A chance of being seen? I guess the Sandman will slink off into the night . . .
Oh wait. That's not how these stories go. Using his grapple, the Sandman tries to quietly lower himself behind some crates, hoping to figure out what these fellows are up to. "More weirdos. I just want to get back to beating on mobsters and saboteurs."
Doctor Fate and Flash stepped into the central tunnel, with Fate ((hopefully?)) using his magic to generate some light to see by.
The middle tunnel was 120' long, with a ceiling that heightened as the floor slanted until they were 15' apart. The floor of the corridor was a brightly colored mosaic with a distinct, winding path of red tiles about 2' wide easily visible down the entire length of the tunnel. No stonework could be seen on the walls or the ceiling, for cement or plaster had smoothed them over, with scenes painted all along them. The nearest frescoes depicted fields of grazing cattle and a copse of trees with wolves in it. It looked like there was some kind of haze or mist at the end of the tunnel, obscuring their vision.
When it came to being sneaky, the Sandman had to even impress himself sometimes. Even though at least four of the robed men had the chance to see him shimmy down a rope for the length of 20', he managed to time it so that they all missed spotting him.
From the cover of some crates, just 10' from the nearest robed man, the Sandman overheard, "Alright, brothers, that ends the mystic portion of tonight's meeting. Which brothers would like to set up the folding tables and poker chips?"
"Darn. I don't imagine the poker and chips part of the evening will be very illuminating," The Sandman thought to himself. He tries to get a closer look at the "parishioners." Does he recognize any of them?
"I do wish Dr. Fate or the Spectre were here. They could probably tell me if any of this mystical mumbo-jumbo meant anything. Perhaps I'll be able to figure out if any of these guys cheat at poker."
The Sandman listened for awhile from his well-concealed position, peeking occasionally at the men as they played poker, split around several tables. He had thought one of the men sounded familiar, but had to look to be sure. Luckily, as the night wore on, the men began to lower their hoods for better comfort or to make it easier to play. The Sandman's suspicions were confirmed -- one of the eight 'brothers' was Ted Crossart, the "Tarantula"! But he was supposed to be in jail!
Doctor Fate only murmured in answer, as he was still trying to decide between summoning an elemental or changing into one. Impatient, Flash set off down the corridor to examine the haze-filled archway.
Fifty feet down the corridor, the Flash stepped on a pit trap that fell open below his feet -- but the Flash's forward momentum allowed him to tumble over the pit and land safely on the far side. Almost immediately he stepped across another. Leaping clear, but glancing down this time, he saw the pit did not appear overly deep, perhaps 10'.
The Flash had stayed on the lefthand side of the pit for most of the length of the corridor, but on a whim switched to the right side towards the end -- and set off a third pit trap. This time, still off-balance from the second one, the Flash just missed the far side and fell in. He was able to recover his balance by running down the side of the pit, crashing hard into the floor 10' down, but managing to avoid all the spikes at the bottom. The Flash's injuries from the fall were very light, basically just a sore wrist.
Doctor Fate cast a powerful spell of conjuration and summoned a huge earth elemental before him. Commanding it to proceed down the corridor, the elemental only made it 40' before hitting its first pit trap -- marking a fourth one in this treacherous hallway. But the elemental was not trapped long; at Doctor Fate's command the elemental pounded on the south wall of the pit until it had crumbled into crude steps leading out.
The Flash was actually out of his pit long before the elemental, having leapt upwards from side to side of the pit until he was able to leap out. He watched patiently as the elemental spent about 15 minutes getting itself out and shaking the whole hallway with its thundering fists. Luckily, those ancient Indians must have been extraodinary builders because the structure held!
Eventually, the Heroes and their summoned aide reached the far south end of the hallway. Before them was the face of a great green devil carved out of the rock, its mouth wide open and darker than dark inside. To the left stood the arch of mist and, as the Heroes stepped up before it, a stone in the left side of the arch glowed yellow, a stone in the right side glowed orange, and the keystone above the arch glowed blue.
The Sandman continues watching, trying to remember faces and details. "This is a wretched stake out. But I wonder what old Tarantula is up to here?" Assuming nothing interesting happens, the Sandman will continue to watching the goons and then try to follow Ted Crossart when he leaves.
I remember when I was younger, I got a stack of old comics from a local used book store. A pile of Legion of Superheroes and some All-Star Squadrons. The All-Star Squadrons featured a Tarantula, who, initially, had a costume almost exactly like the 2nd Sandman costume. I suspect now that Roy Thomas had written a story explaining why the Sandman and the Tarantula had similar costumes. That's a very Roy Thomas thing to do.
Nothing particularly interesting happened during the poker games that ensued. There was lots of smoking and idle chit-chat. The Tarantula wasn't even winning very much; the best hands always seemed to go to that mousy guy with the bowler hat and glasses.
The Sandman managed to even stay out of sight, moving silently around crates, as the games broke up and people began moving around the warehouse again. They took off their robes, folded them up and stuffed them into briefcases, and looked like respectable, albeit aging, businessmen again.
The last two to leave were, in fact, the Tarantula and the mousy guy. The mousy guy shook Ted Crossart's hand and said, "It will be a pleasure doing business with you." The Tarantula responded by congratulating the mousy guy on his wins.
When they parted company at the door, the warehouse was locked up behind them by one of the two men and the Sandman had to quickly shimmy back up his rope and spot Crossart walking away from the rooftop before he could begin the job of shadowing Crossart.
For many blocks, the Sandman kept up, following Crossart as if invisible about a half-block behind him. They were in a residential area now, passing tenements. At each entrance was a short staircase and trash cans to hide behind. But by one set of stairs, the Sandman happened to step on a twig and snap it.
What the heck was a twig doing on the sidewalk in the middle of Manhattan?
No matter. Crossart spun around and spotted the Sandman, in silhouette only, about 50' behind him. "Who's back there?" Crossart asked crossly.
The wall was smashed. The elemental tore through the stonework, shattering the green devil face to pieces. There was an opening beyond the stonework, but only a small one -- and what it contained made even Doctor Fate's heart skip a beat.
A Sphere of Annihilation floated there in the empty space. But, that should have been impossible. Fate thought he had used the only one on Earth to devastate another world.* Yet here was another.
Fate reached out with his powers to take control of the Sphere and found a presence there to resist him.
So, someone has found my secret and knows what it is. But you will never take my Sphere from me, wizard. Approach it, if you dare.
*A slight tweaking of the events from More Fun Comics #61.
Seriously, a twig? Sigh.
"Tarantula! It is time you had a reckoning! A reckoning with the lord of dreams!" The Sandman, being spotted, looms out of the shadows at poor Ted Crossart, attempting to intimidate the thug!
"You've got a lot of explaining to do, Crossart! Make it easy on yourself. Start with the purpose of the gathering you attending this evening!"
Again Dr. Fates voice issues from both the elemental and his own mouth.
"Stop. Do not approach the sphere. It is nothing, an insult, an abomination, a wound in reality. It is safe enough so long as nothing comes near. Ignore it. If it moves towards you, run."
Not sure how to control the sphere but since it seems someone else is Dr. Fate may not have a choice. Can control of the sphere be wrested away while maintaining the elemental? Or is that more than what one can do while concentrating?
The Sphere was too dangerous not to be controlled; Doctor Fate knew that in an instant. And he sensed too, without needing a spell, the approach of an awful, terrible evil.
"I can spare no time on you," Doctor Fate said to his elemental. As he surrendered control to cast a spell, the huge earth elemental turned on him. Even The Flash could see the anger burning in what amounted to a face but was really just jagged scars in its hide of earth and stone. Luckily, Doctor Fate's spell was one of abjuration -- he dispelled his elemental with the waste of a Dispel Magic spell to get it out of the way. Its presence, even on his side, would do him no good against what was coming. "Get out, Flash! Get out while you can!"
"I'm not leaving you to face this alone..." The Flash said grimly. He could now feel it coming too, even with no sensitivity to magic. It was just so malignant an evil.
And then it appeared in the corridor behind them. The Ghost of Thomas Acererak, the White Shaman, and with it, his skull, resting on the floor. "You were foolish to come here seeking my secrets, wizards," the ghost said. "Since I was struck down by Gandor the Great, I have returned more powerful than I ever imagined possible."
Doctor Fate, already concentrating on the Sphere, could feel Acererak reach out for it with his own mind and attempt to seize control of it. If it was made to move and attack them....Doctor Fate locked his thoughts onto the Sphere and willed it to stay at bay. But the contest of wills for the Sphere was a terrific struggle.
Doctor Fate recognized Acererak's form as a demi-lich, but he soon proved to be a more terrible foe than any demi-lich Fate had ever studied. The ghost took the form of an air elemental and battered the entire corridor with gale-force winds to throw Doctor Fate off-balance and distract him from the Sphere.
Here The Flash found himself useful, for he was able to run counter to the direction of the winds and slow them down. And he nimbly dodged the tornado-like ghost as it struck out at him with huge fists that struck the walls and floor hard enough to send mosaic tile and bits of stone flying everywhere. It was soon not easy to dodge all the flying debris in the midst of this windstorm, especially in a 20' wide corridor, but the Flash managed. Doctor Fate took some light wounds from shrapnel, but ignored the pain and concentrated on seizing control of the Sphere from Acererak.
"Flash, can you reach the skull?" Fate shouted.
The Flash saw the skull, still sitting there and undisturbed by the wind. Its eye sockets and mouth were filled with gemstones. He tried to reach it and grab it, but it felt like swimming into quicksand. There was no physical precense between him and the skull, but there was evil as thick as a physical substance there. Weighted down by all that evil, The Flash fell to the floor, but still tried to crawl closer to the skull.
The giant ghost had grown motionless as Acererak funneled all his concentration into stopping Fate. "No! I will not surrender my power! My life!" Acererak howled.
Doctor Fate understood that Acererak had somehow learned to funnel negative energy from the Sphere to boost his own power. He shifted his concentration to looking for a link between Sphere and ghost, saw it, and sundered it with his will power.
"Nooooo!" Acererak shrieked. In a last, desparate effort, the ghost lunged at Fate, striking him in the face hard enough to sunder his golden helmet in half width-wise.
Meanwhile, the skull was starting to rise up from the floor. The Flash was almost to it and his hands clutched at empty air right in front of the skull. A baleful glow began to pulse from the gems inside the skull.
But whatever last ditch attack Acererak had in mind, there was no time to launch it. Doctor Fate had full control of the Sphere now and launched it, first through the ghost and dispelling it, and then into the skull itself. With a thunderous BOOM, Thomas Acererak was no more.
Doctor Fate was not done with the Sphere, though. He willed it into the floor and the ground began to shake.
"What are you doing now?" The Flash asked with concern.
"With the Sphere, I shall wipe out all trace of Acererak's Tomb. Then I will wield its power everywhere else. I shall destroy the Baalrog of Iram of the Pillars with the Sphere and reduce its ruins into dust. Everywhere evil lurks in the world I shall decimate them and all who follow them. I shall be the great and terrible power that leaves nothing but Good in this world!"
The corridor began to collapse around them as Doctor Fate, drunk on power, used the Sphere like an eraser to rub out more of the surrounding tomb.
"Fate, listen to me!" The Flash shouted over the rumbling of collapsing earth and stone. "That sphere, it's too much power! Get rid of it and let's get out of here!"
Doctor Fate just turned a hard stare back at The Flash. "Beware, Flash. My power is like unto a god now and you would be wise not to upset me."
"Fate, you're not a god or a 'great and terrible power' -- you're a person! You have friends! A place to live! You like...books and chairs!" he added, struggling to remember any personal details from his visit to Fate's tower.
Thousands of pounds or earth were falling into the corridor behind them now. If Flash stayed much longer, he would be trapped in here unless Fate used the Sphere or a spell to dig him out. "I don't have much time here, Fate! Help me!" The Flash was back on his feet now and stretched out a hand for Doctor Fate.
After what seemed like a long pause, Fate grasped Flash's hand back. "I will help!" Fate said.
The corridor was filling up fast, but Fate cast a Passwall spell and the two Heroes were able to run back outside through the magic tunnel it created in time.
Professor Goldenweiser and Orrin Erdrich were no longer near the mound, but within sight of it. The giant mound under which the tomb was buried was collapsing in on itself.
This time, Doctor Fate clasped The Flash's hand and shook it. "Thank you," Fate said, his voice less menacing now that his mouth was exposed and not inside the helmet. "I never expected to be tempted by a Sphere again."
"So what now?" The Flash asked. "Are we taking that thing to fight some demons?"
"No. I am curious why the telephoning demons led us here and what grievances they have with the Baalrog that they would deliver us to a Sphere of Annihilation to get rid of it. But no, twice now I have temporarily lost my senses because of magic in a short while. I will attempt nothing rash now. The Sphere I will leave buried here while I return to my tower to ponder things."
"So, that's it? We're done here? And what about Mr. X?"
"There are still six of our members left on the case. Perhaps one of them will yet succeed."
The Tarantula seemed flabbergasted by the sudden sight of the Sandman. "No, not you! Not already! I've only been out a few days!"
"And how did you manage that?" The Sandman demanded. "Your sentence wasn't up for months yet. Who pulled the strings for you to get you released?"
The Sandman advanced on him menacingly and the Tarantula shrank away. He had not been much of a match for the Sandman even when prepared for him and did not seem about to fight the Sandman now.
"W-why should I tell you anything?"
The Sandman reached out and grabbed the Tarantula by his lapels. "I already know who," he bluffed. "Mr. X. And you're afraid to cross him. But I'll make you more afraid of me ye--"
Though the sidewalk was clear this time of night, a car was driving past, coming slowly from behind the Sandman. It didn't concern him at first until the the Sandman caught a glimpse of a gun sticking out the side window.
"Look out!" the Sandman shouted as he ducked, but the Tarantula was slower and cried out as he took a hit.
The car sped away after the shot was fired. The Sandman wanted to go after it, but checked on his old foe first. The Tarantula was on the ground, still conscious, but barely.
"Who was that?" The Sandman asked.
"It was...was..." but then the Tarantula slipped into unconsciousness.
But it didn't matter. The Sandman had seen enough of the gunman. And now he had a new lead to follow up on. He just had to find a little man in glasses and a bowler hat.
May 7, 1941
It was hard to believe the war on Mr. X had gone on for only one week. It had felt like over a year! So everyone was glad when they received radio summons from the Sandman back to New York. Because of the urgency of the request, the Flash pushed himself to get back faster from Michigan.
Much later that day, the entire Justice Society of America stood re-assembled for the first time in a week. It was dusk outside and a little rainy, but the Heroes were dry in the lobby of the Skytower Apartment building, where Sandman had summoned them.
"I'm glad you all made it..." The Sandman said as soon as the Flash arrived. The triumphant tone in his voice rang clear even from under his weird mask. "...for the arresting of Mr. X."
The Sandman was only too glad to explain how he came to this conclusion. He had recognized the man who shot the Tarantula last night. Somehow, it had not been easy to do, despite the fact that the Sandman had just seen the two men talking at the warehouse last night.
The Sandman's clue had been the locking of the warehouse door. One of the last two men out had done so with a key to the establishment, which suggested one of them might have worked at or owned the warehouse. The Sandman had spent all morning reviewing paperwork at the county clerk's office and ruled out Ted Crossart, aka the Tarantula. But the other man, in the bowler hat and glasses...not only could the Sandman find financial ties from that man to the warehouse, but to the Pullman Jewelry store and several other locations where the Heroes had sought out Mr. X lately.
As Sandman described the little man, each of the Heroes realized they had seen this man recently*, but had somehow thought nothing of it at the time.
Suddenly, the elevator door opened in the lobby and the very same man exited the elevator car. "Ah...pardon me, gentlemen," the little man said, tipping his hat to them politely. "It is just as well that you are all here. I have decided to give myself up. Crime is not what it used to be since you men have gone around breaking up all the rackets."
"Huh? Say, just who are you?" The Flash asked. Somehow, everyone had to ignore an impulse to ignore the little man and just file into the elevator past him.
"Sir, I am Mister X!"
"It can't be!" Hourman gasped.
"Ow!" The Atom said, slapping himself on his masked forehead.
"Yes, gentlemen! I am Mister X! Just when I had a good living set for myself with incomes from all organized crime, you all had to come along and smash my rackets! Now you've taken my livelihood away and I've squandered my every resource and favor owed on trying to stop you."
"Are you a sorcerer?" Doctor Fate asked.
"No, sir, but thank you for the compliment. I do, however, belong to a small and local fraternity of druids the Sandman visited last night and, through them, have been introduced to some men with real magic. My ability to go unnoticed is the result of one of their spells. No, my only talents are for business and poker. Some time ago, I realized that most men with power -- be it magic, science, or crime -- love taking gambles with it. And, by loaning money to the right peoples for their gambles, I have found myself owning the debts of many fascinating and imminently useful peoples, both from this world and others. But now all those debts are repaid to me and I find myself powerless. So I'm off to jail and to live off the state. Gentlemen," he added with a polite nod and another tip of his hat, "it's been a pleasure."
*Look for the bowler hat in posts from May 7 2011, July 15 2011, Dec. 21 2011, May 9 2012, Sept. 9 2012, and Jan. 6 2013.
The end...for now.