Prelude to Madness

  Alia paced about her lavish chamber in frustration.

  “I don’t understand it!” she said angrily. “I almost had everything I needed and then, nothing! I've never had that happen before!” 

  Off to one side, another figure, tall and proud, dressed in traditional Amazon warrior's armor, stood watching the Queen as she paced. Her face was hidden behind a mask in the shape of a raven’s head, covered in rich ornate feathers, all of them a deep blue or black.

  “I still don’t know who she is!” Alia continued angrily. “Or who that priest is! There is something about him, though?”

  “She is Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons,” The mysterious warrior said in a husky, slightly accented voice. “I know her.”

  “She is Gabrielle?” Alia repeated in awe. “You said she was dead! You promised me that she would never return! How can you be so sure?”

  A soft, menacing laugh echoed behind the mask. “Because, my dear Alia. Unlike you, I was at the beach of Helicon. And I remember her!” The last was spoken in more of a growl than any real human voice.

  “So, what do we do now?” Alia asked. She paused and sniffed. “Do you smell something?”

  The masked warrior’s head moved from one side to the other, then back.

  “What are you talking about?” she asked. “Keep your wits, girl! We can still continue as planned. All we need do is prove that she is the one who abandoned our sisters at Helicon, and the tribe will tear her apart! It is this man and his actions that I am curious about?”

  Alia was obviously distracted by whatever had intruded on her senses. She looked around the room nervously.

  “Her companion?” she asked nervously. “What of him?”

  “What did you learn?” The masked one asked.

  Alia looked back at the masked one, her eyes wide. “Nothing!”

  “Nothing?” The masked one repeated, obviously displeased. “How is that possible?”

  Alia was at a loss. “I could see him before me, see the light of his soul, but there was nothing for me to read! It was as if he were nothing more than a dark hole where his thoughts should have been.”

  The voice behind the mask was suddenly dubious. “You said that no man could hide his thoughts from you?” it asked. “That a man’s every experience was yours for the taking. Was that not the truth?”

  “It is the truth!” Alia replied defensively. “But I have never encountered a man like him before! He must be a powerful priest if he can keep me out!”

The masked warrior chuckled again. “I say we let this priest roast and then give him the trial he desires.”

  “Trial by combat?” Alia replied. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

  “If he refuses to take a life,” The masked one continued. “And forcing Gabrielle to face him? That will also tell us just how important he really is to her. If he defends himself against her and she falls, then the tribe will be incensed, and if he doesn’t and Gabrielle kills him, her will would be broken. Either way, we win.”

  Alia was about to ask another question, but she paused, sniffing in annoyance. “Can’t you smell that?” she asked. “It’s like leaves burning?”

  The masked one shook her head. “Rest now. I want to get a closer look at our guests.”

  The masked warrior turned and strode out of the chamber.

  Alia lay down on a bed of pillows and closed her eyes. Suddenly, they opened again and she smelled that same pungent odor. She sat up, suddenly sensing the presence of another person in her chamber.

  “Who’s there?” she called out timidly. The only reply was the subtle crackling of the torches burning in the sconces on the wall.

 Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the flutter of fabric as one of the curtains moved. She was on her feet in an instant, her heart hammering in her chest. Quickly, she snatched up a dagger, lying next to her bed, and stalked to the spot. She pulled the curtain away, her weapon raised to strike, and only beheld bare stone behind it.

  She let a shaky breath escape her body in one long, slow exhalation and turned back to her bed. That was when she saw the shadow slip quickly past the opening behind another curtain and vanish into the passage leading back to the throne room.

  “Hey!” she cried out angrily. She gave chase, exploding into the throne room, weapon in hand and a wild look in her eyes.

  The two guards at the entrance to her private chambers looked at one another uneasily.

  “My Queen?” one of them asked.

  Alia turned back to them.

  “Did you see anyone else come out of here?” she asked nervously.

  “Only your advisor, my Queen,” The guard answered nervously.

  Alia let the knife drop to her side and sighed.

  “Are you alright?” the second guard asked.

  Alia nodded and smiled. “Just a bad dream.”

 She retired back to her chamber, her heart still thudding between her ears and that nervous feeling writhing in her belly.

  David’s projection slid quickly back into his physical body and his eyes blinked. He smiled and shifted about a bit, trying to look like he was slumped over with exhaustion. No sooner did he get into place, when the corner of the tarp was raised and a familiar masked face peered in at him.

  He looked up wearily as cool night air flowed into the stuffy chamber.

  “Can I get some water, please?” he asked meekly.

  There was a soft chuckle behind that mask and the tarp fell back into place. David held his feeble gaze for a moment and then his expression melted into that ever-infamous mischievous grin that often filled his wife with fear.

  “I guess not,” he muttered. Then he resettled himself as best he could and closed his eyes. The momentary breeze of fresh air helped him a bit as he sank, again into that blissful sensation.

  Alia lay asleep in her bed, her face an expression of silent peace.

  Her nose wrinkled as an odor began to permeate the room again. She rolled over and then her eyes snapped open and locked with the male prisoners’ dark gaze as he lay next to her on the pillows.

  “Hi!” David said cheerily.  Alia squealed in fright and practically leapt to her feet. As the blankets fluttered back down onto the empty bed.

Alia’s heart was thudding like a trip hammer. The dagger in her hand shook violently. As she stretched out her mind, she could sense nothing.

  Then the two guards were at her side, weapons at the ready.

  “Are you alright, My Queen?” one of them asked urgently.

  Alia looked about the room, her nose still tingling with the scent of that burning leaf. She knew that the presence was still in her chamber, though she couldn’t locate it.

  “Do you smell that?” she asked the guards. They looked at her, confusion on their faces.

  “Smell what, My Queen?” the guard asked.

  “You’re saying you cannot smell that?” Alia asked in a rising voice.

  “I smell nothing, My Queen,” The guard answered.

  Alia was seething with frustration. “Get out!” she hissed. “Now!”

  As the two guards withdrew, Alia could see David leaning casually against the wall, waggling is hands after the guards as if pushing them to leave, and then he looked up at her, took a long puff from the smoldering roll in his teeth, grinned and waved. His eyebrows bounced on his forehead a few times and he faded away.

  “Babe,” his voice echoed in her mind. “You messed with the wrong priest.”

  David strolled causally throughout the compound, smoking contentedly as he explored the entire cave system. As he moved about, he noted that several of the women stationed within the complex detected the odor of his ethereal cigar, while others were blissfully ignorant.

  “Got a few special women here,” he muttered. “Interesting.”

  He worked his way out of the caves and through the village. When he found the holding cages his levity vanished in a moment.

  He stood on a natural balcony with arches of weathered stone before him. Below, in a roughly circular chamber were dozens of long tables in a flat area. All about the edge of that chamber were dozens of smaller caves. It was not the natural stone formations that sent his humor plummeting. It was the children below, milling about like insects. Some of the older ones were off to one side, training with various weapons, while younger ones looked on or listened to lessons given by adult Amazon women.

  All of the children were female. Not one boy could be seen in the throng of people below him.

  “We’re in a God damned terrorist training camp,” David said in shock. His eyes roved about the large room. The ages ranged from as little as three or four years old, all the way up to late teens, with the elder girls training like possessed animals on various weapons. There had to be several hundred young women and children in that natural dormitory.

  Quickly David turned and escaped from the place, his spirit floating through the complex as he sought more information. Then he felt a cool wind on his face.

  “Nuts,” he said and he shot himself back into his body as quickly as he could manage.

  When he sat up with a start and blinked. Looking up he saw the corner of the tarp removed and a longhaired silhouette of a head looking down at him.

  “Hi,” David said thickly, still adjusting to the heaviness of his own limbs. He recognized her as the one who had jumped him back in the ruins, and had also removed his sunglasses in the main chamber.

  The head shrank back in fright, but did not vanish.

  David looked up, blinking in the moonlight. “Something on your mind?” he asked.

  She hesitated for a while, her big blue eyes staring down at him in a mixture of wonder and curiosity.

  David stared back her for a while and then a smile began to appear on his face. “As long as you’re up there,” he said casually. “Any chance of some water?”

  “Are you really a man?” the young woman asked innocently.

  David chuckled. “Last time I looked. You’ve never seen a man before?”

  She shook her head.

  “But you’ve been out of the village, patrolling the forest around here. Are you saying that there are no men in this entire area?”

  She shrugged. “It was my first time outside the village,” she confessed.

  “A village of women with no men around?” David smiled. “Hugh Hefner, eat your heart out.”

  The young lady frowned.

  David smiled. “Forget it. Is there any chance I could get some water, please?”

  “I’m not even supposed to be looking at you,” the girl replied.

  David smiled. “Well, you’ve already broken one rule. What’s wrong with breaking another one?”

  She seemed hesitant to push her luck any further.

  “Come on, kid,” David asked. “I’ve been cooped up in this rat trap all day. I haven’t given anyone any trouble. All I want is a glass of water. Is that really so bad?”

  She looked about quickly and then dropped the corner of the tarp back down again.

  David silently cursed his ill fortune.

  A few minutes passed, and then the Tarp was lifted again and the girl thrust a small cup down to him.

  David accepted the offering gratefully. “You little rebel you,” he said with a smile.

  The girl looked at him for another moment.

  “What are you called?” she asked.

  David smiled and introduced himself. “And you?” he finished.

  She seemed hesitant to reply and then she shrugged. “Ariadne.”

  Ariadne,” David repeated. “Very nice to meet you, Mistress Ariadne.”

  She grinned at his formal manners. Then her eyes darted up and away.

  “Someone’s coming,” she said quickly. “I have to go now. I’ll come back again later, okay?” The tarp fell back into place, sending him back into darkness.

  David shrugged. “Sure. I’ll be here, I suppose.”

  He settled back down and closed his eyes, drifting back into his meditations.

  He emerged from the pit in the bright light of the moon, watching as his mysterious new “friend” moved quickly and quietly from behind one fallen shack to another, out of sight of the two approaching guards.

  “Well,” David mused as the one guard passed right through him. “I suppose I should be conscious for this.”

  His eyes fluttered open as the tarp was pulled off and rough hands reached down, yanking him from his confinement. Even with the benefit of his meditations, his limbs were stiff and tingled incessantly. He found it difficult to walk, which only aided in his performance.  The two women escorting him half dragged, half aided him in walking as they brought him toward the main cave entrance.

  Gradually, David began feeling the blood flowing through his limbs again, as they slowly came back to life.

  He still made the two guards work for it, partially to keep up the appearance, and partly out of a twisted sense of spite.

  They dragged him past the main audience hall and into the private chamber of the Queen. By then, David was able to stand on his own, though he still maintained a wobbly stance. He wanted to appear weak in the presence of the Queen and her guards.

  Alia was standing next to a comfortable chair, her demeanor one of soft sensuality.

  “You are most impressive, priest,” she cooed. “I have never met one with the ability to project his will as you do. Nor has any man ever been able keep my abilities at bay. I’m impressed.”

  David recognized the setup immediately. Inwardly, he smiled. The energy pulsing around her left little to her intentions.

  “Forgive me, Highness,” David said cautiously. “But I already know what you’re planning to do, and I must warn you. You are playing a dangerous game if you intend to try and read my mind.”

  “Even now, you perceive my power,” Alia smiled, nodding. “Very impressive.”

  She stepped toward him, that cold smile frozen on her face. Her eyes glinted hungrily.

  “You do have a thirst for knowledge, My Lady,” David said. There was a hint of regret in his voice.

  “Knowledge?” Alia smiled darkly. “Oh, not just knowledge, my dear.  But experience and skill as well. I read and absorb all of the experiences, not just the thoughts and the memories. It is as if I lived them myself. I gain the strength and abilities of those I read.”

  David recognized that lust in her eyes and smiled again regretfully.

  “Then I must tell you, in all seriousness,” David was almost pleading. “You do not want to enter my mind, especially in this way. The knowledge and experiences I possess will drive you mad.”

  As expected, his warnings were futile.

  She reached out a hand to touch his cheek, and he could perceive the aura around her, flaring like a sunburst as it built for the exchange.

  “It’s all energy,” he thought, and he closed his eyes expectantly, clearing his mind. “Here we go again.”

  Alia touched his face and felt a sudden jolt as she slipped into his thoughts.

  The world went dark around her. Then, gradually, a light began to form, somewhere high above her, revealing a vast, barren landscape. The flat ground was riddled with endless cracks, like a jagged spider web laid flat and stretching out to infinity.

  Dark clouds roiled and churned high overhead, and the entire scene seemed filled with barely restrained power. She felt it like a pressure within her own ears.

  “I’m sorry,” his voice echoed around her. “I did try to warn you.”

  “What is this?” Alia asked, looking about at the desolation. “How did you do this?”

  “I am like you in many ways,” David replied.

  He appeared behind her.

  “I can read the thoughts of others, see the energy of their souls as it surrounds them. “He smiled. “At least, those are your words for it. I cannot absorb and experience those memories like you, but I do have the benefit of rather advanced training in this science.”

  “Science?” Alia asked. “What do you mean, science?”

  “Sorry,” David said, suddenly appearing off to another side. “Perhaps I should have said practice?”

  “Stop that,” Alia commanded. So far, she was getting absolutely nothing out of this exchange, and that displeased her. In fact, she was used to having control over the minds she explored. This complete lack of control made her more than a little nervous. At the same time, the possibility of absorbing this skill was too tantalizing to resist. She knew she could break contact at any moment. That knowledge calmed her uneasiness a bit. She looked at David with challenge in her eyes.

  David read the intent and tried one last time to convince the ambitious queen of her folly.

  “Mistress,” he said as formally as he could. He stood now, dressed in a long black robe, edged in crimson. “Let me explain life to you, once. Have you ever heard of the Shamaness, Alti?”

  “Indeed,” Alia replied eagerly. “She was one of the most powerful of us.”

  David nodded. Then he smiled a cold hungry smile. “And now, she rots in a prison, in my world after I effectively blasted her mind and stripped her of her powers. If you do what she tried to do, I cannot guarantee you will emerge with your sanity intact.”

  “You underestimate me,” she smiled.

  “I think the reverse is true, actually,” David replied.

  “I must learn this skill,” Alia said, gazing about the desolation. “I must have this skill!”

  “And you can, over time, the correct way.” David was almost pleading now. “Not like this.”

  “You will give me this knowledge,” Alia hissed as the pressure about them began to build.

  David smiled.

  “Get out.”

  Alia’s hand snapped back as if she had received a jolt from the man before her. David stood still, composed. He smiled mournfully and shook his head when he saw the glare in Alia’s eyes.

  “You really don’t want to do this,” he said sternly.

  In an instant, she fastened upon him, both hands framing his face as she forced her way back into that strange limbo.

  This time, the clouds above boiled and flashed with lightning as she faced David, her eyes glowing hungrily.

  “You little Vampire,” David said angrily. “I tried to be nice and you still want to come in here and try and mind rape me like this?” His eyes were dark with anger at this second, more brutal violation. “Fine. You want what I have? You got it! And this time, you don’t leave until you’ve taken all I wish to give you!”

  The desolate landscape exploded into a massive, grotesque barrage of sounds and images, most of them so completely unbelievable that they refused to register in any normal way within her bombarded mind.

  Images from reality, David’s future world history and a modest sampling of the more violent and fantastic pieces of various genres of entertainment that he enjoyed all flooded into Alia’s mind with the reality of breathing.

  If it had been traumatic in history, she saw it, if it was gory in the movies, she felt it as a complete reality.  Her mind was on fire with the images of war more horrible than anything she had ever experienced before, images of fire, death, destruction, mutilation and horror. It was a macabre collage of hell in a modern incomprehensible world, culminating in the horrific image of a massive mushrooming fireball extending to the heavens. The wall of death at its base spread for miles and miles, vaporizing buildings, foliage, and people.

  Her mind, struggling to make sense of it all, began to incorporate images she could understand. Images of her homeland bathed in fire, people she had known, melting before her eyes, or demons from her childhood coming to life in monstrous detail. She tried desperately to break the contact, but her own body wouldn’t obey. She was trapped in the mind of this man with his nightmare images, all that he had beheld and survived. It made no sense and yet there it was.  She cried out in agony.

  “Welcome to my version of Tartarus!” David’s voice boomed like thunder. “A place I know as Hell!”

  Something wrenched the struggling queen free of her grip on David’s face. Her nails scraped against his flesh, drawing blood in several places. She sprawled on the bed, shaking like a leaf.

  David blinked quickly as the contact was broken. His vision focused on the emotionless visage of the woman in the Raven mask. He glanced down at the Queen.

  “I did warn her,” he began. His voice faded as he saw the figure of the masked woman trembling with rage. Her backhand struck just below his jaw and he felt the world tilt as he went flying. He landed in a painful heap.

  “Kill him!” the masked one hissed in rage.

  “You kill me,” David gasped. “And you’ll never get your puppet back!”

  The masked figure turned back to the queen and knelt beside her. As the other two guards halted. When she turned Alia’s eyes to face her, the image of the mask seemed to terrify her in a way that it never had before. She screamed in horror.

  “My lady,” The masked woman pleaded. “It’s me.”

   Alia cowered in a corner, her eyes wide, seeing and yet not seeing.  Slowly, she rocked back and forth and began muttering with manic intensity.

  “And then there came a tapping, as someone gently rapping, rapping on my chamber door…” she giggled.

  The masked woman turned back to face him. “What have you done?” she demanded.

  David staggered back to his feet and looked down at Alia critically. “It sounds like I just introduced her to Edgar Allen Poe.”

  The masked one stood there, still shaking with barely contained fury. “You will undo this, now!”

  “What?” David countered in a cocky tone. “So you can kill me straight away? I don’t think so! You want her back? You deal with me!”

  In the corner, Alia looked up at David and smiled again. Her voice changed in pitch and accent suddenly.

  “…Two days ago, I saw a rig big enough to haul that tanker. You want to get out of here? You talk to me…”

  Then she grasped the masked woman’s leg in terror. Again, her voice and tambour changed maniacally.

  “They bore him barefac’d on the bier;

Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny;

And in his grave rain’d many a tear –

Fare you well, my dove!”

  David couldn’t contain his amusement at that. “Well,” he said, rubbing his jaw. “I guess I should have expected that.”

  The masked one stared down at her and then back at David.

  “What was that nonsense?” she asked.

  “That,” David’s smile grew in spite of himself. “Is Ophelia. A character in a play I read.” His smile melted as he saw that the masked woman and the two guards did not share in his amusement.

  “Shakespeare?” he shrugged. “Well, you’re descendants will love it.”

  Instantly, the masked woman had him by the throat and drove him back against the wall.

  “You will undo this, now!” She hissed. “Or I will tear your little Gabrielle to pieces!”


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