[NIBBLES]: The Stranger at Shadewood - Chapter 1
Chapter 1: I Stepped on a Rusty Nail at Durty Joe's Drinkhole (and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt)
Before we get into the goods, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you pre-orders for Nock #1 are still live for the next couple of days. We’re ending pre-orders during the evening hours on January 31st, so be sure to get your pre-orders in for that soon!
But without further ado…
So begins our Lunchroom Nibbles efforts, where I bring you at least one short story—either prose or sequential—each month. Some of these will be little one-shots, others will be RiotVerse tales, and some will be a chapter of a larger story. In the case of today’s story, I introduce you to…
It’s been six years since The Demon first appeared. At a time when super-powered beings were found aplenty, he found himself pulled to this realm because of the ancient dark magick read from tomes that were once long forgotten. Before the incursion, magick was something embraced by most and practiced widely by those who so chose. After The Demon was dispelled with additional enchantments to counter the dark magick that brought him here, the Age of Heroes was brought to a sudden end as millions of heroes, villains, and others with abilities succumbed to the energies needed to send The Demon back to Hell.
After it all, wizardry became taboo as the wielders of the now-forbidden art were forced into the shadows, fearing for their lives because of the mobs that were sure to swarm them. You best believe we don’t dare repeat the names the masses slung at the average magi because of their attachment to the art.
Since its creation with the rest of the universe, the Architects made magick a required ingredient in the recipe of the fabric wrapped around this bolt of the universe. Those who created this reality made all energies depend on the stability of the art, causing severe disruption across the cosmos anytime the craft became unbalanced.
As most spat at the idea of magick, blaming it for the extinction of the Age of Heroes, the numbers of the Light Magi rapidly dwindled. Those that followed the Dark quickly adapted as they progressively increased the pressure of their chokehold on the craft. While those dark forces prepared to make one final move to capture the last remaining magicks, the Light opted to prepare a last-ditch effort of their own.
The stranger had quite some time on the road when he finally arrived at the outskirts of a cramped town, one small enough where everyone knows everything about you or, more properly, they think they know everything about you. He had been raised in the ways of the Light and knew virtually all of its disciplines, yet couldn’t bring himself to teleport from Point A to Point B for the situation he found himself in. He needed the drivetime to think and savor it all in, from the winds whipping his face as he drove across the Plains with his window to the cautious driving on snow-swept roads as he crossed the mountains into the Pacific Northwest.
The cramped town is Shadewood and it’s never prospered; not last year, not three decades ago, and certainly not when it was first founded by its settlers. The stranger had lost track of just how many days he had been on the road. Between his desolate bank account and the sense of urgency required in uprooting his life, he had started his car and opted to drive straight through.
He drove by Durty Joe’s Drinkhole, which found itself cemented along the one highway running through the village. Its tin roof withering away to the elements, misshapen wooden panels were found to be testing the endurance of the rusty nails pinning them to the building’s framing. There was a time where the joint probably stood out with its bright red paint, only for it to now resemble a Cabernet that’s been blended with clay and regurgitated onto woodwork by the family dog. The dozens of sun-faded signs hooked to the walls didn’t help its rustic image, advertising sodas and beers from decades ago.
The stranger wasn’t sure if the rot he smelled writhing through the air was from the heap of tetanus he drove by or the fact Shadewood seemed to be stuck in a perpetual autumn. The last time this town saw a single ray of sunshine was the day the gods fabricated the ground it stood upon. In Shadewood, the clouds form a constant canopy from which a consistent drizzle falls, paired with an enduring breeze kicking up fallen leaves, even in the dead of summer.
He drove a navy Oldsmobile Alero, a modest midsized car running thousands of miles past “Return for Service” number sticker clinging to life on the vehicle’s windshield. After passing the town’s entire population, which resided in half a dozen decrepit houses, he came upon the lone stoplight in the area, if you could even call it that. It wasn’t the green-means-go variety but rather, a single flashing red light suspended above the intersection, trying to pulsate its waning scarlet hues through the unceasing fog attempting to warn the drivers rarely found on this particular road. The stranger didn’t look either way as he knew nobody was coming, partially because of his dabbling in divination, but mostly because his gut told him this was the road less traveled. He turned his left blinker on as he sputtered forward, not wanting to attract any more attention to himself on the odd chance the town had a deputy or constable stalking its six roads looking for someone to arrest.
The stranger soon arrived on the western outskirts of town where the woods grew denser with each passing glance. He pulled off to the side of the road immediately prior to a gravel lane that led well into the woods, taking a deep breath.
“Why am I here?” the stranger wondered aloud. “I don’t need this. I really, really don’t need this. They can do it without me. They don’t need me. The Light will live on,” he said, despite never being one capable of lying to himself. He looked out his windshield before glancing out the windows on either side of his car. He wasn’t too nervous, but more annoyed with his requested presence in this town far from his home.
Even though it was now mid-day, a fog still hung above the wooded road. If the gods overlooking this abomination of a town allowed a sliver of sunlight to pierce through the clouds, it still wouldn’t be able to cut through the expansive evergreens that stood tall over the passageway on either side. Nonetheless, the stranger turned onto the lane and started driving deeper into the woods. Even after driving across the longest stretches of roads across the Northwoods, the stranger thought this particular road was the longest stretch of his journey. Surely, he thought, this lane was 100 miles long. In reality, it stretched just half a mile into the wilderness.
He soon arrived at a gate spread across the road. To the side was a dilapidated outpost built from brick and mortar, only these bricks looked as if they came straight from the halls of Notre Dame or Château de Montaillou. Gray in color, moss was found aplenty as it peaked out of the building’s porous surfaces and cracks. He thought it may have been abandoned if not for the security guard that leaned his entire torso out the outpost’s lone window the second the stranger arrived.
“Name and business?” the security guard asked in a much happier tone than any mood the stranger has found himself in years.
“Alston. Rhys Alston,” the stranger groggily responded, refusing to make eye contact with the guard, not out of arrogance or annoyance but of exhaustion and the desire to find somewhere a bed or bench to collapse onto at the earliest moment.
“Oh!” the guard exclaimed with glee. “We’ve been waiting for you! I can’t believe they got someone to get here on such short notice. Didn’t even have to conjure a portal. You sure mean business, huh?”
Rhys wanted to pry further at the guard’s comments, but what came out instead was a deep grunt without the slightest hint of sincerity.
“Huh. Well, anyway,” the guard shrugged. “Best wishes! I hope you’ll find Shadewood Academy much more charming than it looks.”
The security guard pressed a button on his panel inside the outpost, sending the fence lurching forward on its hinges. Still leaning out his window, the security guard waved the stranger on with a tremendous smile spread across his face. As he continued his journey down the lane, Rhys Alston thought something caught his eye in his rearview mirror. When he took a second to look back, however, the road was as quiet as the town it was paved in. If only he would have looked a few seconds earlier, the stranger would have seen the security guard leave his outpost and gallop into the woods across the shack on all four of his hooves.
Down the road, a sizable stone archway stood tall over the road. Even though he struggled to keep his eyes open, the sheer size of the sign caught Rhys’ eyes as he stared up in amusement. In letters that spoke louder than the beautiful stone they were carved on read:
Through the archway was the site of one of the few remaining higher institutions of magick in this reality. Beyond the gate was a parking lot and out of his windshield, the stranger saw three buildings immediately off the concrete. The newest building ran the length of the right edge of the parking lot and had a sign above its doors read Administrative Offices. Directly opposite the offices was a two-level building bearing the name Azahl Hall, which the stranger knew to be the classrooms named after legendary Magus Garton Azahl, may he rest in peace.
Situated closer and perpendicular to Azahl Hall was one student dormitory, a theory of the stranger’s that was quickly proven correct because of the various decorative signs naming each of the floors. Between the dorm and the administrative offices was a piece of land where a building used to stand. Judging by some charred remnants still standing on the ground, the stranger assumed the missing building was one of the reasons why he was called to Shadewood. Between the dormitory and the burnt land was a sidewalk that led to the quad and the rest of the campus.
Rhys was told to park nearest Azahl Hall so that administrators could show him to his teaching quarters at once. The second he found a spot, he threw the Alero into and yawned, drastically stretching the bags under his amber eyes far across his face. If he would have thought of it, a shower may have tidied up his unkempt cinnamon hair, which had already thinned drastically at both the hairline and crown. At this point in his life, the chevron mustache that lingered on his lip may have been the most concentrated parcel of hair on his body.
He took a deep breath and whipped his car door open, beginning to get out of his car when he noticed his legs were stiffer than a pair of petrified Redwoods, even though they were hardly thicker than four toothpicks bundled together. He took a second to gain his composure, tightening his tie and engaging in one of those stretches that itch every part of your body at once, your brain included, when he was so rudely interrupted.
“Mr. Alston!” a cheerful voice exclaimed.
The stranger looked around to see where the enthusiastic tone came from and find the source of the squawk that interrupted his soul-curing repose. Across the top of his car, he locked eyes with an elderly woman that looked no less than 40 years his senior. Given he just turned 42, Alston estimated his stretch assassinator was 80 going on 120. He was only staring into her eyes because she was standing on her tippy toes, otherwise she wouldn’t have even been tall enough to look over the car.
“You must be Florence?” Rhys countered.
“Florence Treadwell, chancellor of this here academy I am, every day plus Tuesday!” she responded.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am. But please, call me Rhys,” the stranger insisted.
“Hn. Well, Rhys, welcome to Shadewood, we’re excited to have you join the staff at our institution! We’ve heard so many good things about you.”
The stranger was pleased to hear the school had only heard the good things about him, given the bad things surely would have put his new friend in a much worse mood. Before his next thought could pop up, Florence was hurriedly rushing around the car.
“Here, here,” she said rushing for the handle of the Oldsmobile’s back door. “Let me help you get settled in.”
“No, I’ve got it. There’s no need to help,” he said as he tried to squeeze himself between the lady and his car door. “It’s the least I can do. No need to strain yourself, just point me in the direction of the staff dormitory and I’ll be on my way.”
She backed up and thought to herself for a moment. “Strain myself?” Florence wondered aloud. “My, you mustn’t have heard any of the Treadwell tales.”
The two locked eyes, and the stranger couldn’t decide if he should brace himself for a fight. He was certain he didn’t want to fight his elderly acquaintance on his first day at his new job, but he hadn’t slept in days and was running short of patience.
Suddenly, the lady began to flex every muscle in her body.
“Hey, hey, hey, are you alright?” Rhys asked as he rushed to her side, worried he’d offended her enough to the point of a cardiac arrest. Instead, a ripping noise begin cutting through the air.
He noticed the lady’s socks begin to tear as her legs swelled to a size of Secretariat’s. The arms of her light blue blouse ripped as her biceps grew to the size of a python that had just eaten a plate of much larger pythons as a round of hors d'oeuvres. Not only did her muscles grow, but so did the bones Rhys thought surely suffered from serious calcium deficiencies, expanding both in length and circumference. In the blink of an eye, Rhys’ new friend was standing 8 feet tall and had the build of a Cylcopes, yet her painfully kind granny face remained.
As Rhys cowered in Florence’s shadow, he could only muster enough courage to utter a word and a half. “Ah, transmutation,” he choked.
“As I said, Mr. Alston, welcome to Shadewood. I’ll be handling your luggage and showing you to your quarters, if that’s alright,” she responded in her kind voice. “And with not even the slightest strain.”
The stranger said nothing as he watched his elderly boss pile hundreds of pounds of luggage under her arms. All he wanted to do was nap, so he wasn’t about to risk getting squashed by an 80-year-old meaty skyscraper.