Natom became a totally different person. In less than a heartbeat, he was around the table and in my face, so fast it shouldn’t have been possible. Shouting, face bright red but more worryingly, his body had taken on an electrically charged aura to it.
“You soul bound another to you?”
Up this close, I could clearly see an insane light in his eyes. I thought he was going to kill me there and then.
“That is a power for the gods alone to trifle with. How did you do it?” He grabbed the front of my hoodie with one hand and lifted me up off the floor easily. Even though he was a good eight inches smaller than me.
Despite the ridiculous power difference, I had anger issues of my own and slammed down on his arm with my fists to break free. It was like hitting an iron girder.
That didn’t stop my mouth. “What the fuck are you shouting at me for? I just told you it was an accident,” I shouted back, probably just as red faced, fists clenched in indignation.
“One of the goddamn reasons I’m here, is to ask you if there’s a way to free her from the bond without harming her.”
He seemed to calm a little, but still held me aloft.
“How did you achieve the bond, I need to know?”
“Try putting me the fuck back down and I’ll tell you. This hoodie is a gift from Priestess Elsbeth, the Mother and an Acolyte named Meria, and I’ll be really pissed if you ruin it.”
He smiled at that. All trace of anger suddenly gone. “In honor of the Hoodie, I will relent. But you have some explaining to do,” he said as he set me back down.
“Happily,” I huffed in response. “That’s what I’m here for after all.” I retook my seat a little shaken but determined not to be stirred.
“How did you do it?” Natom asked again. He was still smiling, but the earlier intensity in his eyes hadn’t faded as he spoke.
“So. I was riding on Sania’s back. It was scary at first, but after a short while, I felt really, really safe. So I took the opportunity to work on reducing the flow of Neuma into the cursed part of my arm. That’s how I’ve been doing it, you see? I kinda pull at the energy from the limb in my arm and make it kinda go back into the central core. I haven’t been able to break the connection to the curse entirely, but....”
“The bond, Clive. Tell me about the bond,” Natom said impatiently.
“I’m getting there. Seriously. Fuck. So while I was meditating I felt another source of energy. Not the curse. That just feels strange, kinda eerie. This other one felt… nice. I had no idea what it was, but I assumed it was part of me. Or else how would I be able to feel it when I meditate? I thought it might be able to help me with the curse somehow. So I tried to pull it toward my core and I was successful. Bear in mind, I hadn’t heard of Neuma or any of this shit a couple of weeks ago and I’ve just been trying to work it out on my own.”
Natom looked thoughtful. “My testing never led me down this path. What I don’t understand is how you were able to reach into Sania’s body and pull part of her Neuma to you. That should be impossible.” He fell silent, deep in thought. We all sat uncomfortably waiting for what was next.
Sania surprised me by speaking up. “I’m not familiar with Neuma, but a natural part of a Wultr’s ability to never lose a rider, is that we can form a connection with the rider that allows us to move as if they are a part of us. I can’t explain it exactly, but could this be part of the reason it was possible?”
Natom’s eyes lit up. “Incredible! And yes, that could very well explain it!” Can you demonstrate on me? I promise I will cause you no harm. I might even be able to follow the connection to Clive, and see if there is a way to free you.”
Sania nodded, rising from the table and moving away a few feet, she morphed into the huge wolf. Natom seemed excited and leapt instantly on to her back.
Closing his eyes they both remained still as statues for a few minutes before Natom dismounted. Sania turned back and sat with us again.
“A fascinating power, Sania. In all my years, I hadn’t realized the Wultr could subconsciously control their Neuma in such a way. Remarkable, and on this occasion, very unlucky for you to have found potentially the only being on Falritas both capable enough and stupid enough to do what he did.”
“Hey! I’m not stupid, I just didn’t know any better.”
“And what exactly do you think stupid is?” Natom snapped back.
“I think you used it as a blanket statement to define my character.”
The bastard offered a sympathetic smile in response.
“Asshole.” Was my response to his response.
“Either way, I believe that it was a genuine accident and an almost unbelievable coincidence. But I sense no deception in you, Clive. Apart from the false bravado.”
Both Joel and Mal, broke into laughter at that. I spared a quick dirty look for them both before continuing with Natom.
“So, did you figure out how to break the bond?”
“Not without killing Sania. But I believe there is hope. It is something we can work on. I couldn’t bear to see her trapped like this for the rest of her life.”
Sania snorted, half laugh, half despair, but said no more.
“I’m happy to hear that. Do you think I’ll be able to get rid of the curse, too?”
“One way or another, yes I do.”
“Damn, that’s a relief. I thought I was going to have to get the arm removed.”
Natom smiled. “When I said one way or another, that was one of the options. But we’ll see. The Mother sent you here for a reason beyond the curse. Your three-way alignment needs some study, too. So you get to stay for a while and see if we can do anything with you.”
“Thank you Natom,” I replied against my better judgement. “I appreciate that you’re willing to help us.”
“I’m still not happy that you managed to bond someone. Taking another’s bond without their consent, even by accident is a black mark against you. Death is better than slavery of that nature.”
I was taken aback by his words, and I couldn’t find a response.
“I consent to the bonding,” Sania said, surprising us all. “I believe Clive when he says it was unintentional. He’s shown no reason to lie, and I’m happy to support him until his curse is lifted and we can remove the bond. He treats me as an equal and with respect. He has also been an apt pupil learning how to hunt and move through the forests. Though still awful, with his level of willingness and drive, I believe he will be capable of great things in time.” She made brief eye contact with me, then sniffed the tea. Sipping at it.
Natom looked bewildered by her defense of me. Looking to both of us in turn. He opted to drain the cup of clear liquid before picking up the tea.
I copied, assuming the clear liquid was vodka. I threw it back and embraced the burn. Then I looked at the tea suspiciously. “This is just normal tea, right? It's not gonna send me on a trip?”
“You have experience with poppy tea?” he grinned.
“Not intentionally. Two dipshits in Laurel gave me a cup without telling me what it was, and I drained it in one.”
“You met Kalia and Morro. Best not to learn too much from those two. I think their main aim in life is getting high, not developing their Neuma. Still,” he said yawning. “We’ve all been there. Now tell me. If everyone here thinks you're such a big deal…”
“I don’t,” Mal said quickly.
“Me neither,” Joel added.
Natom smiled and continued, “Then why were you only level 8, less than two weeks ago?”
“Most likely because we don’t have levels where we come from,” I replied.
“And where is that?” he asked suspiciously.
“Earth, assuming this isn’t some parallel universe Earth. We aren’t really sure what happened only that it involved demons and portals.”
“You are from one of the Tertiary lands?” he said in something approaching awe. “That explains so much. What’s it like there? I would love to tear through and enter, but alas that a power reserved for the gods alone to use and dispense.”
“I mean, honestly, it’s a bit shit, Natom. You seem to have a pretty nice place here.”
“What the hell does tertiary lands mean, anyway?” Joel asked.
“The flow of universal energy which gives life, spreads out like a funnel. There is Onnerak, the land where the gods dwell. Then there are the secondary lands. Falritas, Talitus and Galess. After that, there are the Tertiary lands. I don’t know how many of those exist. I have heard nine, but who knows other than the gods. Beyond the Tertiary lands, are the Abyssal lands. Each step away from Onnerak means less universal energy.
“Okay, so how do we get back there, if you are saying you can’t?” Joel asked. “And if I went back through to our own world, would Clive’ curse just die if there’s no power?”
“I don’t know what will happen with the curse in your world. But remember that the demon who came into your world did not simply vanish, so it is unlikely the curse will. I’d imagine a slow seeping of the extra power you have gained here, into the world around you. As for how you would return. I am afraid only the assistance of a god will allow for such a thing. The only gods I know capable of creating a path to the Tertiary lands, are Justice, Destruction, Darkness and Creation.”
“That ain’t a whole lot of good options,” Joel pointed out.
“Why? because half of them want to kill Clive. One of them’s disappeared and the other one is called the God of Darkness. I can’t see a problem?” Mal said, words dripping with sarcasm.
“So Darkness?” Joel asked.
“Darkness doesn’t care about you one way or another,” Remus said. “I dunno what you would have to do to get a portal out of him.”
“If it’s our only choice, that’s what I’ll do,” Joel said thumping the table with a fist. “I’m not giving up on getting back. Natom, have you got any idea on how to become a follower of Darkness?”
“You could probably pass for a dwarf with gigantism,” Natom said seriously, but there was a definite twinkle in his eye. You have the right build and beard. Just a little too big. Lucky for you, they dig their tunnels nice and wide.”
“That’s not really answering my question,” Joel said.
“I don’t want to give you any advice that involves you with Darkness. I have feelings on most of the Gods and I wouldn’t advise dealings with any of them, other than perhaps Devotion.”
“If you do attempt to join him. The Dwarves of Nuinaer further north from where I met you in the Craster range would be the most approachable of his followers. They do trade regularly with the southern continents.”
Joel looked thoughtful. “So are all of darkness’s followers Dwarves?”
Natom’s answering laugh had a tinge of unpleasantness to it. “Oh no. The Dwarves are about the only ones worth speaking to, though. Unless you like Liches, Necromancers, reanimated corpses, giant insects of all kinds, Darkness has some of the most insidious and difficult to beat followers at his disposal. Lucky for us, he and Destruction don’t get on anymore.”
“Sounds good to me, as long as I only meet the dwarves I suppose. We’ll have to check this out once I get a little more constitution boys.”
“Look, Joel. First things first,” Mal said, “Let’s see what we can do about Clive’s creepy ass fucking arm, huh?”
“Yeah, but we need a plan for leaving once that’s done. We need to set things into motion.”
Mal shook his head. “I’m not going back, Joel.”
“Why the fuck would I want to go back to my shithole of a life? I’m gonna stay here and become a kick-ass Paladin of Devotion.”
“I know we joked about it before, but you can’t be serious, Mal. That’s our home!”
“Home is where the heart is, mate. And mine sure as shit isn’t in our world. I’ll help you two get back of course. But I’m staying put.”
“What about your job? Your House?”
“I rent the house Joel, and my job’ll already be gone. The post office are ruthless. The only thing I’ll miss is my PS4, and seeing as this whole world is like a bloody MMO, I don’t think I’ll miss it that much. There’s only one reason I would have gone back, and that’s if Boris,” he said ruffling the dog's fur, “Was left behind. That’s it.”
“Well shit.” Joel said, looking shell shocked. “Clive?”.
“I have the restaurant to set up, so I need to get back soon before they cut the loan. But honestly, if I could stay here, I would. I like a lot of what this world has to offer and if I could make some money, real money, I’d consider opening a restaurant here.”
“Restaurant?” Natom asked.
“Yeah, I’m a chef back home. I was just about to re-open my mentor's restaurant, as my own. I was out celebrating when I got dragged here.”
Natom scratched his bald head. “I actually can’t believe I haven’t asked this yet. But with you lot dropping so many bombs, it’s no surprise. Did the demons say why they brought you through?”
“They wanted some old recipe book that belonged to my mentor. Funny story, actually. Guess what the resteraunt was called.”
“I have no idea, and even less enthusiasm for guessing games,” Natom replied drier than burnt biscuit.
“Falritas, Natom. He’d called the restaurant Falritas. I think there’s a good chance my mentor might have come from your world. Especially since they were after this book of his.”
Natom looked physically shaken and sat in silence, staring out of a window. It stretched on, way longer than it should have, and we all looked at each other around the table uncomfortably. I even drank the tea, to pass the time. And I’d swore off Falritas tea forever, after my last adventure.
“I will train you.” He finally said. “Your payment will be to provide me with one meal a day. Write a list of ingredients you will need. The rest of you aren’t welcome here. Go and wait in Faray until we are finished.”
“No way,” Mal and Joel said together. “We stick together no matter what. These guys are like brothers to me,” Mal continued.
“Yet you aren’t returning with your brothers to your own world?” Natom replied.
Mal was stumped.
“Is the capital safe?” I asked.
“It’s the safest place in Knuntang. I’ll travel with them and ensure they are cared for. Their presence here is a hinderance to us and nothing more.”
I looked to my team mates, they looked reluctant including Elsbeth surprisingly.
“How long for?” She asked.
“I will train him for one month. If he’s as fast a learner as you say, that should be long enough for him to build a foundation on which to develop and remove the curse. If he isn’t ready then, he never will be.”
“I will commune with the Mother and ask if she wishes my return. I may be able to remain in Knuntang as an Emissary of Devotion for the period.”
“Very well. You can all rest here this evening. Then I’ll take you to Faray tomorrow.”
“You realise, I’ll be staying for the duration of Clive’s training, Natom?” Sania said.
Natom looked stumped for a moment. He clearly wanted no distractions, but then we couldn’t exactly get rid of Sania.
“Of course, my dear Wultr. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Once we’d finished our meeting, we moved to sit around the fire in Natom’s lounge area. It was, after all where we would be sleeping for the night. Other than Elsbeth, who Natom insisted took the spare room. Despite it only being late afternoon and after some lethargic chatting, we were all soon asleep.