As summer stretched on towards fall, Dante’s life was never dull. He was leading his office Slo-pitch team into the playoffs with his stellar play and motivated by his success, the vastly improved play of those around him. There were barbecues to attend, and he didn’t miss any of them. Often, he would arrive with a case of beer and several large steaks. Since there was always lots of food, Merilee might have been the only one to notice just how hungry Dante was. In previous years, he never went back for seconds. Now, he sometimes went back for thirds.
The barbecues and pool parties were another thing. For many years Dante had been a reluctant participant. He would come but was far too shy to bring a bathing suit; he couldn’t swim, and his dumpy appearance embarrassed him. Even as the new Dante, he was still shy to don a bathing suit, but it was no longer because he was too dumpy. Now before heading off to a pool party, he would check himself in the mirror and there was no question about it, he was ripped. Dante was just as embarrassed by his rippling muscles, his broad shoulders, and his body builder’s pecs.
As for swimming, his confidence there had changed. He no longer avoided the water out of fear of drowning. It was a pervasive fear drummed into him by his parents. They had made it quite clear; swimming was far too dangerous, and even lessons were out of the question. He didn’t know how he was so certain, but he knew he was an excellent swimmer. What he didn’t remember was Astrada, and some of her fellow instructors had taught him that skill in the large waterways and pools beside the Stade Arcanium.
Confirmation of his competence with this skill came one weekend at an office group beach party. While it was a beautiful day, the lake was rough. They had to cook in shelters and all were advised not to go into the deep water. The teenage son of one of the company’s directors didn’t believe this advisory included him. He had brought a canoe and was determined he was going to get out on the lake in it.
Almost everyone was in the cooking shelter out of the wind. The conversation and the laughter were loud. The crashing of the waves, the wind rustling through the trees and the delicious smells of cooking made the group more boisterous than usual, and truth be told, they were a boisterous group to begin with. No one noticed the young man launch his canoe and make his way against the waves away from the shore and the happy celebrants.
Everything was fine until the canoeist decided he had gone out far enough and it was time to turn it around and return to shore. He carelessly turned the canoe broadside to the waves just as a gust picked up, sending an immense wave crashing into the canoe’s side and flipping it. The young man let out a cry for help as he tumbled and slipped unceremoniously into the water. Despite all the noise, Dante heard him and stepped out of the cooking shelter to see where the call had come from.
He saw the canoe bobbing upright in the waves, and the head of the director’s son in the swell beside it. He watched as the canoe banged against the young man’s head and knew right away; he was in trouble. Pulling off his shirt and tossing the contents of his pocket onto the nearest picnic table, Dante raced to the water. Within moments, he was swimming fiercely toward the floundering young man. His strokes were smooth and clean and watching the quickness and power of his stroke amazed all those who had left the cook shelter to see what the fuss was.
The canoeist was close to six hundred meters from the shore and unconscious from striking his head on the hard wood of the canoe’s gunwale. Frothy whitecaps stormed towards him. The waves were about to impact the canoe, striking him again as it turned into the waves and leapt away from him. Dante reached him just in time. Taking hold of the dazed young man with one arm, he began swimming back to shore. The spectators were so overwhelmed by what they saw, for a moment they froze. Then everyone seemed to move as one. The better swimmers raced out to meet Dante and once he could stand, took hold of the young man and brought him to shore.
Some others went off to get the canoe while a few went to find the first aid kit. Apart from a bump on his head the size of a turnip, the young canoeist was fortunate he had not been more seriously injured. He did take in a lot of water and it took a moment or two of heavy coughing to clear. He staggered to his feet, trying to assure everyone he was alright, although they could see he was still a little foggy about what had happened. It had been a close call.
The director had watched in horror as the rescue took place. He ran over to Dante and grasped him by the shoulder. He reached out to shake Dante’s hand, his gratefulness obvious. “Wow, were you a professional swimmer?” asked one of the newer interns.
The ones who had known Dante for years were wondering who this guy really was. “What the hell did you do with my friend Dante, anyway?” demanded Earl.
What Earl and the others didn’t realize, Dante was asking himself the same question and he could come up with no better conclusion than theirs. They may believe he was working out or busy training, although if they thought about it, they would recognize, as Dante did, how this wasn’t possible. There were no fitness centers open all night, the only time Dante could do that. Any other time there was almost always someone around him or in touch with him by phone or computer.
It was only in retrospect that Dante could really realize what he had done out on the lake. It was not only that he could swim out and rescue the boy; it was also the speed and power he had possessed as he raced toward the floundering youth. While racing to rescue the boy, he had given no thought to his swimming or to the treacherous conditions around him. His only goal was to save the young man. It was only in retrospect he understood he accomplished something that in the past would have terrified him and yet, through it all, he had felt no fear. How was it even possible he could do such a thing?
It wasn’t until night as he slipped through the portal into the Stade Arcanium that he understood what was happening to him. Astrada was training him well and even now, after working with her for months, she still scared the hell out of him, but while she was fierce, he had to admit; she was a very skilled coach. Her fierce aggression and the efforts of her fellow trainers on the field forced him to face his immediate fear and forget the rest as he got down to business. Thinking about this later, he began to see how much his empathy and wish to protect his fellows had grown and how ready he was to put those feelings into action. He was coming to realize the role of earth’s champion was much more than being a skilled warrior.
Along with this growing awareness, Dante’s focus and concentration sharpened. He was not developing his skills for Tauren or Astrada, but for all humanity, for Adam and Earl, and Merilee, and the director’s son, and everyone else he knew or came in contact with as well as every single human on earth and in purgatory, living or dead. He could feel the weight of the responsibility, but oddly enough, it didn’t seem a burden.
On his return to daily life, this knowledge was pushed from Dante’s conscious mind, but in his subconscious, it was flowering.