Hollow Threats - part 2

The marshals, having decided they have no choice but to wait until tomorrow for Joker to bring them Hunt’s reply, set up camp just outside town. Once the camp is set and the fire is lit, Nelli begins to patrol the surrounding area. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices a cactus which appears to be sitting at an odd angle, and moves closer to investigate. The soil around the cactus appears recently disturbed, as if the cactus has been planted there deliberately. Nelli begins to dig at the dirt, until she notices some unfamiliar mechanical sounds emanating from below the ground. She runs back to camp to alert the others.

Eliza moves towards the cactus where Nelli was digging, and just as she leans closer to investigate the sounds, she is suddenly flung clear as a large robot bursts from a concealed trap door. The imposing robot – apparently a construction machine which has had one claw-arm replaced with a large flamethrower – emerges completely from its hiding place. It is followed shortly by a very smug-looking Joker, who surveys the surprised marshals. “Ah,” says Joker in his smooth drawl, “I see you have taken my invitation to camp outside town, quite literally. It’s my own fault, I supposeā€¦ I fear I have been altogether too subtle. Mr. Hunt has no intention of seeing you, or speaking to you, or delivering any message other than this: You are not wanted in this town. I’m gonna first ask you to leave, and then my metal friend here – who has a considerably less amenable temperament than me – is going to have to make sure that you do.”

The marshals commit to their mutual course of action with a quick exchange of glances. Eliza, off to the side and as-yet unnoticed by Joker and the robot, engages her chameleon defences and proceeds toward Joker as the others open fire on the robot. The robot’s metal plating sizzles and scorches as it is pelted with multiple shots, but apparently shrugs off the damage and lunges toward Nelli. A near-invisible Eliza grapples the struggling Joker and demands that he turn off the robot, but Joker, uncooperative as ever, ignores her demands and tries to struggle free of his assailant. The robot levels its flame thrower toward Nelli and McTeef, letting loose a huge cone of flame. While McTeef manages to dodge out of the way, the much-closer Nelli is not so lucky; the inferno engulfs her lower leg as she attempts her dodge. She manages despite the pain to frantically pat out the flames on her foot, but it is clear the damage is significant.

Eliza redoubles her efforts and begins to choke the struggling Joker, damaging his windpipe. While Joker appeared to have a chance at escape when first accosted, it is clear now that his situation is dire. Just as McTeef grimly levels his gauss rifle at the robot for another barrage, Joker suddenly disappears with a “pop” and Eliza stumbles into the empty space he just occupied. McTeef lets loose with his rifle, and this time the robot is not taking it lightly; large, smoking holes are blown through the robot’s arms, torso, groin, and left leg. It teeters over backwards, sparking and twitching.

In the sudden calm, Nelli faintly hears the retreat of footsteps through the underground passage, and informs her allies. Tightly wrapping the remains of her foot and hauling herself onto her walking stick, she is determined to proceed. They descend into the earth in hot pursuit. The tunnel is nearly pitch-black, and they scramble for their light sources as the retreating footsteps grow more distant. They hear Joker rasp harshly through his half-crushed windpipe to some far-off listeners, “go back that way! Kill them!” Keenly aware of the potential threat ahead, the marshals do their best to employ both haste and caution, proceeding deeper into the tunnels as quickly as Nelli’s injury will allow.

As they round a corner, they are met nearly face-to-case with the batch of hired hooligans that Joker ordered to attack them. Eliza, impossible for the surprised mooks to see in the darkness, charges at the nearest one and slams him with insane force into the wall. McTeef immediately shoots another guard’s arm off, before shrugging off a couple hastily-aimed blasts to his armour. Nelli snipes another, killing him immediately, and Eliza takes out the last one as she did the first. Ensuring the surviving guards are well-secured and are not bleeding out, the marshals press on.

With Eliza still scouting out in front, the marshals proceed up the twisting tunnels. The walls show the marks of picks and other mining equipment, and thus appear to be remnants of a former mine, presumably the original spark behind the town. As the tunnel opens up into a larger room, Eliza briefly surveys the crates and barrels that have been stored there, not noticing the enemies that lay in wait around the next corner. However, Eliza’s camouflage fools them as well, and it is not until one of the creeps sees McTeef that he exclaims “they’re here!” and flattens against the wall around the corner. McTeef, aware that Eliza is near the position of the ambusher, distracts him with boasts of what the marshals did to the last batch of subterranean cannon fodder. As the ambushers plan their attack in harsh whispers, Eliza smashes one of them into the other with mighty force. Each time they attempt to regain their footing, they are once again battered by their invisible assailant. McTeef and Nelli move closer amidst the confusion. Just as McTeef reaches the open room, he notices two more ambushers hiding behind some crates, which had gone unnoticed by Eliza. They fire before McTeef can react, but find his armour is too robust for their weapons.

The two ambushers who had been around the corner from the room take advantage of the sudden din to beat a hasty retreat, splitting up and tearing off down different tunnels. Eliza picks one and begins pursuit. Meanwhile, McTeef notices a ladder leading up through the ceiling from the open room with the crates, and deduces they are under the town businesses, most likely the general store. He bellows to the two hiding in the crates that they are under arrest, and they wisely surrender. As Nelli ties up the crooks by the crates, Eliza continues pursuit of her chosen runner and McTeef warns the other runner that he’d better halt and throw down his arms. Unfortunately for the runners, they choose poorly, resulting in Eliza breaking the nose of one, and McTeef shooting the other in the leg. Relentless, the one with the injured leg hauls himself around a corner into the blackness.

From further down the hallway taken by Eliza, a faint, muffled, panicked voice can faintly be made out. Eliza can tell it’s someone familiar, but Nelli pegs it as the town barber, Lloyd Chapman. They all proceed down this tunnel, past another ladder, and finally to another open room. In the dark, musty room they indeed discover the barber, bound and gagged. Once Eliza has unbound Chapman’s mouth, he pleads frantically for escape, and reveals he used to be the mayor, but now they keep him captive. The marshals untie him, and ask him to describe Jerome hunt, the situation since he took over town, and roughly how many hired guns there are. Unfortunately, Lloyd has not been allowed many details of the town’s current state of affairs; since he was deposed suddenly by Jerome Hunt and Hunt’s hired goons, Chapman has been kept under close watch in the barber shop by day, and tied up in the shop’s basement at night. The marshals tell Chapman to run, but he refuses to leave on his own, insisting he’ll be shot by the guards posted on the hotel balcony. The marshals tell him to hide in the barber shop, in that case, and they ready their weapons for the final assault.

Backtracking to the ladder they saw on the way to the barber shop basement, they conclude it must lead into the hotel. They ascend into the hotel and find themselves in the kitchen. Eliza proceeds first, and carefully enters the empty dining room, followed by the rest of the marshals. They listen cautiously at the lobby door, and hear only some vague voices and noises in the distance. Eliza goes to the lobby, and peers out the hotel’s front windows just in time to see a coach pulled by a team of horses go racing down main street and out of town. She investigates Jerome Hunt’s office and Joker’s bedroom, and finds them hastily cleared out of anything important; it appears the marshals have taken too long, and let their prey escape.

The marshals decide now that they are in the hotel, they had best investigate all of it. They climb the dining room stairs to the second floor, and find themselves in a large room whose walls are lined with bunk beds, with one door leading to another room at the back of the hotel, and another door leading to the balcony at the front. They can see some light and motion through the glass panes in the door at the front, and burst through it. Standing on the balcony, they find Allan and Steve who they spoke to the day before. Allan and Steve look around quickly, obviously hoping for an escape, but it quickly dawns on them that their chance of getting away without severe injury is not great. The marshals interrogate the two thugs, hoping to find out where Hunt and Joker went, but find Allan and Steve oddly uncooperative. The goons are clearly frightened of the marshals (who have now demonstrated their ability to cut through a swath of hirelings practically unscathed), but appear to be much more frightened of someone else. Upon further probing, the two goons imply that someone far more imposing than Joker, Hunt, or even the marshals, is really pulling the strings here. After this, the two terrified henchmen clam up. The marshals suspect that Allan and Steve could only be so cowed by the influence of a Judge, and rattle off the names of a few known possibilities. The goons merely shake their heads and look at their feet, unwilling to damn themselves further than they already have.

One room remains unexplored, and after tying up Steve and Allan, this situation is rectified. The marshals find themselves in a large, lavish bedroom – much larger than any other accommodation offered by the hotel. In addition to the large, elegant bed and wardrobes, as well as the massive shelf filled with top-quality distillates, the marshals find a luxurious wooden desk. The desk is empty aside from inkwells, quills, blank paper and envelopes, sealing wax, and an ornate seal bearing an unknown symbol. The marshals collect the latter before examining the marked maps on the wall above the desk, which they also remove and fold to take along.

It is at this point that the marshals realize they did not completely explore the tunnels below the town, and they should exhaust the remaining passages before concluding their search. They find there is just one remaining occupied room – the basement of the blacksmith shop – where they stumble upon a handful of previously unencountered guards, as well as the one who was shot in the leg by McTeef during his flight. All quickly surrender. Hoping to avoid any further casualties, they are all-too-willing to reveal that Joker had ordered them to hold off the marshals long enough for him to meet up with Hunt and flee the town by coach. No one was left with any further information about where Joker and Hunt intended to go.

Stymied, the marshals bind all the surviving hirelings underneath the barber shop, and consider what must now be done.


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