Notes: And here we start getting into some of the more intricate plot twists. The next chapter should plunge into the action.

Chapter Three

A Quiet Word

The secondhand bookstore was dark and eerie, particularly with the oil lamp burning and no one present behind the counter or anywhere else in the shop. Ahiru shivered as she followed Autor inside. She had never been to this place before and she thoroughly hoped she would never be here again after today.

Autor seemed to have a specific purpose in mind. He walked forward and around to the back of the counter, then bent down to search through the various drawers and cubbyholes. Ahiru went over in all nervousness, watching the backdoor with a suspicious eye.

"Are we sure no one's here?" she quavered. "Maybe they're in the back. And I'm sure they won't like us going through their stuff."

Autor straightened. "I don't know why they would be spared any more than the other townspeople," he said. For that matter, however, he did not know why he and Ahiru had been spared. He crossed to the door and turned the knob, slowly easing the door open.

The backroom was filled with many more books and ladders to reach them. He could take in all of the room by standing in the doorway, and there was definitely no one present.

"This room was always off-limits," he said, the awe creeping into his voice. "Just look at everything they've been hiding from us! There must be something in some of these volumes that could help us."

Ahiru frowned, craning her neck upward as she came to join him. "But why would they hide all of these books?" she wondered. "They left Drosselmeyer's out for people to read."

"After tearing out the endings," Autor said. "And I've wondered if they only left his out because the Story had that much control over them. Maybe Drosselmeyer didn't care what they did with anything else, so the Story allowed them to keep these other volumes locked up."

"I guess that's possible," Ahiru said. "The Story did so many weird things. And now Fakir's did so many weird things," she mumbled.

Autor stepped inside and took the nearest book off the shelf. "I know who this man was!" he exclaimed.

Ahiru peered at the cover. "I've never heard of him," she said.

Autor opened the book, too excited to even smirk at her. "He was an ancestor of Drosselmeyer's," he said. "Another Story-Spinner." He turned the pages reverently, reading parts of the text. The book was a masterpiece. He could tell that just from the few snippets he glanced over. The plot was detailed and dark, the characters well-rounded and human.

"How many Story-Spinners were there?" Ahiru cried, not sure whether to be amazed or alarmed. "I thought Drosselmeyer was the only one everyone talked about."

"Drosselmeyer was the most amazing," Autor said, "at least as far as we know. But there were rumors that some of his predecessors accomplished incredible feats as well. There have been documented cases of Stories coming to life for centuries." He glanced at the shelves stretching high above them. "All of these books must be written by Story-Spinners!"

Ahiru nearly fell over as she stared at the tops of the bookcases. "We'll never be able to get through all of this!" she wailed.

"Look at the titles," Autor said. "We'll start by sorting through the ones that seem most likely to have useful information. Non-fiction would be a good place to start."

Ahiru scrunched up her face in a frown. "Maybe there's nothing non-fiction in here," she said.

Autor had already set the current book down—albeit reluctantly—and was looking over all the titles on the same shelf. "There might be," he said. "In the letters I've collected from Drosselmeyer and others, I've seen several mentions of a book about Story-Spinning. If any copies of it have survived, this would be a logical place to find them. The Bookmen would never want to let something like that get out."

Ahiru walked to a bookcase across from Autor and tilted her head to read the tomes' spines. "So . . . does it have a name or something?" she wondered.

"It was never referred to by name, only as 'the book'," Autor said.

Ahiru let out a big sigh. "That won't really help," she said.

"It might have something about Story-Spinning in the title," Autor said. As another book caught his eye he pulled it out enough to examine the cover, then replaced it.

"Okay," Ahiru said. "Yeah, I guess it probably would. Is there anything else I should be looking for too?"

"Anything that looks like a biography of a Story-Spinner," Autor said. "Or even better, their old journals."

Ahiru's eyes went wide. "I thought journals were supposed to be private!" she said, whirling to look back at him.

Autor pushed up his glasses. "These people have been dead for decades," he said with impatience. "Their journals fall into the hands of people who want to know more about their lives and thoughts. Or those who just want to seal them away," he added with a disapproving frown.

"I don't think I'd want anyone reading my journal, even a long time later," Ahiru mumbled.

Autor sighed. "A lot of people keep journals because they want their thoughts preserved for posterity," he said. "But regardless, we need to find any that might be here."

Ahiru sighed too. "Okay, I'll look," she consented.

But the search was long and fruitless. Ahiru lost count of how much time she spent staring at the books' titles and pulling out the ones with the worn and faded bindings for a closer look. Eventually her eyes glazed over and she began to yawn. Not a good thing when she had decided to climb one of the ladders. And when she foolishly chanced to gaze downward, she realized all the more that she had made a very bad choice.

Autor had fallen silent some time ago, thoroughly involved in the search. He could not resist skimming through some of the books, since this was likely his only opportunity to see them. Ahiru had liked his excitement at first; it was endearing and so unlike his more aloof, quiet side. But now she was growing impatient and distressed and just wanted to leave. And Autor looked like he would never want to, even if they did not find any information here that would help them.

Still gripping the ladder, she looked to the shelf directly above her. There was a small black book, without any visible words on the binding, half-buried between two larger volumes. Could it possibly be of any help? She reached for it, hooking her forefinger on the top of the book and her other fingers and her thumb on the sides of the spine. But as she tried to pull, it resisted.

Oh come on! she thought in frustration. It's a little book. How hard can it be to get it out?

She pulled harder. But even though her target moved forward, so did the books on either side of it. There was no choice but to try to push them back, and to do that, she had to let go of the ladder.

Again she looked down. It was so far to fall! How could she really let go? Yet on the other hand, how could she not? Maybe if she leaned forward and made sure her feet were securely on the rung. She wrapped her left arm around the top of the ladder for good measure, as well. As she pushed the other tomes back, she tugged at the small black book.

When it finally came free, she rocked back from the momentum. And from there it did not take much for her to lose her balance altogether. She could only give an alarmed cry as she pitched off the ladder, plummeting towards the floor at a frightening rate.

Autor looked up with a start. He gasped, setting his current book aside without really paying attention to what he was doing with it. It slipped off the shelf and onto the floor behind him, but he only heard the thump somewhere in the back of his mind. He was already sprinting across the room, his arms outstretched to catch the falling girl.

She slammed into his embrace a moment later. And in his desperation to grab her in a way that would not aggravate her wounds, he then slammed onto the floor.

For a moment they lay where they were, dazed. Autor's glasses had slipped half-off his face. Ahiru was sprawled across Autor on her stomach, her head near his shoulder. Then, abruptly regaining her senses, she sprang upright.

"Oh my gosh, are you okay, Autor?" she gasped, kneeling next to him.

He blinked, focusing on her worried face. "Yes," he managed to say. "I'm fine." He pushed up his glasses. "What on earth happened?"

"I was trying to get this and I fell!" Ahiru exclaimed, holding out the black book. It had survived the descent, not looking any the worse for wear.

Autor sat up, immediately coming to attention. He took it from Ahiru with care, flipping it open to the first, yellowed page. His eyes went wide.

"What is it?" Ahiru exclaimed. But, not waiting for an answer, she leaned forward to look over his shoulder.

"Drosselmeyer's journal," Autor breathed, the reverential awe for the man's work obvious in his voice. Though he had long ago and painfully learned that Drosselmeyer himself was really not a good role model, he was still astounded by the feats Drosselmeyer had achieved. And the old part of him that had idolized and nearly worshiped Drosselmeyer could not help rising to the surface at this discovery.

Ahiru's mouth fell open. "Eh?" she cried. She moved closer, invading Autor's personal space. But he was so intent on poring over the new discovery that he did not even notice.

"He's talking about an incident where several people mysteriously vanished." Autor's gaze was traveling over the page, taking in every syllable of Drosselmeyer's professional script.

Ahiru tried in vain to find where he was reading. "Does he say anything else about it?" she wanted to know.

"He says that from his own studies, he's determined it's due to a glitch within the living Stories," Autor said. "And . . ." He gasped. "The people were later found inside a book."

"What?" Ahiru stared in shock and horror. "What do you mean they were inside a book? How could they get in a book? It's a bunch of ink and paper and stuff!"

Autor shook his head. "They weren't literally in the book itself; the book was just the window to that world," he said. "And apparently they couldn't be retrieved by writing them out of it. Drosselmeyer says that others had to go into that world after them."

"Did they all get out okay?" Ahiru cried.

Autor frowned. "Drosselmeyer says they got out, but they didn't make it unscathed." He turned the page. "Their . . . souls were damaged." He stared at the page, perplexed. "He doesn't elaborate on what he means."

Ahiru swallowed hard. "Maybe it was really hard to get them out or something and it hurt really bad because they thought they wouldn't be able to do it," she said. "Does he say how they got in to save the others?"

"He only says something about accessing the portal to the other world," Autor said. "Maybe this is something he told more about in another journal. He acts like it isn't the first time he's mentioned it."

"The portal?" Ahiru rocked back, trying to think. "Where would that be? And what other world? He doesn't mean the gear world, does he?"

Autor mulled over that. "I suppose it's possible," he said. "Did that child ever tell you and Fakir more about that world?"

Ahiru shrugged. "Not really," she said. "Just that there were gears everywhere and they showed what was going on in the Story." Her eyes widened. "Oh! When she came with you from the gear world, she said Drosselmeyer had other Stories they watched too. And they could still see what was happening here in Kinkan; Drosselmeyer just couldn't cause trouble anymore because Fakir broke his writing machine."

Autor nodded. "When I was there, I was told it was a gap in time," he said. "I was shown scenes of the future as well as the present."

But here he hesitated, studying Ahiru in some confusion. Both of them clearly remembered Autor's descent into madness after having discovered his powers over music. Some part of him wanted to say that Ahiru had been human then, pleading with him to return to himself and later watching over him after he had wounded himself to stop his Story. Yet that was impossible; Ahiru had been a duck after the end of Drosselmeyer's Story, until this day.

So what were those other, vague memories? Could he have just felt Ahiru's soul reaching out to him in a human form?

But . . . she could not have watched over him as a duck. Animals like that would not be allowed in the hospital. And more importantly, he was allergic.

Ahiru tilted her head to the side. "What is it?" she asked, bewildered.

Autor sighed. "Nothing that can't wait," he said. If Ahiru had felt there was anything strange, she was not saying it. And there were more pressing matters at the moment—albeit he certainly intended to return to this mystery when there was an opportunity.

He looked back to the journal before she could protest. "Judging from the dates, this was the last record he kept," he said. "The last entry is dated days before his death."

"What does it say?" Ahiru exclaimed. "Anything that might help?"

Autor skimmed over it. "He talks about the machine he was building," he said. "He says he knows the Bookmen are watching him and intend to stop him, but he will have the last laugh and there's nothing they can do about it."

He stared in disbelief at the next section. "What's this?" he breathed.

"What?" Ahiru cried. Again she tried to find where he was reading, but the fancy script confused her. She was terrible at just printing words, to say nothing of writing and reading cursive.

"'The greatest of my achievements for this masterpiece is how I have linked the worlds,'" Autor read. "'Even if they manage to learn of what I have used, crafted from the wood of the fallen oak tree, they will not be able to do anything about it. The level of energy at the mouth of the portal is so great that even if my device is destroyed, the particles will remain. Passing between the realms will still be possible, at least for a while.'"

Ahiru gawked at the book as though it had sprouted horns. "What's he even talking about?" she moaned. "It's so vague!"

Autor read the passage again. "He built something from the wood of the oak tree," he mused. "We already know his puppet was made from its wood. What else could there have been?" He looked to Ahiru. "How did Drosselmeyer arrive when you and Fakir talked with him?"

Ahiru blinked. "Um . . . in a big, weird clock, I think," she said.

Autor straightened in triumph. "Of course!"

Ahiru started. "Of course what?" she wailed.

"Don't you see? The device that links the worlds is a clock," Autor said, both impatient and excited. "Since the oak tree itself personifies the link, its wood should make it possible for inter-dimensional travel. It makes perfect sense on so many levels; Drosselmeyer knew a lot about mechanics and even made some clocks in between writing his Stories."

Ahiru was surprised. "I didn't know that," she said. She straightened too. "Do you think the clock is still in the church tower?"

"Most likely," Autor said. "Even if the Bookmen solved the riddle, the Story would have swayed them to leave the church tower alone. And I doubt Fakir had any idea what it was when he dismantled the writing machine."

"I don't know," Ahiru said. "Maybe he remembered Drosselmeyer came in a clock and he broke it."

"But Drosselmeyer said the energy would remain even if that happened," Autor said. "Of course, he could have exaggerated, but we'll have to assume he did not."

He stood, clutching the book. "We should go there as soon as possible," he declared. "However, before we do, we should try to find some evidence that the townspeople have been taken into a Story just as those before them."

Ahiru leaped up as well. "How can we do that?" she exclaimed. "If we have to look in every book in town to see if they're in it, it'll take forever!"

Autor shook his head. "I doubt that," he said. "Fakir's wayward Story would enjoy taunting us and hiding them under our noses. Most likely, they're in a more well-known Story. That would leave out all of the volumes here."

"So . . . we should look in books that people know about?" Ahiru said slowly.

"Yes." Autor glanced longingly at the shelves of rare novels and other old treasures. Would the day ever come when he and others would be able to read them freely? He could spend hours in this room, poring over everything, but he knew there was no time for that. The missing people had to be found and restored as soon as possible. If they were in a Story world, they might not even be all in the same one. Still, as sketchy as it was, it was the only lead he and Ahiru had. They had to follow up on it.

He heaved a sigh, turning away from the books. "We should start now," he said.

Ahiru nodded. "Um, are you sure you're okay with this, Autor?" she could not refrain from asking.

He raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Leaving the books and all," Ahiru said. "I know you wanted to look at them longer."

"Yes, well, we can't have everything we want," Autor returned. "Especially if something critical needs to be taken care of instead." His voice lowered. "But maybe someday . . ."

He could not resist a final look at the books as he stepped into the main room. Ahiru scurried after him, glancing back at them herself before looking to Autor again.

"Maybe the Bookmen will decide everyone can look at the books when they get back," Ahiru suggested.

Autor sniffed. "That is highly unlikely. If anything, they'll probably be more determined to keep everyone out." He glanced to the small book in his hand. "But we're taking this with us in any case. I need to look it over more closely. There's probably other things in it that will help us with what we need to do."

"Yeah, maybe," Ahiru said. "I guess if you wanted, you could make a copy of it or something. Before you give it back, I mean."

Autor certainly wanted to, but he did not know if he would get the chance. "Maybe," was all he said. He looked to the shelves in the main room. "Let's browse through these. If the townspeople are in a Story, it could be one that's for sale here."

Ahiru nodded. "Okay," she said.

It was certainly not as time-consuming of an effort, but there were still problems. Ahiru was not very familiar with what books were popular, so she continually had to hold up her choices for Autor to see and approve of before searching through them. And the more they looked, the more other worrisome thoughts began to plague her mind.

"Neither of us know everyone in town!" she cried at one point. "Maybe there'll be some people in a Story but we won't know it because we won't know them!"

Autor could not deny that she had a point. "It would help if there are illustrations," he said. "That is, as long as the people remain dressed in what they were wearing here. If they put on the clothes similar to those in the Stories, it would probably be hopeless."

He realized now that he had been imagining the Kinkan townspeople as playing major roles in the Stories and altering them almost beyond recognition. But what if they were merely extras in a large crowd scene? How would he and Ahiru ever find out?

He paused, taking out the journal again and examining the pages. Unfortunately, there was no information on how the victims of the previous incident had been found.

"Autor!" Ahiru cried without warning.

He nearly dropped the book. "What is it?" he asked, looking up with a start.

"Look!" Ahiru hurried over to him, a large volume held awkwardly in her hands. "This story talks about Miss Ebine!"

"The restaurant owner?" Autor frowned, closing the journal to turn his attention to the book Ahiru was holding out. Sure enough, the characters were dining at Ebine's restaurant. There was even an illustration depicting the scene.

"What book is this?" he wanted to know.

Ahiru turned the book over to see the title. "Hansel and Gretel!" she reported in shock. "Wait a minute, does that mean Miss Ebine is playing the witch?"

"It does look that way, doesn't it," Autor frowned. "I wonder if she has her memories. Drosselmeyer didn't say whether those other people's identities were intact."

Ahiru shuddered. "So she really might think she's the witch?" she said in horror.

"She might," Autor said. "Or maybe her presence has completely altered the story." He smirked. "Maybe Hansel and Gretel decided to dine there instead of at the witch's candy house."

Ahiru frowned. "But . . . that would be a good thing, wouldn't it?"

"It might mean the witch could go on capturing and eating children," Autor said. "Hansel and Gretel were the ones to defeat her. The other children, not being meant to do so, likely would not be able to overthrow her."

Ahiru cringed. "That's awful!" she proclaimed. "And now we need to somehow get in there. . . ."

Autor nodded. "If my deductions are right, we should be able to access the portal to the world of Stories from the clock Drosselmeyer built," he said. "From there, hopefully it won't be too hard to find the entrance to that particular Story."

In spite of his misgivings about this venture, he could not help feeling a bit of excitement as well. Part of him was still fascinated by the concepts of being able to experience stories firsthand. Today he had learned things about Stories and Story-Spinning that he had never known. And it looked like in the course of rescuing everyone they would both be learning more.

"We'll take that book with us too," he determined. "If the storyline has been changed, we should be able to learn about it from there."

"Are we leaving now?" Ahiru wondered.

"No," Autor said. "Ebine can tend to her guests for a while longer. That should keep her happy enough while we see what other worlds we'll need to visit."

Ahiru gave a slow nod. "Okay," she agreed.

Closing the book and holding it in one hand, she continued to investigate the shelf.

It did not take long before they had added quite a few other books to the pile. Both of them surveyed their work with mixed feelings.

"How can we really take all of these with us?" Ahiru worried.

Autor sighed. "We can't," he admitted. "We'd be too bogged down. But at least we'll make a list and see if we can pick up on the Stories' major changes. Then we'll gather some supplies and leave." He took a small notepad and a pencil out of his pocket and began to write down the names of the books and the people within them.

Ahiru opened the top book, which Autor had placed on the stack, and browsed through it. "There's some really weird stuff here," she said.

Autor glanced over at her as she skimmed the copy of Rumpelstiltskin. "There is," he said. "But the most ironic book is the next one down."

Ahiru blinked. "Huh?" She looked at the cover of the current top book on the pile. Her eyes widened in shock.

The title it bore was The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by E.T.A. Hoffmann.