Hadiin returned to the starting village with a decided spring in his step, visions of gold coins in his head. The sky was suddenly bluer, the day, like his prospects, brighter.
Then they emerged from the forest onto the village’s dirt streets and, surrounded by the little huts and shabby population, reality came crashing down. Hadiin came to an abrupt stop, the smile melting off his face.
Marian turned to him with a worried and confused expression. “What’s wrong?”
“It seems that I’ve been getting a bit ahead of myself,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?”
He sighed and watched a pair of chickens run past. “I mean that my ambition outstrips our current environment.”
“Well, there’s no point in putting my brilliant idea into practice right now because the people here are too poor. We’d hardly make a single silver piece in this village.”
She shrugged. “Ok. So? We sell whatever you wanted to sell here and then go on to the next town later.”
He shook his head. “Market advantage. Right now, we have it. But the moment we put our idea into production, someone will come along and copy it. It is just an idea, after all. And if they have more money and means than we do, they’ll take off with our idea, leaving us in the dust of poverty.”
“Ah, ok. What do we do?”
“Capital. Resources. We need to make sure that we have enough in place to not only be first to market, but to carve ourselves out a niche and grow so fast that it will discourage casual competition.”
“So we need more money and a bigger town to sell our stuff in. What are we selling, by the way? You haven’t said.”
He ignored that last part. Better he kept the idea to himself, for now. “Right, capital and a bigger town. I assume the next town is nearby? Players must finish this area pretty quickly.”
She nodded and pointed north. “Just over that ways. It’s an overnight walk, I think.” She cocked her head. “Ok, I assume whatever we’re doing has something to do with cryo slimes. But how are we going to collect enough to sell? And how are we going to carry it all to the next town? You have no strength and neither of us have magic bags.”
“Excellent, Marian! Good thinking!” he enthused, moving deeper into the village.
She smiled at that, suddenly flustered again and hurried to follow.
He clapped his hands and strode with determination. “You’re absolutely correct: our carrying capacity is far too low at the moment. As merchants, that will be a sever handicap. Ergo…ah.” He changed direction and made for a farm on the edge of the village.
The farm was small, of course. Grain grew in a large square plot next to a crude wood and thatch home. A horse munched from a trough next to the house. And a wagon sat by the edge of the field.
Hadiin waved and smiled at the man working the garden next to the field. “Hello, and good day, sir!”
The farmer was lean and older, with a mostly bald head and gnarled hands around his hoe. He slowly straightened up with a groan. “Afternoon. What can I do ya fer?”
“Your wagon and horse. I would like to purchase them,” Hadiin confidently announced.
The farmer laughed. “And how would I get to town, way over yonder? Or transport anything? Like this here grain, come harvest time.” He chuckled.
“I’m sure that we can make an arrangement in that regard,” Hadiin answered. “But for right now, I’d like to buy the pair. How much, my good man?”
The farmer turned serious and slightly frowned. “Not really for sale.”
“I understand. And I’m not here to make your life difficult, really. Let’s say that if I were to buy your horse and wagon from you, I would guarantee that you got your entire harvest to market, on time. I myself would transport it for free if need be. And with the money from the sale of said horse and wagon, you could buy new.”
The farmer scratched his head. “Dunno about that.”
“Shiny, brand new wagon. You’d be the talk of the town, I’ll bet.”
Farmer raised his head at that. “Well, maybe.”
Hadiin continued to stroke his ego. “Handsome new horse, young and strong and with even more years on him than this one. People would admire that upgrade, surely. Makes you lok right smart, doesn’t it?”
Pride puffed out the older man’s bony chest. “Yessir, they would.” He hesitated only a moment more. “All right then. A gold for the wagon, mister.”
Hadiin tried not to flinch. A gold? Outrageous!
“And two more for the horse,” the farmer continued.
“Two!” Hadiin exclaimed, unable to control himself.
The farmer nodded agreeably. “Horse is worth more than a wagon. Can make a new wagon myself with some help from the blacksmith here. Can’t make myself another horse and no telling when I could track down a good one.”
“Well, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that difficult—“
The farmer grinned and stuck out his hand to shake on the deal. “Three gold. Ya got yerself a deal.”
Hadiin forced a smile and shook the man’s hand, thoughts of murder inelegantly flying through his mind. These were quickly eclipsed with calculations. He had 68 sp, or 0.68 gp. The slime quest would give another 7 sp for a total of 75 sp. He was 2.25 gp short. “I shall return as soon as I can with the money. Thank you.”
“No, thank you! Now I think about it, ‘bout time I had a new wagon. Don’t mind having a new horse either. Rather excited now.” He turned back to his garden and whistled a happy tune as he worked.
Hadiin and Marian turned and headed away.
Hadiin did not wonder at the man’s newfound cheer. Somehow, he felt that the farmer had gotten the better of him by far. Should he forgo the deal and look elsewhere for ways to make money? Journey directly to the new town and look for quests and the like there?
“I think he suckered you,” Marian chipped in, breaking the silence.
Hadiin nearly growled.
They turned in the slime quest and were paid.
Money: 75 sp
“What now?” Marian asked. She seemed content to let him lead things, which was exactly how Hadiin preferred it as well.
“Goblin quest,” Hadiin stated without fanfare.
Her eyes widened. “The goblin quest? Seriously? That’s sixteen goblin heads!”
“But we can earn the better part of a gold doing it.”
She held her hands up. “Wait, what do you mean we?”
“Now now, be reasonable. It takes money to make money.”
“So I’m, like, an investor? Does that mean I get to own a share of whatever we’re gonna do?”
Hadiin nearly gagged at the idea of sharing ownership. Perish the thought! Absolutely not. “A percentage of the profits. We’ll raise money together and I promise that you’ll get a healthy percentage of whatever we earn in town from our first venture.”
He cringed, but didn’t shoot her down. He was tempted to say eighty-twenty in his favour, but, realistically, he was the one at the disadvantage here. He needed her damage to kill the goblins and, later, the slimes. He needed her coin to buy the horse and wagon. If she were smarter, she would be the one demanding eighty-twenty. Better to not even suggest the idea lest it then occur to her to demand it. So, fifty-fifty it was. “Agreed,” he acquieced with a smile.
She nodded, happy enough. “Good. That’s fair.”
They found Grant Dougal sitting on a porch bench outside his farmhouse, nursing an arm with bloodstained bandages all over it. Heavy bandages wrapped his otherwise bare chest as well. He was weeping softly, alone and brokenhearted. He looked up at their approach and wiped the tears from his eyes with his good arm. “Y-you folks here about the goblins?”
“We are indeed,” Hadiin replied.
The man nodded and looked worn from being through both battle and emotional trauma. He had cuts on his face as well, barely scabbed over. He seemed to gather himself. “Little green monsters have become more and more of a problem the past few months. Attacking hunters and even raiding farms on the outskirts of the village. I tried—“ He broke off for a moment, anger rising sharply. “—tried talking to the village leader about it. But that dumb Sam Ferris, he wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t. Said it was nothing. Said the hunters would git ‘round to them sooner or later. The fool.” He sniffed and wiped away fresh tears. “Goblins breed faster ‘an rabbits. Once they get rooted, numbers explode. Bunch of ‘em raided my farm last night. Killed my cow. Took my wife. Left me for dead. Passerby found me this morning and patched me up, saved my life.”
“Ah, and you’d like help rescuing your wife,” Hadiin surmised.
The man guiltily looked away. It took him a moment to continue and when he did, his voice was much quieter. “You know why there are only ever male goblins?” he bitterly asked.
Hadiin and Marian glanced at each other and shrugged.
The farmer swallowed hard. “Ain’t no female goblins because they don’t need ‘em. That’s why they take women of other species.”
Understanding dawned. Marian looked disgusted and horrified both.
Hadiin winced. “No time to waste then, is there?”
Again, that odd, guilty look on the man’s face and he wouldn’t meet their eyes. “Find them. Make them pay. All of them. Kill ‘em all!” He devolved into tears.
Hadiin nodded and when the option to accept the quest appeared on a floating window before him, he accepted it. He looked at Marian and gestured to the road. “Shall we?”
Marian looked distinctly uncomfortable as they walked towards the forest down the dirt road. “This is…not the type of quest I was expecting to play in this game. It’s more…um, it’s darker than I figured.”
“All the more realism, I suppose.”
She seemed puzzled. “I don’t get it. Why’d he seem so weird about rescuing his wife and so focused on killing the goblins? I mean, the quest posted was for goblin heads. Why not for his wife’s rescue?”
Hadiin glanced over at her. “You heard what he said about goblin breeding methods?”
“Yeah. That’s what I mean. Dark. And gross.”
“Something tells me he’s not the type of person who would ever be able to see his wife the same way after something like that.”
Marian came to a halt, floored, shock on her face. “What? You mean he—“ She shook her head. “No, I can’t believe it. Like she’s tainted or something now? And it’s her fault?”
“Human beings aren’t very bright,” Hadiin replied, keeping his voice mild on purpose, for her sake. He, too, was eminently disgusted by the farmer’s attitude. “And such a complete lack of empathy and compassion reveals quite the selfish individual. I dare say, even if we managed to rescue the poor woman, she might find herself victim of a domestic incident at some point.”
“You’re serious,” she gasped. “He’d kill his own wife?”
“I imagine that a weak guy like that, a pathetic excuse for a man, every time he looked at his wife’s face, he’d picture those goblins rutting with her. It would haunt him, day and night. Every time she touched him, he’d remember it. Sooner or later it would drive him mad. He might just kick her out of home and marriage. Or he might get drunk one night and strangle her, his bare hands around her slender throat, sad at losing her and all the while with those tears in his eyes, fully believing he’s the one doing her a kindness by removing her from the world.”
Marian gagged, like she was going to vomit. Then fury came over her features. She spun and started back towards the farm. “I’ll kill him. Finish what those goblins couldn’t.”
Hadiin snorted and grabbed the back of her shirt, pulling her back around and continuing their journey. “It’s only a game, remember? If we’re lucky enough to save the wife, we’ll find a way to help her later. You never know what options will come up when we turn the quest in. Right now we have a job to do and coin to make. Yes?”
Grumbling, she got hold of her anger and paced next to him. Sparks danced on her fingertips.
“Besides,” Hadiin continued with a slight smile, “we can kill him after we get paid for the quest.”
Their mini maps marked the location of the goblin nest. Soon, they left the road and turned into wild forest. As they drew closer to the destination, they proceeded with much more caution, picking their way through the undergrowth in silence.
Marian was nervous. She whispered as they crept along. “I’m level 2. You’re only level 1 still and, um…”
“Kind of useless?”
She shrugged, embarrassed. “There’s no way we can take out an entire goblin nest on our own. I’m sure this is meant for larger parties.”
“I had hoped we’d run into other players on the way, or find them laying in wait ahead of us.”
“And if there’s no one?”
“We do our best to pull them one at a time. You can handle that much, right?”
She looked uncertain and shrugged again. “One or two, maybe.”
The forest grew darker and even more wild, indicating old growth. Tree trunks grew wider. Old trees long fallen now lay under a bed of moss and leaves, with saplings growing out of them.
Movement to the side caught Hadiin’s attention and he stopped, motioning for Marian to do the same.
A pair of goblins, armed with crude, wood-and-stone spears, ambled carelessly along a narrow track in the underbrush. They chatted in grunts and squeals and whatever noises seemed to make up their language. The creatures were about a meter tall, thin and wirey with dark green skin and largish heads and big, hooked noses. They wore only leather loincloths. In the dimness of the forest, their eyes had a red tint.
Hadiin motioned downwards and they lay belly down in the grass. He leaned over and whispered quietly. “Let them pass, then take them from behind. Attack’s should be more powerful from behind and with the element of surprise, right?”
Marian nodded. “Not like a rogue, but yeah.” She nodded towards some fallen branches nearby. “Arm yourself. Should count as a club at least and boost your damage.”
Hadiin nodded. After the goblins had strolled by, he gingerly crawled over to the branches and found one that would service as a weapon. Then he nodded to his partner.
Marian rose up and stalked behind the enemy, quietly growing closer. She raised her hands and a fan of flames whooshed out, engulfing the goblins from only a couple of meters away.
HP bars above the goblins appeared and started going down, fast. The goblins screamed and whirled, brandishing their spears, even as they tried to block the flames coming at them.
The flames flickered out.
Hadiin rushed forward and swung the branch with all his might — and missed. He stumbled past, caught himself, and spun back to his targets, then swung again. Wiff, another miss.
Even the goblins looked at him in surprise.
Hadiin cursed in his head. Right, he had no dexterity, which meant no accuracy. He tried again, this time smacking the nearer goblin over the bald skull. The target’s HP went down by a pathetically small percentage. Hadiin groaned.
“Out of the way!” Marian hissed. Without waiting, she cast her fire spell once more.
The goblins cried out and fell to the ground, HP dropping markedly once more. Their bodies blackened and crackled.
When the flames died down, Hadiin jumped back in, flailing for all he was worth. It wasn’t much and without any stamina, his blows grew slower and more pathetic each time.
These…were not inspiring numbers. Panting and sweating, Hadiin became very conscious of just how pathetic this all made him look in front of the woman fighting alongside him. Especially as she was something of a junior, with him being the leader. He blushed, hoping she wouldn’t notice. Still, he was too committed to give up and continued to bash the fallen goblins until their health dropped to zero and both succumbed.
Satisfied, he straightened with a smile and turned to Marian, branch over one shoulder.
And a goblin arrow hit him in the leg.
His HP dropped by a third.