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Chapter 11
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"I have done as you asked, but know that by taking this approach, you have lost any measure of my mercy," Archer declared coldly.

I shivered. The air was chilled and heavy. Icy fingers crawled down my back, raising goosebumps along my arms and spine. I could sense the danger. The lingering threat clung to the atmosphere like the physical embodiment of Archer's resolve.

"That's nice, but I think I'll stick with the option that leaves me –"

Trainwreck's words choked off in mid-sentence. Crackling ice exploded from the Tinker's elbow. The limb shattered like glass. Grue hit the ground along side frozen chunks of flesh and armor. My eyes shot wide in confusion. Trainwreck, closer to the threat, turned to face it.

In the same moment, the Tinker depressed the trigger of his gun.

B-b-bang! A spray of bullets lashed past our position, flying wild with Trainwreck's pain and panic. Something heavy brushed my arm. Metal tinked, ricocheting off Saber's blade. I dove for the ground. Archer moved beside me, whether to defend or attack I did not know.

It didn't matter. Ten meters behind Trainwreck, the air warped and warbled. Caster burst from empty space, a red beam stretching from her hands to touch Trainwreck's heart.

"Gae Bolg."

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Crimson punched through Trainwreck's chest, lifting him high as though on a spit. The spear's tip splintered into a thousand rose red barbs. Blades sheered through the Tinker's steam punk suit, blossoming into a flower of blood and metal.

Petals of rust scattered in the wind, fluttering as they faded into evanescent motes.

Ra-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat!

Trainwreck's machingun continued its retort. Caster shifted her spear to one hand, then reached up with her now free right. With a wrenching motion, she tore munition box from gun. The last few bullets cycled through. The firearm went quiet, dropping the entire battlefield into eerie silence.

Trainwreck choked out a final gasp, then went still.

Clong. Caster dropped his cooling corpse onto the street like refuse. With a sick slurp, she tore her spear from Trainwreck's chest. She needn't have bothered. The weapon was a whirl of evaporating dust. Soon, nothing remained of the spear but dimming light.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Skidmark howled behind. "We surrender. We surrender!"

I looked around, still dazed by shock. In my moment of distraction Saber and Archer had reacted like a well oiled machine. The tiny blonde pressed Skidmark's face against the pavement with a steel boot. Squealer cowered behind a steering wheel. Mush had his hands up, held at arrow point by Archer. Any chance that the Merchants would escape had been squashed, thanks to the claymore thrust through the SUV's engine block.

"Everyone alright?" Archer asked gruffly, looking over his shoulder at the rest of us.

I blinked. My brain resumed its function.

This had been planned.

Well, not Trainwreck's final farewell, obviously. But the prisoner exchange. The negotiation. All of it had been part of a plot. A delaying tactic to give Caster time to get into position.

"I got hit," I said, standing. I glanced at my right arm. The spider silk was unbroken, but a few spots of blood oozed between the threads. I could hardly feel it, thanks to the adrenaline. "But I'm fine. Its just a scratch."

"I'm not," Regent grouched.

My gaze shot to the renaissance themed cape. Regent had thrown himself to the ground like the rest of us mortals. For a fearful second, I searched him for wounds. Crimson painted the bandage on his guts, but I couldn't see blood pouring out from anywhere else.

That was when the pretty boy's tone hit me. Regent was being his normal dickish self.

"Archer was asking if there was anything new," I said, feeling annoyed.

"Hey!" Regent retorted, rolling into a sitting position. "I got shot in the fucking gut."

"Well, I will need to take care of that then, won't I?" Caster said pleasantly.

The brunette strode into the midst of our group, nonchalant. I took in her image. The red, tattered cloth Caster wore as a shawl was undamaged, but everything else was covered in burns and scrapes. Chalky white lines were cut across Caster's breast plate. Shredded fibers rose from the slashes drawn along her limbs. Her arms were a perforated mess of torn cloth while her creamy left thigh showed behind the holes drilled through her armor.

Caster's gaze swept the group.

"Ah, before I start, is there anyone else I should be worried about?"

"Hellhound took a serious wound to her shoulder," Saber informed. With a jerk, the blonde hauled Skidmark to his feet. "No doubt there are additional casualties amongst the participants. Overmind?"

I jerked, mentally scrambled, then grasped what she was asking.

"Give me a second."

I spread my awareness amongst my swarm. The local insect population had been heavily depleted, leaving my cloud of minions thin. Still, the horde was more than enough to hunt down every humans within the scope of my power. Once found, I took the time to examine each, separating the seriously injured from the walking wounded.

I did my best to ignore the bodies that would never move again.

"Okay, I found at least twelve that could use treatment," I answered, forming halos of fliers over their heads.

Saber nodded. "Archer and I will provide transport where needed. Hellhound, Caster, I trust you to guard our prisoners."

"That's not my fucking name," Bitch growled.

Caster grabbed the butch girl's arm. Bitch jerked.

"Stand still," Caster ordered quietly, kneeling at the girl's side. The brunette pressed a glowing hand against Bitch's damaged collar. After a long moment, Caster pulled back. "That should be enough to stop the bleeding, but try to avoid using it heavily until I get a chance to deal with it more thoroughly."

Caster stood and moved over to Regent. She paused briefly to glance toward Saber.

"With all these distractions, I'm probably not the best person to assign to over watch," she said with a sigh.

"Understood," Saber said stiffly.

Saber turned to Lung. The ABB leader remained motionless, having moved not an inch from his seated position. He met Saber's gaze fearlessly, his face twisting with distaste.

"I'm not so pitiful as to flee like a rat."

Saber's sharp green eyes turned to Bitch. The stout girl glowered, baring her teeth in response. Saber did not react and, in the end, it was Bitch who quailed.

"My dogs will eat the face of anyone stupid enough to run," Bitch relented, grumpily.

She glared at Lung and the Merchants as though daring them to say otherwise. Skidmark's face twisted angrily in response.

"You think you can order us around? We're the fucking Merchants. We don't take shit from – "

"They have already received more than their share of mercy," Saber cut in coldly. "If they put up further resistance, kill them."

Skidmark's jaw snapped shut. Bitch wore a smile of hungry satisfaction. All our minds turned to Trainwreck, the dead Tinker executed minutes before. My gut curdled, but the feeling was brushed aside by a sudden spike of anger. Skidmark was garbage. That shit bag had been stomping all over the field and was personally responsible for more than a few of the corpses my bugs found. So why the fuck were we keeping him alive?

Nausea returned. Bakuda, blown to bits. Oni-Lee, cut in half. The ABB gangbangers crushed under Saber's crystal prison. I felt sick. There had been enough killing for the day.

Lung grunted in amusement. I glowered in his direction. The ABB leader met my eye unwavering, then promptly dismissed me as beneath his notice.

Saber walked away. Archer was already in the distance, cutting through a totaled car to free the person trapped inside. I was at loose ends. There was nothing for me to do here that I couldn't do just as well elsewhere. Saber and Archer were better suited for transporting the wounded anyway, and Caster was perfectly capable of moving to the injured if it came to that. Regent was in the middle of treatment. Bitch was grumpy but fine.

That left two people on my radar.

"Mind if I head out for a bit?"

"Hmm?" Caster noised, tilting her head. "That's fine, but stick close and be careful. If you get shot by a random thug at the end of the battle, Saber and Archer will never let me hear the end of it."

I nodded in thanks and put Taming Sari firmly in my grip. I wasn't picking up any gunmen hanging around the battlefield, but it was better safe than sorry.

There were two people I wanted to talk to. Grue, who had not moved since Trainwreck died, and Tattletale, who was slowly making her way through the streets. My first instinct was to hunt down the vulpine blonde and give her a piece of my mind, but Grue was closer and looked like he needed a shoulder to lean on.

Somehow, I doubted Tattletale was the right girl for the job.

Grue was still staring at Trainwreck when I approached. His motorcycle leathers were scuffed. A shallow cut ran along his back, slicing through the light armor to draw a line of blood across Grue's chocolate skin. His helmet was cracked, the skull visor that covered the front missing a full third of its form. Trainwreck's grip must have been tight.

Other than that, Grue was in good shape. Physically at least.

Mentally?

"Fuck."

Grue's muttered curse was the the only word he offered. His gaze remained riveted to the Tinker's corpse. It was a ghastly sight. Crimson poured from the shredded mush that had once been Trainwreck's chest. The blood pooled on the concrete, spreading out in a macabre scar.

My stomach turned.

"You alright?" I asked, taking a seat next to him.

"No. Yes. I don't know. It just...," Grue shook his head, eyes never wavering from their target. "Fuck, he's dead."

Yes. Yes he was. Trainwreck was dead. Very, very dead. In fact, the only way he could get any deader would be if he had, say, been blown up by half-a-dozen bombs then frozen in time for posterity. I held back my quip. That wasn't what Grue needed, and I didn't want to spend an afternoon picnicking in front of a corpse.

"You weren't the one that killed him," I said, internally grimacing because I couldn't say the same. "And there was no telling whether he'd leave you alive."

"I know... it's just..." Grue gestured violently toward the body. "He's fucking dead."

I twitched, my irritation slipped its leash.

"I killed Bakuda," I said. "I murdered her. Set off all her bombs right in her face."

Grue finally pulled his eyes away from Trainwreck, following my gaze to the bubble of frozen time. Bakuda's shoulders and head remained in place, raised above the clouds of destruction, impossibly pristine.

I waited in silence for his judgment.

Grue's response surprised me.

"Sorry," Grue said, shaking his head. "I didn't mean it like that. It's just..." He trailed off then gave heavy sigh. "Killing someone is a big deal for capes. The unwritten rules have clear lines. I've been trying to stay within them, to keep the Undersiders' hands clean. Now?"

He gazed at Trainwreck's corpse as though it explained everything.

Oh. That was what Grue was worried about. Cops and robbers. I remembered Tattletale's speech. I wasn't sure how I felt about Grue's reaction. It was nice that things weren't going to get weird because I killed Bakuda. On the other hand, him not giving a fuck that I had murdered someone was more than a little concerning.

"But you didn't kill him," I said, repeating my first point. "Trainwreck's death doesn't fall on the Undersiders' heads."

And Unit 09 was already a merry band of murderers. At least I'd fit in better.

"Doesn't matter. The Undersiders were working with Unit 09 when it happened. That's all anyone will care about," Grue said, shaking his head. "This is going to fuck up the Undersiders' rep. From now on, every fight we get into, the capes on the other side will be thinking about this. They'll be wondering if the Undersiders will cross the line again. Some might think that it'd be better if they crossed it first. The unwritten rules start getting fuzzy in cases like that."

Okay. I could see that. As a cape on the street, I would definitely treat Lung and Oni-Lee differently than I would Rune, Vista, or Clockblocker. The sense of risk was different, and that changed the dynamics of the fight. It made things harsher. More likely to end up with one or more parties dead.

For Unit 09, that wasn't a problem. Unit 09 had power in spades. Archer had shot Mecha-Chuu's legs off. Saber could give Alexandria lessons on how to be tough. My team was made of monsters, and I was getting the impression that Caster might actually be the weakest of the three.

And didn't that take the cake.

The Undersiders weren't half as strong. No, they weren't even a fourth as strong. Saber or Archer could take the whole group with one hand tied. I wouldn't bet on their chances against Caster either, especially if she was willing to murder the whole lot of them.

"You going to be able to handle that?" I asked.

"Probably not," Grue said bitterly. He picked himself up and brushed the dust off his pants. "But we don't have a choice. Gotta own the rep or the rep will own you. No backing out of this. Better to take full credit than to pretend I've got nothing to do with it."

I stood. "You good then?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I think I am," Grue breathed. "Thanks for that, Overmind. Want to head over and meet up with the rest? I think I'm done staring at a corpse."

I shook my head. My gaze drifted over to the freckled blonde waiting a dozen meters off. "No, I've got someone else I need to talk to."

While Grue waved his goodbye, I stalked toward Tattletale. The freckled blonde stepped out of the shadows as I approached, sporting her usual broad grin.

"You told me that Caster was dead," I said forcefully.

Tattletale offered a teasing shrug. "She got better."

My eyes narrowed. Though Tattletale couldn't see that because of my mask, she must have read my anger from my posture because her smile broke.

"No really," Tattletale said seriously. "Caster flat out died. Lung shredded her heart and everything. I was in a bit of a panic until Archer looked her over. He just walked up, stuck that spear of hers into the ground next to her, then told me to tell Caster when she woke up that he was going dragon hunting. Caster was back on her feet maybe three minutes after."

"Really," I said, dubiously.

Okay. Caster had a lot of powers, I knew that. But high grade regeneration? Isn't that bullshit? Seriously, there had to be a limit to how broken Unit 09 could be. What's next, my whole team can recover from having their heart ripped out? I mean, magi aren't capes right? So they shouldn't be able to do shit like that.

"Yeah, really," Tattletale said, enthusiastically. She threw an arm over my shoulder, tilting me toward Caster, who was now treating ABB thugs and civilians. "See that hole in her costume? That's where Lung got her."

My eyes fell on the flapping hole under Caster's right armpit. Archer motioned for her from ten meters away. The brunette hopped lightly amongst the debris, to land next to her redheaded companion. Archer pointed at an older man in a business suit – the same one who had turned a hunting rifle on the others during the thick of it. Caster set a hand on his head, then jerked it back.

A furious debate ensued.

"If Caster was a couple of minutes behind, then how did you get here so quick?" I asked, puzzling the story into place.

"Faultline gave us a lift. Said she owed us that much for helping Gregor the Snail. She's still pissed about us leading Lung to her club, though."

I nodded. That made sense. Despite that, I remained more than a little angry that Tattletale told me Caster was dead when she was very much alive. But I guess not even Tattletale was perfect.

The argument between Archer and Caster broke with Archer stomping off in pursuit of another injured civilian.

"What was that about," I said, letting the freckled blonde off the hook.

"That?"

Tattletale frowned. Her head jerked to Bakuda and the frozen bubble of time. Then it switched back again to the injured civilian.

"Well shit," she murmured. "You guys are really lucky that..."

I scowled.

"Lucky about what?" I growled angrily, catching what she was implying.

"Sorry, sorry, I didn't realize you...," Tattletale sighed, then broke off. "Those ABB gang members down there, they aren't ABB members at all. Bakuda recruited them at gun point, or bomb point more like. She stuck bombs in their heads. Archer noticed and brought it up with Caster."

"Wait, back up there for a sec, those were civilians?"

My gut twisted. I had set my insects on that mob without a second thought. How many innocents had I hurt today?

"Don't beat yourself up over it," Tattletale said. "No way you could have known. Besides, all of them owe you their life. Bakuda had a deadman's switch, but because you caught her in the middle of a time lock zone, it never had a chance to activate."

And that was supposed to make me feel better? I had killed her. And not just her. Her driver was just as dead, as was anyone else caught up in the middle of that mess.

I shook my head. No. Tattletale was right. Even if they were civilians, they had been carrying guns and shooting them. And, if what she said was right, killing Bakuda like I did probably was the best possible result.

Mind focused on the right place, I pressed forward, leading Tattletale back toward Grue and the others.

"What we going to do about it then?"

"The bombs?" Tattletale said, following by virtue of her arm still thrown over my shoulder. "Nothing. Archer wanted to pull them out, but Caster told him that was the Protectorate's problem. Speaking of the Protectorate, wave at Miss Militia."

Huh? I jerked as Tattletale turned forty degrees to our right. The freckled blonde gave a broad vulpine smile and waved like a maniac toward an empty building half-a-kilometer away. For a second I thought she had gone insane. Then I saw a brief glint and movement in the far shadows.

"Capes inbound!" Tattletale shouted as we joined the others.

Grue and the Undersiders jerked. Unit 09, however, didn't budge an inch. Caster looked up from her work, sealing a bullet hole in one of the ABB's recruited civilians.

"Oh, good," Caster said blithely. "Hopefully they will hurry it up. I would hate to do all their work for them."

"We going to move?" Grue asked.

"I don't see the point. Unless you think they're strong enough to make us move," Caster scoffed. Then she sighed and stood. "But I suppose we better clean up. If we stick around too long, they might feel obligated."

Caster made it sound as though that would be the most tedious thing in the world. Regent snickered.

"That's it, huh? You capture the Merchants and let the PRT goons do all the dirty work," Skidmark interrupted. "Don't you have any pride? You're never going to get any respect if you can't handle things in house."

"Shut up," Bitch growled. "I didn't give you shits permission to speak."

Her van sized monsters rumbled with her. Brutus stepped forward, his slavering jaws looming over Skidmark. The Merchants quailed, Mush squeezing back in an attempt to become one with the dirt. Skidmark tried to stand tall, but even he flinched when Angelica's jaws snapped shut near his ear.

"Going to use your magic eyes then?" Tattletale said, waggling her fingers as though casting a mysterious spell.

"Not yet. I want to see how our guests are planning to take care of things first," Caster said, looking out on the Protectorate's approach.

Miss Militia walked down the street, flanked by Assault and Battery. Her companions split off, stopping a full hundred meters from our spot while Miss Militia continued forward. The orchestrated motion reminded me of those ancient parlays in old films. The rest of Unit 09 gathered to meet her, Saber and Archer standing at Caster's right and left respectively.

While not quite as famous as Armsmaster, Miss Militia was amongst the best known capes in America. One of the original Wards, Miss Militia wore a costume consisting of stylized military fatigues. Her mask was an American-flag emblazoned scarf wrapped around the bottom half of her face, leaving eyes and olive skin exposed.

According to rumor, Miss Militia was supposed to be really nice. But, after all the wonderful run-ins with authority I had, I wasn't going to believe it until I saw it.

And maybe not even then.

Miss Militia's eyes flicked across the group, taking in the wounded and examining the gathered capes. I scowled when she paused extra long on Archer, Saber, and Caster to study their faces.

"Undersiders, Unit 09," she said nodding to our two groups. "And I see the Merchants and ABB are here as well."

Miss Militia's gaze lingered for a long while on the stub that was Lung's left arm.

"What's it to ya, patri-bitch?" Skidmark mouthed back. "The Merchants might be on the lowdown right now, but don't think we're out of the count. Soon as we pop bail, we'll be – Fuck!"

Brutus ended ended Skidmark's tirade though the efficient mechanism of clamping onto the cape's arm with his teeth. The Merchant leader let out a shrill cry and tried to beat the beast off with his fist. Given the thickness of the bone armor on Brutus's skull, Skidmark probably would have hurt his hand less punching steel.

"I told you to shut the fuck up," Bitch growled.

"Don't kill him," Grue warned.

"My dogs don't kill unless I tell them too," Bitch retorted. "Which, if he keeps mouthing off, I just might."

"Caster," Caster greeted, offering a hand and a polite smile. "Given the current attendance, Armsmaster's presence would be more appropriate. However, I suppose the Protectorate's second in command will have to do."

Miss Militia studied Caster's hand for a quiet moment. "I apologize, but Protectorate policy forbids me from shaking hands with unaffiliated capes," she said politely.

Caster smirked, lowering her arm. "I understand. Politics, right?"

Miss Militia's eyes crinkled. "I don't think this is quite what either of us expected," Miss Militia conceded. "I regret that Armsmaster couldn't make it. Pressing business, you see."

Yeah, like the city getting blown up. I was surprised they managed to get any capes here at all. Tattletale, though, didn't agree.

"'Pressing business'" she said, finger quoting the words. Tattletale's vulpine smile grew until it resembled a shark's. "Come on, do you really think we were going to swallow that? Why don't you tell them the real reason they sent you instead of Armsmaster."

Miss Militia frowned, her expression visible by the way the lines around her eyes shifted. "I'm not sure I understand what you are implying."

"Oh, I think you do," Tattletale said viciously. She turned to our group. "What Miss Militia failed to mention is that she has an eidetic memory. And hers is extra special. It resists powers. So while she's over here, pretending to meet with us all nice and friendly, she's actually memorizing your faces so the PRT can draw them up later."

Grue and the other capes shifted. That information hit a nerve. Even as a younger cape who had never really internalized the unwritten rules, Tattletale's words brought a stab of fury. I couldn't say I didn't expect shit like that from the Protectorate, but to see them play fast and loose with what amounted to a truce chipped away at my concept of a hero.

Mostly, I scowled. I always knew Unit 09's refusal to wear masks would get them into trouble.

Unit 09 barely reacted at all. Tattletale's claim only summoned from Saber a grim frown. Caster's lips twisted into an evil smile. Archer hardly appeared to pay any attention at all. Instead, the redhead glared at Miss Militia's bowie knife as though trying to murder it with his eyes.

"Wow, pissing all over the unwritten rules? That's cold," Regent said, nonchalantly giving word to everyone's thoughts.

Miss Militia's hand twitched. I could tell she wanted to reach for her weapon. Her shoulders were scrunched, tense, ready for a quick withdrawal. That shift lasted a bare instant before she smoothed her poise into mere tension.

"While it is true that I have an eidetic memory and it is likewise correct that I volunteered to serve as a contact because I am the one most likely to be immune to Unit 09's Master power, the remainder of that statement is false," Miss Militia answered evenly. "I promise that I have no intention of sharing details concerning your features with either the PRT or Protectorate, though obviously I have nothing to back that statement other than my word."

"And your word will be accepted forthwith," Saber declared firmly. "I sense no deceit and find no reason to question your honor. Unless others speak who can call out lies more plainly."

The blonde haired knight tilted her head toward Tattletale, questioning.

Tattletale studied Miss Militia for a moment then pinched the bridge her nose through her mask.

"You've got to be kidding me," Tattletale murmured. "She's legit. Seriously legit. I honestly didn't think people like her existed in this world," Tattletale breathed out, disbelieving. "Though, she will still sell you out if Unit 09 goes too far over the line."

"I wouldn't expect any different," Caster interjected, with a cool flip of her hair. "This is a meeting between factions. A certain degree of friendly backstabbing is part of the game."

"That is an interesting view to take," Miss Militia commented, her posture once more relaxed.

"It's the only rational view to take," Caster retorted. "The Protectorate has its interests and we have our own. To expect either of us to not pursue our goals is the height of foolishness."

"Then would you say I am a fool for withholding your faces?" Miss Militia questioned.

"Nay, for while you are part of the Protectorate, you are not the Protectorate," Saber inserted. "To lose sight of such is the greatest foolishness of all."

Miss Militia's eyes crinkled. "Maybe so, though I think you'll find that the Protectorate shares more of my feelings than you suspect. But since we are on the subject of interests, perhaps you might clarify your own?"

"My interests?" Caster's lips quirked with amusement. "Do you mean my intentions as of right now? My intentions for Brockton Bay? Or my intentions in general?"

"All of the above would do nicely," Miss Militia said lightly.

"Well, my immediate goal is to dump this mess into your hands," Caster said, with a cruel smile. "As for Brockton Bay? I suppose you could say that I'm not fond of trash in my backyard, so I'm cleaning it up."

Miss Militia looked thoughtfully at the captured capes. "I see nothing there to disagree with. Though I might question your methods. What about your long term ambitions?"

"Confidential," Caster said immediately. She set a hand on her hips. "Professional ethics. I'm sure you understand. But since we are on the subject of ambitions, I suppose I can share one with you. Though it might sound a bit silly. You see, I want to establish a reputation for my team..." The brunette's lips quirked. "Though in this case the word legend may be more appropriate. A personal epic, like the tales told about the heroes of yore. Preferably the kind that lasts for millennia."

My brow rose. This was the first I heard of that.

"Caster, we should hurry up," Archer interrupted. "The sooner we can get the casualties to a hospital, the better. And we also need to hit the remaining Merchant strongholds before they have a chance to fort up or move the goods."

"Fucking us over when we're down. Don't-cha think you've done enou – gahh!"

Brutus drove his teeth into Skidmark's arm again. Caster raised a forestalling hand. Bitch whistled. Brutus relented.

"Yes, you're right. We should hurry," Caster said with a sigh. "I'm sorry to cut our meeting short, but I need to know what you plan to do with my prisoners."

Miss Militia frowned. "After what happened today, Lung will go straight to the Birdcage. He will get a remote trial, of course, but his crimes are unquestionable.

"As for the Merchants, they will see the inside of a courtroom. Mush and Squealer will likely get five to life. Skidmark will be sent to the Birdcage at worst, but only if the prosecution does a good job building their case. Unfortunately, your interaction with the crime scene will not help matters there."

"Hear that, bitch? They're going to put us in the slammer. Three strikes is the rule, and I've only got one," Skidmark said gleefully. "That means I'll be out and on the street before the end of the fucking month."

"Really?" Caster noised, playing naive.

Tattletale picked up the thread gleefully. "Yeah, really. The going rate for parahuman escapes was running at sixty-to-eighty percent last time I checked. Half of them are in and out in the first three months. Most of the rest are gone before the end of the year."

"Hmm, that does sound troublesome," Caster noised, tapping a finger to her chin.

She held out a hand. With a grunt, Archer placed a crooked dagger in her palm. Caster crouched down next to Skidmark, the blade of her weapon dangerously close to the Merchant leader's head. She smiled with a terrifying brightness.

"I see two ways to resolve this problem. First, I can amputate your power. Now, I'm not a hundred percent certain this will work, and I'm afraid to say that surgery is outside my area of expertise. However, I do love learning opportunities and promise that you won't lose more than a large fraction of your brain," Caster explained cheerfully. "The region around the Corona Pollentia to be specific. I wouldn't worry too much about it. In your case, you probably won't notice the difference."

"The other option?" Mush squeaked.

Caster smiled like an angel. "Oh. That? You promise me you will be good boys and girls and do your very best to serve your sentence in accordance to the full dictates of the law." Her bright smile fell away and her eyes turned dark. "Of course, if you break that promise there would be terrible consequences. So which of the two will it be? Hmm?"

"The second one! Definitely the second one," Mush said quickly.

"Really? How disappointing," Caster said with a heavy sigh. She stood looking down upon the other Merchants. "What about the rest of you?"

"Oh, we promise to be good," Skidmark said, cratered teeth spread in a shit eating grin. "Isn't that right, Squealer babe?"

"Yeah, we'll be good boys and girls. Boys and girls. He he he," Squealer giggled, swaying with mad distraction. She must not have come down from whatever she had been injected with.

Caster's smile turned vicious. The atmosphere pulsed. Something heavy and intangible flowed. I shivered. Skidmark's eyes bulged. He and the rest of the Merchants suddenly gripped their chests as though their hearts were about to burst.

"What the fuck?" Skidmark gasped. "You bitch, what the fuck did you do to me?"

Caster huffed in amusement.

"That?" she said, cruelly. "It's called a Geis. Think of it like a lingering curse. A leash around your neck to ensure you behave. If you break your word the Geis will activate, freezing your heart and soul. Nothing deadly, I assure you. Though, you might well wish for death after the first time you try to escape."

Silence. The air was still. Miss Militia. Grue. The Undersiders. All of us stared at Caster in horror.

I knew about Hypnosis, but this? This was terrifying. The ability to force promises, to permanently bind others to a contract. The potential for abuse was staggering. Alone, Geis would be enough to provoke careful words and unspoken fears. In combination the powers evoked visceral horror.

Had Caster placed a Geis upon me? On Grue? On the Protectorate? Were we all trapped by Caster's spell?

No. Impossible. Skidmark had noticed the effect in an instant. If he could detect it, there was no chance in hell I would miss such a thing.

Unless, of course, she had erased my memory right after.

While all of us stood frozen, Lung let out a guttural laugh.

"Fool. Didn't you ever read the old stories?" Lung rumbled, drawing pleasure from the Merchant's plight. "Never make a promise to a witch."

Skidmark's expression twisted. He jolted to his feet. "You bi – "

His voice cut off in mid-sentence. Skidmark crumbled to the ground as though struck. The rest of the Merchants followed just after. Flipping her hair disdainfully, Caster turned to her final prisoner.

"Now, what am I going to do with you?"

Lung glared up at her without fear.

"You have taken my arm. You have taken my kingdom. On your first night, you stole from me my memories. You will take no more!"

Lung's operational hand rose violently to his face. Fingers and thumb pinched and, with a grotesque splurch, he popped out his left eye then his right. The ABB leader slammed the torn organs into the earth where he sat, grinding them into the dirt until they were matted cakes. His empty sockets continued to glare at Caster the whole time.

"Do what you will, witch. I will not raise a finger against inevitability," Lung challenged. "But I will die before I bow to you."

Caster's nose scrunched with disgust, blue eyes focused on Lung's pulverized orbs.

"Poignant," she said with a huff, leaning in close. "But pointless. Do you really think I need your eyes to take your memory? Hmm?"

Lung remained stalwart, a low rumble rising from his throat.

"Caster," Saber rebuked. "Respect his sacrifice."

Caster huffed, then stood back up.

"Very well," Caster relented, flipping her hair. She turned toward the olive skinned woman. "Miss Militia, I trust you can handle the prisoners on your own."

Miss Militia jerked, gaze rising from Lung's crushed eyes. Her expression was incredibly disturbed. Lung folded his left arm over the stub of his right in the background, content with his petty victory.

"Yes. Yes, we can. Though, I request that you allow my allies time to secure the scene," Miss Militia said firmly. No eye crinkles this time. Her voice sounded heavy. Wary. "But Caster, before we do, I think a few things need to be said. Both to you and to the rest of Unit 09."

Miss Militia nodded toward Caster then the remainder of our group. Caster raised a brow and waited, granting Miss Militia a moment to continue.

"The PRT categorizes your group as a criminal organization. Repairing the bank and returning the money earned you some credit. Turning over these prisoners will earn you more. Normally those two deeds would be enough for the PRT to overlook your prior actions and formally redesignate Unit 09 as rogue mercenaries."

Her gaze rolled over the Merchants and Lung.

"More than enough," she amended. Then she took a deep breath. "But the memory manipulation and this Geis taints things. Not so much that the PRT and Protectorate wouldn't work with you. You are not the first parahumans with disconcerting abilities, and you won't be the last. But I won't lie. Mind controlling Masters face an unfortunate bias.

"The killings, however, are another matter entirely."

The olive skinned woman's gaze shifted to Trainwreck then swept over his perforated armor and gouged out heart. From there her eyes rolled across Oni-Lee, sliced in half by Saber's sword, before halting on Bakuda and the bubble of stilled time.

"Bakuda and Oni-Lee can be forgiven," she said grimly. "After what the ABB did today, no one will question your choice in that matter. Trainwreck, however, has never been cited for a serious crime. Killing him was a step too far."

Miss Militia waited in silence, letting her words sink in.

My hands tightened into fists.

I knew the Protectorate would regard us as villains. I had prepared for it. After the battle at Brockton Bay's Central bank, I could expect no less. But to criticize us for murdering those shit bags? Did she even fucking look? There were a dozen dead civilians scattered across the battlefield and countless more were severely injured.

The Merchants were killers. Squealer and Skidmark hadn't crossed the line, they had injected nitro into Mecha-Chuu's fuel stream then shot a hundred feet over it. Trainwreck had been part of that. Hell, he had been spraying bullets through walls willy-nilly without one scrap of concern for anyone that might be living in any of the surrounding houses.

This was far beyond cops and robbers.

"Last I checked," Archer began in gruff tones, finally tearing his eyes from Miss Militia's knife. "Killing a man firing a deadly weapon qualifies as defense of self and others."

"Legally, you are correct," Miss Militia said softly. "And I won't say that you were wrong, either, so please take what follows as a warning instead of a threat."

She paused then spoke her next words carefully.

"There are norms and standards governing how parahumans behave. Escalating to fatal conflict is almost always considered unacceptable in our world, and those rules apply more stringently to a powerful team such as yours. The level of imbalance Unit 09 introduces makes people nervous. If you continue to do things like this, it won't be just the local Protectorate that responds in force."

Miss Militia's grim expression told me that she was about as happy with that prospect as I was. It was that hint of regret that took the edge from my anger.

"Then do as you like," Caster retorted.

"Excuse me?" Miss Militia said in shock.

Lung laughed, a deep chuckle rising from his chest. Miss Militia's eyes flicked toward him, her expression startled.

"You heard me," Caster replied. "Unit 09 has no intention of backing down. And I'm certainly not going to risk the lives of civilians, much less those of my allies, to fit your rules of engagement."

"Those who live by the sword, die by the sword," Saber agreed, solemnly. "When Trainwreck entered the field of war, he accepted the possibility of his death. Just as we accepted the possibility of our deaths the moment we raised our blade against him."

"You do understand that we will try to arrest you?" Miss Militia asked carefully.

"'Try' being the operative word," Caster scoffed. "And so long as you are polite about it, we will continue to treat you with kid gloves. Of course, I would prefer if you stayed out of my way, but I can hardly expect you to do so while I am in the process of committing a crime. Though please do attempt to scrounge up the discretion to not waste my time when I'm doing your job for you."

Miss Militia frowned. Her eyes turned to Grue.

"And the Undersiders feel the same?"

Grue glanced toward the brunette. Caster nodded, giving him the floor.

"The Undersiders are working with Unit 09 to pay off a debt."

"It's kind of like being on parole, except less boring and more money," Regent chipped in.

"And a lot more dangerous," Grue continued. "I can't say I'm fine with everything Unit 09 does, but we aren't the type to cut and run. Come May 15th we go our separate ways. Until then, whatever they say applies to us."

Sirens sounded in the distance, their shrill cry drawing close. Flashing lights flickered at the far edge of my swarm. My horde shifted, giving me a glimpse of a PRT armored personnel carrier set in sharp contrast of black and white. An ambulance followed close behind, led by Armsmaster roaring through the side streets on his motorcycle.

"Two vehicles and Armsmaster inbound," I commented.

Miss Militia frowned. "He's not supposed to be here."

I shot a look at the olive skinned woman. An internal dispute? Did Miss Militia meet with us without permission, or was it the other way around?

Grue threw up a curtain of darkness, cutting off all sight of the nearest road. He gestured toward Bitch's dogs.

"We should go."

I pulled myself onto Angelica's back. This time I was joined by Tattletale, saving me the unpleasantries of putting up with Regent's crap. Caster remained on the ground, whistling low in Lung's direction until the Asian cape dropped to the earth in a dead sleep. No one else from Unit 09 climbed onto a dog's back. Then again, the rest of my team could run down a car on foot.

"One last thing," Miss Militia interrupted. Her eyes passed over me before stopping on Grue. "He lived. I thought you ought to know that."

As one we took off, leaving behind a broken battlefield and a shroud of darkness.

-oOo-

I groaned. Heavy eyelids opened. An unfamiliar ceiling.

I blinked in confusion. Rivers of light poured in through an open window, reflecting off white walls to fill the room with harsh illumination. Bleary eyes drifted across the interior, already half adjusted. A gorgeous dresser occupied one end of the room, while a nightstand sat beside my too large bed. Other than that, the space was desolate.

Where the hell was I?

My brain kicked in. Yeah. That's right.

The functional portions of Unit 09 and the Undersiders had spent the majority of last night hitting the Merchants. Due to their injuries, Rachel and Alec had retired early, followed by Rin and Lisa a couple of hours later. The rest of us had stuck it out, smashing drug houses until well past midnight. I had finally crashed at the manor around four in the morning, too tired to think.

Well. I was thinking now.

Pushing my pillow aside, I sat up. No clock, but the sheer brightness flowing into the room told me it was nine at the earliest. Never one to sleep in, I pulled myself out of the covers and searched in vain for my missing costume.

Great. Rin or one of the others must of taken it. Worse, my bag was still in Saber's car.

Which left me in my underclothes.

Ugh.

I contemplated the door. Like hell. I would sooner die than sneak downstairs and into the garage wearing nothing but a bra and panties. I turned toward the closet, hoping that Rin had set something aside for me. Turned out I was right. Unfortunately, it was Rin who had set something aside for me.

Three dresses, five skirts, and enough ruffled blouses to fill out a dozen outfits. All of it was brand new. Deep in my foggy memory I recalled Saber saying this room was mine. Which meant Rin had bought all of this for me. Flattering, but I really wished she had bothered to consult with me first. Because there was no way in hell I was wearing half the stuff she had shoved into my closet.

Grumbling to myself, I shifted through the selection until I found a reasonably plain blouse. The skirts I put aside for now, opting instead to investigate the dresser. Score. Underclothes in the top drawer. Three pairs of jeans in the second. I wasted no time pulling on the denim pants.

Then had to stop when they were halfway up my hips.

I checked the tag. Fuck. One size too small, and they were the skinny type in the first place.

With a scowl, I looked at the closet. Then I looked at the jeans. Then I looked at the closet again.

Swallowing my pride, I dressed then headed down the stairs.

A sharp, oriental tang drew me into the dining room. Leaning around the corner, I peered into the kitchen expecting to find Shirou hard at work in his chef's hat and apron. Instead I spotted a rarer specimen, a fully awake Rin flipping seared pork in a pan. The brunette danced about the kitchen, handling four dishes while cradling a wired phone against her left ear.

"Umm hmm," she noised, adding minced chili pepper to the frying meat. "I was thinking the same myself. No. No problem at all. I have a few things that – Ah!"

Rin's eyes widened as she caught sight of me. Her smile turned smug when she took in my colorful blouse and ruffled skirt. I shied from her gaze, shoulders scrunching and cheeks heating with embarrassment.

"The jeans didn't fit," I explained. My excuse sounded pathetic even to my ears.

Rin blinked. "Really? Lisa picked them out for you."

Oh. I saw how it was. They were supposed to be tight. I glowered, trying to decide which of the two girls I was more annoyed at. Before I could say anything more, Rin raised a forestalling hand and adjusted the receiver to better meet her ear.

"Yes. She's here. Just a second," Rin replied into the phone. Then she promptly held the device out to me. "For you."

Me? I looked at Rin questioningly before taking the phone. It was one of the old kinds, the type with a long curly cord that attached to the wall. Fortunately, the cord was long enough for me to step around the corner and into the dining room before talking.

"Hello?" I asked, nervously.

"Hello to you too, kiddo."

Oh shit. It was my Dad. My Dad, who was probably wondering where the hell I was and why I didn't come home last night.

"Sorry, I meant to call but – "

"Rin let me know that you would be staying over at her place around nine o'clock," my Dad interrupted. "Though, in the future, I would appreciate it if you gave me the heads up yourself."

I peered around the corner to glance at Rin, who beamed brightly. I gave her a smile of thanks. Rin's lips curled in delight. The brunette returned to the pots and pans, humming happily. Wait. No. I'm not thanking you for the clothes, Rin. I'm an all American girl. I don't know how things worked in Japan before Leviathan flattened it, but here in the States being female doesn't equate wearing dresses and skirts.

Arg!

Stifling my frustration, I focused on my Dad. I would deal with Rin and Lisa's fashion based plot at a later date.

"I'll do that," I said firmly. "Speaking of which, I might be staying with Rin for the next few days as well," I answered, glancing toward the brunette to see if she disagreed.

Rin made no noises in contradiction.

"Normally I would be unhappy to hear that, but with things the way they are right now, I would prefer you stay put where it's safe."

I winced. Yeah. Safe. That wasn't going to happen any time soon. But at least I wasn't going to be running into any capes over the next few days, assuming the E88 and the Protectorate didn't try and top yesterday's clusterfuck. So there was that, right?

"I'll try to keep my head down and avoid any more of Bakuda's – "

"Any more!" My Dad's voice was tense with worry. "Taylor, you aren't hurt are you?"

Shit. I didn't mean to say that. "I'm fine. Just close enough to get rattled, that's all."

Technically true, which made me feel a little less bad about my blatant dishonesty.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I'm fine, Dad," I insisted. "Rin's place is far from the action. Besides, Oni-Lee and Bakuda are gone, and Lung is in custody."

There was silence on the other end, which left me plenty of time to stew over the fact that Bakuda was gone because I finished her. I remembered the Tinker's head, suspended in the air, gas mask glinting. My stomach roiled.

"I suppose," my Dad said cautiously. "But be careful. The heroes are still pulling unexploded ordinance from buildings and infrastructure. People are scared. There are rumors that the Empire or Coil will make a move to fill the vacuum."

Okay, it was official, my Dad was freaking out. I knew because he was paying attention to cape news. Normally he didn't have the time for that crap.

"You better be careful too," I replied. "The Docks are right next to ABB territory, and I wouldn't put it past Bakuda to have stuck a bomb around there."

"I'm the parent, worrying is my job, kiddo," he dismissed.

"No, Dad, be careful," I said forcefully. I was more worried about him than myself. He wasn't the one with a trio of triumvirate class capes guarding his back.

"I will," my Dad promised. "I hope to see you soon, kiddo. It has only been one day and I miss you already."

"Yeah, I miss you too."

The line clicked. I ducked into the kitchen and set the receiver onto its wall mount. Slipping back into the dining room, I settled at the low table Indian style – brushing my skirt so that it properly covered my unmentionables. I spent a few minutes sipping tea before Rin came in bearing a piping hot plate. The brunette set a collection of Chinese dishes in front of me.

The smell was equal parts eye and mouth watering.

I glanced around, surprised to find no one else had gathered.

"Shirou and Saber left early to debrief the Undersiders," Rin explained as she set the table. "I expected them back ten minutes ago, but it looks like they're running a bit late."

I looked at the brunette questioningly.

"We waiting for them?"

The brunette paused, halfway into the hall instead of the kitchen.

"There's no telling when they'll show up, so there's no sense holding back," Rin answered, vanishing from sight.

Huh.

While the brunette bustled about the manor, I peered at my plate, poking at a bit of pork with my chopsticks. The meat glistened with red sauce. I had nothing but praise for Shirou's cooking and, from the way Rin handled herself in the kitchen, she was definitely an experienced chef. Summoning up my courage, I gave it a try.

I choked on the first bite.

Fire rolled over my tongue and poured down my throat in a mix of exotic flavors and tender meat. Tears flowed from my eyes. My tongue went numb. I seized my cup of tea and drained a giant gulp. My eyes returned to the meal, chopsticks trembling. This... this... what the hell was this?

Despite myself, I couldn't stop from taking another bite.

Pain and flavor consumed me. This meal was evil. Insidious. The tortures only grew greater as I ate. Yet, it remained utterly impossible to stop.

I was on my third cup of tea when Rin walked back into the dining room totting a golden sheath decorated with blue enamel. The brunette's lips quirked when she caught sight of my tear laden eyes.

"I didn't make it too spicy for you did I?" she asked, clearly amused by my plight.

I cough, my breath strangled by the heat.

"A little," I wheezed, holding my finger and thumb slightly apart. "But it's really good."

"Oh? Better than Shirou's?" Rin asked, eyes narrowed dangerously.

I froze.

I was a rabbit stilled by the cry of a hawk. My eyes shot around the room looking for an avenue of escape. There was no salvation. I did not dare speak. All my instincts were screaming in my head, telling me that, no matter what I said, answering her question was a sure route to a bad end.

Rin sighed. The sense of danger passed.

"If it's too much, I guess there's no helping it. In the future, I'll try to put in fewer peppers."

I shook my head, my mouth currently occupied by some comparatively mild green beans.

"No. It's good the way it is," I countered after swallowing. I didn't want her to ruin the dish just to make it tolerable to me. "I'll build up resistance."

Because hell if I wasn't going to find an excuse to eat Rin's cooking in the future. Maybe I should skip the run about and start living at the manor? Though, I would miss my Dad if I did.

Hmm. Food or Dad. Food or Dad. Shit. Why did being a hero come with all the hard choices?

"That's the spirit," Rin said brightly, settling down next to me. The brunette set a hand on my back. "Now hold still for a minute, I need to switch things out."

Lines flowed over the brunette's hand. Rin's prana pressed against my circuits. I stiffened, but made no move to resist. Instead, I gulped down another hunk of pork.

"Switch things out?" I asked, glancing over my shoulder.

"It'll be easier to show than to tell," Rin answered mysteriously. "Getrennte."

An electric jolt shot through my back. Spindles of prana spread through my veins like spidery limbs. Rin's thaumaturgy gripped at my soul, peeling away infinitesimal motes. Something solidified along my spine. Rin drew her hand back, wrenching ghostly substance from my flesh.

I gasped.

Rin patted me on the shoulder twice. "And there we are."

The brunette gestured to show what she pulled out. A sheath of gold and blue, humming with evanescent light. Incidentally, it looked exactly like the one resting at Rin's side.

No. Not exactly. The second sheath was worn. There was nothing precise I could name. The colors were vivid. The enamel untouched. Yet, when placed side-by-side I could sense something lacking. A weight. An essence. An aspect of the sheath drawn from inside me had been washed away leaving it in some way less.

I blinked. I felt light. Dizzy. Not weaker, but somehow smaller than I had been a moment before.

"What the hell?" I murmured in a daze. "What is that? And where the hell did it come from?"

"Avalon," Rin answered brusquely, while picking up the newer sheath. "The scabbard of King Arthur. He who holds it shall know neither age nor illness, and eld of war. I put a copy inside you after our first fight with Lung."

I frowned. Rin read my expression and continued.

"You don't remember because I erased your memories shortly after. Now, don't move, I need to put in the replacement."

In other words, she hypnotized me. But I knew that already. Funny how the thought was less terrible with every passing day. Instead, I felt more frustrated that I had been dragging around a second noble phantasm and Rin had never thought to mention it.

Except, I understood why she did that as well. Shirou's power was a secret. The kind that was not to be told to anyone. I squared my shoulders. Rather than be angry at Rin for keeping this information from me, I should be proud that she regarded me highly enough to share it at all.

I was a genuine member of Unit 09.

Rin pressed the newest sheath against my spine. The scabbard dissolved into light, sinking into my flesh and spreading through my bones. It felt warm, kind, like a mother's embrace.

"And there we go," Rin said patting me on the back. The brunette moved around the table to take her plate and place. Rin helped herself to several servings. "I'll check on Avalon's condition in a week. But, assuming nothing terrible happens, you should be good for two."

"Now I have to maintain two noble phantasms," I groused. More if copies of Nanatsu-Yoru became part of my ordinary load out. "I didn't see my costume when I woke up. Did you take it?"

"Yes, it stunk," Rin answered with brutal honesty, nose wrinkled. She popped a chunk of pork into her mouth as though it weren't spicy at all. "Since it needed a cleaning, I decided to make a few upgrades while I was at it. I'll get it back to you before tonight."

"Do you have the time for that?" I asked. "Not that I'm complaining. Yesterday had a few too many close calls, and I'm not confident that my costume is bullet proof."

Rin grimaced.

"Not really, but after my encounter with Lung I felt that we might have been a bit too arrogant. Better another layer of safety," she sighed. Rin waved her chopstick at me in warning. "Mind you, there is a limit to how much I can improve your suit without creating a new one from scratch. So don't expect it to block rifle rounds. However, it should shed nine-millimeter parabellums after I'm done with my improvements."

I perked up. Rin could spiff up my costume so it could handle assault weapon's fire? I was definitely game for that.

"I can make a new one," I offered, eagerly. "I used spider silk from black widows to create the original."

"Really?" Rin asked, bright blue eyes shining with avarice. "Biological materials are an excellent substrate for enchantment, as their thaumaturgic properties can be augmented by feeding the source prana during its lifecycle. Better than the ballistic fiber I used for the soft portion of my own armor, certainly. Though, I would need to test the silk's physical characteristics and see how it handles knives and impacts to be sure."

Rin leaned forward, expression hungry.

"How much silk can you produce?"

I leaned a bit back despite myself. That was not the reaction I had been expecting.

"That depends entirely on the number of spiders," I explained slowly, framing the facts in my mind. "Black widows are pretty small. About one gram each. Obviously, they can only produce a fraction of that mass in silk per a day. So, if we say about ten-percent and I had a thousand widows, I'd get a kilogram of silk every other week."

"And if you have ten-thousand, you would produce the same daily," Rin finished. The brunette settled back into her seat, nodding in understanding. "We'll need a place to put them."

Wow. Until just now, I hadn't realized how creepy the thought of storing ten-thousand black widows sounded. Huh. Guess sometimes you needed to be on the other side to hear things clearly.

"Yeah," I said after a slight pause. "But the bigger problem is that spiders are cannibalistic. If I stick a thousand black widows in a small room, they'll eat each other. That's not an issue if I'm there to watch, since my power will keep them under control. However, the moment I turn my back the population will quickly head toward zero."

"Yes. That would complicate things... Perhaps we could use some sort of bounded field to retain the orders?" Rin mused, mostly to herself. "If not that, maybe a surrogate familiar could control the herd?"

"Taylor," Rin suddenly added at full tone. "How do you feel about a little experimentation?"

I gave a wry smile.

"I'm fine, but Saber has lessons planned for later in the day," I said, shooting a hole in her plot. It was Monday, and the blonde knight had finally put together a syllabus. "And we'll need somewhere to safely stick the spiders first. Storing ten-thousand plus deadly arachnids in your basement strikes me as... unwise."

"Oh, that? We'll put them in the tool shed," Rin waved away dismissively. "That's where the dangerous experiments go. Since Saber will get snippy if I steal you, we'll save the experimenting for tomorrow. I have enough to do this afternoon as is. Oh, and before I forget."

Rin pulled a necklace from her pocket. A jeweled beetle pendant that hung from a long, silver chain. The stylized carapace glistened like gold in the sunlight.

"Are you okay with the design?" she asked. "If you would like something else, changing things won't be too much trouble."

I blinked. "Is that for me?"

"Of course," Rin scoffed. "There would hardly be a point in asking you if it weren't."

I stared. Was that topaz? No. It couldn't be. Surely it wasn't... Yeah. Who was I kidding? It was definitely topaz. I didn't know what to say. I was flattered, but Rin really shouldn't be offering me a necklace worth several thousand dollars.

Chances were I would never wear it.

"Uh, it's very nice. But, you know me, I'm not one for girly things," I said, trying to let her down gently.

"Don't misunderstand, Taylor. I'm giving you this for your own protection," Rin interrupted, sternly. "Avalon only functions when exposed to Saber's prana. Obviously waiting for her to arrive isn't the best game plan. So I'm building this mystic code to serve as a stop gap, a repository capable of dispensing a limited supply of her energy on an as needed basis."

Oh... That made more sense. Finding myself once again standing on firm ground, I gave a sharp nod to indicate I understood.

"The shape doesn't really matter," I said, dismissive. "As long as it's practical, I'm good with it."

Rin's eyes narrowed. "This isn't something you'll be wearing on rare occasions, Taylor. I expect you to have this on all day, every day, so it needs to be something you are comfortable with. So tell me honestly, are you are fine with the design? Obviously I can't do anything super fancy, but I could pull off a unicorn, butterfly, or the more traditional teardrop if you'd prefer."

I raised a hand to indicate she should stop.

"The beetle is good as it is," I said firmly. "A butterfly would be a little too cute and would make me feel awkward. Anything more traditional and it would be hard to pass it off as glass, which could raise questions..."

And when it came to people asking uncomfortable questions, my Dad made the top of the list.

I paused.

"Wait. Why would King Arthur's scabbard need Saber's prana to function?"

My eyes narrowed. Rin blinked guilelessly in response.

"You mean we didn't tell you?" she said, startled. The brunette's smile suddenly shifted into a smirk. "Saber's true name is –"

"Artoria Pendragon," Saber interjected as she stepped into the room. The tiny blonde scanned the table with hard eyes. "Taylor, your lessons will begin promptly after lunch. I will handle your questions then."

I shut my open mouth and demurred. Only a fool would get between a meal and Saber.

-oOo-

Avalon [Canonical Phantasm]
Projected Noble Phantasm – Rank Ex – Barrier

The scabbard of King Arthur said to grant invincibility to its true wielder. Avalon is a dual function phantasm, able to be used passively and actively. Its passive function is to ward off injury and death. So long as Saber's prana is present, Avalon will not only prevent the wielder from dying, but also regenerate all wounds up to including missing limbs and organs. Avalon's healing is so complete that it can defeat all known illnesses including the general effects of entropy and aging.

What Avalon cannot do, is restore lost information. Because of this, destruction of the brain remains fatal. Despite that limitation, Avalon is not entirely crippled when dealing with such injuries. The sheath can repair damaged neural tissue the same way it can any other. However, the phantasm will cease to function upon determining that the loss is such that it would be better for the soul to pass on.

Avalon was used as the summoning catalyst in the fourth war, then embedded into Shirou as a young child by his father. The noble phantasm was only discovered after the fifth war when Rin made an effort to research the origin of Shirou's regeneration. The actual sheath, thereafter, was returned to Saber's hands.

Since becoming enforcers, Shirou and Rin have adopted the routine of implanting copies of Avalon on a bi-weekly basis. This, in conjunction with the trilateral bonds forged in the years prior, allows Shirou and Rin to benefit from Avalon's regeneration at a level that is a mere step less than that experienced by Saber herself.

It remains uncertain, as of yet, if the agelessness property has passed through the fakes. Rin collects experimental data annually to examine this possibility.