11. Taking Stock

We wandered around a bit more. There was a place with animal skins hanging outside, like animal shaped rugs but with a strange yellow liquid dripping off them. The stink made me want to gag.

A man with oily black hair stood over a table set up outside the shop, cutting large skins with oversized scissors. Through the doorway I could see two girls carrying piles of skins from one place to another.

I guessed this guy turned skins into leather. Maybe he also turned them into clothing.

A sign leaning against the table had drawings of what looked like various animals—rabbits, pigs, dogs—with a number next to them. At least they used the same numbers as us, although the rest of their writing was gobbledigook to my eyes.

Either the numbers were the price you paid for each to type of material, or it was how much they paid you for bringing them skins you hunted. I considered the latter to be more likely, especially in a place like this that was basically a starter town.

In RPGs you always begin in a low level area where you make money by doing menial and repetitive tasks. Hunting low level animals for their skins seemed like an obvious way to make money and train your fighting skills at the same time. It was the sort of thing that provided an easy grind when playing on a computer. It probably wouldn’t be so easy in real life. Assuming this was real life.

The lowest number on the board was for rabbit, with a one next to it. One bit? Five rabbits for a dagger, maybe? The most money was for a triangle. I had no idea what that represented, but it had the number fifty next to it.

The inhabitants of Probet milled around, chatting and greeting each other as you would expect. Maybe a dozen people shopped or went about their business, paying no attention to us. They were dressed plainly, like people from the Middle Ages, or possibly frontier America. Animal skins, woollen garments, simple designs. Everyone wore trousers, no skirts for the ladies, no flowery blouses. Did everyone in this world dress like this, or were we just in the arse-end of nowhere and people scraped by best they could? Hard to say.

I looked closely to see if any of them were elves or dwarves or some other exotic species, but they all looked human, and not very attractive at that. No black or Asian people either. But not super white like Dudley, more Mediterranean, olive skin with Caucasian features.

Other stores sold clothing, household goods, animal feed, freshly butchered meat (exactly what kind of meat I couldn’t say, but I swear one carcass had six legs). All basic stuff you might need for rural life.

I recognised some of the people checking out the different stores from our group. It looked like there were three other groups. The largest had six members, and was very clearly led by Golden Boy. He had no trouble walking up to shopkeepers and charming the socks off them.

Then there was an all female group of four, all very tall girls. The tallest had led the screaming complaints back at the hut. The other three looked like they had the permanent hump, a fixed pissed off expression stuck to their faces. Arms folded, head tilted, their eyes saying, “Yeah? What?”

I decided to give them a wide berth.

The last group of five was made up of what, if we were at school, I would refer to as the cool kids. Fancy haircuts, tattoos and even though they were wearing the same crappy clothes as us, they somehow managed to make it look stylish.

I’d put everyone in their late teens or early twenties. Probably university students. I left school at sixteen with the plan of getting a job and working my way up to some sort of senior position while kids my age wasted their time reading textbooks.

Brilliant sixteen-year-old me had come to the conclusion you didn’t learn from reading, you learned from doing. Not so cocky nineteen-year-old me had been doing the same job for the last three years, watching college kids come in and zoom past.

We carried on peering through the doors of open stores, too nervous to go in and have a proper look. I knew I should have gritted my teeth and investigated everything, talked to everyone, but just the thought of going up to one of these strangers from another world broke me out in a cold sweat. Nobody in my group took the initiative, they just hung behind me, waiting for something.

They did have fast food here, although they didn’t appear to need more staff. At the far end of the street there were some food stalls manned by shifty-looking characters. Unfair of me since I didn’t know them and had no reason to suspect them of anything, but if my cat went missing I wouldn’t be surprised if a new meat dish suddenly appeared on the menu.

I stood in a daze, watching meats roasting on skewers and sugary pastries frying in oil. The smells were unfamiliar but still made my stomach churn with hunger.

So this was Probet, our home for the next few days at least. I had hoped for an obvious quest-giver who would send us off on a mission. Or maybe a gossip to provide us with useful intel. More and more it felt like we would have to actually start from scratch and survive using our own strengths and skills. Unfortunately, I had never used that gym membership I got last January, and although I had thought extensively about what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse (haven’t we all?), my plans mostly relied on being able to find a motorised chainsaw.

I had an uncomfortable feeling of doom hanging over me. No way would we survive like this. We were the sort of party that needed to stumble upon an OP weapon and become legendary heroes by having a massively unfair advantage over everyone. As it was, no magic swords or glowing hammers had fallen into our hands, and there was an excellent chance we would all be killed by the first group of rabbits we stumbled across.

The clanging of a bell snapped me out of my trance. The others were just standing there, looking at me expectantly. If they wanted me to share some words of wisdom or deep insight, they’d be waiting a long time. I turned around and headed back.

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