Chapter 1:

Justice & Mercy

Evil descended on Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Mongrels raided the peaceful region on iron chariots sowing destruction and reaping death. Their rattling guns sliced through the tribal people’s primitive resistance. Even the most renowned warriors of the Hamar Tribe were doomed against the invaders’ cruelty.

Countless warriors’ blood soaked the scorched dirt. Tanda’s husband, the tribe’s chieftain, Jabari, lay among them, rotting in a mass grave. Flies swarmed their corpses. Women were enslaved and forced to succumb to the foreign invaders’ repulsive perversions. Children were divided like spoils to become soldiers or slaves, contingent upon gender.

As shards of moonlight trickled through the hut’s walls, Tanda’s captor, Ekon, ascended to Jabari’s seat. Day and night the widow lay chained to her dead husband’s former seat. Every night Ekon forced her to endure his heinous cravings. After meeting with his followers, the leader would dismiss his men so he could indulge in his slave.

When they were alone, the warlord undressed, pressed a cup of spiced wine to his scarred face, and prepared to violate Tanda. White knuckles clung to her chains, bracing for fresh torture. Her mind drifted to halcyon days when Jabari’s warm arms wrapped around her on cold nights.

She felt Ekon’s hot, rancid breath puff against her neck. He dragged a rugged finger along her back. Tanda’s skin crawled at his vile touch. When his hand moved past her hips her body shuddered, anticipating agony.

That’s when a familiar, deafening clamor erupted outside the tent. Terrorized shouts sliced the tension, delaying Tanda’s exploitation. Purring gunfire stoked an ember of hope in Tanda’s soul when she realized the dismayed cries belonged to the invaders.

While the battle raged outside, the frantic warlord rushed to clothe himself for combat. However, before Ekon could reach his gear, an authoritative shout hollered from the hut’s opening.

“Stop!” A tall shadow commanded in the Arabic tongue.

Ekon whirled to face the stranger. “You dare give me orders? I’ll have you gutted for such insolence!”

“You won’t,” The stranger taunted. “You’ll never leave this hut.”

The commander snarled. However, before he could issue his scathing retort, another figure prowled into their midst. A four-legged beast entered, announcing its authority with a low, menacing growl.

Tanda looked to her captor. His jaw fell slack. Terror peeled his eyes wide. Ragged breaths trembled from his lungs. Every muscle quaked with raw fear.

The imprisoned woman admired the irony of her capture’s descent down the food chain. The predator has become the prey.

In two mighty bounds, the beast pounced. A blood-curdling shriek pierced Tanda’s ears followed by a gruesome cacophony of bone grinding against bone and joints being ripped from their sockets. A rasping gurgle emanated from Ekon as his body convulsed. Blood gushed from the warlord’s jugular until his legs ceased writhing once and for all.

Once the mauling ceased, the ferocious beast morphed into a gentle creature. A lion with a budding mane lay next to the battered woman, reassuring her of her safety. He licked the wounds on her legs and nuzzled his boxy head into her abdomen. Peace washed over Tanda in the lion’s presence.

While marveling at the young lion, the human stranger stepped into the light. Tanda’s savior was a young boy, barely 12 or 13 years old. He was tall and lanky like a baby giraffe. The young man had brown, doe eyes, wooly hair, buck teeth, and a kind aura.

He took keys from Ekon’s belongings and unshackled Tanda. The boy was gentle when removing the chains, mindful of the captive’s bruised wrists.

“Thank you,” Tanda spoke in Arabic. Tears welled in her eyes, grateful to see the end of her harrowing ordeal.

“You’re safe now,” the boy replied. “We’ve beaten the bad men.”

“Who are you? How did you find us?”

“My name is Agyei. We’ve been tracking these men for weeks until we found you.”

“We?” Tanda wondered aloud. “How many are you?”

Agyei took Tanda’s hand. “Come, I’ll show you.”

Tanda’s rescuer escorted the scourged woman from the hut that had been her torture chamber. She winced as firelight jarred eyes that had been imprisoned in darkness. The scent of smoke and blood wafted in the air, singing her nostrils.

As the trio emerged from the tent, Tanda was shocked. Before her stood a small army contrived of neighboring tribes and foreign warriors. There were fighters from the lip-platedMursi standing alongside the painted peoples of the Karo. Beautiful Daasanach women labored in the back, tending to the Hamar wounded.

There were foreign warriors, wielding modern weaponry. One of them was pale-skinned, unlike anyone Tanda had ever seen. Others were dressed like invading soldiers, though they fought alongside the tribe’s rescuers. Hundreds had liberated the Hamar.

A young girl with dark skin, hazel eyes, and a head of black curls came alongside Tanda. She escorted her to the Daasanach women so they could tend to her wounds. As the healers toiled, Tanda studied Agyei. Despite his age, the tribes looked to Agyei as the Hamar once looked to Jabari…as chieftain.

Two prisoners from the invaders were brought before Agyei. They were mere children themselves, a little younger than the teenage liberator. One was tall and broad-shouldered with crooked teeth and a flat nose. The smaller boy had sunken eyes, a slender jaw, and a cleft lip.

These are mere children, forced into a war they did not choose.

“What would you have us do with these two?” One of Agyei’s soldiers inquired.

Doe eyes leered at the prisoners, deliberating their fate. The lion prowled around the captives. Growls rumbled from his gut, but the lion made no move to harm the captives. The imprisoned duo shuddered and winced when the lion drew near.

“What are your names?” Agyei started.

“I am Hasan. He is Rashard,” the smaller boy answered.

“What would your commander do with me if I were in your place?” Agyei asked.

A tenuous pause lingered before Rashard replied. “He would give you the choice to join us or die.”

“You served a ruthless master who ruled by fear,” Agyei explained. “Here, we believe in a God who is merciful and kind, one who forgives our debts and cleanses us from sin. We do our best to rule as He commands.”

“W-what will you do with us?” Hasan stammered.

“Repent of your old lives,” Agyei instructed. “Call out to our ruler, King Jesus. Commit to following Him. Vow to walk from now on by your faith in Him and Him alone.”

Rashard’s cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “And if we don’t?”

“Judgement will come upon you on the last day,” Agyei cautioned.

“How do we declare for your king?” Hasan wondered. “Where is he?”

Agyei approached the prisoner, pressing his hand to Hasan’s chest. “He lives within those who believe. If you ask Him, He’ll make a home in your hearts as well. Pray for His forgiveness and He will provide.”

“The things I’ve done haunt me,” Hasan admitted, tears welling in his brown eyes. “If your King Jesus can wipe their stain from my soul, then I am His.”

“I was once like you,” Agyei empathized. “I’ve done terrible things, but there is no sin King Jesus cannot overcome…no scar He cannot heal.”

Hasan lowered his head in subservient prayer. Other members of the army bowed in reverence to their deity. It was unlike anything Tanda had ever witnessed.

Rashard, however, was less compliant. “If I refuse your God, will you kill me?”

Agyei studied Rashard for a moment. “Soon you’ll see our verdict.”

Turning, Agyei addressed the gathering. “Hasan is our brother now!” He declared, extending his arm towards the cleft-lipped boy. “His past is gone! King Jesus has made him a new creation! You will love him, protect him, guide him, tend his wounds, and feed him. You will do him no harm and will offer forgiveness.”

Tanda watched Rashard’s body language shift. His shoulders tensed, awaiting condemnation from the people whose faith he refused. Many tribes killed those who rejected conversion. She expected this group wouldn’t be different.

“This is Rashard,” Agyei continued, outstretching an arm toward the taller boy. “If he chooses to stay, you will love him, protect him, guide him, care for his wounds, and feed him. You will do him no harm and will offer forgiveness. If he chooses to leave, we will give him food for his journey and pray for his safety.”

Anxious onlookers peered at Rashard, awaiting his decision. The boy’s perplexed eyes darted about. Such kindness was alien to him.

“May I stay?” Rashard uttered.

Agyei put a reassuring hand on Rashard’s shoulder. “Darkness is coming. Stay with us and you won’t face it alone.”

Chapter 2:

The Crescent King’s Ascent


The Saudi King’s hands quaked. Fear’s chill stymied his breath as he witnessed the ravenous mob marching toward his extravagant palace in Riyadh. Despite the palace’s military reinforcements, dread’s icy grip constricted Yasin Saud’s throat.

Traitors prowled across Saudi Arabia. A year of tension between the crown and its people ignited violent protests. The monarch stood accused of abandoning his countrymen, kowtowing to the West while reaping opulent rewards.

A year earlier, Saudi aircraft attacked a stronghold held by the Roman Catholic Coalition’s mercenary army, Darkwater, in Gondar, Ethiopia. Turncoats within the Saudi military executed an unauthorized strike, crippling the RCC installation. Their treason earned veneration from furious Muslims, seeking retribution for Pope Victor’s egregious war crimes.

The pilots were loyal to the enigmatic Crescent King, a vile heretic bent on the destruction of all creeds unlike his own. Those who participated in the devastation committed suicide, taking their leader’s secrets to the grave. Still, they accomplished their purpose, plunging Yasin’s regime into bedlam.

Backlash engulfed Yasin, forcing him to atone to Western allies for the sins of his countrymen. Such political maneuvering further alienated himself from a Saudi population growing more enamored with the galvanizing Crescent King. France’s Jacque Mencini and America’s Benjamin Drummond demanded that Yasin allocate troops to the RCC’s cause to prove he harbored no allegiance to the Crescent King.

Threatening to siphon dependence on Saudi oil, Mencini and Drummond urged NATO to join their boycott. Foreseeing the economic mayhem that would befall his people, Yasin conceded. He contributed battalions to the RCC as atonement, driving a deeper wedge between the king and his subjects.

I did what I believed was best for my people, Yasin grieved. My foresight has reaped nothing but animosity.

Dejected, King Yasin’s helpless, russet eyes witnessed the horde descend upon his palace. Enraged Saudis rattled the palace’s gilded gates with white knuckles. Vengeful rocks were flung over the gate, splintering riot shields. Trembling soldiers fell into formation on the other side, readying to clash with the irate masses.

Yasin flinched when the throne room’s doors groaned open. Whirling, the king found his son, Khalil, marching across the threshold. Khalil’s guards flanked him as he greeted his father with a bow. Yasin’s throne room guards stood at attention for the prince.

“Father, the time has come to discuss solutions to this predicament. This mob has grown too unruly for the palace guards to restrain. We must consider exit strategies,” Khalil insisted.

Yasin’s youngest child was a more adept politician than his other five sons. Khalil was headstrong, devout, and cunning. Unlike his brothers, Khalil never indulged in the lavish lifestyle the Saud family’s wealth purchased. Despite being last in line for the throne, Khalil was best equipped to rule rather than his petulant siblings.

King Yasin shook his head of silver curls and waved a flippant hand. “I’ve endured protests before. No damage is irreparable. The crown can win back the people’s trust.”

Beady brown eyes narrowed above a hooked nose. Khalil’s slender jaw clenched beneath his jet beard. “Trust is what I’ve come to discuss.”

“How do you propose we quell this resistance?”

Khalil sighed, shifting his hands behind his back. “We cannot…but there is one who can.”

Furious heat rippled up Yasin’s neck. Flush skin shone red below his grey beard. Have I fallen so far that my own son has forsaken me? How could my own blood so callously discard me in my hour of greatest need?

“Not you too,” Yasin mourned as his dejected head dropped. “Don’t tell me that mongrel has enticed you with his perverse rhetoric.”

Khalil approached his father, shaking his head. “Listen to your people! They cry out for their true king, for a ruler willing to do what is necessary to defend Islam! They clamor for strength…an iron fist!”

“I’m leading us into a world where our people might prosper!” Yasin rebuked, shaking brazen fists. “I won’t deliver this country into the hands of those who would undo my life’s work! This Crescent King will destroy everything I’ve toiled to build!”

“Where is this fabled prosperity?” Khalil asked. “You’ve done nothing but enslave us to your masters in the West! Kings don’t negotiate! They don’t fight their enemies’ wars for them! They stand steadfast and annihilate all who oppose Allah!”

“What would you have me do?” Yasin bellowed, tossing exasperated arms at his son’s insolence.

“I would have you step aside! Renounce the throne so one who will rule as Allah commands can seize it!”

“What’s become of you, Khalil? You’re a brilliant man! How could this counterfeit king’s vile heresy have burrowed so deeply into your soul?” Yasin seethed.

“I’ve grown exhausted of your weakness!” Khalil lashed out. “The Crescent King has shown our people his strength! He’s unified Sunni and Shia so we might trample the infidels in Allah’s name!”

“He hides like a coward, afraid to reveal his face to his blind disciples!”

A menacing smirk crept across Khalil’s hawkish face. “I have seen his face…every day when I look in the mirror.”

Shock’s grip clamped Yasin’s throat. Horrified tremors surged from the king’s pounding heart. The blooming lump in his throat stifled his tongue. Recollections of a little boy playing in these very halls twisted knots into his stomach.

How could that innocent child grow into a monster that would inspire the murder of thousands?

Astonishment morphed into fury as Yasin glowered at his son’s conceited sneer. Pulsating veins bulged in his neck, pumping wrath through the Saudi King. Yet, the visages of a giggling child urged restraint and mercy.

“I can’t fathom what madness has afflicted your soul. Yet there is no disease that cannot be rehabilitated.” King Yasin turned to the two guardsmen at the arching, gilded doors. “Seize my son at once. Toss him in a cell until I can summon an Imam to exorcise the filth from his mind.”

To Yasin’s surprise, his guards remained rigid in silent insubordination. The hulking brutes’ eyes stared forward as if the command fell on deaf ears. Their audacity stoked the vengeful inferno swirling in King Yasin’s chest.

“I am your king! I pay your wages! I am in command here!” Yasin erupted.

Khalil scoffed at his father’s impotence. “A true king doesn’t purchase loyalty, nor must he remind his subjects where authority lies.”

Distressed eyes widened as Yasin realized who held the power in the throne room.

The prince sauntered closer. “I am merciful. Because you are the father of a king, I will grant you amnesty under one condition. Relinquish the throne to me and I will carve a place for you in my kingdom.”

Yasin hesitated. Ruminating on his reign’s successes, he foresaw the imminent demise of his proudest achievements. Under his rule, industry flourished, education rose to prominence, and affluence abounded. If he surrendered the country to Khalil, he’d usher in an era of radical fundamentalism, inviting war and strife in place of peace and prosperity.

“I won’t deliver my country for you to destroy!” Yasin avowed through gnashed teeth.

“Then I shall take it!” Khalil proclaimed.

A dagger flashed from behind Khalil’s back. Steel plunged into Yasin’s chest. Scarlet stained the royal white robe adorned with silver and gold embroidery. The king jaw fell slack as blood trickled from the corners of his lips. Trembling hands reached to caress Khalil’s face, envisioning the boy he once knew.

In his final moments, Yasin hoped a final embrace might quell his son’s depravity. However, with a lip upturned in disgust, Khalil slapped away his father’s doting hands. Devoid of hope tears rolled down Yasin’s cheeks.

King Yasin’s vision darkened at the edges. Yet, his gaze remained clear enough to capture the bloodlust flaring in Khalil’s dark eyes. A sadistic smile spread across Khalil’s face as death drug the only obstacle from his path to the throne.

I failed you, son. I’m sorry.

Khalil ripped the blade from his father’s chest. Yasin crumbled to the floor. As death’s poisoned kiss lingered on the former monarch’s lips, he watched as his son stepped over him and ascended to the throne. The Crescent King’s rule had begun.

Chapter 3:



An icy, maniacal glare was plastered across European televisions. A grotesque brand was carved into the pale forehead beneath a shaved hairline. Liam glowered at the circular sigil with three curved branches emanating from its circular epicenter. The terrorist was the vigilante’s fixation until another detail leaped off the screen.

The visage of small, trembling children with tears rolling down their cheeks made Liam’s vengeful heart pound. The Phantom’s brooding jaw stiffened in the commander center beneath Marcelo Darnezzi’s Piombino compound. Enraged hands balled into fists, yearning to unleash wrath upon Henrik Metzler and his deranged cult.

Henrik and his followers, ‘The Marked Ones’, had infiltrated St. Gertrude’s Orphanage in Berlin. With children and staff held hostage, the German police encircled the building. During negotiations, the cult’s devious leader made one demand.

“If the legendary Phantom doesn’t come to play in 24 hours, I will kill one person from the 25th hour on until he arrives.” Henrik’s snide voice goaded through grainy cell phone footage.

Liam paused the footage, examining Henrik’s sadistic smile cast against the backdrop of sobbing children cowering behind the cruel butcher. His sapphire glare sharpened. The Phantom’s clenched fist rapped against the table.

“You don’t have to do this.” Charles Moyne’s familiar voice emanated from Liam’s side. “Most of the world believes the Phantom to be nothing more than a myth. Perhaps it’s better that way.”

“It won’t be better for those children,” Liam snarled through gnashed teeth.

“The police won’t take kindly to your interference,” Charles cautioned.

“I don’t care.”

“Keep the bigger picture in mind,” Charles advised. “Announcing your existence to the world puts a bigger target on your back than there already is. Such exposure could jeopardize our endeavors with the Mencini’s and the Crescent King.”

“Whatever you do for the least of my flock, you do for me,” Liam rebuked, pointing toward the monitor. “Right now, those children are the least of His flock. He chose me to protect them, He gave me that authority. That’s the bigger picture.”

The ex-MI6 agent’s lips tightened. His hawkish hazel gaze studied Liam through his brow. “Very well.”

Hours later, the Phantom was perched atop a rooftop opposite St. Gertrude’s. Howling gales sent snowflakes careening across the night sky. On the street, moonlight was replaced by the police barricade’s swirling red and blue lights.

Heavy snowfall shrouded the vigilante’s descent beyond the orphanage’s gate. The Phantom crept to a side door and pounded thrice against the dense wood. The door squealed open. A black abyss greeted Liam.

Upon entry, the Phantom was met by two bald Marked Ones, each brandishing sawed-off shotguns. One trod with caution from the right, while the other kept his distance to the left.

The right cultist kept his weapon trained on Liam, inching within arm’s length. “The prince awaits your arrival in the chapel. We’ll escort you into his presence.”

“I’ll pass.”

In a flash, the Phantom snatched the right assailant’s gun. In a fluid motion, the vigilante ripped the gun from the cultist and bashed the shotgun’s heel against his assailant’s temple. The second was taken aback by the outburst and fumbled his weapon.

Too slow.

Aiming low, Liam squeezed off a shot that blew off half the second cultist’s foot. Unleashing a blood-curdling screech, the second escort fell to his knees. In two strides, the Phantom delivered a swift kick to his head, dispatching Henrik’s welcome party.

“What do you see, Chuck?” Liam asked on his way to meet Henrik.

“Satellite imagery shows ten hostiles,” Charles confirmed.


“Low-grade shotguns and knives,” Charles answered, “nothing powerful enough to penetrate your armor, but they also lack our disruptor chip.”

“Still enough firepower to hurt the kids.”

“There’s something else.” An apprehensive quake spliced Charles’ voice.


“One has explosives strapped to his chest…Henrik most likely,” Charles revealed.

“Our disruptor won’t work against their guns and I can’t diffuse the bomb.” Liam paused, formulating an attack plan. “Any suggestions?”

“Perhaps the Angel’s Eyes could be of assistance,” Charles surmised.

“That’s why we pay you the big bucks, Chuck.” Liam lauded his mentor’s savvy.

Instead of strolling through the chapel’s front door, the Phantom found a passage under the hardwood floors. Creeping beneath his enemies’ feet, he heard the children’s muffled weeping. Their whimpering was met with their captors’ ruthlessness.

One cultist grew irritable with his hostage. A rugged voice cursed in German followed by a booming slap. A thud echoed through the floorboards as the captor struck a bawling girl to the ground just above Liam. Through slits in the floorboards, Liam witnessed the Marked One press his shotgun against her head.

“I’ve had enough waiting!” The cultist roared. “You promised blood and I’m thirsty!”

“Patience, child,” Henrik’s calm, snide voice directed from the stage. “Our guest of honor will arrive soon.”

Time to make my entrance.

Liam’s hands burst through the aged wood to snatch his foe’s ankles. With a mighty yank, the Phantom plunged the Marked One into the abyss below. Thunderous blows and the clamor of bones snapping beneath a merciless barrage sang the vigilante’s brutal song.

Leaping through the fresh hole, the Phantom ascended into the chapel. As he rose, he flung two cylindrical canisters into the area. Amplified flash-bang grenades, the Angel’s Eyes exploded, emitting a blinding flash of white light.

Henrik’s men yelped, clamped their eyes shut, and flailed in blind confusion. Children yelped and broke free from their captors’ clutches. While the rest of the room was blinded, Liam’s helm shielded his vision. Victory’s clock began to tick.

Nine enemies and two minutes to eliminate them. Liam recalled the Angel’s Eye’s timed effect.

As soon as his feet touched the ground, the vigilante darted to dispatch his foes. Two cultists were to Liam’s left at a distance. Liam fired two barbs from his wrist-mounted dart gun, hitting each target.

Toxic darts plunged into each cultists’ neck. They staggered toward the vigilante on wobbling legs. Heavy arms struggled to lift their weapons to no avail. Hazy eyes rolled back in their skulls. Tongues flopped from slack jaws. In ten seconds, Henrik’s followers collapsed.

Once they crumbled, the Phantom turned his attention to the right. Three blinded Marked Ones charged the interloper. Frantic knuckles thrashed as a flailing blitz of misguided strikes assailed the vigilante. Deft maneuvering thwarted the onslaught until the time was ripe for Liam’s offensive.

Ducking below a hefty right hook, Liam unfurled a swift counter. A right uppercut vaulted for his foe’s chin. Knuckles bashed the cultist’s jaw. Teeth clacked. Delirious eyes rolled back as the cultist dropped.

Carrying the momentum from his punch’s follow-through, Liam pivoted and palmed another Marked One’s head. Without mercy, the vigilante spiked the second cultist’s head through the floorboards.

Spinning on a knee, the Phantom’s engaged his final rival. A swift punch to the third cultist’s gut drew a sharp wheeze. When he doubled over the cultist was set up to receive Liam’s elbow as it careened upward, bashing the foe’s nose. After he fell, only four remained.

Three Marked Ones stood shoulder to shoulder at the foot of the stage, guarding Henrik, who stood at the podium. White knuckles clung to quaking shotguns as the disoriented trio reeled in bewilderment. Knowing their shotgun shells wouldn’t penetrate his armor, the Phantom didn’t hesitate.

He rushed the trio, launching himself feet first through the air. Liam’s kick knocked the middle cultist out first. As he soared, Liam twirled so he landed behind the befuddled duo. Landing in perfect position, the Phantom bashed their heads together, leaving Henrik’s guards in unconscious heaps.

Spinning, the Phantom’s pistol lurched from its holster and took aim at the cult’s leader. Henrik smirked as his eyesight returned. He restrained a whimpering girl tight against his chest. He crouched behind his captive, nuzzling his pale cheek against her temple. The depraved cult leader left Liam with only a kill shot. In his hand was a blinking detonator he’d tactically positioned over the girl’s chest, eliminating Liam’s option to shoot the detonator from his grasp.

Tears rolled down freckled cheeks from hazel eyes. Locks of russet curls cascaded over the arm Henrik pressed against her neck. Meek weeping pierced Liam’s spirit, spurring him to lower his gun.

Tension loomed between the Marked One’s leader and the vigilante he’d summoned. Amusement defined Henrik’s crooked, yellow smile. Liam remained stoic as he listened to the scurrying feet of the other St. Gertrude’s children, fleeing their incapacitated captors.

“You don’t know how happy you’ve made me.” Henrik’s voice slithered from behind his rotten teeth. “I’m honored the illustrious Phantom accepted my humble invitation.”

“Let the girl go,” the Phantom commanded.

“Or what? You’re going to kill me? No, no, no, I know you much better than that,” Henrik mocked, wagging an admonishing finger.

“You don’t know me.”

“Oh, but I do!” Henrik giggled, his blue eyes flaring with manic exhilaration. “I am your future, your past…I am the monster who feasts on the rage and pain you hide away in your soul’s darkest reaches.”

“You’re nothing but a lunatic infected by delusions of grandeur,” Liam rebuked. “You know nothing.”

“I know everything!” Henrik roared with veins bulging along his neck. “Soon, I will feast on you again! Oh, how I long to dig my claws into your chest!”

“Let the girl go and you can have your wish,” Liam goaded. “If you want to kill me, take your shot, but leave the innocent out your twisted game.”

Hilarity erupted from the murderous psychopath. “I’m not here to kill you! I’ve come to teach you a lesson…to show you that you’re no better than the rest of this pathetic world! You’re no righteous guardian, you’re just another murderous beast masquerading as some pious protector!”

“I have nothing to learn from you.”

An ominous sneer slunk across Henrik’s gaunt face. “Here’s the game! Someone is about to die and you, my old friend, get to choose! You can either put a bullet in my head and save the girl or you can keep your precious soul unblemished by killing! Be warned though, if you refuse to kill me, I’ll going to tap this button and this lovely, innocent creature and I go…boom.”

Frantic thoughts raced through Liam’s mind. His quivering right hand shifted, knowing that a poisoned dart could provide salvation. He drew a deep breath to stabilize his trembling muscles. Accuracy would be paramount. Any misstep meant death.

As if he’d anticipated Liam’s strategy, Henrik clicked his reproving tongue. “Remember, those little darts of yours take time to work…plenty of time to press a simple button. The moment I feel the slightest pinch…boom.”

Liam stayed his right hand and lifted his pistol to the merciless sociopath. Nervous tremors rippled through the Phantom’s wrist. His knees shook.

Sweat stung Liam’s eyes behind his helmet. Henrik was right. Liam feared killing. He was terrified that the act would forever tarnish his spirit.

“Tick-tock, tick-tock,” Henrik jeered. “Time to see how far you’ll go to protect the flock.”

The Phantom’s finger pressed against the trigger. A noxious concoction of fear and doubt constricted his muscles. Charles’ pleading voice hollered through the helmet, but it was drowned by Liam’s pounding heartbeat.

No shot came. The quaking barrel lowered. The horrified howls of the russet-haired girl sent Liam’s ashamed heart plummeting to the pit of his stomach. A guilty lump bloomed in his throat, knowing the consequences of his choice.

The manic smile fell from Henrik’s slender lips. The heinous sigil on his forehead wrinkled as his brow furrowed. Studious eyes leered at Liam before a satisfied grin cracked through the cult leader’s confoundment.

“How many times must you reject me before you learn my lesson? Never forget this failure. We’ll meet again…soon.”

Thunder clapped. An orange plume consumed Henrik and the girl. A scorching gust flung Liam from his feet. Moments of weightlessness came to an abrupt halt. A crushing weight collided with Liam’s back, knocking the breath from his lungs. Then a sharp sting bit his flesh above the collarbone.

Warm liquid cascaded over Liam’s chest and blood’s stench filled his nostrils. An incessant ring droned in his ears, stifling Charles’s desperate pleas. His vision darkened from the edges. As consciousness slipped, one tormenting thought reverberated through Liam’s psyche.

I failed.