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Fun With Side-Quests

A Tale From the Third Horizon

[Due to a plethora of scheduling issues, it has been EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to get a session of Coriolis going in the last couple of months. Last Thursday I decided come hell or high water I would run it with whoever managed to show up, which turned out to be only 2 of the team. To keep things manageable (and also because Free League finally provided official support for the Foundry modules so it was ready to go) I opted to run the adventure “The Statuette of Zhar Bhagra” from the core book. It didn’t seem entirely fair to continue the campaign proper with half the crew missing.]

It has been a week (9 days) since the Blue Beetle’s encounter with the horrific remnant of Nazareem’s Sacrifice on Xene’s 5th moon. Nine days since they received an invitation to the wedding of a man who received rather… unique, life advice from Pol the Mildly Blasphemous. The crew had been relaxing, trying to forget the hideous Darkbound entities that attacked them, or at least forget how there were still traces of humanity in their monstrous, hateful forms. It is the 14th day of the Segment of the Messenger, when the ship’s AI announced an incoming communication from a man named Merez Alcan.

Ash, being a data spider, but more importantly being paranoid, immediately began searching the name, while Fattah answered the call. Merez was a man in his late middle-age, with neatly trimmed hair and beard both gone grey. A cybernetic eye peering from one socket put one in mind of a monacle, how it whirred and changed shape. He regarded Fattah warmly.

“Good day to you, I am addressing the crew of the Blue Beetle, yes? Excellent. My name is Merez Alcan, and you were recommended to me by my contacts as efficient and discreet when it comes to finding things and people.

Merez Alcan

“I would like to hire you for just such a case. I am an antiques dealer by trade, and one of my associates has gone missing. His name is Lavim Tamm, and I last saw him 3 days ago when I had agreed to purchase an item from him. My own sources cannot find any trace of him, but missing people are not exactly their expertise, and so I turn to outside help. I am prepared to pay 1,000 birr per day plus expenses, for you to try and find Lavim and the item of interest, with a bonus of… shall we say 10,000 birr, if you locate both?”

Fattah quickly ran the numbers in his head, and found the results quite pleasing. “I think we are certainly interested, Mr. Alcan, but I cannot speak for everyone. Please, allow us a moment to discuss the matter, and we will answer shortly.”

“Of course, I quite understand.”

With a bleep, the call ended.

“So what did you dig up, Ash?”

“Merez Alcan, antiques dealer right enough. Owns a respectable establishment on the classier end of Archaeology Alley near the Spring Plaza. Good reputation, known to be firm but fair and honourable in his dealings, nothing particularly weird or suspect.

“Lavim Tamm, though. Not much to go on. Graduated in archaeology on Coriolis a cycle ago. Not a registered inhabitant of Coriolis since his student days, or of anywhere else in the Kuan system. There are references to a Tamm family in the neighbouring Aiwaz system, might be him? Last reference I have is he was working for a professor called Zhar Bhagra, kind of infamous in archaeology circles, headed several expeditions to Firstcome and suspected Portal-Builder digsites.”

“Sounds fairly standard ‘missing person’, might be a nice change from, ahem, recent unpleasantness. And a thousand birr a day is nothing to be sneezed at.”

“I agree.”

Merez picked up the call almost immediately.

“Mr. Alcan, we would be only too happy to take the job for you.”

“Excellent, I am pleased. Allow me to give you what information I can. Mr. Tamm was one of a number of archaeological experts studying and working under the esteemed professor Zhar Bhagra, who most recently embarked on an expedition to the jungles of Kua, searching the Terenganu Plateau region if I remember correctly. That was several cycles ago, and there has been little communication from the expedition, which I usually take to mean that they are too busy discovering exquisite ruins and items.

“Now, like I said, I have my own network of contacts in the archaeology world, there being quite the overlap between that field and my line of business as you can imagine. So it was that I learned… oh, five days ago now, that Lavim Tamm had arrived on Coriolis, and that he had a number of curiosities with him. I reached out to express an interest, and three days ago we agreed on the sale of one item in particular over a video call. That call appears to be the last time anyone saw him. I am reasonably certain that he did not leave Coriolis, as a friend in the Judicators tells me there is no record of anyone matching his likeness departing. Perhaps you can succeed where I and my sources have failed.”

“We will certainly try. Can you provide us with the video call you mentioned? If that is his most recent likeness it may be helpful.”

“Ah, of course, I will forward it as soon as we are done. Is there anything else I may help with?”

The crew considered, and asked a number of questions. Lavim Tamm appeared to have been drinking when Merez had made the deal, although not nearly to the degree that such a deal could be rendered invalid. The last time his communication’s locator had been active was in the Spice Plaza. The item Merez wanted was an ancient Firstcome depiction of the Dancer, a particularly ugly statuette of an obscure aspect of that Icon called “The Shadow Monkey”. Far too unsightly to be worth much to the average person, but to certain collectors and students of theology it would be worth a great deal of money. No, Lavim was not known to have enemies, it was not known why he had left Zhar Bhagra’s expedition, and he had no known associates on Coriolis.

Their questions answered, the crew awaited the archived communication between Lavim and Merez. Lavim was indeed drunk. As they watched, he knocked back a tiny glass filled with clear amber-yellow liquid. Probably Miran fire kohôl, rather rare on Coriolis which tended to frown on public drunkenness, but the Spice Plaza would be an excellent place to find it, and thus they had a lead to pursue.

The Spice Plaza was crowded, and few people had the time to stop to examine a picture of a missing person. When fire kohôl was mentioned, however, those people flashed a rogueish smile and pointed them to either the bazaar kohôl trader Abzir, or the White Tugur Bar just on the edge of the Plaza. They decided that in the video call, Lavim’s surroundings looked like some manner of cantina or bar, and so they drew aside the bead curtain and stepped inside the White Tugur.

The bustling Spice Plaza

The bouncers outside were very imposing, but well dressed and impeccably mannered. Almost as soon as they entered, a middle-aged woman in Miran finery rushed to greet them.

“Welcome to the White Tugur Bar! It is a delight to see new faces. I am Jasina, the matriarch of this humble establishment.”

Ash was all smiles; she smelled kawah. “Thank you, Jasina. We were recommended this place by a friend, we’ve been looking forward to a visit. Is that kawah I smell?”

“It is indeed. Please, sit wherever you wish. Jinna! Food and kawah menus, please!”

Ash went for the third-most expensive coffee, splashing out 20 whole birr on a pot of Dabaran berry-kawah; an odd strain of bean that was halfway to being a dark, tangy fruit, but it percolated as well as any other, with an above average caffeine content and unique flavour profile including more than merely hints of blackberry and blueberry.

She savoured it as if it were words of wisdom straight from the Icons themselves.

“Delicious. Absolutely wonderful. Lavim was right about you.”

“Lavim… Lavi- Oh, the archaeology fellow? Yes, he does quite enjoy it here.”

“Has he visited recently? I only ask because we haven’t been able to contact him in the last few days. I’d hoped to come here with him but…”

Jasina put her hands on her hips, thinking. “Now you mention it, I haven’t seen a trace of him in… three days? Which is odd, usually he and Jinna are thick as thieves. Actually, maybe Jinna knows. Hey Jinna! Can you- oh!”

She turned around to see Jinna, who must have been listening, flee through the front door with a panicked expression.

“Well isn’t that typical. She has taken her break early. I was going to say, Jinna might be able to help you with Lavim, they’re good friends…”

Ash quickly sent a message to Dav, waiting outside, to follow the girl who had just fled the bar.

“I say,” said Jasina, seeing how seriously Ash and Fattah were taking things, “… Is… Is Lavim in some kind of trouble?”

“I hope not, ” replied Ash, “I really, truly hope not. But we need to find him to make sure.”

“I see. Well… I hope you find him soon, then. I’m rather fond of the boy. I mean I don’t mind if Jinna is in trouble, she’s far from the best waiter I’ve employed, but Lavim’s a good soul. You know how some mothers will say to their daughters, ‘Oh daughter, I love you… but I prefer him’?”

Ash indicated that she did, indeed, know exactly what Jasina meant. Thanking her for the coffee, the pair left to consider their next move.

The cramped, decadent splendour of the Student District

Dav had shadowed Jinna halfway across the station, reporting that she went to ground in the University District in the station Core. Ash decided to see what kind of digital footprint Jinna had. There was nothing particularly surprising. Final year of university, a year behind Lavim. Social net images of the two sightseeing or at gatherings. Working at the White Tugur to pay off student loans. Some rather lax university network security allowed Ash to determine Jinna’s class schedules and locations for the coming evening. The crew decided to wait on the path between classes and have a chat with her. Given that she had already run from Fattah and Ash, it was decided that Poll and Dav would intercept her.

Ash and Fattah were out of earshot when Pol began speaking to Jinna. She prayed to the Icons that he be convincing in spite of what he actually said. True to form, whatever it was he DID say (The only audible part was him exclaiming “like a giraffe’s PLUMS!”), it was enough to convince Jinna the crew meant no harm. She walked over to Ash and Fattah.

Jinna apologised for running earlier. She had seen Lavim, yes, but he was convinced that someone was following him with ill intent, and Jinna had assumed that Ash and/or Fattah were that someone. Like everyone else, she had not seen him in three days.

“But the last time I did see him, he said he was going to a place called Kaffra’s Antiques. I don’t know what for.”

It wasn’t much, but it was all they had. Fattah and Ash set out to the seedier part of Archaeology Alley, where Kaffra’s shop was alleged to be. Those who gave directions insisted that they would find far better in other shops, rather than “that quack Kaffra”, but directed them nonetheless. Kaffra herself was a wizened old woman with black hair, almost lost behind a prodigious number of embroidered shawls. Ash and Fattah posed as concerned friends of Jinna, looking for a charm or talisman that might help her forget her rotten, deadbeat boyfriend Lavim. Perhaps Kaffra was moved by their testimony of the hearbreak Lavim had caused, or perhaps it was because they didn’t haggle when she asked for 10 birr for a piece of half-rotted wood allegedly blessed by the Faceless One, but she recounted her own story, where Lavim came in to ask strange questions, with something wrapped up under one arm. When she asked what it was he was holding, he got very angry and left.

Being… perhaps slightly less possessed of nobility and grace than her peers, Kaffrah followed him, intending to pay for some burly stevedore to teach the impudent youngster some manners. But when she saw the flea-ridden boarding house he entered, half conscious after nearly a whole bottle of fire kohôl, Kaffra decided that perhaps he was punishing himself enough without her intervention. She gave the Blue Beetle crew the flophouse address, high up in the Promenade between the Spring and Market Plazas, perhaps thinking he still deserved a piece of someone’s mind for speaking like that to an elder.

On leaving Kaffra’s, Fattah and Ash became aware that someone was following them, a young woman by what they could make out underneath a dark, hooded kaftan. She was clearly no stranger to shadowing people, and it took every ounce of focus for Ash and Fattah to remain aware of her. Before leaving Archaeology Alley, they decided to head away from the flophouse where they might find Lavim, and then to split up and hopefully catch their follower by surprise.

They parted ways at the Spring Plaza. The mysterious shadow elected to follow Fattah, giving Ash leeway to circle around and ambush her. Ash crept close, then all of a sudden wrapped her arms around the stranger as if embracing a friend (and making escape all but impossible), exclaiming “Cousin! It’s been so LONG, how have you BEEN!?”

The woman tensed, taken completely by surprise. Ash could feel the faint smile on the woman’s lips as she said “Cleverly done. People are looking at us now, I cannot run or retaliate. Release me, and we shall talk.”

The woman brushed back her hood, revealing a calm, bright-eyed woman in her mid-twenties. Her stare was piercing, and her faint smile constantly suggested she knew something an onlooker did not. Both were quickly explained by her next words.

Salindre, with a fearsome meson handgun, which sadly did not make an appearance thanks to the players doing a pacifist run

“I am Salindre. I am a Draconite.”

The Draconites were a mystery. Originally, they were part of the crew of the Zenith, that great colony ship that arrived in the Third Horizon 65 cycles ago, which became the mighty station Coriolis and revived trade and travel across the Third Horizon. The Draconites saw the officer families of the Zenith arguing about the future of hundreds of thousands of people still in cryosleep, and revived all of them, so that they could decide for themselves. They then disappeared out into the great darkness of space. Decades later they returned, styled as disciplined warrior-philosophers, possessing advanced technology clearly not of the Third Horizon, and esoteric, mysterious beliefs to match. They are tight lipped, and thus far the only belief they have let slip to the greater public is their mantra: “Through conflict, the truth.” This has fuelled all manner of wild speculation, about their battle-prowess, and how they strive to win some “inner conflict”. The Draconites, for their part, say nothing, but their fearlessness in battle and diplomacy speak volumes.

“You are looking for a man who was part of Zhar Bhagra’s last expedition. I can tell you that Lavim Tamm is the sole survivor of that endeavour. Professor Bhagra found what he was looking for, and meddled with powers he did not understand. Lavim fled here, hoping to sell the statuette you no doubt wish to acquire for your employer.”

“How’d you know all that?”

She smiled. “I am a Draconite.”

“Uh, that doesn’t really answer the question.”

“I know. But it is the answer with which you must be content. Allow me to be blunt: I am not interested in Lavim Tamm, unless he is beyond saving. The statuette he carries is a thing of darkness. You have faced humans possessed by the great hunger that dwells in the black, have you not?”

Mentioning the Dark Between the Stars in polite company was a major taboo. Salindre clearly wanted to impress the seriousness of the matter on the crew.

“We have. It’s not something I wish to see happen to anyone else.”

“Indeed. The statuette is a thing of evil. It warps the mind, and perhaps the body. But its most damnable feature is that it is a weapon. Its malign influence can, with the correct knowledge, be directed. Do you understand? Merez Alcan works for the Syndicate. He keeps this secret closer to him than anything else. Should the Syndicate acquire the statuette, it is only a matter of time – and innocent bodies – until they unlock its full potential. I wish to ensure the statuette is placed beyond the reach of anyone who would attempt to use it. Should Lavim Tamm still be human, he is no concern of mine.”

“And if he… isn’t human?”

“Then you know he must be destroyed. The sooner we move, the better it will be for him. I propose that our interests are aligned, at least in this matter?”

Ash, suspicious to a fault, reluctantly agreed.

“Ok, we’ll go to Lavim, take him back to our ship, sober him up, and… work something out. Come on.”

The flophouse was a dismal place. The smell was awful, the air felt greasy in some manner, and the surly ex-Legion proprietor was not in the mood for small talk. As soon as he heard they were looking for a drunk man, he led them straight to Lavim’s deplorable room, where he was almost blind drunk. “AHA! I kneeeeeeeewwwwww I was being flflflflollowed! Go on then, k’ll me. Can’t be worser than… than the dreams in my heeeeeaaauuuurrrrrgblblbblblffftp” Lavim’s flow was interrupted by a stream of vomit which splashed on Ash’s shoes to her great annoyance. She looked at Salindre.

“He is… not corrupted by darkness, which is the nicest thing I can say about him.”

“Good enough for us. Fattah, can you hail a taxi? I don’t want him puking on my boots again.”

A grav-chair taxi ferried the motley crew to the Neoptra port, where the Blue Beetle was docked. Manhandling Lavim into the medbay, they called on Pol to see what could be done about his impressive insobriety. Pol administered a cocktail of antitoxins and alcohol destroying enzymes, and within 30 minutes Lavim was desperately hungover, but coherent.

“So you’re not here to kill me?” he said almost hopefully, clutching his aching head.

“Nope, we just want the statue you were going to sell to Merez Alcan.”

“Oh. Pity, my head is… Ugh. Look, I hid it, ok? It’s in a bag tucked into a crack under one of the bridges across the Promenade. It… I kept having dreams. Really, really horrible ones. I’ll give you the coordinates, just keep it away from me.”

Ash put on her Things-Shall-Be-Thus voice.

“Right, here’s what’s going to happen. Salindre, you go get your statue. We’ll keep Lavim here for 24 hours, then tell Alcan we found him but the statue’s long gone. We won’t get as big a bonus, but some birr is better than none. And you, Lavim, had better come up with a good bloody excuse for messing about with Jinna like you did!”

“Jinna? But I… Oh. You’re right. The poor-“

“Shut up, Lavim.”

“Shutting up right now, ma’am.”

Perhaps 20 minutes later, they received a message from an anonymous, untraceable user:

“Item secured. Recommend you inspect the bridge nevertheless; I was only after the statuette. Walk in the light of the Icons.”

The next morning, they sent Dav and Pol to inspect the bridge, while Ash and Fattah went over their plan. Before long Dav called them, but it was not Dav’s voice on the communicator.

“I think we should meet. I’ll be at the bridge. You know the one.” Merez Alcan hung up.

Merez was waiting at the far end of the bridge, a roadway near the top of the Promenade for maintenance vehicles and repair teams to access the maze of ducts and cables above. He was flanked by four strong young men, two of which held Dav and Pol, their hands tied.

“Where is my statue?” Merez took a few steps forward.

“No idea” replied Ash, truthfully. “Could be anywhere by now.”

“This is very disappointing. I said that the statuette was worth a great deal of money, did I not? That your payment hinged upon its recovery?”

He took a few more steps, reaching the middle of the bridge. His bodyguards moved alongside him. Pol and Dav were marched to his right, where the railing was very obviously missing. There was a drop of several hundred metres beyond it.

“You told us a thousand birr per day until we found Lavim. We found him. Whatever happened the statue, it happened before we found him, not our problem.”

Fattah, perhaps sensing which way things might be heading, discreetly took out his communicator and began recording the proceedings. Merez’s heavies reached for weapon holsters, but the old man held up a hand to stand them down.

I put a LOT OF EFFORT into making this map look like it was dangerously high up in the air and not a single fight broke out on it! Bah.

Merez’s tapped his cane on the ground, his grip turning his knuckles white. Despite the calm face, he was evidently furious. “Most disappointing, indeed. I can only conclude that my contacts were mistaken about your reputation. So be it. In… two days,” he said with a smirk, suggesting he knew otherwise, “you found Mr. Tamm, and so I shall honour my offer of one thousand birr per day. Your failure to secure the item I so wished to purchase, however, not to mention your shameful disrespect, inclines me towards withholding the proposed bonus. May the Icons keep you from darkening my doorstep for eternity. Come, gentlemen, I believe we’re done here.”

Merez turned away and walked off into the shadows of the far Promenade. His goons formed a line until he disappeared, before roughly shoving Dav and Pol towards Ash and Fattah, and retreated likewise.

Lavim was having breakfast in the Blue Beetle when they returned. “How did it go?” he asked nervously.

“He’s not happy, but nobody’s dead.”

“Oh. Good? I think?”

“About as good as could be hoped, I suppose.” said Fattah.

There was a short silence, as Lavim helped himself to some more food.

“So… did you get the data tag?”

“Hmm?”

“The tag. Under the bridge. That thing has the coordinates of the expedition.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Lots more than just that ugly statue down there.”

“Yeah…”

“You… don’t have it, do you.”

“Not as such, no.”

“An absolute fortune in ancient relics. Not to mention the shredded remains of literally all my friends and colleagues, who deserved a proper funeral.”

“I, uh…”

“And now he has it.”

“Er, yes.”

“Brilliant. Just absolutely, utterly fantastic. You know I-“

“Shut up, Lavim.”

They arranged passage for Lavim home to Aiwaz, and paid a visit to Jasina and Jinna at the White Tugur once more. There, they explained that Lavim was fine, but had very important business to attend to back home, and wouldn’t be back for some time, and that Jinna should just get over him. Jasina remained tight-lipped but her face radiated “I told you he was no good, Jinna. didn’t I TELL you he was no good?” while Jinna was extremely confused as to why everyone thought she and Lavim were a couple, but decided to just go along with it to avoid further embarrassment.

Their good deeds done for the day, the Blue Beetle crew retired to their ship for a well-earned rest.

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