As a youth in Talai, long before he ever left for Lankhmar and gained the name of Gray Mouser, he learned the skills that made him the greatest thief in all the worlds...
Tattered clouds sped across the night sky like lost souls, alternately hiding and exposing the faces of the three moons. Chinzel sneaked along the deserted street, moving with the ease of long practice from one shadow to the next. He flinched as though avoiding a blow when a sudden tropical shower swept through Talai, drenching the cobblestones and washing another layer of filth into the clogged gutters.
"Show at least a little courage, sewer rat!" The words were muttered under his breath, and would have been scarcely audible beyond arm's length had there been anyone to hear. "The Thieves' Guild set this job up, so stop worrying."
He went over his instructions one more time, repeating them under his breath along with a well worn litany to Ipsnadd, God of Thieves.
"The third alley past Blue Lizard Street. Find the silver, find the gold! A window with loosened bars to be pried out with my dagger. Send the shadows to guide your chosen! Inside, find a vase with a yellow dragon. Blind their eyes, and numb their senses! Bring the vase to the Guild Hall, before the rising of the sun. Bring your follower safe to hiding!"
In the morning, along with the other successful apprentices, he would at last be sworn into the Thieves' Guild as a full member in good standing...
This should be the right alley! Chinzel shrank back into the shadows as a pair of city guardsmen marched past the mouth of the littered alley, the moonlight striking vagrant gleams from their pikes and chain mail shirts. He waited until the heavy footsteps died away and all was silent, then felt his way along the rough wall of brick and stone.
There! The loose bars rattled softly as he drew them from their sockets and laid them on the windowsill. The window swung open easily, moving just far enough to admit Chinzel's slender body, and with a practiced twist he was inside. He stood balanced on the balls of his feet, breathing shallowly through his mouth as he listened for the sounds that would betray any watcher, but all that he heard was the steady pounding of his own heart.
A slender beam of moonlight filtered in through the window behind him. He could see that he was in an unused storeroom, its boxes and boards shrouded in layers of dust. He eased the door open, peering out into a narrow hall whose only light came from a flickering oil lamp. At one end, a narrow stair led down into darkness, while at the other end of the hall a broader staircase curved upward out of sight. Chinzel ducked back as he heard the scuff of feet, the murmur of voices. He pulled the door almost shut, his eye pressed to the narrow crack, and watched two plump green robed figures descending the stairs, a smaller form pinioned between them.
He was only too aware of a crawling, tingling sensation between his shoulder blades. What were two priests of Kathool doing here? There had been nothing in the Guild's plan that spoke of this! A single lantern of pierced clay cast specks of light that danced across the walls and ceiling as they passed his door, close enough for him to have reached out and touched their captive. She couldn't have been more than seventeen, only a year or two older than he was. Her amber skin gleamed through the torn folds of what had been, only scant hours before, translucent sleeping silks.
"Come along, now," the larger of the two priests commanded. "Screaming will do you no good in this place. You are greatly honored to have been chosen to serve Kathool."
"My father will have your heads for this!" Her voice was low and intense, but a ragged edge of fear lurked behind her words. Being chosen 'to serve Kathool' meant an agonizing death at the hands of His priests, followed by eons of tortured existence, dancing in the dreams of the Sleeping God until at last one's soul was absorbed into Kathool's own foul substance. "His hired assassins will seek you out, and you will wish that you could die as easily as did his favorite daughter."
"I think not." The other priest chuckled evilly. "He will accept the fact that you are gone from his house for ever. Perhaps he will even be grateful, since his business will be free from all Temple taxes for a full year."
Their voices died to a low rumble as they descended the stairs to the building's lower levels. Chinzel bit his lips in fear and indecision. He must leave this place! Leave, before they realized that he was here. Then, he was out in the hall, padding stealthily after them.
"Back. Go back!" The very shadows seemed to whisper their warnings in his ear. "There is danger here, and you must remember your quest. You are in the wrong house. You must go where you were sent, and be back at the Guild Hall before dawn!"
He hesitated for a moment, agonizing over the decision that faced him, then moved forward once more. He saw again the delicate oval of the captive's face, framed by braids of hair that were no blacker and shinier than her almond eyes. He descended the narrow stairs into deeper darkness, his dark brown clothes blending into the shadows. Another corridor stretched before him, illuminated only by a couple of tiny lamps, and once again a stair wound downward. He realized that he was far below the streets of Talai, and going ever deeper. A foul dampness splotched the walls, and patches of evil fungus glowed green in the darkness.
His sandals made little sound on the roughly dressed stone blocks of the floor. The feeble lamps were far behind him now, but ahead a wavering glow brightened as he crept forward. He flattened himself against one wall of the passage, inching along until he could see into the room at its end. Flaring greenish light from a single torch made everything seem larger than it really was, but the underground room had plenty of room for twenty or thirty people. The two priests were busy at something across the room, and Chinzel silently cursed his inability to see what they were doing. At last, he dropped to his hands and knees. He scuttled toward them, keeping a row of benches between himself and the front of the room.
"There, that should hold you until the others get here."
Chinzel froze in panic as the priest's voice boomed out only a few feet from where he crouched. There was a hissing sputter of another torch being lighted, and he flattened himself in the shadow of a low table. When he dared to look, the two priests had their backs to him. He silently snaked to where he was partially concealed by a thick pillar. The light of the second torch gave him a clearer view of the underground temple, for temple it was. Rows of rough benches provided seats for worshippers, but he scarcely gave them a glance. All of his attention was held by a sight that few other than the temple's worshippers had seen. Seen, and returned to tell about. The front wall of the temple was completely taken up by an ancient, massive idol of their God, the fearsome Kathool!
Chinzel shuddered as he looked at the monstrous statue. In the slums of Talai there were many shrines to Ipsnadd, the skeletal God of beggars and thieves, to Astur, the Goddess of fertility and growing things, and even a few to s'Purlo, the rotund little God of travelers and merchants. He had visited most of them at one time or another, but neither he nor any of the street wise children he'd called friends had ever been brave or foolhardy enough to venture inside one of Kathool's temples.
The torch flickered, making the shadows jump and flow as one of the priests approaching the idol.
"Oh Mighty Kathool," he intoned. "Look with favor on this soul we are about to send you."
Chinzel could see the idol much more clearly than he really wanted to. Its pendulously fat body was manlike enough, except for long talons on the hands and feet that gripped the deeply incised block of stone that was its perch. A pair of vast bat wings spread to either side, but it was the idol's face that held his attention. It bore no features, human or otherwise. Instead, the entire front of the misshapen head was taken up by a mass of stony tentacles that ended in glowing eyes or greedily fanged mouths. Although the stone of the idol was chipped and battered, it still exuded an air of chill menace.
The girl, fighting back fearful sobs, had been chained to an X shaped framework of wooden beams, and the priests were ripping the last of her clothing from her young body when Chinzel struck! One plump priest simply folded to the floor, dead before he knew he was dying as the tip of Chinzel's dagger sought his heart. The other priest barely had time for a strangled shout as Chinzel leaped at him, then he too was down.
"Who are you?" The girl whispered the words, a rising hope in her fear widened eyes. She shivered in the cold air, her unclad body pressing closer to him as though seeking protection as he picked the locks of her chains.
"I'm Chinzel, of the Street of the Deep Well. What's your name?"
"I am Li Fan. First daughter of Ho Chen, the merchant. My father will reward you handsomely if you return me to him," she promised. She tried to sound imperious, but her voice quavered from the effects of fear and the damp cold.
"No time to worry about that now. We'll talk about it when we're both out of this place." The last of the chains fell from her ankle with a soft crash, but the sound was echoed by the closing of a door not far away. Down the passage that had brought them to Kathool's temple, a glow of light wavered and danced ever closer.
"What can we do?" Li Fan's soft voice trembled with fear. She looked down at the strips of silk that were all that remained of her clothes, then kicked them aside with a slender foot. "We're trapped. We must hide!"
"No use hiding." Chinzel caught up the torch, studying the underground temple with its monstrous idol. "If I know anything about priests, they'll have a back way out of here."
Solemnly chanting voices drew nearer. Li Fan knelt for an instant by the body of a priest, a long dagger clutched in her trembling hand. Chinzel held up one of the torches, prying at the base of the idol with the point of his dagger.
"Come here and hold this torch. I just might have found us a way out of here."
"But I'm cold! Oh, all right. I'm coming." She dropped the scrap of green cloth that she was trying to cut from the priest's soiled robe and skipped lightly across the cold stone floor to his side. Her bare feet made no sound as she carefully avoided a tank of greenish fluid set into the floor before the idol. A hefty push on the idol's square hewn base slid it forward on hidden rollers, revealing a dark hole in the wall behind it. Catching up his torch, Chinzel led the way into the darkness. He pulled the idol back into place with no thought of whether it could be moved out again from this side, begrudging even the moment he took to wedge it into place.
Within a few feet, the dressed stones of the walls gave way to rough rock, a natural cave that the temple's builders had taken advantage of. The passage turned and twisted, rising and falling as it followed the natural contours of the rock strata, and several times they had to choose their way as branches led off to one side or the other.