Stories of the Hollow Mountain Butterfly, Book 1
The night Tiffany Noboru threw away the gargoyle statue her dad put in her room, the ghost returned. Tiffany didn't. Not in this world.
Enter the Hollow Mountain, a place where gargoyles serve the living. As its newest, and most unexpected recruit, Tiffany is assigned to a retired ghost hunter named Franklin for mentoring and training. The problem is that his only concern is getting revenge on the ghost that killed her, and he seems willing to risk her life a second time to stop him. So when the ghost manages to find a way into the Hollow Mountain itself and threatens the gargoyle world, it is up to Tiffany to stop the very thing that she couldn't fight before.
Not everyone believes in ghosts. Tiffany didn't. She may have had a few frightening nights when she was younger, caused by her own dreams-manifestations that felt real for the briefest time after waking up screaming in terror in the dark, yanking a blanket to her chin instead of lunging for the light switch. It accounted for probably ten or fifteen seconds of honest fear, with her heart thumping against the wall of her chest, beating so hard she heard it like an echo all around her that wouldn't fade. There may have been other sounds, like the raking of fingers against the window pane even though there was no wind and the tree branch had been pruned last week, the hissing of the radiator even though it was a summer night, or the heebie-jeebies (as her mother called them) from feeling some quick spider race over her forehead. Things that went bump in the night, but didn't really exist. Banished the moment Mom or Dad turned on the light, fragmented remnants of her nightmarish dreams that dashed to the shadows. Mom's hugs made things right. Dad's vigil at the window and closet did the trick.
Tiffany didn't believe in ghosts because, over time, the nightmares went away and she grew bigger and stronger, and the things Dad gave her for her room seemed to push them all back beyond the reach they once had; no rattling in her closet after he put the vacuum cleaner there, an end to the clicking and hissing from the radiator thanks to a pair of reading glasses missing one lens tucked under the base, no rumbling of the bed or tickety-tack of little clawed feet under the bed thanks to a Hula Hoop, and an end to any scratching against the window thanks to the statue of a gargoyle.
But they were always watching her, and she didn't know it until the summer she died.
Tiffany Noboru's life ended in one moment, and began the next. But before her death, she was a sociable fourteen-year-old girl looking forward to her first year of high school. As her name implied, she was of Japanese descent, but tradition and custom hardly mattered in her household. Both of her parents worked, which meant she had the house all to herself most afternoons until they got home. Since she didn't like being alone, she always had friends over, which was what necessitated her drive to be sociable in the first place.
Like any Japanese girl, she had black hair, pale-brown skin, dark brown eyes, and a very small body for what she thought was an unusually large head. Her head was normal, of course, but in the mirror, Tiffany often wondered when the rest of her tiny body would grow to fit it. She lamented being small as much as having a big head, attributing her lack of athleticism to the fact that, as she believed, her body hardly weighed as much as her head. Being competitive in nature didn't help during PE class. Coming in last at everything bothered her to no end. You've got a competitive streak a mile wide, her Mother always said when Tiffany got frustrated over losing at anything, even Monopoly.
At fourteen she was graceful, but as a baby her father nick-named her Teeter because of how many times she teeter-tottered and fell down when she was learning to walk. Watching home movies around Christmas time, and being thoroughly embarrassed by it, she knew it was because of her big head and small body.
That same small, weak body she'd spent her whole life growing into, but never catching up with, failed to save her in her last gasping moments of life. She should have felt guilty for thinking it, but it was literally the last thing that she thought before her death-she hated being weak.
The thoughts preceding were a little more frantic, a jumble of uneasy feelings and rationalizations to counter the growing fear in the pit of her stomach. Was someone in her room? Just a shadow. The slider door was locked. I checked. No one could get in. What was that scratching? A cat? Was someone in the closet? No, just her clothes hanging awkwardly. A trick of the light. Just close the curtains and it will all go away. Why is the air so cold?
Her hand trembled as she reached out to slide the curtain shut all the way. Something behind the curtain lunged at her. She tried to yank her hand away, but it grabbed her and yanked her in. Her shriek was muffled by a hand that stuffed a ball of fabric into her mouth-part of the curtain itself. Mom! Dad! They couldn't hear her. She couldn't breathe, either. Not through her mouth. Only her nose, and not enough.
A flashlight shone on her face from above. She shook her head to avoid being blinded by it, but it followed her like eyes. She thrashed with her whole body, but it didn't yield. If anything, its grip solidified, constricting to fill in any space she managed to make for herself. It wasn't two arms holding her like a man, but the entire curtain shrinking to fill in every gap.
Her arms were trapped. She kicked with her bound legs. Both feet left the ground and she hovered, kicking and thrashing like a sack. It constricted more, pulling her knees to her chest, crushing her. The pain wasn't from the constriction. It was lack of air. She couldn't breathe at all. Her chest burned. The light shining down on her grew more intense as the pain raged. She jerked involuntarily.
Tiffany didn't even have the strength left to breathe, much less think herself foolish for hating her body, the same body that convulsed in agony as that bright light faded, first from the edges of her vision, then shrinking quickly into complete blackness.
That life ended, and a moment later, Tiffany lurched up, gasping for air. The curtains were gone. She was free. Her arms flung out in front of her, but nothing was there. She sucked in a deep breath, stretching her lungs to their fullest. Her heart pounded hard, throbbing in her chest. Her head swam from dizziness, but she was alive.
The breathless dream, she thought. She hated dreams like that, where she wasn't able to breathe in real life, so to make her wake up, her dreams tried to drown her or...but she wasn't in bed. She sat on a thin leathery substance that covered some kind of hard stone floor.
And she couldn't see. Her eyes were open, but she saw nothing.
"Dad?" Tiffany called out, wincing at a stinging ring in her ears from the sudden noise of her own voice. The room echoed hollowly. Tiffany waved her hands in front of her and felt nothing, so she rolled onto her side and tried to stand. The leathery substance hissed as it dragged along the ground with her. I'm wrapped in it, she thought, feeling it on her elbow as she rolled. Her legs felt constricted too, but whatever fabric wrapped around them gave easily and she began to stand. Her vision warmed to the task as well, giving her a bleary glimpse of the room as she straightened and planted her feet. She felt top heavy. Attributing it to her big head, as usual, she leaned forward a little to keep from toppling backwards.
I'm just a little dizzy, is all.
"Mom?" Tiffany whispered.
The room looked like a prison cell, except there were no bars or windows, or even a cot. As she turned around, she found that it was completely void of anything. Just a solid cube of sleek stone.
"I'm sorry, but you've died," Tiffany thought she heard her mother say. She covered her ears quickly, the noise and the ringing coming like a thunderclap. Tiffany forcibly yawned several times, hoping that popping her ears would help. The ringing faded quickly.
"Died?" Tiffany asked, perplexed. Her voice echoed in the dull gray room. She let her hands down now that sound didn't hurt. Where am I? This wasn't her room, and as she replayed the words in her head, she realized it wasn't her mother's voice either. What just happened? She spun slowly, looking for a door. "How can I be dead?" Tiffany reasoned out loud. "I'm right here."
No answer came.
She took a step toward the nearest wall. It looked like the other three, with no window or door of any kind. Nothing but solid stone. "Where am I?"
"You're here, with us," the voice said softly. It was a woman's voice, unrecognizable, but attempting to sound reassuring in a way that didn't sit well with Tiffany. She sounded like a nurse, like she didn't really care even though it was her job.
"Look, my Dad is a police officer," Tiffany lied.
"We know everything about you," the woman replied.
Maybe they knew her name and home address, but everything? "Really? What's my favorite color?"
The room shifted to a light green hue, the exact color she envisioned when she asked the question. It wasn't a trick of light from what she could tell. The walls themselves appeared to have actually changed color, as though the light in the room was coming from the stone.
"OK, that's weird," Tiffany said softly, stepping away from the nearest wall. "How'd you do that?"
"We did nothing," the woman replied.
"Then why is it green in here?"
"Isn't that your favorite color?"
"Alright, you're...not...any...help." Tiffany sighed and turned to face a different wall. She wanted out, to go home, to find her mother. She obviously hadn't really died. They must have saved her, revived her with CPR or something, but what was this room?
"I want to see my mom and dad, right now," Tiffany demanded.
"I'm afraid that's not possible."
There was no reply.
"Why can't I see them?"
"It's best that you remain calm," the woman said.
"Why? What's happened to my Mom and Dad?"
"Nothing. They're home and well."
"Then why can't I see them?"
There was no reply.
It didn't matter. She'd find her own way out, and then a phone. One of these walls had to be different. She approached the next wall and touched it, pushing it gently at first, then harder. It was cold and solid with no seams of any kind, like a single slab. She tried sliding it side to side, then up and down, but it wouldn't budge. Its surface was too smooth to climb, too, but that didn't matter. She knew she couldn't climb it even if there were foot holds. Not with her little, tiny body. She didn't have the arm strength to climb.
There had to be a way out. How else did she get in here?
Tiffany slid to the next wall, her hands roaming the surface for any unevenness. She pressed her weight against the wall and then struck it with the butt of her fist. It thumped solidly. What is this place?
"I'm going to find a way out," Tiffany called. "And when I do-"
"We'll be most pleased," the woman interrupted, to Tiffany's surprise. Her voice didn't have that echoing, all-encompassing quality to it anymore. Tiffany turned, able to finally hone in on where it came from.
A tall woman stood near the opposite wall facing Tiffany, her hands clasped behind her back.
"Holy-" Tiffany blurted, startled, almost spitting out a curse word. Her natural instinct of holding in such statements around adults was the only thing that kept it in.
How did she get in here?
The woman didn't move. In the green glow of the room, her skin, what little of it that peeked out from a long, sleek, tight-fitting red gown, appeared mottled with freckles. Her skin color was odd, too. A gray tint of some kind. With the green light she looked sickly. Yeesh! You need to get some sun, lady. Her skin almost resembled granite. She had tightly woven black hair pressed back in a braided bun. She wore some kind of strange cloak that arched and fanned out behind her shoulders, draping a black fabric that nearly touched the ground.
"Where did you come from?"
The woman craned her neck to look around the room, an expression of confusion on her otherwise stony appearance. "What do you mean?" she asked at last, returning her fixed gaze on Tiffany. "Just now, or when I was alive? We are still talking about your death, are we not?"
"No," Tiffany replied, trying to piece together the logic of her questions. "I meant, how did you get in here?" She pointed at the floor.
The woman pointed at the ceiling and smiled, showing a mouthful of thick, fat teeth framed by two long, pronounced canines. Tiffany backed away, repulsed by the ferocity it implied.
She's insane and crazy!
The ceiling was at least twelve feet high, and even though the woman was almost seven feet tall herself, there was no way she could reach it. Even if Tiffany climbed up on her back-fat chance!
"How?" Tiffany asked as she looked at the walls in the room. There had to be a door.
The woman raised an eyebrow, then snapped open thick black wings from behind her back. Tiffany cried out, the swiftness of their appearance startling her. It wasn't a cloak!
"Wings!" Tiffany pointed at the woman.
Enormous wings. Twice the woman's size, their weight pitching her forward at the shoulder. The tips of her wings grazed the ceiling, then slowly pushed through like a knife cutting butter. A gaping hole grew in the ceiling between her wings, making the rest of the ceiling look more like light through fog, and her wings blocked it completely. Tiffany could see through the shadowy hole between her wings, so it wasn't fog. The woman must have disrupted some kind of hologram.
"It's a trick of light," the woman said.
"Your wings?" Tiffany asked excitedly, astonished by the sight.
The woman said nothing.
"Look, this is all really freaky weird, and all, but I want to go home now."
"That's not possible," the woman said evenly.
"Now, like...now." Tiffany's hands trembled.
"Please!" Tiffany made fists to control her shaking.
"Calm down," the woman said sternly. "You can go there," she added, pointing at the hole in the ceiling.
Anywhere was better than here, Tiffany reasoned. She took a cautious step closer to gaze through the hole between the woman's wings. A sheer wall of stone several miles away rose to blot out everything. There was no horizon, or trees, or anything between the hole and the looming wall, no clouds or sky. Just solid stone, like the room.
Tiffany sneered. Why bother? Except there were lights. Hundreds of them studding the surface. She didn't notice them at first, thinking they were just discolorations in the jagged wall, but they were too regularly spaced. It was some kind of pattern, like rows stitched into the stone.
Tiffany squinted to get a better look. Her vision zoomed in on one hole in particular where a man stepped off the edge and opened his wings to soar into the endless chasm. Her eyes widened, and her vision zoomed out to normal. She stepped back in disbelief, reeling from a dizzying sensation-like standing too fast. What's happening to me? She could see miles! What's happening around here? That man had wings, too.
"Where am I?" Tiffany asked in shock.
"Spread your wings and I'll show you," the woman said.
"Wings? What are you talking about?" Tiffany looked over her shoulder. "Holy-" she gasped, about to swear again. Furled wings sprouted from her shoulder blades like a cloak affixed to her back. "What the-?"
Words escaped her. Black wings hovered above her head, folded over an elbowed bend at the edge of her arm's reach. The furled wings hung behind her, draping a flowing, loose leathery membrane nearly to the floor. She touched the membrane first. It felt cool. Warmer than the air, but not by much. So this was the fabric that was underneath her when she woke. She reached a hand up to the bend in her wing and felt the soft bone. Her whole body convulsed. She felt it! She felt her fingers touching the wing, but not just through her fingers. She felt it on her elbow-of the wing!
She didn't dare touch it again. It was too creepy to even think about it. She wiped her hands on her chest, against a smooth, satin fabric of some kind. It wasn't her nightgown.
"What am I wearing?"
The tight satin gown covered her from neck to ankle, extending down her arms to her wrists, leaving only her bare feet and hands visible.
"It's a flight gown," the woman said.
"Why is it white?" Tiffany hated wearing white.
"So others can tell that you're new here, especially when you're flying. They'll know to fly around you."
"Why is yours red?"
"So others know to stay out of my way. Now, spread your wings. We have work to do."