“Goddammit!” Mickey Donahue slammed his calloused fist onto the scratched and chipping bartop, wincing as a piece of wood too large to call a splinter nearly dug into the open sores on his hands. Burns from that damn explosion. He grabbed the bottle of rubbing alcohol Chubbs had been using to sterilize his injuries and downed half of it, pouring the rest down his shirt while his underlings looked on in shock.
“Mickey, cool your jets! You’re lucky you got out of that alive, you shouldn’t be-”
Mickey smashed the alcohol bottle and swung it at Gresham Walsh, planting the sharpened glass deep into his shoulder. Gresham screamed, and collapsed to the floor.
“Don’t you ever tell me what you think I am, you fucking prick!”
Planting one foot firmly between Gresham’s lungs and colon, Mickey continued kicking the crap out of his erstwhile lackey until he coughed up blood and passed out. Still boiling, Mickey ripped off his shirt to get at his flak jacket. One of many items Mickey had lifted from the police in the past, the enchanted vest had shielded him from most of the damage he would have taken in the blast. But it was sticking to him now, and it had started to smell.
In the corner, the homunculus watched Mickey, trying as hard as she could to stay out of sight. Her face betrayed concern, but not for Mickey. It was a veneer, an excuse. The only concern she had right now was for herself.
She resisted the irrational urge to express her anger with violence, biting her tongue and staying her hand. Why? Why couldn’t he have just died back there? It was perfect! The kind of scenario that guaranteed an unavoidable death even with a human shield, the perfect timing and flawless execution… those kinds of conditions would never just happen on their own ever again. And still it had failed to kill him. Only cause her more pain.
She squeezed her arm tightly to release her frustration, digging into the flesh with such force that a few of the men around her began scratching their arms in phantom pain. Why? What had to happen for her to be free? If the Fates’ perfect storm had failed to kill Mickey, then what chance did she-
No. She had to breathe. Thoughts like that were born of emotion, not reason. Emotion wasn’t reliable. Keeping her head down, remaining calm, cool, and rational. These were the things that would help her escape her current situation. Not blind fury and pointless frustration. She needed to calm herself. End the cycle before it began. No, what she needed was a hit.
She stopped herself. Not now. Not now. She had to wait. Ration it out. There wasn’t much of it left, and if she ran out…
A voice in the back of her mind told her, Why bother? It’s gonna stop working sooner or later. You can feel it, right? Enjoy it while you can…
She resisted that line of thought. There was no choice but to bear with it. And if running out wasn’t enough of a reason, then not lighting up in front of Mickey was. If he found out, what little she had left would be gone. And then she would have to remember. She would…
Completely at random, the homunculus chose to burn a hole in some of the men nearest to her with her eyes to take her mind off of things for a few minutes. They’d been staring at her for a while now, their eyes wide with lust. Best dispel that before Mickey saw them and got any ideas. She didn’t need that right now.
Seeing her stare death at them made the men back off a bit, their eyes roaming elsewhere. It wouldn’t last long. Eventually they’d regain their bravery and they’d be back, wetting their mouths like hyenas patiently waiting for a piece of fresh carrion.
She had nothing to fear from the lingering eyes of other men. Mickey wouldn’t let them touch her without his permission. He didn’t like feeling like he was missing out on any of the fun. As long as they didn’t talk to Mickey, she’d be fine. And he didn’t look like he was in the mood.
But she still felt foul. Like tiny worms were crawling through her capillaries, trying to get at her nerve endings.
She reflected back on her memories of her creator, hoping to find some kind of calm in the middle of the storm. He had been an exceptionally plain man named Erik. Substandard in every way, no considerable detail about him stood out from the ordinary. He was an exceedingly normal human being, and that kernel of truth was the focal point of the one thing that set him apart; the screaming storm of emotions and complexes that raged at him in dissatisfaction, insisting that he was meant for more.
Erik had aspirations to be a man who would do great things. He was just too weak-willed to actually take the steps towards doing them on his own. In many ways, a common human plight. Erik did, however, have an uncommon problem. He couldn’t stand for being ordinary. He hated it. Perhaps that desire to stand out was why he chose to name her as he did: Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.
Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim frowned as her memories faltered. They were nowhere near as vivid, as lucid as they were when she was on her daily dose. She could hear the little imp in the back of her mind talking again, scraping at the door. She had to think back. Remember more of the details. She could never achieve that same recall sober, but if she could just escape for a little bit, maybe, just maybe it would help her calm down.
There was an idea that Erik had gotten in his head that if he were to somehow create a companion who could do the hard work for him, he could surpass his helplessness and mediocrity and take charge of his life. The logic behind this idea always baffled Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, but she suspected it was a prerogative born of emotion rather than logic.
It was that longing that led him to learn alchemy from secondhand 15th century Renaissance manuals (not entirely helpful) and discarded fae grimoires (much more helpful). In his quest he immersed himself in pseudoscientific learning and occultism largely consisting of studies in the creation of artificial life and immortality, and other means by which one could obtain certain forms of power over others.
While never a focal point of his research, sympathetic magic was a favorite of Erik’s. She could vividly remember him reading aloud from textbooks on the subject while she was still in the incubation stage, his voice reverberating through the flask with fascination and passion. As a man with very few friends, he was enamored with the idea of a methodology that could quickly and easily forge a bond between two people, for better or worse.
Eventually, his research hit a critical point, and he decided he would need to do something dangerous if he was to complete his perfect partner, his sword and shield. Nearly getting himself killed in the process, Erik went about conducting illegal experiments involving vampirism when the topic was still a matter of hot academic debate, not to mention a social hot-button for controversy. He would invite vampires into his home to conduct experiments on them at great personal risk to himself, learning a little more from each of his “guests” before releasing them back into the streets. Not all of them cooperated or had any interest in helping him with his scientific pursuits, so he was often attacked. Some of them fed briefly and left. Others didn’t. A few were killed in self-defense, but as mentioned earlier, Erik was a weak and exceedingly ordinary man.
Finally, he had the knowledge he needed to complete her, and release her from the purgatory of the incubation phase. Using what he’d learned in his unorthodox experiments, he attempted to create through her his idea of the perfect sword and shield. A false aegis, born of ethically questionable experiments into vampirism and hoodoo, bonded with an artifact of great power. Or a fragment of one at least.
She shivered, momentarily breaking out of her memory trip. She still felt it, coursing through her bloodstream. After all the modifications he’d made to her organs and other life-sustaining features, he’d taken it, that tiny shard of a mythic weapon, and melted it down into boiling hot iron, barely enough to fill a thimble but potent all the same, and then injected her with it. He’d been confident she could survive it. And she had. That test was the final day of her development, and the day he’d given her a name of her own.
Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim could never remember having any particularly strong feelings for her creator beyond the bond of obligation one feels towards their progenitor, but she had to admit he took care of her all the same. He practically fawned over her day and night, teaching her and filling her head with information, instilling within her a desire to read and develop on her own. He was an adequate caretaker.
Then Mickey Donahue happened.
No, she didn’t want to remember that! She need to think of something else!
You see, the critical flaw in making her the way he did was assuming that having a powerful companion made you powerful as well. No matter how potent the magic that she was imbued with was, it didn’t make him any less vulnerable to the actions of those who would wish to steal it from him. And that was exactly what happened.
She had been gone running errands for Erik as homunculi often do and indeed are expected to, only to return home to find that an armed gang of street thugs had broken in and were holding Erik hostage while they ransacked the house for valuables. She had done what any loyal servant would have and began systematically disabling the threat to her master, until one of them, the man she’d come to know as Mickey, pulled a gun on her master and held it to his head.
From any range there was nothing she could have done. While she had inherited the self-restoring physiology of a vampire, she didn’t have the same speed she would need to save someone from a point-blank gunshot to the head. She had to comply with Mickey’s demands or Erik would be shot.
Unfortunately, her attempts to dissuade his gang from any further action had only piqued Mickey’s interest in her. He was a vulgar man, so she expected he would have made similar demands for other reasons given the chance, but in acting as she did she’d set in motion a series of events that would determine the course of her own future, and Erik’s.
Think of something else, think of something else, think of something else
His demands were simple. A complete transfer of the geas binding a familiar (her) to its master (Erik). He wanted what was inside her for himself, and demanded Erik forfeit the contract to him in exchange for his own life. An exchange of blood between her and Mickey would seal the contract and give him power over the weapon she held inside her, but nothing could be done until the existing contract was rendered null, meaning Erik had to willingly forfeit the geas to Mickey. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter if Mickey killed him or not. Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim could only serve the one to which she was bound to by contract. If he died, she would become a free agent, slave to no one.
Unfortunately, Erik was an exceedingly normal, and cowardly man.
He forfeited the contract in fear for his own life, and was immediately shot in the head by Mickey. He forced himself on her and sealed the contract with a bite on her lip, shoving himself into the open wound in an attempt to swap fluids. She remembered the initial sensation, and it disgusted her. His smell. His taste, of which she had become so familiar.
After she had come under the ownership of Mickey Donahue, it had been nothing but misfortune after misfortune. She became his toy, one he and his friends played with roughly and frequently. There was little respite between his abuse and the abuse he made her take in his place, and sometimes she feared she would break, quite literally into pieces, both mentally and physically. Lately she’d stopped thinking like that. She’d come to realize that death, while still undesirable, would be better than remaining Mickey’s plaything. However, she lacked the ability to die, or even end her own life. So that left her with the only remaining option: escape.
It wasn’t easy for a homunculus to disobey its master. There were numerous failsafes in check in the geas system used to regulate binding contracts between individuals, whether they be equals or master and servant, and none of them were easy to circumvent. She could do her master no harm, she could not by inaction or negligence allow her master to come to harm, she could not disobey her master’s commands, she could not self-terminate or willingly put her own life in danger unless it was in defense of her master, and she could not knowingly disobey any of these rules unless given explicit permission by her master. As one would imagine, such laws were made to make escape or resistance difficult. To make matters worse, these instructions were engraved on her very soul, written over her Impetus. If she wanted to revolt against Mickey, she could only do it in the most roundabout way possible.
But she’d been careful. She’d thought her plan through to the end. If she could not aid in her own escape, then she’d have to enlist outside help to sabotage Mickey’s operation in a way that complied with the restrictions placed on her. She’d need to discreetly get in contact with one of Mickey’s enemies, one whom she could trust for as far as one could trust career criminals. If she managed that, they could arrange a large scale operation that would attack on multiple fronts, distracting Mickey without putting him in any real danger long enough for her to be captured and confined somewhere she couldn’t lash out under Mickey’s orders. Once she was disconnected from Mickey, it’d be trivial for her erstwhile saviors to wipe him and his gang of armed thugs off the map.
It was a plan which would involve an enormous amount of precision, and more than a little luck. She hated that. Luck. She’d had none of it so far in the brief few months she’d been alive. Why should she start trusting it now? Still, she had no other options. The consequences for failure would be harsh, but no humiliation or pain of the flesh could compare to the indignity she faced living as Mickey’s pet. His doll.
The horrible memories she’d tried to repress started trickling back into her mind like dirty tap water, dripping, dripping, dripping until she went insane. There had to be something else she could think of. Anything that would help her take her mind off of this until she could just get her fix somewhere away from Mickey! She couldn’t do this if she was thinking about these things!
Thankfully, she did have one advantage. Mickey was vastly ignorant of the real power the contract afforded him. He only knew the most basic rules and stipulations, whereas she had every clause and sub-clause burned into her brain. As long as he remained ignorant of what he could really do with her, then the chances of her plan succeeding rose tremendously. There was only one remaining wild card.
Alfonso Anastasio. She had only just heard the name, but chosen him at random to deliver her message. Why was that? Initially she was convinced she had made the decision out of trust in the (somewhat) noble intentions of the Allesandri family. They were an organization of extortionists, smugglers, murderers and thieves, men of a criminal nature just like Mickey, but they still had their principles. A code which they followed, something to keep them honest. While delivering her message to him, she’d come to the conclusion that her decision had been made for these very reasons.
But was she really so sure? Was her decision truly the most logical one to make in this scenario? Did she really trust the Allesandris? Or did she trust him?
She’d seen the way he looked at her. That mixture of pity, muted horror, and anger. She had no way of discerning his true character, but she felt like, in that moment, he had understood her, felt her pain, and extended to her something neither Mickey or Erik had ever given her before.
She cried a little inside, betraying no outwards emotion. Stupid. It was stupid to let something like that influence such an important decision. If he behaved unpredictably, the entire plan could be ruined. She had ways of anticipating and calculating Mickey’s actions, as well as the Pescatorre and Allesandri dons. They each had a carrot dangling in front of them. Something they wanted. She could not say for sure if Alfonso Anastasio was the same way. She could only hope. And hope had not served her well so far.
The faint noise of murmured conspiracies freed her, gave her something to focus on. She saw some of the men whispering to Mickey about something. She tensed. Mickey slapped the man.
“Not on your fucking life.”
Like she’d thought. He wasn’t in the mood for sharing or playing. She began to relax.
“Oi. What do you think you’re doing over there?”
His words hit her like a ton of bricks. Even though he hadn’t yet issued a command, she felt the compelling draw of his intent, like voices screaming at her in her head. It looked like she’d been wrong about the severity of Mickey’s mood. Or maybe a little too right.
Smiling sadistically, Mickey grabbed something from inside his jumper pocket. A bag filled with bright, crushed leaves from a dried out plant that smelled faintly and sweetly of honey. Her bag.
It was at that moment she physically felt herself lose whatever hope she’d had left that things were going to be okay, even if it was just for one more day. Where had he found her stash? How did he know it was hers? These questions were irrelevant. All that mattered was that Mickey was holding the only thing standing between her and the talking imp, standing arms open at the gates of Hell. She needed what was in that bag.
“You want it back?” he said, making his intentions clear. So that was his deal. If she willingly humiliated herself for him again, he’d give her back her hope. It wasn’t a fair bargain. But it didn’t have to be.
She swallowed her pride, and approached Mickey, doing her best not to show the pain when he kicked her in the shin and forced her down on her knees. This would hurt, but for now, it was better to just give in. She wouldn’t remember this soon anyway. Don’t resist him. Fighting it would only prolong the humiliation, make it harder to forget. If having the bag back meant she could just make it one more day, and tell herself tomorrow she’d be free, then maybe she’d be okay. One more day would become one more week, and one more week would become one more month, but as long as she kept telling herself tomorrow she’d be free, she’d be okay.
She had to be okay.