We buried the captain and Bill and Russell at sea. And by that I mean we tossed them overboard when they started to whiff a bit.
The Black Pudding, the ship that had so recently rocked with the laughter of drunken corsairs and the sound of Stinger being levered from the back molars, was now a silent, drifting ghost ship. A thriving crew of mischievous buccaneers reduced to five. Well, five useful crewmembers and about twenty-six mindless ones in the brig playing a neverending game of Musical Statues. Sailing the galleon with just five people - well, four and a half, Penfold was only an accountant after all - was difficult enough, and it became no easier after we made the command decision to tie Lance and Quentin to the mast. This was, of course, after we had explained the whole situation, and after the recent trauma they were ready to believe it.
"Now remember," said Rose as she tied the last knots. "There's no more Fog Juice, so you two are at very high risk of being brainwashed like everyone else. We'll tie you to the mast for when that happens. And I want you to be clear on the fact that, if you manage to escape, we will shoot you with this flintlock pistol."
"Righto," said Lance, eyeing the gun.
"We're agreeable," said Quentin. "Just provide a drum o' grog and a couple of really, really long straws."
This was arranged, and the two of them were left sucking happily on lengths of tubing while Rose, Penfold and I decided on a plan of action. In the absence of the Gatekeeper etcetera, and with no idea of where to find them, it was probably time to take things on the offensive. To this end, we decided to set course back to Accountancy Island. Penfold knew in which direction it lay, he having lived there the longest, so he took the role of navigator. Once we got there, we had plan that was simple enough in theory - find Mr. Bulstrode's physical body and kill him. We were counting on everything going back to normal as soon as he was dead, but that was definitely a best-case scenario. As I said to Rose, we had to come up with a plan to repopulate the Earth, and it would probably be best to get a head start just to cover the bases, but she wasn't into it.
Of course, even a small undamaged clipper would be tricky enough to run with only three crewmembers, and we had a galleon with severe bullet damage on our hands. We were running around like blue-arsed flies just trying to keep the damn thing afloat. At any one time one of us had to be steering, one of us had to be looking after the sails, and the third would be running around the bilges slapping band-aids on any leaking bulletholes. We had to sleep in shifts of three or four hours at a time, and at any point my shifts would be interrupted by Penfold or Rose badgering me to grab a bucket and start bailing if I ever wanted to see dawn.
After a two day journey, during which we made slow progress towards Accountancy Island and bailed what felt like twice the volume of water in the entire ocean from the bilges, I was asleep and undergoing yet another tedious, fruitless astral journey when I suddenly felt a dreadful coldness against my astral neck. Then I awoke, and the coldness was still there.
I had been awoken for the second time that week by someone holding a deadly weapon close to my face. This time, it was a sharp knife against my throat, held by an unseen someone underneath my hammock. It was an alarming development, especially since the wielder was completely out of range of any of the ceiling traps I had installed. "Ah," I said, speaking carefully so as not to allow my adam's apple to move too close to the blade. "You have me at an advantage."
"Quiet," whispered a voice, presumably the owner of the hand that held the knife. "You're going to do exactly as I tell you, understand?"
"Whatever, you're the boss," I said, staring at the ceiling.
"You're going to take this ship to Accountancy Island."
"That's where we're already going."
"Oh." A pause. "Could you go any faster?"
"Not really. Are you going to kill me now?"
"Are you going to kill me now? Only I really need the toilet, and I'm wondering if it'd be alright to just go, because I don't want to go to heaven with a full bladder and if I won't be alive soon then I won't have to worry about laundering my pants."
I felt the steel withdraw. "I'm not going to kill you. How the hell will I get to Accountancy Island if I kill you?" said the voice, somewhat downcast. Now that it had dropped the whisper, the voice was clearly that of a whiney young man. "I just thought it'd save us all a lot of fuss and bother if I just skipped straight into threatening you to do it."
"You're not one of Bulstrode's slaves," I realised.
"You know about Bulstrode?"
For the first time, the speaker came into view, rising up from under the hammock to stand over me. His clothing was instantly recognisable, even in the darkened sleeping bay. Or, more truthfully, his clothing was recognisable by virtue of the fact that I couldn't see it at all in the twilight.
"You're a ninja," I said, for he obviously was. An outline of a black-clad figure stood over me with only a letterbox in his mask to reveal his eyes. He was holding one of those big Japanese throwing knives non-threateningly in one hand. I sat up, a move that takes a lot of practise in a hammock, and prepared to unleash all my built-up vitriol on the stranger. I may have only been on the job for a few weeks, but some things came naturally to even the most casual of pirates.
"Do you think we could not, you know, fight to the death?" he whined. "I mean, I know we're kind of expected to, but I'd rather we didn't. I can see we both know about Bulstrode and I guess we're both on our way to kill him, maybe we can, you know, help each other out and maybe think about fighting to the death later on... I've made kind of a mess of this, haven't I."
"I don't know," I said. "I guess we could try not to fight to the death, but if we see any other pirates or ninjas then they might get the wrong idea..."
"Ninja. Not ninjas. Singular and plural."
Something about his voice made me frown. "Have we met?"
He peered at me curiously. "...Jim? Jim, is that you?"
Then it struck me. "Frobisher?!"
"My god, Jim! I almost didn't recognise you under that beard! How the hell are you?"
"Frobisher, what the hell are you doing here?"
He leaned against a nearby post, sheathing his knife. "Same as you, by the looks of things - resisting Bulstrode," he said, now a lot less tense. "I knew there were more of us when I saw the other golden balls in Fogworld. I would never have thought it was you, though! Small world, eh?"
I stood up, another tricky manoeuvre in a hammock, and looked him up and down. His skintight ninja suit made it very clear that he had developed his muscles substantially since I had last seen him, but it was definitely Frobisher. No-one else had that curious posture of his that said 'you're treading on my toes, but I'm not going to complain because worse things can happen and I still have one other foot'. I had a million questions to ask, but one rose to the forefront of my mind. "You drank Fog Juice?"
"It's an odd story, actually. I went up to Rose's room after the ninja chased you out of the student union, and the place was empty, and one of the windows was broken, but I found a washing-up bowl full of brown stuff in the kitchen, and it was obviously Fog Juice, and I realised what you'd done, you silly tart. Then I heard the ninja coming back and I started to panic so I just sort of had a drink of it on the spur of the moment." He paused, mournfully considering the wisdom of this decision. "When I woke up, I was a ninja in a ninja temple in the foothills of Mount Fuji, and had apparently been so for some time. It's like I told you. Fog Juice doesn't solve your problems, it just exchanges them for fresh new ones."
"Yes... yes, that's something I'm learning, certainly. What happened, then?" I made a gesture to indicate Frobisher's presence on the Black Pudding.
"Well, as I said, I woke up and realised I was a ninja, because apparently I'd been taken prisoner by the other ninja and had somehow impressed them in captivity in some way I decided not to ask about. And at first I kind of had some misgivings, but it turns out they were really down to earth fellas. Turns out the whole cold and unfeeling shadow warrior thing is all just a front they put on for non-ninjas and amongst their own they're really easy-going. It was really weird. One minute we'd all be sitting around chatting, playing video games and watching DVDs, then the lookout would say there was an outsider approaching, and everyone would go all quiet and they'd bring out the wooden dummies and weapons and do really impressive ninja moves until they went away."
"Should you be telling me this?"
"Ah... probably not... could you not let on?"
"Whatever," I said, mentally filing away certain details in my internal blackmail database under Frobisher's name. "Go on."
"Well, at first I just wanted to find a way back to England, but after a while I decided I was actually sort of enjoying myself as a ninja, learning ninja skills and watching DVDs, and I didn't really have much going for me back home except university, and on reflection everyone I knew there were dicks, so I just stayed as a ninja. Then it all started to go wrong."
I decided not to press him on the whole dicks thing. "How?"
"One by one, all the other ninjas just stopped moving."
"Ninja, sorry. It started with one guy just going all stiff and quiet and never moving. We all thought it was some new kind of training or something so we just sort of left him, or took the piss out of him, or used him to hold our coats, but then it started happening to more and more people. The other ninja weren't too bothered for a while, and they used them to make a big domino fallover, but it happened to all of them, too, and I was the only one left. Then this weird guy in my dreams told me a bloke called Bulstrode was responsible. So I hitched a lift on this ship to bide my time until I could come out and hijack it. Never expected to see you here."
"So you were the fourth golden sphere," I realised aloud.
This threw him for a second. "Er... yeah. Anyway, the guy said if I wanted to defeat Bulstrode I'd have to track down the Gatekeeper-"
"...the Warrior and the Water-bearer," I finished for him. "We've been through that garbage too."
"Er... no mention of the Warrior, just the Gatekeeper and the Water-bearer," he clarified. "Listen, could I ask you a favour? I know you're going to Accountancy Island anyway, but... well, you're a pirate, I'm a ninja, could I hijack the ship anyway?"
"Well, since you're a mate, just this once. Where do you want me?"
He drew his knife again. "If you could just stand in front of me, yeah, and I'll put this knife at your throat... like that, and put you in a secret ninja arm lock... how's that?"
"Pretty good. Shall I be terrified now?"
"If you would."
"What're you doing?!" I cried, trembling. "I don't like this game!"
"Quiet," hissed Frobisher. "You're taking this ship to Accountancy Island, understand?"
"You're hurting me," I sniffed.
"Oh, sorry. Shall I..."
"No, no, I'm just acting, keep going."
"Oh. Right. Sorry. Er... take this ship to Accountancy Island, pirate scum, or I'll..."
And then Rose and Penfold came in at precisely the least opportune moment to find their friend and colleague being held prisoner by a hated ninja. And fair play to Rose, she knew the accepted etiquette in such circumstances. She immediately drew her pistol and aimed it squarely at Frobisher's masked face.
"Let him go!" she demanded.
"Make me, Engrish!" retorted Frobisher in a bad Japanese accent. "You won't shoot with your fliend in the way!"
"Frobisher..." I hissed.
"And you can be quiet, pilate dog!"
"I'll shoot," said Rose. "I'm not bru - bluffing."
And then Penfold suddenly produced a staple gun from somewhere and was holding it to Rose's temple. "I'm sorry," he said, hand trembling. "I can't let you fire, you'll hit Jim."
At this point I felt a bit left out, so I drew my own flintlock and pointed it in Penfold's direction, which somehow felt right. "Okay, okay, everyone just listen to me now please," I said. "At the end of this explanation you're all going to put your weapons down and feel very silly that we all pointed deadly weapons at each other, so why don't we all put down our weapons in anticipation of this really brilliant explanation of mine..."
"He's a ninja!" exclaimed a confused Rose.
"Pilates have no honoul! Ninja ale excerrent!"
"Frobisher, pack it in. These are my mates."
"Ninja forrow walliol code!"
"Frobisher, Japanese people do not talk like that. What you've done there, like many westerners, is made the fallacious assumption that, since the Japanese tend to replace 'l' sounds with 'r' sounds, that the opposite must also apply, a misinterpretation that tends to stem from the somewhat jingoistic belief that foreigners have some kind of inherent contrariness, when it is merely the case that the Japanese spoken language is not interchangeable with Latin-derived dialects."
"Rose, this isn't a ninja."
"Yes I am!"
"Okay, okay, so he is a ninja, but he's also Frobisher. Remember? From the university? Friend of mine?"
Her gun didn't move. "The same friend of yours who drank all my mouthwash?"
"Er... no, that was... his... identical twin brother... who... has the same name as him..."
It was the start of a long morning.