Ash’s brow knit in concentration, his teeth threatening to bit through his tongue as he chewed on it in frustration. The days-old beard was making his neck itch, further adding to his annoyance.
“Gah, I don’t remember this being so difficult when I was ten,” he huffed to himself as another stone clattered to the dirt road of a much larger and nicer thoroughfare that he found himself walking on a day after his stop over at Rufus’s farm.
He paused long enough snap the stone back into his palm without bending over, and started tossing three of the smooth river stones he’d collected into the air again, trying to juggle them. It had started as a means to entertain his roiling mind, the process of coming to terms with everything over the past few days having fed his anxieties. Maybe it was because they were wonky shaped rocks and not uniform tennis balls, but Ash remembered this being much easier when he was a kid. That’s not to say he was doing terribly, but he could barely make it ten meters before one of them dropped.
“Alright, enough of that. Time to cheat.” Ash formed his Infinity Masque, which improved his agility, which meant movements as well as reaction times. He started juggling the stones again, slowly as he got into the rhythm. Then, he started moving quicker, arching the stones from one hand to the next as quickly as he could. After a few dozen steps, his hand faltered and two of the stones were about to collide, but he quickly snapped the incoming stone into his now-free hand using his Sleight of Hand ability, preventing them from colliding.
With a smirk, he tossed the stone back into the air and instantly snapped a fourth stone from his inventory into his hand to add to the rotation. With the boost to his concentration and reaction time, he was eventually able to get five stones in the air at once; any stone that was about to collide with another or that was the victim of a botched throw was quickly teleported to his hand and thrown back into the air.
“Wow, that’s mighty impressive.” A voice said from next to Ash.
“Son of a…!” Ash jumped, all five stones clattering to the ground. He turned to see a man sitting at the front of a wagon, holding a pair of empty reins. “Sweet baby Jibbers, you scared the crap out of me.” Ash said, his mask dissolving from his face as he looked at a portly man who looked to be in his early fifties. “That has to be the quietest… um, car? I’ve ever seen before.” He looked the wagon over, noticing that there were three other passengers in the back, two men and a woman, all of whom looked to be in their early twenties.
The driver was laughing gently at Ash’s reaction. “My apologies young man. Didn’t mean to startle you quite so badly. Are you not familiar with magic coaches and wagons? I bought this bad boy a few years back and never regretted it. It has a whole two horse power! And it’s significantly cheaper than having to keep two real horses alive, I’ll tell you that much. Of course, now I have to do both… but that’s not the point!” The driver had begun to get lost in his own thoughts when his face snapped back into concentration and he smiled down at Ash.
“Um, I’m not from around here. We have something similar, but they tend to make a lot more noise.” Ash responded thoughtfully.
“New to the area, are you? I take it you’re heading down to Prismar then?”
“Yes, sir, that would be correct,” Ash tried to keep his complexion friendly. He had often been accused of looking angry or intimidating back in his own world; he rarely ever was, considering himself to be fairly relaxed, but his face naturally fell that way. He’d never much cared since it usually meant less people asking him to do stuff, but he had to be very careful about how he presented himself in this strange world.
“Well then, why don’t you hop on in the back. We’re all heading that way, and there’s no need to be walking that far. The names Vince.” He leaned over and held out a hand for Ash to shake.
“Ash. I really appreciate the ride.”
“Sure, sure. It’s my pleasure. I always enjoy meeting people from far off places. Tell me a bit about yourself.”
Ash paced to the back of the wagon and lifted himself up. He politely nodded to the other passengers who were keeping to themselves, and then walked to the front of the wagon to talk with the driver.
“Well, I was born pretty far away. I was traveling and working, you know how that goes I’m sure, when I was caught up in some sort of magical accident and woke up a few days that way,” Ash, not knowing how directions worked in this world, simply pointed back down the road. “Not much to tell really. I figured I’d just make my way to the city.”
“Not much to tell? That’s some crazy accident. Mages, pah.” He shook his head in exasperation. “Are you some kind of traveling tumbler or something? That was a pretty neat trick with the rocks, and your mask was very interesting.” With Ash settled in, Vince flicked the reins that weren’t attached to anything, just one end floating in the air and the other held in his hands, and the wagon began moving again with a small jolt.
“Yeah, I’m a performer of sorts. Not really sure what my niche is yet, so I’m trying a few things out in case I need to make some money while in Prismar. No telling how long it’ll take to get back home.” Ash said almost wistfully, his minding jumping to his family and friends before he quickly pulled himself back into the present and away from those thoughts. Vince seemed to catch the brief change in mood, but didn’t mention it.
“What else do you do?” he asked, the joviality in his voice sounding a little forced for a second.
“I’m not sure. I’m a decent storyteller, but I’m not sure how well my stories will translate into a different culture…”
Vince perked up at this. “Like a bard? I would love to hear one of your stories!” The other passengers, who had been half-listening in on their conversation also turned an eager ear towards him.
“Alright, sure.” He thought to himself for a bit, trying to think of a story that could fit a world of magic without making him seem alien himself. “This is the story of a man named Jonathan Harker, and his unfortunate stint in the real-estate industry.” It had been a couple years since Ash had last read Dracula, but he knew the story beats well enough to fill in the rest as he went. Apparently, vampires were a familiar concept here, and his audience listend on with rapt attention. With Harker’s realizations came gasps of shock and anger from the younger members in the back of the wagon with him.
A couple hours later, as the story was coming to a close - he’d stretched it out as dramatically as he could, after all he had an image to present - the city finally came into view. The sight of it took his breath away. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this. The city went on for miles; it was massive. More than just that, though, half the city wasn’t even technically on land. The shore of an ocean bisected the city, half of which rested on artificial islands. The architecture was unlike anything he’d seen before. It seemed like a weird mix between German Gothic and 70’s retro. The salt air drifted into his nostrils, reminding him of when he was a kid, visiting the beach once a summer with his grandparents.
Again, he blinked himself into the present. Only to notice one of the other passengers had joined him at the front of the wagon, sitting across from him.
“That was a great story! Did you come up with that yourself?”
“Oooh no, I can’t take credit there,” Ash replied.
“Well either way, it sounded great. Where will you be performing in the city? I’d like to come hear some more. I’m Pytir.” He thrust out his arm in excitement.
“Nice to meet you, Pytir.” Ash responded. “I’m not sure where I’ll be performing, or even if I’ll be performing to be honest. I’ve never been here before so I’m not sure where to go.”
“Well you’ll be able to perform somewhere, no doubt here. With stories that interesting, people are going to want to listen. I know, because I already want to hear it again!”
“Thank, man, I appreciate that.” Ash said, his mood picking up a little at the compliment. “If you don’t mind me asking, why are you heading this way?”
“I spent my whole life in the middle of nowhere. My da’s a woodsman, and for now, so am I. But I can’t spend my whole life in the woods, I need to be around people, you know?” His eyes met Ash, looking for some sort of confirmation or agreement.
“Definitely. Solitude and quiet without being bothered and with internet or a good book, who could possibly want that…”
“Exactly! So, I’m heading to Prismar to try and make something of myself. I don’t have my abilities beyond my axe skills, but I think that should be enough to get me into the guard as a start, and then move on up from there.” He was getting excited as he talked about his plans. Ash was just some stranger, but judging by the kid’s reaction - and to Ash, he seemed like a kid, no older than twenty - he probably felt stifled at home for so long that being on his own is a completely freeing experience. “I have a little bit of money to get me started, but once I get into the guard, I’ll be able to rise through the ranks.”
The remaining two passengers in the back turned to look at Pytir and whispered to each other, laughing quietly behind their hands. But Pytir either didn’t hear or was unbothered by it. He fervor continued as he talked about all the things he wanted to do in the ‘big city’ while Ash gladly listened. He didn’t so much care what the kid’s plans were, though he seemed nice enough to be sure, but he would listen to any information about this world that he could get his hands on. Even if they were the daydreams of a young kid from the country - though he might need to temper some of his expectations based on this information.
Prismar was even more impressive the closer they got to the city. When they finally reached the gate, Ash stared up in wonder at the walls that were easily twenty meters high. That’s a little overkill for a few dirty frogs. What dangers around here require such impressive fortifications? Monsters, or humans? Ash thought to himself as their wagon waited their turn to enter.
“Names and purposes for visit,” a bored looking guard said as they made it to the front of the line. His tone was monotonous, but his eyes were sharp as they passed over each of the travelers, pausing on Ash’s large frame.
“Ash. I’m a traveling performer, just looking to stay in town for a bit I suppose.” Ash told the guard after the others had done the same. He tried to hide the unexpected nervousness he felt as he tried to enter this alien city, not wanting to seem suspicious.
“Performer, huh?” The guard said, raising an eyebrow.
“Definitely! He’s a storyteller, and a good one!” Pytir interjected happily. Ash was secretly relieved.
“Alright, then you’ll be wanting the Artists’ Guild, I suppose. Head down Main, take a right on Prosperity, then hook a left at Craftsman’s Square.” The guard said in the same monotonous voice, expecting Ash to remember the directions. “You’re all clear to enter, move along. Next!”
The wagon entered the city and Ash was pleasantly surprised to see that the roads were paved in brick which was lain out in an intricate pattern of reds and whites that complimented the buildings made from an almost uniform limestone. He even noticed some runoff spots, suggesting they had some sort of drainage system or indoor plumbing of sorts, which was a welcome relief to learn about.
When they were out of earshot of the guard, Ash leaned over to Vince to ask a question. “Why will I be needing the Artists’ Guild? They don’t have those where I come from, so I’m not sure what they do.”
“Like most guilds, they help keep things fair and organized for their members. The Artists’ Guild covers performers like you, but also the crafters and even the smiths to a lesser extent. They’ll help you find work, make sure you get paid, and maybe even find you a place to crash.”
“Oh, that sounds useful. At least until I can figure out something else.”
After a few minutes, the wagon came to a stop. “This is your stop,” Vince said to Ash. “Prosperity is right there, and the square is down about a mile, you can’t miss it.” Ash hopped out of the wagon and said his farewells.
It was mid afternoon and the streets were fairly crowded as Ash made his way across town. He was admiring the architecture and everything else around him as we walked, keeping his head on a swivel and trying not to run into anyone. He saw some shady looking people standing near an alleyway, but the fact that had nothing on him other than a robe and his walking staff, he doubted he’d be a mark for any stray thieves.
Lost in his admiration of the city, the sudden lack of building at the open square surprised him. The square itself was over a half-mile wide and equally long, and left completely open. There was a stretch of grass that looked lush and comfortable, surrounding a small pond. It took Ash a minute to remember they were supposed to be in the middle of a sandy beech or an ocean right now, but the lawn care here would have been at home at any country club.
The square was filled with families, running around, relaxing, or exploring the different shops. Every shop around the square was dedicated to selling the goods created by crafters who are members of the Artists’ Guild. Ash started heading left, knowing he didn’t have all day to waste looking around. One of the stores he passed was a used bookstore called Vicky’s Vellichor. The whole store seemed to be packed with as many shelves and books as was humanly possible while still letting someone much smaller than himself reach every location.
“Hm, that could be a useful resource, depending on the genres they stock,” Ash mumbled to himself, perhaps a little too use to talking to himself out loud after the last few days.
The guard hadn’t mentioned anything other than taking the leftside road upon entering the square, so Ash was worried that he might not be able to find the guild. However, those worries were quickly alleviated when he saw what could only be described as a monstrosity of marvels. The Artists’s Guild of Prismar is an example of what happens when you give someone like Frank Gehry access to magic. Despite being made of stone, the building seemed to bend and warp like a it was made out of plastic and left out in the desert sun for too long.
“It looks like someone gave the architect acid and told them go at it.”
Ash entered through the main doors and found a receptionist desk to one side where a line of people was being helped. He went and stood in the back of the line, and attempted to eavesdrop on some of the conversations being had. One person in line was angrily discussing how he was stiffed from his last gig and wanting to get the place blacklisted for at least a month in retribution. Most people were just discussing their day, or standing silently.
The line moved slowly forward and Ash took a few steps to catch up. Drawing closer to the front desk, he overheard a woman talking with one of the receptionists.
“You know what he’s like, Markus. He might skimp out on work, but he always accepts a free meal. He hasn’t been around for days. He might not be reliable, but he’s still one of us and he’s missing.” The woman said, her hands twisting about each other and her shoulders so tense they were almost at ear level.
“You might be right, Ms. Valfree, but this really sounds like a job for the guard, not the guild.” Markus replied, not unkindly.
“I know, Markus, but I’ve gone to them three times now and they keep telling me the same thing. ‘He’ll show up when he shows up.’ It’s bullshit and you know it!” She was starting to get heated, and the receptionist, Markus, tried to calm her down.
“Alright, Ms. Valfree. I can’t do much, but I will make sure the guildmistress learns about it. She at least has the political clout to get some movement.” He pulled out a piece of paper and jotted down a note. “I’ll tell her the moment she gets back in and we’ll do what we can to find him.”
The woman’s shoulder slumped, and her already small frame seemed to close in on itself. “Thank you, Markus. I’m sorry, I’m just worried about him.”
“I know. Go get some rest, and if I hear anything then I’ll get word to you.”
The woman thanked the receptionist again and walked out. When Ash caught a glimpse of her face it was lined with worry.
When Ash finally made it to the front desk he wasn’t with Markus, but one of the others. A tan-skinned girl, no older than eighteen, looked up at him from behind the counter.
“Good day, sir. How can I help you?”
“Hello, miss. I’m new in town and I was hoping to register with guild. I was also told I might even be able to find a place to stay.” Ash said with a hopeful smile.
“Of course, sir, that won’t be a problem.” She asked him a few questions about himself and his talents to gauge his position in the guild. “So mostly a storyteller and a bit of a performer? That should be fine. Registration is free, but if you want to stay on the guild campus, you’ll need to pay a fee. It’s three copper a night, due at the end of the week.” The girl replied in a friendly, if impersonal, tone. If you so choose, you can have your room fees garnished from any income in which the guild is an intermediary; otherwise, payment is due on the first of the week.” She wrote down a few more things and handed the paper across the desk to Ash, along with a quill that wrote without the need for an ink jar. He skimmed the agreement that was a fraction of the length and gibberish of a legal document from Earth, before signing at the bottom.
The girl handed him a pamphlet and a key and wished him luck. When he opened the pamphlet, he noticed that it was a highly accurate and beautifully crafted map of the guild’s campus. When he complimented it, the girl just laughed.
“Well, we are the Artists’ Guild.”
With a smile, Ash walked away from the desk and went to find his temporary residence before getting down to business.