“Man, if I’d known you were so useful for petty larceny, I would have started years ago.”
Years ago you believed I was a schizophrenic delusion.
“Whatever, Nancy Nitpicker.” Amy pressed her hand to the storefront window. The storm had settled into a soft drizzle. Raindrops marked the glass, blurring the lights of the alley. The three bags she held bulged under the weight of clothes, toiletries, and food. One had burst already, and she’d had to reinforce them with second layers. She’d swapped the rain-soaked pajamas for a pair of loose jeans, white T-shirt, and navy hoody. Not the time to be choosy about fashion.
A line of sweat rolled down her face as she stared out at the alley. Her breathing slowed. She felt a pinching in her shoulder, not painful, but not pleasant either. Like someone kneading their knuckles against her skin. It crawled down her arm, until every muscle trembled, and her fingers clenched against the glass.
Excellent. Now release.
She grunted, and the world reversed. The sensation was like hitting water after a thirty foot fall. The briefest moment of panic ran through her as her consciousness snapped forward, then she was in the alley, stumbling back from the glass. This time she managed to stop herself before colliding with anything, at least. Hopefully the store manager wouldn’t be too angry about the broken mannequin.
A much improved attempt. Don’t think that means it is in anyway acceptable.
“You sound like my swim coach.” Her nose wrinkled at the smell of the alley. There was a garbage bin at one entrance, and going by the stench someone had probably been using it as an emergency sewer. Covering her nose with her free hand, she exited from the other side.
Fortunately, no one paid much attention to the girl coming out of the closed store with enough goods to supply a small family. Most of them were too focused on their phones or not tripping on the broken sidewalk. “Thank god for New Yorkers,” she muttered. Then she thought, Which way is it?
Which way in a real direction?
Right. Which is towards that large blue sign, if you happened to be curious.
Laugh it up. She began to walk with crowd. Someone knocked against her shoulder. She tried to shoot him a dirty look, but he had already disappeared into the swell of people.
Spend five years locked in a cell, and you feel fine. But now that she was out in the open city, she felt claustrophobic. There was barely room to breath, mashed between a dozen people fighting to move forward. She hissed as someone else bumped into her. Didn’t any of these assholes watch where they were going?
Left, said the Witness as she reached an intersection. The light at the crosswalk was mercifully red. She dashed across the street.
What must be remembered is that every working has a price. The nature of repayment varies, but appears in two broad forms- immediate and delayed.
Right, she thought. In school, she’d sat solidly in the middle of the class, grade-wise. The work wasn’t difficult, but none of the material interested her- the swim team had always been the focus of her attention. She’d begun reading more while in captivity, chewing through books faster than her captors would authorize them to her, but those were fiction. She’d never been the studious type. But since the Witness showed her those first spells, she hadn’t let it have a moment of peace. As soon as it finished one topic, she demanded it begin teaching another. So, something like the place-swapping trick?
Immediate actions demand immediate remuneration.
Didn’t feel like I paid anything. She walked as close to the curb as possible, practically in the street. Sticking to the edges of the crowd.
It is not necessarily noticeable, or localized. Students of the workings have devoted lifetimes to the study of payment. In doing so, they discovered very little. The only obvious pattern is the correspondence between size of the working and the size of the payment. But the price may range from a change in the working of an internal organ, to affecting a nearby piece of landscape, to targeting people you know or love.
Amy frowned. You’re saying me doing this stuff could hurt my family.
When enacted on a particular scale. Such a vindictive payment would necessitate a drastic action on your part. There is very little to worry about.
She fell silent. Suddenly she was very aware of how cold and uncomfortable it was. The stolen coat was doing much to keep the chill back. She wrapped it tighter, shivering. Her hair was soaked from the rain. No matter how vigorously she tried to brush the bangs away, they fell back to block her vision. Every muscle in her body felt worn. Just walking was triggering aches in her bones.
The tunnel. Down. She was approaching the entrance to a subway - the J track, going by the grey sign. With a sigh, she plunged into the herd of evening commuters. One turnstile-hop and staircase later, she stepped onto the dirtiest subway platform she’d seen in her life. The tile shone like someone had slathered it in a layer of grease, and didn’t smell much better. Garbage was piled against the walls and tunnel. Commuters waited with heads down, hands buried in pockets, lost in bubbles of isolation, even where they barely had room to move.
Onto the tracks.
God, she wished it had a physical body. Instead, she thought very hard about giving it a withering look, and hoped the message went through.
Quickly, please. Time is limited.
She leaned against the platform wall, away from the crowd. I’m not climbing onto a subway track.
This is the most convenient Way to the Library. There are no closer options. The train will be approaching soon. Take the left path.
This was insane. She was going to get herself killed because of some crazy fucking voice in her head. And yet, she found herself approaching the platform edge, until the tips of her shoes rested over the lip.
The tunnel floor was rough with grime. Something covered in mud rummaged through the collected garbage. Its friend poked a head up from the pile, teeth clamped around something more mold than food. A puddle of what she hoped was water had collected on the other side, the surface black and unreflective. And where the track met the tunnel’s darkness, there was a symbol marked in green paint.
The sign of the Ways.
Even New Yorkers weren’t so self-absorbed as to not miss someone jumping onto a subway track. There were gasps as she hit the ground. Chip bags and canned food spilled across the ground as one of the bags caught a loose bit of steel. Whatever. She had two more. Before anyone could react with more than a gawk, she disappeared into the tunnel.
The darkness was overpowering. She could feel it in the air, sticking to her skin like wet tissue. She blinked. When her eyes opened, red lines cut through the darkness. They formed a web of images, outline every piece of garbage, every contour of the tunnel ahead. Shakily, she began to advance. The bags beat a rough tempo, slapping against her thigh.
Here. said the Witness, as she approached a bend in the tunnel. She stopped. A section of the wall was bent inward. The stone was cool and rough. Cracks in the wall nipped at her fingers as she ran a hand across the concrete.
For how long?
The Witness didn’t respond. She sighed, letting her hand fall back down. Not for the first time tonight, she wondered what the hell she was doing. Had the Witness really proven itself trustworthy? It was entirely possible, likely even, that there was another agenda it was moving towards. Would it be best to ignore its warnings, find a plane ticket or hitchhike home, try to forget this whole thing? But that wouldn’t be possible. If there was one thing it had said she was certain of, it’s that the Foundation was searching for her. And if she went home, they would find her.
Place your hand on the break.
She did. Now?
Do not run.
Before she could ask what that meant, the tunnel shook. She glanced down. The red lines marking the track were vibrating. Her eyes went wide. Okay, no way she was sticking around for this. She turned and prepared to bolt from the tunnel.
Keep your hand on the wall, barked the Witness. You will not survive the passing otherwise.
“Fuck that! I’m getting out of here.”
This is the Way into the Library. You MUST be touching the wall. You MUST let the transport pass. You will not be harmed. I understand you may not have faith in me. But have faith in this. Our existence is linked. I would no more harm you than I would myself. I give you my bond, this path is the best opportunity to reunite with your loved ones.
Every cell in her body was begging to run. She could feel the animal panic clawing at her skin. The rumble of the tracks swelled through her bones. The light of the train was visible now, rushing forward like a falling star.
She stepped forward, placed her hand on the wall, and gritted her teeth. Wind whipped paper into the air, tossed soda cans, sprayed dirt. The light plunged forward, faster, growing, growing, so that it filled her entire vision, an orb of white bringing with it obliteration. She squeezed her eyes shut, felt the final burst of wind, felt the metal brush her skin-
And it was gone. The wet air of the tunnel vanished. The storm of wind and noise fell away to the sound of footsteps and whispered voices. She opened her eyes.
The world was a forest of bookshelves. She stood in a clearing, on a raised stone platform, so that she could see the stacks stretching to the distance, farther than seemed possible. Around her, people explored the rows. Some sat at tables, speaking softly to one another, playing board games, fiddling with rusted devices, or just reading alone. Further away, in other clearings, what looked like small shops and restaurants had been set up.
And, she realized, few of the people were human. A hundred different forms wandered the shelves, some that wouldn’t come to her knees, some so large their heads rose above the stacks, and every size in between. There were things like humanoid insects and reptiles, creatures half made of metal, living shadows, creatures of moving wire, floating particles circling glowing orbs, suits of armor, multi-armed men, a hundred other things. She stared, jaw gaping.
It is considered impolite to linger on a Way.
Nodding, she descended the stairs. Sounds of a dozen different languages drifted through her ears. Smells of spice and perfume and yellowed pages mingled in her nose.
You… might have undersold this place a bit.
It is usually best to let one see such a thing for themself.
A bit more prep might have been nice. She turned, taking in what seemed to be a dozen new sights a second. And… you think we’re gonna find the Warden here?
We will, with luck, find information on the Warden’s location. Few places are greater than the Library for finding what needs to be known, though the search can be… expansive.
A multi-armed thing that looked like a human spider skittered across a shelf, forcing books into any empty space it could find. Is that right.
Hopefully we will be able to accomplish our goal with little trouble.
Commotion made her turn around. A group of people had gathered and were moving through the shelves, talking excitedly. Any idea what that’s about?
Any number of possibilities. Events in the Library tend towards the varied and spontaneous.
She thought for a moment, then said, Well, let’s see what it’s all about.
It would be more ideal to search areas we know will be useful.
Sucks. The crowd had grown in size, and she followed behind the bulk of the group. You should have thought about that before you didn’t have a body.
It didn’t respond to that. She trailed behind the crowd as it moved down the shelves, accumulating members. Some seemed to know its destination. Others were like her, joining because it looked interesting or they had nothing better to do.
After walking far enough that she had begun wondering if the shelves had any end, the path opened into another clearing, where another crowd of patrons was waiting. The two groups blended into each other, members falling into excited conversation. Amy looked around. There didn’t seem anything that could warrant the activity level.
A creature stepped forward from the crowd. It looked like some blind artist had mashed a bird, slug, and man together. Seven feet tall, dripping slime, with skin like putty and a beak that reached halfway to the floor. A hush fell over the gathering as it came forth. It raised one of the three tentacles it had in place of arms and screeched loud enough that Amy had to clamp her hands over her ears.
Ten minutes later, the noise halted, and the clearing erupted into a battlefield. Patrons yelled, shoved each other to the ground, scrambled over their neighbors, until they had fallen into a line that snaked into the shelves and out of sight. As they approached the slug-thing, and she saw the objects the patrons held, and it dawned on her.
It’s a book signing.
A frequent occurrence in a place such as this. Interesting. When I was last in the Library, Sisskn Lss Isstno was still a new arrival from another world, surviving by selling his poor attempts at poetry.
Think he knows anything?
It is doubtful.
What do they even use to buy shit with here? If there’s a ton of universes coming together, they can’t all have the same money, right?
The most valuable of things- knowledge. Should that be unavailable, bartering for goods is considered acceptable..
Amy nodded. The patrons here were even more varied than in the first clearing. How many different worlds converged in the Library? What kind of things would you see, living here long enough? A thought occurred to her. This would probably be a pretty sweet place to learn magic.
It has few rivals. With the volumes available, one would have little need for a teacher.
I’ll need to grab some of those, then. Hey, maybe I can finally kick you out!
Guess you’re right. Who knows what I’d do without your amazing conv- She froze. Standing by a shelf, two men watched the line. Crisp haircuts. Clearly fit. Eyes that took in everything around them. And on their uniforms, the symbol of the Foundation. One glanced at her. He turned, spoke to his partner.
Oh fuck. Oh fuck no.
They moved towards her.
She took off running so fast that at first she didn’t even realize what she was doing. Patrons glared at her as they stepped out of her way. She didn’t pay it any attention. The only thought in her head was to get as far away as fast as possible, following forks in the shelves, turning down aisles at random. When she was sure she had lost them, she kept running. It didn’t stop until she was on the verge of collapse.
She leaned against a shelf, sliding down to the floor How the fuck did they find me?
They did not. Those agents did not originate from your universe. They are most likely passive observers placed here by their organization.
What the hell were they doing staring at me like that, then?
There are many possibilities. The motivations of humans is not my area of expertise.
Amy sighed. Her eyes fell on the shelves around her. They were different from the section she’d been in before- black instead of brown, less full to the brim. Another spider-thing was crawling near the top, rearranging the volumes. Patrons stepped around her, some making annoyed comments in languages she didn’t understand.
What’s the deal with this place?
The Southern Alabaster region of the Library. There are many domains managed by various Archivists. It is one of the many reasons for the Library’s haphazard nature.
Right. She pushed herself to her feet. Her legs still shook from the strain of running. Looks like I did a pretty good job of fucking this all up.
Not as much as one might think. There are several contacts in this area that may be able to offer assistance.
And you sound super happy about that.
The Witness was silent for a minute before saying They… are not the ideal choices.
Twenty minutes later, it had guided Amy to a small shelf tucked between the rows. She squeezed through the cracks, and found herself in a domed area the size of a basketball court. Books lined the walls, running up and held in place even on the ceiling. Though she saw no source for it, light filled the room. The only dark area was a small shadow near the back of the shelves.
Amy took a step forward, and the shadow sprung to life. It burst forward, splitting into a dozen different branches that snaked along the floor, climbed the walls, encircled her. Within seconds, the room had reversed. She stood in the one circle of light, ringed in shade.
The darkness bulged upward, like a volcano about to burst. With a noise like ripping cloth, it tore itself from the floor. Tendrils of shadow twisted into the silhouette of a seven-foot tall man. Though it had no eyes, a feeling rose in Amy, like the creature was staring through her.
“It’s been a long time since I felt this presence.” The voice that spoke was smooth like the flat of a knife, a sliver over a whisper. “You must be the newest host. Little one, what is your name?”
“Uh. Amy. Amy Melvil.”
A break in the silhouette’s face appeared, curving into the shadow of a smile. The expression made it look like one of those drama masks, twisted in anger. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Melvil. I am Silav. Tell me, what business do you have with an old, forgotten god?”
Amy waited for the Witness to say something. But a minute went by without any response. Did it want her to do the talking? “We’re trying to meet with the Warden.”
Shadow rose up next to Silav, molding into the form of a chair. He settled down into it, crossed his legs. Or gave the appearance of doing so, at least. “Because?”
Could she trust this thing? The Witness seemed to think it was alright, though it had been wrong before. Best not to give any more information than she needed to. “Someone’s chasing us. We need help dealing with it.”
“It must be quite a foe, if it’s making the Witness ask the Warden for help.” The shadow of its hand writhed. A wineglass sprouted from it. “And why are you coming to me for this information?”
Somehow she doubted saying it was just the closest informant available was a great idea. “The Witness admires… all the knowledge you’ve gathered.”
“Mmm.” Silav swirled ‘wine’ in the shadowy glass. “Lie to me again, and I’ll take your head.” It sipped from the glass. “We’re far enough off the beaten path that the Docents won’t take notice.”
What the hell was a Docent? Probably nothing good. She swallowed. “Sorry. Honestly, we just kind of stumbled onto this place. It wasn’t really intentional.”
The “smile” widened. “Isn’t honesty refreshing?”
“Sure, I guess.”
Silav cackled. “I may know the information you seek. The question is, what are you willing to pay?”
“Uh. You could to it as a favor for a friend?”
“Oh little one.” Silav leaned forward. “The Witness is hardly my friend. And little would change if it were. Books are free in the Library. Information isn’t.”
Any time you feel like stepping in is fine by me, she thought. No response. Was it testing her? “I bet the Witness has information it’d be willing to trade you.”
Silav shrugged. “None that would be of use to me. It may have knowledge, but I have experience. The Library is my home. I can find any information I need in the shelves, given time.”
Amy glanced around the room. What the hell would something like Silav want? If it really was a god, she doubted there was anything she could give that it didn’t have. “I’m gonna bet you don’t take IOUs?”
Black fingers intertwined. “I would not.”
If she was a weird shadow-god thing, what would she want? It said knowledge wasn’t a problem. It wouldn’t have much effort getting material goods, she wagered, and she had none to offer. How does a god survive? Belief. Worship. People.
Was this cave its home or its prison? “You’ve gotta have someone doing errands for you,” she said. “I could owe you some favors, once this whole Warden shitshow is sorted out.”
“I see,” said the shade. “And if you’re host to the Witness, you must have power or potential.” Its next sip emptied the glass. Shadow welled up to refill it. “Tempting.”
“We’ve got a deal?”
“We do not. I have all the apostles I need, for the moment.” Again, that cracked smile formed on its face. “Though we may have to reassess the situation at a later date.”
No need for knowledge. No need for wealth. No need for worship. What did she have that was unique? What could the shadow not find anywhere else, no matter how it searched? There was one thing. “I’ll give you my story,” she said.
The shadow’s tattered edges stilled. Silav let its hand fall back into the silhouette, and the whole imaged stretched forward, until its face was so close it blotted out all light from the room. “Really.”
Amy gazed into the void. Was she hallucinating? Deep within the dark, she saw what looked like movement, like a coiled beast at the bottom of a forgotten cave, shifting as it slept. But then it was gone. “Really. When all this is done, I can come tell you all about it.”
In an eyeblink, the shadow had retreated. All darkness in the room sucked inward, coalescing into a sphere hovering just above the ground, surrounded by a dozen shifted rings. “Interesting.” Its voice was all around her, in every inch of the room, in the walls, in the cracks in the floor, in the gaps between books, rustling her clothes with the force of it. “This, I think I can take.”
She opened her mouth to thank it, but before the words could form the voice sounded again.
“But your story will mean little after one trial. It’s the lives lived fully that are interesting, no? So I will not take your story now, or a year from now, or a decade from now. I will take it when you are at your final bed. I will appear before you, and before your final breath runs dry, I will take your story. Can you assent to this?”
She nodded. In her ears she could still her the echo of its speech. Did she have any other choice, given the circumstance? “Yes.”
“The Warden of your Witness is in Mizoram. India,” said Silav, and as it spoke she saw everything, the boy, the creature that accompanied him, the village in which he resided. She knew exactly what to do to get there, the path of Ways to take, the rules to follow. It was all laid before her.
“T-thank you,” she said, still reeling from the sudden rush of information.
She left, stumbling from the door. Before she could fall, she leaned against a shelf, breathing heavily. A hundred bits of information being dumped into your brain at once caused a hell of headache.
I am impressed. The voice of the Witness focused thing, made the din of information settle.
“You couldn’t have given a hint or something?”
Little is learned when the hand is always held. This is not the final time you will encounter beings such as Silav. Now, you are slightly more equipped for the coming road.
“Slightly,” she muttered. “Yay.” Pushing herself away from the shelf, she said, “There’s a Way near the kid’s village. So hopefully the assholes chasing us won’t have a bunch of time to figure out we’re there.”
“We wouldn’t,” said a familiar voice. She turned, and her eyes went wide. “Though, it appears it’s unnecessary.” Rupinder smiled. “Now, let us talk.”
End Part Three