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Alex Hollow
Monsters of Morningside

and the 

SIX
the Vagabond

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The stranger advanced on Alex and Linden. She was very tall and very bedraggled.

Alex clenched his fists. "That's my bridge! I can go over it!"

Linden grabbed his arm and tugged him backwards.

The stranger's eyes narrowed as she took another step toward them. "It is not your bridge, and you are not allowed to cross at night."

Alex felt his feet taking him backwards alongside Linden. He glanced at his house, pictured himself and his friend dashing to the back door and getting inside too quickly for this person to follow. Out of the corner of his mouth, he whispered: "Run for it!" Together they took two staggering strides, nearly falling over because they were holding onto each other, and were each swept off of their feet, swung through the air, and set squarely on the footpath that followed the River.

"You will go back to all the people. To your grown-ups." The stranger gave Linden a gentle swat on the back of his head. Linden took a couple of steps along the path. When the woman followed, he said in a shaky voice: "I'm not allowed to go with strangers."

"Then you go quick and leave me behind."

Alex and Linden looked at each other and ran along the path. After a little while Alex looked over his shoulder to find the strange woman not a few yards off.

"You're still following us!" he hissed angrily.

"Of course I still follow! You must move quicker to escape me."

Linden's mouth made a half-smile. Again he and Alex exchanged a look. This time they walked on slowly, and checked over their shoulders to see if the woman was catching up.

"What's your name?" Alex asked.

The woman didn't answer.

"Where do you live?"

She smiled. "Not far."

"Do you live in the forest?"

She tilted her head as though considering her reply, then said: "I do."

"Are you a homeless person?" Linden piped up.

"I just told you: I live in the forest."

The glow of the Festival began flickering through the bushes.

"Alex Hollow, listen," said the stranger. "You have a black stone with a hole—"

Linden broke in: "I have one too!"

She smiled crookedly. "Excellent. I thought so. But you do not know how to use them. Stop here." She reached inside her ragged jacket, fished around for a moment, and then held out her palm.

Alex jumped.

She held what looked like two silver buttons. Linden reached, but she snapped her hand closed and held up four fingers of her other hand. "You must know four things. One: when you want to see your friend, you hold your stone and whisper his name."

"They're called Whisper Stones!" said Alex with awe.

"Two: the little clocks attach to the stones. They tell you how much time you have."

"Those are clocks?" said Linden.

Alex said: "I know how to read clocks!"

"Excellent. Three: when you want to see your friend, use your stone to break something."

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Linden tucked his chin in. "You mean we have to break a window?" he squeaked. Alex could see his mind start working on how to get away with that.

"Window? Not recommended. I suggest something small. But it must be something of value. Four: while the stones are activated, stay together. Now." She opened her hand. "Take these. Do not lose them on the way to your grown-ups."

Alex and Linden took their little button-clocks at the same time.

 

"Hey!" said Linden. "Do you know my Dad?"

"I do not."

"Because he invented Whisper Stones."

"Not so. They are ancient relics of my people."

Alex was peering closely at his button; at least by starlight, it looked unmarked. It felt cool, even though it had just been in the stranger's fist.

"My dad's an inventor," said Linden.

"Put them away and be off."

Linden's Mothman costume had no pockets, so Alex tucked both buttons into one of his.

"Now go." The stranger gestured with her chin—again reminding Alex of Daoshi—toward the Festival.

"How do you know—" Linden began, but the stranger raised her hands like claws, putting Alex in mind of how she'd twice lifted them bodily and placed them where she wanted them to be. Linden seemed to have been similarly reminded; together they turned and skittered along the path away from her, kicking up clouds of star-lit dust.

However, after a few seconds of clumsy running, an almost unbearable curiosity arose in Alex. What had she meant by "my people?" He slowed enough to turn around. Seeing her following not far behind with her easy, long-legged stride, he called: "Are you from the other—"

But she lunged, her big hands again outstretched and her teeth bared, and made a sound that was so much like an animal's snarl that Alex almost fell again before doubling his speed. In seconds, he and Linden reached the parking lot and ran as fast as they could toward the Library. As they arrived, Linden grabbed Alex's cloak, pulling him to a halt and pointing at the big front door.

Mr. and Mrs. Lighthouse and their goblin were just going in.

"Okay," said Linden breathlessly, "Here's what we do. We run inside, catch them before they get to Miss Bessie, and tell them we were looking for them outside. Got it?"

After one last look into the shadows behind him, seeing no sign of the stranger, Alex nodded. They broke into a run again, dashed up the Library steps, yanked open the door, and burst into yellow light and the smells of books and babies. They barely caused a stir; parents were tracking knee-to-ankle-tall children, trying to talk with each other and corral their offspring at the same time. Over the clamor, Miss Bessie's strawberry-sweet voice called out one name after another.

Linden bounded through the melee and grabbed the back of his father's jacket; Mr. Lighthouse turned and smiled at his son, saw Alex and smiled at him too. The whole group about-faced and made their way back into the Autumn night.

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"You call me first," said Linden. "I want to hear what it sounds like."

Linden's face was lit blue by the color-changing lamp on his desk. The boys were sitting in the middle of the floor with a bowl of chocolate chip cookies on a wooden chessboard between them. Each held a Whisper Stone. The silver buttons shone bright against the black stones.

"I'll go in my closet, " Linden jumped up and ran to the closet door. "Ready?"

Alex nodded, picking up a cookie; Linden closed himself inside. Alex brought his stone to his lips and whispered: "Linden Lighthouse." Then he set the cookie on the chessboard and smashed it.

 

The effect was instantaneous and terrifying. Linden's bedroom vanished, and Alex was surrounded by darkness. But he was glowing; his hands in front of him, and his whole body, seemed to be made of filaments of multi-colored light. In his luminous right hand he saw the bright button.

Linden yelled—right in his face. For there was Linden, faintly lit, his eyes and mouth hugely round. Alex was with him in his closet. Linden yelled again.

"Sh!" said Alex, afraid that Linden's parents would hear.

Linden's hand shot out, went right through Alex and yanked the door knob. With a third yell he burst out of the closet.

Alex turned and looked into the bedroom.

 

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There he was—or there was his body, sitting cross-legged on the floor, the black, buttonless Whisper Stone in his right hand. Linden stood over him, still wide-eyed. He pointed at the seated Alex. Then he pointed at Alex in the closet. He stammered: "Are you—are you—"

Alex heard footsteps—Mr. Lighthouse, he thought, still two long hallways away; the Lighthouse house was enormous. "Sh! Can you hear me?" his voice sounded as though it were caught in a sea-shell, both quiet and echoing.

Linden, shaking like a dry leaf in wind, nodded. "Are you dead?" he squeaked.

"No, I'm right here!" said Alex. But suddenly he was unsure. "Check! See if I'm breathing. Hurry!"

The footsteps kept coming.

Linden knelt and, trembling, touched Alex's body's hand.

He nodded reassuringly. "Warm. And you're breathing. Okay."

Mr. Lighthouse had arrived at the bedroom door. Alex found that he could see or sense him in some way—it was like seeing eye-light—and at the same time also see his immediate surroundings. But Alex was less concerned with this than with getting caught. He backed into the closet until he was sure none of his light could be seen. Linden dashed to the door just as it opened.

"Linden Lighthouse—"

"Sorry, Dad, sorry for all the shouting," Linden babbled. "We were—playing—ghost—scaring each other—sorry! We'll go to sleep now!"

There was a long pause.

"If you're going to misbehave, you have to be a little more subtle about it," said Mr. Lighthouse. "The main problem is: you'll wake Jordan." Alex could tell he was holding his finger to his lips. "Pretend to go to bed now. Clean up those crumbs. Goodnight, Alex!"

"Um, he's too scared to talk right now. Goodnight, goodnight!" said Linden.

Mr. Lighthouse chuckled, and the door clicked closed.

Alex's sigh of relief felt about the same as a normal sigh, but sounded like faraway wind. He walked out of the closet. With each step he drifted a bit; he thought he could float if he wanted to… but Linden still looked terrified, so he walked over to stand next to his friend and gazed down at his body. His body's face looked very calm.

"Can you… go back in?" asked Linden.

Feeling an odd mixture of fear and glee, Alex sat down right inside his body. But when he lifted a hand, only the incandescent hand moved.

"Ooo, come back out, come back out!" Linden whisper-squealed.

Alex drifted to kneel beside himself, and peered at the blank Whisper Stone in his body's hand. "Oh yeah, the clock buttons!" he said. "Let's check them!"

Still trembling, Linden placed his hand alongside Alex's. With the exception of Linden's being still affixed to his stone, their buttons were identical: a black dot stood out on the edge of the bright face, and in the middle, a tiny black needle swiveled just like the second hand of an ordinary clock, only more slowly, its tip now halfway to the dot.

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"That's how much time we have," said Alex. Turning his button over, he discovered a set of tiny symbols, these not black but shiny white, as though etched in light. "What are these?" He glanced at Linden and laughed. "You look like you should sit down."

Linden sank to the carpet and heaved a sigh. For a few moments they frowned at Alex's button. The symbols made Alex think of a big Pac-Man eating a medium sized Pac-Man, which was eating a small spiral, all three shapes connected by a line. Presently Linden said, "Maybe it's… letters? From a different alphabet?" He turned his stone over and over in front of his nose. "I wonder how they work."

Alex shrugged. "Well, they're magic!" It was obvious.

"My dad says there's no such thing as magic," said Linden. "Everything that happens happens in nature. That's what he says." He got up and started pacing around the room.

"Well," said Alex, "he told you the wrong thing about using the Whisper Stones. You don't just whisper into them."

Linden looked from Alex to Alex's motionless body and back. "Maybe he didn't say that. It was a long time ago. I forget. Maybe he told me something and I got it wrong."

"Well, he didn't have the buttons."

Linden shook the stone next to his ear. "Maybe the buttons are batteries. Hey, what did that weird lady call them?"

Alex had to think for a moment. "…Relics?" Although he didn't know what a relic was, he remembered the word because she'd said it was from her people.

"Relic," said Linden slowly. Then he shook his head. "I don’t know that word. I'll ask my mom."

But Alex was now thinking about the haggard stranger.

"She really didn't want us to—oh!" Alex felt a forceful tug in his middle. The next instant, he was sitting in his body. A wave of tingling warmth passed through him; he shivered and flexed his fingers and toes. His stone was complete again, the silver button now blank.

"Hey, cool! Weird, but cool." Linden was barely fazed this time. "Didn't want us to what?"

"To go over that bridge."

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In fact, over the next few weeks, the long-legged, shaggy-haired stranger-woman became Alex's biggest obstacle to returning to the place she called the Great Dark Forest. Dad was so tired from working and taking care of Alex that he usually went to bed right after tucking Alex in. 

The first time Linden called, Alex was in his Escape Tree, so that was where Linden ended up, his light-filament form intermixed with the tree branches, moonlight shining all through him. Alex lost his grip and nearly fell. Meanwhile Linden's shouts swirled around like wind in a tunnel. Alex recovered enough to hush him; any noise from the vicinity of Alex's room was sure to bring Dad. "Just float down," he hissed. "Hey, is there anything on the back of your button?"

"Yeah!" said Linden, alighting gently at the foot of the tree. He held it up as Alex clambered down beside him. The same three symbols, arranged differently this time, shone out at them.

"My dad says these remind him of Crop Circles!"

Alex gasped in horror. "You told your Dad?"

"No, no, no! I just drew them, like, when I was drawing inventions and cryptids and stuff. He just saw them and said they look like Crop Circles."

"What's a Crop Circle?"

Linden's luminous eyes widened. "No one knows!"

Alex didn't know what to say to that, so he said: "Okay! Let's go to the bridge!"

Crouching low to creep across the yard, Alex looked hopefully at the gap between the far-side sentinels. Nothing yet—only blue-gray forest shadows. Just as he and his translucent friend arrived at the bridge, there was a quiet rustle, and a lanky form arose out of the brambles to their left.

It was the stranger, of course.

"So," she said, taking a casual stance and folding her arms, "you enjoy your Whisper Stones with the little clocks I gave you."

Alex eyed her suspiciously. "What are you doing here?"

"Me? I guard the bridge. I see you have learned how the little clocks work."

"It's my bridge," Alex interrupted. "Well—it's my dad's bridge!" He folded his arms. The stranger squinted and smiled. Linden, meanwhile, drifted past the carved sentinels.

"Do not stray from your friend," the stranger called over her shoulder to Linden. "If you run out of time and you are not together, you never get back to your body."

But Linden turned around, shrugging. He said: "There's nothing there. Just the regular woods. Anyway, I don't want to go without Alex."

A little flower of warmth opened up in Alex's chest as Linden floated over and stood next to him.

"Wise boy. Without your body, you could not use the Whisper Stones with the silver clocks."

"Oh!" said Alex, "What are the shapes on the buttons?" He elbowed Linden ineffectually. "Show her!"

Linden held up the silver disc; the stranger bent to look and made her eyes very wide.

"Ah, yes," she said, drawing back, nodding her head and folding her arms. "Yes, I know these symbols."

"Are they Crop Circles?" said Linden.

"Are they magic spells?" said Alex.

She pursed her lips. "This knowledge you must earn. If you want to know the secret of the symbols, you must promise to stay out of the Great Dark."

"What?" said Linden.

"Why?" said Alex.

"Do you want to know about the symbols, or not?"

"Yes!" Alex jumped.

"Then promise."

Alex and Linden gave each other sideways looks, drew a breath as one.

 

"We promise."

"Very well." The stranger held up a finger with the air of a teacher. Alex held his breath.

"The large one is Kamya," she said in solemn tones, "the maker of large things."

"Kamya," said Alex, jumping again. "Is that a magic word?"

"Is that a planet?" said Linden.

She made a swift zig-zagging gesture with her finger, startling Alex. "Listen! Kamya is the maker of large things. The small one is a maker of small things."

Alex peered past her, at the bridge. Maybe the portal would open up while she was teaching about the symbols.

"The spiral," she went on, "is Jana, the thing the small maker makes."

The bridge and the forest beyond it, meanwhile, remained ordinary.

Snap! Alex blinked as the long fingers flicked under his nose. "Look." She pointed at Linden's button; both boys looked closely. "Listen. I tell you the secret meaning. The Principles of Kamya: the maker accepts, and the maker releases.  Understand?"

"Uh huh," said Alex, not wanting her to snap again.

"Say it. The maker…" she held up one finger.

"Um…"

"Except," said Linden, rolling his light-eyes at Alex.

"And the maker…" she held up two fingers.

"Um…"

"Re…" said Linden, and Alex smiled. Linden didn't know the second word.

"Releases. Say it."

"Releases," said Linden.

Alex kicked a clump of dirt. "What does all that mean?" He was getting tired of new words that had nothing to do with the bridge or the Monster or the Great Dark Forest.

The stranger stared at Linden, who looked this way and that and down at his button and said: "Um, we're running out of time, see?"

Alex checked his own stone; the little needle was indeed getting quite close to the dot.

"Very well," said the stranger. "Accept is take in. Release is let go. Understand? Now. Back to your house." She unfolded her arms and straightened up so that she was as tall as a bear. Alex's gaze was drawn to her long, knobby hands. Still.

"I don't have to do what you say, " he said. "You're not my mom."

The corner of her mouth twitched. Her eyes glinted. She lunged.

Alex stood his ground; however at that instant, Linden gasped and vanished. Alex scowled up at the looming woman. "You go back to your own forest," he said, "where you don't even have a house!" And, holding his head high, he turned on his heel and marched to his Tree.

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The next day, Linden called Alex in the middle of a martial arts lesson.

Things were already going badly. At the end of the first round of drills, Daoshi told Oz to take Alex aside and show him Wash the Hands.

Wash the Hands turned out to be a series of hand movements that Oz demonstrated with blinding speed.

"More slowly, Mr. Ford," said Daoshi.

Oz winked and showed Alex one fluid hand movement; Alex copied; Oz showed him the second technique, and made Alex drill the two together ten times. They were on the third technique when the hairs on the back of Alex's neck stood up as he spied in the mirror, behind his own reflection, a glimmer of multicolored light.

Alex lost his breath. Catching the transparent Linden's reflected eye, he made desperate go away motions with his hands. Meanwhile the two smallest students turned their heads and went wide-eyed; no one else showed any sign of seeing Linden. Oz laughed. "That's not in the pattern!"

Daoshi's shaggy eyebrows drew into a deep frown. "Mr. Hollow." He barked. "What is this technique you are demonstrating?"

The reflection swiveled around and phased through the door—the one that opened on the short hallway to the bathroom and the workshop.

Alex gulped. "Um, can I go to the bathroom, sir?"

Daoshi gave a curt nod. Alex felt the sharp eyes following him as he raced for the door.

Linden's apparition was not in the hallway, or in the bathroom. Checking over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching, Alex tiptoed to the Workshop and gingerly opened the door, using two hands to keep it from squeaking.

The lights were off; Linden cast a pearly shine as he walked slowly around, gazing at the artifacts and art supplies, saying: "Wow. Wow."

"What are you doing here?" Alex whispered.

Linden held up his button. "Look! More symbols!"

Alex shook his head. "I have to go back to class!"

Linden passed his hand through a pale green figurine. "Do you do karate every day?"

"Only when there's no one to take care of me."

Linden looked at him with a kind of gentle curiosity and surprise. Quickly Alex said: "My dad just has to work a lot. My Grandma Kuku is coming to help him. And my mom will come home soon." 

"I wish I could take martial arts lessons," said Linden.

Alex's hands were getting clammy. If he didn't get back to class soon, Daoshi would send Oz to look for him. Or come looking himself. And Alex did not want to get into trouble with Daoshi. The lumpy old man gave off a feeling of always holding something in check—something that was quite wild.

"I have to go back, and you have to hide," he said, bouncing nervously.

 

Linden gave him a thoughtful look. "Maybe we should plan when to use these Whisper Stones."

"Yes!" Alex exclaimed. "So I'll call you tonight! After bed time! Okay?"

"Okay."

"Okay, bye! Hide… um… under the workbench!"

Linden waved. Alex crept to the door, cracked it to peek into the hallway, and saw no one. So he opened it, looked right and left, and started for the dojo.

Then he nearly jumped out of his skin; there was Daoshi, holding his staff in a fighting stance, his eyes on fire. He'd come out of nowhere.

Or maybe out of the bathroom.

"I was—I was—" Alex stammered, but couldn't come up with what he was pretending to have been doing.

"Stand aside!" Daoshi muttered. "There must be a bandit in the Workshop!" He strode past Alex. "Did you catch him? Did you tie him up?"

All Alex could do was shake his head frantically. How much time had passed? Maybe Linden had gone back to his body already… what if he hadn't? Daoshi's hand was on the doorknob.

"I was—I was being bad! I wanted to draw pictures! That's why I went in there! Sir!"

Daoshi turned slowly. "It will not do," he said quietly, "to lie to me, Mr. Hollow."

"I'm not lying, sir! I mean I did. I was bad, sir. I'm sorry!"

Daoshi narrowed his eyes and turned the doorknob. Alex was sure there was still a faint glow coming from inside.

He was right. Past Daoshi, he could see Linden crouching under the workbench, shedding pastel light all over the pots and tools that were stowed there.

"Ummm… wow, did you notice that wierd light? I think it comes from one of your plants, you know how some plants glow—" Alex chattered insanely. But then he noticed Linden putting his finger to his lips, while Daoshi walked calmly into the studio and turned a slow circle, humming to himself.

Alex realized: Daoshi can't see Linden! Only kindergarteners can. Except what about the raggedy lady?

Alex had a feeling, though, that Daoshi knew something was up. The old man stopped in front of him.

"Well, I'll go back to class now—" Alex began.

Daoshi's hand went swiftly up, silencing Alex. Then, to Alex's utter bewilderment, the old man knelt down and placed the hand on Alex's shoulder.

"Chánito. Listen well and understand. Nothing that you do or say could remove you from Daoshi's heart." (Mom had been right; Daoshi had a nickname for everyone. Chánito, Daoshi had explained, meant "Little Cicada." A cicada was a special kind of insect.)

Alex gaped. He had no words; he scarcely had any thoughts.

The hand lightly slapped his cheek. "Now: back to the dojo, and give me twenty push-ups."

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Alex, in his light filament form, found himself inside a flashlight-lit, Linden-sized blanket tent on Linden's top bunk. Linden sat cross-legged, a big, battered library book open in front of him. Without even blinking, he looked up at Alex and said: "Astral."

"What?"

Linden pointed, and Alex tilted his head to look at the book. The print was tiny, and there was a lot of it, with just one picture, showing a ghostly figure hovering over someone who was lying down.

Alex made his customary confused face; Linden explained: "Astral Rejection is when you leave your regular body and your astral body goes places. Look here. Your astral body is made of light."

"You can read all of that?" Alex squeaked. By now he was used to Linden knowing things and reading big words, but this was extreme.

 

"Well, my mom helps. Only with the hard words."

Alex's squeak rose an octave. "You told your Mom?"

"No! I am not telling my mom and I am not telling my dad! I just ask questions! I asked what if you saw something like a person you can see through that's made of light, and she took me to the Library!" He flipped through the soft, yellowish pages. "There's a lot of stuff in here! Also, the Vagabond was wrong. Except means more like leaving out than taking in. I asked my mom."

Alex screwed up his astral face. "Wait. What's Babagong? Is that in the book?"

"My mom told me—I did not, not, not tell her about the Whisper Stones! I just said I saw a messy-looking person at your house. She said it was a Vagabond. So now we know what to call her."

"I guess," said Alex.

Linden threw off his blanket, which of course passed right through Alex, and climbed down.

"Hey, what's on your button? I'll show you what was on mine, when I went to your martial arts class." He opened his desk drawer as Alex drifted down, and, reaching all the way into the corner, brought out a tightly folded packet. He turned on his color-changing lamp and spread out a large sheet of well-colored drawing paper.

Alex couldn't contain a delighted laugh. The page was full of Linden's drawings and notes—almost all of which Alex could actually read—about Whisper Stones. Alex held out his button, and Linden added to the page a new configuration of the same three figures.

When Linden had finished drawing, they stood together in silence, frowning down at the symbols.

"This is except," said Alex, "and this is re—release…"

"Leave out and let go…" said Linden.

Alex shook his head. "Maybe… maybe the Vabagong—"

"Va-ga-bond," Linden sounded out.

"Vaba—Vaga-bond. I think she doesn't know all of English. She talks sort of like Daoshi. Maybe she doesn't know the word for take in."

"You mean maybe she got 'except' wrong—"

"But 'take in' is right. Take in, let go." That felt correct to Alex, though he couldn't have said why.

Linden said: "I wonder why the clocks are saying that."

Alex gazed at his button. "Kamya, maker, Jana... It's about making things—"

Linden interrupted: "What does making things have to do with Astral Rejection?"

Alex had no answer to that, but it made him remember Linden popping into the dojo.

"We need a plan," he said, "so you won't just end up in my Escape Tree or Blackmask."

"Right!" Linden tapped his pencil on his chin. Then he shrugged. "We only call each other after bedtime."

"And we take turns," said Alex. "Then we won't get scared to death."

"So tomorrow I get to call you," said Linden. "Oops! We're almost—"

Pop.

In a nanosecond, Alex was standing at his own desk, looking down at the silver disc in the black stone.

"Out of time."

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With these two rules solidly in place, and with Kuku and Dad generally very sleepy at bedtime, Alex and Linden got to see each other almost every night. Also, Alex had many opportunities to attempt again to cross the bridge—though always in vain. Often, on cloudy nights but also sometimes on clear ones, the portal simply didn't appear. When it did, so did the Vagabond. Alex got used to running into her and collecting more of her cryptic and mostly unhelpful advice.

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"Are you the one who keeps closing and opening the portal?" he demanded one night.

As usual, she was leaning against one of the sentries, keeping her eyes on the other side of the bridge. "If I had that power," she said, "I would keep it closed all the time." She glanced at Alex. "To little children, anyway."

A pale yellow Zoombie made an appearance just then, bursting out of the weeds and rustling up the carved sentry. Like all the Zoombies, it shed a very faint light. It stood on top of the sentry for just an instant—the Vagabond watched with mild interest—then scampered away into the other world. Alex felt a zing of jealousy.

"So how come it's never open when you're not here?" Alex asked.

"Because when it is closed, I need not keep you from—"

But she didn't finish her sentence. With a hissing noise, she dashed across the bridge, one claw-hand raised over her head.

Alex stood there dumbfounded for one second before running after her.  But the moment he set foot on the bridge, there was a flash of brilliant, golden light. His eyes full of starbursts, he tripped and fell, and sat there waiting for his vision to clear, listening for what might be happening in the other world. But he heard only ordinary wind from the ordinary world—and Grandma Kuku's robin-chirp voice. "Baby X! What are you doing out there?"

Then Alex had to run to the house before Kuku's chirping could awaken Dad. Alex told Kuku that he must have been sleep-walking, and Kuku believed him. Kuku believed everything.

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On another night as he turned the stone over in his hands, Alex noticed a hair-line crack in the smooth black surface. The next time he used the stone, he discovered that Linden's was the same. They confirmed that the cracks grew every time the stones were used.

"I think it means something," said Linden, squinty-eyed.

"What?" said Alex with a sinking feeling.

"I think we're getting less time—"

"Every time we use them?"

They decided that Linden, who had a watch, would keep track, and discovered, to their great disappointment, that he was right.

 

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Astral Alex floated back and forth in front of Linden, who sat at his desk before their Whisper Stone document, pencil in hand.

"Moonlight," Alex said, "clouds and rain and snow: no portal. Stars and no moon: the portal is there. And the Vagabond is there too. We need a plan to get past her."

Linden jumped off his bed and started pacing in the opposite direction. Both of them giggled as Alex walked through Linden.

Linden said: "Brainstorm."

"What's a brain storm?"

"It's how my dad figures things out. You write down every idea you can think of. Nothing is too silly or too dumb. Then, out of all those ideas, a plan will begin to emerge." He bit his lip, still pacing. "Knock her out," he said.

"Yeah. I know martial arts." Alex had gotten a little better at sparring since Daoshi was forcing him to drill with Oz all the time.

"Steal one of those long sticks from your karate teacher."

"Or just tie her up."

"Distract her."

"Say: 'Look over there!'"

"Or use fireworks!"

"Or Zoombies!"

Linden scrunched his face in. "Are they really real?"

Alex spread out his ghost hands in exasperation. "Why don't you believe me?"

Looking uncomfortable, Linden checked his clock button.

"Time's almost up. Okay, I believe you. Show me a plan with your Zoombies. Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow."

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Alex pulled from his backpack a pillowcase, set it right next to the paper on Daoshi's workbench, and laid out a handful of colored pencils, at the ready.

He needed Zoombies of a particular kind. They had to be monsters that he really, really liked, they had to be very, very fierce, and they had to not run away.

He sat down, closed his eyes, and waited for the moment when could see these particular monsters clearly with his inside eyes. He whispered: "Intent!" and took the pencils in his hands. As they looped and circled and zig-zagged, a familiar, tingling buzz warmed his fingertips.

He colored and colored until a kind of stillness moved up from his hands through his whole body; then he lifted his hands, and the Zoombies arose: seven vividly colored monsters.

Lightning quick, Alex swooped the paper up around and over them, whisked the whole package into the pillow case, and twisted the top closed. Then, as the pillow case jumped and jittered and rustled, he looped the rubber band around the twisted fabric to make double sure that there was no chance of escape.

He was surprised to find himself winded and slightly dizzy as he sat on the stool staring at the pillowcase. Every time he thought the Zoombies might have calmed down, the pillowcase jittered again. Finally, hearing Daoshi's staff and Kuku's footsteps in the hall, he had to squeeze the case deep into his backpack and zipper it up tight.

He might have been calm when he made them, but he hadn't made them to be calm.

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Alex slept all night long, but not peacefully. He dreamed that he and the  DreamTeacher were both in a large cage, and he was making Zoombies, and each one, as soon as it lifted out of the earth, turned and showed him a wide mouth full of sharp teeth. Then the Zoombies tried to bite him. He wanted desperately to wake up.

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End of Chapter Six

Coming April 30, 2022:

Chapter Seven

Goblin Power

© 2021 by Katherine Hahn