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We followed Natom back into the house to find him in the centre of the room, looking like an orchestra conductor.

Plates, glasses, and cutlery flew from the kitchen area onto the dining table in perfect order. A section of floor lifted up and six wine bottles flew up out of the opening, landing on the table, too. Sania and I stood eyes filled with wonder at the casual display of power.

Once he was finished, I moved over to the oven to check how the rabbit was holding up. Looking to be well cooked, I pulled it out and seasoned it with the prepared herbs. I rued the lack of acidity to the dish. Now I knew how much wine, Natom must have had. Hidden under the house. But accepted that it at least looked and smelled amazing.

“Your use of power is amazing,” Sania said to Natom as they took their seats.

“I hope I can master even a fragment,” I said agreeing with the sentiment.

“Enough at least to fix this bond and the curse.”

“Would you stop there?” Sania asked curiously.

“I’ll most likely be heading back home. So yeah, I doubt I could learn anymore back on Earth, if what Natom says is true about the energy levels there.”

“But why would you go back? Your friend Mal has decided to stay because here is better.”

“It’s still my home,” I said only half concentrating on the conversation as I transferred the rabbit to a serving dish.

As I poured the last of the pan juices over the top, I received a notification.

Congratulations, New Skill acquired. Food Preparation: Due to ingrained ability you have attained Level 31 in preparing edible and potentially edible items into a worthy meal.

+30 Food identify: Identify ingredients safe for consumption. (Passive)

+10 Dexterity while preparing food.

-30% To cooking time.

To the center of the matter: Ability to understand the internal structure of an edible item. Quality, temperature, weight and Potential and.

Fit for an Enemy (Unlocked Level 10)

Fit for a King (Unlocked Level 20)

Fit for a God (Unlocked Level 30)

Fit for a Good Time. (Unlocks at)

(Activation: Touch Item and focus solely up on it.)

 

As much as I wanted to moon over the new skill, Sania unaware of my exciting breakthrough, continued talking, pulling my attention away.

“Do you have a strong pack back there, that you cannot leave?”.

“Honestly, no. I don’t. My parents are old, and we barely ever spoke anymore since they’d upped sticks and moved to Spain. They’d never looked back, and I don’t blame them.”

Just talking about that combined with the new skill I just received, pushed me a little further along the path of realization, that this place could and should be my Spain. Could I reach Natom’s power level if I stayed? Probably not, but could I have a pretty cool life here. As long as I was strong enough to face off against most people and monsters, then nobody should bother me too much.

Cooking faster and with more skill and speed than ever before. I could open a restaurant in a city somewhere, even in Laurel. And if I could make the plates fly too, then… it would be famous! The euphoric thoughts were quickly dampened by the fact that I owed it to Joel to get back. It was my fault that he was here. I growled at the cognitive dissonance and pushed it from my mind for now. That was for the future.

I noticed Sania and Natom were waiting for me to say more. I just shrugged. “I dunno, what I’m going to do. There’s lots to think about. Let’s get this eaten.”

“Agreed,” Natom said. “Wine anyone?” A bottle flew over to his hand and he pulled the cork out with his power.

“I’d love some. I could have done with some wine to cook the rabbit in.”

“One thing I can promise you, Clive is that during your stay here you will never cook with my wine. This is all homemade from my vineyards. It is for drinking only. I will admit to not knowing too much about cooking, but I know that all of the precious alcohol I have worked hard to cultivate, will evaporate, and no meal is worth that crime.”

“I don’t know what to say to that Natom. Hakan, my old mentor, would strongly disagree with you and while I appreciate the depth and flavor a good wine brings, I also fully understand your point.”

We ate the meal in relative silence. My eyes flickered briefly to check the others were enjoying the fare. To my satisfaction, they were attacking the rabbits with gusto.

Satisfied that they were happy, I was able to enjoy my own plate all the more.

The meat fell off the bone, tender and succulent. The juices were more than flavorsome enough with the herbs, butter and flavor from the rabbit, and sipping the wine as I went offered the acidic counterpoint that the dish was missing.

Considering I was in a very strange kitchen, land, world even, I was happy with my performance.

“So what did you all think?” I had to ask when everyone was finished.

“It needed some potatoes or rice,” Natom said, scratching his bald head, looking at his plate. I suppressed the annoyance I felt at his criticism.

“But apart from that, it was most likely the tastiest rabbit I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten a lot of rabbit.”

“I am glad you enjoyed it,” I beamed. “If you can show or get me other ingredients, I’ll cook whatever you have. And err, do you want some money for helping me and feeding us?”

“No, no, and I do believe you fed me this evening. I most certainly didn’t have any rabbits here when I left.”

“If Sania is happy to take up my hunting duties and you are happy to do all the cooking, I’ll be as happy as I can be with the intrusion into my life. Now drink.”

I happily obliged. The wine was good. A little sweet to what I was used to, but otherwise, very well made.

“And you Sania, was the rabbit to your liking?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve never eaten meat that I didn’t have to chew before. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not yet. However, it was very tasty.

“I’ll take it,” I said draining the last of the wine in my glass.

“Another?” Natom asked.

“I’d better not, if we’re training tomorrow.”

“Well, far be it from me to force a drink on someone, but this is, in fact part of your training. As such, I’m happy for you to become inebriated, and won’t be upset if you are of little use in the morning.”

“Then top me up!” I grinned thrusting the glass over. The night went surprisingly well. We drank and chatted for a good few hours, and I was beginning to wonder if the training was some kind of joke. Once I was well inebriated, I found out that it wasn’t.

Natom pointed at me. “How did calming your Neuma go today?”

“I worked hard on it, but I don’t feel like I made much progress. It seems hell bent on flowing as it does and controlling it seems counterintuitive.

“I agree. Yet if you wish to harness its power, then you must harness it. In its natural, wild, and unfettered state it is of absolutely no use to you consciously.

“Consider the rabbit we just ate. Wild and free and eating my cabbages! No use to us like that. A nuisance if nothing else.

To make it useful, we need to stop it running wild, skin and gut it. Chose the parts we want to use and manipulate them into the desired size. Then do whatever it is you did in the preparation to create this wonderful dish. Admittedly, it’s not wonderful for the rabbits but as far as we’re concerned, you produced something far greater.”

I found myself nodding along at his logic. Right now I was thinking like a Neuma vegan rather than a potential Neuma Master.

“Okay, you’ve swayed me into think of it another way. But isn’t that dangerous to myself. I mean, that’s my soul. It’s not a rabbit.”

“It can be dangerous if you are reckless. But then so can running, or climbing or dancing. The energy you contain is yours as much as your arms or legs. Why not use it?”

“Why is everyone not a Neuma master then? Why follow the gods to gain power? Come to think of it, why were those Neuma guys back in Laurel essentially junkies?”

“Good questions. Why do people choose the gods? Because it is easier to believe in a higher power and a higher plan than to believe in your own powers and plans. Did you know that when you pray to a god, you are actually creating a channel that they can absorb your Neuma and replace it with a smaller portion of their own Neuma. The difference in what you receive is that the gods Neuma is molded into a specific purpose, such as Healing Hands, or Flames of Justice?”

I was aghast at the revelation, but Natom kept talking. “The higher your level the more Neuma your body possesses. The higher your chosen church level, is relative to how much of your own Neuma you’ve donated to your chosen god over the years.

It works almost like a black smith. The miners provide tons of unrefined ore and the blacksmith take it and mold it into useable items. This is perfect for those who do not have the skills to work with the base materials, but the blacksmith does not work for free. In this case, he keeps a good percentage of the ore for him or herself.”

“Well shit. That makes perfect sense because that Neuma core inside me has no intention of doing anything I want it to do. Even with the high Internal Connection!”

“The Internal Connection makes things easier, but going back to my metaphor, Internal Connection is the hammer and anvil. It is not the skill. You already have an Internal Connection more than capable of making you one of the strongest people on Falritas. Certainly it will allow you a power level similar to a rank fifty follower of a god.”

“Joel actually warned me about that!”

“He did,” Sania laughed, slurring her words and slapping me way too hard on the back. It took a moment to recover before I could continue.

“He suggested I saved thirty points to assign for when I met you. I was close to putting them into Internal Connection and he stopped me.”

“A wise decision. You need to invest in your physicality, but tonight is not the night for such things. We can address that tomorrow. For now, look at your Neuma.”

I did as he asked and found it was much calmer than usual. I grinned at him. “It’s calm!”

“Indeed. Intoxication has that effect. For the two you met in Laurel, they use a certain type of poppy tea, mixed with some other interesting herbs.”

“So being drunk or stoned really is the best way to develop?”

“No. But it is an easy way to learn how to develop. It’s fraught with dangers, such as addiction and overdosing and generally making bad decisions.”

“You need to be able to manipulate Neuma at all times under all kinds of pressures. Being continually impaired through drugs and alcohol is not the answer.”

Sania snorted at that, as she drained another glass.

“What I wanted you to witness, is what a more sedate Neuma core looks like. I want you to memorize how it feels. I also want you to try to complete a simple task this evening. Your first task tomorrow will be to repeat the task without alcohol.”

“Hit me with it. I can do this.”

“Raise a plate up a few inches from the table.”

I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed the plate from the table and lifted it up. It didn’t even get a smile from Natom, but we got another drunken snort from Sania.

I put the plate back down and focused on the Neuma core and on the plate floating. Nothing happened, but that wasn’t surprising as I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

“Natom. I have no idea man.”

“What did you do?”

“I focused on my Neuma, and of the plate lifting into the air somehow.”

“Try again, but be more specific. Imagine forming a thin tendril of power from your core, then imagine that limb leaving your body to the plate, taking hold of it and raising it into the air as if it was your own hand doing it.”

It took several attempts just to form the beginnings of a new tendril of power from the core. I had to accept that I was trying to think of too many things at once, and focused my entire attention on forming that one tendril.

Slowly, the imagined limb began to protrude from the still relatively calm core though it caused me to be instantly fatigued from the effort. I continued to elongate the limb. The mass still resisted me, but it was noticeably less forceful than usual. After what seemed like half an hour, the limb with painstaking slowness, finally left the confines of my body. The further it reached from the core, the greater the resistance as the core attempted to pull it back in.

A year later, or at least that’s how it felt, my Neuma limb finally reached the plate and attempted to lift it. One side of the plate rattled slightly. I rejoiced at the achievement, and that one break in concentration caused the tendril to snap back into the core.

I slumped in the chair and couldn’t even imagine trying again. I was so exhausted. Opening my eyes, I locked on Natom, “I can’t do that again man, I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus.”

“I didn’t expect you to be able to move the plate at all to be honest. A fine achievement, Clive. I see Sania was right. You are determined, and learn quickly. Perhaps there is real hope for you.”

I was too tired to even register the compliment. I looked to Sania, to acknowledge her kind words, but she was no longer at the table.

“Where is she?” I asked, fighting to keep my eyes open.

“She went to sleep a few hours ago.”

“How long was I in there for?” I asked, shocked.

“Maybe five hours,” Natom said nonchalantly. It happens a lot as a Neuma Master. You’ll get used to keeping track of time better… maybe,” he chuckled. “Now get off to bed yourself. Use the spare room. Tomorrow you will see that without a calm Neuma, how much harder that task becomes.”

“I think I can already see that. So… just a thought. Could I be more powerful right now, as an alcoholic?”

“Right now, yes,” he replied. “But it has its limits , trust me on that. Even though you will be able to cleanse your body, when you are ready to learn. Being drunk all of the time really affects your judgement and your ability to be the best version of yourself. I should know. I spent nearly sixty years drunk or high.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. I killed half of the population of Innisa, a town in the north east of Knuntang, fighting a Gashadokuro. I won that battle but lost a far greater one. It wasn’t a great advert for Neuma Masters. That one battle may well have put back those willing to study their own Neuma, centuries. It’s why many like Justice, place a ban on practicing the way of the Neuma.”

“This is mental, Natom. What the fuck is a Gashadokuro, anyway?”

“Bone monster. Giant. Fifty feet high, at least. I should’ve led him away. But enough of that, best get to bed. We have a lot to get through.”

As I walked from the lounge, I saw Sania in wolf form, sprawled out in front of the fire. She looked comfortable and cozy, but I still felt bad that I was getting my own room.

I looked to Natom to say we should swap. He just laughed and stopped me before I could say anything. “She is a Wultr boy. She is happy where she is. Go to bed and have it out with her tomorrow if you must, but I guarantee she’d rather be beside the fire.”

“Okay. I will. Night Natom.”

 

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