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The following day I had to bid farewell to my friends. I’d expected the triplets to return to Laurel now their mission was complete and they’d been paid. But they’d insisted on accompanying the others to Faray.

We’d all agreed to pay them double based on their worth rather than their desperation. They were clearly so low priced because no one would employ them for being half ogres. So, whether they’d decided to stay on with us because of that, or just because they’d become good friends and wanted to see this part of the journey with us through, I didn’t know. But I hoped it was the latter.

As for Elsbeth, she clearly cared. But I had no doubt there were other motives, at play. Not just hers, but those handed down from the Mother and even Devotion herself. I wanted to trust her. God knows, I still held a torch for her, but after Daz… it was difficult. I couldn’t still the niggling doubts I had about her. Even now as I watched my friends about to walk away with her, I worried. At the same time, that didn’t stop me from being happy that if she was legit, she’d be around when I’d finished this month’s training. Hopefully curse free and we could really get into the nitty gritty of her trustworthiness.

As for my friends. It was hardest of all. Not just because I didn’t want us to split up. Daz’s loss had been more than enough for me to realise how much these arseholes meant to me. But we all seemed to be on different pages from what we were hoping to accomplish. Mal wanted to go all in, in Falritas. Joel wanted to move heaven and Earth to get back home.

I still felt somewhere in the middle. I really hadn’t had time to work through my feelings on the matter because we’d spent the last two weeks, balls to the wall, just trying to survive.

Joel hit me with a powerful, heartfelt hug. “Make sure you get strong as hell, Clive. And look after yourself. Sort this shit out, okay? I’m gonna keep looking into getting us back home. No matter what.”

Once Joel broke away, Mal moved closer in a more subdued manner. “Whatever you choose to do, mate. Get strong as hell. Even if you go back, this is a great opportunity.”

“Damn right it is,” I replied. “By the end of this month, I’m gonna be as strong as Natom.”

“You know he’s at least a couple of hundred years old, right?”

“I think it’s been mentioned. I want you to remember one thing though, ,” I said, lowering my voice as I spoke.

“Keep Joel out of trouble.” I grinned. “You know what he’s like.”

“I’ll try, but you keep out of trouble, too,” Mal replied, before dropping to whisper himself and unsubtly nodding at the Sania who was in her human form, lounging in the early morning sun with her eyes closed.

“I think she’s starting to like you. So try to keep your hands to yourself.”

“You’re a toss pot Mal, and I definitely wouldn’t go that far. She seems to hate me a little less than before, but that’s about all.”

“No. I still hate you!” Sana said loudly back without opening her eyes.

“Damn! That’s some good hearing!” Joel remarked.

I ignored the awkwardness and grasped Joel’s hand. “Okay dude, find us a way home.”

“I will. Or at least, I’ll find a route for us to travel to find a way home.”

“That’s good enough for me.” I let go of his hand and Mal came in with a fist bump. “See you soon, pal. Get your shit together.”

“You, too,” I laughed and gave Boris a good stroke.

“I will be praying for you, Clive,” Elsbeth pitched in awkwardly and gave me a light, self-conscious hug before quickly retreating. “I look forward to seeing your progress a month from now.”

She seemed to melt back, before I could properly reply, only to be replaced with the triplets. I received a round of rough slaps, and hugs from the three of them. George had tears in his eyes. As they pulled back. “Thank you for keeping us with you, Clive. It has been a good time for us, apart from the first day. We will see you when you’re done here,” Remus said then offered a little bow, which was both unexpected and made me feel uncomfortable.

Finally, Natom turned his attention to me. “While I am gone, meditate on calming your Neuma core. The more control you have, the easier it will be to move on with our training.”

He didn’t wait for a response, turning and loudly ushering my friends away from his property in hurry.

“Well, that sounds boring,” Sania said. Suddenly at my side. “I will hunt round about. You should get to work.”

“I will. And, thanks for the support.”

“You’re welcome.” Without another word, she set off at a fast run, morphing into her wolf form as she moved. It was an impressive sight.

Feeling at a loss, suddenly alone for the first time since I’d arrived in Falritas, I sat down on the grass in the warm morning sun and began to meditate. I studied the roiling thrashing core of energy with awe and trepidation. The ever-thickening tendrils that spread from it into the other parts of my body were much easier to deal with because all I did with the energy in them, was to push it back into the core.

I didn’t really have any idea what to do with the energy in the core. I tried to subdue it by compressing it with force of will, to stop its wild movements. It was the only thing I could think to do.

After a good amount of time, I found that I had managed to calm the raging beast in my soul, not one bit. To my perception the Neuma was a wild force that wanted to flow freely. If I did manage to tame it, would it be like caging a wild tiger? Making it a shadow of its former self. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. It felt like I was trying to diminish my own soul, so I stopped. Perhaps Natom could clear up exactly what I was supposed to be doing on his return.

Instead, I turned my attention on reducing the flow of Neuma into my curse arm once more. Depriving it of the energy it needed to take me over. I’d already been getting better at this over the last few days and on this occasion, I managed to make it thinner than I ever had before. Better still, it was remaining in that state for longer, which was promising.

I resurfaced from my meditative trance when I sensed Sania coming back from her hunting trip. On opening my eyes, the first thing that hit me was that I was as stiff as a board. Barely able to stand up. The second thing that grabbed my attention was that Sania had come back with four rabbits.

My stomach rumbled at the sight of them, and I almost recoiled. What the hell had happened to me in such a short space of time that I now looked at bunny corpses and thought yum.

She handed them over to me and I took them on impulse. Though I was confused at the gift. She noticed my expression and smiled.

“You’re the cook now, right?”

“I am the chef,” I corrected.

“Then you should probably chef them. I know how to burn them in a fire for ten minutes, but if you think you can do something better with them, then go for it.”

“Ah, okay. Sure I can. Do you eat anything other than meat, Sania, or just meat?”

“I occasionally eat some leaves, and berries. Not much else unless we go into a town, which we rarely do, but I can eat anything you can. Surprise me.” She said settling down in a spot of sun on the grass.

I stood for a minute looking at the rabbits, then realised something even more important. “Sania, I’ve never actually skinned and gutted an animal before.”

“You said you were a chef. How can this be?”

“The two don’t exactly walk hand in hand.”

“They do here,” she replied with a disappointed huff as she got smoothly back to her feet.

“I will do one of them to demonstrate. You will do the remaining three. This time watch, as you clearly haven’t while we’ve been camping.”

I had no choice to agree. She was right about not paying attention camping too. I had no interest in this part of meat preparation. Though I really should learn with my current predicament.

Sania whipped one of the rabbits by the ears. “Are there knives anywhere?”

“I honestly thought you were going to bite its head off and skin it with your claws there,” I laughed

“I could and have. But that’s not going to help me instruct you. Is it?”

Conceding the very valid point, I walked into the Kitchen and an searched for knives around Natom’s kitchen area. I hadn’t really investigated the area yet. At the far side there was a slim trolly under the workbench with individual drawers. I found the knives in the third I checked. Sharp and of very good quality, I pulled out a twelve-inch butcher's knife, which I knew would be adequate for chopping bones but whether it would be any good for skinning a rabbit, I didn’t know. To hedge my bets, I took a small paring knife too.

Back outside, Sania had carried the rabbits to one of the medium sized sheds, which held table and a well-used butcher's block.

She put a rabbit on the block, holding it by its head as I approached, holding out the two knives for her to choose from.

She took the paring knife, immediately making a quick series of movements. She deftly hacked off its tail, then each of its legs at the joints. I made sure to watch her like a hawk this time.

Next, she made a careful incision across its stomach, taking care not to penetrate the flesh below. I assumed it had something to do with its guts, so I made a note to also take care at that point too.

Putting the knife down she then proceeded to pull its back legs out of the incision like she was taking off its onesie. Once that was done, she gripped the unveiled legs, and the fur she’d worked loose and pulled them apart in a sharp movement. The fur peeled back like it hadn’t been attached at all. A quick hack at its neck to remove fur and head and the poor little fucker was skinned.

Next, she cut into its side below the ribs, until its innards were revealed.

With a scoop of her thick clawed finger, she emptied its organs on the table.

That bit almost had me gagging.

As she slapped the prepared carcass on the block, she eyeballed me. I could see the challenge in her stare, and I knew I couldn’t pussy out of this.

I grabbed the next rabbit. Tail, legs, they came off easy enough.

Then things started to go wrong. Sania moved closer, as I clumsily fucked the disrobing ceremony up. Struggling to get its little back legs from the fur. Her presence, looming over me with a disapproving stare really didn’t help matters either and I started to get irritated, yanking angrily at it.

My old mentor, Hakan had always mocked my temper in the kitchen. Are you sure being a chef is for you, Clive? You don’t seem to deal well with the pressure.

I’d always reply the same. This is how I deal with pressure. I make sure things get done!

He’d just laugh, which irritated me all the more. He was right, though. I was an angry-man, and I wasn’t proud of that fact. That same anger was rising now as I couldn’t get the fur over the god damn leg, and I snapped at Sania. “Give me some goddamn space, will you.”

She laughed at me now. “You’re like a little angry badger, Clive. But in this instance, rather than growing angry, you could just extend the cut on the abdomen a little more, and your problem will be solved rather than getting angry at me for watching in amazement that a grown man cannot skin a rabbit.”

I said nothing but grudgingly picked the knife back up, extended the cut as directed before trying again. Less than a minute later, I had the rabbit skinned and beheaded. The internal organs were a little fiddly, but I managed it without too much trouble.

Sania congratulated me before scooping up the remains of the two rabbits in her huge hands. I watched with keen interest marveling at her graceful movement as she walked off a good distance away from Natom’s house. Wondering what she was going to do with them. She just dumped on the ground before wiping her hands on the grass and headed back.

I was both disappointed and relieved when she didn’t come back to the hut, but instead headed into the house. It meant I could concentrate fully on what I was doing.

Once I’d finished with the remaining rabbits, I received a notification.

 

Congratulations, New Skill acquired. Butchering. Due to ingrained ability you have attained Level 5 in preparing Animal carcasses.

+5 to dexterity when dressing and butchering.

+5 Perception to all dressing and butchering related tasks.

 

I was overjoyed. I loved getting these skill notifications.

Satisfied with my work, I repeated what Sania had done, and carried the innards to roughly the same spot across the field.

A deep and throaty growl to my left caused me to jump back on instinct and turned to face the source of the sound. A huge cat very similar to a jaguar, but with more prominent lower canines, like tusks, was laying a few metres away in the knee height grass. I’d totally missed its presence until it growled. Now it watched me with the keen interest I’d view a cake counter.

I caught a quick look at its Identifier,

Level 15 Machairodus.

It could have been level 10 and I still would have wanted no part of that fight. I hurled the guts at it, then slowly backed away. Thankfully, my offering distracted it enough for me to put some distance between us. Once I figured I was far enough away, I turned and legged it back into Natom’s low walled garden.

Then and only then did I turn to check on its progress. No Machairodus in sight.

I nervously washed the rabbits and my hands at the nearby water pump, my head on a permanent swivel. Before quickly making my way back inside.

Sania had been busy lighting a fire and now lay sprawled on the floor in front of it.

“Are you always cold or something?” I asked her.

“I’m rarely cold. But I enjoy the sensation of heat and the comfort that brings.”

“Fair enough. You relax then, and I’ll dinner started.”

“Please do. If I get any hungrier, I might eat you and damn the consequences,” she chuckled from her spot on the floor.

“Don’t even joke about that,” I said semi seriously. “I’ve just nearly been eaten outside.”

“The little cat?” She laughed. Obviously, she already knew about it and didn’t consider it a threat. That didn’t exactly help the ego.

“If you do decide to eat me, will you start with the left arm please.”

“Never. That would be the only piece of you I’d leave.”

My mind went places it probably shouldn’t and I headed to the kitchen to shut down the unsettling conversation down.

I set about Natom’s kitchen looking for what other ingredients he had available and the equipment I’d need. I rejoiced when I found butter, salt, and pepper, but lamented that he had nothing else in the kitchen. Not even staples like flour.

“Sorry Sania, it seems like it’s just going to be rabbit surprise for dinner.”

“What’s the surprise?”

“Well… that it’s just rabbit. There’s no other food here.”

“What about Natom’s garden. There were lots of edible leaves, herbs even. You do know what herbs are don’t you? Clive the Chef.”

Ignoring the sarcasm, I headed out into the garden to see what she was talking about. I jumped a little as she appeared beside me, as silently as ever. I saw the little smile on her face at my response, and I suspected it was intentional.

“I saw some other plants a little way to the east in rows like a little farm. You should go and check them out, too.”

“I’m not gonna start pulling his plants up without knowing what they are. He’ll probably disintegrate me with a slap when he gets back.”

“He’s incredible, isn’t he?” Sania said. Eyes wide with wonder at the thought of Natom.

“Meh, he’s alright,” I replied, as I pulled a leaf from what appeared to be rosemary and held it to my nose to confirm my suspicions. Sania laughed. “Are you jealous of him, Clive?”

“I’m jealous of his powers, not him,” I admitted. She nodded and picked a leaf from a neatly arranged pot.

“I know this one is edible. Tastes weird, but it won’t kill you.” She passed me the leaf.

Rubbing it between my thumb and fore finger, a heady waft of garlic filled my senses. Now I was happy. I moved to the pot and gently coaxed out the bulb of the wild garlic.

It wasn’t going to pack quite the same punch as actual garlic, but it would do.

I managed to identify sage and thyme, before Sania started complaining about how hungry she was again, and we headed back in.

After cutting the rabbits into fours, I seasoned them and then browned them in the butter followed by wild garlic bulbs to cook through. The smell was epic already.

Adding water and the rest of the herbs and bringing it up to a simmer, I then placed the whole casserole pot in the oven, silently ruing the lack of wine to both cook with and drink.

With that done, I cleaned the kitchen up from the mess I’d made and went to sit near the fire with Sania.

“I don’t know what you’ve done to that rabbit and why it’s taking so long, but it smells amazing.”

“Hopefully it tastes amazing, too. I’m going to need to wash down Natom’s table outside. I’ve no idea when he’s coming back, but he probably won’t be pleased if we leave it a mess. Will you come with me?”

She smirked. “Why? That cat?”

“Very funny. I’m not scared of the cat Sania.”

“So why were you running like a gazelle back to the house?”

“I haven’t had much luck since coming here and I’d be glad of the company if you don’t mind.”

She sighed, but followed me out all the same. It was almost completely dark now. Firebugs lit the cooling air, zipping past us in disorganised flight.

“I think the cat is used to Natom, giving it scraps. Might even be a little domesticated,” she said leaning against the side of the hut as I rinsed down the butcher's block.

“That really wouldn’t surprise me,” I laughed. “Seems very much like something Natom would do, from the little we know of him.

As if saying his name summoned him, Natom dropped from the sky. I jumped in shock, coupled with annoyance as Sania didn’t even flinch.

“Something smells good!” he said happily, before swishing past us into the house.

 

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