The lower levels of Manhattan are rarely lit by street lamps. Whether through disuse or abuse, they so rarely work that the residents of those areas know to navigate by other means.
And, when possible, the preferred of those other means is by moonlight. Tonight’s half-moon was a bright one and it lit the streets well enough.
And yet, the streets were quite empty tonight. And why were they so empty?
Well, high in the sky, swooping and gliding across the void of the night, were gargoyles.
And not just one or two gargoyles. Not even five or six.
No, there were tens of gargoyles, a dozen twice over, maybe even thrice, and then some.
They were most visible when they cut in front of the moon, dark and varied forms sharply silhouetted against the celestial object.
But though few stars were visible, the ones that were blinked in and out of view with alarming frequency as gargoyles swooped between them and those watching them.
Sometimes, a gargoyle would swoop in front of a lit window, displaying them for all the world to see, highlighting skin that was blue or purple or red, glinting off of horns and brow ridges, snaking across wings and sails and tails.
Those sent people scurrying most.
But crouched atop a low-lying building, wreathed in the stark shadows cast by the moon, there was a lone gargoyle who simply stood there, watching.
Demona had been alone for the better part of a thousand years. But never before had she felt quite as alone as she did right now.
The gargoyles up above were . . . well, there really was no other word for it: dancing. Clumsily, yes, nothing like the dances they would have performed in her youth, but they were dancing.
Celebrating, really, though this type of celebration could also be termed a ceremony.
Gargoyles were not big on names. At all. But some things acquired words that could imply an unspoken name.
This was one of those. In the past, these gargoyles would say they were dancing among the stars and winds. Nowadays, the ceremony was called the Starwind Dance and it was performed to celebrate new eggs.
Or, more accurately, to celebrate impending new eggs. In human terms, they were celebrating the fact that some of the gargoyles were now pregnant.
And one of those carrying gargoyles was Demona’s daughter Angela.
Just the thought of her daughter hurt her heart.
They hadn’t spoken in years now and Demona missed her daughter more than anything.
Well, maybe not quite more than anything. Demona missed her other daughter pretty much equally.
But where Demona’s separation from Angela was tinged with guilt and anguish, Demona’s separation from Delilah was tinged with grief and a heartrending sorrow.
Demona was, by and large, responsible for Angela cutting ties with her. It was a painful truth but it was one she had forced herself to accept and internalize.
Demona . . . had failed . . . her daughter. She’d failed Angela. And worse, she’d betrayed her, used her, hurt her.
That was her fault.
But the loss of Delilah was not Demona’s fault. It couldn’t be. Because if both Thailog and Sevarius had lost to the stone virus that had claimed her second daughter, then it wasn’t her fault for not knowing about it because they couldn’t have known about it or know how potent it would be.
So instead of guilt, all Demona could feel when she thought of her second daughter was overwhelming grief at her death and a deep, painful sadness at the remembrance of her short, short life.
The two of them had celebrated Delilah’s first,
shortly before she became stone forever. Demona had done her absolute best to fulfill every dream Delilah had that night. She’d taken her gliding. She’d disguised them both with the most powerful magic she could muster and had bought them a couple of hours to explore Manhattan unimpeded.
And she’d bought her daughter as much music as she could.
Because Delilah had loved music.
Demona took a deep breath, ignoring the way it rattled as she found back a sob. She would not cry. Immortals do not cry.
Because if immortals started crying, they would never stop.
Demona steeled herself and returned her thoughts to the gargoyles up above.
Obviously, Goliath and Hudson had done their best to pass on some semblance of tradition to the younger gargoyles. They flew in groups of four and swooped and dove just so.
In small clans, like this one would be back in the past, despite being larger now than most existing clans up until last year, gargoyles flew formations up to four gargoyles long and then used patterns and movements to convey extra information.
But bigger clans typically used five gargoyles instead and the biggest Demona had ever seen had used eight.
And though the dance itself was unfamiliar, clumsy and a mismatch of different traditions, borrowed from cultures both far away and long gone, Demona, the oldest gargoyle to ever exist, the only one to have travelled as far as possible, to have seen so much, she still knew how to read the dance.
Six gargoyles. Six new eggs, six new couples, six months until the laying. And an invitation woven throughout the dance to all save the Quarrymen, the Hunters, and Demona.
She watched as the dance repeated. Four gargoyles, two familiar, one a total stranger, and one whose features were more familiar than he himself, flew wingtip to wingtip, in perfect formation. All males, specifically the males whose mates were laying.
Well, four of them at least.
They all swooped down, two pulling up earlier than the other two, to convey the number of eggs. If there had been, say, eight eggs instead of six, the gargoyles would have swooped down, pulled up slightly in unison, and then swooped down into a spiralling dive, as was happening now.
This part of the dance would repeat frequently, for any newcomers.
Then came the warriors’ dance, where a group of clan warriors would demonstrate their power with dangerous displays of aerial prowess.
After the warriors was a display of prosperity, with all the gargoyles taking to the air to swoop and dive in larger circles. The larger the circle, the more confident the gargoyles were in their safety and in the prosperity of their territory.
Finally, the last element of the dance was the invitation, where two gargoyles would take to the air at a time, one portraying the clan leader and the other portraying an outsider, going from general outsiders to specific outsiders.
The two gargoyles would act out first the relationship between the two represented parties and then the clan leader gargoyle would either present an invitation or a threat.
Demona was one of the outsiders this time, not a new role over the course of a thousand years.
And the gargoyle acting her out received a very clear, very hostile threat display from the gargoyle acting as Goliath. Admittedly, that was partly because it was Brooklyn acting as Goliath, but the threat display was not something the actors decided.
It was a clan decision, supported by a leader’s vote.
She would not be allowed to her daughter’s first laying.
Demona remembered her first laying. It didn’t go well. Her body simply refused to bring Angela’s egg into the world.
Without help from an older female, Demona would likely have died then and there, and Angela along with her.
Where were the older females of this clan? There were none.
When the clan had suddenly swollen in size, Demona had done some subtle digging to find out the cause.
As it turned out, the sudden shift started with the death of that rotten Princess Katherine. Without her, the Avalon Clan had splintered, some remaining on Avalon but many departing for the outside world.
Most of those had come to Manhattan to join either Clan Wyvern or the Labyrinth Clan. But there were many who had gone elsewhere.
And a few weeks after the first swell had come a second one as young Ishimura gargoyles had come via Avalon’s magic boats to join the two Manhattan clans.
But the Avalon Clan gargoyles were all youngsters, no older than Angela. And the Ishimura gargoyles were not much different. Older, yes, but none passed their first mating flight. Certainly none passed their first laying.
What if Angela was just like Demona? Who would help her through her first laying? Who could help her?
Certainly not Goliath or Hudson! Males had nothing to do with laying; they weren’t even allowed around the females when they were laying!
Would Demona lose Angela a third time, this time as permanently as Delilah?
Her heart ached at the thought.
But what could she do to help her daughter? Angela wanted nothing to do with Demona. Certainly, she no longer trusted her mother. Best case scenario, she’d just ignore any attempt at imparting advice.
Worst case . . . worst case, she might try the exact opposite of whatever Demona told her. It was a tactic some of the clan’s males had employed over the years, to varying success.
But trying it in this case could be fatal.
Demona’s eyes burned even as her claws sunk deep into the stone beneath her. She pulled her wings closer, mantling them tight around her body, red eyes affixed upon the gliding gargoyles.
She didn’t know what to do.
But she had time.
Not a lot.
But a little time. Six months to laying. Six months to figure out a way to pass on some of her knowledge to Angela.