Otis let the robe slip down his back, revealing a chiseled chest, flat belly, and the shoulder span of a small gorilla. He rolled his shoulders back for a stretch, expanding his robust clavicle lines. He reached his left hand across his body and pulled the sword he had stashed on the right side of his belt.
“Is there anyone who feels like fighting me for what they’ve been taking all these years?”
“I’ll fight you, Otis,” one of the suitors said, stepping forward. “Not for what I’ve been taking—but for what I’m going to take in the years to come.”
It was Antinous, a younger, braggadocios fellow, whom Eury had looked at as his only true threat before Otis’s return.
Otis recognized Antinous right away as the little boy who used to scoop horse manure from the stables. Otis could have laughed him off, given his current memories, but a lot can happen to a boy who’s constantly getting picked on over the course of sixteen years.
Antinous approached Otis with the confidence of a young man in his twenties and got off several potentially fatal sword swings and really showed off some pure speed with a few evasive maneuvers, but ultimately, experience clobbered youth. As soon as Otis sliced Antinous’s right hand open, the young man realized that there was much more to life than castles and gold. He threw his hands up and lay on his back like a frightened puppy.
“Please,” he said, with eyes that said he had given up, and a growing puddle that did the same.
Otis nodded him off. Antonius got up and ran away and would go on to live a happy, grateful life.
“Anyone else?” Otis said, still standing tall, broad, and ready.
The names of the next two suitors to step up and challenge Otis were the source of some debate, but he killed them both so quickly, it really doesn’t matter all that much.
“Holy shit,” Peter said, shocked and impressed.
“Right,” Slightly replied.
With only a handful of suitors and spectators brave enough to have stayed this long, Otis looked around, saving his breath while waiting for the next challenger to approach. The Lost Boys looked among themselves, smiling and in disbelief at what they’d just watched Otis accomplish.
“That all?” Otis shouted. No way it’s gonna be this easy.
Clunk. Clunk. The heavy thud of iron feet squaring up on the brick courtyard clapped like thunder behind Otis. He turned around as Eury stood before him, rotating a heavy sword and wrapped entirely in a suit of armor.
Eury was the only suitor who wasn’t living in the area before the war, so the two of them had never officially met. Fear of the unknown was undoubtedly having an impact on Otis’s nerves. If that wasn’t enough, the armor looked brand new and sturdy, and lacked a penetrable point that Otis could sniff out.
“Can’t fight me like a man?” Otis asked.
“There’s no honor in the afterlife,” Eury said, closing his mask and wrapping both fists around his sword handle.
“I guess you’ll find out soon enough,” Otis said. Just as the two of them were about to approach each other, one of the spectators stepped forward, revealing himself as a ghost from Otis’s past. The man quickly pulled a sword that he had previously concealed and pointed it at Otis’s back.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop you both right here.”
Otis turned around. Much to his horror, he saw the face behind the voice that he’d hoped he’d misheard.
“Captain James,” Otis said, standing still and increasingly rattled by his placement between the two foes.
“Nobe Ahhdie…nobody. I must admit, I felt quite stupid once I figured that one out.”
“Sorry, old man,” Eury said. “You’re gonna have to wait your turn.”
“You can have the castle, young fellow,” Captain James said, looking past Otis’s shoulder. “I just need him.” He flicked his wrist and extended his arm, closing the distance between the point of his blade and Otis.
Mac watched only ten to twelve paces away but didn’t want to be the first to make a move. Peter began to approach slowly, but while he took that first step toward Captain James, Mac rushed the captain like a rabid bull. One of Captain James’s men almost called out to warn him, but it wasn’t necessary. The captain saw his aggressor coming from far enough out that he paid little mind, taking a side step and drilling Mac with an elbow, knocking him to the ground.
Peter leaped at the captain with an eager fist. Once again, Captain James was ready for his attacker. He drilled Peter on the left side of his jaw, but Peter remained unrattled and sent his fist flying toward the captain once more. This time, Captain James took a shot, but something about it felt rejuvenating. He’d come here to fight Otis and collect the type of glory he always figured he’d have by now. Sure, Otis was about to be the property of the Sea Witch, but the battle and tale would belong to Captain James. But the power packed in behind this scrawny runt’s fist was unlike anything he had felt in years, and the captain was hooked. He ran his thumb across his bloody lip and grinned at Peter. “All right then,” the captain said. “A dance it shall be.”
Suddenly, seven or eight of the captain’s pirates revealed themselves, drew their swords, and charged at the fight. In response, Jinni, Slightly, One, Two, and Tootles rushed in, drawing their swords. Just like that, clangs of steel and explosions of sparks ensued. While the Lost Boys were outnumbered and lacked experience, there was a sharpness to the way they moved, a speed they achieved that seemed to be half again as fast as their opponents.
Meanwhile, amid the chaotic fights spreading about the courtyard, Eury and Otis remained still, neither taking his eyes off the other.
“You sure this is the hill you want to die on today, Eury?” Otis asked.
Eury, grinning in the shadow of his armored mask, charged without hesitation. He attempted to deliver several quick strikes from above, but Otis blocked every one. The heavy thunder of their clashing iron shook them both to the core.
Otis retrieved, trying to keep secret the fear beginning to run rampant. A cold chill slithered around his shoulders and wrapped his back, preventing him from taking a full breath. This went on for a moment while Otis continued to block Eury’s persistent onslaught of downward strikes, eventually backtracking over his own feet and tripping over them. Anyone watching would have guessed that the fight was over, but something funny happens to people when they come that close to death. They realize, more than ever, they want to be alive.
Otis absorbed a surge of adrenaline and rolled away from Eury’s sword before it chipped the brick where Otis’s neck had just been. Otis popped back onto his feet and danced toward the armored brute, taking the offensive out of his possession. They continued to feel one another out, saving their most aggressive maneuvers and strikes until getting a better understanding of what they were up against.
If their focus wasn’t so much on one another, they would have appreciated the gaggle of fights spreading about the courtyard and beyond. Jinni made short work of his opponent, slicing open the man’s fighting arm and causing him to yield within seconds. Meanwhile, One and Two held their own while fighting off three of the pirates who had them pinned inside a triangle formation. Back to back, One and Two fought them off masterfully. After cutting one of the pirate’s legs clear through to its bone, Two kicked the man in the chest, causing his head to thump off the stone surface of the courtyard. Once the triangle had turned into a duo, One and Two’s opponents didn’t stand much of a chance. The one thing that separated their fight from the others was how much physical contact there was between bodies.
One and Two were expert pugilists and mingled the use of their mighty fists with sharp, fast swords. Their first opponent got off easy compared to the remaining two pirates. Prior to One cutting his opponent’s throat, and Two driving his sword through the chest of the other, the unlucky pirates spit out at least nine teeth between the two of them. When the fight was over, One and Two remained back to back in silence, breathing heavily and reflecting on what they’d just done.
Neither had ever experienced such a sharp contrast in feeling. Once it was over, however, something weighed their hearts and drained so much strength that they would have passed out, had it not been for the magic coursing through their veins. They had the strangest, most dreamlike feeling. They felt as though they were leaves on a tree and had just cut three other leaves off the same tree.
Slightly matched well with his opponent but struggled to get his magic to conquer what seemed to be years of experience behind the blade. The shifty Lost Boy got and gave plenty of nicks and cuts. When he stacked the pain against that which he’d had to endure as a boy, the nicks and cuts of the present day were no more unpleasant than frosted cake. He and his opponent danced around the room, taking turns leading one another off the courtyard and onto the north stairwell.
The steep concrete steps worked in Slightly’s favor. He wanted to throw his opponent down the stairs and watch him break apart like a cheap pocket watch, but the man refused to do so, despite being knocked off his feet. As he attempted to stand, Slightly stepped forward with quick and silent footsteps, grabbed the man by the ponytail, and slammed his face into one of the step’s corners. Unlike One and Two, Slightly didn’t feel emotional when it was over. He was too drained physically to feel anything aside from stairs pressing against his back and a warm pile of flesh resting under his arm.
Of course, in true Tootles fashion, Tootles’s fight took the longest. In all fairness, however, it was the fastest and most nimble Tootles had ever looked while on his own two feet. His graceful spins were the sugar to the spice of his aggressive thrusts. What’s more impressive, he and his opponent had made it farther down the stairs than Slightly had without falling down any of them. Standing upright, Tootles arched his back, narrowly avoiding a potentially fatal swing to his belly, though it still managed to produce a flesh wound. Once the pain hit his skin, Tootles became a madman, ignoring all form and tact in favor of erratic swinging. Relentless, repetitive, and nonstop, Tootles came down like an angry woodsman trying to split firewood.
“Yield. Yield!” the terrified pirate cried out.
Tootles, dripping with sweat and struggling for breath, delivered a line he’d wanted to use since the first time a bully had used it on him. “That’s what I thought,” Tootles said, satisfied on a level he never knew possible. “That’s what I thought.”
Otis and Eury’s match was still sitting at a stalemate. Eury was hoping Otis would tire himself out, and vice versa. Otis did what he could to poke and prod Eury’s armor, looking for any sort of weakness. No matter what angle he took, or which spot he managed to connect with, however, Eury’s hefty sanctuary was seemingly impenetrable.
“Getting tired yet, old man?” Eury asked.
“You quit while you’re ahead, and I might let you live,” Otis said, charging once more, only to be received by his ready opponent. One thing that was becoming certain for Otis was that his performance was starting to mimic that of his fighting days from yesteryear. He was getting stronger and hitting harder as the fight progressed. Eury could feel it too.
Unfortunately for Otis, his strike was too powerful for the weak and poorly crafted sword affixed to his fist. As he struck the right arm of Eury’s suit, the sword’s tip chipped and went flying out of sight. Eury rolled his arm over the sword, brought the blade to the ground, and stomped it with his hulking foot, splitting the blade in two at a spot just several fist lengths above the handle. As Otis watched in shock, a steel elbow met his nose and sent him to the ground.
Eury let out a vicious and condescending laugh. This was it. The great Otis Seehus was about to be undone by a broken sword and a suit of armor. “For what it’s worth, you really did make this more difficult than I expected,” Eury said, lifting his mask.
Otis lay on the ground, still trying to shake the dizzies from his head.
“Tell me something, Otis. Have you ever wondered who it was that caught you in that dolphin net—all those years ago?” Eury grinned.
Once again, Otis struggled to take in a full breath. He looked over and caught a glimpse of Mac, still unconscious from the hit he’d taken from Captain James. Otis needed something, anything, to give him the strength he needed to get up off his back and finish this thing.
“It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized it was you,” Eury said, seemingly amused by the coincidence. “That’s when I came here. And to think—I almost got your castle without having to kill you. Funny how life turns out sometimes.” Eury drew his shield back over his smug face and lifted his sword to deliver Otis a final blow to the afterlife.
Within the blink of an eye, Otis flashed through his entire life, even having time to pause on a moment he hadn’t recalled until just now.
It was several days after Mac had been born, and the outside light coming into the castle had a mystical, dreamlike feel. It was unlike anything either of them had ever seen. It was as though becoming parents to this beautiful baby boy had allowed them some unprecedented access to another dimension of love, time, and wonder that they never knew to be possible before that moment. Neither said anything. Otis just smiled at her, and she at him, knowing that they’d never come closer to joining their two hearts as one. It was beautiful and would later bring a tear of joy to his eye.
Otis’s loop caught up to his present moment, just as Eury was about to drive his sword downward. Otis, taking advantage of his opponent’s aggressive pursuit, rolled out of the way, kicked Eury’s legs from under him, and brought the iron beast to his hands and knees. In the blink of an eye, Otis retrieved his broken sword. Grabbing it by the remaining portion of the blade, and treating the handle like the blunt end of a hammer, Otis slammed the back of Eury’s helmet.
After Otis delivered six towering strikes before anyone could count to three, Eury’s head felt as though it was inside a cathedral bell. The violent vibrations shuddered from his skull, down his esophagus, and into his belly. Eury, barely able to open his eyes without a sharp and burning pain between them, pulled off his helmet and began to vomit. Several moments later, he went unconscious, landing facedown in a puddle of his own bile.
At that exact moment, Mac began to wake up slowly with an awful pain in his forehead. Otis attended to Mac to confirm he was OK, then looked up to Penelope with a familiar gaze that was visible through his unkempt beard. Jinni, One, and Two were making their way back to the courtyard, checking in on Mac and Otis.
“You guys OK?” Jinni asked.
“Yeah,” Otis replied, grinning. “Great, actually.” He stood up with that loving look and approached the foot of the stairwell leading up to the podium on which Penelope stood, stunned and speechless.
Somehow, as everyone calmed their nerves and checked themselves over for injuries, Eury woke up. Unnoticed, his arm extended slowly for a nearby arrow that had been left on the ground during the contest. As Otis approached Penelope with cautious and hesitant footsteps, Eury charged him from behind at full speed, holding the arrow like a spear with his eyes locked on the back of Otis’s head.
“Dad!” Mac yelled.
Stunned by the quick turn of events, Otis turned around to see Eury closing in fast, only to be lassoed and pulled to his back by a rope thrown by Mac. It had been used to secure the sheets hiding the ax display, but Mac’s quick thinking gave it much more use than it had been scheduled for that day. Desperate, Eury tried to throw the arrow at Otis, but Otis halted its weak trajectory, catching it with his nondominant hand.
Eury rolled over and began to crawl toward Mac, ready to wrap his cold, metallic hands around the throat of his newfound prey. Suddenly, Eury stopped crawling and opened his mouth in shock before falling face-first into the courtyard. Mac sat stunned, solely focused on the arrow now protruding from the back of Eury’s lifeless skull. As Mac shifted focus from the foreground to the background, he became even more stunned as he realized that Penelope was holding Otis’s bow.
“Should have chosen a different hill today,” she said. “Asshole.” Penelope never regretted taking that arrow from Otis’s hand. Nor did she regret putting it in the back of Eury’s head. Penelope was a mama bear, and Mac was her cub. Nonetheless, a jolt of nausea from the goddess of permanence caused her to vomit anyway as the weight of what she had done set in.
Otis looked at his wife with more shock than Mac and began to step forward to embrace her. But first, he walked to a nearby water fountain so he could clean his soiled and bloody hands. He didn’t want to start their new life by staining her with remnants of the old one.
With a heavy sigh, Slightly approached the other Lost Boys from behind and was relieved to see that they had all made it out relatively OK—almost everyone. “Where’s Pete?” he asked.