Chapter Twelve: The Threshold

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For perhaps the first time in his life, Derek Flack had buttoned his lip.

Ash had been in this truck many, many times. Driving all over the country going to different locations and venues, but it was always accompanied by the cheery tunes blasting from the radio, and Derek's incessant but somewhat comforting commentary.

There was none of that now. Ash leaned back in the passenger seat, watching his translucent self in the window as the dark world beyond zoomed by. He watched his eyes, looking for her, but she was silent. It made the silence practically leaking out of Derek all the more noticable, as it was such an unnatural state for him to be in.

Ash looked back at the road. They were still an hour or so away from the destination. Black blood. Roaring chanting. The answer was obvious to him. Where he first met Maddie, at the arena on the outskirts of town, where he should have died.

Ever since the last time he performed though, there was a pit beyond that of the one he was used to doing somersaults over. It was a pit deep in his belly, one that churned and clenched with dread whenever he thought about getting back into the seat of a bike.

Calm your mind, they can't find me. I must hide for now.

Maddie's voice rung inside his head, and he bit his lip, trying to ignore the rising heartbeat that pumped against his ribs. It was starting to make sense a little now, thanks to Maddie's knowledge he absorbed by some kind of phantasmagoria in his mind. Maddie seemed to appear whenever his emotions were heightened, and from what she said, she was being hunted by...something. Something from her side of reality, whatever it was. Ash took a deep breath and shut his eyes.

Gentle, Splitface. If they find me, we both die.

“I know,” he murmured.

“What was that, boy?” Derek had broken his vow of silence finally, a good hour which must have been some kind of record. Ash shrugged.

“Nothing.”

“I didn't want to say anything but...you know your phone there has been flashing like a beacon? Who's trying to call you?”

Ash glanced down to the well by the gear shift, where gaudy colors reflected of the dull dark of the van's interior. Molly's name flashed, begging to be answered. He picked it up and dismissed the call without a thought. He couldn't face Molly right now, not after what he'd done to her and Bernie.

Calm, little Splitface.

He took a deep breath through his nose, trying to will away what his brain screamed at him. It wasn't just about saving himself anymore. Maddie had saved him, and it didn't feel right not returning the favor now the time called for it.

“Say, Ash, what did you need me for anyway?”

He looked over at Derek who turned back to the road. “Why did you agree to it at this time in the morning?”

Derek chuckled. “Do you not know? I'm the same as you. Chasing whatever excites me, just beyond the horizon, out of my reach. Being an agent to participants of extreme sports helps me get there.”

Ash knit his brow. “But, you never thought to pursue it yourself?”

“Never. I'm a complete coward, Ash.” He shot him a look. “But don't tell Bernie: he'll have me for breakfast if he ever knew.”

Ash was completely taken aback. Derek Flack? A coward? He would never even have dreamed it. “You?” he finally asked.

Derek laughed at the black road ahead. “This is about as brave as I get: accepting crazy road trips from my clients. Maybe I just like to observe the brave.”

Ash sunk back into his seat. “I'm not brave.”

“Tell me your plan of why we're driving up the highway at three am, and I'll be the judge.”

Ash felt Maddie's gentle warning to calm himself, and he took another deep breath. This whole thing seemed so necessary in his apartment, but with Derek's sobering words, it did seem a little out of the ordinary. “Fine,” he said eventually. “I want to go back to the arena that I performed at last season, where I ended up at the hospital afterwards. I need to be sure of something.”

“Ah,” said Derek, “You want closure. I understand.”

“Something like that.”

Derek turned off the highway and began down an even darker road. “Well, we're about forty minutes away.”

“Good.” Ash went back to watching the black and blue scrubland that decorated the side of the road, occasionally broken up by a barely standing fence and barbed wire that was almost claimed entirely by the water-starved flora. As they drove, a flash of browns and pale greens flashed by, before being enveloped by the darkness that overpowered the headlights as the van passed. Ash watched the clear sky, and the stars became clearer like light bullets through an inky sea. The moon was almost full, and shone over the dark landscape and turned some of the more open areas into a greyish blue.

When he had last been down this track, Ash had been getting drunk in the back by himself whilst Bernie, Derek and the crew rode mostly up front. Before his scar, before Maddie. His face throbbed in response as he saw the outline of their destination on the horizon.

*****

The whole place was locked up. Of course it was. Cameras on every entrance, even the parking lot was out of bounds. What had Ash even been thinking? Going to a venue on his own at this time of night.

Be still, Splitface, this may hurt.

What? Before he could even process what she had said, something took hold of him: it was cold, hot, a burning freeze that pulsed from his fingertips and liquified the air in his throat. He gagged as the middle of his face turned into lava and the blood began to freeflow from the freshly applied gauze and bandages. Red dissolved into his vision and just before his vision went black, he saw Derek's face scrunching into a mixture of fear and confusion as the white bled into him. The same light as before, Maddie's light.

*****

Too quiet. The silence cut through him like a razor blade, right through his guts, his bones, every single part of them. No, just him.

He looked up to see her form, incandescent and stretched beyond the regular proportions of a human. She was barefoot and her fingers seemed to trail away into smoke and nothingness. Behind her, a cascade of luminous hair billowed and flowed.

Ash realised he had been holding his breath as he regarded her, and was scared to inhale in case he couldn't like before. But this place felt different: it was empty, for one thing, and he could see.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came from it, like his tongue was frozen, stiff and cold. Maddie, as if sensing what he was attempting, approached and knelt before him.

“We're at the gates, the Threshold, we call it. We cannot pass through, however, without a rift. In order to do that, something has to die.”

Die. Ash's heart lurched, and Maddie sparked in response and, like a rattlesnake, grabbed his throat and squeezed.

“Worry not, little Splitface, it will all be over soon,” she cooed.

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