Jagged mountainscapes knifed through the vast green countryside that was sprawled out below Meghan Maloney's seaplane. Over the droning racket of the propeller, Meghan slipped off her headset and gave good old Jeb, her pilot, a fist bump, a firm handshake, and a thumbs up, all in a precise order and rhythm. This was important: the only time she'd ever had a parachute fail on her it had been because she'd put the thumbs up first by mistake. She wasn't going to tempt fate by letting that happen twice.
Crawling into the back of the plane, Meghan hauled on a parachute and cinched the straps up tight. She pulled a thin gold necklace out of her shirt and kissed the round pendant hanging from it. Then she touched her toes, her chin, her nose, and her forehead, crossed herself, and shoved the plane's side door open.
The smell of South America wafted up into her nostrils. She breathed deep, closed her eyes, tucked in her chin, and flung herself out into the open air. Keeping her eyes closed, she counted One, two, three...
There. Another perfectly executed jump.
Meghan opened her eyes and looked down at the onrushing landscape. She had a good thirty seconds before she had to pull the cord, so she allowed herself a few moments of luxury to enjoy the sensation of freefall. It was glorious, exhilarating, freeing. But this wasn't just a pleasure dive: this was business. She had to make sure she was on target...
Scanning the dense treelines, Meghan spotted her destination, a crumbling ruin of stone set atop a small plateau, backed against a sheer cliff wall. El Castillo del Rey Grande. Abandoned long ago, the castle had once been a major seat of power in the region. But as all empires do, this one had come to an end. Historians blamed the collapse on war, in a general way, an overextension of the last Grand King's emperorial ambitions. The locals told a different story. They claimed that the Grand King had sold his soul for power, specifically the power to turn the very rocks on the ground into bread, and river water into wine, and that he'd gone mad under the devil's influence and had been conquered in his foolishness and greed.
"Ancient silliness" was how Meghan had heard that legend described once.
None of this place's history and mystique had drawn much global attention until earlier this year, when an archeologist named Hyrum Thaddeus had come along and started poking and prodding through the ruins, turning over stones and telling stories of his findings, stories of old documents describing an ancient, legendary machine, hidden somewhere within the depths of the castle, one that supposedly turned rocks to bread and water to wine.
Then he'd gone silent.
In Meghan's extensive professional treasure-hunting experience, that meant one of two things: either Thaddeus had found something and was hushing it up, in which case Meghan wanted in, or Thaddeus had gotten too close to finding something and had been silenced, captured, or killed, in which case Meghan really wanted in.
So here she was.
It was time to deploy the parachute. Meghan crossed herself, touched her forehead, nose, chin, and toes, and gave the cord a solid yank. The chute exploded open with a rib-compressing jerk, and she settled into a slow final descent. Pulling the maneuvering lines, she angled herself towards the castle courtyard.
Meghan felt the air go suddenly out of the parachute, and an instant later heard the report of a gun. She began to accelerate rapidly towards the ground. Looking up, she saw a scattering of holes torn through the fabric, which was bunching in on itself so that Meghan began to twist wildly, spinning out of control with hardly five hundred feet to fall. Swallowing her panic, Meghan scrambled over her pack with her hands, seeking the emergency handle. She found the grip and heaved on it. The lines broke away and the backup parachute shot out, arresting her freefall but swinging her wide of the castle into the surrounding forest. Meghan fought for control, but there wasn't enough time to react. She wrapped herself into the fetal position and slammed down through the branches. The chute caught on the trees and a wrenching impact brought her to a halt, hanging above the forest floor.
Peaceful animal noises floated around Meghan as she hung there for a moment, catching her breath. She mused that this was probably the third closest she'd ever come to death. And if whoever had taken those shots was still around, there might be opportunity for a new list-topper before the day was over.
Perfect. More confirmation that this was exactly where she needed to be. If someone was willing to shoot at her to keep her away, that meant she was on the track of something big, something that could get her some real media attention, and maybe even a half-decent payout to supplement it. Nobody had ever gone down in history by playing it safe...
Meghan struggled out of the parachute pack and dropped the rest of the way to the ground. She massaged her ribs for a minute, making sure that nothing was broken. Then she heard the walkie talkie buzzing. She looked around for it before realizing that it was tucked into a pocket of the pack, which was still hanging from the tree above her, out of reach. Oh well. Let him think she was dead. It would make for a better story later.
Through a gap in the trees, Meghan could see the castle ruins a short ways off, uphill. A detail caught her attention: from some point of the castle, hidden from view, a trail of dark smoke was rising into the sky. What could that be coming from? Had Thaddeus's expedition set up a camp inside the castle, or behind it? The only way she was going to find out was by getting closer...
Meghan set off towards the castle, taking a quick inventory of the tools she still had with her as she went. Pocketknife, flashlight, a bit of wire, some rope... Maybe she should start carrying a handgun on these trips. Granted, she'd only been shot at once before today, and that had been more of a misunderstanding than anything, but still, you never knew what kind of wildlife you might come across, or thieves...
Breaking free of the trees, Meghan saw a meandering, partially beaten path leading up to the castle gate. She set off along the path at a trot, keeping her eyes open for signs of any other human presence and staying close to plenty of cover, in case whoever-it-was with the gun decided to follow up on the initial attack.
Meghan came around a rock wall about halfway to the castle and found herself in a small encampment of three or four long, tan tents, with two off-road vehicles sitting nearby and a dead fire pit in the middle. Thaddeus's original home base, probably. There was nobody around now. In fact, it didn't look like anyone had been around for a few days. The wall of one of the tents was flapping open in the gentle breeze, and a barbecue had been tipped over, scattering cold charcoal across the blackened grass.
Before moving on, Meghan looked into the back of one of the 4x4s and found a locked metal box. Now, what were the odds she'd find something useful in there? It was probably worth taking a quick peek through the tents... Bingo. She fished a key ring out of the side pocket of a duffel bag and matched a key to the padlock. The box in the truck swung open, and she scored a loaded hunting rifle. Not necessarily ideal for her purposes, but it would have to do. Meghan tossed the key ring into the grass and continued on her way up to the castle.
At the entrance to the courtyard she paused for a minute and surveyed the scene. All was still and quiet. It was a pleasant moment, actually. She felt buoyed by the warm fragrance of the South American jungle. Under different circumstances, she would've loved to climb to the highest tower of the castle and spend an hour just soaking up the gorgeous view. That window, there: she could just imagine how far she'd be able to see across the—wait, was something moving up there?!
Meghan lifted the magnifying scope of the hunting rifle to her eye, found the window, and adjusted the focus. There was someone in the tower! Someone with black hair pulled back into a ponytail, showing several inches of natural red growing in at the roots... Marisa Tanner. What was she doing here? Was she the one who had taken those shots at Meghan?
Tanner was holding something up in front of her, peering at it intently. She turned and brought it to the window, placing it in the sunlight. It was a piece of old, thick parchment paper, covered in strange markings and symbols. A historical document, maybe? Something that explained some of the lost history of the castle and its final king? But that wouldn't be enough to draw Marisa Tanner all the way to South America. She didn't care about history. She didn't even care about the fame that came along with significant archeological finds. The only thing that interested her was the supernatural. Religious artifacts, sacred relics, tomes of wizardry and witchcraft... She believed in it all, and seemed to have made it her personal mission to prove the power of the paranormal to the world at large.
Normally, Tanner wasn't the kind of person Meghan would have had much of a problem with. Sure, the woman was a little overzealous, but Meghan wasn't judgmental. People believed what they believed... That was their choice. Meghan knew she had plenty of her own hang-ups and idiosyncracies. She'd been dodging black cats, knocking on wood, and throwing salt over her shoulder her entire life, not necessarily because she thought there were spectral beings somewhere Out There watching her every move, but because she'd seen the consequences of ignoring those superstitions. Meghan had dealt with far too much bad luck in her life to disregard any opportunity to counteract it, especially where Marisa Tanner was concerned. Tanner was constantly turning up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a hurricane of bad luck—for Meghan—always seemed to follow her.
Not this time. Not even Marisa Tanner was going to stand in the way of Meghan's ticket into the history books. Whatever significance that piece of parchment held, it didn't matter, because Tanner was already on the wrong track: Thaddeus's final reports, before he dropped off the face of the earth, had placed the Grand King's mystical bread machine in the castle's lowest cellars, not up in the towers. That meant Meghan had some time to pick up the trail while Tanner was on her way back down to ground level.
"Sucker," Meghan whispered, watching Tanner step away from the tower window, back into the shadows. She lowered the rifle and broke into a quick jog across the courtyard. The massive, ivy-bound wooden doors were standing a few feet open, and she slipped into the gloom.
While her eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, Meghan called to mind the various photos she'd seen from Thaddeus's reports. If she was remembering correctly, it was the second archway on the left that housed the stairs down to the low cellars that Thaddeus had been preparing to explore... She stepped around an imposing, watchful statue of an angry-looking and, come to think of it, fairly pudgy soldier, deked some holes in the floor where missing cobblestones presented a serious ankle-breaking risk, and checked through the archway. Yes, these were the stairs she had seen: wide, deep, and curving downwards around a stone spire.
Meghan clicked on her flashlight and set off down the staircase. With every footstep, she disturbed the thick layer of dust that had evidently been gathering for decades. She paused to take a closer look at the stairs just ahead of her. Dozens of footprints were marked into the dust, but judging by the thin layer of dust that had resettled within each footprint, these were probably from Thaddeus's expedition, not from Marisa Tanner. Had Tanner not even been downstairs at all yet? Talk about searching in the wrong direction.
Continuing on, Meghan found that it was growing more and more difficult to breathe. The depth and width of the stairs was forcing her to concentrate closely on what her feet were doing, but despite her careful steps, clouds of dust were kicking up all around her. To make things worse, the air was becoming thick with heat and humidity. She hadn't read anything about this in Thaddeus's reports. Where was all the heat coming from?
After what seemed like five or six minutes of exhausting star-climbing, Meghan emerged into a round chamber with stone floors and earthen walls, propped up with heavy wooden scaffolding. Meghan had seen a picture of this chamber. Two doors led out of it. One of them led to a storage room where Thaddeus claimed to have found some of the mysterious documents about the strange machine, but the destination of the other doorway was unknown to Meghan. Beyond here, Thaddeus hadn't taken any photos—or hadn't had time to share them.
That meant more caution going forward from here. Meghan gripped the hunting rifle loosely. There could be wild animals down here, feeding and breeding... A bunch of large mammals living in close quarters could explain the warmth and dampness down here. Maybe that was what had happened to Thaddeus's expedition. The thought made Meghan shudder. But she'd come here in search of fame, and running away now wouldn't get her in the pages of any newspapers, that was for sure, while locating Thaddeus or finding the artifact he'd been looking for might.
Steeling herself for what she might find—or what might find her—Meghan stepped forward, through the doorway to the unknown. She found herself moving along a wide tunnel, a hallway of sorts, with a slightly arched ceiling supporting by more scaffolding. Old wooden barrels held together by metal bands were stacked here and there against the walls, their contents still sealed inside from whenever they had been filled. One barrel had been pulled out from the wall, and its top had been removed. Meghan approached it to take a look, but was driven back by a ferocious, rotten stench. Shining her flashlight at the base of the barrel, Meghan saw what looked like a thin lining of white, wriggling slime. Maggots. That meant whatever was stored in the barrel must be something edible—or it had been edible, anyways. A mental picture of the rest of the barrels being filled to the brim with feasting maggots drifted unbidden into Meghan's mind's eye. She shuddered.
A wave of heat rolled through the tunnel and washed over Meghan. It felt like she'd been hit with a bucketful of bath water. She noticed that she was starting to sweat. A sound accompanied the rush of hot air, a rhythmic huffing and whooshing, kind of like... a bellows? Meghan wasn't overly familiar with where one might find a bellows being operated—they were used with old-fashioned furnaces, weren't they?—but she was pretty confident they weren't something wild animals could use. Did that mean there were people down here? Thaddeus and his crew? Or maybe something else that had a penchant for fire. Something—or someone—that liked to barter for souls...
Meghan shook her head, scolding herself. Seeing the supernatural around every corner was Marisa Tanner's job. Meghan was far more reasonable. She wasn't about to have a run-in with the devil... Was she? She crossed herself three times and kissed the pendant on her necklace, just in case. Then she took another brave step onwards.
The tunnel bent around to the left, past a few more stacks of barrels and a tower of sealed crates. Whatever the Grand King had been storing down here, he'd certainly had a lot of it.
The sound of the bellows—or whatever it was—continued to grow louder as Meghan went. With every whoosh, a blast of hot air rushed past her. She rounded the bend in the tunnel and came upon a series of bars that blocked the way, with a gate set into the middle. Each metal bar was three inches thick and stretched from floor to ceiling. The bars were anchored firmly at both ends, though a few of them seemed to have been slightly bent and had shifted an inch or two in their moorings. What powerful force had caused that slippage? Maybe just the passage of time...
The gate hung on massive hinges and had a large keyhole beneath the handle. Beyond the gate, the floor of the tunnel sloped downwards, leading to a massive double door. Flickering orange light was escaping around the edges of the door, and the light flared bright yellow each time the bellows pulsed. Whatever was causing all this heat, it looked like it was beyond those doors.
Meghan stepped up to the gate and tried the handle. It was locked tight. It would take a tank to blow through these bars, even with a couple of them being slightly loose, and all she had was some rope and a hunting rifle. Maybe she could pick the lock with the wire...
Wait. Here was a simpler solution. The bars, which looked so imposing and immovable, were set about eight or ten inches apart from one another. They might hold quite a large person out, but Meghan was on the small side of average. She turned sideways and squeezed through a gap.
That had been easy. Almost disappointingly so. Meghan could picture the interviewers' questions now: "How did you manage it?" And she'd reply, "Oh, I just stepped between the bars. They were set way too wide apart. Poor design, really." And the reporters would say, "Well that isn't very exciting. Let's run the story about the baby giraffes, instead." Meghan supposed she'd just have to exaggerate this element of the adventure...
She was about to begin creeping down towards the double doors when she was called back by the hiss of the last voice she wanted to hear.
"Stop!" said Marisa Tanner. "Foolish girl, stop right there!"
Meghan whirled around and saw Tanner approaching the bars, clutching the piece of parchment she'd been examining in the tower. Meghan raised the rifle to her shoulder. "No way, Tanner. You're not taking this from me. This is my discovery. You can just turn around and leave the way you came."
"Do you expect me to believe that you're actually going to shoot me?" said Tanner. "Come on, Maloney. Let's not play these games."
"You shot at me!" snarled Meghan, but she reluctantly lowered the rifle. Tanner was right: Meghan wasn't here to kill anybody.
"Yes, I did shoot at you," admitted Tanner, "but only 'at' you. My aim was perfect. I knew you'd have a backup parachute. But you didn't take a hint, did you? You should've packed up then and there, and left this to me. You are in way over your head today."
"Over my head!? Let's not forget who got the best of whom in Nicaragua."
"You were extremely lucky in Nicaragua," said Tanner coldly—Meghan whispered a mental Thank you to the pendant around her neck—"and I wouldn't exactly consider that a 'win', not after the mess you made of the whole place. Besides, you haven't found anyone who believes your story yet, have you? That's because you're a fool, Maloney. You need evidence of these things. You need proof. You need to think ahead." Tanner pulled a thin camera out of the side pouch of her backpack. "Did you even bring one of these this time?"
"Pictures are nothing," scoffed Meghan. "Anyone can put together a convincing fake in their basement using PhotoShop. I'm after physical evidence, something concrete that I can contribute to history."
"Oh, yes—you hope to contribute yourself. Always motivated by self-interest..." Tanner shook her head sadly. "But you're all eagerness and excitement, with no planning or forethought. You don't know what you're up against, while I know exactly what's behind those doors up ahead."
"I've heard the same legends you have, about the Grand King selling his soul to the devil, and his machine that turns rocks into bread... It all sounds a little farfetched, to me."
"You act like such a skeptic," said Tanner, "but how many times have you kissed your grandmother's pendant today? Don't try to hide all of your superstitions. You believe in a lot more than you want to admit."
"Fine. So what if I do? I'm still going to be the first person through those doors!" Meghan turned her back on Tanner and started advancing down the tunnel again.
"Don't! You'll get us both killed—or worse!" Tanner took off her backpack and shoved herself between the bars. She was a bigger woman than Meghan, and had a bit more difficulty fitting, but made it through. She jogged after Meghan. "You aren't prepared for this."
Meghan sighed as Tanner caught up with her. "How could this king run such a massive empire and still be too stupid to put some bars a little closer together?"
"He had no need to," said Tanner. "Or did you really do so little research before you rushed out here?"
"Research on what?"
"The people of the Grand King's empire were giants, Maloney. You can see it in every aspect of this castle's architecture. The tall archways, the wide halls, the broad stairs... Those bars were built for people much larger than us."
"Giants. Sure. And where did these giants come from? How did they get so big?"
Tanner gave Meghan a pointed look. "Through their use of the Manna Battery, of course."
"The very artifact we've both come in search of. You don't even know its name?"
"The locals never gave it a name when I talked to them," said Meghan. "And Thaddeus just called it 'the machine'."
"Thaddeus's language skills are pitifully amateurish," said Tanner. "He never bothered trying to learn the local dialect. 'Manna Battery' is my own translation. Look here." She brandished the piece of parchment and pointed to an unintelligible line of ancient script. "I found this in the Grand King's library. Thaddeus's men had pulled it out from the scribes' books of history. It says here that the Grand King made a pact with the 'strangers from beyond', and they provided him with the Manna Battery in exchange for his heart and soul. By eating the bread from the Manna Battery, the Grand King and his subjects grew to be giants. It's all laid out right here. How could it be any clearer?"
Meghan shrugged. "Well, 'strangers from beyond' doesn't necessarily mean demons or anything supernatural. It could just be referring to foreigners. And maybe he sold them..." She cast about for an alternate explanation. "Maybe it was his daughter, or his wife, and the scribes were just being dramatic."
Tanner glared. "You're being contradictory for the sake of argument. I know what it says, and I know what it means."
"So you're convinced that there's a devil or a demon of some sort through those doors, doing God knows what, and you're going to go in there and... take a picture of it?"
"No. I'm going to drive it away, even if I have to kill whatever body it's inhabiting. My guess is it's taken Thaddeus, or someone from his crew. And then I'm going to secure the Manna Battery, an artifact with powers that will prove the limits of our pitiful human science."
"And what if the demon comes after you next? Do you have some special 'magic words' prepared to defend yourself?"
Tanner scowled. "There's no need for that kind of flippancy. I was right in Nicaragua, wasn't I?"
"Half-right," said Meghan. "Sort of. Look, Tanner, I'm not giving up on this, and I'm definitely not letting you take sole credit for whatever we find in there."
"Credit?" said Tanner. "What do I take care about taking credit? I'm here to spread a message, Maloney, not promote myself. If you're dead set on coming with me—and I haven't selected that phrase lightly—I won't stop you, but I'm not going to take any blame for the consequences. If you live through this, you can have all the media spotlight you want. It means nothing to me."
Meghan stared into Tanner's eyes, searching for any signs of deception. The offer seemed sincere. "Okay, fine. But I want to be the first one through the door."
"It's your funeral," said Tanner. "I suggest you have that rifle ready."
The two women turned and began approaching the double doors at the end of the tunnel, glancing at each other suspiciously now and then, uneasy with their new alliance. Meghan wiped sweat from her forehead. Every step seemed to carry her deeper into the heart of a furnace. The air was swirling, and the tunnel echoed with the now-unmistakable noise of a massive bellows.
They reached the door. Tanner grabbed Meghan's shoulder and held her back for a moment before she could push the door open. She pulled a handgun out of her backpack and took a scrap of paper from her pocket, with a string of phonetic symbols scrawled across it. She read it closely and seemed to be silently mouthing the words. "Okay," she said, raising her voice to be heard over the bellows. "I'm ready. Take it slow. You don't want to just go rushing in there..."
Meghan rolled her eyes, raised her rifle, and threw her shoulder into the door. It swung open surprisingly smoothly, and orange-yellow light spilled out, blinding her for a few seconds. She heard the bellows stop, and the light softened, allowing her eyes to adjust. A bizarre, almost other-worldly vision swam into focus.
The room Meghan had just thrown herself into was an expansive space, lined with numerous chipped stone counters and worn wooden tables, the surfaces of which were covered with stale crumbs and moist red stains. A series of massive floor-to-ceiling ovens was built into one wall, and utensils of every type imaginable hung from hooks and spilled out of drawers. The air was overpoweringly hot, and the walls dripped with condensation.
Adjacent to the ovens, there stood an enormous furnace, accessed through several grated doors. Flames were licking out through the grates, and piles of wood and coal stood beneath them, waiting to be added as further fuel. Half a dozen chimney pipes rose from the furnace into the ceiling, leading, presumably, to the surface—the source of the smoke Meghan had seen? The largest bellows Meghan could have ever imagined was attached to one end of the furnace, with a complex arrangement of levers and chains connected to its handles. Standing beside the bellows, clutching the spoked handle of a massive, geared wheel that evidently pumped the bellows, was something that, for lack of a better word, could be described as a "man".
He was only six feet tall, but nearly as wide as his height. The billowing rolls of his chest and stomach overlapped like floppy shingles, and the flab of his eyebrows nearly covered his eyes. A grimy crown was perched jauntily atop his pear-shaped head, and a few white hairs poked out at odd angles from underneath it. His skin shone with sweat, and his eyes gleamed with hunger. It took Meghan several seconds to realize he was naked, and a few seconds more to realize that any modesty he might have wished to preserve was thoroughly protected by several layers of stomach roll.
The man dropped his hands from the bellows wheel, looked at Meghan, and licked his corpulent lips.
"Er, Tanner," said Meghan, "we might want to revisit the translation of 'rey grande', I think. 'Grande' can mean just plain 'big', can't it?"
"What a monster," breathed Tanner. She stepped in beside Meghan and snapped a photo.
The flash seemed to confuse the Big King. He took half a step backwards and shaded his eyes with a sausage-fingered hand.
"So this is our centuries-old victim of demonic possession?" Meghan sniffed. "He's kind of pitiful, really. I wonder where he actually came from, and how long he's been down here."
The Big King took a shuddering step away from the bellows, his voluminous flesh swaying with the movement. He licked his lips again, and mumbled something incoherent. Reaching under a nearby table, he pulled out a round, dark loaf of bread and pressed it into his mouth, devouring the entire thing in a few swift bites.
"Eyuch," said Meghan.
"Be on your guard," said Tanner. "This is him. I can feel it. This furnace, these ovens... This whole kitchen must be the Manna Battery!"
"No way," said Meghan. "Sure, this stuff was built on a pretty impressive scale, but I can't see anything special about them. How would this place turn rocks into bread, or water into wine? If the machine is real, I don't think we've found it yet."
"Look around," said Tanner, "beneath the tables, over there. There are dishes full of food, dozens of loaves of bread, and jugs of... yes, red wine. Well, it's a bit thick, but still. Now where are the ingredients? What was this all made from? All I can see are stacks of wood and piles of coal!"
The Big King picked up another dish from one of the tables, this one holding what looked like a large hambone. It vanished into his mouth, all in one piece, and Meghan heard the bone crunching between the man's thick, flat teeth.
"Whoa," said Meghan.
Tanner took another photo. "This is no ordinary man, Maloney. And these are no ordinary ovens. This is the devil's work! He must have been lying here dormant, until Thaddeus's expedition came along and disturbed him. Now he's awake again, and hungry. Naturally, the first thing he would want to do is fire up the Manna Battery."
"So what happened to Thaddeus, then?"
"Hard to say. Maybe they—"
"PAN!" A shower of spittle and crumbs erupted as the word burst from the Big King's lips. He reached out towards the two women with one massive, swollen hand.
"'Pan'?" said Meghan. "'Bread'? Why did he—"
And then the Big King charged. His steps shook the stone-tiled floor, and he flung the wooden tables in front of him out of the way with a speed Meghan would have thought impossible. The tables dashed against the walls and splintered into pieces, as dishes, bread, and meat scattered.
With only a moment to react, Meghan brought up the barrel of the hunting rifle and fired. A spot of red bloomed on the Big King's chest, but the impact hardly slowed him, the bullet's advance defeated by a thick coat of fleshy armour.
Tanner planted her feet, raised her arms in the sign of the cross, and managed to choke out three or four syllables of what sounded like Latin before Meghan grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her back through the door of the kitchen into the tunnel, just before the Big King slammed into the wall where they had been standing, carrying the open half of the door with him and crunching it into matchsticks under his weight.
"No!" cried Tanner. "I was nearly—"
"—Dead! You were nearly dead! We have to get out of here!" There was no time to chamber another bullet into the rifle—the King was already recovering from the impact—so Meghan dropped the gun on the ground and turned to run. More reluctantly, Tanner followed, snapping a couple of photos over her shoulder as she went. "Through the bars," said Meghan. "I think they're too strong for him." The gate was close.
The rumbling impact of the Big King's footsteps shook the whole tunnel like an earthquake. Meghan looked back and saw him coming, like a horrible freight train, an inexorable rolling boulder of flesh. He was gaining, but she was nearly there. A few more steps...
Something caught Meghan's wrist and yanked her off balance. She stumbled and fell against the wall of the tunnel, and the Big King barrelled over the place she'd been standing and hammered into the barred gate like a cannonball. The bars shook, and dust fell from the moorings in the ceiling, but they held firm.
Tanner hauled Meghan to her feet. "Call us even."
The King was between them and the exit now, his girth blocking their escape. Shaking his head, he gurgled deep inside his throat. "Pan..." He stumbled a few steps back before grabbing onto the bars to regain his balance.
Tanner made the sign of the cross again and retried her Latin incantation. The sound of her determined voice drew the Big King's attention. He looked down at her, cocking his head curiously to the side so that his numerous chins wobbled.
With a forceful, triumphant final word, Tanner concluded the incantation and took a determined step forward.
Tanner looked confused. The Big King looked hungry. He leaned down towards the women.
"D-domin..." stammered Tanner, trying to start again at the beginning. "D-d-domini..."
"Pan!" said the Big King. He reached out his hand, and Tanner seemed to freeze in place.
Meghan grabbed Tanner's so-far-unused pistol out of her hand and levelled it at the monstrous fat king. Her first frantic shot just missed his ear. Her second cut a clean hole through the fat along the side of his neck, eliciting a horrible roar of anguish. Before she had time to fire a third, she was slammed to the floor by a heavy fist. The handgun bounced off the floor and went flying past the King and through the bars, out of reach.
"Pan! Paaan!!" roared the King.
The world was swimming dizzily around her, but Meghan scrambled to her feet and hauled on Tanner's backpack to break her out of her terrified trance. Together, the women ran back towards the kitchen as the Big King prodded at the wound in his neck and licked blood from his fingers, his outbursts of anger and hunger growing more intense by the second.
Inside the kitchen, the women ducked behind a table, pressing themselves up against a wall. Meghan scanned the enclosed room frenetically, looking for options. "What are we going to do!?"
"It didn't take..." said Tanner, as if to herself. "I don't understand why the incantation didn't take."
"Maybe we're not dealing with the devil, here!"
"Then how would you explain all of this?!"
"I don't know! Let's just get out of this alive and worry about that later. I don't want to get eaten."
"You think he wants to eat us?"
"Why else would he keep calling us 'bread'?"
"But he has the Manna Battery! Why would he need to..."
Meghan was listening desperately for sounds of the Big King's return from the tunnel. "Need to what?"
"What, Tanner? Need to what?"
"These ovens never turned rocks into bread."
"Who cares about the ovens?"
Something in the wavering of Tanner's voice commanded Meghan's attention. She followed Tanner's pointing finger towards the ovens, where the door of one of the unlit ovens was propped slightly open. Inside was a shadowed shape, curled in on itself, two legs, two arms, a face...
"Thaddeus..." Suddenly Meghan felt like she was about to be sick.
"Rocks to bread, water to wine?" said Tanner in a quavering whisper. "No. This empire turned to cannibalism."
Meghan choked back a mouthful of bile. "The legends only spun the truth, a sort of euphemism... And in time the euphemism passed into legend."
Tanner was shaking her head, half in shock and half in disbelief. The kitchen rumbled again, and the utensils clattered on the walls. The Big King was returning.
"But if that's all the explanation there is, if there really was no supernatural intervention..." said Meghan.
Tanner finished the thought: "...Then where did this monster come from?"
As if in response, the Big King shoved himself through the doorway of the kitchen, his jaw hanging open. Blood and drool were pooling in the folds of his chin and neck, and his eyes were wild with pain and ravenous desire. "Paaaaaaann..."
The women backed away, edging around a stone counter, closer to the raging furnace. "If these are the last few moments of my life," said Meghan, "then I want to go out on the right note." She took a deep, resigned breath. "I can't say I like you, Tanner. I can't say I even want to like you. But I'll admit I respect you, as a woman. You do good work, even if it's based on more than a little insanity most of the time."
"Er, thanks," said Tanner. "You, uh, have pretty eyes, I guess."
Meghan flashed her nemesis a quizzical glare. "That's all you have to—?"
The King hurled himself forward, crushing ferociously through every obstacle in his way. There was nowhere to go. Meghan squeezed her eyes shut—
—and felt a solid impact to the back of her knees that crumpled her to the floor. She opened her eyes and looked up into Tanner's triumphant evil smile. Her nemesis leapt away, towards the ovens, as the King held on his course straight at Meghan. In a last ditch effort, Meghan tucked herself into a ball and rolled right at the Big King's feet.
The movement seemed to catch him by surprise, but he had too much forward momentum to properly react. One of his legs caught on the floor and he toppled forward, out of control, passing right over Meghan and crashing headlong into the furnace. Time and humidity had done their entropic work on those thick metal walls, creating branching cracks and seams of rust, weakening its structure just enough. The furnace burst open, showering out coals and embers. The Big King's flesh began almost instantly to melt away under the intense heat.
He rolled back and forth, wailing like a branded bull, knocking over tables and counters. The old wood quickly caught fire, and the flames spread to the supports holding up the walls and ceiling of the underground chamber. In a matter of seconds, the whole room was ablaze.
Meghan escaped the kitchen into the tunnel, her eyes watering and her lungs burning from the heat and smoke. She couldn't see Tanner anywhere, but there was no time for that now. Already the fire was beginning to spread into the tunnel, leaping from support to support and making quick work of the ancient scaffolding. As Meghan stumbled up the tunnel towards the gate she heard a rumbling crash, and turned back to see a cloud of dust, flame, and smoke billowing out from the doorway of the kitchen. The walls of the tunnel began to shake.
She turned and ran. Showers of dirt and rock fell all around her. Beams collapsed and knocked over barrels, which rolled at her, knocking her off stride, or burst open in waves of maggots. Maggots that had been feasting on... She pushed the repulsive thought from her mind.
A crack split the ceiling around the gate and the bars fell inwards, narrowing the openings between them. There was too little room to squeeze between them, even at the bottom, but there was a gap at the top now, against the wall. Meghan used the lower parts of the bars to climb up and somersault through the gap, but her foot caught and she tumbled down onto the cobblestone floor, twisting her arm awkwardly. She thought she heard something pop, but she had no time for pain. She forced herself to stand and pressed on, around the bend of the tunnel, past more crates, more barrels, racing against the fire and the collapse, until she reached the round room and the stairway, which shook as she leapt into it. A whooshing cloud of dust and fire burst up the stairs around her, as if trying to grab hold of her and pull her back down into her grave. The force of the wind pitched her onto her stomach, banging her shins against the wide lip of a stair.
Silence fell. Meghan opened her eyes, blinking away a thick layer of dust, dirt, and ash. The stairway was coated with evidence of the collapse, and behind her a deep slide of dirt, rocks, and wood had piled through the staircase's opening, burying its doorway.
But it was over. She had made it out alive.
And she had nothing at all to show for it. Nothing but her word and her injuries. She wondered for a moment what had happened to Tanner's camera. For that matter, what had happened to Tanner?
A voice broke into her reverie. Someone, somewhere, was... calling her name? The sound echoed down through the staircase, mixed with coughing, and footsteps, and... Jeb. Jeb had found her. He was here. He was lifting her to feet, supporting her, talking to her. What was he saying? Where were they going?
Meghan felt water being pressed to her lips, poured down her throat. Her sight came back into focus, awareness returned, and with it came the pain. She hurt all over, and her shoulder, ah, her shoulder...
"You okay?" asked Jeb.
"I'm... Ah," said Meghan. "I'm okay. I'm okay."
"You probably won't believe me... Come on; let's get out of here!"