"Above all," the Library said, "remember this: you can never reveal who and what you are. Seekers must come to you."
The Warden looked up. Above him, the Library of All Knowledge chose to manifest a vaulted ceiling, covered in gold leaf and baroque mosaics. Sunlight poured down from the high windows, though like anything else here, it was an affectation. There is no sun at the central interstice of all possible universes.
"I understand," said The Warden.
"People are forgetting that I exist," said the Library. "You may have a long wait between adventurers."
"That's all right." The Warden dropped his gaze to the marble floor, where the Library was choosing to manifest all possible facts as piles of crystal lattices on pedestals. "But in the meantime, I can use you however I wish. Correct?"
The Warden moved to a crystal lattice. He could not read crystal, but it was still pleasant to look at. "What happens if I do reveal myself to someone?"
"You are The Warden and Librarian. You will not."
"But if I do?"
The foundations hummed. "Balance will not be preserved, and there will be consequences."
The Library didn't answer.
As it turned out, it never answered. Over the next 100 years, the Library helped him solve all the mysteries that had stymied countless philosophers, but this one question was something the Library would not touch.
But eventually, The Warden found out for himself.
Her name was Sofia. She was the housekeeper. The Library did not need housekeeping, of course, but after 109 lonely years of no visitors, The Warden moved into a house outside a Library gateway that did.
Sofia came on Wednesdays, her dark hair always looped up in an irresistible twist. Throughout the morning this twist unraveled, slowly, as Sofia stretched and dusted, while from three rooms away, The Warden watched with a dry mouth and a pounding heart. When that twist finally collapsed, and those black curls tumbled over the nape of her neck, Sofia became someone different. When she was not the housekeeper, who was she? She could be the striking stranger who makes flirtatious eye contact, her smile a doorway into an unknown future. Say hello and do it now, said her unbound hair, Or you'll never know what could've been.
Next Wednesday, The Warden vowed each week, he'd take the invitation that her suddenly unbound hair evoked. Yes: he'd make conversation, and it would be perfect. But what should they discuss? For clues, The Warden shadowed Sofia while she cleaned, trying to divine her interests from the way she moved. And every motion she made was rich with suggestion. The languorous sweep of her arm, as she washed the windows (does she play the violin?). The rock of her hips, as she moved the vacuum back and forth (does she dance? Surely, she must dance). Even the way her hand gyrated sinuously from her wrist as she dusted--a hundred things could require such a suppleness of touch.
Of course, The Warden could've asked the Library about Sofia, but knowing wasn't the point. The point was the human exchange of experience. The connection. Would it be everything he remembered, from 109 years ago? The Warden fantasized and savored. The sheer possibilities dazzled him into inaction. Two years of Wednesdays passed, and still, the only thing he knew about her--besides her naked ring finger--was his own obsession.
One Wednesday when The Warden answered the door, Sofia was waiting for him differently. Her hair was not in the irresistible twist. "Mr. Warden?"
"Sofia." The Warden realized he was staring. "I'm sorry. I didn't recognize--you always keep your hair up."
"Oh, I lost my hair tie." She rang her fingers through it, shaking it out. "Do you have a rubber band or something I could borrow before I get to work?"
He invited her into the kitchen. Once there, he opened the junk drawer and fumbled nervously among the rubber bands. Did she lose her hair tie in her car? Outside? Should he ask? Seconds were slipping by. The awkward silence was growing.
"Hey," said Sofia.
The Warden looked up.
"You know, I've been meaning to ask you. Who did this?"
Sofia leaned against the kitchen table with one hip, admiring an Impressionist print on the wall. "That little painting. I notice it every week, but you always run off before I have a chance to ask you."
The Warden inhaled.
"He… his name is Vince de Napoli." He has no equivalent in this universe. And he's my favorite. The Warden squeezed a rubber band. "Do you… like it?"
"I've got some more. In my library."
Sofia turned back to him. Her eyes were bright and inquisitive, and the beginning of a smile pulled at her mouth. The offer of that doorway.
"Would you like to see it?" he asked.
From beyond the thinned reality of the gateway, the Library awoke. The Warden felt it listening, but he didn't care.
"You have a library?" Sofia raised a hand (that sinuous, gyrating motion) and swept her loose curls from her face. "Where? I've never seen it."
"It's a… secret library."
"Oh. You collect rare books?"
"Yes." It wasn't exactly a lie. "And… other things. Unusual things."
She did smile now.
"Please--let me show you." The Warden left the kitchen, Sofia's rubber band still clenched in a sweaty fist. Sofia padded after.
The Warden led her to the attic, a place with a mish-mash of finished rooms and storage boxes among naked beams. He selected a wall adjacent to some Christmas decorations, and before Sofia's eyes laid on the surface, he willed this universe's gateway into the Library to manifest.
"That's funny," Sofia said. "I've never noticed a door over there before."
"Probably the clutter," said The Warden.
He set a hand upon the brass doorknob. Beyond, the Library emitted a silent, angry hum, but The Warden still didn't care.
What was Sofia expecting to see? The Warden willed something plausible. A room with angled ceilings, 15 by 20 feet, hardwood floor. Pole lamps. Walls lined solidly with books. And at the far left corner, a gap in the books that turns a funny corner. Is that corner an architectural quirk, or the start of a hallway into an infinite space?…
The Warden opened the door.
"Hey," said Sofia. "That's really nice."
Sofia stepped out of Earth and into Everywhere. The Warden followed her. She weaved between armchairs and end tables, the latter of which displayed curiosities that were impossible in the land she came from. Sofia paused and picked up a tetrahedron made of ununseptium. "What's this?"
The Warden should've said, "Please don't touch anything in here." Instead, he kept smiling. "It's just a paperweight. --You can look around more, if you want."
Sofia passed a table that held an art deco rotary phone (a direct line to the Unnamable), and caressed the receiver with an idle finger. She paused at a table with a hexagonal silk doily (an enlarged reproduction of the first snowflake to ever fall on her Earth) and touched a sculpture (from an alternate Antoine-Louis Barye). The Warden watched her. He could watch her for days. What do you think of this place? Do you like it?
"Um," Sofia said. "I thought you said something about paintings?"
The Warden started. He had completely forgotten to will paintings on the wall. "Ah… I have a book of them. Yes. Let me get it."
He turned to hide his blush, pretending to search the bookcases for the volume he wanted. At the edge of his vision, Sofia approached a table with an antique balance scale, the Scales of life and death made manifest. She paused there for a moment, then moved on.
The Warden selected a book, willed it to contain what he wanted, and opened it. "Here," he said, handing it over. "Have a look."
Sofia sat on the arm of a chair and leafed though the volume with interest. The Warden realized that he was still squeezing her rubber band in his fist, but he didn't want to interrupt her by handing it over. He turned back to the wall instead and nervously rearranged a few books, as if it mattered.
"This guy's really cool," Sofia finally said.
The Warden nodded.
She stood and handed back the book. "Thanks. I've never heard of him."
"He's fairly obscure. Certainly unknown in this country."
They looked at each other. The Warden felt his heart flutter. Sofia was actually looking at him. Sofia was going to ask him a question, and behind him, that hallway stretched off into infinity and whatever Sofia could want. Ask me anything. Oh, please, ask me!
"Well, I guess I should be getting back downstairs."
Sofia nodded at the door. "You wanted me to do the bathrooms this week, right? Those can take a while, so I'd better get started so I can leave by one."
The Warden opened his mouth. Before he could reply, Sofia teased, "Besides, I don't want you thinking I'm a slacker," and walked out of the Library and back to Earth.
The Warden stared after her, stunned. Around him, the Library hummed its silent rage, and within him, he felt that doorway to an unknown future slip somehow out of sight. Sofia walked back to the attic steps as if nothing had changed at all. The Warden scoured her body language for something more, some kind of telling reaction, but all he saw was a final smile before she went down the stairs.
The Warden left the Library in a daze, too unbalanced to notice what had happened to the Scales.
That night, while The Warden dreamed feverishly of Sofia, nobody died.
Soldiers at war. Grandmothers in hospice. Victims of drunken car wrecks, who should've perished from evisceration and collapsed lungs, but did not. Babies born with anencephaly. Women who swallowed bottles of pills, but felt just fine. A child held down in a bathtub in Kuala Lumpur who would not drown. An thief in Dar Es Salaam who was shot through the heart. A man in a death chamber in Alabama who stared stoically ahead, as if sodium thoipental were not dripping through his veins. Addicts, targets, victims, criminals, the old, the innocent, the guilty, the forgotten--Death staid his hand for all.
And it wasn't just people. Mayflies lived for twice as long. Predators felt no hunger, and did not hunt. Spiders crushed by housewives would not flatten and be still. Slaughterhouses would not function. Tapeworms did not respond to medication. Rats did not take poison. Fish would not bite. Countless biological experiments were ruined, as infected tissue cultures thrived identically, and mutant animals kept surviving.
No crops were harvested, no trees cut down, no weeds ripped from vegetable patches in disgust. No fresh roses cut--machetes nicked and scissors broke. Beneath dark oceans, anaerobic numbers swelled; far above, algae bloomed. Wilted houseplants perked up. The behavior of Life swung out of control.
And not just on Sofia's Earth, either.
While people noticed, The Warden slept. He didn't know anything was amiss until the next morning, when he awoke to a wolf-sized shadow on his bed.
The Warden rolled over. The thing on his bed was shadow condensed, dark and cold to the touch. Though it spoke, it had no mouth--only a pair of red, eye-shaped flames.
The Warden rubbed his forehead. "…Library? Is that you?"
"Come inside me."
"I haven't seen you haven't manifest outside yourself in years."
"I said, come inside."
"Yes, yes, fine. Let me brush my teeth first."
"I'm brushing my teeth, Library."
The Library growled.
The Warden cleaned himself up, then willed the Library door to appear next to his closet. He and the shadow passed through. "Let me guess. You're angry about yesterday."
In answer, the Library gestured with an insubstantial paw. Today it had chosen how to construct itself. The Library was now a wide, domed room made entirely of ice, from a universe where water melts at the burning point of paper.
On a table made of Ice VII stood The Warden's Scales. On one of the pans sat a tetrahedral paperweight.
"Correct it," the Library demanded.
The Warden gaped. The tetrahedron had been placed in the center of a pan with utmost artistry, with one side of its base parallel to the Scale's axis of symmetry. It was a simple, visual joke. Not meant to be disruptive, just… whimsical.
"Correct it," the Library demanded again.
Slowly, The Warden smiled. "It's funny," he said.
The Library lashed its insubstantial tail.
"It's funny!" The Warden laughed.
"This is the balance between life and death!" said the Library.
"But it's still funny." The Warden grinned and removed the paperweight. The Scales corrected themselves. "God, I love her. I love her so much it hurts."
"Billions of lives," the Library rumbled.
"And billions of deaths to correct it--don't worry." The Warden moved to put the paperweight on the other side, but paused.
"What are you doing?"
The Warden set the tetrahedron on the table, then reached over to another that held a stack of books. He selected the one from the top and willed it to show him what he wanted. "I'm putting a temporary immortality net around Sofia."
The Library flattened its ears.
"If a wave of corrective death is going to sweep the multiverse, I can't have it affect her."
"You don't know that it will."
"You don't know that it won't."
The Library hissed. "It was bad enough that you invited her inside, enabling her impulse to create such havoc. And now a net? What have I told you about consequences?"
"Actually? You've told me nothing." The Warden turned a page. A pop-up diagram of Sofia's essence sprung up. The Warden began to twist the bits of paper that represented her relationship to the rest of the multiverse. "You've given me nothing but murky warnings for over a century, and frankly, I've had enough. I'm sick of talking to myself and sick of waiting for seekers who will never come. I don't care about the consequences anymore. I care about Sofia."
"You think you are in love."
The Warden closed his eyes. "I am in love."
"This is not what love is."
"You don't know what love is," said The Warden. "You can amass knowledge about it, but you don't really know it because you can't feel it. You can't feel a Goddamned thing."
The Library fell silent.
The Warden completed Sofia's net and closed the book. He then went back to the Scales and placed the paperweight on the opposite pan (with just as much whimsical artistry). The Scales tipped. In realities everywhere, the miracle was turning cruel.
"How long was it tipped?" The Warden asked.
"Twenty-two hours, 14 minutes, 43 seconds."
"Tell me when it's time to take it off."
The Warden waited. The Scales did their work. At the appointed time, he removed the tetrahedron, and the disoriented universes were left to sort themselves out. He paid no mind to any consequent chaos. The only thing that mattered was Sofia, and she was already safe.
Strange, then, that next Wednesday she didn't show up.
At first The Warden thought she was running late. Fifteen fretful minutes were spent standing at the window, willing her white sedan to emerge from around the bend in the road. Fifteen more minutes were spent pacing back and forth, sitting down, and getting up. A frantic hour soon passed. Something must have happened.
He went into the Library and called up the diagram of her essence once again. Yes, she was alive and well. The Warden stepped back to Earth and dialed her telephone number, but her voicemail greeting answered instead of her.
Another hour passed. He called again. But wouldn't calling so much seem excessive? He hung up a few rings in.
Another hour passed, and it became her usual time to leave. The Warden finally asked the Library where she was. "You are stalking her," it said.
"I am not!"
Today, the Library was a lifeless, shallow sea less than a foot deep, sprinkled throughout with rocks that were perfectly cubic. The Warden couldn't read rock cubes, and the Library knew it. "Yes you are."
"I just want to make sure she's all right! I'm worried!" The Warden kicked over a stack of rocks. "She never misses work without a warning."
"Where is she?"
"For an infinitely powerful resource, you sure have a hell of an attitude problem!" The Warden picked up a rock cube and threw. "Fine. How about I leave the house and go find her myself?"
The Library rumbled. An earthquake shook the ocean, slow and steady, toppling rocks and tearing holes in the seabed. The Warden was knocked to his hands and knees. The rocks melted into the quaking waves, which flattened and stilled into an infinite plane of dark, shining glass.
"The Warden does not leave the bounds of the gateways," the Library rumbled.
"Or what? 'There will be consequences'?"
"There will be immediate death. Your essence is tied to mine."
The Warden stood. "It would be better than this. Christ, I'm sick of you."
The Library did not reply.
The Warden left for Sofia's Earth, and did not speak to the Library for a week.
It was a long week. The Warden's anger rose and ebbed, along with his fear. Had he offended her somehow? Was the Library somehow keeping her away?
Tuesday came. His waking thought, as always, was, "Sofia comes tomorrow." Or does she? The hours dragged. Worry consumed him. The Warden went from room to room, deciding over and over again what instructions he'd give her, if she showed up. Should he ask about last week? Surely Sofia had gotten his message. She'd explain it once she arrived. It was probably nothing. Car trouble.
On Wednesday, The Warden awoke early out of nerves. His morning routine that day was elaborate (trim nails? new hairstyle?) in an attempt to eat up time. Breakfast was minimal, to match his appetite. He watched at the window for an hour beforehand.
At five minutes to ten, her white sedan came around the bend.
The Warden exhaled as she parked, and he rested his head gratefully against the glass.
The doorbell rang. The Warden jumped up to answer it, his stomach in an anxious knot. "Sofia."
She looked… flat, somehow. Her body was pale and still, and her face was blank to the point of gravity. "Mr. Warden."
He stepped back from the door. "Please."
She came inside, then stood in the foyer and looked at him. The Warden looked at her back. Shouldn't she be saying something? 'How are you'? 'What are we doing today'?
"Hi," said Sofia, finally. Her expression remained dead. "What do you want me to do?"
The Warden hesitated. "Are… you all right?"
A flicker of something crossed her features. "I lost someone last week."
From the corrective deaths? Uneasily, The Warden nodded.
Sofia looked down. Her left hand slithered across her right, as if reminding herself of the way someone used to hold her hand. "My husband."
The Warden stared at her intertwined hands. "Your…"
Sofia stared at the floor, still expressionless. As she spoke, a pair of tears slid down her cheeks. "A couple weeks ago." She closed her eyes. "I'm sorry. I should've called."
"I had no idea."
"No. I--I had no idea. You don't--your ring finger--"
Her hands rubbed, as if the memory wouldn't come. "I took it off for work. I didn't want to lose it. In a drain or something--" her voice wavered. Sofia bit her lip and screwed up her face, and a fresh surge of tears came down. She didn't make a sound.
The Warden could hardly breathe. The air had gotten thin. "Your husband."
She nodded. Her shoulders shook.
"You have--you had--"
Sofia ran to the kitchen, head down, one hand to her mouth. The Warden stood in the foyer, reeling. Her husband. All this time. Down the hall, Sofia made muffled sounds as she sobbed into a tissue.
Dizzy, The Warden made it to a chair. He bent over and put his head between his knees, the sound of an ocean earthquake in his ears, a simultaneous roar and hiss. It couldn't be. No. Not Sofia. Not all that dazzling possibility. Not those still-waiting revelations. The connection.
When he could stand again, The Warden went into the kitchen. He could barely look at her. "Would you like to be alone a while longer?"
Sofia blew her nose and shook her head.
"How about I make you some tea?"
Sofia sniffed. "Okay."
The Warden brewed a cup for her, and she sipped it in woeful silence. Again, as always, he had nothing to say. But this time, it wasn't possibility that choked him. There was nothing to be said. Her revelations had already been offered elsewhere.
The Warden left Sofia alone as she cleaned. He only watched her once, while she was in the study. Her hair had already untwisted, and she was standing by the diffuse light of the window, head down and her fingers in her curls. She was slowly twisting them up again. The Warden watched her bind up her hair, away from that invitation he would never take, and then turned his back.
After Sofia left, The Warden went into the Library. It had chosen to manifest as a utilitarian-looking storage vault, a windowless concrete bunker with rows of metal shelves packed with three-ring binders.
"No," said The Warden. "I want it like the day I took my oath."
The Library obeyed. The walls grew to towering heights and offered windows. Shafts of sun pierced down beneath vaulted ceilings set with elaborate mosaics. The floor grew veined and polished, and the metal shelves condensed into pedestals. The binders morphed into crystals and treasured objects. In seconds, The Warden was surrounded by a lavish display hall, its branching rooms stretching off into infinity.
As always, the wondrous Library was empty and silent.
"It's almost good to see you."
The Library said nothing.
The Warden went up to one of the crystals. He traced its jagged edges with a finger. "You know I can't read crystal, so you'll have to tell me yourself. How do I bring someone back from the dead?"
"You trade one life for another," replied the Library.
"Any life I like?"
"No. You have only one life that is truly yours to trade."
The Warden nodded. "I suspected as much. Thank you, Library."
The Warden moved away from the crystal and went to a pedestal that held an art deco rotary phone. He lifted the receiver to his ear and dialed, as if there were a need to dial.
"Yes?" said the other side.
"Hello. This is The Warden."
"Hello, Warden," said the Unnameable.
"I've got a problem. There's a man who's needed in a specific universe more than I'll obviously ever be needed in all of them combined, but that man's dead."
"I'm asking you to resurrect him."
The Unnameable paused. "Warden, are you certain you know what you are asking of me? Do you truly understand the consequences?"
The Warden closed his eyes. He imagined Sofia's white sedan, disappearing around that bend in the road, her eyes red and blank with exhaustion. She'd drive home. She'd park and go up the front walk, but when she went to unlock the door, it would swing open from within. Her husband would be standing there, giving her a smile whose possibly and future were fully known, but somehow, no less dazzling.
"More than anyone. Do it."
This story originally appeared in New Myths.