Arriving at the threshold of the neighboring domain, a rag-tag group of armed men met Dante’s expeditionary team. To Dante’s eyes, they looked as human as he was. If there were any differences, they were invisible to him. A young, blonde-haired lad stepped forward. He held a sword in his hand; the blade dragging on the ground. It horrified Astrada to see this. Her trainees would never dare to hold their sword in such a graceless manner. “Are you invading us?” asked the young man, “I heard invaders were coming. Our guardian told me.”
“We are not the invaders, you were warned of,” responded Dante, “we are on our way to meet them and hopefully turn them back.”
“The guardian told me they were insidious. They won’t stop until they conquer as much of purgatory as they can. He also said there was no way we could stop them,” The blonde youth nearly broke into tears, “But we will try.”
“Where are your warriors,” asked Astrada.
“These are them,” he pointed to the mix of living and atoners standing behind him.
There couldn’t have been more than fifty, and those holding weapons were clearly untrained. Some didn’t even know how to properly hold the weapons they carried. Dante’s team comprised at least three hundred highly trained warriors. Nearly ten thousand skilled defenders guarded the boundaries back in earth’s domain. If this was the sum total of this domain’s defense force, it was pathetic. Fluglaz’s advance group would deal with them in short order and be on their way.
“Where is your guardian,” asked Dante.
“He’s in the temple. He said we must be prepared for the inevitable and is hiding what he can of our nation’s artifacts from the new rulers.” the boy shook his head in disbelief as he spoke.
“Your champion, is he about,” asked Dante, “I would like to speak to him.”
“I am the one they call the champion,” said the youth.
Dante looked toward Astrada and shook his head. This was the champion of the domain, a boy who looked to be barely sixteen and a group of armed, but otherwise unprepared volunteers. Among the group, he could clearly identify several atoners. It sounded as if their guardian had been collecting artifacts and was now more interested in preserving them from the coming invaders than protecting the domain. The atoners could not leave the domain, and one look at the living defenders suggested pretty much the same for them. Their defense would be fragile and short-lived, their attack non-existent.
Dante dismounted and stepped up to the blonde-haired youth. “I am the champion of earth’s realm,” pointing at the warriors lined up behind him, he added, “And this is my expeditionary team. They are our most skilled warriors. We are not here to invade you, we just seek passage through your domain to repel the invaders, before they can enter.”
“You know where they are?” asked the young champion.
“I am told there is a small mountain just beyond your borders and they approach to the right of that.”
“I know the place. I can guide you if you let my fighters ride along,” said the youthful champion.
“We appreciate your offer and since it is your domain, your fighters are free to ride with us, although I don’t believe any of them should go beyond the boundary. Oh yes, and for the sake of our warrior chieftain,” Dante pointed to Astrada, who nodded, “please don’t drag the tips of your sword on the ground. Either sheath them or carry them across your body,” and he drew his own sword to demonstrate.
The ride across the domain was uneventful. The structures they saw looked much like the ones in earth’s purgatory, but with a slight twist. There was an alienness to them the earth humans could not quite explain. The people, too, primarily atoners, while looking in every obvious way the same as the people of earth, carried about themselves an aura of alienness. Despite this, the people of this domain would fit easily among the people of earth. The steeds the young champion and his followers rode were more clearly alien. Their bodies were sleek. Long necks, crowned with a mane extended to a more feline looking head. They did not run on hooves, but thickly padded, three clawed paws.
As they rode, the two champions spoke. Dante learned from his youthful counterpart who referred to himself as Yvax, that his world and his people were far more peaceful than those of earth. There had not been a war or rebellion of any size for the equivalent of many hundreds of years. Crimes of passion were few and soldiering, neither necessary nor of interest to anyone. Few of Yvax’s people, among the living or among the atoners, had even the slightest idea of warfare, weaponry, or any other form of combat. Even personal fights were rare. Despite this, it was no paradise and far from crime free, just as harmful to the populace, but generally less violent.
This explained the unpreparedness of the entire population of the domain, as well as Yvax and his rag-tag band of armed supporters. That they would take up arms in a feeble show of defense was a tribute to their loyalty and courage.
Reaching the further boundary of the domain, Yvax, in agreement with Dante, ordered his followers but for two of the most capable of the living to remain just inside the border, while he and his two fellows guided Dante’s troop to the right side of the mountain where Fluglaz advance war party was approaching.
Arriving at the foot of the mountain, the members of Dante’s expeditionary force sought out locations where they could set their defenses, prepare their attack, and wait for the arrival of the enemy. Within a short time, the three hundred warriors were out of sight, hidden from the eyes of Fluglaz’s advance troop’s scouts. While the advance troop was on the march, they were unprepared to encounter any opposition in the no-man’s-land between domains.
While this guaranteed Dante’s group, with the element of surprise on their side, a significant edge early on in the encounter, of further benefit to Dante’s band, the advancing troop had grown complacent. They had never encountered a serious defense from any of the domains they had penetrated and held for the arrival of their legion. The scouts had gotten sloppy. Not only could they not see the hidden warriors in their defensive positions, but they didn’t bother to screen the location as a potential risk. Cocky in their scant evaluation, they returned to the larger contingent with word that there was a smooth passage to the next domain just ahead.
The commander of Fluglaz’s advance troops was a hardened veteran of many encounters. Most of them in the fiercely competitive regions near the home domain. Even he had been lulled into unpreparedness by the nearly non-existent resistance he had encountered on this extended operation.
As they approached Dante’s position, they were relaxed and confident, expecting no significant opposition, at least none they couldn’t easily handle. They were especially unprepared to meet opposition in the no-man’s-land beyond the borders of the next domain.
The sight of dust rising up in clouds in the distance told Dante when the hostile forces were getting close. Word was quickly passed through the ranks to prepare.