Krunzle the Quick
by Hugh Matthews
Chapter Three: The Apprentice's Eye
He descended several flights of steps, took a number of turns along torch-lit corridors, and came at last to the threshold of a windowless cell deep below ground. The glowing orb entered and Krunzle did likewise. Once within, the light blinked out, and he had a momentary glimpse of a small, winged man fluttering out through the open doorway and disappearing along the corridor.
Krunzle made to put his head through the opening to see the creature more clearly, but the air that filled the exit now demonstrated the ability to become a clear, springy substance that flung him back into the room. By the light from the corridor, he looked around and found an ill-smelling pallet, a rough stool, and a terra cotta oil lamp with a wick of greasy wool. He was able to just reach this last item around the edge of the door to meet the torch ensconced in the passageway and, with the lamp's feeble light, sat down on the stool and took out the scroll.
It was written in a script that he could read, and he quickly took in what it had to tell him. He was to wait until the pixie returned to lead him out of his cell. Then he must go to a house in the lower town—a map to find the place, an image of its exterior, and a second, multi-leveled map of its interior were provided. He was to find his best way in, locate something called an "apprentice's eye"; the note said that the geas he was under would ensure that he recognized the object when he saw it.
You may use whatever means and procedures you deem appropriate, said the note, but if you offer violence against any persons within the house, the hand you raise will instead strike you where you have already felt a blow.
Once he had achieved the goal of the mission he was to bring the apprentice's eye back to Baalariot. The note said that while exiting the target area he was encouraged to make as much noise and commotion as possible.
"Why would I do that?" he asked the walls of his cell. He received no answer.
Krunzle turned over the single sheet of parchment, but there was nothing on the other side. He reread the note again and, when he realized that the letters were steadily fading away, applied himself to memorizing the map before it disappeared.
A few moments later, he was left with two things: a blank piece of scraped sheepskin and a question. The question was: what was an apprentice's eye?
Then came a third: an overwhelming urge to sleep.
He awoke to find that his various pains had faded. He was also hungry, and was glad to find that while he slept someone had brought him a platter of bread and cheese, as well as a stoneware jug that proved to contain an almost drinkable wine. He refreshed himself, then sat on the stool and contemplated his predicament. He failed to see any immediate advantage to being the slave of a spied-upon wizard. Nor did he envision that his situation would much improve: as he understood these things, spellslingers tended to rely on conjured assistants, like the pixie, for their domestic needs. They generally kept no slaves—which meant that upon successful completion of his mission, he would become surplus to Baalariot's requirements. The wizard would cast around for some useful purpose that a superfluous thief-slave could serve. Several images came to Krunzle's mind, none of them encouraging.
His early education at a rather prestigious rogue’s academy had taught him the cardinal rule of the thief's life: always have a plan. He quickly devised a scheme that had two parts. Part one: break the enchantment that bound him to Baalariot's will. Part two: depart Elidir at maximum speed.
He was sure he could execute part two with energy and dispatch. Part one, however, remained a problem. His mind failed to gain traction, and soon he lacked the leisure to pursue the matter, because now the winged manlet returned, hovering in the corridor at the center of his globe of light.
Krunzle stood and the light moved away. He was able to exit the cell as if the air in the doorway was nothing but air. He strode after the guide, and noticed that he was not retracing the route that had brought him down from Baalariot's chamber. Instead, he and the winged fairy-man proceeded deeper into the warren of dark rooms and barely lit corridors beneath the wizard's manse, until he came to a narrow space which contained a spiral iron staircase leading up and a rough table on which were spread several items Krunzle recognized.
They had all be taken from his person after he had been delivered to the Gyve, and they constituted the tools of his trade: picks and slips; grapples and cords; a double-bent tube with mirrors inside that bent light and allowed him to peek around corners, under doors, and through windows without being seen; and a handful of other objects.
Krunzle was glad to recover them. Not only were they useful, but as part of his first tasks as a journeyman, he had personally made each one of them. Thieves could not usually afford much sentimentality, but an exception was made for the toolkit. He disposed of them in the various concealed pockets and loops that abounded in his garments, and felt slightly better about the course of events.
He was given little time for satisfaction, however. No sooner had he stowed the last implement, than the pixie flew up the staircase, illuminating the darkness above. Krunzle experienced a strong desire to follow and began to climb. He noted, with faint gratitude, that his groin no longer pained him with every lift of a foot.
No sooner had he risen out of the small room—it turned out to have been the bottom of a shaft—than the globe of light disappeared. In complete blackness, Krunzle felt the flying creature flutter past him as it went back to wherever it perched when not on duty. He was unable to do likewise and continued to ascend until he arrived at a confined space that offered not the slightest glimmer of light. He felt in front of him and found a wooden surface which, when he explored further and discovered a simple latch, turned out to be a door.
But thieves' caution prevented him from opening the portal until his searching fingers discovered what he expected to find: another moving part at eye level that, when he slid it aside, uncovered a peephole. He peered out and saw a darkened Elidiran alley, lit only by a few gleams leaking through the closed shutters of houses that turned blank walls to the narrow passage.
He opened the door and stepped out, then looked up at the evening stars to orient himself. The map appeared on the screen in his mind—no magic there, but the mental discipline learned in the academy and practiced ever since—and he set off for the lower town. His route avoided the city's major thoroughfares and plazas, leading him instead along narrow, twisting alleys and down flights of stone steps that reeked of urine and rotting vegetables. Clearly, he thought, whoever occupied the house to which he was headed did not enjoy the elevated social status of the wizard who was sending him.
The building, when he came to it, was not imposing. Mud brick rather than stone, it stood two stories high, with a flat roof; he knew from the map, though, that its foundations had been dug down three levels, creating sub-basements and even a bottomless pit. Baalariot hadn't said anything, but Krunzle knew enough about magic-wielders to have reasoned out that anyone who could steal from a wizard was likely to be another practitioner of the arcane arts. Wizardry and subterranean chambers seemed to be an infallible combination. Maybe it was a matter of containing unruly powers; or maybe it was just that depth muffled the screams.
His urge to get to the target eased when he came to the mouth of an unlit passageway that met the sloping street on which the house stood. His vantage point was several doors down from the entrance, which featured a sturdy-looking front door between tapered pillars, all carved with some complex design he was too far away to see clearly, flanked by two torches that burned with a green flame. There was something about the arrangement of the portal that argued less for decor than for defense.
He would not be going through that door. Some thieves preferred the direct and obvious approach—get in, grab it, and get out while they're still blinking—but Krunzle was an old-fashioned practitioner of the full art.
He wondered how much leeway Cardimion's Discriminatory Geas would grant him. Experimentation revealed that he could move a certain distance from the target structure, but only enough to circumnavigate it. If he tried to go farther, he experienced shaking limbs, nausea, and a sense of impending dread. When he struggled to overcome the resistance, his fist swung up and struck him sharply in an eye whose surrounding flesh was still tender from the wart-nosed torturer's attentions.
Trial and error over, the thief turned his attention to the house that contained the apprentice's eye. The memorized map had highlighted an area in a lower, though not lowest, level of the building. There was probably a concealed entrance much like the one through which he had made his exit from Baalariot's manse, but it would be a waste of time to look for it. He worked his way around the building and its neighbors again, seeking the opportunity that would make the task easier.
The house had not been constructed as a detached structure; its sides abutted directly against the neighboring buildings; its front was two stories of sheer, unbroken mud brick; its rear was separated from the alley behind by a walled courtyard, also lit by green flames.
The courtyard presented easier access but too much light, the thief decided; besides, the rear wall was as unwindowed as the front.
He examined the buildings to either side: one was of stone, tall and solid as a bank, but a half-hidden glyph near the door identified it in the language of thieves and street people as a temple of the demon Nocticula, which meant that its main use was as a brothel, and not a particularly safe one. The other building was a rickety, three-story tenement, with a wooden staircase running up the rear wall to give the residents false hope that they'd be able to escape in the event of a fire.
A lifetime of professional experience told Krunzle that a mud-brick building's greatest weakness was in its roof. He went up the fire steps with practiced quiet, slipping past the noises of clattering pots, squalling babies, and arguing couples, all overlaid by what sounded like a semi-skilled musician singing a maudlin love song while endeavoring to accompany his cracked voice on an out-of-tune zither. At the top of the stairs, a wooden ladder led to the tenement's flat roof. He scaled it and rolled silently onto a surface of dried mud overlying matted reeds.
The zither player was up there, somewhere. But the shadows were thick enough. Krunzle rose to a crouch and made his way to the lip of the roof where it overlooked the mud-brick house, paused to listen for any sounds that indicated someone might be enjoying the upper air—though he was fairly sure the zither-player's amelodic strains would have driven indoors all but the profoundly deaf. He slowly raised his head above the low parapet until he could see down. The flat space was empty and unlit. Krunzle readied a grapnel and its knotted cord.
Moments later, he was crouched in darkness. He had chosen one of the corners of the roof above the front wall. He knew that rooms at the rear of a building were more likely to contain servants busy at their tasks; front rooms were for the quality, who more frequently left them empty while they sashayed out to enjoy privileges denied their underlings.
He took a small, sharp blade from his toolkit and applied its point to the roof's packed-earth surface. The desiccated soil broke into powdery flakes, and soon he had exposed a layer of dried reeds laid over a network of thin laths of wood. He removed a patch of reeds and beneath it saw the pale gleam of plaster.
New tools came to his hands. He drilled a tiny hole through the plaster, inserted a thin tube fitted with an eyepiece, and a moment later he was seeing a fly's eye-view of a sitting room illuminated by brass lamps whose wicks were turned low. The decor tended toward erotically curved furnishings and draped swathes of faux-soie. The room was otherwise empty.
Busy seconds passed, then the thief was standing on the thick-pile carpet beneath a Krunzle-sized hole in the ceiling.
He padded silently to the closed door, opened it, and saw a corridor ending in a downward-leading staircase lit from below. He crept to the top of the stairs and listened, hearing a faint bustle of kitchen noises and beneath it a female voice half-raised in a monotonous chant.
He went down to the ground floor. The clatter of pots and pans grew louder; it came from somewhere to the rear of the building and down another level. The chanting also increased in volume; it originated from behind a pair of large, ornate doors that must lead into a room that took up all of the ground floor's front. A wizard would have his study there, he thought. Or perhaps a witch.
Krunzle looked about. So far he had seen nothing worth stealing, even if this had been a burglary of his own devising. It was possible the apprentice's eye, whatever it was, was in the front chamber, being chanted over right this minute. If not, it would be somewhere it could be kept safe and perhaps guarded. Again, experience told him that somewhere would probably be below ground, behind layers of defense.
He searched his memory for the image of the map Baalariot had provided. He recalled the symbols for more downward-leading steps and soon found them, through they were behind a double-locked door, strongly made, itself concealed behind a wall hanging that depicted a decidedly female person making an intimate though unlikely connection with a snake at least twice her length. Krunzle swiftly picked the locks, opened the door, and stepped through to a small landing above a set of narrow stone steps that circled down into darkness.
"So this is the apprentice's eye."
A rank smell wafted up from the stairwell. Krunzle didn’t recognize the odor, but some part of him decided that it was the kind of reek that ought to raise the hairs on the back of his neck. Cautiously, ears straining the silent darkness, he began to descend.
He counted fifty steps before his outstretched hand encountered a barrier: another door, also well locked. He again deployed his picks and with small effort soon had the way clear. Beyond was yet more darkness, but here the acrid stench was far stronger.
Krunzle put his head through the doorway and looked to either side. There was a dim glow, enough to show him that the door opened onto a vaulted subterranean passage. The source of the illumination was a thin bar of yellow light that he took to be a leak of lamplight from under a door at one end of the corridor. The other end was unlit and ended in a blank wall with what seemed to be a pool of stygian black at its foot. The pit, Krunzle thought. The stench came from there.
Krunzle went on silent feet to the source of the light. It was definitely another door, but there were no locks, only a thick iron bar that slid into a slot in the stone wall. And, his fingers told him, another peephole.
The thief peeped, and saw a windowless cell not much bigger than the one in which he had spent part of the day, but with a good carpet on the floor, a three-wick oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, a narrow cot (though with pillow and quilt), and a table and chair.
Seated on the chair, back turned to the door, was a small figure in a plain white shift—by the narrowness of the shoulders and the fineness of the golden, collar-length hair, either a young woman or an older child. She (or he) was concentrating on something in her (or his) lap.
Krunzle studied the scene, angling to look through the peephole into the corners of the room. He saw no intimations of danger. After one last visual sweep, he slid the latch and eased open the door.
The figure in the chair turned and looked up at him over one shoulder—a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, startled in the act of reading poetry from the small book now visible in her grasp. Then surprise turned to excitement tinged with pleasure. "Did he send you," she said, "to rescue me?"
Krunzle ignored the girl's question. You will recognize it when you see it, Baalariot's note had said. And now, as the thief looked at the slim, young figure, and especially at the chain around her neck, and most especially at the amulet that hung from it, he knew.
He stepped into the cell, reaching for the apprentice's eye. It looked like nothing all that special. It was a palm-sized circle of some shiny metal, in the center of which was set a large green cabochon. Around the rim ran a legend carved in a script he could not read.
The young woman stood, her face showing alarm. "Wait!" she said.
"I can't," he said, and took hold of the gaudy thing, giving it a yank that expertly parted the chain. As he did so, two events occurred: the unfaceted green gem in the center turned red; and something cold and strong curled itself around one of his ankles and rapidly rose up his leg. The stench that had been so powerful in the corridor was overwhelming now.
Krunzle held tightly to the amulet—the geas made sure of that—at the same time as he tried to shake his leg free of whatever had seized it. He looked down and saw a broad, triangular head, clad in leprous white scales, its eyes filmed and blind but its forked tongue aflickering. The head connected to a thigh-thick, limbless body that continued to slither toward him along the floor of the corridor, even as it slid upward and addressed its huge strength to the task of squeezing air and life from his torso.
He toppled headlong onto the carpet as the great snake opened its fanged maw and hissed into his face.
"Oh dear," said the girl in white.
Coming Next Week: The perils of working for wizards in Chapter Four of Hugh Matthews's "Krunzle the Quick."
Hugh Matthews is a pseudonym of critically acclaimed science-fantasy author Matthew Hughes, who is responsible for more than a dozen novels and is often called the "heir apparent" to the legacy of Jack Vance, particularly for his Archonate series. His novel Template was republished by Planet Stories, and his first Pathfinder Tales novel, Song of the Serpent, also features intrepid thief and confidence man Krunzle the Quick.
Illustration by Kate Maximovich