The history of mankind is, first and foremost, a history of war. War is the catalyst, not only for the greatest amount of suffering and horror, but also for the greatest change, and change is what history is all about. But wars are waged for resources, and there is only one foreign land that has an abundance of the one resource hell requires… So it should come as no surprise that the greatest, the most apocalyptic wars that hell has ever waged, it has waged with the living on Earth.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 7 (A Brief History of Hell)
Philip watched, mortified, as Meal hefted his flabby body over the balcony. He opened his mouth in a scream that emerged only as a wet choking in the back of his throat. There was nothing below that balcony but a sheer cliff face and the open ocean. Three long seconds passed, and on the third he felt himself engulfed by the icy waves.
He tried to swim, madly hoping he could get his body to wash up on the nearby beach – but it was impossible to coordinate himself by sensation alone. Then, even the freezing cold water was forgotten as he felt the raking pain of being dragged to pieces against the rocks. When Meal lifted him again, one huge hand gripping his cranium like a bowling ball, Philip’s face was twisted and his eyes were clamped shut, lost in a second death that was in many ways worse than his first one.
Meal held him up and observed impassively while he went through the torture of separation. He came apart limb by limb, and the first mouths and pincers began to do their work, each taking a smaller chunk of him until there was hardly anything left. Not that he lost any of the feeling, mind you. It was just that he could no longer make sense of any of it. He was literally spread too thin, and the sensations swirled and interrupted each other until at last it was almost as if it was all happening to someone else. He’d never been more uncomfortable in life or death, but at last the madness became bearable.
He opened his eyes. Meal smiled with his fat gorilla lips.
‘Now you take me to the…’ He faltered, and some uncertainty flickered behind his eyes. Philip was reminded of a long distance phone connection buzzing in and out. ‘…Souls.’
How he was supposed to do that, Philip didn’t know, since his heart was still pulsing in his oesophagus, but Meal had a plan ready. He pulled open the bedroom door and stepped out, raising Philip’s head to face down the corridor to the right. Then he twisted his hand so that they were face to face, and said: ‘Left eye yes. Right eye no.’
Too darn smart for a monster by half. That was for sure. Whatever was going on behind those big brown eyes, The Angel had something to do with it. If Freya could get this thing into her lab, who knew what she’d find? Come on, girl, I did my best, now it’s your turn to step up and show ‘em just how much of a bitch you can be. He closed his right eye.
Meal twisted him around again and kept his arm extended as he moved the opposite way down the corridor. If it weren’t for the aching pressure on his bald head Philip would have had the odd illusion of floating along like a ghost. As they approached the stairs he worked his mouth, trying to swallow and push his heart out through the bottom of his neck. If he could open it all out and get out a single scream, it would be enough – but Meal had jammed it in too tight. It wouldn’t budge.
They descended the winding stairs and as the scene in the dining room came into view, not only did the heart not leave Philip’s throat but it began to beat double-time. He opened and shut his mouth, trying desperately to shout a warning but creating only the horrible wet sounds of smacking lips.
Freya had her back to them, standing in front of the sliding doors that led out onto the front deck. She sipped a steaming cup of heated souls, admiring the view: a crisp blue sky hanging over the mile long crescent of white beach. It was her morning ritual. ‘Well, you took your time, Philip,’ she said. ‘Honestly I was getting to think I’d have to find myself a new reaper…’
Her voice faltered. She’d heard something – the sound of Meal’s heavy feet on the tiles, perhaps, or Philip’s choking.
The table was set for lunch, and Meal placed Philip’s head on one of the porcelain plates just as Freya turned around. Her eyes went from Philip’s struggling red face to the ape behind him. She didn’t scream or run, but raised a single delicate eyebrow and said: ‘Huh.’ One slender hand plucked a knife from the table, and she raised her cup of souls to her mouth for another sip.
Meal stood outside of Philip’s field of vision, but the room was full of the sound of his heavy breathing. Philip had time to mouth a single word to her, knowing it was too late but hoping it wasn’t, all the same: Jump! The glass door was half open behind her, and if she could make it across her perfectly manicured lawn she could throw herself over the hanging cliffs and perhaps survive the fall better than he had.
But as her eyes flicked down to meet his, Meal chose the moment to move, and he moved fast. Philip saw nothing but a blur of black fur hurdle the enormous oakwood table and fly at Freya, yellow canines bared. She tried to step aside at the last moment but Meal caught her with a heavy arm and the two of them smashed through the glass panes and rolled across the deck.
The following seconds were sickeningly quiet. No one screamed or roared. Philip couldn’t see much of what happened, because Meal had landed on top of her and his thick body obscured everything. Freya’s free arm swung the steak knife into his side repeatedly, making a sound not unlike Philip’s smacking lips had. But Meal was hunched over her face, and then Philip heard something else that was more familiar to him. He’d once lived with a group of rogue Feeders. Disgusting demons, Feeders. They liked their souls raw and meaty, and the sound they’d made biting into a fatty limb was what Philip heard now, as Meal tore into Freya’s face.
Bite by bite, the stabbing arm grew limp, until at last Freya planted the blade into the back of Meal’s neck and left it there. He didn’t seem to notice.
He chewed for a minute longer, and then snapped her brainstem with both hands and twisted her head from her body the way one might twist an apple from the tree.
He came back to the table with it, breathing heavily but grinning, having satisfied some part of the monster inside, his wide primate face and chest covered in black blood. He set her head down on the plate opposite Philip, who was no longer choking on his heart. Instead, his features were slack and downcast, the last of the fight gone from him.
Meal again left his field of vision and a moment later the big hand clamped the top of his head and raised him to face the big brown eyes.
‘Now,’ Meal said, when he’d caught his breath. ‘You take me to souls.’
So Philip did what he had to do. He took him to the souls.