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“Mr Melodious. Excuse me, Mr. Melodious.”

Ash was barely a few steps into the Artists’ Guild when he heard someone calling for his attention. He turned to see one of the receptionists, their station uncommonly empty for the time of day. He headed over to the counter, seeing the young receptionist who had helped him on his first day there. Her hair was pulled back and she had a small stack of papers in front of her.

Ash walked over, pasting a smile on his face to seem welcoming despite that he would rather head up to his room and crash for the night.

“Good evening, miss. What can I do for you?”

“Good evening, Mr Melodious. Please, call me Carla.” She tapped on a name plate in front of her station that he hadn’t seen before. “I know you’re paid up for your room and board for a while, but the week’s list of requested performers has come in. Would you like to look it over? Most people looking to hire a performer have specific requirements, while others are looking for more generic entertainment. And they range from private performances to public spectacles, so we’re usually able to find a gig for any of our performers looking for work.” She slid a clipboard across to him with a list of available jobs and the pay he could expect from each.

He skimmed over the list and noticed that the ones at the end seemed to offer a disproportionate amount of pay compared to some of the others. “Carla, if these ones at the end are offering so much more, why aren’t they the first to be snatched up?”

The receptionist had gone back to filling out some paperwork, pausing to look up. “Hmm? Oh those,” she replied with a weird amount of weariness in her voice for someone so young. “Those places tend to have a more troublesome clientele - guards, sailors, fighters, and so on. The owners keep to the guild’s requirements so they aren’t blacklisted, but performers,” she paused for a second, “accept a certain amount of physical risk by taking one of those gigs.”

“Oh,” Ash paused for a second to think about it. “That sounds like fun. I’ll take which ever of those pays the most.” He slid the clipboard back over to her, smiling when she took a skeptical look. But she gave him a once over and shrugged.

“Eh, you’re a big enough person, I’m sure you’ll be mostly fine.” She scribbled a few notes down and handed a slip of paper to Ash. “Here’s the information. We’ll let the owner know to expect you tomorrow evening. If that is all, please have a good rest of your day, Mr Melodious.” She smiled once more and went back to her paperwork like Ash no longer existed.

Ash walked through the guild campus until he came to the building used by resident artists. The residential part was attached to a large gallery where the city’s artists could showcase their creations for anyone to buy. The barracks rooms weren’t big, but they were comfortable and offered a friendly community. Being so close to the gallery gave most of the artists a reason to never leave the guild campus, some of them locked in their workshops for days or weeks on end while they worked, leaving only when someone dragged them out for food.

Back in his room, Ash flopped onto his bed and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. After a while, he pulled a thick tome out of his inventory and studied its cover. He was trying to psych himself up for the inevitable pain these damn books caused him.

“If these things are always such a pain in the ass to learn, maybe it’s a good thing I couldn’t use the fireball book. Chances are it would just set me on fire.”

After a few minutes, Ash pushed himself back to his feet and stood in the middle of his room.

 

[You have obtained Binding Attire. Your class allows you to use Binding Attire. Would you like to use this ability book?]

 

Ash hesitated for a second before sighing. “Yeah, use it.”

Hairline cracks began forming throughout the book, fracturing and spreading like broken glass. Light began shining from every crack until a force broke it apart. The broken and torn pages shot at Ash, coating his body and adhering to his skin. When he was covered, looking like a papier-mâché mummy, the confetti shards began to vibrate. As they sped up, they began cutting into his skin, absorbing his blood and melting into his body.

When the book was fully absorbed, it left Ash’s skin red and feeling raw. He groaned and fell back onto his bed.

“Nope, they all suck.”

 

[You have gained the ability Patchwork]

 

[Patchwork - (performer ability) Summon armor that boosts resistances to physical attacks. Armor provides a passive improvement to agility and speed. Storyteller and performer abilities are more effective and cost less mana.]

 

“Oh, a new uniform. Hopefully it’s as comfortable as Morgan’s robe. That thing feels like wearing a cloud.” He stood up and felt the sensation of a new ability in him. He pulled his robe off and pushed at the new sense inside him. Silk threads began manifesting from out of his skin, twisting and wrapping until he was covered from the neck down, forming his clothe armor. He looked down at his new armor and swore to himself. “Oh come on. How is that helpful?”

 

*****

 

After talking to the blacksmith the day before, Ash decided to try and find the Adventurer Collective. It didn’t take him long to find someone to point him in the right direction. He got lost a few times on the way, and each time someone would tell him where to go. Most ordinary people were happy to help him, some of them even sharing their own experiences with the adventurers. However, the guards he asked responded with snide contempt. Ash figured there might be a little rivalry there.

When he arrived outside the Collective’s building, he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Next to the physics bending architecture of the Artists’ Guild’s campus, this looked like a non-descript government office building. With the diversity of design in Prismar, the plainness felt deliberate and boring. Ash climbed the stairs and went inside.

The Artists’ Guild was usually busy throughout the day. Because they represent such a range of professions, from painters and sculptors to performers and glassblowers, the administration building of the campus has to deal with not only their members and their issues, but the people of Prismar and the surrounding areas that wish to hire their services. As such, he had grown use to the noise and crowds and wait times that came with paperwork and admin. After all, it’s not like it’s any worse than the BMV or CIF.

So when Ash pushed open the doors to the collective, he was a little shocked at how empty it was inside. The main room wasn’t huge, but it was warm and welcoming. Several overstuffed chairs sat empty in the room for the waiting clients they didn’t have. Similar to the guild, there was a receptionist area to the side.

Ash walked over to the desk and saw a middle-aged man bent over at his desk, reading a book. He cleared he throat, and the man half jumped out of his chair.

“Good morning,” Ash said, putting a smile on his face.

“Hello there,” the receptionist replied genially. “How can we help you today, my good man? Are you in need of an adventurer for a monster problem?” His smile widened, looking hopeful.

“Sorry, no. I heard that the collective here offers weapon training?” Ash said.

“Of course,” the man said, his smile no less diminished. “And where are my manners. My name is Ethan. We have four different main trainers here. What sort of defensive training are you looking for? Would you like to see our menu of available services that are offered, which includes which weapons and forms are known by the trainers?

“Uh, no, that’s alright.” Ash replied. “You guys actually have a menu of services?”

“Sure,” Ethan shrugged, “better than memorizing it and listing it off whenever someone comes in.”

Ash thought for a second, “yeah, I suppose so. But uh, no, just need to learn how to swing a sword well enough not to die the first time I try to use it for real.”

“Not dying is a perfectly good starting point,” Ethan said. “If swordsmanship is the way you want to go, then you just need to fill out a few… discretionary documents that wave some liabilities.” He smiled innocently up at Ash while his hand blurred over a blank sheet of paper, the entire form being created like he were a laser printer.

“Do many people get injured while training here?” Ash asked.

“Oh gods, no. Most of our trainers are very careful and make sure their students are safe and comfortable throughout their experience.”

“Most of your trainers?”

“Oh yes. Most people who come here do so to learn basic self-defense in the case that they run into a monster or some hooligan on the streets. As such, they tend to learn to use a spear or a staff or something a little more affordable to the ordinary concerned citizen.” Ethan paused for a second. “Our Swordmaster is one of the best in the city if not the best, but she has… a level of expectation to her lessons that most people find… intimidating.”

“Huh. So she’s a taskmaster then?”

“Oh no, she’s quite a nice person. She just refuses to allow half-measures in her training.”

“Well, I already committed to learning the weapon when I spent a chunk of gold on it. If getting my ass beat is the price to learn from the best, then I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.” He bent over and scribbled a signature on the paper.

“What’s that?” Ethan squinted at the messy squiggle that denoted his signature. “I don’t recognize the language.”

“I’m from elsewhere. Granted, even there, this is probably illegible.” Ash responded.

Ethan shrugged. “No worries, a signature is a signature. Alright,” he pushed himself back and jumped to his feet. “If you’ll follow me, I can introduce you to our Swordmaster, Alima. She’s around here somewhere.”

Ethan led Ash to a fenced off area of grass behind the building that they used as a training grounds. Alima wasn’t there so Ethan left Ash in the training yard to wait while he went and searched for her.

Ash was wearing his plain robe instead of his new armor, which he wasn’t sure how he felt about yet. It provided some good buffs, but he had some concerns.

At the far end of the yard was an archer’s target, which was little more than a sack of hay with some paint. Standing a few dozen paces away, he snapped one of his new daggers out of his inventory and tried to hit the target. It took him a few tries before he was able to get the knife to actually sink into the target, either bouncing off or just missing entirely for the first dozen or so throws - but who’s really counting?

Ash wasn’t too concerned though. After each throw, all he had to do was expend a minuscule amount of mana and the knife was back in his hands. If he was ever really concerned about his mana usage, all he would have to do is put his mask and armor on and his performer and storyteller abilities became not only stronger and more effective, but less mana intensive as well.

He loved the speed and agility boost that he received from the pair, but until he found some actually useful abilities beyond his Sleight of Hand, he didn’t see much need for the mana reduction. His cleaning ability didn’t count since the spell didn’t fit into either category, but short of an army of those Mudlords, he didn’t expect to excessively use that either.

Ash was finally starting to hit in the target by the time Ethan returned, accompanied by who Ash assumed to be Alima. She had a youthful face, betrayed by the silver that dominated her hair. The two entered the yard mid-conversation, Alima laughing at whatever Ethan was telling her.

Ash snapped his knife back into his inventory, put a smile on his face, and turned to greet them.

“Hello.” He walked up and held out a hand to shake. Alima’s smile faded and she gave him a cool assessing look before extending her own.

“So, you’re the one who wishes to learn the sword then?” She squinted her eyes and stared directly at his chest for a few moments, which for her was eye-level. Ash started to feel uncomfortable, but she broke off her stare and looked into his eye.

“Physically, you look like you have some experience, but spiritually you look as fresh as a child.” Her suspicious glare continued to search him. “Despite what Ethan here says,” she turned her gaze to the other man for a second, his jovial expression never even flinching, “becoming my student requires more than just signing a sheet of paper.”

“That is technically correct,” Ethan chimed in, “but since you’re the only one of trainers who tends to turn down a paying customer…”

“Wait, I’m paying?” Ash interjected. “That wasn’t mentioned earlier.”

“Oh don’t worry, it’s a small fee. And you did sign the contract,” Ethan stated.

“Yeah, that sounds familiar,” Ash sighed.

“Like I was saying,” Ethan continued, “the other trainers don’t turn down paying customers unless those customers have questionable motives and intentions. So even if the others aren’t as specialized as Alima here, they would still do more than an adequate job at teaching you the basics of swordsmanship.”

“Like I was saying,” Alima said, “becoming my student requires more than signing a sheet of paper. Why should I train you?”

“I’m not really sure,” Ash responded with a shrug. “I don’t know what motivates you or your society here. Someone did a favor for me after I was in an accident, which she has assured me was quite violent. As payment, she requested that I do what I do best so that I can help her accomplish something important. For the time being, I’m inclined to help her. Thing is, I’m not entirely sure how to help outside of becoming stronger. I’m only good at a handful of things, a lot of which don’t translate well around here. Ethan says that you’re one of the best Swordmasters in the city. Learning from the best would hopefully mean I can be prepared for whatever it is that this someone is going to need from me.”

Alima studied him harder before nodding to herself. “You aren’t lying at the very least. However, I only train those who have the talent to go far with it. My methods can be a little unorthodox at times and some of my previous clients have voiced concerns.” She walked over to a storage shed in the yard, putting her hand in her pocket and removing an ordinary key. When she unlocked the door, a small burst of light released from the handle, suggesting that there was more to shed than Ash could see with his eyes alone. She disappeared inside for a moment before returning with a pair of wooden practice swords.

“If you can impress me, then I’ll train you.” She flipped one of the plastic swords in her hand, catching the dull blade and holding the handle out for him to grab. “I don’t expect you to hit me, but I won’t train someone who lacks potential.”

“And you’ll learn that from a sword fight?” Ash asked.

“I’ll learn enough to get an idea of you,” she responded.

Ash held the wooden sword in his hand; it was heavier than the real version that he had in his inventory. A couple pounds isn’t much, but it adds up quickly. He nodded to Alima and sunk into a fighter’s stance. He bounced on the balls of his feet and waited for Alima to get into a defensive stance, but she didn’t even raise her weapon from her side.

Ash knew he should be humble in the face of a master, but he couldn’t help but feel a little insulted by her complete lack of concern while facing him. He’d never been so wholeheartedly dismissed before. Which isn’t surprising. He usually stood several inches about others, and his hand-to-hand training meant his size was usually an advantage. However, he also knew that size meant little in the face of skill, and knowing some basic self-defense while weilding a knife, or fighting against someone else who was doing the same, wasn’t the same thing as knowing how to fence.

Luckily, just like when he wielded his staff against the Mudlords, his Danse Macabre ability encouraged and steered his movements. His posture loosened up and he lunged forward, his wooden sword hissing through the air as it zipped at his opponent’s chest.

Unconcerned, Alima’s sword blurred and smacked Ash’s sword; the yard rang with the crack of wood on wood as Ash’s sword was sent flying out of his hand.

Alima smirked, but Ash recovered after a heartbeat. He kept his body moving, dancing to the side and swinging his empty hand down at her in a chopping motion. Alima looked confused for a moment until the practice sword reappeared in his hand out of thin air, already in the middle of a descending slash. Her eyes flashed for the briefest moment before her sword shot up to block Ash’s second attack. She smirked, but finally shifted into a fighter’s stance. He could still tell she was playing with him, but she was no longer brushing him off.

“That was a nice trick, but not enough,” Alima said with a smile. “Show me something more.”

Ash calmed his mind and let himself slip more into the guidance of Danse Macabre. He flowed around Alima, his sword darting in, slashing and stabbing at any part of Alima he could reach. But none of his attacks even came close to hitting her. The wooden blade of the Swordmaster seemed to predict his movements, always nudging his blows off course so that he did nothing more than ruffle her hair with a stray breeze.

After several minutes of frustration, Ash pulled back to catch his breath. “Is that all you have to show me?” Alima called to him.

Ash sighed and gave her a smile. “Well, I have a skill that might make this more interesting to you, but I’m not sure how I feel about using it. It makes me look a little pompous. But I see that the only way to impress you is to go all out, so if you’ll give me a second?” Alima relaxed her stance and gave him a nod.

Ash snapped away his sword for a second to free up his hands and began pulling his robe over his head. As the robe was pulled off, his Patchwork armor formed in its place, the silk threads manifesting out of his skin and making him sudder with the unfamiliar sensation. The armor formed in a matter of moments so it looked to Alima and Ethan as if he had been wearing it underneath his robe the entire time. This would be an odd thing to see since, when the armor was fully formed, it looked like Ash had been wearing an eccentric suit underneath it the whole time. His suit was an inky black with purple and silver threading forming intricate patterns that seemed to fade and change the more you tried to concentrate on them.

Ash was just happy that his armor didn’t come with a tie, but he couldn’t help but be annoyed that his Court Jester class really leaned into the court part of it. When Ash straitened up, his robe disappeared into his inventory and his practice sword snapped back into his hand.

“Thank you for waiting,” Ash said to Alima as a dark mist temporarily covered his vision, the Infinity Masque forming over his face. “I haven’t had much time to practice with the new armor, but I will try to show you my worth.”

“Practice with what,” Alima said, “serving dinner?”

“I know, it’s a bit pretentious. But it’s surprisingly comfortable.” Despite how it looked, the Patchwork armor stretched and formed to his body as he moved, never impeding his movements no matter how he twisted his body. “It also seems that my powers have a preferred color palette. I’m not angry at it, but I could use a little diversity in choice, you know?”

Ash bounced on his heels a few times as the increase in his agility and speed left his body tingling. He lowered himself back into his fight stance, noting that Alima did the same this time. She smiled, a hunger in her eyes as she waited for his advance.

When Ash attacked this time, his movement were a night and day difference. His arm blurred as his sword danced in rhythm with his body. Alima easily held her place, but she was no longer able to dismiss his efforts. She watched his movements attentively, her own sword a blur as it continued to block or deflect every one of his attacks.

After several minutes of frustration, Alima allowed one of his lunges past her defense. Instead of blocking it, she seemed to completely vanish. Ash’s sword passed harmlessly threw empty air, but before he could register his own shock at her disappearance, he felt the sharp whack of Alima’s wooden sword on the back of his skull. He dropped his sword and rubbed the back of his head.

“Son of a donkey fucking land biscuit.” He swore as he tried to ignore the pain. He wasn’t good at swearing, but then again it’s difficult to come up with proper invectives when you get your bell rung by someone a third your size.

“So, you have potential.” Alima said as she walked back in front of him. “But if you balk at a simple tap on the head, you might as well leave now.”

“No,” Ash said, still rubbing the lump that was already forming on his head. “I’ve had worse. I wasn’t able to make you move, even with my speed increase. If you’re willing to train me, I can put up with a few headaches.”

Alima had a wolfish smile on her face. “Very well. Then we might as well get started.”

Seeing that Alima had accepted her new student, Ethan turned and went back into the building, his smile even larger than before. When he was alone, he couldn’t help but laugh at the optimism of the Swordmaster’s new student. “If he survives her training, he might be formidable.” He walked back to his desk in the empty room of the Adventurer’s Collective and picked up his book. Alima hadn’t accepted a new student in years, he couldn’t help but hope this was a sign that things might become more interesting for the local adventurers soon.

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