BY INVITATION ONLY The Bilge Rats - Prologue [Shadow of the Demon Lord]

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Sideris

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#1
DarckRedd DarckRedd Chaka Chaka Hair Hair Ragoza Ragoza Sarky Sarky

Horrific Murders Baffle Watch: Does Killer Walk Through Walls?
Cry the hawkers of Shipping News throughout Freeport this sullen morn. One particularly obnoxious pair of young boys heckle any soul rushing past along this stretch of the Docks, just shy of the waking Seaside Market. A slice of the world writ in merchants, spices, alchemical wonders, metals, jewels, textiles from every corner of Rûl's city-states and nations among a veritable forest of stalls, tables, tents. The evening market is leaving laggard as the morning comes alive. Clashing with the thunderous scent of salt and dead fish of the ocean are that of freshly baked breads and sunburnt skin, livestock and drying stone. Rain last night.

The sun a golden eye just over the roofs of the eastern city and promising punishing heat under a cloudless sky.

"Don't miss out!" cry the paperboys. "Postings, departures, high tide and low! The returning adventures of Captain Shoals in a gripping two-parter! Two penny a pop! Come read the newest details of killer's latest victim!"

The crowd is already bustling, but not nearly so much for commerce as a growing mob at the southerly mouth of the bazaar, near the wharves. Roused Watchmen bray and bellow, trying to push clear around some spectacle that's caught the mob's eye. The ruckus is getting to be where more and more of the usually indifferent Watch rush past the stalls, cudgels and whistles alive, drawing in like a noose.

"Another! Another!" cries one portly Watchman as he huffs it toward the commotion.

Doughty longshoremen and newly-arrived sailors flee the crowd, retching, eyes haunted. There, at the center of attention, lies another of the victims of the Eyedropper Killer. Another child, lost to the thing that haunts the alleyways. See the features of the killer: disturbing lack of any blood, morbidly antiseptic tang of grain alcohol, wrenched limbs, a horrid rictus; signs of torture, excruciating pain. Cries of horror and growing murmur of the curious drown out the metronome of rocking waves, the mewling of surly gulls along these docks.

"Gods save us." "Poor thing." "Five in a fucking month..." "The Council will hear of this!" "Where's the face?"

The paperboys cry on, their wares are yesterday's kill, not today's.
 
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Chaka

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#2
Merry

"For fuck's sake."

Merry grimaces as he watches the watchman trundle past on his way to the site of some other misbegotten waif's slaying. He'd come in to this wretched tavern for an early morning drink, and been drawn outside by the commotion. He leans against the doorframe, contemplating the dark, vinegary wine in his cup as he listens to the hubbub. Idly, he twitches the hood of his fine cloak up to cover his ears. Elves aren't unknown in Freeport, and the local population is so whipped and milquetoast that he was rarely spared a second glance, but he'd been around long enough to see mortals react to unexplained tragedy when Elves were nearby. The mortals can be so twitchy when someone starts murdering their brats, and conclusions can be jumped to.

He drains the cup in a swift motion, and with unerring accuracy flicks a copper backwards across the tavern where it skitters to a halt in front of the hatchet-faced barman. He storms home, his rage building as he gets closer. "Fucking unbelievable. Unbelievable!"

He slams through the door of the workshop, sweeping past a couple of half-finished sea charts he'd been painting on stretched leather the day before. The petrified head of Urth'qa the Indomitable seemed to be smirking at him from his vantage point over the lintel as he went inside.

"Blackclaw! Blackclaw! I have absolutely dreadful news. Awful! That killer has struck again, the Eyeliner or whatever the humans are calling him. That's five in a month. Five!"

He takes a deep breath, and steadies himself.

"This is absolutely terrible for business. What are you going to do about it, hmm?"
 

Sarky

They're good direwolves, Drozzt
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#3
Whisper:

In his old life he would have been sampling the many foods, breathing in the rich aroma of the spices, but these days invariably he found himself browsing weapons, cutting tools, meat hooks and branding irons. Each one he touched, he pictured how it would look being used on one or more scions of House Tarjay.

He had to shake himself out of his daydreams, focus more on the present. He had no money for weapons, not right now. Despite the heat of the morning he shivered, drawing his open leather coat tighter across his chest and fixing the scarf concealing his scars.

Tossing a young lad a couple of copper bits for a paper, Whisper read as he wandered the markets. His customers were few and far between since he had set up shop, but given his... condition, he found himself spending less on like heat and food. Enough to get by, for now, while he considered his next step. He would need more money, certainly. One could hardly exact bloody revenge on a wealthy noble house with a small hammer and roll of soft leather.

Perhaps there might be a reward for helping the Watch with this Eyedropper Killer. Perhaps he could learn a thing or two about getting away with murder. Either way, it wouldn't kill him. He chuckled hoarsely at his own private joke, and made his way through the crowd to try and catch a glimpse of the murdered child, and hear what the Watch were offering for information.
 

Ragoza

Quarter goat on my mother's side.
#4
Rustbucket

"Ak! Now you listen here officer! I don't care if the Sea Lord hisself got 'is face cut off, I need to get onto that boat! Ak!"

The watchman, surprisingly enough, is unmoved and for the fifth day in a row Dread Captain Rustbucket, mechanical scourge of the high seas, master of the Steamed Clam, is sent pack. The clockwork baboon stalks angrily away from his beloved vessel, muttering under his breath about the grave insults and brutal reprecussions. He doesn't actually need to breath, of course, but it's a matter of principal. He snatches one of the newsheets when the hawker isn't looking, hops up on a barrel and flicks through today's grisly murders. Might as well be entertained if he can't get back on the ship yet.
 

Sideris

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#5
Sarky Sarky

A ruined thing, the child. A drained, lifeless doll left on the docks by an errant child, half-hidden among barrels of fish and hip-high coils of new rope. Some are calling for a proper mortician.

The Watch stand tall, brutes that most of the Docks precinct are. One in a stained tunic, fairly ripe of onion, bellows, “Back ‘ere, back! You all know the drill.” None dare touch or truly go near the little boy.

Bodies in Freeport are nothing new. Two or three are fished out of the harbor near daily and more are found in their final sleep whether it was abed or (more usually) in an alley somewhere.

But rare are they children, save in disastrous storms or horrors like the Great Green Fire. A sergeant stands in the middle of the hemisphere of Watch, just staring at the faceless corpse. Muttering something. The whisper is weak, but you hear, “First one outside the Warehouse District.”

Ragoza Ragoza

The guards don’t even blink at a talking clockwork baboon, but that’s Freeport for you.

Grim business, these murders.

Per the paper, these are the facts: started twenty-nine days ago, last full moon. Every victim thus far is one of Freeport’s menagerie of orphans, between ages 9-13. Most of them taken at night, bodies disposed far from site of murder (none of said sites have been discovered), all with body parts or organs missing, taken possibly by a large man of considerable strength accounting for their terrible wounds and apparent torment.
 
#6
Stavros

The deserter thumbs through the latest adventure of Captain Shoals lazily, leaning against an alley wall. Funny. In the temple-barracks of Zagaroum he had never gotten to read anything so... common. Or much of anything at all, that did not come directly from the pen of the sublime laureate or the empire, or the general who wrote the dictums of military strategy five hundred years ago. Now? Now he can consume pure, unmitigated, heavenly garbage. He can eat the cuisine of the market and watch the dancing girls of the common man. Better a dirty freedom than pristine slavery... or so the laureate might have written, if he incautiously forgot who his patron was. He might have kept reading, if not for the commotion further down.

Sarky Sarky

Stavros elbows through the crowd, only to be rewarded with the grizzly sight of a mutilated child. He leans to the man next to him. "I just got off the boat. This a common happening in Freeport?"
 

Hair

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#7
Blackclaw

A silver scaled head appears from the door behind the counter, the spectacles perched across its serpentine nose giving an almost comical cast to the lambent red eyes set behind them.
"What, another whelp?" Blackclaw drones. "Thossse human children break so easily. They really should grow themsselvesss in eggs, rather than crawling half-formed from between their mother'sss legss." His voice muffles slightly as he retracts his head, returning to his work. "Bad for busssiness? You think folk aren't leaving in drovesss? Honestly, Merry, I feel like you walk around with your head in the clouds half the time, like some dim witted piksssie."

There's a clatter from the office, followed by the sound of breaking glass and a sibilant string of Valossan delivered with such venom a dullard with half an ear could give you the thrust of it. Blackclaw emerges from the back room, a black stain covering front of his shirt. "The lasst inkwell broke, again, Merry. Thiss is your fault for distracting me." He searches in vain for a clean piece of shirt to clean his splattered spectacles on, before grabbing a loose bit of paper off the counter. "We sshould go now. The pawn will not remain open long. Come on, sshooo." He waves his hands at Merry and the single browsing customer, before locking the door behind them and striking out towards the nearest pawn shop.
 

Sarky

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#8
Whisper:

DarckRedd DarckRedd
Eyes darting back and forth, he leaned over to the newcomer and whispered like a conspirator. "There's always a body being fished out of the water with a knife in its back, but this is new. Four or five in the last month, nobody wants to say it but there's a murderer on the loose and they're going after children."

Whisper waved at the nearest guard. "Excuse me-" he started, breaking into a cough to explain his gravelly voice, "sorry, sorry, excuse me, but is there anything citizens can do to help the Watch with this... Investigation?"
 

Ragoza

Quarter goat on my mother's side.
#9
Rustbucket

Honestly, if you're going to kill orphans for their bits either make a public spectacle of it (so everyone knows what a hard bastard you are) or keep it completely in-house (so no-one suspects what a hard bastard you are.) All this sliced up bodies left lying around the place silliness achieves is getting the public all riled up and making business hard for honest criminals. Bet the sick fuck gets off on it. Pervert.

The paper's headlines fail to grip Rustbucket, lacking as he does the necessary glands for that kind of empathy, and today's Captain Shoals only highlights that that man wouldn't last ten minutes on a real ship. Swiftly growing bored, he scans the crowd for something to pass the time and is rewarded by hearing the magic words. "Just got off the boat."

In a flash 200 pounds of mechanical primate are streaking through the crowd, sliding under legs and hopping over stalls, screeching to a halt beside the newcomer and his peaky looking companion.
"'Scuse me sir, can I interest yeh in a guided tour?"

DarckRedd DarckRedd Sarky Sarky
 

Chaka

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#10
Merry Hemlock

"Pixie?!?"

Merry chokes indignantly as he follows the Snakeman out into the city.

"In the old days, you overgrown lizard, I would have devoted several decades to avenging that slight on you in ways your cold-blooded mind can't fathom. And maybe if you shed in the workroom again I'll indulge those hobbies."

He can't stay mad at Blackclaw, though. He was oddly fond of his serpentine business partner. He's almost like a real person.

He falls in to step beside Blackclaw as they head towards the pawn. "People may be leaving, Blackclaw, but the problem is that they're not stopping in the docks to shop lest some boogeyman confuse them for a particularly edible six year old. I'm telling you these murders have to stop soon. The last thing either of us need is the Watch prying too deeply into our affairs, I'm sure you'll agree."

He fingers the hide-wrapped hilt of the bronze dagger at his belt. "Perhaps we should consider taking matters in our own hands and/or claws."
 
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#11
Stavros

A clockwork man. He had seen such beings once or twice in the Sultan's court, sometimes as equals, sometimes as slaves, sometimes as captured "treasures" consigned to a life as an ornament. This one, however, does not look quite prepared to shine in the treasury. "I'm afraid I couldn't afford your prices." His fist tightens in his pocket around the two copper pieces left to his name.

Ragoza Ragoza
 
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#12
Sarky Sarky

The sergeant shakes off his morbid revelry to take in the picture of you, your newly arrived acquaintance, and The Ape.

"Uh, yeah, actually." He walks over, passing between two Watchmen keeping the perimeter. Can't be older than thirty, looks decades older. Lack of sleep, deeply bruised eyes, patchy beard on an unfortunate face. "Yes. We're right stumped on this and everyone's jumpy. Knifings are up, coat charmers and pickpockets are spooked too. Paper tells most the tale--killing's stayed in the Warehouse District. We've got men combing it every night. It's quiet during normal times, but positively empty now." Hawks up half a lung and spits. "Some extra bodies are not unwelcome. Holliver himself opened the war chest to let us start deputizing folks."

Sarge looks you over. "Interested? Pay wouldn't be shit, I can say that."

Hair Hair Chaka Chaka

The road outside the shop is one of the better cobbled portions of the Docks, what with it being not too far from the Market, but that only lasts maybe fifty yards weaving through a few alleys. Now it's plank paths through (mostly) mud streets. Luckily, most people aren't blindingly stupid and bring their chamber pots to the common dumps into the sewers on each road. Even Freeporters make the connection between waste and disease on a practical level.

Normally, the Docks are pretty wild, even during the day. But...being who both of you are, you're given a wide enough berth. Rare is the open serpent and as far as elves go, well, Merry's from Rul, and that's more than enough for folks to avert their eyes.

Anyway. Gangplank Pawn is (for Merry) simply a trip of retracing steps. The Bilge Rat, with its piss wine and chipped cement walls, lies only a street away on the edge of the Market. They've always got scrivner supplies and glassware among other gewgaws. The proprietor's permanently ink-stained hands are a showy dance of enthusiasm for the written word.

Murder scene at the edge of the piers hasn't cleared up. Seems to have garnered quite the crowd this morning.
 

Ragoza

Quarter goat on my mother's side.
#13
Rustbucket

Bollacks, fresh off the boat but nothing to his name. Think, Cap'n, think. Ha! The watch! Yes! Help them out, get in their good graces, get my boat back! Get this chump paid, rob him! Delightfully devilish, Rustbucket.

He rears up on his hind legs, suddenly rising from waist height to well over 6 feet and puts a hand on both of his new companions' shoulders. Copper fangs shine behind a ragged fake beard as the crude monkey face settles into a grin.

"Officer, my mates here and I'd be honoured, no, esteemed, to help in yer investigation.
 
#14
Blackclaw

"While I am not againsst a bit of vigilantissm per ssse, we have a business to run. Who iss going to draw the charts and sell our exxpertissse while we are gallivanting about the ssewersss looking for a mystery killer?" Blackclaw shoos at Merry as they reach The Bilge Rat. "Go and ssee if you can find ssomeone willing to compenssate usss if we do go hunting. I will take care of thingss here."

Blackclaw bustles about the pawn shop, collecting an eclectic mix of tools that the workshop needs, dithering over the inkwells before grabbing an extra one. Purchases in hand he leaves the small shop and follows Merry to the crowd milling about the corpse.
 
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#15
Chaka Chaka Hair Hair

You rock up to the crowd witnessing an apelike clockwork draw itself up, pulling in two men for volunteers to a put-upon Watch Sergeant. Like a hunter’s arrow loosed at unassuming prey you catch only the watchman’s “pay wouldn’t be shit, I can say that,” before the clockwork chimes in.
 

Chaka

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#16
Merry

Merry smiles broadly, and somehow sarcastically, at Blackclaw before sliding over to where the ugly clockwork and the... is that human dead? - are talking with the watchman.

"Excuse us, yes, hello, so sorry, hi, good day to all of you! I'm Merry Hemlock, noted cartographer, and this is my snake. Don't worry, he's completely sane! Anyway, yes. We were just passing and couldn't help but overhear the esteemed city watch were seeking to deputise some of the reputable citizenry of Freeport into the hunt for this most nefarious Eyeshadow Killer, or... whatever the rags are calling him. And of course, we - well I really - were just saying how awful it all was and how much we would love to help! I believe you mentioned it paid well..?"
 
#17
Stavros

The newcomer glances up at the machine. Here he is, trying to impose himself on this man for economic advantage, and this machine has the gall to come up to him and impose himself on Stavros's own imposition. The nerve of some... people? In any case, now that they are "mates..."

"Yes, my dear comrades who I have known for years," and whose names Stavros does not yet know, "would like to volunteer. I presume there is a reward for the capture of killer? Or would his head be sufficient?"
 
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#18
DarckRedd DarckRedd Chaka Chaka Hair Hair Ragoza Ragoza Sarky Sarky

The sergeant blinks at both Merry's and Stavros' questions, nonplussed long enough the silence grows awkward.

"Erm, yes. Yes we are." Blackclaw earns his undivided stares when the sergeant realizes the snakeman is real and there. "I-I...hmm. Sane...? That's...that's fantastic." Sputters, remembers himself. "Um, look, yes. Money. Deputies earn a purse of six skulls five for aiding in patrols of the warehouses, these docks, or taking up posts on corners to stem the tide of losses. Week's work for twice the monthly wages of longshoremen.

"Honestly, tempted to draft you boys as my squad. Those that catch this snailfucker will see an additional reward, savvy? Incentive is the name of the game. We ain't pressganging people yet, but it may reach that point if this keeps on."
 

Sarky

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#19
Whisper:

He coughed more genuinely from surprise this time. That was a hefty purse. He remembered the Watch offering less than half that for criminals who'd killed twice as many. Then again, none of those victims were defenceless children.

He recalled one of the more unsavoury Tarjay brats had a penchant for thrillseeking around the warehouses. He had been thinking of spying, but getting paid to be there with a little Watch authority, that would be extremely useful.

"I'm game. I couldn't help overhear you say all the other killings were in the warehouse district?"
 
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#20
Sarky Sarky

A grim nod. “The bastard clearly has an eye on the Orphanage. Three bodies have been confirmed theirs or recently of theirs. Already pretty sure this one is, but the last one...we can’t really identify.”