Here is an experiment performed by esteemed hell researcher Freya Castlemaine: A demon was restrained on a surgical table and plied with all the souls he required. Next, while keeping him immobile, Professor Freya proceeded to dissect his ‘body’ into as many of its component parts as she could, noting each one and asking the patient (victim?) to comment on how he felt at all times, while she performed various tests on each part. During the experiment, she noted that the patient experienced extreme pain and suffering throughout. He also maintained control of his body parts until she reduced them to ash, liquid or gas, at which point he became confused and disoriented, but did not lose sensation. At the end of the experiment, she liquefied the patient’s head and drank the contents, and to this day claims to feel a distinct hatred for herself that was never there before. Make of this madness what you will.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 8 (On the Nature of Souls)
When Meal set eyes on Freya’s soul storage locker, Philip knew he’d set something in motion. Whether that would be for good or bad, he didn’t know, but it was something, and that he’d achieved anything at all in his current state was, as far as he was concerned, a miracle. At least that was his impression until Meal promptly let go of his head and let him fall to the cold tiles with a tooth-cracking thud.
The locker was a modified walk-in freezer set in the wall opposite the refrigerator. The shelves were packed with bottles of all kinds, neatly labelled and organised by quality and type. Where possible, Freya had jotted a note about the type of person from whom the soul had been taken: Fresh-eyed Student, for example, or Transient Alcoholic. It was a very expensive endeavour for a demon to exist on Earth alongside the living, but on top of that Freya was endlessly conducting experiments to learn about souls and the afterlife, and so her secret stash of bottles would have been enough to make The Angel himself drool.
Meal, needless to say, did not stand a chance of resisting.
As Philip rolled across the hard floor, trying desperately to keep from ending up face down, the huge monster was upturning bottle after bottle down his throat. He ignored the labels, and many of the smaller bottles he didn’t bother opening, but threw them into his mouth and ground the glass like sugar-paper.
Amidst the crunching and smashing, Philip heard the sound he’d been praying for – a heavy Tonk! followed by the unmistakeable sound of a rolling bottle. If he’d ever needed a soul in all his death, it was now. His body was being digested in a thousand fish bellies, he had no limbs, and he was not happy about it.
He’d come to a stop on one plump cheek. Perfect: all he had to do was open and close his mouth, and he could use the motion of his jaw and chin to inch along the ground, teeth grating along smooth tile, bobbing up and down like a caterpillar. A mad vision popped into his mind: the monster dozing soul drunk in the corner of the locker; Philip sinking his teeth into its neck and chewing through, bite by bite. Or perhaps nudging the door closed and hoping for the lock to click shut… there’s something. There could be something.
But for now he focused on getting closer to find the bottle that had dropped: open mouth, get purchase on tile edge with teeth, close mouth and pull forward, open mouth… He’d heard of headless demons getting by before, hadn’t he? There was that wrinkle faced bastard in the bar in Mort City who ran the taps. But then he’d had small arms growing out of his head in place of horns. Had that happened after his decapitation, or before?
By the time he reached it he’d come several feet into the locker and his lips were blue with cold. A deep depression was sinking on him – a precursor to his Turning he’d felt before. Great. This’d be a good time to Turn, wouldn’t it? I’d be the most pointless being in the universe – a bodiless monster with a frozen head. But the precious soul was close now – an old jam jar that had been too thick to break, lying on its side at Meals’ feet and, thankfully, corked instead of screw-topped. The label read: Sad School Boy – High Quality.
Meal, meanwhile, paid Philip no mind, lost in the madness of his desperate need, gasping between gulps of soul like a man who’d crossed the Sahara for a glass of water. Empty bottles great and small rained down like torpedoes. As Philip dragged his face through jagged glass on his quest for the jam jar drew up to the jam jar. When a particularly large shard stuck through his lower lip, he couldn’t help himself – he unleashed a torrent of abuse and – to his dismay, vomited his heart out in the process.
Meal, surprised momentarily by the outburst, stopped gorging for just long enough to stomp on the bottle Philip had so desperately pursued.
‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!’ The horrified scream escaped Philip’s throat and faded to a scratchy weep as he saw all hope vanish. The motion of his jaw made him upturn, and he rolled helplessly to the side, bumping against one of the bottom shelves – the bottles of which were too high for him to reach. He ended on his left cheek, pathetic tears burning his eyes as he watched the beast shovel tens upon tens of innocent souls into its face. There was nothing in all the universe, he thought, that he would like more than to suck on a good cigar and watch this gorilla who had ruined everything suffer for a thousand years.
But – it struck him then, now that he could actually see the thing’s face – Meal did not look as much like a gorilla as he thought. In fact most of his black fur had receded along with his heavy brow, and he looked more like a shaven ape or even… a human.
With each new bottle Meal chugged down, waves seemed to ripple down his body, altering everything they moved across, shrinking his muscles, narrowing his bones, softening his features. Philip had never seen anything like it before – but then, he never seen anyone or anything consume such a vast quantity of souls in such a short time. Even Freya would have cringed at the thought of expending such a valuable amount for a single experiment.
Yet the results were undeniable, and even when the gorilla beast had become a pale, soft-bellied man with a five o’clock shadow and bloodshot eyes, he continued to drink, and he continued to change. Despite his own suffering, Philip could not help but be hypnotised by the process. He was witnessing something ground breaking. If only Freya were around to see this…
Soon Meal was no longer a man but a boy with short black hair and skinny arms. He had to reach for the bottles on tip-toes now, his brown eyes shining with desire as if he were sneaking sweets from his mother’s pantry. Still the souls went down his gullet, one after the other, and Philip noticed that he was pulling some of them from the back wall, where Freya kept her rarest commodity: the tiny tubes of Seer souls.
It only took one to complete the transformation. No sooner had Meal sucked the potent liquid down than he stopped drinking completely. His trembling hand released the empty tube, and it shattered by his feet.
After a brief moment of shock, he let out a sharp gasp and then began to cry, eyes squeezed shut in apparent agony as his body pulled in on itself. His hair fell out; his body shrivelled; his voice changed to a high pitched squeal – and finally Philip found himself looking across the room at a baby, squalling and wriggling on a pile of broken glass.
His first thought was that it made sense, in a way. If this was what he suspected – Meal returned to his human form – then it meant he’d probably died as a baby, and babies didn’t tend to take long to Turn in hell, if they escaped damnation. His second thought was: If I can get close enough I might be able to bite its head off. Closely followed by: I wonder if it has a soul of its own, now?
And then that in turn followed by incoherent joy as his eyes turned to catch a motion in the locker’s open doorway and he saw Freya standing in the threshold. She didn’t see him: her scowling face was fixed on the weeping infant. A pair of garden shears hung loosely in one hand.
She was in another body, of course. Philip could have kicked himself for not realising it before – all Meal had done was destroy the body she was inhabiting on Earth. She’d probably crawled out of it as soon as they’d left, and gone to get the spare.
And what a spare it was: an Amazon’s body, six feet tall and muscular, with dark platted hair and bright eyes. Her features were hard but beautiful, her physique lean and capable. It was, Philip supposed, just the kind of spare you would want in a situation in which you needed a spare. Not that Meal posed much of a challenge any longer.
Freya took the scene in at a glance, stepped in to the storage locker, and impaled the crying baby on the shears. The cries heightened and then, as she pulled the shears wide with her new amazon arms, ceased, amidst the brutal sound of bones snapping and organs spilling. Even Philip, who a minute ago was praying for this very event, cringed at the sight. He felt mildly sick at the wet-sack sound of its body hitting the floor as Freya snicked the shears shut.
She turned to him, one eyebrow raised.
‘Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?’
Then, her expression darkening when she finally registered his current predicament: ‘Are you alright?’
At last, he couldn’t contain himself. Despite his relief, all the pain, terror and rage of the previous hours passed boiling point and he exploded in a torrent of abuse, cursing Freya, cursing monsters, cursing everything living and dead in the entire universe, and spewing hate until he was utterly drained of it.
Then he caught his breath and, with barely the strength to raise his eyes to meet hers, asked politely for a cigar.