So for the second time that week I found myself floating around the South Pacific with no idea of a destination, nothing to drink but saltwater and few provisions, my only form of sustenance being an as yet untouched Stinger bar in my back pocket which had now taken on an unpleasing jam-like smell. At least this time, though, I had something I could make conversation with besides home-made sock puppets.
"Jim?" said Penfold.
"Yes, Penfold?" said I.
"When is it your turn to be the raft?"
"Just a few more hours, Penfold."
"It's just that I'm getting a bit tired."
"Exactly. Look, if we run into some horrible danger of the ocean and have to act fast then what good would us both being knackered do? You just keep swimming and I'll keep on the lookout for land."
We had splashed down in the sea some distance from Accountancy Island and were then swept into warm surface currents, so even if we did both acquire retarding brain injuries and want to go back to Bulstrode's little homegrown concentration camp, it would prove physically impossible anyway. The best we could hope for now was to find some other island, passing sailing ship, or failing that an accommodating shark who could be persuaded to bite our heads off with merciful speed.
"Jim?" said a somewhat breathless Penfold.
"You know back then when Steve rescued us? What did he mean when he went on about a prophecy and the Gatekeeper and the Warrior?"
"I dunno. Lately it seems like a lot of people are talking at me assuming I know what they're going on about. I keep having weird conversations with this tentacled king who lives in my brain, except it's not really my brain, it's some kind of astral realm which my brain brings into manifestation. Anyway, I'm apparently supposed to be trying to save said realm from total destruction and everyone just seems to assume I know how."
He considered this for a few splashy seconds. "Jim," he then said. "If I promised to mail you fifty pounds every week for the rest of our lives, would you promise to go away and never come into contact with me ever again?"
I didn't reply because I wasn't really listening. I was lost in thought over Steve's revelations. He had told me to find the Gatekeeper and the Warrior, and choosing to disregard the possibility of Steve being a total madman this at least gave some focus to proceedings. If only he had had a little time to explain who the Gatekeeper and the Warrior were, where they could be found, or at least some kind of daytime contact number, but no, apparently the revelation of such things could not be fit into Steve's hectic lifestyle. So where did that leave me? It left me sailing a complaining accountant through the world's largest ocean with no idea of where to go next. If nothing else, perhaps highest priority should be given to finding less whiney transport.
Shutting out Penfold's tremulous voice, I decided to close my eyes and do something that I would never consider in any other circumstances. I decided to pray.
Dear God, Buddha, Shinto, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Odin, Gaia, Ra and Pan, lord of the wood, I shouted inwardly. Have I got a deal for you! This is a once-in-my-lifetime chance to conclusively prove that you exist, and convert one unbeliever who will then defile not one, not two, but THREE shrines of a false god! All you have to do is have us be rescued at some point within the next hour or so and leave your name and nearest convenient temple. This legendary offer shall NOT be repeated! Beat the rush! Get down and save my life TODAY!
And then, a ship appeared.
Not that there was a puff of magic smoke and a ship appeared in a chorus of angels, because such theatrics would be too straightforwardly miraculous for most Gods, timewasters that they are. No, I merely became aware of the fact that a ship was rapidly coming up behind us, but since it could have been there even before I started praying I decided not to tie myself down just yet.
To describe the ship as a 'ship' would be to lose out on the chance to use the word 'galleon', which it was. A gigantic old-fashion galleon painted in black with red and gold highlights, its tall, majestic masts creaking as it circled us. It didn't take me long to deduce that it was a pirate ship. It is testament, I suppose, to the cultural popularity of the pirate that I was able to recognise it as such. I mean, I've never lived in the 18th century and I think it's safe to assume that neither have you, the reader, but if I were to explain that the ship was crowded with stocky individuals wearing eyepatches and bandannas waving curvy swords and going 'aharr' then you'll know exactly what kind of ship it was. And then of course, there was the Jolly Roger flying above the Crow's Nest, which completely gave the game away, a traditional skull over crossed bones. I've heard of pirates who take ridiculous liberties with their Jolly Rogers, like Blackbeard's Jolly Roger that worked in a skeleton, an hourglass and a bleeding heart, and then there was the sorry tale of Trendy Jack, the pirate who became so obsessed with sewing more and more intimidating imagery onto his Jolly Roger that during his last few voyages it was half again as big as the entire ship.
So it was nice to see tradition being upheld with this Jolly Roger, and by 'nice' I mean 'terrifying'. We treaded water there for a while, Penfold and I, while the ship dropped anchor and the scurvy crew clustered around the side to grin at us, exposing row upon row of teeth that alternated between being made of gold and missing completely. One of the pirates, who was wearing one of those big round pirate hats and was as such probably in some way senior to all the others, pushed his way to the front of the throng. "Ahoy there!" he yelled in the kind of voice one would expect a ratty little dog would have if ratty little dogs could speak. "I 'ope we're not interrupting any shenanigans of the not entirely 'eterosexual variety!"
The pirates laughed and 'aharr'ed amongst themselves again. I subconsciously swam a few feet away from Penfold. "He was just being the raft," I insisted.
After this, no-one seemed to know what to say. The 'aharrs' and laughter eventually died down to little more than a grumble. The head pirate scratched at the side of his head with his hook, and looked around, apparently for inspiration. During this lengthy pause in proceedings, I noticed that a lot of the pirates were wearing eyepatches over their right eyes. No, scratch that - they were ALL wearing eyepatches over their right eyes. And some of them definitely had false beards.
"Could you give us a lift somewhere?" I tried.
The pirates exchanged glances through their wide assortment of beards, then the ringleader turned to me again. "Are ye rich?"
"Are either of ye rich?"
"Possibly," I said, stalling. "We could be said to be rich in the sense of being rich in spirit, or in the sense of having a good friend -"
"I meant more in the sense of material wealth."
"Well then, not really."
"I've got a gold-plated pen," interjected Penfold. He was severely ignored.
"Are ye related to anyone rich?" tried the pirate.
I considered this. I hadn't been in contact with my parents for a while. It seemed not outside the realms of possibility that my dad could have struck it lucky at whichever dog track he was currently loitering around, but going by his track record with such matters, on the whole it was probably best to assume not. I answered in the negative.
"Do ye know anyone vaguely who 'appens to be rich?" tried the pirate, clutching at straws. "Old school friend? Backed into their car once?"
"Not that I recall."
"Only we're at a bit of a loss for things to do at the moment," he continued, mistaking us for people who give a toss. "Okay. Do ye happen to know of the locations of any buried treasure around 'ere?"
"There's an island of accountants nearby somewhere," I recalled suddenly. "And you can't be an accountant without having money around to count, so I guess there might be treasure. If you'd just bring us aboard I could show you how to -"
"Aye, we had a look at it a while back," said the pirate. "Didn't fancy landin'. If we spend too much time around accountants we might lose our cool and dangerous image." A few of the pirates nodded and 'arr'ed in agreement. "Well, sorry to bother ye. We'll let ye get back to whatever it was ye were doin'."
I cried out, but it was too late. There was a strong wind blowing, and the ship was already moving on at speed. Foolishly I tried to swim after it, but gave up after a few feet as its sail filled and the breeze carried her away into the distance. For a few minutes I watched it go, treading water, yelling all the swear words I could conjure to mind. Then I ran out of swear words so I just shouted regular words. None of them brought the ship back, though, so I flopped back down into the water and sighed. "Penfold," I said, "I have just disproven the existence of every God ever."
"Was that supposed to make me feel better?" he said weakly. He was obviously kicking his limbs as hard as he could, but he looked absolutely bushed, and his face was only barely above the water's surface. His next words he gasped out in between dips beneath the waves. "I don't... think I... can hold... on much... longer." Then his movements faltered, and he succumbed to unconsciousness
Clicking my tongue in annoyance, I swam over and pulled him up by his tie. His head lolled back sickeningly; he was clearly too bushed to go on. I considered leaving him, but eventually decided that my karmic tree had received enough metaphorical axe wounds throughout my life. I arranged him so that he was floating on his back, fed his tie through the belt loops above my back pocket, tested it for firmness, then began to swim in the direction the pirate ship had gone, the conked-out accountant in tow.
"You honestly do not deserve me sometimes," I muttered to his bobbing form.
It soon became clear that this might not have been the whizzo idea it had seemed like at the time. Penfold's weight really started to become difficult to pull after a mere ten or twenty yards, and I was slipping under the surface more times than survival dictated I ideally should have been. It was hopeless, anyway; the ship was already a speck on the horizon and Accountancy Island was hardly even that. Even if I were inclined to throw myself on the mercy of Bulstrode, I would never have the strength in me to get that far, let alone Penfold as well.
I attempted to recall some of that swimming expertise that had earned me those two or three proficiency badges down at the school swimming baths on the dreaded Monday afternoons of childhood. But no matter how hard I tried, no aspect of the back-stroke or picking up bricks from the bottom of a pool of chlorinated water could I reasonably apply to my current situation. I did remember having to dive in wearing pyjamas, and thought perhaps that getting some of my bulky clothing off would aid in buoyancy. That meant having to stop concentrating on treading water for a time, so I held my breath and felt the water close over my head as I yanked off my t-shirt and my tattered jeans. I watched them sink down into the Pacific's murky depths, trying not to think about the yawning chasm of water directly beneath me, did the nearby underwater vicinity one quick once-over for sharks and/or confused whales, then struggled back up to the surface, clinging to Penfold's tie in one hand.
I could feel it in my legs as I kicked my way up through the brine - that sharp sting of lactic acid in my thighs that meant I couldn't hold out for much longer. I certainly felt a lot lighter now that I was down to my pants, but I was still encumbered with the significantly larger weight of Penfold. I thought about getting his clothes off as well, but I didn't want to risk him waking up and getting the wrong idea. Probably academic, anyway, since there was still no land or ship in sight, and my plans at that point basically involved staying alive until we were rescued by some kind of large albatross or the pirates had a twinge of conscience and came back, pirates being well known for their humanitarian streak.
A few minutes passed and neither albatross nor pirate had come into view. The pain in my legs was getting pretty bad now, and I had to put all of my strength into my kicks as if I were swimming in cement. Things were getting more and more hopeless by the second. I was descending at a rate faster than my efforts could propel me back up, and with each kick I sank another inch farther. First my chin went under, then my mouth, leaving me a frantic Mr. Chad on the water's surface, then my nose, then water filled my ears and my legs refused to co-operate anymore.
I was under now, and my various body parts just weren't in communication at all. I tried to pep-talk my legs into another few kicks, but the pointless bastards were too shagged out to move at all. My lungs still hadn't received an appropriate memo and were demanding to know when the scheduled delivery of oxygen would come. I released my final breath in a storm of bubbles, then spent a delirious moment trying to suck them all back in before going limp.
By now bells were clanging in my ears and my vision was fogging over, although it was hard to tell, what with my life flashing before my eyes and everything. I'm ashamed to admit that it was only at this point that the realisation sunk in that I was very probably going to die. Feel free to say something along the lines of 'duh', or push your tongue into your lower lip, but I make no excuses for being optimistic.
My lungs were really starting to feel very uncomfortable, so I opted to pass out.
"So, can we talk about you saving Fogworld now, or are you about to get killed again?" went the tentacled king of several places, when I was settled again in the bean bag in the universe room.
"I think probability indicates that death is most certainly on the menu this time around," I assured him.
"Well, let's err on the side of caution," he replied. "There's no need to cry."
"I'm not crying."
"There's water coming out of your eyes."
"It's seawater. It's coming out of my ears, too. And my nose, and my mouth, and pretty much every orifice in my body."
"Oh." A pause. "So you're drowning?"
"That's a bitch, man."
"Anyway, there's something you have to see, but I cannot show it to you here. You must travel to the edge of your mental realm, cross the border into Fogworld proper, to have a good vantage point of what I have to show you."
"Okay, I'm game. Which way?"
"Your realm is a perfect sphere, so any way would do. For the shortest journey, however, I would suggest travelling in a downward direction."
He took my hand and the entire floor opened up like a trapdoor. First we were plummeting through black void and stars towards the lagoon-blue sphere of the Earth that my mind had conjured. We fell through the atmosphere and the cloud layer, where each of the clouds looked like the naughty bits of every girl I had ever slept with, before hitting the roof of the main lecture hall of St. Crispin's University and crashing straight through onto the stage. Images of my fellow students, seated in the audience, were shocked silently for a few seconds before applauding at the spectacle of seawater pouring from my body. I paused for a second to take a bow.
"We must keep moving," reminded the tentacled king testily. "There is little time."
We took a freight elevator down to the sub-sub-sub-basement and found ourselves in the sewage tunnels I and Frobisher had explored for a dare as small children, where we had found no monsters but a great deal of mucky mags which made us, if not kings, then at least barons of the playground for a good few lunchtimes. The tentacled king pulled me down a vertical pipe I don't remember there being the first time, and we hit the top of a flight of stairs from my parents' house, tumbling end over end to the bottom.
The floor at the bottom was made of thick school custard, and at the king's insistence I swam down through the slime, crawling like a mole, until I hit the bottom of the custard layer and started on the strawberry blancmange layer. I suddenly became aware that water was no longer cascading from my nose and mouth, but I wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad sign.
Finally, I broke through the blancmange and dropped into the basement of Rose's parents' house where I had hidden the corpse of the family cat after an unfortunate incident around the dinner table, and the only further way down was a big trapdoor that I seemed to remember led to the wine cellar. The king stopped me as I reached for the big iron ring to pull it open.
"Wait," he said, laying a fatherly tentacle on my wrist. "This is the very bottom of your realm. Once you go through, you will exit the realm of your own design and be in the void of Fogworld. You must continue alone. I am but a figment of your imagination, and would vanish the instant I attempted to leave this place. Once you see it, you will understand."
"This had better be the most amazing thing I've ever seen ever," I said, hauling up the trapdoor. I couldn't see the bottom; after a few feet the drop was hidden behind a thick, gunky black smoke with twinkly bits. I didn't hesitate, but held my nose and jumped straight in.
There was a flash, and everything went black. I felt my fall stop, but it didn't feel like landing on solid ground; it felt more like dropping into water, but while still being in air.
After a moment of confused tumbling, the fog suddenly cleared, and I could finally take in my surroundings.
It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen ever.