Half the posse places orders with the renowned scientific mail-order firm Smith & Robards, being in a town big enough to accept such courier orders. They'll have to wait for a while for these marvels of progress to be delivered. Therefore, the following day in Dodge City is one of investigation.
McLean and Steele look into information about the Stagecoach Robber, local criminal with a wanted posted up right next to McLean's in the marshal's office. Between them they discover that he attacks from a custom steam wagon, faster than a standard vehicle, and dresses like a gentleman highwayman, holding up trains and coaches but never killing anyone. While the criminal McLean doesn't get much further than this as he asks around town - except for being bothered by the local Temperance movement - the mountie scores an interview with a witness, who is quite taken with the dashing, blue-eyed man that stole her valuables on the ride into Dodge, armed with a shiny Colt frontier.
Nathaniel visits the local Pony Express office, to see if he can find the trail of the enigmatic Ethan. He meets one old-timer that can verify Ethan's visit to Dodge, coming from the south and making a delivery to an old lady, leaving town to the north without picking up a new delivery but carrying a full pouch anyway.
As Nathaniel leaves the building, a woman with a red neckerchief addresses him, sharing an interest in finding Ethan. The reporter is reluctant to give away his reasons, and she proves similarly coy, walking off when the questions are turned her way. Nathaniel shadows her as he retrieves a horse from the livery and leaves town heading to the east; another mystery.
Law checks out Boot Hill, the cemetary out of town. He retrieves his weapons from the marshal's office - fending off a buffalo hunters offer to go hunting - and spends the day traipsing around, trying to find any hint of native American activity while avoiding disturbing the many mourners. The grave-digger gives him a little tour as he gives the cover story of looking for a friend's grave. Along the way, he finds much evidence of the graves being disturbed, activity which the digger puts down to folks requiring an outlet for violence after the ban on guns in town.
Charles also meets the buffalo hunters while in town, in the buffalo store, and accepts their offer of joining them on a hunting trip, even if they mock him for his upper-class nature, hunting for sport rather than as a living. As he picks up his weapons from the marshal's office, he also takes down McLean's wanted poster. On the trip itself, he witnesses the men gun down passive buffalo from among a herd to be carted home, but declines to take a shot himself, remembering a promise to some natives of his acquaintance.
That night, McLean organises a card game with Colt Light, hoping to tempt the wrangler and perhaps a few of the others from the cattle drive. Only Tall Murph turns up alongside Light, and over a friendly game receives a lecture from Steele on perhaps not drinking so much. The mountie himself takes a swig of Murph's moonshine in return, and misses the rest of the evening.
Light declines the offer of joining the group in hunting outlaws - more money in gambling - but Murph mentions that she and some of the girls may be interested. They're staying together at another hotel, having met together to have a late wake for their dead colleagues.
Law does not join the others that night, instead going on a tour of saloons to find more natives to speak with. He gets into a fight at the rowdy Dog Eye Saloon, but is accepted after proving himself. There he meets again with Michael Two-Trees, the indian from the livery. He too has a theory on why there's been so much disturbance of grave-sites, but Law pays little attention to his story of little green men from the moon.
In the morning, the posse has renewed purpose, and sets out to attempt to catch the Stagecoach Bandit. Charles goes to visit The Scientist and the other cowhands, but she's more of a chemist than an engineer, and can volunteer little information regarding the Stagecoach Bandit other than he'd need a supply of Ghost Rock to keep his conveyance running. No mines near Dodge, so he'd have to have it shipped in special or else steal it.
Nathaniel visits the local blacksmith, to see if anyone has been buying up large quantities of metal, and learns of a man named Jenkins who has done just that a couple of months ago.
Steele, patrolling the local area, finds a set of steam wagon tracks quite unlike any other. They indicate a vehicle of singular speed, weight and manoeuvrability - and when they join up with some railroad tracks and dsappear, it's clear that the wagon can also convey itself along rails. Catching such a target will be difficult, but perhaps thety could lure it out with a trap, one with tempting bait...
I got a bunch of Cthulhutech RPG books off eBay last week. The system's a few years old now, and any quick search of the internet will turn up the general opinion that the setting and system have a few... problems.
System-wise, they are working on a second addition of the Framewerk System, with an open beta available on DriveThru RPG
. I never played the first edition properly - I mean, I did play in a campaign run by ENNIE-award-winning-author ASH LAW, but our Engel pilots spent less time wrestling with the heavily house-ruled system than we did fending off Scottish wackadoodle Jock McAwesome (puttup) - so I can't really comment on that side of things. But the setting? Yeah, I can have an opinion on that.
The high concept is amazing, let's face it: pilot a giant mecha to punch Cthulhu in the face in a world mixing Lovecraftian eldritch horror with anime like Evangelion, Guyver and Robotech/Macross. Hell yeah, sign me up!
Of course, the execution is what is lacking. And I don't mean the quality of what is presented: whereas most RPG books inspire me to go through them with a red pen, wondering if they even had
a proofreader, Cthulhutech is almost free of error, quite the achievement and worth comment and commendation.
It's the stuff that is covered. One squicky subject in particular gets all the attention in those previously aluded-to online critiques and condemnations, but there's more than that. The short stories prefacing each chapter - in horrible, white on black World of Darkness-style - are universally dreadful and not worth discussing in-depth. And the wrongness of the descriptive text is better demonstrated by the artwork.
The artwork is good quality stuff, by and large. The full-colour medium used may not have been what I'd have preferred for the game - both horror and 'manga-style' would be better served by black and white linework than CG-coloured 'shiny' art - but that in itself is not a bad thing. It sets the wrong mood with what it depicts. Any one of the pictures looks like a scene that could be quite at home in Warhammer 40,000, all bleak future grimdark. It shouldn't be.
The darkness of Lovecraftian nihilism works best when it's contrasted with something, rather than lost in the murky melange of terrible pessimism. For an obscure example, I present the video game Magrunner: Dark Pulse
, where a bright and fun future game-show contest between magrunners has Cthulhu cultists picking away at its bright edges. This should be doubly important where the Mythos is being blended with shiny-happy giant mech anime. Day-to-day life in a Cthulhutech Arcology should be like living in Macross City, not struggling to survive in the Necromundan Underhive.
So, in place of my usual going through books checking off the mistakes in grammar and spelling, I've instead been tutting at places where the setting has taken a wrong step, and figuring out how easy it would be to change it for the better. I may very well post up a few of my findings here in the future.
Nathaniel has a story prepared for the morning, when the good townsfolk awaken to the corpse of an eldritch abomination dangling from a noose slung over their welcome sign. After its recital, the posse is waved on its way with grateful cheers, an evil destroyed forever.
The travel over the next few days is similarly cheerful for the posse and the cattle drivers, Tall Murph largely oblivious to the danger she was in. Only The Scientist remains perturbed, struggling to deal with what she's seen.
Crossing into Kansas, it's not long before John Texas has his peace shattered. Four men come running through the long grass, screaming for help. One of them is suddenly dragged downward out of sight, then a second in the time it takes John to shout for help. He allows the two survivors to mount up behind him on his steed, but his horse is less than enthusiastic about running off under such a weight.
Steele joins the scene shortly afterward, and upon learning that there are men still out there in danger rides off to help. The danger makes itself known as fist-sized prairie ticks leap from the long grasses at the horses of both men, hungry for blood. Both animals manage to fend them off for the time being, but John's isn't going to outrun the ticks, and Steele is riding closer to an unknown number of them...
The mountie drops from his horse when he finds a man with a prairie tick already clawing its way over his lips. He grabs the critter, yanks it bloodily free and flings it to the horizon. Law rides to John's side, and ponders for a moment sharing the burden to get everyone clear of the site. Uppon seeing Steele dismounted however, he spurs onward after him.
Law's horse is caught in the mouth by one of the ticks, and in moments it's vanished down the poor animal's throat. He jumpos to the ground, only to have another tick crawl into his own mouth, dropping into his belly.
Steele rides past, grabbing Law to join him and the rescued man, braving more ticks as they escape.
Wracked brains and pooled knowledge determine that castor oil will drive the little bugger out. Smilin' Pete does have a large bottle of the stuff, and Law just about manages to choke it down, before an angry tick rips itself out of his mouth to be crushed.
While Law gets acquainted with the side-effects of drinking a quart of castor oil, the others quiz the rescued. Moyle, Astin and Jake - the last being he of the now-maimed mouth - explain that they're simple travellers heading to Dodge, now bereft of horses and willing to work a little if they could tag along with the cattle drive. Epps doesn't have any problem if the posse doesn't, and the group grows in size by three.
The newcomers do have some strong opinions, which they express over the next few days, Moyle several times decrying the cattle drive's goal of delivering to Black River Railroad, saying that it's run by a witch, and that Union Blue would be a much safer partner. "Rawhide" Rex, the CSA veteran horse wrangler, takes exception and the two almost come to blows, McLean egging them on until Steele comes between them, equal parts urging to work together and threats of reprisal gets them to calm down. Then the gunshots ring out.
Nathaniel and Charles had spotted the signs of ambushers on their flank of the drive, but while the Englishman is quick enough to jump off his horse, rifle fire drops both the reporter and cowhand Angie. McLean rides to asist, dropping prone to return fire alongside Charles, but takes a bullet in the process.
Law rides up to provide some medical help, and Nathaniel shouts for him to help McLean, who clearly needs it more. He drags himself to Angie's side, to find that she's already dead.
Steele and John charge up to provide more covering fire alongside Charles, and McLean even scores a kill before Law even touches him. There were only half a dozen attackers to begin with, and once they're reduced to one he takes to his horse, Charles in pursuit as the others gather themselves together.
The last man fights to the death, the last of the six Confederate partisans that had ambushed the cattle drive. Moyle makes a few off-colour comments about the Confederacy in light of this, and Rawhide punches him to the ground in response. Steele steps in immediately, delivering on his promises. He finds the veteran stronger than anticipated, and takes a few lumps himself before Charles and Nathaniel calm the violence with the simple reminder that Angie is dead!
So, riding past returning buffalo hunters, a sombre but calm group finally arrives at Dodge City, and Daniel Prester is as good as his word, paying the posse in full. They stop off at the marshal's office to drop off their guns - carrying firearms being against the law in Dodge - and collect a bounty for the three living partisans they captured. While there, they spot a wanted poster for catching a famous stagecoach robber, as well as one promising a $1000 reward for McLean, who quickly makes himself scarce...
The gang settles down at the nearest hotel, where Charles' manservant Ingram is waiting, as requested by telgram back in Amarillo. He is accompanied by Scott the miner, who was intrigued by the message. Reunited with his wealth and possessions, Charles sets about placing an order with the Smith and Robards Company, now that he's in a big enough city to get it delivered. While enjoying the comforts of a warm bath, both Steele and McLean have a paw through the catalogue to see if there's anything they want to spend their recently-earned cash on.
John Texas shakes down information regarding sightings of the red neckerchief gang that burnt his hometown to the ground, learning that they've become local, plaguing folks trying to cross the toll bridge into Dodge.
Law meets native Michael Two-Trees in a livery, and gets to talking with him about local Indian matters, hoping to discover the location of Jordrava's artifact. He finds out that Boot Hill was 'built' over an ancient Indian burial ground; always a winning choice. Promising the man a drink later as friends, he moves on to buying some more medical supplies from local Doctor Smith, as well as replacement sets of clothes.
Nathaniel samples both local papers, the Dodge City Times and The Globe. Finding them both to be primarily local interest stories, he sells to the former a photograph and fluff piece explaining the arrival of famed hunter Charles Harding to Dodge City. The latter is less than friendly to an out-of-towner, so it is the Times' records that he combs through as he looks for relevant information. The story about Indian arrowheads being found on Boot Hill seems to corroborate Law's findings...
The second week of the cattle drive takes the pose and their group through idyllic landscape, with plentiful trees and flowers. Amongst one such cluster of blooms McLean spots a shiny jewel. He calls Nathaniel over, and the two - naturally suspecting something to be up - begin prodding at and kicking dirt over the stone. When a horned, rainbow-striped snake erupts from the ground, their natural inclination to run is replaced by an urge to approach the monster, dazzled by the gem embedded atop its head.
Nathaniel is viciously gored, enough at least to let off a flare to alert the others to the danger. The posse converges, but soon finds that all their attempts to gun it down have no effect. Charles even takes a crack shot at the jewel atop its head, but that too ricochets away. Eventually they take to shooting at the coloured stripes, John Texas eventually piercing it through the heart that lies underneath its violet scale stripe.
The snake melts away, leaving only the jewel. Charles remembers rumours of the uktena, and how the jewel can grant power to those of an arcane bent, and hands it to John for safekeeping. The fact the jewel must be soaked in blood every seven days to activate and maintain its abilities is something to worry about in the future...
Their further travels discover some hanging corpses, clearly lynched, with crimes painted in blood across their foreheads. The first, a 'THIEF', the second a 'RAPIST' and the next three 'TRESPASSERS'. This is clearly a bad sign, and the posse convinces Epps to stop off at the next town to investigate.
Three newcomers were run out of town for attempted breaking and entering, but the locals would never kill someone for such a minor offence - that would be something folks would do down in Texas...
This phrase triggers something for John, and he remembers the legend of the corrupt Hangin' Judges that plagued Texas until they were hunted down and killed, only to rise from the dead and carry on sentencing from beyond the grave. The posse makes a solemn decision not to commit any crimes.
Then Tall Murph is arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and given a night in the cells to sleep it off.
During the day, Nathaniel asks John how he knows so much about the supernatural, along with how he created the rune-carved bullets that the party has been using as signal flares. Texas explains his history, from his village being destroyed by outlaws, to being taken in and taught hexslingin' by an old hermit. He still has scores to settle with those banditos...
For his part, Nathaniel explains that he has been unable to remove the fancy boots that he'd acquired back in Devils Tower, from the body of the Pony Express rider. John opens up his suspicions that the corpse may have been a Harrowed walkin' corpse before it was put down, but is unable to form a link to the boots. With only the name Ethan to go on (it was sewn into the rider's bag), Nathaniel does a little investigating around town, but it's a common enough name. Perhaps a bigger settlement, like Dodge maybe, would have more concrete records to go on.
That night, while the posse and cattle sleep outside of town, Charles chooses to stay up and watch the jail, in case Murph is targeted by the judge. The Scientist chooses to stay up with him, making him tea and telling him her real name - Dorothy Mercer - while settling down to spend the night with him.
Twin shots ring out, shattering the tea cups as a spectral, hooded figure glides down the darkened streets, whispering like thunder. The Scientist can't take it and runs off, but Charles shoots at it with his rifle. For his troubles, he is shot repeatedly while being judged guilty of illegal immigration.
The Englishman throws himself into a nearby saloon, only two patrons at this time of night. As he hides under a table, the judge storms in, grabbing a man supposedly guilty of drunkenness and immediatley commencing stringing him up right there.
The rest of the posse rides in soon after, and while Charles makes for the hanging victim they attack, hoping to divide the judge's attention. It fixes on the thief McLean almost immediately, and he's bleeding heavily before he throws himself through a window to get away.
Steele's bullets alone seem to be having some effect on the judge, and it turns on him, an agent of a foreign power. Nathaniel distracts the judge with some carefully timed insults, and earns its ire for slander and libel. It slashes into the reporter with its scythes, and things look bleak until the town sheriff wades in with his shotgun. The judge takes it all in its glide, athough as it switches its attention again Steele finally puts it down. The corpse doesn't melt away like the uktena snake, and the matter of what to do with it is solved as Charles walks out of the saloon with the grateful victim and a length of rope...
The shaman, freed from the clutches of the manitou-tree and wounds soothed by Law's ministrations, sits down to lay some exposition on the posse. He is Jordrava, last of the Old Ones, the shamans that locked the manitou away in the Hunting Grounds centuries ago. Seventeen years ago, a vengeful lone survivor of a slaughtered tribe led a group of fellow Last Sons to kill the Old Ones and free the demons to take revenge on the white man. That was how Raven began the Reckoning.
Jordrava survived, although while he hid he was captured and tormented by manitou. He explains to the posse that the Ravenites have spread their number all across the nation, and will be an insidious foe to root out, although that is what the heroes must do. For all their hatred of the white man, they are willing to use his tools, driving natives further from the Old Ways. They seek to bring about a final war, which will only truly benefit the manitou and their masters, the Reckoners.
Jordrava believes that peace can be achieved, but has no specific advice on how to stop Raven, not being privy to his plans. But he must be stopped, although killing him will not end his threat, as he is so blessed by the Reckoners. Before he came to the spirit world, Jordrava owned two powerful artifacts, his medicine stone and his tomahawk. Both would be useful tools that would aid in the struggle, but the Old One knows only of the location of the medicine stone: Dodge City. Jordrava will try and gather aid in the spirit world and contact our heroes later.
The posse has their wounds healed and a portal opened back to the physical world. Stepping through the posse find themselves in a stinking cattle pen. They trudge out, McLean using a story of self-cleaning clothes to wave away an incredulous cowboy watching them climb the fence. They discover that they are in the Texan town of Amarillo, and only a day has passed since they entered Devils Tower. They spend a little time taking stock of their situation, re-supplying ammo and such.
Steele and Harding send off telegrams, the mountie to his superiors to inform them of recent revelation, and the Englishman back to Deadwood to get Ingram to meet him en route. They receive replies a day later, and soon also discover a means of travel to get to Dodge:
Daniel Prester is organising a cattle drive of twelve-hundred heads to Dodge City, and requires experienced gunhands to protect it. It pays well, with some in advance, so the posse signs up for the expedition.
The drive is overseen by experienced boss Bob "White River" Epps, with a crew of six cow-hands: Janet Ford, a guitar-playin' smart alec in a derby; Tall Murph, a hard-drinkin' woman six feet tall; The Scientist, a former chemistry teacher with a wild shock of hair; Angie Amesbury, always adjusting her belt; Reb - short for Rebecca - wearing her Confederate hat; Mary-Lou, always msoking and looking shifty. Two horse wranglers were along to care for the steeds (caringly provided for the posse), "Rawhide" Rex with his growly voice, and Colt Light, the very man that McLean bluffed back in town. Rounding out the numbers is Smilin' Pete, the cook driving the wagon at the drive's rear.
The posse split up to guard the herd, Charles staying with Cookie in the wagon. The first week (of the three predicted) takes them through the Texas panhandle, with the first four days running the herd ragged for an easier journey later on. The nights are spent enjoying the company of the cattle-hands, Janet playing her guitar to while the time away while McLean tries to avoid having to talk to Colt and Law manages to offend Reb with his attempts at small-talk.
The fourth evening is spent at a watering hole, but Nathaniel spots a disturbance in the crush of cattle heading to drink, some of them butting each other and acting oddly. He calls over Epps, and the trail boss sends a pair of cow-hands over to investigate. The cattle turn on them too, and Mary-Lou is knocked from her mount in the midst of the press. Charles rides over to get her out of there, and buys enough time for the rest of the team to come together and take aside the odd cattle, over a dozen spread throughout the drive.
Law, with a smattering of medical knowledge, takes a look at some of the cattle, poking at the bullet-hole sized wound in the belly of one. When it blinks at him, he's surprised as the cow's underside erupts in barbed tentacles and attempts to throttle him. He gets away with a few scrapes as John Texas draws his pistol to shoot the head off the cow. This does not stop the tentacle beast, and that is soon hacked apart by Law himself.
The gunshot startles the normal cattle, and the cowhands ride off to stop the stampede. They bring it to a stop, Murph redirecting the lead steer to bring the exhausted cattle to a halt after a circling of the lake. Janet doesn't make it though, her first drive ending in her being crushed by the beasts as she fell from her horse.
There's no real time to mourn, as the matter of the tentacles must be dealt with. John and Charles recognise the creature now as a Texan Tummy Twister, a bacterial monster that grows in the belly until it bursts forth. It can be expelled from a host with enough spicy food (or axid, if one doesn't care about the infected's survival), so all of Cookie's chillis are taken, and Steele volunteers to drive it down each steer's throat, with Charles holding the beast steady, Nathaniel calming them and Law and John standing by to kill the monsters.
The Tummy Twisters tear themselves from the mouths of the cattle after the treatment is administered, half-a-dozen steers dying in the process, and at least one scrathes Steele on its way out. Just to be safe, more chilli is on the menu for the evening meal.
During the purification of the infected steers, John finds himself attacked by a angry, wolverine-like creature, a frenzied mass of claws and teeth. The carcajou is shot down in time, but John has taken a bad slashing from it, and spends a little time recovering during Janet's funeral.
The end of the week brings a group of Crow indians riding in the opposite direction. They chat with the posse, each group sharing information of what hazards may lie on the road. For their part, the Crows advise that the group avoid the ruins of Adobe Walls, for it is haunted, and hostile Indians from the Coyote Confederation have set up camp there.
Epps listens to the posse's opinion - they are there for protection, after all - and so they avoid Adobe Walls, continuing peacefully into the lush lands of Oklahoma.
Travelling onward, the posse find the sandy desert giving way to more solid ground, eventually terminating in a cliff wall. Being the only one of them with any experience of climbing, McLean volunteers to climb up to drop a rope down, only he's still badly wounded from the altercation with the banditos.
John does a few impressive spins of his pistols while they discuss how to proceed, and during the conversation McLean finds the pain of his wounds numbing, and decides to make a go of the climb anyway. And he makes great progress, only stumbling near the very top, where a big, meaty hand is offered down to him and a jolly voice offers to help him up and tie the rope.
His rescuer is a muscular man with a large chin and larger smile of perfect teeth. He introduces himself as Brock Paine, much to the astonishment of Nathaniel, who used the name as a purely fictional alter-ego of his. Still, McLean gets an autographed photograph.
Brock takes the posse back to a local town called Bootbuckle, where he is cheered as a hero in a manner reminiscent to Nathaniel of the events of a story he wrote, 'Brock Paine and the Red Dog'. The posse is welcomed and feasted, and Brock decides that he will accompany them, to make their number up to a lucky seven. Of course, the posse already has that number, and soon enough it becomes obvious that no one else can even see Nathaniel.
A few attempts to convince everyone of their comrade's existence are laughed off as ghosts, sparking Brock's interest in another adventure. Nathaniel begins writing it all down, and finds out that this influences Brock's behaviour in turn. He guides the man - posse in tow - to investigate 'The Case of the Ghost Miners', and while they unmask and end the child slavery going on in the old 'haunted' mine Brock catches a bullet that may end his adventuring career.
Upon return to Bootbuckle, he passes his hat to the young reporter that meets him at the town limits, with a smile and a mussing of the hair, a request to carry on his legend. He'll stay in town - not settling, just until his wound heals, he insists - and in place of accompanying the posse can give directions for the next stage of their journey.
The posse reaches another, more pleasant area of country, with plenty of water, wildlife and greenery, and a small hut where they decide to ask for further directions. Law is greeted by his parents just about to have dinner, happy to see him but still bearing the slash wounds of their demise.
Everyone is invited in for food - hungry again already in the uncertain time-frame of the Hunting Grounds - and Law tells his parents that he has sworn to avenge them. They implore him to give up such a destructive course, to get on with his life lest they all be reunited permanantly all too soon. His partnership with McLean is a step in the right direction. They do get on very well.
Law says that he cannot forgive his sister Snow for having led raiders to their island, resulting in their deaths. It is news to him when they inform him that she did not do so willingly.
Before he can ask any further questions, the katana that he's been carrying with him since entering Devils Tower springs up in the hand of a spectral samurai, attacking him and imploring him to die in the name of Fong Bei.
The ghost made the mistake of attacking at dinner-time, and the posse splatters him with several bowls of soup, distracting him enough for Law to gain the upper hand, decapitating the samurai after the fight ends. Such violence shocks his parents, and while they remain proud and happy to see him, there is something close to disappointment in them as they wave the posse on the way to their next stop, Law determined to find the cobra-tattooed assassin and discover what happened to his sister.
Crossing through a canyon, the posse find large numbers of craters marking the landscape, and a distant sound of thunder or explosions. Deciding against carrying on through a possible minefield or worse, they climb the valley edges to look down over a battlefield, soldiers of the War Between the States throwing copious amounts of dynamite at each other in an eternal struggle. The also find themselves apprehended by Confederate soldiers, eager for them to identify themselves.
McLean - recognising the regiment - tries to bluster past them, but they're having none of it. It's up to Steele to authoritatively tell them what's what, and demand passage through the battleground.
A pair of soldiers guide the posse through trenches, safe from the bombardment, talking about what they plan to do once the war is over. One of them does have a treasure map, where looted gold is buried.
The trenches end, and there is a region of open ground, pounded by cannonade, that will have to be traversed before the posse are finally clear. They make it across but one soldier is fatally wounded. McLean goes back to see if anything can be done for him, but leaves the map in the dying man's pocket - he has his own, showing the location of the Confederate gold he and Slake stole...
Next up on the Hunting Grounds tour is bridge of vines spanning a massive gorge. It talks to the posse when they attempt to cross, demanding that they entertain it or they cannot pass. Nathaniel gives a reading, and is congratulated. McLean shows some trick shooting with his Brock photo. Law demonstrates some martial arts. John inscribes the arcane runes of his hexcraft. Steele gives a long and rambling shaggy-dog story, that still elicits a chuckle. Charles reels off an uninterrupted stream of his family tree.
Across the bridge, the weather turns darker, and a thorn-covered mound with a sinister tree seems the final destination, as Feasting Crow urges them on. In the shadow of the tree, they see a medicine man being torn at by weasels made of darkness, and begin sweeping through them, Steele and Nathaniel taunting the demonic creatures while Law stomps on them and John blasts them with explosive rune bullets.
Nathaniel finds that sheltering near the tree isn't the best idea when the gnarled oak tears itself up and swipes at him with its branches, calling itself Apoplex and insisting that the holy man belongs to it. Its tough bark shrugs off most of the fire thrown its way, but Steele stands defiantly up to it, somehow managing to avoid being crushed by its sweeping blows while the others concentrate fire, Charles firing the final shot that sends the manitou screaming back to Hell.
The posse hopes none of them hit the shaman by accident...
On the other side of the portal, the posse find themselves in the Hunting Grounds, which look eerily similar to a pleasant, pastoral English countryside, sunny and dreary. Feasting Corpse explains that the afterlife's appearance is determined by the strongest will of those in a group. When asked, he also points out that they will be guided by unclear signs as they travel.
They find a small village, again English in design but populated by Mexicans. The villagers are despairing over the impending arrival of a group of banditos that plan to raid. The posse decides to help defend the poor people. Steele uses his military exerience to guide the building of barricades to create a funnel to trap the attackers, while McLean buries the last of his dynamite as a trap. Law spends a little time teaching the townsfolk to defend themselves with farming implements.
Nathaniel questions the villagers about what's going on, and learns that they live a peaceful existence, and when the bandits first came two days ago they promised to come back and take what they wanted by force. For his part, John Texas finds something familiar about the people, but can't put his finger on it.
From the church belltower, Charles is the first to see the banditos riding in, all dressed in red and on flaming steeds. The villagers and Feasting Corpse shelter in the church itself, Law stands in the middle of the street and the rest of the posse takes to the rooftops.
The banditos laugh at Law and his demands to turn away, and ride in to attack. Dynamite kills or dismounts most of them, the horses dissolving into the air upon death. Law is lasso'd from his feet but cuts hismelf free, and a chaotic storm of gunfire clouds the street. The banditos come off worse, not a single one getting to escape. McLean caught a shot in the gut, and only just pulls through. John suffered worse though: as he was shooting down attackers, he spotted the faces of childhood friends amongst the banditos...
With this in mind, he checks out the villagers, each one now familiar as the face of a bandit from the raid on his home when he was a child...
Some of the banditos are clinging on a little longer, and upon being questioned explain that they come every three days to torment the villagers, in a manner similar to how they tormented others in life.
The leader of the village, smiling just as wide as when he scarred John for life, thanks the gunslinger for saving the lives of all his people, hating to imagine what fate would have befallen them else. John guns the man down in the street.
The rest of the posse restrain Mr Texas, but once he explains what's going on - and the man he shot stands back up - they let him go. The villager is not pout off by having been attacked, seeming - if anything - more subserviant, offering to guide the posse on their way. Feasting Corpse steps in to exposit that a spirit defeated in the Hunting Grounds will obey the wishes of the victor. Leaving the rest of the village to bury the dead, they head into a forest. On their journey, the guide only stops thanking John when he is shot again, and the journey proceeds more quietly.
Following a path through the trees, they discover a chain gang of native Americans being whipped along by a pair of mounties. They refuse to quit even when Steele reprimands them, and a fight breaks out, the demonic mounties vanishing into the air. The native spirits are freed, and they depart with thanks for the posse.
The mounties return with two more comrades, emerging from the trees - actually being the trees - to slash and grab with clawed hands, almost tearing Steele in two before being defeated. The manitou offer to guide the posse from here on in return for the soul of the villager, who they know desrves to be punished in the Deadlands. John tells them that the torments he has planned far exceed whatever the demons could imagine. (!)
Harding's occult studies allow him to remember that, similarly to how the 'dead' villager was bound to John, defeated manitou must obey the will of those that triumph over them, although they cannot be trusted. Steele commands them to find another manitou tormenting an innocent soul, and free it. They salute and head off to help such a manitou mocking Steele's poor choice of words.
On the other side of the woods, there is ahunting cabin on the edge of a moorland. Their guide is unable to take them further (although he insists on trailing after John anyway), so the posse knocks on the door and is welcomed inside by an English voice. Two gentlemen - Fothergill and Waugh - welcome them as guests, and explain how they are excellent hunters, hoping to go out again once the snow has gone. The posse tries the door again, and finds that they're snowed in.
So, they stay for a meal, and once Charles mentions his own hunting prowes the two deride him and promise that the morning will show who is the greatest! Once dinner is over, it's a fine day outside, and the posse join the two hunters on their journey into the foggy moors. They find the trail of some wolves, and find a trio of males alongside a female and her pups. They blast down the males, and Charles mentions that the greater trophy would be to capture the pups. The other two climb out straight away, and have to have Charles save them from being torn apart by the mama wolf.
They're grumbling that Charles spoiled things for them as they head back to their cabin, but upon arriving the whole building has gone, as if swallowed by the earth. The trail of disturbed soil begs to be followed, and soon the terrain becomes more like desert, like the wastes of the Mojave.
Charles recognises the familiar signs but too late to stop the villager from being devoured as a titanic worm erupts beneath him. Fothergill and Waugh run off, and the posse stares up in horror at the rattler, sporting a giant human face that Charles finds all too familiar as that of his former manservant, Plymouth.
McLean breaks the mood by fanning six bullets into the thing's face, prompting it to topple toward him, only missing crushing him by the narrowest of margins. The others make a break for it, splitting up and running away. Only Charles stands steady, shouting to the monster that he told him to stand still, that the rattler wouldn't have eaten him if he had just stayed still.
The face of Plymouth argues back about being abandoned, how he was never avenged, but Charles promises to do right by him. The worm departs, but not without an ominous warning if that is not carried out...
The posse regathers, and Nathaniel blankly stares around, asking how they came to be there, the last thing he remembers being approaching the portal...
The posse make their way through the maze a lot easier on their second foray, isolating and picking off the dead men while avoiding being crushed by walls or sliced in half by giant razors. They do accidently trigger one of the tripwires - the only visible, noticeable trap type in the place - and an explosive charge drops onto Law's head, with little effect.
Finding a ramp upwards and out without Nathaniel having fully mapped the area, Law suggests they finish exoploring before they head up to the next level, but a chorus of "NO!!!" from his comrades decides the path.
The ramp continues on past the next level, but the posse stops off at the foul-smelling, dark corridor they come across first, getting their light sources back into working order.
Unlike the caves and maze of earlier, now they're in a clearly artificial area, with doors lining the corridor. Each one they try opens into a room fiull of operating tables, gory bodies in various stages of dissection. Law and Nathaniel feel a little queasy at the sights, ans finding two cleaner rooms - one full of dust-covered beds and another a thoroughly looted study chamber - gives them a little breathing space.
The next abbatoir they find holds a living prisoner, tied down to a table and screaming with his skull sawn open and his brain sporting pins. It takes some effort to calm him down, but after that (and a bandage tied AROUND HIS BRAIN) the posse discovers that his name is Mortimer Johns, a miner kidnapped from Deadwood.
They leave Mort to recover (as best he can) in the room with the beds, heading onward. They come across a room where a surgeon - judging by his white coat, anyway - is hunched over a body, while a whistling man holds a tray of tools for him. McLean recognises the assistant at the same time the man spots him, both going for their guns.
McLean is quicker, fanning six bullets into the room. One takes his enemy in the eye, dropping him as three more harmlessly hit his body, and two spark off the lab coat of the surgeon. These last two don't hurt him, but do cause him to turn and confront the posse as they raise their weapons to cover him.
He berates them for killing a valuable assistant, and as he turns reveals the extra four arms dripping from his torso, underskin armour and raw brain piping attached to his patient. The posse tries talking him down - to surrender, mainly - but he's incensed, accusing them of disrupting scientific progress. He introdues himself with an English accent as Victor Horsley, and demands that the posse surrender themselves to his tender mercies.
Our heroes reply with bullets, although his self-surgery does leave most of their shots richocheting away, and he gets close enough to slam Steele and McLean against the wall with his flailing arms before he is put down, a gut shot unspooling a pipe and dribbling some fluids onto the floor. Figuring Horsley to be responsible for the monstrosities encountered thus far, and finding him still alive, they tie him up and leave him for later.
McLean goes through the pockets of the other man, frustrated at not finding something. He gives no iimediate explanation, other than the man's name being Milford Slake, and the others hope that maybe they'll get an answer in time.
The final door at the end of the corridor hides blinding light, pouring from a portal against the far wall of a cavern, amongst shattered machinery and a wall covered in grids of circles and crosses and lines. A native American shaman - with a gun - stands to one side, a corpse lies on the ground before the portal.
While Charles checks the body (a dead Pony Express rider, headshot, with a bag full of gold and a pair of sweet boots) Nathaniel and Steele talk to the shaman - Feasting Corpse by name, as it turns out.
Corpse rants at them, promising the war that will lead to the death of the white man. Mountie and reporter talk to him, asking questions that in turn give him a chance to launch another insult or confuse him. He too was drawn to the Devils Tower by a vision of the shaman that John had, but upon arriving cast aside the idea of freeing the man for a chance to grab power. He has no clue where the idea came to him, but is willing to work alongside a white scientist to destroy the white man.
Pressing him further, Steele and Nathaniel attempt to convince him that there does not have to be a war, there can be peace, and that working alongside Horsely is a crazy plan. Corpse becomes errartic and begins to physically change. The posse put a couple of bullets into him, and Law stabs him for good measure, which is when he reverts to human form and breathes out thanks.
Law steps back to allow Nathaniel to step forward and help Corpse to his feet. They quiz him further about how to save the vision man, and the shaman tells them that they will have to pass bodily into the Hunting Grounds through the portal and save the spirit.
So the posse - along with Feasting Corpse - lined up to step into the portal.
The ronin takes Joe Liu's pistol shot and draws his katana in reply. With his bullets having little punch on the samurai armour, Joe quickly unslings his gatling shotgun and lets loose with all the barrels.
Joe assures the posse that he intends to leave peacefully now, with the ronin having been the only truly dedicated follower of Kang. All others get sent to Devils Tower as punishment duty, Joe's 'crime' having been standing up for workers' rights. His pretense of killing his comrades to cover his escape was just a test to see if the posse really were working for Kang. Knowing them to be good, honest people now, he's happy to leave in peace.
Joe answers questions given to him, not knowing anything of what lies within the mountain, and never witnessing the meetings between Kang's people and the Ravenites. He insists on having a photograph taken with Nathaniel (the reporter's two-fisted pen-name alter-ego of Brock Paine being a hero of his) before going, but Law convinces his underlings not to drag the body of the samurai through the prairie dog town behind their steam wagon. Instead, he burns the body and takes the katana for safe-keeping.
Charles packs up the camp and brings it to the gateway. The posse leaves Ingram to watch over it - instructions to high-tail it to Deadwood if they're not back in three days - before unbarring the door and heading into Devils Tower.
They wander through dark caverns by lantern light - and the torch-like gadget Nathaniel recovered from Burns. At one point an amorphous mass of oily liquid rushes down the tunnel toward them, but McLean disposes of it with a few sticks of dynamite. Finding evidence of the remains pulling themselves back together, the posse hustles on its way, finding a winding ramp - surely not natural - leading further up into the mountain's interior.
The level above is a similar maze of tunnels, but this time the posse finds itself under attack by a dozen dog-sized insects, full of teeth and stinging tails. John and McLean find themselves savaged fiercely, but Steele rallies his comrades together to drive the critters back, the chittering masses chasing them all the way to the next upward coil-ramp, but no further.
The way onward is barred by a portcullis, of all things, and Law pokes his spear through the trigger the lever that raises it. The maze that is on the other side is more definitively man-made, with flat walls and hard corners, lit intermittently by glowing sconces. A tripwire across the path proves that it isn't too friendly.
Law, leading the way, triggers a pressure plate that causes walls to come crashing in on him. He rolls forward out of the way, butis sealed off from the rest of the posse. From behind them, a lurching dead man, brains bulging from its eye sockets and with armour plating across its torso, lunges at Charles at the rear.
The group splits up, Nathaniel struggling to unspring the closed wall while another dead man stalks up behind Law; Steele, John and Charles blaze away at the one they're already facing, finding that its armour is quite tough; McLean runs off down another corridor, hoping to outflank the enemy but triggering another crushing wall which - while it doesn't kill him - separates him from the party again. And a third dead man closes in on him...
When Nathaniel and Law pop their wall open, the martial artist jumps through and the reporter taunts the dead man, who steps forward onto the pressure plate, and is duly smashed to paste.
The trio's concentrated fire eventually brings down the original dead man, but McLean finds that his dynamite only slows his down, and ducks behind a corner as it lurches forward, carefully avoiding another spot on the floor. He's almost deafened as Charles shoots the thing with an elephant gun as its grappling with him.
Scratched up some, the posse heads back to the portcullis to regroup, rest and plan the rest of the expedition.
The posse heads up toward Devils Tower, looking for the location described by Blount in his journal. It is a three-day trip, with the group passing a few groups of Indian scouts on the way, each suspicious of their presence. Upon learning their proposed destination however, they seriously doubt they will see the posse returning.
During the journey the posse happens upon a small native village where the inhabitants are all lying around in the open, not moving. Fearing plague, Steele covers his mouth with a cloth and leads an expedition to investigate, leaving McLean and John to cover the group.
Charles and Law hear a noise from within one of the teepees, and duck inside to investigate. They find a native boy, and while Law can speak his language he can't do much to convince the kid that they're not there to kill him. Charles throws the protesting boy over one shoulder to take him to safety.
Outside, Nathaniel and Steele are finding fly-bothered bodies everywhere. The mountie checks inside teepees, finding more dead inside, but no sign of any of the missionary blankets that he feels must be responsible for the outbreak.
Nathaniel notices one poor unfortunate raising a hand, and runs over to offer water. As he places his waterskin within reach, the man lurches at him, revealing milky, dead eyes and an underside running with burst pustules.
Steele places several bullets into the corpse, but it still manages to draw a knife and slash at Nathaniel, who luckily comes away with only torn clothing. Law rushes in and impales the thing on his spear, but all that does it tether it to him, the pox walker dragging itself down the length of the weapon to embrace him, opening its mouth to exhale whatever foulness dwells in its lungs...
McLean and John, alerted by the gunfire, ride in and put the creature down. Steele feels vindicated in noticing the blanket in which its wrapped, and orders the village torched.
The smoke attracts more Indians, a group of several dozen this time. They demand to know what is going on. Charles gives an impassioned speech about disposing of plague victims, and returns the child to their care. The group's leader, Laughing Bear, swears that he will repay them for such asistance.
Then Steele interjects, mentioning the blanket found in the village, and Laughing Bear swears that he will have revenge on the missionaries responsible as he and his war party ride off.
Once within view of Devils Tower, the posse has to cross the Bell Fourche River finding themselves ona trail that crosses through a prairie dog town. The animals watch them curiously from all around as they pass, but once the humans reach the centre of their territory, the creatures swarm out in two packs, gaining rapidly on the riders. Steele and John waste bullets picking off lone dogs, but McLean comes to a halt to light up a few sticks of dynamite.
Closer up, he sees that the dogs are far from normal, mouths filled with piranha-like teeth. They start ripping into the legs of his horse and pack mule before he properly kicks away from them, gaining enough ground to toss dynamite into their midst, scattering those that survive and gaining enough time for the posse to get away.
They find the twisted clump of pines that Blount mentioned, and a cursory examination reveals some smoked cigarillos and a raven image carved into one of the trunks. They decide to camp for the night and explore further come morning.
John Texas has a dream, where an Indian shaman speaks to him, asking to be freed from the Tower, saying that there were three ways to enter, via the door, the chimney or the river...
The rest of the posse laughs off his story, as he has suffered from bad dreams as long as they've known him. But when he starts to experience similar visions while awake, they decide to see if there is some truth to the story.
Checking out the river, they find an underwater tunnel pumping pollutants into it, and decide against swimming up it. Instead, riding around the piranha dog town, they head for the Tower itself, and see a group of heavily armed men guarding a large doorway, complete with sleeping tents, horses and a steam wagon.
Leaving Charles to provide covering fire with his elephant gun, the others approach, finding themselves facing off against four of Kang's rail warriors armed with flamethrowers, a martial artist, one of the ronin samurai and a man and woman clearly in charge. Joe Lin introduces himself and Minnie Chung, and asks the posse the familiar questin of what exaxtly they think they're doing there.
It seems for a while that he believes their cover story of being sent by Kang, until they mention being sent to relieve him and his crew; no one ever gets released from the punishment duty of ensuring that the Tower's devils don't get free. However, he does offer to leave the posse unmolested if they let him go free, perhaps killing a few of his associates - the flamethrower men not speaking English - to cover his escape story.
The posse is not cool with this. Even less cool with this is the samurai, who finds such talk dishonourable. Voices are raised, and a gun is drawn, and Joe shoots the ronin.