Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part XXIX

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the twenty-ninth part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen, Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty, Twenty-One, Twenty-Two, Twenty-Three, Twenty-Four, Twenty-Five, Twenty-Six, Twenty-Seven, and Twenty-Eight. Updates every two days, barring minor mishaps.

There were a million explanations running through Anne's head right now. How this wasn't actually her, but an extraplanar sorceress who just so happened to be her. How she had diverted them, seemingly on a whim, to an unformed, nascent world. How there was absolutely no reason to be alarmed at the high chair...

"Why are you here, Annabel?"

Anne blinked. Uncle Matt didn't seem confused at all. As a matter of fact, he was being outright familiar.

"Fancy seeing you here, Matthias," said Annabel, dipping into a mock curtsy. "Greetings."

Uncle Matt put his hand on his threadbare chest and bowed, stiffly and shallowly. This was so utterly bizarre that Anne lost all power of speech, at least for a brief moment.

You know each other? she fumed, throat clogged and soundless.

"Of course," said Annabel without skipping a beat, raising a lazy eyebrow. "We're Gentilberries, aren't we? As long as you get around enough, you're bound to meet most of the clan. There was a certain nosy spider, if I recall, involved in the affairs of a flea circus..."

"Answer my question, please," said Uncle Matt.

Annabel tittered. It was the noise of someone with absolutely no fear of coercion.

"Well, since you asked so politely. I was simply interested in your niece, that's all. The both of you have quite a name in Gentilberry circles."

"And why would that be?" asked Anne, feeling vaguely suspicious at the concept of a reputation.

"Because we're weak, girl," said Uncle Matt. "Or at least in Gentilberry terms we are. Most Gentilberries are wizards on their worlds, great and powerful clans. We keep cows."

"Well, there's nothing wrong with cows, is there?" demanded Anne, casting a sour glare at her other self.

"No," smirked Annabel, "but it does make for interesting fodder when you go up against a sorcerer."

"I didn't go up against Necristo," said Uncle Matt.

"Neither," said Anne. "Well, I did chew him out once. Or, well, more than once. But that doesn't count!"

"Is that why you have his power, then?"

Uncle Matt sucked in air, choked, wiped his mouth, then glanced sharply at Anne. She opened her mouth, then closed it.

"I... was about to tell you about that," she said. "You see..."

"Never mind," frowned Annabel, "you don't have it anymore. Awkward."

Anne splayed her fingers and willed the soulstuff to rise. Nothing happened. She opened her mouth, then closed it, feeling very much like a goldfish.

"Anne," asked Uncle Matt, "how did you get Necristo's power?"

At times like this, he sounded disturbingly like Da. No, even worse - when Da was angry, at least he showed it. Uncle Matt was as cold as the nose of a stillborn calf.

"It wasn't intentional!" she burst out. "I just woke up one day and..."

"Don't beat around the bush, Anne," said Annabel. "He knows the rules of sorcery. I taught them to him. Just like how I told them to you ten minutes ago."

"Did you steal his heart?"

Anne flushed, staring desperately at the wet white beneath her shoes. Her fingers twisted around each other, locking and unlocking in paroxysms of agony.

"No," she admitted at last, in a voice so quiet that he could barely hear it. "I think... I think he gave it to me."

Uncle Matt let his breath out in a slow hiss. She could see the color coming back to his face. But the light was leaking from his eyes too, draining away in terrible opposition, and when he took his arm away from his face they were dry and hard.

"Mattie isn't there anymore."

"No, sir, she isn't," said Anne, hands folded in her skirt.

"You lied to me."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm leaving," said Uncle Matt. "Sorry to waste your time, Annabel."

"Wait! You can't, I mean..."

"I mean what, girl?"

The look in his eyes was so ferocious, the snarl on his lips so full of bitter rage, that she reeled and fell. She bit her lip to stop herself from crying, balled her fists and swallowed, again and again, until at last she could take a gasping breath and say:

"There is a Mattie there. She's not our Mattie, not the cousin you lost. Not the Aunt I never knew."

"You have no idea what she meant to me," said Uncle Matt. His gaze was still at the ground, his throat still tight and pinched. His hands were clenching and unclenching with the force of his unearthed passion.

"I do," said Anne, realising at that moment just how ineffectual her words felt. "I know Necristo took her away from you. I know you cared for her. I..."

"Cared for her?" laughed Uncle Matt. "Cared for her? Anne, I loved her."

In the end, there was no possible response to this.

"And here we go," said Annabel, seated in the air with one leg crossed on the other. "I must say, this is proving quite the show."

"You... you loved her?" whispered Anne. She could feel the horror creeping across her face. Understanding was opening the front of her forehead like a bloodstained barber.

Uncle Matt gave a bitter laugh.

"I wanted to ask her to marry me the same day your parents did. We had a plan, your father and I. But what does it matter now? She's gone, and her kidnapper is still alive. And what's worse, you want to go back to him."

"I..."

"Don't you dare talk," said Uncle Matt. "You're a filthy traitress, Anne. You tricked us all."

The look in his eyes was so scathing, it made her feel like it was true. She put her head in her hands so she wouldn't have to see, shaking in pain and self-loathing.

"Well, this isn't that much fun after all," said Annabel flatly. "Lighten up, Matthias. If Anne's lost her power, it means that Necristo either has his heart back, or someone else's taken it. I'm betting on the former, and besides, it isn't her fault she got his heart in the first place. And speaking of you, girl..."

Anne curled up deeper into her ball, only to receive a curt boot to the back. She sprawled straight into the soulstuff, squealed, and scrambled to her feet. The silver-white fell from her cheeks like quicksilver, leaving no stain.

"Ow! Why'd you..."

"Because if you're going to save Necristo," said Annabel, "you don't have much time to mope. Look."

"Save Necristo?" spat Uncle Matt. "Did you hear anything I...?"

"Oh, shush," said Annabel. "You have your own problem to deal with."

She was holding a mirror, and in the mirror was a familiar house on a vast field. But there was something terribly wrong. The house was a ruin, the sky was a black peeling void, the grass on the field was turning to ash, and somewhere on the second story, like a stray maggot on a slaughterhouse floor, was...

"Gods, no!" cried Anne. "Necristo!"

The scene switched, abruptly, to two old women on the field, writhing and howling at each other. The hooded one was mumbling, gesticulating, as if she had no...

"Aunt Mattie!" howled Anne. "Uncle Matt, please! We have to help her!"

Uncle Matt stared, his whole face a mask of complete anguish.

Annabel said nothing, but her blue eyes were alight. She lowered her hands. Beneath their feet, the soulstuff began to ripple and open in iridescent pools, revealing the paths between the worlds. The air of Necristo's world began to blow through, tinged with ash, smelling of burnt fish and falling stars.

"You can thank me later," she said. "Don't die."

Anne only had time to nod her thanks before she fell. And as she did, she saw Uncle Matt falling beside her, looking for all the world like a drowning man in search of one last breath of air.

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