Chapter 1:

A Purging Fire

Terror’s icy grip tightened around Gio’s throat as he hid in darkness. Sweaty, quaking hands clutched his rifle. His cohorts’ shrieks pierced his ears as they were brutalized in the darkness. The young mobster cringed as the gruesome cacophony of bones crunching and joints being ripped from their sockets assaulted his ears.

I never wanted this! I’m not even supposed to be here! Gio clenched his eyes shut to restrain welling tears.

Gio Conti’s heart plummeted to the pit of his stomach in mourning of the life that was forced upon him. “No son of mine will abandon the mafia to be a pathetic nurse!” The mafioso’s father’s snarling voice echoed through Gio’s mind.

A roster of forty mobsters patrolled the warehouse each night. Only the most seasoned killers were deemed suitable to protect the lynchpin of the Roman trafficking operation. Now, the Conti mob’s top warriors were dropping like flies against the ferocious assault.

If they’re being crushed, what brutal fate awaits me? You’ve sentenced me to death, father. Gio thought as distressed goosebumps rippled across his skin.

Gio leaned back against the overturned table he hid behind and drew a quivering breath. His white-knuckled grip tightened around a weapon he’d never fired. Trembling, the fledgling Mafioso turned to peer into the moonlit abyss.

His brethren tread with caution. The muffled screams of their comrades echoed in the distance. With each outpouring of terror, the mobsters whirled around, fixing their rifles on the distress’ origin.

Suddenly, a figure cloaked in shadow careened from the darkness. The stranger plowed into a nearby gangster, tackling him to the ground and rolled to its feet in a fluid motion. Another mobster turned his rifle towards the figure.

The dark interloper smacked the gun from the assailant’s hands, grabbed him by the collar and head-butted him. A third combatant emerged, attacking the stranger from behind. The mobster lunged, throwing all his weight towards his adversary. With ease, the stranger ducked, sending its foe hurdling over its back and flipping onto the concrete floor.

With the mobster stunned, the stranger punched downward, delivering a knockout blow. While hunched over, a fourth attacker emerged from the abyss and put his rifle against the interloper’s temple. There was a metallic tick when the rifle pressed against the stranger’s helm.

“You have no idea who you’re dealing with!” The mobster declared.

“I know exactly what you are.” The stranger’s voice was deep and spliced with a technical inflection. “You prey on the weak because it makes you feel powerful. Do you feel powerful tonight, when the monster came for you?”

“I do now.” The henchmen gloated as ten of his comrades encircled their enemy. “One bullet and you’re nothing but a bad memory.”

“Pull the trigger.” The stranger taunted.

Laughter erupted from the circle. Their adversary was surrounded with 11 guns trained on him. There was no escape.

“As you wish.” The cocky gangster smirked as his finger clamped down on the trigger.

Click. Click. Click, click, click. Gio recognized the sound of a gun jamming. Soon after, a clamor of clicking resounded as the mobsters furiously attempted to open fire to no avail.

“My turn.” The stranger growled.

Powerful hands sped up and latched onto the gun’s barrel. Jerking downwards, the interloper wrested the rifle from his foe. A spinning, rising swing launched the rifle’s butt into the mobster’s jaw. The deafening crack of a shattering bone reverberated through the warehouse. As their leader thudded to the floor, his comrades tossed their malfunctioning weapons aside and rushed into the fray.

Gio observed with a mixture of fear and amazement as the stranger tore through ten assailants like hot steel. He dodged their attacks with grace, countering each misstep with devastating brutality. In a matter of minutes, the remaining henchmen flaked away, succumbing to expert technique delivered with animalistic ferocity.

When the dust settled, the stranger rose. Defeated foes were strewn at his feet. Rhythmic panting emanated from beneath the mask.

At least now I know he’s human, not a real monster. Gio took solace.

“I know you’re here.” The mechanic voice announced. “Leave your weapon and come out, unless you want to suffer the same fate as your friends.”

Gio knew the stranger addressed him. In compliance he sent his rifle skidding across the floor and stood with his hands raised. As he neared the intruder, Gio noticed something peculiar about the individual.

The stranger wore a charcoal grey bodysuit made of interwoven metals, like Kevlar. Metal plating covered vital areas with intermittent breaks where the woven substance served as primary covering, facilitating flexibility. His head was encapsulated in a sheer helmet of the same color. There were several, concealed buttons along each temple. Gio surmised this was a highly technological helm, causing the mechanical voice.

Two pistols hung from a belt along with other pieces of foreign gadgets. Two sword hilts peeked from scabbards belted to the shadow’s back. This development perplexed Gio.

You attack a room filled with armed mobsters, yet you don’t pull a pistol or sword? Why? Gio wondered but dared not speak.

The stranger had his own questions. “You didn’t join the fight . . . not even when there was a gun to my head. Why?”

“I-I’m not a f-fighter.” Gio stammered. “I don’t even want to be here. I’m not going to die for the mob.”

“None of these men are dead.” The stranger clarified.

“Well, whatever you did, looked painful. I wasn’t about to endure that . . . not for this.” Gio explained, shaking his head.

The stranger nodded in approval. “What do you distribute here?”

“All of it.” Gio answered with shame as his face turned flush. “Drugs, guns . . . people.”

Gio’s heart lurched at his final utterance. Shame permeated his spirit at the fates of those who were swallowed by the mob’s gluttonous trafficking operation. Men were sent into forced labor. Women were sold to the streets or to single buyers, subjected to their depraved fetishes. Children suffered a mixture of both heinous fates. Gio hated seeing the children most.

“Take me to the people.” The stranger commanded.

In submission, Gio led his companion to the shipping containers adjacent to the warehouse. One by one the stranger broke the locks, freeing those kidnapped for sale. Some were Italian, but most were immigrants, hailing from North Africa and the Middle East.

Gio’s heart sank when he saw the refugees’ condition. Emaciated rib cages were visible through tattered clothes. Raw, chaffed skin adorned their wrists below chains, zip-ties, or rope. Deep purple bruising and congealed blood marred their faces.

Once the refugees were freed, Gio and the stranger rounded up the unconscious mobsters. They threw them in the containers to replace their former captives. Once the building was cleared of the living, the stranger doused the warehouse with gasoline.

“When I’m gone,” he instructed, “set the warehouse ablaze. Call the Roman police. Notify them that a trafficking ring has been dismantled. See that these men receive justice and the victims are provided for.”

“I will.” Gio promised. “But, before you go, may I ask you something?”

“Yes.” The stranger granted.

“Why did you leave me be?” Gio inquired with a furrowed brow.

“You aren’t like the men in those crates.” The intruder answered. “I showed you mercy. I pray, one day, you’ll extend that same mercy to another.”

Gio drew a deep breath. His curse had been lifted and visions of a renewed life danced across his mind. For the first time he passion for nursing seemed attainable. Maybe I can finally be who I was born to be.

“I promise.”

“Leave this life behind.” The stranger warned. “Or I will come back for you.”

Gio scanned the area, gazing at the dozens of lives the intruder saved from fates worse than death. “These people have a second chance at a life thanks to you.”

“So do you.” The stranger replied.

“I do.” Gio smiled, fantasizing about the possibilities his new life possessed. “Stories of what you did tonight will spread like wildfire. What should we tell the world?”

“I’m a protector, a weapon, sent by God to pierce the darkness.” The stranger revealed before leaving, escaping through the labyrinth of shipping containers.

With the stranger gone, Gio followed the dark interloper’s instructions. Staring at the warehouse, memories of a disapproving father and an imprisoned life reverberated through Gio’s mind. Now, thanks to his shadowy savior, the reformed mobster was free.

Gio ignited his lighter and flung it through the air. A smile crept across his lips as flames scorched through that wretched place. He embraced the fire’s soothing warmth with outstretched arms. As the blaze swelled, its cleansing heat melted the stain of his old life.

Chapter 2:

Stars and Shadow

Clouds crept across the morning sky as Agyei Omenuko arrived at his spot amongst the boulders to watch Sudan’s wildlife. The boy of ten cherished this place. It was a peaceful getaway from the harsh reality of his life.

A skinny boy with buckteeth and chestnut, doe eyes, Agyei never felt at home in his village. The other children shunned him, refusing to play. The villagers ducked their eyes when he would pass. Only his mother, father, and twin sisters cared for Agyei.

Here, in the wilderness, Agyei wasn’t a pariah. He’d watch the animals graze on the Serengeti, naming them while formulating imaginary friendships. His favorites were the lions. A familiar pride often loitered nearby. Agyei bounced with joy whenever he caught a glimpse of the majestic creatures.

Agyei especially loved watching the big, male lion and his young cub. The pride had several lionesses and other cubs. However, the lone male strode about with a quiet authority, only lowering his regal stature around one particular cub. Their playful relationship reminded Agyei of Papa and how the rest of the world disappeared when they were together.

Unfortunately, today, the savannah was empty. Not even a stray gazelle wandered into Agyei’s treasured place. It was peculiar, as the boy always found wildlife when he came here. An aroma of smoke lingered in the air. Though its origins were unknown, Agyei guessed the stench had driven the animals away.

As hope faded, a shadow loomed over Agyei. The boy’s heart sunk. A fearful lump swelled in his throat.

Did a lion stalk me? Have the northern soldiers returned? Agyei speculated as his sweaty palms balled into fists.

The boy turned to find an imposing, barrel-chested man blocking the sun. A toothy grin was framed by a black beard spliced with specks of silver. The ebony man’s eyes lit up as he sat next to his son.

“I didn’t know you were coming!” Agyei exclaimed as a sprawling smile lit up his face.

“AhhGee!” Papa chuckled. “I promised we would name your lions today!” Agyei’s father reminded as he threw a hefty arm around Agyei’s shoulders. “Although it seems they’re not ready for their names yet.”

“They didn’t come to see me,” Agyei whimpered. “No one ever wants to see me.”

Papa knew today marked a malevolent anniversary for his son. Knowing the weight of the burden Agyei bore, Papa chose to remind his son of a lesson from a year ago.

With a sad smile, Papa pulled Agyei close. “Child, you mustn’t let dark days swallow up your light. Don’t you remember the lesson of the stars?”

The sheepish boy nodded.

Papa’s teaching continued. “God gave us the stars, to guide us when night rules. Darkness exists so we can recognize the light. Without the contrast of the night, the stars couldn’t shine with such brilliance.”

“Contrast?” Agyei’s brow furrowed at the unfamiliar word.

“When two opposites exist in the same place, it allows us understand their differences,” Papa expounded.

Agyei rubbed his arms to sooth himself as a year-old question lingered on the tip of his tongue. “What if I’m not a star? What if I’m part of the night?” Agyei wondered, fearful of the answer.

Papa’s lips pursed. His comforting hand rubbed his child’s back. “You are a good person, Agyei Omenuko. What happened was not your fault. I am proud of you for your courage.”

“I’m not proud. I hate what I did. Everyone thinks I’m bad because of it.” Agyei hung his head.

“The others see the stone fall into the lake, but they fail to notice the ripples. They only know you killed a boy in the brush. What they don’t see is how you saved us in your bravery.” Papa encouraged.

“How did I save us?” Agyei pondered, blind to Papa’s wisdom.

“You were attacked by a scout, searching for a village to raid. That scout attacked you so you couldn’t warn us about the soldiers headed our way. Had things gone differently, the scout would’ve led soldiers to our village to do terrible things to us,” Papa elaborated.

“I killed a boy that day. That memory won’t go away, no matter how much I fight it.” The harrowing memory of Agyei’s fight with the scout, the rock he used in self-defense, and watching the life leave the boy’s eyes flashed in his mind.

“No, you saved us that day, Agyei.” Papa emphasized his interpretation of the truth with a shaking fist. “You are not evil. God will understand, He is forgiving. Believe me, I know that more than most.”

“Do you think He can forgive me?” Agyei trembled, fearing God would withhold mercy.

“Look at me, boy.” Papa instructed, his dark eyes peering deep into Agyei’s. “There is nothing you could ever do that has more power than God’s forgiveness.”

Agyei wiped the tears welling up in his eyes. “Thank you, Papa. I love you.”

Papa smiled and kissed his son on the forehead. “I love you, Agyei. Now, I came here to see lions, so let’s go find them!”

Agyei perked up at the mention of lions. “Sometimes I see them by the lake, near the tall grass! Can we go?”

Papa grinned from ear-to-ear. “Yes, we can go, but we can’t be too long. Your mother is expecting us back to help raise the wall on the new medical building.”

As they walked the ridgeline toward the lake, a distinct smell of smoke permeated the area. Papa scanned the air, searching for the source. Smoke meant a few things in this region. Displaced refugees started fires to keep themselves warm as evening approached. Flames were also used by the South Sudanese Resistance forces to send smoke signals to those friendly to their cause.

The final reason for smoke was the presence of northern soldiers. Death and destruction defined their existence. They were renowned for setting whole areas ablaze as they rampaged through the country. It was a northern scout that Agyei killed a year earlier. Knowing these scenarios, Papa gave Agyei a nod with a clear message.

Be careful.

When they reached the lake, there was so much smoke it looked like a dark cloud had made the earth its bed. Papa gestured for Agyei to remain at the bottom of the hill while he went up to survey the area. The big man struggled to make himself small as he crawled amongst the brush. Once at the top, Papa signaled for Agyei to join.

Agyei’s heart lurched in anguish when he saw the devastation. The only thing that wasn’t on fire was the lake itself. That’s when the doe-eyed boy came across a visage that robbed the air from his lungs. His lions were trapped amongst the flames.

Tears welled in Agyei’s eyes. He couldn’t comprehend the senselessness that lay before him. Lionesses were crumpled up at the lakeshore. Cubs were bloody piles strewn about the valley.

Where is the big one? Agyei asked as the noxious concoction of panic and sorrow infected his spirit.

Doe eyes darted about, scanning the valley. That’s when Agyei saw him. The king of the pride was curled next to a boulder in front of Papa and Agyei. A once proud beast was reduced to a harmless heap of flesh.

Agyei’s quaking fingers dug into his scalp in shock. Wobbling legs gave out as he dropped to his knees. When all hope appeared to be lost, he noticed movement between the male’s body and the rock it was wedged against.

It can’t be! Nothing could survive this! An ember of hope flickered in Agyei’s chest.

“We need to go!” Papa urged, shaking Agyei in a desperate attempt to wrest his eyes from the carnage. “Northern soldiers did this! Their tracks lead toward the village!”

Papa grabbed at Agyei’s arm, but the boy ripped from his grip and flew down the hill.

“No!” Papa yelled, but it was too late. His father’s voice was an echo as Agyei raced toward the movement.

I have to save him!

The heat was unbearable, but Agyei pushed through the billowing smoke. At the bottom of the valley, the boy’s legs churned against the monstrous cat’s body to no avail. Weak whimpers squealed from below, motivating Agyei to summon all his strength.

Still, the corpse wouldn’t budge. Strained groans blared from Agyei’s throat. With gritted teeth and clenched eyes, the boy pressed all his might against the limp cat. Abruptly, the lion’s body began to move, as if by magic.

Papa heaved the great cat with powerful hands, creating an opening for Agyei to reach the whimper. The boy was elated when his gaze met the familiar spots of his favorite cub. Agyei snatched the cub and pulled him into his chest.

It was as if the cub recognized his rescuer. He clung Agyei’s shoulders so tight that his claws dug into Agyei’s skin. In that moment the pain didn’t matter. This was his friend and Agyei had to save him.

“Son!” Papa boomed amongst the roaring fire. “We have to go! Now!”

Papa sprinted towards the village. Agyei failed to keep up, burdened by the lion cub. They crossed the landscape in a matter of minutes, following tire tracks. Tortured shrieks and gunshots flooded the air and grew louder with each stride. When the village came into view, Papa pulled his son into the brush.

“You stay on the outside. Use the buildings as cover.” Papa instructed through panting breaths. “Get your mother and sisters and flee south. Follow the first river you find. It will take you to a village.”

Agyei’s eyes went wide. “What about you?”

“I’m going to distract them long enough for you to sneak in unnoticed. I’ll keep up the fight as long as I can, but you have to be quick. I may only last a few minutes.” Papa paused, brandishing his pistol and handing Agyei his hunting knife. “Be brave, son.”

Agyei watched his father careen into the fray. He yelled, gesturing to draw the attention of soldiers guarding the perimeter. One reached for his rifle, but Papa fired first, causing the soldier to slump to the ground. The others gave chase towards the right, away from the family’s hut.

Seeing the opening, Agyei dashed toward his home. The ground was stained with blood, littered with the bodies of his fellow villagers. Tortured shrieks resounded from every direction, but they became less frequent with each gunshot. A rush of soldiers passed Agyei, who hid behind a barrel.

Papa. Agyei realized his father’s distraction was working as the soldiers flowed towards his location.

Recalling Papa’s instructions, Agyei took advantage of the diversion. With hurried guile he snuck between huts until he reached his home. Once outside, the boy hid his lion in Mama’s churning barrel before sneaking into the hut.

Agyei crept towards his home’s entrance. Moaning, muffled panting, and brutal thumping formed a gruesome cacophony. The tentative boy peeked inside. There were two people in the hut. One was a man with his back facing Agyei and a woman in front of him on her stomach.

A northern soldier.

Agyei clutched Papa’s hunting knife with a trembling fist. His heart’s deafening throbs pounded in his ears. Sweat gathered on his palms as he readied to attack. Without warning, a crash came from the outside, causing the soldier to whirl around.

The soldier’s eyes flared with shock when they met Agyei’s. He threw the woman aside. Desperate hands scrambled along his belt in search of a weapon. However, he was too slow.

Instinct spurred Agyei to rush the soldier. A rage-fueled thrust lurched upwards as Agyei plunged the knife into the northerner’s neck. Blood spurted everywhere, trickling warmth over the boy’s fingers and covering the floor.

 The man clawed at his throat, but his hands slipped from the gushing wound. A croaking sound gurgled from his mouth as he wheezed for air. Finally, he collapsed to the floor, seizing as blood drained from his body.

Mama looked nothing like Agyei remembered from mere hours ago. Bruises covered her face. Swelling made her slender face puffy. Blood streamed down the front of her body from nose to thighs. Most of it flowed from her abdomen, where she’d suffered several stab wounds.

“Agyei,” Mama groaned, “Where are your sisters? Did they get away?”

“I . . . I don’t know.” Agyei blubbered. “I came here to take you away.” Pressure built in the doe-eyed boy’s chest. A lump plumed in his throat as he restrained his tears.

Mama caressed Agyei’s face. She wiped away her son’s tears with her thumb. “I can’t go with you this time. I need you to promise me something, sweet boy.”

 “Anything.” Agyei reassured.

“Find your sisters,” she mumbled, “find them, Agyei. Find th-” Mama’s eyes were still open, but the light faded from them. It was a sight all too familiar for the child of ten.

“Goodbye, Mama. I love you.” Agyei laid his mother down gently and pressed his forehead against hers.

Gathering whatever courage he could summon, Agyei rose to his feet, determined to find his sisters. However, when he turned to the hut’s door there were three soldiers standing in the doorway, reveling at the sight of the dead woman and the boy with the tear-stained face. One of them held the lion cub by the nape like a trophy.

They grabbed Agyei by the neck and drug him to the center of the village. A massive force of invaders assembled in the main gathering place. It was a large force, especially to take such a humble village.

They must be headed somewhere else. We were just on the way. Agyei deduced.

As they moved through the street, Agyei scanned the faces for his sisters. Fortunately, he didn’t find them amongst the dead. When they reached the main assembly, he searched the survivors’ too.

They aren’t here. The revelation was a small victory. Though, whatever relief Agyei felt for his sisters was erased when he saw who knelt at the village’s epicenter.

Papa was bloodied and beaten. He was slumped over with his hands bound behind his back. A tall, muscular man wearing military garb and a red hat stood before Papa. The man’s aura gave the impression of authority. He paced in front of Papa with an arrogant swagger.

“This one killed Neyo.” The largest of Agyei’s captors spoke with outrage to his leader.

“Good,” the leader spoke calmly, “we need more like him. Most children aren’t willing to kill so easily. He will make an excellent addition.”

“No!” Papa hollered. “Leave the boy out of this!”

 A wry smirk slithered across the commander’s face, revealing a yellowed grin among his salt and pepper beard. “This is your son?” He glanced back at Papa. “I have special plans for him. He comes from a bloodline of killers.”

“Let him go!” Papa pled. “He’s just a boy!”

“I like you.” The general ignored Papa, instead fixing his eyes on Agyei. “You killed one of my most seasoned men. Neyo was a rabid murderer, more beast than man. That kind of killer instinct is a valued commodity in my army.”

“Please,” Papa fought back tears, “let him go.”

“You, on the other hand,” the leader turned back to Papa, “killed nine of my men.  I would happily keep you if I knew you would be obedient, but we both know betrayal runs deep in you.”

“Punish me instead.” Papa bargained.

The leader crouched next to Papa. “I intend to. One day, your boy will be big and strong, like you. With your blood and my teaching he’ll become a fine weapon for Allah. Perhaps, one day, he’ll butcher more Christians than even me. That is my revenge. The son of my enemy will become my greatest asset.”

“He won’t!” Papa spat in the man’s face, rage blazing in his eyes.

Remaining expressionless, the head of the army wiped saliva from his face, gesturing for the soldiers to bring Agyei over to him. “Here is the deal!” He addressed Papa, pulling a long, serrated knife from his belt. “I’m going to leave this up to you.”

“You have two choices!” The general declared. “Either I kill your son and my men cut off your head, or, you instruct your child to plunge this knife through your heart. You have my word that the boy will live and have my protection, I’ll even let him keep the lion. Perhaps we can train it to kill Christians too.”

Upon hearing the announcement Agyei wailed in sorrow. I won’t kill Papa! I can’t kill him! He’s all I have left!

“Do it, son.” Papa murmured. “Do I have your word he will live?” He asked the commander in defeat.

“I promise you.” The leader assured his captive as he placed the knife in Agyei’s hand.

Papa’s stared into Agyei’s eyes. The boy was in hysterics, wailing and trembling. “Agyei.” Papa whispered, “You must do this. It’s the only way.”

The general crouched next to Agyei. “Do as your father says.” His voice was soothing and persuasive. “Just put the point here,” he guided the blade’s tip to Papa’s chest, “then simply . . .  push.”

“I can’t . . .” Agyei sobbed in protest.

“Agyei, it’s not your time to leave this world. Remember me son.” Papa urged, “Remember the stars. You’re going to a dark place, but you will shine. I promise, you will shine. I love you.”

“I love you.” Agyei mustered through his weeping.

Gathering all his strength, Agyei pushed the blade as he was instructed. The tears blurred his vision. He never saw the light leave Papa. All he felt was the warm blood and the pressure of the knife piercing flesh. Papa remained courageous throughout, never crying out in pain, accepting his fate with bravery until he fell.

Time passed in slow motion while Agyei stared at his father’s corpse. Eventually soldiers dragged the villagers away, including Papa’s, for burning. The northern soldiers burned them in the ruins of the old church Papa helped build.

When the destruction of the village was complete, the commander knelt next to Agyei. “You are mine now.” He proclaimed, “Listen to me and you will survive. Do not and you will die bloody.”

Agyei nodded in submission. “What should I call you?”

The general’s wry smile returned, exposing yellowed teeth. “My name is General Kasim Edan, but you may call me Papa.”

Chapter 3:

The Sheepdog and the Wolf

The dream was always the same, just as it had been for over a year. Ariella found herself at the center of an expansive square. A stone spire towered at the epicenter. Each side, ancient architecture formed a semi-circle of pillars. Statues of long dead men adorned the high walls, looking down like watchful sentinels.

The once captivating shrine had morphed into a hellish landscape. Corpses were strewn about the square. Soot and smoke disfigured them as flames devoured their charred bodies. Puddles of blood pooled around Ariella’s feet. Ash fell like rain as she navigated the barren cataclysm.

The pungent stench of blood and burning flesh seared Ariella’s nostrils and sent bile bubbling up her throat. It was difficult to see through the smog. A distinct ringing in her ears, the type that lingered after a firework show, blotted out all other sound.

Determined to find survivors, Ariella endured the smog. As she moved away from the spire, she noticed portions of the exterior pillars had crumbled to rubble, as if they were hit by a missile. Surveying the scene, Ariella caught a glimpse of movement in the fog.

Something is alive! Quickening her pace, Ariella bolted toward the shrouded figure.

A small, four-legged silhouette took shape amongst the fire’s smoldering glow. A dog limped through the smoke. Ash and blood stained his coat of grey, white, and brown.

This is a shepherd’s dog. Ariella realized.

The canine hobbled on an injured right, front leg towards Ariella. She knelt to greet it, running her fingers through its thick coat. Ariella was entranced by the animal’s piercing, blue eyes. The dog’s haunting gaze seemed familiar, like those of a friend from a dream long forgotten.

Their embrace was short-lived. Ariella’s new companion sensed a disturbance lurking in the shadows, just beyond their view. The dog’s hair stood on edge. A menacing growl purred from his throat as he crouched into a defensive posture. Goosebumps rippled across Ariella’s olive skin. Evil had entered their midst.

The manifestation of her fears emerged from the mist. Standing before Ariella and her companion was a black wolf. Wicked gray eyes glowered at the duo. That’s when Ariella noticed the scars adorning its jaw and the blood dripping from its jowls.

This creature is responsible for the devastation of this place. Ariella’s instincts recognized.

A ravenous snarl returned the sheepdog’s growl. An upturned lip revealed jagged fangs. Battle was near.

Without warning, the sheepdog launched itself at its foe, attacking with such ferocity that he overpowered the wolf. His onslaught sent the wolf tumbling to the cobblestones. But the wolf recovered in a flash, bounding back to its feet. A blur of black pounced upon the sheepdog, unleashed a barrage of wild snapping at its neck with murderous intent.

The dog dodged as best it could, but soon the wolf’s jaws clamped onto the nape of its neck. Violent shaking shredded flesh. Ariella heart sunk. She knew it wouldn’t be long before her companion succumbed to the superior combatant.

 Just when the ember of Ariella’s hope neared suffocation, the sheepdog wrestled out from his foe’s clutches and clamped down on the wolf’s front leg. The bite destabilized the evil creature, bringing the wolf to collapse on its face.

Seizing the opportunity to counter, the sheepdog launched its own barrage. An erratic array of vicious bites plunged into his opponent’s chest and neck. Still, the onslaught wasn’t sustainable. With powerful hind legs, the wolf kicked the sheepdog away. Now both combatants were on their feet, circling one another like boxers in a prize fight.

Despite the valiant effort, the sheepdog was outmatched. As the gladiators circled each other, the wolf launched intermittent attacks with more savagery than a common dog could counter. After succumbing to multiple attacks, profuse blood seeped from the sheepdog’s wounds.

Every fiber of Ariella’s being yearned to intercede. However, her muscles were rigid. It was as if an unseen force had wrapped her in coils, leaving her helpless to interfere.

In a flash, the wolf hurled forward with murderous intent. The attack looked unstoppable. Ariella clenched her eyes shut, refusing to watch the bloodshed. A yelp followed by the gruesome cacophony of bone grinding against bone echoed through the square.

When the sound ceased, Ariella opened her eyes, fearing the worst. What she found was shocking. Somehow, the sheepdog mustered enough agility to dodge the killing stroke. Instead, the wolf was lying pinned to the cobblestone with the sheepdog’s paw clamped onto the predator’s neck.

Realizing its newfound advantage, the dog sunk its teeth into the wolf’s face. Ariella’s companion ripped and tore at its adversary’s flesh with all its might. Still, the shepherd’s dog couldn’t sustain its hold for long before the wolf kicked him away again. When the wolf scrambled to his feet, Ariella saw the grotesque damage.

A fountain of blood flowed from the beast’s mangled eye. With erratic thrashing, the world scrambled to regain its composure, but the trauma was so substantial that it couldn’t find its adversary. Despite deteriorated senses, the beast continued snapping with ferocity at empty air.

Meanwhile, the sheepdog seized his opportunity to escape. The dog disappeared into the smoke. A few moments later, the wolf realized the prey eluded the predator. The wolf darted off in search of his enemy.

For a year Ariella wracked her brain, searching for the deeper meaning lurking behind the premonition. That was until, one day, she saw the familiar square plastered across television screens throughout the world. Headlines robbed the breath from Ariella’s lungs. Tear-filled, emerald eyes were glued to her room’s television at Jacque Mencini’s compound.

The young, Turkish woman would soon learn the location’s name . . . St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City. Thick smoke covered the landscape. Reports swirled of gunfire and multiple explosions. As the hours passed, the death toll rose. Ariella would never forget the date . . . June 6th.

I saw this happen before it happened.

Today, Ariella stood before her mirror, readying herself for a campaign rally in Paris. Despite her Turkish heritage, Ariella wore France’s national colors, manifesting in a royal blue dress with a red sash tied around her slender waist. Her jet-black hair was pulled into an elaborate bun. Flawless makeup accentuated the 22-year old’s high cheek bones and plump lips.

I’m nothing but a Barbie to Jacque and the media. Ariella lamented the life she bore since coming to Paris. I have the right look, the right religion, and the right last name. That’s all I am to them.

Ariella looked down on her engagement ring with disgust. Everything about her life was a facade. She hated the revolting man who gave it to her. She hated his father. She hated being a pawn in political games.

Jacque Mencini was a prominent French politician who announced his recent candidacy for the nation’s presidency. Ariella was betrothed to Jacque’s 30-year-old son, Pascal. Yet, there was no love between Ariella and Pascal. She’d merely been sold to the Mencini’s like cattle to sway Muslims to vote for Jacque.

Ariella was a Muslim from a prominent political family in Turkey. With rising Muslim immigration into Europe, Jacque needed to market himself to this burgeoning sect of the population. So, Ariella’s father, Syed al Hasid, dealt her away.

Ariella would never forget Jacque’s warning upon her arrival. “Cooperate and no issues will befall you. Be subservient to Pascal, give me a grandchild, and you may live out your days away from political scheming. However, rest assured, disobedience won’t go unpunished.”

Thus, Ariella obeyed, fearful of Jacque’s veiled threat. She smiled at public appearances, spoke in Mosques throughout France on his behalf, and played up a loving relationship with Pascal before the cameras. Today’s rally would be no different.

After driving over with her escort, Ariella found herself on stage at an enormous auditorium as Jacque addressed supporters. The candidate’s campaign team and other public officials flanked the salt and pepper haired front-runner. Jacque was a handsome, square-jawed, brilliant orator who’d charismatically inspired France in the wake of the Vatican attacks.

“As a nation, we stand at a crossroads.” Jacque vehemently addressed the crowd while shaking brawny fists. “We can either stand against those who strive to destroy us, or we can bury our heads in the sand, allowing fear to consume our nation. I believe we must cultivate valuable alliances to aid us in decimating ILAN once and for all.”

The raucous crowd cheered. ILAN, an Islamic terror organization, claimed responsibility for the attack that killed hundreds at Vatican City. They’d wreaked havoc across the Middle East for nearly a decade without the bat of an eyelash from the Western World. Yet, as soon as their rampage touched Europe, the west finally took notice.

ILAN was a vicious, radical sect of Ariella’s faith. Their singular focus was eliminating Christianity, Judaism, and all forms of Islam that didn’t align to their heretical beliefs. Ariella hated them. These rouges gave rise to Islamophobia, painting a barbaric picture of Islam for the world to consume.

 “We must fight against agents of chaos to defend religious freedoms!” Jacque continued with eloquence. “That is why, today, I have an announcement! With a proud heart, it is my duty to proclaim that my son, Pascal, will return to active duty, joining an international coalition with the sole purpose of exacting justice upon those who brought terror to Vatican City!”

It’s been over a year since the attack. Why return now? Jacque must need a boost in the polls. Ariella’s adept political mind speculated.

Deafening cheers resounded throughout the auditorium as Pascal emerged from behind the curtain. Pascal was a tall, broad specimen. He was also one of France’s most decorated battle commanders. A renowned soldier, Pascal shared his father’s charisma, waving to the crowd as he swaggered towards the podium.

Despite his popularity amongst the people, Pascal’s presence unsettled Ariella. He was once a handsome man, considered to be France’s most eligible bachelor. When Ariella met him, he was everything a woman might desire . . . tall, dark, attractive, and personable. He shared Jacque’s square jaw and his gray eyes glowered below shorn, black hair.

Though, upon closer inspection, Ariella observed a coldness in her betrothed. They spent little time together, as their relationship was primarily for public perception. Then, he disappeared from May through July for “training”.

When he returned, Pascal bore fresh, substantial scarring around his left eye, as if he’d been mauled by a beast. What looked to be dirt or ash commingled with the wounds. He always possessed scars around his chin from fighting in the Middle East, but these were new.

Ariella’s mind flashed to the wolf from her nightmare. The beast, ravaged by the sheepdog, bore similar injuries. The resemblance was too uncanny to ignore.

Pascal embraced his father for a moment before turning his attention to Ariella. As he did at every public appearance, Pascal wrapped Ariella in his arms and kissed her for the crowd to see. As he learned in, Pascal’s scarred face merged with the nightmarish wolf’s.

The people cheered while Ariella’s skin crawled. For the crowd’s sake, she reciprocated Pascal’s gesture, recalling Jacque’s threat to do as she was told. Yet, within the depths of her soul, she felt disgust, believing that she was kissing the grotesque beast from her vision.

Thankfully, Pascal ended their intimate moment to join Jacque as the speech continued.

“Today I count myself the proudest father in the world.” Jacque proclaimed, throwing a delighted arm around Pascal. “After much deliberation, Pascal has chosen to embrace his calling and return to active duty in honor of those who lost their lives at Vatican City. Our hope is that he, and his brave comrades, will bring justice to an unjust world! We can all take pride in their courage!”

There he is, the wolf, champion of the people. Wherever you are, sheepdog, I hope you’re ready for what’s coming. We’re going to need all the help we can get.