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The memory of his workout in purgatory might no longer be present in Dante’s mind, but the exhilaration of the previous evening remained. He felt more rested than he had in weeks, and the combination of this and the memory of the dinner with Merilee put a bounce in his step as he made his way to work. He arrived at his desk twenty minute before the workday began and had just sat down when the director who had advocated for him with the executive and pushed for his promotion so intensely, showed up to face him. “Damn, Dante, what was that all about yesterday? If there was something bothering you about the promotion, why didn’t you come to see me?”

“Sorry, sir,” almost immediately, Dante’s good feelings took a nosedive, “I had been wrestling with the decision, but really didn’t know until they officially made the offer what my official response would be.”

“Well, you made me look like a compete idiot up there. I may never live it down. I had such confidence in you.”

While the director was looking agitated, Dante remained quite calm. “And I appreciated it sir, I’m just not prepared to make that move right now.”

“Why would that be, Dante? Something about the company bother you, or was it just the move?”

“It just didn’t seem to be the right thing to do now. I’m not sure why I am so certain of that, but I am. I’m truly sorry if my decision has made it difficult for you.”

The director visibly relaxed, “They’ll get over it, but I can’t see them offering you any promotion in the future. I’m not saying you’re blackballed or anything, but they cut a lot of traditional corners in offering that position to you. It won’t happen again.”

“That’s ok by me, sir. I am happy enough with what I’m doing and where I’m doing it.”

What Dante couldn’t tell him because he didn’t understand it himself, was a sense of anticipation he had that something big was about to happen. “Well, Dante,” said the director as he turned away from Dante’s desk, “I’m still deep in your debt. You need anything, you know where to find me.”

He didn’t wait for a response but headed down the aisle between the cubicles towards the elevators, leaving Dante momentarily alone. It wasn’t for long as Adam came through the door and sped directly to Dante’s desk. Sitting on the edge of the desk, he swung around to face Dante and winked. “So, how’d it go yesterday?”

“I told them I wasn’t going to accept the promotion. They said it was fine, and I left.”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about, Romeo,” grinned Adam, “How was the date with Merilee?”

“Oh that,” Dante looked down and casually shuffled the papers on the desk, “It went alright.”

“Yeah, but what happened?” Adam was insistent.

“We talked, had tacos and a couple of beers.”

“You took her home…?”

“Sorry Adam,” he said, as he pulled some papers from his inbox and began thumbing through them, “I have to do some work. I’m meeting with my department right after nine.”

Adam didn’t get to his supervisory position in the company without being able to recognize the brush off. Earl may have continued to press Dante, but not Adam. He knew the conversation was closed, at least for the time being. He jumped to his feet and slapped the top of the desk, “Have a good morning, pal. See you at lunch,” and he left.

Dante’s abrupt dismissal of him didn’t bother Adam. He knew his friend was shy about these things, so he was pretty sure he’d get the full scoop before the day ended.

Earl came by shortly after but was completely oblivious to everything. All he cared about was where they were going to have a drink after work. “You can ask Merilee along. She’s fun and there are a couple of girls in my department could join us so she won’t feel outnumbered.”

“Could do.” Was all Dante said, but it was enough for Earl and he left.

“See you at lunch,” he called over his shoulder as he ran for the opening door of an elevator.

They had a couple of beers after work and Merilee and the two girls from Earl’s department came along. It was pleasant, but everyone seemed distracted for one reason or another and the evening ended early. Each one went their own way. Adam got as much information as he was going to get when Merilee gave Dante a lingering kiss before heading off.

Things were quiet at the office for the next few weeks. There were some evenings and a seasonal socials, but there was no clear news on the state of Dante and Merilee’s relationship. That was the way they both liked it. Dante was still shy of bringing her to his apartment, only to somehow anger her as he had the first time. Of course, when he landed in purgatory, it clarified the concern until morning came again. Still, the effect of the dawning relationship between Dante and Merilee was making its mark in purgatory.

Dante was no longer just the champion in name only, he was in every way the champion. Every drill, every simulation, every activity he approached with gusto. He could outfight, outrun, out swim and even out ride all the warriors and sparing partners he came up against. When he bested Astrada in most things and was even a match for her with sword and dagger, it convinced her he had arrived. He exuded confidence, giving a running commentary like a sports announcer during his sparing matches that sometimes ended with the sparring partner collapsing in pain and other times, collapsing in laughter.

His tactical skills matched his physical abilities. After Earl put some of Dante’s limited video game activities on the internet, he received challenges from all around the world. Amateurs and professionals fell to his subtle play, their frustration growing at their lack of success against him and the limited times he went online to play. Many found his combination of tactical skill and reluctance to play that much to be mysterious.

A mythology grew around him, constructed by gamers who felt he was a professional in disguise, or a developer, or some kind of genius. This bothered Dante and just as he concealed his rock hard body in loose-fitting clothes, he stopped playing video games on the internet all together.

He played a few times offline with friends from the office; Earl and Adam and several others, but even if he handicapped himself, he would still wind up winning. Eventually, he stopped playing competitively all together but would spend a few minutes here and there on games, playing against himself as a way of experimenting with different tactics, aiming for simplicity.

In purgatory Dante was, to use an old saw, at the top of his game. He was ready to meet Fluglaz’s invading legions. Dante’s fellow warriors were ready, too. Compared to Fluglaz’s legions, they were few in number and this concerned Tauren who realized that it was time to go back to earth and start recruiting. It was around this time that the wise ones informed him that Fluglaz in the name of the Grand Duchy had put a large bounty on Astrada’s head.

Not for the first in the near infinite life of purgatory, bounty hunters set out from many domains to earn the offered treasure and undying good will of the empire builder, Fluglaz. The bounty hunters represented a wide variety of species. Some looked nearly human, others sported the evolutionary summit of different ancestral origins; mammalian, insectile, reptilian, even piscine.

Fortunately for Astrada, they had no idea where to find her, so only a few were travelling toward earth’s purgatory. There was no shortage of avarice or brutality among them. They didn’t come as a group. The concept of sharing had no place in their focused minds. There were four of them coming, three by different routes and unknown to each other. Slightly closer to the boundary of earth’s purgatory were two brothers from a set of worlds where asexual reproduction vied with a more traditional sexuality. The two were a transmission of asexual reproduction, and were more like clones of each other than brothers, Arnog and Ranog. They worked together. What’s more, they didn’t look alien to the human eye. Except for the head ridge nearly covered with thick blue hair that also concealed small, fanlike ears, they could be easily taken for a fellow human except for the blue hair and slightly blue tinge to their skin.

Of all the bounty hunters en route, the blue twins were the least concerned about financial reward. They shared everything and were prepared to pay off anyone who would assist them, because what they really looked forward to was clearly stated in the wanted dead or alive statement in the bounty contract by gleefully putting their victim somewhere between the two. The real payoff for them, it seems, was the pain and suffering they inflicted.

The large golden shaded eyes, long snout and vestigial tail while reflecting the reptilian origins of Ozolio, the second bounty hunter, could not conceal the look of intelligence in those enormous eyes. His form fitting combat wear was impeccable, stylish and fit perfectly, its subtle hues enabling him to slip in and out of sight at will. If the statement in the bounty said dead or alive, he would return them dead, not because he was cruel, but because he was practical.

The domains of purgatory bounded by forbidding swamps and rocky desert regions made travelling any distance a grueling experience. Hard enough with the dead weight of a slowly decaying body thrown over the back of one’s steed, but not nearly as messy as escorting an unhappy prisoner who was stubborn, resistant, had to be kept tied up and constantly needing to be watched even when relieving himself. He, presumably he was a he, was simply far too fastidious to accept that sort of thing.

The living could be so smelly and unpleasant, a little perfume, and the dead ceased to be much of an inconvenience. That much he could handle for the benefits he would receive, the reward that allowed him to continue living the comfortable lifestyle he preferred.

The last bounty hunter was a thing directly out of a nightmare. The faceted eyes and huge mandibles of its insectile ancestry seemed to clash with very uninsectlike nostrils and the vestigial pincers that framed its face. Its four thin multi-jointed arms ending in cruel looking caliper like talons were a fine contrast to the highly polished, solid leather boots it wore on the similar appendages that served as its legs.

Its narrow thorax was longer, and its abdomen carried perpendicular to the ground was small. Matching the boots, it was dressed in a leather kilt. Bandoliers hung across its narrow shoulders, each holding a sword and ten darts for the small crossbow on the belt at its waist. The two antennae topping its head were festooned with gaily colored bands that accentuated the three shiny silver rings on each. While the other bounty hunters were similar in size to the people of earth’s purgatory, it was several heads taller.

Oddly enough, this being was the least destructive. They classed it as a female in its domain, an ancient remnant of an even more ancient world. Its domain was poor, its associated worlds were ashen rocks in a rapidly shrinking universe. It had a large family it was responsible for, and bounty hunting put food on the eating boards. It was not cruel in the way the others were. It didn’t relish killing, doing so only when left with no other choice. It was still brutal in that it showed no mercy, forcibly dragging the struggling bodies of its captives across the inhospitable terrain between the domains until bringing it to whoever offered the bounty; there to collect the reward and then return to care for its family until someone announced the next bounty. Its name? Unprintable in any human language and any attempt to utter it aloud would probably hurt.

None of this bode well for Astrada. Her one personal advantage, they did not know of her fighting skill. Nor did they know she was under the protection of the guardian of earth’s purgatory and his champion. At the moment, the champion didn’t know that either. He would learn soon.

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