Furious Jackson reclined on the banks of the BlackDog river and strummed her guitar for an audience of dead cypress. The trees stretched their dark fingers toward the pinkening sky, swaying seemingly in time with her deep-bellied twang.

She drifted along the natal notes of the music, reconnecting to the dear, dead presence, the protector innate to her skin and her soul and the souls of her dead ancestors. Awash in memories that weren’t all hers, Fury lost her footing in the world and broke off her song for a moment to hum, her vibrato dark and mournful, her song laced with a power both ancient and fresh.

After a moment, her song ended and she removed her hat with a whirl of her wrist, baring her nappy black braids to the sky. A squelching rumble from her empty stomach capped off the impromptu performance. Not for the first time, she wished that her faith could fill her stomach in addition to sending her soul aflame.

Fury Mae Jackson. Junebug called from the cloudy crystal hanging around Fury’s neck. Good old Junebug. His voice was a history. Get your ass up. Ain’t you hungry? These trees ain’t serving nothing.

“Easy for you to talk about standing up,” Fury grumbled both to Junebug and the swamp. “Your legs ain’t been the ones been pumping these last seven days.”

Before she could get out the last word, her stomach rumbled again. Junebug’s laugh was windchimes, a stirring tinkle of haint breath. lf a year we been together and you still ain’t learned how to lie good. I oughta leave you here.

“Your mouth sure is smart. You keep on and I’m gonna set you down on a rock somewhere.”

Stop playing and let’s go, Junebug snorted. She could feel the thrill of fear though his bravado, and fought down a grin. She liked to fuck with him like that, even though they both knew the two of them were connected soul to soul by a thread of kinship that stretched back as long as humanity.

“I need a minute. My legs feel like there’s lightning running through them.” Fury scooted across loose, slimy soil over toward the water. The BlackDog river was a still specimen, as lazy as a warm breeze. It didn’t run or trickle but sat, deciding every so often to lap up against the muddy shore. Even this water, heavy with the stank of decades, would be better than the hunger rippling through her belly—and the scraps of divine flame limning her bones would protect her from the worst of whatever could try and sicken her body.

As she leaned in to take a slurp of the BlackDog’s grit, Junebug chilled the air in warning. Now hold on, Fury Mae—but before he could finish some wicked, deathly stench curled up from the river and crawled up her nose, rancid with rotten flesh and the sticky tang of long-held hatred.

“Gotdamn,” Fury spluttered, “This is some foul-ass water!”

I tried to tell you, girl. That stank ain’t natural.

“You’re right. Damn,” Fury muttered. Even though she hadn’t taken any of the water, even her proximity to that deep, spiritual stank sent her stomach flopping. She bent double and retched up a stream of sick.

All ain’t lost. Just stick with Junebug. Have I ever steered you wrong in all these years we been together? No ma’am I have not. Junebug flickered into the world of the living as a flitting ball of light and buzzed a lingering trail through the trees. Warm bodies this way. They might even have a knob of gristle for you to gnaw on. Press on, sista.

Fury grit her teeth and followed.

All of the spirits in the trees declared that the coming town was named New Molen. Fury and Junebug kept pushing, noting that New Molen seemed to be losing the battle between itself and whatever foulness had seeped into the BlackDog wetlands. Ruins popped out of the dark dirt like weeds. Skeletal leavings of several old houses remained, with rusty metal pipework jutting from bare stone foundations like the final molars in a rotting mouth. There was fear here, fear of the dauntless river, and those who’d built this place knew the water was an enemy as ancient and unforgiving as a curse. The few houses that Fury could make out were built from the gray flesh of the surrounding trees, their roofs blackened scales of tarred flagstone. Whoever lived in New Molen had laid gravel beneath the soil, and Fury’s boots crunched into it just as the rustling of people reached her ears. Discovered, she sent a guitar riff fluttering into the humid air.

That stank all up and through here too, Junebug whispered directly to Fury’s bones. You feel it?

“Yeah,” Fury replied. Men emerged from the shadows between houses. Two before and one behind. They had a funk too, but it was regular man-funk, nothing spiritual.

We squarin’ up or...?

“Nah. We come in peace, right? Let’s just be easy.” Fury fought down the leftover boiling stank in her guts, turned so that she could get all three of the men in her sights. “Good evening, brothas. We come in peace—”

Behind her, a fourth had approached with the silent speed of practiced predation. Fury cursed when the sour sack went down over her head, and the repeated blows against her skull sent her into swift darkness.

She dreamed in time with the eternal rattle of chains. The presence inside of her, what small piece remained, sent jagged nightmares through Fury’s veins—memories of water, of black bodies dancing, of fire, of bloody feet and whips made of coiled lightning.

When she woke up she woke up in pieces, all raw: lungs, fingers, throat. She coughed for a brace of minutes. Someone had bound her wrists in a rough cord. The floor, a concrete slab, gnawed at her knees. Humid swamp air weighed down her thickly coiled plaits. Where was her hat? A rusty tang had settled on her lips, and somebody’s rough hands gripped her shoulders. New Molen came back to her—the deep stank that permeated the bones of the world close behind. Everything warped sideways. Bile rushed into her throat, she forced it back.

“You’re awake.” The voice was stone, not steel, but the edge to it was just as keen. This was not a question.

“Looks that way,” Fury mumbled. Junebug had gone dark, though Fury could feel the pull of him nearby. Damp air prickled her naked arms. Where was her guitar—

“Good,” the voice came again. “We almost gave you back to the river.”

Before her was a throne, old but strong, built of thick red-brown wood and covered with plush, patterned orange and green fabric.

The woman sitting atop the throne matched its general demeanor: well past youth and heavy with the strength of experience. Her skin was the color of country clay, and she wore her glossy black hair in two thick braids that hung down over her chest. One of her eyes had been torn out, the scar where the organ had been still ragged and raw; the other had a sharp enough gaze to make up for it. She was limned with tattoos: blunt crosses on her hands, the outline of black feathers down one arm. Her big hands were strong enough to squeeze a head into meat, even with two fingers missing from the right one. She wore a ragged gray shirt over her chest, and atop her shoulders, the pelt of an enormous spotted swampcat. Her trousers were gray with many pockets, and she had a longknife strapped to her right thigh. Her brown boots were free of the oily dirt that lived on everything else near.

Junebug’s agitation zipped along their connection. That shit was contagious given the nature of their linkage, so Fury closed herself off to the gaggle of emotions that he represented. She found it odd they hadn’t taken the crystal from her, but a cloudy rock didn’t barter for much of anything in this world where humans had flayed their gods and cast them out.

Fury wondered at her captor’s dead eye, wondered what deity the woman might have sent her prayers to. Some flaming, obsidian-skinned god of war no doubt. Didn’t matter. All of them were gone now. Even her divine protector, whose name Fury was born into, had receded into the barest of whispers. Fury’s deity was a survivor though, as were the scant few who still worshipped the protector. Downtrodden, all of them, cursed since they’d set foot in a world not made for them. She breathed deep, focused on the divine inside her and called the faith of her boundless ancestors. Some of the cloudiness around her head dissipated.

“Is this how you do in New Molen?” Fury spat something nasty with pink froth across the concrete. “Strip people and hide their particulars? You could’ve at least fed me first.”

Rough fingers dug into Fury’s scalp and wrenched her head up, exposing her throat to the woman seated on the makeshift throne.

You need to watch your hands, homeboy! Junebug yelled. His anger was an impotent flare of energy, eddies of violent intent washing over the sour-scented man holding her—he muttered a curse and his fingers trembled, but his grip did not falter. The woman’s single eye settled on Fury. She half-smiled, half-snarled. Gilded fangs glimmered in her mouth.

“You’re lucky we didn’t kill you,” she growled, but there was no threat in it. “I’m Okima, Mayor and rightful ruler of New Molen and surrounding areas. We don’t take lightly to folks just walking up in our spot. The world don’t work that way no more. Way I see it, you could be a spy from The Field, or from Carter’s, or from any other one of those spots that want what we got over here. So as of right now your ass, and everything that belonged to it, is mine now.”

Junebug flickered back into reality, a glowing ball that should have been invisible to everyone except for Fury. Okima sniffed the air like a hunter scenting prey. A man with oily black skin and a distended belly covered in a chain-mesh tunic brought out Fury’s guitar and her boots. The boots, he threw to the floor in front of Fury, but he handed the guitar to Okima with something resembling reverence.

“Give me my shit back,” Fury growled. The sight of her guitar awoke righteous rage in her. It was hers, the last remnant of her family and people, the last thing she carried from her home as it was destroyed, burned in humanity’s war against its divine. Aside from being a priestess and the embodiment of her people’s divine protector, Fury’s mother had been a woodworker. Her father had made a living singing the praises of their divine, when he wasn’t composing raunchy love songs to her mother. Both had been burned to ash by hatred. Besides Fury herself, the guitar was the only thing that remained to prove that her parents’ love had existed.

Instead of responding, Okima kept rustling through Fury’s worn leather satchel, pulling out incrementals and tossing them aside: a hank of red plaid cloth, a couple of silver coins, black elastic ties for holding back unruly hair; these she stuck in her pockets. If Fury could have shot the fiery remnants of her protector out of her eyes, Okima would have been a pile of ash herself. “I’m not fucking around. Just give me my stuff back and let me go on my way. I don’t have a problem with you or New Molen.”

Mayor Okima and her retinue all buckled in laughter, including the man who held her by the hair.

Be easy, Fury Mae. Junebug said. If they really wanted to kill us we’d be dead by now.

Junebug was right, of course. But there was something here, something foul beneath their feet that sent waves of disgust out into the swamp and into New Molen itself. Something that was poisoning this place, perhaps even these people. And if the lightheadedness and strange dreams were anything to go by, perhaps it was poisoning Fury. Even though Okima’s man still held Fury’s guitar it was powerless for him, but Okima herself was armed with that wicked longknife. The other man’s strong hands still gripped her hair.

“You got a smart mouth—” her sour warden said between chuckles “—for somebody who’s breath still smells like mama’s milk.”

“My mama has joined the ancestral train,” Fury said. “All I got in the world is the shit in that bag, and I want it back.”

Okima’s face went stone again. “We don’t negotiate in New Molen, honey. I done told you, your shit is my shit. I might give you some of it back, if you tell me why Carter or maybe Little Ms. Phet sent you over here—”

Some of the old divine pride flushed Fury’s neck and she bristled, sent a flare of straight old-school power flowing through Okima’s space. Okima’s lone eye bucked a bit, and Fury noticed the expression through her righteous rage. “My name ain’t sugar and I ain’t sweet. I ain’t in none of this shit you talking. I ain’t no spy, neither.”

“I’m starting to see that,” Okima murmured. “What are you, then?”

“I’m Furious,” Fury growled. “You could at least have your man get his hands outta my head.”

“Ease up, Two-Son.” The pressure on Fury’s skull relented. Okima gentled the rough edges of her voice. “You say you’re not a spy, and I’ll buy that for now. Still, how’d you find your way to our little river?”

Fury leaned back on her heels, cooling, considering Junebug’s observation. “I’ve been walking. Minding my business. Surviving. My path led me here, and here is where I am.”

Okima shook her head. “Better that you ended up stopping here. Any farther past us is dangerous land.”

Fury scoffed, looked around the room. “Everywhere is dangerous land. Mayor.”

“We have to be rough out here,” Okima said, “But you understand, don’t you? This world wasn’t inherited by no meek ones. The strong survive, and you? You’re strong, strong in the old ways. I can see it in your eyes, can smell all the blood and smoke on that instrument of yours.”

“What that got to do with you holding on to my shit?”

“You mean to tell me you don’t feel it?” Okima said. “That rot? You got to. That’s what knocked you on your ass before you got here. That’s what got us so low like this. I’m surrounded by enemies on all sides, seeing spies and knives in every little piece of dark. Folks want this stability we got, and they’ll do anything to get it. I know you got the last little bit of justice in this world inside your chest, which means I know that you gotta help us. We’re your people too, in need of justice and retribution.”

Fury felt the jaws of the trap slam shut around her. Of course Okima knew who she was. Stupid, letting her taste that power. Stupid, even coming this way. A long moment passed in silence before Fury nodded once, slight enough to be a kiss from the breeze. Okima clapped twice and one of her men removed the cord that had bound Fury’s arms.

“Who am I going to see?” Fury stood, massaged her wrists.

“Tomcat here thinks it’s the devil himself,” Okima said, nodding at her fat black aide. “But he’s so scared of everything now that he can’t see his dick. You look hungry. We can talk about what I need over a meal.”

Okima prayed to some long-gone god over the food, but it was still shit: nondescript greenery boiled to a chewy near-sludge, hunks of some animal’s tailbones charred tough and black, all washed down with cloudy homebrew. Fury forced it down it out of respect to her nutrient-drained body. Okima’s men stood to either side of her, watching with various intents in their gazes.

“Don’t you wonder why we’re empty like this? No, don’t stop eating, just listen. There was an old conjureman who lived down at Coreeane to the south. Old as the dirt, and just as crusty. Rumors were that he had food, treasure down there, at the space where two roads met and crossed. Some fools came through and tried to take his treasures—but he made all of them forget that they knew how to see or eat or breathe, then buried them around his hut to curse anybody who’d want to do him wrong. You know how legends grow: some worshippers came and built a settlement there at the crossroads. The old conjureman stayed there with them. They called him protector.”

Fury harrumphed. In the old ways, people created protectors out of fragments of their will, and breathed being into them. But here, now, was this the same? This wasn’t the old times, but if the story was to be believed, this man seemed to be filling the role of those old-time protectors. Times were strange and the homebrew was thick. Fury considered changing her name to Fuzzy. Junebug bubbled himself back into half-existence.

Shit is a deeper degree of funky in this spot than it needs to be, sistren. We’d do good to dip out soon— He paused for a moment, studying her. You’re about to do some work for ol’ girl, ain’t you? Dammit, Fury Mae. I don’t think you need to let no blood in service to her.

“Your friend seems agitated,” Okima prodded.

Fury slowly turned to face Okima. “You see more than you let on.”

Okima gestured to her darkened eye socket. “Courtesy of our friend I was just talking about. He died, but because his people tied their needs to him his remnant lives on, stanking up the earth with his rot. He’s been poisoning my land and my people for years. I went to the Coreeane four way to handle him...”

Only dregs of the homebrew remained. Fury swirled the ceramic mug, but their settling pattern did not reveal any of Okima’s truths. “You went up against the one them folks named their protector? That was foolish.”

Okima’s face twisted, briefly, before settling into a gilded smile. “Definitely not too bright of me. You know as well as I do that only the smallest pieces of the old protectors are still around. This motherfucker though? He’s damn near as strong as the old ones were when they were as strong as they could be.”

Fury held up her hands. “I doubt that.”

“Joke all you want, but the earth itself is rebelling against that old conjureman holding Coreeane. He’s always hated me, and he’s trying to choke me out of here. We have the right to be here, same as them. Where’s the justice in what he’s doing to us?”

“You know that in this world we gotta make our own justice,” Fury said, the untruth already bitter on her lips.

“You’re sitting right here in front of me, so that’s not the case now.” Okima genuflected, touched her forehead to the dirt. Her back remained rigid, but the supplication was true. “We’ve lost so many, but we can’t lose one more. I’m begging you, please: get justice for me, for my people killed by his curse, and for this land that is so dear to me.”

Divine embers seared purpose along the hollows of Fury’s soul. The ancient call for justice still had the power to compel her. “I’m gonna need my stuff.”

Okima scrambled back to sitting, snapped her fingers, and Tomcat dropped Fury’s bag just far enough away where she had to reach to get it. She stretched out her arms and the big man grabbed them, held her taut. Okima pulled out Fury’s guitar, walked her cracked fingers along the strings. Everyone in the room froze, but only ragged notes came from the instrument.

Fury took a deep breath and let herself be reassured by the smoky, musty old wood scent of her guitar.

Fury waited until the sun dipped below the trees before she set out. She picked her way through the forest, guitar in hand, belly full, pack strapped tight, eyes on the road. For one swift moment, she considered leaving New Molen and Coreeane to their respective fates. Their territorial disputes didn’t mean anything to her.

But they meant something to her ancestors, to her divine, to all those people robbed of justice. This was her charge, why she lived: to carry on the work that had begun centuries ago, when ancestors long removed cried out to someone, anyone for justice. And Okima was one of her people, crying out yet again. With renewed purpose, she kept to her intended path.

Junebug flitted through the dark forest, following the trail of stank that got stronger the further south she went. The moon’s eye, half-closed, spun silver thread down on the soggy earth. Fury pulled out her guitar and began to play, her song low and slow. At each pluck of the string, the thick night air hummed, consumed the music and dispersed it through the darkness.

This place is crying full of dead, Junebug tinkled.

“I know that, June. Why you think I’m tapping out this sad noise? You gonna talk to them for me, right?”

Only the ones that’s kin—that’s all I can do. There’s a lot of people out here who not connected to us at all.  

Fury could sense the truth of it. Hollow lights flashed at the edges of her vision, disappearing when she turned her focus to them. Fury was not afraid of these spirits. The twang of her song spoke friendship to them, reminded them of the joys and pleasures of life. It also, in a change of notes, could speak of their unshackling from this plane of reality, of freedom from devastating emotion and release into the energy swirling through the earth’s eldritch veins.

The remnants kept their distance. Junebug flitted close to those who ventured nearer, traded frosty wisps of ghostly breath with them. After a flurry of moments, he returned.

Coreeane come soon. Conjure man is listening to our steps. He’s strong, the haintfolk say. Keep your head.

Fury grunted, slung her guitar over her shoulder. Silence ruled everything around save for the scuffle of Fury’s boots against the paved southward road. Dead fluttered the leaves. Night wind carried the scent of warmth, an unnatural presence here in the dead of the swamp.

Look, Fury Mae. There it is.

Where New Molen had appeared in fits and starts, the Coreeane Four-Way rose up all at once from the earth. It was a genuine crossroads: Fury’s path ran north to south, and an east-west road intersected it. Once, there had been a sign marking this occurrence, but now all that remained of the waysign was a sharp spike of ruined metal. The houses were well preserved, built for the foolish leisure of times long gone: brightly painted wooden walls and tar-shingled roofs, porches with swings bolted to the ceilings, big bold windows to watch the sun. Soil here had been worked, though no vegetables grew. There was a tinkling of windchimes, and beneath it all, the soul-flipping funk permeating everything. Fury’s New Molen dinner came rushing up, and she fought it back, leaving her throat burning.

Shit, sistren. There’s some bad mojo lurking about, here. I hate to even talk like this, but there’s a chance that we might’ve bit off more than we can chew.

“You always so dramatic, June. You’ve been dead for too long to be so damn shaky.”

Junebug swelled up at the insult, a thundercloud of pride. A hard head make a soft ass, Fury Mae. Better be easy. I might not have a body, but I’ll still whoop a knot on your head.

At the taste of Junebug’s prideful energy, the shadows around Coreeane shuddered, thickened. Somewhere in the cluster of houses, a wooden creaking crawled out into the night.

“Shit, June. You’ve told everything around that we’re here!”

Aw girl, hush. This man knew that we were here from the minute we stepped foot on his land.

Fury readied her guitar. It thumped as she handled it, the old strings humming as if in anticipation. “Come on out here, conjureman! I smell you lurking. I don’t want to hurt nothing or nobody, but I will if you make me come in there after you.”

There was a tug at the edges of Fury’s brain, and she turned in its direction. A man walked through the closed door of the smallest house at the Coreeane Four Way, with its leaning walls and its protector tree hung with bright blue bottles that were filled with the imprisoned glow of the dead. The conjureman was small and thin, had been old and toothless when he died. He still smelled of graveyard dirt and wore his burial clothes: a black pinstriped suit, black shoes, white shirt, and purple tie, the colors washed out against his wispy remnant form. Curls of life fluttered from off his shoulders, consumed by the night spirits that gathered around him like moths.

“I go by Demijohn.” His voice was the fluttering of long lost memories. “You here on Okima’s behalf, then?”

Fury couldn’t seem to form words. She shook her head. “I am.”

“I bet Okima has filled your head full of lies. Something about me stealing this land from her and her people, is that it?”

Ask him about this funk, Fury. Ask him where this stank come from.

“I swore that I would get justice for her and her people. She’s accused you of spreading this hateful taint that’s been creeping through the earth and laying people low.”

“I gave it legs, yes. But I didn’t create it alone.”

“Then I have to do what I am charged to do.”

Reconsider, Fury Mae.

“You need to listen, young’un. Let’s talk just you and me.” He waved his hand as if he was shooing a fly.

Fury—

Junebug blasted off into the night sky like a shooting star. Fury felt the tether that connected him to the crystal around her neck stretch, and stretch, and stretch, and stretch, countless years, countless souls, all stretched taut to snapping. The trauma of Junebug’s sudden strained connection pulled Fury damn near off her feet. She gritted her teeth and—

The world, burning with god-hate. Gathered before Fury, an assemblage of revered ancestors, a glimpse of her kin given to the beyond. She could make out only glimmers of faces, features like hers, points of light great and small, all of them brought to the realm of reality by her mother’s praise-song, her mother’s call out to the power of justice that had lived with them since before anyone could remember. Fury watched a glistening chunk of what remained of the godling fall away from those assembled ancestors and slide down into the world, and she knew him, the brother of a mother’s mother’s mother from long ago. Her familiarity with him was shocking in its intimacy; he was as known to her as wrinkles in her right hand, as the faintest taste of joy after ages spent weeping in despair. Fury knew the depth of her protector’s love for the first time.

You can just call me Uncle Junebug, little mama, he’d said. That would be just fine.

Junebug.

Junebug.

If she lost Junebug he’d be gone forever, doomed to wander the earth as a vengeful, disconnected wraith. Fury clasped the milky white crystal pendant in her fist and willed Junebug’s flight to cease. A clatter of interrupted motion raised a ruckus inside of her, shut up fire in her bones. Fury collapsed to her knees. Junebug was still there. As faint as a passing dream, but there.

Demijohn squatted before her, watched her with moist, drooping eyes. “Ain’t you something. Usually I can send a haint on out of here with a sneeze. Y’all have a deep connection. That’s rare.”

Fury found the strength to stand. She was taller than Demijohn, but somehow he towered over her. He raised his hand again. Fury struggled not to flinch. Instead of obliterating her, he ran a hand through his thinning hair.

“You shouldn’t have been able to do that, Demijohn,” she growled. “But you gonna pay for it all the same.”

“You don’t have to beat understanding into me. But do you understand? There’s a magnitude here and you’ve blinded yourself to the game. Do you remember who you serve? Why you walk?”

“Justice.” Fury gripped her guitar. “I serve my people. I remember.”

“I’m one of your people too. An old man who’s tired of fighting. But the fights never stop.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Fury managed. The world was going soft around the edges. Junebug was as much a connection to her power as the flames in her body.

Before Fury could move, Demijohn winked away. She remained alert, whipped her head side to side. His presence was pressure, a whirlwind enormous and swirling. Fury crouched, extended her arms to steady herself in Demijohn’s vortex of power and emotion.

“Stop the games!” Fury bellowed, feeling a twinge atop her skull. She glanced up toward the night sky.

Demijohn seemed to leap from the moon itself, a twisting, silvery flash of wiry muscle, horn, scale, and cold flame. When he landed, the earth trembled. Remnants gathered around, drawn by his immense aura. He pulled himself up high in his new form, the scales on his belly rasping. Flame licked from between his fangs, and his face had transformed into an elongated snout filled with jagged yellow teeth. Six pairs of horns jutted from his skull. Thin, nappy hair still clung to his head, his eyes still moist and sad.

Junebug’s weak, slow advance tugged the crystal at Fury’s neck. She did the math: running was an option, but she’d have to come back and finish this before she could leave—she’d given her word, and the spirit inside her would burn her until she fulfilled her contract. Junebug was weak; closer, but weak. He needed the calm planar facets of his home crystal to set his spirit aright. Demijohn’s scales shifted; a dry, leathery noise. But he did not move.

“Have you caught hold of your senses?” Demijohn’s voice was still his voice, just everywhere.

Junebug would make his way back to the crystal, so long as their connection wasn’t stretched any further. She removed the thong from her neck, turned, and tossed it as far as she could back down the road she’d come up. When she turned back to Demijohn’s hulking new form, he bared those arm-length fangs.

Conflicted, Fury stalled, trying to give herself time to think. Maybe there was truth to the depths of Demijohn’s power, but all of it came from the long-held prayers and wishes of her people as well, the people who had huddled here at Coreeane. Nothing about this felt right to her. “Why’d you have to go after Junebug, Demijohn? Shit wasn’t personal before that.”

“Your walk and your work is always personal, and this shit ain’t never easy. You’ve forgotten that.” Demijohn pulled half of his body off the ground, swayed. “You’ve gotten lonely, tired. I know that feeling. But you’re not on the right side of shit here. Seems like it’s me that’s gonna have to beat some understanding into you.”

Demijohn came at Fury like a bolt of silver, propelled by all the power he had held in life. His mouth was open, fangs bright. No half stepping. Fury threw herself aside and just barely evaded Demijohn’s charge—he collided with a cluster of houses at one corner of the Four Way. Had his form been physical, they would have been rubble. Instead, they swayed.

Fury stuck two fingers in her mouth and blew out a harsh whistle, a grating flash of sound that sent twin lines of silvery-black lightning flashing down Demijohn’s flanks. He thrashed about, coiling ropes of spirit and long-held hate. Fury leapt up, planted her feet on one of his writhing scales and pushed off, using Demijohn’s strength to propel herself into the sky. She whipped her guitar off of her shoulder as she rose into the air, curled her fingers over the strings, and went to work. She played fast and hot, and the guitar—the song itself responded—slicing, stabbing, biting, ripping, burning in a lattice of fear and rage and love that could have set an entire empire ablaze. Blue-black blood the color of the night sky twinkled from the countless smoking wounds that had been blasted into Demijohn’s ancient astral form.

He weathered the assault, pulling his head deep within his armored flesh. Fury, seeing his defenses close shut, landed and circled him. Sad twin pools of gold glinted from the shadows of his coils. Cold heat built at the Four Way, simultaneously boiling and freezing the air. Demijohn stuck his head out from inside of his armor and blasted a withering stream of ice-green flames from his maw. The fire shifted, shimmered, curled in mid-flight, split into hundreds of smaller flames that homed in on Fury’s living warmth despite her evasive dashing. Each of them was burdened with a story that they screamed into the night as they burned through the air in search of her.

Okima boys took my legs. How can I work with no legs?

Flames licked Fury’s flesh as they exploded against the ground.

This land is bloody and nasty, like death. What kind of protection is this!

She stumbled, fell, rose again.

P-please, no! Not my babies! NOT MY BABIES!

That stank lived in her nose.

Everybody we love. Shit, everybody we hate. Gone. Gone and ain’t coming back.

Murder. Anguish. The smell of the dead, stacked high atop each other, a spiritual charnel stench that was freezing. Burning. The destruction would have been beautiful if it wasn’t tearing at Fury’s mind and body. A patch of flame exploded next to her, seasoned with the sobs of one of Okima’s victims. Fury tried to stand, but her legs seemed like they were filled with water.

“This is a rude trick,” she barked.

Demijohn zipped through and between the flames as Fury attempted to stagger to her feet. A flick of his tail sent her flying, tumbling, crashing, bleeding. His voice was still everywhere. “This is these folks’ fight. I’m just their chosen vengeance.”

Wood and stone melted before Fury’s song as she blasted herself free of rubble. Demijohn waited, his body arranged in a pyramid of coils, his head a swaying, hypnotic pendulum. Coreeane’s dead voiced their pain through the undying flicker of cold green flames, a paralyzing chorus of whispers. Demijohn tensed as Fury emerged, her hair covered in dust. She held up a trembling hand to shield herself against him but dropped it to clutch her stomach as she doubled over and collapsed, consumed by the cries and sobs pouring from the flames.

“I can’t shut them out. Demijohn, I can’t shut them out! They’re crying out for me! What happened? Why is there so much sorrow here?”

“I can show you better than I can tell you,” he said. He raised his long neck. Soft noises, like gulps in reverse, came from beneath his scales. He dipped his head, opened his mouth, and a distended, glowing orb rolled from his tongue across the soil, not stopping until it brushed against Fury’s knee. Okima’s eye was filled with a deathly green glow, and still warm to the touch. A gentle rhythm pulsed from it, like the weakest of heartbeats.

“Go ahead,” Demijohn chided. His form had deflated and Fury realized: it really was hatred that had kept him going, hatred that kept the embers of his power stoked. Without it, he was lessened. But still strong. Fury didn’t relax her guard. Instead, she bent before Okima’s Eye, only intending to take a sip of the sorrow buried within. But as she opened herself up to it, visions swarmed her, dug their claws into her mind and latched on tight.

Fury rode Okima as she walked through a field, backed by an entire cadre of her boys including Two-Son and Tomcat. Blades hung at their hips, clattering loosely as they marched. Fury/Okima looked down at her hands, each fully five fingered. One hand gripped a longkife, sure and heavy.

Coreeane Four Way came into view and the cadre melted into the trees. Fury/Okima signaled the men to spread out, then rose from the tall grass and drew her longknife. The promise of violence flooded her mouth, vibrated through her legs and belly in the sweetest rush of pain as she bellowed, announcing her presence to the assembled people standing before the Coreeane Four Way. Her fear was a thing that Fury could taste, oily and sour.

The conjureman, elderly and ashen, met them on the southbound road.

“Go away from here. These people called me to protect them from your consuming. They don’t want to be a part of this new empire you’re building. They’ve been just fine living here on their own, away from all of your murdering and greed.”

Fury/Okima charged the conjureman, knocked him down, and stepped over him. All around, her boys whipped their blades free, all the cold steel rasping with icy indifference. Fury/Okima could smell the blood already.

“If they won’t join us, they’ll join their ancestors!” Fury/Okima thundered. Her boys took to the slaughter with a butcher’s glee.

Before Fury/Okima could cut down her first, she was knocked stumbling backward. Something sat on her chest and she lashed out, fist striking flesh as tough as an old grudge. Retaliatory blows rocked her, exploded in her head, shoulders, chest. Fury/Okima fell, rolled through the grass, gained her feet, longknife bared. The old conjureman stood close enough to spit on, too far away to cut.

“I’m gonna slice you up real thin.” She snarled. Her breath was rage.

The conjure man, by contrast, was calm. “You won’t. In fact, you’ll never see this place again.”

“I’m here now!” Fury/Okima threw her arms out, walked a wide, bragging circle. “You couldn’t keep me away before, and I ain’t going nowhere now.”

Then the conjure man was gone.

For a moment—just a moment—a primordial fear slithered up Fury/Okima’s shin bones. The conjure man was gone, and what stood in his place? An ancient serpent, winged, horned and fanged. The promise of flaming death. Fury/Okima, to her credit, tightened her ass and prepared to die blade-first.

The serpent vanished then, like a new day’s mist. Fury/Okima gaped. A shadow flashed before her nose. Then came the ripping from deep inside her skull, a endlessly burning lance of pain followed by a slow smolder, the world black with hurt. Blood washed down their cheeks hot and sticky, but when she brushed her hands against her face all they brought away were tears. Hands, none too gentle, lifted Fury/Okima’s wounded body, carried her aloft. A flaming green admonition rang in her ears.

You will never see this place again.

Fury sucked down enormous gulps of Coreeane’s dead-foul air. Whispers of long dead testimonies peppered everything around her. Her stomach’s contents floated on a sea of unease. The conjureman had shifted back to his original form, complete with suit. He sat on one of the porches with his skinny legs crossed at the knees, swinging a foot like the it was a normal, lazy summer evening. Junebug clawed closer, his presence stronger than before.

“I have to settle this before my Uncle returns.”

“He is so many of your Uncles. He is my uncle too, for what it’s worth. I’m sorry I had to do him like that.”

Fury’s guitar had fallen. It lay in the dirt, pockmarked and worn, strings still shimmering with power. She looked at it, then at the old conjure man. His eyes held her.

“If I kill you, that pain...,” she said, “that stank goes with you.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t let Okima live, either.”

“I’m glad you see this. This is the work that all of Okima’s victims—your people as much as mine—would appreciate, I think.” The conjure man stood, stepped closer to Fury. He smelled of wax, of loam and strong liquor and wind blowing through cracked glass. “It will be a heavy burden for you.”

“I guess I never had to really deal with this. Having to be stretched like this between the needs of so many that I care about. But shit, that’s the cost of justice, ain’t it?” Fury considered for a moment, weighing the true cost of the transaction. “I gotta tie myself to you if I am going to do this. I gotta...I gotta make this burden a part of me, if I’m gonna get justice for you and yours.”

“I know,” Demijohn breathed, shuddering. “I’m ready. I been ready. These old bones is tired, child. Plum tired.”

It took Fury thirty-six hours to eat Demijohn. As she cracked open his core, the entire plane of the land opened itself up to her. All the stank, the whispers, all the trauma of death, destruction, and murder that Demijohn held inside of him flowed into her flesh and bones, bled into the hollow spaces in her being and filled them with a cold, gray fire. In those fleeting moments, she could truly see. From somewhere deep within she remembered a song of memory and healing. She plucked out a few notes of it, and Junebug’s struggling form flashed back into his crystalline home, sighing as he settled into its rejuvenating cosmic facets. A new freshness rose from the soil.

Fury staggered with the new weight but pulled herself standing and shuffled to the center of the crossroads, where Coreeane met New Molen. She stooped to pick up Junebug’s crystal. The rock pulsed warm in her palm. She kissed it, hung the thong around her neck, and turned toward New Molen. Each step was lighter than the last.

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Troy L. Wiggins is an award-winning writer and editor from Memphis, Tennessee. His short fiction has appeared in the Griots: Sisters of the Spear, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, and Memphis Noir anthologies, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Expanded Horizons, Fireside, and Uncanny magazines. His essays and criticism have appeared in the Memphis Flyer, Literary Orphans Magazine, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, PEN America, and on Tor.com. Troy is Co-Editor of Fiyah Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. He is a 2018 World Fantasy Award winner and the most recent inductee to the Dal Coger Memorial Hall of Fame. He infrequently blogs about writing, nerd culture, and race at afrofantasy.net. Troy lives in Memphis with his wife, Kimberly, and Jojo, their tiny dog. Follow him on Twitter at @TroyLWiggins.

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