Night Watch

'Twas two in the morning, and all through the street
It wasn't quite quiet—but that couldn't be beat.

Gyeeds never slept, though it yawned sometimes. Now was one of those times. True, there were still lights shining out of the windows of office buildings, and factories churning out goods, and shady characters violating laws that were infrequently enforced. But on the whole, the city was a lot calmer than it was during the day, at least in a district like this one.

Jason usually did sleep, and the fact that he hadn't gotten much of the precious stuff so far tonight was taking its toll on him. His eyes were half-lidded as he and Roland walked quietly down the sidewalk. Both of them wore black coats concealing flashlights beneath.

The pair carried some magical items, too, just in case they ran into any nasty surprises. Roland had some type of wand—a stub of iron that created a Projectile Shield if you waved it in a certain way. (He was perfectly capable of casting that spell himself, of course, but if he used the wand, he would expend one of its charges instead of draining his own energy.) Jason was wearing a necklace—not one of those body-switchers, thank goodness, but a Hearing Charm. This handy item allowed him to "tune in" on a particular sound: if he spoke a command word while concentrating on something he could hear, the sound instantly became much more audible, while everything else seemed to quiet down. He could dismiss the effect with another word.

Jason had decided how to equip the two of them, once Roland had explained his options. Normally, Roland would've been able to borrow whatever he wanted from the government's very formidable arsenal of magical items. But in order to do that, he would've had to explain what he wanted the items for, and that wasn't an option. So, the pair had to make do with what Roland owned himself. That wasn't a lot, since the adventurer much preferred to spend what limited disposable income he had on computer equipment and prostitutes than magical trinkets.

Jason had devised a rough plan of action, too. Once they were in the building, Roland would lead the way with his flashlight while Jason followed a few steps behind, keeping his own flashlight off while listening ahead. That way, Jason could be Roland's ears while Roland concentrated on using his eyes. Furthermore, if Roland was seen or taken out by any guards, they wouldn't necessarily know that Jason was there, and so the boy might still have a chance.

When the pair arrived at the building, they found that, as they'd expected, all the lights were out. They walked up to the tree. Roland, ever the athlete, scampered gracefully up, while Jason, who'd never been accused of being particularly fit, bumbled his way along the bark. Once they were both on the branch next to the third-floor window, Roland cast a spell. He took a small tin of orange goo out of his reagent pouch, smeared the outline of a sizable rectangle on the window, and said a word of power. The goo began to glow faintly, and Roland put his hand within the rectangle. The glass there seemed to have become gelatinous and malleable—Roland stuck his fingers in it, tore it out, and rolled it into a ball. Then, he carefully set the ball of glass on the windowsill and wormed his way in through the opening—the edges of the opening were gelatinous, too, and didn't cut him. Jason followed. Shortly thereafter, the goo stopped glowing.

"Elaborate." Jason whispered to Roland once they were inside.

Roland just motioned for him to be quiet, wielded his wand and flashlight, and turned on the latter. They were in an empty laboratory. Benches, stools, and glassware cast a host of shadows like a coven of ethereal witches, and a fume hood crouched in the corner like a cauldron. Everything was white: the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the shelves, the door. Or rather, off-white, since everything was coated in a thin layer of dust. The building seemed to be unheated.

"It's deserted." whispered Jason. "But maybe just this room. Go ahead."

Roland opened the door and walked out, into a hallway that ran left to right. Jason was about to follow when he heard someone cry "Halt!" in Common. He leapt back from the door. Roland threw down his flashlight, spun in the direction of the noise, and waved his wand, creating a Projectile Shield—just as his foe fired a weapon. The shield was a thick rectangle of green energy, but where the bullets hit, big purple sparks flew away and the shield thinned. Roland swore loudly and clapped his hands. A blue bolt of lightning sprang from them and dashed through the shield. Jason heard the guard scream and hit the floor, then the faint patter of footsteps. He used his necklace to focus on the sound and found that there were many pairs of feet, coming from both directions down the hall. He ran up to Roland and hissed "Careful! There's more from both ways!"

Roland, in response, restored the battered Projectile Shield with a spell and created another one behind him. Soon, both shields were being showered with bullets, and Jason retreated further into the lab. Roland threw down the wand, then put his back against the wall and waved one arm toward each group of enemies, bellowing the words of a spell. Long trails of magenta ooze came out of his palms and flew down the hallway. Yet the hail of bullets was unabated, and Roland's shields were no thicker than onion-skin. He revived them and hurriedly bent to pick up his wand. As he did so, someone else shouted an arcane word. Roland cast something defensively, but it wasn't quite enough—a huge fireball exploded right in front of him. He hurtled down the corridor.

Jason instantly dived behind a lab bench. From there, he had a limited view of the door that led to the hallway, while he himself was well-hidden. The shooting had stopped. Somebody cast another spell, and a man dashed into the room. He wore a guard's uniform and green goggles, and he carried a large, sleek machine gun. It was very dark, now—only a little moonlight shone in through the window, and Roland's flashlight was lying on the hallway floor—yet the guard didn't seem to have any trouble seeing. Jason was afraid that his heart was beating so loudly that the guard would hear it. But apparently, the man didn't find anything; after one quick glance around the room, he ran out. Several more guards dashed past the door. Jason could hear more running, then everyone slowed to a walk. He used his necklace, listening closely.

"All clear." said one man. Some of his comrades echoed him.

"Is he dead?" said another. His footsteps indicated he was near the place where Jason figured Roland had fallen.

A pause. Then, "No, I stunned him." Jason felt very relieved.

Another swore. "This could be bad." he said. "Really bad."

"Wonder how he got wind of it?" said the one who'd stunned Roland.

"I guess we'll find out soon enough." said a new man. Someone chuckled nervously. "Search him."

"I… I can't believe it." said the stunner. "I knocked out Roland! Nobody's done that for years!"

"Aw, that's a myth." said the swearer. "He just likes to propagate that tough-guy image, is all. It wasn't exactly a fair fight, anyway."

"Nothin' special on 'im." somebody else said.

"You boys get back to business." said the man who'd told somebody to search Roland—the leader, Jason supposed. "Tom, keep watch in that room, just in case. You two, bring him over there and pick up his stuff. I'll talk to Jake, see what he wants us to do with him."

The men resumed walking. One, not the specimen Jason had seen before, walked into the lab. Like the first, he carried a gun and wore goggles. He sat down on a stool in a corner of the room across from Jason, watching the window. Soon, the footsteps ceased, and all was silent.

Jason was very nervous and frightened, though the man (presumably Tom) had no hope of spotting him. He crouched there, in the almost total darkness behind the bench, and tried to think. Now what? The most that could be said about Roland was that he was alive. Jason couldn't make it to the window without being seen, and attempting to overpower the guard was certainly out of the question. All he could do was wait—wait and listen. He focused on random sounds with the necklace, whispering the magical words so quietly he could barely hear them. He could hear Tom breathing, and the bitterly cold wind blowing in through the hole in the window, and—what was that? The leader seemed to be talking on the telephone.

"…and Christ, I don't know what to do with him." (He wasn't actually referring to Jesus of Nazareth, of course, but a similar character from a major Gyeedian religion. I say "Christ" so it's easier to give you the feel.) "…Yeah, we did. Nothing." Suddenly, he hung up. "Whoa! Can't you say something?"

"Just thought I'd take a look myself." said a new voice, warm and male. The speaker was in the same room as the leader, but Jason hadn't heard anyone walk into it. He suspected it was Jake, having just teleported in. "And here's Immoralheart himself. My, I can't say I'm happy he's on our hands. Of all people…" Some footsteps. "In hindsight, it would've been better if you hadn't used the Piercers. Then, we'd just leave him in a dark alley, relocate, and nobody'd be the wiser."

"But he would've whooped our butts!" said the leader.

"Good point." said Jake, sighing. "I guess this is a bit of a no-win situation." There was a long pause. "Still, I hope you realize my paranoia was justified."

"Yeah, I do."

"I'm really not sure what to do, either. Certainly, we'll have to relocate. Do we kill him? I guess it'd be best to, eventually. First, we should question him, to see how much they know. How strong was the stun?"

"The maximum. He'll be out till sunrise."

"We can wait. Until then, keep him under double guard. No, wait—get one here, and I'll keep him company."

"You got it." A chair creaked; a door opened. "Hey, Tom! C'mere!"

Tom, the guard sharing the room with Jason, got up and walked out the door. Jason, thinking this might be his opportunity to escape, glanced at the window. The hole was still there. Since the goo was no longer glowing, he figured the glass was back to its normal lethal sharpness. But he was inside now. He could open the window. Yes, this was his chance!

He waited until Tom was quite away. Then, quietly as possible, he crept over to the window and opened it. No alarm rang, thank goodness. He heaved himself out onto the tree-branch and lowered the window back into its original position. Giddy with the prospect of escape, and nervous with the fear of being detected, he climbed down the tree to the sidewalk below.

He wondered what to do, now. He was alive and apparently safe, but he hadn't completed his little mission, and Roland's fate looked grim. Well, he supposed, no matter what he ultimately decided, it would probably be a good idea to see if he could hear anything more.

He buried himself in some conveniently-placed bushes and listened. Several minutes passed, and not a sound came from the building. He sat there, in the dirt, huddled into a ball; he was quite cold despite his coat. He regulated his breathing, trying to calm himself down to the point where he could think straight.

He was safe. He could hop on the train, ride to the orphanage, and tell them Roland just hadn't come home one day. Nobody knew he knew about the Piercers, so he wasn't in danger of being bumped off.

He could try to rescue Roland. It was possible that he might be able to, somehow. Did he want to risk it? Jason had never been accused of being a good Samaritan—he didn't feel obliged to risk his life for another's. If the man in Roland's shoes had been just some bum, Jason wouldn't even consider it.

But Roland wasn't just some bum. He was the closest thing Jason had to a family. He was Jason's only friend. Jason loved Roland.

But… but wait! Jason's heart suddenly hardened. What did it matter? Since when was love a respectable motive for such high-stakes gambling? Generations of poets, philosophers, and less professional kinds of romantics would readily cry "It's the best possible motive!" Jason, on the other hand, cared little for such sentimental reasoning. <No,> he finally concluded, <I won't put my life on the line for love. Too many people have made that mistake and died for it. Life's too precious for such tomfoolery!>

So did he want to try to rescue Roland? He thought about what Roland had said. "This is dangerous stuff, forbidden knowledge!" By not getting any further involved in this business, Jason would save himself, at least for tonight. What would happen to the Piercers, then? Would they fall into the wrong hands? Would they cause a war? Would thousands of people die solely because of a bunch of stupid magic bullets? Jason had to admit that it was all completely possible. Piercers really did exist, that much was clear, and 256 Pulliard Street had something to do with them. Whether or not Kevin had intentionally dropped that note and led Jason and Roland into a trap was irrelevant at this point.

Now, Jason felt no duty to save one person—no compulsion to risk his life for the possible gain of another's. But what about thousands of lives? What about nations full of lives? Didn't the very availability of these bullets have the potential to tip the scales of interdimensional politics? And wasn't it thus the case that whether Roland lived to get to the bottom of this Piercer business was vitally important to the fate of the whole world?

<I guess I don't have a choice, after all.>