Bewildering Stories

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An Impasse of Arms


by Byron Bailey

“An Impasse of Arms” began in issue 112.
Part 2 appeared in issue 113.

As Vashon’s hand started to disappear under Ashley’s skirt, Friagabi stabbed with the point of her spear. Vashon screamed in agony as he instinctively pulled his hand away.

“That should make him think for a while,” Friagabi said.

Charon slumped to the ground. He pulled the cowl over his head. The urine poured from his bladder but he didn’t care.

“What’s wrong?” Friagabi asked.

He ignored her, instead focusing on the blackness inside his cowl.

“We can start where we left off. I don’t think he’s going to harm the girl, at least not until our little matter is resolved.”

He wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t come. He didn’t have any tear ducts.

“What’s wrong?” she asked tenderly. “Are you hurt?”

He turned towards her, his neck creaking. His pupils, piercing the blackness of his cowl like a sapphire laser, aimed at her. “Why did you toy with me?” he asked, his words trembling.

Her teeth nibbled at the corner of her lips. She started to talk but then stopped, her teeth testing out the lip for another moment. “I didn’t mean to toy with you. We were friends.” She coughed. “More than friends, actually. I couldn’t force myself to disperse you. We had been through too much together. However, I couldn’t simply walk away and let Vashon’s soul go to hell. My bones grow weary of barely surviving, lingering in the hinterlands. I need to have a purpose to my existence. I need to be employed. Perhaps the Mother Goddess wouldn’t fire me for not bringing back Vashon — I don’t know how bad her temper is. What I do know is that I would have failed on my very first mission.

“Furthermore, I believe in my cause. Jeffrey Vashon rightfully deserves to be punished by someone who will make him suffer. Christana deserves a sense of closure to the heinous acts he performed upon her. I couldn’t let you have him. I was only trying to wait you out. Besides, it was kind of fun watching you squirm.”

His words sounded hollow as if he were listening to them from a great distance. “I wanted to be just like you,” he said. “I trained every day in my spare time, trying to become a master with my weapon. I took lessons from Odysseus and Achilles. You were everything that I wanted to be, a grim-faced harvester of souls, capable of dealing out death with a mere flick of my wrists. You have shown me, though that I am nothing more than a mere ferryman better equipped to use a pole than a weapon. I should have never gone into the harvesting business.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not that bad of a warrior. It would have probably taken me a few seconds to disperse you even if I tried.”

“Thanks. But it doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“If you wanted to be a good warrior, one thing you should do is get rid of the scythe. It’s far too large and unwieldy to ever be effective for anything but mowing down defenseless souls and cutting the grass. Use a sword or a spear. If you really feel the need to use something with a more macho image, pick an axe with a sturdy shield. The axe itself is rather unwieldy. With proper timing, though, one could become quite formidable knocking one’s opponent off balance with the shield and then hacking them with the axe.”

“Do you think I could learn to be a true harvester of souls?” he asked.

“Perhaps.” Suddenly her jaw hardened. “Damn! He’s at it again.”

Charon turned around balefully. Jeffrey Vashon, his paralyzed right hand clutched to his chest, crept up Ashley’s thigh with his left hand. Charon’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “I thought he was supposed to be in pain?” he said.

“He is,” Friagabi said angrily as she rushed towards the mortal. Her spear stabbed his other hand. Vashon yelped in agony. For good measure, Friagabi aimed a precise blow at the groin area. Vashon screamed, the most bloodcurdling scream that Charon had ever heard. Not even the genius of his master was able to cause a sound like that to escape from the throats of those he tortured.

“That should hold him for a while,” Friagabi said. “Now we can get back to business.”

Charon’s career flashed before him, from his humble beginnings as a ferryman to the centuries spent as one of Satan’s most trusted harvesters. A deep certainty sat upon his chest. He had never been the best at what he had done! He had been merely proficient. Three thousand years working for the same employer and only being proficient at his job, what kind of pathetic excuse for an employee was he?

“Please, talk to me?” she said.

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Damn!” she swore. “What the Hel is he doing now?”

Charon glared at Vashon for interrupting his conversation. Even if there wasn’t anything to talk about, didn’t mean he wouldn’t have taken a little comfort in someone telling him he wasn’t as pathetic as he believed.

Jeffrey Vashon’s limp hands came together. He looked up at the ceiling. A tear streamed down his cheek. “Dear God,” he began.

“Take him!” Charon screamed! “Take him before it’s too late!”

“I know you’re hurt, but you don’t have to scream at me. Maybe we could work out some arrangement. After all, we both seem to have a stake in him considering the energy we've spent fighting over him.”

“Take him!” he rasped. “Kill him now!”

“I don’t understand. Why are you being so rude?”

Charon leaped to his feet and rushed across the room to where his scythe lay. He tripped over his robe, sliding chin first across the floor. Fortunately, he slid into his scythe, the blade cutting across his forearm. He ignored the pain, instead picking up the weapon. He staggered to his feet, spinning around to face his victim when he heard the dreaded words issue from Vashon’s mouth. “Dear God, please have mercy on my soul.”

The sharp crack of thunder sundered the spiritual world. In a flash of blinding light, an angel brandishing a sword, stepped into the room. His wings, slightly ruffled from the instantaneous flight, flapped slightly in agitation as he caught sight of Charon and Friagabi. “I am Gabriel, of the Angel Consortium. If you want the child’s soul, you may have her. She is nothing to me. The man’s soul, though, is now the property of the one and only true God.”

“That’s rather arrogant of you,” Friagabi said. “The one and true God. What kind of garbage is that? Besides, you can’t have him. We were here first.”

Gabriel held his nose smugly pointed towards the ceiling. “I don’t know who this ‘we’ you speak of is. You cannot be referring to this lowly harvester with the scythe. His kind and my kind have a one-way extradition treaty. In return, the Angel Consortium allows Hades and his associates to continue existing off of our crumbs. He now has no claim upon this soul. Consequently, the ‘we’ you refer to can only be you.”

Friagabi scowled, her cheeks beginning to blush. Then she smiled wickedly. “For your information, the ‘we’ I refer to is my spear and I. We were here long before you were. Go back to your heaven and bawl to your one and only true God. Jeffrey Vashon is not going to go to some vacation paradise you have set aside for him.”

Gabriel drew his sword, the blade hissing out of its sheathe. “The manner in which you speak conveys a definite lack of respect. I must rectify the situation.”

“Excuse me,” Charon spoke up. “I hate to interrupt, but excuse us, Gabriel, while I try to talk a little sense into her.”

Friagabi glared at him. Gabriel’s bushy brows creased in thought briefly. “Very well. I was looking forward to an engaging battle. But I wouldn’t receive it from a female. The spear she carries is undoubtedly only for decoration. If you could teach her to show some respect towards her superiors, then perhaps I won’t have to discipline her.”

Friagabi’s top molars ground against her bottom molars. “What do you want?” she hissed. “You are delaying the joy I shall receive upon teaching this arrogant bag of wind a little humility.”

“I don’t think you know what you’re getting into,” he whispered feverishly. “Odin may have been a great war god, but the lord he refers to was a greater war god, beating the innards out of the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Philistines long before Odin was even in diapers. Don’t be fooled by all of that ‘love your neighbor’ stuff.”

“Thank you for your concern,” she said tersely. “But there is no way in Hel that I am going to allow Jeffrey Vashon to be taken away to be pampered for eternity. Besides, I never did like these angels anyway, ever since they started harassing Odin by defecating on the rooftop of Valhalla, making the entire place stink.”

Charon shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t want to see you dispersed.”

“Neither do I. But someone has to stand up to them.”

Friagabi raised her spear. Gabriel shook his head sadly. “Females were never creatures of reason. My good harvester,” he said to Charon, “would you do me a great favor and with your scythe cut me a stick no thicker than my thumb? When I am finished disarming this poor, deluded, ignorant creature, I shall have to beat her appropriately so that she may acquire some semblance of wisdom. I would hate to dull the blade of my weapon on such a mundane task.”

“Cut your own stick, angel. I wouldn’t get too emotional about the sharpness of your weapon. I think once Friagabi finishes with you, she will need to borrow your sword to cut down her own stick to use upon you.”

“Harvester, your humor has much to be desired.”

“I wasn’t being funny,” Charon said.

The two combatants faced each other. Easily a head taller than the Valkyrie, Gabriel looked down into the tumble of Friagabi’s hair. Warily, their feet danced around each other, each step a calculated attempt to throw the other into imbalance. The angel’s blade shimmered, a barrage of holy verses etched in Hebrew upon its surface.

“Eat spear,” Friagabi screamed as she suddenly thrust with the point at Gabriel’s solar plexus. The angel began to parry the point. At the last instant, Friagabi lashed out with the butt of her weapon, towards her enemy’s groin. Only the angel’s wings saved him as he leaped into the air as hard as he could, taking the blow on the leg. Nevertheless, an enormous bruise destroyed the otherwise unblemished state of his kneecaps.

His lips twisted into a grimace that bared his pearly white teeth. “I am through playing games with you, wench. Feel the power of the one true God.”

His blade sliced with perfect precision. Friagabi backed up as fresh nicks on her thighs and forearms sprouted blood. The angel advanced relentlessly, each step forcing the Valkyrie towards the wall. The wall was the enemy. If her head passed through it, her line of sight would be cut off. After a brief instant, her leg, arm or head would soon follow. Without the ability to see, even for a moment, she was as good as dispersed.

A hurricane of thoughts and images whirled madly about in Charon’s mind. The leering face of his master, purple lips parted in mockery, danced before him. “Why do the angels now have my victim?” he asked.

“I don’t know. It was all that Valkyrie’s fault. She just wouldn’t be reasonable.”

Satan laughed. “You have greatly disappointed me. Nevertheless, your long tradition of service should mean something. You will always have a job here. There is an opening in public sanitation from what I understand.”

Charon pulled the cowl over his head, sinking deeper into his own blackness as new images taunted him. The dispersed body of Friagabi, the lovely arms and legs not to be seen for centuries, dangled lifelessly in the center of his consciousness. Suddenly, the image was dispersed by the upturned nose of Gabriel. Sparkling blue irises taunted him with their supposed superiority.

Then came the chain of jobs, stretching back at least three millennia. Three thousand years of striving, working day and night to become the best at what he did. Three thousand years of wasted effort. How much more pathetic could he be?

Charon tossed the cowl from off his head, allowing it to hang limp. A rage began to burn. Three thousand years of wasted effort and he wasn’t even near being the best. Rather, he was someone with whom the best could toy with impunity. He wasn’t even a contender.

Finally, he saw the leering visage of Jeffrey Vashon as he lounged at the edge of the pool. A waiting angel leaped into the air after taking his order for another drink and child.

Charon’s fingers tightened on the haft of his scythe with sudden determination. A mocking voice in the back of his mind taunted him, told him that he was throwing away three millennia of job security. He might not have been great at his job. But at the very least, he had a job.

Friagabi backed as far as she could go, defending vigorously, her spear whirling like an engine, parrying blows aimed for her midsection only to be struck on the limb. She gave an inch then another inch, until her eyes were barely visible against the solidity of the wall.

Charon crept as silently as he could. Another blow forced Friagabi beyond the wall. The angel’s arm tensed for the dispersing barrage of blows. Charon struck, slicing the angel’s legs off at the knees. Gabriel yelped in shocked surprise. With a final blow, the angel’s head went sailing across the room.

After several moments, Friagabi tentatively poked her face through the wall, her spear held defensively. She glanced down at the disintegrating essences of the angel and then at him.

“Why the Hel did you do that?” she asked. “I know he was an arrogant bastard and deserved what he got. But was it worth throwing away your career?”

“My career wasn’t going anywhere anyway. I think I might need a change of occupation. Do you think the Mother Goddess might have a job for me?”

Friagabi pursed her lips. “I don’t know. Normally, the Mother Goddess doesn’t hire your kind.”

“My kind?”

“Yeah, you know, male. I’ll ask her and tell her what you've done, though. She can be grateful at times. Without you, Jeffrey Vashon would go unpunished.”

“Thanks. I’ll get in touch with you later.”

He turned to leave as Friagabi aimed her spear straight at Vashon’s heart. The darkness of night surrounded him as a flood of thoughts flowed from his mind, drowning any sense of logic within him. He walked through the hinterlands. Tall brooding elms with snarling visages barked at him but he didn’t care.

Suddenly, a single thought sprouted out of the chaos of his mind. The thought grew like a beanstalk reaching towards the heavens, eclipsing all beneath it. Mad laughter began to trickle from his jaws. The trickle increased to a flood. An elm stopped barking and looked at him quizzically, its fist-sized eyes growing wide in surprise. Laughter was not very common in the hinterlands.

Charon dropped his scythe on the ground and walked away. For the first time in thirty centuries, freedom flowed from his lungs. The moment was ripe. The raw number of souls upon the Earth had created an environment ideal for the entrepreneur. No reason existed for him not to go into business for himself, snatch a deserted section of the hinterlands and transform it into a pleasant chunk of afterlife for the many souls who would adore him.

He walked deeper into a grove of barking elms as a new flood of thoughts washed over him. All he needed to do was find a niche to fill. That was the entire key to becoming a success in business. Perhaps Friagabi would help him. If her employment with the Mother Goddess didn’t work out, they could even go into business together. The image of the two of them working together as partners for a common goal sent a thrill of pleasure coursing through his marrow. All he needed to do was find that niche to fill. He didn’t quite know where he would find it, but find it he would. The barking elms gave way to growling oaks as he wandered deeper into the hinterlands.

Copyright © 2004 by Byron Bailey

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