Loki and his children had lived in the Midgardian desert for more than a week before he stumbled on the Night Vale Public Library. Which was odd, because the building was enormous.
It rose up, tall and imposing, near the center of town, all white marble and black onyx reaching for a void-dark sky. The architectural style didn't match any of the rest of the buildings, low-slung and made largely of sand and clay colored stone. The contrast gave the building an ominous aura, out of place, like a blade sticking up through punctured skin.
More odd, though, was the fence that surrounded the entire building. Well, “fence” seemed a generous term. Short, upright stakes ringed the outer perimeter, linked together with bright yellow tape and hung with clearly handmade signs reading “keep out: Librarians within” and “beware!” and other phrases, all with a similar theme. The signs' letters scrawled across the page, a sharp contrast to the neat, blocky letters carved into the library marble.
Loki hadn't been in a library in ages. Well, unless he counted the time the Hulk threw him through a wall into a bookshelf, but he didn't. He stepped carefully over the makeshift wall and made it three steps towards the door before a shout turned him around.
“Luke!” Carlos, the scientist he'd met on his first day in town, jogged out to meet him, stopping at the yellow tape like it was a threshold he dared not cross. The scientist was breathing heavily, with just a touch of panic in his usually calm expression. “Don't go in there!”
Loki didn't continue towards the door, but he didn't make his way back, either. “Why not?”
“The Librarians,” he said, darting a nervous glance toward the door. “They aren't normal Librarians, not what you would expect. They're dangerous.”
Loki shrugged. “So am I.”
“You don't understand!” Carlos had started pacing along the perimeter, still carefully avoiding crossing the line. His eyes still flickered between Loki and the door, agitated.
Something in his tone made Loki nervous, made him want to turn back, but the part of him raised in Asgard, the part still attuned to those expectations of fearless bravery, rebelled. He was a warrior in his own right, and a sorcerer with few equals throughout the Nine Realms. He was born the son of a monster, raised the son of a conqueror, and in his long life he had faced down horrors and worse.
He was Loki, and he would not be cowed by the threat posed by a librarian.
He was vaguely aware of Carlos still shouting behind him as he pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The interior of the library sprawled out in every direction, far more spacious than the outside had led him to believe would be possible. Labyrinthine shelves rose up in all directions and twisted away from him, crammed but not disordered, with books carefully arranged into rows of level spines. He took a deep breath of air the smelled of aged paper and worn leather and binding glue, and grinned. Spacious and alien and unnerving as it was, it still felt familiar, the mingled scents twisting back into his earliest memories of the palace library, of sitting in his mother's lap while she read to him and—
He cut the thought off abruptly, and the smile faded from his face. He'd left that place, and he didn't regret it for a second. Asgard wasn't his home, not anymore. Perhaps it'd never been.
Sobered at the thought, he pressed forward, hyper-aware of his footsteps ringing out in the stillness. When he reached the first shelf he ran a finger almost reverently over the spines, reading titles and savoring the neat, ordered rows.
He wandered deeper, careful to commit the route to memory. The library was larger than it should be; he was certain of that now, and the arrangement created a treacherous maze that could prove difficult to navigate if he allowed his mind or his feet to wander.
The shelf with books detailing the town's own history might have been near the center of the library. Or they might have been closer to one of its ends; the way the shelves stretched in all directions, climbing high enough to block all lines of sight, made it difficult to tell.
A book near one end of the shelf looked promising, so he slid it from its place, turning it over in his hands before allowing it to fall open and scanning the pages. The cover was bound in heavy cloth, a rich plum purple, and the pages crackled audibly as they turned.
A whisper of air touched the back of his neck, and he froze. There were no open windows in the building, or at least there hadn't appeared to be any from the outside, and he'd traveled far from the only door. Nothing surrounded him but shelves, and more shelves, of books, which meant—
Slowly, carefully, he closed the book and slid it back into its place before looking over his shoulder. And then up. And then still further up. The creature standing over him snorted another breath, and his hair moved slightly in the current, brushing against the exposed skin of his neck.
The creature stood nearly twice his height, or would have had it not been hunched forward, bringing an eyeless face close to his own. The limbs that sprouted from its body weren't quite in the right place, and didn't have quite the right proportions, either, and the result reminded him a bit of a draugr, with its twisted, splintered limbs. The thing's skin looked tough and leathery, something like a newly-molted dragon.
And, resting almost delicately above a mouth filled with entirely too many razor-sharp teeth, were a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. He knew, more by instinct than because of any resemblance to something he recognized, that this was a Librarian.
His first reaction to the abomination that stood before him was revulsion, instinctual and churning in his gut. He knew too much of the unreasoning hatred that was turned against those who seemed uncanny, strange, the unearned wariness that Asgard had turned against Fenrir and Jormungand and Hel, to let it show on his face.
“Hello,” he said in his most polite tone of voice, “I presume you are—”
The first strike sent him flying, tumbling through the air in the only direction free of shelves only to slam into the hard stone floor. The impact punched the breath out of his lungs, and he staggered as he pushed to his feet.
It came after him with a long, drawn-out hiss that ended up sounding a bit like a shush, if it were amplified and multiplied by thousands of times, all overlapping slightly out of sync. The sound sent a shiver of dread through his pounding heart. He stumbled back, and only reflexes honed by centuries of training allowed him to dodge the snapping jaws. They closed and he felt a tug at the flesh of his arm, but when he frantically checked only his sleeve had been shredded, a hairsbreadth from his skin.
It stared at him, hovering like a predator as he pushed back to his feet, but it didn't come after him. He squinted, trying to calculate how much time he had before it charged again, which would be the safest direction to run, before a flicker of a shadow sent him rolling out of the way seconds before another set of teeth nearly snapped his head off from behind. He swore under his breath, facing down the two Librarians and wondering how many this endless building held. The fact that he hadn't heard it behind him was concerning—despite their size, the Librarians moved soundlessly, perfectly silent.
The hissing sound came again, bubbling from the Librarian's throat like the sound of the eternally writhing snakes tangled in Yggdrasil's roots, battling for dominance. Loki moved to put distance between them, but found himself backed up against a shelf, his options for escape narrowing. It was starting to look like he'd have to fight his way out, and he didn't like his odds.
As the larger of the two Librarians stalked toward him, he pulled two daggers from his dimensional pockets, gripping tight as they fell into his hands, and lunged forward. He struck like an adder, quick and deadly, but the Librarian was quicker; it caught the first dagger in its teeth, then whipped its head around to send it flying. The second Librarian snatched the knife out of the air before it could land and clatter, then set it gently, noiselessly, on a bench.
The second dagger thrust a half-second behind the first, but instead of hitting its mark it disappeared in a blur of flailing limbs, leaving him unarmed. He gambled. A twist, and a duck, and he sent out an illusion in the opposite direction as he moved. It worked; the Librarian went for the double instead of him, tearing the illusion apart with terrifying speed. He split his image again as he moved, until there were two, four, eight Lokis. He scattered them, sent them running down the aisles, but he'd seen how fast these things moved. At best, the illusions would buy him time. Enough to reach the exit? Unlikely.
He cursed himself and his hubris for coming here as one of the Librarians unhinged its jaw and swallowed an illusory Loki whole.
But there had to be an answer. He refused to die here, like this, to leave his children without even an idea of where he'd gone. Would they think themselves abandoned? Unloved? No...they couldn't, and besides, Carlos, the scientist, had seen him enter, and he knew what this place was, even if Loki hadn't listened. Had known the Librarians here were more than the scholars he'd known on Asgard, eager to help a young prince with his studies...
Eager to help.
Surely there was some reason these creatures were considered Librarians, even despite the way they hunted and stalked and swallowed people. They looked after the books, if the tidy shelves were anything to go off of, and their silence and agitation at any noise suggested they maintained a silent environment conducive to study as well.
So what if...
A Librarian had turned and spotted him, the real him—most of his doubles had been hunted down and brutally slaughtered, projections vanishing into nothingness as they were torn apart. As it moved towards him, quicker than should be possible, he took a deep breath and said “I would like to request your assistance with a research project. I am attempting to locate information on the history of this town.”
His voice, despite his best efforts, wasn't quite steady, but the wobble that crept in couldn't occupy enough of his attention to embarrass him. Because the teeth racing towards his head slowed, then stopped, less than a foot away from tearing him in two. The Librarian's breath blew his hair back in little eddies, and he held his own breath as he spoke again.
“I'd be...very grateful if you could direct me to some reliable sources.”
The...head of the Librarian tilted, the horn-rimmed glasses stared at him on the diagonal with no eyes that he could see behind them, and he still didn't dare breathe.
Then, as if by magic, the Librarian took one step back, and then another, turning around to face the shelf and pulling books from it, faster than his eyes could follow, with its many arms. The second turned with it, stacking the books it selected onto a small cart and scanning them over something that could've been a machine, or a complex bit of spellwork, or both.
Loki abandoned his dignity, spun around, and ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
His heart pounded in his throat and bile rose with it, leaving him feeling sick with terror as he sprinted towards the door. The floors were slick, and several times his boots nearly slid out from underneath him, threatening to send him flying into the nearest bookcase. And then the door was looming in front of him, and he put on a final burst of speed, listening for any sound behind him even though he knew death, if it came, would be silent.
He had almost made it to the door when something crashed into him from behind, like a tackle, sweeping him off his feet as he choked back a terrified sob. The momentum of the impact carried him the last little ways out the door, sending him sprawling outside onto the landing in front of the building.
He rolled to look behind him, afraid of what gruesome injuries he might find that the adrenaline and terror had masked; instead, he found himself half-buried under a pile of books.
He picked one up. It was the purple history book he'd looked at earlier, before that ordeal had even started.
Loki let the exhaustion roll over him, allowed himself to lower his trembling arms and fall back, staring up at the sky. A hysterical giggle slipped past his lips, and then another, until he was on his back in the middle of a nest of books laughing hysterically outside the library.
“Oh Beams, you're alive!” someone shouted, and he raised his head enough to see Carlos, staring at him open-mouthed from beyond the yellow tape line. The man glanced down at it in apprehension before carefully stepping over it and running over to where Loki lay sprawled.
“Luke! Are you all right? Are you hurt? What happened?”
Loki pushed back up to a sitting position, and shook his head. His thoughts still felt foggy, far away, and when Carlos slipped a hand behind his shoulders to support him, he realized he was shaking.
“I'm fine,” he managed, “just fine.”
Carlos peered into both his eyes, then touched the torn leather of his sleeve before standing up and offering his hand. Loki took it, and pulled himself to his feet. He started to brush himself off then stopped; his clothes were torn and dusty, his hair a tangled mess, and, after everything, he was still shaking. Nothing short of magic would make him more presentable, and he needed at least another moment to gather himself before his could be reliably called upon.
“How are you okay? How are you alive? What happened in there? Luke?” Carlos' stream of questions continued unabated, and for the first time, Loki actually focused on him. The scientist looked fairly disheveled himself, although his hair was still unfairly perfect, and worry shone in the depths of his eyes.
“Why are you still here?” Loki asked fuzzily, ignoring the other man's questions for now. Carlos had been passing by when he warned Loki not to go into the library; that had been nearly an hour ago, now.
The expression that Carlos turned on him was so sincere, so guileless, that Loki almost staggered under the weight of it. “I was waiting to see if you'd make it out,” he said simply. “People usually don't.”
“Oh,” he said, and his voice came out small.
Loki reached down to pick up a book and nearly dropped it; Carlos caught it before it hit the ground. “Careful,” he said, “I doubt the Librarians will forgive us if we scuff it up.”
“You're likely correct.” Loki waved a hand—now that he had mostly calmed, he could form a coherent spell—and vanished the books to a pocket dimension.
“Wow,” Carlos said, “That was—wow. I'd love to know how you did that. Do you think we could discuss that later?” He moved back towards the boundary fence, checking behind him as though to make sure Loki would follow. “Over coffee, maybe?”
Loki considered it, and then carefully nodded. A grin spread across Carlos' face, almost childishly excited, but his expression fell a second after. “Oh no,” he said, “the books. You're going to have to put them back.”
The books. Yes, he'd need to return them, and that could prove uncomfortable. But...
“I think I may have figured out the trick of it,” he said. Carlos shook his head, but Loki forced a smile. “Yes. I think I shall attempt the library again, and soon.”
The next time Loki visited the library, he wore soft shoes, spelled to make no sound on the floor, and moved slowly and carefully. He crept to the book return with all the silence of a thief, and set the books gently down, careful to make no sound.
When a librarian came upon him a short time later, he froze, all but holding his breath. It glanced at where he sat, gingerly paging through a book on native horticulture, then shook itself and moved on, leaving him undisturbed.
He smiled to himself and turned a page, slowly, gently, and most important, silently.
He'd gone out for coffee with Carlos because he'd promised to, and because he wanted information, but to his surprise, the outing was...not unpleasant. The conversation turned to magic, and...magic was a topic that evoked disdain and boredom on Asgard and mostly fear on Earth, but Carlos was curious enough to appreciate his knowledge and intelligent enough to ask insightful questions. The time flew by, and having an engaging conversation with another adult was...nice. It was nice.
Not even the coffee, which today seemed to actually be cups of swarming flies and which neither of them touched, could ruin it.
They'd reached nearly the end of their outing and were preparing to leave—Loki to collect his children from their respective schools and Carlos to prepare for a date with, of all people, Cecil from the radio—when Carlos reached into the pocket of his lab coat and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.
Loki glanced at it, but the words and phrases were cryptic. He glanced at Carlos, who nervously shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his lab coat. “I was wondering...I asked Cecil a while back what the best way to check books out of the library was, but he just started crying and said ‘but Carlos, you have so much to live for!’ which was...awkward. But it's been really difficult working on a few of our projects without library access, y'know?”
Loki blinked. “Did you have a question for me, or—”
Carlos handed him the paper, and then flushed in a way that was almost unfairly endearing. “This is a list of the titles that would be the most help with our current projects. Do you think you could...well, if you happened to run across them while you were in the library, do you think you could check them out? For us. You don't have to, but we'd really appreciate it.”
Loki scanned the list. He considered handing it back, refusing, but Carlos had become...almost a friend, for a certain, company-starved definition of the word. An ally, certainly. And allies were a source of strength, of information, and certainly not a thing to be squandered.
“I'll see what I can do,” he said, and vanished the scrap to a pocket dimension.
“Thank you! We—I really appreciate it.”
“Well,” he said, keeping his smile wide and friendly. “I am certain you would do the same for me.”
Loki filed that away, because in this town, he could use whatever help he managed to find.
He spotted Old Woman Josie across the store, rifling through jugs of milk (the labels never said what kind of milk, which Loki found ominous), and carefully started picking his way in the opposite direction.
It wasn't that he disliked the old lady. She had been welcoming enough, their first day, and she always smiled a friendly smile when their paths nearly crossed. But he couldn't purge his memory of her companions, the angels, with their unsettling many eyes and auras of judgmental otherness, and they unnerved him. Better not to get mixed up with any of the lot of them.
He stopped a few aisles away to inspect a shelf of bread, and nearly jumped out of his skin when someone tapped his elbow.
“I don't remember what it's called,” Josie said, and he held back a very undignified sound and several words the old lady would doubtless disapprove of. “But the cover is pink, with a blue ball of yarn and blood splatters. It's about a knitter and her kitten who solve murder mysteries.”
Loki shook his head slightly, hoping those words would somehow resolve themselves into a series of sentences which made sense, but no such thing happened. “Beg pardon?” he tried.
“At the library,” she said calmly. “If you could find it, I'd be grateful.”
“...I suppose,” he said at last, and she smiled again and patted his arm.
“Wait,” said a woman behind him, “are you bringing books from the library? Because there are a couple of things I've always wanted to read.”
“Me too!” a boy, barely older than a child, added from beside her.
Loki looked between the various requests as more started to gather, babbling out the names of books they wished him to bring. He nearly told them no, that Loki was no one's errand boy, but...some of those making requests were children. The rest...barely more than children, and compared to those of Asgard, so so young and fragile. Every soul that stood before him was at least several centuries younger than his own children. And they were asking him because they were afraid, and because they wanted to read.
“I suppose,” Loki said at last, when the flurry of requests had finally started to die down, “I shall have to make a list.”