by Philip-Todd Franklin
Having heard Buddy Baker’s gasp for air, Rip Hunter turned from looking at the body in time to see him crash to the ground. Rushing over to Buddy, he checked for a pulse and, upon finding that, reached into a pocket and pulled out some smelling salts. But even after waving the smelling salts under Animal Man’s nose for a few moments, he was unable to draw a response. Not being a proper medic, Rip was left with the dilemma of how to revive his fallen friend and flee the scene before they were spotted in this time and location.
Making a judgment call born of his training and many adventures, Rip decided to gently lift Buddy and move him from the area just in case someone decided to come and investigate the gunshot. He had just gotten out of view when the sounds of police sirens could be heard slowly approaching from a distance. Rip continued to work to revive Buddy, but he was unable to have any effect on him, no matter what he tried.
Rip had heard the sounds of approaching voices not far from their location, and he was wracking his brain trying to figure out how to get out of this mess, when a voice spoke just over his right shoulder, startling him.
“Mr. Hunter, I believe you and Mr. Baker are going to need my help.”
Rip Hunter jumped up and spun in place to see who had snuck up on him, only to see standing before him the very same figure he’d seen over the fallen teenager’s body shortly before. This figure looked familiar, somehow, but as Rip tried to peer at the man’s face, he found that it seemed to be constantly hidden in shadow.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” Rip asked, keeping his voice low.
“I’m just a stranger trying to help,” the man said, kneeling and gently placing his hand upon Buddy’s forehead. For a moment, a white light glowed from his hands and around the medallion that hung around his neck, even as he spoke words in a language that even the translator device could not identify.
When he had finished, Buddy Baker slowly opened his eyes, which opened very wide at the sight of the man before him. “What the–?!” was all he could say.
Animal Man quickly looked at the figure standing above him as he came to his senses. The sounds of gathering police cars and ambulances could be heard not far off in the distance. As Buddy Baker tried to get to his feet, only to swoon, Rip Hunter offered a hand to help him up.
“We must not tarry around here much longer,” said the man in black. “There will be many unnecessary questions, and I know that you are needed elsewhere.”
Buddy took Rip’s hands and, with his friend’s help, got to his feet. Once more he looked at the man in black, and it was as if a bomb had gone off in his mind as he suddenly recognized him. “I know who you are!” said Buddy. “Some of the Justice Leaguers told me about you. You’re known as the Phantom Stranger!”
The Phantom Stranger just nodded his head and began to walk away into the darkness.
Standing there with a puzzled look upon his face, Rip shook his head and turned to Buddy. He could hear a large search party being formed in the woods not far from their location. “Come on, Buddy,” Rip said. “He’s right. We can’t afford to be seen. You know the rules.” And he began to follow the Stranger, who had already begun to head in the direction of his Time Sphere.
The trio arrived at the clearing near the church in much less time than it had taken to leave it, having somehow also evaded the authorities, and boarded the Time Sphere. As Buddy took his seat, he began staring at the Stranger as he asked, “What do you know about all this?” His voice was still shaking from what he had seen.
Rip Hunter sat down behind the master controls and began preparing to hurl the sphere once again into the time stream.
The Phantom Stranger calmly took a seat across from Animal Man and said, “I know that this is not your time, though both of you exist here as your younger selves, and I know that where you are from, everything is being threatened.” As he spoke, the Stranger’s voice was calm and reasoned, showing great warmth and compassion as if he was a wise father instructing his young son.
Buddy sat there listening to him and thought, Guy Gardner must be wrong about him. He seems pretty normal to me.
“I see, and I take it you know I got my rear-end handed to me when I was there?” Buddy said, still feeling shame over having been beaten so easily.
The Phantom Stranger didn’t say a thing, instead continuing to look at Buddy with eyes hidden by shadows even under the glare of the lights within the sphere. Then he began to speak once again in the language he had used earlier, the one that Rip’s translator device couldn’t translate. A strange, blue-gray light glowed around Animal Man for a few seconds as the Stranger spoke, and then it stopped.
Nodding his head, the Stranger spoke once more. “Mr. Baker, it would seem that there are many things that are going on here, some that I’m not even sure you would understand. Your defeat before you came here is the least of the matter, yet it’s also a key part of what is going on.”
Upon hearing this, Rip Hunter stopped working at his controls and spun around in his seat. “What do you mean? We’ve just got to go back and stop that crazy man who’s trying to destroy everything, right?”
The Phantom Stranger turned to the time master and said, “It’s not that simple, Mr. Hunter. Mr. Baker, here, already senses the true danger after what he’s seen this day. You shall both need my help if you are to succeed in your coming task.”
Rip turned to look at Animal Man. “What’s he talking about, Buddy?”
The words of the Stranger had begun to sink into Animal Man’s mind, and most of the color had drained from Buddy’s face as he took a moment to gain his thoughts and to stop himself from shaking. The voyage through time continued in silence.
Exiting the time stream, the sphere materialized in a corridor in the Cave of the Stranger just off from the main chamber. The three companions looked at each other as Rip Hunter reached back, opening the sphere’s hatch, and said, “It’s February 28th, Buddy — just after your last confrontation with the man in red.”
The Phantom Stranger held up his hands and blocked the exit from the ship as he said, “We must wait, or I fear we could exacerbate an already delicate situation even more.”
Nodding, Rip glanced down at his wristwatch and checked the contents of his pockets to ensure he was fully equipped.
“There’s so much I feel you could answer for me,” Buddy said, standing before the Stranger.
“That has never been my role, Mr. Baker. I’m just a stranger who tries to help when I can.” For a moment, it seemed as if the Phantom Stranger held the weight of a great sadness many centuries in the making. Then, turning to head out of the ship, he said, “I shall see what can be done, Mr. Baker.”
Rip and Animal Man quickly followed the Phantom Stranger as he began to walk out of the corridor and into the passageway leading to the main chamber.
“Buddy, what are you — and he — not telling me?” Rip Hunter asked his friend and fellow Forgotten Hero in hushed tones.
At first, Animal Man didn’t say anything, coming to a conclusion about something complicated and hard to understand. “Rip,” he finally began, “you know the body back at the clearing?” Rip just nodded as they continued to walk behind the Phantom Stranger.
“It’s the same person I’ve already faced here once before,” Buddy said, his words coming out in a panic. “But, Rip, that is the same boy that was shot long ago as well!”
Just a few steps ahead of the two men, the Phantom Stranger had stopped in the passageway just outside of a large chamber, and now placed his arms out at each side.
Rip and Buddy stopped speaking as they reached the Stranger’s location, and both men knew there was much more that would have to be explained before this strange adventure was over.
The Phantom Stranger was once more speaking the strange ancient tongue that both men had now heard twice before. As a result of his actions, small stones along the sides of the passageway began to glow a soft white light.
Within the main chamber not far away, a man dressed all in red began to scream as the many stones in the chamber began to glow. “No-o-o-o! I will not be stopped!” he cried. “I shall have the power I crave!” Turning to the two apes in the chamber, he shouted, “Find him! Find the accursed Stranger and destroy him!”
As the two apes sniffed the air and left the chamber to begin their search, the man in red quickly restarted the dark rituals that his ancient books had spoken of. As he did so, a large gem before him began to glow a deep, dark red, pulsing almost like a heartbeat.
Animal Man and Rip Hunter just stood and watched as the Phantom Stranger continued to speak, and the glow of the stones brightened.
Two loud roars could be heard, causing the two men to turn and look into the chamber beyond. In the chamber coming their way they could see the two large apes. Quickly absorbing their strength, Buddy thought, Well, I guess I’ll have to play with the boys again.
Rip Hunter just stared at the two large apes and slowly began to back away from the entrance, wishing he’d remembered to pack his pistol. How can I be of help against either of these? he thought as the two apes began to charge.
The Phantom Stranger, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to the danger he was in and continued to chant, forcing the glow from the stones to become almost blindingly bright.
In seconds, the two apes were upon Animal Man. The first ape threw its fist at him, only to find it stopped in mid-throw by its intended target’s own hand. Buddy hadn’t flinched as the ape began to swing at him, but instead just waited and had, at the last second, caught the ape’s large hand in his own. Then, using a jujitsu move he’d learned while training with the Conglomerate, he used the ape’s own momentum to send it crashing behind him and into the cave wall.
Seeing Animal Man toss the first ape into the wall, Rip Hunter’s eyes suddenly lit up with an idea, and he turned and ran back toward the Time Sphere as fast as he could.
The second ape, having seen its companion tossed so easily, tried a different approach. Taking both of its massive paws, it swung one and then the other at Animal Man’s head, one from the right and the other from the left.
Once again Buddy had waited for a moment before responding, and at the last second he had dropped below the arms of the ape, whose hands only ended up smacking together. Then Buddy lunged his fist straight out before him, punching the large ape between its legs.
As if missing its target hadn’t been enough for the large ape, being struck below the belt by its target was too much. Its eyes began to bulge as its knees buckled, and instead of a mighty roar escaping from its lips, only a tiny whimper could be heard.
The first ape, having gotten back to its feet, this time decided to attack the target dressed in dark blue. From its place beside the wall, it launched itself straight at the Phantom Stranger, only to hear a strange noise and then feel a sting in its back before Animal Man suddenly appeared before it. In seconds, the large ape crashed once more to the ground, and all went black.
Rip Hunter stood not far away from Animal Man and the Phantom Stranger, carrying a large sniper rifle in one arm and wearing a grin across his face. “Never leave home without your ‘charge account,'” he said, then quickly tranquilized the second of the large apes without words before calmly reloading his rifle. Buddy looked at the gun and then at Rip Hunter, just staring in shock at him for a moment; he had never seen Rip brandish a gun before.
After a few seconds, the glow from the stones was so bright that the inside of the cavern had become nearly as bright as the midday sun. “We must hurry,” the Phantom Stranger said quickly. “Mr. Baker has already seen the damage caused by the creature this man is trying to release.” With those words, the trio walked into the chamber, each keeping their thought to themselves.
The man in red continued to chant, and the faster he swayed, the faster the light from the gem pulsed.
“Yes, yes, I shall have my eternal freedom, and all shall pay,” said a voice in the man’s mind.
“Yes, master, you shall be free, and I shall have my power to rule!” said the man in red.
Animal Man flew into the chamber with the flying ability of a bat, heading straight for the man in red, shouting as he went. “Roger, you’ve got to stop this foolishness!”
Without a word, the man turned from the gem and raised his arm, pointing his finger straight at Animal Man. As he spoke, a sickly green beam shot from his finger and blasted into Animal Man, stunning him.
Having decided to creep into the chamber, Rip Hunter stayed beside the walls. As he spotted the man at the center of the chamber, he could see what looked like the largest gem he had ever seen just behind the man. That must be the cause of the problem, he surmised.
The Phantom Stranger had entered the main chamber just as Buddy Baker was blasted in midair. Without a moment’s thought, he raised his hands and spoke a few words, causing Buddy to gently glow for a second before he started to softly glide toward the ground.
“No… no… no! That accursed Stranger — destroy him, my servant!” the voice from the gem said.
In response to the voice, Roger raised his arms and began to chant in an ancient tongue, causing a rain of daggers to dive toward the Phantom Stranger.
Moving his hands defensively and muttering words of his own, the Stranger caused a white dome to appeared just moments before the daggers struck, blocking their path. The Phantom Stranger then slowly began to walk toward the center of the room.
Shock crossed Roger’s face as his daggers were blocked, and rage nearly consumed the man in red as he began to chant again, more fervently than before.
Having landed gently landed upon the ground, Animal Man began to rub his head, trying to shake the sick feeling that had been crawling into his stomach ever since they’d first entered the chamber.
Rip Hunter continued to walk along the sides of the chamber until he had a clear view of Roger. Slowly, he raised his rifle and began to take aim.
The sound of thunder could be heard in the chamber as lightning began to streak from Roger’s hands out toward the Phantom Stranger, who continued to walk toward the man in red, ignoring the lightning, even as his medallion was brightly glowing white. “This does not have to be,” the Stranger said to Roger, compassion and sorrow in his voice.
Buddy was shocked; he couldn’t believe that, even in the pitch of battle, the Phantom Stranger was able to show compassion for his enemy. Who is this guy? he wondered.
Roger continued to chant, tossing bolts and fire at his foe, but neither had any effect on the Phantom Stranger. “I would rather this had gone another way,” the Stranger said as he reached the center of the chamber. Slowly he raised his hands and began to speak words that none in the chamber could understand.
“No-o-o! I was nearly free!” shouted the voice from the gem in Roger’s head.
Roger once again started to chant, but this time he was surprised to find that he could feel nothing. Where is the power? he thought as he continued to speak in vain the ancient words that the entity had taught him.
The Phantom Stranger began to glow brightly as he continued to speak, and as he stood firm, the glow from the gem began to fade.
Roger turned to look at the gem and noticed as the light of his master was fading from within. Motivated by pure rage, Roger reached for the knife on his belt, grabbed it, and quickly headed for the Phantom Stranger, his murderous intent displayed openly.
Buddy Baker felt like he was watching what was happening as if it was an event on TV and not a live life-or-death battle, and he was shocked to see that the knife Roger pulled from his belt was the very same one they’d used to carve their names on the old oak door at the church so many years ago. Coming to his senses, he jumped up and began to head toward Roger to stop him before he could interfere with what the Phantom Stranger was doing, whatever it was. All Buddy knew was that magic was completely beyond him.
But before Buddy could take more than a couple of steps, the sound of a rifle cracked in the chamber, and Roger fell to the ground, clutching his head. Rip Hunter had been waiting for the right moment, but hadn’t wanted to take a shot until he spotted the knife. With his quick action, the tranquilizer dart had struck Roger, knocking him out.