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One of the women on the bench screamed; the other sobbed hysterically.

Jennifer grabbed Jim’s arm. “What do we do?”

Jim glanced at Trix. “We fight.”

“What?” Trix asked.

Jim grinned, all his anger and fear swelling up inside him, fists clenching. “They’re solid, Trixie. Let’s get Holly. And if they try to stop us, kick the shit out of them.”

“Jim …,” Anne said.

Sally nodded, reached out, and gave Jim a shove toward the door at the far end of the room. “Go!” she shouted.

Even as her voice echoed off the walls, the Asian man made a single gesture, and the Half Shadows attacked.

Chapter 14 - The Light of a Fading Star

THEY WERE inhumanly fast.

Trix swung a fist at the redheaded kid, but he darted past her blow and grabbed her wrist. He started dragging her toward the wall that separated the Abbey Room from the Reflection Room. She tried to fight her way free, but now he had her by both wrists, and he was strong. She planted her feet, but the soles of her shoes slid across the marble floor.

“No!” Anne shouted. “Let her go!” But as she launched herself at Trix and the redhead, the terror of losing her lover twice in a lifetime clearly making her crazed, the woman who’d come in with the teenager grabbed the back of her neck with one splayed hand and hurled Anne at the ground. Her head struck marble and she cried out. For a second, Trix feared the worst, but then Anne scrambled away from the Half Shadow, who stalked her across the room.

Scuffles and shouts echoed all around. The old man who’d entered last seemed focused on Jim, as did the couple who had been guarding the door to the Reflection Room. Jennifer stood in front of Sally as though to protect her, which seemed strange, considering the girl had more ability to fight back than any of them. The screaming woman had gone silent with fear, and now she got her sobbing friend up from the bench. With one last glance at the dead security guard, they ran for the exit.

The well-dressed man darted toward them, trailing his Shadow Twin like a comet’s tail. He grabbed the sobbing woman and drove her head into the wall so hard that her skull cracked, loud as a gunshot, and she slid to the floor, dead. The other woman began screaming again, and she fought him, trying to claw his face and then his Shadow self.

Terror turned Trix’s blood to ice. The sobbing woman had died in an instant. They didn’t want witnesses, didn’t want anyone to come and help, and that told her a great deal. They could be hurt. They could be beaten. And they didn’t have any backup.

She shot out a leg, tripped the redheaded kid, and rode him down as he fell. His head bounced off the floor, and she grabbed hold of his ears and started slamming his skull against the marble tile. Someone was screaming, shrill and hysterical, and only when she bared her teeth as she fought his efforts to rise—and the screaming ceased—did she realize it had been her all along.

His orange hair was dark and wet now, and it left bright crimson smears on the tile. His eyes were going out of focus. But then he reached up and struck her in the stomach, took her wrists, and broke her grip. He tossed her away and she hit hard. Trix scrambled up and saw that his Shadow Twin hung even farther out of him. Had it been the Shadow’s hands on her, or the human boy’s? Did it matter?

He tried to rise but stumbled and hit the floor, too disoriented to attack her.

Jennifer screamed for Jim.

Trix looked up and saw the Asian man looming over Jennifer. He had a fistful of her pretty hair, and in that moment, she was Jenny. Or she might as well have been. Trix ran for her, only to see Sally behind her, drawing symbols on the floor in what must be the girl’s own blood. Whatever Sally was up to, Trix knew she had to protect her until it was done.

But then Anne screamed and Trix twisted around to see the buxom woman, Shadow Twin almost entirely outside her flesh, dragging Anne across the floor by one ankle. The thing was taking her toward the Reflection Room, or at least toward that door or wall, just as the redhead had tried to take Trix. There was something to be made of that—something obvious that Trix just wasn’t getting—but she didn’t have the luxury of thinking.

This chaos would end with them all dead, unless the young Oracle could do something to help them.

Jim saw Trix run past, headed for the door to the Reflection Room, and he prayed she would get through that door, that she would get to Holly. Right now he had trouble of his own. As Trix ran by, the dapper businessman Jim had first seen down in the reading room reached for her and missed, despite his unnatural speed. It gave Jim an instant to act. The other two, the young couple, were grappling with him, trying to stop him from getting to the Oracle.

“Sally!” Jim shouted. “Whatever you’re going to do—”

He didn’t get to finish. The old businessman punched him in the mouth and Jim reeled backward, breaking the grip of one of the two who still held him. He lunged toward the wall, but what he wanted leaned against it—a wooden captain’s chair that had, like the benches, been placed there for older patrons to rest on while touring the library.

Gritting his teeth against its weight, he swung the chair with all the strength he could muster, smashing it into the face and chest of the thing still holding him. The young man let go, flailing as he stumbled back. Blood spurted from his broken nose and dripped down his chin as he sprawled to the floor. He lay with his eyes closed, unconscious and broken, but the shadow part of him created by his time lost in the In-Between—before Veronica had fished him out to make him do her bidding—remained awake, and enraged. It tried to pull itself fully out of him, but it was tethered within him, was him, in some fundamental way.

“Sally!” Jim shouted. He faced the other two Half Shadows menacing him, brandishing the captain’s chair, which grew heavier with every heartbeat.

“She did it!” Jennifer said, excitement mingling with her fear. “They’re here!”

Jim glanced toward the sound of her voice and saw some of Sally’s No-Face Men. He counted four, including one grappling with the Asian man who had been attacking Jennifer. A fifth No-Face Man slid up through the floor and darted toward the redheaded kid Trix had beaten the shit out of. The kid had started to stand, limbs moving jerkily, as though his Shadow self was a puppeteer pulling his strings.

Jennifer cradled Sally in her arms. For a moment he thought the girl might be dead, but then Sally stirred, lifting her head weakly and pointing toward the Half Shadows Jim had been fighting. “Destroy them!” she shouted, her commanding tone making her sound much older than her years.

Two No-Face Men sailed across the room and attacked the woman who’d been after Jim. Their hands passed through her flesh and bone, but they weren’t interested in her body. Those spectral hands grabbed hold of the shadow stuff, the dusky twin of this woman who had been lost between worlds through no fault of her own, and began to tear it off as though peeling a second skin away from her flesh.

The woman shrieked as though they were gutting her, distracting the other Half Shadows. Another of Sally’s No-Face Men careened into the businessman Jim had been fighting and dragged him down, clawing at his body like an animal, though its talons slashed through flesh without damaging the man’s body or his clothes. The Shadow Twin within him, though, was eviscerated.

The woman who had been stripped of her Shadow Twin shuffled away on her knees, staggered to her feet, and then stared at her hands as though she had never seen them before. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she touched her face, somehow verifying that she was herself and alive. Then she turned and fled screaming from the Abbey Room, running out into the corridor, and presumably out of the library and into a new world.

The other Half Shadow—the well-dressed older businessman—did not survive the stripping of his Shadow Twin. When the No-Face Men were done scouring the shadow stuff from within him, he lay still, eyes vacant with death.

Jim heard Trix screaming and turned to see her fighting with the black woman, who was dragging Anne toward the Reflection Room. Something was wrong here. Why would the things want to take them there?

But it didn’t matter now.

He dropped the chair and ran toward Trix but managed to get only a few feet before he felt something grip his ankles. He flailed his arms outward as he fell and hit the marble floor hard, smashing his face on the tile. Dazed, he kicked out to try to free himself, and looked up to see that the one he’d beaten with the captain’s chair had regained consciousness. Bloody, face swollen, the thing seemed to be reabsorbing its Shadow Twin. Even as it did, it began to look less solid.

The chair smashed across its back, and the creature fell to the floor again. Jennifer stood over it, staring at him, her eyes brimming with unspoken emotion. She turned back to Sally, who stood shakily beside her.

“Help Trix,” Jim told Sally.

But the No-Face Men were already darting through the air, rushing to the aid of Trix and Anne, and the battle was joined again.

The Half Shadow backhanded Trix, and she sprawled on the floor, blood running from her nose. Her face throbbed, starting to swell. She rose again, ignoring the shouts and scuffles elsewhere in the room. The erasing of Jenny from her own Boston had changed Trix, made her stronger and leaner; she had spent a lot more time in the gym in a reality that didn’t have Jenny in it. She used that strength and conditioning now.

With a determined snarl, Trix lunged at the Half Shadow. She had tried to trip it up, tried to tackle it, tried to overpower it, but though it had once been an ordinary woman, this thing wasn’t human anymore. It was too strong and too single-minded for her to overpower, so her only hope was to hurt it enough to get it to let go of Anne.

Trix leaped on the Half Shadow’s back, its ghostly Shadow Twin cold where she passed through it. She wrapped one arm around the woman’s neck and, with her free hand, clawed at her eyes. Trix felt her fingers sink into the woman’s left eye socket, felt something wet and syrupy spurt onto her hand, and then both the woman’s human mouth and the dark void that was the mouth of her Shadow Twin opened in a scream. “Let go of her, you bitch!” Trix shouted, digging her fingers in deeper.

A hand shot out and gripped Trix by the throat. Her eyes bulged as her airway was cut off and the pressure on her windpipe closed like a vise. She stared in astonishment at the wispy gray nothing of the arm that had emerged from the Half Shadow’s back. The creature’s Shadow Twin had begun to separate from her, at least enough to stop Trix from hurting it any further. Enough to kill Trix if it could.

The shadow hand hoisted her off the ground, her feet dangling above the marble tiles. She battered the wrist, where the dark mist of the thing had turned solid enough to hold her, but could not break its grip. Her vision began to dim, spots dancing at the corners of her eyes as the lack of oxygen made her spasm and kick.

In that moment, it occurred to her that she was going to die. The concept seemed distant. She felt herself jostled as the thing walked forward, still headed for the wall, dragging Anne across the room behind it. The wall was its destination, that much was clear. Trix had thought it meant to take Anne through the door into the Reflection Room, but it did not approach the doorway. Its aim was the ornately carved oak wall that had been put up to bisect the Abbey Room.

Blood rushing to her face, Trix beat the shadowy arm. The Half Shadow turned and glanced at her, one eye ruined, blood and gore smeared on its cheek. It held Anne in its hands, and now it lifted her up and held her out toward the wall. Anne caught Trix’s gaze and held it, a terrible sorrow passing between the two women, terror wrought by this moment mixed with grief over moments that might have been.

Then the Half Shadow took a step forward, pushing Anne against the wall.

Through the wall.

Trix began to slip away from consciousness, her brain deprived of oxygen. But her eyes widened as she saw Anne flailing, passing through the wall as if it wasn’t even there.

Dark shapes flashed past Trix, filling the edges of her vision, and at first she thought they were in her mind. But they struck the Half Shadow, attacking her viciously, beating at her face and body. One of Sally’s No-Face Men slashed through the shadow arm holding Trix, and Trix collapsed to the ground drawing in huge lungfuls of air, her throat raw and ragged with pain. “Anne!” she rasped, scuttling forward on the marble.

But the No-Face Men were there before her. They dragged Anne back through the insubstantial wall, leaving her wide-eyed and shivering as though she had just woken from a nightmare of some frozen hell.

The things fell on the Half Shadow and began stripping the gray shadow stuff from her. In what seemed only seconds they had torn the bits of the In-Between out of her, leaving only that plump woman. She lay on her side and wept and laughed, though whether she was horrified or elated at her rebirth, Trix couldn’t tell.

“Anne,” Trix said as she knelt by her and laid a hand on her shoulder.

Shuddering, trying to calm herself, Anne looked up at her with wide, searching eyes. Trix blinked in surprise. For just a moment, she had let herself forget that this was the Jenny of another world. In the space of a few hours Anne had become someone real and vital to Trix, not just some doppelgänger.

“You’re all right,” Trix told her.

Anne reached up, slid a hand behind Trix’s head, and pulled her down for a kiss. Trix didn’t fight it. Though it lasted only a few seconds, it soothed her heart. When she pulled away, she saw that some of the blood from her damaged nose and bleeding mouth had smeared on Anne’s face and lips, and she reached out to wipe it away.

“Trix?” Jim ventured, dropping to his knees beside them. “You okay?”

“Not hardly,” Trix said, her voice a rasp from being choked almost to death. She helped Anne to stand.

“What did you see on the other side of the wall?” Jennifer asked, coming up to join them.

Anne shuddered and hugged herself. “Gray mist. Rooms that weren’t really there.”