The zombie hands weren't attempting to tear into my flesh, or even grope me arousingly. Each one just clamped tightly onto whichever of my extremities was convenient, and any attempt at motion was futile. Even my head and neck were held in place, so I was forced to do nothing but watch as Penfold sat down on Steve's box a few feet in front of me and crossed his legs.
"I am sick and tired of chasing you," he said. I didn't know it was possible for Penfold's brow to furrow with quiet, dignified anger, but there it was. "Don't you understand that you have lost? You, you and all the others who drank Fog Juice, you had your chance to stop me and you failed.The world is entirely subjugated. Everyone except the meagre contents of this room are under my control. Why can't you see that?"
"It's not permanent," I said, voice altered by the hands upon my throat. "You die and they all go back to normal. We can still fix things."
"Oh? And how do you know that? A wild guess? I thought so. That's just wishful thinking. How do you know they will all be fine if my controlling influence were to suddenly stop? Perhaps they will all drop dead on the spot. Perhaps they will all be struck down with violent madness, and the human race will tear itself apart. No, I don't think you want to be placing all of your eggs in that basket."
"Why are you doing this?!" I demanded, suddenly. "Why the hell would anyone want to turn everyone except themselves into zombies? It's just stupid! It's like locking yourself in a room for your whole life with nothing to play with but puppets! What the hell kind of retarded evil scheme is this?!"
I must have gotten through somewhere, because his eyes narrowed slightly. "You still have no idea, do you. Do you really think I'm doing this for ME? This isn't about me. I'm nothing. A voice from a thousand different mouths. It's you that matters. The only one that matters."
"For crying out loud just spare me the bad guy Oscar-bait soliloquy and get it over with. Just do me in. I know you want to."
He didn't seem to be in a hurry. He folded his arms and re-crossed his legs. "What do you think happens when we die, Jim?"
"I don't know! We go to hell, we go to heaven, we go to Bognor Regis to visit railway museums with old people for the rest of eternity, who cares?"
"Then I'll clear up that particular mystery for you. We go to Fogworld. That's where we start off, anyway. Our first task as an astral body then is to wrestle ourselves free of our own minds and move on to the wide, outer cosmic regions of astral space. Some people choose not to let go. Some people remain inside their own minds, to torture or pleasure themselves for as long as they see fit. Sometimes you don't even have to physically die to get to that condition. But I'm sure you know all about astral voyaging while still alive."
I attempted to check my watch, and failed miserably. "Will you please just kill me? Quickly for preference, but by this stage I'll take whatever you've got going."
"I will kill you, and I am not sorry," he clarified. "But I want you to understand first, Jim. I want you to understand why I will kill you, and why I have been trying to kill you ever since our meeting on Accountancy Island."
"Oh. That. That's old news. You want me dead because I know how to make Fog Juice and Fog Juice makes people immune from your influence."
I can only presume that he became offended by this, because suddenly his well-practised air of expressionless contempt vanished and he was on his feet, his face inches away, screaming in my face like Hitler at his lunatic Nazi best. "DO YOU THINK ME AN IDIOT?! DO YOU REALLY THINK I WANT THIS?! Why can't you SEE, Jim?! Why can't you SEE that I've done ALL OF THIS FOR YOU?! When will you finally UNDERSTAND?!!"
He stopped, and puzzlement crept across Penfold's hijacked face, as I blinked away globdules of finely-sprayed saliva. Then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed. There was a dart lodged between his shoulder blades. Immediately, as Bulstrode was lost in a brief moment of confusion, I felt the grip of the zombie hands loosen and I was able to leap away from their grasp.
"You know, for a pirate," said Steve, holding the crossbow as I'm sure you predicted. "Your friend isn't very good at tying knots."
"Give me a second, and then we can start sparring witticisms all you like." I took up Steve's flask, gently kicked Penfold over onto his back, pushed open his jaws, then started pouring Fog Juice down his throat.
"What are you doing?" asked Steve.
"Call it a science experiment," I said. "Unless you already know what happens when a possessed human drinks Fog Juice."
"I'm afraid I don't. I don't think it's ever been tried before."
After a suitable quantity had gone down, and I was satisfied that it was staying down, I left Penfold where he lay and sat myself down against a wall. "What the hell was he talking about? All that stuff about doing everything for me."
"You cannot expect clarity from a madman."
"See, something I'm starting to pick up on, is that every time I ask a fairly significant question to someone who can probably answer it, I never get a simple straight answer until I break out the chinese burns."
"I don't pretend to understand the intention of Bulstrode's scheme, but there are probably other things I can answer for you."
"Okay. I'm the Water-bearer, right? And Rose is the Gatekeeper, and Frobisher is the Warrior, yes?"
He seemed impressed. "I'm impressed. I would have thought you'd have to wait for the final realisation just in the nick of time to figure that one out."
"Yeah, well, logic is its own reward. But why does it help to bring the three of us together?"
"Jim, look deep inside yourself..."
"I'm really good at chinese burns."
He sat himself down on his box. "Simple, straight answer, right?"
Our eyes met. I made a little gesture suggestive of a chinese burn, and he looked away with a sigh. "Bulstrode wants more than the world. From Fogworld, it is possible to open a gateway to forbidden astral realms. Worlds far beyond the conventional afterlife, where even more mischief can be wrought. It's bad enough that Bulstrode can control every human mind, but if he breaks through into the forbidden realms, he could control so much more. He could control the entire universe, with power of life and death over every civilization, every star, every world. Even the laws of physics would have to bow down to his will."
"This isn't really answering my question..."
"To every generation, a few are born. A few Gatekeepers, Warriors and Water-bearers. Only through them can access be gained to the forbidden realms. Gatekeepers are the doorway. Warriors are the key. Water-bearers... it's hard to explain. Water-bearers are kind of like the oil that allows the key to go into the lock."
"I am not going to stand around while Frobisher sticks his oily key in Rose's lock. So what exactly does Bulstrode have to do?"
"He has to bring all three of you into Fogworld for an extended period, and into his own realm. That's why he was trying to kill you, so that your astral form would be stuck in Fogworld for as long as he needed. I'm not sure what happens next. With Rose and Frobisher tranquillised, he will probably have already seized them for the ritual. You will have to confront him in Fogworld if he is to be stopped."
"You know, Steve, I have an odd feeling that you should have been the hero of this story, and I should have been the cowardly comedy sidekick. Just get it over with. Shoot me with the knock out drops and I'll be on my way."
"If Penfold's mind was saved when you forced Fog Juice into him," said Steve, raising the crossbow, "try to find him in Fogworld. Only the three are needed to open the portal, but according to the prophecy, a fourth figure is needed if Bulstrode is to be stopped."
"What fourth figure?"
"That makes sense."
"Sleep tight, Jim." He pulled the trigger. There was an agonising pinprick in my shoulder, then the pain became numbness, and the numbness began to spread, down my arms and up my spine and into my brai
Fogworld was different, now. The vibrant colours that had enchanted me so on my first visit had faded almost completely into greyness, with only the slightest tint of green or red. The brilliant lights flickered like torches on the last few seconds of battery life. And all of the grey realms had drifted together into a gigantic, cloying mass of grey, like an enormous cosmic disembodied organ that squelched and gurgled disgustingly as it bobbed in Fogworld's astral currents. At the top of the pile sat Bulstrode's hated red lair, seemingly even larger and more imposing than I remembered. Orbiting the pulsating grey blob were the golden realms, rotating around it like predators waiting to close in for the kill. Mine. Rose's. Frobisher's. Steve's. And...
A fifth one. Penfold's. I was right. Zombies could be cured with Fog Juice. I didn't know if that only applied to zombies who hadn't been possessed for very long, but it was worth remembering if a repopulation scheme needed to be thought of. Penfold would still be inside there, if his Fog Juice trips were anything like mine. I decided to go in and pull him out, partly because of Steve's prophecy, and partly because, I realised with some surprise, I really wanted to have a friendly face around. Rose and Frobisher were nowhere to be found, but their realms were somehow duller than the others, and flickering slightly. If Steve was right, then they had both already been captured by Bulstrode and taken inside his realm.
I floated over to Penfold's realm, found the hatch in the underside, and pulled myself in.
Instantly I was assailed with a feeling, in the same way I was assailed by disgust and loathing whenever I neared Bulstrode's realm. This was different, though, in that it felt unpleasant in an entirely different way. It just felt... really, really boring.
I was standing on some kind of barren plain. The floor was nothing but a completely flat grid of squares that stretched infinitely in all directions. The sky was grey. Not the multi-hued grey of an overcast sky, but uniform grey of a middling shade. There were absolutely no other features.
"Penfold!!" I called. "Where are you?!"
Suddenly, the floor was moving. I leapt aside just in time to see the square on which I had been standing rise up out of the ground, a perfect white cube lined with black. Several of its fellows also uprooted themselves and they flew together into the sky. There, they spent several minutes forming a variety of different geometric shapes and patterns, before parting on some unspoken agreement and each returning to their places of origin. The way I describe it it could have been spectacular, like some kind of weird ballet, but somehow it solicited nothing but absolute tedium in me.
"Oh, god," I said aloud. "Even his subconscious is boring."
The blocks seemed to notice me, but they were not unwelcoming. A whole bunch of them flew into the air and spelled out the word 'JIM', a gesture of recognition. Then they reformed themselves into a huge arrow, pointing east. I thanked the blocks and began to jog in that direction.
I willed my astral legs faster, and was soon flying across the plain until I saw what the arrows must have been indicating towards. Several blocks had risen up to form a little ziggurat, and on each step was inscribed some unfathomably difficult equation. I raced up to the top, and there was Penfold, sitting at a desk that looked exactly like the one he had had on Accountancy Island. Even Penfold's astral form was wearing shirtsleeves and a tie. He was working hard on a pile of work that never seemed to decrease in size.
You poor miserable bastard, I thought. "Penfold," I said. "We have to go."
"Can't go," he said rapidly between papers. "Got to finish this work. Have to finish it all for Mr. Bulstrode."
"Mr. Bulstrode isn't here anymore," I reported. "Look around you. He's gone."
"He isn't gone. I have to do this work for him."
I lost patience. I slapped the piles of paper off the desk. They turned into feathers as I touched them, and blew off into the distance. Penfold didn't seem to notice. He continued scribbling on the desktop. I kicked the desk aside, and it flew into matchwood, scattering itself down the steps of the ziggurat. Penfold continued to scribble on the floor.
I didn't have time for this. I turned around, deciding he was beyond help, and noticed that an entire swarm of cubes had arranged themselves around the ziggurat. Somehow, I got the impression that they were watching us, like children watching a doctor care for their sick friend. 'HELP HIM', they spelled out.
"I don't know how," I said.
'TAKE AWAY HIS PEN'.
That seemed like an interesting idea. I grabbed for the writing implement, which was harder than I thought, because it was wobbling back and forth at very high speeds. Finally I got my hand around it, and I yanked it from his weak, sweaty grasp. It immediately burst into black smoke and faded away. Penfold continued trying to make marks in the floor, then gazed at his empty fingers in puzzlement, and seemed to notice me for the first time. "Jim?" he said. "What are you doing in my dream?"
"We have to go," I reminded.
"But Mr. Bulstrode said..."
"Mr. Bulstrode's gone. I drove him away. He won't be able to bother you again. Ever." Behind me, the concerned flying blocks formed the word 'EVER', eager to reinforce my words.
"You made him go away?"
"I did. And now we have to go, too. Bulstrode has my friends. If I don't go after him, something very bad will happen."
"Let's go, then," he said, with a strange determination. "And when I wake up, I'll tell you all about this weird dream I had with you in it."
"Yes, Penfold. You do that."
The cube swarm watched us go. Then they settled back down into the floor, and when Penfold turned out the lights on his way out, they went to sleep.