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“Excuse me?” Marideen asked.

The darkly robed man glanced behind Darian and frowned. He almost seemed surprised to see that there were other people around other than Darian. An annoyed look quickly past over his eyes, but he masked it quickly. If she wasn’t looking for it, she might not have seen it, as the rest of his facial features unchanging as if they were frozen.

“I am the Immortal, as I stated,” the man replied, his voice seemed a bit condescending to her ears, “And who might you be?”

“Marideen, Marideen Cleefe,” Marideen stated.

“Charmed,” the man responded, there was not a single bit of recognition in his eyes.

Marideen almost felt disappointed at that, although she realized that having revealed her name was a foolish mistake. The oddity of this was not lost on her though. Who in the Taerren colonies had never heard of the Butcher of Braun? She introduced each of the men in turn, although the strange man seemed to disregard each of them, only focusing when she mentioned Darian’s name.

She tried to get a feeling for where the man came from. The accent in his voice was unlike anything he had ever heard before in the colonies. It was gruff, aged and haughty, with slowly drawn-out vowels and awkward pauses. His appearance was the same. He had some Sudmarian look in him, a little Usar and a little bit of Taerren as well.

“Your name can’t possibly be the Immortal,” Darian responded after a moment, “What’s your real name.”

The man turned back to Darian, his grin growing just slightly, “Oh me? I’ve gone by many many names. Too many to count. Most of them are no longer applicable, no longer correct, not pronounceable, or unimportant. The most accurate name that you could ever call me is the Immortal.”

“Accurate?” Maximil piped in, “Immortal is accurate?”

That flash of annoyance appeared in the man’s eyes again as he turned away from Darian, “Yes, it is accurate.”

Maximil raised his hands as if he was conceding the point. The Immortal turned back to Darian.

“We have much to discuss Champion, and it is becoming quite chilly out here for my old bones,” the darkly robed man declared, turning his back and moving towards the landing dock, apparently expecting them to follow.

Darian glanced over at Marideen, mouthing the words Champion. She shrugged. The name certainly meant nothing to her. Marideen then noticed that Darian was standing there looking at her. She made a forward motion gesture. He nodded then began to follow the Immortal. He wants to follow orders now? She shook her head as she looked at Darian’s back. The man was certainly confusing.

As the group assembled on the platform under the ship, it began to move upward with a twisting motion. The platform turned and rose slowly. The strange man walked around, looking at each of the newcomers. Marideen noticed that he seemed to be walking with a bit of a limp. She didn’t think he had been limping before when they were outside.

“We’re out of supplies,” Marideen spoke up to fill the silence, “Food and water, could you help?”

“Food?” The Immortal glanced at her with a strange expression, as if he had never heard of food before, “Yes, I suppose I can come up with something to eat.”

The man smacked his lips awkwardly as if trying to simulate the concept of eating. After a moment he turned away, seeming to have forgotten the group of them completely.

“Excuse me, Immortal?” Berret inquired, “Can you perhaps tell us where you found this ship?”

Marideen perked her ears. In all of the shock of seeing the old man, she had almost forgotten where she was standing. It was a Wraith captured Iridian ship. Some would call that a miraculous piece of history. Others would call it a nightmare made into a reality.

The old man glanced back, almost seeming surprised to be spoken to, “Oh this? I stole it.”

“From who?” Berret asked incredulously.

“Some creature,” the Immortal answered dismissively, “I think you call them Wraiths.”

Maximil exclaimed, “Taking a Wraith ship, its impossible!” at the same time Berret said, “Are there Wraiths here?”

The Immortal looked back and forth at the two men, then the worried faced of everyone else, before answering, “Wraiths are just child’s play, children of the darkness. They are easy to manipulate, even easier to trick. “

“Seriously…”

The Immortal noticed Berret’s pained expression and continued, “Relax, I have not seen a Wraith in many years, as far as I’m aware, there are none anywhere in any of your gated colonies.”

Berret seemed to let out an audible breath as the platform finally clicked, opening a door into the rest of the ship. The current area they were in was just a cylinder receiving area with darkened walls. The man walked out the door, not pausing to see if anyone followed him.

“Where did you last see the Wraiths?” Marideen asked as she caught up with him.

The Immortal shrugged, “Rubius, it’s some abandoned colony I think.”

Marideen froze. She had recognized that name from her childhood lessons. There were six colonies that were abandoned at the end of the Great War. While their locations were unknown, their names were not. Rubius was one of those worlds.

“You traveled near light speed to get here? You’re a star chaser?”Marideen asked suddenly, taking a few quick steps to follow him again.

“I suppose you could say that.” The Immortal shrugged.

“So, that’s why you’re immortal, traveled near light speed a lot?”

The Immortal snorted and then glanced back at her, a bemused look on his face, “We’re here. Now is the time for the answers you need to hear, not the answers you want to hear.”

A door opened and Marideen glanced around. She had focused on the man and his answers too much and had not been aware of her environment. The inside of the Iridian ship was surprisingly unimpressive. It wasn’t much different from a Taerren ship; she was honestly a little disappointed.

They entered a medium-sized room that looked similar to a cargo room. The man moved over to a chair nearby and sat down, sighing as he did so. He motioned them to come over to them, and Darian gladly moved forward, sitting down on the floor in front of him like a young child ready to hear a story.

Marideen didn’t see any other chairs nearby, and after biting her lip, sat down next to Darian. The others joined them shortly after.  The Immortal looked down at Darian, and a smile broke out on his face once again. It still didn’t seem to quite touch his eyes as it should. His face still seemed weird to her. Something wasn’t right about it. All of his features felt stiff, as if he wasn’t used to using his own face.

“So, where do I begin?” The Immortal glanced around as if looking for something he might have forgotten, “You’d think after so many times I’ve done this, I’d have a better speech prepared.”

“Just who are you?” Darian asked.

“Yes, I suppose we can start with that,” The man chucked, “A long time ago, there was a race of old and powerful beings, much like your Iridians. They lived at the end of a large and powerful universe, which was steadily coming to an end. Over the course of several billion years, they had spread towards a large portion of the known universe. They had bridged galaxies, cured disease, and figured out most of the laws and rules that governed what is.”

Darian frowned. He clearly was not following what this had to do with anything. Marideen had to agree. He was talking about some alien race that she had never heard of. How would some fairy tale answer anything?

“You knew the Iridians?” Marideen asked, “That’s where this ship came from, isn’t it?”

The Immortal’s face twisted with annoyance, “Iridians? You think this is Iridian?”

He looked around for a moment before his face went slack. He nodded a bit as if thinking to himself.

“I suppose you do call those people Iridians, don’t you?” the Immortal sighed, shaking his head.

“But what does this race have to do with you?” Darian eagerly asked, seeming engrossed in the story.

“The universe was ending. They knew it was ending. They didn’t want to die. They didn’t want to see their entire culture and society destroyed. As a result, they started a project. They wanted to create something that would survive the end of the universe. They wanted to put someone into stasis, past the end of the universe. It was their final hope to live on.”

“If the universe ends, it ends,” Maximil replied questioningly, “There is nothing after that. How could this have been a long time ago if it starts with the end of the universe?”

The Immortal was already shaking his head, as if dealing with toddlers, “No, the universe is much more complex than that. It isn’t linear. It’s cyclic. It expands, retracts, and then expands again. The time of its cycle is so vast relative to our perceptions that few can even contemplate it, but believe me when I say the universe has ended before and will end again.”

His proclamation was met with silence. There were a lot of theories about the universe. Marideen’s studies never focused on this particular kind of thing. The Immortal could be right for all she knew.

When he realized no one was going to interrupt him, the strange man continued, “I was eventually chosen for that project. I was prepared, placed into a stasis bubble, and left to wait for the end. Much like you Darian, forced to wait for the right time to emerge.”

What was that supposed to mean? Darian was in a stasis bubble? What was a stasis bubble? Darian seemed to nod as if understanding what he was talking about.

“Exactly how old are you?” Darian asked intently.

The man smirked a bit at the question, “There were some side effects to surviving the end of the universe. I was supposed to survive. Then leave records of our existence for the next universe to have. When future species arrived, they could find our archives, benefit from our knowledge, and perhaps even clone our race back into existence. Then I would die. That was the plan. But when a race finally unearthed me and I sheparded them and taught them everything I knew… they eventually wiped themselves out.”

“How did they do that?” Berret asked.

He shrugged. “War? Disease? I can’t seem to remember anymore. While their empire crumbled, I didn’t die. I kept living, stuck on some random planet in the decayed ruins of a dead civilization. I even tried to take my life after a few billion years of isolation. It didn’t work. I just kept living.”

“How old?” Darian leaned forward, repeating his initial question.

“This would be the fifth universe that I have lived through, not including my own. There is not a number that exists to describe that. Forever wouldn’t even be an appropriate description. “

Darian leaned back, a look of shock on his face.

“Lord and Lady,” Berret muttered, shaking his head in disbelief.

“How?” Marideen could help herself from asking.

“I had no choice. I go wherever the universe takes me. Sometimes I float aimlessly through space for a billion years, sometimes I burn inside a star, exploding and being crushed simultaneously. The pain has lost all meaning to me by now. When my body is destroyed, my consciousness somehow survives and I can move around until I can safely reconstitute a body. When I find life, I stay with it, assimilating into the culture. It never lasts though. Every culture eventually fails. None ever matched the greatness of my own. They all eventually destroy themselves. That is the way of things.”

Marideen shook her head to herself. This was hard to swallow. The man had to be insane. Then again, she had thought Darian was insane too. The men spoke about things they had both gone through. This stasis bubble? Was it the source of insanity?

“Alright,” Darian responded, “Why are you here, and what is this Champion thing?”

The man seemed to brighten up, no longer looking inward, “A pattern I began to notice two universes ago. I had learned about the Champions of Light after managing to find one of the Dark minions. The universe is in danger, it will be destroyed soon.”

“When?” Maximil asked, also becoming interested in the insane man’s ramblings.

The Immortal shrugged, “The point of no return is coming soon. Might be tomorrow. Might be in a million years. However, if we don’t do something about it now, the universe will end in a few billion years.”

Maximil burst out laughing, and the Immortal glared at him, a haughty expression on his face.

“A million years? I think we have more important things to worry about right now.” Maximil wiped a tear from his eye.

The Immortal shook his head sadly, “I suppose some can have the luxury of not thinking about the future, but for someone like me, that is not very long to wait at all.”

“I’m still confused,” Darian interrupted, “What point of no return, what end of the universe?”

The Immortal grinned again, standing up suddenly, “I have just the right thing to show you this!”

He moved to one of the crates, opening it and shoving his hands inside. As he rummaged through the box full to the brim with various unidentifiable objects, Darian glanced over at Marideen with a questioning look. She gave him another shrug. She mouthed the words “crazy” and he nodded before the Immortal turned back to them.

“Right here, here it is,” he declared, pulling a ball up in front of them, “This is the universe.”

Darian shrugged and the Immortal smoothed his face from another twist of annoyance.

“Look,” The Immortal explained, putting his finger at the very top of the ball, “This point right here is the equivalent to a north pole. It’s the center of the universe. It’s the point the great expansion began. You know the great expansion, don’t you?”

Darian nodded, “Yes, I’ve heard of that. Although I think we called it the big bang.”

Marideen frowned. She had heard of the great expansion but had never heard of the big bang before. Was this a hint into who Darian was? She was becoming increasingly convinced he was not Taerran. What colony referred to it as the big bang? Maybe the Malinders or the Delphie?

The Immortal nodded, “People always want to see the universe as a 3D structure, like some perpetual explosion, but that is not the case. The universe is elliptical. The expansions and contractions are not inexplicable explosions, they are cycles.”

He moved his fingers down the ball, spreading them out along the edges, “The universe expands, continues to expand until it reaches its apex, then begins to contract.

The Immortal took his other hand, continuing the line his fingers took until they met at a point on the south pole of the ball, “Everything you see is the universe, but what it wrong with this image?”

Marideen shook her head, this was gibberish. She glanced over at Darian and was surprised to see him focusing intently.

“If the surface of the ball constitutes the entire universe, then what’s on the inside of the ball?” Darian asked after a moment.

The Immortal snapped his fingers, “Exactly. The ball is filled with something. But that something is not the universe. Tell me, what do you see on the inside of this ball?”

“Nothing, you can’t see anything,” Marideen responded, a little annoyed at the question and answers.

“Darkness,” Darian cut in.

The Immortal smiled, “You can see it. You can always see it. Every night, just look out into the stars and you can see the darkness. That’s what is outside the universe, the darkness.”

Marideen had enough, “What does this have to do with anything?”

The Immortal glanced over at her, then dismissed her with a look, turning back to Darian, “Every universe is smaller than the last. That is the secret I’ve noticed. Time and space are the same, less universe, it’s around for a shorter period of time. Every universe, this ball is smaller. Every universe, the darkness is dragging the universe into itself.”

“You say that like the darkness is a thing,” Beiromon responded, “It is just the absence of light.”

The Immortal shrugged, “If you’d like to believe that, you are welcome to, but I have found the darkness has a willingness of its own. It is growing. It hungers.”

“For what?” Darian asked.

“Life. Or rather the destruction and annihilation of life.”

“What is its plan?” Darian asked.

“It wants to stop time. The moment that space passes the…- em… to go with planetary analogies, equator, the universe goes from expanding to collapsing. It wants to cause the universe to stall at that point. Then wait until the universe lives itself to death.”

“Wait,” Darian inferred, “So you’re saying that the universe is this ball. That it expands away and then collides into itself in a different point?”

“Evidence we have seen suggest the universe is moving faster, breaking apart more quickly,” Beiromon added.

The Immortal looked at both men before waving his hand dismissively, “Of course it is moving faster. There is more space. When you have more space, you have more time.”

Beiromon went to say more, then shook his head in confusion.

“I’m having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around this,” Darian began.

The Immortal sighed, “I’m not here to talk to you about the ideas of astrophysics. I’m here to get you to help me. You are a Champion of Light, and you’re the only person I know who has the capacity to stop the darkness.”

“What is a Champion of Light?” Beiromon asked, happy to change subjects.

“An anomaly,” The Immortal waved his hand again, “The universe creates men, or wills them into existence, or simply acknowledges them. At some point in their lives, they do something that ultimately increases the amount of life in the universe. They act as a direct counter to the darkness.”

“How so?” Darian asked.

The Immortal shrugged, “Various ways. Some negotiate peace treaties that end wars, others discover cures for severe diseases, some discover means of feeding the population. They can be scientists, warriors, negotiators, or anything in between. When a Champion of Light is generated, whatever they do with their lives, they will be destined to counter the darkness. They increase the size of the universe, where the darkness and its minions try to shrink it and destroy it.”

“Minions?” Darian continued.

“Weak creatures such as wraiths, people desperate for power. The darkness can touch people in their dreams.”

Marideen noticed an odd look on Darian’s face, “And some people touch it, embrace it, listen to it?”

The Immortal’s eyebrows rose, “You’ve seen it.”

After a moment, Darian nodded. What was going on? Was this just another example of Darian’s odd insanity?

“I had a dream, a few nights ago. I was told that I would meet you. There was a man that spoke to me. He told me I had to travel through the desert, that I needed to talk to you.”

The Immortal seemed genuinely as surprised as Marideen, “I’m sorry, I don’t know anyone who could do that. This was not something I was prepared for. Is there anything else that has been happening that has appeared odd? There is, isn’t there?”

That wasn’t a question; Darian had a look on his face that the Immortal could see. Even Marideen could see he was holding something back. He glanced over at Beiromon of all people. Beiromon shrugged and Darian sighed.

“I was held in captivity for many years. I was part of some kind of experiment called Chronos. They did something to me. I don’t really know the specifics. It had something to do with black holes and bending space-time. However, afterward, I could see… things. I could see the future. It varies, and it’s a little wonky, but when I let my body move by intuition, I feel… I don’t know.” Darian closed his mouth.

He could see into the future? Marideen stared him up and down. He wasn’t joking. This was the truth. She quickly went through everything she had seen from him the last week. His random snap decisions, fighting with his eyes closed. Suddenly, numerous things about him started to make a lot more sense. It was completely ridiculous, yet it made sense.

The Immortal nodded, “I have not heard of anything like that happening to Champions. They are usually just normal people. They tend to be a little more convincing than most. People often feel inclined to follow them, to listen to their words. I’m not sure why this happens, perhaps people can unconsciously feel the universe banking on them, but they can be persuasive.”

 “I think I might have noticed that as well,” Darian answered wryly.

Marideen nodded in agreement before stopping herself. What exactly was she doing? She was believing the ramblings of a madman to explain the actions of another madman? This was ludicrous.

“What are we suppose to do to stop the darkness?” Darian asked.

“This is ridiculous,” Marideen growled, “The darkness is just the dark. It doesn’t plan. It doesn’t want. It just is. There are no minions of the dark, no boogie monsters.”

“How can you say that?” The Immortal responded, “When your own sister died at the hands of the darkness.”

Anger spiked through Marideen, “How dare you! You know nothing about my sister.”

“I know that a man killed her. I know that that man was not after her. He was a minion of the dark, and his desire was to kill the Champion of the Light.” The Immortal looked over to Darian.

What? Marideen was so flustered she couldn’t even consider how he knew anything about her when he previously hadn’t known her name. Marideen looked over at Darian. She looked directly into his eyes. They were those same hazel eyes.

Danelle stood between Demetry and the hazel-eyed boy. He was backing up without looking behind him. He slipped and fell to his butt. As he began crawling away, a look of terror formed on his face.

“Let Demetry have him!” Marideen shouted to Danelle.

Danelle looked back at her sister. Their eyes met for the briefest moment. A look of resolve came over her face. She leaped at Demetry with a knife in her hands.

Marideen cringed from the memory. It was him. It was the boy. How had she forgotten? Her chest was tight. She could not breathe. Why couldn’t she breathe? No, she was stronger than this. She had gotten past this.

Everyone looked at her with concern in their eyes except for the Immortal, who mostly just looked bored. There was guilt in Darian’s eyes. She had wondered why he kept looking at her with guilt. Now she knew why. Berret reach his one good hand towards her, she pulled away, standing up.

“I’m sorry, I have to go,” She declared, darting out of the room before anyone could move.

She ran down the cramped hallway, finding a side door and darting into it before falling to her knees. Tears were falling from her eyes now. She couldn’t stop it. The pain was back, almost the same as the day Danelle had died. The door behind her opened and Darian walked in. He crouched beside her.

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t even glance over at her. He just stood there waiting. She suddenly leaped at him, knocking him back onto the floor. However, she didn’t attack him at all. Rather, she began to cry, deep sobs coming from her throat. She couldn’t stop. The harsh reality finally descended on her, she wasn’t strong enough.

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