War had finally come to Freebooter Isle. The tropical fortress resounded with the shrieks of combatants, the cries of the wounded, and the ever-present hum of magical energy. Even as the keep's foundation stones shook with the magical energy unleashed by both besieging and defending forces, two men sat in the deepest subterranean fortress levels and enjoyed a quiet drink in the last few undisturbed moments they had.
The two men were old friends, comrades in a long-ago war on another world, and had not seen each other in years. Still, they seemed to be uninterested in making conversation or trading stories about their adventures, as was the usual conduct of two Aluvian veterans meeting over mugs of beer. Instead, they both seemed to be more curious about listening to, and analyzing, the sounds of battle that filtered down to them through the many passageways that led to the surface from this room.
There was one particularly deep, resounding boom from above, followed by a moment of silence. Then, rising above the piteous cries of the wounded and dying, there came the staccato beat of many boots, running down stone corridors.
The taller of the two men stood up and adjusted his weapon belt. He tipped his cap to his companion. “That'll be it, then,” he said. “The gate's gone, the flags will be up shortly I'm sure, and you'll soon have some new temporary business partners.”
The other man, still seated, nodded his head. “Aye, I'm sure they'll be down here soon enough, demanding to confiscate me stocks and expectin' the laird o' the castle treatment, just for clearin' the front yard of all that scaly trash.”
His companion shrugged melodramatically. “You could give it up, MacTavish. Just accept my offer. In the days to come, with so many people to play off against each other, there will be riches beyond even your greediest dreams. High risk, high reward, never boring. And you're guaranteed an equity position in the group, of course…”
“'Tis a tempting offer, old friend,” MacTavish said. “But I'm too old to get back into the game. Either that or I've gotten too soft here, working for the Shrouds. I'm content to leave the risk to the young bucks now and just take a percentage off what they bring in.” He stretched elaborately, popping and cracking a few joints as he did so, as if to punctuate his point about his advancing age.
“What a pity,” the other man said as he stepped away from the table. “I could have taught you the secrets to life and death, a secret known only to a handful of people on this odd, troubled world. Knowledge I haven't yet shared with any of my eager acolytes.”
MacTavish shook his head. “Even more reason to turn ye down. I've only just gotten used to the lifestones… I know me limits. I know I'm just a smuggler and a brigand, I know I've not got the courage or the craziness to take on such power. In truth, I wonder what that power will do to yer own head,” he said, chuckling lightly to try and take some of the sting or challenge out of his words. When he looked around, though, his friend was gone. Even with a smuggler's keen senses, he'd not heard the man depart.
All for the best, he reflected. He finished his beer. “Say hello to me cousins, when ye see them again,” he muttered to the darkness as he stood.There was a sound from the far end of the complex, the extended shriek of a great door moving on rusted hinges. That was followed shortly by the tromp of several boot heels as a small party entered the tunnels, presumably a delegation from the victorious conquerors of Freebooter Isle, coming to claim the entire island as their own.
Out of the dark corridors stepped a man and a woman, at the head of a column of soldiers in red and gold armor. The man was, by his form and bearing, an old warrior and a commander of soldiers. He was Gharu'ndim, and his age and scars marked him as a veteran of the Gharu'ndim resistance against the Viamontian invasions back on their home world of Ispar. He was dressed in elaborate plate armor, the color and ornamentation of which reflected his rank as a senior officer of his Society. The giant mace in his right hand still steamed from the blood and ichor of the Moarsmen he'd slain on his way to clearing the path into the fortress.
The woman was older, well into her elder years, and wearing a simple grey robe that carried not a hint of decoration or even a badge of rank. Even so, MacTavish recognized her as Nuhmudira, blood sorceress, former member of Queen Elysa's royal council. She was the warlord in charge of this group.She carried herself with the same kind of arrogant self-assurance and cold-eyed stare as that of his friend who'd just left walked… And no wonder, MacTavish thought, as they both had mastered the same secrets to life and death…
The old woman's gaze swept the room until it settled upon him. “You are the smuggler captain MacTavish?” she asked in an imperious voice that echoed the underground chamber.
“That's me, milady,” MacTavish nodded pleasantly. “I'll guess ye're the witch Nuhmudira that I've heard so much of.”
Nuhmudira gazed blankly at him, not even bothering to acknowledge his question, and pressed on with her own agenda. “Where is he?”
“Ye'll have to be more specific than that, milady. Where is who?” He was being more insolent than he strictly needed to be, and that was probably because he was still buoyed up by drinks with his famously arrogant and self-assured friend. He sat back down and leaned back in his chair, kicking his boot heels up on the table.
“You know exactly who I mean,” the woman hissed. “The assassin, Oswald! He was just in here, and he skulked out just before my troops could get down here to capture him. Don't try and lie to protect him, I can smell his stink still in this room.” She looked to the soldier who stood next to her.“General Tamiar, have your men secure the entire facility. I want no one leaving or entering without my warrant.”
The general bowed and turned to issue orders to the troops who'd entered behind them. Nuhmudira stepped forward to confront MacTavish, who was still lounging insolently in his chair. “Aye, me friend was down here. I see ye're already familiar with him. We were just downing a couple o' brews and talking about old times. We were in the wars together, back on Ispar, ye see.”
Nuhmudira sneered. “I know all about your war service with Oswald, knifing Viamontian scouts in the back as they marched throughout your benighted country of drunken ruffians and half-civilized brutes. I'm more interested in why you're treating with him now, placing yourself in a very precarious position with my own occupying forces here.”
MacTavish laughed. “Don't think to threaten me like that, lady,” he cautioned her. “I'm not some apprentice ye can order about and abuse. I've got me own backers who look out for me, and I imagine we've got some wares in our stocks that even yer own soldiers, well supplied as they must be, will find useful. So it wouldn't be in yer best interests to kill me and cut off yer supply of such rare and wonderful items…”
Nuhmudira stared down at the insolent smuggler with unconcealed contempt. “My people have given me a briefing on why it is we should tolerate your presence on this island, and they have even convinced me that you are too useful to kill outright. But I will suffer none of your insolence, and if I find even a hint that you are colluding with Oswald against me, I will bleed you on an altar and bribe your masters to forget the inconvenience.Because even they have a price, smuggler.”
The surety of her words and the dangerous gleam in her eyes made MacTavish sit up and adopt a slightly more polite posture. “Aye, I'll keep it respectful from here on out, milady,” he said. He was about to say more when there was a series of explosions from outside and a rumble that shook the walls of the underground redoubt. Shouted commands rang out from the corridors as Nuhmudira's soldiers ran back to the surface, alerting each other to the presence of another group of invaders on Freebooter Isle. The old woman barked a couple of commands at the soldiers nearest her, preparing to head back up herself.
MacTavish smiled broadly as he addressed Nuhmudira again. “As I was saying, I'll be respectful from here on out, and I look forward to a mutually beneficial arrangement between yer Society and the trade consortium who backs me… Provided ye can hold the island against yer own competition, milady. Looks like there's someone out there taking issue with yer plans for domination. Worry not though, I'll be here, ready to do business… with whoever comes back down the corridor.”
Furious, Nuhmudira trudged back up the tunnels to organize the defense of the keep, even as the smuggler captain's laughter echoed bitterly in her ears.