The Alchemist.

I wrote this in 1999 with a vague plan in mind. I wanted to create a character so charmingly vicious that he could make you laugh while he was doing the most horrendous things. He began ‘life’ as a wizard but over the years I refined his basic character and have used him as a psychopathic village school teacher and as an evil entity, part dragon and part demon, who acted as a tutor in the teacher’s reign of terror.

I began by wondering what you’d end up with if you took a highly intelligent man (in this case, but a woman could be incredible, too) who knew exactly what he was and delighted in being it. A few years later, Hannibal Lecter burst onto the scene in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, and his steady heartbeat maintained while he was doing the most gruesome things reminded me of this character. Friends weren’t so sure; they said my character was Hannibal on crack.

I had thought that if you invent a character who is so obviously evil, you can significantly cut down on the amount of graphic detail in a story. The reader’s imagination can speak louder and more thoroughly. I thought it was important to make him somehow likeable, and that got a huge reaction from readers. They liked his humour and candidness even though what he was doing with them was awful.

I hope you enjoy this short story and please, remember he’s standing behind you. You’ll know what I mean when you get to the end.

The Alchemist. I

I had lain on the cold slate floor for several days, too weak and crippled to move. The potion had, I feared, not only failed in its objective but at best left me a hopeless cripple and at worst would slowly kill me. The state I was in felt something like the thin silver suspension between life and death; it was populated with demons and dragons, with scarcely an angel in sight. Waves of nausea washed over me and I was wracked with intermittent spasms. I felt my guts turning and the sour taste of stale vomit in my mouth. The sharp pains in my fingers told me that the rats had been again, feeding on my still-living flesh, the opportunistic little rodents. I knew a moment a pride then; I had trained them well.
If I might only reach my bench and drag myself up I’m almost certain I could reduce the volatility of the poisons coursing through me. Amongst another sheeting spread of agony I smiled, and I believe I may even have laughed. There was no doubt that my alchemy had gone too far this time, but I had faced death on many battlefields and in many kingdoms and had still prevailed. That, at least, was unchanged.
Individual memory is a curious thing. How well I recall those dark ages so long ago when memories were all I could rely on. But I had learned; learned and adapted. And now here I was, trapped in this weakened state, my only hope that someone, anyone, would find me. Pain shot through my arm and into my heart, and again I willed that someone would come soon, before it was too late.
I have no notion of how long I lay suspended in that state. My first dim memory was of the clattering of vials and a dim thumping of herbs being mixed with a mortar and pestle. I felt my head being lifted and supported before a vile brew was poured between my parched lips. I swallowed, gagged, and did my level best to spit the liquid out. It burned as it descended and made me go into violent shakes and shudders. Firm hands held me down and there was a pressure on my chest. Unresponsive as my limbs were to my will, all I could do was hope this kindly soul would take my hand. And then my prayers were answered.
I thrust my awareness into her and felt the pleasing sense of her absolute shock. In body I was weak but in spirit I was a force of nature. I allowed her to grapple with my consciousness; I had the wonderful sense of her internal screams of terror. Feeding rabidly on her now, she only served to strengthen me. I felt my body readying itself for another spasm so I ceased toying with her and thrust her spirit into my body. I stood up, full of the vigour of youth, and looked down in curious disgust at the stark horror in the eyes of the thing I had once inhabited. I saw her in there, like a frightened doe, beseeching me with her eyes as she realised the fullness of her situation. I liked my new body, so recently vacated, and made a mental note to take better care of it for a time.
I believe she died in that worn-out old body, perhaps a day or two later. I was incurious to her predicament but I did manage to learn a little more about the effects of the drug I had taken. Her life was not completely wasted, then, and I had a vague sense of some thankfulness to her both for the information I gained through observation as well as the pleasant result of some further experiments I completed before she died.
One can only imagine the difficulties I went through in the days and weeks ahead. A nubile young woman is hardly a fitting visage for one with a reputation such as I; in fact I became the butt of a few short-lived and ribald jokes on the subject, before I put things to rights. There was that amusing little incident with the guardhouse lot, who felt that they could have whatever way they wished. They died in a sea of blood for that. Then there was the barkeep with the wandering hands, until I sliced them off and choked him on one of them. Casting further afield, I finally found the man I’d been looking for. Ah, the man of my dreams! Good looking in a ruggedly charming sort of way, deep-muscled chest, and imposing. In my current state it was easy to get him into an unguarded moment, and then I leapt into him. I believe he killed him/herself shortly after. Probably for the best, taken all around. Madness can be a rather lasting and complicated situation. Anyway, I was feeling much more myself now so it was back to work. No rest for the wicked, as they say.

Before. II

Of course, with my particular skills you could assume, quite rightly, that I’ve been around in one form or another for a long time. It can be dull and dreary having all these memories and believe me, I remember everything. How well I recall being a small boy, living in a time and place that was unkind to small boys and damned impossible for grown men. I lived in a village; nondescript and grindingly poor it was. My father was always off fighting wars somewhere or other in the service of a king whom everyone loathed, battling to make rich knights and squires richer by freely shedding the blood of the poor, and only occasionally coming home with yet another body part missing or a new scar added to his substantial collection. It seemed he had some delusions that I would follow in his bloodied footsteps, and I suppose in a way I did.
My mother was a workhorse and a drudge. Uneducated and largely unwashed, she was also one of the more perceptive people I’ve known. She looked at her past, my father’s present, and determined there’d be none of either in my future. We survived after a fashion by hard work and rat cunning, and I freely admit I was terrible at the former and excellent at the latter. My predisposition and her familial ambition led her to introduce me to a crusty old hag who presumed some knowledge of the Dark Arts. I recall our first meeting fondly; I strangled her cat while it slept on my lap. She was, as I suppose one may expect, more than a little put out by that so I strangled her too. She’d served her purpose, which was her life’s work collection of books on the Arcane. And so, I set about to teach myself.
I was a little flashy at first, as children are wont to be. You know, all those silly little spells and incantations that capture the imagination of children. It’s tedious to even talk about it now, but I had my share of poisoning wells on dark nights and ‘miraculously’ curing anyone who had drunk from them the next day, with lots of smoke, raising of arms, dread incantations and solemn looks. It worked rather well until the day I encountered a rather thirstier person than usual and my simple potion failed to work. Then, it seemed, I was evil, and pitchfork diplomacy was the order of the day. I escaped, a little on the punctured side, and managed to get back to my hutch and retrieve my goods before they were burned to the ground. Some people have no sense of humour whatsoever. In the event I wiped them all out a few years later, so things were set to rights again.
Spontaneous human combustion. Those words have a lovely ring about them, don’t they? After I left the village I decided a bit of solitude might be in order, so off I wandered until I found a wonderful cave to live in. After I removed those rather stupid bears that had been the previous tenants but became my rugs and bed I began my silent raids on local villages; a skillet set here, a houseful of furniture there, you know the sort of thing. Now rather well set up, I concentrated on learning more beneficial magic. And after a time I came across combustion. The potion is easy enough to emulate. All you need do is … well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Tee hee. Just a little light-hearted humour there. Nevertheless, it worked well. Under a simple cloak of invisibility I walked boldly into each house in the village and poured the potion into the cooking pot. By the time I reached the end of town there was the piquant aroma of roasting pork coming from the beginning of it. Once my work was done I gave a rather stirring little speech in the town square, admonishing the villagers not to try me again. I took their silence for consent.
Years past, and I learned my arts well, but what value is there in a thing if you don’t use it? It became time to broaden my horizons.

Refreshing The Inner Man. III

Over the years I had made several experiments that ended badly. It’s to be expected when you’re reading from arcane materials; many ingredients change name over time and sometimes the author has little writing skill. Books can be torn and pages fade, all making it inevitable that a modicum of guesswork will be required and eventually, mistakes will be made. I made several that raised a chuckle or two; little things like dissolving some of my fingers and burning a hole through my foot that I could pass a penny through. I didn’t miss the fingers at first, because as anyone worth their salt knows, if you want to bind a wizard to you and make him do your bidding without harming you, just remove the ring and middle fingers on his left hand. Heaven knows I don’t mind sharing that secret with you! The fate of other wizards is of no concern to me, and of I very much doubt you’d like to try it on me.

It was a confluence of things, really, that led me off into the world on a more permanent basis. Look, I know it’s all rather exotic and romantic to think about the lone wizard in his hidden den, concocting spells and charms while surrounded by phials and bubbling tubes and vats, but the fact is that for any self-respecting wizard with even a modicum of charm and wit it is also mind-numbingly boring. Some of us were just made to play to a larger audience. And besides, my last failed experiment had blown half of my face off and I was tired of walking around as a half-man, half-skull with a lidless eye and perpetual toothy grin. Not to mention the atrocious comb-over I had to tolerate. They look completely awful, no matter what century you inhabit. So off I went, out into the world of mortals.
Shape shifting is best done on animals that can form a fist or grip things. In the early days of wizardry you rely on a small phial of liquid to help you change back, so being a dog, say, loses some of its charm when you struggle to get the stopper out and drink the potion down. Being a squirrel or small bird, while they might serve a purpose, is no life for a grown warlock even though it’s easier to change yourself back. There have been many times when shifting into their body has been useful, but a full-time job of hiding nuts or eating worms is not one to be highly recommended. Anyway, I shape-shifted long enough to move in on my target without creating any excitement about my looks. Once I had charmed him with my ‘tame bird’ routine I casually changed places and caught him before he could swoop away. He made a wonderful meal, so in fact he had served two purposes.
As I grew in strength and stature I came to the attention of the nobility. And people accuse me of being a scoundrel! If found little enough that was noble in any of them; scheming, petty little turds that they were. However, by then I had learned how to rob them of their identity without the need for potions, so all was rather good. I spent quite a few generations amassing fortunes by dint of consolidating identities. However, raw ambition can only take one so far before more boredom sets in again. I could have been the very king himself, had I wanted it, but all those toadies one must be surrounded by put me off. Besides, I saw no reason to take a significant step down in my career.
I travelled widely, of course, and in doing so had the opportunity to absorb a lot of new skills and ideas without all of that tedious learning and effort. Japanese ninja, Indian potentate, Pope; you name it and I’ve absorbed it. Only one small dark cloud hovered over my existence; I had once, in a somewhat whimsical mood, touched a flower and seen the universe. It very nearly pulled me in so that I might never escape. The thought had charm, because I sensed that in doing so I would become a force of nature, connected to all organic things – the world as my oyster, so to speak. Another intriguing thought came to mind though. If I could retain and control my ‘self’, and not become shredded into the general consciousness of the planet, I might be able to emerge in any place or even multiple places and really have some amusing experiences. Perhaps one day I’ll try it. Or perhaps someone else already has. I wonder at the ability and limitations of the Devil himself. Is the depiction of hell a metaphor or could it be an accurate description of the core of the planet?

Digital Armageddon. IV

I have seen dragons and faeries, kings and castles, but the one constant has always been the average person. Their living conditions might have changed over generations but their predicament has not. I, of course, have evolved too. I’m much more confident in my abilities. I have seen the rise and fall of empires, the advent of the monetary system, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution. They made me yawn, frankly. And then came that marvel known as the Internet.

Isn’t the Internet wonderful? Cyberspace; all of those codes racing around inside fibre optics, minding their own business, and being decoded into web pages and emails and orders to fire weapons of mass destruction on unarmed masses of generally innocent people. You’d never for a second think that the Net has innate intelligence, would you? And that’s exactly as I planned it. You see, after so many centuries of careful thought and experimentation I found the alchemical formula needed to transcend the requirement for flesh-and-blood housing. I can certainly enter into it if I want to, but now I can do it individually, en masse, or any other way I want using only a part of my core consciousness.
Hackers: the bane of internet existence. They do serve a purpose, however; my purpose. As my consciousness scans the Net you’d be amazed at the people I find, talented in a rudimentary way, and with a simple organic nervous system that I can very easily manipulate to my own desires. And those desires are simple; to torture you and break you down, for no other reason than this: because I can. There is no higher or more complex reason than that.
I’ll even tell you how I do it, now that I’ve told you why: encrypted data. In any mainstream software, encryption means no more than adding a password. Consider how reliant you are on yours. And then consider how easy it is to break them; childishly, devilishly easy. If you use Word files all you need do to encrypt is click Tools, Options, and Security. You’ll arrive at a password box. Check out the heading above it: File encryption options. Yes, password equals encryption. Acrobat and WinZip can be equally as easily encrypted. I know, because I caused them to be written that way. Now use a 14-character random string like Kde76jQz9gr1Ln. Remember to keep a copy in your notepad, won’t you? Maybe if your email is intercepted by the Secret Service they can crack your code oh, around about a year from now. I’m a little faster; I know it as you type it.
Here is the elegant simplicity of what I do. I generate emails and send them to my targets. They’re encrypted, of course, until I send them the key. Do you know how many email addresses I have at my fingertips? As many as there are. That would explain the emails you ‘send’ and ‘receive in reply’ that you can’t recall typing. You didn’t; I did. This is where it gets interesting. Did you know that every time your fingers touch the keyboard you give off a mild electrical current? Indeed, your whole computer has a weak electrical field that you tap into whenever it’s on and you’re close. And I tap into that. Then I tap into you.
You work for me, unknowingly, and I cause you to write or respond to codes of my design; some, merely to piss you off; others, of a more malignant nature. I crash your systems, I freeze your hard drives, and I start your conflicts. Just when it looks like the ‘superior’ side is winning, I send a glitch, just to make things more interesting.
I embed my desire in your mind, I twist your thoughts to my will, and when I’m done with you – if you’re lucky – I let you be caught. Believe me, you wouldn’t like the alternative: madness. I addict you through games so fast your eye simply can’t keep up with the subliminal messages I flash directly into your irises, linking my will with your brainwaves. I cause your mood swings, I program obesity into your children so that they can live a long and slow death, and I am the pain in your wrists and arms. I know your name. And I know your encryption code. Now that you’ve come this far it’s only fair to tell you that I have you; I have your number. Please allow me to introduce myself, for I have a number too.
   666

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