Practitioner: Novice

They called it the Guildhall.

It was a grand, imposing name that didn't fit the small building across the street. One story high, the Guildhall had that early-2020's aesthetic: stone, timber, flat roof. Rose bushes formed a dense hedge along the front, their verdant branches dripping with dew-speckled crimson flowers. Even from across the street, I could smell their perfume: thick, heady, sweet. The building looked like a florist's shop, not exactly the sort of thing that inspired confidence.

But what choice did I have? Just thinking about the Triad made my vision swim. The Guild was the only place that could -- that would -- help me deal with the loan.

I glanced to my left, then to my right, then back to my left as I tripled-checked for oncoming traffic. Nothing. The street was deader than a salvager's wreck. Heart hammering in my chest, I slunk across the road and approached the Guildhall's front door. It was thick frosted glass, with an emblem etched on the upper half: a stylized rose nestling in a bed of thorns and leaves. The steel handle was cold on my hand as I tugged the door open and stepped inside.

Warm air enveloped me like a wily pickpocket's friendly hug. The Guildhall's interior looked like the inside of an antique: hardwood floor, stained-wood walls, creamy paneled ceiling. LED lights nestled in the ceiling's corners, bathing the space in a sunny indirect ambiance, and an enormous Guild logo hung from the wall in front of me, imposing golden metal backlit by a deep crimson glow.

Before the logo was an old-fashioned oak desk. A tall woman with obsidian-black skin reclined in a leather chair, feet resting on the desk's edge. She wore a pure white robe and a Glass Eye visor, its bluish-white light flickering across her face as she watched something in its display. A movie, perhaps, or a camera feed.

Resting on the woman's head was one of those silly augmented reality hats: a turban inside a fish-bowl -- no, not a turban. A beehive. Yellow and black-striped insects flitted inside it, and the construct's artist had even added a touch of glistening honey oozing down the hive to puddle at the bowl's base. Ridiculous.

I was about to turn off my own Eye -- I didn't need the distraction -- when the woman sat up straight. The glow from her visor died, two deep black eyes fixing me with a regal stare.

Her voice was soft and warm. "Greetings, stranger. My name is Vocateur Ashuwanda Farana. What brings you to the Guild of the Rose?"

"I-I --"

Great way to make a first impression, idiot. By the way, you're tracking mud on their nice floor. You forgot to wipe your shoes at the doormat.

I glanced at the floor and cringed at the trail of dirty prints my shoes had left on the old hardwood. Not even a minute had passed since I got here, and I was already fucking up. The Guild was my last shot, and if they decided I wasn't worth helping then --

"You seem a little nervous." The vocateur offered me an encouraging smile. "Why don't we start with some tea? There's a kitchen in the back."

I stammered out an awkward affirmative and she flashed me a stark white grin. She stood up and beckoned for me to follow, beaded shoulder-length braids clicking together as she headed for a small side door. Trailing in her wake, I did my best not to think about the mess left behind me. They probably had janitor bots. Right?

"What about the front desk?" I asked, in an effort to distract myself as we walked through a wood-paneled corridor.

"Oh, don't worry about that. One of my cohort will be along to handle it."

One of her... cohort? I didn't ask. The last thing I wanted was to annoy her with more stupid questions. We made the rest of the short walk in silence, Ashuwanda's six-foot Amazonian figure towering over my frail frame.

The kitchen was a homey space, reminiscent of a farmhouse. An induction stove nestled in one corner, looking out of place against the tan brick walls and angled wooden roof beams. Pans hung from thick nails above it, while bundles of dried spices dangled from the ceiling. Separating the kitchen from a small dining area was a wide wooden counter, polished until it gleamed beneath the omnipresent golden illumination.

The vocateur gestured for me to take a seat in the dining area. I slumped into a spindly wooden chair and stared at the antique tabletop while she bustled about the kitchen. She was so tall. And the way she moved -- light, graceful, with self-assured confidence... I bet she never had anxiety attacks. Never curled up in her bed, eyes squeezed shut --

I realized Ashuwanda was watching me expectantly. She had asked me a question, something about tea. "Uh, sorry. Could you repeat that?"

"Would you like honey in your tea?"

"Oh. Sure, I guess."

She got a small bowl from the cabinet and raised a hand to the Virtual beehive-hat. A spigot opened in the side and thick golden fluid oozed out, dripping viscously into the bowl. She scooped a spoonful into two mugs of steaming liquid before offering me one. I struggled to keep a straight face as I raised the cup to my lips. AR gimmicks were so --

-- the tea tasted like honey. Honey. That meant -- I peeked across the top of my Eye. Ashuwanda's hat didn't vanish. The woman sitting across from me was wearing a living beehive. In the Real.

"Your hat..." My voice came out flat. "It's not Virtual."

Ashuwanda raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow and smiled faintly. "Indeed. So, what brings you to the Guild?"

I closed my mouth and glanced around the kitchen, its rustic decoration no longer seeming quite so inviting. "Ah, is this a safe place to talk?"

"Certainly." Her smile widened. "Don't let the old-fashioned facade fool you. We retrofitted the walls with soundproofing and the building is equipped with state-of-the-art anti-intrusion measures. Whatever you say here won't leave this room unless you want it to."

When I didn't speak, she continued. "Why don't you start by telling me your name?"

My cheeks burned. "Taman." I dropped my gaze to the table and cradled the warm tea mug in my dirt-stained hands. "Please, you have to help, Vocateur Ashuwanda."

"Call me Wanda." She smiled, revealing those brilliant white teeth again. "I will certainly do my best to assist you, but you still haven't told me what you need my help with."

"It's the Triad. They're going to kill my father. I-I know I shouldn't have taken out the loan, but it was the only way to pay for my father's medical treatment."

I glanced at Ashuwanda, expecting condemnation. Instead, she had a distant, slightly abstracted expression on her face. She clicked her tongue and nodded. "Okay. How much was the loan?"

"Twenty -- twenty-five thousand."

"Hm. And you spent it on your father's medical bills?"

"No," I whispered miserably. "I bet it on Myeong Kwan winning his next match."

"Ah, the Korean MMA fighter." Ashuwanda nodded. "I take it the prediction market resolved as indeterminate after he died in that car crash?"

I clenched my fists, remembering the arrogant sneer on the bookie's face. "They told me I should have read the fine print. As if anyone can read fifty pages of legalese in an eight pixel font."

She made a sympathetic sound. "How long did the Triad give you to pay them back?"

"A week, but that was three days ago. Wu is gonna kill me when he realizes I don't have his money. I don't know what to do. I heard you guys can solve any problem and I thought, maybe..."

Listen to yourself. Solve any problem? Get real. Nobody can make twenty-five thousand dollars magically appear out of thin air.

Ashuwanda clicked her tongue twice, then spoke. "This is a difficult problem. Please give me a couple minutes to think."

A 'difficult problem'. Talk about understatements. I nodded though, doing my best to look as if I had expected the request. She hadn't laughed me out of the room yet. Maybe -- no. Hope was bad. Hope meant despair.

Ashuwanda twisted her fingers in a knotted gesture and a Virtual clock appeared over the table, pale gray digits floating in midair. 5:00. 4:59. 4:58...

As the numbers counted down, I studied Ashuwanda. Her eyelids were closed, but her eyes moved constantly behind them, as if she were studying some grand blueprint that only she could see.

The building was so quiet. Noise was an omnipresent companion in my apartment: the gurgle of pipes, the creak of people moving about on the other floors, the hum of my computer. But here, at the Guildhall -- silence. Not even the rumble of traffic penetrated the soundproofed walls.

The minutes dragged by and, slowly, I relaxed into my chair, sipping the honeyed black tea Ashuwanda had given me. Hope once again reared its bright and deadly head. I squashed it with the a ruthlessness borne from long practice. In three minutes, Ashuwanda would open her eyes, look at me with a pitying gaze, and tell me that she couldn't help me. Thinking about it hurt, and that was how I knew it was true.

Two minutes.

One.

The Virtual clock zeroed out and vanished with a soft chime. Ashuwanda blinked, then frowned and shook her head. "I have no idea how to solve your problem."

Told you. The Guild can't help you. Nobody can.

My vision swam, blurring with tears that I blinked away. Steeling myself for the bad news hadn't helped, after all. I nodded and stood, forcing my face to stay flat and expressionless as I set my tea mug on the table. "Sorry for wasting your time."

Ashuwanda grinned. "Taman, I said I didn't know how to solve your problem, but I'm not alone. Sit down. Let me call up my cohort."

Bluish-white screenlight flickered on Ashuwanda's face as she activated her Eye. Unease stirred in my gut as I watched. She called them her cohort -- was that a euphemism for murmuration? Surely not. No drone would turn their Eye off to think. Ashuwanda had a presence. Like a queen slumming it as a dredger, trying to disguise her regal glory with rags and filthy water.

If only I could be like her.

The first cohort member arrived several minutes later, appearing in the hallway in the corner of my eye. She was short, and my first thought was elf. Perhaps it was her crystal blue eyes, or her pixie cut, or maybe it was her pale skin. Perhaps it was all of them put together, mixed with her otherworldly grace as she slipped across the room and sat down next to Ashuwanda, silent as a doll preparing tea for its Witch.

Ashuwanda nudged her. "Introduce yourself."

"I'm Natalie." Her voice was quiet, but something about her tone told me it wasn't from shyness or anxiety. No, Natalie was quiet because she didn't care if I heard her or not.

"Taman."

Natalie rolled her eyes, confirming my first impression. She dug a hand into one pocket and withdrew a small black cylinder, idly twirling it around her fingers as her sharp gaze roamed the room. Ashuwanda eyed the object -- a battery? -- but didn't say anything and, a moment later, heavy footsteps sounded from the hallway behind me.

The man who emerged was middle-aged. He wore a sleek black business suit that probably cost more than I made in a year of dredging. His face was handsome: black eyeliner, trimmed eyebrows, gold-tipped lashes. Something about his haughty stare made me think Arabian oil prince -- though nobody with that kind of money would be caught dead in Jakarta's slums.

"Call me Magdi."

He offered me a hand. His nails were painted a dark matte green, and his skin was cool and dry to my touch. It made me painfully aware of my own clammy grip, and I let go after a perfunctory shake.

Magdi flashed me a grin, as if he knew what I was thinking. It faded a moment later as he eyed the battery dancing around Natalie's dexterous fingers. "Do you have to play with that?"

Natalie's lips curved into a vicious smile. "What, are you afraid?"

"Only of your clumsiness."

Natalie snickered under her breath, falling silent as she saw me watching. She needn't have worried, for I had no idea what had just passed between them. Why would Magdi care if Natalie fiddled with an old battery? It was a strange habit, sure, but harmless.

The fourth member of the cohort arrived before Natalie could speak. He bounded into the room with the vigor that only a teenager could muster. "My friends!" His voice was loud, jarring in the quiet of the room, but he didn't seem to notice. "Greetings, Taman! My name is Jin, and I am here to assist you in any shape, form, or fashion."

Where the other cohort members had their Eyes off, Jin's bathed his acne-pocked face in a soft cyberpunk ambiance. A bowl cut solidified his position as the ugliest member in the room. Except for me, of course. Acne and bad hair had nothing on my squashed, dirt-ingrained face. Girls didn't talk to me very often, but if they did, it would be to tell me that I looked like a tranquilized sheep with a grime tattoo.

I offered him a weak smile. "Uh, thanks."

"Of course, of course!" He grabbed a chair and spun it around, sitting with his chin resting on the back. "So, what brings you to our humble abode?"

"Taman is having some trouble with the Triad." Ashuwanda hesitated, glancing at me. "I think it's best if I explain, if that's okay with you?"

"Sure." What else could I say?

Ashuwanda beamed and then shook out her wrists, placing them on the table in front of her. She started speaking -- not in Indonesian, but something foreign. After a few seconds, she paused. Natalie asked something equally incomprehensible and Ashuwanda nodded, beaded braids clicking together from the movement.

Quietly, so as not to disturb the cohort, I whispered a question for my Eye. "What language are they speaking?"

A loading icon appeared in the corner of the visor, followed almost immediately by a single word: Unknown language.

I stifled a snort. "What? How can you not know? Look it up on Translate."

Loading. Unknown language.

Stupid knockoff visor. Maybe the counterfeiter hadn't bothered to hook the onboard AI up with a language module, though it had never given me trouble before. Well, whatever. It wasn't like --

Ashuwanda's voice: "Taman, where did you meet the Triad?"

I jerked and blinked at her. "Uh. There was a restaurant called the Dragon's Wok. I can show you where --"

"No need." Screenlight flickered on Jin's face. What a prick, using an Eye in the middle of a conversation. "Corner of Pegambiran and Rambutan. And... aha, yep, it's a front for the Triad. Money laundering, it looks like." His lips peeled back in a smug grin. "Can you believe they used the default password on their admin email?"

I stared at him. "You hacked the Triad?"

Jin leaned back in his chair, smile widening beneath his glowing visor. "Yep."

Magdi sighed. "Please stop showing off, Jin. You're embarrassing yourself." He offered me an oily smile. "Taman, who exactly did you meet while at the Wok? Describe him for me."

"He called himself Mr. Wu. He was tall, with metallic silver hair and neon green contact lenses."

They went back to jabbering at each other. I hadn't noticed it at first, but their hands twitched constantly. Some sort of sign language, perhaps. Whatever it was, I couldn't make heads or tails of it. The four Guildmembers sat like statues, motionless except for their lips and fingers.

I took a sip of my tea. Each of the four Guild people wore a pin with the stylized Guild logo -- the same rose that had been on the front door and the lobby wall. They were made from a gleaming golden metal, but the narrow circle enclosing the rose had been painted a different color for each.

Ashuwanda's pin was purple. Natalie's was a dark green, blending in against her black long-sleeve shirt. Magdi wore his on the left breast of his expensive suit, and it was a deep ocean blue. Jin's was red, and he wore it pinned to the middle of his black robe, like some sort of weird tie. The colors had to mean something -- rank, perhaps -- but they were as inscrutable as the conversation occurring before me.

"What happens if you fail to meet the deadline?" Ashuwanda asked.

I gave them the short version: "Wu threatened to kill my father."

"What exactly did he say?" Magdi asked.

I shivered as I recalled Wu's green eyes and predatorial smile.

"I will find your father and personally break every bone in his body. I'm getting quite good with a pipe wrench, you know. Last time, I managed to break almost a hundred bones before he died from internal bleeding. People really are disgustingly fragile."

Wu's expression turned pensive. He shrugged after a moment and grinned, revealing a mouthful of triangular steel teeth. "Do I make myself clear?"

Silence fell in the kitchen as I finished speaking. Magdi broke it. "Yeah, that sounds like Wu alright. Crude and vicious. How often do you go to the gym?"

I stared at him. "Uh, maybe once or twice a week? What does that have to do with anything?"

Magdi simply smiled and turned his attention to the other cohort members. They jabbered at each other, occasionally pausing to ask me questions. Some of them made sense -- details about my finances, where I worked, what my credit score was. Others ranged from the bizarre to the mundane: who I had bought my Eye from, how many friends I had, whether I had seen a therapist in the past month. I answered them all. So what if they were intrusive? If the Guild didn't help me, I was a dead man.

The minutes crawled by until, at last, the conversation halted. Ashuwanda fixed me with that regal, piercing gaze. "We have identified two primary solutions. The Guild can offer you transportation out of Jakarta and the means to disappear from the Triad. However, we estimate a ninety-eight percent chance that the Triad will follow through on their threat and torture your father to death."

"Can you get him out of the country too?"

Ashuwanda sighed. "I'm afraid not. To do so would be to make an enemy of the Triad, and that's not something we're willing to do. Truth is not handed out in equal portions but, nonetheless, the Guild strives to remain as neutral as possible."

Leaving my father to die wasn't an option. "What's the second solution?"

"We have several connections in the Triad and could likely broker a deal where you pay them back over time instead of all at once. However, given the Triad's exorbitant interest rates and your lack of any significant credentials, it would take seven to twelve years to pay them off."

Twelve years of debt hell. My vision swam at the thought, and I almost missed Ashuwanda's next sentence.

"There is a third option. We could purchase your debt from Wu and help you find a better job to pay it off."

I shook my head. "What job? Have you seen my resume?"

Jin smirked. "Of course I have. You posted it online, under your real name. Cleaning dike pumps and sewer tunnels is about as dead-end as it gets -- literally. Did you know that the death rate for dredgers is five times higher than power linemen, firefighters, and ironworkers?"

Asshole. "You try getting a good job after failing the National Exam. Dredging is the only option I have."

Ashuwanda clicked her tongue. "Please be quiet, Jin. Taman, as I was going to say, we probably can't find you work with a third party. However, there's another option. You could work off your debt with us. It wouldn't be a glamorous life, but you would be able to pay off your debt in one to three years."

I stared a her. "Work for you? Doing what?"

"Minor errands, janitorial work. Tasks of that nature. It would pay better than any other job you could realistically get and we would grant you a small stipend, as well as room and board." She hesitated. "Also, as an employee, you would also be allowed to take classes for free, if you so wished."

"Classes?"

Jin cracked a grin and leaned back in his chair. "We're gonna make you superhuman!"

"Let me ask you a question, Taman," Ashuwanda said. "Do you feel like the main character of your life?"

"Uh -- I guess. Sure."

"That would be a no." Natalie twirled her battery around her fingers, never taking her eyes off me. "Don't feel bad. I was the same way before the Guild took me in."

"The Guild can help you with more than the Triad." Ashuwanda's voice was warm, filled with a simple promise: everything will be okay.

Part of me wanted to believe her, but I knew better than that. The Triad's brutish thuggery wasn't the only brand of crime in Jakarta. Ashuwanda seemed genuine -- but so did a con artist.

I forced myself to meet her dark eyes. "You want to make me into something I'm not. Turn me into a cog in your machine."

"Your suspicion does you credit, Taman." Ashuwanda almost sounded like she meant it. "But we don't believe in forcing anyone to join us. Everyone here has had their life transformed by the Guild -- not because it forced us to change, but because it gave us the tools to make those changes ourselves. You've been down the path you're on before. You know where it leads."

She paused, raising one inviting eyebrow. When I didn't speak, she continued, "Still, the choice is yours. Tell me you truly wish to limit your engagement with us to paying off your debt, and I won't bring up the classes again. For that matter, if you don't want to work with us, we'd still be willing to purchase your debt from the Triad."

I dropped my gaze to the table. The sad truth was -- Natalie was right. When had I ever been the main character of anything, let alone life? My days were spent in Jakarta's sewers, my nights in VR, and I shuffled through the spaces in between like a listless zombie. What was I so afraid of? The Guild couldn't fuck up my life any worse than I already had by failing the National Exam.

"What kind of... t-tools?" If she told me I had to buy something from the Guild, I was out.

"Have you ever been to Africa?" Ashuwanda asked. "Not to the cities, but the scattered sub-Saharan villages."

I had never even left Jakarta, and I told her as much.

Ashuwanda nodded, as if she had expected my response. "I grew up in an African village, clinging to life in the middle of a desert grassland. My mother died giving birth to me, and my father sickened and followed her a few years later. The village did their best to care for me, but they faced their own issues and I was mostly left to fend for myself.

"When I was eight, an NGO gave everyone in the village a solar-powered smartphone." She smiled reminiscently. "I thought it was magic. In a way, I suppose it was -- a little piece of the Unreal given physical form by countless brilliant minds working an impossibly complex cooperative spell."

What was I supposed to say to that? Phones weren't magic, though it made sense that a little girl who had never seen one before might think they were.

"It took me a few months to find the online gaming community, and a few months after that to find Magic the Gathering. Turned out I was something of a card game prodigy. Over the course of the next six years, I worked my way up to the Virtual Grand Prix -- MTG's biggest tournament -- and made it to the final round where I played against Vocateur Amadia."

"Did you win?" I asked.

"Amadia crushed me, I'm afraid, but I asked her for advice after the match was over. We ended up talking for hours, and when she heard that I lived with a hunter-gatherer tribe, she offered to help."

"She had me take an online IQ test." A wry grin. "Apparently a hundred and sixty is an 'unusual' score. Amadia used that to get me a full-ride scholarship at Cambridge University and, as they say, the rest is history." She spread her hands. "So there you have it. Amadia could have shrugged off my life as not her problem, or thought about it for five minutes and decided there was nothing she could do."

Silence fell in the kitchen as I stared at Ashuwanda. Was she really --

"Look me up," Ashuwanda said. "I went by LoreholdEffigy."

"Do it," I told my Eye. An instant later, results filled my vision: user profiles, forum threads, game tournaments. I scrolled down and found a news article titled MTG Prodigy LoreholdEffigy Revealed as African Girl. It was part biography, part game analysis, and it confirmed everything Ashuwanda had said. Her real name was even included towards the end, almost as an aside.

Leaning back in my chair, I surveyed the four Guild members. Jin didn't seem to notice my attention, screenlight clinging to him as he did something in Virtual. Magdi gazed back with his full lips quirked into a confident smile, while Natalie met my eyes with a flat, expressionless stare. Her fingers never stopped moving as she twirled that battery around them in a hypnotic dance.

I still didn't really trust these guys -- but they were also the only people who had been able to offer more than empty platitudes. If the Guild could fix Ashuwanda's life... surely they could fix mine. Wasn't that worth the risk? It wasn't as if there was much for them to fuck up. My own stupidity had seen to that.

I took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm in."

Ashuwanda pumped a fist in the air and cheered. "Yes! You won't regret this, Taman."

I couldn't help but smile back. "So, how does this work, exactly?"

"We've got a meeting with Wu," Magdi announced. "Thirty minutes."

"So soon?" I asked. "Don't you guys need time to prepare or something?"

Beneath his constantly-flickering visor, Jin's lips split into a grin. "Prepare? We're rationalists, baby, we're always prepared!"

"Every time you use that word my dignity dies a little more," Magdi muttered. "Calling yourself a rationalist is so pretentious. We're practitioners."

"I think it sounds cool," Jin shot back. "Way cooler than 'practitioner' -- practitioner of what, huh? Rationality! Cut out the middle-man, that's what I say."

Ashuwanda rolled her eyes. "Ignore him, Taman. We've handled plenty of negotiations like this before, and we already discussed our plan earlier in Marain."

The language my Eye hadn't been able to translate. I wanted to ask about it, but the cohort was already standing and heading for the hallway. I trailed behind as they walked at a quick pace and we spilled out into the Jakartan sunlight a few minutes later. Ashuwanda still wore her bizarre beehive hat, but the other three had also picked up hats as we left: Jin a black Santa Claus hat, Natalie a cowboy hat, and Magdi an Arabian hat with sand-colored cloth strips trailing down the sides of his head. These guys were so weird.

"I'll call a taxi," Magdi said.

"No need." Jin smirked. "Already did it, right after you said we had a meeting."

"Show off." Magdi scowled at him.

"It's not my fault you were too slow."

I hugged myself as Jin and Magdi bickered. It was still quite early, and the rising sun's ray slanted through the dilapidated buildings, glittering on water from last night's storm puddled here and there in the road's sunken depressions. A few people were visible here and there, but the city hadn't fully woken up yet. If this had been a normal day, right now I would have been heading to the dredger barracks to receive the day's assignment.

Ashuwanda patted my arm, gentle despite her intimidating height. "It's going to be okay, Taman. Trust me."

Before I could do more than offer her a weak smile, Jin's taxi appeared at the end of the street. We fell silent as it pulled up in front of us. Its doors slid open a moment later, and we piled into the cramped interior. Jin gave verbal orders to the car's AI, and acceleration pressed me gently into the padded seat.

I stared out the window, watching the buildings slip past. The further we got from the Guildhall, the worse everything looked. Run-down brick apartment complexes gave way to metal single-story shacks, which metastasized into the infamous Jakartan slum sprawl. Potholes dotted the road, each one accompanied by a sharp bounce. Black gang tags decorated the walls, street signs were vandalized or missing, and every window was either barred, broken or boarded up.

With each year that passed, it seemed like Jakarta decayed a little more. Criminals like Wu flourished in the government's absence, and what few police remained were nothing more than uniformed gang enforcers. Wu alone probably had half the gray pigs on his payroll. Corruption, poverty, decay, as inexorable as the rising sea levels.

The Guild cohort talked in hushed voices -- Jin and Magdi arguing about some computer thing, Natalie and Ashuwanda discussing martial arts. What kind of devil's bargain had I entered into by agreeing to work for them? To be one of them. Rule number one of Jakarta's crumbling ghetto: everyone wanted something. I wasn't a jaded cynic. People could be kind and good, but twenty-five thousand grand was more than just generosity. The Guild had an agenda, even if I couldn't see it yet.

Worries chased each other in my head as time slipped by, broken some twenty minutes later when the taxi arrived at Wu's restaurant. We stepped out, gathering on the cracked sidewalk as the car zoomed away behind us.

The Dragon's Wok was a two-story brick building, unique among the others on the block for its sparkling glass windows. Only a complete idiot would dare vandalize the Triad's headquarters. A hand-carved wooden sign hung behind the front door's glass: CLOSED.

"Let Magdi do the talking," Ashuwanda said.

I nodded. As if I wanted to talk to Wu. Begging him for the loan in the first place had been terrifying enough.

Magdi straightened his suit jacket, then strode up to the door and opened it, swaggering inside as if he owned the place.

The interior was bright, well-lit by soft yellow lamps on the walls. A narrow counter demarcated one side of the room, while a bead curtain marked off a hallway on the other. Two dozen Triad thugs were scattered across the room, while Mr. Wu sat at a wooden table in the back, idly fingering a pair of gleaming brass bullets.

Wu was a tall, muscular man clad in a white and black pinstripe suit. The pretense at subtlety ended there, however. His hair was dyed metallic silver, mohawk spikes glinting in the yellow lamplight. A horrifically ugly scar stretched from the corner of one eye, curving down to his chin, and a vivid green dragon tattoo curled around his neck, matching his bright green contact lenses.

Conversation died as we stepped inside. I cringed at the sudden attention, but Magdi only grinned, seemingly enjoying the spotlight.

Mr. Wu stood, spreading his hands in a wide, magnanimous gesture. A jerk of his head, and two of his goons approached us. I froze as they patted me down, checking for weapons. None of us had any, though, and they drifted away after half a minute, returning to their seats at nearby tables.

"Join me." Wu's silver-painted fingernails flashed in the lamplight as he waved a hand at the chairs around his table. "I wouldn't normally answer a call so quickly, but we speak so often that we're practically family. Nothing's more important than family, eh, Magdi?"

Magdi nodded as he sat. "Oh, but of course. Especially siblings. I'm sure you know what my family thinks of me, but I still occasionally talk to my sister."

Wu's confident grin faltered, features shifting momentarily as he eyed Magdi. Then his gaze flicked to me. "I see you've picked up a new stray. Hopefully, he hasn't convinced you to do anything... rash."

"Certainly not," Magdi said. "The Guild doesn't get involved in such a fashion, you know that."

Wu chuckled. "Of course. Forgive my bluntness, but I have a rather busy schedule today. What brings you to my humble establishment?

"We would like to purchase this man's debt."

Wu's genial smile vanished, replaced by a cold, calculating stare. "Yeah? All twenty-five grand?" He paused for a moment, then shook his head. "No, I don't think so."

"That's it?" Magdi asked. "Come now, surely I deserve better than a flat refusal."

"And surely you understand that I can't simply let you pay off his debt. Imagine what would happen if everyone got you to do the same for them."

Ashuwanda broke in: "You'd get your money back?"

Wu threw his head back and laughed. "You think I care about twenty-five grand? It's not about the money, it's about the leverage, you dumb bitch."

Ashuwanda stiffened at the insult. Wu smirked at her, eyes glittering. When she didn't speak, Wu turned his attention back to Magdi. "Perhaps we can reach a different arrangement such as, say, a monthly repayment plan?"

"The Guild won't buy everyone's debt," Magdi said. "This is a one-time offer."

"Ah, so you're playing favorites now? What happened to that infamous Guild impartiality?"

Magdi closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. "We do not play favorites. If the authorities ever ask us for help, we're obligated to assist them as well."

"The pigs will never beg outsiders for aid. And if they do..." Wu grinned and set the bullets in his hand down on the table, points up.

"Stop jerking me around." Magdi's voice was hard. "You owe me four times over now. Remember that package we helped you smuggle into the country, back when you were getting your feet under you in Jakarta? Or that troublesome government official we convinced to leave you alone? And don't forget the --"

"Enough." Wu's eyes flicked to me, but it was Magdi that he scowled at. "Fine, if you want to call in a favor -- thirty-five grand."

"In cash?"

"This ain't a corner drug deal," Wu shot back. "In ether. Send it now. Same address as last time."

Magdi paused, then nodded. Screenlight glowed against his olive skin. Wu tapped his silver fingernails against the table, glowering at me. I kept my gaze fixed on the spotless table. The way Magdi had effortlessly taken control of the conversation -- was that something the Guild could teach me? Probably not. Last time I had tried to negotiate anything was when I got my dredger job five years ago, and they had told me to shut up and take what was offered or find another place to work at.

"Done," Magdi said.

Wu snapped his fingers at a nearby Triad goon, who nodded after a few seconds. "The transaction was confirmed, Mr Wu."

Wu smirked at me. "You're lucky the Guild has such a bleeding heart."

Magdi rose. "It was nice doing business with you."

"Yeah, yeah. Go on, get out of here. Use the back door this time; the pigs have a guy watching the front."

We followed a Triad member as he led us through a tight maze of hallways. The path ended in a steel door, which he ushered us through. As it closed behind us, I let out the breath I had been holding, a smile spreading across my face.

"That was awesome, Magdi," I said. "The way you shut Wu down when he tried pushing you around -- the nerve that must have taken."

Magdi smiled. "Eh, Wu's not so bad compared to the oil negotiations I used to handle."

"Taxi's on its way," Jin said.

"Cancel it," Ashuwanda said. "We're going to walk back to Taman's apartment."

I stared at her. "But it's eight miles!"

"You said you wanted to be part of the Guild -- well, your training starts now."

"Aw c'mon." Jin frowned from behind his Eye. "Taman can exercise later. I don't want to walk either."

"The exercise will do you good, too," Ashuwanda said.

Jin made an inarticulate sound of frustration, then threw his hands up. "Fine, fine. Eight miles won't kill me. I guess."

"Guys," Natalie said. "Look."

I followed her gaze to the end of the alley, where three men stood. Their skin was streaked with dirt and they wore tattered brown rags. Each one had an Eye on their face, bathing them in flickering multihued light. A murmuration hive gang. They were armed, two with lengths of rusty pipe and one with a wicked-looking curved knife. Shit.

"Three more behind us." Ashuwanda's voice was calm, as if she were reading off the latest sports statistics.

I tried the door we had just come out of. Locked. The sun-warmed metal was rough against my skin as I hammered on it, but nobody responded. My stomach sank. "W-Wu set us up, didn't he?"

None of the Guildmembers bothered to respond. Moving in synchrony, the two halves of the hive advanced until they stood a dozen feet away. Rainbow light flickered across their faces and quiet sounds came from their Eyes: beeps, hums, chirps. Each hive had its own personal polyglot made from sound and color. Mix in some synthetic designer drugs and the murmuration could communicate at nearly the speed of thought, forming a single group mind even as its members lost their individual identities.

One of the drones took a single step forward and spoke in a toneless voice. "Your money or your life."

The archaic phrase was so out of place that I nearly smiled. But there was nothing funny about this situation. Six drones against the five of us. They had their minds reduced to mush by the hive but that didn't hamper their fighting skills. If anything, it made them stronger. No morals, no training, no complex thoughts -- just pure instinctual combat.

I was reaching into my pocket for my wallet when Ashuwanda laid a hand on my arm and shook her head. "Relax, Taman."

Natalie smirked and addressed the drone who had spoken. "I've had a truly terrible week, so let me make a counteroffer. You take your buddies and fuck off, and I won't use you as today's venting tool."

The drones stood in silence. Probably conferring with each other. Murmurations had a lot of advantages, but quick decision making wasn't one of them. Too many separate minds, too much lag in the network. One of my friends was a multicore, and she said it was like having a committee in your head, constantly arguing over everything. Being part of a hive was probably even worse. At least with multicores, all the people shared a skull.

Motion rippled through the drones. The one who had spoken lunged, swinging his pipe at Natalie's head. She grabbed it and yanked him off-balance. He fell. Natalie ducked underneath another drone's club and stomped the first drone's head, once, twice. Bone cracked on the second blow and he went limp. The shattered Eye sparked, blood turning the translucent lenses an eerie red.

Ashuwanda shoved me, hard. I stumbled to the side -- just in time to avoid a stab from one of the drones behind us. As I caught my balance against the metal door, Ashuwanda grabbed the drone's arm and spun, throwing him. The drone flew through the air and crashed face-first into the brick wall across the alley. He crumpled to the bottom and lay there, unmoving.

Three more drones closed in on Ashuwanda, pipes swinging. The first blow landed across her shoulders and she let out a pained cry, falling to her hands and knees. The second hit her back. She collapsed to the ground as the drones kicked her. A rock flew out of nowhere and struck one drone's head, knocking its Eye off. Jin stood behind a garbage heap some ways off, rooting through the junk for another missile.

The drone Jin had hit dropped its pipe and let out a high, keening scream. It fell to its knees, scrabbling for its Eye. Moments later, a stray foot stomped down onto the fragile device, crushing it into sparking wreckage. The drone screeched and seized the ruined Eye, clutching it to its chest as it scrambled to its feet and fled.

On the other side of the alley, Natalie now held a two-foot metal police baton. She deflected a blow from one drone's club. The other lunged, knife-tip flickering. Natalie brought her baton down on its arm. The knife fell from its hand and Natalie caught it. A spin and it flew across the alley to sink into a drone's throat. He collapsed atop Ashuwanda, hands scrabbling to stem the torrent of blood pumping from his neck.

Magdi let out a deranged howl and charged at the second drone kicking Ashuwanda, tackling it to the ground. It slugged him in the eye, and he fell back, war-cry changing to a pained shriek. I cringed away as the two men rolled towards me, punching and thrashing. Magdi got an arm around the drone's neck and wrenched its head to one side. Bone snapped and the drone went limp --

Gunfire split the air. Natalie screamed and staggered forwards, throwing herself at the last surviving drone. It fired again, and the bullet sparked off the door a foot away from my arm.

They grappled for control of the pistol. Crack. The drone keeled over, the side of her head blown off. Natalie collapsed a second later, landing atop the dead drone.

My vision swam as I stared at the unmoving Natalie. Was she dead? She had gotten shot -- to protect me. This was my fault. If I hadn't asked them to help me, Wu would never have sicced the murmuration on us. On the Guild.

Ashuwanda groaned as she rolled to her feet. Her pained grimace fell away as she saw Natalie, replaced by fear. "Natalie!"

"Fucking drone shot me." Natalie's voice wavered. "Think it broke a rib. Maybe two. Help me up."

"B-broke a rib," I stammered. "But --"

Jin raised his voice, speaking over me. "Car's on its way. Where are we going? The hospital?"

"No," Magdi said, nudging a dead drone with his expensive-looking leather shoe. "If Wu really did set us up, he'll have men there. We need to go to the chapter house."

Jin nodded. "One minute until the car gets here."

"I'm sorry," I said. "This is my fault."

Ashuwanda didn't even glance at me. "Nothing to apologize for. The risk comes with the job, and Natalie's going to be fine."

"How?" I asked. "I've seen people get shot before, they don't get broken ribs, they bleed out and die."

"Spidersilk robes," Jin said. "The inventor got the idea from a web serial, can you believe it? They'll stop most small-arms fire, but that kinetic energy has to go somewhere. Still, a broken bone's a lot better than a gunshot wound."

"It's best if you come with us," Magdi added. "Lay low for a few months until the heat blows over."

"My dad --"

Magdi dug a hand in his pocket and withdrew an old-fashioned smartphone. He tossed it to me and I caught it, more by reflex than anything else. I stared at the glossy black surface.

"Burner phone," Magdi said. "You can use that to talk to your dad. We're not trying to isolate you, just keep you safe. The Guild's chapter house has enough security that even Wu won't be able to touch you there."

"Car's here." Jin pointed at the end of the alley, where a taxi idled. "Let's go."

Magdi and Ashuwanda helped Natalie stand. She grit her teeth against the pain as we slowly walked to the car. They awkwardly maneuvered Natalie into the seat and joined her. I hesitated, my hand on the taxi's warm door handle. This was my last chance to turn back.

As I stood there, looking at the four Guildmembers, the metallic stink of blood filling my nostrils, I realized that I didn't want to leave. These people had tried to help me, and Natalie had nearly died because of it. How could I possibly abandon them now? My gaze fell to the expensive smartphone in my hand, and sudden shame knifed through me at my behavior. The Guild had shown me nothing but kindness, and I had repaid them with suspicion and fear.

The taxi beeped, its AI impatient to be off. I slipped the phone into my pocket and eased myself into the car. All my life, I had hoped that something would happen. That I would be the Chosen One, that someone would come to me and tell me that I was special, that a world of magic and adventure awaited, and all I had to do was take it. This... wasn't like I had imagined, if I was honest, but maybe it was the next best thing.

"So," I said, as the car's door slid shut and it accelerated. "Tell me about this chapter house..."

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