Before any of the Lost Boys were willing to run anywhere with Otis, something they often referred to as “turkey” needed to be discussed. Otis, being the master negotiator that he was, and Peter, being surprisingly easy to please, had come to an agreement that satisfied both parties. At the time, Peter didn’t understand exactly what kind of wealth comes with being a king. Otherwise, the Lost Boys might have earned double. But, as promised, Otis agreed to pay them more than enough to make it frivolously through an ample number of lifetimes.
As the predawn hours were beginning to approach, Otis led Mac, Jinni, Peter, and the remaining Lost Boys to a secluded spot on the beach several miles from where Otis had landed. Before dedicating his thought to “the plan,” Otis needed to see precisely what kind of talent he had employed.
“First things first,” Otis said. “We are all going to go for a little run.”
Peter and the Lost Boys let out a collective grumble while Mac and Jinni both kept still with stoic faces.
“I thought you were payin’ us to fight,” Peter said. “What are we supposed to accomplish runnin’ around, wasting energy?”
“If you want paid, you’re going to have to do what I say. And you’re going to have to trust that everything I say is in the best interest of this group. I’m not gonna ask you guys to do anything I’m not willing to do. But I’m not going to waste good gold on a lot of inexperienced street fighters.”
“OK.” Peter shifted his hands over the front of his hips. “How long is this little run going to be?”
“Two, two and a half miles,” Otis said. “You guys think you can handle that?” The words tickled every Lost Boy except Jinni, to the point where they took turns doubling over.
“Yeah,” Peter said, trying to hide his smile among a chorus of snickers. “I think we can handle it.”
Had this been a little jaunt around the beach, the Lost Boys would have been right to laugh. But Otis had led them to a place known to locals as Edgewood Hill. It was a place where Otis once had exercised in preparation for the endurance needed in battle. The grueling uphill jaunt wasted the most finely tuned athletes to ever attempt its upward stretch.
Just as Otis had suspected and hoped, the run minced his new hires. Looking as though they’d been doused with buckets of water and breathing cramps into their winded bodies, everyone made it to the top without having to stop running—except for Tootles. He had to walk those last two miles.
As the pink sun guided their walk down the steep slope of Edgewood Hill, Peter had to stop and throw up. “That hill get the best of you there, Lost Boy?” Otis asked.
“Nah,” Peter said, spitting out one final chunk. “Shouldn’t have had those raw oysters for breakfast.”
The friendly yet sarcastic tone made Otis grin. “Well, rest easy. It won’t be the hardest thing you do all week, but it’ll be the hardest thing you do today.”
“You mean there’s more?” Tootles asked, panting.
For the next several hours, Otis made them perform drills in hand-to-hand combat, fencing, archery, general battle tactics, and strategy. He made Mac sit off to the side for anything in which one of the Lost Boys could physically hurt him, be it accidentally or on purpose, but Otis was pleased with Mac’s eagerness to learn and be a part of what was happening at that moment.
It didn’t take long for Otis to figure out that Tootles was the best with a bow and arrow by a long shot, One and Two were the best fighters, Slightly was the smartest and had the coolest head under pressure, and Peter was the most agile, best overall athlete, and most skilled swordsman.
Otis also noticed that Jinni was nearly an expert in all of these areas, but likely trending downward and on the wrong half of his age. Jinni knew it too. His best performances were long behind him. Otis understood, all too well, how ferocious time’s appetite could be.
Otis was a natural leader and quite gifted in the arena of coaching. He always had an uncanny understanding as to which guys he needed to pull aside for a heart-to-heart, and which guys he needed to shove face first in the dirt with a series of screams to both ears.
One thing that became apparent was that the Lost Boys as a team were better at fighting than they were at anything else. But they were still street fighters. Their rudimentary knowledge was based entirely on what they’d learned from being thrown in the fire. They’d never had any real training up to this point.
Otis started them off with a few fundamentals. He taught them how to properly hold their fists and the importance of accurate footwork, and he couldn’t stress enough the value and underutilization of rib shots. “They’re effective. They hurt like shit. And they’re distracting. Every second that your opponent concentrates on that pain, that’s one second they’re not concentrating on you or the fist that you’re about to slam into their jaw.”
Otis fine-tuned their swordsmanship, offering advice and general criticisms to everyone. “Hold it like a man, Tootles. You look like a new bride grabbin’ a tally-wacker for the first time. One! How many more times do I gotta tell you? Don’t come down like that. Your grip is going to slip, and you’re going to cut your leg and bleed to death. But I guess you’re a redundancy anyways, so what difference does it make? I don’t know why I’m surprised, Two. I should have known an exact replica would be just as useless. Slightly! What the hell are you smiling about, ya jerk-off? You just got yourself killed. Again. Peter. That wasn’t quite as pathetic as your last try. But it’s still for shit.” And to finish the day properly, Otis told everyone to run up Edgewood Hill once more.
“What the hell?” Peter asked, soaked with sweat and still breathing heavy from the last swordfight.
“Yeah,” Slightly added. “You said the hardest part of today was over.”
“It is,” Otis said, adding a smile. “You’ve already done it once. How much harder can it be a second time?”
Everyone made it through the second run, albeit at a slower pace than before. This time, Tootles walked the final two and one quarter miles. Once everyone had made it back to the bottom, they scattered about, lying down and sitting and enjoying rest more than they ever thought one could.
Otis sat off to the side with Jinni, silently rebuilding his energy reserves and relieved to see that his new hired soldiers still had enough of their energy to be joking around and in good spirits, even after the gauntlet he had just put them through.
Once their day was officially over, the younger Lost Boys and Mac jawed back and forth, arguing over who had performed best throughout the day, letting out an occasional laugh. Jinni and Otis were close by but tucked away with some element of privacy as a crow landed nearby and began to caw. Soon after, two more crows cawed from opposite directions.
“Their communication system is fascinating, isn’t it?” Otis grinned. “Makes you wonder what they’re saying.”
Jinni returned the smile and picked a few blades of grass from between his tired legs. “When I was younger, I was always told that crows were a bad omen. Then I met someone who told me that when crows go out of their way to talk to you, it means the coast is clear.”
“Whose coast?” Otis asked, raising his eyebrows and rubbing his knees. “Gaaah. My knees feel like there’s two little people living inside them. And their purpose in life is to stab me to death from the inside. What hurts on you?”
“Everything,” Jinni said. “Look. I know more about you than these guys do. I know how clever you are. I guess—what I’m getting at—do you really still have your fortune and plan on paying us, or are you just saying that so we’ll go along with this and help you?”
“I know you don’t know me, so my word can’t mean much. But I promise that even if all those guys at the castle stayed here for another fifty years, living off my wealth, they still wouldn’t scratch the surface.”
“Man,” Jinni said, baffled that such concentrated fortune could exist. “How did you accrue such wealth at such a young age?”
“It was all in here,” Otis said, proudly tapping a forefinger to his temple. “Military strategy.”
“Military strategy?” Jinni asked.
“That’s right. Years before the Trojan War, I had the ear of a very powerful person. I was one of several advisers who offered up my opinions and knowledge on the opposition, different strategies, terrain mapping. I helped out as often as I was asked, saving both lives and resources. Eventually, I saved enough lives and enough resources that I was named king of Ithaca and given more gold than any one hundred men could need for one thousand lifetimes—or so they phrased it. So yeah. I’m not gonna rip you guys off.”
“What was his name? The powerful person you advised?”
“Was a her. Queen Rapunzel.”
“Rapunzel,” Jinni said curiously. “I think I’ve heard of her.”
Otis dusted off his knees and stood up. “All right, listen up. Gather around. Today was a good first day, but we’ve got a lot of work to do before you’re ready. And to be completely honest, my opinion of Lost Boys has really gone into the shitter. But I’m the one paying for that opinion, so don’t take it personally. With just a little more hard work and some fine-tuning, you guys will be able to put the man in Lost Boys.”
Slightly grinned at the remark while One and Two exchanged sideways glances.
“I don’t think that came out how you wanted,” Peter said, holding back a chuckle.
For the next two weeks, this was their routine. By the end, they had only broken the surface of their true potential, but Otis had them leaner, meaner, and bursting with more true confidence than their cocky demeanors had allowed before. Otis even offered himself as something of a father figure, something they desperately sought, whether or not they knew it. The best fatherly advice he had to offer didn’t pertain to physique or battle, however. It was about how a man should treat a woman. It wasn’t complex advice, but it was accurate.
“You definitely wanna treat ’em right,” Otis said to the attentive ears surrounding that night’s campfire. “If not, when you grow up and get married and start having kids of your own, your wife will only give birth to little girls. And they’re all gonna grow up to be the most beautiful women in town.”
“You’re boshin’ us,” Peter said.
“No, no. I swear,” Otis replied, holding his hands up. “I’ve seen it happen personally—hundreds of times. And the worse you treat the romantic interests in your life, the prettier your daughters will be,” Otis added.
“Fine. Don’t believe me. Just remember this conversation when you’ve got six or seven daughters and they’re each being chased by six or seven guys just like you.”
Peter stared into the fire and looked as though he was going to be ill.
The next day, Otis allowed everyone the day off for some rest and relaxation. He also asked Mac to join him for a campfire dinner so the two could share some much-needed alone time. Since their introduction, they hadn’t had a chance to speak one on one. As time slipped further ahead, both felt increasingly awkward, initiating what was sure to be an emotional conversation.
In silence, the two of them sat on opposite sides of a fire hidden by trees. Otis wasn’t sure where to begin, but once he got going, he wasn’t sure where to stop. “I’ve been looking for the right words, and I’m still not sure I found ’em. But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I don’t know why, but where I was, and who was keeping me. It all felt like some weird…dream. I had plenty of chances to leave. But there was always something in the back of my mind that wouldn’t let me. Like a spell, or some invisible gate.
“There were times where it was just the two of us. Out for a walk where I could have run away. Or in the kitchen. One time, she handed me a knife and immediately turned her back to me—like she was daring me. And I wanted to. I really did. I wanted to take that knife and drive it into the back of her skull and leave that place. But every time she did something like that, it felt like she was two steps ahead, hoping she could catch me, just to show me how bad it’d be when she did.”
Mac felt remorse, realizing something that he hadn’t before. “You don’t have to apologize, Dad.”
“Holy shit,” Otis said. “Holy shit!”
“What?” Mac asked. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Otis said, leaping from the stump he’d been sitting on. “It’s brilliant. It really is brilliant.”
“What? What the hell are you going on about?” Mac asked.
“I have a plan.”
“Yeah.” For a moment, Otis became lost in his own prophetic nod. “I have a great plan.”
Elsewhere, in a private cove lit by a small but sturdy bonfire, Jinni, Peter, and the Lost Boys sat in a circle. All eyes were on Jinni as he was the one who had invited and led everyone out there. They passed the time with idle chitchat, not pressing him, fully aware that he’d get to his topic when he was good and ready.
“I know we’ve only been riding with each other for a couple of years now, so there’s a lot you still don’t know about me. My past. My beliefs. But I’m sure by now, you’ve all noticed that I’m not as strong as I was when we first met. I’ve noticed it too. It feels like it takes an eternity to heal from anything. I’m sluggish. I’m moody.” Jinni put his head down and ran his frustrated palms up and down his face.
“The magic in me. I know it’s one of those things that you all know about, but we never really talk about. It’s as strong as it’s ever been. The magic will never expire. But I am—expiring. And when I’m done, that magic will roam this world aimlessly, causing chaos wherever it goes. But…if I choose to remove the magic from myself and give it to you guys, it’ll be able to serve you for a very, very long time. Until you expire.”
Everyone understood the magnitude of what this meant, but Tootles understood more so than the others. “Jinni,” he said, leaning forward. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Jinni nodded. “I can pass it on to any person, or persons, I choose. I’m choosing you guys, and only you guys. If we split it up any more than that, we flirt with the risk of diluting it too much.”
“How long will it last?” Two asked.
One rolled his eyes. “He already told you, dipshit. Forever.”
“He said the magic’ll last forever. Not us…dipshit.”
Jinni moved on as if he hadn’t heard their bickering. “It’ll hinder the aging process. It’ll sharpen your senses. It’ll make you lighter on your feet. There will be occasions where it feels as though time itself slows down and allows you a moment to catch up or get ahead of a situation. It will allow you to do things you never dreamed possible. But it won’t make you arrow proof. So don’t assume you’re no longer mortal.”
“Will it be able to keep One and Two from arguing every thirty seconds?” Slightly asked.
“I don’t know if it’s that powerful,” Jinni replied, never letting loose his smile. “But one day, a long time from now, you’re going to feel your shell start to expire. And when you do, you’ll have a choice to make. Then and only then will you be able to pass this on. So think about it. If this is a responsibility that you feel is too much to handle, go below deck now. But, if you’re ready—here we go.”
No one moved. It was mystical, surreal, and frightening all at the same time. Jinni closed his eyes and rubbed his palms together, creating an orb whose glow increased with intensity. He opened his hands to the sky, and a ball of shimmering silver light rose to the center of the circle.
“I don’t even know what to say, Jinni,” Peter said, mesmerized.
“Don’t say anything,” Jinni responded. “Just think lovely, wonderful thoughts. They’ll help absorb the magic.”
Peter and the Lost Boys looked up in awe as the orb sprinkled each of them with shimmering silver dust. Once the sprinkles disappeared, Jinni’s skin dimmed ever so subtly, while Peter’s and the Lost Boys’ began to glow. Suddenly, they all felt different. Embraced by the shadows of the olive trees all around, they had just become part of something euphoric they never knew existed. Already bustling with youthful vigor, they were rejuvenated, reenergized, and ready to accomplish feats greater than any of their previous ambitions combined.
“What is that?” One asked.
The fluid orb circled as if trying to show off and settled on Jinni’s shoulder. “A fairy. Born from some leftover magic I kept aside.” Like a new pet cuddling its master, the orb glided up Jinni’s arm and settled on his palm.
“She won’t last forever. But she’ll have a reserve in case you guys ever find yourselves in a pinch. Her small size will keep the magic amplified, and much more concentrated.” He glanced over each of them, making stern but rapid eye contact.
“She’ll be there to keep an eye on you, since I won’t be able to do it forever.”
Peter leaned forward with the same pensive look Tootles had shown just moments earlier. “What’s gonna happen to you?”
“And you don’t have any magic in you anymore?” Slightly asked.
“Nope. You guys have it all. And her.”
Two tilted his head curiously. “Can’t she just sprinkle some on you?”
“Afraid not,” Jinni said. “Once it’s out, it’s out. But don’t worry about me. I may have been a slave most my life, but I’ve done great things. I’ve dined with kings and queens in some the finest castles ever constructed by hand. I’ve spent so much time in the battlefield that I’ve forgotten more about glory than most people will ever know. I’ve met merpeople, communicated with dolphins, rode on the backs of whales. And I’ve shared a bed with some of the finest women in the world. But in my entire life, I’ve never had more fun than I have with you guys…except for maybe the women,” he said with a wink and smile. “No matter what happens, it’s been good ridin’ with ya. I don’t care what anyone says about the Lost Boys,” he concluded with another grin.
The Lost Boys, triggered by his smile, began to cackle as they were known to do. Moments later, the cackles turned to coyote calls as a newfound camaraderie took hold. They had never been closer than they were right then.