He ducked. “I’m kidding! You’re priceless!”
Marian glared at him but let the spell vanish harmlessly. She remained cross. “Fine. So? Now what? You’ve got a horse and wagon. What do we do with it? Are we supposed to get the cryo slimes now?”
It was a good question. Hadiin looked around in thought. “What could we fill the wagon with, that we could sell in the next town?”
Marian shrugged. “We’re in the starter village. Monsters don’t drop much here. Leather scraps. Some basic foodstuffs. Slime. Goblins might drop some coins, but we just killed all the ones near here.”
“And, come to think of it, they didn’t drop anything at all, did they?”
“Maybe because we were on the quest? Or the drop rate is terrible.”
“And there aren’t many quests here, are there? We’ve done most?”
He did have the leather working skill. And bandage making. And cooking. But he didn’t have raw materials. He had… 1 gp 26 sp.
A pair of starting adventurers ran by, wearing simple clothes and carrying cheap daggers.
Marian waited, tapping her foot, looking a bit like she was considering leaving their association. Marian, who had the skills and stats to defeat creatures that dropped the materials needed to make things. Like those other adventurers had.
He snapped his fingers. “I’ve an idea. The rudimentary foundation of a plan.”
“I have basic skills. We have a wagon that can hold a lot of goods. We’ll offer adventurers coin to bring us materials.”
“Why would they sell to us when they can just do quests?”
“Because the quests are not repeatable. We are.”
The two of them split up and jogged all over the village and surrounding area, hunting down other players. To each, they offered coin in exchange for the cheap, throw-away drops found in the area. They made it clear that they would continue to buy as much as the player wanted to sell, until coin ran out.
Some players weren’t interested, but others were. While money wasn’t a crucial part of the early game for most people, this was easy income and it allowed them to get rid of things they didn’t need, such as food they would never need to eat, or leather scraps for those who had no intention of levelling up leather working, and so forth.
For the rest of the day, they stood next to the wagon, collecting raw goods and paying out coin. Actually, they were able to leave dealing with players to Marian alone, as Hadiin’s Charisma wasn’t coming into play for this transaction. Her breasts on the other hand, made an impression on males and her friendly smile the same on females. That allowed him to sit next to the wagon and refine lower level mats into higher.
He skinned the deer that were brought and collected leather scraps which he then used his skill to turn into leather pieces. This levelled up both skinning and leather working.
He turned a variety of eggs, raw meat, cheese and bread into cooked items. This levelled up cooking and gave him new options.
Goblins and the very few low-level bandits found on the edge of the region dropped cloth, which he could turn into bandages. These he was able to turn around and sell almost immediately to players, as they were in high demand. The money collected went into paying for more materials, largely meat and leather.
Hadiin’s cooking skill evolved so that he was able to produce jerky from the meat, something that would last indefinitely, making it worth more. And he had a lot of meat from all the deer brought in.
Best of all, players brought in cryo slime. They carried it over in buckets and barrels stolen from the village. Many asked what use he could possibly have for it, but Hadiin only laughed and said he’d figure something out. He paid almost nothing for it, but it was easy to come by, so players brought a lot.
By the time night fell, a very worn out Hadiin and Marian stood next to the wagon, his purse empty. The wagon bed was full to the brim with leather pieces, jerky and other cooked food, and several buckets and barrels of cold slime, each frosted on the outside because of the contents.
Hadiin stared at the slime. “I do hope I’m not foreshadowing when I say I hope buckets of slime don’t reconstitute into actual slime monsters.”
Marian eyed the goods with a margin of doubt. “Is this stuff really going to be worth anything?”
“The slime? Not in its current form. Jerky too.”
She gave him a flat look. “Then what did we go to all this effort for?”
“A merchant, my lovely, beautiful Marian, makes money two ways. The first is to buy low and sell high. The second is to add value. They brought us cloth; we produced bandages that sold for a fair bit. They brought us raw meat; we produced jerky. That we can sell to NPCs or in bulk to adventurers for a few silver, though it won’t be much. It did level up my cooking though, which we will use to produce more expensive items later. And that will be important; you’ll see. We will continue to add value to basic materials so that we can sell them for more than the original investment is worth.”
“What about the leather?”
He gestured to the brown pieces piled high. “I can’t do anything with them in this village. Most players don’t bother to do anything with them at this stage of the game because nobody has magic bags yet and can’t carry enough to make it worth levelling up their leather working. So they ignore the drops and let them expire, wasting them. That’s why we were able to get them for so cheap. With the wagon, however, we can carry far more than even a magic bag could, making it worth our while to collect. So we’re not only collecting car more than we could carry, even with a bag of holding, but we’re getting the materials for dirt cheap because nobody wants them.”
“And you want to sell them in the town to higher level adventurers who now have money and want to started improving their own leather working?”
“Exactly. We’ll take them to market and target those with money to burn who want to level up leather working quickly.”
“And the slime?”
“For that, I have plans.”
“Are you going to continue being mysterious?”
“Absolutely. A merchant has many secrets.”
“Whatever.” She looked around. “It’s pretty late though. I heard the forest and road are a lot more dangerous at night. Maybe we should wait until morning to go to town. Besides, I’m tired.”
Hadiin nodded, but then his eyes drifted to the wagon and something occurred to him. And unease spread through his body. “Oh my. What are we doing to do about all of this while we’re asleep? What’s to stop someone from coming along and taking off with the wagon, the goods, and the horse?” This was important because he’d pushed himself to the limits buying as much as he could. He was down to a measly 2 silver. The entirety of his wealth was now tied to this wagon and the goods inside. Should he lose that, he’d be back to zero.
“Isn’t the wagon bound to you?”
Hadiin quickly checked his inventory. He frowned deeply. “No. None of it is. You’d think the horse and wagon would be, for sure. But the inventory isn’t either. That is not good news at all.”
“More. It’s a tragedy of infuriating proportions!” He fumed. This was very, very bad. He had no security whatsoever. But why? Was this a feature of the merchant experience? Was he expected to hire mercenaries to guard his wares, even from other players? If that was the case, Marian’s presence just became far, far more important. And he could not afford to lose her. Or to even make her angry. “We’re going to have to either leave now, or set watches,” he decided.
“You mean, take turns staying up and guarding it?” She barked a laugh, evidently still annoyed with him over the Grace-and-horse thing. “No. First, I’m tired and I want sleep. Two, you’re useless as a guard.”
“Marian…” he begged.
She rolled her eyes at him. “I’m going to sleep. Wake me if thieves show up. If you wake me and there are no thieves, I’m going to set you on fire.”
“We could split the night, six, er, four hours each.”
“Yeah, no.” She climbed up onto the wagon seat, curled up and closed her eyes.
Hadiin tsked. He looked about. No late night coffee shops here, huh? Drat and sour bagels.
The morning sun cracked the horizon like an eggshell and spilled golden sunlight all over the land, the way a yolk floods a cool saucepan.
Hadiin sat with his back against the wheel of the wagon, head nodding. Cold jerky in hand, he’d tried to eat to stay awake during the night, but then had forgotten it as he’d drifted in and out of consciousness. Luckily, no one had come by in the night. There’d been few players about and no NPC thieves had struck.
“Oi!” Marian called from overhead. “Stop sitting around and let’s go!”
He blinked and tried to think with a very fuzzy brain. She was awake? Good. He stared at the half eaten jerky in his fingers and then tossed it away. Time to go at last.
Hadiin sat in the driver’s seat, hands on the reins while Marian lay across the leather in the wagon. They left the village behind, moving down the only road towards the next town. He was still having a very hard time keeping his eyes open. Fortunately, driving the horse didn’t take much effort. Once he got it started, it seemed inclined to keep going on its own. That was good. Maybe he could even go so far as to close his eyes for a bit. Just a little bit. He was soooo sleepy…
The gods of weather must have seen him. In a generous gesture, as he nodded off, they dimmed the lights. Dark gray cloud cover rolled in, obscuring the sun. This made it cooler, and therefore easier to sleep.
And then the first drops started coming down. And then a few more.
Hadiin jolted back to alertness. And the rain came pouring down.
Marian lazily poked her head out for a moment, shrugged and then curled up once more on the leather — under the wagon bed’s arched cover. The rain pelted off the cover with sounds like a drum, but otherwise left her completely dry.
Must be nice, Hadiin thought sourly, rapidly drenched to the bone. “Who bloody designed this thing?” he grumbled. “You’d think they would have wanted to keep the driver out of the rain, too!”
“Are we there yet?” Marian asked.
She looked sideways at him. “Hmph. Serves you right. Trading a woman for a horse.”
“And a wagon! Which you’re riding in at the moment, nice and dry.”
Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. The road filled up with enough water that it was a wonder dolphins didn’t swim on by.
The water turned the dirt road into a mud one. The wheels of the wagon slowed, despite the horse’s best efforts. And then they broke free of the forest they’d been travelling through and hit open pasture land. And without a barrier to prevent it, down came the wind.
Marian screeched as rain now slashed down sideways. Frantically, she jumped up and undid the ties holding the sides of the cover up and dropped them down. Then she did the same to the front and back. “Ah. Much better,” she happily announced once they were all in place.
“I’m so happy for you!” he shouted over the storm, which seemed to be doing its best to drown him in his seat. The road was rapidly becoming a river.
“Hey, I’m the muscle remember? You have to keep me happy so no one steals all this comfy leather I’m laying on.”
He grumbled more quietly. Maybe she was smarter than he’d thought. But as they splashed along, he soon grew bored and sought a way to distract himself from the cold, sopping wet, misery he was sitting in. He spoke to Marian over his shoulder. “So. Why a dragon sorcerous?” he asked.
The cover rustled and rose slightly. “Hmm?”
“Why that class? Why did you choose dragon origins?”
She grinned. “Well, it’s not as fancy as a witch or wizard with all their pretty spells. They can do think a sorceress can’t. But I prefer the idea of raw power. Which is also why I picked the dragon ancestry.”
She nodded, eyes bright. “Haven’t you noticed?”
He turned to look. “Hmm? Noticed what?”
She pulled the side of her shirt down and bared her neck. A patch of skin running down the side of her neck, and perhaps to her back, was patterned like dragon scales. And it was just slightly dark pink in colour.
“Oh! Your body has dragon attributes?”
“Uh huh!” She excitedly grinned. “And I’ll get even more as I level up. Remember how I said I’d be tougher? That’s why. I might even go so far as to become half dragon and half human.”
His brows rose and he mentally increased her value in his mind. Not that consciously calculated a person’s worth in such explicit terms— Ok, he did. But that was true of everyone, wasn’t it? Don’t we all look at one another and build some general idea of how helpful they might be to us? Don’t we assess what others might be able to do for us? A man calculates a woman’s breeding potential. A woman calculates a man’s lifetime earning potential and how much protection they might offer. One some level, we’re all ruthless and selfish in the cockles of our hearts, are we not? He was just a little more…aware of it…that’s all.
Also, he wondered what she looked like naked. Just where did those scales go? And what other features might arrive later? He gave her another half point on the ten point scale. With an allowance for further adjustment depending on a more intimate analyses of her assets both now and in the future.
They travelled through the plains and entered another forested area. The trees broke the wind, which was a great relief.
Yet this particular forest seemed to have a particularly unwelcome atmosphere. Perhaps it was the way the ancient oaks and elms arched over the road, darkening the day even further. Or maybe it was just how mysterious and impenetrable the shadows between the trees were, preventing them from seeing into the forest at all. But something about it felt creepy to Hadiin, and even Marian quieted and looked nervously about from within the wagon.
Lightning blinded them. Thunder shook the air. Then an object swung out from the side of the road, hanging from a rope tied high above. It was a human corpse.
The horse neighed in fright and ground to a nervous halt.
Hadiin cursed and leaped to his feet. “Bandits!” Unfortunately, he had no weapon. He sat back down and whipped the reins, but the frightened horse only rolled its eyes and tried to back up, which it couldn’t do because of the weight of the wagon and the mucky road.
The corpse swung back and forth in the rain. It appeared to be an adventurer. Another player must have gotten killed coming through earlier. Blood stained the clothes.
From the left side of the road, shadows split and green-and-brown shapes emerged.
Marian gasped. “Elves!”