The tentacled king was very pleased to see me again, and invited me into his parlour for a round of scones with butter and mango jam. I politely decided not to ask him why his parlour was made entirely from snakes, nor why they were all humming the ostinato from 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be'.
"Well, what an unexpected pleasure," he said. He was wearing a striking Hugh Hefner-style bathrobe, made from the prerequisite chinchillas with a hamster lining. "What did you think of Fogworld?"
"Very nice," I said, deadpan.
"Very nice? It won't be that for very long, not if Bulstrode keeps at what he's doing. Tea?"
"Thank you, no," I said, noticing that the teapot was made of a clearly distressed badger. "It was actually about the whole Bulstrode thing that I wanted to talk to you."
"Oh yes? Perhaps we should continue this conversation in the gardens."
We took a walk through the tentacled king's back garden, which sort of resembled the back garden from my parents' house, except it was about ten times larger and actually rather well-maintained. The big dead tree at the bottom of the lawn was now an enormous dark forest, where the trees swayed left and right, holding up Zippo lighters. The crappy little electric fountain in the pond was now a statue of three twirling goddesses, one of which bore a strong resemblance to Rose, and the pond itself was about eight hundred feet wider than I remembered.
"I never said defeating Bulstrode would be straightforward," the tentacled king confessed, sucking his pipe. "His power grows with each human consciousness he brings under his control. But you already know what needs to be done to succeed. The prophecy was very clear. You must find the Warrior -"
"And the Gatekeeper, yes yes yes. I just need a little bit more information."
"Where they are, for a start."
The king patted his pockets. "Hm," he said. "I seem to have mislaid my pipe. Have you seen it?"
"No, I haven't. I saw it in your mouth a second ago. So what are the Warrior and the Gatekeeper and where can I find them?"
The king reached over and dug into the pocket of my Tarzan loincloth with a slimy tentacle, withdrew, and showed me what he had found. It was his pipe, still damp from his spittle. "You see," he said. "Sometimes what we seek is closer to us than we could ever know."
I folded my arms. "That was supposed to be a hint, wasn't it."
"Well, it was stupid. I wasn't looking for the pipe, you were. It was really clumsy. Doesn't tell me anything. For all I know the Warrior and the Gatekeeper and the Water-bearer are these three hairs on my forearm. Could you at least tell me WHAT they are? If you must be all evasive about it then we can play 20 Questions or something."
"What you must do," he said grandly, "is look deep inside yourself..."
"Oh, I've had enough of this," I said, storming out.
I met Rose at our usual meeting spot, just outside Bulstrode's red and evil mind realm. There were at this point a great deal of conquered human minds, creating a large and imposing patch of grey in the overall whiteness. The centre of the patch, where we were now positioned, was feeling even more cold and miserable with each astral journey.
"Has he come out at all?" I asked.
"No. Been in there since I arrived. I spoke with my spirit guide."
"Let me guess. Look deep inside yourself, the answer is closer than you think."
"Pretty much, yeah."
"I told you this would happen."
We sat together unhappily, perched on one of the grey realms, our feet kicking against it idly. Nearby, Bulstrode's red world churned and pulsed with hatred.
"So now what?" asked Rose.
I woke up in my hammock that morning to find a crossbow being aimed at my face. This is a position in which I have decided I do not like waking up. It was being wielded by Agreeable Tom, a pirate I knew vaguely well, and with whom I had enjoyed several eventful chew bar eating competitions at the late night parties. Now, though, his face was filled with hate, just like Pete's had been, and his knuckles were white around the crossbow's trigger.
"Good morning," I squeaked, clinging to my top sheet.
"Bulstrode will give you one warning only," said Tom in a voice that was not his own. "Leave him alone and you will be rewarded when this world is his. Continue to fight him and you will be killed."
"Well, that's a very very kind offer," I said carefully , the point of the crossbow bolt tickling my nose. "But I'm afraid there's something you need to take into account, first."
Despite my situation, I treated myself to a grin. "Don't look up."
And of course, he looked up, giving me the opportunity to pull the pre-arranged rope that caused a large barrel of cannonballs to drop from the ceiling onto Tom's head, and his bandanna offered very little protection. Pirates are a hardy lot, though, and the blow did not do him in. He came round a few hours later to find himself in the brig with all my other would-be murderers, with me outside going 'ha ha ha ha ha-ha' and pointing.
There were three of them in there now. Irritable Pete, Agreeable Tom, and Delirious Laurence, who had been caught pushing bits of broken glass into the chew bars I had set aside for my tea. The strangest thing was how they acted when they were imprisoned. All three of them stood in the middle of the brig, arms straight and shoulders back, staring directly at me through the bars in the door. None of them were observed to use the bunk or the toilet, or eat any of the food provided for them. All day and all night, they stood, and stared, and hated.
But that was just the beginning. I spent the next few days in a state of absolute caution, because suddenly previously friendly crewmembers were turning violent everywhere I turned. Slimy Roger chased me around the deck with a big stick for half an hour. Camp Gareth hurled knives at me from across the galley. Even when I locked myself in the bathroom for a few hours, Lazy Michael bashed down the door with an axe. One by one, the crew was being turned and the brig was being filled to bursting with immobile assassins. There were a few very very close calls. I only stayed alive from a combination of sheer luck, fast running speed and Rose standing by with two flintlock pistols.
"I can't understand it," said Captain Bancroft, when he and Rose and Penfold and I were gathered outside the brig to discuss the matter of twelve crewmen locked into one small brig. "Irritable Pete I can understand, Delirious Laurence has done worse, but Agreeable Tom? Camp Gareth? There's somethin' very fishy goin' on 'ere. Why would all these crewmen all suddenly want to kill ye, Jim lad?"
"Their minds have been taken over by Mr. Bulstrode," said Rose gravely. "There're going to be more like this. We have to find the Gatekeeper, the Warrior and the Water-bearer before it's too late."
"Look, I don't know what the 'ell ye're goin' on about," said Bancroft, hands on hips. "But I wish ye'd stop banging on about the gate-bearer and the water-passer and all that rubbish. Now, I am goin' to sail this ship to the nearest port, Honolulu I believe, and 'ave these lads looked at by a doctor. Good day to ye." He stamped off.
"I'm really not following any of this," said Penfold, eyeing the staring pirates in the brig.
"Bulstrode is going to keep taking over the crew in Fogworld," said Rose, looking at me over a pair of imaginary spectacles. "If we don't do something about it, one of these assassins is going to succeed."
"Listen," I said. "Bulstrode's prepared to negotiate. He says he'll reward us once he rules the world. Maybe, you know, pressure him for a few million, set up a nice manor house on some island somewhere, couple of mindless Bulstrode slaves for a staff... you know, it's difficult to concentrate when you keep giving me that withering stare."
"Do you really think he'd make good that promise? Even if he did rule the world, we'd always be liabilities to him. He'd have no reason not to kill us and no reason to keep us alive. No, we've got to find a way to stop him."
I let out a huge sigh. It caught in my lower lip, turning into a raspberry. "You know what we have to do, right?"
"We have to make Fog Juice. We have to make a big drum of Fog Juice and give some to every member of the crew. Then they'll be immune to Bulstrode's control. And they'll believe us about Fogworld. And they can help us on our astral journeys."
"Jim," said Rose witheringly. Then her expression changed and she thought for a moment. "That's actually a good idea. That's a really good idea. Why didn't you suggest this before?"
"Well, excuse me. I'm afraid I've been a bit busy lately almost getting killed to come up with genius plans."
"I'm confused," said Penfold. "Why is Fog Juice trying to kill you?"
"Just forget it, Penfold."
So, that morning, I had a rather lengthy argument with the cook until he agreed to let us carry a big crate of various bottles up on deck. Then Rose visited the ship's physician - Patronizing Dave - and was able to acquire a fine selection of medicines and drugs for the concoction. "Are you sure you can remember the exact recipe?" she said, arranging bottles and boxes of pills on the table around an empty drum.
"It was written on the ceiling above my bed in luminescent paint for over a year," I explained. "It is indelibly lodged in my memory. And it's a pretty flexible formula, anyway." With practised ease I made straight for the vodka and the Lucozade, emptying them both into the barrel.
Fog Juice is a simple and quick recipe, hence why I was able to finish it while ninja were bashing in my door earlier in this tale, but the preparation time was still long enough for a crowd of curious pirates to gradually congregate around us. With an audience, I actually started cheering up. It was like being a character in a Disney film, preparing some arcane witch's brew while singing a jolly song. I started upending bottles over the potion with a theatrical flourish, and humming to myself. Finally, I crumbled in the required handful of chewable vitamins and the liquid turned the shade of chestnut brown that indicated completion. The Fog Juice was ready.
"Right then," I said, scooping some up into a mug and addressing the crowd. "Who's first?"
And then came the moment when it all fell apart. I'm sure you know the kind of moment. It's like the moment when you've just breezed through a school exam with minutes to spare, and then you realise that you misread the essay question and you should have been writing about Othello the play, not the board game. It's like when you're in your car and smoothly overtake a car full of admiring females only to drive straight off a cliff. I experienced one of those moments when Perplexed Owen, at the forefront of the crowd, said "Ye don't really expect us to drink that, do ye?"
"Aye," said Smelly Garth. "That stuff looks dangerous. I'm keepin' out of it."
"But you're pirates!!" protested Rose. "You're big, hard drinking, grog-swilling pirates, aren't you?"
"There's a fine line between 'ard drinkin' and 'avin' some kind of death wish," said Owen, to the nods of all around him. "I saw ye put cough medicine in that. 'Oo do ye think we are, a bunch of insane 'omeless men 'oo 'ang around on traffic roundabouts shoutin' at people?"
"You have to drink it!" cried Rose in exasperation. "Or you'll turn into one of those mindless slaves in the brig!"
"I 'ave a funny feelin' that we'd turn into somethin' very similar if we DID drink it," said Fat John.
"Okay," I said, trying another tactic. "The fact is, you have to drink it because of the evil man-eating fairies who dwell in the mouths of dolphins. They can smell this stuff a mile away and they hate it. None of your limbs will get bitten off in the night as long as you've had a sip of Fog Juice."
"Oh no, Jim," said Owen cynically. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
"LADS!" called a breathless Wee Nigel from halfway up the rigging. "We've been invaded!"
The pirates' interest suddenly shifted to Nigel, and Rose and I were left standing stupidly around the undrunk Fog Juice. "What're ye talkin' about, Wee Nigel?" shouted Smelly Garth.
"I saw a stowaway!" went Nigel. "This bloke all dressed in black, clinging to the side of the ship! He disappeared when he saw me lookin' at 'im!" His voice suddenly became somewhat grave. "I think it might've been a ninja!"
If we had any hope at all before then of keeping the pirates' interest in us long enough to pour some Fog Juice down their wretched throats, that hope was lost after Nigel made that statement. Ninjas and pirates are the bitterest of enemies. If you put a ninja and a pirate in a room together, you would open the door after one minute to find one or both dead and/or eaten. Neither party really knew why this should be the case, and in actuality there was very little genuine hate between them; it was just that ninjas and pirates seemed to have unspokenly declared each other 'fair game', free to be fought or killed without consequence, and since fighting and killing is the entire shtick of both groups, the opportunity for a good solid punch-up was rarely ignored.
The prospect of a ninja dangled in front of their noses was too good for the pirates to pass up, and the grouping quickly broke up in every direction like giggling children off on an easter egg hunt. Soon only Rose, Penfold and myself remained, avoiding each other's gazes.
"Well, never mind," said Penfold after a while. "All the more for you two, right?"
I jerked the mug in his direction. "Could you at least have some, Penfold?"
"Er... not really my sort of thing, Jim..."
I immediately grabbed him by the collar and hauled him close until our noses were touching. "You are going to drink some of this, you stupid bastard, and if you don't do it willingly I'm sure Mr. Funnel and Mr. Rubber-Tube-Down-Throat will be a lot more accommodating."
"Well... if you put it like that," he whimpered, taking the mug in shaking hands. He peered unhappily into the foaming brown liquid, and failed three times to bring it up to his mouth. "Er, do you think I could put some ginger ale mixer in it first?"
I dropped my face into my hands. "Yes. Put some ginger ale mixer in it. Do whatever you want. Just drink the damn stuff."
"Right. Thanks." He poured the contents of the mug into a hitherto unknown silver hip flask - a gift, he explained, that he had been waiting to find a use for - and disappeared off below decks to find the cook.
"There's a thought," said Rose, tapping her chin. "Why don't we mix Fog Juice into the grog?"
"Grog is supposed to be green, they'd notice," I said despondently. "And I dread to think what would happen if we mixed Fog Juice with grog. It'd probably collapse in on itself and form an alcohol black hole or something."
Then, to my surprise, Putrid Ian came up to us, mug in hand, smile on face. "Er, hi," he said. "I'm sorry about everyone else, but... I'd be 'appy to try your new cocktail thingy. I've got nothin' against cough medicine. I was raised on it from early childhood."
"Oh," said Rose. "Well... go right ahead, Ian. Have as much as you want."
"Thanks," he said, stepping over to the barrel. Then, and I suppose I should have expected something like this, his expression became one of fixed mild hatred and he kicked the entire barrel over, sending Fog Juice cascading over the floor, right through the portside balustrade and into the sea, where it would no doubt cause an awful lot of dolphins to go on bewildered astral journeys. There was that feeling again, that everything had fallen apart. Not only had I written the wrong essay, but now my desk was on fire. Not only had I driven off a cliff, but I had landed in an angry bear convention.
"You were warned," said Ian in a very Bulstrode-like voice. He would probably have tried to strangle me, then, if Rose hadn't had the forethought to smash the blunt side of her cutlass into his kneecaps with a horrible splintering sound. He collapsed onto his back, where he lay immobile, defeated, staring hatefully into space.
"I am getting mighty sick of this," I said, hands on hips. "And why hasn't anyone tried to kill you? You're more into killing Bulstrode than I am!"
"He knows you," said Rose, dragging Ian towards the brig by his arms. "And you know the recipe for Fog Juice."
"He just won't attack you 'cos you're a girl."
"I very much doubt that's it, Jim."
"Grumble," I grumbled.