Tal woke up from a dream where Kurt and the boy monster were fighting and then everything went terribly silent. He was afraid to open his eyes. Afraid of what he might see. Kurt was always making the monsters mad. It was like he couldn’t see what would happen. Tal saw and he was only five. Tal figured it was only a matter of time before one of them was pushed too far. It was just a question of which one would finally snap. Tal was actually betting it would be the girl monster, the one Kurt called Copper. She only seemed to have two moods: purring happiness and screeching fury and Kurt was always bringing out the screech. Though, to be fair, the boy monster, the one Kurt called Up or Ug or something, was more likely to lash out with a heavy paw than raise his voice. That made him more dangerous in Tal’s opinion. So it did not take a great leap of imagination to picture Kurt and Uz arguing and Uz, Um? Just reaching out and snapping Kurt’s neck. Ub! That was it. Ub would just be sitting there reading and Kurt’s body would be twitching, his head at a weird angle. Tal did not want to wake up to a scene like that. Nature would not let him lie in bed forever though and he eventually had to open his eyes.
The cave was empty. No signs of violence. Kurt wasn’t in bed, so maybe the monster had dragged him off somewhere. At least Tal didn’t have to see it and he didn’t waste another thought on it. Time alone in the small cave was precious. He grabbed a breakfast of mushroom bread and milk and pulled a small bundle from under his lumpy sleeping mat. Taking them both into a corner, he sat down with his back to the fire and opened the bundle. It contained a set of almost new carving tools that had been given to Kurt and a stone that Tal had picked out himself. He chose a file, popped some of the squishy, gray bread into his mouth and got to work on his rock.
At some point, he heard the scrape of claws on the iron ladder that meant Copper coming down from her sleeping chamber. She knocked around at the stove a bit, maybe added some more coal and then cleaned up the kitchen. He paid her no real mind. His attention was fully on the stone. It was coming together pretty good he thought. His skills were improving. It wasn’t ready to show to anyone yet but he was happy with how it was progressing. He bore down a bit harder on a rough patch that was taking too long to smooth out and it snapped.
He couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want to believe it. Looking down at the pieces in his hands made him wish he knew some curse words. He wanted to scream. He turned them over. It was a clean break. The snapped edges sharply defined but smooth to the touch. He should have seen it sooner too; the lines in the stone traveled the same direction as the crack. The stone must be weaker in that direction. There was nothing to do now but find another stone. Copper must have gone back up the hole for he didn’t see her anymore. He put his boots on over his feety-jammies and left the house.
As soon as the door was shut behind him it was pitch black. Not a light shone anywhere. He had to wait a minute for his eyes to readjust to the dark. Eventually the woods came into focus all around him, a forest of limestone pillars and stalagmites with a slightly greenish cast. Tal struck out to find his rock but he hadn’t gotten too deep into the woods before his nerve failed. The stalagmites were thin and sharp and always reminded him of teeth. It was as if he were trotting around in the mouth of some enormous, Tal-eating beast. A bug too stupid to know it had already been eaten. Once the idea of being eaten was in his mind, shadows took more ominous forms. They became creepy, crawling spider-wolves, with glowing eyes and hideous, drooling mouths full of stalagmite teeth and even smaller spider-wolves crawling inside their mouths. Fear upon fear upon fear. No matter how small he became, there was still something with teeth seeking his flesh. With shape and shadow both objects of terror to him he tried to stumble his way back home but he hadn’t paid much attention to which way he had been going. He couldn’t find the door back into their cave!