Submitted Date 02/29/2020

Coltr watched as Ethin and Damiron drove off in the transport towards the Temple of the Creator. When the vehicle was out of sight he turned towards his Shadow Hunters. Each man was a behemoth. The shortest among them stood four cubits while Coltr stood at a full five cubits tall. All of them twice as strong as a normal Arnorian. Now, with the Serpent Guardian serum running through their blood and enhancing their bodies, each of them would be ten times as strong as they were before. He only hoped it and the increased speed would be enough to slow down the horde of beasts heading their way. If he was right, the Arkon would send half his Serpent Guardians after them to obtain the relic and the key to its power. That was at least 800; possibly more. A hundred for each of them. Simple.
He looked at each of his men in the eye. Those yellow, snake-like eyes. A sure sign that the serum was working in their system. He could feel the strength surging through him. There was something else. Someplace deep in the back of his mind, there was something stirring. Something dark. Something that wanted control. The Arkon's will. His consciousness. Everyone who took the serum would fall to his will and be fully under his power. But it took time. At least a full rotation. They had time yet before they would succumb – not that any of them would allow each other to. They probably wouldn't even survive long enough. But that was the way they had planned it. This was a one-way trip for them.
They stood there in battle formation awaiting his orders. Each man ready to sacrifice for the Creator and for their Commander. He'd served with these men for a century now and had been leading them for half that time. He looked at his men. Eranus, Tialan, Baalig, Khabale, Kholon, Amach, and Brarcan. Each one a great Shadow Hunter. Each one descended from a line of Shadow Hunters going back over 500 revolutions around the great light. Each of them swore an oath to protect the Arkon of Arnor and to serve at his pleasure. Each of them trained for a century to be the elite forces of Arnor. Each of them now touched by the Creator and seen as traitors to their people and their world. One last glorious battle for The Creator, for Ethin, for Tribute Damiron, and for all Arnorians.
The men raised their heads and sniffed the gentle breeze blowing. He could sense it too. The enemy was close – very close. They had little time to prepare.
"This is it, men. Our last and most important mission. No matter what happens to us our Creator has assured us we shall all rejoice with Him in the After Time. We have nothing to fear and therefore we shall not fail! None of us can survive this battle. If we do we will fall under the control of the Arkon and Ethin and Damiron will fail in their mission. Fight until you cannot fight anymore. Fight until you are dead! Tonight we are a sacrifice for our Creator and for Arnor. Take your positions and forget not that you are Shadow Hunters! Honor and Courage"
The men responded in unison, "Honor and Courage!" and headed off into the woods to prepare their ambush.
Coltr watched the beasts from his position on the hillside. There must have been at least a hundred of them down there in the valley. Most of them were at least 5 to 5.5 cubits tall and covered in green scales. From the rear, a 2 cubit long tail trailed. Their eyes were bright yellow and perfectly suited for seeing in the darkest night. From their mouth, a forked tongue continually sampled the air around them seeking any sign of their prey. From head to toe, they looked like a creature from his darkest nightmare. And they were fast. By his estimates, they covered a good 25 staviks in the arn that had passed. The transport was probably only 6 to 7 staviks ahead. They'd be on Ethin and Damiron in no time. He and his men had to stop them here or at the very least delay them as long as possible. That wouldn't be easy. He could already sense the will of the Arkon calling to him and some part of him wanted to answer. Some part of him wanted to join those abominations in their hunt. It's now or never.
He tapped the com-unit on his wrist pad and sent the signal to his men.
In that very instant, the entire company of Serpent Guardians looked at each of his men's positions. So they can sense EM radiation. Too late now. My men are already on you. Within the first fifteen seconds, three dozen of the Serpent Guardians were dead. Each one with a massive plasma burn to their center mass. If his men were good at anything it was long-distance marksmanship. The element of surprise was over and the Arkon's creatures were quickly and stealthily making their way to his and his men's positions. Time for phase 2. He sent another signal.
The beasts crossed the one stavik distance between them and his men quicker than he thought. He watched as explosions lit up the hills surrounding the valley below. He squinted his eyes closed and shielded himself from the intense light and heat of the merculite anti-personnel mines. Anything within 65 cubits is instantly vaporized. Up to 130 is extra crispy. After that, there are no promises. He watched the remaining serpents scrambling for cover. There were approximately forty left. 5 to 1 odds. It's the best we're going to get. Time to move in. He tapped his com-unit and sent out the last command.
The adrenaline coursed through his veins as he rushed down the hill. The serum was changing him quicker than he thought. Sights, sounds, smells were all increased a hundredfold. He could even sense slight changes in air temperature and pressure. Never had he felt so strong and alert. While the serum was making him a stronger and faster soldier, it was also changing his appearance. His skin was beginning to peel. Underneath he saw dark green scales. He was becoming a Serpent Guardian. He could sense the pull of another consciousness in his mind. It was growing stronger. The Arkon. The man he swore to protect with his very life and had now betrayed. Soon, he'd have no choice but to obey. He would be the Arkon's slave and do as he was commanded. Soon he would have no will. He needed to finish this now before it was too late; before they lost themselves.
In the distance near the bottom of the valley, he saw the beasts gathering together and moving towards one of his charging Shadow Hunters. Within seconds they closed the 300 cubits distance and were upon him. Kholon didn't stand a chance. They tore into him like a pack of dire wolves. He managed to pick off one of the creatures while they were charging and Kholon also managed to take one down. They split up again, each group heading to one of his men. They're going to pick us off one at a time. We have to regroup. Quickly he tapped his com-unit and sent another signal.
He continued down the hill into the valley below. His heart was barely beating and his breathing was as steady as if he were on a leisurely walk. He wasn't even perspiring. He could see why so many were drawn to give up their will and become Serpent Guardians. The feeling was intoxicating and the power was exhilarating. Concentrate and focus! You have a job to do! His men had received the signal. They were all moving towards Brarcan. They'd stand a better chance together. He looked to his left. The two groups of Serpents had maintained their original targets and maneuvered to head them off before they reached the rally point. Tialan and Baalig were set upon just as he got a signal off to them. They were able to take down four more of the beast before they were stripped of their flesh. Their screams sent chills up his spine and doubts through his mind. Three of my men gone in no time. We can't win this way. We need to out-think them.
Eranus, Khabale, Brarcan, and Amach arrived at the rally point just as he did. None of the men were breathing heavy and they all had the same peeling skin revealing scales beneath. The Serpents were close and would be upon them in moments.
"We can't win and survive. There are too many of them and they are too strong. We knew this was a suicide mission so it's time we did something drastic."
Brarcan spoke, "What do you need from us, Sir? The Creator assured us we would see the After Time. We're not afraid to die to serve Him. We are with you. Honor and Courage!"
He looked at each of his men, the bravest men he had ever served with! If only they had more time and more men, but they didn't. They must succeed. "Leave me your packs with the leftover merculite mines."
Each one dropped their packs at his feet and looked at him for continued instructions. The beasts were almost on top of them. No time for goodbyes. It's now or never. "Charge them and take as many of them out as you can and give me time to detonate these mines. I'm going to incinerate the whole valley. Let's see how they like a 3,000 therms wave of destruction." They each looked him in the eye, nodded and then ran to intercept the charging beasts with plasma rifles set to full auto. No words were necessary - Honor and Courage my friends. At least ten Serpents fell immediately before they were overtaken by the beasts and de-fleshed.
It was almost enough. The beasts were upon him and he felt their claws ripping the flesh from his body. Fangs sunk deep into his muscles and tore it from his bones. The pain was short-lived. There was so much damage that he no longer felt the pain. Nerves were destroyed and the few that were left were flooded with adrenaline. He reached for his keypad to finish the sequence and ignite the mines. Where's the pad? He looked with the one eye he had left. His arm wasn't there. One of the beasts had torn it from its socket. It lay, twitching about half a cubit away. He moved his other arm - Thankfully it was still attached - and grabbed his mangled appendage. He tapped in the sequence. And waited. I hope it's enough. His eyes closed and peace fell upon him.

Per Aspera Ad Astra - Brian L. Knack


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