Take a look at Chuck Wendig’s new novel, Gods and Monsters: Unclean Spirits, out on May 7 from Abbadon Books:
Five years ago, it all went wrong for Cason Cole. He lost his wife and son, lost everything, and was bound into service to a man who chews up human lives and spits them out, a predator who holds nothing dear and respects no law. Now, as the man he both loves and hates lies dying at his feet, the sounds of the explosion still ringing in his ears, Cason is finally free. The gods and goddesses are real. A polytheistic pantheon—a tangle of divine hierarchies—once kept the world at an arm’s length, warring with one another for mankind’s belief and devotion. It was a grim and bloody balance, but a balance just the same. When one god triumphed, driving all other gods out of Heaven, it was back to the bad old days: cults and sycophants, and the terrible retribution the gods visit on those who spite them. None of which is going to stop Cason from getting back what’s his…
Cason pulls at the doors, hands scalded, the palms blistering as he tries to open one, then the other, then back to the first door again. The window is cracking, warping. Inside it’s all dancing orange light and greasy black smoke and the shadow of a body—his wife’s body, thrashing around like a moth burning against a lamp bulb.
Then the body stops moving.
He can’t even see the car seat in the back.
Taken from him.
He falls backward. Onto the road’s shoulder. Cason rolls, presses his forehead against the ground hard enough to draw blood. The skin on his hands is soft and shiny and red and he drags them against the gravel. Flesh sloughs off. He doesn’t even feel the pain, which sucks because he wants to feel it, needs to feel it.
That’s when it all stops.
The flames lay still behind the glass. A burger wrapper blowing nearby stops in mid-tumble and stands impossibly on its paper corner, poised but never falling. The air is warm and unmoving. Cason feels light-headed.
That’s when he sees a car pulling up.
The road is rough and the memory is broken as the cab skips across a pothole. Cason blinks, tries to figure out where they are. All he sees are trees. Dark trees lining an empty back road. The fuck?
“This isn’t the turnpike,” he says.
Tundu says nothing. Hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel.
“Hey,” Cason says again. “Where are we?”
Tundu’s head shifts, lolling limp against his shoulder. Mouth wide in a gaping, drunken smile. Tongue out. Eyes rolled way back into his skull.
A moan drifts from the cabbie’s lips.
Cason goes to shake him, but then—
The cab shudders. Another three noises in swift succession. Pop! Pop! Pop! The car sinks on one corner, then the others. The tires are blown.
The engine gutters; dashboard lights flicker before going dark.
The cab drifts another ten, twelve feet, then stops.
From the hood, a tink-tink-tink of the cooling engine.
Tundu slumps against the steering wheel. His head honks the horn: a droning beep. Cason pushes him back into the seat. Worry bleeds into his gut, forming a septic pool. He reaches out, tries the key. Nothing. Not a spark. Dead battery. Or something else, something far stranger and far worse.
Turns out, though, that Cason doesn’t know what strange even is—but he learns fast. Ahead, headlights cut holes through the night as a car heads toward the cab. When Cason shifts in his seat, he hears a squish squish squish by his feet and a sudden smell rises in the cab: the smell of the beach, of the ocean, of brine and salt and dead fish.
Water is seeping into the cab. Rising one inch, then two, then three around his boots. Milky foam pools around the leather.
Cason cries out, pops the door, tumbles out onto the empty road. Trees sway and hiss above in a sudden wind, shushing him as that car grows closer.
This all seems suddenly too familiar.
No, not again, not possible, he’s dead…
The approaching car is a pearlescent white. A Lexus, by the look of it. It stops about ten yards away. Dust and pollen caught in the beams. Cason feels blinded.
He sees a shape, a shape that doesn’t make sense, with margins that shift and seem impossibly inhuman…
The back door on the driver side pops open.
One figure steps out, leading a second someone by a length of… chain? Both women, by their shapes. The leading figure is tall, hair long around her shoulders, and even witnessing her shadow Cason feels the world shift like a listing boat—the curves are perfect, the lines elegant and inalienable, and again he smells the sea, but now the smell is heady, lush, intoxicating. A call by the waves to wade in and drown in the deep.
He swoons, almost falls.
The other woman stands bound in a straitjacket, which is in turn swaddled in lengths of golden chain. Hair a mad black porcupine tangle. She shakes her head like a dog with an ear infection, sobbing and muttering. But Cason can’t look at her for long; his eyes are drawn back to the first woman, dragged there like a fish reeled toward the fisher.
“Kneel,” the tall woman says. Her voice is sonorous, and syrupy sweet. And without flaw. Cason can’t help it—it’s like someone else owns his legs. He does as she commands, knees hitting the road hard.
He sees then she’s not wearing any shoes.
Bare feet pad against the road as she approaches, weightless as light across water.
The forest seems to ease toward her, then away from her.
“You killed my son,” she says.
He feels like he’s drowning in her presence.
“I… don’t know what that means…” he says, gasping for air.
“Eros. My son. You did what is not to be done. You killed him.”
Eros. E. E. Rose E-Rose Eros. “I didn’t—it wasn’t me—”
“The truth, now.” Sand and shore and sea, the smell crawling into his nostrils. “How did you do it? How did you manage to kill what cannot be killed? We kill one another, but you are not allowed such fortune. To you that door is locked. Where did you find the key? And what key did you find?”
He shakes his head. “I swear, I don’t know what you mean.”
She backhands him.
His head rocks. He tastes blood. He loves it. He hates that he loves it.
“You found a way to kill him. To undo him from the tapestry, to chip his face from the frieze. Even the Great Usurper did not kill—but you do?” She pulls him close, and it’s now he can see her face. Her beauty washes over him like a tide. Golden hair like liquid light. Lips like bleeding pomegranate. Eyes cut from alabaster and emerald and onyx. Her exquisite face twists with pity and disgust. “One of the weak-kneed striplings—a squealing pink piglet—ends my son’s time, a time that should have been an eternity?”
She lets go of the chain—it drops to the ground, rattling against the asphalt.
Both of her hands close around Cason’s throat.
Her touch is like a kiss. Even as she tightens her grip. Even as she lifts him high, legs dangling, tongue growing fat in his mouth with the blood pulsing at his temples. He finds himself wanting to taste those lips, to crawl inside her and forever be lost among the labyrinth of her guts, her lungs, her heart—he knows this is wrong, that this is as artificial as a drug-high, as manufactured as the magic E. cast on others, but he can’t help it. Even as darkness bleeds in at the edges of his vision he welcomes it.
“I’m going to keep squeezing,” she says, her breath fragrant, her words honeyed. “I’m going to let my fingers join in the middle, your neck melting beneath my palms, your head rolling off your shoulders. Then I shall take your head and I will have it bronzed. I’ll use it as a trashcan. Or an ashtray. Or a place where guests may scrape filth from their boots. Would you like that?”
He barely manages to nod.
A glorious last reward, that smile.
But then inside his mind, he sees their faces: Alison. Barney. First he hears his wife burning, then he sees them both alive again—the boy’s kind eyes, his wife’s sweet smile, and a small voice reminds him: they were stolen from you by this woman’s son, by the man she calls Eros, and now she’s going to steal you from them.
No. That can’t happen.
He has to fix this.
He has to fight.
It takes all his effort to speak—
“I… didn’t… kill… him.”
Moving his hands is like moving mountains. His muscles ache with desire; his flesh resists. And still he manages, inch by inch, to bring his right hand up to the woman’s jaw and grip it while the other hand reaches back behind him and—
It’s like pissing on the Mona Lisa or installing a cheap Wal-Mart ceiling fan in the Sistine Chapel, but it has to happen just the same: Cason wrenches the paring knife from his back and sticks it in the side of the woman’s neck.
The woman screams—
And flings him into the trees.
His body hits an old oak—branches shake and green leaves flutter into the dark as he thumps against a tangle of roots pushing up out of soft earth.
Things happen—things that Cason in a million years could’ve never foreseen.
The woman in straitjacket-and-chains laugh-sobs—a sound so sharp and unnatural that Cason can feel it vibrating in his teeth. Her silhouette flexes and swells—the straitjacket tears and the chain falls away, piling on the ground at her feet.
Her shape now includes a pair of long, dark wings.
And with them, the woman takes flight. Her ascent is imperfect—clumsy, herky-jerky, like she hasn’t used the things in years—but still she catches air and carries herself fast above the trees. The rush of air. Her cackling weepy cry growing swiftly distant.
The beautiful woman cries out. Screaming at the night sky the strangest exclamation—so strange that Cason is sure he could not be hearing her correctly.
Cason scoots back against the tree, catching his breath, taking all of this in. He thinks suddenly to turn tail and run into the woods, darting between trees and hurtling into darkness—but then he fears that whatever just took flight will come for him there. A fear that would once seem irrational but now seems like good practical thinking.
The driver of the Lexus pops the door and steps onto the road.
The driver is a woman. But not human.
In fact, Cason’s starting to think that none of these people are human.
The driver wears an outfit like a chauffeur—a too-thin body tucked away in a black suit that’s all hard angles. But her eyes are black pools, and as she steps alongside the front of the car, the wash from the headlights shows that they’re not black but red, red and wet like blood, like no eyes even exist but for pockets of dripping crimson.
The driver’s fingers are long, too long, tipped with talons that belong on a golden eagle or a big fucking owl.
The chauffeur’s outfit—like the straitjacket before—tears, though this time it does not fall away in a pile of ribbons, but rather accommodates the pair of black bat-like wings that unfurl like fiddleheads from the driver’s back.
“Go!” the beautiful woman screams, pointing to the sky. “Find her!”
The driver takes flight with none of the clumsiness of the other woman. Her wings flutter like those of a bat or a small bird, shooting the monster straight up and above the trees until she, too, is gone.
The beautiful woman turns back toward Cason.
“You,” she says, pointing. He still feels the gravity of desire, but he’s able to steel himself against it. He stands—his body is wracked with pain. From the pain radiating in his throat to the hole in his back, to the fact he was just thrown against a tree.
The woman glides toward him. She plucks the knife from her neck and tosses it behind her—the blade bounces into a pothole. Cason sees no blood. Just a hole.
“You have no idea what you’ve done.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Cason says. He tries to yell the words, but they come out as tattered gasps. “What the fuck are you?”
The woman stops. Regains her composure.
“You really don’t know, do you? You killed one of us and you don’t even know what we are.”
“I swear,” he pleads. “I didn’t kill any of you. I… worked for your son. I didn’t kill him. Someone else—this guy, I think this guy did it, this guy with a face full of—” Cason mimes all the cuts and scars with his fingers. “His face was a, a, a mess. Eyelids gone. Lips, too. It was him. I’m sure of it.”
She says nothing. Is that a flicker of recognition across her face?
The woman approaches. Cason can’t help it—he flinches.
Her hand is empty until, with a twist and a flourish, her palm is full with a lush red apple. Skin the color of spilt blood. Stem dark and black like a dried worm.
Gently, she places the apple in his lap.
“You will find this man for me. And when you do, I want you to look into a mirror and hold up this apple. You will take a bite of the apple and then I will come to you. Do you understand?”
Jaw tight, he gives her a curt nod—as if doing anything more would give her license to finish the job she started, tearing his head off and making him love every anguished second of it. The thought sends shivers through his body. Makes him hard.
“Good. You do that, I will pay you in endless riches.” She draws a deep breath. “But fail me, and you and all you love will see hurt like your pitiful human mind could never imagine. The ants once slighted me and now they stay underground to escape my wrath. Do you see?”
“Okay.” It’s the stupidest thing to say, but he doesn’t know what else there is, so he says nothing else.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a mess to clean up.”
With that, she walks back through the lights of the Lexus, her body once more reduced to dark curves as lush as the apple in his lap. She enters the car through the driver’s door, and the Lexus slides down the road like a retreating shadow.
Gods and Monster: Unclean Spirits © Chuck Wendig