"Don't answer," Allyra hissed. "Where's the back entrance?"
Before Blit could reply, the worm-eaten door crashed open. An enormous green man with incisors the size of tent spikes ducked and stepped inside. Odim and two other Banshees walked in behind him. Gedrak carried nothing—he didn't really need to—but the other three held clubs and torches.
"Well." Gedrak looked over at Allyra with a frown. "That's unexpected."
"It's not what it looks like." Blit stepped forward, open hands pleading.
Gedrak glowered at him like he was a cockroach. "It looks like you're cheating me, Patch Man. I pay you to get rid of evidence, not take it home."
"She wasn't dead, Gedrak!" Blit clenched his fists. "I'm not paid to do your murders for you. If your men are too sloppy—"
Gedrak cut him off with one massive hand. "Save it, Blit. We're through with you anyway. Nothing personal. We're just tying up loose ends, and that includes patching up the Patch Man." He looked at Allyra, chuckling at his own stupid joke.
Allyra was already halfway to him, though, warhammer in the air. Gedrak's surprise lasted only a moment. He lurched into the attack, taking most of it on his leathery hide. Then he threw a fist like a battering ram into her stomach and knocked her down.
She coughed, a small amount of blood trickling down her chin. "Don't worry, Blit. I'll get us out of here."
"Are you kidding?" Blit said. "Just stay close and don't... don't do that again."
Gedrak snapped his fingers, and the other thugs rushed toward Blit. But you didn't live your whole life as a demonspawn without learning how to dodge a pitchfork (or club, in this case, but the principle was the same). Blit ducked and rolled. Then he snatched an extract, popped it open, and drank it one smooth motion.
Immediately, he felt a rush of speed in his legs. He grabbed Allyra and ran at superhuman speed toward the room's back door.
Odim cut him off. Blit shot a hand into his coat, but before he could decide which extract would help him, Allyra—who wasn't nearly as injured as she'd looked—slammed her hammer into Odim's chest, knocking the wind out of him.
Gedrak marched toward them, drawing his jagged blade. "Where you gonna run to? We'll just hunt you, you know. We have to clean up all our messes."
Blit laughed, snapping a fingerful of pine dust into a vial behind his back. "When have you ever cleaned up your own mess, Gedrak?" Then he tossed the vial at the half-orc's feet. It exploded in a burst of flame and light. Gedrak howled. Pieces of the wall cracked and crumbled, and the whole building groaned ominously.
Blit grabbed Allyra's hand and dashed past the wounded Odim. The other Banshees ran after them, but they were too slow to keep up now. The building's back entrance was locked, but Allyra smashed it open with no trouble. Then Blit whipped together another incendiary cocktail and, when they were well into the street, tossed it back into the building where it detonated on impact. The doorframe and most of the stones around it collapsed immediately.
They ran down the street, Blit tugging, half-dragging Allyra forward with his artificial speed, when suddenly the ground beneath them shook and the air rumbled. Blit turned around. The old townhouse—what had been his home for the past several months—collapsed into a gigantic pillar of smoke and rubble.
He stared, hardly able to breathe. The Puddles was his home; it was supposed to be his last home—really, who can't find a niche in the City at the Center of the World? Well, Blit couldn't. He was hunted now, dispossessed, just like in every other place he'd tried to live.
Something tugged his arm. It took him some time to realize it was Allyra. "Look," she said.
He blinked and tried to see past the disaster that was his last chance at a normal life. Nothing came out of the rubble, but in the dust he distinctly saw the shadow of a half-orc making his way around.
"Right." He swallowed. Then he took Allyra's hand again and led her at a jog (for him—for her it was more like a sprint) to Plashet Alley.
∗ ∗ ∗
Blit was completely out of extracts by the time they reached Plashet. He untied a string around one of the under-barbs on his leg, extracted a small key, and used it to unlock a door slapped together from old cargo pallets.
Allyra stumbled into the dark room and collapsed on the floor. Blit took a little more care to lock the door behind them and cover the gaps in it with a darkcloth. Then he fell onto the padding in the corner and fell asleep.
He woke first and lit a candle for Allyra's sake. The hideout was a small stone room, barely big enough for the desk in it and two people to stretch out on the floor. He sat down and began replenishing the extracts he'd used the night before. He had much to prepare if he was going to leave Absalom forever.
He didn't know what time it was when Allyra finally stirred. "What is this place?" she said groggily.
Allyra pulled herself up, looking in wonder at the chemicals, flasks, and other odd materials collected in various drawers on the desk. Of course, she hadn't seen what he'd had in the rowhouse. This was nothing. Still, it felt nice to impress her.
"Why do you have a backup lab?"
He snorted. "You think this is the first time I've been run out of my home? Look at me, Allyra. I'm an aberration. A beast."
"No, you're not! You're a—"
"What? Human?" He stared at his hands, his bulging gut. They were pretty much the only human parts about him. Then just inches down it all turned to hell. "Not hardly. Not ever. That's why I became an alchemist. I wanted to find something that would make me human permanently." He poked a vial of greenish fluid, eliciting a variety of angry, black swirls. "I've gotten nowhere. My greatest achievements are the disguise you saw me in and this damn mutagen, which does the opposite. It makes me more me—hideous and feral. That's the last thing I want."
"You're not the only fiend-blooded man in the world, you know. You're not even the only one I've met. It doesn't define you." She reached up a hand to touch him.
Blit batted it away. "You know why I came to the Puddles?" he barked. "Why I didn't set up shop in the Coins or the Foreign Quarter like a human alchemist? I've lived in a dozen villages. I helped people, you know? Love brews, healing potions, whatever they needed, if I knew how to make it.
"But no matter how helpful I was, no matter how long I lived in a place, I was never a part of the place. Nobody trusts the hellspawn. Something bad happens—crop fails, some gaffer bites it, a member of the city guard gets killed—guess who gets blamed? Doesn't matter that I saved their skins a hundred times, oh no! It's a worldview thing, see? Once you dehumanize someone, they become the source of every bad thing. Doesn't matter what you do, it's what you are, and eventually they always turn on you."
Allyra had the good sense to turn away when he said that. Good. He was afraid he'd been too subtle.
"I'm sorry, Blit. I—"
He waved it off. "Eh. I'm sorry I let my guard down. By now you'd think I'd know better than to trust anyone."
"What? But you can... God, for someone so nice, you're pretty self-absorbed, you know that? I like you, Blit."
That stopped him. After a moment, he remembered to close his mouth.
"I..." She tossed her hands into the air. "I was a swamp hag, okay? There's no excuse for how I used you. I mean, it was a greater good thing—you were our best source for most of the guilds—but that doesn't make it right. I'm truly sorry, and if I ever lie to you again, you have my permission to burn down my house after you take whatever looks good to you. Can we square that?"
He stared at her for a while, still caught on the words "I like you." Nobody had ever said that to him before—not even lying. Eventually, he nodded.
"Okay." She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. "Okay. So can I tell you who I am? What I know? Because there are some really important things happening—I'm sorry, okay, I know it was your home and it was the latest tragedy in a tragic life—but even more important than that. People are in danger, and I'm not going back out there to face the bad guys unless I trust the person I'm with and he can trust me, okay?"
He nodded again, not because he knew what she was talking about, but mostly because he wanted the truth and she seemed more than willing to offer it.
She nodded, staring at a spot on the wall to her right. "So, we—most of the Puddleglut, I mean—aren't just Caydenites. We've been spying on the guilds in the Puddles for a long time now, passing our information on to Caydenite cells in the other districts so they can stop the worst of the guilds' activities.
"You were kind of my main source of info about the Banshees." She finally looked him in the eye. She had the good sense to look embarrassed. "We knew about Gedrak and Hollis already, and then I used—"
"Hollis. The guard you found last week. He's a Token Guard from the Coins and a grit addict. I used what I knew to fill the gaps in your story, then did a little investigating of my own. Apparently, Hollis tried to blackmail Gedrak for some free grit, and Gedrak didn't take kindly to that."
Blit chuckled. He'd guessed right about that first meeting after all. "So what the hell happened last night? Gedrak met with someone important, I know that much. Was it about Hollis? The Puddleglut?"
Allyra took a deep breath. "Her name is Talish."
Her tone implied much. The question mark above Gedrak's name came to Blit's mind again.
"We didn't know enough about her. We thought she was just a middleman for the Banshees' smuggling operations, but apparently she's more important than that. I spied on them last night—alone, which I shouldn't have been—and heard enough. The watch is putting pressure on her because of the missing guard, so she ordered Gedrak to destroy it all, everything that could possibly tie their operations to her."
"Their loose ends," Blit said, remembering Gedrak's words.
Allyra nodded. "You. Me. The Puddleglut. They're folding up their whole operation, and leaving nothing to chance."
"That's good, though, right? The Banshees are done. No more smuggling. You and I just need to get out of Absalom."
She looked him in the eye, a pained expression on her face. "No, they're destroying everything, Blit. Grit, weapons, pesh... even the slaves."
It bothered Blit that Allyra knew more about his employers than he did, but that didn't change anything. "That's got nothing to do with me."
"Slaves, Blit! They're going to kill them! Stuff them in a warehouse and burn it down like the Puddleglut. We have to do something."
Blit laughed. "No, we definitely don't. We were nearly killed last night—you twice."
She sulked at that.
"Maybe you need to find out what happened to the other Caydenites, but I need to leave Absalom for good before Gedrak and his goons find out where I've gone. I can't risk my life for a bunch of slaves."
"They're people, Blit."
"So am I!"
Allyra did the last thing he expected then: she slapped him hard in his bony face. It hurt more than he cared to admit. "You just finished telling me how dehumanized you are, how outcast. Well think about this, Blit: they can't leave Absalom. They can't just go to another town or village and pretend everything's okay. They. Are. Slaves. However hard your life has been, you have your freedom. You're still alive."
Blit fell onto his stool (he wasn't sure when he'd stood up), and for a long time, neither of them said anything. He looked away and exhaled slowly. "I'm not saying I've got it worse," he said finally. "But we're all in danger here, and I can't... I can't help them. I'll be lucky if I can help myself."
Many minutes of silence stood between them. Eventually, Blit turned back to his work, eminently conscious of her gaze on his back, her staccato breaths.
"I was wrong, Blit," she finally said. "I would've sworn you were good underneath, too."
Blit winced when she slammed the door.
He pounded a fist into the desk. "Fine," he growled at no one. "Go and die!"
At least he would live. And if Allyra didn't, well, that's what she wanted, right? A worthy sacrifice for Cayden's glory. Either that or the slaves would be free. Everybody got what they wanted.
He looked over his makeshift lab, at the potions and mutagens he'd spent years perfecting, all in pursuit of the discovery that would make him permanently human. Then his personal hell would be over. He'd be like everyone else.
Except he wouldn't, would he? He'd still be Blit, no matter what he did to his body.
He dug his nails into his palms. Then he pounded the desk again once, twice, thrice. Beakers rattled. Jars fell over. He pounded and pounded until finally his hands flew to his cloak, tucked a dozen vials into the pockets, and he ran outside shouting, "Allyra! Wait!"
Coming Soon: Mopping up in the Puddles in Chapter Four of Adam Heine's "The Patch Man."
Adam Heine is the Design Lead for the computer RPG Torment: Tides of Numenéra. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Thaumatrope. Find him online at adamheine.com.
Illustration by Kuba Witowski.