An Impasse of Arms
by Byron Bailey
The shiny white bones of Charon’s thumb, unadorned by the unsightly baggage of flesh, slid along the razor edge his scythe. The obsidian black blade shimmered in the ethereal glow of the spirit world. From the two holes where his nose should have been, he sniffed as he imagined the acrid aroma of stark terror. The hunt was on!
The haft of the weapon dangled perfectly in his hands. The grip was all-important. Too loose or too tight and the blow wouldn’t have the necessary strength or whip to cleanly slice through its target. Nothing ruined a pleasurable moment quite the way the shrill screams of the mortally wounded could. His job was only to bring death, not pain. The bringing of pain was the exclusive domain of his master.
Jeffrey Vashon stood contemplating his massive collection of human skulls, filling an entire bookcase that stretched from floor to ceiling, from one end of the room to the other. Murderer, rapist, child molester, sadist and cannibal, he had done a great deal for which to answer. Admittedly, the cannibalism part could possible be overlooked. After all, what could be more wasteful than allowing perfectly palatable food to lie buried in the ground? However, no mercy could be allowed to those with the audacity to play with their food.
Charon approached quietly on the balls of his feet. Vashon picked up a child’s skull and wiped the dust out of the eye sockets with his shirt. His slender, almost cadaverous lips twisted into a grin, revealing a row of needle-like teeth. He brought the skull to his head, staring for a long moment into the empty sockets, into the blackness that had been the brain. Wistfully, he turned away and placed the skull back on the shelf.
The moment of death had arrived. Charon cocked his scythe backwards. The man’s soul would be severed from his flesh like a stalk of wheat from the root. After a final deep breath, he cleared his mind of any extraneous thoughts. The universe consisted of him, the scythe, and Vashon. He struck.
Out of no where, like a hawk obscured by the clouds suddenly plummeting in pursuit of a fat dove, the tip of a spear intercepted his weapon, harmlessly turning it aside. His cheeks bones, if possible, turned whiter than they already were.
A series of symbols resembling the tracks of horribly disfigured crows were etched into the surface of the spear point. With a growing sense of dread, his gaze followed the shaft of the weapon to the point where a pair of slender hands grasped it. His eyes trailed up the arms, rippling with firm muscles, to a pair of full breasts, only half-concealed by the cascade of blonde hair that reached down the front to her navel. “You can’t have him,” she said firmly. “My mistress has plans for him.”
Charon coughed softly. “I’m sorry but my master has his own plans for him.” The woman’s voice, sultry and calm like the river Styx, tantalized him with its familiarity. His head shook fiercely, tossing the black cowl covering his skull backwards. A single certainty welled up inside of him, though. He had never seen her before. No male could gaze upon the immense degree of voluptuousness, concealed merely by a fur skirt reaching only to the middle of her thighs, and ever forget.
She leaned her weight casually against her spear in a suggestive pose. “Too bad. Your master is going to have to be disappointed.”
“I think you’re being rather unreasonable,” he said. “After all, I was here first.” The image of his master, thick purple lips twisted in menace, streaked through his mind. Disappointing the boss could at the very least be a little dangerous.
“Think all you want. My mistress demands the rights to Jeffrey Vashon’s soul. He must pay dearly for his crimes against mothers and children everywhere.”
Who was this mistress that she kept talking about? A twinge of dread crept up his spine, lodging in his chest. When one didn’t know with whom one was dealing, then dangerous mistakes could be made. “We have something very much in common.” When in doubt, create common ground that both sides could walk upon.
“What could we have in common?” she asked. “I am a ravishingly beautiful phenomenon while you are a disgustingly horrid creature of the nether regions.”
Damn! He knew that voice from somewhere. “We both serve those who want to see Jeffrey Vashon punished for his many crimes. In my book, that means we are serving the same ends, just not the same means to the end. Therefore, I think we can rationally work through our differences and arrive at an equitable solution for all involved.”
“Very well,” she stated. “The only equitable solution for me would be for you to walk away while I take his soul. You should be very grateful. I won’t have to impale your essence upon the tip of my spear, dispersing you for the next several centuries.”
Your proposal is unacceptable to me.” Like an angry sun refusing to be banished by a mere layer of clouds, the image of his master, reclining upon his throne of gold and flame, burned through the cover of his thoughts. The purple lips parted with displeasure. “You have failed me, Charon, for the first and the last time. I think you belong back in public transportation where you will have a lot less responsibility.”
The vision sent a frigid tendril up his spine. Public transportation hadn’t been particularly unpleasant in the classical period, ferrying passengers across the big river. Now, though, crossing the river was as simple as walking across any of the number of suspension bridges spanning its shores. The ferry had been replaced with the diesel-guzzling bus, winding its way like a snake invading a rodent’s narrow burrow, through the congested streets. Never once during an entire decade did the driver manage to see the beautiful black sky through the constant haze of gray smog.
“That’s the best offer you’re going to get,” she informed him. “Therefore, I advise we stop wasting time and get straight to the part where I impale you.”
His grip tightened reflexively on his scythe. Nevertheless, he took a deep breath, allowing the tension to flow out of him. He hadn’t served for three millennia without mishap by allowing the emotions of the moment to make decisions for him. “Let’s talk a while longer and see if we might be able to understand each other a little better,” he said. “Through understanding can come compromise.” His master was an expert at compromise. He could do far worse than strive to emulate him.
“Very well. A knowledge of the enemy can at times be useful. Besides, my mistress has a use for current information. She has only recently come out of retirement and isn’t entirely informed upon the current state of affairs.”
He nodded. Lately, a lot of the old gods and goddesses, had made attempts to regain a semblance of their relevancy. The world was booming with human life, far greater than in any period in history. The population was measured not in hundreds of thousands or even millions. The magic word was billions. Even by acquiring just a miniscule fraction of the overall market share, many of the deities could rise to a degree of influence that they never possessed in even the best of epochs.
“You are aware,” he said, “that if you are truly interested in having this man suitably punished, then my master is the way to go. No one has a better reputation at meting out exquisite punishment than he.”
“I’m familiar with the reputation of your master,” she said, chewing on her full upper lip. “However, his reputation isn’t quite as illustrious as you suggest. He is more concerned with the artistic and ironic implications of the punishment than with any real suffering. My mistress wants this man to be stabbed, cut, whipped, and beaten for eons if not eternity. What she doesn’t want is some twisted punishment where he is raped and mutilated by the spirits of angry, young children. Your master’s concept of punishment would only be foreplay to Jeffrey Vashon.”
He watched mesmerized as she chewed on her lip, at the succulent corner where the bottom one joined the upper one. The movement of her teeth haunted his mind. The voice and the lip-chewing could not be wrong. He knew this woman. The tracks of mangled crows’ feet on the tip of her spear suddenly glinted off his eyes. He took a closer look and recognized them for what they were: Norse runes. Like a wave of wine, realization rushed over him in an effervescent froth of headiness. “Is that you, Friagabi? You have changed a great deal. Last we met, you were a gaunt-faced, pasty-eyed creature with fangs. Buckets of blood would drip from your spear, causing all mortals to quiver in dread at your sight. You were the perfect harvester of death. What happened to you?”
She clenched her teeth before scowling at him. “Hello, Charon. Long time no see. I really wished that you wouldn’t have recognized me.”
“Why is that?” he said, his voice becoming low and soft with concern. His heart throbbed as a string of pleasant memories of him and her marched across his mind. “You’re the reason I got out of public transportation into the harvesting business.”
“Isn’t it obvious,” she spat. “Look at me! Look how much I have changed in appearance, all for the worse. I feel like a mortal bimbo trying to fulfill the paleolithic fantasies of her indifferent mate. What greater indignity could befall me than having to wear nothing more than a fur skirt?”
“I can see the problem. It must get a little chilly.”
“Chilly!” she snorted. “I can endure the cold. After all, I used to be a Valkyrie, one of Odin’s finest. A little cold can’t get to me. What I find very demeaning, though, is having these out in the open for anyone to see.” She pulled her hair away from her front, revealing two grapefruit-sized breasts.
Charon stared for several moments before speaking, choosing his words very carefully. “Last I remember, you didn’t have those or anything like them.”
“Very observant of you. I had to have them implanted when Odin tried to reshape our image to make us more competitive against the Angel Consortium. All the Valkyrie had to lengthen their hair and get breast implants in order to create a sight that the noble warrior would prefer over the competition. Apparently, the breast implants weren’t enough, because the competition still won out.”
He nodded in understanding. “I know. I miss the old days. Unfortunately, they’re gone. Maybe you can talk to Odin and see if he might want to try to get back into the picture. A lot of the old deities are making a modest comeback these days.”
“I would never go back to Odin,” she said. “When the source for new souls dried up, he retreated to Valhalla. Unfortunately, never-ending battle made throats become parched. He had me and the rest of the Valkyrie hand out tankards of mead like we were nothing more than common serving wenches.”
“That’s worse than public transportation,” Charon cried.
“I wouldn’t quite go that far. However, it was still very demeaning. The rest of the Valkyrie and I — at least all except a few sluts without even a thread of dignity — resigned. Since then, we have been hunting in the hinterlands for whatever edible morsel we could find while we looked for work. After eight hundred years we have finally found an employer. I am now in the service of the Mother Goddess.
Charon choked in disbelief. “Do you mean the Mother Goddess, the one that started all of this religious mess thirty-five thousand years ago?”
“That’s the one I’m talking about,” she nodded. “She decided to come out of retirement on account of the rampant proliferation of phallocentric religions. The world needs to come in contact with its feminine side in order to acquire a more sane perspective on reality — at least that is what my mistress says. Personally, I miss the days of galloping through fields of blood and entrails.” Her eyes dropped to the floor in embarrassment. “I guess I’m kind of new to this getting in touch with my feminine side stuff.”
“Don’t worry,” he said sagely. “You’ll get better at it. Starting a new job is always difficult.”
“Thanks. But I’m not sure I like this thinking in terms of masculine versus feminine. I still prefer the old labels of brave and cowardly, majestic and pathetic, irrespective of an entity’s sexual organs. If I want to spear someone, I want to be able to do it without having to wonder whether my tendency towards violence is a result of my repressed and misguided desire to possess a penis of my own. According to my mistress, the spear I carry around is a symbolic phallus, and when I kill with it I am symbolically thrusting my sexual organ into the sexual organ of the one I stab.”
Charon shook his head. “Considering how she feels, I’m surprised that she let you keep the spear.” The purple lips of his master suddenly materialized in his mind. With each second that passed, they parted in disgruntlement. While on duty, a worker should never waste his employer’s time. His master could be rather brutal towards employees who squandered their effort while on the clock.
Friagabi laughed. “I had to convince her that the tremendous skill I have with my weapon is actually symbolic of the feminine taking control and subjugating the masculine for its own end. I’m not exactly sure of the meaning of what I said. My mistress, though, liked it so much that she is requiring all of the newly hired Valkyrie to keep their weapons.”
“I really am glad to meet you again,” he said diplomatically. “I’ve greatly missed the pleasure of your company. Maybe we can get together after work. But I’ll get in trouble if I talk much longer on my master’s time. He has a way of ferreting out less productive employees. So let’s get back to business. What are we going to do about Jeffrey Vashon?”
Friagabi sighed. “You were always superb at performing your job in the most exemplary manner. You would never allow something as mundane as our lovemaking to cause you to be late. I’ll tell you what we’re going to do about Jeffrey Vashon. You give him to me and I won’t disperse you.”
“Let’s be reasonable,” he admonished. “After all, we’ve known each other since the old days. There is no reason we have to be unyielding.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Byron Bailey