They stumbled across the peculiar library one Sunday afternoon on their way back from an exploratory walk. Darcy was the one to notice it, bringing the three of them to a halt on the sidewalk.
“You didn’t say there was a branch this close to your mom’s house,” she said.
Jane considered the entrance looming before them. “I didn’t know there was.”
Its surroundings (stuffed between a record store and a consignment fashion shop in a tall, brick building) weren’t what she expected for a public library at all, nor was the facade: it sported beveled, lead glass windows; a thick, marble plaque declaring it to be a Library of the Fine City of London; and tall, oak doors with elegant, bronze handles resembling dragons.
“It looks old,” Darcy said. Thor raised an eyebrow at her.
“Are older libraries less favorable?”
“On this planet, yes.” She squinted. “I guess it might be totally modern on the inside.”
Jane gave the weathered unicorns perched on the ends of the brick and marble stairs a skeptical look. “Maybe.”
They kept up their observations while other pedestrians wandered by, oblivious. Presently Darcy made for the steps. “It’s super close to the house.” She glanced over her shoulder. “If it sucks, we’ll just get the card and Thor can go to one of the bigger branches tomorrow.”
It was a reasonable enough plan, Jane decided. She climbed the steps, and Thor followed.
Given the exterior, Jane wasn’t surprised by what awaited them inside. It seemed more like an ancient, comfortable book and curio store than a modern library. The hardwood floors gleamed dark purple and creaked under the thick, wool runners lining the main walkways. High-backed, Victorian reading chairs hunched around marble and cherry wood coffee tables, and a variety of roll-top desks and study cubicles shouldered up to the stacks, complete with reading lights and stationary. The ends of the bookcases were decorated with colorful murals depicting their contents and sorting range, and appeared to hold both modern printings and much rarer editions side by side. A huge, golden wood staircase with a brilliant brass banister curved its way to the upper level, where Jane could see yet more shelves, reading chairs, and study corners.
“Totally modern,” Jane said under her breath, and Darcy gave her an apologetic look.
“We can still get the card. And hey, maybe they’ve got some cool rare edition of something.”
Thor’s focus was not on the tableau before them, but the doors they’d just passed though. He ran a hand along the wood, eyes narrowed, but before Jane could ask him if something was wrong he left off his examination and began to wander around. He drifted to a stack, scanning the titles and occasionally pulling a book out. He became particularly interested in a large, wide, blue hardbound, the sort which usually held big photographs.
Along the left wall there was a broad, ebony wood desk, behind which skulked a pale and lean young man with hard, gray eyes and a mop of curly blond hair. He watched the three of them down his hawkish nose while they browsed, eyes narrowed. Jane had just found the Astronomy-Sciences section when she heard him ask, “Can I help you?” in a hard, strained tone of voice.
Darcy tugged on Jane’s sleeve, stopping her from pulling out a book labeled A Decade Among the Comet Miners, and they walked up to the desk. (Jane tried to memorize where she’d seen the book for later, because it needed to be reshelved under Literature.)
“Yeah,” Darcy said. “We need to get him,” she pointed at Thor, and he put the big blue book back and came to join them, “a library card.”
“Of course.” The young man pulled out a form and a fancy fountain pen and passed them to Thor. Jane didn’t miss the way he gave Thor a once-over, and Jane saw Thor’s brows gather for a moment. The young man sniffed at him. “Just fill out all of this. Don’t forget to sign the bottom. I’ll need two forms of identification: one photographic, and one for address verification.”
Jane gave the space behind the desk a skeptical look. There wasn’t so much as a monitor in sight. “Will this work for the rest of the library branches in the city?”
The young man—a silvery metal tag on his pale blue shirt named him ASSISTANT in bold lettering—nodded. “Yes.”
Thor’s expression cleared. He glanced at Darcy and Jane, took up the pen, and started writing. Darcy looked around them and asked the Assistant, “So do you have wifi? Computer terminals?”
“Yes. The terminals are in the back room, where it’s more private.” He moved around from behind the desk and gestured at a huge pair of doors not unlike those leading into the library, though these were painted a deep, dark red. “I can show you while he fills out the form, if you like.”
“Sure,” Darcy said, and followed where the Assistant led. Jane followed them after taking a moment to point the doors out to Thor.
The ‘back’ room, which Jane had expected to be small given the apparent size of the structure from outside, was even larger than the front. It rose nearly two full stories and was lined with enormous bookshelves on every wall, but rather than have additional floors the vertical space sat open and empty, with the ceiling overhead lost in shadow. Tall metal ladders allowed access to the tops of the stacks, and in the middle of the cavernous space was a cluster of long tables with sterile, metal and plastic chairs, flat panel monitors, mice, and keyboards. They looked current and up to date to Jane, if also hilariously dull compared to everything else around them.
Darcy went right over to one and began to play with it. She made an appreciative face. “Not bad.” She shrugged at Jane, and left off the computers to wander around the room.
Jane moved to the shelves, curious to see if this part of the collection had books similar to what they’d seen out front. She found the Sciences, and at first the titles were familiar enough—The Lives of Stars, Botany of Desire, And No Birds Sing—but then Jane came across something called Bryne’s Guide To Ancient Interstellar Epidemiology. On the shelf below it was Xenobiology: Everything You Didn’t Learn In School, and next to that was Spacetime Superfluidity. She was reaching to pull that one out when she heard Darcy say, “Holy shit. Jane—check this out.”
Darcy was taking a fat, metal-bound tome off the shelf. It was wrapped in copper and bronze filigree, with unpolished gemstones in dark purples and ambers and gold-browns embedded in the scroll points. As Jane drew closer she saw that the ‘pages’ were more like thick plates formed of a silvery metal.
There was no title or author listed anywhere on the cover. Darcy fiddled with the latch on the side until it came free, and opened to the first panel. In the center was a large, black metal, circular dial with text and number symbols in gold on concentric rings. It was surrounded by a series of smaller, single-ring dials arranged along the page’s border; these were gold with black-etched text. Some of them had numbers forming patterns and series that teased at Jane’s mind; others had letters from varying alphabets; and still others held a range of symbols and pictures. Darcy turned the inner dial experimentally, and Jane watched in fascination as all but four of the outer rings turned.
“What is this?” Darcy asked. She half-turned the page, and Jane glimpsed a similar set of circular dials on the other side, though these looked like a set of sun and planet gears with text and pictograms on the teeth.
“Oh! Wait.” Jane pushed the page back down and adjusted the four corner dials, then turned the inner one. She saw one of the edge dials line up to the letter she expected, and smiled.
“It’s a cipher machine—ah, cipher machine book, I guess.”
“Why would you use a book for encryption?”
Jane ran finger over one of the dials. “It might be pretty old. I’ve seen things like this from the 1500s or so, but not as actual books with multiple machines. They made them look like books to disguise them.” She turned a few more pages; each one held a different set of dials. “Can you imagine how long it would take to encrypt anything with this?”
“Days.” Darcy made a face. “Okay, this is getting heavy.” She shut the cipher machine and slid it back on the shelf, and her hand drifted to the one next to it: a gray, leather-bound tome with knotwork winding over the spine in a shape that Jane thought suggested a large plant of some kind. Darcy pulled it out and marveled at the cover.
“What?” Jane leaned in and read the title’s bold, black letters: The People of the World’s Tree.
She felt a chill race down her spine. Keeping her voice low, Darcy said, “That’s what he calls it, right? The World Tree?” Jane nodded, and Darcy opened the book. She turned the illuminated pages slowly and with care, never mind that they didn’t look the least bit fragile.
Each section was headed by a map of a planet or continent or city accompanied by a brief description of the place and its denizens. Next came numerous images of the people themselves, and then aspects of their culture: demographics, attire, social mores, cuisine, religion (if any), languages, architecture, customs, even their technology.
“It’s all in English,” Darcy said.
“Or it’s written the same way he talks to us.”
“So it’s a magic book? Like you saw when you...” Darcy bobbed her eyebrows for emphasis.
Jane bit her lip. “Maybe. But that one was—wait.” Darcy had come to a page with an image of an enormous golden palace. In an accompanying inset the palace was centered a giant landmass surrounded by water and resting on a bank of clouds that seemed to float in space like a galaxy.
Jane didn’t need to read the text on the following page. “That’s—”
The Assistant said, “This one is a first edition. It’s been in the library almost as long as the library has existed.”
They both startled so badly that Darcy nearly dropped the book. He’d been so quiet Jane had forgotten he was even in the room, and now he was right next to them, and something about that and the bizarre book they’d just been reading made her heart rate double.
Darcy slammed the book shut and shoved it back onto the shelf. Jane said, “Really, that’s, ah, that’s incredible.”
The way the Assistant was looking at them—like they were fascinating, new specimens he’d just found lurking under an old box in a closet—made Jane want to put the entire room between him and the two of them. Darcy edged closer to her, suggesting she had a similar impression.
"You have seen that Realm?" the Assistant asked.
Jane swallowed. She felt Darcy grab her had and grip it tight, then let go. “We’ve seen something like it in a movie,” Darcy said, and stepped away from him. Jane did the same.
The Assistant flashed his teeth in a grotesque parody of a smile and trailed after them. “Indeed? What film was this?”
Darcy made straight for the tall doors. “Adventures in Space,” Jane said, and winced at how bad that sounded. Regardless, Darcy backed her up without hesitation.
“Right, Adventures in Space. It’s a couple of years old.”
“Brad Pitt was in it.”
“And Angelica Houston. It didn’t do that well in theaters.”
Jane glanced over her shoulder. The Assistant was gone. At Darcy’s surprised shout of, “Hey!” she found him blocking their path to the looming red doors.
Amused disbelief made the Assistant’s voice sound sinister. “I have not heard of this film. I shall have to look it up in our archives.” He focused on Jane. “Tell me—what is your name?”
Every possible alarm bell was going off in Jane’s head. She sucked in a breath to shout for Thor, but it turned out to be unnecessary, because the great doors slammed open and Thor shouted, "Do not answer him—"
Before Thor could finish the Assistant made a motion with one hand, and a powerful force shoved Darcy and Jane aside so hard they flew over the closest computer table, scattering the monitors and peripherals and knocking the wind out of them when they hit the floor. Jane struggled to her feet and saw the Assistant lunge towards Thor. His clothing transformed from his plain, business casual outfit into a strange and whirling collection of linen and silk and leather in bright orange, red, and black. His features changed as well: his ears grew long and pointed, his eyes an unnatural shade of verdant green, and the nails on his hands long and sharp. And then he’d reached Thor, and Jane realized that Thor wasn’t in his armor and didn’t have Mjölnir either.
Darcy said, “What the hell kind of library is this?” and ran towards Thor and the Assistant, pulling her taser out of her purse. Unsure how effective her pepper spray was going to be, Jane yanked one of the keyboards free from its terminal.
Thor and the Assistant fought hand to hand at first, and even absent his armor and Mjölnir Thor held his own. Then the Assistant reached around behind himself, and a flash of something caught Jane’s eye—a dagger with a blade that looked like black glass. Darcy must have noticed it too, because she chose that moment to use her taser.
Thor was fast, but the Assistant was considerably faster. He spun, slashing diagonally across Thor’s torso and forcing Thor to deflect the attack so the dagger wouldn’t reach him. The movement brought the Assistant around to face Jane and Darcy, and he ducked and caught the taser wires in midair. He turned again, yanking the taser from Darcy’s hand and sending it flying across the room to smash into a shelf. He scored one of Thor’s arms with the dagger on his next turn, but Thor caught his vest this time, and hit the Assistant hard enough to send him stumbling back. As he came within range Jane hit him with the keyboard as hard as she could, smashing it to pieces and sending keys flying everywhere.
The Assistant rolled to his feet and crouched. Before Jane could grab another keyboard or maybe a monitor, he made a gesture with his free hand. She and Darcy flew again, towards a bookcase, and Jane braced herself—but no impact came.
There was a rush of musty, chilly air, and the last thing Jane saw before she fell into darkness was the Assistant and Thor charging at one another.
The air that whipped around Jane as she fell had a strange quality to it, almost like it wasn’t proper air. She flew for a handful of seconds before landing on something that absorbed her impact enough to prevent broken bones. She rolled, tumbling down a carpeted incline until she struck a solid and unyielding surface.
While waiting for her eyes to adjust she cataloged her injuries and determined them to be just bruises. Darcy groaned somewhere to her left, and Jane felt about until she found a misshapen, linen surface that was probably Darcy’s purse.
“Anything broken?” she asked. Darcy’s sigh was loud in the darkness.
“Just my taser. Seriously, do you know how much those things cost? And it’s not even legal for me to have it here.”
As her eyes became acclimated, Jane saw dim lights far above them—too far to see what kind they were—and took in her surroundings. They’d landed against more shelves, though these held not just books but also scrolls and small cases with all manner of artifacts in them. Bones, old pottery, taxidermy specimens—one even appeared to be some kind of mini sea biome in a glass globe.
“We have to get back out there. Thor didn’t have Mjölnir or his armor.”
“Maybe it was still on the way?”
“We’re close to the house, it shouldn’t have taken that—”
A loud scraping sound made Jane stop talking. She held perfectly still, and it came again: the sound of something large dragging along a surface.
She felt Darcy grab her arm. “Move! Move!”
Fear of what she couldn’t see gave Jane new energy, and she bolted in the direction Darcy was pulling her. No sooner had she vacated her landing place than a loud thunk and crash sent dust flying everywhere. They coughed and sputtered, and as the air cleared a handful of lamps came on, these just a shelf or two above them. They both scrambled back at what the light revealed.
The falling object was a large trunk. The impact had smashed the half-dozen or so locks on the front, spilling its contents out: a person, bound with some sort of shimmering, metallic rope and gagged with a lead gray, metal device made of interlocking links and a broad, flat panel on one cheek. They flipped themselves onto their back, and Jane and Darcy stared with wide eyes.
While the individual’s shape and features were like those of a human woman, her coloring most certainly wasn’t. Her skin was a dusky shade of rose red; her short hair was ash gray and shot through with gleaming threads of gold and silver; and her eyes were dark, rusty orange. She was wearing what, prior to rolling on the ground, had been a white, neatly tailored and pleated shirt, black slacks, and lovely dark brown boots that could have come from a designer store.
“This is getting way too weird,” Darcy said. The woman tried to speak around the gag, scowled, and tilted her head to the side. She did this a handful of times before giving Jane an imploring look.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” Jane said. The woman looked down and to the left and tilted her head again. Jane followed her gaze to the flat segment of the gag.
“Oh!” She made to move forward, and Darcy grabbed her arm.
“What exactly do you think you’re doing?”
“That’s probably some kind of access panel for that gag.”
“Yeah, and what makes you think she’s any better than that crazy elf Assistant guy?”
The woman made a sound like a frustrated groan. Jane asked Darcy, “What if he put her in here?”
The woman started trying to shout around the gag, and when they looked at her again she nodded sharply. Jane said, “So, that Assistant trapped you here?” She nodded again. “If we let you out, can you help us?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. She nodded again, much more slowly and deliberately. Jane caught a gleam of something pinned to the woman’s shirt, and reached down, tugging it into view. It was covered with dust.
Darcy groaned but didn’t try to stop her this time. “What are you doing.”
“She has a name tag.”
“Who cares what her name is?”
Jane reigned in her anxiety. Thor was out there, in that room, without his armor and Mjölnir, fighting who-knew-what kind of elf, and the last elves he’d faced hadn’t been push overs. “Maybe she can help us.” Jane rubbed the grime off the name tag. LIBRARIAN, it read in block letters.
“You’re a librarian. And that’s your assistant out there?”
Gagged or not, the word ‘former’ wasn’t hard to make out. Jane sighed. “I’m out of ideas, Darcy. Short of throwing books at that guy, we’ve got nothing.” She made to kneel down next to the Librarian, but Darcy put a hand on her shoulder.
“Wait. Wait. Hang on.”
Darcy was digging around in her purse. Jane frowned at her. “What?”
“Let me just—found it.” She pulled out a small, spiral bound notebook sporting a ‘Heroes of New York’ cover and a ballpoint pen. She flipped the notebook open to a blank page and began writing.
Jane sighed. “What are you doing?”
“What I am doing, is, getting us some insurance,” Darcy said as she wrote frantically. She paused, tapping the pen against her chin, then continued.
Jane waited about as long as she could, which amounted to maybe a few minutes at most. “We have to get back out there—”
Darcy crouched down next to the Librarian and said to Jane, “Definitely, but not without covering our asses. We have no idea who or what we’re dealing with.” She held the notebook up to the Librarian, whose eyes narrowed. “Can you read this?”
Jane was sure the woman was scowling as her eyes scanned the page. When she was done she glared at Darcy before nodding. Darcy said, “Okay. Your hands look free enough to make a mark on this. That’ll have to count as a signature.”
“Signature? Wait, what is that?”
“It’s a contract.”
“A contract? You want her to sign a contract?”
“Indemnifying us and Thor against anything that happens here as a result of defending ourselves from that assistant-guy, and stating that she will not bring harm to us, nor by inaction allow harm to come to us, nor prevent us from leaving when we want to, etc.”
Jane just stared at Darcy. Darcy held the pen up to the Librarian, then guided the Librarian’s hands to the pen and the pen to the appropriate spot on the notebook page. As she did this, she explained to Jane, “I learned at the feet of the master. Pepper said rule number one of managing anything was to get everything important in writing, with a signature and preferably a witness. Verbal contracts aren’t always binding, but written ones are easier to enforce.”
“We’re trapped in an,” Jane waved her arms overhead, “impossible library with—” she gestured down at the Librarian, who raised her eyebrows at her, “two aliens, one of which is attacking us, and we’re thinking about freeing the other one. How is a contract written in your notebook going to help with any of that?”
Darcy shuffled aside, capped her pen, and stuffed the notebook back into her purse. “Probably won’t, but it can’t hurt.”
Jane grimaced and knelt down next to the Librarian, who helpfully tilted her head, making the panel easier to access. At first Jane couldn’t be sure what she was looking at—she’d thought it would be a simple number pad for some sort of PIN, but on closer examination the ‘buttons’ weren’t buttons, they were tiles that could be slid around, and their sizes all varied.
“It looks like some kind of puzzle,” Darcy said.
The Librarian was nodding frantically. A puzzle, Jane thought, and then she saw it.
“That big piece—we have to move it to the bottom.”
“Oh, like those little tile games.”
Though it took the two of them no more than a handful of minutes to work it out, it felt like years to Jane. The large piece slid to the bottom of the panel—and the squares changed, their previously smooth surfaces trembling like water. When the motion stopped, the large piece was once again in the wrong position, and now each square had a design on it.
Jane growled, “You have to be kidding me.”
The Librarian was looking between the two of them with what was probably concern. Darcy dug around in her purse, found a small mirror, and used it to show the Librarian the changed panel.
“Is this some kind of second level?”
The Librarian made a face and nodded.
“Great,” Darcy said. “I’m guessing the pictures mean the rules are different.”
The Librarian nodded again. Jane bit her lip.
“Okay. Okay I think this means we can only move this tile up and down. And these side to side...”
If the first level of the lock had felt like years, the subsequent challenges—there were six in total—seemed to take decades. They became progressively harder and more complicated, and began to involve convoluted rules. Jane could not have been more grateful Darcy was there; she kept her calm throughout the process, helping Jane focus on the task and not on what might be going on between the Assistant and Thor.
Jane moved the largest piece one last time, completing an interlocking design that sprawled over the panel. A rapid series of whirs and clicks preceded the gag’s collapse into a simple necklace around the woman’s throat. Jane and Darcy stood and moved back, putting a healthy distance between themselves and the woman. Jane was suddenly struck by the notion that she’d been so focused on the mechanism that she hadn’t bothered to consider what would happen once they’d unlocked it, and hoped for the best.
“Ah! Thank you, my dears,” the woman said. Her voice was sharp and bright, like a coronet. She said a phrase, something complicated and full of winding sounds that Jane couldn’t understand, and the bindings at her hands and wrists fell slack. Darcy stared open-mouthed.
“Was that magic?”
“Well of course. What else?” The Librarian yanked off the necklace gag and tossed it to the floor, did the same with the bindings, and levered herself up.
Darcy peered at her. “Why couldn’t you just magic yourself out of the lock and bindings?”
The Librarian brushed at her shirt and pants. “I made the colossal mistake of telling that abhorrent traitor one secret too many. Never reveal to anyone more than they absolutely need to know, my dears, especially about yourselves. Now then.” She straightened and looked them both over with a critical eye. Jane felt her stomach clench in anticipation.
“Yes,” the Librarian said after a moment, “yes, I think you’ll both do,” and went for the stacks.
Jane was taken aback. “What—we need to stop him from—”
“We do, and unless you’ve come in here armed,” the look she cast them over her shoulder indicated they didn’t need to confirm they hadn’t, “we’re going to need some firepower. Plus I’ll have to show you how to use it, but never fear—you sorted out that lock, I’m sure this will be a snap.”
Darcy brightened. “You’ve got a weapons cache hidden behind the bookcase?”
The Librarian pulled out a large, dusty tome. She kicked the trunk so it was resting flat, and dropped the book on top. “Our weapons are right here on the shelves.” She gestured along the wall. “Go on. I can’t choose for you.”
Darcy and Jane exchanged a look. Darcy asked, “Choose what?”
“Your books. He’ll be able to counter most of my selections, owing to the lapse in judgment I just mentioned. Yours, however, should be the wild cards we need to deal with him.”
“But we don’t have magic,” Darcy said. The Librarian sighed.
“Of course you don’t, you’re human. Or you seem to be—” She stiffened. “I do have that right, don’t I?”
“Yeah...” Darcy said, and the Librarian sagged with apparent relief. She refocused on the books.
“The books will be your magic. You just have to direct them, which I’ll show you how to do. But you must be the ones to choose. That’s how bibliomancy works.”
Jane felt like her mind was clogged with mental molasses. “You want us to pick out some books?” she said, slowly and with great care.
“Yes.” The Librarian had already taken down four more, including a slim journal and a pair of matching volumes of a dictionary. She glanced at them and made shooing motions. “Take as much as you can carry.”
Jane shook herself out. Given what had already happened, maybe they needed to just roll with it. With another sideways look at Darcy, she started piling books on top of the trunk. After a few minutes she found herself in a rhythm, and became more selective, trying to vary the sizes, shapes, bindings, and subjects.
“So the books are magic?” Darcy said as she flipped through one.
The Librarian pulled out a linen-bound book, made a face, and put it back. “Naturally. Now. What's he managed to snare for himself out there? You mentioned someone lacking armor and some sort of trinket."
"Thor," Jane said. The Librarian frowned at her.
"I said what, not who."
Darcy said, "An alien." At the Librarian's exasperated look, Jane tried, "An Asgardian? He calls his people Æsir." She winced, positive she’d said it wrong.
The Librarian's expression went from confusion to complete alarm. "An Æsir? You’re human, I thought we were on Earth not Asgard—"
"We are on Earth," Darcy said.
"What in the name of the Dark Before is an Æsir doing on Earth?"
"That's kind of complicated," Jane admitted around her growing tower of selections. The Librarian set the book she'd been examining aside and peered at Jane.
"Please, my dear, if you would be so kind as to grant me your name."
Jane remembered the Assistant asking for her name, and froze. The Librarian gestured impatiently. "We don't have time for you to explain, and anyways, I signed your companion’s contract. I’m bound to do you no harm, Named or not."
Darcy gaped. “That actually worked?”
The Librarian sighed at her. “My dear, we’re in a library. All formal records hold sway here.”
“I owe Pepper at least ten pounds of her favorite coffee,” Darcy murmured.
The Librarian waved her fingers at Jane again. “Please. It will be quicker.”
Jane reminded herself everything was crazy, so maybe this was a place where a contract written in ballpoint pen in a spiral notebook would keep them safe from the magic of alien Librarians. She took a deep breath and said, "Jane Foster."
Though nothing seemed to happen, the Librarian's head jerked back. "Well then." She squinted at Darcy. "I won't need yours, I think."
"Okay," Darcy said, sounding like she didn’t know if she should be relieved or offended.
Jane looked down at herself. Nothing seemed different. "What did you do?"
"Names have power, Dr. Foster, when they are granted by the bearer. In your case, I used it to see the whats of your current circumstances. They can also be used to do much less savory things. For example, if my very former assistant obtains your Æsir's name and uses it to take his power we will have a considerable problem on our hands."
"Take his power?"
"Oh yes. The magic of a stormherald—what a find he must think he has, the wretched viper. Elves are adept at magic manipulation in all its forms, including harvesting it from the vessel or bearer.” She snorted. “I knew I shouldn't have agreed to take him, but his father just went on and on and on." She hefted her books and gestured for them to follow her. They walked a short distance along a hallway with a tall ceiling until they reached an empty, black, monolithic wall. The Librarian frowned and said a phrase Jane couldn’t parse. There was a pause in which nothing happened, and the Librarian said something which sounded slightly different. Still nothing moved, and the Librarian sighed. “I can never remember this one.” She kicked a spot about two feet up and shouted, “Just open, you stupid thing!”
Light split the dark surface, from far overhead down to the floor. The Librarian blinked and said, “I must have set it when I was angry. Hm.” She shoved one half of the wall so that there was room for them to pass through and strode out into the light, with Jane and Darcy close behind.
The opening deposited them in a narrow corridor, carpeted in brilliant red and gold and lit by fancy, bronze sconces set high into the white walls. The sconces held lights which flickered with the ambiance of fire but didn’t smoke, and there was no sign of soot or other discoloring on the paint. The Librarian walked swiftly and with a purpose, and it was all Jane and Darcy could do to keep up with her.
The passage turned and sloped upward, and ahead Jane saw a narrow gap between two wooden structures through which she caught sight of overturned tables and scattered computer components. “Oh my, looks like they’ve made a mess,” the Librarian said, possibly to herself. Their view of the rest of the room was blocked by the bookcases, but soon they were close enough to hear voices.
"Give me your name," the Assistant said, and his demand seemed to claw at Jane's ears and drill into her mind the way those horrible fire alarms on the campus did.
Thor’s response was strangled. “No.”
“I can take your power with your blood and your purpose with your heart, but they would be blunt instruments without you name. Give me your name, and I will let your passing be pure."
Jane swallowed. They had reached the gap, which was just wide enough to permit one of them at a time. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Darcy blanch. “Did he just say—”
“He did,” the Librarian said. Her features hardened in stern disapproval. In a low murmur, she added, “Careful not to drop your books, dears,” and squeezed through.
They emerged in the shadow of a large stack that was tilted away from the wall. If the back room had been a mess when the Assistant had cast Jane and Darcy out, it was chaos now: books and scrolls and sheafs of paper were scattered around the floor, shelves dangled broken and empty, and half of the ladders leading to the upper floors were twisted and bent. Black scorch marks scarred random places along the stacks with haphazard patterns, and the smell of ozone was thick in the air. Directly across from the gap in the wall were Thor and the Assistant.
The Assistant had Thor pinned against a bookshelf with one hand at his throat and the other at his lower chest, curled around something. There was no sign of Thor’s armor or Mjölnir, which maybe explained the blast marks—Thor had mentioned to Jane on more than one occasion that without Mjölnir it was difficult to direct the lightning, and it tended to go where it wanted. But where could the hammer be?
Jane’s attention went back to Thor and the Assistant, and she realized what the Assistant was holding about the same time she noticed the dark black stain spreading down Thor’s shirt.
A dagger. It was the handle of a dagger, buried to the hilt.
The Librarian snagged Jane by the arm just in time to stop her from charging at the Assistant with nothing but an armload of books. “Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, Dr. Foster, but I’m sure your friends would like you to survive this encounter.”
The Assistant half-turned at the sound of the Librarian’s voice. His face twisted into an ugly snarl, and he yanked the dagger out of Thor and threw him aside with enough force to send Thor flying several feet. The weapon was the same dagger he’d had earlier, with the glassy black blade.
Before Jane could think to run to Thor, a book flew out into the middle of the room, lobbed by the Librarian. It dismantled midair, pages and binding becoming a shining net of blue light, and made straight for Thor. The Assistant rushed to intercept it, but the net reached Thor first and expanded, settling over him in the shape of a dome. The Assistant’s fist slammed down on the barrier, which flared and sparked, and he pulled back with a hiss. Thor, looking dazed, reached up and ran a hand along the inside of the dome, sending ripples along it, and seemed to sigh with relief.
The Librarian brushed back a lock of hair from her eyes. The Assistant turned to face her and stalked towards them.
"Dabbling in power thievery now, are we?" the Librarian said. The Assistant sneered.
"What choice did you leave me? You lock the library's secrets away, so deep not even I can find them. You Outworlders are all alike; scheming, lying—"
"Oh, please, not this useless diatribe again." The Librarian took the top book from her stack. "This is your one chance to stop. I will turn you over to your people for judgment if you cease now. If you refuse, I will deal with you as I see fit."
"Deal with me? How do you plan to do that, crone?" The Assistant ran his fingers along the dagger, coating them with blood, then tossed it aside. "You have ink." He held up his hand, and Jane might have been imagining it, but she thought Thor’s blood shimmered silvery blue for a moment. "I have something much more powerful."
The Librarian arched an eyebrow. "As do I."
After a moment of confusion the Assistant barked a laugh. "A pair of frail little mortals? What are they," he yanked a volume of something extensive (maybe an encyclopedia?) off a shelf, "to this?"
They acted at the same time: the Librarian drew a symbol onto the cover of her book and flung it at the Assistant while he did the same with the blood on his hand and his long nails. The Librarian's book flew apart into a trail of fiery light and wrapped around the black, flickering clouds that boiled out of the Assistant's, and the two forces consumed one another with a high-pitched wail that had Jane and Darcy both covering their ears.
The Librarian glanced back at Jane. "Really, the son of the Allfather?"
Darcy shouted "Duck!" and hauled them both down behind an overturned table. An oily shock wave of red and blue, like polluted water, sped by overhead and slammed into the far wall, toppling books from the shelves.
The Librarian produced two more pens from her pocket. "Your turn, my dears." One of them was a wood mosaic in a rainbow assortment of colors, with bands of pearl—Darcy took that one—and the other was glossy black lacquer with a trail of tiny, embedded gemstones spiraling around it. Jane picked it up without hesitation.
As soon as they had their pens the Librarian stood, drew on another book, and tossed it out to meet something of the Assistant's. The room shook with the force of the explosion their magic produced.
Jane pulled a book from her stack (Sobel’s The Planets) and asked, "What do we do with these?" Darcy held her pen at the ready over some kind of diary.
“Write or draw whatever knowledge you have. That will grant you access to the power the book holds. Then, direct it at him. The book will take care of the rest. Only, be careful what you use; some combinations can be very potent.”
“Write our knowledge?” Darcy asked.
Jane gripped the pen in her hand. “Like—like, what, mathematical theorems?”
“Whatever knowledge you wield best. Quickly now, ladies."
Darcy sighed and scribbled something, and nearly fumbled her book as the words began to crawl across the cover and down into the pages. She tossed it, and a mechanical construct tore free of the cover, shredding the book as it grew to well over a dozen feet tall, and bore down on the Assistant with whirring metal teeth. He destroyed it with a hide-bound journal of some kind that exploded in a flurry of wind and sound.
"What the hell," Darcy said.
“What did you write?”
“It was just some quote I remembered from The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Darcy grabbed another book and wrote something else; the book morphed into a series of tree-beasts that the Assistant burned with blue fire from a handful of magazines. Jane followed that up with The Planets and the mass-energy equivalence formula. She staggered back as a spinning disc of ice and rock, not unlike an asteroid belt, spun out of the pages. The Assistant used a large dictionary and its resulting jumble of black lightning and coppery fluid to disintegrate the projectiles.
“It would be best if we could contain him,” the Librarian said, and sent another volume into the fray.
“Contain him in what?” Darcy asked. “Something like what’s protecting Thor?”
“Something far less comfortable, preferably.”
Jane watched Darcy and the Librarian fling books. “Write our knowledge,” she repeated to herself. She selected one from her pile—A Field Guide to Nebulae—and had an idea.
“Can I use more than one book?”
The Librarian was hauling some kind of bramble vine out of a botany text and using it to form a wall to protect them, and Darcy was reinforcing it with a thick webbing spun out of a chemical reference manual. “How do you mean?” the Librarian said.
“Could I write something long on several books and use them all together to make a really big effect?”
The Librarian dusted off her hands. The Assistant’s next three attacks rebounded off the thorns, which shuddered from the impact. “It’s a bit tricky to do that, you have to make sure you—”
“So I can?”
Jane shoved over her stack of books and began rooting through them for specific titles. Darcy peered at her.
“What are you doing?”
“Help me find all of the astronomy and astrophysics books you can. And a cart. I’ll need a cart.” It was a testament to the severity of their circumstances that Darcy just sighed and went to the shelves behind them. The Librarian squinted at Jane as she made a new pile of books.
“What are you thinking, Dr. Foster?”
“You said it’d be easier to trap him, right?”
“Absolutely. Destroying him could require who knows what kind of power, and that might bring down the whole library on our heads.”
“Well, I think I know what we can trap him in.” The thorn wall sagged, and Jane grimaced. “But I need you two to buy me some time. It’s going to take me a few minutes to do this. And we need some kind of temporary containment field around him so what I’m doing doesn’t hit us and Thor too.”
The Librarian eyed the bramble wall. ”How large?”
“Can you make it elastic?”
“I believe so.” The Librarian picked up a set of Regency paperbacks from one of the splintered shelves. “I do hope you know what you’re doing.”
Jane thought of Thor, huddled under a dwindling bubble of protective magic, and said, “So do I.”
Darcy dropped an armful of books next to the cart the Librarian had produced from somewhere among the pile of computers and tables. “That’s everything I could find.”
“Thanks,” Jane said. After a moment she realized Darcy was still there, and looked up from her seat on the floor, where she was organizing the books.
Darcy raised her eyebrows at her. Jane said, “It’s okay. I’m—I’ll be okay.” She wished she sounded more okay, but Darcy seemed convinced; she nodded and went to help the Librarian.
Jane winced as something struck the brambles and exploded, and took a moment to breathe. Once her hands had stopped shaking, she added the books Darcy had brought to the set, using them to fill in the last gaps. Then she began writing, filling the covers and spines with equations and formulae and laws and theorems.
She had no idea if this was going to work, because she wasn’t sure she fully understood what was happening when they wrote on the books. Sitting on this this shaky foundation was the sheer scope of what she was about to attempt. There was also the question of whether or not it was advisable—by the strict laws of astrophysics, this could destroy the entire solar system. Of course, by the strict laws of astrophysics, none of this was possible anyways, yet here she was.
She became lost in her work, as she often did, and was only half-aware of Darcy and the Librarian’s conversation about the failing barrier and how to make a proper containment field. She had finished writing and triple-checked everything and was arranging the books on the cart when a loud crash and a brilliant blue glow filled the room for a heartbeat.
The brambles and webs were gone, leaving the Assistant in the center of an enormous blue dome formed of writhing runes and symbols. It was similar to the one protecting Thor, though where the Assistant attacked it with a spell it bent and reshaped itself rather than standing against his power. He cast about on the floor, probably for a book, but fortunately there were none trapped under it with him.
“That won’t hold for very long,” the Librarian warned Jane.
“It shouldn’t need to. Get ready to open part of it.” Jane put all but the last book (Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries) in place and lined the cart up with the barrier. “Here goes nothing,” she said, and set the modest paperback in the center of the cart’s middle shelf. The symbols and numbers on it flared to life, smoking and then shimmering, and the effect began to spread to the other books.
Jane nodded at the Librarian and shoved the cart. A small opening appeared in the glowing blue dome just as the cart reached it. The Assistant bolted forward, but was too slow; his hand stopped short as the runes slid shut behind the cart. It came to rest maybe a dozen feet beyond him, smoke and light wafting from the books.
Nothing happened for a handful of seconds. The Assistant laughed at Jane. “Powerful indeed—”
The books detonated so forcefully the containment field expanded clear out to the walls, slamming the Assistant into the barrier and pinning Jane, Darcy, and the Librarian behind an overturned table. The Librarian coaxed the field into contracting a few feet, and Jane was relieved to see it had warped around Thor’s shield, leaving him safe (if somewhat shaken).
The Assistant shook his head and climbed back to his feet. The Librarian shouted, “Take that, you loathsome toad!”
The blast had filled the containment field with dust and gas that shimmered and glowed with a diffuse brilliance, lighting the uppermost regions of the walls. For several seconds there was a sense of waiting, of something pausing to consider, then the center of the cloud flickered and a brilliant flash forced Jane to look away. Her sight cleared, and she thought she saw two streams of light pouring out of a central disc.
The protostar contracted quickly, pulling in material from the cloud, and a hot rush of air and a low boom preceded a blue-white, miniature star exploding into existence. It hovered in the middle of the containment bubble, occupying half the available space; long prominences curled off of it and collided with the Librarian’s barrier and, eye-searing flares rained sparking plasma.
At first Jane wondered if she hadn’t incinerated the Assistant, but as the star consumed the molecular cloud she spied him crouched in a corner. He was protecting himself with a glowing, red shield and working at the containment field, scratching the inner surface. Here and there runes went dark, but he hadn’t made a hole just yet.
The star rippled and puffed out, shifting to a dull, rust-red color and filling most of the dome. The Assistant had to leave off his attempts to escape and work to keep his own shield stable against the new force.
“Oh my God,” Darcy whispered.
Jane said, “Not done yet.”
The red supergiant didn’t last long, turning only a handful of times before it shuddered, groaned, and exploded. Some of its matter fell inward while the rest blew out into a huge, striated nebula that forced the barrier to expand again, though not quite so far as the original cloud. A tiny magnetar, no bigger than Jane’s fist, remained at the center. It spun like a top, flickering dull white and screaming in a high-pitched whine, the kind that made that back of Jane’s neck ache and her feet itch to run for cover.
A knot of smoky light formed on the outer edge of the swirling dust and gas left by the supernova, and a thin stream bled out of it and into the magnetar, wrapping around it like thread coiling onto a spindle. The Assistant’s eyes widened and he renewed his efforts on the Librarian’s barrier. Dull cracks started to form; at the Librarian’s instruction Darcy helped her patch it with long skeins drawn from a set of brittle scrolls.
The magnetar succumbed to spin-down and its flickering slowed, turning the scream into a groan so deep it seemed to set the very blood in Jane’s body vibrating. The Assistant covered his long ears and curled up behind his shield. Books began to rain down off the shelves. The remaining ladders skittered along their tracks.
“Jane,” Darcy said, sounding worried. Even the Librarian was giving the neutron star a concerned look.
“Hang on!” Jane shouted over the noise.
The groaning dropped to subsonic levels as the neutron star consumed the last strands of matter which had been feeding it. Again there was the sense of hesitation before action, and Jane swallowed. She really, really hoped she’d gotten this part right.
The stellar core collapsed with a silent rush that reached out past the barrier and sucked most of the air from the room. Jane’s heart thudded in her chest and her breath came short, but she tried to keep her eyes on the spot where the neutron star had been, she had to see—
Her vision dimmed and the room wavered. She became vaguely aware of the Librarian yanking her and Darcy back to their feet. After a dizzying few seconds trying to stay conscious, her vision steadied, and she saw a broad bubble of lensed light with a pitch black, roaring nucleus sitting at the center of the containment barrier.
Pride and relief and triumph all made her throat tight. “It worked,” she said.
The nebula flowed inward to form a brilliant white disc around the black hole, and the tidal force tore the Assistant’s shield away. He scrabbled at the floor, his nails digging furrows in the carpet as he was pulled along. The Librarian and Darcy’s barrier contracted until it was half the width of the room, then the runes knit together into a mesh that withstood the black hole’s gravity.
The Assistant lost his hold on the floor and yelled in a language Jane didn’t understand, hands sparking with magic and grasping for purchase in the accretion disc. The closer he came to the black hole the thinner he appeared as the light bent and contorted, and Jane wondered if he wasn’t going to be torn apart or crushed. He hovered at the event horizon for a moment, staring at Jane with bared teeth, then passed over it. His last shout was lost in the black hole’s roar and he vanished from their sight.
Darcy looked horrified. “Did that kill him?”
“Doubtful,” the Librarian said. “He can use the blood to keep himself alive in there for a good long while. But if he’s using it for that, he won’t be able to use it to get out.”
Jane sagged. “So you think that’ll hold him?”
“I imagine it will. Excellent work, Dr. Foster.” The Librarian turned to Darcy. “One last book, if you please.”
Darcy cast among the piles on the tables and floor. She chose one and handed it over; the Librarian glanced at the cover and sighed, looking immeasurably sad. "Oh, Atennaborr's Bestiary," she said. "At least it's for a good cause. Hopefully I can find another first printing." She drew a series of glyphs along the spine and in each corner of the cover, fanned the book out, and tossed it. To Jane’s relief it flew through the containment sphere rather than requiring an opening; as soon as it was across the threshold, the book disintegrated. A herd of impossible beasts—feathered creatures part horse and part bird, serpentine animals with feline forebodies, goat-like, saber-toothed animals with shimmering scales, dragons, phoenixes, and who knew what else—coalesced and charged at the black hole. The cacophony of their voices drowned out all other sound, and they danced and wove into a rippling morass of energy that merged with the accretion disc and imploded with a bang. The force of it fragmented the containment sphere and sent them ducking for cover.
When they crawled out, sitting in the middle of the room was a foot tall, elegant, black jar, glittering with gemstones suggesting constellations in the shapes of the beasts that had formed it. The lid was latched in place with three separate, gold metal prongs, and crowned by a black, faceted diamond.
The Librarian beamed at Jane and Darcy. “Well done, ladies.”
The Librarian dispelled the remains of the barrier protecting Thor with a wave of her hand, and he started to lever himself to his feet. Jane moved in to help, brushing his hair back from his face and trying not to think about the sheer amount of blood he seemed to have lost, or how pale he was, or how labored his breathing sounded.
"How bad is it?"
He swallowed. "It's not healing," he said, and the Librarian sighed.
"I imagine he poisoned you with something vile. The ljósálfar are known for that.” She shooed Darcy aside and put one of Thor's arms across her shoulders, and didn’t appear to struggle in the least when he let his weight settle on her. "I think I have a tea which should fix this right up."
The Librarian went in search of the promised tea while Darcy and Jane settled Thor on a long fainting couch and cleaned him up with the contents of an industrial-sized First Aid kit. They’d just finished bandaging him when the Librarian returned with a kettle of hot water, a pungent-smelling, overstuffed tea steeper, and a large, blocky soup mug that could only have resulted from some child’s art project. She set the tea to steeping and picked up the remains of Thor’s shirt, which they’d had to cut free.
“Burn it, I presume?” she asked him. He nodded, and she tossed it into the fireplace. The dry portions of the shirt caught fire immediately, and the rest followed in short order.
The Librarian sat down on a chair opposite the couch. She must have noticed how Thor was watching her with obvious wariness, because she said, “You’ve nothing to fear from me, young man. Unlike my former assistant, I’m not so foolish as to dabble around in power theft.” She dipped the steeper a few times.
Jane sat back on her heels. “Why was he trying to do that?”
The Librarian snorted indelicately. “I suppose he felt he was owed more than being his mother’s son would give him. It was not enough for him that he was wandering the width and breadth of all the universe in this library, learning more in a few years than some species do in the whole of their existence.”
“So I guess Earth’s not the only Realm full of entitled shitheads,” Darcy said, and the Librarian laughed.
“Not in the least.” She checked the mug again, seemed satisfied, and handed it to Thor. “Drink it all,” she instructed, and he made a face at the smell. “Don’t be a child about it.” Thor’s expression turned downright sullen, but he began sipping in earnest.
“Now, this will put you right out, but don’t worry—we’ll keep ourselves busy while you regenerate. And...” The Librarian reached around behind herself and produced a shirt from nowhere, similar in size and color to the one now burning merrily in the fireplace. It was so similar that Jane gave the Librarian suspicious look when she handed it to her. The Librarian ignored her and held the mug while Thor pulled the shirt on with Jane’s help, after which he dutifully returned to drinking the tea.
"Why couldn't you summon Mjölnir?" Jane asked. Thor made a low sound.
"The doors," he said. "When we first came in, I thought I felt some manner of enchantment on them, but I couldn't be certain. I have no skill with magic governing time, and only a little with space, so I assumed I was merely mistaken."
Darcy frowned. "He...made it so it was too far away?"
“There is no concept of too far for Mjölnir and I. If it had to cross all of Yggdrasil to reach me, it would attempt to do so.” He got that distant look Jane thought of as his ‘explaining magic face’, where he seemed to be working on a succinct description of something incredibly complicated. “It is possible we were not on the same plane of existence in time and space. It is not a focus of those magics, so it cannot manipulate them to locate and cross the boundaries between such constructs.”
The Librarian tapped her chin. "He may have enclosed the Library in a spatial bubble that temporarily phased it between aspects of the Multiverse."
Despite how impressive that sounded, Thor didn’t seem very impressed. He took a drink of tea and said, "It was not until I started writing the false name we chose for me that I understood the danger. I felt the magic attempt to take hold and fail. But by then it was too late to call for Mjölnir."
The Librarian's brows shot up. "He tried to bind your Name with an enchanted contract?" Thor nodded and drank the last of the tea. The Librarian pinched the bridge of her nose. "I had no idea he’d advanced that far in his studies." She sighed. "Well. We’re lucky you were using an alias. My abject apologies, young man. I will be handing him over to the Ljósálfar High Council, and they will make sure he does nothing of this sort ever again."
"I am certain they will," Thor murmured. His eyelids were drooping and his attention wavering. The Librarian traded him the empty mug for a gaudy, brocade pillow and a tartan wool blanket, then led Darcy back towards the front of the Library while Jane helped Thor get settled.
"Have care what you say to her," Thor said. His eyes were barely open. “And do not give her your name.”
“I, ah, already did.” Exhausted as he was, Thor still managed to look distressed, and Jane said, “Only after Darcy made her sign a contract."
Thor’s concern seemed to ease, and he huffed a breathy laugh. "That was very clever of her. But be on your guard."
Just before he fell well and truly asleep he kissed Jane's hand, and she stroked his hair in response. She peeked under his shirt at the injury—no more blood soaking into the bandage, a good sign—and went to join the others out front.
The Librarian and Darcy had settled themselves around one of the coffee tables. There was a silver serving tray of cookies, petits four, tea, and coffee, and Darcy was saying, "...has this hammer that he uses to summon armor. Don’t ask me the name, I can’t say it. And he can alter the weather and make lightning with it too. Actually I'm not sure he needs the hammer to do that—hey, Jane, does he have to use the hammer to summon lightning?"
"No, he can just conjure it up. It’s harder to direct that way, though,” Jane said, absently. She stared down at the tray, acutely aware that she was starving and exhausted. The Librarian gestured at an empty, blue velvet chair.
"Have a seat, Dr. Foster. He'll be some time in resting up, something we could stand to do as well. I'm sure you'd like something to eat and drink after all of that."
Jane shook her head, snapping herself out of an encroaching stupor, and studied the Librarian long enough that Darcy began to squirm in her seat. The Librarian endured the examination with equanimity.
What Jane wanted to do was drag Thor and Darcy out the front doors and back to the house, far away from this nonsensical place with its impossible books and homicidal elves and rose-skinned aliens for whom names were weapons. She also wanted Thor explain to her in very small words how she had used books and magic ink to form a tiny black hole.
"Okay," she said, "but we're leaving as soon as he wakes up."
The Librarian gave her a sly smile. “Of course. And I’m sure you have plenty of questions for me, just as I have for you. For example, as much as giving me your name allowed me to see the whats of your immediate history with your friend there,” she settled back in her chair and folded her hands, “I would so love to hear the tale properly, from the two of you.”
Jane sank back into the chair and sighed. She poured herself a mug of coffee and put a handful of cookies onto a serving plate. “It started in New Mexico.”
Thor woke up almost three hours later. He came to stand between their chairs, and though he didn’t say anything his eyes met Jane’s and he gave her a small smile. His face had some color again, and he didn’t move like he was in pain.
Darcy leaned forward. “So, you’re saying this place has always existed, and it just hoovers things up? Books, movies, records—whatever?”
“As far as I’ve ever been able to tell. I’m not the first Librarian, nor will I be the last, and we have a terrible habit of forgetting to tell one another everything.”
Jane dragged her attention away from Thor. “How’d you become the Librarian?”
“I met the previous Librarian one rainy morning. The rest, as they say...” She bit down on a truffle.
Darcy said, “That’s it? You met him and, bam, Librarian? No job application to fill out?”
“Meeting him was the job application. It will be the same for me—I’ll know my successor when we encounter one another.” The Librarian gave Darcy and Jane speculative looks in turn, and Thor’s eyes narrowed in a decidedly unfriendly manner, at which the Librarian glanced away. “Sooner or later,” she added. Thor relaxed, but only a little.
“Then what, they’ll just run off with you?”
Jane added, “What if they say no?”
“Well, I’ll try to convince them first, of course, but one doesn’t pass up a worthy successor.” Darcy’s jaw dropped open, Thor’s eyes darkened, and Jane swallowed. The Librarian laughed. “My dears, if it were up to me I would keep you and your Æsir here,” he eyes flitted to Thor, and Jane grit her teeth, “for as long as I pleased. I’ve not had such entertaining company in centuries.” Her eyes shifted back to Darcy and the light in them softened with regret. “But I seem to remember signing a piece of paper in someone’s notebook.”
“Twenty pounds of her favorite coffee,” Jane heard Darcy say under her breath.
Jane focused on Thor, because the fact that he was up and moving around meant they could go, and that prospect settled her newly rattled nerves. She took one of his hands. “Feeling better?”
“Considerably.” He nodded at the Librarian. “Thank you.”
“You’re most welcome, my boy, but you owe me no thanks. It was my useless assistant who tried to consume you. Patching you up is the least I can do. It is your companions who did the real work.” She nodded at Jane and Darcy in turn. “You have my eternal thanks, Dr. Foster and friend.”
“Don’t mention it,” Darcy said.
Jane did her best to sound sanguine. “Glad we could lend a hand.” Thor rubbed her shoulder, and she leaned into the gesture. “We should get going. It’s probably almost...”
Her voice died as she saw afternoon sunlight forming elongated, warped, golden patterns on the rugs through the front windows.
Darcy blinked, looking alarmed. “It’s not Monday, is it? Did we lose a whole day in here?”
“No, of course not,” the Librarian said. She pulled a gold pocket watch out of a pants pocket and checked it. “It’s not much past four in the afternoon on Sunday.”
Jane frowned. “How can it still be afternoon? We’ve been in here for hours.”
“Are books themselves not capable of warping space and time, in their own way? A library can’t help but do it as well, given how many books even the smallest ones hold. However, unlike most libraries, this one will not steal more time than you may spare.”
“That’s...thoughtful of it,” Darcy said with consternation. The Librarian nodded, looking not the least put out by Darcy’s tone.
We really need to get out of here, Jane thought, and shoved to her feet. “Thanks for the,” she waved a hand at the tea and snacks.
“You’re most welcome,” the Librarian said. Darcy stood too, and they retreated towards the entrance. They were almost at the door when Jane realized Thor wasn’t right behind her.
She cast about, trying not to panic, and saw him lingering alone by the coffee table. The Librarian stepped out from behind a stack with a linen bag in one hand—the sort handed out at supermarkets to prevent plastic bag overuse—and offered it to Thor. It seemed to hold something large and flat inside it. He glanced at the contents, nodded and said something to her Jane couldn’t hear (thank you?), and joined them.
“What’s that?” Darcy asked, peering at the bag.
Jane was curious too, but not enough to further delay their escape. “Later,” she said, and pushed Darcy towards the door. Darcy didn’t need to be told twice; she grabbed the handle and shoved the door open, revealing the same, lovely, Sunday afternoon they’d left. It required significant effort to merely walk fast rather than run.
“Don’t let this put you off libraries!” the Librarian called after them. “They’re an invaluable public resource!”
Jane looked over her shoulder as she stepped onto the sidewalk. For a moment she glimpsed the Librarian’s rose-colored face, fine clothes, bright smile, and cheerful wave against the bright rugs, mural-covered bookcases, and roll-top desks.
The huge, oak doors shut with finality, leaving only the unassuming facade and an impression that if they were to open the doors, all they would see was a dismal, empty building.
Thor was tired again by the time they reached her mother’s house, which he said wasn’t surprising given he still had some regenerating to do. Jane sent Darcy home so she and Thor could sit on the couch and recover from their overly long, ridiculous day. Jane didn’t feel up to cooking, and Thor was maybe an hour or so from another nap, but luckily there was left-over pasta and salad from the previous night.
Tired or not, since Jane and Darcy had done most of the rescuing, Thor insisted he be the one to prepare their dinner trays. After confirming Mjölnir hadn’t made any holes in the house in an attempt to answer Thor’s calls for it—the hammer was sitting placidly on the window-side table, like usual—Jane sprawled on a kitchen chair and groaned.
“I feel like I’ve woken up from the craziest dream ever.”
“Perhaps we have.”
She sat up pointed at him. “Don’t.”
He smiled and went about assembling their dinner and prepping the kettle. “I must confess I could see very little from within the barrier she used to protect me. How did she enable you to wield magic?”
"She gave us these pens. And we had to write on the books, and that made things happen based on what we wrote. The books became things—like, Darcy turned a book into this big robot, and I used maybe a dozen to form the black hole."
Thor paused, folding his arms and ducking his head. Presently, he said, "Magic is not just the ability to sense and wield power, it is also using purpose and will to shape power. If the books and ink held the magic, then your own will could direct it, even though you possess no sense of magic." He rubbed his chin. "They would need to be more than mere foci for this to work, I think. Foci and sources, perhaps. Imbuing objects in this manner is a very dwarven way of handling magic, though she did not seem a dwarf to me, and the dwarven libraries I have seen were much different than this.”
"Maybe the dwarves built the library for someone else, and she's just managing it for them?"
The kettle whistled, and Thor poured the water for their coffee. "That is possible. I will have to ask about it next I speak with one."
Jane tried to come to grips with the fact that something she had in her life was a boyfriend who could make mental notes about discussing magic with dwarves. She laid her forehead on the table. “Were we really just in a library removed from the flow of spacetime, using magic ink to turn books into weapons, to fight an elf who was trying to eat your heart?”
She could hear the smile in his voice. “My people have a great many tales of such things. I had always assumed they were only embellishments on much simpler events. Perhaps they were not as exaggerated as I assumed.”
“Do any of them involve things crazier than fighting magic battles with books that shouldn’t exist?” Jane grimaced. "Actually, don’t answer that right now. Later. You can tell me about crazier things than what we just dealt with later.”
Thor laughed, quiet and low, and she said, “This is going to happen around you all the time, isn't it.”
"Perhaps it is happening around you, and I am the innocent by-stander."
Jane rolled her eyes. "Not likely," she muttered to herself. She raised her head and saw that the trays were ready, and took hers into the living room and set it on the coffee table, then collapsed onto the couch. Thor trailed behind, and after putting his tray down he reached into the linen bag the librarian had given him and took out a broad, dark blue, hardbound book.
Thor smiled and offered it to Jane. "I asked her if I might borrow something for you."
It was nearly two feet square, and the plain binding was unornamented save for the title, which was done in a silver lettering. A Stellar Surveyor's Atlas, it read.
By some miracle Jane’s hands didn’t shake as she took it. She opened it to a random spot towards the middle, and wasn’t disappointed: a series of images and legends detailed a white dwarf’s nova and the impact it had on a neighboring supernova remnant. The resolution was much too high to have come from any terrestrial telescope, and if there were one in orbit anywhere within the solar system producing this kind of work she’d have known about it. “How...” She swallowed, unsure which question to ask first. She settled for, “Is this real?”
Thor ran a hand along the page. “As near as I can tell.”
“But—these pictures—” She thought of the book describing the inhabitants of the ‘World’s Tree’. “This book’s from another Realm.”
“But then why is the legend in English?”
“I do not believe it is.” Thor set a finger next to the column of text and narrowed his eyes, and the Latin script wavered and twisted and appeared to be an arrangement of symbols Jane couldn’t decipher. Thor pulled his hand back, and the text resolved into English once more.
“Wow.” Jane fingered the thick, glossy, paper-like surface. She turned the page, half-expecting this to be all their was, but of course it wasn’t. There was a series of images of an outer arm of Andromeda, with insets detailing its stellar populations; a map of the complex halo surrounding the Cat’s Eye Nebula; a diagram of the stars inhabiting an active galactic nucleus and an accompanying description of their violent interactions with one another and the supermassive black hole that dominated their existence.
“When do I have to give it back?”
“She said the book will find its way back when it is time.”
Would it photocopy? Could she take pictures of it? Maybe she could record herself reading from it. She planned to test all of these things. “Thank you,” she said, thinking it was the most inadequate thanks she might ever give anyone.
“You are welcome.” He kissed her hair and settled on the couch next to her.
Jane flipped back to the introduction. The list of authors was long, and included names in languages and scripts she didn’t think were human. The last name on the list, however—the Editor of the book—most certainly was.
Jane Foster, Ph.D.
She looked at Thor, unable to find her voice. He was frowning at something on his tablet, but after a moment caught her stare. Jane ran her fingers over her own name, and Thor glanced down at the page, then raised his eyebrows at her.
Jane cleared her throat. “It’s probably just a coincidence. Right?”
Thor tilted his head. “When my father cast me out across the Bifröst for my transgressions, I landed in a desolate area on a Realm I had not been to in centuries, in the middle of the night. And yet somehow,” he reached over and ran a finger along her chin, “an ‘astrophysicist’ was there to greet me.”
Jane looked at the name (her name) again. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Won’t this be some sort of problem for causality?”
“I am not well-versed enough in the laws governing time and consequence to say.” Thor considered her name on the page. “But I think if it could not happen, it would not.”
She nodded and leaned against him, and he slid his free arm around her and went back to his tablet.
Jane turned the pages slowly. She would only ever get to read this book for the first time once.