Stories of the Hollow Mountain Butterfly, Book 3
The gargoyle world is sick. A pandemic is causing everyone who contracts the virus to lose their ability to create the light needed to defend their world. So when Tiffany Noboru’s best friend Hedika begins to show symptoms, Tiffany puts her ghost hunting skills to good use in order to find a legendary elixir guarded by the mysterious outcasts of the gargoyle kind, and discovers a whole new world where her own gargoyle light is coveted more than life itself.
NOT EVERYONE BELIEVES IN GHOSTS, sometimes not even the dead. Bewilderment. That’s what they call it—coined by a gargoyle scholar a long time ago who decided that saying something like ‘firm denial or refusal to believe that death has occurred’ was too hard to say when staring at a new arrival. Instead, the new girl was bewildered.
So was Tiffany Noboru. She couldn’t understand why they left new arrivals alone when they first woke. It had to have been because everyone had simply forgotten what it felt like when they, themselves, arrived. Not a gargoyle in the mountain remembered their life before the day they woke here, and hardly any remembered even waking up either. Only Tiffany remembered it all. Only Tiffany was different.
That was why seeing the slumbering girl down in the arrival chamber bothered her. It reminded her too much of her own appearance in the gargoyle world. Tiffany first woke to a ringing in her ears. Calling out for her father caused her to flinch in pain they were so sensitive. There had been a lingering darkness, even with her eyes wide open. And the heavy, leathery blanket draped over her thighs that slid aside as she tried to stand, weighing her down at the shoulders…that’s what her wings felt like at first.
It was so strange having wings. Up until the second before she woke down here in the gargoyle world, she had been human, fighting for her life against a maniacal ghost who succeeded in suffocating her to death. Waking up with wings, though. Bewilderment definitely described how that felt. And it was going to be the same for that girl lying down there on the cold stone, in an empty cube that looked and felt like a crypt.
Tiffany glowered at the tall man standing beside her, but kept her tone in check, asking, “Why isn’t anyone in there with her?”
“This is exactly why you’re observing from up here,” the tall man replied gravely. His long-sleeved green shirt and white trousers distinguished him as an officer, her squadron commander Lieutenant Bastion Hayes. In the dim light of the perch, his usually bright red skin, which resembled Arizona river stone, appeared faded and worn. He leaned over the open ledge of the observation platform, watching the five arrival chambers below, but glanced at Tiffany with an irritated flare to his eyes. “There’s protocol.”
Tiffany didn’t like that word much. It meant unquestioned obedience. Do what you’re told. She wasn’t very good with protocol yet, which was why she and Hedika were here in the first place. They disobeyed orders, or more precisely, Tiffany didn’t follow the rules, and convinced her best friend Hedika to break them with her. As a result, they were both temporarily reassigned from their usual mentors to Lieutenant Hayes. Remedial training and observation.
The other girls jokingly called it rock school.
Tiffany sighed and held her tongue. Their reassignment to Lieutenant Hayes was only for one month. She bit her lip and looked back at Hedika, who sat at a table, surrounded by stacks of books, pouring over one of them quickly. Tiffany should have been helping, but she could tell Hedika was frustrated by the way her dark blue wings curled straight back, and the fact she kept grumbling under her breath.
Hedika’s skin was the color of course blue granite, a dramatic contrast to her yellow flight gown and long, golden blond hair, which fell in thick, loose curls. Unlike most girls, she didn’t wear her hair back. She let it fall to cover her face, especially the part marred by a mysterious black patch of skin that ran through her right eye from her forehead to her shoulder. And even though Hedika was sixteen—two years older than Tiffany—they were the same height. The big difference was that Hedika had the body of an athlete.
Totally unlike Tiffany in so many ways. Tiffany was Japanese with short black hair, pale skin-colored skin—which in the gargoyle world was rare—nearly black 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’s reflection she often wondered when the rest of her little body would grow in.
“Any time, Miss Greene,” Lieutenant Hayes addressed Hedika in his deep monotone voice. When he spoke at length, it was easy to lose focus or get lulled by his cadence and tone, but luckily he only talked a lot in front of bigger audiences, like the whole barracks.
Hedika’s eyes flicked a brief, annoyed glare at his back before she continued examining the pages, scanning the entries quickly. “Do we at least have the year?”
“I told you, she’s not one of our chimera,” Lieutenant Hayes replied.
Tiffany had yet to learn everything about chimera. Her mentor, Franklin Craft, was keen on saying things like “you don’t need to know that yet,” or “how about you practice your landings instead of talking.” What she did know of them came from experience.
Chimera were small statues formed by Sentinels—the wingless and tailless gargoyles—using stone spells. They chiseled them to match what they saw in dreams of places or people. Finished chimera allowed others to see through them, to spy on their anchors. For Tiffany, a chimera once let Franklin watch her when she was still part of the living world, up top. For this new arrival, however, there had been no chimera. She arrived because an Ambassador dreamed of her demise, which was some kind of prediction that it would happen, so they logged her whereabouts in one of the books Hedika thumbed through, in case the girl ever showed.
Lieutenant Hayes leaned back and spoke over his shoulder. “We know she died in Oklahoma City.”
Hedika growled and slammed the book shut, pushing it aside. “That would have been useful five minutes ago,” she mumbled, standing up to shuffle the piles of books around. She picked up the thickest of all the books and moved it in front of her, slamming it down. “America,” she growled, throwing open the cover. “Oklahoma.” She grabbed a handful of pages and swept them aside.
Lieutenant Hayes appeared unaffected by Hedika’s outburst. “What is taking so long, Miss Greene?”
Hedika looked up from the book, her eyes throwing daggers. “You said her name is Emma Long. That’s not right.”
“Of course, it is,” Lieutenant Hayes replied. He turned around with a puzzled expression on his face. “Who else would it be?”
“I don’t know,” Hedika said. “Emma Long is in England.”
“Preposterous.” Lieutenant Hayes marched to the table.
“Then that’s the wrong book.” Hedika shoved the other book she had been scouring toward Lieutenant Hayes. He snatched it up, glowering at Hedika before scanning the pages himself.
Tiffany smirked. She knew Hedika would be right. Hedika didn’t make many mistakes. Not about books, at least. She loved books. If there was some kind of magical gargoyle talent for loving and reading books, Hedika would be the best.
“I don’t understand,” Lieutenant Hayes said, turning pages.
“This book, though,” Hedika added, pointing at a page in the larger tome. “This one has about fifty entries that match.”
Tiffany liked to see Lieutenant Hayes flustered. The red of his face turned pink. When he was really angry, his colors became so washed out that only the end of his nose and cheeks remained dark red, making him look a lot like one of Santa’s elves. Tiffany had to look away to keep him from seeing her grinning ear-to-ear.
The girl in the arrival chamber stirred. Tiffany’s smile disappeared and her heart beat hard, pushing a lump up into her throat that she couldn’t swallow down.
“Step aside,” Lieutenant Hayes told Hedika as he towered over the book. He swept a page, perplexed by her findings.
“Um,” Tiffany said, holding a hand up.
“Not now,” Lieutenant Hayes rumbled.
The girl down below lifted her head and shoulders, reached an arm forward to prop herself up. The dizziness of first waking caused the girl’s head to sway, just the way Tiffany remembered about her own arrival.
Tiffany looked back at Lieutenant Hayes. “Yeah, but—”
“Hold on.” Lieutenant Hayes swept another page aside, glowering at the text. “This can’t be right.”
He looked up, his face flush with anger, and Tiffany couldn’t help but smile. He frowned. “One…minute,” he said, then looked at the book again.
Tiffany sighed, hiked up her flight gown, and put a foot on the railing. The idea of letting the poor girl wake to an empty room didn’t sit well with her. She knew first-hand how frightening and lonely it was, and she just couldn’t allow it. Teetering on the balcony, she waved her arms to get balance, snapped open her wings, and jumped toward the open arrival cell.
Hedika and the other girls made flying look easy. Tiffany wasn’t actually very good at it. She was good enough to stay in the air, as long as she flapped her wings constantly, and she could maneuver well enough to go where she wanted. Landings, on the other hand….
Dropping out of the sky, Tiffany aimed for the center of the square cell. If it were a wide-open space, her landing might have been fine, but the walls and open ceiling made a precision landing a requirement. Her left wingtip hit the top of the wall as she cupped them to slow her momentum. It spun her and she careened sidelong. With a hard flap of her other wing, she slowed enough to keep from breaking bones, but slapped flat into the smooth stone wall.
Tiffany grunted and slid down, sinking to one knee. “Ow.”
“What—?” The girl flinched at the sound of her own voice, covering her ears.
Gnashing her teeth, Tiffany pressed her splayed wings against the cold stone ground as though they were webbed hands, which they were. A second set of hands, and arms, with all the strange sensations that came along with it. Her normal arms still came out the side of her shoulders like nothing had changed, but the thick upper arms of her wings protruded from just below the base of her shoulder blades, pointing up. At the top, above her head where she could reach up and scratch if she had an itch, was an elbow joint that craned her enormously long winged-forearms back down toward her feet. At her hips, her wing-hands splayed five wing-fingers, with a thumb and everything. Stretched between it all was a thin, leathery membrane.
Bat wings. That was what they most looked like to Tiffany, especially since hers were as black as coal. When she flew, it felt like swimming in air. The webbing between her fingers and the broader sheet stretching out from her back to her wing-thumbs caught the eddies like a parachute, both slowing her and propelling her forward all at once, and even the slightest movement could throw her out of control, which happened all too often.
Tiffany’s legs felt weak from the jarring impact. She remained on her knees, but managed to haul her wings behind her back and turn toward the new arrival.
The girl’s eyes danced with worry, glancing around the otherwise empty space. “Who’s there?”
Good, Tiffany thought. She didn’t see my landing.
“It’s okay,” Tiffany whispered, donning as disarming a smile as she could muster through the stinging in her palms. The room was just like she remembered. Not a single blemish or crack throughout. A perfect box with no doors, no windows, no way in or out, or so it seemed to a new arrival. Even to Tiffany it now appeared that there was a ceiling overhead.
Stone spells. A trick of the light. A reflection that baffled the senses.
The girl took her hands from her ears. She spoke meekly, flinching before the words even came out. “What—?” Her relief was apparent, and Tiffany suspected the pain and ringing in her ears had subsided. “What’s going on?” The girl was already coming around. In a second she’d realize she had wings and probably start to flip out.
Tiffany forced herself to her feet, willing strength into her legs. The room brightened as light poured through her bare feet and into the stone, swelling into every inch of the ground and walls. It even startled Tiffany. The arrival chambers are really sensitive.
She remembered her own arrival and how the mere thought of the color green had caused the room to change. But this was more. Ever since returning from Freefall, she knew her light was a lot more powerful than what other girls could conjure. Even Hedika’s. She eased it back, willing the stone to shift to a softer, early morning glow.
The girl lay on the ground, cowering at the sight of Tiffany and the magic of her light. It seemed oddly strange. Here was a girl who looked every bit a gargoyle—muddied, rust colored wings, red-granite speckled skin with black and white streaks that looked like blood veins, long black hair dangling over her eyes—and yet she was afraid of Tiffany. The girl wore the customary white gown of all new arrivals, nearly the same as Tiffany’s, except for the one stripe on Tiffany’s sleeve. Arrivals didn’t magically appear with clothes on, though. A Golem, one of the wingless gargoyles with tails, had dressed her after receiving her.
“Are you an angel?” The girl looked at Tiffany with the kind of reverent awe such a creature deserved. “Am I dead?”
Tiffany didn’t want to answer. If she said yes to her first question, the girl might think it for the other. She took a second to consider how to explain it. What had D.K. said when Tiffany arrived? I’m sorry that you died. That wouldn’t do.
“I’m just a girl, like you.”
Tiffany smiled. Before she could explain, though, Lieutenant Hayes’ voice rumbled in the chamber.
“Miss Noboru, what are you doing?”
The girl gasped.
Tiffany directed her irritable response toward the ceiling, saying, “Hold on, please, sir.” She smiled, softening her demeanor. “It’s okay.” She held up her hands. “He’s just up there, in the observation tower.”
The girl looked up, but Tiffany knew she saw only the strange, magical reflection of stone that gave the room the impression of a ceiling.
“It’s a trick of the light. There’s no ceiling. Here, look.”
Tiffany raised her wings straight up, but the tips didn’t reach high enough to disrupt the magic like they had when D.K. had done the same on Tiffany’s arrival. Of course, D.K. was easily three feet taller than Tiffany and had wings twice the size of her own. Tiffany sighed in frustration. “Are you kidding me?”
Confusion set in. Tiffany saw it in the way the girl moved her head, searching for clues. “You must be an angel. I mean, I was just…. There was an accident. I fell. I fell off the bridge, but….” Her eyes darted, trying to piece together fragments of memories.
Tiffany realized what was going on. The girl’s memories of life were fading away. Tiffany wondered what it felt like. She hadn’t lost her memories like other girls did. Even Hedika had no idea who she was or where she came from.
“What’s your name?” Tiffany asked.
“Name?” The girl looked at her in shock. “I—” Her eyes glazed over in thought.
“Alida!” Hedika called out. “Her name is Alida.”
The girl looked up at hearing Hedika’s voice, anguish in her eyes. “Mom?” An echo of Tiffany’s own desperation lingered in the stark chamber.
“No,” Tiffany said, feeling Alida’s sorrow burrow to her bones. Tiffany remembered mistaking D.K.’s voice for her mother’s. They were nothing alike, of course, but Tiffany had wanted it so desperately at the time. Maybe Alida did, too. At least Alida would forget about her mother, and even this moment. If she was lucky. “It’s not your mother. That’s my friend, Hedika. She found you.”
Alida’s voice sounded timid, afraid. “Found me?”
“Don’t worry.” Tiffany stepped closer to Alida. “It’ll all make sense soon enough. I’m going to tell you something now, and I don’t want you to freak out or anything, okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Tiffany said, inching closer. “Have you ever wanted to fly?”
“Fly? What are you—?” Awareness settled in. Her head craned slowly and she looked over her shoulder. Her wings straightened as she shouted out.
“Calm down!” Tiffany dove to one knee and put a hand on Alida’s arm. “It’s okay. I know, I know.”
Alida shook and pushed Tiffany, kicking her legs as she thrashed and tried to drag herself away from the wings and Tiffany simultaneously.
“Miss Noboru,” Lieutenant Hayes’ voice swam down, carrying the full brunt of his spent patience. “You’re not helping matters.”
“Alida, calm down. It’s okay. You’re different now, that’s all. It’s still you.”
“What’s wrong with me?” Hysteria filled Alida’s voice. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing,” Tiffany said with a warm smile. “You’re still you.”
Lieutenant Hayes dropped out of the ceiling behind Alida. The girl didn’t hear him until his feet hit the ground. It frightened her enough that she scampered toward Tiffany, her ungainly wings nearly toppling them both.
“It’s okay,” Tiffany whispered, folding aside Alida’s wings. “He’s one of us.”
“Miss Noboru,” Lieutenant Hayes said warningly. “I can handle things from here.”
“Alida.” Tiffany put a hand out to the girl, who shivered with fright. The girl turned her attention from Lieutenant Hayes to Tiffany, but didn’t take Tiffany’s hand. The fear of arriving still gripped her. “I know it’s strange, but I promise you, everything will be fine. And don’t worry about him. He only acts scary.”
“Yes, sir,” Tiffany said, stepping back. She opened her wings and winked at Alida, shooting her a smile. Alida didn’t smile back. She was still in shock. Tiffany crouched, straightened her wings above her head, and jumped.
Hard flapping pulled her through the holographic ceiling and she was once again met with the scene of the enormous interior of the Hollow Mountain rising above her. Her own arrival was so vividly in her mind she expected to find D.K. right in front of her, leading the way. She choked on a deep breath and banked to make it easier to come around on the perch where Hedika waited. She rose up at it, set her wings, snapped them shut, and stalled out two feet above where she needed to land. Waving her arms frantically, she fell to her feet and collapsed. Compared to her landing in the arrival chamber, this one was without injury, but technically still a crash.
Hedika stood at the balcony, shaking her head at Tiffany a couple times before looking down into the arrival chamber again. Tiffany sighed in disgust and ambled back to her feet. Down below, Lieutenant Hayes stood at a distance from Alida, the girl staring at him wide-eyed, mouth agape. Hedika’s eyes narrowed, watching them. “Well, that could have gone better.”
“I don’t know,” Tiffany groaned. “I thought I handled it well enough. Alida isn’t freaking out, right?”
Hedika smiled. “I meant your landing.”