Belowdecks on the Elvira, Otis, Jinni, and Peter hovered over a map of the area and several crude sketches of the castle’s inner workings. Mac sat off to the side, admiring his father in the leadership role he’d always heard about.
“Mac,” Otis said, waving his eager son into the conversation. “Now, this arms chest. What kind of locking mechanism does it have?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jinni said. “One and Two’ll be able to crack it.”
“About how many swords are in there at a given time?” Otis asked.
Mac pursed his lips and looked up to the ceiling. “Fifteen to twenty—maybe. More on Saturdays because the sharpener comes in.”
“Out of how many total in the castle?” Otis asked.
“Thirty or so.”
“That’s perfect. We’re only hiding half of them anyways.”
“Why half?” Peter asked. “And not all of them?”
“Because when this thing starts, if all of them are unarmed, and all of us are, they’ll be united against us. But if half of them are fighting the other half, that’s less focus on us.”
“When One and Two get back with the swords, we’ll stash them here. Then Peter, Tootles, and Slightly will hightail it to the castle steps.” Otis vigorously used his forefinger to pick and point at different spots on the map. “There, you’ll await Jinni’s signal. Then he’ll wait for One and Two to get posted up at the clock tower for the next phase.”
Suddenly, the orb burst into the room, bouncing around like a disoriented mosquito. Once it had its way with the room, it burst out just as quickly.
“What the hell was that?” Otis asked.
Before Jinni could explain, the orb bolted in again, repeated its dance, and left.
Up on deck, One and Two practiced an intense sword fight that went from best of three to best of twelve in a matter of two hours. They were just as evenly matched with swords as they were with fists. Both were drenched in sweat, and neither was willing to relent. The orb watched curiously, now like a puppy being forced to watch a game of fetch.
On the other side of the vessel, Tootles and Slightly practiced shooting bows and arrows. The orb joined, zigzagging between their bodies before knocking over the arrow barrel and leaving.
Tootles giggled. “She’s got such a personality.”
“Yeah,” Slightly said, less amused as he picked up the barrel, replacing several arrows that had fallen out. “She’s got a personality, all right. She hasn’t let poor Cecil sleep since she’s been here. If she’s not messing with his tail, she’s flying just out of his reach. And she’s been tinkering with the dinner bell every night at three in the morning. I don’t know how you slugs sleep through it.”
“She likes to hide inside there,” Tootles said. “And make it ring when she’s hungry.”
“Well, she’s hungry a lot at three in the morning.” Slightly aimed a fresh arrow.
Slightly reached down for a new arrow as the orb shot in and knocked it over again. “I don’t know if you can hear me or understand what I’m saying, but if you knock that barrel over one more time, I’m going to smash you with a rock and feed you to the cat.”
Slightly reset the barrel and walked away, waiting for the orb to pop out from hiding and knock it over again. But it didn’t happen. “That’s more like it,” he said, pleased with the orb’s evolving behavior.
Still mimicking an ornery puppy, the orb approached the barrel slowly and settled next to it. “Don’t even think about it,” Slightly said. He took a threatening step forward, prompting the orb to knock over the barrel and leap up into his chest. Despite its tiny size, the orb’s impact forced Slightly to stumble backward until he fell overboard.
Otis, Jinni, Peter, and Mac rushed upstairs to see what was causing the uncontrollable laughter coming from Tootles, One, and Two.
“Yeah. Hilarious,” Slightly said, submerged from the neck down.
No one heard him above the chorus of laughter.
“I hate that goddamn fairy,” he said.
“How’s the planning coming along?” Tootles asked.
“Good,” Otis said. “How’s it going up here?”
“I’ll let you be the judge of that.” Tootles proudly handed Otis a long, narrow object swaddled in burlap cloth.
Otis unwrapped the cloth to reveal a dull, blunt chunk of steel extending from a handle that was way too heavy and ornate to be part of the same design. “What the hell is this?”
“The sword you asked for,” Tootles said. “It’s the best one we could trade for.”
“What—did you send your worst negotiator? This thing’s a hunk of shit.”
“It’s all they had.” Tootles couldn’t have been more disappointed at the reaction. “What do you want me to do?”
Otis looked the sword over closely. “What can ya do? Just have to work with what we got,” he said. “I’d use one of yours, but they aren’t any nicer.”
“Wait a minute,” Peter said. “Doesn’t the plan call for us to hide half the swords in the castle anyway?”
“Yeah, so?” Otis asked.
“Why don’t we just steal them instead?” Peter asked. “You know how much we can get for those swords once all this is over?”
Otis scrunched his lips and raised his eyebrows.
“Otis?” Jinni asked.
“I don’t see why not.”
Later that night, after more intense rounds of training, the group sat around the mesmerizing dance of a bonfire. Physically drained and emotionally inflamed, they sat in silence deep within the space of their own thoughts. Eventually, Otis broke the silence. While they all hung onto his every word, by the time he’d finished, they were motivated enough to run through a wall of stone and confident enough to believe they could do it. While his words made their mark on all of them, the message only intensified in their minds as they replayed it.
The next morning, Mac did a series of push-ups, then pull-ups. The words echoed in his mind. “There are certain moments in life that are so huge, so monumental, that they have an impact in shaping every other moment in life.”
At that very moment, even though the fight was still several days away, Tootles rubbed the red-mud-turned-war-paint over his face.
“Now I know I don’t know you guys all that well, but I sailed with some Lost Boys from before your time. So I know who you are and what you stand for. And I know that the name recognition of the Lost Boys will always be bigger than any one individual Lost Boy. That’s why when you hear of the accolades, no one’s name is ever mentioned. That all changes today. From this day forward, whenever people think about or refer to Lost Boys in conversation, the memories and accolades they’ll speak of will be described in only one of two ways: before this fight, and after it. It’ll be the pinnacle moment of your entire existence. And they will remember your names when it’s done.”
Up on deck, One and Two sharpened all the swords and double-checked the security of the arrow tips. They heard Otis’s words from the previous night as well.
“We have to stay sharp. We have to stay united. We have to take our time—the fastest. We have to have the most heart—but leave behind any fear of the ache that our loved ones will suffer should things go poorly and we don’t make it.”
Back on the stern, Peter gazed at a picture that Nibs hadn’t finished painting and dropped it into the still water below.
“And we have to do whatever it takes to ensure that the side of right wins, and carries on, even if it means losing in the process.”
Up on the bow, Jinni stared into the water’s surface and his reflection looking back at him as it rubbed the wrinkles on its face.
Slightly was in the midst of a cold and intense swim. He moved fluidly with the motions of a rapid butterfly, revealing a variety of scars across his back every time he broke the air’s surface. He was the only Lost Boy who wasn’t aboard the Elvira that morning, but he, too, replayed Otis’s words.
“There’s not much I can say that you guys don’t know already. You’ve probably been to a lot of the places I’ve been. You’ve probably seen a lot of the things I’ve seen. But we’re about to be connected for eternity, as what we have waiting ahead will force us to encounter several—perhaps many—moments that will go on to define your lives. I know that no one here signed up for what we’re about to embark on. So if you want to turn back, now’s the time…but before you go, thank you for everything you’ve done. To those of you who stay, thank you—for everything you’ve done, and for everything you’re about to.”
Otis sat alone on the beach that morning, watching whitecaps turn pink in the sunrise as they washed ashore by his feet. He also thought back to his words, hoping they’d accomplished their purpose. “Now we’re approaching what I like to call the seventy-two-hour rule. That means nothing bad goes into your body for the next seventy-two hours. No whiskey. No ale. No tobacco. None of that green shit I keep smelling on Tootles. Definitely no opium.”
Otis cracked a smile, recalling Peter’s response to the seventy-two hour rule the night before.
“Are we at least allowed to put our body in something bad?” Peter asked.
“No,” Otis said with a half smile. “I need you alert and fighting out there. Not itching and scratching your little noonies.”
During the predawn hours, the castle was whisper quiet. It was also the only time the common area was empty, except a few who remained scattered about, having been too drunk or strung out on opium to make it up the stairs. Led by Otis, One and Two entered the castle, tailed by Jinni.
Once inside and posted up in private corners, Jinni and Otis stood lookout for One and Two while they worked on the arms-chest lock, visible to anyone who may have wandered out of their room.
“Looks like it’s just a straight ward. Give me the pin betty,” One whispered.
He extended his open palm toward Two, who placed a serrated notcher in his hand.
“The pin betty,” One whispered a bit louder. “What—am I speaking another goddamn language?”
“That is the pin betty,” Two whispered.
Jinni approached the two rapidly on tiptoes, in utter disbelief that he needed to quiet them now, of all times. “Will you two shut up? Shut the hell up, and get this thing open,” he whispered. “We don’t have time for this.”
The suitors nearest them were dead to the world, but there was no telling who happened to be rustling behind closed doors. After some rather aggressive nonverbal communication, One and Two got the door open. They broke their pin betty in the process, but with all the income they stood to make from the swords and this mission, they could buy enough pin betties to corner the market.
Following some silent celebrations, One and Two watched in horror as the orb sprung from One’s vest pocket and closed the door. The lock rattled shut inside, confirming their worst fears.
“Shit,” Two said.
The orb dashed up the stairs and into the only open door before slamming it shut. In the tense moments that followed, a few of the men grumbled at the noise, but no one had been disturbed enough to wake.
Otis joined Jinni, One, and Two.
“Why on earth did you have that thing in your pocket?” Otis asked.
“I didn’t put it there,” One said defensively. “I’d pay to see someone catch that thing with his bare hands.”
“Do you have another way to get in there?” Otis asked.
“No,” One said. “Not unless—”
Suddenly, the thunderous ring of a large cathedral bell sounded in the castle.
“Please tell me that’s not our fairy ringin’ that bell,” Two said.
“No,” Otis said, curiously. “It went in a different room.”
The repeated ringing was deafening and loud enough to wake even the deepest sleeper. The men in the common area began to wipe the sleep from their eyes and sit up while the rattle of bedroom doors opened to more groggy bodies. Everything happened too fast for Otis and his collaborators to leave without being noticed, so they did the best they could to blend in.
As all the men looked around at themselves, pondering the reason for their wake-up call, chatter began to erupt. It was a muffled mess of jumbled words, but somehow one conversation stood out in Otis’s ears.
“What do you think this is about?” a random suitor asked.
“Maybe Mac’s back. Or Otis,” answered another. “Or maybe they’re—” The man said no more as he ran his finger across his throat.
“What do you think, Eury?”
It was a name that Otis wasn’t familiar with before his departure, but one that he’d heard twice since his return.
“That’d be nice,” Eury said with a yawn. “But it’s probably wishful thinking on our part to assume both of ’em are dead.”
Otis cringed at the brazen comment and stared with veiled anger in Eury’s direction. Suddenly, everyone went silent as Penelope emerged from her room and commanded attention from the banister.
“Good morning,” she said with a playful smile. “I know there have been a lot of rumors swirling around about my son lately, and if there are any of you who don’t know what I’m talking about—my son recently left Ithaca. He went to search for his father. I know the common belief around here is that Otis died many years ago. But truth be told, I’ve never believed that. And I’ve never let my son believe that.
“Nonetheless, Mac has returned. And before any more rumors get started, Mac has returned with no news of his father’s whereabouts or any information on what happened to him. Just a tan, shaggy hair, and the stubble that shows up on a boy’s face when he’s becoming a man.
“Now, I know many of you consider Mac, and what he did, a threat. But I need you to know this before you think about bringing any harm to my son. Otis once told me that if he did not return before our son could grow hair on his face, I should move on and finding happiness with another, if possible.
“As most of you also know, I’ve been knitting a shroud for Otis—in his honor. In the past, I’ve hinted that upon its completion, I would consider moving on and trying to find happiness. I feel it only fair to inform you that, as of this morning, I have finished the shroud. Due to the curious timing of these two events, it seems that the signs are clear, and the gods are speaking to my heart. It’s time for me to move on.”
The general mood of the place became noticeably enthusiastic as a new wave of chatter carried through the halls.
“For those of you interested in winning my heart, please bless me with your presence in the courtyard tomorrow at high noon. And remember, that’s presence—not presents,” she concluded with another playful smile.
“Huh?” a slovenly suitor asked.
Still mingling, unnoticed, Jinni approached Otis. “Is she serious? Or is she up to something?”
“I don’t know,” Otis said, erring toward the former and struggling to hide his devastation. “But this is definitely going to force a change in our plans.”