It was never unusual to find Até in her manor's library. Ever the book worm, the woman would often search through the shelves for a good novel in her free time from paperwork. Today however, she was searching through books strictly for business.
"This is one, isn't it, Miss?" Her assistant asked holding up a particularly large book to be inspected. Even with raising the book up to show her, it still didn't reach as far as her upper thighs.
Até bent at the waist to get a better view of the book her animal companion suspected. "No Squiggy dear, we want really worn out books to send off for repairs."
"Oh." The creature went back to rummaging through piles of books he had created for himself. Até watched him, slightly amused at his nature; trying to help but being rather bad at it. Though his small size certainly helped when she needed a book from a high shelf. Being only over a foot in stature, the animal was built for jumping, and could push books from their high perches and allow her to catch them below.
But the woman stopped watching Squiggy and went back to her work. She was returning an armful of books after deciding they were not eligible for repairs. As she replaced the last book, another caught her eye.
At first she noticed it simply because it was placed improperly and the spine was sticking out a good six inches from the shelf, but upon pulling out the book she was immediately intrigued. By the binding it was clearly a very old book, something she always marveled at due to the spectacular craftsmanship that went into such books.
Até admired the intricate detail hammered into the leather bound book with its beautiful gold leaf accents, and searched it front and back for a title. But she found no such thing.
By this time Até's idle curiosity had grown and she opened the book to learn its name. But still her need to know would not be sated, as the piece of literature lacked a title page. She couldn't tell if the page had been torn out or if the maker neglected to give it one, but the book went directly from the cover to the first page of the novel. So the woman began to read.
"Moby Dick!" she exclaimed triumphantly, as she recognized Ishmael's name and famous words immediately. She closed the book, deeming it in good enough conditions to not need repairs, and returned it properly to the shelf before continuing her work.
After an hour or so Até had made a sizeable pile of books to be sent off for repairs, but her work was far from done. She was hardly three-fourths of the way through her current isle, and there were several more isles to inspect before she could think of resting. And Squiggy's trying-to-help was exhausting her faster than she thought it would. Fortunately her assistant had taken up, a great distance away from her, sorting the books selected to be repaired into nonsensical piles of his liking, which Até assumed were supposed to resemble tall buildings and homes as she now and again heard the rodent muttering things along the lines of, "Flee in terror from the giant Squiggy! Who could've known the consequences of mixing animal D.N.A. with radioactive sludge? Why did we play God!?"
The woman would never admit it, but Squiggy's playtime was quite amusing. Today at least. Usually his shenanigans included harassing her faculty or accidently breaking something. But with old books that were scheduled to be repaired there was little for her to worry about.
That was until Squiggy got quiet. At first she welcomed it warmly, but then Até began to feel uneasy. Some certain feeling, or energy, had come over the previously comfortable library, and she was sure that Squiggy noticed it before her, and that it was the reason for him staying quiet. She rested the few books in her arms on her hip as she turned to look behind herself for Squiggy. As though they had communicated with one another without speaking, she spotted him slowly trotting towards her on all fours, as to silence his footfalls from whatever the aura he sensed was. When he reached Até he stood on his hind legs as per usual.
They looked at each other for a moment before looking upward then around themselves without moving their bodies to try and understand what changed the air of the library.
But they wouldn't have to wait long as a woman rounded the corner of the isle and began walking towards them. "Oh!" Até said with a start and a slight chortle before thinking. At first glance she had thought that the woman was possibly a student that the library was built for, or perhaps a servant come looking for her, but as her mind momentarily adjusted Até realized that she did not know the woman walking toward her.
Squiggy took a step back to ensure he was closer to Até than the woman. This woman was tall and raven haired with cold piercing eyes that hadn't a shred of maternity in them; the creature remained wary of her.
But Até was easily able to look beyond the woman's rather profound, intruding aura as she found herself suddenly angry. The woman was not brought into the library by a servant or properly announced, and that simply wasn't the way things were done in Até's home. Before speaking, she mentally noted the fine, ritzy attire the woman was wearing; clearly she was from some form of wealth or well-being, and the lack of manners she had already shown despite this fact annoyed Até even more. "What are you doing in my home? And how exactly did you get in here? I'll take your name if you have one."
"You will call me Lady Ink," the woman responded indifferently. She came to a stop in front of Até and kept her hands folded together. She didn't acknowledge the animal.
Até never took kindly to being spoken to in such a way. "Listen here, Ink," as the term 'lady' did not apply as far as she was concerned in this moment, "What exactly gives you the gall to barge into my home, unannounced, without so much as a knock on the front door to allow a servant to bring you to me so we could greet one another appropriately?"
"I, too, am unhappy with the lack of proper introductions, but time is short. You're a business woman as much as I, so I'll be straight with you. My brother and I are in need of aid, and you are one of the few I believe can actually help us," Lady Ink said without batting an eye at the disgruntled woman before her.
Squiggy's ears picked up at the mention of help. He wasn't much of a hero, but he could tell when someone was being sincere, at least when they showed the slightest bit of humility. He knew Até couldn't see it, whether she refused to or if it was simply a human thing, whatever help she was talking about it was very important to Lady Ink that she get it. For what reason he couldn't tell, but he wanted to help her.
"And why would I want to help you or your brother?" Até said coolly.
"Now that is an imperative question. The fact of the matter is, due to unforeseen circumstances, your world -every world- is in danger of being destroyed."
"Destroyed?" Até and Squiggy said in unison, though their tones were entirely different. While Squiggy sounded slightly concerned Até remained entirely unconvinced and spoke in a bored tone to emphasize that.
Lady Ink remained silent for a moment, seeming to search for the right words. She took a breath before speaking, "Yes. Your world, along with all other worlds, comes from the Book of Stories. However, something has happened and the book is not only missing, but unwriting itself. If this issue goes unchecked, all the worlds will begin to decay, collide with one another actually, and then cease to exist altogether. Now, knowing my reasons for coming here, will you help me?"
"Excuse me a moment," Até said, her voice sounding far more amused than before. "Squiggy, stay here. Make sure she doesn't leave." At that she turned her back to Lady Ink and walked partway down the isle of books toward a small table, designed to allow students to study. On this table was placed an antique rotary dial phone. She placed the books she was holding onto the table and picked up the receiver to call for a maid. As it rang she watched her assistant and Lady Ink to listen to their conversation.
Squiggy gulped and looked up at Lady Ink. He wanted nothing more than to move away from the woman, but Até gave him a job to do. He had to keep Lady Ink where she was until someone came to take her. He was disappointed; he had wanted to help Lady Ink, but her story seemed so impossible and far fetched he could hardly believe it. "So…" he tried to buy time while Até called for someone to escort the woman before him out. "If we decided to help you, what exactly would you have us do?"
Lady Ink eyed the two and could tell they were no longer taking her seriously. Still, she answered the rodent. "I need you to enter the Book of Stories. Once there, you would search for a way to right what's wrong with the book."
"Are there any consequences for us not working fast enough to fix it, or if we didn't wanna try to fix it at all?" Squiggy asked.
"Well, there's nothing I can do to you once you're in the Book of Stories, as I can no longer travel there, but I can't promise what's in store for you. The book has changed drastically since this...tragedy began."
"And after we are in 'the Book of Stories,' what will you be doing?" He crossed his arms and brought a paw up to his chin thoughtfully.
"I will leave your world and visit others in search of able people to help my brother and me. And when I have completed that task I will do my best to fix the book from the outside."
"I see, I see," Squiggy assured rather insincerely.
Finally a maid answered Até's call. "Hello? Yes, I'm in the library and an unauthorized woman has found her way in…"
"Or would you rather I leave you here and let someone else be in charge of your fate?" Lady Ink now addressed Até and watched as the phone receiver lowered some from her ear.
Até was never one to allow a stranger have control over any aspect of her life. The very thought of what Lady Ink proposed disgusted her. Whether she was a controlling person or not, Até always knew that to get something done right, she had to do it herself. But still, she couldn't believe in the idea of the 'Book of Stories.' That her world was something merely written on pages, or at least tied to the book in some way. "She seems rather delusional…Yes, exactly. I need you to-"
"I can prove it!" Lady Ink said with a slight raise of her voice. Squiggy gave a small jump at the suddenness of the woman's actions and Até locked eyes with Lady Ink in her own minor shock.
Her voice resumed its original tone, "And I'm not sending you unarmed. I have something for you." At that Lady Ink brought up one of her folded hands and outstretched her arm to Até. Até was not fifteen feet from Lady Ink and her assistant, and could see a small piece of metal carved into what looked like a feather in Lady Ink's palm.
Lady Ink walked past Squiggy and again approached Até, offering the gift the entire time so Até could continue to inspect it. The woman did not put down the phone, but as Lady Ink came closer she held out her free hand to take it. But before she could pick it up, Squiggy jumped between the two and snatched it for himself.
"Squiggy!" Até scolded. "Give that here!"
"No, this one's mine," the creature said. He looked at the intriguing piece of metal in a mild form of admiration before concluding, "Besides, she has another one." Without looking away from the metal feather he gestured towards Lady Ink's other hand. He had caught a glimpse of it as she walked by him.
Lady Ink let her right hand drop and brought up her left that held the second gift. She showed it to Até as she had the first. "These are Constructs," she told the two. "What does the shape remind you of? Think hard and let your Construct turn into that image. It can help you in your journey."
Magic; now there was something tangible to Até. With the help of that Lady Ink's claims became more plausible. "An L!?" she asked extremely annoyed. As she gave the Construct Lady Ink was offering a better look, it quite clearly resembled that of an L. She felt cheated, as the feather was a 'better' Construct in her opinion. "What could I possibly do with an L?" Lady Ink seemed to be disinterested in Até's unhappiness with the plain looking Construct and ignored the clearly rhetorical question. Even with her disappointment in the lack luster Construct, Até took it from Lady Ink's hand and rolled it around in her grip a few times to get a feel for it.
Squiggy stood on the floor beside and slightly behind Lady Ink. Looking up from his own Construct he moved the phalanges of his right front paw in the shape of an L on his forehead as he looked up at Até. It was a light hearted joke, the likes of which she was actually used to. He too preferred the feather shaped Construct. But he brought his arm down and picked up the feather Construct with his right paw. "Let's see if it works," he said to no one in particular. He stared at the Construct for a bit. Clearly it resembled a feather, and he pondered exactly how much he could do with it, but he settled on starting off small. He concentrated.
After a time, considerably short for a first time in Squiggy's opinion, the Construct did in fact begin to transform. "A quill!" he said contently.
Até was impressed. More so seeing how even the magically inept Squiggy was able to make it work. And so she realized Lady Ink meant what she said. Even if she was really a loon, she was indeed approaching them honestly and at least believed she needed help. Até's world, all worlds, any world being tied to a book still seemed hard to believe, as that would call for a magnitude of magic she had never witnessed before, but it theoretically was not impossible. "Bring me a pack, I'm going traveling for a while," she finally said into the phone before placing the receiver back on its base. She was sure she would regret having said that.
Her assistant was elated they would be helping Lady Ink. "A quill," Squiggy repeated. "For good reason, too. Madame Ink, I humbly request your autograph." Though he seldom spoke so properly, the creature knew when manners were called for. Upon getting no response from the woman he tried again. "Please? It's for my collection."
"It's true, he collects signatures from people of interest to him," Até promised. She never understood such a useless hobby, but from time to time it did occupy Squiggy while she worked.
"Constructs don't work when I hold them," Lady Ink admitted.
"Ok...Ok," he said as he looked around and thought to himself. An idea struck him and he trotted away from Lady Ink and over to Até. He hopped onto the table and spotted a calligraphy pen that someone had left there, exactly what he was hoping for. He grabbed the pen and then reached for one of the books Até had placed on the table. He opened the nearest one and ripped out a blank page behind the index. Até gasped and gave him an angry look. "Relax, Miss," he said casually. "You were getting it repaired anyway." He gave her a cheeky grin before running back to Lady Ink with the pen and paper. Até put her hands on her hips and shifted her wait to her left foot, something she always did when agitated. She furrowed her brow and glared at her retreating assistant.
When he reached Lady Ink's feet, he stood as tall as he could on his hind legs and offered the items to her. The woman decided to humor the animal and took the pen and paper in her hands. Squiggy was delighted and began reciting what he wanted her to write. "To my hero..."
"To my admirer," Lady Ink said aloud to let the rodent know what she was writing.
"Squiggy," he said unphased by her change in word choice.
"Squi-" Lady Ink was unsure how to write his name properly and hesitated before writing further.
"S-" he instructed her.
"And sign your name," Squiggy said politely. Lady Ink finished writing and returned the pen and signed paper which Squiggy took joyfully and looked at what she had written. Her letters were precise and lovely. He felt there was something to be said about peoples' handwriting, he just didn't know what. "Thank you," he said as he carefully folded the paper for safe keeping.
It was then that a maid appeared, carrying a sizeable leather backpack as Até had requested. "Excellent," Até said as the maid walked down the book isle. "That will be all for now, thank you," she said as the maid handed over the pack. The servant curtsied respectfully and Até bowed her head politely. As the maid saw herself out Até inspected the bag; inside she found two first aid kits, a large blanket, two tooth brushes and a tube of tooth paste, a medium sized hunting knife, two changes of dress for Até, and a hair brush. It was satisfactory to the woman as she traveled light when not vacationing or visiting a business associate. In those cases she traveled extravagantly by coach to keep up with appearances. As she reclosed the leather pack she placed it on the floor and let it lean against her leg. Squiggy took this opportunity to put his autographed paper and the calligraphy pen into the small side pocket of the backpack; he knew they wouldn't be stopping off at his bedroom before leaving, so he would keep the autograph safe in the pack until they returned. And one never knew when a pen would come in handy.
Até addressed Lady Ink as she heard the maid leave the library. "Now, how exactly will we get into this Book of Stories?" Her tone was much more polite and presentable as she no longer resented Lady Ink for intruding in her home.
"With this," Lady Ink said as she reached into the length of her large left sleeve and produced what looked like an hourglass, though the sand inside it fell abnormally slow. "With this temporary Construct I can send you into the Book of Stories, but I cannot help or retrieve you once you're there. You'll have to find your own way out." She held onto the hourglass from the top and bottom. She concentrated a moment and the Construct began glowing an unnerving hue of green. "Take it and focus completely on where you want to go." She got down onto one knee so that Squiggy could grab onto the Construct as well.
Até took a hesitant breath and held out her hand as she kneeled. "All right...I'm ready." She grabbed onto one of the arm straps of the pack before touching the Construct. She thought hard about the words 'Book of Stories,' and found it difficult to think of an exact location since she had never been there before. But after a few moments she believed she was getting the hang of it. Squiggy placed his hand on top of Até's on the Construct and ignored Lady Ink's instructions. He instead thought of the first day he met Até. And they were gone. The temporary Construct that Lady Ink had made for them took them into the Book of Stories and they found themselves in the middle of the mysterious wilderness.
Of course they were both completely ignorant to the forest's title as they landed roughly onto the ground. Squiggy was able to land on his feet, but Até had the misfortune of landing squarely on her buttocks. It was quite painful and she rubbed her lower back as she remained sitting on the floor. She noticed that the hourglass Construct was no longer with them, and assumed it had never entered the Book of Stories with them to begin with.
Squiggy scurried nearer Até to ensure himself she wasn't injured and stood beside her with his hands on his hips as he waited for her to stand. "What d'ya think we should do first?" he asked.
"Well, give me a minute to recuperate from that entrance and then we should start searching for people to ask what they know about this 'unwriting' business. Whether people know anything or not, we'll learn something," Até said as she grabbed an arm strap of her leather pack and pulled it onto her right shoulder. She didn't bother with the other strap for now. "Oh and Squiggy, dear," she said warmly.
"Yes, Miss?" the creature asked turning his head towards her.
Até lifted her right leg and thrust her foot aggressively into Squiggy's shoulder. It didn't hurt him much, but the force sent the animal flying two feet in the other direction where he hit the ground unpleasantly. "Don't ever tear a page out of my books again." The woman stood herself up and brushed herself off before walking past her assistant toward what she hoped would be a path to some form of civilization.
"Yes, Miss," Squiggy said apologetically. He picked himself up and trotted after her.