Type your paragraph here.War.

     Arguably, there have been wars fought for noble causes – the winners of the battles will attest to that.  But if there was ever a war deemed noble, I’ve never heard of one.

     I am Marcus Victor Amfortas, and today, I’m sitting on the sidelines watching children play at war.  I felt a little like a pervert staring at the playground through binoculars – particularly since I was in the back seat of my car.  I kept telling myself that it was the dying hours of the night, the windows were tinted, and anybody else that might see me probably shouldn’t be out in this neighborhood, anyway.

     I studied their tactics, then my watch.  I’d seen enough.  I tapped the speed dial on a cell phone known for its cutting edge camera.

     “St. Hannah’s.”

     “Luke, you are my father.” 

     Father Luke Benitas groaned.  “That joke keeps on getting better and better.  Have you arrived yet?”
“Yeah, this is the only disturbance I could find on the block, but I don’t think it’s for me.”

     “What do you see?”

     “Well...”  I adjusted the binoculars “...Looks like the Barrios are having a disagreement with a smaller gang.  I can see twenty-seven Barrio foot soldiers, maybe half that gunning for the rival gang.  Barrio boys are putting up one hell of a ruckus.”

     “Has it come to a confrontation, yet?”

     “I’ve been here fifteen minutes; the visitors haven’t made a move.  Given their force, they should have run before it even started.”

     “Is there anything you can do to keep it from bloodshed?”

     I rolled my eyes.  “Well, I have eighteen dollars in my pocket.  I could buy a big bag of suckers and try to bribe them with that.”

     “I’m serious.”

     “Hey, I’m down to nothing on this end.  You caught me coming back from Domesboro, remember?”

     “There was no one else I could contact.”

     He was using that tone of voice that always set my mouth in a line.  I looked through the glasses for two heartbeats longer.  “Maybe if I had the Juggernaught, but I can’t get involved in mortal confrontations, Father.”

     “What happened to your car?”

     “Got beat up recovering the Banner.”

     “What are you driving?”

     “The ’63 Chrysler.”

     “Sam isn’t going to like that.”  

     Our pause gathered weight and finally toppled the conversation.  Half a block away, the Barrio foot soldiers, wearing yellow and dark blue were spread thick across one side of a scrap metal basketball court, brandishing their signature weapons; Louisville Sluggers.  Across the lot, under a bashed in street light, the challengers milled around.  I could see most of them weren’t carrying weapons of their own, and their clothing was loose.  Good to conceal anything from a knife to a 9mm semi auto.  They weren’t well organized, but they seemed determined to hang around to prove a point.  If that was the case, they were going to be snuffed.  The Barrios had military blood behind them.  Years ago, the Barrios had several of their people enlist.  When they came back home, the battle tactics of the Barrio gang increased exponentially.  Their attack wouldn’t be a simple charge.  If they came at the newcomers in a pincer movement, it would be over before I could get out of the car.

     “What are they doing now?”

     “They’re all just beating on their collective chest and bragging about size.”

     “Why haven’t the police arrived yet?”

     “Ummm… if it were me, gang wars have a way of thinning out the bad guys.”

     “That’s just horrible, Marcus.  You shouldn’t say that.”

     “Why not? It works.  I try to make my opponents turn on each other any chance I get.  Especially if they’re trying to kill me.”

     “Oh, Marcus...”  Father Benitas’ voice trailed off.

     “Anyway, it’s about ninety minutes to sunrise.  It doesn’t look like anything is going to happen here.  I’m going head home—”

     A big Caddie fired up three cars away, made a sharp turn and headed in the opposite direction from the fracas down the block.  In the blast of headlights, I caught sight of a single, moon-white face in the crowd, one of the opposing gang members.

     I picked the phone back up off the floor.  “Never mind, Father.  I’m on it.”  I clamped the phone shut and opened the door, reassuring myself with the weight of my weapons.

     Gotta hurry.  Gotta run.  Gotta ignore the light purple east as I leapt to the final rooftop.  To the right, I could make out the outlines of the newcomer gang.  I had been scanning the alleyways below with no luck.  Unless I found the bastard quickly, the intruding gang would be forced to attack, and the Barrios would fall.  Violently.
Sixty-three minutes to dawn, I looked down into a horseshoe courtyard that sported an above ground pool that took up half of the precious backyard.  There was a man standing with the pool blocking him from the alleyway, staring into a television.  Now, this is Chicago, and our sports fanaticism is about the caliber of a proud cult member.  Wearing a sweatsuit, this guy might have been watching a rerun of the game’s highlights in the blackened courtyard.  Or he might have passed for vanilla crazy, standing and muttering while rubbing his hands together like he was cold.

     If it weren’t for the ghouls.

     The clearest view I got was the one holding the television.  It stood inside a ring of white powder poured over the grass, its face squinting against the backwash of light.  It was an old ghoul, with a mouth filled with shards of broken teeth.  Its skin looked like it was ready to slough off any moment with red strands of raw meat marbling its face.  The straight, greasy hair was an improvement, obscuring part of its head.  

     I’ve seen bodies pulled out of the sewer that looked just as ripe.  

     In the shadows two other forms moved aimlessly, milling around the courtyard in a random way.  Three ghouls and their handler.

     Sweat suit man was still rubbing his hands together, activating the talisman over and over again.  


     How many times have I seen this?  Hundreds?  Low ranking wizard still learning the ropes, not even enough practice or temperament to control his abilities to their fullest.  He gets a taste for power or wealth, so he looks for a shortcut to his ends.  In this case, the sweatsuit wizard was using something that gave him control over the ghouls.  Dumbass was probably hired by a rival gang to make a dent in the Barrios’ foot soldiers, possibly a precursor to a real gang war.

     Hang on.

     That was a high definition television the ghoul was holding.

     Magic and machines don’t work well together.  The television receiving the camera signals mounted somewhere in the vacant lot should be shorting out like crazy.

     Oh yeah, the circle of powder.  An orange extension cord coming from the building slipped underground outside the ring only to come up like a serpent within it.  It supplied the television and a small grey box with an antenna sticking out the top.  While inside an activated shielding ring, the receiver and television was protected from magical, non- physical influences.  The wizard must have set up the ring to repel his own aura of magic so he could keep out of the fracas, short though it may be.

     I glided back from the edge and drew my Gibraltar Impact, a fifty caliber handgun based loosely on the Israeli Mossad Desert Eagle.  I had this piece outfitted with an eleven inch cutlass slung under the barrel and an ammo interrupt set in the top.  Some creative ammunition, and I had the Swiss Army Knife of firearms at my disposal.
I seated a clip filled with incendiary rounds into the gun and gingerly ratcheted a shell into the chamber, then pulled a single round out from my vest and worked the interrupt mechanism from the top.  

     Ghouls were tough to kill.  They didn’t breathe, felt no pain, and could regenerate as fast as you could cut them.  Their skin looked like it was rotten through, but it was actually tougher than leather, and their strength and speed was nearly equal to something like me.  But any kind of light weakened them and they were practically helpless when it came to fire or electricity.  The Barrios didn’t seem to know what they were up against.  Armed with their bats and small arms fire, thirty strong might be enough to kill two ghouls.  They had no chance against ten.

     I needed a shortcut.

     It wasn’t very honorable, and the church would probably frown on it, but I could kill the handler from the safety of the roof using a slug designed for accuracy, saving the incendiaries to pick off the straggling ghouls who might turn on me as they scattered.  By nature, ghouls avoided conflict.  Once the handler was dead, they should disappear faster than anyone could track them.  I came to the lip and assumed a shooters stance.

     Sorry, buddy.

     The impact had no warning.  

     I was suddenly tumbling over the edge and into the courtyard three stories below.  The ghoul clinging to me wasted no time, chewing at my shoulder, trying to get purchase through my thick leather bikers’ jacket.  I reacted through pure repetition of training, jerking my legs and flipping us so the ghoul was on the bottom.  The thing was too tough to get hurt from the fall, but very few things could handle an impact like that easily.

     I rolled away from the thing when we hit, coming up against the wall of the courtyard.  The closest ghoul was next to the swimming pool.  It dropped to all fours and charged far too fast for something that gangly.  I squeezed off a shot I knew would go wild.  The second shot, the incendiary, belched a gout of flame ten feet long and two feet thick from the nozzle of my gun.  From its light, I had a clearer view of the oncoming ghoul.  It had sprung into the air, mouth wide.  My third shot caught the thing mid-leap, bathing its torso in flame.  These incendiary rounds were miniscule compared to the versions made for shotguns – they would badly scald a human at the same range, but for a ghoul, the result was catastrophic.  The creature exploded in flame, screeching an impossible noise as it was consumed in the air.

     Before the ghoul was fully consumed, I pulled a yellow mini light from my jacket, snapped the base, and turned it to lantern mode.  The sixteen super bright LED’s effectively put me in a sphere of light.  The closest of the ghouls hissed and backed off, the one holding the television grimaced and wrenched its head further away.

     A respite – take the Wizard down.  Get a bead on him while I pull another…

     Holy–!  Fifteen years old at the most, the kid still had acne scars as he looked at me with wide, dark eyes.  While I had been dealing with his ghouls, the kid transferred his talismans to his right hand, where he continued to rub them together.  His left hand was raised in a configuration that denoted defense.  I recognized the shape, a magical shield that would randomize physical attacks; bullets, arrows, even punches would miss the mark.  It wasn’t a perfect shield, but much less taxing on someone already forcing their will on supernatural creatures.
The kid looked me over, and then turned to the screen and the sky, weighing his options.  If he gave his ghouls in the vacant lot carte blanche to attack, he could command his three courtyard ghouls better.  I would likely survive, probably win, but the humans in the courtyard, and more, would be torn apart – and close enough that I would hear every scream as it happened.

     I looked for another weapon – well.  That might work.

     I withdrew two slugs from different pouches, inserting them into the interrupt in the correct order.  The second bullet was another balance cast for accuracy.  The first shell was a miniature ‘bird bomb’, a concussive shell.

     I got lucky, the Wizard was more interested in what I was doing than unleashing his Ghouls.  This was going to hurt.  

     I fired the first round.  Since the bird bomb wasn’t designed for accuracy, the shell hit a foot higher, but the result was the same.  The explosive charge split the thin metal and thinner liner of the pool, splitting it with a sound like a sibilant stutter.  Water burst across the lawn, instantly covering it four inches deep.  As soon as it was submerged, I lined up the other shot.

     This was REALLY gonna hurt.  

     I shot the extension cord feeding the television.  Freed from its confines, the electricity sought out everything that annoyed it, and it hated everything.  The Ghouls got hit the worst; a blue light consumed them from the legs up, vaporizing them as fast as the fire had eaten their comrade.  I flew up into the air like I was flicked by a Cyclops, curling into the fetal position before I hit the ground.

     The thud and splash roused me.  The yellow mini lantern was waterproof, so I was able to spot the Gibraltar Impact before the wizard could attack.

     Turns out I didn’t need it.

     The wizard had been shocked as well, though his defensive sigil had blunted the effects.  He was scrambling on the ground where he had fallen, looking for one or both of the talismans he dropped.  I recovered the gun quickly because I was close to the source of the light… oh, and the gun was a big honking metal thing.  Across the yard, the wizard was combing through the grass for something the size of a dime the color of dirt.

     The sky was budding into dawn.

     I ejected the clip filled with incendiary rounds and slammed home a clip filled with hollowpoints.  At the sound of cocking the gun, the boy flipped over to face me, holding up his arm and making the sigil of defense.
Every facet of his face showed a depthless terror.

     This was the hard part.

     The shot hooked, drove deep into the ground off to the side.

     The boy said something in Russian, so I answered him in kind.  “You don’t want me to ‘just let you go’, you wouldn’t want that.”

     “But, I swear, I won’t do it again.”

     “It’s not up to me.”  I took another shot, and this bullet followed its brother.

     The kid started begging and crying.  Why wasn’t he fighting back?  A wizard this strong should be able to make all kinds of trouble for any opponent.

     Unless he didn’t know how.

     Ah, Holy hell.

     This kid hadn’t achieved that level of competence in wizardry yet.  All apprentices were taught how to defend themselves first.  The boy hadn’t been trained for anything except protecting himself.

     Such potential.  Needless waste.

     “Look, boy.  If I let you go, your kind will hunt you down for practicing Black Magic.  Just touching those things killed you in their eyes.”

     “No! Please! Give me to them.  Let me talk to my masters.”

     Even if I was on good terms with the wizard community, the boy was overlooking another facet.  Whoever employed him to steal the artifacts and enslave the ghouls may not allow failure.

     “Why?”  The boy wiped his eyes with his free hand.  “Why did you do it?”

     Sirens wailed, coming closer.  “They told me they would bring my family here.  They told me they could cure…”
Sitting in the mud, here in the predawn hours, the Russian boy dipped his head, let the sigil waver.  I stared at the top of his head, picturing the brain and how it was placed in his skull.  A shot from this angle would kill him before the sound registered.  It would be like turning off a light switch.

     “Come on, stupid.  There’s a place nearby, but we have to hurry.  I need to get there before sunrise.”  I sheathed the Impact.

     His face transformed into wonder and hope.  “W-we could g-go under ground?”

     Tough kid.  He shifted mental gears faster than I could.  “Ghouls don’t like wizards forcing them to do things.  You aren’t pulling their strings anymore.  They’ll come for you now.  They’re probably filling the sewers right below us.  But I know a place where you can spend the day.  I’ll make some calls and see what I can do.  No promises, though.” 

     “I – thank you.”

     I waved a finger over my shoulder as we ran into the alleyway.  “Thank me later.”

     Some clouds had rolled in since I last looked up.  The sunlight was bouncing off the underside, spiking lancets through my eyes into my brain.

     I heard a cry of surprise cut short.  When I turned, a ghoul was raising the flat screen television again over the prone form of the Russian boy.

     A second later I was between the ghoul and the boy.  A second after that, my gun’s blade was between the ghoul’s neck and his head.

     I crouched down, but it was too late.

     Children playing at war.

     This time I thought there was a chance.

Ghoulmaster's War