Submitted Date 02/29/2020

The Serpent Guardians were almost upon them. They didn't stand a chance against them. Even the squad of Shadow Hunters they brought along for protection would quickly fall to the savagery of those biological abominations. They could move day and night and never grow tired. They would almost certainly overtake them in a day if pushed by the Arkon. With what they discovered and what they were carrying with them, he was almost assuredly pushing those accursed creatures to their utmost limits.
He looked at the readout – ten more staviks before they reached the hidden temple. The beasts would overrun their position long before then. He looked over at the ancient face of his close friend and mentor sitting next to him. This man had lived for 400 revolutions about the great light and had served the Dominion as the Arkon's Chief Tribute for half that time. Now he was betraying the oath he took to protect the Dominion and the Arkon, and yet he was at peace. There was a stillness about his countenance that he had never seen before. Something has changed in his old teacher just as it has changed in him. They had both been touched by the Creator. The mission they were on was given to them by him.
"Damiron", he said looking at the warrior-priest beside him. "We're not going to make it. They'll be on top of us before we reach the temple."
Damiron's weathered brow furrowed at his pupil's faithless statement. A deep, frustrated sigh escaped his pursed lips. His dark brown skin was cracked and wrinkled from the centuries of life he has spent under the great light. His head and face were adorned with white hair that added a drastic contrast to his complexion. It was braided and decorated with beads representing his many years and positions of service to the Dominion. Peace and stillness engulfed him as a serpent devours its prey. His friend of over 200 revolutions about the great light was no longer the same man he had known. Though he was much older than he, Damiron somehow looked so much younger than before. The life of the Creator flowed through him now.
Damiron looked over at him. His eyes were full of light like never before as if some great energy was filling him. "Ethin, do not grow weary and faint." His voice was full of confidence and reassurance. "The Creator is with us and this usurper will not prevail. I have been shown what is to come and we will succeed in our mission. Your men must stay here and slow down the Serpent Guardians. They will give us the time we need to reach the temple. You will stay with me to aid me in this task and as protection."
"My Shadow Hunters are no match for those beasts! They are great warriors but those creatures are infused with dark magic and corrupted science. They'll never survive long enough to do us any good."
Damiron lowered his head. "I know Ethin. But their sacrifice will allow us to keep what we have discovered safe and hidden from the Arkon's grasp. You must inject them with the Serpent serum. Before they succumb to the will of the Arkon they will have grown strong and fast enough to sufficiently slow those beasts down so that we may complete our mission. I know that they will not survive the encounter but with their training and the power of those creatures, they will give us the time we need and will pass as heroes and martyrs in service to The Creator. He will remember them in the After Time."
Ethin's eyes grew wide with unbelief and disgust as he listened to Damiron describe the sacrifice he was asking of his men. "I cannot do that Master Damiron. With all due respect, these are my men. I have lived with them, trained them and lead them into great battles. I have asked them to do many things that risked their lives, but this risks their very soul – their place in the After Time. I cannot ask this of them. There must be another way."
Damiron closed his eyes and sighed. "Then we have already lost and the Arkon has won. He will have the power he needs to control all this world and the vast worlds out there that the Creator has for us. If we do not stop him now there will be no future for mankind. The Creator will not allow such evil and corruption to survive and continue through time. He will wipe this world clean. Arnor will be no more and all we are and have become will be lost to eternity."
In front of the transport, Ethin saw his squad of Shadow Hunters. The eight of them climbed down from the back of the vehicle and were standing there. They were all wearing their Shadow Armor and carrying the newly developed Enhanced Plasma Rifles. None of them had their helmets on and to his horror, Ethin realized why – their eyes were all glowing a deep yellow. They had no need for night vision helmets. They had their own now.
Ethin jumped down from the transport and ran to his men. He grabbed his second in command on the shoulders and looked into his mutating yellow eyes. "Coltr! For the love of Creator please tell me you didn't take the serum!"
Coltr looked at his Commander and his friend with the yellow, snake-like eyes of a Serpent Guardian. The behemoth of a man looked at his squad and then back at Ethin, "We all did sir. We knew that we'd not be able to outrun those creatures. We injected ourselves before we left the city, my lord. It was the only way that you and Tribute Damiron would be able to complete the mission given to you by the Creator."
Coltr looked him deep in his eyes and placed his hand on his shoulders. He had confidence and assurance he had never seen in his squad leader. Those yellow serpent eyes seemed almost Arnorian. "The Creator came to us while we were preparing for this mission, my lord. He walked among us and spoke to us as I speak to you now. He assured us that no matter what we chose to do that our place in the After Time was assured and that we had nothing to fear. We discussed it amongst ourselves and unanimously decided to take the serum. Now you must go. Protect Tribute Damiron and complete this mission. Do not let our deaths be in vain."
Ethin took Coltr's hand and pulled the giant of a man into his chest. "Honor and Courage my brother and my friend."
Coltr embraced his Commander and repeated the Shadow Hunter motto back to him. "Honor and Courage. We will make you proud, my lord. With the will of the Creator on our side perhaps we will be able to free many of these cursed creatures from this realm and help them into the After Time. Go now and complete your mission."

Per Aspera Ad Astra - Brian L. Knack


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