Stonewing

Stories of the Hollow Mountain Butterfly, Book 4

Tiffany Noboru fears her best friend Hedika has gone crazy when she convinces her to flee the Hollow Mountain, but their maddening flight soon becomes a cat-and-mouse chase, with the stakes being Tiffany's very life. Will the bizarre clues they discover along the way unravel the mystery about Tiffany and foretell a horrible end, or lead them to the one person who Hedika hopes can save Tiffany from total obliteration?

In this magnificent ending to the series, discover for yourself what it means to be the Hollow Mountain Butterfly.

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Read The First Chapters

ONE

NOT EVERYONE BELIEVES IN GHOSTS, but they probably should. Not the tangible events that are easily rationalized—even in the dead of night—like the hiss and whap of a poster falling behind a desk because its last strip of tape finally gives, or the clump from a book falling on its side in a half-empty shelf, or the plastic nose of a stuffed animal clacking against the closet door as it falls from an overfull cubby. There are even plausible explanations for the creepy scratching sounds in the walls—some people have cockroaches, or rats, or birds, but usually it’s only a too long branch clawing the siding or roof shingles in the wind. Those are things that frighten, but they don’t linger.

Not like ghosts.

Ghosts wait. They hide in the shadows, feeding on wispy tendrils of fear spilling over the bedside, quietly inhaling dreadful thoughts, growing stronger on such concoctions until they have the power to bore into minds and move objects—the truly inexplicable acts.



Tiffany Noboru once thought them figments of her own imaginings, fears that she should and could outgrow even as she held the blankets to her chin. They weren’t real, after all…were they?

If only she had believed, but time and fate had other plans.



TWO

“WAKE UP,” Tamara called, tapping her candle stick on the metal frame of Tiffany’s bed, startling her from a fitful slumber. Just as abruptly, the girl was gone, rushing down the length of the bay in a blur as Tiffany blinked away her drowsiness.

Light blossomed, filling the entire bay like afternoon sunshine. Squinting against the harsh and sudden glare, Tiffany lifted an arm over her eyes as she turned her head to see Corinne further down the bay with her hand on the wall, also squinting against the surge of her own light.

There was no electricity in the Hollow Mountain. This was a magical light that radiated from the stone itself, the ceiling, the walls, and even the floor. Corinne eased the brightness she had created to counter the growing complaints from the other girls.

Tiffany yawned. Another early morning in yellow squad, bay three, and as usual, she had slept on her back. With a groan she leaned to her right so she could haul in her left wing before Hedika stepped on it.

Tamara hurried down the length of the bay, tapping her candle stick on the ends of other bunks, her black wings thumping into the bedframes as she zig-zagged from side to side. “Wake up,” she repeated. The other girls groaned and protested, and stirred, rising slowly. Some covered their heads with their pillows. But no one could escape the fact that it was sixth bell.

Hedika sat up, shaking her head disapprovingly. “You’ve got to stop sleeping on your back.”

Tiffany turned to slide her other wing beneath her and flexed them both to help her sit up. “I can’t help it. It feels good.”

Hedika yawned and stretched, straightening her legs all the way under Tiffany’s bed. “You know, you flap in your sleep, right?”

“I do not,” Tiffany said, but stared doubtfully at her blue friend. Blue. Hedika had skin the complexion of blue granite, and not just any blue; a rich, dark, stony blue speckled and dabbed with black like slate and all manner of gray, and occasional veins of white quartz—like the thin line that ran up her thigh from knee to hip—and dozens of odd imperfections formed by softer, lighter sky-like hues. Her wings were also dark blue, but the colors were washed and faded across each wing’s leathery membrane.

All gargoyle wings were like that, basically enormous bat wings. Tiffany had them. Hedika had them. Every girl in the bay had them, although their coloring ranged from the typical black like Tiffany’s, to grays, dark blues, greens, and several shades of brown. Wings were the defining characteristic of a Valkyrie—a ghost hunter. Everyone in the bay was a Valkyrie, all training to be a hunter.

And almost all the girls had stone-hewn complexions. Hedika’s colors didn’t make her special. She stood out for other reasons, not the least of which being her shapely, athletic curves. All too often, Tiffany found herself marveling at her friend, wishing she had stomach lines, or visible biceps, or definitively split calves—calf muscles at all!

Hedika even had muscles on the fronts of her shins. The fronts!

Tiffany sighed, staring at Hedika’s legs. She wanted to touch them, to run her fingers over them to feel what it would be like to have that kind of strength. Her own body let her down. She was, at best, scrawny. Being thin as rails made her feel top heavy, too, and not only because her wings weighed her down. She could live with carrying what basically felt like a backpack full of books for the rest of her life if it meant she got to fly everywhere she wanted to go. But the thing that made her feel…awkward…was her head. She was sure that it was way too big for her tiny body, or more aptly put, her body was way too small for a normal head.

When she added that to the fact that she didn’t have colorful skin like the other girls, Tiffany felt entirely too different. Her own skin was still the same muted, lightly tanned Japanese skin she had been born with in the real world, her eyes nearly as dark as her shoulder-length, straight, jet black hair. Hedika had blond hair. Long, flowing, wavy golden blond hair that fell over her face as though it had a mind of its own, but Tiffany suspected Hedika was self-conscious about the large black patch of what looked like unevenly scarred skin covering the right side of her face. It ran from her hairline above her eye down to her neck. It even came around to her ear and the back of her head.

Hedika lifted one of her legs, nudging Tiffany with her blue toes. “Hey,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. At least you don’t talk in your sleep like Lucy.”

Tiffany straightened. “She does?”

Hedika nodded, yawning. “You’ll learn a lot about everyone once you start pulling night watch.”

“Ugh,” Tiffany groaned, rolling her eyes. Yet another chore she had to look forward to. It wasn’t bad enough she was already doing three different chores in the bay. How long would it be before they assigned her to night watch as well?

Of course, two of her three chores were punishment, so technically she only had one assignment, but if they gave her night watch next week on top of it all, she was going to scream. And they would give it to her if they found out she had broken the rules again. Thankfully, in bay three, only Hedika knew, and she wasn’t about to say anything to anyone. Not now. Not after not talking about it for three days. At this point, Hedika would be in as much trouble for not telling anyone as Tiffany would be for breaking the rules in the first place.

The rule she broke was simple: she had left the mountain without permission…again. Her reasons may have been honorable—and they were!—but Lieutenant Hayes would certainly see things differently. Rules were important to him.

Still, getting caught for breaking the rules really didn’t worry Tiffany. What frightened her every morning since her return from Ancrya was the idea that today they had figured it all out. Tiffany imagined the Margrave Elder, with her cadre of black-clad soldiers, marching into the bay to arrest her and take her to the spire. This is the one who lit the Well of Souls, the Margrave would proclaim as she delivered Tiffany to the Archduke. Here is your Archraven!

A shiver coursed up and down Tiffany’s spine and she leaned forward to see the main bay door past her friend. The Margrave was charged with managing the city, like a mayor, while the Archduke reigned over everyone like a king. A cruel king at that.

Hedika glanced over her own shoulder, then leaned into Tiffany’s line of sight. “They’re not going to come for you here,” she whispered. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”

Tiffany wasn’t so sure. This was the easiest place to do it. Once she and Hedika flew down to the central dome for their daily work detail, it would be too hard for the Seraphim leaders to come for her. The dome was managed by D.K., the Valkyrie mother matron—the Usher of Rey herself. Alone, D.K. was formidable, but she also had the ear and arm of Paras—the Sentinel Usher—in all matters dealing with the spire, at least that was what Duke said. Tiffany could only take his word for it given that she had never met the Sentinel Usher.

Duke was a Sentinel, a gargoyle without wings or a tail. He was a friend of Tiffany’s mentor, a consummate gossip, and one of only a handful of people in the mountain who knew she was the Archraven. But he was special, too. He had been born with a tail, which meant he had powers other that just stone spells. He could open gates.

“Come on,” Hedika said as she shuffled past Tiffany’s bed. “Let’s get dressed and get some breakfast. I’m starving.”

Tiffany nodded and thumped her bare feet onto the cool stone floor of the bay. Pins and needles rushed up her shins. It felt as though she wore casts and had jostled the broken bones beneath. She winced and looked at her legs, wondering if she had somehow hurt them and not even noticed…the way she flew, anything was possible.

For the briefest of moments, she swore her toes shimmered and had the complexion of gray speckled stone, but as quickly as it came, the strange feeling in her shins disappeared and her toes were normal again. She tried to wiggle them, but they were stuck to the ground, and it was like peeling them off duct tape to get them to move.

“What the—?” she said.

“What?” Hedika asked, stopping in the aisle.

“Um,” Tiffany said, but her feet and toes seemed fine now. “I must be tired, or something. I swear, my feet felt like lead, like they were glued to the ground.”

Hedika took a step back and looked carefully at Tiffany’s feet. “They look fine,” she said.

“Yeah,” Tiffany told her. “I must be tired. Maybe if I just sleep for another—.”

“Breakfast,” Hedika grumbled.

Tiffany grumbled too, but got up and followed Hedika down the length of perfectly straight and equally separated beds. There were bunks for fifty girls, twenty-five on each side, but at last count there were only twenty-nine girls in the bay, which included Tiffany. She was number twenty-nine. Last. The newest recruit.

Hedika was number five.

The beds were split half way down the aisle, one side of the bay opening to a hall leading to the bathrooms, and the other side a living area with a few desks, a huge fireplace, and shelves full of books, all “required reading”. None of the girls slept next to the separations because there was too much activity around them all the time.

Stand-up lockers filled the far wall. Tiffany rattled the handle of hers a few times to get it to open, staring at her feet and wondering if she had been hallucinating, or if her toes had actually changed to stone. It would be nice to have normal gargoyle skin, for no other reason than so everyone would stop looking at her all the time.

Hedika was already shimmying out of her t-shirt as Tiffany pulled her white flight gown from her locker, sighing at the sight of it as she stepped back to head for the bathroom to change. She didn’t like the other girls seeing her scrawny body. As she turned, she felt her wings bump into someone.

“Hey,” Priya groused, pushing Tiffany’s wings out of her face. “Watch it.”

“Sorry,” Tiffany blurted as she spun around, her wings thumping into Hedika. “Sorry,” she said again, this time to her friend.

Priya scowled, glaring at Tiffany, which was unnerving, although not because she was any bigger. Priya, Hedika, and Tiffany were the only “short” girls in the bay. Everyone else towered over them, which was unnerving in its own way. Priya, however, had enormous eyes the color of quicksilver, made even sharper by the contrast of her brown-and-grey spotted skin.

“I thought it was just your flying,” Priya said with a sneer.

Tiffany was a notoriously bad flier, and Priya was the exact opposite; the best flier in yellow squad, and likely all the cadet squadrons. Her arrogance was unrivaled, too.

“Cool it,” Hedika said, pulling Tiffany back by her wings so she wouldn’t get bumped again.

Priya tossed her pony-tail as though its strangely iridescent, silver strands had been tousled by the encounter, then sneered toward Hedika. Her eyes darted from Hedika to Tiffany and to their lockers as though she was looking for something else wrong. “Where’s my flight suit?”

Tiffany felt the panic in her gut rise to her throat. Priya meant the courier’s uniform she and Hedika had stolen from her to use on their journey to Freefall. They had replaced it, of course, and Hedika had kept the old one, but Priya still acted like it was hers. Right now, it wasn’t in Hedika’s locker. Tiffany had stolen it a second time to wear on her journey to the ruins of Ancrya, and if anyone found out about that, Tiffany would be in a lot of trouble.

“I’m having it fitted,” Hedika said, not missing a beat. “It’s a little tight around….” Hedika ran her hands over her muscular shoulders and arms, then her boobs. She raised an eyebrow at Priya.

Priya harrumphed. “Better not have traded it for a book.” She turned, swishing her brown wings in an exaggerated flourish. Cocking her head back, and holding her chin up, she strode on the balls of her feet toward the bathroom as though she were lighter than air.

Hedika leaned in to Tiffany, whispering, “We should probably go get the uniform back today.”