An Impasse of Arms
by Byron Bailey
“An Impasse of Arms” began in issue 112.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sorry. But this is my first mission. If I don’t do it well, then my future employment will be in serious doubt.”
“I have an idea. Why don’t you let me have him under the condition that your mistress gets final approval over any punishment. My master has always liked a challenge. Trying to please the Mother Goddess should agree with him.”
“Sorry, I hate to be difficult. Unfortunately, my mistress doesn’t want to have anything to do with your master or any of the other deities who have sold out to the Angel Consortium.”
“But,” he stammered defensively, “he didn’t sell out. He merely saw the winds of change and bent with them.”
“That’s a very naive version of reality you have concocted for yourself, Charon. I hope it allows you to sleep when you’re not working. The fact of the matter, though, is that your master is a ruthless mercenary whose only preoccupation is in securing his own power. Hades, Pluto, or whatever the Hel he calls himself now abandoned his own brothers Jupiter and Neptune in order to join the Angel Consortium. I would personally never be able to look at my face in the mirror if I willingly served such a master.”
“He calls himself Satan, now. And yes, I admit that he has performed some fairly selfish acts in the past. However, if he would have been a little less altruistic, the only thing that would have changed would be that I and the others who served him from the very beginning would now be unemployed. He brought opportunity to us. When I expressed a desire to get into the harvesting business, after you broke up with me, he gave me this cloak and scythe and told me to start cutting.”
“Be grateful to a sellout if you must,” she replied. “I’m still going to take Jeffrey Vashon.”
Frustration seethed within him. “I don’t understand why you are being so difficult. I don’t even understand why your mistress thinks that she has a claim on his soul. My master has an irrefutable claim. Vashon has signed his soul over to Satan. We have a signed contract. What does your mistress have?”
“My mistress has justice on her side. Vashon has raped and murdered her high priestess in as brutal manner as possible. He tortured her with knives, keeping her alive for days, always careful not to cut any major arteries. He poured salt into her wounds and watched with pleasure as she writhed in agony. Is that enough claim for you?”
“Is the high priestess okay?” he asked softly.
“She’s beginning to recover from her death under the gentle care of the Great Mother. For a semblance of full recovery to occur, though, my mistress believes that Vashon must be punished in as brutal manner as possible. Otherwise, Christana will never feel a sense of closure.”
“I’m entirely sympathetic,” he said. “Unfortunately, if I don’t bring Vashon back with me, I’m going to be demoted at the very least. My master doesn’t take kindly to failure.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But it seems as if we are at an impasse. Don’t take it personally. I valued what we once had. I learned, though, just like you, to place work higher than mere conscience. A long stretch of unemployment can do strange things to one’s mind. I’m not going to be unemployed for another eight hundred years.”
“Well, I’m not going to go back to public transportation. I don’t even know how to drive a bus.”
“Then we fight.” She brought the tip of her spear to the level of his chest.
Charon stood his ground, his feet spread shoulder-length apart. He bent his knees slightly for a greater range of movement. Often he had found himself engaged in personal combat. Never before, though, had he faced someone who wasn’t wielding a scythe. His adversaries had always been those fellow employees of his master who had accidentally been assigned the same task that he had.
The basic concepts of scythe versus scythe combat were easily learned. The cardinal rule was never to strike unless the adversary’s equilibrium was disrupted. The scythe was far too cumbersome a weapon to swing without creating a debilitating state of imbalance in the attacker, the perfect opportunity for a swift sidestep followed by a devastating counterattack. Everything else was merely strategies and tactics to force a loss of equilibrium in the adversary.
Unfortunately, he did not know a great deal about scythe versus spear combat. Therefore, he stuck with the strategies that had carried him through so many encounters in the past. Like a shark testing for weakness, he circled around Friagabi.
He focused entirely in the present. His eyes took in her entire body in one glance, seeing all that there was to see. Her stance was impregnable. The only action he could do was wait and hope for an imbalance to appear.
She stood her ground, neither advancing nor retreating. Occasionally, her lips would curl into an infuriating smirk.
“How long are we going to be here?” he asked tranquilly.
“As long as it takes.”
The morning sliced through the night like an axe against a traitor’s neck. Charon stifled a yawn. Jeffrey Vashon crawled out of bed and disappeared into the bathroom. After a quick shower, the prey slammed the door as he left to engage in the day’s activities. The two combatants stood facing each other, one scowling, the other smirking, neither daring to follow the intended victim.
In a surprise move, Friagabi’s right hand slid from the shaft of her weapon. An explosion of hope deep in his gut blasted seductive chunks of shrapnel throughout the reaches of his soul. He would have never been able to maintain equilibrium with only one hand on his weapon. Then, he noticed the bedrock solidity of her stance and realized the danger of the trap. “I’m not falling for it,” he said.
“Fall for what?” she asked innocently. Her free hand drifted to the hair streaming down her front. With a flick of her wrist, she flung the strands behind her. Her breasts stood fully exposed to the elements. “Did you know,” she asked, “that hair down in front might be good for the modest mother image. Unfortunately, for fighting, it tends to get in one’s eyes and become entangled in the weapon.”
He nodded in sympathy. His own cowl, if improperly placed, could become a nuisance. Nevertheless, the tendons in his neck strained like a violin string as he struggled to remain balanced. He needed to focus on the entire image of Friagabi in order to notice the telltale ripple of muscles that signaled an impending attack. The way to defeat was to focus on a single spot of the opponent’s body like the eyes or the shoulder. Unfortunately, his eyes suddenly found themselves drawn to a single area. His limbs started to tremble. With great effort, he focused on not focusing. Somehow, his balance held.
“It’s kind of hot in here,” she said. Her fingers alighted upon the knot cinching the skirt around her waist. With a casual tug, her skirt fell to the floor. Charon gritted his teeth as his eyes momentarily darted in a frenzy, rapidly focusing upon one spot after another of her anatomy. At least, he wasn’t focusing on a single area to the exclusion of any other. He was seeing her entire body, just not all at the same instant. With a hiss, he tore his eyes away. After taking a breath deep from the abdomen, his gaze broadened, once again taking in all before him.
“You’re not fighting fair,” he said.
“I’m only fighting the way Odin taught me.”
“Odin never fought fair, either.”
The two combatants faced each other, neither giving ground, neither asking for quarter. Suddenly, an uncomfortable pressure in his bladder made its presence known. His fingers tightened reflexively on the haft of his weapon. Now was not the time to have to use the rest room. One could not maintain balance while in the process of urinating.
As the hours wore on, the buildup increased. His stance began to falter as he brought his knees together to help strengthen the control of his bladder. Balance was all important! He couldn’t give in to the demands of the spiritual body.
Finally, Friagabi backed away. “I have an idea,” she suggested. “Maybe we could stop and take a break, perhaps use the rest room. Then we could resume where we left off.”
Triumph flowed into Charon’s veins. Everyone knew that females had smaller bladders than males. He could undoubtedly hold on at least a little longer than her. Finally victory would be his. His master might not be too angry, even with all the hours he had wasted. “I don’t think so. I got you right where I want you.”
“If you say so,” she said indifferently with a shrug of her shoulders. “I think you might be a little more comfortable if you took me up on my offer, though.”
“No,” he said stoically.
“As you wish.”
Every hour, the pressure increased like dangerous floodwaters kept at bay by the strength of a damn. Inexorably, the floodwaters began to eat away at the bulwark. Tiny springs of liquid sprouted to the other side as sections of stone began to crumble to mud. Bravely, perhaps foolishly, the damn held, only to spread more destruction downstream when the waters finally burst fourth.
Friagabi stood strong, every tendon and muscle ready to burst into action, plunging her weapon into the midst of Charon’s essence. She was superb at concealing her discomfort. Not even a single bead of sweat stood out on her forehead. She appeared as calm as if her bladder were perfectly empty. Undoubtedly, her breaking point was near. Otherwise her focus would not be as intense. Only a great deal of focus could hold back his waters. She couldn’t be any different.
The door slammed open as Jeffrey Vashon returned to his domicile. Smoking a joint, a gawky girl no older than seven trailed behind him. A field of freckles peppered her cheeks. Jeffrey sank into his chair. “Ashley, do you want to be a good girl and sit on my lap?”
“I don’t know,” Ashley replied with a lisp. “I’m not supposed to be here. My mommy would be mad if I don’t come home and eat dinner. She’s cooking pot roast tonight.”
“I’ll give you another joint,” he said.
“I guess so,” Ashley replied.
Friagabi grimaced. “Look what he’s going to do,” she said. “We can’t let him do it.”
He knew a trap when he heard one. “I’m not that easy.”
“We just can’t let him go and do it,” she pleaded. “What kind of monster are you?”
An angry hurt stabbed him. In all of their history together, Friagabi had never called him a monster before, at least not when they weren’t in bed.
“Look! Damn you! If we allow this to happen, then I am never going to forgive you. I can understand this little fight we’re having. It’s nothing personal, merely business. We can’t allow, though, our little squabble to get an innocent child hurt.”
Slowly, Charon backed up, never allowing his gaze to drift from his opponent. Anyone who had been taught by Odin could not be trusted. The great god of the long-dead Norse had never been above devising an array of fiendish battle tactics to achieve his ends.
He took a brief glance. Ashley pulled the bangs from her eyes as she stared dazed into Vashon’s grinning visage. Charon’s body fluids froze as Vashon’s fingers, resting upon the child’s knee, slowly crept upwards.
“Damn!” he swore. “What are we going to do?”
“Stop him, you idiot! What do you think we’re going to do?”
“Fine,” he said. “Let me have him and I will stop him.”
“I’m not letting you have him,” Friagabi screamed. “This man deserves to be truly punished. I will not allow his punishment to be a mockery.”
“Stop being so difficult,” he said. “If I don’t bring him back, then I will have wasted over thirty centuries of seniority. After all the time I've spent fighting you, I will surely be fired if I don’t bring my quarry back.”
“That’s your problem. You were always a selfish bastard, putting your work above everything else, even us.”
Vashon’s hand crept a little higher, a little too high. “Are you going to allow this to happen right in front of us while we argue? There is a child’s emotional if not physical life at stake.”
Indecision gripped Charon. “We’re not supposed to cause pain. That’s my master’s prerogative.”
“I don’t give a damn about your master. Let me pass.” With a fierce purpose, she strode towards Vashon. Charon raised his weapon instinctively, prepared to slice her down.
“Don’t even think about it. I could have taken you any time, Charon. Your stance was atrocious. You hold that weapon of yours like you were a farmer. You might be a good harvester but you don’t know the least thing about being a competent warrior.”
His jaw hardened with sudden determination. Merely because she had been trained by a war god did not mean that he couldn’t fight. Even though she may have started out in war and he in public transportation, didn’t mean that he was any less proficient. After all, while she was unemployed, he was busy learning the fine art of the scythe. What could she do during the intervening eight hundred when she was unemployed... but train and train and train. The realization struck him like a lightning bolt cast by that jerk Zeus. A rage shook him. He threw his weapon across the room, listening to it clatter against the floor.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Byron Bailey