It was one thing to know there were some bounty hunters coming intending to collect a reward for Astrada and who would be quite happy to bring her in dead. It was absolutely another thing not to know who these bounty hunters were or when they would appear. If this troubled Astrada, it didn’t show itself on the training field. In this, she was pragmatic. She was expecting all along this could happen and her life could well be forfeit from the moment she faced Duke Davlos on the practice grounds intending to kill him. She was not deterred by it then and was not deterred by it now.
In the company of her trainees, as well as Dante, who had most certainly become the definitive champion, and the staunch and upright Tauren, she felt she was as ready as she could be to face down any bounty hunter. Knowing how many she might face would help, but no matter, she would deal with it whether it was three or thirty.
Needing little sleep and Tauren not needing any, she didn’t stray far from him and her fellow warriors. She would be ready whenever the bounty hunters arrived. One thing she knew, she must be prepared for attacks to be simultaneous and from anywhere. Despite that, she was well aware that these bounty hunters would be working on their own. Sharing was not a part of your average bounty hunter’s credo.
Dante would arrive every earthly evening to work out. Hearing of the bounty placed on Astrada’s head by Fluglaz, he was concerned for her. As champion, he was also a protector, and he felt a deep need to protect her. Not only was she his teacher, but she was a friend, one with whom he would happily join in battle. He decided to take some time off work and stay in purgatory as the threat seemed to be imminent. Tauren had tried to dissuade him. The call to meet the invaders would come soon enough, and for that it was likely Dante would have to sever all ties with his career back on earth. The recruiting process and the invasion force would do that. Dante insisted, so Tauren reluctantly decided he would abide by that and use the time to prepare Dante to go back to earth fully aware of who and what he was.
Dante went back for one day to tell them at the office he had to spend some time with a sick relative and would be out of town for a while. He hadn’t taken a holiday in several years, so there was no problem getting the time off. He wanted to get out of the office before Adam, Earl or especially, Merilee found out. He left them notes, promising that he would be in touch. He was gone, nearly running down the street to be out of sight from anyone who might be curious about who he was visiting and where.
The real problem was, he didn’t know the answer himself. He wasn’t really sure why he had asked for the time off and why it had seemed so imperative that he do so. He felt he needed to go home and pack a bag for some undetermined trip. When he got to his apartment, he felt compelled to lie down on his bed and rest, but for the moment he resisted. Going to the hall closet, he got his overnight bag, took it to the kitchen to wipe off the dust it had gathered, then returned to his room to gather some clothes. His bag packed, he gave in to the call of his bed and lay down. Instantly it was all clear to him.
Since he was going to be around, Astrada and Tauren drafted him to train some new recruits Tauren had gathered from the furthest reaches of earth’s purgatory and from surrounding domains. He took on the role with gusto. Following in the footsteps of his teacher, he put the recruits through their paces with the same level of intensity. They would be exhausted, sore, and better fighters within a few days. He and Astrada were busy with their charges on the practice field when news came in that a pair of blue tinted twins were asking about Astrada. On hearing this, Tauren joined the trainees in the Stade.
They were planning to take a few of the more skilled warriors and intercept the two and escort them from the domain. To their surprise, as they were preparing to head off, the two brothers appeared at the Stade Arcanium. It became clear that the honest and protective posture of Astrada’s associates was beyond the twins’ understanding. All their experience up until then was of greed, cruelty, and double dealing.
Based on this, they offered a large share of their bounty to Tauren, Dante and their warriors if they would turn Astrada over to them. One brother held up a roll of papyrus with one hand and pointed at it with the other, “This Astrada is a murderer, slayer of the Grand Duke Davlos and other members of his court. This document with the sigil of Duke Fluglaz will inform you he hopes to avenge Duke Davlos’ death and punish the evildoer. The document also states we are here as his agents. He has called for the slave, Astrada’s return, dead or alive. On his authority, we demand you hand her over. You will be well rewarded.”
“There will be no turning over of anyone to the likes of you,” shouted Dante, brandishing his sword. “Astrada is our companion in arms and is here under the protection of the guardian, myself, and all the warriors you see. I suggest you return to your Duke Fluglaz and tell him his agents are not welcome here, nor is he.”
“Tough talk,” intoned Tauren in a quiet aside to the angry champion.
At Dante’s words, the two brothers, seeing they were outnumbered, quickly turned and left the Stade. They disappeared through a large crowd of atoners who had gathered outside,
“You know they will not give up,” said a grim Astrada, “they won’t go too far away. They’ll stay close, just watching for their chance to get me alone.”
“Then we will not let you be alone,” Dante’s tone was adamant.
Tauren and Astrada were both impressed. They recognized the command and absolute conviction in his voice. Singling out three of the more experienced warriors, Dante instructed them to keep a close watch on the two brothers. He and some others would stay with Astrada.
Both Tauren and Astrada recognized the type those bounty hunters were. They understood, right away, the two brothers were ruthless, sadistic creatures who would stop at nothing to get their hands on Astrada. They would be a threat as long as they were alive. Dante was still a neophyte with the reality of the many beings to be found within the countless realms of purgatory. He hoped that they would quickly understand their prey was well protected by highly skilled fighters and leave. Sadly, Dante had no idea.