The moment the alarm went off, Dante sat bolt upright. He scanned the room to make sure he was where he thought he should be. For some reason, unknown to him, he needed to confirm the familiarity of the room. There was no question this was his room, the room he had fallen asleep in. He couldn’t understand why this was so important to him, but somehow it was.
The quick post alarm survey of the room became a regular morning ritual. It was the closest he would come to remembering his time in purgatory. This first morning, however, Dante felt content with himself and his surroundings until he tried to stand up. His knees buckled, his legs were stiff and sore. In fact, his entire body felt stiff and sore. It was, he thought, as if he had run a full marathon while doing some tumbling as he went along.
He staggered his way into the shower and stood under a soothing jet of steaming spray. He noticed the water flowing from him toward the drain had a golden tinge. He had seen it before, but it registered for the first time. It was as if a fine yellow sand had somehow covered his entire body, which it had, although he could not imagine how. Once out of the shower, the stiffness and soreness came back with a vengeance. Dressing was difficult, as was the complete process of making and eating breakfast with most of the time spent on wincing and groaning.
Dante was sure he was coming down with something. For someone who had never been sick a day in his life, this was disconcerting if not terrifying. He would have called in sick, but it was month end in his department and without him there, the staff members were likely to become anxious about the workload. It was Dante who knew the procedures and often took care of most of it, helping and comforting his harried staff. He knew as surely as night followed day, he would get panicked phone calls from the office every few minutes asking how to do this or that. There would be no rest and doing his job over the telephone did not enthuse him, so he went in.
What was on most mornings a pleasant walk to the office was today a slow and painful one as he dragged himself along? This morning, the half mile seemed more like ten. Despite this, he only arrived a few minutes later than usual. As he entered his department’s section, he could see the looks of relief on the staff members. He may be glad he came, but not as glad as they were. The soreness had not abated, making his movements stiff and labored, but it amazed him to realize that while he felt sore, he didn’t feel sick.
It was a long and mentally strenuous day, but not physically taxing, and perhaps because of this, Dante didn’t feel much better by the time the workday ended. The walk home was painfully slow and once through the door, Dante wanted another hot bath, a quick bite to eat and to crawl into bed.
As he lay back on his bed, he closed his eyes and for a moment flashed back to the peculiar, almost forgotten dream he had the night before. He could still remember the female voice demanding in no uncertain terms he best get on his feet and get working. Then he realized it was not a memory, someone was telling him just that. With reluctance he opened his eyes, afraid he was going to see exactly what he did see. There was the hot, scantily clad woman standing in front of him, her hand on the pommel of her sword which was, thank God, still in its scabbard. Stiff and sore or not, Dante was about to have a serious workout.
For the next couple of days, everything he did was painful, each movement an agonizing struggle. His staff wasn’t sure why their fearless leader moved through the office as if he was a cripple, but they could tell he was in pain and sympathized with him. While most treated him with care and respect, Merilee had taken to giving him a neck massage while he sat in his office chair. Under normal circumstance, Dante would have been too timid to accept this, but it felt so good and she was getting some knots out.
Dante had to say no when the staff invited him to join them at a local watering hole to celebrate the successful conclusion of month’s end. A disappointed Merilee offered to drive him home, but he demurred at that. He had accepted her massages but was not yet ready for any other personal attention from her. All he wanted was to have a nice warm bath and climb into bed.
While the bath was running, he went into the kitchen and ate a cold chicken drumstick and drank some milk. Even his jaw was sore. The bath relaxed him enough to take some edge off the soreness. He fell into bed, only to find himself back on the practice field in purgatory.
Astrada was relentless. She was determined to get him into decent physical shape before training him in any warrior skills. The workouts were intense. He would awake each morning after several hours of workout having no memory of what he had been doing, but his body remembered. The pain was excruciating, bad enough to send him to the doctor.
The doctor examined him thoroughly and found no problem. “Have you been working out a lot lately?” he asked, “because what you are describing is what you would feel after doing a series of heavy exercise.”
Dante shook his head. He wasn’t the type to do a lot of exercise. The short walk to work and back was about the most of it. As he explained this to the doctor, he had some brief memory flashes of running, doing pushups and pumping weights. These flashes were quick and short-lived and disregarded by Dante, who assumed they were nothing more than bizarre thoughts inspired by the doctor’s question.
Although he was not aware of doing any exercise, the doctor’s explanation helped. Advising that some of the burn was probably from a buildup of lactic acid and the intensity of the pain was something athletes and fitness experts called DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness, caused by minuscule muscle injuries, seemed to soothe him. How had this come about? He knew he had done no exercise at all over the past few days. Even if he did exercise, which he didn’t, he was sure it would never reach a level of intensity necessary to cause the pain he felt.
After the doctor’s verdict that nothing was wrong, Dante felt himself relax. As he left the doctor’s office, he let out a long sigh of relief. For the first time in weeks, he had a sense of calm. Whatever was bothering him, it wasn’t fatal.
Over the next few weeks, the pain and discomfort remained bad, but then it slowly diminished. The general soreness was almost gone by the morning. He bounced out of bed only to collapse to the ground with intense pain in his right ankle. He could see someone bandaged it but couldn’t remember how or where it was done. A further mystery was the brass handled walking stick lying beside him on the bed. He didn’t know how or why it was there, but when he tried to walk, he was grateful for it. He discovered if he was careful and used the walking stick, he could hobble around the apartment and make his way to work.
The night just past, Astrada had determined the champion was ready to learn some basic hand to hand combat skills. She was Dante’s sparring partner and used a variety of simple boxing, karate and Jiu Jitsu moves to knock him back down every time he tried to get up. At least that’s how it felt to him.
The ease with which she could take him down angered Dante, who made a valiant attempt to beat her at her own game and leaped up, fists flailing. He failed once again, but in the course of the simulated fight, he got close enough one time to successfully strike Astrada. It wasn’t a very hard hit, as she had mostly blocked it. Her instant response, however, sent him flying across the floor, twisting his ankle as he slammed against a column. The bandage he had awoken to find on his ankle was Astrada’s expert handiwork.
The only positive to the injury was it returned him to his bed sooner than usual. He got a few extra moments of sleep. The agonizing ache of the twisted ankle countered any effect of the extra rest. This was just another addition to Dante’s other ongoing aches and pains; aches and pains that had reduced his already insignificant social life to almost nothing.