The day Giles discovered evidence of strife in Othilia, he started digging, clawing in a blind fury, desperate for answers. When he finally peered into the deep and realised he was disturbing a grave, the only thing he proved was that the demon spice always claims its victims. One way or another.
It was midsummer. A gentle breeze combed the lanky grass, keeping the humidity at bay. The ranchers were out in their fields; all proprietors were open for business; and the baron’s copper mine was astir. It was business as usual in Othilia, and the gem between the rocks continued to glimmer.
Giles had spent the better part of an hour out by the Enki River, treading water in a basin that was spared the sulphuric taint flowing down from the copper mine upstream. He’d been whittling away his brief respite from the office after a morning buried in requisite forms due to Lee’s abrupt absence. He was already twenty minutes late getting back to his post by the time he got out of the water and opted to stroll the embankment. He could probably loiter for another hour without repercussion. He was 2IC after all, and could chalk up any number of personal expeditions onto the payroll, so long as his Chief Commander didn’t find out. Or Baron Wordsworth.
He beamed as he walked the sodden bank, his understanding of distance and time gone astray. His navy-blue uniform—complete with sharp grey trimmings and a fine collar-medallion anyone in town could recognise, as well as a freshly-picked lily pinned to his jacket pocket—was damp under his arms and all down his legs. He didn’t mind. In the afternoon breeze it felt cool against his skin.
When he stumbled upon the old camp, he wasn’t sure how far he’d wandered. He could still hear the mechanical hubbub of the copper mine, which drifted down the river like flotsam, so he knew he couldn’t have been more than forty or fifty minutes from Cujo’s Crossing.
There wasn’t much to it. In fact, the camp was quite unremarkable, nothing more than a shallow den scooped out of the loose sediment with a vague covering of dead foliage. There was a blackened pit in the centre with charred leaves and twigs, as well as some dark shards. A quick search of the den also revealed a generous stash of empty bottles with torn labels half-buried in the muck.
Giles grinned. He knew well-enough what this place was, both he and Miles had shared a similar secret some fifteen years ago. So long as no one was getting hurt, and providing the young rascals kept their inebriated entourage as far from Othilia as possible, he felt perfectly content to turn a blind eye …
Until a discarded pouch snagged his eye and reeled him in.
The fabric was thick, impermeable. The pouch was stained with mud and the drawstring was missing. The original contents, however, had been preserved, totalling a smidgen of dusty brown powder, enough to fill a teaspoon. In terms of sugar or salt, it wasn’t more than a pinch you could use to sweeten your tea or add flavour to a batch of boiled vegetables. Yet once Giles caught scent of the dark powder and realised what he’d found, his readiness to forget this place quickly deteriorated: There was enough residue of the demon spice here to send half-a-dozen grown men into an illicit delirium of heinous memories and jagged dreams.
Giles frowned, uttered a curse. He hoped the demon spice had scarred them; he hoped it had summoned irrevocable horrors that stopped them from sleeping at night, because the curious little bastards deserved nothing less. They needed to suffer, yet no matter what happened, he feared nothing could prevent the inevitable addiction. Strife was like a gored fishing hook, the desire never went away, not without doing a lot of damage, ripping the body to shreds. Withdrawal was not an easy process, and it could often destroy the victim quicker than the addiction itself. The youths were undoubtedly suffering, but not in the way Giles wanted.
Worse still, a lightning flash of fear had torn out of the clouds and started a fire inside of him. Giles now worried that there was a much larger source of strife somewhere in Othilia, somewhere in his town. If that was true, he had to find it and he had to eradicate it. He could not let the demon spice wrap its ugly fingers around Othilia and strangle the life he had cultivated and preserved. He would treat it like a malignant cancer, and if that meant cutting off an infected limb to save the rest of the body, he would be more than willing to release the guillotine.
He pocketed the remnants of strife and rushed back to Othilia.