Durbin had ditched Tivany. Not out of any animosity toward her, indeed he was rather grateful for her getting him out of such a tight spot, but out of criminal instinct. Trusting a cop was the quickest way to wind up in a cell, especially a magic cop. The regular police were bad enough, but Magician's Guild agents tended to be all the more zealous in their duties.
So while Tivany seemed harmless enough, the doctor had learned to keep as far from Guild business as possible. As for why he held on to the box, Durbin couldn't escape the notion that his ill-won prize would yet turn him a profit. But those Calamity Mages, whoever they were, still wanted it, and he doubted they would be willing to negotiate next time. The remnants of that brute's spell still burned in his throat. He needed to reach somewhere safe and protected against magic, and to someone who could explain to him why those masked weirdoes wanted his box. Maybe someone who could open the damn thing too.
Thankfully, Durbin knew a place that fit both criteria.
The half-Aelar charlatan skulked through town to the fringes of Hollow Knight Hill, keeping a watchful eye out for either Tivany or Karna. As the sun began setting on an eventful and unexpected day, he arrived at what could charitably be called a city park. More accurately, the area was a patch of undeveloped farmland in the middle of Lancester, part of a previous mayoral regime's failed effort at urban renewal. Now all that remained was an overgrown mess; too contained to be a forest, but too wild to be a public garden. Abandoned by the authorities, no one cared too much when some mad fool built a tower on the land.
Durbin had come to see that mad fool.
After fighting his way through a thicket of thorny bushes littered with more of those hot springs pamphlets, he hopped up the tower's rough stone steps. Spotting a few lamplights burning within, he knocked on the heavy door. The "Trespass and die" plaque he ignored.
"Thrynn!" He called out. "Thrynn, I know you're in there. It's Durbin Entwhistle. I'm in some trouble."
The iron eyes of the gargoyle doorknocker shifted toward him. "And how is that my problem?" the knocker asked in a woman's voice.
"Then good night."
"Wait! I have something you might find interesting."
He displayed the box before the gargoyle's inquisitive gaze. Its face scrunched up in consideration.
"What's so special about your little jewelry chest?"
"Partly the reason why I'm here," he said. "I've got no idea what's in this thing, but some dangerous people want to get their hands on it. They even busted up Pucky's trying to take it from me."
"You were in that dust-up?"
Word spread fast. Not surprising. Gossip made as good a currency as Quell in Hollow Knight Hill.
"Yeah. Look, do you know anything about Calamity Mages?"
The gargoyle knocker froze. He couldn't tell if it had disenchanted or not.
"Thrynn?" he asked.
Loud thunks answered him, the door's hard bolts sliding open. At least seven latches on the other side shifted, padlocks fell away, and chains were undone. The door opened on its own, letting Durbin enter into the tower's foyer. Simple bare stone to fit Thrynn's Spartan lifestyle. Only a roaring fireplace and a comfy chair nearby betrayed any livability. At the foot of a long spiral staircase descended Thrynn herself.
Clad in a sweater made from the wool of a creature that really didn't want to be sheared over a ratty, days dirty nightgown, she stared down at Durbin with equal measures of annoyance and concern. Her cola bottle glasses obscured the emotion somewhat. Thrynn's hair matched her dress, a thick and wild mess that would frighten away any comb that dared come near. She had a bearing befitting a stern librarian in the body of a veteran vagabond. In other words, Thrynn was the perfect picture of a magical researcher.
"Oh, Durbin. What have you gotten yourself into now?"
"Nice to see you too."
"Give me that blasted thing."
She pulled the box out of his grasp without waiting for a response and looked over its every corner.
"Now what do those Calamity Mages want with this?"
"I haven't the faintest clue," said Durbin. "I'm still rather unclear on what Calamity Magic even is, as a matter of fact. I'll be safe here, right?"
Thrynn waved him off and said without looking at him, "Yes, yes. You're perfectly safe. What does this etched symbol represent?"
"Again, I don't know. Kind of why I'm here." Tivany's little interrogation in the street came to him again. "Someone mentioned something about the Sower. Does the name mean anything to you?"
The researcher narrowed her eyes, examining the lock a hair's breadth away from her face. "Perhaps. I'll need to do some more research. I suppose you want me to open this damn thing too, huh?"
"Thrynn, you're a terrific human being."
She scoffed. "Yes, when I put my face on."
Satisfied the situation was back in hand, Durbin welcomed himself to the cozy seat in her foyer. It felt heavenly, despite the spring poking into his ass. He knew he could count on Thrynn; she had always been a dependable business partner. Back when he was first starting out as a patent medicine peddler, she sold him his first ingredients, even made him some genuine potions a time or two. Nowadays, she sold obscure magical knowledge, when doing so didn't interfere with her research. Info banned or hidden by the Magician's Guild, often she was the only source for such things. He would have to give her a cut of whatever he made off the box, but he didn't mind. Her contribution would be worth the cost.
"What did you do to your hand?" she asked.
Durbin observed his lacerated hand, wrapped in a strip of his shirt. The aftermath of his brief skirmish with Karna.
"Oh. Little defensive wound."
"Hmm. There might be something in my cabinet to deal with that," she said, "Give me about an hour. Then I should have an answer about this box for you."
"Take your time Thrynn. I'm in no rush now."
A heavy rapping on the door silenced their conversation. Both jumped a little at its suddenness.
"Who else did you bring here? Those Calamity Mages?"
"No one, I swear."
"Well, let's just be sure. Shall we?"
She tapped her glasses, and the lenses turned opaque. Outside, her gargoyle knocker blinked to life and glared at the unwelcome visitor. Tivany, sent aback by the enchantment, gave an awkward wave.
"Um, hello?" she said.
"Are you friends with a short girl in a teal dress?" Thrynn asked.
Sighing, Durbin buried his face in his hands. Why couldn't he escape her? Why wouldn't this damn magic cop take a hint and stay ditched? What did he need to do, actually poison her?
"Let her in."
Raising an eyebrow, the researcher complied. She clapped twice and the door swung open. Mentally, she prepared a spell to turn this intruder into a salamander if they proved dangerous. Only a select few were welcome in her tower.
Cautious with Thrynn standing right there, malice smoldering behind her thick frames, Tivany entered the tower's foyer and strode right up to Durbin. Her two clockwork hornets buzzed over her shoulders.
"Durbin Entwhistle, how dare you abandon an agent of the Magician's Guild like that? I should arrest you for fleeing a crime scene," she said, ending with a pout and an arm fold.
Her demeanor had shifted. Tivany was acting more like he ditched her at a fancy party than after saving his life. That didn't mean the doctor was any happier to see her. Thrynn's hand twitched instinctively at the mention of the Guild.
"That isn't illegal," he said. "How did you find me anyway?"
Tapping the amulet around her neck, Tivany whistled. One of her metal insects, the life-size ones, flew out of his hair and returned to its mistress, nestling back into her own coiffure.
Durbin's hand went to his head. How had he not noticed her little spy up there? He was mildly impressed at the deception. "You sneaky little devil."
A brief smirk creased Tivany's lips, but she swiftly got back to business.
"Say whatever you want Entwhistle, as long as you hand over that box. The sooner the Guild has it in custody, the better off we'll all be."
"Don't look at me. Talk to Thrynn if you want it."
As Tivany turned, the frantic researcher clutched the box to her chest like a precious treasure and hissed at her.
"Durbin, how dare you allow this Guild stooge into my tower! You know what I keep here."
"What do you keep here?" The inspector asked.
"None of your business pig!"
Tivany gasped. No one had ever insulted her so brazenly before. Not even other criminals. Her back straightened with haughty assumed authority.
"Well I'm afraid the item you're clutching is part of an ongoing Guild investigation. As such, I demand you hand it over now. Or else take your complaints up with my deputies."
Her hornets jumped off her wrists and hovered menacingly over her head, their compound glass eyes blazing red and stingers primed.
"Pfff. Your trinkets don't intimidate me." Thrynn pulled a bottle from her sweater and tossed its contents at one of them. The chemical brew covered the mechanical insect, crystallizing in the air, and dropped it to the ground like a rock. Tivany balked at her property's sudden destruction.
"See? Their enchantments are simple enough to dispel. Unlike mine."
"Did you just threaten an agent of magical law?" said Tivany.
"I ought to throw in a cell for that alone!"
"And I ought to make excrete slime in one of my jars!"
The two women leaned forward, glaring at the other with gritted teeth. Durbin had seen enough stray dogs fighting in the streets to recognize the exchange. Not believing he was doing so, he stepped in to play peacemaker.
"Ladies, please. Killing each other is in none of our best interests. We have a common enemy after all, these Calamity Mages. A subject I'm still somewhat fuzzy on by the way. So let's calm down, shall we?"
Both women quickly broke off their stare down to spare him a glance. Silently, they agreed and stepped away. Tivany's remaining hornet returned to her forearm and Thrynn relaxed her guard on the box.
"There, much better," he said, "Now, if I could get that explanation on Calamity Magic?"
"Wait, you work in the underworld and you haven't heard of it?" said Tivany.
He shook his head no.
With an annoyed sigh, Thrynn said, "You explain that insanity to him, Guild stooge. I have research to do. Durbin, don't let her peek at any of my things." The researcher ascended her spiral stairs without another word.
"Will do Thrynn. So, Calamity Magic then?"
"Oh, where to begin?"
The fireplace in Thrynn's foyer burned bright and warm. Tivany sat cross-legged before the hearth, gathering her thoughts. Calamity Magic was a complicated subject, and even the Guild didn't understand it completely. But then again, neither did the majority of its practitioners. Durbin settled down beside her, all falsehood gone from his face, replaced by genuine curiosity. Tivany decided it best to start at the most basic.
"How familiar are you with magic?" she asked. "Are you aware of how it's performed?"
"I have a fair idea. Spellcasters make pacts with powerful entities, and those entities become their Patrons. When spellcasters try casting something, those Patrons vouch for them to whoever's power they're borrowing for the spell. Is that right?"
"More or less. Spellcasters need a talisman to channel that power too. Well, Calamity Magic is all about bypassing that system. No Patrons or talismans. Just spellcasting direct from the source."
"I don't quite understand."
"Let me give you an example." She gestured to the blazing fire. "Say you were a spellcaster and you wanted to cast a fire spell. You would call on a Fire Vesper to borrow its power, and as long as you were in good standing with your Patron, you would cast your fire spell. The flame would come out of your wand or whatever. But Calamity Magic doesn't follow that method. Calamity Mages try channeling raw magical energy and changing it into fire themselves, using their own body as a talisman."
"How... How does that even work?"
"That's the thing, it doesn't. Not for long anyway. The human brain isn't equipped to process all the necessary calculations to turn raw magic into anything useful, and the human body isn't built to channel it either. It's a sick, diseased kind of spellcasting and in the end it inevitably deforms or outright kills the people who try using it. That's why we call it Calamity Magic."
Durbin stared into the fire, reckoning with Tivany's explanation. Her description made him glad he didn't deal with more magically inclined folks aside from Thrynn. Seeking out power on such a scale always had downsides, downsides those seeking it often became blind to. He was fine sticking with his garden-variety greed. The worst that would happen to him is a long stay behind bars.
"If this Calamity Magic is as dangerous as you say, then why are those goons in the hoods and bandages messing with it?"
"Besides the fact that messing with it has screwed up most of their minds? Misguided philosophy mostly. Some spellcasters find Calamity Magic attractive because they're tired of being beholden to their Patrons. Some are looking for a quick path to power without the work. And some of them are so far gone; all they want is to unravel the entire cosmic blanket. Karna, whom you met before, has built up a little cult on that exact premise."
"Let me guess. They figure because they're such losers in this reality, ending the whole thing would only be an improvement for them?"
"Pretty much," said Tivany.
Shaking his head with exhaustion, Durbin reached for his sample case. He kept a flask of strong spirits stashed in the bottom. The idea of him dying a gruesome death at the hands of some magical nutcases was more than enough for him to need a drink.
He took a swig and savored the smolder in his throat. Not the thick, sickly-sweet burning of the Calamity Magic still lingering there, but the fine, barrel-aged flavor of choice liquor. He only wished he had some ice to pour it over.
"I suppose luck wasn't with me when I won that damned box."
Still, he thought, perhaps I can squeeze some profit out of the cursed thing yet.
He offered Tivany the flask but she declined.
"I'm technically on duty," she said. "I wouldn't dwell on it too much, Dr. Entwhistle. Karna and her zealots would have gotten a hold of that chest eventually. This way at least, there's a chance they won't."
"Maybe, but I wouldn't have conned that courier into betting it if I realized what kind of trouble it'd bring me."
He took another swig as his comment wafted through the air. Though she heard it clearly, Tivany took a moment to make sense of what he just said. But like the mystic gears of her metal hornets, things clicked into place.
"Wait." She stood. "You conned Tahd into gambling the box?"
Taken aback by the shift in her tone, Durbin almost choked on his drink. He wiped his mouth, coughed for a second, and said, "Well yeah. How did you think I obtained the cursed thing?"
"I thought he bet it himself. He did have a gambling problem."
"One I was not ashamed to take advantage of."
With a stifled shout, Tivany's temper broke. She flicked a dial on her control amulet and her remaining hornet shot off her forearm. The insect bore down on the sitting Durbin, making him topple over in surprise, and angled its stinger ominously close to him. She gave another quick flick and the liquid within the needlepoint turned a dangerous emerald.
"What... What's in that needle?" asked the doctor.
"Poison, obviously. I can't believe this. You know Entwhistle, when I saw you not want to leave your friend at the pawnshop; I thought there might be more to you. But there isn't. You're no better than Karna and her murderers."
"Now hold on just a minute!"
Now Durbin stood. The hornet tried hemming him in, but he pushed the silly bug away without fear. He got face to face with Tivany, their fury evenly matched though he had a foot of height on her. Holding up a finger, he pled his case.
"I may be a crook, I admit that upfront, but do not lump me in with those psychopaths."
She shifted to the side with a huff, putting her nose up at him. Her hornet zoomed over and, rather comically, mimicked its mistress' gesture.
"Please," she said, "Criminals are criminals. All your type ever does is prey on innocent people. Your fake elixirs and sugar water may not inflict the same kind of damage, Doctor Entwhistle," she said with bitter sarcasm, "but your lies are just as harmful as the Calamity Mages. Like them, you're only out for yourself."
"And what if I did actually want to help people, huh?"
She didn't respond. Indeed, Tivany ignored him and sat down in Thrynn's armchair, crossing her legs with flair to make her disdain for his character clear. He didn't care; merely bit the inside of his cheek. He was Doctor Durbin Entwhistle, and he didn't need any magic cop's permission to justify himself.
"Look," he began, "I know I'm a crook, like I said. But I'm a crook with a code. Certainly I sell remedies and medicines of questionable quality, but I've never sold anything that would actually make someone sick."
She shot him a glare, remembering the swill he gave her earlier. Her stomach was still twisted in gassy knots. Her hornet buzzed, eager to sting him.
Durbin acknowledged her point with a raised hand and continued, "In fairness, that stuff isn't for sale. I was only trying to get you off my trail, which I apologize for. But I don't sell poison. My elixirs might not do anything, but they don't hurt people either. Here, check for yourself."
He tossed his open sample case into her lap. Examining a few vials, Tivany knew enough of potion making to recognize he told the truth. Her gaze at him softened.
"In some cases, a placebo is all people want. If someone comes up to me looking for real medicine, I'll send them to the apothecary. Or offer them some of my genuine stock. I'm not a monster like Karna. I'm a businessman."
"And Tahd? You didn't mind taking advantage of him," said Tivany, anger clearing from her tone.
"That one's on Rouis and the gambling house," he said, turning away. The doctor was a mite embarrassed at conning the courier now knowing it led to his death. "They shouldn't have let him in if he had a problem. Perhaps I wouldn't have hustled him if I knew."
For a moment, only the fire's roar filled the chamber. Durbin shivered. Selling the truth always left him uneasy, almost naked. He only hoped Tivany bought it. Then he felt something prod into his back. Turning, he discovered the Guild inspector nudging him with his sample case. He took it back and sensed her fury had subsided, her hornet back in bracer form again. She still had a rich girl's expression, but now it was a kind rich girl's.
"I think I'll take that drink now," she said.
Durbin passed her the flask. She took a long draught, wiped her mouth, and considered the doctor. He squirmed under her understanding gaze.
"There's still a little Aelar compassion in you after all, huh?"
He smirked. "Yeah, just don't let word spread."
The two sat back down in front of the fire, leaning on Thrynn's armchair. They didn't say anything more, only shared Durbin's flask and enjoyed the warmth. Eventually, they nodded off on each other's shoulders.
A hoarse clearing of a throat woke them. Startled, they found Thrynn standing at the foot of her stairs, judging them.
"Getting cozy, are we?" she said.
Neither Durbin nor Tivany said anything; they only blushed and tried to hide their faces.
"If you're interested, I think I've discovered what's in your box."
Ascending the first step, Thrynn gestured for them to follow.
"Let's go open it, shall we?"