Of all the neighborhoods in the storied city of Lancester, Hollow Knight Hill might be the most storied. Its streets were paved with urban legends as much as concrete. The very name came from a myth about an animated suit of armor come to life to defend the hill the burg was built on. As such, the area possessed an aura and energy that drew in eccentrics, outcasts, and plain old weirdoes like bugs to a lamp. Each one built a career based on rumor, superstition, and conspiracy theory. In short, Hollow Knight Hill was the perfect home for a charlatan like Dr. Durbin Entwhistle.
The man himself casually weaved his way through the borough's densely packed avenues. His sample case of elixirs and would-be cures bounded along on wheels behind him. He nodded to a few of his neighbors while on his sojourn; people too smart to buy what he sold but who nonetheless respected his grift. They nodded back and the doctor considered himself lucky to live amongst people comfortable with some risk in their lives. The thought of such risk tugged his attention back to the mysterious treasure he had acquired a few days before.
"Now what exactly do you contain, my strange prize?" he said to Tahd's forfeited delivery.
He held it up with both hands. A little longer than his forearm, the box was rectangular with a curved lid. Its surface glinted in the sunlight, glossy black like volcanic rock. Above the keyhole a symbol, an abstract design resembling a bird's skull, had been etched in red. He tried the latch with no result.
"Guess the key's still with whoever that schmuck was delivering this to."
Holding the thing to his ear, Durbin gave it an experimental shake. The expected jangling of jewels or coins didn't come, despite the box's definite weight. Only silence. Whatever the contents were, they were sealed tightly within.
"Oh well. I'll let Pucky try picking the lock. I'm sure he'll give me something for this."
Grabbing his sample case and whistling a merry tune, Durbin continued on his way. Unaware of the two pairs of spying eyes tracking him as he meandered toward Hollow Knight Hill's esteemed pawnshop. One stayed hidden in the literal shadows, Tahd's killers and his box's true owners, biding their time for an opportunity to pounce. The other, only able to mingle in the crowd and follow the good doctor from afar, the woman in teal who discovered the courier's unfortunate demise.
Both groups had managed to track the good doctor down. Not difficult when he plastered advertisements on any available surface. Only pamphlets for the new hot springs resort outside Lancester were more numerous. The question now was which spy would make their move first.
The woman in teal broke the stalemate. She filtered out the throng of citizens and approached him.
"Dear me, are you the Dr. Durbin Entwhistle from the flyers?"
At the sound of his name, and the promise of profit, Durbin spun on his heel and addressed his admirer with a smile.
"Why yes, my lovely lady. I am indeed Dr. Durbin Entwhistle. Purveyor of Potions, Remedies, and Cures for what may ail you. You've seen my advertisements then?"
"Oh yes," said the woman, "Is it true you found a cure for Saffron Fever?"
With modesty so counterfeit even a concussed man would call bull, he said, "Oh, I wouldn't say cure. Just an elixir that relieves a few of the symptoms. Also helps with baldness, dyspepsia, and migraines."
He flicked open his sample case and it unfolded into a gallery of miniature bottles filled with unspecified powders, liquids, and pills held in place by leather loops.
"Would you like an example of my work, my dear? The first one is free."
"Oh no, I couldn't. I'm more interested in that box under your arm."
Durbin's geniality spoiled like milk in the sun. "This box?"
He shifted the package more tightly into his armpit.
"Yes, that one," said the woman, "Wherever did you get it?"
Like most experienced con men, Durbin Entwhistle could spot another. This woman in teal had played her hand too early. And knowing the shady circumstances he acquired the box through, he called on years of experience to worm his way out of her trap.
"Old family heirloom. I only now picked it up from the restorers. Nothing much of interest really."
"Ah, your family are devout followers of the Sower then?"
She pointed to the strange etched symbol. "The crest there. It's the sign of the Sower. Your family belongs to the faith?"
"The reformed faith. Now, if I can't persuade you to try some medicine, I must be on my way." He strode away before she could ask another question.
"Hey, wait just a minute!"
Annoyed at her pursuit, Durbin snaked through the sprawling traffic. A practiced city dweller, he weaved through the crowd without difficulty. The smaller woman had to fight her way through.
"Excuse me," she shouted, "I'm trying to get through. Excuse me. Ow! Who stepped on my foot? Excuse me, I'm trying to- MOVE IDIOT!"
Durbin allowed himself a smirk before he turned a corner, losing his pursuer. Despite needing to double back to reach Pucky's pawnshop now, the detour was worth it. That woman smelled like trouble, and the last thing a charlatan wants is trouble. The merry tune returned to his lips as he sauntered along.
He passed a block or two before something stung him on the back of the neck.
Reaching back, Durbin pinched the perpetrator off. A metal beetle, no bigger than a button, had done the deed. It wriggled between his two clenched fingers.
He twitched at another sting, then another. Sharp pinches flared up across all his exposed skin. A small swarm of mechanical insects buzzed around his head. He swatted at them, swinging his sample case over his head, but to no avail. The bugs kept up their assault.
"Damn little... What the heck are these things?"
"I... Thought... that... would slow you down," said the woman in teal, clutching her knees and out of breath behind him.
"These are- ow! -- Yours? Ow! Make them- ow! -- Stop!"
"Not until you hand over the box. You're in grave danger, Doctor Entwhistle."
"Yeah, from your- ow! -- Dumb bugs!"
The woman groaned and gave a whistle, calling off her swarm. The metal beetles zoomed through the air and streamed into her compacted white hair.
"Thank you," said Durbin before spinning around and walking away.
"Hey, didn't you hear me? I told you to give me the box."
The doctor grunted in annoyance and said over his shoulder, "Why should I?"
"Um, I said you're in grave danger."
"Darling, I'm an unlicensed physician. I'm always in grave danger. So fare thee well."
She grabbed him by the sleeve. "No, you don't understand. People are after your property there."
"People like you?"
"No, not people like me. Bad people. People who hurt other people."
"Again, I'm a back-alley doctor. That describes most of my clientele, neighbors, and close friends. Now shoo!"
"No, just give me the damn box!"
The woman made a swipe for it but Durbin held his casino consolation prize over his head.
"Look, this box is all the profit I made off a card game that didn't make me as wealthy as I hoped. So unless you can provide an actual reason for me to hand it over, I'll be on my way."
He made to leave again, but the woman blurted out, "Wait!"
She huffed and said, "Please... trust me. What's in that box isn't worth the trouble."
"Then you know what's inside this?" Durbin saw some value in this confrontation at last.
"Well... no. But the people who want it, the people that courier was supposed to deliver it to, never traffic in anything good."
His interest progressed to curiosity. The thought of the box's intended owners coming for their erstwhile property never occurred to him. Perhaps there was some money to be made here. The woman in teal continued,
"I can't tell you why, but please give me the box."
"Why can't you tell me?"
"Because..." She stopped mid-thought and pouted, her face turning red. Saying anything more would reveal a dangerous secret. "Just hand the damn thing over."
Taking a step back, Durbin sized up his pursuer. He didn't think much of what he saw. The woman's demeanor demanded an unearned respect, despite her being a head shorter than him at least. Her pinned up white locks, the elaborate bracers on her wrists, and her short-hemmed, loose-sleeved teal dress stank of inherited money trying to seem middle class. The only thing he liked about her was the intricate clockwork pendant around her neck, because that at least might be valuable. She gave off the aura of a spoiled rich girl. Worse, a spoiled rich girl cop.
The woman, whose name was Tivany, didn't think much of Durbin Entwhistle either. Who did this lanky potion-peddler in his blousy shirt and embroidered waistcoat think he was?Couldn't he comprehend the danger he was in by holding on to that dumb box? She considered him to be nothing more than a money-grubbing con man, pretending to be more accomplished than he truly was.
Yet, in spite of both's harsh appraisal of the other, they sensed an authenticity in the other's expression. Durbin still wanted nothing to do with Tivany, but uncharacteristically, he would let her off easy.
"Okay, I can appreciate you having your own secrets to keep. The Templin knows most people in this neighborhood do. But I can't let you have my box without an explanation. So I'm leaving now. Stop by Pucky's pawnshop in an hour, you can buy it at his insane markup."
"You don't understand. The box's owners are already coming."
"Then they can buy it. Now goodbye."
He tried to push her out of the way, but Tivany held firm. She blocked his hand and grabbed him by the ear, revealing its pointed shape.
"Is that really an Aelar attitude to take?"
Durbin's fury spiked. He smacked her away and covered his secret.
"Don't you dare do touch me again! I'm only half-Aelar, but people around here aren't particular about that distinction."
"Then why come to the city?" asked Tivany, now out of genuine curiosity, "Why not stay out in the forest with the rest of the Aelar?"
"Maybe because the whole peace and love, everybody shares, community thing wasn't really for me," he said in between pulling waves of hair back over his ears, using a window as a mirror. "I'm a materialist at heart. Though I do miss the free sex sometimes."
"Oh, stop fussing. No one can see the points."
Durbin took a turn pouting at her, but far more angry.
"Will you leave me alone already?"
"You think I like this any more than you do, Mr. Entwhistle?"
"Oh, some doctor you are! Uh, all this arguing is giving me a headache."
He raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Yes, really." Tivany sat down on a nearby stoop and massaged her temples. Her bugs swelled out of her hair to comfort her.
"Well, if you truly have a migraine, I do have a remedy for such a thing," offered the doctor.
"Yeah, I'm sure you do. What is it? Shavings of your foot skin with some mint for flavor?"
"No, I'm serious." He opened his sample case. "Believe it or not, I am actually a decent apothecary. The fake stuff gets me press, but I need enough of the real thing to keep people coming back."
Durbin removed a glass vial of pink fluid from its leather strap, clinking against its fellows, and offered his cure to Tivany without malice.
"Take this. You'll feel better."
She eyed him skeptically. "How much?"
"First one's free."
Not wanting to encourage him but too stubborn to refuse, she snatched the vial out of his hand and popped the cork off with her thumb. Her bugs watched with curiosity as Tivany downed the concoction. She wiped some off her lips.
"Not bad. Cinnamon?"
"Hmm. How long will it take to work?"
Durbin looked at his watch. "Should be in 3... 2... 1."
Tivany's stomach gurgled as sudden sickness overcame her. She swooned, her head gone light, and wilted onto the stoop. The threat of vomit presented itself in her esophagus, along with the building pressure of trapped gas.
"What..." a belch interrupted her question. "... Did I just drink?"
"Not sure honestly," said Durbin smirking, "The remnants of a bunch of my different potions mixed together."
"You," Tivany stifled another burp before speaking, "Bastard! Why?"
"Because, my little lady in teal," he leaned in close to her prone face, "It was the easiest way to distract you, so I could make a fast getaway. Ta ta!"
He gave her a sarcastic wave and hoofed it away, disappearing behind the corner of the block.
As her intestines twisted themselves into knots, and her previous night's dinner moved in reverse through them, Tivany made a vow. If the box's owners didn't kill Durbin Entwhistle first, then she would. Pressing a button on her clockwork pendant, her beetles gathered in a cloud above her. With great effort, she pointed in the direction the damn poisoner fled and the swarm zoomed off in pursuit.
After her metal menagerie departed, the road in front of Tivany rippled. At first she thought the queasiness might be making her see things, but the pavement had definitely swayed. A dark shape slithered down the street, like a shark's fin slicing through the water, the ripple its wake. She watched the serpentine shadow swim through then dart around the corner, in the same direction her bugs had only now flown.
"Oh no. The Calamity Mages found their box."