Stories of the Hollow Mountain Butterfly, Book 2
When her mentor goes inexplicably missing, gargoyle cadet Tiffany Noboru and her best friend Hedika Greene put their ghost hunting skills to the test in a harrowing journey across the world of gargoyles. To find him, they must brave what lies outside the Hollow Mountain and beyond the protection of their walls, but avoiding ghosts on the Endless See is only the beginning. Strange and dangerous creatures roam the blighted landscape between their home and their uncharted destination, the gargoyle sanctuary of Freefall, whose dying populace guards a terrible secret about her own world that some are willing to do anything to protect.
NOT EVERYONE BELIEVES IN GHOSTS. I didn't. Not until this summer, when one killed me. I keep seeing him over and over again in my head even though he's supposedly dead, but I don't know if he's really gone or not. It's not like they ever found a body or any proof he's gone. I mean, he's a ghost, right? He has no body. And I didn't used to worry about him when I knew he was up top, where he couldn't reach me, but now I wonder if he's living inside my head, if my dreams are his playground, and if he's in there tinkering and warping all my memories, darkening them, making the scary things seem scarier, like he wants to use me—
"What are you writing?" Hedika asked curiously as she dried her hair with a towel.
Tiffany straightened, closing the diary in her lap, flush with embarrassment. She sat on her bed with her back against the wall of the barracks. Her wings twitched involuntarily, shivering not because she had them pressed against the cold stone, but because of the fright Hedika gave her.
"You're not journaling about our exploits, are you?" Hedika asked under her breath, making sure the other girls in the barracks didn't hear her. The barracks weren't full yet, but twenty of the girls were back from training and chow and settling down for the night. Other girls would be arriving soon.
Tiffany took a deep breath to settle her nerves. "Kind of. I had a bad dream again."
Hedika sighed, holding the towel wrapped around her middle as she reached for a pair of underwear on her bed. She slipped her blue legs through and pulled up the bottoms, revealing the white vein all the way to her hip. It wasn't a vein like a blood vessel, it was more like a vein of white quartz in stone.
Even after a month of being down here, Tiffany still couldn't get over the sight of Hedika's skin. Most gargoyle skin resembled stone. There were exceptions, like Tiffany, but Hedika's skin appeared to be smooth granite—not polished, though—with its myriad imperfections, and colors ranging the gamut of sky-blue tones from dawn to dusk. A dark blue patch hooked over her shoulder. That thin white vein climbed up her leg from her knee to somewhere under the towel wrapped around her torso.
Tiffany stared, dumbstruck, and not just because of Hedika's exotic skin. Hedika had the body Tiffany wished she had for herself. Strong, well defined, athletic. Statuesque curves shaped her thighs and calves, not the straight twigs of Tiffany's own legs.
Hedika turned to step into her nightgown, brushing her damp wings across Tiffany's face.
"Hey!" Tiffany pushed Hedika's dark blue wings out of the way.
"Stop staring at my legs," Hedika said without looking at her. The towel fell to the ground as she swiped the Velcro cross straps of her nightgown over her shoulders, just above her wing joints. "The other girls will think you're swishy."
That was a word they only used in the hollow mountain. It meant a nervous, smitten school girl whose swaying caused her wings to swish back and forth.
"I can't help it," Tiffany mumbled, ashamed at being caught looking again. "I wish I had your legs."
"That's definitely swishy sounding."
Tiffany groaned and rolled her eyes.
With a smirk, Hedika raised and retracted her wings out of the way so she wouldn't crush them as she sat on the edge of her bed. She pushed her wings against the stone wall and leaned back against them, picking up a book to prop it between her legs as she opened it.
Tiffany was the only one who slept next to Hedika, partly because the bay was half-empty—there were fifty beds in all, but only about thirty of them occupied—and partly because none of the other girls liked Hedika much. They didn't understand her. The mere fact that Hedika picked up a book and flipped it open in the middle of their conversation being a perfect example of how anyone would think she was rude. And at a moment like this, when Tiffany wanted comfort and support.
When Tiffany was alive, her mother would have noticed her brooding. She would have hugged her, cupping her head to her chest. Her father would have known what to say about her bad dreams, too. He had always been there, even when the hauntings first started. Somehow he knew what to do. The Hula-Hoop under the bed did the trick. Who would have thought a simple ring on the ground confused a ghost so much?
Tiffany sighed. She wished she could see her parents again, but she was dead, and her parents still lived. That had been the hardest thing to come to terms with this past month. She was a gargoyle now, and unless she could find some way home, she would never see them again. Her training helped keep her mind occupied during the day, but there were too many times like this when she swam in painful memories of life.
Tiffany stared absently at Hedika, wondering more about what her mother might be doing than having any interest in Hedika's dazzling hues. Try as she might, Tiffany still had trouble remembering the last thing she said to her mother. Goodnight? Night-night? Had it really been just a normal night? The thought that she didn't know bothered her for a couple reasons. The first was that she desperately wanted to envision the way her mother must have thought of her, the way she must be remembering Tiffany. What if Tiffany hadn't said anything at all, and the last thing her mother remembered was Tiffany's cold shoulder? That thought hurt more than anything, but the real worry that gnawed at her every night before bed lately was that maybe she was losing her memories like the rest of the girls.
Hedika knew nothing of her past life. She didn't remember her parents, if she had siblings, or where she came from. She knew she once knew, but the actual knowledge was gone, and it frightened Tiffany to no end to think she might soon be like that.
Hedika glanced sideways at her. "Don't you have something to do?"
Tiffany shrugged and looked down, then peeked up again. The black scar that ran the length of Hedika's face really stood out when her usually long amber hair was out of the way like it was now, wet and slicked against her head and shoulders. The black skin even covered her ear, marring her features with what looked like a permanent shadow. Tiffany often wondered how the scar came about, whether Hedika arrived with it, or if it came from some horrible wound. It would explain her demeanor to have been disfigured by a terrible accident, but Hedika never talked about it, and Tiffany was afraid to bring up the subject.
Which led Tiffany to think about her own skin, how she had been fortunate—or unfortunate, depending on whom she talked with—to have flesh the color of…flesh. Her complexion was the same now as it had been in life, still her same light tan, Japanese tone, still her same dark brown eyes, and still her short black hair. And still her big head and little arms and legs. That hadn't changed any either, which was why she envied Hedika so much. She wanted to be strong, too.
Tiffany blew a strand of her own black hair off her forehead and sighed. She opened her journal. Her words leapt off the page at her, beating like war drums, warning her of the dangers of what she'd written. These weren't the thoughts to leave for others to see. She tore the page out quickly, adding to the hundred other missing pages scarring the journal, most torn out before her mentor Franklin even gave it to her in the first place. He probably stole the book somewhere up top and tore out the first clutch of pages himself so she wouldn't read another girl's secrets, but the book was so old and weather-worn she often wondered where it came from. The discolored and warped, stiff pages made it hard to write. Still, she treasured it because it was something.
"Why do you do that?" Hedika asked irritably, not looking at her. Hedika didn't always look at others when she talked to them, another trait that made her seem rude.
"Rip out perfectly good pieces of paper like that. You know how hard it is to get down here."
"Fine," Tiffany said, tearing the page in half. She held out the unused part for Hedika while crumpling the other half in her hand, balling the paper up so no one could read her words with their distance vision. Even with Hedika, her best friend, she felt self-conscious, probably for the same reason she always tore out the pages of her diary after writing them when she was alive and lived up top, blissfully unaware of all this. Some pages she kept, hiding them in a drawer in her closet or in other books in her room. Others she stuffed in the trash before breakfast, under the wet coffee grounds where no one would look.
Hedika glanced at her before taking the blank shred of paper.
Tiffany stood, dropping the now empty journal onto her bed. Unlike Hedika, she had work to do. Real chores, not the easy tasks of a senior yellow-gown like Hedika.
"Tiffany," Hedika said. She put the shred of paper in her book to mark the page and closed it, looking at Tiffany directly. Her hazel eyes softened. "Sorry," she said. "Just…stop writing about it before bed. You're only making it worse."
"I don't have any other time," Tiffany murmured.
Hedika opened her book and waved the piece of paper, her eyes retreating to her pages. "Bring your pencil to breakfast."
Tiffany managed a weak smile, nodding rather than speaking to avoid hearing her own voice crack. She swallowed the lump in her throat, thinking, see, she does care.
EVERYONE DID CHORES IN BAY THREE, without exception, but not all chores were created equal. Hedika’s job, for instance, was sweeping the coal dust from around the coal bin by the fireplace because she was the most senior ranking girl in the bay behind Corinne. Corinne’s job, because she was bay chief, was making sure everyone else had jobs. Tiffany’s job, because she was the newest arrival and had the lowest rank, was the worst. She knew it was the worst because she had been in the bay long enough to know all the other jobs.
Aligning the beds. That would be a great job. All a girl had to do was tie a string to the first bed, run it the length of the bay to the last bed, and then line up the bed posts so they all touched it. Christi, one of the higher order silver gowns, had that duty. She was one of the colorful girls too, enormously tall with a sleek, slender body the color of fine turquoise. Even the leathery fabric of her wings had a green hue. Tiffany wished she had colorful wings. Hedika’s were dark blue, Priya’s brown, but Tiffany’s were black, which was the most common color of wing in the Hollow Mountain. Plain. Ordinary.
Straightening the book shelf was also a prized job, performed dutifully each night by Amanda, whose skin reminded Tiffany of red lava rock, right down to her black freckles that looked like the little shadow-filled, bubbly pits.
Sweeping the bay was another easy duty. The wide, flat dust broom Aurora used had the floor clean in short order. Aurora was an apt name for her. She had dark blue hair like the night sky and multi-hued skin which was mostly gray, but down her torso it blended the colors black, blue, purple, red, and orange like a sunset. She even had different colored arms, but her flight gown hid it from everyone outside the bay.
Megan dusted the mantle, book shelves, and perches, wearing nothing but a bra and bikini bottoms to show off the striated lines of her sandstone appearance, saying she didn’t want to get her flight gown filthy even though no one asked her to put clothes on.
Jessica’s job was a borderline duty, both easy and hard at the same time. Easy because it didn’t take long, but hard because cleaning the burnt coal remains from the fireplace left her purple-quartz toned skin coated in soot.
Yes, everyone had chores, and the worst—Tiffany’s responsibility—was always performed last because as all the other girls finished their jobs, they took showers and cleaned up for the night, making the bathroom a mess. And that’s where Tiffany came in.
The bathroom detail consisted of cleaning the sinks and mirrors, the stalls, and mopping every single night before bed. If done all at once, it felt more like punishment than a duty, and if Tiffany learned anything in the month since her death, she knew that cleaning the bathroom in stages was easier than all at once. So while the other girls busied themselves with the last of their chores, she went into the bathroom to pull out the bucket and mop so she could start sopping up the water everywhere.
Corinne stood at the sink brushing her teeth. She wore a towel around her torso, her long black wings stretched out behind her to dry, dripping the last remnants of water to the floor. Her wet black hair gave her the look of a plucked raven. Corinne was the only other flesh-toned girl in the bay, her skin being more of a peachy European Caucasian than Tiffany’s light tan.
She spat into the sink and washed her toothbrush. “Do a good job tonight. We’re probably getting inspected tomorrow.”
“I know,” Tiffany replied politely. This was the third time Corinne reminded her since dinner, and she knew better than to sound irritated by it. After all, Tiffany helped them fail her first inspection, and as punishment for that screw up, Corinne gave her two duties in the bay for several weeks. She didn’t want to think of what she’d get if she cost them again.
Tiffany rolled the mop bucket next to the showers where the girls usually snapped their wings dry. It seemed like there was enough water pooled to do laundry with it. Spreading it across the room was hard work with a wet mop, so she wrung it into the bucket constantly.
When Corinne left and Tiffany was alone, she leaned the mop against the wall by the dressing bench and peeled away the Velcro strap behind her neck. She shrugged out of her white gown, catching it with her foot before it touched the floor. She sat down and carefully gathered up the gown, then hung it above her head to keep it from getting filthy and wet as she worked. She straightened it on the hook and stared at it. A white gown with no arm stripes, the lowest rank. What would it look like, she wondered, with her first stripe…if she passed her test tomorrow?
Don’t think about it.
She shook her head and focused on the task at hand. Her mentor Franklin told her not to dwell on anything tonight. It would only make her nervous for the advancement test tomorrow, but she couldn’t help it. She was nervous, and doing such a mundane chore as mopping wasn’t keeping her mind busy at all.
The sports bra and shorts she wore under her gown kept her cool as she pushed the water-logged mop around. The work wasn’t as hard on her as it had been the first night—had it only been a month? Enough time to grow callouses, which gave her a firm grip on the mop handle. Not like the first night, though, when the burn of blisters and sore muscles had been the only thing accompanying her to bed.
She swept the standing water toward the drains with the mop, wringing it each time it got too heavy to move, and worked up a sweat in no time. Tiffany stopped to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand and noticed something strange about her arm. Nothing obvious to the casual eye, but something Tiffany, in all her life, had never seen before. Is that—? She let go of the mop and squinted to zoom her vision in on the mirrors by the sink. Her head swam. She still couldn’t get used to the feeling of having telescopic vision. It allowed her to see for miles, but focusing made her dizzy. The mop clattered at her feet, but she ignored it, staring closely at the reflection of her arm instead. A sinewy bump formed a thin shadow across her bicep. It is. I have muscles!
She wanted to jump up and down with joy. Muscles. The one thing her weak body never possessed in her lifetime, the one thing she always wanted. All I had to do was die to get them. She scowled at her reflection. If she could only show her mom, she’d be so proud of her. Not for growing muscles, but for what they represented. Perseverance in the face of adversity. Even death hadn’t stopped her.
A sudden glint of tears ringed her vision. She missed her mother. The other girls were lucky that they forgot everything. Hedika couldn’t even tell Tiffany the color of her mother’s hair. Tiffany’s mother had long, straight black hair. She used a wide curler on it twice a week to give it body, on the days she and her dad went out to dinner. Tiffany wondered if they still had date nights.
Stop thinking about them!
She scowled at herself, angry for letting her emotions get the best of her again. This wasn’t the place to cry. There wasn’t a place to cry in the Hollow Mountain anywhere, really, but this was the worst place for it.
She raised her arms and posed like a weight lifter to get her mind off her parents. She growled through gritted teeth, making her scowl seem absurd. The door flung open. Tiffany straightened, jerking her arms down to her side. Her vision snapped back to normal and she felt a wave of dizziness hit her as though her retreating vision physically knocked her backwards.
Karla stood at the door with a stunned expression as though she thought Tiffany crazy. Tiffany wiped the remnants of tears from the sides of her eyes, feeling the heat radiating from her cheeks out of embarrassment.
“What were you doing?” Karla asked suspiciously.
Of all the girls in the bay, the last one Tiffany wanted to have find her making muscle poses in front of the mirror was Karla. Her chiseled appearance and stalky frame made her the largest girl Tiffany had seen since coming to the Hollow Mountain. She scared the boys she was so well built. Speckled, dark gray and white skin topped by a wild mane of red hair gave her a menacing look even when she didn’t mean it. Like now. Tiffany knew Karla wasn’t angry with her, but she couldn’t help feeling a little afraid.
“Nothing. Just…pushing my hair back.” Tiffany ran both hands through her short hair, which, to spite her, immediately fell back into her face.
Karla shook her head and thankfully went into a bathroom stall without comment.
Pushing my hair back? Tiffany glowered at the reflection in the mirror. She saw. She knew Karla saw her. She wondered what kind of jokes the rest of the girls would be making about it later. She picked up the mop and started shoving it across the floor, imagining them giving her a nickname like ‘muscles’ and calling it out to announce her arrival to the bay every evening. That would be perfect.
She longed for her gown, to cover up. Could she put it on before Karla came out of the bathroom stall? The toilet flushing beat her to a decision so she mopped in a wide arc to try to keep her back to Karla as the big girl walked to the sinks.
Karla didn’t leave when she finished washing her hands. Tiffany felt her scrutiny and glanced over her shoulder. Karla leaned against the sink, staring at her still.
“It’s tomorrow, right?” Karla asked, drying her hands lazily.
“What?” Tiffany didn’t know what Karla meant. She turned slightly, keeping her body behind her wings. She didn’t like her own body, and she didn’t like the idea of others seeing her nearly naked, how small she was, how vulnerable it made her feel. Even with her new muscles.
“Your test. Is it tomorrow?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah,” Tiffany said, nodding quickly. Thanks for reminding me. The dread set in again. The test for her first stripe. She couldn’t fail, especially with everyone in the bay probably expecting it from her. They were likely taking bets.
“Good luck,” Karla said.
“Thanks,” Tiffany replied softly, turning a little more to see Karla’s expression better. Was she genuinely wishing her luck, or trying to get one more dig in before lights out so Tiffany would stew on it all night long?
Karla looked like she wanted to say something else, but instead sighed and tossed her towel in the dirty bin as she walked for the door.
Tiffany watched her go and waited for the door to shut behind her before she breathed again. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest and the color drained from her face.
I’m going to fail tomorrow’s test!