Nick instinctively took several steps back from the shadow as it formed. The final dark wisps left Megan and gathered as the shadow drew itself up to its full height. It was at least eight feet tall and towering over them. The stunned silence around him let Nick know that the others were as dumbfounded as he was. But the shadow looked different from the one he has encountered on his doorstep. This one looked more real. Its edges weren’t quite so indistinct. It didn’t have a face, but Nick got the impression it was grinning at them.
“Clear!” Shona2 shouted. She stood over Megan with the defibrillator paddles in hand. There was a dull Thud as the jolt discharged through Megan, but she showed no signs of reviving.
As the Shonas set about recharging the machine, the shadow began to move. Chris was first in the line of fire. He stood ready with his pistol in hand. A shock of bright white electricity hit the shadow squarely in the chest. It stumbled backwards a pace, but it did not disintegrate.
The look of surprise on Chris’ face was short-lived. The shadow strode up to him, paused for a moment, and then swiped him out of the way as if he were nothing more than an annoying gnat. Chris was knocked off his feet as he tumbled towards the wall. His head hit first and he slumped to the floor, dazed.
Imogen was next. Nick watched as she adjusted a dial on her pistol. There was the sound a high-pitched whine from the weapon as she raised it and took aim. When she fired, the whole room lit up with raw electricity. Nick closed his eyes to the blinding flash.
“Sorry, Jacob,” Nick heard Imogen say. As he opened his eyes, he saw Jacob doubled over in pain. He was blinking rapidly and cradling his head in his hands.
“Yeah, some warning next time,” Jacob said, pulling himself upright.
But the shadow still wasn’t done. It had dropped to its knees with the force of the shot but was quickly regrouping.
“Imogen, look out!” Nick warned. The shadow was back on its feet and came straight for Imogen. She rolled out of the way just in time as it made a lunge for her. She came to a stop next to Chris and hauled him back to his feet. Both of them set their pistols to their highest settings. The high-pitched whine doubled.
“Jacob,” Imogen said.
“Got it,” Jacob replied. He lowered his goggled over his eyes and turned away, shielding his face with his hands.
Nick did the same. He felt the air charge with static as they fired. The hairs on his arms rose. He heard the shadow let out a growl that could have been in pain. The sound was followed by a frustrated cry from Imogen.
“Why isn’t this working?!” she exclaimed.
Nick opened his eyes and turned around to see the shadow on its knees again, but still very much intact.
“It’s stronger out here,” Alastair said. He was blinking quickly, clearly seeing as many blue spots in front of his eyes as Nick was.
“So what do we do?” Chris asked in desperation.
Alastair didn’t reply. As the shadow began to stand once more, he made his way to Nick and took the cuff that still adorned his wrist. Then he gestured to Imogen, who handed over her pistol without a word.
“What are you doing?” Jacob asked as the old man placed himself in front of the shadow.
The shadow raised its arm to strike him, but Alastair caught hold of its wrist and held it tight.
“I did warn you,” he said in a low, threatening tone. He activated the cuff and both he and the shadow vanished from the room.
Nick, Jacob, Chris and Imogen stared at each other in complete bewilderment.
“Where did they go?” Nick asked.
Imogen shook her head and glanced at Chris and Jacob. They looked just as lost for words as she was.
The four of them instantly turned their attention to the Shonas as they continued to fight for Megan’s life. It had been a matter of minutes since the shadow had left her and time was running out.
The dull Thud of the paddles sounded again. And again, there was no pulse.
“Adrenaline,” Shona2 ordered. Shona1 handed her the syringe.
“Come on, Megan,” Chris said quietly as he came to her side.
Shona2 held the syringe in her fist and, taking a deep breath to steady herself, she plunged it directly into Megan’s heart.
Nick couldn’t help feeling just a little bit woozy as the liquid from the syringe drained into her chest.
The Shonas showed no signs of slowing down. Shona1 charged the defibrillator once more.
“Clear!” Shona2 shouted. A hint of desperation crept into her voice.
Chris stepped back as she discharged the paddles again.
To the left of Megan’s gurney, another machine began to beep. It was quiet and erratic to begin with, but soon settled into a steady constant rhythm. Shona1 pressed two fingers to the side of Megan’s neck and let out a sigh of relief.
“She has a pulse,” she told everyone.
The tension in the room seemed to evaporate instantly. Chris sagged against the side of the gurney as Imogen rested her arm around his shoulders.
“She’s not out of the woods yet,” Shona2 added, but no-one seemed to be listening. For now, it was enough that she was alive.
It was several hours later that Alastair returned. Nick and Jacob were in the library when he materialised in front of them. He was barely conscious and clearly exhausted from his confrontation with the shadow. It took a little time for him to come to his senses, but when he did he refused to tell any of them what had happened.
“It’s gone,” he said firmly to the Shonas. “That’s all you need to know… But maybe we should work on creating something a little stronger than the pistols. Just in case.”
It was not the reassurance any of them had wanted to hear, but it was all they could get out of him.
“You’ll get used to it,” Jacob said to Nick as they made their way to the main living quarters. “Alastair tends to work on a need-to-know basis, and most of the time he decides we don’t need to know.”
“And you’re all just fine about that?” Nick asked.
“Of course not,” Jacob laughed. “There’s a reason Chris doesn’t like Alastair. He hates how secretive he is. So do I, if I’m honest, but you have to remember Alastair has been at this a lot longer than any of us. He knows more about the In Between than anyone.”
“So you just follow his lead regardless?” Nick was trying to get his head around the whole set-up. It seemed to him that every time Alastair’s name was mentioned, it was followed by an awkward silence.
“Not exactly,” Jacob replied. “We turn to him in emergencies and every so often he will ask us to run an errand for him in one of the worlds. Other than that, he doesn’t leave the library much, so we stay out of his way.”
Nick was thoughtful for a moment. “He mentioned Megan had been on an errand for him,” he said eventually.
“Yes,” Jacob confirmed.
“Do we know what that errand was?” Nick pressed further.
Jacob shrugged. “Could have been anything. He usually asks us to pick up supplies for whatever science project he’s working on. But it could have been that he had run out of liquorice or something.”
Nick let out a chuckle of laughter.
“Look,” Jacob said, slightly more seriously. “I’m not saying he’s the most trustworthy person in the world, but he is stuck here just like the rest of us. It’s hard enough as it is trying to survive out here. We don’t have the luxury of being picky about company as well.”
They came to the living room that Jacob had shown him before and made their way down one of the corridors that led off to the right. Nick couldn’t help thinking of his old hall of residence in college. The living room here had a similar of simplicity and functionality. The furniture looked comfortable enough, but didn’t have much in the way of character.
Jacob stopped by a plain, beige door and leaned casually against the frame.
“Here it is, then,” he said.
Nick stared at the door for a moment. “What?” he asked, not grasping the significance of this particular room.
Jacob turned the handle and let the door swing open. On the other side was an ordinary, square room. There was a bed on one side, a cupboard, a set of draws and a desk with one chair by it. Nick really did think he was back at college.
“We’ve designated this your room,” Jacob explained. “It’s not much at the moment, but I’m sure you’ll add to it in time.”
Nick gazed around at the blank walls and the room’s minimal contents. He couldn’t imagine ever coming to see this place as home. All of a sudden, thoughts of his old life in his world flooded his mind. A lump formed in his throat as he thought about how much he used to grumble about his job; and how much he would prefer to be there now instead of here. He felt his hands shake a little and he clenched his jaw as the realisation hit him.
“I’m really not going back, am I?” he said, his voice wavering more than he would have liked.
Jacob rested a hand on Nick’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “If there is a way to get back into the worlds permanently, we haven’t found it yet.”
“Maybe that’s what Alastair is working on in secret,” Nick suggested, as he tried to pull himself back together.
“If that’s what you need to think to get through this for a while, that’s fine,” Jacob replied. He gave Nick a brotherly pat on the back before crossing the room to the cupboard. Nick watched with curiosity as he lifted a box from inside and brought it to the desk.
“What’s that?” Nick asked peering over Jacob’s shoulder at the contents of the box.
“House-warming presents,” Jacob said stepping aside.
A smile made its way to Nick’s face, starting in his eyes and spreading to the corners of his mouth. He unpacked the box, examining each item as he went. First, there was a poster – a music band he presumed. 3 Doors Down.
“It’s an Outsiders tradition,” Jacob explained. “Everyone who ends up here starts out with nothing, so we each chip in one item we have collected to say ‘Welcome to the nuthouse.’”
Nick laughed as he set the poster to one side.
“That’s from –” Jacob started, but Nick nodded and cut him off.
“Shona2,” he guessed.
“Two?” Jacob queried.
“Yeah. The neat one is Shona1 and the Rocker is Shona2. It’s just how I tell them apart,” Nick said to clarify.
Jacob smiled. “I like it. But they’ll hate it. Better not tell them. They’ll both want to be number one.”
Next, Nick lifted a clock from the box. It was small and square with Roman numerals on its face and shining brass hands that ticked steadily round. There was a key on the left-hand side to wind it up. The tick it emitted was soft and unobtrusive.
Jacob shifted on his feet behind him.
“That’s from me,” he said slightly awkwardly. “I sort of collect them, so…”
“It’s great,” Nick said as he placed it on the desk next to the poster. “Thank you.”
He looked back into the box and puzzled as he took out what looked to be a rather strange scrap-metal sculpture. He set it on the desk and stared at it for a moment before Jacob reached over and flicked a switch on its side. Suddenly, the sculpture became a desk lamp.
“Shona1 made that,” Jacob said. “She’s made one for each of us over the years. It has a few different settings, including a dimmer switch and disco.”
Jacob pressed another button on the lamp and the top half began to rotate and glow through every colour of the spectrum.
“Cool,” Nick said, watching the light-show brighten the walls considerably.
There were two things left in the box – a potted plant and a plain grey mug.
“The mug is from Chris,” Jacob explained. “He is a firm believer in the restorative power of a cup of tea.”
Nick nodded. “I am inclined to agree with him.”
He took the plant out of the box last – a Peace Lily.
“So this is from Imogen,” he guessed.
“Got it in one,” Jacob replied. “She’s pretty good with plants. I’m sure she’ll give you chapter and verse on how to look after it. Make sure you have a drink in you when she does.”
A silent pause drifted across the room as Nick took in the gifts laid out on the desk. They were small items that may have seemed insignificant to anyone else, but to him, they meant the whole world.
“I should let you get settled in,” Jacob said heading towards the door. “We’ll be meeting up in the bar later. You should come along.”
Nick nodded, but didn’t take his eyes off the desk. “Yeah. I’ll see you there.”
Jacob smiled as he opened the door.
“Hey, Jacob,” Nick called, turning before he could leave. “Thanks.”
Jacob shrugged. “It’s the least we could do.” With that, he left.
Nick sat on the edge of his new bed and let himself become mesmerised by the coloured lights dancing around the room from Shona1’s lamp. The effect was remarkably calming.
“So,” he said to himself. “This is home now.”
He hoped that saying it out loud would help it sink in a little. In all the chaos he had been plunged into since finding the mirror, this was the first time he had been able to stop and take stock of his new reality. It was overwhelming. Just thinking about it brought the lump back to his throat. He felt he was well within his rights to lose his mind completely right now.
But his eyes drifted back to the Peace Lily on his desk, and then the mug, the clock, the lamp and the poster. Despite himself, Nick smiled a little. This whole place may have been far beyond his comprehension, but he knew he wasn’t alone. That thought might not have been enough to quell his anxiety completely, but it did help.