You ever get an idea that just won't leave your head? One that you know you should just dump due to its impossibility, but that dang "what if" factor makes it too intriguing to totally turn away from? I got one of those five years ago as I finished "The Long Road Home" and jumped into doing Western fics for DC2. Somewhere in-between, this idea had begun to form, this stupid, no-way-in-Hell-you-can-pull-it-off notion whose story potential would give me a guilty-pleasure kind of smile, even though I knew it couldn't be done.
I wanted to put Jonah Hex in the future again. More precisely, I wanted to put him in the present, Modern DCU. No dorky Road Reaper outfits or mutant freaks or all the other layers of junk that Fleisher thought "the future" should consist of. Just the everyday craziness that is the DCU of the early 21st Century, and good ol' Jonah trying to cope with it. Plus I wanted the added wrinkle of avoiding time travel: somehow, someway, our Jonah Hex would be the one that had lived to the ripe old age of 66 and been killed in 1904...but had been resurrected in present times. Perhaps he'd escaped Purgatory like Hal Jordan did when he became the Spectre, or some mystical villain had put together an army of ghosts and Jonah had wrestled free of their control. The "how" wasn't so important to me as the result: a young, unscarred Hex with all the skill and experience he'd accumulated over nearly seven decades, one that never had to go back to the past, and who could perhaps learn from all his mistakes and finally have a decent life in the here-and-now. There would be adventures, of course, and friends both new and old to fight alongside him, and probably even consequences to whatever method brought him back to life. For the next five years, I turned this odd little gem over and over in my head, looking at it from every angle and delighting in its facets...but I could never nail down a satisfactory "how". Without a way to bring Jonah Hex back that made sense (to me, at least), I couldn't proceed.
Then Geoff Johns dropped "Blackest Night/Brightest Day" in my lap. He did all the "how" work for me, and I give him a thousand thank-yous for it. After a brief pondering of the "why" in particular to Jonah himself (and I've got a pretty good one that I think Geoff and Co. may have missed), I got to work on the first issue of Jonah Hex: Shades of Gray. I say "issue" because this WILL be an ongoing story, with no set end in sight...I'll call it quits when the ideas finally run out. With luck, you'll find a new chapter every couple of months. And even though I'm setting this within regular DCU continuity like "The Long Road Home" was, I consider this an Elseworlds because I know there'll be times where my ideas might possibly disrupt how things would normally play out in the regular DC Universe...just like dropping a pebble in a pond causes ripples to travel everywhere across it, Jonah Hex living amongst us 21st Century yahoos is gonna have an effect, both good and bad. But I promise you, it'll never be boring.
Disclaimer: All characters in this story are owned by DC Comics. Despite my dogged persistence in writing Jonah Hex fics ad nauseum, I make absolutely no claims towards owning that character or any others I may include in this story. This is just me spinning a little pipe-dream to amuse myself and any other Hex-nut that might stumble across it.
Continuity: This story is set a few years after my fic "The Long Road Home," though it isn't necessary to read one to understand the other. It begins at roughly the same time as Brightest Day #0, and will do its level best to approximate the timeline of Modern DCU from there on out. Dates may get staggered slightly due to the fluidity of comic book time from one title to the next...I've been straining my brain trying to figure out how to line up events of a weekly book next to a monthly when there's no obvious crossover points, so I'm gonna be guesstimating a lot of the time. Originally posted on the DC2 fanfiction site as part of its Elseworlds section, and is not considered part of normal DC2 continuity, despite possible similarities between this and my other DC2 work. For a link, please click on the homepage listed under my profile.
THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
Blood and ashes
On the skyline
Dark against the stars
A solitary horseman
Lashed to the wheel
Ripping in the storm
Get up, Jonah
It's your time to be born
Get up Jonah
It's your time to be born.
- Bruce Cockburn
Dusk was beginning to fall as Maggie Dupree guided the eighteen-wheeler down the highway with idle grace, her left hand resting upon the steering wheel while her right slipped a new CD into the player. Seconds later, the husky tones of Elvis Presley wafted through the cab, telling of how he wanted to be her teddy bear. Maggie smiled. "They're playing our song, Jeff," she said, glancing at the photo taped to the dashboard. It showed a much-younger Maggie hugging a man of equal youth as they sat at a picnic table, fifteen long years ago. Some days it seemed like only yesterday, but after what happened last night, she was keenly aware of just how long it had been since she'd kissed Jeff goodbye. When she looked in the mirror these days, a middle-aged gal of forty-three looked back, while Jeff remained just the same in her mind's eye. That had been the scariest part about last night: the thought that he'd show up, and the illusion she clung to would be shattered in an instant. But he didn't show, thank the Lord, and her memory of him remained untarnished when the sun finally rose again. Still, the thought lingered in the back of her mind, and she did her best to ignore it as she headed for the Arizona border.
The highways had been rather vacant all day, and Maggie took advantage of it by pushing her rig as fast as it would go - California was a big state, and she had a lot of lost miles to make up for - so it was a bit of a surprise when she spotted the man walking alongside the road. He didn't have a thumb out to indicate he needed a ride, but his stiff shoulders and long-legged stride bespoke a man too proud to ask for one. Something about that appealed to Maggie, so she pulled her rig over to the side of the road just ahead of the man. As she waited for him to approach, she reached under her seat and checked the spring-loaded holster strapped there, containing Jeff's old .38 automatic. In all her years on the road, she'd never had a bit of trouble from a hitchhiker, but that didn't make her lax about keeping some insurance around.
After a few minutes, the man still hadn't come up to the door, so Maggie checked the rearview mirrors to figure out where he was. Then she saw him walk right past the front of the cab, still heading down the road like she wasn't there. Rolling down the window, she stuck her head out and yelled, "Hey! Don't you want a lift?"
The man stopped and looked back at her. He wasn't dressed like a typical hitchhiker: his collarless shirt was clean and white, and his blue jeans didn't show any signs of fading. The only thing on him that seemed worn was his cuffed leather boots, which had a good layer of dirt and dust upon them. A gray, wide-brimmed cowboy hat hid most of his face as he answered in a thick Southern accent, "Ah ain't got any money."
"What does this look like, a Greyhound bus? Get over here!" Maggie reached over and popped the passenger-side door, and the man finally got the message, loping back to the rig as Elvis started to sing about that old Kentucky rain. Once he reached the door, he took off his hat, revealing an unlined face and a tousle of red hair - he looked to be in his late twenties, though his pale-blue eyes seemed far too old for such a young face. Holding the hat to his chest, he nodded and said "Ma'am" as a way of greeting.
"Where you headed?" she asked.
"Ain't rightly sure. Away from here is a good start."
It sounded like a joke, but the tone of his voice suggested dead-seriousness, and it got Maggie worried. "You're not running from the cops, are you?"
"No, ma'am," he answered, shaking his head. "Ah just...Ah had a bad night out here, an' Ah'd like tuh leave it behind me."
"Oh." Maggie's thoughts turned to her own bad night, and her heart immediately went out to the stranger. "Well, come up, then. I'm Maggie, by the way."
"Jonah," he replied, pulling himself up into the cab. Tucked under one arm was a lumpy gray bundle, which he held onto tightly as he leaned over to shut the door. She thought it might be a bedroll of some sort, since it appeared to be made of wool like an old army blanket, but it wasn't large enough.
Once he was in, Maggie threw the big rig into gear, then glanced over at him and said, "Seatbelt."
"Your seatbelt...you forgot to put it on. Safety first, you know."
Jonah stared at her for a good five seconds, his brow furrowing slightly, then his eyes flicked away and he turned in his seat, fumbling behind him until he grabbed hold of the shoulder strap and drew it across himself. It took a few more seconds of fumbling before he got the buckle snapped into place, and after he did, he looked once more at Maggie, who said, "Okay, then," and eased the eighteen-wheeler back onto the road. As she did so, "Return to Sender" began to pour out of speakers. "You like Elvis?" she asked.
"Never met the man," Jonah answered in that sounds-like-a-joke-but-dead-serious tone.
His attitude snuffed any other attempts at conversation from Maggie, and miles rolled past with no sound in the cab save for the King's constant serenade. From time to time, Maggie would glance over at her passenger from the corner of her eye. His own eyes appeared to be examining everything inside the cab, all the while holding that bundle close to his chest. When she saw his gaze linger on the picture taped to the dash, she told him, "That's Jeff."
"He's yer sweetheart?"
His choice of words made her smile, despite herself. "He's my husband...was, I should say. He's gone now. It's been...eleven years, this fall."
There was different tone in Jonah's voice now, one that made the words seem genuine instead of the hollow, knee-jerk reply most people give when speaking of the death of strangers. Maggie looked over at him briefly, then turned her attention back to the road, saying, "Thank you." After a few seconds, she added, "He was a good man. Ambitious. Doing the whole trucking thing was his idea. The two of us went everywhere together... this was our little rolling apartment." She waved a hand towards the area directly behind their seats, where a heavy curtain was hung.
Jonah reached back and pushed the curtain aside. "Damnation, thet's the fanciest berth Ah've ever seen," he said with a note of awe.
Maggie laughed. The "berth", as Jonah called it, consisted of a twin-size bunk with storage compartments beneath, a mini-fridge and microwave, and a tiny fold-down table. Bolted to the wall in one corner was a TV with a VCR/DVD hookup. "That's nothing. I've known truckers that could charge rent for the swank setups they have." She waved her hand again, saying, "This was enough for me and Jeff, though. We'd haul this rig all over the country, stop in rest stations to clean up, eat fast-food burgers like they were going out of style...our families thought we were crazy, but we loved it."
"Sounds like yuh had a good life together," Jonah said, letting the curtain fall back.
"Until the cancer came, yeah. After that hit, we had a lot of stationary time. But Jeff made me promise to keep going after he was gone, so...here I am." She sniffled, then said to Jonah, "What about you?"
"Whut about me?"
"Come on! You're telling me that you're gonna let me spill my guts like that and then offer up nothing about yourself?"
He leaned back in his seat. "Seems thet way."
"You've gotta give me something. What's a Southern boy like you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?" She gestured to the spurs attached to his dusty boots. "Your horse drop dead in the desert while you were playing cowboy, maybe?"
Jonah didn't reply, he just stared at the passing landscape, what little there was of it. "Fine, don't say anything," Maggie muttered. "Just sit there like a lump and enjoy the free ride." She tried to focus on the road ahead, but occasionally, her eyes would wander over to her silent passenger as he looked out the window. At least, from her perspective, he appeared to be looking out the window.
But if she could have seen things from Jonah's angle, she would have realized his too-old eyes were looking directly at the reflection of his young, unlined face in the rearview mirror.
He cannot move, and he does not know why. The last thing he remembers is playing cards in the saloon, waiting for Wheeler to get back from his ride in that infernal automobile. He hates the things. They remind him of something he's tried his whole life to forget. But Wheeler is young, so he lets the boy have his fun, and when he gets back...
Wait. Wheeler did come back, after...after what? Something happened. He tries to remember, but it's like a fog hanging in front of his eyes. His eyes...they're open, but he can't see. Dammit, what happened? He calls Wheeler's name, but no sound comes out of his mouth.
A sudden light in his eyes...something has been pulled off his face. He still can't see, the whole world is a bright blur. Voices around him, familiar voices. Not Wheeler, not Tall Bird...who? He tries to focus with all his might, and slowly, a picture forms. He is looking down upon two men, one of whom is holding a tarp. Lew Farnham. Owns a Wild West show. Tried to get him to join it, prance around in some godawful spangled costume like a clown, but he refused. Never. Not that future. He walked away from Farnham in order to prevent it. But what is Farnham doing here now, grinning up at him like that? Then he hears Farnham speak...muffled, but he can make out most of the words. About how much money they're going to rake in displaying the body. The body? What body? Whose...
Then it all comes back to him in a flood: the shotgun blasts that rip into his chest and belly, the weakness that pins his body to the ground as his blood pools beneath him, the last breath that escapes his collapsing lungs right before the darkness pulls him under. And he knows, he knows he's dead, he's DEAD, he's just a corpse, stuffed and mounted because Lew Farnham doesn't take no for an answer, and he wants to scream but he can't even open his mouth because the taxidermist wired his jaw shut.
He sees Farnham's assistant walk up with one of his Dragoons, and the sight of that turns his despair into rage, pure rage, and the man wedges the gun into his outstretched hand, and the next thing he knows, he can MOVE. It's only his hand, but he pulls the trigger and the Dragoon makes a thunderous crash and the assistant's head is blown in half. Inside his corpse, his soul grins, and he's about to take aim at the gaping Farnham, but suddenly the darkness pulls him under again. He fights against it as hard as he can, hoping for at least a few seconds so he can get his revenge on Farnham, but it's no use, and the world goes black.
He hopes this is the end, that release will follow, but when the darkness parts again, he sees crowds of people staring at him. Some are laughing, others look bored. He spits obscenities at all of them and tries to move like he'd done before, but nothing happens. He's frozen in place, only able to stare back as hundreds of faces file past, day after day, year after year, mocking him in his ghoulish prison. After a while, he begins to wonder if he'd ever really fired the gun, or if perhaps it was just something his tortured mind invented.
Sometimes the darkness returns, and he goes gladly now, if only so he can find respite from the endless parade of humanity. He doesn't know how much time passes during these periods of insensibility, but he knows that some of the spans are rather long going by the idle bits of chatter he can make out after waking. Then one day, as his soul resurfaces from the deep, he sees that the tent he'd been on display in is gone, replaced by four solid walls and an array of random junk. He never sees Farnham again, nor anyone else from the Wild West show. Perhaps his presence no longer drew any money, so they sold him...a thought that adds even more insult to the indignities that have been visited upon him. He spends a good length of time cursing Farnham anew, along with the unknown idiot that dumped him in this dank place. He never sees anyone, never hears anything, and it soon becomes an entirely different sort of Hell, with nothing for his mind to feed upon but his own memories, which begin to twist into monstrous shapes as the isolation drags on and on. He prays for the darkness to return, and sometimes it does, but more often than not, he is awake and aware and in anguish.
Changes eventually come, but not great changes: he is moved to another location, he is put on display somewhere then shoved back into storage, he is repaired by people that do not seem to know the difference between dead flesh and dry plaster. At one point, he is put on a pedestal at some sort of outdoor carnival, where the elements can have their way with him. It is during this period that a pair of figures approach him, looking up with him in a way no one else has since this nightmare started. The man talks like Wheeler, but is not. And the woman...so old, wheelchair-bound, but her face...
Tall Bird. Lord, how long has it been since he gazed upon her? His love for her reignites within him like a blaze, hotter than the love he felt for any other woman when he'd been alive. She has found him, after countless years, and he knows that she will finally end his suffering, and out of nowhere, he realizes he can MOVE. But before he is able to do anything, other men appear, threatening Tall Bird and her companion. They want him, and they will kill to possess him, so he does what he did so long ago and fires his Dragoon. The lead man falls dead, and the others are subdued by Tall Bird's companion, who speaks directly to him as the darkness closes in. The man promises to free him from this awful place, the words filling him with a joy he hasn't felt in decades. It will be over soon, he will be at rest, no more waking nightmare...
But when he comes out of the darkness again, his body is still on display. Another place, different faces, but still a public mockery. Why did that man lie to him? Why would Tall Bird permit this? He shouts these questions endlessly for months, until he feels the last threads of sanity within him break. After that, he is numb. He stares but sees nothing, hears words that are only so much noise. When men come and pack him inside a wooden crate, blocking his view of what's around him, he doesn't care. It is better this way, just shut out the world instead of letting it hurt him even more. If he has to spend eternity like this, it will be on his own terms.
Inside the crate, there is no time. Months, years, decades...they are words without meaning. There is simply now, and now does not change. It is constant. It is comforting. It does not remind him of who he was or is, and therefore does not challenge the illusion that he's built around himself...until something happens that forces him to remember.
It is a voice. A voice from within and without. It drills into his soul with such precision that he cries out, trying to pull away from the message it brings. Five simple words:
[Jonah Hex of Earth...RISE]
And something forces its way into the crate, something small and black. It latches onto his left ring finger and the black begins to spread across his body, cracking open every desiccated cell and flooding into them and remaking them into God-knows-what. Then the black invades his soul, speaking to him without words about a war, a war between the dead and the living, and how it wants to recruit him. He fights at first, but it keeps pushing further and further into his soul, wearing him down, and soon it overwhelms him, smothering any desire to resist.
When it is done, he is unaware of where he ends and the black begins. It has stripped away the humiliating costume and given him back his proper attire, albeit with a few modifications. It whispers in his mind, telling him to make a fist, to smash through the wood, and he does so, feeling no amazement over the act. He sees the inside of a warehouse, and though the lights are dim, he can make out everything in perfect detail...except for color. To his new eyes, the world is nothing but blacks and whites and grays. This strikes him as strange, but the force that has invaded him will not let him think about it. Instead, it makes him walk through the warehouse, searching for a way out. Then he spots a spark of color, a dim green in the shape of a man dressed like a guard. The man sees him, and the green dissolves away into yellow as the man draws a gun and shoots him, but again, he feels nothing. He grabs hold of the man, and the black tells him to drive his fist into the man's chest, and he does so. He pulls out the man's heart, which is dripping with blood like liquid gold, and black tells him to feed.
And he does so.
Jonah looks over at the open driver's-side door. Maggie had pulled the rig into a gas station to fuel up, and after setting the pumps to work, she'd poked her head back into the cab to pose her query. "There's a little diner in there," she elaborated, pointing at a building across the blacktop. "Not the best food I've ever had, but it beats reheated mac and cheese."
"Ah ain't got..."
"Any money," Maggie finished for him. "I know that, but I figured since you're already mooching a ride off of me, I might as well offer you a meal to go along with it." She held up a finger. "Just don't order the most expensive thing on the menu, okay?"
He cast his eyes down for a moment, as if ashamed of her hospitality, then said, "Okay."
Once the tank was full, Maggie parked the eighteen-wheeler over by a cluster of other rigs, and the two of them walked to the diner. The sun had been down for about an hour by then, but the sodium lights ringing the area lit their path with a stark white glare. Despite her insistence that it would be perfectly safe within the cab, Jonah kept the gray bundle tucked beneath his arm. She wondered what it was that made him so protective of it.
Moments after walking into the diner, Jonah paused, took a deep breath through his nose and smiled - it was the first time Maggie had seen him smile since she'd picked him up. "Lord, it's been a long time since Ah smelled thet," he whispered.
Maggie took a sniff of her own, then asked, "What's that? The fried chicken?"
"Yeah." She'd never heard so much longing packed into the word.
"Well, I guess I know what you're ordering." They made their way to an empty booth and took a seat. As they waited for a server to come by, Maggie noticed Jonah looking all about the diner, just as he'd done inside her truck. It would have seemed a nervous gesture were it not for the intensity in those eyes as they flicked from one place to the next. The thought that this guy might be on the run from the cops entered her mind again, but the arrival of a familiar face at their table drove it away. "Hey, Rita, how you been?" she said with a smile.
"Same old, same old." Rita the waitress pushed a lock of peroxide-blonde hair from her face with the end of her pen, then poised it over her order pad. "Start with coffee, like usual?"
"An' some fried chicken," Jonah interjected with some eagerness.
Rita looked at him as if she hadn't noticed him sitting there. "Well, now...who's the young stud, Mags?"
Jonah's eyebrows went up at the comment, and Maggie said, "Just a stray I picked up. You interested in buying him?"
"Nah, I probably couldn't afford him." She laughed when she saw the growing look of concern on Jonah's face. "Oh, honey, you don't think we're serious, do you?"
"Ain't rightly sure," he replied, and that got both ladies laughing. Jonah felt his cheeks flush, and turned his head away to hide it.
Maggie waved a hand, saying, "All right, Rita, we'd better lay off the new boy. Just dig up two chicken dinners for us, and..." She looked at Jonah. "You want coffee or something else?" Jonah only shrugged, so she said, "I guess that's two coffees."
"Okay, then...back in a sec with the coffee." Rita walked off, jotting the order down.
Jonah's head was still turned away, and Maggie leaned towards him and said, "You don't need to sulk like that. We were just making a joke."
"Ah don't find talk of buyin' folks very funny."
The words came out with a hard edge to them, making Maggie pull back slowly. She knew nothing about this man, but something about the way he said that suggested he was speaking from experience. It also suggested that she'd better not push the subject any further.
Rita came with the coffee, and Jonah took his and drank it in silence, not bothering with sugar and cream like Maggie. His eyes resumed their wandering as he drained his cup, eventually settling upon some point at the counter across the aisle from where they sat. He got up and spoke in a low voice to a man sitting at the counter - Maggie watched as the man handed Jonah a folded-up newspaper, which he then brought back to the booth. Laying it on the table between them, Maggie saw it was a copy of the Los Angeles Times. Splashed across the front page was a photo of a group of superheroes - some injured, a couple looking somewhat confused - with THE MORNING AFTER printed above it in large type. Jonah ran his finger down the column of story running alongside it, pausing here and there as he presumably mulled over some bit of information. Once he had read over the entire front page, he opened the paper and continued his finger-guided perusal, ignoring what was left of his coffee. It wasn't until Rita dropped off the pair of chicken dinners that he set the paper aside. Jonah tore into his meal with gusto, eating like he was on the brink of starvation. Every few bites, he'd pause to rub a hand across his right cheek, as if wiping something away. Through it all, Maggie waited for Jonah to say something, anything, but he remained silent. Finally, after taking a few bites of her chicken, she decided to take the plunge.
"Where were you last night?" she asked. Jonah looked at her, but said nothing, so she gestured towards the picture on the front page and said, "During all that...that nightmare."
He chewed his mouthful of chicken, swallowed, then replied, "Ah'd rather not say."
Instead of answering, Jonah's gaze dipped down to the tabletop. After a moment, he asked, "Did y'all see any of it?"
"I saw enough. I was picking up the load I'm hauling now when the reports started coming over the radio...me and the guys at the warehouse laughed it off until we actually saw a group of them heading our way."
"A lot of 'em?"
"A dozen, maybe twenty...hard to tell in the dark. We ran inside the warehouse and rolled down the doors, then we all clustered around the CCTV monitor and watched them go by. Then more came by, and more, like a...a herd. Some of them broke off and began to bang on the doors, and we're all trying to call out or text on our cells, but the system must have crashed in the panic." Her fingers knotted together on the tabletop as she said, "We thought it was the end of the world. I mean, it had to be: the dead were walking, so how could it not be the end?"
Jonah reached out and laid his hand over hers - a rather tender gesture - and said quietly, "It wasn't the end of the world, least not the proper end. Weren't no Rapture or angels with trumpets, just bad folks doin' whut bad folks do. The important thing is, it's all over. Yuh don't have tuh be afraid no more."
"I'm not afraid, I'm just..."
"Yo're afraid," he said with certainty. "Yuh cain't hide it from me."
Maggie took a deep breath. "Maybe...maybe a little afraid. An experience like that is going to be hard to shake."
He nodded. "Ah cain't argue with thet."
The town is on fire, the old decrepit buildings going up like kindling. They would have collapsed long ago if Joshua Turnbull hadn't been so adamant about holding on to his family's past. But now Joshua is dead, just like the rest of his line, so the town of Illumination burns.
He remembers what the place looked like when he first laid eyes on it over a century ago. He didn't come for sightseeing, then or now, but images of it remain in his memory nonetheless. He also remembers what happened back then, the thought of it stirring emotions within his soul. They don't last long, however: the black rises up and snuffs them out, regaining control of him. It does not want him to think of other things, only the task it has set him upon.
He watches as the corpse of Quentin Turnbull tears out Joshua's heart - it seems only fitting that a family member should have the feast. Laying beside Joshua's body is a blindingly-bright cube, a black ring trapped within it. This is his goal, and he kneels down to pick it up. Like the rings of all the other walking dead, he feels a connection to this one, and he can hear it speak. But unlike the other rings, this one speaks of how the body it was meant for is unwilling to join the fight. Don Hall's body will not rise. It has found peace.
Peace...ever since his soul woke up within his stuffed and mounted corpse, he has longed for peace, for eternal rest. The black has been trying to convince him that death and peace are the same thing, and that life is the aberration, but he knows this isn't true. If it was, then why has his soul been in such torment since his death? Why did this Hall person reject the chance to supposedly spread the level of peace that it had already achieved? As he gazes at the entrapped ring, these questions grow larger in his mind, the power of his dissent causing the black to withdraw slightly from his soul. He realizes there is a chance that, if he can concentrate hard enough, he might be able to drive it out completely and regain control of himself. But his rebellious thoughts catch the attention of the other corpses in Illumination, and they begin to gather around him. They are different from him: their souls have all moved on, leaving behind empty bodies for the rings to inhabit. He knows all their faces - Turnbull, Bat Lash, Nighthawk, Cinnamon, El Papagayo, Johnny Thunder - but no matter how they talk and act, he knows they are merely echoes of the people they once were. They do not object to the plans laid before them like he does, for they have no individual minds to object with. They are one, united to the cause of their master Nekron, and they will not tolerate a traitor in their midst.
They raise their guns, and they begin to fire upon him with bullets made not of lead but of pure black energy, eliminating the need to reload. The bullets rip through his body and down into his soul, bolstering the black already within him. He is drowning in it, but he still clings to that one beautiful notion. Peace, he wants peace, real peace...and then the word begins to fade from his mind, until he does not know what it means. He only knows what Nekron wants him to know: the dead shall overpower the living all across the universe, and nothing shall stand in the way of that, not even the desires of a man for whom Death itself has been a constant companion.
The black tells him to stand, and he does so. It conjures up a horse for him to ride, just as dead as himself, and he black tells him that he must prove his loyalty to the cause by delivering the entrapped ring to their master. His skeletal head nods in understanding, then he mounts up, cradling the glowing cube to his chest, and turns the horse westward.
Coast City is a long way off, but the Blackest Night has only just begun.
"You figured out where you want to go yet?" Maggie asked as they walked back to the rig. "If Arizona's to your liking, you're more than welcome to stick with me. Anyplace else...well, you'd better start asking some of the other truckers around here."
"Ah ain't really thought about it," Jonah answered with a shrug. "It's been so long since anybody's given me a choice 'bout whut tuh do with muhself."
Maggie bit her bottom lip, silently debating with herself, then said, "You know, I hate to bring it up again, but...are you on the run? Not just from the cops, but from anybody. Because some of the things you've said tonight, and the way you act..." She gestured to the gray bundle Jonah once again clutched with both hands. "If you need help, just tell me."
He lowered his head. "Ah ain't one tuh ask fer help."
"That much is obvious." She laid a hand on his shoulder, and they stopped walking. "Look, I don't offer to help out every stranger I meet, but you...you just look like somebody who's got nowhere else in the world to turn to. You don't have to tell me the whole story, but at least tell me if I'm on the right track."
Jonah lifted his head and looked at her with those too-old eyes - she tried to imagine what sort of horrors he could have gone through to give him eyes like that. Seconds ticked by, but he said nothing, eventually turning his head away to look towards where the eighteen-wheelers were parked. Then those too-old eyes narrowed, filling with a look at made Maggie's blood run cold. Fearful, she pulled her hand away from him and said, "I'm sorry, I just..."
"Yo're not the problem," Jonah said with a growl. "Somebody's messin' with yer truck."
"What?" She turned to look, but could see nothing: though there were lights all over the parking lot, the other rigs cast long shadows across her own vehicle, obscuring her view. She was about to ask Jonah how he could tell, but before the words got out, he shoved the gray bundle at her roughly, then took off at a run with some oblong object in his hand - it took a second for her to realize it was a gun. "Oh my God," she gasped, then took off after him.
As she got closer, she could see a group of four men clustered around the back end of her rig. The rolling door had been opened halfway, and there were a few boxes laying on the ground next to a small van parked alongside. That didn't surprise her too much - she'd known many truckers who'd had their cargo boosted - but the sight of Jonah boldly standing before them like a gunfighter at high noon certainly gave her pause. "Ah may be new 'round these parts," he was saying to them, "but Ah know thieves when Ah see 'em. So do yerselves a favor an' skedaddle afore things get ugly."
The four men looked at each other, then burst out laughing. "Dude, are you drunk?" one of them said, with another adding, "You sound like Clint Eastwood on crack!"
"Ah'll give yuh a crack, yuh damn hyenas!" Jonah fired his gun at them, the bullets smacking into the blacktop at their feet. Maggie was relieved that he wasn't aiming directly at them, but she knew that might change rather quick. She called out to him to stop, but either he ignored her or he couldn't hear over the roar of the gun. And it was a big gun: a heavy-looking antique revolver, which to her surprise kept spitting out bullets even though she was sure she'd counted off more than six rounds already. All the while, the thieves were scattering across the blacktop as Jonah continued to shoot at them with incredible precision, never taking a kill-shot but instead letting the bullets whiz past and miss them by mere inches. Then one of the thieves briefly took cover behind the van - when he emerged, Maggie saw he now had a gun of his own.
"Jonah, look out!" she yelled, and ironically, this time he heard her and turned his head, only to have the thief land a bullet directly in the back of Jonah's skull. Blood and gray matter spurted out of the hole the bullet made as it exited his forehead. For a moment, his body stayed upright, then he collapsed in a heap. Maggie stood stock-still, gaping at Jonah's dead body, then she heard one of the thieves yell at his companion to shoot her too. That got her moving, and she ducked behind a nearby truck, clutching the gray bundle to her chest just as tightly as Jonah had before. She could hear the thieves arguing over whether they should pursue her or just cut and run, and she prayed for the latter as her eyes wandered over to Jonah's body, which she could see clearly from her hiding spot. A pool of blood was forming beneath what was left of his skull, staining his formerly-pristine shirt red.
Then she saw Jonah's hand twitch as the red blood slowly turned black.