Monsters of Morningside
The Battle at Kakola's Cave
The Monster's wings billowed out and its mouth opened. With a soft rushing sound, it exhaled. But no ice-fire issued from its jaws. Instead, the shimmer of its form began to vanish, and for a moment Alex thought that it was too late for Kakola.
Then—Alex saw by the movement of the faint shimmer that revealed the Monster's body—it inhaled.
Alex stumbled forward, for something within him was being drawn forth, suctioned through his skin. He saw tendrils of color and light stream out before him, twist into a coil, and begin to fill Kakola's empty shape with substance. And he felt colder.
The suction stopped; Alex sagged and almost fell. With surprise he thought: I'm still here! And then Kakola inhaled again. Out from Alex's body flowed more rivulets of color and light.
The cavern began to fade from his vision. All he could see were the colors spiraling out of him and reforming, becoming the visage of the monster: its horns and snout and mane and teeth and tongue.
At the second pause, he dropped to his knees. He thought he heard a distant clamor of high voices, and wondered who else had come to the cavern; but then Kakola drew yet another breath, and the sensation of whatever made up Alex's insides being sucked away obliterated his wondering. All that existed for him were his dreams leaving him, and the monster becoming flesh.
Again, there was a pause. Alex was on his hands and knees. Before him, the monster's feathers and scales flashed once: gold, green, amethyst—and then the colors faded. Everything, even Kakola, looked gray. Alex thought: I'm turning into a Baku.
What did Kakola's eyes look like now? With a great effort Alex looked up. The eyes were black but full of stars—full, too, of a wild, fierce joy: a flicker and flow that was like a rainbow at midnight: his own eye-light.
The sucking began again.
Alex felt his senses drifting away—his body becoming numb, sounds receding. Then there was a moment of profound silence and stillness when he realized that he, the being who knew himself as Alex, who loved monsters and coloring, was not alone.
The Dream Teacher was with him. Though all other noises from the outside world were nothing but a far-away rustling, he heard her song.
He heard it more clearly than he ever had while awake. Listening, though the world around him looked gray, he felt color stirring deep, deep within him, in the middle of the center of his deepest self.
Kakola paused and lowered his great head to look closely at Alex. In the monster's eye-light was a spark of astonishment and delight. It opened its mouth again.
At that moment, a huge feline form leapt out of the shadows and landed on Kakola's neck. It was the same gray cat that had twice chased Alex from the enchanted wood. Now its claws and teeth tore into Kakola's gleaming, scaled body. The monster and the cat thrashed together.
And: the cat wasn't alone. A troop of little beings was scaling the monster's tail and legs, stabbing and slashing with small weapons.
She made a quick gesture, and the Zoombies scrambled to follow her as she strode quickly toward Alex and his companions. The look on her face was as frightening as anything he had seen that night.
"It's the Vagabond!" he heard Linden exclaim as she reached them. "She's a shape-shifter!"
But she didn't even look at them. She looked directly at Mountain Bell, said: "Get them out!" and walked right past them.
Alex realized that there was movement among the trees that lined the rise of land south of the cave. And he realized that the earth beneath him had just grown colder.
"Little Shadows come!" said Mountain Bell. "They are death!"
"But Raksa—" said Alex.
"Raksa: maybe. Powerful mage. But not you. You. Must. Go. Now!" And with that, she shoved him so hard that he was catapulted forward several feet, and fell to his knees—right in front of something that looked as out-of-place as anything could in an enchanted forest.
Hovering a foot off the ground was a faintly luminous, metallic sphere, about five feet in diameter, with a rectangular opening and dark windows. It cast a soft light over the mulch directly below it.
There was a crackle and a burst of heat next to Alex's left ear, then another to his right, and a third behind him. He turned to find Mountain Bell with raised hands and a dangerous expression on her face.
"Okay, okay!" squeaked Linden, hurrying forward with Drew. He climbed into the sphere and poked his head out. "Alex, come on!"
Alex trundled in. There were two bucket-shaped seats and a ledge that ought to have been a dashboard—but it was utterly smooth; he could see no controls of any kind.
"Sit down!" said Linden, already settled in one of the buckets. Even before Alex had arranged himself in the adult-sized seat, Linden deposited Drew in his lap. "You hold her, she's your sister," he said. "I have to fly." He pulled his goggles down and laid both his hands on the blank dashboard. The rectangular opening closed itself. No door came from anywhere; the hole simple closed over. Then, the scenery outside began to move.
"Slow," Linden murmured, as though to himself. Alex felt the craft wobble, rise, and begin weaving through the trees.
Holding Drew with both arms, he twisted around to try to see what was happening below. The Zoombies were scampering up a tree... and there was Mountain Bell, waving her glowing hands as though to guard them! But she wasn't alone. Dimly lit shapes emerged from the shadows—all kinds of forest creatures! They gathered in circles, facing outward.
Where was Raksa?
There: a gray shape in the midst of dark trees, she walked toward a tall, black, man-shaped thing and opened her arms. Brilliant light blossomed around her, hiding everything. And then Linden's flying sphere swerved and turned, and that was the last that Alex saw of Raksa.
"Alex Hollow, come!" The voice in his ear startled him. Suddenly he was aware of arms around his middle; he felt them as though through layers of thick, winter sweaters. Again with great effort, he turned his head. It was Mountain Bell. She pulled and pulled on him.
He thought: I'm not a ghost! I'm still me! Intent! And he stood. He had to lean on her, but together they staggered to the mouth of the cave as roars echoed around them.
"Linden!" he shouted, or tried to shout. His voice came out like dry cottonwood leaves. His friend was right there at the entrance with baby Drew, who had stopped crying. Linden had wrapped her in his hoodie. Linden's mouth was wide open and he kept looking back and forth between Alex and Mountain Bell, and the spectacle within the cave.
Once outside, Alex turned around to look too, sinking to the ground at the same time, while Mountain Bell protested and tried to haul him up again.
The first thing he saw was Kakola spewing ice-fire—it looked white hot since everything looked black and white to him now. The ice-fire was aimed at the cat, which dodged, whipped around and sank its teeth into one of Kakola's wings. Sparks and cinders sizzled mid-air.
"My Zoombies—"Alex croaked, and tried to claw his way back into the cavern.
"No!" Mountain Bell cried. "Not safe! Go to Magic Bubble! Alex Hollow, Linden Lighthouse, baby Drew. Go now." She kept pulling. But neither Alex nor Linden moved.
Rivulets of dark liquid ran down the Monster's curved neck. It beat its wings and tried to rear, but instead its hindmost legs buckled.
The cat was merciless.
It launched itself once more and gained purchase on the Monster's neck. It tore with teeth and claws, over and over, until finally Kakola fell and lay still.
"Now!" said Mountain Bell. "Now go! More dangers are coming! Almost here!"
Alex allowed her to help him stand, though his eyes were still riveted to the fallen Monster, lying in the midst of inky puddles, piles of ash, and Zoombies. The great cat, meanwhile, shook itself from head to knobby tail, took two steps forward, and transformed into a tall, raggedy woman.
All Alex could think of to say as he, Linden and Drew glided through the woods in the little ship was: "Magic Bubble."
Linden didn’t answer. The half of his face that Alex could see looked very serious, even though he wasn't actually moving his hands. Alex wondered how sure Linden was of the way home… and decided it was best not to bother him any more; he almost seemed to be in some kind of a trance.
Besides, Alex felt too tired to do anything but hold onto Drew.
He liked having her in his lap. She was warm, and she was breathing easily, and she only squeaked a little. Through the windows he watched the forest with its islands of decorations go by, all black and gray now, with little pinpricks of white.
The baby was quiet, but her big eyes roved and searched all over. Maybe she was making up for sleeping so much for so long.
So did that mean that she would be keeping everyone up all night all the time now? Would Mom and Dad just be tired all the time? Always and forever?
Drew made a sudden movement that was almost a hop, and squawked.
For some reason, that made Alex look down through the window. "Stop!" he cried.
Linden jumped; the ship wobbled; everyone yelled. Then Linden went straight-faced again. "What?" he asked very calmly.
"Go down!" Alex gasped. He could hardly speak. His heart was about to leap out of his chest.
Linden craned his neck to look below.
"Oh," he said. And the ship gently descended.
When the motion ceased, the side door opened. Alex lifted Drew to his shoulder and climbed out.
His mother, in her pajamas, half-lay in the undergrowth a few yards away, leaning up on her arms, her shadowed face a mask of disbelief. Alex walked toward her as quickly as he could manage—he didn't trust himself to run yet—and she got to her knees and stretched out her arms. She did not quite make it to her feet; she seemed as unsteady as Alex was.
He met her and put Drew into her arms, and Drew made a positively happy noise, and Mom's face was dirty and streaked with tears, and there were leaves and twigs in her hair, and she smiled and sobbed and gently held baby Drew very close with one arm. With the other she pulled Alex just as close. She smelled like the forest in summer.