It really was a very nice day up there on the Accountancy Island volcano, with a nice cloudless sky and the sun beaming down a nice mild heat, but I'm sure you'd forgive me when I say I wished I was ten million billion miles away.
The burly accountant who held my arms firmly behind me took great pleasure in holding my face over the lip of the crater, just so I could look down into that dark pit. It was very very dark and very very black except for a circle of glowing red at the very bottom. It reminded me very much of a pretty sparkling pattern at the end of a kaleidoscope, except that the pretty sparkling pattern was entirely red and it brought to mind thoughts of fiery boiling death instead of gay childlike wonder.
"Jim," Penfold was saying quietly. "I want you to know that I don't hold this against you, even thought it is entirely your fault."
"I mean, maybe the moment of your arrival in my life coincides with when my life started becoming unbearable and horrifying, but I'm not one to hold a grudge like that."
"I know, Penfold."
"Oh sure, perhaps other people would probably get rather angry when some stranger comes out of nowhere and marks them for death within a week, but I have sworn not to let my emotions take control of me."
"It's hard to understand what you're saying when you clench your teeth like that, Penfold."
"Do the deviants have anything to say before sentence is carried out?" said Maureen with infuriating boredom in her voice.
"I would like my long record of good conduct and efficiency at this company to be taken into account," said Penfold, seeking a gap in which to hammer a wedge.
"Granted," said Mr. Bulstrode, who was sitting behind steepled fingers in a huge golden throne made of gold-painted concubines.
"Can I be let off, then?"
"Mr. Bulstrode," I said, also seeking a gap in which to hammer a wedge. "I'm giving you one last chance to call this whole ritualistic sacrifice thing off, or else!"
He did not dignify me with a reply.
"Okay okay," I added, glancing momentarily at the glowing red circle again. "Don't throw me into the volcano, and I'll give you the recipe for Fog Juice."
"You already gave me the recipe for Fog Juice."
"Only the normal boring original kind of Fog Juice that only uncool poseurs drink," I improvised rapidly. "I can show you how to make the diet version! Caffeine free Fog Juice, cherry Fog Juice, I've got them all! You can only really appreciate Fog Juice with a little fruity tang."
"Throw them in," said an unimpressed Mr. Bulstrode.
So they did.
Suddenly I was surrounded by the darkness of the pit, focussing on a bubbling circle of red as it moved closer at an alarming rate. I'm sure you've all heard the story that everything you've ever experienced flashes before your eyes moments before death, and that's more or less what happened then. Of course, being only twenty-two there wasn't much to see, so to pass the time my mind decided to flash up all the things I could possibly have done in the future had I made better decisions. I saw myself writing a bestselling novel, becoming friends with popular and well-known television or sport celebrities, and having some sort of sexual interference with a woman that was actually fulfilling and during which neither party made a verbal complaint, fell asleep or started making phone calls to friends and family. After that there was still some time to kill before I hit the molten lava, so I just passed out.
I found myself sitting upon an asteroid as it floated through the wide twinkling universe and the many twinkling stars therein. After a couple of orbits around the Earth, though, I realised that the twinkling stars were actually Christmas lights, and that what I thought was an infinite wide twinkling universe was in fact only a black-painted room about eight feet across, and the asteroid was actually a bean bag. Anyway, I sat there for a little while and was just getting bored when the tentacled king came back.
"Hail and well met, O tentacled king of the ball pool and chinchilla island and... hail and well met, O tentacled king of several places."
"Shut your big fat stupid gob and listen," said the tentacled king of several places crossly. "The Fog Juice is in the hands of Bulstrode and it's going to be up to you to stop him if he tries any funny business with it."
"What's all this fuss about Fog Juice?" I protested. "It's just a cocktail that makes you completely stupid drunk."
"It's so much more than that. Fog Juice is the gateway to another world. Haven't you been wondering why you keep coming to this strange Fog Juice-created manifestation of your subconscious mind every time you fall asleep?"
"I figured it was all that cough medicine on an empty stomach."
"Shut up. Fog Juice provides the gateway to this place. An astral world conjured from the combined subconscious thoughts of every human being that lives. You have only seen the realm of your own creation, but were you to advance further, you would see that more realms exist beneath the surface. Billions of astral worlds strung together, each using the mind of a human as a template. We call it Fogworld. Only those who drink Fog Juice can access it."
"This is all sounding a bit far-fetched," I said, doubtless speaking for both myself and the reader. "But why is it so horrible that Mr. Bulstrode now has it?"
During our conversation the small eight-foot universe room had shape-shifted into a number of different rooms from my memories. It became my childhood bedroom, my rooms in the halls of residence, the lost children tent at Alton Towers I spent two unhappy weeks in while my parents made up their mind as to whether they wanted me back or not, the student union, the laundrette and a number of other places I spent a lot of time in. At this moment, it settled on an image of Mr. Bulstrode's so-called office, but the waterfall ran with viscous black slime and some kind of monkey in a tie was fooling around on the desk.
"Fogworld is more than just a secret shared mental construct," said the tentacled king gravely, trying to ignore the monkey investigating his now very frightened chinchilla coat. "Just as human minds affect Fogworld, so does Fogworld affect human minds. A force for evil, set free in Fogworld by the power of Fog Juice, has the potential for much mischief. Damage done to a mind-world here is damage done to the owner. An evil force that controls Fogworld is an evil force that controls the subconscious mind of every living being. We cannot allow that. You must stop him and redeem your mistake."
I tapped my fingertips on my knee thoughtfully. "Erm," I said, "you do know that I'm about to die horribly, right?"
"What? How did that happen?"
"I got chucked down a volcano."
"Bugger. Never mind, then."
And then everything went all red and sticky.
I came to just in time to hit the lava, which was very a unreasonable time to come to. There was that damn mental gear change thing again. Just when I thought that, okay, I was going to be dissolved in molten rock, but at least I would be far and away in dreamy land when it actually happened. Now I was having to be conscious throughout the whole thing and I just knew it would jolly well hurt for the ten or twenty seconds before my nervous system melted.
I thrashed around in the glowing slime, splashing it around with my flailing limbs and making those horrible screamy groans like that one bloke in Terminator 2 did when he, too, was introduced to glowing molten stuff. So engrossed in this performance was I that it took me quite a while to realise that I wasn't actually melting, and that the molten rock wasn't really very hot at all. It was barely warm. More sort of tepid, really. It also smelled of strawberries.
"This isn't molten rock, it's jam," I realised aloud. I then called over to Penfold, who was also thrashing around a few feet away also making horrible screamy groans. "It's just jam!"
"I know! Aaaaargh!" yelled Penfold, thrashing away. "This bloody stuff never comes out!"
Far above, I heard some kind of half-hearted round of applause from the office workers, the sort of thing they give at office tea parties when somebody is going on maternity leave. Then there was a metallic groaning noise from somewhere far below us, and the level of jam began to go down. A circular current suddenly appeared, pulling the two of us around in our jammy distress. After a few orbits around the strawberry whirlpool I was sucked beneath the surface, and my world became a confused whirling mishmash of jam. I was pulled down through the plughole with the rest of the jam and tumbled, sputtering, down through some unpleasantly narrow pipework before being birthed into some kind of underground river, this time consisting of much less silly water that began to happily wash off my jammy placenta.
Penfold joined me with a second colossal jammy splash, and the two of us were swiftly caught in a fast current. This was no nice relaxing afternoon swim to take our minds off the horror of the jam - the water flowed increasingly fast until it was white with foam, and we were hurled through a fibreglass cavern at dreadfully irresponsible speeds.
I fought against the tide and grabbed for Penfold's flailing carcass. My fingers brushed a sodden trouser leg, and just as we hit a particularly violent lurch in the river I was able to grab it, yank him bodily towards me and grab hold of his wrist. With a little more struggling and pulling I was able to position him in front of me, and could now relax slightly with the knowledge that I would be cushioned if we hit anything.
"Jiiiiiiim!!" he cried, pointing.
Penfold's human shield was little comfort then, as I noticed that, barely a hundred yards ahead, a whirring pair of huge spinning blades were chopping the water into a fine jammy spray. Perversely, as one's mind tends to seek distraction from this sort of absolute unescapable horror, my first thought was to try and use them to shave off my irritating growth of beard. Then reality sank in and I reasoned that I wouldn't be able to enjoy my new baby-pink chin while all my extremities were flying in different directions. I opted to cling to Penfold and scream.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAH," I went.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH," he replied, clearly trying to one-up me.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH," I conceded, which shut him up and no mistake.
Then, barely feet away from the whirring steel death, an elastic net suddenly burst forth from the watery depths and arrested our short journey to dismemberment. We now found ourselves clinging to each other in a knot of wet limbs as torrents of water smashed into us. So it wasn't much fun.
"Jim," I heard a voice say. "Cling onto the net and climb up here onto the bank."
That seemed like a sensible course of action. Disentangling myself from my intimate but completely heterosexual embrace with Penfold I dragged my way along the net until a large hairy hand snatched me by my weatherbeaten collar and pulled me onto a narrow but mercifully dry section of tunnel floor. Then I lay, concentrating on coughing up the unwelcome guests of jam and water from my lungs, while Penfold was also brought to safety.
"I don't have long," said Steve, for our rescuer was he. "The others will be noticing my absence soon. Follow this tunnel and it will take you away from Accountancy Island. If you are to fulfill the prophecy and defeat Mr. Bulstrode, you must find the Gatekeeper and the Warrior."
"Fulfwill the pwha?" I said.
"I'm sorry. I have to go."
His running footsteps hurried away, leaving the two of us in that gloomy river tunnel lying in puddles of water and jam, coughing, spluttering and aching all over in all our most secret places.
"Jim," coughed Penfold. "I still don't hold it against you..."
"Shut. The hell. Up."
It was a little bit later.
After a few hundred yards the tunnel and the river went their separate ways, so we bade the waterway a not particularly fond farewell and left its fluidic horror far behind. Now we were making our way through an incredibly long and straight tunnel apparently carved out of solid concrete, our way lit by the occasional flickering overhead lamp and a hard, rattley steel mesh for a floor irritated the soles of our tired feet.
Penfold seemed to have somewhat ambivalent feelings about the whole situation. On the one hand I was pretty sure he was glad to be away from the hellish workaday world of Accountancy Island, but on the other hand, I was also pretty sure that the life we were now leading had not made it very high up his list of ideal possible alternatives. He walked with an ambivalent shuffle, his hands in his pockets and his head hung low, indicating despair, but with an ever so slightly jolly manner to his leg movement, indicating dizzy excitement at our coming adventure.
I had put him in front of the adventure party to help quench this unspoken thirst for action and additionally so he could fill the human shield function he had proved so good at, and I had to concede that he did look rather pathetic. His shirt was jam-stained and rumpled, one half of it was tucked in and the other half wasn't, and most of the collar had torn off. What had once been a sensible haircut now looked like the kind of bed-head you can only get from waking up in a zoo cage full of inquisitive apes. A scratch was going right across one of the lenses of his spectacles and I could tell it bothered him.
I've never been very good at making friends, because of my tendency to alienate people by having unabashed and frequently expressed contempt for almost everyone I meet. But I could concede that, in this cramped environment, I would either have to make friends with Penfold or end up trying to kill each other for food. It was time, then, to reaffirm his self-esteem.
"I must say I've been very impressed by the way in which you have faced these challenges, Penfold," I said, breaking a lengthy silence.
"I said I was impressed by you."
It didn't seem to be doing the trick. "I expect you're glad to be out of Accountancy Island and setting off on adventure."
"Well, not really, because I was good at accountancy and I'm not very good at adventuring."
He really was determined to bring us all down. It was time to bring out the big guns. "I think you have a great personality and are surprisingly ruggedly attractive for a man of your age and demographic." He then stared at me aghast for a few seconds, and I felt moved to add "I'm not gay."
"Why are you talking to me?"
"I'm trying to reaffirm your self-esteem you stupid twat."
"Well, stop it."
We walked on in silence.
A few hundred yards later, I saw that we were reaching the end of the tunnel. We emerged from the cramped little space into a curious chamber. We appeared to be standing on the bottom of a giant cylindrical chimney, and at the far end we could see sky, a tiny disc of duck egg blue in the distance. It also gradually became clear that the entire chimney stood at a slight angle.
"Now what?" I asked the world in general.
"There's a switch over here," said Penfold. Sure enough, on the far wall of the chamber, a steel lever was mounted on a yellow and black striped panel.
"Great, let's pull it."
"You can be very difficult sometimes. This is the only lead we have. I'm not going all the way back down that tunnel in case we find a lever you find less offensive."
"But we don't even know what it'll do."
"What's the worst that can happen?"
"I dunno. Maybe it'll activate some giant spring under the floor and it'll launch us both into uncertainty and likely death."
"Then again, maybe it'll be the secret cosmic best switch in the world and pulling it will bring about world peace and end to hunger. I'll tell you what. If you can produce an instruction manual or sign that clearly indicates that I definitely shouldn't pull this switch before I can count to one, then I won't pull it."
"One." I pulled the switch.
Then a giant spring under the floor was activated, and we were both launched into uncertainty and likely death.
I don't really have anything else to add to this chapter, but if I add another paragraph then my word count is up to a neat fourteen thousand. We flew up the big chimney very very very very very very fast and then popped out the end like a jet of concentrated spunk. And then we flew through the air away from Accountancy Island for quite some distance. I should think you'll be able to learn where and in what circumstances we landed at the beginning of the next chapter.