1: The Uncommon Cold
Jason Lamb sneezed.
Then he groaned, and closed his eyes. He was lying in bed, in one of the dormitory rooms of One More Castle, with a thick blanket wrapped snugly around his handsome frame. He tried to breathe through his snot-stuffed nose, and failed.
“You sound awful,” Andrew Carreiro said as he crossed his arms, looking down on his friend Jason. “Do you know where you picked up the virus? Perhaps on one of your little… political excursions?”
Lamb rolled his eyes, and his head somewhat. “I haven’t overthrown a democracy in weeks, Andrew. I’ve been here a while, I swear. Someone else must have passed it on,” he said, and managed a weak shrug.
After a moment’s thought, Carreiro exited his fellow Canadian’s chamber and entered the hallway, his cape fluttering behind him as he walked.
Alex Weiss and Valerie Minnich stood in front of the GMZ offices. Their faces were in full frown. Alex raised a fist and began pounding on the door.
It opened nearly instantly, as both Pierre and Daniel emerged. Behind them was a vast expanse of cubicles, humans, animals, and madness. A distant boom erupted somewhere in the cube sectors, followed by faint, panicked screaming.
“What is it? What do you want?” Daniel scoffed.
Val scowled in retort. “Look, I know you two are soooooooo busy, but we need to talk.”
Alex pointed down the corridor, to their own offices – right next door. “I don’t know what your people are doing in there, but it’s incredibly disruptive. It sounds like someone is just standing there kicking the wall that our headquarters share. But unlike you guys, we don’t have a cavernous, soul-sucking continent of corporate despair at our disposal. Retro Power is a smaller, independent outfit, and we would appreciate i–”
“Him? Is it him?” Pierre interrupted, and turned back toward their business space as he pointed to the far wall, the one adjacent to Retro Power. There was literally a guy standing there repeatedly kicking that wall.
Valerie sighed. “Y’know, I bet it is,” she huffed. “Would you mind telling him to stop, at least?”
Pierre shrugged. “Sure. Sorry about that. Hey Daniel,” he turned to his publishing partner. “Go take care of that intern.”
Daniel nodded, turned, and approached the young man. Without a word of warning, the GMZ co-founder began savagely kicking the intern in his shins. The intern howled in pain, grimacing as he collapsed to the ground, clutching his lower legs. Daniel just kept kicking, even as he called back to the trio at the doorway.
“Is this good? Am I kicking hard enough?!” he asked loudly. He slowed his kicking pace, but began rearing his leg back at full length before launching it forward, his upper foot now repeatedly ramming into the victim’s ribs. The prone intern was whimpering and whining.
Andrew then met the three gathered in the hallway. “Hey,” he said in a polite tone as their attentions fell on him. “It seems like there is a virus going around the Castle, so please be careful. Jason is sick.”
His listeners gasped in unison, their eyes widening in horror. “No! Not Jason!” Alex exclaimed, and immediately began bounding down the hall in the direction of Lamb’s quarters.
“No, see, I would recommend staying away from him, and…” Andrew tried explaining, but was soon left alone. He looked downward, and lifted his wand into view. He could use his powers to stop them in their tracks, or teleport them elsewhere altogether; but, after some consideration, he could not bring himself to use his magic that way.
He did, though, tap a button on the handle in order to lock Jason’s door remotely. He figured that should stop the spread of the virus a little bit, at least.
Meanwhile, Daniel was still kicking. Each swing of his leg ended in a dull ‘thump’ against the intern’s torso.
“Hi Andrew!” Daniel smiled as he spotted the co-founder, and swiftly kicked again.
Andrew shook his head, ignored the ‘greeting,’ and kept traversing the halls.
Mirthful laughter could be heard inside the cozy den. Eric Hunter and Tom Hall were sitting on the floor, controllers in hand, playing a classic video game together.
Andrew Carreiro, wizard supreme, entered.
“Hey, friends, I wanted to let you kno–”
“Shh!” Hunter hissed, and continued playing the co-op beat-’em-up. Neither he nor his playing partner moved their gaze from the cathode-ray glow of the television screen. Tom leaned over, grabbed the remote control, and turned the volume up a few levels.
Andrew furrowed his brow. “Look, all I wanted to say is that there’s a virus going around, and you need to be careful, and I hope the whole Castle doesn’t get infected at this rate.”
Hunter mumbled a curt “whatever” and kept playing.
Andrew Carreiro, the Webmaster, balled his hands into fists at his sides; however, he was soon distracted, as he thought he saw something at the open window. He raised a curious eyebrow.
Suddenly, a figure emerged, leaned inside – and sneezed. The mysterious figure then left, just as quickly as it had appeared.
Tom paused the game. Hunter had dropped his controller, and was staring down at himself. He was covered in greenish mucus.
“I… I’ve been slimed!” he cried out.
“Andrew, do something!” Hall cried out as well.
Andrew himself paused. He stepped backward, dramatically, over the threshold. “Yeah, about that – your room is quarantined.” He raised his wand, clicked a button, and their door slammed shut. A few vaguely threatening runes began to glow on it, too, in nice, bright, menacing red letters.
The player-partners looked to each other in a fearful gaze. After a few seconds, they shrugged, and continued playing.
Eric Bailey sat at his desk, a fine quill in hand as he penned his thoughts. Pleasant rays of sunshine poured through the open window. Birds could be heard outside. He wore a casual outfit, just a gray hoodie over blue jeans.
Andrew entered the room and quietly closed the door behind him. The kind sorcerer waited until Bailey’s writing motion was finished for the moment, then spoke.
“We have a virus.”
Bailey nodded, and turned in his seat toward his Castle cohort. “Yeah, I thought I heard something about that. I assume you’ll have it under control, though, right?”
Carreiro looked to the floor, and allowed a tense pause before his response. “Eventually, sure. It will be taken care of. It would be helpful if everyone took it more seriously, though. It seems like everyone is reluctant to listen to me on matters of health and security around here.”
Eric leaned closer, trying to listen, before muttering under his breath and looking to the window. “Sorry, Andrew, give me a second, I can barely hear you.”
He got up from his seat, then walked over to the casement and leaned out the opening. Now, clearly visible to him, were the thousands of twittering blue birds outside – hundreds of them tweeting all at once to him, and dozens of those right in his face. So he yelled at them.
“GOOD MORNING, YOU WORTHLESS AVIAN DUMMIES!”
The birds quieted, somewhat. The Castellan calmly turned back to the interior and cleared his throat. “You were saying, something about nobody listening to you?”
Andrew fidgeted uncomfortably, and held up a surrendering hand. “No, I mean, it’s not that nobody listens to me, I guess. I can totally understand them not wanting to spend more of their Castle time focused on the back-end stuff we have to worry about. It’s just that…” he trailed off.
Eric smiled, and approached his Co-Admin. “Hey.” He looked him right in the eyes, and placed a steady hand on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t blame you if, every once in a while, you were a tiny bit frustrated that we weren’t all super-amazing wizards like you are. And I think if you asked our denizens why they seem so apathetic about the virus, it’s not because they don’t care – it’s because they’re not worried. Every single one of us has full confidence that you’ll beat this thing.”
There was silence, for just long enough to be awkward. Bailey tried to remove his hand from Andrew’s shoulder nonchalantly, but there was definitely some chalance in the motion.
“Seriously though,” Bailey continued, “I bet you’ve already whipped up some sort of cool wizardy that’ll fix everything, right?”
Carreiro groaned quietly. “I wish it were as simple as zapping this guy point-blank, but I’ve been having trouble getting a firm fix on his location. I set up a warding barrier around the grounds. If he comes back, we’ll know, and be able to react more accordingly.”
Bailey was beaming. “See?! All under control. We’ll be fine. Sounds like he’s either gone for good and we’ll contain the damage, or we wait until he comes back and destroy this at the source.”
Andrew nodded his assent. “Yeah. Thanks for your time.” The two parted ways; one back to his desk, the other to the endless halls of the Castle he had built.
“Oh, hey Andrew!”
It was Pierre, practically jogging to meet Carreiro in the middle of the hallway.
“What’s up?” Andrew said, with a note of sincere curiosity. Pierre held up a magazine, almost uncomfortably close to Andrew’s face as he pointed excitedly to a spread inside. “I wanted your thoughts on something I’ve been working on – it’s a scratch-and-sniff advertisement for my old Atari columns. Here, sniff it, I already scratched.”
Andrew bit the corner of his lip before giving a good, honest sniff.
His eyes darted up to Pierre’s from the page.
“Dude. This smells like poop.”
Andrew did not. Instead, he cocked his head to the side. “Do you hear that?” he asked. Indeed, both heard something. It was getting louder.
Carreiro’s eyes widened in sudden recognition. “Help me get everyone to the balcony!” he exclaimed, and was off.
Pierre froze in place. From down the hall, a voice called out, “So, does that mean that I should stop kicking this guy now, or?”
The Castle-dwellers gathered on the balcony overlooking the expansive courtyard. The mood was cheery. High fives were exchanged. A few sought to shake Andrew’s hand, congratulating him on his feat.
Below, across the moat, standing in the yard, looking up at them, was… well, nobody knew who he was. But he was standing there, nonetheless – and yelling at the top of his lungs.
“I AM COMPELLED TO GREET YOU AND PROVIDE MY IDENTITY IF REQUESTED! YOU HAVE FOUND ME, AND NOW I AM HERE! I AM THE ONE WHO ATTACKED THE CASTLE WITH A VIRUS, AND THE DETECTION SPELL WORKED ON ME! YOU HAVE FOUND THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE! I AM GUILTY, AND I AM NOW HERE!”
He was droning on incessantly.
The Webmaster crossed his arms contentedly, surveying the situation at hand. “Well?” Eric said. “Your sorcery obviously worked. Now what?”
Others echoed a similar sentiment. Suggestions were given. “We do have a dungeon, right?” Alex checked. “I could kick him in the shins!” Daniel remarked. Next, strangely, The Retro Critic burst into appearance and whispered into Andrew’s ear, “They are coming soon, and it is your fault,” before disappearing in a mystic flash. Hunter wondered if he should begin recording all this.
“Do not worry,” the Administrator explained to his inquirers. “I am letting someone else do the honors.”
A metallic clanking rhythm pierced the brisk outdoor air as the drawbridge was gradually lowered, its chains tumbling forth link by link, the structure forming a wooden footpath across the surrounding water.
And across that bridge, emerging from the keep, walked Tom Hall, Community Manager, carrying his Banhammer.
The Hammer was enormous, with its handle alone comprising a human height. Hall held its steely payload, a dark head of polished iron, over his shoulder as he drew nearer to the viral enemy.
Once within arm’s reach, Tom began to whistle a happy tune. He licked his thumb, and held it upright. He knelt, tore a fistful of grass from the earth, and rose again, letting the blades loosely fall from his fingers as the wind showed its direction through them. He held up the Banhammer, and rotated his torso; to and fro, this way and that, gently rehearsing a broad arc.
“I GIVE YOU MY GREETINGS! I AM THE ONE BEHIND THE VIRUS ATTACK! I ACTED ALONE! I AM MALICIOUS! I ACTED IN A MANNER INTENDED TO HARM YOUR SITE! I AM NOW HERE! I HAVE REVEALED MY LOCATION TO YOU! I AM VULNERABLE!”
Tom smirked nastily. “You got that right,” he muttered. “Time to find a new horizon.”
With that, he swung mightily, and certainly did not miss. The impact was like a clap of thunder – with such force that the onlookers winced and instinctively raised their hands to shield their faces. The target shot off like a rocket, carving a glorious contrail across the clear sky. Somewhere, an indiscernible distance away, the projectile vanished from view as a mere diminishing speck.
The One More Castle crew cheered heartily, whooping and applauding and such.
Meanwhile, an intelligent cat curled its feline body around Bailey’s ankle.
“This is only the beginning, isn’t it?” the creature purred in a warm tone.
Bailey offered the clouds a wistful glance. “Yeah, Jonathan. I think it is.”