Before shapeshifters began descending upon the town of Langford, before Barnabas Warleggan took what he believed to be his rightful place as leader of the shapeshifters, and before the new war began, Ruby Atwater survived.
This was important because Ruby was the first chink in the shapeshifters’ armor, a weakness most of them hadn’t even realized existed.
But Barnabas Warleggan knew, and in the back of his mind, the Old Crow was very worried.
A neighbor called police the night Ruby battled the shapeshifting Crow named Barnabas Warleggan, and it was the sound of those sirens that caused him to flee. But somewhere between Warleggan leaving and police arriving, Ruby Atwater vanished.
Police assumed it was a robbery that went bad. And with blood evidence on the scene, Chief Dan Melbourne told reporters, “We’re treating this as a homicide, and if anyone has information on the whereabouts of Ruby Atwater, or who may have taken her, please contact our department.”
“Brilliant idea to move the body,” Lionel Pickett told Barnabas. “Are you sure no one will find it?”
“No one will ever find that body,” Barnabas said flatly. Which was true, because there was no body to find.
“Then this is it,” Lionel said excitedly. “This is what the ancient texts spoke of; The death of one of them by one of us shall lead to our ascension.” Lionel was the keeper of the ancient texts, and had much of them memorized.
But if Lionel had been watching Barnabas closely, he would’ve seen the slight quiver of his lower lip, the small tremor that meant he wasn’t telling the truth. But Barnabas would do whatever it took to get what he wanted—everything, that is, except kill Ruby Atwater.
Clawed Monet was the first thing Ruby saw when she woke up, and his usual feline aloofness was replaced by, what … concern?
“Hi Clawed,” she said and smiled, but that smile vanished as soon as Ruby realized she was in an unfamiliar place.
“Where are we, Clawed?” she asked, half expecting him to answer. And at first, Ruby, still weary from the attack, thought it was Clawed who had spoken. That’s silly, she thought, He’s just a cat.
Then another voice spoke up, this one in her head, the one that sounded like her mother, and it said, You know Clawed isn’t an ordinary cat, don’t ya Rubes?
Ruby supposed she had always known that.
The voice that spoke wasn’t from Clawed or her mother. It was from a woman sitting in a chair in the corner of the room.
“Hi, I’m Stanley Nesbitt,” she said, holding out her hand.
When Ruby didn’t shake the outstretched hand, Stanley pulled it back as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
“I know you have a lot of questions,” she said, then proceeded to list what they might be. “Like, How’d you get here? Why are you here? And most importantly, Who the hell is this woman and why is her name Stanley?” She chuckled a bit, then smiled.
“Do you always pose your own questions?” Ruby asked.
Again Stanley smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “It’s a habit of mine.”
“Well,” Ruby said, feeling a little less worried about the stranger, “then who the hell are you, and why is your name Stanley?”
Stanley giggled. It was the sound a little girl might make and it forced a smile from Ruby. “The name’s Stanley because my mom is a big Bette Davis fan. Her favorite film is this snoozer called In This Our Life. Davis’ character is called Stanley, and as my mom likes to say when asked, Girl or boy, that was what I was going to name my kid, even my husband couldn’t talk me out of it.” Stanley’s impersonation of her mother sounded a bit like Edith Bunker from that old show All in the Family.
“As for who I am, well I’ll get to that, but first I have to say, you fuckin’ beat a shapeshifter, and that is awesome!” Stanley could hardly contain herself. Then she said, less excited, “Oh shit, you fuckin’ beat a shapeshifter. This means you are in mucho danger.”
Ruby sat up and instantly regretted it. Clawed gently reached out a paw as if saying, lay back down—so she did.
“How do you know all of this?”
“Well, we’ve been keeping tabs on them—the shapeshifters, that is.”
“We?” Ruby asked looking around.
“Well, mostly me; there are a few others involved, but it’s mainly me. We figured some things out quite by accident, but we—well, I have been the one mostly watching them,” Stanley said, another grin spread across her face.
Seeing Ruby’s confusion Stanley explained further, “When I say we, I mean this little club I started. We’d meet in the bookstore I own, well owned, a couple of times a week and discuss the mysteries of the world. You know, ghosts, aliens, what happened to Amelia Earhart, shit like that.”
Stanley looked at Ruby, wondering if she should go on. Ruby nodded.
“Last year I got this really old book from some guy in Poughkeepsie who was on the club’s email list. He just sent it to me out of the blue, with a note that said, Thought you might like this. It was this weird book, in some strange language. Frank, he was in the group too, said it was Sumerian.
“So I says to him, ‘Who the fuck speaks Sumerian?’
“‘I do,’ Frank said, ‘Well at least a little bit.’
“Frank was like some fucking genius college dropout who just knew shit like Sumerian. That’s when we, I mean Frank, figured out some of the text. He said that Langford was some kind of hub for these Shapeshifting bastards.”
“Warleggan, the shifter I fought, said he was the only one.”
“Well, they lie,” Stanley said. “Especially the crows; they are notoriously untrustworthy.”
Stanley pulled up a chair to the side of the bed and brought out a folder stuffed with papers.
“Frank figured out a lot, but he only got so far.”
Stanley’s face went all squirrely; her eyes welled up with tears, and she brushed them away before they could really get going.
“What happened to Frank?” Ruby asked, but she thought she already knew.
Stanley sighed. “There’s a group of human traitor shitheads called the Daku, loosely translated to mean ‘kill’ or ‘killers.’ For as far back as Frank could find, they’ve had an uneasy alliance with the Shifters, they infiltrate any groups trying to stop the Shiffs, and then they stomp out the threat.”
“You think one of the Daku killed Frank?”
“It had to be,” Stanley said quietly. “Frank was real careful; he wouldn’t have let anyone in that he didn’t know or think he could trust. By that time he was real scared and super paranoid. But that’s why the ‘we’ is now just me. I don’t know who I can trust anymore. Anyone in the group could be a part of the Daku.”
“So how do I know you’re not one of them?” Ruby asked.
Stanley shrugged again, her shoulders slumped. She lowered her gaze and said, “I guess you don’t.”
They stared at each other for a few moments. Then Ruby said, “Go on, Stanley, finish your story.”
“Whoever killed Frank took the book, but Frank had already copied a few key pages and hid them in a place he knew I’d find them. My guess is he thought this could happen, and prepared for it.”
“I’m sorry about your friend, Stanley,” Ruby said.
She did her patented smile/shrug and continued. “From what Frank found out, the Shapeshifters are waiting for the Second Ascension, a time when they will once again rule the earth.”
Stanley laughed, and this surprised them both. “I know it sounds like a bad episode of Supernatural, doesn’t it?”
Ruby asked, “You said the Second Ascension. This means there was a first one, right?”
“Yes! Frank found out that a few thousand years ago, the first Ascension happened right here. Of course, it wasn’t Langford then, but this is where it all took place.”
“So what happened, the Ascension must’ve failed?”
“You happened,” Stanley said.
“Well, not you per se, but someone like you, an outlier, something the Shiffs didn’t plan on. Frank had found something out before he died. He called me to come over so he could tell me, but when I got there, he was already …” Stanly’s voice trailed off. “All I know is during this first ascension there was an outlier that defeated a Shiff, then helped lead the rebellion that ended that first ascension. I think Frank was going to tell me how we could stop them.”
Stanley grew quiet again, thinking about her friend. “But I’m hoping you’re the outlier this time, Ruby. That’s why I got you out of there before the police came. Some of them are part of the Daku.”
The room fell silent again.
Then Stanley said, “Frank was our best shot at translating all this shit. I don’t know what I’m gonna do now.”
“I do,” Ruby said. “But you have to drive me to Hayward.”
Ruby Atwater is standing over Barnabas Warleggan wielding a large sword that has Warleggan Clan stamped on the hilt.
“She’s going to kill me with my own sword!” Barnabas screams in terror.
Yes, I am, Ruby says, as she brings the sword down into his chest.
Barnabas woke up in a cold sweat, breathing heavily and ashamed at how scared the dream made him feel.
The monthly gathering of the Shapeshifters was scheduled to take place in a matter of weeks, and Lionel informed Barnabas that at least fifty shifters would be attending, maybe more.
But his thoughts kept going back to Ruby and how she could ruin everything. Barnabas had to do something.
He transformed into the sleek Crow and flew to the secret location of the Daku.
It was a dying mall, and most people in Langford wondered how it stayed in business. The one store that had any customers at all was a collectibles shop called Long Time No See. It dealt in all sorts of antiques, and according to the proprietor, Milton Forrester, he could get you almost any item under the sun.
Milton Forrester was a long standing member of the Daku, as was his father and his father’s father. When he was contacted by Barnabas, it didn’t matter that it was three in the morning. He was up and dressed before Warleggan arrived.
Forrester bowed to Barnabas and greeted him with the traditional title of “Belum,” which means Lord. Barnabas hurried in, barely paying attention to the man.
“How may I be of service, Belum?” Forrester asked eagerly.
“I need you to find a woman for me, Milton,” Barnabas said. “And I need this to be discreet, just between you and I.” Forrester nodded. He was still alive because of his innate ability to keep Shifter matters private, even from one another.
“Time is of the essence, my good man,” Barnabas said. “And when your men locate her, she is to be terminated immediately.”
Stanley drove an old army green Land Rover that was parked in the rear of her apartment building. It looked like it hadn’t been driven in years, but Stanley said, “It don’t look like much, but it drives like a dream.”
Stanley helped Ruby, still in quite a bit of pain, into the front seat, and gently placed Clawed on her lap.
“Three hours to Hayward,” Stanley said. “Try and get comfortable.” She gave Ruby that silly grin, which Ruby was beginning to like a lot.
Stanley talked the whole way as if she knew the chatter was just what Ruby needed to keep her mind off the fact that she might be the key to defeating an ancient race of Shapeshifters.
Stanley gave Ruby a gentle shove when they crossed the Hayward city limits. It was one of those picture-perfect small towns that was more for passing through than staying and putting down roots—and Hayward’s eight hundred residents liked it that way.
Ruby directed Stanley to park in front of a nice white Cape Cod style house with green trim surrounded by a low wooden fence and an immaculately kept yard.
Stanley looked tired but upbeat, Ruby not so much. The trip was long and had taken a toll on her.
Ruby sat in the car, staring at the house. “I can’t go in there.”
Stanley looked at her, and there was something in her eyes that made Ruby take notice. “I get that some bad shit went down with you and this person, and I appreciate how hard it was for you to come here. But we are dealing with some real life dangerous shit, and it’s time to bury that fucking hatchet deep down, because whatever the fuck was done to you won’t mean shit if these Shapeshifting motherfuckers win.”
Ruby chuckled at Stanley’s eloquence and knew she was right.
Slowly they made their way up the front walk: Ruby, Stanley, and Clawed Monet bringing up the rear.
Ruby rang the doorbell almost hoping no one was home, but wasn’t surprised when the door finally opened.
To Stanley, the woman standing in the doorway looked to be in her mid-fifties, but it was hard to tell because her clear brown skin didn’t have a wrinkle on it. She gave no indication that she had any animosity towards Ruby, or that she even knew who Ruby was. Then a smile spread across her face, and she said, “I knew you weren’t dead.”
Ruby nearly fell over when the woman rushed to give her a ferocious hug. When she let go, there were tears in her eyes, and in Ruby’s too.
“This is Stanley,” Ruby said. “Stanley, this is Lila Atwater, my mother.”
If you enjoyed this story, check out its first installment, The Rise.