It was The Owl’s turn to lead the meeting, which meant he’d end the night doing that creepy thing all owls do: turning his head in a complete 360, and loving how it upset The Crow, who believed it was a showy affectation their ancestors would not approve of.
“Must you?” The Crow asked.
“It’s what we owls do,” the old bird said with a sly smile.
Then The Owl finished with the usual mantra, “Principium et Finis. The beginning of the end.” Followed by The Crow’s echoing response, which he made sure was louder and more enthusiastic than that of The Owl’s.
And with that, the meeting had officially come to an end.
If there were more of them, like it had been in the past, it would’ve been a powerful display. Now, however, it was only a pitiful cry from the last two shapeshifters who still attended the monthly gatherings honoring their ancestors.
Both would now go back to their very human and very normal lives as Barnabas Warleggan and Lionel Pickett, instead of The Crow and The Owl, respectively.
Just before they parted ways, Lionel said to Barnabas, “We shall rise again, you’ll see.” But Barnabas wasn’t sure he believed that anymore.
The cat was waiting for Barnabas when he arrived home—not his cat, the neighbor’s annoying orange tabby, who hated Barnabas, as if he knew what Barnabas was and didn’t like it one bit.
It hissed at him like it always did, but Barnabas was in no mood tonight. “I’ll show you not to mess with a member of the Warleggan Clan,” he said. Then Barnabas transformed into the large and impressive crow, thinking it would scare the tabby away.
Instead, the cat stood his ground and let out an ear-piercing shriek that, frankly, stunned Barnabas, who instinctively raised his claws in a defensive posture.
Now, either this cat purposely distracted Barnabas, which was highly possible, or he was just the luckiest tom on the planet because the shriek diverted Barnabas’s attention enough that he didn’t see the woman coming at him with a shovel—not until it was too late. Not until she sent him careening into the concrete wall of the carport.
He would transform back into his human appearance if he blacked out, so Barnabas tried desperately to stay conscious, but he could feel himself slipping into darkness.
The last thing Barnabas remembered before the lights went out was his neighbor towering over him and the cat standing next to her, looking triumphant.
Ruby Atwater wasn’t usually up at three am, but her beloved cat, Clawed Monet, woke her with his “let me out or suffer the consequences” caterwauling.
Ruby nearly fell asleep as she waited by the back door for his return. But Clawed’s terrified meowy-shriek startled her out of her drowsy fog and chased away any trace of sleepiness.
Without hesitation, Ruby rushed to his rescue, but Clawed wasn’t in his usual spot. “Clawed, where are you?!” Ruby whisper-yelled, not wanting to wake the neighbors.
Then she heard the terrible shriek again and realized it was coming from her neighbor’s yard, which was separated from her property by a chest-high privacy fence.
Ruby wasn’t exactly in any kind of shape to climb a fence, but to save her beloved Clawed Monet, she’d do just about anything. And that devotion was immediately put to the test when she saw the large, black bird flying towards Clawed with its talons extended.
Ruby acted quickly. Seeing a shovel lying next to the porch, she ran, and in one motion, lifted it, swung, and knocked the bird into the concrete wall of the carport, and it just laid there like a heaping pile of unattached black feathers.
“I think it’s dead, Clawed,” she said to the cat, who meowed in agreement.
However, it wasn’t dead. Unbelievably the damned thing started to move again. Well, it didn’t really move, exactly; it undulated, and rippled in a way that Ruby could not make sense of.
Without realizing it, she slowly backed away, simultaneously scooping up Clawed and clutching him to her chest. Ruby wanted to run, but she couldn’t. Then the bird began transforming into something else, and all Ruby could do was open her mouth and scream.
When Barnabas woke up, his head ached, and he knew instantly that his right leg was broken. He was in some kind of basement, locked in a cage large enough to sit in, but not tall enough to stand.
“What is this?” he muttered to himself.
“It’s a dog kennel,” the voice said from behind him, startling Barnabas who didn’t realize anyone else was in the room, and the sudden movement sent a sharp pain up his fractured leg.
Barnabas turned to see the woman who hit him sitting on a couch and watching with a detached curiosity. The damned cat was next to her, and both were eating from a bag of potato chips.
Barnabas was naked, having transformed out of his clothes, but she covered him with an old wool blanket that was making him itch.
His tall, lanky 6’4” frame was cramped, and he tried unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position without moving his broken leg.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. Barnabas tried to recall her name. Rosalie, Rachel … something like that, he thought. But the idea of food sounded wonderful, and he nodded. “Yes, I am hungry.”
“So you’re a Birdman, huh?” Ruby asked as she spooned some stew into a bowl. “I‘ve had some strange neighbors, but you take the cake,” she said, giggling. Her laughter unnerved Barnabas. What normal person would be so complacent after watching a bird morph into a man? he thought.
“Got you in that kennel just in time,” Ruby said. “As soon as I locked it shut, you went and turned into … well, into what you are now.”
Ruby, who Barnabas thought was Rosalie or Rachel, heated up the large bowl of stew and slid it through the opening normally used for a dog’s bowl.
Barnabas took a few large bites of the stew then asked, “Why do you have a kennel this large?”
Ruby looked at him for so long before answering that Barnabas became uncomfortable. “It was an impulse buy,” she finally said. “Believe me, I never thought I’d need it or that I’d ever live next door to a …” She paused. “Just what the hell are you anyway?”
The stew was delicious, and Barnabas quickly ate it up before answering Ruby. After he scooped the last bit into his mouth, Barnabas said, “Rachel, is it? Could you please allow me to stretch my legs, it’s quite cramped in here.”
“My name is Ruby, and no, I can’t let you stretch your legs—besides, one is broken. Now stop avoiding my question.”
“You wouldn’t understand what I am,” Barnabas said, trying to find a way to get blood circulating throughout his limbs.
“Try me,” said Ruby.
Barnabas looked at her keenly. She wasn’t afraid of him, and he knew from his people’s history that those were the most dangerous kinds of humans. “I am what you call a shapeshifter,” he said, “someone who can—”
“I know what a shapeshifter is, Cochise, I’m not an idiot.” Then she paused. “But I thought you were all a myth.”
“We are not a myth, I guarantee you that.”
“Are you the last of your kind?”
“Yes,” Barnabas lied.
“You tried to kill my cat.”
“In all fairness, he attacked me first.”
Ruby chuckled. “That sounds like Clawed.”
Then her expression grew very serious, and she said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you, Birdman.”
“You could let me go,” Barnabas said, trying to smile, but it looked like a pained grimace instead.
Ruby didn’t trust him, of course; how could she after seeing what he could do. Still … she was curious.
Ruby Atwater was right to be leery of a shapeshifter—especially a crow; they were notoriously untrustworthy.
But Ruby was intrigued by him when she should’ve been afraid. She was fooled by Barnabas’s very human demeanor and forgot about the large crow-beast that tried to kill her cat.
And her curiosity got the better of her, which is why she let Barnabas stretch his legs. After all, how could she have possibly known that shifters heal faster than humans? That Barnabas’s leg was just fine when she unlocked the cage and let him out.
Barnabas went after Clawed first, but that cat was quicker than he looked. Living the life of luxury with the lonely Ruby, he had put on quite a bit of weight, but Clawed could still skedaddle when necessary.
Then Barnabas went after Ruby, who was screaming for Clawed to get away.
Barnabas glared at her, still in his human form. Ruby stared back, unafraid. Barnabas thought, She soon will be.
Ruby raised the only weapon she could find, a bat she used to scare away the neighbor dog, who constantly tormented Clawed.
Barnabas changed into the crow right before her eyes, and the two ran toward each other: Ruby with the bat raised above her head, and Barnabas, his talons extended.
A neighbor called police when they heard screams coming from Ruby’s house. When police arrived, they found blood everywhere, some of it human, and some belonging to an unidentifiable animal. Authorities ruled it a homicide, even though Ruby Atwater’s body was never found.
Word spread fast throughout the small community of shapeshifters that there was a battle and a victory by one of their own. They believed this was the time of their ascension. Soon the weekly meetings, once attended by only Barnabas and Lionel, now had hundreds of participants, and more were on the way.
“Legend tells us it was the humans who hunted and killed our people to near extinction,” Barnabas said to the large crowd, “Now it is time for our revenge.”
Shouts of “Victory!” filled the chamber. They were all in their animal forms, grand spectacles of days gone by. An odd collection of predator and prey, together as if they were attending some kind of freakish family reunion.
Barnabas and Lionel watched over the proceedings, “This must be what it felt like for our ancestors,” Barnabas said.
“I told you we would rise again.” The Owl spoke proudly.
Barnabas nodded, as he watched the frenzied group of shifters chant, “To the rise of the shapeshifters! Principium et Finis!”
But as I mentioned before, crows are notoriously untrustworthy, but they are also completely unreliable.
Ruby wasn’t dead, as Barnabas told the flock. Barnabas neglected to mention that he ran off as soon as he heard police sirens. He also failed to tell them that when he left Ruby’s home, she was wounded, but very much alive.
As the crowd of shifters shouted triumphantly, Barnabas thought about Ruby. She was never afraid of him, even once he transformed. In her eyes, he saw a woman who would not back down, someone determined to survive.
Barnabas shook his head, trying to forget his last encounter with her, and he closed his eyes, relishing the chants from the shifters he was now led. But deep down Barnabas knew he hadn’t seen the last of Ruby Atwater.