The pirates were able to find the chew bar with surprising rapidity, considering that as far as I knew it was lying around on the bottom of one of those gigantic oceanic trenches among the giant squids and scary light-up fish. But no, apparently somewhere on the way down the trousers had been snatched by playful dolphins, who spent some time taking turns putting them on and doing derisive human impressions to the delight of all the fishes of the sea. They had been hanging around about fifty feet below the surface and my trousers were easily snatched after a few lobs of a fishing hook. As the sodden denim broke surface, and the brightly-coloured wrapper became visible poking from the back pocket, a great cheer went up among the pirates, who had been watching the operation on tenterhooks. Apparently they couldn't find my t-shirt because the dolphins thought that 100% cotton t-shirts were a bit snobby.
The chew bar was retrieved, and the pirates gathered around as the captain carefully divided it up into even pieces with his massive cutlass. Soon enough, every pirate was happily chewing on their designated square centimetre of Stinger, and all I could do was sit tied to the mast and salivate at the thought of the tangy confection that was now lost to me.
"Right then," said the pirate captain, smacking his lips and trying in vain to shake a small piece of colourful plastic wrapper from his hand. "We're dead pleased with ye for giving us somethin' to do and for the chew bar, so I'm goin' to give ye a little choice. Do ye want to be killed, or do ye want to walk the plank?"
"Killed please," said Penfold.
"Ignore him," I felt compelled to add. "I was actually wondering if I could join the crew."
Immediately the pirates fell about laughing, because such things are expected of pirate crews, street gangs and 80's breakdancing teams under such circumstances. Their beards rattled like a row of privet hedges in an earthquake as the air was filled with a chorus of raucous guffaws. This went on for quite some time, but eventually someone started choking on his piece of Stinger and everyone stopped laughing to pat him on the back, then he stopped choking and no-one really felt like laughing any more.
I coughed. "So, can I join the crew?"
"It's not quite as easy as that," said the captain testily. "If ye want to join the crew, ye 'ave to be sponsored by an existin' crew member."
"I'll sponsor him," said a voice from across the other side of the ship, outside of my slim field of vision. It was fairly safe to assume that the voice belonged to whoever had addressed me last night, but I still couldn't make it out very clearly or see the owner, because of dramatic license.
"'Im? Why?" asked the captain.
This seemed to stump the mystery voice for a second. "Because I'm bored?"
The captain shrugged. Of course, for many pirates 'being bored' still remains the best excuse for any misdemeanour up to and including cold blooded murder. "Alright," he said, turning to me again. "So ye've got a sponsor. What about the speccy twat?"
"I don't want to be a pirate," snivelled Penfold. "I'm an accountant."
The captain rubbed his beard, dislodging it slightly. "Accountant, aye? We've been 'aving some problems with our booty records lately."
Penfold was suddenly fully alert. "What sort of problems?"
"Sort've a deficiency between 'ow much we plunder and 'ow much we 'ave to blow on grog at the end've the month."
"A deficiency?" he said with what I can only describe as lust in his voice. "How big a deficiency are we talking about here?"
"Pretty big one. 'Bout two hundred doubloons, give or take."
"Phwoar," breathed Penfold, then he attempted to compose himself. "O-of course I'd be very happy to take a look at that for you very soon."
"Alright, much obliged. Anyway, ye want to be a pirate, do ye?" the captain reiterated to me.
"Well, now ye have to complete an Ordeal. No-one is allowed to be a pirate until they complete one of the terrible and very historically relevant pirate Ordeals. And in accordance with our laws, yer sponsor must choose which Ordeal ye go through. Sponsor?"
"I choose Ordeal by Drinking Contest," went the mystery voice.
Another cheer went up among the pirates, but this was a slightly subdued one because everyone's throats were sore from cheering so much lately. I have to say I didn't like the sound of an Ordeal, and was beginning to wonder if being dead from drowning would become a stimulating and enjoyable existence after a while. With a cry of triumph and one mighty sweep of his cutlass, the captain severed the ropes that secured us to the mast. Penfold was manhandled below decks, presumably towards the pirates' accounts, and I was manhandled in a slightly different manner to the centre of the ship's top deck.
Someone had already set up a large keg as a table and two smaller kegs as chairs, leading me to wonder what the pirates used for furniture before they had emptied their first kegs (best guess: each other), and I was made to sit down. When I caught a glimpse of my opponent as he approached, the crowd parting before him like the Red Sea, I freely admit that my balls instantly shrank into my body. He was the biggest pirate - and very nearly the biggest man - I had ever seen in my life. He was easily seven feet tall, and his body looked like a pile of boulders sewn into a man-shaped leather pouch. What little part of his face was visible behind his gigantic and obviously real beard was shaped entirely from scar tissue. It was like looking at a walnut trapped in a gorse bush.
"Hello," I said, my voice breaking a little on the first syllable. He glared at me, treated me to a smile like a broken fence, and sat himself down in front of me in a manner that made the floor shake. His huge feet were now either side of me, and I was sitting in the valley of his knees. Two younger pirates rolled a heavy steel drum up to our table, and set it upright like a pair of earnest waiters.
"I feel I should warn you before we begin," I said in a small voice as a pirate laboured at the top of the drum with a can opener. "I suffer from a rare medical condition that causes me to pass out and possibly die every now and again, so if that happens it's because of that and not because I can't take the drink or anything." The volume of my voice gradually decreased throughout my dreadful excuse as I noticed that no-one was really paying attention.
"This," said the captain grandly, slamming two flagons down before us. "is 'grog'. A customised blend of beers, spirits, selected 'erbs and spices and industrial waste products that is the lifeblood of every pirate that sails the seven seas. Competitors will take it in turns to imbibe one mugful o' undiluted grog, and the last man who can keep himself upright is the winner. Simple as that. Yer opponent for this bout will be Small Ken. Now, let's get this 'ole silly charade over with so we can enjoy the pleasin' sound of your carcass bein' tossed overboard."
Small Ken, whose name, I imagine, was intended to be ironic, reached over and closed his enormous hand around his flagon like a giant spider consuming a bluebottle. In one sweep of his forearm he sent the entire contents straight down the yawning chasm of his throat. He somewhat redundantly turned over the mug to indicate his triumph, and sat back with his hands on his knees. I was expecting the other pirates to give off another of their huge roars of triumph and laughter, but they were completely silent. This had gone beyond fun and games; this was serious pirate business.
I cast a look around, but it didn't look like mystery voice would be springing to my rescue anytime soon, and the drawn cutlasses either side of me had very little charm about them. Self-consciously, I took the flagon in both hands and focussed on the fizzing head of green foam floating on top. Well, I thought, it's not that much bigger than a large coke from McDonalds and my friends and I had come up with similar concoctions late at night in the halls of residence that had looked much less appealing. I tried to shut out the staring eyes all around me, brought the tankard up to my lips, and took a small, experimental sip.
Then a mouthful.
Then a swig.
"Oh god," I moaned, putting the tankard back down for a second.
"Aharr!" cried the captain, arms folded. "Our brew a bit too strong for ye, laddie?"
"What? This is the blandest swill I've ever drunk in my life. It's like drinking dishwater. Oh well." I took up the mug again and finished it off as fast as I could in a succession of big gulps to get it over with. The aftertaste wasn't so bad, though; like a mixture of orangeade and nutmeg. But there was none of the hot feeling in my throat that came from the strongest alcholic drinks. It didn't taste alcoholic at all, but still the very confused pirate captain was waving a hand in front of my face to make sure I could still see properly.
"Erm, next round," called the captain, and the tankards were refilled. This time, Small Ken artfully flicked his flagon into the air so that an arc of grog flew gracefully into his mouth. One or two pirates tried to applaud, then stopped when they realised that no-one was joining in. Again with caution, in case the first drink was some kind of control test, I took up my own mug and took a little drink. No, this was the same as last time - an insipid, slightly carbonated beverage with a slight fruity tang on the edge of sensation. But I could see that Small Ken was visibly swaying.
"There's somethin' wrong with the grog," someone was saying. "Must be watered down. Must be."
One of the pirates closest to the open barrel leaned over and smelled the contents. He slowly straightened up, then kept right on going and fell flat on his back. "Nope," he hissed from floor level. "Seems alright."
Small Ken drank his third drink with no showing off, taking gulps that were small for a man his size but were no doubt still big enough to drown a kitten or two. The pirates were now gazing at me with new awe and respect as I effortlessly downed another mugful.
"'E must have a stomach o' concrete," I heard someone say. "And kidneys of asbestos."
After four rounds, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Not that I was feeling any alcoholic effect at all, but my stomach couldn't hold much more liquid and it was audibly sloshing with my every movement. Fortunately, the Ordeal ended before I had to drink any more. Small Ken upended his fifth grog down his throat, looked at me quizzically for a second, then toppled over, sending his keg chair and the keg table flying. No-one rushed to his aid. I sat bathed in the admiring stares of pirates of all shapes and sizes, awkwardly sitting on a keg wearing nothing but pants.
"Well?" said the captain to his horde. "There's an open barrel o' grog over 'ere that's not goin' to get drunk by itself!"
One of those great pirate cheers went up, more out of relief than anything else, and attention was swiftly shifted from me to the free drink. The pirate captain pushed his way through the throng to me, grabbed my hand and shook it warmly.
"I've never seen anythin' like it," he said excitedly. "No-one's ever drunk that much grog with no ill effects! I'd be 'appy as larry to 'ave you as one of me crew."
I accepted his regards with good grace, because I had decided that mystery voice must have come through for me and rigged the contest in some ingenius way. Perhaps my tankard was doctored. Perhaps it was swapped with another tankard on the way from barrel to mouth. Maybe Small Ken was bought off. Maybe everyone on the crew was in on it except the captain.
"Ye can go down to the crew quarters and pick yerself out an 'ammock," said the captain. "And get yerself some clothes from the lost property basket, can't 'ave a member of me crew mincin' around in their pants."
"Yes, captain," I said, getting into the swing of things.
"Four pints of grog and not even swayin'. Stone the crows."
I caught up with Penfold below decks. He was leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette and with his top button undone. "Now that's what I call a deficiency. Oh, hello," he said, flushing a little as he noticed me. "Are you a pirate, now, then?"
"So, what are we going to do now?"
I shrugged. "Haven't really thought about it. I guess we stay onboard ship until something comes up."
He seemed a little depressed. "I do have a home back in England," he said. "I'd kind of like to go back to it at some point."
"Ah, this ship'll probably be touching down there at some point," I said, patting his shoulder comfortingly. "Plundering's all very well but I'm sure pirates like to go home and visit their pirate mums every now and again just like everyone else."
"So you passed their ordeal, then?"
"Ordeal. Capital O. Yeah. Not quite sure how, though."
"I can answer that," said a new but oddly familiar voice.
A figure emerged from the shadows and towards our conversation. The owner of the mystery voice, for it was they, was a female pirate, clad in one of those blue and white stripey shirts that are inexplicably popular among pirates and with a cutlass hanging on her hip. But not even her pirate bandanna and her pirate eyepatch were enough to disguise her identity.
"Rose?!" I exclaimed.
"Hello, Jim," said Rose, for it was she.
I was about to sweep her up in my arms, but then remembered the mood she had been in the last time we had met, and opted to wait until the whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing had been properly sorted out. "Er, Penfold," I said, remembering my duty. "This is my girlfr - er, my friend, Rose Black. Rose, this is Penfold... Penfold something or other, an accountant who I can't seem to get rid of."
"Charmed," he said.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I asked.
"Well, it's a funny story," she said. "After you drank Fog Juice and threw yourself out of my living room window, I realised that there really were ninjas trying to break in-"
"Ninja, sorry. Anyway, I was kind of lost for a solution, so I decided to see if I really could escape the situation by drinking Fog Juice. Anyway, I had a few sips, and the next thing I knew I was a pirate on this ship. What about you?"
I recounted my adventures thus far, and she stopped me when I started talking about the curious revelations that had been bestowed upon me by the accountant Steve and the tentacled king of my own creation. "Hang on, hang on," she said. "They told you to find the Gatekeeper and the Warrior?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"Well, that's funny. When I went into Fogworld and into the realm of my own creation, I was greeted by my own spirit guide, which was in the form of the cat I used to own up until round about that time you first met my parents, and she told me that I had to find the Warrior and the Water-bearer."
"I'll just, er, get back to the accounts, then," muttered Penfold, unheard.
"Listen," said Rose urgently. "You've seen Fogworld, right? You've seen the horrible dark figure that's jumping around in there turning all the pearls grey, right?"
"I might have..."
"We have to stop it. I don't know why, but I'm more sure of it than anything I've ever thought I was conventionally sure about. I think, when that evil figure takes over a realm, he can control the mind of whoever owns the realm."
"Oh, but... why us? Can't we just call the police or something?"
"We've drunk Fog Juice. Fog Juice gives us special powers in Fogworld that other people who are too responsible to inflict the stuff upon themselves do not. That's why our realms are special and golden. The evil will not be able to affect us for this reason."
"Because we drank Fog Juice?"
"I think we underestimate the wondrous power of Fog Juice. Once you drink it, you undergo certain changes that can never be reversed. How do you think you survived the drinking contest? After Fog Juice, no alcoholic beverage will ever affect you again."
"WHAT?!" I cried as that sank in. "That's not wondrous! That's terrible! Being affected by alcoholic beverages is how I maintain my interest in staying alive!"
"Jim, Jim, shush. Now there's two of us, we may have enough power to defeat the evil. Come on. Let's get to bed."
Rose's astral form was pretty damn hot. She looked kind of like how she did in real life, except her arms and legs tapered to swirling tendrils of mist, her hair flew around like she was standing in front of an industrial fan, and - intriguingly - she had no clothes on. But it wasn't that great, because her naughty bits were absent, replaced with blank, smooth astral skin. I met her sitting on top of her golden world sphere, just like we had arranged.
"Hey," she said as I floated into view.
"Hey," I replied. "So you couldn't spend a couple of seconds astralling up some astral clothes or anything?"
"It's an astral form. You can't really control it."
"I can. I practised. I got myself some astral clothes."
"You're wearing a Tarzan loincloth."
"So? Tarzan's cool."
"Have you seen the evil?"
I followed her pointing misty hand, and saw the dark figure again, six or seven rows of pearls above us, hopping gleefully from sphere to sphere, darkening them as it went. Its influence was spreading, that was pretty clear. What had started off as just one or two grey spheres here and there had become a patch of hundreds of tainted pearls, growing with every second.
"Come on," insisted Rose, and the two of us pushed ourselves up through the misty colours of Fogworld in pursuit of the evil. On the way, we brushed past the mental realms of other human beings, and were assailed by lightning-quick insights into their minds. I brushed past an African farmer, and I was an African farmer, tirelessly tilling the soil in baking heat. I touched a Japanese student, and I was a Japanese student, pushing myself for my exams to impress my father. I rubbed up against an American politician, and I was an American politician, and then I wanted to go and wash myself with soap.
And then we were among the grey spheres, and I felt the terrible coldness that emanated from them. Even being close to them made me shudder, feeling the bony finger of a dead grandma trace down my astral spine. We pushed past them, trying to shut out the terrible scenes of misery and despair that invaded our heads on the way.
"Stop!" called Rose when we saw the dark figure, just six or seven spheres away. For an instant it glanced over its shoulder, and I saw it in detail for the first time. Just looking at it filled us both with feelings of utter hatred and revulsion, with me even more so when I took in his neatly-pressed suit and tie and his ridiculous combover...
"Bulstrode!" I realised aloud.
"You!" he realised in turn. Then he hurled himself away from us as fast as he could, leaving a black and crawling vapour trail in his wake. We tried to follow, but it was too late. He had retreated inside the realm of his own mind.
It was as different to our own, Fog Juice-enhanced mind realms as they were from ordinary ones. Bulstrode's pearl was red, a harsh and terrible red like the pulsating surface of a dying sun. Clouds of black smoke hung around it like a shroud, tendrils of electricity crackling between them. We were all set to dive in after him, but we had to stop when we were barely a few feet away. A tide of revulsion had swept through us, repelling us, and we couldn't bear it for more than a second before we had to retreat.
"He's scared of us," said Rose, panting. "He won't come out of here again, not while we're around. What do we do now?"
"I dunno. We could have astral sex. I hear it's pretty awesome."
I woke up before her answer. This was probably for the best.