After the Motley Adders won their second game, thanks to Dante’s exceptional hitting and marvelous fielding, there were several complaints made to the governing body of the mercantile slo-pitch league. They accused the Adders of bringing a ringer onto their team. The league governors called Adam, the coach and manager of the team, for a meeting. Somehow, he convinced them Dante had never played a sport before in his life and while he might be a natural; he wasn’t a ringer.
They approved Dante to play but, although no one uttered it out loud, with some restrictions. Against his will, Adam had to tell his friend to tone it down on the field; take a little off the swing and stick to playing defense in his own position. Sensing it might be difficult for Dante to hold back, Adam penciled him in at third base and told him to stay on the left side of the field and let Jack and Earl and Merilee play their own areas. If they booted the ball sometimes, not to worry because the more work they got, the better they would be.
Dante, who spent his nights being trained to always go hard, to keep improving, to compete to win, found it difficult to restrain himself on the field, but he did. Still, his presence lifted the spirit of the team and made them want to work harder. They won their share of games and were never out of one. It was looking as if they might make the playoffs.
When Adam came back with the official word Dante could play, Earl chipped in to say Dante needed a better glove. Mary’s glove was not the best quality, and it was tight on his hand. Since Mary stilled played, she needed a glove that fit, not one stretched and ripped by the hand of the team ace. “I think I have an old one at home,” offered Adam.
“Hey, come on,” said Earl, “Dante has a damn good salary. He can afford to get his own glove.”
Dante thought it made sense and agreed that after work the next day, the three of them would go to a local sporting goods store and help him decide on a decent glove.
Shopping with Adam and Earl was always a challenge for Dante. This trip was no exception. This store sold some more exotic sports paraphernalia and Earl got excited. When this happened, he would turn into a twelve-year-old and had to touch things. He handled everything from rugby cleats, to target pistols, hockey sticks, bats, expensive golf clubs. The sight of a display showing a crossbow grabbed his adolescent attention. He took the bow from a mannikin’s hand and aimed it at his friends.
This made them uncomfortable, and they both hurried to step aside and away from the line of fire just as a clerk was coming to ask Earl to please put it back. Earl, unaware that someone had set the bolt and cocked it, perhaps to add more realism to the display or because they, like Earl, were foolish, squeezed the release. There was a twang, and the bolt launched itself on a deadly path towards the approaching clerk.
Dante, having been told by Astrada never to take his eyes off a weapon being pointed in his direction, had, without thinking, focused in on the business end of the bow. The bolt came fast, but for him it seemed to slow down as it was about to shoot past him. He reached out and grabbed it by the shaft. It was shorter than the bolts he had trained with, but he was able to catch it easily, his grasp stopping it in mid-flight. He didn’t know how such a thing was even possible, but from the moment Earl picked up the bow, he knew he could.
Adam gasped, the clerk cringed and Earl yelled, “Holy shit. I didn’t know it was loaded.”
“How the hell did you do that?” demanded Adam.
Dante stared at the crossbow bolt in his hand, back at Earl, and then turned to check out the store clerk. “Yeah, Jeez, thank you,” said the clerk, his voice trembling, “I think it was coming straight for me.”
“Yeah, it was,” said Dante.
Like a foul-mouthed mother, Adam shouted at Earl, to put that goddamned thing down and get the fuck over here and apologize to the clerk and thank Dante for saving your effing bacon. He turned back to Dante and repeated, “How the hell did you do that?” adding, “I heard the release, but I couldn’t even see the bolt it was moving so damn fast and,” he shook his head in disbelief, “you just reached out and caught it. Like you were reaching for a pop fly or picking up a pencil at your desk. How on earth, did you learn to do that?”
Dante with a slight tilt of his head said, “Not around here, that’s for sure.”
He knew it sounded stupid to say, but somehow it felt like it was true. “I saw it coming, all the way. It wasn’t moving very fast. Couldn’t you guys see it?”
Seeing Adam’s bemused expression, he realized they couldn’t. “Let’s get out of here,” said Adam and started towards the door.
Dante put a hand on the clerk’s shoulder. He was still trembling. “You okay?” he asked.
The clerk shook his head in a weak affirmative. All he could say was, “Thank you. You might have saved my life.”
As the entire experience sank in, he started to shake, “Oh God, I have to sit down, I might have been killed. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The clerk was still shaking and thanking Dante as the three friends left the shop. “Honest to God, guys, I didn’t know they loaded it,” said Earl, who was shaking as hard as the store clerk. “I did it again, didn’t I, Dante? And you saved me again, didn’t you? Thank god for a friend like you.”
“Forget it,” said Dante, patting Earl on the back.
Dante knew he shouldn’t be telling Earl to forget his foolishness. He should shout at him, telling him to think before he acted, to watch what he was doing and be more careful, but he didn’t want to think about any of that. Something was going on with him, and it was something he didn’t want to even know about. The changes he was seeing in himself terrified him. It was as if he was becoming someone else, someone he didn’t recognize. He was sleeker, stronger, more observant, faster, all outstanding qualities, he had to admit, but he wasn’t sure he liked any of it.
Despite his parents being over-protective to a fault, they loved him and had provided him with a comfortable life. He had learned to like who he was, an average guy living an average life. Average guys, he was aware, didn’t move the way he could on the ball field. They certainly didn’t catch crossbow bolts in full flight with their bare hands.
That night when he lay on his bed and found himself on the pallet in the Stade Arcanium, he had to ask the question. What is happening to me and why?
Astrada thought the answer was a simple one. “You are learning to be a warrior. You are growing stronger and more skillful. And you are doing it because we need you.”
That was OK, Dante figured, but it didn’t answer his question. What he really wanted to know was when he became this champion, he was told he was destined to be, would he still be Dante? Would he still be Adam and Earl’s friend, a good boss at work and perhaps even become a little closer, hell, maybe a lot closer with Merilee. No one could answer any of those questions for him. Tauren and Astrada would be more concerned with why he felt a reluctance to take on the role they said was his, earth’s champion. His friends, who knew him well, might agree with his reluctance, but even they couldn’t deny that Dante had changed.