"I want to thank all of you for coming today." Camden stands slightly above everyone, addressing the whole village with his family standing next to him for support.
I’m standing with my parents off to the side, more interested in everyone’s reactions to Camden’s speech rather than its contents. Having a village meeting around the start of spring isn't unusual, but it doesn't look like anybody expects good news after this last year.
"We've had a challenging year, but we've grown stronger as we overcame each adversity." Camden pauses for effect, and a few people clap in support.
Looking around, I see Markus and Ezekiel with sour expressions; the two are aware of what this meeting is really about. Not too far away from the antsy farmers is Anastasia trying to hide her worry behind a mask of indifference.
"We overcame goblins, magic beasts, and a food shortage, one disaster after another, and we did not falter. Nor will we falter in the future!" Camden raises a proud, defiant hand into the air, but his downcast expression is a stark contrast to what he's saying. Everyone sees the look on Camden's face, and people quickly become antsy.
“I truly wish I could stand here and tell you things are turning around, congratulate everyone for surviving the frost and the returning of the local wildlife, but it is my job to protect all of you!” I notice how Camden sprinkled in a few positives before he delivers the bad news.
“It pains me to have to inform everyone that Scholl has taken Fort North Ridge and Teeburn and that they appear to be marching on Drey.” And like a lit powder keg, the villagers explode upon hearing Camden’s news.
More than a few people start crowding in front of Camden, shouting questions at him. I take a step back with my parents, not wanting to get drawn into the mayhem.
"Order!" Camden shouts, trying to gain some control over the masses. When people don't respond, Camden is forced to use his crowd control skill. “I will have Order!”
People stop shoving one another, and everything goes quiet.
"I understand your concerns, and I'm sure many of you have questions, but if you only shout over each other, I can't explain anything to you." I feel Camden retract his skill, and thankfully the mob remains silent. "A little while ago, I received a letter from the earl by the lord of Drey demanding we send supplies to help combat the invading army. Over the next two weeks, we'll harvest the wortel and send part of our harvest to Drey along with any other supplies we can do without."
"We're starving, and you want to give our food away!?"
“How can you do this to us!?”
“You’re dooming us all!” An angry farmer in front of Camden shouts in his face.
Camden could easily reactivate his skill to handle the situation, but he wisely waits for the people to calm down independently. Our headman stands in front of everyone like a mountain, unmoving as people hurl accusations and insults at him.
The villagers quiet down once they realize Camden isn't refuting their claims and is only waiting silently. Once the last person stops talking, Camden addresses everyone. "Do you think I want to send our crops to Drey? Do you think I'm unaware of the challenges we've faced this winter? My family has eaten the same dried meat you have. Do I have to remind you all it was my wife with her bookkeeping that allowed the village to purchase those additional provisions from Kervin? Do you think I want to give away your hard work?"
“Then don’t!” A brave villager yells out.
Camden sadly shakes his head. "We received an official order from Earl Vagan. Does anyone suggest we ignore it?" Camden scans the crowd, and anyone he makes eye contact with looks down in defeat. Everyone knows it would be treason to ignore the earl's orders outright.
Looking at how the crowd is responding, I see Camden in a new light. It's honestly amazing how he can manipulate everyone so easily. Camden seamlessly shifted all the blame onto big brother. Blaming your superiors is the oldest trick in the book, and the villagers are eating it up. Instead of blaming Camden for everything, people will direct their anger at the faceless nobles, demanding we hand over our food.
"What will we do for food?" A concerned woman asks Camden as he's looking over the crowd.
"It will be difficult, but together, our village will overcome this challenge, just like the others. Thanks to everyone's hard work this winter removing trees, our fields have increased by nearly 20%. And as I said earlier, our hunters have spotted tracks indicating animals are moving back into the forest now that the spiders are gone. We'll have to continue rationing until the new year’s harvest, but we should be able to meet the earl's demands." Camden informs everyone with a reassuring smile.
Again, Camden used the word demands when referring to the earl’s request while holding back information. He isn’t mentioning how it wasn’t just food the earl asked for and tactfully leaves out how we high-leveled people would also need to leave the village.
I notice Camden can keep up a confident appearance talking about our food problems because he knows that by the time our supplies near Drey, the city will already be lost to Scholl, and our 'war donations' will be brought back home.
“How long do you think the war will last?” Another person asks.
“Yeah, what if Drey wins quickly and sends Scholl packing?” I hear Lucas’s voice cut through the crowd. The junior hunter is too optimistic for his own good.
Camden finds me in the crowd and makes eye contact; it's his way of asking for permission to use my name again. I lightly nod, giving Camden permission to talk about my experience in Drey.
“I thought the same thing,” Camden tells everyone. “What if Scholl can be defeated? Drey is much more secure than Teeburn, so I asked Aaliyah to visit Drey on my behalf. I’m sad to say her opinion of the city was not good.”
People start whispering to each other, and the villagers closest to me steal glances in my direction.
"Based on what Aaliyah saw, Drey is in the middle of a mass evacuation. Merchants are fleeing the city while the guard is preparing for war. It doesn't appear Drey will have an easy time defending against Scholl."
That might just be Camden’s biggest understatement yet. He makes it sound like Drey stands a chance when I’m willing to bet the city will surrender once Scholl’s commander sneezes in their direction.
“Then what happens if Scholl comes to our village? What if they bring an army?" A lady named Marry asks, holding her eight-month-old boy in her arms while standing close to her husband. The only reason I recognize her is that she's the latest person in our village to give birth, and babies are a hot topic in a small village.
Camden keeps a straight face, but I can tell that he was ready for this question. "Our village is the deepest village in The Endless Forest; I don't see Scholl marching their armies out here," Camden reassures the concerned mother.
"Of course, that doesn't mean an inspector or small platoon of Scholl's soldiers won't come to see the village. If that should happen, I want to make it clear that we, as a village, need to be accommodating but firm." Camden notices he lost a few people, so he explains. "If anyone from Scholl arrives at our village, we should treat them with respect and offer no insult. However, if Scholl comes looking to attack us… well, our village was able to slay the goblin horde after all."
“Before any of you panic, let me tell those of you who don’t know, Salus is building an armory for our village. Again, thanks to Aaliyah’s hard work, we have a collection of spears in case anything attacks the village. She has kindly been donating her work ever since the goblin incident,” Camden praises me in front of the entire village.
I feel my cheeks heat up as a lot of people offer me praise, and even a few cheers. Mother and Father each support me with a hand on my shoulder, keeping me from hanging my head in embarrassment.
"I know how difficult this last year has been; it was probably the most challenging in our village's history. It seems like one disaster follows us after another, but I refuse to look at it that way!" Camden boldly proclaims. "After each disaster, our village has grown stronger. The younger generation is leveling at unprecedented rates, and we've cleared more land this year than in all the time I've been headman combined. We may face more danger in the future, but thanks to everything we've been through, we're more prepared than ever!"
I watch as more and more villagers get sucked into Camden's speech. Even though he hasn't solved anything, thanks to Camden's magnetism, the people feel at ease and reassured that everything will be alright.
I’m conflicted over how I should be feeling. I understand Camden’s manipulation is vital for the village's survival, but that doesn't help remove the bad taste in my mouth.
When I lived back on Earth, I never cared for politics. Everything seemed needlessly complicated and drawn out, leaving me, like many others, uninterested in what our elected officials were doing, content to go home and tune out the world.
Though I admit there were many faults with the government in my past life, transparency wasn’t one of them. There were always people fighting for each side of an argument making it hard for leaders to hide information from the public.
I see now how information is truly the most valuable thing in any world.
The only way my fellow villagers hear anything about the outside world is through Camden. Though they may question him at times, he’s their only source for information. I wonder if anyone is even contemplating the option that Camden didn’t tell them everything?
A part of me wants to tell everyone the truth about Scholl and how they’re going to take Drey, but I know that will only open up a new can of worms, that quite honestly, I don't think the village is ready for.
I believe Camden made the right choice, but is it right for me to withhold everything I know based solely on what I believe to be right? I don't have long to ponder over the issue regarding the freedom of information before Camden starts to wrap things up.
"I don't want to keep anyone here longer, so I'll end the meeting with this. As a village, we can overcome anything as long as we work together!" Camden says with a proud look on his face.
I think his speech and delivery were a little cheesy, but the villagers love it. Many people still walk up to Camden with questions as the crowd starts to disperse, but they aren't as aggressive as when he started.
Sarette is waving Mother over, probably wanting her to join her for tea and discuss everything Camden talked about. Mom shakes her head no and mouths later to her friend. Sarette pouts before reluctantly nodding at Mother. I'm surprised Mom doesn't want to stay and talk with her friend.
“I think it’s time we go home,” Mom remarks.
“Yeah, I got to go to work,” Dad grumbles. “Have to prepare the land around the fields some more.”
Mother moves in and kisses Dad before the three of us separate. Dad starts walking over to the fields while Mother and I walk home together.
The two of us don't say anything to one another all the way home. After we walk through the front door, I kick off my shoes and change into my slippers. Well, time to get started on my punishment.
I start walking to the back of the house, thinking I should start with Mom and Dad's room first, then work my way across the house.
“Are you going to start cleaning?”
Why is Mom asking me that? “Yeah, I’m going to do your room first,” I tell her.
“Alright then,” Mom says in a passive tone.
This is weird. Usually, Mom likes to act scary or intimidating when I'm being punished, but something feels off. It almost feels like Mom doesn't care about my punishment anymore.
Even if Mom’s heart isn’t in it, I’ll still clean the house anyway. I do feel bad about using my skills on her, and I can just consider this magic training.
I walk into my parent's room and take note of where everything is. Once I cast my spell, I'll need to clean everything in a specific order; that way, I don't re-dirty anything by accident.
I quickly measure the dimensions of the room with my Measurement skill and calculate where the center is. My cleaning spell expands from my body; so as to not waste my mana, I need to be in the center of the room when I cast my spell.
The center of my parent’s room happens to be the bottom left corner of their bed, giving me a comfortable place to sit and work my magic.
I activate Mediation and focus on my mana network. It’s nice taking the time to feel my mana before casting my spell. The last few weeks, I've been incredibly busy, and I haven't spent as much time meditating as I would've liked to have.
Once I feel that everything is ready, I cast my spell.
“Ahyt ls weem appiss!”
Still in meditation, I track my mana as it forms my spell. When I see my cleaning spell ready to activate, I use Empowered Spell. I watch carefully as my skill forms under my spell and slowly inflates like a balloon as I pour my mana into it. As my skill grows larger, it merges with the spell and stretches it while mixing with the extra mana.
This is the first time I've taken the chance to study how Empowered Spell affects my magic, and it's interesting to see how it works. I want to watch as I pump more of my mana into my skill, but I need to see how much space my spell covers in the real world.
I open my eyes and nearly lose control over my spell when I see my Mother standing off to the side. Thankfully, I have excellent control over my mana, and I keep the spell from crumbling.
I know this is her room, but I'm curious as to why Mother chose now of all times to come into her room. Before I let my curiosity get the better of me, I need to finish my spell. The white barrier indicating where my spell is going to clean has already covered 80% of the room. Pumping a little more mana into my skill, the barrier expands, covering the parent's entire bedroom is in a soft white glow.
I stop putting mana into my Empowered Spell skill, and the cleaning spell activates.
Mom's room turns into an evil snow globe as it starts raining black flakes. My spell didn't just clean the parent's furniture but the ceiling, walls, and floor as well. Mom and I watch as over 20 years of dirt, dust, and cobwebs peel away from the rafters above.
Of course, not all the black flakes neatly fall to the floor, meaning I'll have to dust off the remaining debris from the ceiling and walls before I can get to anything else. Clean top to bottom, they say.
But before I get to that, I turn to Mom. “Do you need something out of your room?”
She ignores my question and glances around the room. “We’ll need a broom to get up high first.”
"What?" I ask, confused.
Mother shakes out her hair to remove all the black flakes that fell on her and ties it up. "I think it was obvious; I'm going to help you. Wait here while I grab the supplies." Mom exits the room without saying anything else, leaving me standing there confused about what's going on. I thought this was my punishment?
Mom quickly returns with a broom and the cleaning pail with some rags. She hands me the broom like nothing is wrong with her being here.
I stare down at the broom in my hands.
"If you want to finish today, you might want to get started," Mom tells me with a smile.
After being reminded what I'm supposed to be doing, I use the broom to dust the rest of the black flakes off the ceiling and walls.
Next, we shake out the bed sheets and wipe down the bedposts, all while awkwardly not talking to each other.
Together we clean everything from the parent’s clothes trunks to every inch of the floorboards. Overall, I’d say it only took us twenty minutes to clean the room.
From the doorway, Mother and I take a minute to look at our handiwork. Everything looks brand new; every plank of wood, whether it's part of the floor or ceiling, looks like it was freshly cut today. The brass hinges on Mother and Father's trunks sparkle with a golden glow you only see when you pull it fresh out of the forge.
I check my mana pool. Casting the extended cleaning spell cost me around 190 mana, about eight and a half times the amount of mana I usually use to activate my spell. I used Extract Mana the whole time we were cleaning to help regain some of my mana, bringing my overall cost to clean a room down to about 180 mana.
I'll need to cast the spell another two times to clean my room and the hallway, which will bring my mana pool down to 480. Depending on how much mana it takes to clean our living space and kitchen, I might need to rest for a few hours before I can finish the house.
“One room down,” I remark.
“Then let’s move on to the next one,” Mom picks up the cleaning supplies and walks into my room. I silently follower her, still questioning why she’s helping me.
I know my room by heart, so after I set the broom I'm carrying down, I move to the center of my room and renter my meditative state. But it's much harder to focus this time, knowing Mom is in the room watching me.
Aww, screw it! I drop Meditation and turn to Mother. "Why are you here?" I finally ask her.
Mom's eyes widen in surprise at my sudden question, but she quickly catches her bearings. "Do you not want my help?" She coyly asks.
I frown in frustration. “You know what I mean. Is it that you think I won’t do my job correctly or something?”
Mother slightly reels back, looking hurt by my accusation. “I know you would never do that.”
I can’t help but raise my voice. "Then, why are you here? It's honestly distracting, and I can't afford to mess up with my magic if I want to finish cleaning our house today."
A look of sadness flashes across Mom's face, "I'm sorry if I'm distracting you; I was just hoping we could use this time to talk."
Now I’m the one who’s surprised. “What about; is it my punishment?”
For a change, Mom appears unsure of what to say. “That and other things,” she answers.
This doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a quick conversation. “Alright, but give me a minute to cast my magic.” Mom nods in understanding and takes a step back to give me some extra space.
It takes longer than the first time, but I eventually manage to cast my spell after focusing for five minutes. My spell’s white light coves everything in my room, and I can see how much filth has accumulated over the years. I take pride in how well I've kept my room clean since Richard moved out, but apparently, I haven't been doing that good of a job because my room is covered with almost the same number of black flakes as my parents' room was. The only exception I can see is that my clothes and bed are less dirty because I regularly clean them with my magic.
“Your clouds are gone,” Mother points out to me.
Looking up, I can see that she’s right. I guess my spell considered my old paintings as stains.
"That's unfortunate; I always liked seeing your clouds." I hear a hint of sadness in my Mother's voice.
“I’ll have to paint some new ones then. Maybe they’ll actually look like clouds this time,” I joke as I grab the broom and start cleaning my walls and ceiling.
“I guess that’s another sign that you’re growing up,” Mother sighs and starts helping me clean my room. I don’t know how to respond to that, so I keep quiet and clean.
“It feels like my little girl is growing up faster each time I see her. Running off on her own.” Is Mom going through a mid-life crisis or something?
I feel now is a good time to apologize for using my skill on her and Dad. "Hey, Mom, I'm sorry how I acted before I left for Drey. I shouldn't have used my skills on you and Dad."
Mom doesn't look at me, but I see her shaking her head. "We didn't give you much of a choice, did we?"
I freeze in place; did Mom just admit she was wrong? “What are you saying, Mom?”
She turns towards me with a downcast expression. “I know I haven’t been as supportive as I should’ve been. You’re growing up and making your own decisions now. It’s just hard always watching you throw yourself into danger.”
I rub the back of my head. “I don’t exactly go looking for trouble.”
"But you don't avoid it either," Mom points out, and I don't have a counter-argument for that.
“So, this punishment,” I trail off.
“Was time set aside for us to talk,” Mom matter-of-factly answers.
"We could've just talked after dinner, or I could've set some time aside for you."
"Oh, really?" Mom glares at me, skeptically. "Tell me then, what were your plans if I didn't tell you to clean the house? Would we have had time to talk?"
I look away, knowing she has a point.
"That's what I thought. I know how hard my baby works, and it's difficult for me to ask you to set time aside for me." Mom finishes wiping down my dresser and the shelf I keep some of my favorite rock samples on.
I have been taking fewer vacation days recently. Even though I don’t have much work to do at Master's, I still spend the day trying to figure out how to make engraving ink. Have I been falling back into my old habit of overworking myself?
Shaking out my sheets, we only have the floor left to clean. I start sweeping while Mother grabs the bucket of water. “I’m afraid one of these days you’re going to leave the village and never come back.”
I want to disagree with her, but anything I say would be a worthless platitude. This world is dangerous, but I have no intention of spending my whole life in this village.
"I want to tell you that will never happen, but one day I do plan on leaving the village, not forever, but I want to see the world and all the magical things it contains."
Mom and I stop cleaning for a moment and just stare at one another.
“I would expect nothing less,” Mom tells me in a sad yet proud tone.
"I can promise you this, though," I tell Mother. "It will be a few more years before I leave this village, and even when I do leave, you can still expect letters detailing where I am. I promise I won't disappear on you," I reassure her.
“I guess I can accept that.” Mom wipes away tears forming under her eyes. “This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop worrying about you and scolding you when you do something stupid.”
"I wouldn't have it any other way." I walk over to Mom and give her a big hug. "Does this mean you're going to stop forbidding me to do things?" I whisper in Mom's ear.
"It's your life to live," Mom responds. "But don't think I won't tell you how I feel about whatever stupid or dangerous thing it is you are doing. I am a Mom, after all."
“Deal,” I quickly agree.
We stay together for a few minutes before separating and getting back to work; we have a house to clean after all.
I lie down on my bed and stare up at my blank ceiling.
Today didn't pan out like I thought it would but clearing the air with my Mother was the best thing I could've hoped for. Knowing Mom isn’t going to try and forbid me from doing things anymore is a load off my shoulders.
After our heart to heart, we spent the rest of the day cleaning together, and if I'm being honest with myself, it was the best day I've had in weeks.
I ended up needing to take a break and recharge my mana after we finished up the hallway, but Mom and I spent the time talking, and the time just flew by.
Now our whole house looks brand spanking new, and it's only the second good thing that came out of today.
Putting aside the progress I made with Mom and having the house so clean you could eat anywhere off the floor, a handful of my skills leveled up, finally pushing me into level 73.
I can’t help but smile at my status page after I distribute my ten status points.
LV: 73 Experience: 12,783/ 956,780
Status Points: 0
Meditation (LV78), Running (LV76), Blacksmithing (LV69), Hammer Skills (LV57), Axe Skills (LV55), Cleaning (LV53), Chanting (LV50), Mining (LV48), Drawing (LV46), Trading (LV45), Cooking (LV40), Dagger Skills (LV31), Wood Carving (LV31), Acting (LV32), Sword Skills (LV31), Sewing (LV24), Pugilist Skills (LV4), Spear Skills (LV2), Alchemy (LV2)
Sense Mana (LV79), Double Step (LV61), Charm (LV50), Measurement (LV46), Hammer Arts (LV41), Axe Arts (LV36), Writing (LV32), Intimidating Shout (LV31), Mathematics (LV30), Increase Price (LV21), Lower Price (LV20), Steady Hands (LV16), Dagger Arts (LV12), Sword Arts (LV14), Gourmet (LV7), Marching (LV5), Shout of Valor (LV3),
Expel Mana (LV62), Mana Manipulation (LV60), Precise Strike (LV40), Double Strike (LV40), Weighted Strike (LV37), Flash Step (LV21), Contract (LV7)
Mental Resistance (LV53), Mana Skin (LV53), Inject Mana (LV52), Extract Mana (LV32), Magic Blacksmithing (LV25), Empowered Spell (LV12), Air Walk (LV1)
Sense Soul (LV39), Soul Manipulation (LV6)
Soul Devourer (LV2)
Increased Skill Levels
Cleaning (LV52-53) 5,250exp
Cooking (LV40) 2,000exp
Extract Mana (LV32) 8,000exp
Empowered Spell (LV10-12) 8,250exp
Sense Soul (LV39) 19,500exp
Skill Experience: 43,000exp
Crafting Experience: 819exp
Fighting Experience: 0exp
Total-experience Gained: 43,819exp
I put five points into Dexterity, two into Strength, and three points into Vitality.
Sense Soul leveled up after I gathered all the contract fragments two days ago and the rest of my skills leveled today while cleaning and helping Mom make dinner. I even got a few experience points for all my hard work.
I'm happy about everything I gained today, but now that I'm lying in bed, I'm kicking myself for not waiting to distribute my status points until tomorrow morning. After using so much mana today, my head feels empty. But thanks to distributing my status points, my body feels more awake and energized than ever.
I want to go to sleep, but I'm not physically tired. I can't even cheat by going into my soul because that won't help alleviate my mental fatigue. I'd go for a run around the village, but the sun has long since set, and I don't want to freak out the hunters on night patrol.
I’ll just have to meditate here and hope my body decides it’s tired soon.
Still, overall, a good day.
Silvia’s (Aaliyah’s Mom) Point of View:
“Judging how neither of you yelled at each other during dinner, I’d say your talk with Aaliyah went well.” Darrius pulls me closer to him.
"It was nice spending the whole day with her," I smile, thinking about the time I spent with our daughter.
"Did you talk about how we decided to respect her decisions more?”
I reach out and touch my husbands' arm, fallowing it down until I find his hand. Darrius takes my hand in his own and gives it a supportive squeeze. "I told her I would still give her my opinion on everything."
Darrius chuckles, “I don’t think Aaliyah would’ve believed you if you said you would support her with no strings attached.”
I try to hit Darrius with my free hand, but pounding on his chest is like hitting a tree with my Strength. Darius laughs harder when I stop because my strikes aren't doing anything.
“She wants to leave the village,” I mumble.
Darrius stops laughing and leans in close to me. "Is she planning to leave in the next few months?" He asks, concerned.
“No, she said she wouldn’t leave for a few more years.”
Darrius lets out a loud sigh of relief. "You scared me there; I thought she wanted to leave now."
"Not now, but she does want to leave."
“We already expected that,” Darrius reminds me. “Once that girl learned how to walk, we knew our small village was never going to be able to contain her.”
“But what if something happens to her?”
"What if something happens to her here?" Darrius questions me. "We let Richard leave the village, and he was a much lower level than Aaliyah."
"Yes, but Richard was only leaving the village for a few years, and he had Sandra there to keep him in line. Aaliyah may be strong, but Strength and stats aren't everything, just look how that bastard Grey tricked her into signing that contract."
Darrius leans in and kisses my neck. "Do you think keeping Aaliyah here will help her reach her full potential?"
“No,” I reluctantly reply.
"When the year rolls over, Aaliyah will participate in the new year festival, and she'll be considered an adult. We discussed what would happen if we tried to hold her back."
"I know," I say in a tiny voice. We've been discussing the same thing since Aaliyah went on her last trip to Drey. It was apparent that if we didn't respect Aaliyah's decisions more, we would lose our daughter. "Why couldn't she be more like her brother and pick a nice village boy to settle down with."
Darrius scoffs at the idea, and I can't help but giggle myself. No matter how much I wish for Aaliyah to have a quiet life, I know that will never be her.
“The only thing we can do is try to steer her towards good decisions and support her choices,” Darrius whispers in my ear.
"You steer; I'll point out the direction," I tell him.
"And I'll be there to remind you not to go overboard," Darrius pulls me up against him and kisses me before I can retort. He always does this when he wants to end an argument.
Our lips part, and I feel my body relax in his embrace before sleep starts to take me. I drift to sleep happy I was able to make up with my daughter.