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Alex Hollow
Monsters of Morningside

and the 

NINE
The Dreamstealers

Alex started awake with a gasp, staring at a featureless grayness. He knew something horrible was about to happen.

"Alex."

Mom's voice! The grayness was the ceiling in her room. Warm relief rippled down his  spine as he rolled over to face her. Her eyes looked glassy and red, with shadows at the corners, but she smiled and touched his face. "Bad dream?"

Alex sat up to look at the Goblin; she looked exactly the same as she had when he had checked on her last night.

"Mom," he said, "there was something in here last night."

Her eyelids fluttered. "Mm hm. Tell me."

"It looks like a ghost. I think it's making the Gob—the baby sick."

Mom pulled him into a hug. "Drew is going to be all right. I've been calling the doctor every day, and he says we have a stubborn virus. I promise if she gets really sick I will take her to see him." She set him apart and closed her eyes.

"Is a virus a kind of ghost-thing?"

Her eyes blinked open. "No, Alex. A virus makes you sick. But your sister is going to be okay."

"But there was something in here. I saw it."

"Sometimes we have bad dreams."

"It wasn't a bad dream."

"Hush. Drew is sleeping so well. I want to sleep a little more, too."

Her eyes closed again. Alex fell silent as Dad's footsteps sounded in the hall.

Without opening her eyes, Mom asked: "Are you hungry?" Her voice sounded far away.

"Let your mom rest, Alex," said Dad from the doorway. "I'm taking you and Reese to Pancake City. Go and get dressed."

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The first thing Alex did when he got to his own room, though, was to fish his Whisper Stone out of his backpack, grab a shard of plastic from one of Z's arrangements, and smash it. Nothing happened. He smacked his forehead. Something of value!

It took another minute to spot a little animal that Mom said he'd made out of clay when he was four. She said it was a wolf. He smashed that.

Someone shrieked.

He was standing in the middle of Linden's kitchen table, staring at Linden and Mrs. Lighthouse, who looked very much alike with their fuzzy blond hair standing up and their eyes and mouths wide open. The only difference between them was that Mrs. Lighthouse wasn't looking at Alex; she was looking at Jordan in her highchair at the end of the table. A hailstorm of milk and Lucky Charms was just landing on her head, the chair, the table and the floor.

"Jordan Lighthouse, what on earth!" said Mrs. Lighthouse.

Tightening his astral cheeks against a bubble of laughter, Alex looked at Linden and pointed upwards. Then he zoomed through the ceiling. On his way he heard Linden's declaration: "I have to go to the bathroom!"

He found himself in the master bedroom, and had to shoot down the hallway to Linden's room, where he started pacing.

Moments later, Linden came running in, slammed his door shut and threw himself onto the bottom bunk, wheezing with laughter. He rolled back and forth. "Did you see Jordan's face? And my mom?"

Alex joined him on the bed. "I have an emergency."

"Jordan had a cereal explosion!" Linden mimicked a bomb going off.

"Emergency!" said Alex.

"Okay, okay." Linden settled down.

Alex glanced at his clock button. They were already almost out of time. He had to get his story out fast. "It wasn't Z. It was a ghost-thing. I saw it in Mom's room last night. It—it sucked something out of the baby."

Linden's eyes went wide.

"I have to find a way to stop it."

"Okay, listen," Linden jumped off of the bunk and started pacing. "I've been learning how to—"

But at that moment Alex found himself back in his own room staring at the cracked stone on his palm. His heart started hammering.

What was he going to do without being able to talk to Linden?

There was a knock on his door.

Pancakes!

"Almost ready, Dad!" he called.

"I'm not your dad."

It was Reese—though Dad was now calling from below: "Boys, let's go!"

Alex ran to open the door.

His uncle was leaning against the doorframe with his book under one arm, looking both serious and mysteriously pleased. "Are you okay? Because I've been knocking for a while."

Dad's footsteps thumped up the stairs, and then there he was, behind Reese.

"Alex! What did I tell you? Go and get dressed!"

"I've been standing here knocking and knocking, Ben," said Reese.

"Uh-huh. You can go downstairs, Reese. I think Alex needs my help."

Alex backed up as Dad came in and closed the door behind him.

"Dad, can—" Alex started.

"Clothes, X. We want breakfast while it's still breakfast time."

Alex grabbed a shirt and pants from his dresser. "Can Linden come over?"

"Underpants, son."

"But can he?"

"Put on your clothes."

Alex hopped around getting into his pants. "But can you call Mrs. Lighthouse and—"

"Shirt. Socks."

"Can we have a sleepover tonight?" Alex said through his shirt. He was stuck. Dad's big hands untangled him and pulled the shirt down where it belonged. Alex said: "I really need a sleepover with Linden."

"We will talk about it after breakfast, if we ever get to eat. Socks."

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At Pancake City, there were, of course, crayons and a paper menu. While Reese bowed his head over his book, Dad played tic-tac-toe and connect the dots with Alex, thus preventing any more discussion of Linden coming over, until after Alex had devoured a stack of blueberry pancakes with strawberry syrup and whipped cream.

"Dad?"

Dad looked up from poking at his Buckwheat Pecan Special.

"Can Linden come over for a sleepover?"

"We'll discuss it later."

Reese half-smiled, still looking at his book.

"But will you call Mrs. Lighthouse?"

Dad laid his fork down and looked at Alex.

"Please?" said Alex.

"Alright, we're discussing it now." Dad gave Reese an apologetic look, which Reese didn't seem to notice. "First of all, your Mom and your sister aren't feeling well, and I'm not at my best either. It's not appropriate to have a sleepover when someone in your house is ill."

A shiver ran up Alex's spine. Should he tell Dad about the ghost-thing?

"Even if no one was sick, I'm sorry, Alex, but the answer would still be no. Your behavior lately is very concerning."

Very concerning? How bad was that? It didn't matter. Whenever anyone said "behavior," it was bad news. But what had he done since Winter Break had started that might be bad… that Dad knew about? Alex fingered his necklace and glanced at Reese. He was sure he felt a little zing of mischievous eye-light.

Dad was looking at him with raised eyebrows. "Middle of the night visits to our room, waking up your sister, and climbing out your window at three in the morning are bad enough. Yep, I know about all of it," he added as Alex's mouth fell open and his stomach dropped. "But what concerns me most is that I think all of this might be connected with your imaginary friend."

Alex tried to match his father's intent gaze. "Dad, you don't understand. Zarazura is not imaginary. I made him."

Reese made a choking sound and covered his mouth.

Alex squinted at him and went on, because Dad was listening now. "I made him. I can make things when I'm coloring and most of them run away but this one stayed and I named him Zarazura and I thought he was being bad and going in your room and waking up the Goblin and making her sick but it wasn't him it was…" he gulped, remembering the black-hole eyes. "It was this ghost-thing. It was sucking something out of her."

Now Dad covered his mouth. His eyes squinted and his brows drew together. He looked like he was going to either laugh or cry, or both, like Mom. Meanwhile Reese had his head down and was definitely trying not-very-hard to hide his snickering.

Alex had the sensation of his own breath being sucked out of him. His eyes watered. "Did it get you too? What about Mom—"

"Alex, stop." Dad actually held his palm out, as though Alex were a truck that was about to hit him.

Reese let out a guffaw.

"For god's sake, it's not funny, Reese," said Dad, with an edge of real anger. He wiped his eyes. "Lots of kids have imaginary friends. Sometimes they even talk to them. But Alex, I think your imagination is getting out of hand. It's not good for you. And what you're doing with your imaginary friend is hurting your family."

Alex felt like Dad had just punched him. "I don't want to hurt—" he started. A dry sob took over the rest of his sentence.

Dad reached across the table and put his hands over Alex's. "I know your don't really want to do anything bad, X." He said. His eyes were red and shiny; Alex felt a sharp pain in them and it frightened him. "But do you see why it's not a good idea to have Linden over right now? Mom and Drew need to get well, and you need to deal with what's real."

Dad raised a hand for the bill even though he hadn't finished his pancakes.

Alex tried one more time. "Can you please—"

Dad interrupted. "I just said no. That's the end of it."

Alex spent the next few minutes blinking back tears and swallowing sobs. Reese made no more noise, and looked unusually pale.

As they left the restaurant, Dad put his arm around Alex and squeezed, which undid all of Alex's hard work at not crying.

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Alex was sweeping the Shed when Linden popped in. Alex yelped.

Dad and Reese looked up from the baluster they were sanding.

"I have to go to the bathroom," said Alex, and he ran for the door. Astral Linden zoomed ahead of him, shot upward and vanished through the side of the house.

Passing Mom, who was asleep in the easy chair with the Goblin, Alex bolted up the stairs and dashed to his room, hoping desperately that Linden had found some way to help him stop the ghost-monsters.

He found his friend drifting around in circles. Alex closed the door and both of them sat on his bed.

"Okay," said Linden. "The ghost-thing is a Dreamstealer. It's in this library book I found. How you stop it is by not going to sleep." Linden looked at his palm. "We hardly have any time. But don't worry—"

Linden blinked out, leaving Alex alone on his bed.

Don’t worry?

Alex got up and started pacing, trying to remember everything Linden had just said.

Dreamstealer. You stop it by not sleeping.

 

But all Mom and Drew do is sleep! I have to wake them up!

He darted out of his room, only to hear the back door close and footsteps in the hallway downstairs.

"Alex, oh Alex!" called a singsong voice. It was Reese.

"Up here!" Alex zipped into the bathroom and flushed the toilet.

"Coming!" He ran down the stairs.

Reese stood on the landing with his hands in his pockets.

"Ben wants to know if you're okay. Also he wants to know if you're up to something."

Alex squeezed past him, ran to the easy chair where Mom and the Goblin were, and shouted: "Wake up, Mom!"

She rubbed her eyes like child.

"Wake up, Drew!" He jumped up and down and stomped his feet.

"Oh, Alex." Mom sighed and closed her eyes.

Alex went berserk. He ran to the instrument box and grabbed a tambourine and a hand drum and commenced banging, dancing and whooping. Drew squeaked and whimpered. Mom got up with a groan and pried the drum out of his hands. Reese frowned darkly and headed back outside toward the Shed.

Moments later, Dad's hands closed around Alex's ribs, lifted him and carried him out into the yard, where he set him down and looked at him in a desperate way. There were purple marks around his eyes, just like Mom's.

Dad's quiet question was much worse than a shout: "What is wrong with you?"

Alex had no answer.

Padding to the Workshop after an hour's hard training with just Daoshi and Oz, a feeling of calm settled over Alex. He felt the way Mom looked when you knew nothing would stop her.

He knew what he had to do: he had to find the only person who could help him.

The welcome sound of papery scurrying greeted him as he closed the door and crossed the room, not bothering to turn on any lights. Already he sensed the Dream Teacher close by—somewhere in the shadows, or somewhere within him, or both.

Zarazura bounded from a shelf down onto the workbench, his vibrantly colored tendrils bouncing. Then, out of the shadows came the three Zoombies Alex had made the night before.

"You stayed!" Alex whispered. "Thank you for staying! I need your help! I'm sorry I thought you were making the baby sick, Z! It was Dreamstealers all along, and you were helping, weren't you? By waking her up?"

Zarazura pumped his tiny fist in the air. "Wake up!" he chirped. "Help!"

"I need your help again! But it's different this time. Did you ever go across the bridge to the other world? The sparkly place?"

Z's eyes turned soulful. "Yes!"

"Okay. Can you talk to other Zoombies?"

Z nodded enthusiastically. "Talk!" He waved his hands and his three companions gathered around him. "Zero, Zoo, Zippy."

"Those are good names," said Alex. "Zero, Zoo and Zippy. And Zarazura. I need to find someone who lives in the other world. She's… very, very tall, and raggedy, and—"

Z interrupted him. "Make!" he jumped and pointed at the paper that gleamed on the workbench.

Minutes later, Alex and the Z-Zoombies were gazing avidly at the new, foot-tall Zoombie who stood on the workbench wagging a stern index finger.

Alex said: "Z, this is the Vagabond."

"Vagabond," said Z.

 "I want you to find her—the real Vagabond. She's like me, except she's a big, tall grown-up. I want you to tell her Alex Hollow needs her help."

"Help," said Z.

"Help," said the new Zoombie, with a smile that reminded Alex so much of the real Vagabond that he shivered. He grabbed his backpack and opened the top.

"When the stars come out at my house, go to the other world," he said as the Zoombies trundled in. "Find the Vagabond. After that, find all the Zoombies you can. Tell them we need help fighting a whole bunch of monsters. They are monsters who steal dreams."

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After lunch the next day, Dad went for a drive and came back with Kuku. While Dad and Reese went to the Shed, Kuku got some baskets from the Atrium and took Alex across the bridge.

"So, Baby X," she said, picking up a sparkly rock, "I gather you are quite out of sorts."

Alex picked up a plain black one: "Do you know what a Dreamstealer is?"

"Afraid not. Do you?"

"It's a ghost-thing that steals dreams. And the only way to stop it is to not sleep."

"So it's a ghost that's bothering you." Kuku hummed thoughtfully, examining a shard of mica. "Well. For that we need salt, sage and rosemary."

Suddenly Alex felt better than he had all day. "What are sage and rosemary?"

"They're herbs! You have them in your kitchen! After dinner I'll show you what to do."

"Really? You're going to help me?" He felt so happy that his eyes stung.

"I will always help you, Baby X. Tonight we will make bundles of salt, sage and rosemary, and we will set them in your room."

"And Mom and Dad's room," said Alex. He added two perfect pinecones to his basket.

"We will put them everywhere you say they should go."

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It was bedtime, and Kuku was outside placing herb bundles around the house because Alex had asked her to, and Alex was putting them on the family room window sill, when he looked up to see Reese leaning against the bookshelf with his arms folded. "What are you supposed to be, some kind of witch?"

"No," said Alex. He headed to the dining room.

Reese followed. "Then what are those stupid little tea bags for?"

"It’s not tea. It's rosemary, sage—"

Reese interrupted. "I know what it is! It's stupid and useless."

"Kuku says it will keep the ghost-things away."

Reese laughed. "Kuku is nutso." His fingers made spirals by his temples.

Alex's jaw dropped and for a second he was speechless; then he got angry. "Don't you say that about—"

"Nutso! Nutso!" Reese leaned forward and lowered his voice. "For your information, rosemary and sage never stopped anything, and anyway those things are not ghosts."

"How do you know what they are? How do you—you saw them?" Alex stared wide-eyed at his twelve-year-old uncle.

"Maybe I saw something. Maybe I didn't. Maybe you'll believe anything crazy Kuku says and anything I say because you're gullible and stupid."

Alex didn't know what gullible meant, but stupid was one of the words Mom didn't allow. He straightened up and put his hands on his hips. "Stop saying stupid!"

"Stupid," said Reese. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."

Alex growled.

Reese snickered.

But Alex had too much to do to waste more time arguing with Reese. He went upstairs to place bundles in all the bedrooms.

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While Kuku was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, Alex took out his Whisper Stone and selected a perfect seashell from a row of them on his top bookshelf. Linden had probably read everything about the Dreamstealers by now, and would know whether salt, rosemary and sage would really keep them away. But when Alex struck the seashell with the stone, there was a sound like marbles falling into a bowl, and the Whisper Stone crumbled into a hundred pieces on his desk. Only the silver button was left whole. He was still staring blankly at the remnants when Kuku came up behind him in her paisley pajamas. She cocked her head.

"Very interesting," she said. "Is this also to stop ghosts?"

Alex shook his head sadly as he swept the debris into his desk drawer.

"Kuku? Are you sure the herbs will keep the ghosts away?"

"As sure as I can be, Baby X."

"But how do you know?"

"Why, because my Kuku used those herbs, and I never saw a single ghost."

Alex looked at her seriously.

"But maybe no ghosts ever tried to go to your house."

"Well. We had brownies and imps and sprites and gnomes. But no ghosts. And—I say. That is some necklace you have."

Alex had been twisting and untwisting it. He lowered his hands.

"It's my treasure that I found under the Black Tree. Grandma Kuku, have you seen the other world? The one across the bridge?"

Kuku's eyes twinkled as she got onto Alex's bed. "There's a whole other world in my head, Baby X! And in yours too! It's called imagination!"

Alex blinked at her. Did she mean it was all made up, like what Dad said about Zarazura? He leaned forward to peer out of his window. Through tree branches he saw ragged fragments of gray clouds in the sky.

The portal just had to be open tonight so the Zoombies could go through and help him find the Vagabond! But he couldn't just depend on them. He had to go, too. 

"I think we should go to bed now, Kuku," he said.

"Right you are!" she yawned. "Keeping ghosts away is tiring work."

Grandma Kuku was supposed to sleep with Alex in order to make sure he wouldn't be climbing out of his window any more, and she was so tiny that they were sharing his twin bed. His pillow was at one end and hers at the other, with an extra quilt. She turned off the lights, climbed up and began to settle herself cross-legged next to him.

"You don't have to sit there," said Alex. "I just want to go to sleep." He faked a huge yawn.

"Aren't you scared?"

"No. I think we have enough herbs."

"Well then." She shimmied under her quilt and put her hands behind her head. "I'll tell you a story."

"Grandma Kuku," said Alex, "I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I don't want a story tonight. Can we sing my mom's lullaby?"

Alex didn’t know anyone who had ever stayed awake through that lullaby, except himself.

"Well, alright. How does it go?"

Alex smiled in the darkness and started singing.

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Besides Kuku's goose-honk snores, the house was silent as Alex pulled his big sweater over his head, put on his slippers and grabbed his flashlight and backpack.

At the last moment, he went back to his bed for Heavy.

Climbing over his window sill, he could see the star-flecked sky above and the painted bridge below. Icy air slapped his face; he turned and pushed the window closed as best he could. He didn't want Grandma Kuku to feel cold and wake up.

Then with Blackmask stealth, he climbed down and sprinted across the yard, over the bridge, and into the layered, starry darkness of the enchanted forest.

 

He skidded to a halt as something stung his insides—like a single thorn amongst the swirling streams of eyelight.

 

There was a soft rush, as of wind stirring dry leaves. Alex brandished his flashlight and clicked the button, but it would not turn on. As he stowed it in his backpack, he descried hints of people scurrying away: the hems of cloaks just vanishing among bushes or behind trees, a hand here, and a foot there.

Cautiously he moved forward. "Vagabond!" he called softly. "I need you!"

Continuing his slow walk, he kept calling, searching the glimmering darkness, trying not to shiver with the prickle of eyelight that was like cold needles.

"Hello? I'm Alex Hollow! I need to find the Vagabond!"

On he went, and it seemed to him that the woods grew more silent— except for his thin voice—and cold, until all at once he realized two things: his hands had grown numb; and in the distance, the forest lights were winking out.

Something moved nearby. He stopped walking and peered all around.

"I'm the human child," he said. "I need this tall old lady who lives here. Do you know—"

"Alex Hollow," said a soft voice from the shadows to his right. He turned and found himself looking into a pair of light green eyes.

It was Mountain Bell, wearing a hooded cloak that covered her wings. "Come!" She grabbed his hand; hers felt both hard and fuzzy, like the branch of a sumac tree. She led him quickly north alongside the River. Through the trees on the other side he saw not the ordinary world, but fold upon fold of the magical forest. He felt dizzy: he hadn't gone far, but he was a world away from home.

He started to ask: "Where are we going?"But she tugged sharply on his hand and he hushed.

After a few more minutes, she led him down between the roots of a giant tree and into a hollow, where she crouched and motioned for him to do the same. A few tiny points of light winked out of the earth-smelling darkness. She whispered: "You must go home."

Alex shook his head. "I need to find the Vagabond!"

Mountain Bell's eyes narrowed. "Vagabond. Tall old lady?"

Alex nodded.

"Raksa. Raksa says: human child go home!"

An angry heat erupted in Alex's chest. "No! I'm not going home!"

Mountain Bell's eyes sparked. Alex heard something pop behind him, and a green light bloomed. For an instant, his otherworldly companion looked impish and mean. Alex looked over his shoulder; on the root above him something flickered: twiggy tendrils that looked at first like they were made of green fire. But even as Alex looked, their luminescence faded.

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"See!" said Mountain Bell. "Dangerous! The Great Dark is no place for human child!"

But the magical plant thing that had glowed and then stopped glowing did not frighten Alex. He turned back around and met Mountain Bell's gaze. Intent!  "I need. To find. Raksa!"

She squinted at him. "Why?"

Alex spoke in a rush. "I need her help. There are Dreamstealers—ghosts-things—that are coming to my house and stealing dreams from my baby sister. And I think from my mom and dad too."

Mountain Bell's eyes had widened as he spoke. "Dreamstealers? Ghosts? Say more."

"They're see-through," said Alex. "And their eyes are black holes, and they have a—a red mouth." For some reason, just thinking of that dark red mouth turned Alex's insides to ice. He touched his necklace.

Mountain Bell swallowed hard. A kind of horrified wonder was in her eyes. "Dreams. Now I understand."

"But where's the Vagabond? I mean Raksa?"

"Raksa… here and there… we never know…"

"You don't know where—"

Mountain Bell's hand shot out and covered his mouth. She tugged her hood over her face and pulled Alex deeper into the hollow with her.

"Feel this cold?" she hissed.

Alex was so desperate to find Raksa that he'd forgotten how cold he felt—like his clothes were made of ice.

"This is Little Shadows," she said.

What? Another kind of monster?

Mountain Bell craned her neck out of their hiding place, looked around, and faced him again. "Come with me. Quick. Silent. Now."

And she took his hand and pulled him with her out from the roots.

Quick, silent. Alex thought of Traverse the Swamp, and did not stumble as they raced uphill. They reached the crest, and Mountain Bell guided Alex down a steep slope. Not long after, the ground leveled out and she slowed her pace, gazing all around. She pointed to a cluster of multicolored lights not far off; as they approached Alex saw that it was a grove of trees that were all lit up—just like Christmas trees! Finally Mountain Bell stopped in the midst of them. And Alex, though winded and bewildered, could not help looking up with delight through the branches laden with lights, brilliant, frosted berries, delicate snowflake-shaped pendants, and more…

Mountain Bell took both of his hands in hers and made him face her. "I cannot go further," she said. "My trees miss me. But from here you can find your way home. Listen."

Alex drew a breath to protest, but she hushed him.

"Raksa made magic. To find portal: blue lights. Tiny. Like far-away stars. Follow."

Alex clenched his eyes against angry tears. "I'm not going home!"

"Alex Hollow! You stay, Little Shadows eat you, ghosts steal baby's dreams! All bad! Listen. Walk under decorated trees. Bad things don't like them. Go under these trees, follow blue lights. Go home, now! Little Shadows come!"

"How many dangerous things are there in this place anyway?"

Mountain Bell laughed grimly. "Many, many. Now go—"

"Wait. Will you please, please tell Raksa that I need her help?"

She smiled. "I will tell. Will you please, please go home?"

Alex kicked the soil and made a noise that sounded almost like "yes."

Mountain Bell looked stern. "You go! Listen: do not follow red! Raksa made red to show the Monster's lair. Dangerous. You follow blue!"

Alex's stomach jumped pleasantly.

 

Monster's lair?

She pointed to his right. Following her gesture, he saw a tiny light, cobalt blue.

"Go now!" When Alex didn’t move, she frowned deeply. "Now! I watch!"

"Okay, okay!" said Alex, and started off. As he approached the blue light, it faded; another appeared several yards off. He looked over his shoulder; Mountain Bell stood there under the glistening trees, her green eyes gleaming from beneath her hood.

He went on, following the blue lights, looking back every once in a while. When he could no longer see her slight, cloaked figure, when there were many trees between them, he directed his steps toward a tiny, ruby star. He would just pick up the trail of blue ones later.

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From one red pinpoint light to the next, Alex made his way up a tumbled terrain. His legs were starting to ache—but it wasn't long before a silvery rustling sound lit an ember of joy in his heart. He stopped to scoop Heavy out of his backpack, then started running uphill toward the next crimson star.

The slithering sound continued. He ran and ran, always thinking he was almost upon the Monster, only to see its shimmer yet a little further off—until suddenly a silver swirl right in front of him made him stop in his tracks.

Alex had nearly run into one of the Monster's enormous wings, and now, with a rushing, rustling sound, it turned to face him. Its sinuous form, defined by silver ripples as it moved, like moonlight on a black lake, loomed over him. Waves of longing flowed into Alex from its strange, wonderful eyes.

Alex swallowed in a dry throat. Holding Heavy out in front of him, he stepped even closer and said: "Hello, Monster. I'm Alex Hollow." He swallowed again. "I brought you a very good present. His name is Heavy."

The monster stretched out its long neck; Alex shivered as its shining face came within feet of him. He held the stuffie higher. "Here. It's for you."

The monster sniffed the stuffie, like a cat sniffing a stranger's hand.

Its eyes narrowed. It reared its head back and opened its mouth—see-through, needle-sharp teeth caught the starlight—and with a hiss it released a tongue of silver flame.

Alex let go of Heavy just in time. The weird fire engulfed the stuffy; it burst into fragments of fluff. The fluff never reached the ground, but flared into pinpoints of silvery light and dissolved to nothing. What Alex felt was not heat, but a coldness that burned. He was frozen, rooted to the ground, and dumb.

The Monster closed its mouth and turned away.

Then Alex ran—blindly, forgetting all of Mountain Bell's instructions. He tripped and fell, righted himself, and heard his own voice sobbing.

How could Heavy be gone?

The next time he stumbled, it was over the paw of an enormous cat, which he had not seen because he was crying. He fell and scrabbled backwards through the dirt. The cat (that cat, the one who'd chased him out of the Other World before) lowered its head, hissed, and gathered itself for a pounce. Shocked out of his tears, Alex leapt up and fled. The cat harangued him, diving at him from this side and that, so that he could not go the way he wanted—until he realized that he was running alongside a dark river, under trees bedecked with ornaments. On his other side the big cat stalked him, taking one loping stride to five or six of his.

His breath burned his throat and his face stung with cold and the salt of his tears. He began to stumble again. But then he saw it: a blue star. He made for that, and after that the next one, and the next, while the cat growled and hissed, still following him. The fourth cobalt star hovered right next to the river; across the water lay a fallen tree. Alex flung himself upon it and clambered on hands and knees to the far bank, got up and ran again.

The blue lights vanished; all the lights vanished. He had found his way back to the ordinary world—but not to the woods near his house. To his left, eastward, the edge of the moon appeared over the black silhouettes of buildings. Sparse snowflakes spiraled through the air. Still he ran.

He ran right into something large and warm. Strong hands closed around his shoulders. He wriggled to get free, to no avail.

"Chánito!" said a gruff, astonished voice.

Doashi!

Alex looked up into the shadowed, haggard face and began to cry in earnest.

"It burned up my Heavy!" he sobbed, over and over as Daoshi guided his steps. Whenever he had to gasp for breath he heard: "Come, Chánito," and "There now, Chánito," and "You are safe. I will take you home."

He was hiccupping when they came out of the woods behind a row of shops; Alex recognized Blackmask's big back window, through which so many Zoombies had escaped.

Fishing keys from somewhere in his bulky winter coat, Daoshi let them in and turned on the workbench lamp. There might have been a flurry of faint color around the legs of the stool, but Alex didn't care. Feeling another sob arising, he plopped down on the cushion where Daoshi usually sat.

"Quiet, now," said Daoshi. Alex became quiet. He rubbed his eyes.

Daoshi bustled around a little more, produced a large jacket, and wrapped it around Alex. Next he brought a cup of water. Then he picked up an old fashioned telephone and an old fashioned index card file, and dialed, and waited for a long time while Alex's eyes followed the faint stirrings of scribbly shapes from shadow to shadow. Finally Daoshi hung up and folded his arms, frowning.

"Your parents, they are at home?"

Alex nodded.

"No answer. Ach. New baby, sickness, relatives visiting. They sleep the sleep of the dead, no? I take you home in the morning. You sleep here. First, get warm. Drink." And he drew up a stool and watched while Alex tipped the cup. After the first sip, he drained it in a few gulps. "Very good. Now, Chánito! What were you doing so far from home?"

Alex gazed at his teacher and did not answer. In the past few days, he had re-learned a hard lesson: grown ups will not pay any attention to stories of ghosts, monsters, and other worlds.

Except Kuku. And the Vagabond, Raksa.

The thought of her, and how he'd lost Heavy and not even found her, made his eyes and throat burn.

"Eh?" Daoshi squinted at him. "Tell Daoshi. What has happened to you?"

Alex shook his head. Suddenly he felt terribly sleepy, and could not think of a clever lie. But he had to say something.

"I was just looking for someone," he said to his empty cup.

Daoshi waited another minute, then slapped his knees. "Well. Sleep now. Cushion is good, no?"

It was just the right size for Alex to curl up on. He watched from beneath the big jacket as Daoshi turned off the light, sat down on the floor against the wall and stretched his legs out in front of him. "I sleep too," he grunted, and tucked his chin into his collar. Alex thought he could see a whiskery smile in the shadows of his teacher's face, and the glint of beady eyes.

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Riding home through pre-dawn grayness on Daoshi's motorcycle as almost enough to make Alex forget Heavy, the monster, Mountain Bell, the absent Raksa, the mysterious Little Shadows, and his mission to save the Goblin from the dream-stealing Dreamstealers. He had to concentrate on holding fast to Daoshi's waist as the buildings, roads, meadows, trees and hills rumbled by.

When Daoshi parked the bike, took Alex's hand and led him to the front door, it all came crashing back. However, he'd recovered some of his wits.

"Wait, Daoshi." He started fishing through his backpack as though looking for a phone, one of which of course he did not own. "I'll call my Kuku and we won't wake up my Mom and Dad." He'd pretend Kuku was going to meet him in the back yard, and then he could use the Escape Tree to get back to his bedroom.

Unfortunately, Daoshi's bony knuckles were already pounding on the door.

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That day was perhaps the strangest Alex had ever spent at home. Dad, who had answered Daoshi's knocks with his eyes only half open, had stayed awake long enough to clasp Alex in a long hug, and then to declare that Alex would spend the next week doing nothing but chores. But Dad left the chore list and the supervision up to Kuku, and by breakfast time was asleep on the couch.

Meanwhile, something clicked in Alex's mind: the decorated trees in the other world. Mountain Bell had said "Bad things don't like them." And so, is spite of what Dad had said, the first thing Alex did after breakfast was to start making ornaments. He got out his crayons, paper and scissors. Soon his desk was littered with colorful shapes.

"What are you making, Baby X?" said Kuku from his doorway.

"Ornaments," he replied. "I'm going to make a hundred ornaments and decorate all of our trees."

Kuku clapped her hands. "That's the best chore I've ever heard of! But you need more supplies!" And they moved his project to the atrium, where there were lots of craft supplies.

Thus the day slowly passed. Alex got a kink in his neck and cramps in his hands from coloring and cutting and tying knots in thread for hanging the ornaments. Every now and then, Reese would find some reason to pass by the atrium door and snort or shake his head. Alex didn't care. He only stopped to eat a raspberry cream cheese sandwich.

The afternoon light was dwindling when he figured he had one hundred ornaments ready to hang. He put all of them into three paper bags, and while Kuku was making dinner he went out into the back yard.

The sky was dusty-blue; a brilliant star shone out next to the top of the Mountain. Alex got to work, placing his ornaments carefully one by one: stars, snowflakes, plain shapes like circles and squares, candy canes, monsters, and things that didn't really look like anything except colorful scribbles. Kuku had helped him attach beads and bells to some of them. And they'd painted pinecones, walnuts and acorns with glitter paint, and strung popcorn.

He would decorate all the trees on both sides of the river. Bad things would never want to come to his house now.

He was fondly affixing a chicowkin to a low branch when he heard from behind him Reese's signature outbreath of disdain. But Alex didn't turn around.

He didn't care about what Reese had to say, or about getting into trouble. He just had to keep the Dreamstealers away.

Reese said : "This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen."

Alex took another ornament out of his bag and looked for the best branch.

"What are these supposed to be anyway?"

Alex found the best branch, moved around the tree.

"They don't even look Christmas-y. They look like stupid, ugly scribbles."

Alex kept his eyes on his ornaments.

"You're pathetic," said Reese. "You're just a stupid, helpless, pathetic little kid doing all this stupid decorating for nothing—"

"That's enough!" said a voice Alex didn't recognize.

He dropped his bag and spun around. He hadn't recognized his father's voice because he had never heard so much fury in it.

Dad was crossing the yard—and not dragging his feet but striding angrily. He looked quite frightening and haggard, with circles under his eyes and stubble on his cheeks. He loomed over Reese; Reese backed up a step, looking wide-eyed up into his brother's face.

Dad said: "I don't know how you operate at home, but in my family we do not treat others that way. If I hear it again, I'm taking you home."

A flicker of something like pain or fear crossed Reese's face; then it twisted into a sneer.

"I'm done with you people anyway. Crayons and sheds and sandwiches: it's all a big nothing. It's worthless. You're worthless. Go ahead: take me home. The sooner the better."

"Fine," said Dad. "Get in the house and pack your things."

Reese stood still a moment looking at the ground, his face working. Finally he flashed Alex a fierce scowl and said in a low voice: "It's not going to work, you know." And he stomped away.

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Dad had not commanded Alex to go inside, so he stayed out until the very last ornament was perfectly placed, and the trees along the river, from their lowest branches to as high as Alex could reach, glistened under the deepening black and growing starlight like a swatch of the other world.

Inside, Alex found a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. Meanwhile Kuku brewed strong coffee and filled a travel mug for Dad, while Reese, red-faced and tight-lipped, packed his belongings. Mom and Drew were not downstairs.

Alex looked out the window at his hundred ornaments.

If those Dreamstealers tried to come to his house tonight, they would be in for a surprise. They would see every single tree decorated, and they would float right back into the Great Dark. Alex wanted to see it happen.

"Alex, come and say goodbye to your uncle," said Kuku, screwing the top of the travel mug on. She held out her hand. Alex didn't resist. All he wanted was for bedtime to come so he could give Kuku the slip, go outside and watch what happened when the Dreamstealers tried to come.

"Goodbye, Uncle Reese," he said.

"Whatever," said Reese, not looking at him.

Dad took the mug, ruffled Alex's hair and kissed the top of his head. "Be good, X."

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Luckily, by the time Alex finished loading the dishwasher, Kuku was nodding in the rocking chair. He tugged on her hand and told her he was going to bed. She stretched and smacked her lips and followed him upstairs.

His throat ached as they passed Mom and Dad's room.

Kuku put her head next to his, and whispered: "We should check on them, shouldn't we?"

Alex nodded. Together they eased open the door.

The room was a patchwork of  faint starlight and blue shadows. The sky through the window was starry black... Alex tiptoed over to draw the curtains. He paused at the basinet. It felt like a long time since he had seen the Goblin.

Her blanket rose and fell, rose and fell. And yet. Something felt different.

What happens to someone when their dreams are all stolen?

Mom was also breathing quietly, her dark hair spread out on the pillow and her hands curled next to her face like a little child. All in an instant, Alex's eyes filled up and tears spilled down his cheeks.

"Baby X!" Kuku whispered from the doorway, holding out her hand.

He wiped his eyes, and they left the room.

He dropped Kuku off at the bathroom so she could get ready for bed, and shuffled to his own room.

On his bed lay a book.

He picked it up. It was heavy and old-fashioned; the letters of its title were raised a little from the fabric cover, and glazed faintly gold.

Dark Beings of the Great Dark

With a chill that started in his middle and ran all the way to his toes and fingers and the roots of his hair, he opened it.

On the inside cover, two names had been written, one in ink that was almost gone, another in ball-point pen. He couldn't read the first, but he was pretty sure of the second.

Reese Rykie

There were illustrations on almost every page; in fact the book was mostly pictures, charts and diagrams. Alex flipped through until he found what he had hardly dared hope would be there: a translucent silver monster, winged and horned, with glorious eyes.

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While Kuku snored at the foot end of his bed, Alex tiptoed to his desk.

No one knew where Raksa was, his Whisper Stone was dust, and he had one night to save the Goblin.

He closed his eyes. He did not think about what he should color. He simply moved his hands and listened to the Dream Teacher's low song.

Then came the moment of lift. Up came nine beings. They were not like any of the Zoombies he had made before. Each was different from the other, and all were to Alex's eyes both strange and beautiful.

Alex sagged a little, feeling tired—but he shook himself, sat up straight and whispered: "Stay."

"Stay!" they whispered back. Kuku smacked her lips.

Alex put a finger to his. "Be silent."

They closed their mouths.

At that moment, a faint, bluish light shone on the Zoombies from behind Alex. He whipped around.

There was Linden! Astral Linden, standing in the middle of his room! Luckily Alex remembered not to shout or jump, and Kuku snored on.

Linden grinned like a Cheshire Cat and raised his right palm. In its middle was a disc of silver light—not button-sized, but silver dollar-sized. Lines of brilliance seemed etched all over it, radiating from its center.

All Alex managed to say was: "What!"

"I tried to tell you," said Linden in his far-away, echo-y astral voice, "my Dad's been working like crazy in the Laboratory, and then he just went on a trip yesterday. So I got in. Well, I've snuck in before. Lots. Anyway: this is a real Whisper Stone. It's a prototype. With these, you don't need two! Hey, wow!" He joined Alex at the desk and gazed raptly at the cluster of solemn, colorful beings. "Like, wow!"

The Zoombies' mouths pressed into tight lines.

Alex couldn't help smiling at them. "Let's go outside," he whispered to Linden. "I have to show you something." He grabbed Dark Beings of the Great Dark, told the Zoombies to follow him, and they all climbed out onto the eave.

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"They do what you say now," said Linden in a tone of awe.

"Yeah. Ever since Zarazura." Alex opened the book to the page he'd marked. "This is the monster: Kakola. And these are the Dreamstealers—they're really called Bakus. They have a potion to make people really, really sleepy, see? Like my parents. And they steal dreams from one little child and put them in Kakola's cave. And when the dreams are almost all stolen, they kidnap the child. And then, on December 21st, Kakola has to eat all of the dreams and the dreamer so that he can turn solid instead of see-through."

Linden's eyes travelled over the pages that Alex was showing him, getting bigger and bigger as Alex spoke.

"December 21st is—"

"Tomorrow."

"And the dreamer is your—"

"Goblin." Alex's gaze swept out through the tree limbs to the starry sky. "Drew."

As quickly as he could, he explained everything—from Reese to his sojourn into the Other World, when the Monster, whom he'd so wanted to meet, had burned up Heavy.

"And now there's no time. I have to go to the Great Dark."

"But what are you going to do?" said Linden.

Alex shrugged. "I know how to fight."

Linden shook his head slowly. "No, no, no, not against this. This thing burned Heavy up!"

Alex touched his necklace. "It didn't burn me, though. I think I can… talk to him. Or give him something else."

"Like what?"

"Like… Zoombies." Alex said. "They come from me. It's like I'm dreaming when I make them. So maybe…" he swallowed the sandy lump in his throat. "Maybe he'll like them even more than the Goblin's dreams."

Linden started shaking his head again, and didn't stop. "But Alex. What if it doesn't work?" He hopped up and raised a finger. "We should get a grown up!"

"No!" said Alex. "My dad isn't home, and my mom won't wake up because of that Baku potion." Alex wiped away a tear. "Grown-ups won't believe me anyway… except maybe Kuku…" He tried to imagine his little grandma facing Bakus and Kakola in the enchanted wood, and shook his head. "I don't think we should tell Kuku."

Linden said: "I wish I had my body…"

"The Bakus could be here any minute," said Alex. "I have to go."

"Just a second, let me think…" Linden sounded out of breath, even though he didn't have any breath. "So you're going to go over the bridge and follow those red lights to Kakola's cave and get him to take the Zoombies instead of Drew and all her dreams. Right?"

"Yep."

"Got it." Linden gave him a thumbs up. "You go. I think I might be able to help you. If I can, I will."

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Alex crossed his father's bridge one more time, his nine crayon-colored attendants shedding gentle light around his ankles. They let out almost inaudible gasps as they crossed the portal, and started trotting off in different directions.

The trees all around were now decorated: snowflakes, berries, pinecones, glimmering un-named things...

"Light, light, light!" said one Zoombie.

"Magic!" said another.

"Sh! Come back!" Alex crouched down and waved his arms at them, and they gathered around.

The enchanted wood was even more silent and still than it had been last night. Pinpoint lights winked and pulsed nearby and far off; Alex thought he saw a single pair of luminous eyes glint and vanish, but besides the papery rustles of the Zoombies and his own breath and heartbeat, he could hear nothing stirring. What was more, through the tangled streams of eye-light that flowed as ever over and through him, there was a strange sense of the holding of breath, of waiting.

Alex whispered: "You have to be quiet and stay with me. And if you see any black bags lying on the ground, tell me! And don't step on them! Those are traps."

"Traps."

"Bad black bags."

"Don't step."

"Sh! Let's go!" said Alex.

"Go!" several of them whispered—one said: "Stay!" And off they marched, turning their variously fantastic heads this way and that, looking out for traps. Alex couldn't help smiling as he led them north along the River, keeping to the decorated trees, and scanning the shadows for the first ruby star.

But the cozy light of clustered ornaments belied the deep cold that soon bit into Alex's hands and face and seeped through his slippers. Even more, it clashed with the feeling he was getting from the masses of eye-light; the vague sense of waiting had turned into an unmistakable throb of fear. He twisted his treasure necklace.

Maybe, probably, more decorated trees meant more bad things to keep away.

Well, I've met most of the bad things, he told himself, and they didn't hurt me. I bet even those Little Shadow things wouldn't hurt me. I'm special.

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Alex's feet and hands had begun to ache with the cold when he spotted the first red star. It was several yards away, well out of the shelter of the decorated trees. He stopped and bent to address his Zoombies, pointing at the crimson light.

"We're following the red stars now," he said. "Stay with me."

"Follow!" they said. "Red star! With me!"

And they marched boldly ahead.

As they tracked the stars deeper and deeper into the folded shadows of the forest, leaving behind the islands of soft cheer that were the decorated trees, Alex began to sense something different yet from the dread that had been flowing through the currents of eye-light. This new thing felt very far away: a kind of creeping silence, slowly advancing. One strand of eye-light after another flattened out, became quiet, cold, and still.

"Be brave," he found himself whispering.

"Brave," whispered the Zoombies.

With numb fingers Alex twisted his necklace.

One by one, the forest lights faded.

The moment that Alex realized that the ruby stars were the only lights he could see, his bravery winked out too. He dropped into a crouch and shivered.

The Zoombies surrounded him. "Scared," said one. "Cold," said another. Three of them jumped lightly onto his knees and two onto his shoulders. Two wrapped their arms around his arms, one sprang onto his head, and the last leaned on one of his shins and looked up with huge, magenta eyes.

"It's okay," it said. "We are brave."

"Brave!" said the others.

A laugh escaped Alex—and when his laugh faded another sound entered him: the low, haunting song that he had only ever heard before in dreams and in his coloring trance.

His Dream Teacher had come.

Carefully he stood up. The Zoombies dropped lightly to the ground.

Alex shook away his shivers. "Okay." His voice sounded husky. "We are brave. We can go on."

And they headed for the next star.

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The pin-point red lights led Alex and the Zoombies deep into a ravine and through a maze of enormous, rocky formations. Finally they rounded a jutting elbow of granite, and he saw the cave entrance; it was filled with shifting, multicolored light.

Alex led the Zoombies into a copse just outside the cave. There he halted and dropped into a crouch. As the Zoombies gathered close to him he looked into each earnest, upturned face.

He was not going to give them to Kakola.

"We have to name you," he whispered.

"Name!"

Alex smiled. "Quilly, Quince, Quitzo." He pointed to them one by one. "X-bot, X-bug, X-head. Yogolo, Yaga, Yellow. There." He stared at them a moment longer.

"Yellow!" said Yellow.

A tell-tale silvery rustling sounded from deep inside the cave.

"Thank you for your help," said Alex. "You stay here. I'm going in."

"With me," said X-head.

"No. Here." Alex pointed to the ground in front of them. "Stay here. I'll be right back."

He touched his necklace, set his shoulders, and whispered: "Intent!" One more time he told the Zoombies: "Stay!" Then he entered the cave.

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Kakola's lair was as deep and wide as a cathedral, full of cave-growths amongst which were set countless treasures, strange and beautiful, everything spattered with shifting, colored light. And there, at the far end of the cave, was Kakola. Restlessly the Monster paced back and forth, his magnificent head always turned toward the entrance.

Alex braced for the glint of recognition in the emerald eyes, but it didn't come. Kakola did not alter his movements or his gaze. He either did not see Alex, or did not care that Alex had come.

"Intent," Alex murmured, and crept forward, weaving his way through the menagerie of treasures.

All were at least twice his size. Each shone with its own light of many colors; the colors somehow merged together to bathe Alex in something that felt like honey-thick sunlight through trees.

He knew the feeling well. It was someone's eye-light.

 

The Goblin's. Drew's.

The strange treasures were her dreams.

How could such a tiny goblin have so many dreams?

Alex walked among them; they were very hard to understand—fuzzy, shifting and turning, dazzling. One was simply a glob of golden light. Another looked like the branch of a tree, with orange-red leaves that kept endlessly drifting down. One might have been a column of sparkling rain. Another, which from a distance had looked like an oval of soft brown and lavender-blue, up close became an out of focus, smiling face… Mom.

A little further on, past several blurry amoeba-like objects, he found faces that looked like Dad's and Kuku's.

And finally, amongst clouds and stars and amorphous, fluttering things, a face that was not smiling, but that was surrounded by an azure glow and fuzzy stars. It was him: Alex.

The vision of his own face, as big as Dad's easy chair, indistinct and yet somehow emanating a sense of quiet happiness, drove all thoughts from his mind; he stood there motionless, transfixed, until two things that happened simultaneously broke his reverie.

There was a sudden swell in the Dream Teacher's song, and the phantasmagoric Kakola stopped pacing. Alex looked to the cave entrance.

From the forest outside came the same pathetic cry that had awakened him so many times in the middle of the night. A moment later, into the illumination cast by all of Drew's dreams came four Bakus. Huddled together, they moved like one silvery, ghostly octopus. Their black eyes and red mouths made dotted circles in the middle, and all their hands joined to carry a brown bundle.

 

Alex's sister.

His knees turned watery. Intent, he thought. I am brave! To steady himself he took a wider stance, as Oz would have told him to.

The Goblin was silent; the cry hadn't come from her, but from the Bakus. They made the sound again. And Alex knew why.

The dream-treasures were changing. Though Alex kept his eyes on the little ghosts as they approached with their burden, he both felt and saw the colored light all around him intensify, and the movements quicken. He knew, without directly looking, that he was now surrounded by ethereal objects of almost unbearable beauty. And they were moving toward Drew, and the Bakus cried with desolate longing.

As the Bakus drifted deeper into the lair, the dreams began streaming into their midst like water sucked into a whirlpool. Ribbons of vivid, shining color swirled around the Goblin, gleamed and sparkled against her rosy-brown skin, and vanished, like spots of water on cloth drying in fast motion. She made the softest of cooing sounds as she was carried toward the center of the cave.

Meanwhile Kakola, his silvery eyes glittering and his wings arched above him, wound his way through the stalagmites and stalactites toward them.

Alex dashed silently from one rock formation to another, and beat the Bakus to the middle of the lair. There he dropped into a crouch in the shadow of a stalagmite, and watched Kakola meet the Bakus and the Goblin as the last of Drew's dreams swirled into her—whereupon she dropped right through their ghostly hands onto the cave floor. Her eyes scrunched, she squawked, and then she wailed.

Alex realized he was shaking like a worker with a jackhammer. He grabbed his necklace.

He knew what was supposed to happen next. He'd seen it in Reese's book. But the diagrams and illustrations had not prepared him for the vision of his baby sister sprawled on the ground before the hungry, moaning phantoms and the enormous Monster who had turned Heavy to ash. His heart hammered faster and faster, like a train getting started. He felt Drew's eye-light like a million sunbeams, and Kakola's like an emerald storm.

Kakola spread his wings, arched his neck and opened his mouth.

The Dream Teacher sang.

Now.

From behind the stalagmite Alex stepped in between Kakola and his sister. He swept the treasure necklace off of his neck, bent through the huddled Bakus, and swiftly placed it around hers.

The Bakus scattered like drops of oil from water, and Alex scooped up Drew. A shiver ran through the transparent Kakola. It reared back and with a sound like the hiss of water thrown on fire, released a torrent of silver flame upward. Alex, with the naked baby pinned to his chest, dove between two boulders.

Drew cried. Kakola thrashed and hissed and the lair was lit white by its fire. Ash and rock billowed out and hailed down. Alex scrambled on one hand and his knees toward the cave entrance.

A shout rang out.

"Alex! Here!"

Alex yelped for joy. He couldn't believe it.

Linden Lighthouse—wearing enormous black goggles—was zig-zagging at break-neck speed through the rocks toward him. He slid into a crouch next to Alex.

"Alex, I have—" Linden started. Then both of them ducked as a tongue of silver fire sliced through the tops of the rocks sheltering them. They looked up at each other through a rain of ash and fragmented stone.

It didn't matter what Linden might have brought from the Laboratory. There was only one way that any of them were going to make it out of that cave.

Give Kakola something else.

Alex stared hard at Linden's goggles.

"Take Drew out!" He said. "Hide!" He thrust the squirming Goblin at his friend.

"What! No! What about—"

An ominous sizzling sound filled the air. Kakola was about to spew ice-fire again.

Alex spoke lightning-fast. "I told you, I have a plan! Kakola won't hurt me. But he'll hurt you and Drew if you don't get out now! I promise I'll be there in a minute! Go!"

"How do you know—"

"I have a Friend. You can't see her but Kakola can." The words came out of Alex as though he knew what he was talking about. And, he realized, he did. He was talking about the Dream Teacher.

Linden hesitated for another half-second, then took Drew and pressed her to his chest. "Go! As fast as you can!" said Alex. And he sprang out into the open, waving his arms.

Kakola, writhing and flapping his wings in the center of his lair, looked like a storm made of ice, vapor, teeth and claws.

Alex called at the top of his lungs: "Kakola!"

The monster froze, his head snapping around to look at Alex. And even as Alex stood before the Monster that wanted to devour all of his baby sister's dreams, he felt the sadness and the wanting in those eyes.

Dreams were Kakola's food. With them, he would become again what he once was, ages ago: the most fabulous of monsters, a beautiful beast. Without them, he would keep fading from the world. He would become less than the ghostly Bakus. He would dwindle until he was nothing.

With a strange, fierce feeling that he'd never had before, Alex ran to meet Kakola, and opened up his arms. "Here I am."

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End of Chapter Nine

Coming August 15, 2022:

Chapter Ten

The Battle at Kakola's Cave

© 2022 by Katherine Hahn