Dante could barely keep his eyes open as he stepped through the door of his apartment. He had a long day at work. He was socializing with some of the office gang the previous night and had very little sleep. He stifled a yawn as he hung up his jacket in the hall closet. He could feel his bed calling him. He kicked off his shoes and removed his already loosened tie, pulling it over his head and dropping it on a small table just inside the door. He looked into the kitchen, but decided he was just too tired to make anything to eat. Supper could wait until he had a nap. He went to his bedroom and with a sigh lay down on his bed.
What Dante didn’t know as he lay down was his bed was now a personal and exclusive portal to purgatory. He had closed his eyes for a moment when he sensed something had changed. The air seemed different, cooler and dryer, and had he forgotten to turn off the lights as it seemed to be a lot brighter than it was when he came into the bedroom. Whatever it was, Dante was satisfied he was in his bed and fell asleep.
“Oh, I can see he’s battle ready,” smirked Astrada.
A sleeping Dante lay on the pallet Tauren had set for him. A drop of drool glistened at one corner of his open mouth.
For several moments they let him sleep. Tauren and Astrada stood by in silence, while several initiate warrior lounged around the pallet on which their prospective champion slept. Astrada, who on her recent visits to earth had adjusted to the informalities of many languages, grew impatient and in her best American accent said in a loud voice, “O.K. champ, time to rise and shine, you have a lot of work to do and you need to get started.”
Dante’s eyes flicked open. Looking around, his head still resting on the gold lame covered pillow Tauren had provided him, Dante felt certain he was dreaming. “Where was he? Who were these costumed people watching him sleep? Who is the tall muscle-bound silver haired guy and the absolutely smashing hottie in the skimpy black costume holding the enormous sword?”
It had to be a dream. Dante closed his eyes and rolled over on his side. “Seems you missed the first wake up call, champ,” said Astrada, “let me provide some rousing encouragement.”
The feminine voice seemed to Dante’s ears to blend an astounding combination of sarcasm and command. If that hadn’t made him sit up, the painful prick he felt on his neck did. This time, his hand reaching to the pain point on his neck, Dante could take in the total strangeness of his surroundings. And although he still believed he was dreaming, the sight of blood on his fingers added a dimension of reality to the moment.
He turned to gaze at the woman with the sword. He looked at her, then at the sword, then back at her. His tone was incredulous as he spoke. “You stabbed me. I’m bleeding.”
“And if it doesn’t close up in the next few minutes,” she laughed, “you are likely to bleed out from it in a week or so.”
Her lack of any sympathy for the distress the wound caused him, prompted him to turn beseeching eyes towards the tall, well-muscled man beside her, ‘was he wearing some kind of toga?’ He had no idea what he should say, but his mouth of its own volition seemed to have it covered, “Where am I? Who are you people? What’s going on here?”
“You’re in purgatory,” said Tauren.
“I’m dead!” If he had been incredulous before, now he was terrified.
“Well,” explained Tauren, “no, you’re not dead. You don’t have to be dead to come here, although most are.”
“Does that mean all of you are dead, then?”
“Well, here, none of us are, although you wouldn’t be able to tell even if any of us was.”
“And” added Tauren, “who we are? We are your trainers, sparring partners, and, I hope, some of us, your mentors.”
“Why me?” Asked Dante, “I haven’t even belonged to a gym.”
“That’s apparent,” sneered Astrada.
Dante could think of nothing else to say. It was all so strange. He rose to his feet and surveyed his surroundings. This had to be a dream. The area had a medieval appearance, but not the classic one, more like the medieval look found in futuristic science fiction movies. It was a large open space, like a gym, with a firm but dirt floor. The roof, white stone held up with columns with their intricate design, making it appear more like it belonged on a monument than a gym.
“What in hell is this place?” demanded Dante.
“Purgatory, not hell,” replied Tauren, “a staging ground for hell to be sure, but only for those who have died and are deserving. When they’ve finished their time of atonement. Tends to be an extended stay for almost everyone.”
“No, I mean what’s this space we’re all in?”
“I suppose you could call it a practice field.”
“A sports practice field?” asked Dante.
“If you think war is a sport,” snorted Astrada, returning her sword to its scabbard.
Dante was dumfounded. “War! Why am I here?”
He couldn’t miss the dismissiveness in the hottie’s tone. “Why? Because they have informed me you are the champion of earth and its domains.”
“Are all the ladies in purgatory like you?”
“Ladies!” chuckled Astrada, “There is no-one else here or any other place like me.”
“Geez, that’s a relief!”
“We’ll just see how much relief it is. Shall we get started?”
It was obvious the hottie with the sword was not making a request. She withdrew her sword from its scabbard once again, flourished it, then pointed it towards the far end of the enclosed field. “Run to the furthest pillar over there and back to me as fast as you can. Move it!”
Dante gave her an incredulous look. “I’m sorry?”
“Listen, champion,” Astrada hissed, swinging the edge of her sword toward his leg, just stopping short of making contact, “get moving before my blade gives you a reason not to run.”
A quick glance at her face convinced Dante she was serious and ready to use the blade as she said. Dante ran. Sword still drawn, Astrada ran beside him. Running had never been his thing, even as a child, because his parents forbade it, but he thought he was giving it his best shot. He had not gotten halfway to the pillar before he was breathing hard and his calves ached. Astrada, however, was doing a relaxed lope beside him. When he slowed, he felt the flat of her sword strike painfully against his thigh. “Keep moving,” he heard her shout.
He ran as if his life depended on it. At some level, he was believing it did. It was a long and agonizing run to the far column and back to the group standing beside the pallet he had awakened on, but he made it. He stumbled and fell to the ground beside the tall, muscular and silver-haired guy, wheezing. Astrada was right there with him, looking like she had just taken a relaxed stroll.
Ignoring the prone and wheezing figure, Astrada turned to Tauren. “So, this is your champion. Look at him, he’s exhausted after jogging such a short distance.”
Tauren smiled, “You have a point, Astrada, it does look like you have quite a job ahead of you.”
“I am no miracle worker!”
“You’ll do just fine,” returned Tauren as he walked out of the square and away from the sullen Astrada and the wheezing champion.
“Yes, fine!” sneered Astrada, turning toward Dante, “Okay champion, while you’re down there give me as many push-ups as you can.”
It hadn’t taken Dante long to realize Astrada was not one to kid around. He adjusted his position on the ground and attempted the very first push up of his adult life. And it was just the beginning as over the course of the earthly night, Astrada drilled Dante like a demented football coach, forcing him to use every muscle in his body.
As morning was approaching back on earth, Astrada let Dante take a well-deserved break. He lay down on the pallet as his coach had suggested and moments later, he was back in his own bed, sound asleep and with no memory of his overnight experience.
Not long afterwards, the alarm went off, rousing the champion for another day of work.