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Calamity Mages, by and large, are not known for having free time on their hands. Their hours are often spent pouring over banned grimoires, practicing new occult experiments, and gibbering to no one under their breath. So being forced to wait on Thrynn's unkempt lawn did Karna's cult no favors. A few of her braver zealots threw themselves at the tower's defensive spells, rushing forward like bulls. These idiots were almost immediately rebuffed; slamming into the invisible shield and getting a harsh zap for safe measure. Others mulled around, kicking at the dirt, making conversation, and playing cards.

Karna and Martex, to their credit, held their position at the front of their rabble, stewing in delayed vengeance. The man mountain grunted something unintelligible to his leader.

"Yes Martex. You can twist Entwhistle's head off like a wine cork. But only if he gives us the box. If not, I'm going to turn him into a smear beneath my foot."

Flickers of dark energy sparked in her palms at her words.

Finally, the door to Thrynn's tower opened a crack. A white handkerchief poked out, waving gently. Durbin spoke through the gargoyle knocker again.

"I'm coming out with your box. Don't engulf me in flames please."

Karna smirked behind her mask. "Accepted Doctor," she said and turned to her flock, "Entwhistle's coming. Ready yourselves."

The Calamity Mages quickly formed back into a mob, picking up their torches and clubs and getting their ire back up. Their scramble made them appear like the easily distracted teenagers they were.

Durbin stepped out on the threshold, the cursed chest cradled in his arms like a newlywed bride. He walked through Thrynn's protective bubble toward the waiting throng, but showed no sign of fear. As he drew closer, Martex's breathing sped up and his anticipation grew, looking forward to the delightful snap Durbin's neck would make.

The doctor stopped outside of the hulk's reach.

"You've made a very wise decision today, Doctor Entwhistle," said Karna.

"Well, I didn't have many other options. It isn't like I could go to authorities."

"Now, if you would open the box please, so I confirm my property is still in there."

Durbin chuckled. "Don't miss a trick, do you? Very well."

After fumbling with the lock for a moment, the lid popped up without trouble. He lifted the box higher and displayed its contents for all the assembled cultists to see. A dark fetal figure encased in amber, exactly what they expected.

"Excellent. Now hand it to me and Martex will deliver the quick death I promised."

Karna reached out to take her long-awaited treasure only for Durbin to reel back. "Ooh, see here's the thing. Just because I can't go to the authorities, doesn't mean I have to give you this box. There is a third option available."

The Calamity Mages gossiped amongst each other, trying to figure out what he meant, until their mistress silenced them with a gesture. "What are you talking about?" she asked.

"As I said, I have a third option. I can destroy the box."

Shutting the lid, he placed it on the ground and withdrew Thrynn's flask of acid from his sample case. He playfully shook it in front of Karna. Despite her mask, Durbin could tell she thought he was bluffing. Not this time. He dumped the full container on the box.

"No!" screamed the cult leader, throwing herself at the spot where her prize lay. The corrosive liquid splashed right on the box's lid, swiftly burning an enormous hole in the wood. The bubbling and sizzling of chemicals at work ate their way through the whole structure, stripping away varnish, melting fossilized sap, and dissolving any preserved remains. A thin line of steam snaked into the air as the acid did its job. After a few moments, the majority of the chest and its contents were reduced to slag. Desperate, Karna picked up the remnants only for them to collapse in her hands.

The half-Aelar charlatan smirked. The masked mob was convinced he just destroyed the Colossi embryo they desired so badly. Which meant his scheme was proceeding exactly as planned.

For while the cultists spent the allotted ten minutes idling away on the grass, Durbin had been plotting with his two female accomplices. The scheme they concocted was pretty simple as such things went, a switcheroo at heart.

"Tivany, I need your last hornet," he said.

"Why?"

"Don't worry about the reason. But trust me, you'll be getting the embryo when we're done. And if this works, you'll be alive too."

"Oh," she said, uncertain of what the doctor was about to do. "Um, I suppose that's fine then." Whistling, she summoned her mechanical insect into her hands. After a few gentle strokes, she deactivated it and handed it over.

"Thank you. Now Thrynn, do you have any more hardening agent? The stuff you used to destroy the other one."

"A little. I think I see where you're going with this."

The researcher hopped to and fetched the correct bottle. Durbin turned his focus to the box. With barely a second thought, he passed the amber slab within to Tivany.

"Here you are."

He caught her so unprepared she nearly dropped the precious, dangerous artifact. "All right. Would one of you like to explain what we're doing? Those Calamity Mages won't wait long."

"Something occurred to me a minute ago," said Durbin, "They know I'm here, but they don't know you're here. So they don't know these are here." He held up her dormant hornet. "And they know the embryo is in their box, but not what it looks like."

"How does that help us?"

"Because we only need to show them what they expect to see, like this."

Taking the bottle of hardening agent from Thrynn, he poured it over Tivany's insect. The liquid quickly filled the box's interior, solidifying into a perfectly shaped slab. Satisfied, Durbin showed his handiwork off to Tivany.

"Voila! One Colossi embryo!"

The Guild Inspector's eyes lit up with understanding. "That might work."

"And with a little of this," he said lifting the flask of acid they used to open the lock, "We can make those nutcases stop looking for it too."

He packed all the bottles away and closed the lid. A con like this took Durbin back to his early days. In the bottom of his sample case, he found the next component of the scheme. One that would hopefully save his hide.

"Now, the tricky part will be how I escape with my life."

With a mob of angry, anarchist spellcasters about to bear down on him, that tricky part had arrived. The Calamity Mages dropped their torches and clubs, hands all igniting with bristling scab-red energy, and hunkered around each other to fire off volleys. Martex's own body-surrounding aura expanded to gargantuan size. But Karna held all them back with a raised hand and an admonishing head tilt. Her followers should know better than to deny their mistress the first blow.

"You just made a terrible mistake, Entwhistle. Now you're going to feel every instant of pain as I peel away every layer of your flesh and dig your eyeballs out of your skull!"

Karna went up like a flame over a gas leak, her whole body engulfed with Calamity Magic. Even the eyeholes of her mask burst into twin blazes. She stomped toward the half-Aelar charlatan, every step falling like a hammer blow, and her zealots slowly advanced behind her.

Holding up his sample case as a meager defense, Durbin put his risky ploy into action.

He began, "I understand you're upset, but try to see things from my perspective. Giving you that box would have ended as badly for me as bringing it to the Guild. Taking it off the board entirely was the only smart move from where I stood."

"Oh, you were quite incorrect about that!"

"Still, still, I am a fair businessman. As such, I can offer you reasonable compensation for the loss of your property. And, atone for a previous mistake of mine. I injured your face rather badly back at the pawnshop, right? I can help heal it."

At this proposal, Karna's fury cooled. Only the burning spots around her eyes remained. Her fellows halted.

"Go on," she said.

Durbin smiled. She'd bit the hook, now to reel her in. Reaching into his sample case, he began his spiel.

"As you are aware, I am a doctor of some renown. In here, I carry the remedies to many ailments and maladies. Among them, lacerations of the skin." He withdrew a tin of fatty ointment and offered it on his palm to Karna. "A few applications of this specialized balm and even the most scarifying of cuts will vanish, leaving naught but a baby fresh epidermis behind."

"How can I trust you after your little stunt?"

"Well, you're going to kill me anyway, aren't you? Where's the risk? But don't trust me. Trust the results. I used this very ointment myself to heal my own hand after dealing said disfiguring blow."

He could sense Karna glaring at him despite the mask she wore. With a nervous laugh, Durbin added, "For which am I ever so sorry for inflicting."

He held out his other hand for her to examine. True to his word, there were no cuts or scars despite the handful of broken glass he'd clutched earlier. He simply neglected to mention Thrynn was responsible for the recovery, not his balm. The murderess seemed mollified, so he strengthened the pitch. "Go on, try some."

Skeptical, she snatched up the tin and tilted her mask up. The good doctor snuck a peek at her undisguised face, somewhat surprised at what he found. If not for the slashes all over her jaw and mouth, Karna would have been rather attractive.

She scooped up a generous amount of ointment on her bandage-wrapped fingers and rubbed it on her mutilated face. Her twitchy, motley followers leaned in, waiting for a verdict, many hoping they could still murder Durbin. The doctor held his breath as well. Her decision would make or break his scheme. After a few minutes, she redonned her disguise and said, "This balm issoothing to my skin. I suppose I can accept it. If your remedy doesn't work, I can always come back and kill you."

Durbin smiled, but tried to make it resemble one of relief not joy. Karna, devious Calamity Mage and murderer, had bought his bullshit thoroughly and without question. A perfect display of reeling in a sucker.

He said, "I thank you for the reprieve madam" and bowed.

Karna snapped her fingers. "Come brothers and sisters. Let us vanish."

The Calamity Mages turned around and filed away, melting back into the shadows they'd arrived from. Some of them sulked and moaned as they departed, disappointed at not getting to inflict meaningless violence and feel justified in doing so. Martex in particular pouted like a child denied desert. But they all left as their mistress commanded, without objection. None noticed the miniature metal insects stowed away in the folds of their robes and bandages.

As the last of the shadow shapes slithered off into the dark night, Tivany exited Thrynn's tower to join Durbin, who had collapsed to the ground in satisfied laughter. "They bought it," he said to her, "all that threat and bombast, and they fell for a con I put together in ten minutes."

"I can't quite believe it myself." She helped him up. "Aren't you afraid of Karna coming after you once she realizes that ointment is a sham?"

"No, not really. By then the lead poisoning will have probably kicked in."

Tivany gasped. "I thought you said you didn't have any poison?"

"I said I didn't sell poison. I never said I didn't have any."

She shot him a dirty look he shrugged off. Durbin doubted she would arrest him for that scam.

The inspector moved to the remnants of the box, and her last hornet with it, and let loose a sigh. "I don't suppose I get fair compensation for the loss of my equipment, do I?"

"Hey, I'm already letting you take the Colossi embryo, aren't I? Isn't that enough?"

She pointed a finger at him. "Hardly, Durbin Entwhistle. You should have given it to me in the first place. Then we could have avoided this whole mess!"

Shifting the bag containing the prize fossil behind her, Tivany stuck her nose up at him. "Though, your eventual cooperation is appreciated."

Durbin shrugged but accepted the reluctant compliment. Despite themselves, they were beginning to like each other.

"Well," she said, "I suppose I ought to get this to headquarters." She patted her bag. "But I will be back for my reimbursement."

"Hey, you know where to find me."

"Indeed I do." A slight smile creased her lips. "Good night Doctor Entwhistle."

He gave her an elaborate bow. "Good night Miss Zenboor."

"Inspector Zenboor, if you please."

"My apologies, Inspector."

With an appreciative nod, Tivany took her own leave. Durbin shook his head, still uncertain what to make of the haughty Guild Inspector. He had a suspicion he hadn't seen the last of her. Bone tired, the doctor decided to turn in for the evening. Thrynn would put him up for the night. Or so he thought until he ran face-first into her magic barrier.

"Thrynn, what the hell? Let me in!" he cried up to her window.

Speaking through her gargoyle knocker, the researcher shot back, "No way Entwhistle. After all the trouble you brought to my door tonight, you're banned for a month. Maybe two!"

"Oh come now Thrynn. It wasn't that bad, was it?"

She answered by having her barrier shock him.

"Fine! Be that way, you coldhearted loon!"

Durbin crossed his arms in defeat. After that entire headache, what had his adventure with that box gotten him? No profit, that was for sure. What a waste. He kicked up some dirt to take out his frustration.

"Oh well."

He scooped up his sample case and strode away from Thrynn's tower. If he were lucky, he might reach home before sunrise. Then after a long, well-earned sleep, back to pounding the pavement, selling his charlatan's wares.

Another day, another con.

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A note from NicholasDuval

Thank you for reading Dr. Entwhistle Wins a Box!

If you enjoyed this or any of my other Tales From Mirthland, check out my website nicholasduval.com for more info on the setting. You'll also find a preview for my upcoming novella, Silty the Sorceress and the Wizard's Duel.

Until next time, dear readers, bonne nuit. Bonne nuit to you all.


About the author

NicholasDuval

Bio: Nicholas Duval, or Nick to his friends, is a Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Genre writer from the US. He's been writing for Seven years and is happy to finally be sharing his work.

He also may or may not be a Giant Robot. No one is sure.

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