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Closing in

“That’s him,” said Tauren.

“Who!” Exclaimed Astrada turning to look at the three friends from the tavern, two of whom walked past them along the street while the third set off in the opposite direction.

“That’s him,” said Tauren again, adding, “quick, let’s follow,” and started off after the lone walker.

Although they remained well back of him, Astrada could see he was one of the men from the loud group at the tables near where they had been sitting. Earlier she had briefly glanced his way, only to see that he was quite unremarkable. He had appeared to her as soft and in poor condition, even compared to the ones with him. The best she could say was that he seemed mildly pleasant looking, and more restrained than some of the others. All in all, he was the last person one would ever suspect of being of heroic or champion caliber.

Tauren, Astrada quickly discovered, intended to follow this person home wherever his home might be. She was not thrilled about it. Tauren was so intense about this, he wouldn’t listen to her and her very sound and reasonable arguments why this was foolish. He continued to follow at a distant far enough to not be obvious, but close enough to see if he should turn a corner, dart into an alley, or enter a building along the way.

Fortunately, the last of the three choices was exactly what he did. He entered a building along the way. Astrada had developed a good common knowledge of spoken English among many other languages. Her reading skills were not as good. Why anyone would enter a building called 3025, Bachelor Apts for rent, she had no idea. Tauren waited briefly at the bottom of the steps leading up to the door the one they were following had gone through.

The building was, to be blunt, nondescript. A faded red brick face featuring a large brown wood framed doorway with a glass door. Above the door, rising up at even intervals, were five wood framed windows. The glass in the upper windows appeared dull and uncared for. The glass in the front door was cleaner and clearer. A planter stood on either side of the door that might have provided a splash of color in the warm weather but was now displaying a couple of dried, colorless stems, the remains of what once might have been charming.

Astrada hoped Tauren’s stopping was a sign he had come to his senses and was about to agree with her this poorly conditioned person was not the right one and leave. She soon discovered this was not the case, for, as this thought was crossing her mind, Tauren walked up the front steps and opened the main door. He gestured for Astrada to join him.

They found themselves in some sort of reception area. It contained little more than a set of mailboxes, a speakerphone, and a second glass door leading to a hallway beyond. The door was locked.

Once again, Astrada felt this was sufficient reason to give up the chase and said so. Tauren’s response was, “no, we must follow him. I am certain he is the one we seek.”

Tauren placed his hand against the lock and gave a little push. The door swung open. “Could have used that trick,” said Astrada, thinking back to her sister locked away in her tiny cell.

Crossing the threshold, the vast array of odors confronting them nearly overcame Astrada’s senses. The remnants of a wide range of meals overlaid the smell of carpet cleaner and vague traces of oil paint, all blending together with the scents of many human beings busily engaged in the activities of living.

She followed up a flight of stairs to the third floor. There, they passed through another glass door held open with a small wedge, on which was a sign in red, reading, “Fire door, please keep closed.”

Past the door, they continued down a long hallway lined with several windowless doors until Tauren came to a stop in front of a door which to Astrada appeared no different from any of the other tawdry doors in the poorly lit hallway. Except for the 315 in dirty brass numbers on it, it was no different. “In here,” said Tauren, pointing to the door with the 315, “He lives in here.”

“Are you planning on confronting this human now,” asked Astrada who felt some concern about Tauren pushing open a locked door and the terrified response the surprised resident would have at the sight of her and the blond giant casually strolling into his home.

“No,” said Tauren, “he’s not ready. He has had alcohol, and it dulls the human mind. He could not understand what I am telling him and by morning would believe it was nothing more than a strange dream.”

The plan, Tauren explained, was to wait a day or two then draw him through to purgatory and there tell him what was to happen. “What is to happen?” Asked a curious Astrada.

Tauren would open a flexible portal from the bed to purgatory, something he could do because this was the champion and draw him through when he lay down at night. Once in purgatory he would explain to the champion his role and the training he would have to go through, then each night bring him through to work on his conditioning and combat skills.

“Won’t he still think he is dreaming,” asked Astrada, “can we accomplish anything with him like that.”

“Absolutely,” smiled Tauren, “in fact, until he is ready it will all be a distant dream. It is most likely he will have a limited memory or even no memory at all of our sessions when he is going about his normal daily routines.”

Tauren and Astrada returned to purgatory through one of the local portals, a small green doorway at the end of a narrow alley between two older buildings, one a fly-by-night hotel the other with a remodeled interior made up of middle grade offices. A place where Startup technology companies shared floors with psychologists, dentists, and design consultants.

Shortly, they had returned to the enormous metropolis that filled much of earth’s purgatory and was the final homeland to a majority of humanity, their lives having ended on earth and who now were seeking final absolution. For those who were still among the living and had made their way there from the upper world or from a distant dimension or universe, earth’s nether world was a sanctuary. Humanity was far from perfect, and this was a place where sinners made atonement for their wrongdoings. On the whole, however, those seeking atonement, if their stay on purgatory was any length at all, were far gentler, and far calmer than those of a vast number of other worlds.

Different from these other domains, few had come through the earthly portals to exploit it, so it was a peaceful place offering a haven for many species. The center of this great city were the buildings and practice fields home to the guardian of the realm. In this case, Tauren. Here is where he returned, Astrada with him.

While Tauren would return to earth to find a unique pathway for the newly discovered champion, Astrada would prepare a training program for him. They both agreed that given his conditioning, this would entail a good deal of planning, preparation and hard work for Astrada as it would be a long and difficult pathway for the champion.

As Tauren proceeded back to earth Astrada for the first time, but far from the last, saw the task before her and for the flabby, weakling Tauren had declared was the champion they sought, as an impossible one. Nonetheless, she began to take an inventory of what was available and how she could use it to negotiate the plan. A simple one, prepare a poorly conditioned and uninspiring human to face down the fiercest of enemies, far more ferocious than anyone from earth had ever encountered.

Tauren had his own work to do back on earth. He needed to contrive a portal to one of the practice areas of the Stade Arcanium in his home. While the champion, Dante, was at work, Tauren entered his apartment, a dingy affair with bargain basement furniture, a sofa and a reclining chair that faced a large and expensive flat screen television. Little more adorned the living room. A combined kitchen, dining room held a Formica-topped table that in no way matched the Formica topped counter or the chrome silver stove, or the white, double door refrigerator.

The cupboards were neat and orderly, the consequence of a limited amount of crockery and food preparation items. The table was cleared. A mug in the sink close to a quarter full coffee maker was the only sign of life. The champion appeared to like order, a good sign to Tauren. Like the rest of the apartment, the bathroom and bedroom were stark, with the barest of essentials neatly placed on a small dresser in the latter and on a shelf below the mirror in the former.

Tauren thought to place the portal doorway in the doorway to the bathroom, then thought better of it. It would be disconcerting for everyone for the champion to show up in the training grounds desperately needing to void his bowel or his bladder.

After much thought, Tauren decided to use the bed. The champion would lie down on the bed and instantaneously find himself on a pallet in a training arena in the heart of purgatory. Unfortunately, this would mean the champion’s sleep time would be dedicated to intense physical activity. Still, there was no way around it. When the champion went to his bed, there was likely no one around to observe him vanishing, or transitioning back. Tauren knew the champion lived alone and from his observations, rarely had anyone in for any length of time.

The portal set, Taren returned to purgatory and Astrada to await the initial visit from earth’s newly discovered champion. Time might be of little consequence in purgatory, but for Astrada, the wait for Tauren to return seemed interminable. When he finally arrived, he was alone. “Where is our champion,” Astrada wanted to know.

“He should arrive shortly,” said an unconcerned Tauren, and he went about setting up a pallet in one corner of the smaller arena.

“Why are you setting up a bed? You have never slept once since we first met.” Astrada was confused.

“Just don’t want our champion to injure himself transitioning from his home.” Moving the pallet ever so lightly, he looked up, “There, that should do it,” he said.

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