Dove felt like she’d been fighting for an eternity. She had freed herself from the grip of the Black Lanterns that dragged her from the diner, but was still surrounded by dozens of other animated corpses, all of them tearing at her clothes or bludgeoning her with fists and weapons. As she pushed away a soldier that tried to cut out her heart with a Bowie knife, she caught a glimpse of the diner’s roof, which appeared to be vacant of Black Lanterns, and got an idea. After knocking a few more of her assailants back, she launched herself into the air and landed on the roof, where she promptly collapsed. All she wanted to do was rest for a few minutes, then she could dive back into the fray and try to find Boston and the others.
Something groaned behind her, and she leapt to her feet -- unsteady as they were -- to discover Green Lantern sprawled out on the roof not far from where she’d landed. “Oh my God,” she whispered, taking in the numerous wounds that had been inflicted upon him as well, including a nasty set of gouges across his chest. He’d managed to generate an emerald-green bandage to hold together his ring hand, which had been mutilated by a Black Lantern’s arrow right when they invaded the diner, but there was still blood seeping out around the edges. Kneeling over him, she brushed a hand across his bruised cheek and said, “Can you hear me?”
Another groan, then Hal’s eyes opened a crack. “Did the cavalry come yet?” he rasped.
“No.” Dove slipped an arm under Hal’s back to help him sit up. “What are you doing up here? Did you notice the same thing, that these Black Lanterns don’t fly?”
He nodded, saying, “It’s not that surprising. Most of them were dead before the Wright brothers were even born. If they can’t grasp the idea, they probably can’t do it.” He glanced over at the edge of the roof. “One of them might think of making a ladder, though.”
“I’m not sure if they can manage that: I also noticed that they rarely fire their guns, and the ones with bows try to retrieve their arrows. They may have us outnumbered, but I’d say their rings are running low on power.”
“Possible, but don’t count on it,” he said. “Where’s Jonah and Boston?”
“Still inside, I think. I haven’t seen them since...” Before Dove could finish her sentence, a great roar of triumph rose up from below. “What’s going on down there?”
“Don’t know,” Hal replied, “but it doesn’t sound like it’s in our favor.” He pushed Dove away, saying, “You need to get airborne again. Find the League, the Society, anybody that can help us out. I’ll do my best to keep them corralled here.”
“You’re not in any shape to do that. How can you even manipulate your ring with your hand all messed up?”
“If I concentrate, I’ll do just fine. Now go!” As Dove began to move away from him, they heard another roar, but this one sounded more painful than triumphant, and saw a bright white light emanating from below. Dove carefully peered over the edge of the roof, hoping to spot Boston down there fighting his way through the Black Lanterns, but it looked like the source of the light was still inside the diner -- the corpses on the outside backed away from the building until they were once again safely encased in shadow. Then she felt something warm beneath her feet, and looked down to see shafts of light beginning to shoot up from hairline cracks in the roof. One of the cracks was right beneath Hal, and as the light engulfed him, his green uniform immediately changed to that of a White Lantern, and his wounds began to heal at an incredible rate. Another shaft hit Dove with the same results, along with a familiar voice speaking in her mind: Please, both of you stay up here, don’t put yourself at risk anymore. I just need a few more minutes to convince Jonah of what he has to do.
Then the light let go and returned them to normal, both their bodies and costumes repaired, though it continued to pour out of the diner below. “Did you hear that voice?” Hal asked as he flexed his ring hand, which was whole and strong once more. “I guess the Entity’s got some sort of plans for Jonah Hex after all.”
“You may be right,” Dove replied, “but that wasn’t the Entity talking.”
* * * * * *
“Whut kind of a job?” Jonah asked, eyeing Don Hall with suspicion. “If’n it involves thet cussed ring, forget it. It’s yers anyhow, so take it an’ go have fun back on Earth.”
“I can’t do that,” Don answered. “My time on Earth is done. I’m at peace now.”
“So Ah’ve been told. Now leave me be so’s Ah kin find some peace of muh own.”
Don pulled his hand back, removing the black ring from sight. “I know the last week has been very confusing for you, but considering this was never part of the original plan, I think you’ve handled it all remarkably well, just as you always do. Time and again, you’ve proven yourself able to adapt to any situation, no matter how bizarre.”
“Reckon it don’t get much more bizarre than this.” Jonah gestured at the gray landscape. “Far sight better than bein’ trapped inside a corpse, Ah’ll grant yuh thet.”
“This is just a temporary place, somewhere we can talk. I know you have questions...”
“Not a one.”
“Really? What about all the times you asked God why you were brought back to life?”
Jonah narrowed his eyes at Don but said nothing.
“There is a reason, Mr. Hex, and it’s not for some imaginary penance. If you’re willing to listen, I’ll tell you, then you can decide for yourself if the reason is valid.”
Seconds ticked by in silence -- an eternity in that monochrome world -- before Jonah replied, “Take off thet stupid mask first. Ah like tuh see who Ah’m jawin’ with.” Don did as he asked, revealing a young, serene face, though still lacking in color. “Better,” Jonah said with a nod. “Now yuh kin tell me whut’s so damn important about an old saddle-bum like me.”
“A change of scenery may help you understand better.” Don reached out and took hold of Jonah’s arm, an action that caused the cemetery around them to become like smoke. When it cleared, the two of them were surrounded by countless pale figures, all of whom stood perfectly still, seemingly unaware of the newcomers in their midst. “This is Nekron’s realm,” Don said, “a dark matter dimension that acts as a threshold between the worlds of the living and the dead. Every sentient being that dies passes through here, no matter where their final destination lay.”
“So it’s Limbo, then.”
“Not in the way you think of it. There’s a scientific law stating that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed. The form of energy that many call a soul follows that same law.” Don gestured to the sea of figures around them. “Dark matter is psycho-reactive to a degree, and when a soul undergoes its transformation from a living state to dead, some of that energy sloughs off and is left behind, which the dark matter then absorbs and reshapes into what you see here. Each one of these is an exact copy of a soul that’s passed through this realm, containing all the facets that made up the real one, but with no mind to guide it.”
Realization dawned in Jonah’s eyes as he thought of Jeb and Chako and all the others that had risen alongside him, and how they may have talked and acted like the people they resembled, but inside they were actually hollow and soulless, unlike himself. “These are whut the black rings are made out of,” he said, glancing at Don, who gave a slight nod of assent. “The first one thet took hold of me, thet was made outta whut muh soul left behind when Ah died?”
“And this one was mine.” Don raised his other hand, which still held the black ring. “When these rained down upon Earth, they were attracted to the bodies they were once a part of, but before they could latch on, each one had to briefly make a connection between the body and the actual soul in order to trick the body into accepting it.”
“An’ yers couldn’t make the connection.”
“Not a complete one. Nekron hadn’t thought of what might happen if a ring tried to connect with a soul that had found true peace.” Don smiled, saying, “I overloaded it.”
“Congratulations. Whut does all this have tuh do with why Ah got brought back?”
“This is exactly why. Do you recall the way you felt when you first laid hands upon this ring, how its words seemed to drive away the dark matter inside of you?” As Don talked, Nekron’s realm faded back into smoke, returning them to the cemetery. “Black Lanterns cannot comprehend what true peace is. They only know the false notion Nekron programmed into them. When they encounter the absolute balance of emotion that comes from knowing true peace, they disintegrate. Out of the trillions of black rings that were created, thousands of them tried to interface with peaceful souls like my own, and my ring was the only one that didn’t disintegrate in the process. Somehow, someway, it held itself together through sheer willpower.”
Cocking an eyebrow, Jonah said, “So Ah was right: thet ring of yers kin feel an’ think just like anybody else. But how come none of them other black rings kin do thet?”
“How did life make the jump from mindless creatures to ones that recognized and adapted to their environment? A whim of nature, a divine spark...whatever you want to call it, it happened here, in this graveyard.” Don let go of Jonah and knelt in front of his own tombstone. “A single black ring withstood all the trauma thrown at it and became something wholly different. Energy can be changed, and this was a change no one saw coming. The Entity knew Nekron would unearth it, and that the light would drive away the darkness in the end. It even knew of the battle to come afterward, and drafted soldiers accordingly. But the Entity didn’t know that, in the midst of the Blackest Night, a brand-new form of life would be born, unable to do anything but repeat one phrase over and over: ‘Don Hall of Earth is at peace.”
“It ain’t as helpless as all thet. It’s done more’n enough tuh me in the past week.”
“Now it can, but that first night...” There was a note of sadness in his voice. “The ring no longer had any of Nekron’s programming to fall back on, you see, nor any of my memories. The overwhelming aura of true peace had erased nearly all the information that it had once contained, leaving only very basic functions that it didn’t know how to access. It couldn’t move, it couldn’t speak to anyone but the dead, it couldn’t fight back when it was passed from one person to the next like the unfeeling object they thought it was.” Don looked over his shoulder at Jonah, saying, “Does any of this sound familiar?”
The muscles in Jonah’s jaw tightened: he’d experienced a similar nightmare for the last hundred and six years, and he wouldn’t wish that Hell on anyone. “Thet’s the whole reason behind me comin’ back, then? ‘Cause Ah could understand whut thet ring was goin’ through? Whut’s so damned important about thet?”
“Because when you first held this ring, it made a connection with your soul, and it recognized your plight as its own. The ring trusted you from the start, and when the Entity finally felt the ring’s presence in the world, it knew you were the best possible choice to safeguard this new life. You could help the ring sort through all these thoughts and emotions it was experiencing -- it had found peace, but it had no way of understanding it, not like you do.”
Jonah scoffed. “Son, if’n Ah understood a damn thing ‘bout peace, Ah wouldn’t have spent the last century screamin’ inside of muh own corpse.”
“The Lord hates a liar!” The voice came from somewhere deep in the woods bordering the cemetery, followed by a gunshot and a child crying out. Jonah’s instincts kicked in and, drawing one of his Dragoons, he ran past Don and into the woods, tracking the voice to its source as it yelled, “Ah swear yuh’ll stand there ‘til those skinny arms snap off or yuh freeze tuh death!” He soon found a small stream cutting through the woods, which had thinned out considerably -- just as with the cemetery, this place was bereft of color, as were the people inhabiting it. An eight-year-old boy stood in the middle of the stream, holding a large rock over his head as he trembled, while a rough-looking man sat upon the bank opposite Jonah. “Now, where’s muh favorite knife?” the man said. “Yuh know, the one with the deer horn handle?”
The question made Jonah’s mind reel as he suddenly recognized the man: his own father, dead for nearly 130 years, but now hale and hearty and tormenting Jonah’s younger self once more. The boy pleaded his innocence -- just as Jonah recalled doing so long ago -- only to endure another bullet whizzing past his head, missing him by inches. Then another person came running towards the stream. “Dammit, Woodson! What are you doing to our son!?!” Jonah’s mother screamed, wading into the water and making her boy put down the rock -- she’d passed on long ago as well, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. The boy fell into his mother’s arms, obviously glad for her presence but still trembling as his parents argued. “Woman, yo’re underminin’ muh authority an’ have no understandin’ of what point Ah was tryin’ tuh make with the boy,” his father shouted, gesturing with the gun. “He has tuh learn thet when he’s right he cannot bend tuh no other man’s will!”
“That wasn’t the only thing you learned from your father.” Jonah looked over to see Don Hall walking up beside him. “Whether he meant to do so or not, he taught you that all of existence is a matter of balance. You couldn’t have expressed this knowledge in words, but your heart and soul knew because you lived through it every day.” As Don spoke, Jonah saw sparks of color forming over the gray figures -- violet, blue, and indigo for his mother, red, yellow and orange for his father, and a bold swath of green for young Jonah -- before the entire scene faded into nothingness. “If not for the counterbalance your mother provided, your father’s abuse would have likely killed you long before your willpower had grown strong enough to withstand it. And when you became a man and went out into the world, that ironclad will guided you to do the right thing whenever you felt an imbalance had been created.”
“Ah’m still not followin’ all of this,” Jonah said, his eyes fixed on the spot where his parents had been standing moments ago. Seeing them again like that -- even if only an illusion -- had jarred him in a way he didn’t think possible. “Ah know Ah ain’t the smartest fella...”
“You’re smart where it counts. You instinctively know that, in order for the world to stay in balance, certain actions must be taken, yet very few people have the will to carry them out. You’ve devoted your entire life to being the one person who can step forward and do the job. When avarice fills your pockets with bounty money, compassion guides you to help others who have none. The fear you spread amongst outlaws later brings hope to the victims you save from their cruelties. The rage you’re capable of burns just as hot and runs just as deep as the love you reserve for those who dare to get close to you. And most important, you know that death is sometimes necessary in order for life to go on, and do not shy away from its role in maintaining the balance...but you refuse to take that last step in your understanding and accept that, in some cases, the balance does not always come out even.” Don let out a sigh. “This was a hard lesson for myself as well. It wasn’t until after I died myself that I accepted it, and that was how my soul opened up to true peace.” He looked at Jonah with an air of pity. “You were always so close to achieving it yourself, but with all the tragedies you’d seen in your life, you still kept fighting to maintain a perfect balance. In your mind, anything less than that would have been like admitting defeat. Even after you died, you refused to stop fighting, and you paid the price for it.”
A cold look came to Jonah’s eyes. “Whut the Hell is thet supposed tuh mean?”
“There were dozens of times in your life when you should have died, but your ironclad will always kept your heart pumping long enough to survive whatever wounds you suffered. Though it did finally slip long enough for your soul to transition from living to dead, it still retained the strength to keep your soul within your body and deny you the peace you so desired. You expected punishment after you died, so that’s what you gave yourself.”
“Yo’re a goddam liar!” The Dragoon was still in Jonah’s hand, and he pointed it directly at Don’s head. “Ah didn’t want tuh be there, an’ Ah would’ve left thet corpse if’n Ah could!”
“You may have wanted to leave, but you never felt that you deserved to do so. Your own self-hatred, combined with your nearly-unbreakable will, prevented your soul from achieving the proper balance, both in life and death. It’s caused you over a century of torment, but now that willpower can be harnessed for a greater purpose.” Don reached out his hand, the ring sitting upon his palm, and said, “Please, Mr. Hex, you’re the only person who can give this new life what it so desperately needs, and in turn, it will give you what you need.”
“Ah ain’t gonna let yuh turn me into some rotten puppet again!”
“I swear, you won’t be a puppet. You’ll be the same as you’ve always been, but through the ring, your soul will finally know peace. Isn’t that what you said you wanted? To be at peace? It’s right here in front of you, but you have to accept it.”
Jonah stared daggers at the young man, thumbing back the hammer as he prepared to fire a bullet right between Don’s eyes. It was all a lie, it had to be. The notion that Jonah was simply too stubborn to let his soul find peace was the biggest load of bull he’d ever heard in his life. God hated him, and God had punished him all through his life and afterward, and now God wanted to trick him into putting on that cussed ring so he could become some undying freak of nature! Well, he wasn’t buying it! He was going to shoot this fella in the cockamamie bird costume and tell God to go to Hell!
But Jonah couldn’t pull the trigger. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop looking past the gun and at the expression on Don Hall’s face. There was no hint of malice nor deception there, just an absolute air of serenity, and slowly, Jonah’s thoughts began to turn to the possibility that there was a grain of truth in all this. “No...no, yuh are a liar!” Jonah yelled, a look of distress coming to his own face. “Yuh’ll never let me be at peace! Yuh’ll just tease me with it fer a while, then rip it away again! Thet’s whut always happens!”
“Only because you refuse to accept that peace is possible for you. If you continue to do that, your soul will never be able to rest,” Don explained, and took a step closer to him.
“Stay the Hell away from me!” Jonah could feel the darkness beginning to creep up his back, pulling at him just as it had so many times before. He turned towards it, intent on letting himself get lost in what he’d come to think of as a safe place. But this was the first time he’d ever faced it bodily, as opposed to being merely a lost soul, and therefore he had the eyes to see the darkness for what it truly was: a self-made abyss crafted from every negative emotion ever leveled at him, be it from himself or others. Within its depths, it reflected back upon his soul all the failures -- both real and imagined -- he’d experienced during his life, reinforcing Jonah’s belief that he deserved eternal punishment. What appeared to be a refuge was actually a tomb, he could see that clearly now, and it horrified him that he’d let himself be duped for so long. He tried to back away, but the darkness already had a hold of him, and its grip was as strong as ever. It enveloped him like a shroud and dragged him far away from the gray place he’d stood earlier, and the truth Don Hall had tried to make him face. “No!” he cried out. “No, Ah ain’t gonna go back in the dark! Ah want out!” Jonah clawed at the darkness until his fingers found purchase, then pulled himself inch by painful inch towards the tiny speck of light that he could just barely make out above him. It had been so long since he’d fought against the darkness that he wasn’t sure if he could do so now...and the moment that small doubt entered his mind, he felt the darkness regain its grip upon him. “Let...go...damn yuh!” He focused on the fading light and screamed, “Ah don’t want tuh hide in the dark no more! Ah ain’t gonna torture muhself fer no good reason! Ah want tuh be at peace! Ah deserve tuh be at peace! Now let go of me!!!”
The darkness shattered, and an intense light poured in, blinding him as he tumbled into God-knows-what. He couldn’t see or hear or feel or speak -- it was like being in the darkness all over again, only all was white instead of black. Then, after what seemed like ages, he felt something tickling his face, and the light faded down to a reasonable level until he could see that he was laying in a field of sweet-smelling grass. Green grass. The greenest green he could ever imagine. He reached out a hand to grab a tuft of it and saw his tanned skin, his white shirtsleeve, the cuff of his red longjohns...everything was rendered in glorious hues, with nary an aura in sight. He sat up and looked at the clear blue sky above, staring at it so hard he had to force himself to blink. Then Jonah felt a hand touch his shoulder, and he turned to see a beautiful woman wearing a dress the color of fresh buttermilk sitting beside him in the grass, her long auburn hair cascading across her shoulders. Her face was achingly familiar, but Jonah couldn’t place it at first. When it finally came to him, he whispered in disbelief, “Maggie?”
She smiled at him. “Glad you could finally make it.”
Jonah smiled back and pulled her into his embrace, losing himself in the scent of her hair, the feel of her body pressed against his, the taste of her lips as they kissed...then he remembered how Jeb Turnbull ripped her heart from her chest, and a wave of guilt crashed over him. “This ain’t right,” he said, moving away from her. “Yuh shouldn’t be happy tuh see me.”
“Why not? I’ve been worried sick about you ever since I dropped you off.”
“An’ now yo’re dead ‘cause of me!” He got up and moved even further away, as if distance could solve the problem. “This is exactly whut Ah was tryin’ tuh prevent by leavin’!”
“Jonah, you have to stop doing this. You just managed to destroy that pit you’d confined yourself to, so don’t start digging a new one.” Maggie got up as well and started to approach him, treading the grass with bare feet. “I died because it was my time to die, not because of anything you did or didn’t do. It’s the same with so many other things you’ve blamed yourself for over the years, but you don’t have to shoulder that burden anymore.” She touched the right side of his face, his cheek smooth and unblemished. “Don’t you get it yet? Your scars are gone...all of them. When you were brought you back, every sin from your old life was forgiven.”
Jonah stared at her for a moment, unable to comprehend what she was saying. Forgiveness was the one thing he never dared to ask for, and he’d always figured that receiving it to any degree was just as unattainable as finding peace. But the latter had turned out to be true, though not without struggle, so perhaps this was true as well. He turned his face to the breathtakingly-blue sky above, reveling in the warmth and light that permeated everything around them. Forgiven, he’d been forgiven, every speck of blood upon his hands had been washed away. It was a glorious feeling, better than anything he could have ever imagined. He wanted to bask in it forever...but he knew he had a job to do, and Jonah wasn’t one to keep his employer waiting. Looking back down at Maggie, he said, “Reckon this means Ah gotta be leavin’ this place, don’t it? Cain’t watch over the ring if’n Ah’m dead.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s true,” Maggie said. “This black ring isn’t like the others anymore: it can still bridge the gap between the living and the dead, but not without a living soul to guide it. Remember how you reached out for my soul when I died? The ring had the ability to do so, but the power came from within you. In your hands, it has the potential to be a peacemaker.”
“Where Ah come from, a Peacemaker is a weapon.”
“That’s true as well, and nobody’s denying how dangerous this ring could be, especially since it has a mind of its own...which is why someone has to teach it that there’s a time for peace, and a time for war, and how to know the difference.” She laid her hand over his heart. “I was wrong before, Jonah. You do deserve a second chance at life, more than anyone, and I think this ring is going to do just as much good for you as you’re going to do for it.”
“Just so long as it knows who’s in charge.” Jonah saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and when he turned his head, he wasn’t surprised to see Don Hall standing some distance away. Jonah gave him a slight nod before turning back to Maggie and kissing her one last time. “Tell Jeff Ah said thet he’s damn lucky tuh have yuh fer his woman,” he whispered to her, then began to walk across the field. Don still had his mask off, and a gentle breeze ruffled his blond hair. “Yuh sure y’all don’t want tuh do this instead of me?” Jonah asked as he approached the young man. “There’s probably lots of folks back home thet’d be glad tuh see yuh up an’ about.”
“I’m sure.” Don held out the ring, a tiny circle of black that seemed out of place in the midst of all this light. “But if you see my brother, tell him I miss our debates.”
Jonah grunted, then plucked the ring off of Don’s outstretched palm. Closing his eyes, he slipped the ring onto his left hand and waited for...something. Pain, perhaps, or a sensation like when the first black ring took hold of his body. But there was nothing, just this vague weight encircling his finger.
Then he felt a presence, both within and without. It cowered from him, afraid to do or say anything, and it reminded Jonah of himself as a boy, of how he’d occasionally curl up somewhere and weep silently after one of Pa’s “lessons”. Then he thought of all the times in the past week when he’d hollered at the ring, telling it how he didn’t want anything to do with it. Ah’m sorry, he called out in his mind. Ah didn’t understand whut was goin’ on afore, but Ah do now, an’ Ah ain’t never gonna treat yuh like thet again. So long as yuh need me, Ah’ll be here fer yuh, but Ah expect y’all tuh listen an’ follow muh rules in return. We got a deal?
There was a pause, then Jonah could feel the presence reaching out for him tentatively in his mind, and his left hand went slightly numb as microscopic tendrils of dark matter slipped out of the ring and into his flesh. This latter sensation worried him, but before he could get a handle on what the ring was doing, he suddenly experienced a flood of emotion so powerful it drowned out all thought. He wasn’t even aware of his own body anymore, only this overwhelming exultation that permeated his soul and dissolved one hundred and seventy-two years’ worth of grief and anger and pain and doubt and self-hatred into nothingness, leaving him as calm and as placid as a lake on a windless day. All the painful memories of his past life and the emotions they brought forth were still there in his mind, but their power over him was gone. A balance had been struck within himself, and he accepted it wholeheartedly.
[Jonah Hex of Earth is at peace], a very small voice said, and as the aura of true peace receded enough for conscious thought to return, Jonah realized that was the ring talking, and he could sense the joy it felt now that Jonah had accepted it, as well as a lingering fear over what they were about to face. Yuh don’t need tuh be scared of ‘em, Jonah silently told it, they need tuh be scared of us. This here’s the time fer war. Understand? Though it didn’t say so aloud, he knew the ring understood perfectly, and it was waiting for Jonah to tell it what he wanted.
And he did so.
* * * * * *
Boston’s eyes kept going to the clock on the diner wall. He’d marked off nearly a minute since the Black Lantern ring had been slipped onto Jonah’s finger, and nothing had happened yet. The white nimbus from Boston’s own ring still had the bounty hunter in its grasp, but that didn’t appear to be making much difference either. “Whatever you’re trying to do, it’s not working,” Boston told the white ring. “Jonah’s just getting deader so far as I can tell.” He glanced at the clock again -- one minute and five seconds -- then said, “I want to go outside and find Dove, and I’m prepared to do that without you if you don’t...”
Jonah’s body suddenly jerked as if a live current was being passed through it, and the white light flared outward, knocking Boston halfway across the diner before dissipating. Holding his head, Boston groaned, “Okay, your objection is duly noted,” and sat up. Then he saw that he was no longer dressed in a White Lantern uniform, but his usual Deadman togs...and without the white light to hold them at bay, the Black Lanterns were quickly advancing on the diner. He climbed to his feet, debating whether he should bolt or keep protecting Jonah’s body.
A flurry of gunshots rang out, and Boston instinctively threw himself under a nearby table. It wasn’t until he was out of the way that he realized the Black Lanterns were the target, not him. Bullets slammed into the eight corpses that had gotten inside so far, each one screaming like mad as they collapsed on the floor, where they continued writhe and moan until their bodies fell to ash. A few more dared to venture in after the first wave, and they were struck down just as swiftly, with the same results. After that, the other Black Lanterns wised up enough to stay outside, and the shooting stopped. Cautiously, Boston poked his head out from underneath the table and looked in the direction the shots came from. A figure was walking towards him through the swirling clouds of ash, a jangle of spurs sounding out with every step.
Jonah Hex emerged from the ashes, alive and well, but somewhat changed. His clothes had a darker cast to them, and his white shirt was the same deep gray as his hat, which now bore silver braid and tassels instead of gold. A black bodysuit was visible beneath his clothes, though it appeared to be more a replacement for his long underwear than a proper uniform. As Jonah put away his ivory-handled Dragoons, Boston saw that he now wore a sleek two-holster rig on his hips, the Black Lantern symbol stamped upon the silver belt buckle. “What happened, Hex? I didn’t think you were coming back,” Boston said as he got to his feet. Jonah made no sign that he heard the man, instead kneeling down beside one of the still-disintegrating corpses and picking up what remained of the skull. Boston tried again, saying, “You feel okay?”
Jonah closed his hand into a fist, and the blackened skull cracked apart like an eggshell. “Ah never felt more in a mood fer killin’ then Ah do now,” he answered.
* * * * * *
Hal could hardly believe what Dove told him. In the past week, he hadn’t given much thought to why Don Hall -- the original Dove -- hadn’t risen along with all the other people who’d ever died. One less Black Lantern to deal with was fine by him. But now Dove claimed that Don might be working for the Entity from beyond the grave, and that he’d saved her when the Black Lanterns attacked Titans Tower. “You’re sure what you saw was actually him? You said that you passed out for a while...it could have been a hallucination.”
“At the time, I thought it was. But after hearing his voice a moment ago, I now think he was the presence I felt acting through me during the Blackest Night.”
“And now he’s going to...what? Act through Jonah Hex? Trust me, Hex isn’t going to be a very agreeable partner.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the white light below disappear like someone hit a switch, followed seconds later by rapid gunfire. Hal and Dove ducked down, sure that the Black Lanterns were taking pot-shots at them, but then they heard the Black Lantern that resembled Jeb Turnbull calling out orders to fall back. The gunfire ceased, so the two heroes carefully made their way to the edge of the roof in order to see what was happening -- by the time they got there, the gunfire had started up again, mingled with horrific screaming. They looked down to see Jonah wading into the midst of the Black Lanterns, guns blazing incessantly and corpses disintegrating in his wake. Hal was momentarily stunned: the earlier times he’d encountered Jonah Hex, he’d asked the man to show restraint, and Jonah had begrudgingly gone along with it. This was the first time he’d ever seen the bounty hunter unleash his full fury on his targets, going for the kill-shot with every bullet fired, and watching those Black Lanterns scream and collapse made Hal realize just how Jonah had earned his reputation as a mad-dog killer.
As the Black Lanterns continued to retreat from the building, Boston came into view below, sticking close to the diner entrance. The sight of him brought Hal back to reality. “Get down there and make sure he’s all right,” he said to Dove, then began to lift off the roof.
“Where are you going?” Dove asked him.
“To round up strays.” Though his ring couldn’t accurately track the location of every Black Lantern, it could at least tell him where the outermost perimeter of them lay, so he set up an emerald shield just outside of the area and slowly drew it inward. From his vantage point high above, the Green Lantern watched some of the corpses flee until they ran into the shield, then claw and bang against it as they were inexorably pushed back into the fray.
Meanwhile, Jonah continued to shoot them down, one by one. A few shot back with their own guns, and multiple arrows were unleashed upon him, though both of these projectiles seemed to become scarce rather quickly, and none of them slowed Hex down in the least: the black ring quickly went to work mending every wound he acquired, just as it had been doing for the past week. Then one Black Lantern dressed in Indian garb ran up behind him and sank a tomahawk into Jonah’s left shoulder -- the attack caught him by surprise, and the gun in his left hand fell to the ground, where it was kicked out of reach by the other corpses. “Yuh always were a sneaky bastard, Noh-Tante,” Jonah said. A split-second later, a tomahawk crafted from dark matter appeared in the bounty hunter’s empty hand, and it was soon buried in the Indian’s head, rendering him into ash moments later. “Keep it comin’, boys! Ain’t a one of yuh got the sand tuh take me down!” he roared, then began firing again with his remaining gun.
The cloud of ash grew thicker as more Black Lanterns fell, and soon Hal couldn’t make out where Hex was, though he could still hear gunshots and screams, along with the occasional curse word uttered in Jonah’s distinct accent. Eventually, all of this ceased, so Hal created a giant green fan to blow away the ash until he could see Jonah Hex wandering about the blacktop, probing at any sizable pile of smoldering remains with the toe of his boot. As he descended, Boston and Dove left the safety of the diner. “Everything okay with you?” Hal asked Boston.
“Yeah. They didn’t even give me a second glance once the shooting started.” Boston gestured towards Jonah, who was still inspecting bodies. “Not too sure about him, though.”
Hal wasn’t too sure himself. Despite the reassurance from the Entity or Don Hall or whomever that was speaking to them on the roof, Hal still didn’t know what to make of Jonah wielding a Black Lantern ring. He walked towards Jonah, with the others following not far behind, though Jonah didn’t seem to pay them any mind. The bounty hunter kicked another pile of ash, and this time something thumped as he passed his boot through it -- he bent over to pull out the Dragoon that had been swiped from him earlier. “Always keep track of these,” Jonah said under his breath. “Ah know yuh kin make another pair, but Ah like these ‘uns.” He brushed off some ash that still clung to the weapon, then twirled it into the holster before looking over at Hal and saying, “Thanks fer the assist up there. Saved me from havin’ tuh chase ‘em all down.”
“You’re welcome.” Hal cocked an eyebrow. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but...were you talking to someone else a moment ago?”
“The conversation’s a mite one-way, but yeah.” Jonah held up his left hand to show off the black ring, saying, “Don’t fret none, it ain’t like its cousins we done wiped out.” Hal glanced over at Boston and Dove, who seemed just as puzzled, and was about to question Jonah further when a dark look came to the bounty hunter’s eyes. “All of yuh, take cover!” Jonah yelled, and he began to turn and draw his weapons again just as gunfire rang out from the shadows.
Hal threw up a shield around them for protection, but not before three of the bullets tore through Jonah’s chest. Boston got behind him and broke his fall, then asked, “What’s going on? I thought you wiped all the Black Lanterns out.”
“Couldn’t track him proper." Jonah gritted his teeth as the ring sealed the bullet holes. “Still gettin’ the hang of this.” They soon spotted Jeb Turnbull coming out of the shadows, the rifle in his hands blasting incessantly at the shield. As Jeb passed by the remains of the fallen Black Lanterns, they turned to ash and swirled about in the air before settling upon him.
“Looks like he found a way to compensate for the low power levels,” Hal said to Dove, then looked over at Jonah. “Time to play sharpshooter: I’ll open a small portal in the shield, and you stick your gun barrel through and blast him. Sound like a plan?”
Jonah stared hard at Jeb as he continued to advance -- he was twenty feet away from the shield and closing, his rifle still sounding out -- then Jonah holstered his own guns, saying, “No. Jeb deserves better.” He pressed a hand against the shield. “Let me out of this.”
“That’s not your friend anymore, Hex. That’s just his body, same as the others.”
“Let. Me. Out.” Jonah spat the words, his gaze ice-cold, and Hal opened the shield enough for him to slip out. Jeb’s gunfire targeted him immediately, slamming into his chest and arms, skirting the edge of his skull, but the black ring Jonah wore wiped the damage away seconds after it occurred. “Ah ain’t gonna fight yuh, Jeb,” he said as he walked forward.
“Oh, so you’re a coward now, too?” Jeb replied. “Being a traitor wasn’t enough? You disgust me, Hex!”
“There were days when Ah wasn’t too happy with muhself, neither. But that’s changed now...Ah’ve changed.” He kept walking forward, not even feeling the bullets that tore through his body. “Yuh cain’t hurt me no more, Jeb, an’ nothin’ ever will again, not unless Ah want it.”
“Then I’ll kill your stinking Yankee friends, just like I killed your whore!”
“No, yuh won’t.” Jonah lunged and grabbed Jeb’s rifle with his left hand -- one moment it was there, the next it was ash blowing in the wind -- then wrapped his right hand around Jeb’s throat. “We’re gonna end this mess right here, right now.”
“Go ahead, Hex, kill me again. At least this time you won’t be able to deny you did it.”
“Ah’m not gonna kill yuh...Ah’m gonna save yuh,” Jonah said, then pressed his left hand against Jeb’s chest, the tips of his fingers digging into the desiccated flesh. Jeb immediately began to howl like a banshee and claw at Jonah’s face, but the wounds he inflicted soon healed like all the others. “Come on, dammit,” Jonah hissed, his eyes focused on the black ring upon his hand. “Yuh know how tuh do this, we did it afore. Find the thread an’ grab on!”
Suddenly, the ring on Jeb’s hand shattered, and his dead flesh began to fill out -- it was still a lifeless gray, and the eyes cloudy, but otherwise he looked normal. From behind Green Lantern’s shield, the others stared in disbelief. “Did Jonah just resurrect him?” Dove asked.
Boston answered, “If so, he did a lousy job.”
Jonah let go of his old friend, who was acting rather confused. “Where...what happened?” Jeb’s voice had the same unearthly quality as before. “Jonah? Is that really you?”
“It’s me,” he said with a nod. “Been a long time.”
“Where have you been? I looked all over the camp for you. I found some others from our regiment, but nobody had seen you since we tried to break out of Fort Charlotte.”
“Whut camp are yuh talkin’ ‘bout?”
“That place they took us to after they recaptured us...I don’t remember it, but it must’ve happened. There were lots of Rebs around, and...I think some Yankees were there too, and other people in uniforms I didn’t recognize. It was strange. No guards, no walls, just prisoners.” Jeb pressed a hand to his forehead. “One man tried to convince me that we were in Purgatory, but I didn’t believe him.” His voice took on a pleading tone as he asked again, “Where were you?”
Jonah swallowed hard, then said, “Ah was in solitary. They kept me there fer so long, Ah went crazy. But they let me out last week, an’ they...they let me come fetch yuh.”
“Does that mean the War’s over?”
“Yeah, it’s over. Been over fer years. We lost.” Tears began to spill down Jonah’s cheeks. “Ah’m sorry, Jeb. If’n Ah hadn’t surrendered, then they wouldn’t have gotten yuh.”
Jeb shook his head, saying, “I never blamed you for that. The others wanted to, but I always knew your morals were too strong for you to betray your friends, no matter how your opinion on the Cause had changed. The rest of us getting captured was just bad luck.”
“Yer father sure as Hell didn’t see it thet way.”
“My father is a stubborn sonovabitch, and we both know it.” Jeb smiled, revealing white teeth behind those gray lips. “And I plan on telling him so if he says one bad word about you when I...” Jeb paused, the look of confusion returning. “I don’t feel right.”
“It’s okay, Jeb. Don’t fight it.” Jonah put his hands on Jeb’s shoulders. “It might be a bit rough fer yuh at first, but it’s worth it in the end.”
“But what’s...what’s...” His eyes widened, and he jerked his head to the side. “Mama? Jonah, that’s my mother’s voice! Can you hear it? She’s calling my name!”
“Then you’d best go find her.” Jonah tried to smile, but it was strained. “Goodbye, Jeb.”
There was no indication that Jeb heard what he said. “Mama! Mama, I’m here!” he cried out. “I’m right he--” His body stiffened, then went slack as it turned into a motionless corpse, the bones dry and brittle from spending the past 147 years inside a coffin. Jonah caught the body before it hit the ground, accidentally tearing the dusty Confederate uniform it was dressed in.
Hal had dropped the shield moments before, but none of the three heroes had moved. Now they gathered around Jonah as he sank to his knees, Jeb’s body cradled in his arms. “He’s at peace,” Jonah choked out. “Ah heard the ring say it: ‘Jeb Turnbull of Earth is at peace’.”
Dove got down on her knees as well, then put her arms around Jonah, trying to impart some measure of comfort to him as he wept.
* * * * * *
While Hal busied himself with contacting the police, Jonah asked to be left alone with Maggie’s body so he could make her more presentable, and they honored his wishes. He laid her on the bed in the back of her truck’s cab, closed her eyes, then gently wiped the blood off of her hands and face. There was little he could do about the hole in her chest except fold her hands over it. Jonah knew her soul was at peace, just as Jeb’s now was, but that didn’t make the task any easier, and he found himself shedding tears again when he covered Maggie with the bed sheet. Once he’d finished, Jonah gathered up the tattered remains of his Confederate coat and went to exit the cab. On his way out, he spied the Elvis CD laying on the passenger seat -- after a moment’s hesitation, he picked it up and slipped it beneath his shirt.
By the time he was done, the police were swarming all over the truck stop. A few glanced his way as he walked across the blacktop, but none approached him, which suited Jonah just fine. He was also glad to see that no one had touched Jeb’s body, which he’d wrapped in the blanket from his satchel before taking care of Maggie’s. Hal stood some distance away, talking with a lawman, and neither Boston Brand nor Dove were anywhere in sight, so Jonah hunkered down by Jeb to wait. In the back of his mind, he could feel the black ring’s presence as it tried to process all the sights and sounds around it. Even after a week of experiences, the world was still a mystery to it, full of wonder and terror. It had an eagerness to learn, but Jonah had no clue how to teach it, save by his own example. He hoped that’d be enough.
After a while, Jonah heard footsteps approaching, and he turned to see the Green Lantern coming his way. “I filled the cops in on what happened. They can finish things up around here,” Hal said, hunkering down as well. “You ready to go?”
Hex nodded towards a group of policemen. “They ain’t gonna stop us from takin’ him?”
“No, I told them the body needed to be disposed of in a special manner.”
“Reckon thet’s true enough. Whut about our two little fireflies? They stayin’ here?”
“Dove and Boston vanished right as the cops pulled up. The Entity must’ve decided their work was done here.” Hal shook his head in disgust. “I really don’t like this game it’s playing. It keeps moving people around like chess pieces without bothering to explain why.”
“Son, thet’s whut life is. Ain’t nobody supposed tuh like it, just deal with it.” Jonah picked up his satchel, then slipped his arms beneath the body. Hal tried to help, but Jonah brushed him off with, “This is muh burden. Yuh just concern yerself with drivin’ the hearse.”
Encased in an emerald sphere once more, Jonah directed Hal to go northwest. Traveling over miles of desert in minutes, they soon came within sight of Monument Valley and the charred remains of Illumination, along with the cemetery situated a few miles outside of it. “This’ll do,” Jonah said, and they touched down in front of the rusty iron archway that marked the cemetery’s entrance. “If’n yuh feel so inclined, he told Hal, “yuh kin fill in them other graves while Ah take care of Jeb’s.”
Hal agreed, and they worked in silence, each one focused on their respective grim task. As Hal used his ring to fix up the rest of the cemetery, he took note of the inscriptions upon the headstones: the names meant nothing to him, but he saw that many of the bodies originally laid to rest here died on the same date in 1863, and they were all men who belonged to the same cavalry regiment as Jonah. Thanks to a book about Hex he’d acquired after their last meeting, Hal knew about the Fort Charlotte Massacre, which had claimed the lives of three dozen men, including Jeb Turnbull. Hal also knew the incident didn’t occur anywhere near Monument Valley and, at the time, the Turnbull family was based in Virginia. So why were the graves located here? What reason could there be for interring so many bodies so far from where they’d fallen? He was tempted to ask Jonah, but now wasn’t the right time. They’d come here to bury the past, not dig it up again.
Dawn was breaking proper by the time Hal finished his share of the work. He made his way over to Jonah, who was down on one knee next to a still-open grave, his back to Hal as he worked on the marker. Jeb’s own grave was beside him, the headstone set right and the dirt packed down firmly, and Jonah had also taken the time to repair the grave of Quentin Turnbull, though perhaps not with as much care. As he approached, Jonah got up and moved aside, letting Hal get a good look at the simple wooden cross he’d erected, and the words carved upon it:
JONAH WOODSON HEX 1838-1904 REST IN PEACE
Hal was taken aback, his eyes going from the inscription to the unfilled hole in the ground. “You’re not planning on climbing in there, are you?”
“Not exactly.” Jonah picked up his satchel and dropped it into the grave, followed by his old Confederate coat. “Of all the things thet gnawed at me when Ah was dead, this was the most vexin’,” he explained, grabbing a shovel that lay nearby. “Damn-near everybody who’s ever lived gets a proper burial, but Ah never did, so Ah decided tuh rectify the situation.” He scooped up a shovelful of dirt and tossed it in. Hal soon joined him, using his ring to craft a shovel of his own. Silence fell between them again as they slowly but surely filled in the shallow grave. When the last clump of dirt had been piled on, Jonah slapped the flat of the shovel against it. “There...don’t know why nobody could do thet fer me afore,” he muttered, then looked at Hal. “Yuh probably think Ah’m nuts fer doin’ this, don’t yuh?”
“Not a bit. Seems appropriate, actually.” He leaned on his shovel. “You’re leaving behind your old life for a new one, and you need to create some kind of break-off point.”
Jonah took off his hat and wiped sweat from his brow, saying, “Ain’t gave much thought yet tuh whut thet life’s gonna be. Probably ain’t much call fer bounty hunters no more, whut with all yuh fellas in longjohns runnin’ about...an’ Ah ain’t got no desire tuh join yer Corps neither, so don’t even go suggestin’ it. Muh soldierin’ days are over.”
“It was furthest thing from my mind. Matter of fact, I suggest you keep that black ring out of sight. There’s too many people out there who’d love to crack it open and figure out how it works, especially if they knew it could think for itself.” Hal looked towards Illumination, or what was left of it. “Your friend’s descendant was just the tip of the iceberg. I heard Lex Luthor’s been trying to get hold of some Black Lantern remains for study, and I hate to think of what a man like him would do with a functional black ring.” He let the shovel in his hands vanish back into his own ring and said, “Come on, I’ll take you back to my apartment. We’ll discuss this more after we get some rest.” As he began to construct a new sphere to carry them away, Hal noticed Jonah was walking away, his eyes fixed on the eastern sky. “You see something out there?” Hal asked, coming up behind him.
Jonah didn’t answer at first, he was too busy taking in the glorious sight before him. He could see the red-orange glow of the rising sun, its colors spilling across the towering sandstone pillars that gave Monument Valley its name. A grin coming to his face, Jonah finally replied, “Looks like it’s gonna be a beautiful day.”
NEXT ISSUE: New storyarc, new characters, and “The New Normal”!