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Dante’s backward scramble across the training room floor didn’t protect him from getting a few solid slaps from the side of Astrada’s sword. What he didn’t seem to notice was how often he was successful in deflecting her blade. Astrada did notice and kept pressing, “Damn it, we don’t need a defender, we need him to go on the attack.”

If anyone was aware of the earthly expression, “you need to learn to crawl before you can walk,” it was Astrada.

It had taken a good deal of time and patience to develop the skills allowing her to best Davlos, but she was extremely motivated. This was all a complete mystery to Dante, who now and then would pinch himself to test if he was dreaming. Later, having his morning shower, he couldn’t help but wonder where he got all those little bruises on his arms and legs.

Astrada’s ferocious aggression was the only motivation Dante had at the moment. His concern was more about protecting himself from her taxing practices than about being someone’s champion. He had never before taken part in any group or individual activity, let alone a competitive one, so Astrada’s persistent onslaught was overwhelming. He neither knew, nor cared about being champion of anything? Most of the time, he just wanted to get away from this crazy woman.

Astrada was well aware of this. Tauren had left her with the responsibilities of teaching this least warrior-like of beings not only to fight, but to do so with skill, determination, and ferocity. It was a daunting task. In her mind, she cursed the Wise Ones, whoever and whatever they might be, for giving Tauren advanced notice of her arrival, her warrior skills, and she shivered every time she thought about it, inform him she had precipitated the coming invasion.

There would be no shirking this duty, but then, Astrada was never one to shirk. She would turn this hapless creature into a superb warrior and do her best to bring out his leadership and motivate him. As she watched him progress with ‘baby steps,’ she knew it would still be some time off.

When Dante returned to his bed and his daily life, everything was forgotten. He remembered Merilee coming in. The rest of the evening was a blank. Back at work on Monday, after two days of sleep and two nights of combat training, he came to suspect things hadn’t gone very well with Merilee the previous Friday. He was experiencing something new, a cold shoulder from Merilee that, it seemed to him, could freeze fire.

She didn’t look at him. She didn’t speak to him. Any work she needed to turn over to him, she let fall without comment on his desk followed by a precise turn away from him and a hasty retreat, head high, back stiff. On the several times, over the next few days, he tried to approach her. She would turn away, excuse herself and leave, or pointedly ignore him. It appeared as if he would never know what had happened to upset her.

Not only had Merilee frozen him out, but his friends Adam and Earl, likewise unaware of the truth of Friday evening, were driving him crazy with their “nudge… nudge, wink… wink” routine. All Dante wanted to do was shout out to Merilee and his two friends was, “What the hell did I do? And, would you two guys please shut up?”

Adam and Earl were department leaders in other sections of the firm. Adam and his group shared the same floor as Dante and his, while Earl’s department was a floor below. They were competent in their positions, but away from the job their behavior, to say the least, could be impulsive.

Earl was the more impulsive of the two. During an average workday, he would send out countless memos setting goals, listing priorities, and recommending procedures. He would then have to relent and send out as many memo’s cancelling those particular goals, priorities, and procedures he had earlier announced. Adam, while calmer, was the one who while socializing was more likely to make outrageous comments to strangers.

When out together, they both depended on Dante to keep them in line or to rescue them if they stepped too far over it. This was how it had been since their school days. Dante and Adam had been friends since third grade. Earl had joined the mix in late middle school. They had been fast friends from then on. They attended the same high school and college and all got business degrees. The two followed Dante around in his job search and ended up working for the same company in the same building.

As Dante went up the employment ladder, his two friends tagged along. When Dante became a senior supervisory officer in his firm, his two friends rose with him taking on similar roles. Dante had no part in their achieving promotions. They performed at their jobs well, were pleasant and personable enough, and the company found their performances more than satisfying.

Colonels to his General, since their childhood they had been the two key satellites to Dante; loyal friends and companions. Once Dante had grown out of his parents’ tight control, the three hung together all the time.

They played video games together. Dante liked to play but had no interest in trying to improve his gaming skill, so he wasn’t very good. They became familiar with their neighborhood, having often biked together through it in search of adolescent adventure. As they grew older, they wandered through the woods pretending to hunt, smoked there first cigarette behind Earl’s dad’s garage and later on, shared their first joint in Adam’s family rec. room when his parents went away for a few days.

Dante did not approve. One puff on the cigarette and he had already decided that this was something he would never do again. He didn’t even get as far as a toke on the poorly rolled joint Adam was passing around. The smell overwhelmed him and he had to leave. Because of Dante’s decision, neither Adam nor Earl smoked cigarettes or did recreational drugs. They did, however, like to drink, when they were of age, of course, thanks to Dante’s influence. They had developed an assortment of bar bands they liked to follow, and when a celebrity musician or band came to town, they were among the first to get tickets.

As for girlfriends, Adam and Earl had some interest. They dated from time to time. Dante would have loved to date, but he was much too shy. From the time he was a high school junior and throughout university, many girls had shown an interest for him. He just couldn’t get past his shyness. He could be charming when socializing in a group, and although many of the girls he met there interested him, he never could get up the courage to ask any of them out. “What a snob,” was the frequent reaction of those young ladies feeling spurned by Dante.

“Is he gay?” they would ask Adam or Earl.

To Adam and Earl, who had often shared their secret skin magazine collection with him, it was a stupid question. They knew that sooner or later he would fall, which is why they thought Merilee was going to be the one. They had seen her head off with Dante the previous Friday but were blockheaded enough to miss her coldness towards Dante on the following Monday.

Meanwhile, Dante, who was well aware of Merilee’s coldness towards him, had little time to think about it. He was spending his nights in purgatory’s Stade Arcanium, working on his combat skills under the critical eye of Astrada. Despite his original awkwardness, she was quietly pleased to see he had refined his defensive maneuvers with the sword and was making some progress with the thrust and slash.

Astrada could tell her student was hitting a plateau in his swordsmanship and decided to try some other skills. Knife throwing was one skill she trained him on. The other was to build his reflexes so he could redirect, or even catch a knife or dagger being thrown at or near him. While he was throwing the knife and after many attempts hitting some part of the target, she had him catching some flat edged practice knives.

Dante’s was getting more skillful. He would toss a knife each time getting closer to the bullseye and as he did, Astrada would throw a practice knife back at him. As his movements smoothed out and become more coordinated, Dante was thinking he could handle the real thing. “Throw my knife back to me,” he called to Astrada.

For several weeks she resisted, then one day she agreed. Standing beside the knife tossing target twenty meters away, she watched Dante throw his knife and followed its rotation to where it cut into the target just grazing the edge of the bullseye. Quickly pulling the knife from the straw filled target, she made a perfect return toss just to Dante’s right. As the knife reached him, his hand flashed out and his fingers wrapped around it. What a thrill, he had actually caught a thrown knife. “Nice catch, champ” shouted Astrada, “but if I may suggest, next time try catching it by the handle.”

Dante looked at his hand to see blood gushing around the knife blade in his right hand. He groaned. He had been pain free for so long now.

It was Dante’s good fortune that the knife he caught was for throwing, not cutting, or the damage to his hand would have been more severe. As it was, he had a nasty slash across his palm and it was dripping blood. Astrada, impressed by Dante’s newfound if somewhat risky, daring, gathered some medicinal unguents and a wrap to bandage his wound.

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