The Paladin

The Paladin

This story provides the origin of Mark Simmons, along with Azuriel, Sharon and Chrome. Chronicling Mark's rebirth and his journey through Universe-A, the events that take place in it are only recalled by Mark and Lucifer. The tone is, compared to later stories featuring these characters, intentionally silly, but interspersed with serious passages.

Part One - Genesis

Starting in medias res, the first paragraph jumps in just a minute prior to Mark's death - the enforcer had taken on a job to clean out a warehouse, but underestimated the opposition. Fleeing from the survivors with no ammunition left, he escapes onto the street only to be fatally overrun by a black SUV.

Once dead, Azuriel summons him to Heaven, provides him with new equipment and powers, and sends him down to Earth again - with the mission to find the seven seals of the Apocalypse and renew their protective runes. The first seal is situated in a small town in the American Mid-West; Mark gets a quick - if unwanted - lesson in the use of his sword and succeeds at protecting the seal. Waking up the next morning, he is about to dismiss it all as a "strange dream" when he spots his weapons on a nearby chair. The elation of having cheated death makes way to a feeling of uneasiness as the enormity of the task sets in. He receives word that he must next make his way to South Korea, but the aircraft he is on is attacked by a swarm of demons in mid-flight.

In stark defiance of the laws of physics, he successfully makes his way on top of the aircraft - again, in mid-flight - and vanquishes the demons in a display of pure destructive force. Back in the airplane, Mark takes note that the entire flight crew has fallen unconscious; while calling Azuriel for help, he is interrupted by the arrival of Sharon, who manages to land the airplane. In subsequent meetings with her, Sharon tells Mark that she is also a Paladin, but got her powers from a dying predecessor. Having no prior experience with such matters, Mark accepts the explanation. In a surreal moment, Mark notices something off about Sharon and strikes her down, revealing the green blood of a demon. However, he finds her tied up nearby, reinforcing his impression that the demon was an imposter. (The origin of the "double" is not explained further.)

Making his way to an abandoned temple, Mark is first defeated by a couple of demons guarding the location, but manages to call upon his powers and requisition a "holy" OICW, which he promptly uses to nearly level the entire entrance. Inside, he faces off against a large, crab-like demon, but the OICW is knocked from his hands. A figure in the shadows throws the weapon towards him; Mark assumes it to be Sharon. The firepower of the OICQ doesn't quite destroy the demon, but Mark's sword does; again working outside the laws of physics, Mark manages to run up a wall and jump down upon the demon, driving the blade deep inside the beast. Having defeated the demon, he again secures the seal.

Being informed that the next seal is in London, Mark decides to fly, but the airport is assaulted by masked figures while he tries to check in. He again runs into Sharon; the two of them manage to make short work of the attackers, but need to escape from the police. Sharon shows off her driving skills and ability to operate heavy weapons while the two escape in Sharon's black SUV.

With police semi-hot on their trail, the two escape via ship, proceeding to San Francisco due to Mark having arranged to have more weapons shipped there. Picking the guns up proves to be dangerous as more armed attackers come after them; the two manage to get the airport, where Sharon reveals yet another conveniently stored SUV. Racing out into the desert, they run into a large police roadblock; Mark, not in the mood to kill cops, wants to surrender, but Sharon throws him out of the car and rams the roadblock, barely saving herself from the explosion. As Mark runs over to investigate, he finds Sharon throw to the ground - bleeding green. Saying that he wouldn't understand anyway, she urges Mark to flee as police sirens approach. Mark, shocked at having worked with a demon, runs off into the desert until he is overcome by exhaustion and falls into a nightmarish sleep.

Part Two - Metamorphosis

Mark comes to in silence, having apparently been overlooked by the police. He gets a call from Azuriel, who tells him that he has been stripped off his powers - but there's more going on in Heaven, and Az is getting out asap. Urging Mark to trust nobody, he hangs up. Mark heads back to the road to find a motorcycle in mysteriously good condition abandoned there; starting it, he heads East. Driving for as long as the fuel holds out, Mark recalls his father, and decides that no matter what, he'll continue his mission. Pulling in at a gas station, Mark finds that he is much further to the East than he had thought. While he decides to ride on to NYC and rearm *again*, the gas station attendant recognises him and calls the cops, but not before Mark is already long gone.

Back in NYC, Mark finally gets back in touch with his employers, the Ingues Cartel. Facing off against Alexandra Ingues, Mark manages to give himself a mystical edge in the quick-draw duel, dodging Alexandra's acknowledgedly quick revolver shot and shooting the gun out of her hand. Alex, deeply disturbed by the inhuman speed of Mark, gives in and allows him to raid the cartel armory. Once rearmed, Mark heads to the docks in a bit of a joyride, but is greeted by an FBI unit. Steering his cycle into the water at full speed, Mark hopes to throw off their fire, but the unit is equipped with passive Infrared Goggles. In a spare second, Mark levels his newly-acquired CAWS against the cops and fires, destroying the IR spotlights. His victory is shortlived as a concussion grenade sails behind his cover; Mark barely manages to clear the explosion with a dive into the water.

Mark next comes to on an US Navy destroyer, having drifted out to sea by unseen means. He is locked into the brig, but manages to escape and, having finally had enough of dodging conflict, goes Under Siege on the servicemen, creating a large chaos on board and escaping with a lifeboat. Again, he covers extremely large distances while asleep; ending up off the coast of the United Kingdom near an oil platform. He easily overwhelms the crew and hijacks an incoming helicopter, forcing the pilot to fly him to the mainland. He "captures" a car while hitchhiking, making his way to London. Once there, he manages to get into the subway and ride it; after only a few minutes, the train crashes, sprawling the few passengers. Mark makes his way into the tunnel, discovering that the first car is totally crushed, and discovers a hole in the tunnel leading downwards. There, he interrupts a group of cultists chanting over the third seal, which leads to a confrontation with another demon, this one insectoid. Mark expends nearly everything he's got, but finally manages to kill the demon. Too spent to fight on, he is ambushed and captured by a man who introduces himself as being a member of the Army of Mortals.

As Mark leaves the cave as prisoner, another shadowy figure updates the protective runes on the seal...

Part Three - Resistance

Now a prisoner, Mark hears he's about to be executed by the AoM for having supernatural powers; the agent mentions off-handedly that they also have Sharon, who is "amusing" to torture. Fueled by rage, Mark manages to break free and kill the agent with his gun (incidentally, one the agent had earlier swiped off Mark). As Mark flees the scene, another figure appears from the shadows and begins to sanitize the room - Azuriel.

Mark finds himself on the run from cops again; backing into an abandoned house, Mark runs into Az; for the moment, he is flabbergasted, but Az explains that he naturally looks different from his heavenly form here, due to him having "acquired" the body of a latino gangster. The two decide to make a run for it, skipping town as quickly as possible. The escape almost works until the two run into a single female cop, who holds the two at gunpoint. Mark and Az decide to risk it and split, leading to a short firefight: Az gets grazed by the shoulder, Mark acts instinctively and puts a large-caliber bullet through her chest, wounding her critically. Az urges Mark to ditch the woman, but Mark reasons that things will only get much worse if he actually kills a cop. While Az steals a car, Mark rides along in the backseat, trying to do his best to keep the cop alive. The three make it to a hospital, but the cops are already there, apparently more concerned with catching him than saving the life of their partner. Az takes control with a grenade, threatening to blow them all up if the cops don't get out of the way. The police officers back down, Mark delivers the woman, and the duo escapes. As they drive off, Mark goes over the events and discovers that while he was working on the woman, her wound seemed to actually heal up some. Meanwhile, Az reveals that the grenade he was threatening the cops with was actually a dud, and that it's an useful habit to have a good bluff like that at hand.

Making their way to the nearby port, the two manage to get aboard a container freighter bound for Hamburg and hide in one of the containers. Once in Germany, Az informs Mark that he knows of a nearby AoM stronghold. The duo rolls up to and shoots up the small base, making their way underground. Coming to a large vault door, Az remarks that they just killed everyone who might know how to open it; Mark, by now convinced that he actually retains mystical powers, lays hands on the door and becomes convinced that Sharon is on the other side. Channeling his energy, he manages to melt the door. They indeed find Sharon in there; the demon quickly snatches Mark's shades and grabs a gun, eager to repay her kidnappers. The trio hurries upwards, arriving just in time to run into AoM reinforcements. In a brutal battle, they manage to kill most of them, except for one, who spoils that the AoM has completely undermined a nearby Bundeswehr base and is using it for material support. Mark - ever in the "more gun, more fun" camp - lobbies to make a quick visit.

Infiltrating the base proves surprisingly easy, but Az and Sharon stay behind outside in case Mark needs cover fire. He manages to snatch a couple of weapons, but is soon discovered and captured. Sharon wants to counter-attack at once; Az convinces her to wait for nightfall. The two manage to overwhelm the now overconfident guards and discover more underground facilities of the kind the AoM tends to favor. While Sharon goes to free Mark, Az happens upon a powerful wizard apparently working experimental magic on a captive woman. Az attacks the mage and is nearly killed for his troubles, but the distraction is enough for the lady vampire - Avenger - to free herself.

Mark and Sharon arrive and briefly battle Avenger, but she manages to convince them that she's willing to be on their side. That said, Avenger sucks the stunned mage dry and kills him brutally before using the absorbed power to heal Azuriel. As the group of four leaves, Mark ponders why his sword wouldn't cut a campire, of all things. Along the way, it becomes obvious that Avenger knows nothing about the modern world, apparently having lived in medieval times.

Noting that they are running out of time, Az recommends they split up to take care of the remaining seals - Nepal, South Africa, Rome and Brazil. Az volounteers to go for Nepal, while Sharon wants to take care of South Africa. Mark agrees to take Avenger with him to Rome to teach her about the modern world on the way. Everyone would then travel to Brazil to take care of the last seal as soon as possible. Az and Sharon are promptly left behind at the nearby Hannover airport, and Mark & Avenger begin to make their journey South by car.

Part Four - Alliances

Mark and Avenger make it across the borders of Austria and finally Italy without further problems. At one stop, the two become too engrossed with their discussion, and notice that the sun is almost back up, which would be fatal to Avenger. Mark pulls over to let her hide in the trunk, but as she gets out, she feels distinctly cold due to freezing weather. The trunk's lock is frozen, and Mark staggers out to help her. However, unnoticed by either of them, the sub has already risen. Mark informs Avenger that she should burst into flame any second, but she instead feels warm and cozy in the sunlight. Mark also notes a curious change in her look; her skin goes from pale to lively, while the color seems to drain out of her raven-black hair. Remarking that her hair now sparkles like chrome, Avenger decides that this should be her new name; Mark groans, but decides to go with it.

Down in Italy, the two attempt to settle in; Chrome is attacked by two would-be muggers, but knocks both of them out and carries one with her, for the purpose of sucking him dry later. Mark, who'd been growing steadily more concerned about the violence he is using to attain his goals, manages to talk her out of it - apparently the rules don't apply to her anymore, so maybe she ought to try to eat regular food. Chrome finds this preposterous, but as she thinks back to the people she's sucked dry, she suddenly becomes violently ill and decides that she'll do whatever it takes to not have to drink people's blood anymore. Mark, similarly, has a personal revelation - some of his older scars have begun to fade, and he notes that there's something unnatural about his eyes. It seems that the further he continues, the more he feels like he's changing into something entirely new.

The next morning, Mark finds that his growing gun collection contains two USPs - the same ones he had been given earlier as Paladin and later discarded when his powers had been taken away. He notes that they seem to work again, replenishing ammunition and following him around. Az calls to make him aware of Fredo Bessucho, who apparently knows something about the seal. While outside to clear his head, Mark runs into another AoM agent who tells Mark that they've rethought their strategy and will help him from here on. He gives Mark detailed info on how to infiltrate Fredo's home.

That night, Mark attempts a break-in after an extensive stake-out to validate the AoM infos; once in, Mark finds Fredo dead and the agent there, stating that the tiredness Mark is feeling stems from a contact poison the dossier pages were laced with. He offers Mark the antidote in return for Mark ratting out Az and Sharon's locations. The situation is resolved when Chrome slams through the window, providing an opening for Mark to attack the agent. The AoM lackey flees while Chrome barely catches the antidote and hands it to Mark. Mark heads after the agent and gets involved in a gun fight with him. The agent is unnaturally fast and precise, and in the end, Mark only manages to shoot his hand after getting hit in the shoulder, even with his own powers allowing him to act significantly faster than usual. The "agent" goes down briefly, but rises again with a gun in the other hand while Mark is still recovering. However, Avenger - now in full vampire mode again - takes the bullets and gets close enough to the agent to snap his neck. Police sirens prompt another quick escape, and Mark decides that the only place that they can now go to for information are the secret archives of the Vatican.

Hilarity ensues.

Mock-holding Chrome as hostage, Mark manages to gain access at gunpoint, further cementing his threat by announcing that he has poisoned his hostage and set time-delayed bombs around Rome. After finding out that the seal is actually hidden underwater near the Azores, Mark is escorted to a private airport nearby; he gives Chrome the "antidote" and a slip of paper - the number he'll call to announce the locations of the bombs -, then releases her. She gets close enough to the cops to knock most of them out, but in the hurry to make good on their escape, Mark has to shoot another cop. He tries his best to heal him and calls upon Chrome to do the same, but the man is too far gone; Mark realizes that his mystical powers - great as they may be - can't fix everything.

Launching an aircraft and bailing out to cover their escape, Mark and Chrome head to the coast, where they break into an oceanographic institute and steal a small boat with the necessary diving equipment to get to the seal. Chrome reveals that she gets seasick easily; Mark has a little fun with that. Once at the location, Mark dives down, but finds a submarine down there. After forcing it to surface, he finds that it appears to be from the Norwegian Navy, but the facts don't line up. Mark and Chrome, for their part, pretend to be scientists; the submarine commander - a woman, a fact that makes Mark more suspicious - tells them that they are looking for a radiological anomaly, which could be the nuclear reactor of an unacknowledged submarine wreck. Mark manages to let them dive again on the promise that he'll take some of their instruments are look for it; once down, Mark follows the signature and discovers the seal in an underwater cave. As he surfaces again, he is captured and brought onto the submarine's deck, where a couple of armed seamen assure him that he will be dealt with surely. In a desperate act, Mark releases his power uncontrolled, generating a huge flash of light. Both his instincts and the sudden exhaustion force him flat to the ground, while the seamen kill each other in crossfire. Unhappy about being forced to let young and obviously indoctrinated people kill each other, Mark wants to take the submarine, but Chrome exits, saying that she went to full Avenger mode down there and "took care" of the crew. Although she tells Mark that she didn't do anything that "would require a confession", Mark remains unconvinced that she merely knocked them all out - but he's not in the mood to discuss this, and the two head out to the Azores.

Sharon manages to touch down in South Africa and soon thereafter finds herself on a minor killing spree, working off the anger of being imprisoned and tortured. Her way leads her to an archeological dig site, where she finds the seal - but not before yet more AoM agents attack the site, killing everyone within. Sharon puts up a valiant defense, but comes to the next morning under a pile of corpses, obviously having been left for dead. In her dream state, she recalls an engagement in the First World War that was equally as bloody; in particular, she remembers trying to seduce a Paladin on the battlefield by amplifying his emotions of dread and hopelessness. Having failed in this, she quickly killed him. Now, she wonders how things will work out with Mark. She heads back out, following the seal's trail and assaulting an AoM stronghold with remarkable bloodlust. A mystic swordsman almost stops her, but she catches his sword, breaks the blade and stabs him to death with the fragment. Reaching the sublevels, she gets into an intense firefight in an office, but just as she reloads, she hears silenced gunshots. When she looks again, the defenders are dead, and there is only a man in a suit - Thomas Simmons, Mark's father, or "what's left of him". He tells her that he doesn't trust her, but that he trusts Mark's judgement, and gives her a letter for his son before disappearing into nothingness again.

In Nepal, Az is suitably annoyed that he doesn't seem to be making much progress in his search. He runs into a scientist who tells him of a legend about the "Pillar of Earth" he is looking for; Az, realizing the importance, agrees to help him. The two manage to get near, but are attacked by the guardians of the pillar; Az loses sight of the scientist, but manages to shoot most of the attackers and make his way to the seal. Down there, he meets the final guardian, who promptly summons the defeated attackers again - Az hadn't thought that martial artist monks would be wearing Kevlar. The guardians challenge him to a final fight; Az decides to do it.

Mark and Chrome have arrived in Brazil and are making their way through the jungle when Az calls; Mark hears only gunfire until the connection goes dead, and he believes that Azuriel has been killed. Panicking, Mark hears choppers coming closer; he and Chrome attempt to flee, but are soon surrounded by AoM forces. Mark is ready to go out in a blaze of glory when Sharon steps out, revealing that she has managed to bring the Army of Mortals around to their purposes. As the group is flown to the site of the final seal, Mark reads the letter his father has left him.

Part Five - Apocalypse

Mark tries to come to terms with all the things that have happened as the day ends. Catariel arrives and introduces himself flatly as Azuriel's replacement, confirming that the angel is dead and has also failed to secure the seal. Mark is shocked at the news, but Catariel says that not all is lost; there are still rituals that might prevent the fight. Chrome stalks off, her personality growing steadily more human and vulnerable; seeking out an AoM priest, she decides to get baptised as "Cassandra". Further, Mark and Sharon have a big argument about how to deal with it all; Mark thinks there's merit in Catariel's plan, Sharon suggests that it's all hopeless now. In the process, Mark finally brings himself to confess that he loves Sharon; the demon reciprocates, and Mark lets himself fall backwards onto the ground, slumping from the fighter's posture as relief washes over him. Then, things go wrong; when he opens his eyes, he sees Sharon with a drawn knife over him, tears in her eyes and saying she that she's sorry - until she vanishes in a flash of light and Catariel comes running, saying that he has imprisoned her in another dimension. Mark, totally torn between what he should feel, takes off. Catariel discusses the incident with Cassandra, but she merely suggests that no matter what the incident was about, Sharon is and will always be their teammate. Catariel questions how anyone can be the friend of a demon.

Mark, meanwhile, drops into a coma and relives the childhood event that set his father against him; at 12, a hunting trip goes horribly wrong. Mark, now watching from outside his body, can see that he is in danger of dying - and just then, a demon appears, and his father draws a sword. Suddenly, things fall into place - his father had intended for Mark to become a Paladin all along. The demon agrees to heal Mark if he can reside passively in his body; Thomas grudgingly accepts. In seeing this, Mark can for the first time feel the presence in himself, and wakes up with his powers unlocked another step.

In the morning, Mark and Catariel attempt the ritual that will take all of their power to complete. Catariel whisks Mark away to a different realm so that his mind will not be damaged by the power channeling; however, it also enables Mark to hear Sharon's voice in his head. She tells him that she's sorry, that she's killed many Paladins over the years, and that he was the first one who she thought might be capable of actually saving the world, rather than postponing the Apocalypse. Mark realizes that the last battle must be fought at some point, and that too many sacrifices have been made in the name of "peace". Furious, he uses his power to break out into the real world and breaks the seal, beginning the Apocalypse.

In the ensuing battle, Mark steadily grows in power, intuitively slaughtering demons left and right. Others are less lucky: Cassandra is killed by a group of angels, and the entire AoM unit is wiped out within minutes. Having broken Catariel's concentration, Mark manages to release Sharon. Hurrying over to her, the two briefly reunite before Catariel shows up again, wounded but nowhere near finished. He accuses Mark of collaborating with the enemy, but Mark realizes that Catariel actually intends to destroy the world to "purify" it. The angel attacks, and Mark easily impales him on his sword - but Catariel's strike mortally wounds the already weakened Sharon. As she sinks to the ground dying, she tells Mark that it's all no use and that the world is doomed. With Sharon dead, Mark grows angry enough to fully contact the demon inside him - Lucifer. He convinces the fallen angel to unleash his full power, and the two unite into a single being, the Lightbringer.

Using the full power of their union, the Lightbringer easily dispatches both demons and angels until only Moloch remains. With the power fully released, Lucifer manages to physically seperate from Mark, and thanks him for letting the angel feel a bit of redemption. Reality begins to warp and dissolve around them, but at the last moment, Lucifer uses his power to transfer the three of them outside time. Mark uses the opportunity to demand an audience with the powers of Heaven and Hell, which is granted. There is disagreement over who won the war, what with all angels and demons destroyed, but Mark argues that Lucifer, Moloch and him belong to a third fraction - that of the humans. Metatron, who speaks for Heaven finds this ridiculous, as they are only three, but Mark points out that he was fighting at the side of the Army of Mortals, who are the sworn defenders of "mankind". Metatron is flustered, while the presence of Hell - manifested in Moloch - finds the logic sound and worthy. As the winners of the Apocalypse, it falls to Mark to determine what the new world will look like - but Mark wants only a second chance. With his request granted, he bids Lucifer farewell and finds himself back at his apartment, before the fateful warehouse job. His memories of the alternate future are locked away in his mind, so it merely feels like a slight case of confusion. Before he walks out to do the job, however, Mark reconsiders and grabs another gun - just in case.

Ramifications

With the shift of Mark to an alternate universe, most of the events depicted in this story are only of minor consequence to current storylines. The only direct result is the strain on Mark's mind as he finds himself in a world different from his own reality, with a "wrong" set of memories - most of which are not even useful, but fragmentary and frighteningly out of context. Perhaps most horrifying is the process of getting where he used to be - rebuilding his friendships and personality. At times, it seems Mark is only hurting himself by running into a wall - he recalls the experience of being truly, unconditionally in love with Sharon, and of having made peace with his past, but he is unable to recreate the situations that led to this state. His acceptance of this situation stems mostly from resignation; Mark finds that, paradoxically, things go best when he decides in ways that are unfavourable to him. Perhaps, he figures, the right measure of self-sacrifice will enable him to have his cake and eat it, too - even if he has to drag himself kicking and screaming into that direction.

But aside from this big issue, the break between the universes doesn't seem to be as complete as expected...at the very least, some events and names echo the last iteration. Just how this came about, nobody knows - but there are some theories.

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