Chapter Fifteen: The Flickering Woman

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Something was definitely not right here. The cameras weren't moving as perhaps they should, and there was a distinct lack of electric life, like the power had been cut. Molly gripped Kal's hand a bit tighter, and led him through the tunnel into the standing area.

Kal was a known daredevil, and would happily throw himself off turns and jumps for a hungry crowd; but Molly knew what he was actually like: timid, quiet and unassuming. All the swagger for the camera was nothing but panto. In the coming months, Kal had wanted to meet Ash when he discovered Molly and him were friends. He also hated the silly rivalry that had been painted between them, and wanted to meet Ash as the person, not as his supposed antagonist.

Without any emergency lighting, the ground was deathly quiet and dark, and knowing Ash was here somewhere only terrified Molly further. He hadn't been himself when she'd seen him last, when he'd glowered at her in his apartment. She knew it wasn't him, not entirely. There was something more.

“Are you gonna tell me anymore, Mol? What even happened? What was wrong with Derek?” She could only shrug at Kal's questions as she led him further down the tunnel.

“Something happened to Ash, Kal. I'm worried about him. His face was bleeding something fierce and...he did something to his doctor. It's hard to explain.” She shook her head, still trying to process the information herself.

“What do you mean ‘something’? What --” He stopped, his fingers now almost clawing themselves into Molly's skin. She looked as they turned the corner and looked out over the arena.

In the middle, amongst the dust and the crumbling chalk, were two figures. One was almost glowing softly, and parts of her seemed to lick and flicker like fire. She was kneeling down on the rough floor, huddled over the other and appeared to be cradling their head. A hand was stroking their hair over and over.

Molly couldn't move. She knew one of them was Ash, but the one that appeared to be on fire appeared to be female in form. Was that the thing she had spoken to? That had burnt Bernie? Her breath caught in her throat.

“Mol…” Kal asked, but Molly couldn't answer, only helplessly watch the only source of light here, aside from the silvery moon and glittering stars high above them. The incandescent woman's head looked up slowly, towards them, and seemed to smile.

And without even thinking, Molly’s feet began to move, towards the woman, towards Ash slumped in her arms. She pulled Kal with her, who similarly seemed to move without any inhibition of his own.

The gate opened for them, padlocks and bolts almost blasting off as they approached. Neither of them flinched as the iron gate creaked and groaned open for them, and they made their way to the two figures.

The flickering woman continued to stroke Ash's hair, who looked unresponsive in her arms. “He can't hear you,” she said softly. Her voice was soft, musical almost. It was as if she was speaking right into Molly's head.

It was then she saw Ash's hands lying at the side of him. They were black and white, completely monochrome and somewhat translucent. Molly swallowed, Kal was silent beside her. “What did you do to him?” she asked the woman, trembling.

“I'm trying to save him.” She looked back to Ash, stroking his hair once more and looking at him with a softness in her eyes.

“Who are you?”

“I don't know,” the woman answered, “I forgot the name I had, and I only have the name he gave me. Maddie.”

“Ash gave you that name?”

“Who is Ash?”

A tightening gripped at Molly's insides as she found the courage to look this Maddie right in her luminous eyes. Kal stepped forward, not letting go of Molly's hand. “Why does he look that way?” he asked the woman.

“Entropy and disparity. He fades into nothing, I explode into life, into imbalance. Neither of us can exist in the other's world. That is why I have to save him, before they find him.”

“Who?” demanded Molly, “who is trying to find him?”

Ash's eyelids were flickering and trembling, and his forehead and hair was slick with sweat. His breaths were short and shallow. “Who?” Molly said again.

Maddie either didn't have an answer or was choosing not to indulge any further, as she merely went back to stroking Ash's hair, the strands turning black even as Molly watched. She turned to Kal, who was surprisingly keeping it together at the sight before them.

“What's going on here, Mol?” He whispered.

“I haven't got a clue, I don't even know if we can do anything.”

“Maybe there is something that can be done.” The woman's voice took them both by surprise, and Molly and Kal turned around together to face her, and she was looking right at them. “Try and keep his consciousness rooted. I still need time.”

“But you said he can't hear us,”” said Molly. Maddie nodded.

“At the moment, that is correct. Touch him. There might be a chance.”

Molly began to kneel, only to be stopped by Kal, who grabbed her hand harder. “Don't, Mol.”

She ignored him, and, shaking, reached forward towards his monochrome hand. Would she be even be able to touch it?

It was freezing cold, like an ice sculpture, and just as rigid. She gasped, but it only hardened her resolve, she held tighter to him.

“Ash? Ash, it's Molly. Can you hear me?”

No response.

*****

Ash.

That was someone he knew. He knew that name. But who was it? Splitface was finally grateful he didn't have to focus on his disappearing hands, and listened to the new voice that was penetrating the space he occupied.

“Maddie? Who is that?”

“She says she’s your friend. Listen to her.”

Splitface knit his brow. All he had known was Maddie. There was nothing before, nothing after. Wasn't there? So then who was Ash?

“Who is Ash?” he asked Maddie or anyone that might be able to answer him.

“I do not know, little Splitface.”

He slumped back, a torrent of ambivalence flooding him as a very small, very hot sting began to poke the back of his mind. All relief that he was indeed Splitface seemed to have lurched around and scrambled. “Who am I?” He asked to no one in particular. The walls of this place had nothing to say, and Maddie was similarly quiet.

“This is the place, little Splitface. We can traverse the Rift and I'll send you home.”

“The Nameless one. The one who has brought imbalance and chaos here. We know what you harbor inside you. What you hide.”
   There was a sharp pain, and then there was nothing.

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