Climbing up the mass of grey that Bulstrode had turned the minds of humanity into was a deeply unpleasant task. Whenever I grabbed a handful of a grey realm, it squidged unpleasantly in my hand. My golden realm's exterior was firm but yielding like that of an inflated balloon. The grey realms were different. When I grabbed a handful of the damp grey matter, it would deform, and stay that way like a wet dough. It was also rather disconcerting the way tiny voices on the edge of hearing would scream in pain and plead for us to help them. It was all I could do to keep on climbing and keep on apologising. Sometimes it would be difficult to let go of a grey realm, because the strange matter appeared to stick harder to us than normal or attempt to pull us closer, to feel just one moment of warmth, but we had to resist. There was work to be done.
We clambered our way to the top of the squidgy grey mountain, and there was Bulstrode's red realm, a swirling crimson planet hovering like a dirigible just above the surface of the grey. The nearest grey realms to it were pink with corruption, and it seemed they quivered and shrieked in torment far greater than their fellows. I drew nearer, and then I cried out, because I was struck to my knees with a wave of negative feelings. I was trying to think, but my thoughts were squashed by the enormous burning hatred that filled me utterly. I clutched my astral stomach, and felt I was close to whatever the astral equivalent of vomiting was. I couldn't help it. I backed away until the feeling withdrew.
"I can't do it," I said, panting. "I have to get in there but I can't get any closer."
"What is it?" asked Penfold. "It looks kind of like Jupiter, but... more evil. Is it a red dwarf?"
"It's not a star, it's somebody's mind. Our friends are in there. We have to get in somehow."
"Oh." And then, before I could stop him, he walked calmly right up to Bulstrode's evil globe and poked it with a bony astral finger. "Doesn't look too complicated, we can just get in the same way we get into most realms, can't we?"
I gaped. "Penfold... get away from there!"
"Why? I thought you wanted to go inside?"
"Can't you... can't you feel it?"
"Feel what? Jim, what's the matter?"
I got back to my feet, and began walking cautiously towards him. This time, there was no evil sensation. No extreme hate or disgust, my only emotions were wonderment and the usual mixture of mild sarcastic dislike of the world around me. "Penfold," I said. "I'd like to conduct a little experiment. Could you step slowly away from the planet again?"
As he did so, I felt the horror creeping back into me. "Stop! Stop! Go back! Get closer again!" He hopped, bewildered, back into place, and the sickness left me again. There was no doubt about it - Penfold's influence was keeping the badness at bay. Even the pink realms on which he stood seemed to have calmed down.
"Stay close to me," I commanded. "Don't wander off. Don't get cocky, but I think I've found a use for you."
"Oh. That's... good, I suppose."
I had previously been just about able to see from a distance that the red surface of Bulstrode's realm seemed to ripple and crawl. Now that I was close enough to examine it, I saw what had caused that effect. Maggots. The entire surface of the globe was covered in a thick layer of writhing astral rust-coloured maggots, each as big as my thumb. And I was going to have to pass through those maggots to reach my destination. Fortunately, years of picking through pond muck as a boy had desensitised me to this sort of thing, and if you've ever handled a frog long enough to drop it down Frobisher's sister's dress, you can stick your hand in worms.
It would be easier just to get it over with, so I translated my uneasiness into action and thrust my hand into the squirming mass. It was a horrible sensation, burning hot and slimy cold at the same time, feeling a multitude of tiny little wormy mouths nibbling and sucking at my fingers. Swallowing astral puke, I pushed in further, up to the elbow, and felt my hand break the surface. My fingers were wiggling around in air. Warm and stuffy, but it seemed safe enough. "Let's go," I said.
"Er... if it's all the same to you I might just wait here-" began Penfold, but my hand suddenly shot around his wrist.
"Damn it, Penfold, if you don't keep close to me I swear to God I will not be your friend any more," I said, and he could see that I meant it.
I didn't wait for his reply. I held my breath and stepped into the maggots, dragging Penfold in behind me. I felt him resist for a second, then finally submit to the iron grip of my astral hand. There was a moment of gut-wrenching burial in slimy fish bait, then we broke through to the other side, and found ourselves...
...on Accountancy Island, of all places. On the south beach where I had first washed up. The sea was absent, and the island hung unsupported in a blood-red void. The sand beneath our feet felt gritty and sharp, and the plastic vegetation was now constructed from crude bent metal and rusting chains.
"I know this place," said Penfold distantly. "I was here not too long ago. One minute you were aiming that crossbow at your two friends, the next I was here. But... it was different, then. Everything was really difficult. My vision was blurred and moving was really hard. It was kind of like all the controls for my body had reset, and everything was wired up wrong, and I couldn't figure out what did what anymore. But now I feel normal. Why is that?"
"You drank Fog Juice," I told him. "Fog Juice gives you certain power in the astral realm."
"Look, I still don't understand any of what's going on, here," he whined. "Why do you keep going on about Fog Juice? Do you know what this place is?"
"Just shut up and keep close to me. I don't know why the evil doesn't affect you but I don't want to know what might happen if you and I got separated now."
We made our way through the jungle to the vending machine. It was different, too. It had been painted black, and the internal light flickered incessantly. Inside, the only things on offer were row upon row of polaroid photographs. I looked, but they made no sense. They appeared to be a variety of pictures of Rose's apartment, from a variety of different spots and angles. In a few of them, I could see the yellow washing-up bowl I had used to make Fog Juice. In another I caught a glimpse of Rose herself, her appearance just as it had been on that fateful day, with a telephone receiver held to her ear. Some of them, mystifyingly, appeared to show the interior of Rose's fridge.
"What do they mean?" asked Penfold. I shrugged, and we moved on.
In this version of Accountancy Island, there was no fibreglass mountain, just more and more steel jungle. We came to the reception desk, but it, like everywhere else, was deserted. We kept going.
"Do you hear that?" I asked Penfold.
"That. Sounds kind of like... an ambulance siren."
"I don't hear anything. Sorry."
We kept going. Whole sections of the jungle seemed to shift around the moment I took my eyes off them. A soft breeze blew around us, rattling the chains and causing the great steel palm leaves to creak, and I almost fancied I heard voices whispering at me in the wind. They were not unkind voices. They seemed quite concerned about something. But I couldn't quite make out what they were saying. I caught the words 'pump' and 'plug', but without context they stubbornly refused to make sense.
By this point, we were definitely in the part of the jungle that had previously been occupied by a mountain. It was pretty clear that the vegetation was becoming less dense. Between the rusty trees I thought I saw some bizarre locations - a brightly-lit corridor in some kind of school or hospital, a crowded waiting room - but they were gone the instant I tried to get a closer look.
As we neared the clearing in the centre of the island, and therefore the very centre of Bulstrode's corrupted world, I began to wonder if it was too late to come up with some way to ambush Bulstrode while we still had the element of surprise-
"So, you're finally here."
Well, so much for that.
"Come out here, where I can see you," he said, not unkindly. I concentrated, summoned an astral flamethrower, and stepped out into the clearing.
Bulstrode was there, clearly expecting us. He was wearing his usual black astral form. I now realised, though, that he was not merely coloured black. His astral form was like a human-shaped gateway to some empty dimension. Not an evil place, just... a vacuum. A nothingness. Rose's astral form was standing motionless to his right. Frobisher was similarly arranged to his left. They didn't look at me, or react to my appearance. They seemed hypnotised.
"What did you do to them?" I demanded, aiming my flamethrower.
"They are of no significance."
"They're human beings. And they're my friends. That's two more reasons to live than you have."
"No human has any significance in this world. Not your friends, not the bespectacled creature cowering behind you, not even me. The only individual with any significance is you, Jim."
"Okay, you know what? I'm going to ask questions later." And then I pulled the trigger on my flamethrower, and bathed Bulstrode's form in oily yellow fireballs. I kept my finger down for a good half-minute or so, just to ensure his char-broiling, then eased off. Incredibly, and yet not entirely unexpectedly, Bulstrode hadn't moved, and was completely unharmed.
"Listen to me, now, Jim," he said, unoffended by my murder attempt. "Do you understand what this place is? This is the nearest point to the surface of Fogworld. Here, Fogworld and the next realm blur. You have seen the curious things that inhabit the jungle. Those are artefacts that have leaked from the world above Fogworld."
"And you want to get there and take over the universe," I said, showing off my knowledge.
He shook his head. "No, Jim. I cannot survive out there. Only you can. I'm creating the Gateway so that you may travel through it and emerge into the Overrealm. Or should I say... RETURN to the Overrealm."
"What is this all about?" asked Penfold.
"What he said," I added. "Why do you keep going on about me? Why am I the important one?"
"Let me ask you a question," he said, avoiding the issue infuriatingly. "If you discovered a prisoner being held unjustly in a cell, and you could press a button that would open the door and let them out, would you do it?"
"Of course I would!"
"But say that prisoner had been born in that cell and never once let out. No windows or doors, no idea of the outside world. What if the cell was the only universe he knew of? What if he was happy there? Would you let him out?"
I had to think about that one. "Yes. I'd still let him out. You've got to face reality. You can't just let yourself be imprisoned."
"How apt," he said, with a telling sneer. "Perhaps the entire history of human scientific discovery could be described as people refusing to let themselves be imprisoned by the world in which they live. They built boats to get across the ocean, to discover new worlds there. And then the entire planet was mapped, and they turned their attention to space. Humanity just kept expanding, but their prison just kept expanding with them. Isn't that interesting?"
"I'm not really in the mood for a sociology lecture."
"No, I can see that. Then let me ask you another question. You've been hopping back and forth between Fogworld and reality. So perhaps you can tell me the difference between Fogworld and reality."
"Are you retarded? Fogworld looks like Fogworld and reality looks like reality."
"So what if Fogworld totally resembled reality? What then?"
He blinked his narrow eyes, and the jungle disappeared. Now all five of us were standing in the middle of a street that looked a lot like the main thoroughfare at the university. It was a pleasant Spring day. The sky was blue and there were just enough to clouds to add a picturesque flair. A talkative crowd of assorted students surrounded us, going about their business.
"Now Fogworld resembles reality exactly. So how can you tell the difference?"
"There's... the italics," I tried.
"Of course, there's the italics as well," he said. "But what if I took the italics away, too? Then how could you tell if you were in Fogworld or reality?"
"I just... I just know," I stammered weakly.
"How did he do that?" whispered Penfold.
"Fogworld can look like anything you want it to. It can look like that place you're most familiar with, the strings of pearls and astral forms. It can look like a university street. It can look like a desert island. It can look like an ocean or a pirate ship or..."
"No," I whispered. I had meant to say it a bit louder, but it caught on something somewhere between lungs and lips. There was another of those sinking feelings. Another of those shots where the camera zooms in on me and zooms out on the background.
"Didn't you think there was anything slightly absurd about your experiences since you drank Fog Juice?"
"A drink that can magically make you capable of astral projection? An astral dimension constructed from the minds of all humanity? A tribe of accountants on a desert island? Traditional pirates in this day and age? Did any of it seem even remotely credible?"
I clutched at my temples. "No, no, no!!"
"Could either of you tell me what's going on?" Penfold was whispering to Rose or Frobisher. They didn't reply.
"Who are you?!" I yelled.
The university street blurred, reality shifted, and I was on a street that also seemed familiar. It was a street in the suburbs of the small town I had grown up in with my parents, but everything was proportionally too big, as if I had shrunk. Bulstrode looked almost like a human, now. His blackness had gone, and he was just a pudgy man in a business suit. There was still something horrible in the expression of his face, however.
"You met me when you were six years old, walking into town with your mother," he explained. "You were concentrating on avoiding the cracks in the pavement and didn't notice me until it was too late. You collided with my leg, and I gruffly told you to wake up. That is why I am associated in your subconscious mind with waking up, with returning to reality. And that's what I've been trying to do ever since this absurd fantasy world of yours was created. I'm the part of your mind that is trying to drag you back up. Back to reality."
"I don't believe you," I croaked.
"It's true, Jim," said Frobisher in a dull, expressionless voice. "That's why we're here. You didn't want to face your delusional adventure alone, so you conjured up people you knew. Rose and me."
"We want to take you home, Jim," said Rose, pity in her voice. After that, I just couldn't speak. My jaw flapped like a flag in the breeze.
"I have been destroying this ridiculous hallucination of yours from the inside out," informed Bulstrode. "I wrestled control of the characters away from you in order to force you into taking a stand against me. I attempted to kill you because an imagined death would have brought you straight to this place, to the edge of Fogworld. Now you are here, and Fogworld has fallen. You have no place now but the real world." We were suddenly back in the jungle clearing. It was somehow comforting. "Come now. Let's open the Gateway."
"No," I said automatically.
"You don't have to go in straight away. You need only look inside, and then you will know that I'm telling the truth. Mr. Frobisher?"
My lifelong friend nodded sadly at Bulstrode, then at me, and sank to his knees. Bulstrode took hold of his head in his meaty hands, cradling it almost lovingly, then, with an expert flick of the wrists, twisted it almost completely around. Frobisher went limp.
"NOOOO!!!" I screamed, dropping to my knees beside him. "FROBISHER!!"
"It is only the image of Frobisher from your subconscious," said Bulstrode. Frobisher's body seemed to have powderised into a fine, multicoloured sand, which trailed away as I sifted foolishly through it for any remnant of my friend. "I believe in this world he represented your frivolous side, your desire to live life idly pleasing yourself." He rummaged through the sand, an act that seemed to me like an unwarranted violation, and produced a huge ornate artefact that seemed to be equal parts giant golden key and curved Japanese sword. This he took over to Rose, who stood demurely with hands clasped behind her.
"No, not Rose, not her as well!" I wailed, but Bulstrode had already slashed her diagonally with the awful weapon.
"This is not Rose. Rose is here representing your logical side and your ability to formulate plans and get things done. It is by exploiting this aspect of your personality that the Gateway can be opened."
There was no spillage of blood or guts. Rose collapsed without a mark on her. But in the space where she had stood, a white cut in the very fabric of space glowed menacingly. After a pregnant pause, it spread itself wide, revealing a dazzling white vortex that stretched away into who knows where.
"Look, Jim," commanded Bulstrode, pointing. "Look at your reality now."
I couldn't have helped myself even had I tried. I was still aware of my surroundings, aware of Penfold fidgeting uncomfortably nearby and Bulstrode standing beside me with no apparent emotion, but I couldn't look away from the portal. I bent slightly to see where it ended, expecting to see a tunnel of light extending forever, but there was an image of the other side clearly visible just a few feet of whiteness away.
What I saw was the view from a hospital bed. I knew it to be the emergency ward of St. Andrew's Hospital, the one right next to the university, because I had seen it before after various experiments with alcohol and the theory that football hooligans are all little lambs on the inside. I was looking out through the eyes of someone lying apparently comatosed, with a saline drip sticking in his right forearm and an oxygen mask on his face. Holding his hand - my hand? - was Rose. She wasn't dressed as a pirate. She was dressed as a university student and was anxiously sitting at my bedside.
"I'm in hospital?" I said, inadvertently.
"You can hardly expect to drink such a ridiculous drink as Fog Juice and get away with anything less than severe alcohol poisoning and a deep coma."
"But... the ninjas!"
"Ninja. I understand Rose hid your unconscious body in the fridge while she waited for them to leave, then called an ambulance. She still seems to harbour enough affection for you to be deeply concerned about your condition. I don't believe she has left your bedside."
She seemed so close. I could almost reach out and touch her cheek. I very nearly did, but I stopped myself just as my fingertips were about to brush the vortex. "Of course," I said quietly, "there's always the possibility that you, Bulstrode, have made up all of this stuff about everything since drinking Fog Juice being a coma hallucination to get me into a vulnerable position and strike me down once and for all. You could, of course, be enacting some ingenious plan to fool me into giving up."
I turned away from the portal. The jungle was gone, now, and the three of us that remained were hanging in black space, with the portal being the only source of light. Bulstrode rolled his eyes. "Why on earth would you think that would be so? You said it yourself. Why would anyone want to turn everyone except themselves into a zombie? It makes no logical sense."
"No, but then you are an evil lunatic, and evil lunatic's aren't big on logical sense."
"Jim, you are being utterly irrational. By all means stay in your delusion. Stay in your comfortable prison. But out in reality, you'll remain a vegetable forever. One day your friends and family will lose patience and take you off life support. You'll be walking down some imaginary street in some imaginary town, maybe in a week, maybe in a month, maybe in a year, and then the plug will get pulled and you'll just drop dead where you stand."
"Yeah, and I guess I'd be fretting about that for the rest of my life, wondering when the axe will fall, wondering if I really was dreaming all of this. I would if I believed any of it. But you're sloppy, Bulstrode. The evidence you're showing me doesn't hold up. Ten out of ten for effort and for thinking outside the box, but it's not convincing."
I seemed to be making him uncomfortable, but he almost did a good job of hiding it. "And why is that?"
I pointed at the portal. "That, for a start. You see, I know Rose. I know exactly how much affection she holds for me, and it wouldn't extend to sitting by my bedside holding my hand for days on end. And even if she did, why the hell would she gaze lovingly into my eyes the entire time? She'd be sitting there watching TV or reading a magazine. It's just not very realistic."
"Maybe she holds more affection for you than you think," said Bulstrode, clenching his teeth. "Maybe she really does love you."
"Okay. Fair enough. Maybe I would have believed that, if that was the only thing. I'm certainly vain enough. But there's something else. Something else that clinches the whole thing."
I jerked a thumb back at Penfold. "Who the hell is he?"
I let that sink in for a moment.
"He... er..." Bulstrode was saying.
"I've never met Penfold before. Maybe I might have glimpsed him once so that his image would be in my subconscious, but I definitely don't know anyone like him well enough to make him such a huge character in this supposed delusional adventure. And he doesn't seem to represent any aspect of my personality, does he? Because if any aspect of my personality acted like that, then all the other aspects would gang up and beat him up for being so wet. No offense."
"Er... none taken."
"You've got it all wrong," said Bulstrode, but there was desperation in there now, and he was sweating heavily.
"Steve was right. Penfold is the key to defeating you. He is the Fool. He has the power of ignorance. You could argue that everything that happens in Fogworld is all in the mind, but Penfold has never understood! I felt sick when I tried to get close to your realm, because I EXPECTED to! Penfold didn't! I can't kill you, because I understand the situation and, maybe deep down, don't expect to be able to! But I bet if I were to put this flamethrower into Penfold's hands, that'd get you worrying, wouldn't it?"
As I spoke, I handed the weapon to the accountant. He seemed perplexed, and that was exactly what I needed. "Penfold," I said. "Kill him."
"Wait!" wailed Bulstrode.
"But... why?" asked Penfold.
"Do it and it'll save the world," I said, simply.
"Wait, wait, listen, listen!" said Bulstrode quickly as the flamethrower was aimed in his direction again. "It would kill me, but not for the reasons you think! Penfold represents the delusion! You said yourself he's ignorant, he personifies your ignorance! If he kills me then ignorance has defeated your determination to escape and you'll be trapped in Fogworld forever!"
"Penfold," I said, not even trying to hide my smile. "Make mine well done."
"I mean, burn him."
So he did.