover is neither imaginary nor is he human, and even worse, he’s turned his wandering eye on Susan, and he won’t be denied his prize. If Susan is to fight an inhuman stalker intent on having her as his own, she’ll need a little inhuman help.
To read the story in its entirety up to this point, follow these links to Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22.
In The Flesh Chapter 23
“This is where I leave you, Hon.” Talia laid a gentle hand on mine, and there was a tingle that felt a great deal like sympathy. “She won’t welcome a spectator, and I’m not all that keen on being one.” She squeezed my hand and turned back toward the tunnel. I stood for a second gathering my courage. The rain had stopped, but the forest was shrouded in mist and though there were bright bursts of light coming from inside the bothy, the surrounding fell side was sunk in false twilight.
I could smell heat, almost like a forge before I approached the bothy, but the place was icy cold. There was no smoke rising from the roof. In fact, the place felt deserted, in spite of the trail in the high grass which, to my surprise, was littered on each side with a complete menagerie of stone garden sculptures – woodland creatures of all sorts from mice and voles, to rabbits, rats, even a fallow deer, many nearly lost in the high grass, and all so realistic that the deer and the fox both startled me before I realized the grey in which they slunk was not shadow, but the stone from which they were carved. Walking softly through the wet, recently flattened grass, perhaps on some unconscious level fearing I’d startle the stone creatures, but more than likely because, no matter how much I wanted to clear the air with Magda Gardener, I really wasn’t looking forward to the woman’s company – especially after my conversation with Talia.
The closer I got to the door of the bothy, the colder I got. Though the ice I felt in the pit of my stomach had nothing to do with the temperature, which was rather mild under the circumstances, the temperature around the bothy, however, appeared to be its own little microclimate, for which I knew the Lake District was famous, but this was no valley, no dale, this was a place of magic. My breath came in icy clouds as I drew nearer and, in spite of the scent of heat and the flashes of pale light from within, the grass and the stone creatures nearest the entrance were coated in hoarfrost, hoarfrost that I felt coating my lungs as I breathed, chilling me in places that had never known cold before. In spite of the chill, the bothy door was wide open. In fact there was no door at all and, yet, I had the very distinct feeling if I were not invited to enter, the lack of a door would not have mattered. I would have been forced to wait outside for eternity.
“Come in, Susan.” As though she had read my thoughts, I heard Magda’s voice before I actually saw her. But as I stepped across the threshold, my whole body shivered as though I’d just walked through a very large spider web and, though the room was icy cold, the smell of hot metal grew stronger as did the dance and glare of bright light.
Magda Gardener stood with her back to me in the company of dozens more stone carvings so realistic it was as though she had somehow frozen the toad in mid leap, the wood pigeon in mid preen, the hare in mid hop. There were birds, mice, even several butterflies with stone wings so thin, I wondered at the skill of the artist. They all looked as though the stone from which they were carved would suddenly warm to flesh, and they would all go on about their business oblivious of their recent stone prisons.
“These are amazing,” I said, reaching out to touch a badger that looked as though he would startle at my movement and scurry away.
“They’re just stone,” she said, her voice nearly as cold as the room. For a moment, I thought the woman was welding. She stood with her back to me, bathed in bright flashes of light from which I raised a shielding hand to my eyes. But there was no hiss of acetylene, no sparks from the torch, and she wore no welding mask. She was hunched over a wooden workbench strewn with stone chips and sculpting tools. I could hear the chink, chink of metal against stone, and the smell of heat was acrid enough to make my eyes water, in spite of the cold. I pulled the succubus’ jacket tighter around me, surprised that Magda worked in a loose-fitting shift that appeared to be made of unbleached cotton. It hung mid-calf, moving and flowing with her efforts. As I stepped closer I saw she was barefoot.
“I had forgotten you’re a sculptor,” with a chill, I remembered the life-like sculpture of Michael in the tangled garden at Chapel House.
“It’s an interest of mine,” she replied without turning around. “Something I fell into quite by accident a very long time ago. These days, I use it most often for sympathetic magic, sculpting what I wish to manifest.”
“Those are magic uncontrolled,” came her reply. “Mistakes with which I now have to live.”
“Mistakes? They’re perfect, so realistic, I half expected them all to scurry away the minute they saw me.”
“Would that they could.” She said, and the light around her flashed so bright, I closed my eyes and looked away. “Stop,” she commanded, as I stepped toward her. “Stay where you are. Let me finish this first.”
I did as she said. It was hard to imagine anyone not doing as Magda Gardener said in that voice of authority that you could feel right where all the blood flows in and out of your heart and right where the hips shelter your center of gravity.
“Magic?” I asked, standing on my tiptoes in an effort to see what she was doing.
“It is.” The smell of molten metal intensified, and the dance and arc of light reminded me again of an acetylene torch. “It’s to help your friend rest and to guard her dreams. I said stay put,” she commanded again as I pressed forward, “unless you want to end up like the animals on the floor.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” I snapped.
“It means I’m working with powerful magic and unless you want me to make a mistake and lose control, you will shut up and stay still until I’m finished.” The tone of her voice hadn’t altered. There was no anger, no frustration. In fact, she could have been giving me her grocery list, but the light over the worktable flared, and for a second, the air was virtually toxic with the smell of burning. For a second I felt as though my skin was freezing solid on my flesh and my lungs were solidifying in my chest. But before I could choke or gag, certainly before I could make a move for the door, the light dissipated, the air cleared to the point that I could smell nothing but the fresh fell breeze, and the room was suddenly warmer.
I only noticed her dark glasses laying on the end of the workbench because she reached for them.
When she turned to face me, she was wearing them again. “Here, put this on.” Before I could respond, she slipped a black chord around my neck on which hung a heart carved from what looked to be the local stone. I drew it up into my hand and ran a thumb over the perfectly detailed feather etched on its surface.
“It’s a protection spell,” she said before I could ask. “No one is to touch it but you. Well, your angel can touch it, of course, but only because the two of you have been physically joined anyway and he’s given you his own protection spell. The heart represents your heart. The quill is a symbol of your craft. A scribe’s magic lives through symbol, therefore it’s you, not I, who will empower it with what’s needed when the time comes. You may not know it yet, but your craft is the most powerful magic you have with which to fight the Guardian.”
I settled the heart between my breasts. “And that’s why you want to steal me?” I hadn’t meant to be so abrupt, nor to sound so ungrateful, but I didn’t like having choices taken out of my hands.
If she were upset by my lack of gratitude, she didn’t show it. “You undid my efforts, Susan, and now the Guardian is free once again to wreak havoc. Anyone who can do what you did, I want as an ally.”
“An ally is not a possession,” I said.
“On the contrary, I’ve found that it’s usually best when your allies are your possessions.”
I barely heard her words as my gaze came to rest on the object she’d been working on. When I reached for it, she slapped my hand away. “I told you the magic is for your friend. Don’t touch magic that belongs to someone else.”
I was cold again, cold to the core as I studied the tiny image on the table resting among stone chips and dust. It could have been Annie asleep in miniature, just as I’d left her a few hours ago – the body too thin beneath the duvet, the face racked with exhaustion. Even the details of the bedding and her tiny hand gripping the headboard were identical. Once again I was certain the piece was carved from local stone, but it was polished shone as though it were somehow lit from within. “Jesus,” I whispered, bending to look closer. “It could be her, living and breathing in miniature.”
“In truth, it does contain a tiny bit of her essence – a strand of hair, a clipping of a fingernail, but
it’s only stone, Susan, taken from that cave, in fact.” She nodded to the cave I’d just come out of. ‘After you’re little visit, I was forced to redo the magic,” she said, picking up the piece, which was no bigger than a small chess pawn and turning it over in her hand. “Your unauthorized contact with her raised unconscious longings, made her restless. I’ve had to strengthen the magic to protects her, and to protect all of us.”
I recalled the butcher knife incident with a shudder. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but she’s my best friend, and I — ”
“And you don’t trust me with her. I understand that. But not trusting me is exactly what the Guardian is counting on. He’ll make you doubt everything you know to be true. Knowing that to be the case, knowing that the moment will come when you’ll want desperately, need with every fiber of your being to believe him, I will tell you the truth now, Susan, listen to me now, in this place of magic and know I speak truth. I rescued you, with Michael’s help, when no one else knew you even needed rescuing. I took a ridiculous risk and rescued your friend as well, though I’m still not sure what I can do for her. I am the only one who has ever fought the Guardian and won, and even though your fantasies of him are sweeter than any romance you’ve ever written or read, the truth is that in a few months you’d have ended up just like your friend, and the Guardian would be seeking yet another to devour. This would have been your fate had I not rescued you. You know this to be true. And you must also know that Michael fights the same battle, the same desires, but he is already allied with me. He won’t fight his battle alone, and neither shall you.” Her gaze locked on me from beneath the glasses, and she slipped the image of the sleeping Annie into a small leather pouch that hung around her neck and tucked it back inside her shift. Then she turned for the door and motioned me to follow her back to the cave.
“Rescue is not the same as stealing,” I said, scrambling to keep up.
“I believe the Guardian would beg to differ.”
“That doesn’t mean I’ll belong to you. If we all live through this,” I added.
She stopped in the middle of the cave, deep enough that the natural light had dissipated to dusk, and still she wore the glasses. As she held me in her gaze, no – it was more than that, for a moment I was certain she held me in her thrall – but as she held me there, I was suddenly, irrationally very glad for the barrier the glasses provided. “No one belongs to anyone, my darling girl, but what you will come to understand if, as you say, we survive this little adventure, is that some debts can never be repaid.
Therefore the loyalty we feel, the sense of gratitude, goes much deeper than simply belonging to someone. I have stolen you from the Guardian, but at the end of the day, it will be you who will steal yourself for my purposes and give yourself over willingly.”
“You’re purposes? What the hell are your purposes?” I asked.
“Why to write, of course. You are a Scribe, after all. Come now.” She found a Mag Light at the entrance to the tunnel and nodded me to follow. “The others will be waiting. It’s time we return to Alonso’s drawing room to finish your little story.”