They were silent for several minutes. Dave remained on his back, where his master had gently guided him, struggling to slowly catch his breath. As soon as Balthazar had been certain that Dave wasn't going to try to get up again, he had walked off to pace at the other end of the room, far from his apprentice.
Dave could hear the steady tap of his master's shoes as he strode back and forth near the control cage. The youth took as deep a breath as he could, testing. It seemed okay. He could finally breathe again. The ache in his lungs had faded somewhat. His throat was still on fire and he could feel the painful throb of his neck with every beat of his heart. It was going to bruise. Badly. It was probably already starting. The back of his head pounded where it had hit the cold cement when Balthazar had taken him down. And his hand... Balthazar had left him long enough after their brief talk to grab the first aid kit in the desk so he could properly clean and dress his apprentice's wound.
Dave noted that not once had the old man made any eye contact. The expression on his face had been terrible. Empty of all emotion except for a haunting flicker of guilt that he appeared to be barely keeping in check.
It was as though the attack on Dave had caused Balthazar an open and gaping wound of his own that was a thousand times worse than the gash in Dave's hand. Jacobus had hit both of his targets with one solid blow. And it was obvious that although he had been the one actually injured, it had been Balthazar who had suffered the most damage.
The worst part was that Dave could do nothing to help. His voice was weak and raw. Every word out of his mouth had clearly only twisted the knife in his master's heart a bit more, even when those words were meant to comfort. Especially then. So Dave had stopped. Because he couldn't stand to see Balthazar fall any further.
But it had been a good twenty minutes with no change. Balthazar was going to wear a hole in the floor. The silence was stifling, stave the steady click of his master's shoes, which was going to drive Dave insane soon. He couldn't wait any longer for Balthazar to snap out of it on his own. He felt a bit better. He had to try again. Because Balthazar's pain was palpable. The air was heavy with it. Something had to be done.
Slowly Dave sat up, then attempted to stand. "Balthazar..."
"Sit." The elder sorcerer didn't even pause in his pacing.
Dave completely ignored the order, using a nearby crate to haul himself to his feet.
"Dave," Balthazar growled, glancing briefly back at him, a warning tone in his voice. "I said sit."
"No," came Dave's tight response, "I think I'd rather stand."
At those words, Balthazar finally stopped his pacing and took a deep breath. "Dave," he began in the slow, careful voice that under normal circumstances would generally precede a plasma bolt or some other random show of authority, "you lost a lot of oxygen. If you try to do too much right away, you'll hurt yourself." Another deep breath. "So stop being stubborn and sit down."
Dave looked up at him defiantly. "If you want me to stop, you're going to have to come over here and make me." His master's eyes flashed at that, such a normal response that Dave risked pissing him off a little more, standing as quickly as he could manage with the intention of showing Balthazar that the attack had done no major damage.
What he hadn't expected was the wave of dizziness that abruptly hit him. His knees buckled and he dropped, barely catching himself on the crate again. Slamming one knee on the hard, cold floor. He unsuccessfully tried to bite back the instinctive cry of pain.
Balthazar was at his side almost immediately. "I told you to stay down," the Merlinian reprimanded as he eased his apprentice back to the floor. "When your air gets cut off too long, it takes some time to recover. Trust me. I have experience with it."
Dave sat on the cold cement, his back against the crate, eyes closed, taking slow, deep breaths. "Yeah..." he muttered, pissed at himself for making things worse yet. He sighed, expecting to hear the click of his master's shoes as he put distance between them once more. To his surprise, after a long pause, he instead heard the rustle of clothes rubbing against rough wood and the soft grunt of Balthazar dropping down to the floor across from him. The boy's eyes snapped open. Balthazar had seated himself, his back resting against another crate a few feet away, facing Dave. He was rubbing his thumb over one of his decoy rings thoughtfully, his eyes unfocused as he stared at some point past Dave's head. He was still avoiding eye contact as much as possible... but this was a start.
Dave studied the master sorcerer a minute. He'd thrown his dusty black shirt back on after treating Dave's injuries, but Dave had already seen enough. Dave knew that Balthazar hadn't bothered doing anything but cover up his own wounds with his shirt when he'd gone to get the bandages for Dave's hand.
"Yes?" The old man didn't move. His gaze directed elsewhere.
Dave took as deep a breath as he could manage without coughing. "Are you planning on wrapping up your shoulder or are you going to just let it get infected?"
"I'm fine, Dave." The voice was mild, but Dave could see confusion and self-loathing at war within the man's storm blue eyes. "I've been through worse," he finally added.
"I'm aware of that," Dave responded through gritted teeth. "But that's the past. This is now. And right now you're bruised and bleeding with a collarbone that looks broken."
"I'm aware of that, too. That's not the point."
His eyebrow quirked a touch, a humorless smirk twitching his lips. "There was a point?"
Dave's mouth tightened into a fine line, determination hardening his eyes. "He hurt you as much as me back there. More, probably." Before Balthazar could contradict him, he held up his hands. "Stop. Just let me finish this time."
A muscle tightened in his master's jaw, but he said nothing, instead sharply nodding to Dave to continue.
Dave nodded. "You warned me, Balthazar, and I ignored you. You fought him to buy me time to get out, and I didn't even try. It's as much my fault as yours that this happened." He ignored the angry flash of his master's eyes. "So go ahead and blame yourself if you want, but don't expect me to join you. Because like it or not, I'm not going to hate you. You're going to have to either accept that or leave me for good, because it isn't changing."
"I'm not breaking Oath with you," his master immediately retorted, appearing to miss the point entirely. "I already told you that. I may not be able to use magic, but the Oath itself will offer you some protection."
"Then I guess you're going to have to put this behind you for now."
Balthazar's eyes darkened, and he turned away again without answering. After a long, awkward silence, Dave asked. "So... what do we do now?"
"You're going to go home as soon as you can. I want you under Veronica's protection."
"I'm staying here." Dave opened his mouth to protest, but Balthazar didn't let him speak. "I'm too much of a risk."
"Then let's get you to Veronica, so she can help—"
"No," the old man snapped. "He's threatened to turn me against Veronica, too, remember? I'm a time bomb, Dave," he growled. "I can't hold him back forever."
"So you stay here alone and... what? We let him break into your mind again? What do you think will happen? He'll just send you after us anyway. If we're together, we can try to help..." He trailed off, exasperated.
"No. It's too dangerous. Do you have any idea what he'll do if he gets his hands on either of you?"
"No, Balthazar, I don't," came Dave's quick retort, his voice rising, "because you won't tell me. But what I doknow is that he wants me for something, so he can only push me so far. He just wants to punish you. Sky's the limit." Dave stopped at that, taking a deep, calming breath. After a moment, he quietly added, "What happens if he breaks you?"
"Then I break."
There was a sick feeling in Dave's stomach as he remembered Veronica's description of the last time Jacobus had taken Balthazar. Catatonic and near death... "You say that like it doesn't matter," he choked out.
"It doesn't. I can handle pain, Dave. What matters is keeping you and Veronica safe. My life comes after that."
"That's selfish," Dave replied quietly, "and the Balthazar I know isn't selfish."
"We've already established that you don't know me very well, haven't we?"
Dave closed his eyes tightly, willing away the images of Veronica's story of Balthazar's torture that Dave's textbook had only managed to add realistic detail to. If Balthazar were taken, Dave honestly didn't know what he'd do...
No. They weren't going to let that happen. What threat would scare Balthazar into being reasonable?
His eyes hardened. "What if he turns you against people on the street?" Dave asked quietly. "What if he makes you hurt innocent people. Or kill some kid? Can you handle that?"
Whatever retort Balthazar had been prepared to give, died in his throat at those words and he blanched.
Dave glanced away. He hated seeing that sick, guilty, helplesslook on his friend's face... but if it was the only way to keep him safe...
After a long silence, Balthazar said in a cold, distant voice, "Call Veronica. We'll all go back to the apartment together. That way if he gets me again..." He swallowed hard. "At least this time it won't just be you alone."
"Wouldn't it be better for you to talk to her?"
"My phone doesn't get service down here."
"Just call her." Balthazar's voice was tight.
Dave studied him a moment, suddenly understanding. Balthazar didn't want to face her after this. Was he still such an idiot not to realize they wouldn't blame him? Or was that what he was afraid of? That they would forgive what he considered unforgivable? "You do know that she isn't going to hate you for this, right...?"
Dave sighed, pulling out his phone and flipping it open. He hit speed dial and waited. "What do you think we should do when we get back?" he asked while he listened to the phone ring.
"I'm going to have Veronica ward me into a room. Somewhere I can't get through..."
Dave's head jerked up, surprised. "Isn't that kind of extreme? I mean, can't we just—"
"I just tried to kill you, Dave. I'd say that's pretty extreme, too."
Dave sighed. "Fine," he muttered. Best to choose his battles. At least Balthazar was agreeing to go home.
Before he could continue, Veronica and Balthazar's answering machine kicked in. "Hey, Veronica. It's Dave. We had a... problem at the lab. Can you give me a call back when you get this? We're fine, but we're going to need an escort. Thanks. Bye." With that he flipped the phone shut. "Answering machine."
"I figured that much out," he replied dryly, his careful mask back in place. "She must be touching up the wards. She found some weak spots this morning. She'll call back when she's done."
Dave nodded. "You know, she's probably going to be pretty tired when she's done. Why don't I just set the wards on your room until we figure out a better plan. I'm getting pretty good at it."
"No, Dave. You can't. All he'll have to do is make you want to free me. And based on how much you're fussing over a few burns, I don't think he'll have too much trouble coming up with something to draw your attention. If Veronica makes the wards, only she can break them down."
Dave jammed the phone back into his pocket. "Do you really think Veronica wouldn't let you out if you were in danger?"
Balthazar looked straight into Dave's eyes and held his gaze for the first time since the attack, replying firmly, "She will do what needs to be done. Right now my safety is secondary."
His apprentice snorted. "Doubt Veronica would agree with that. I know I don't. Neither of us is going to leave you injured for our own safety. If you're in pain—"
"You've never lived through war, Dave. I have. And so has she. There are sacrifices you have to make in war."
"This isn't war, Balthazar."
"It doesn't take an army to wage a war, Dave." The old man closed is eyes and leaned back against the crate.
"Fine. Whatever," Dave grumbled. But he couldn't help consider his master's words. Believe what you want, he thought in frustration. But Veronica and I aren't letting that asshole get his hands on you. You've been through enough hell.
"I've already told you," Balthazar responded calmly, breaking into his thoughts, as he was wont to do, "that you have no idea what hell is."
Dave started at Balthazar's sudden intrusion into his thoughts, for a moment wondering if he'd spoken that thought aloud. Then he reminded himself who he was dealing with. "Will you stop doingthat... that... reading minds thing...?"
"Not so easy. When you get aggravated, you're practically shouting. Normally I can just tune you out."
"Well, try to find a different station," Dave replied testily. "Do you do that to Veronica?"
"I can't. It only works with you. Part of our link. You'd be able to read me, too, if I didn't know how to block you out." His eyes fluttered open. "It's how we issue commands from a distance. They don't need to be spoken aloud."
"That's how Jacobus got to you, then?"
Balthazar nodded. "I tried using it to make you back off."
Dave's head snapped up. "Wait. You what?" His voice cracked. You promised...
Balthazar locked gaze with Dave, and quickly clarified. "Not a forced command. I already told you I wouldn't do that. I just tried to use the Oath to get into your head long enough to warn you."
"I didn't hear you." He tried to mask the relief in his voice, feeling guilty for doubting Balthazar's word... even if only for a moment.
"I know. Jacobus managed to interfere. That's the problem with a master being tied to another master."
A thought struck Dave at that, and he asked, "Is that why Jacobus couldn't get you while Merlin was alive? Merlin interfered?"
"Probably." He paused. "Jacobus was my first master. By all rights, he should have been able to control me even after I'd gained a second. The bond to your first master is, as a rule, the strongest bond a sorcerer will make unless the Oath is completely broken."
"But it wasn't this time?"
Balthazar paused, then carefully responded. "Merlin was the one who freed me. Taught me how to be strong. To stand up for what I believe in... he was like a father to me. We eventually had a bond of our own, with or without the Oath. Jacobus didn't take that into consideration."
"He thought he could just take you back when they caught you, didn't he?"
"He thought a lot of things... If he'd have wanted me back immediately, he'd have had no trouble. Merlin had to take my ring and ward me into a room in the castle until he could get through to me. Even after I began to see reason, it was years before he allowed me anywhere near a battlefield, even though I was well trained to fight by his side."
"He was afraid Jacobus would call you again?"
"He knew he would. If Jacobus realized I was with Merlin, there would have been no doubt. But Jacobus assumed I was dead, and that gave Merlin the opportunity to block most of the connection between Jacobus and I. By the time Jacobus realized his mistake, he couldn't hear me anymore. Didn't know where I was. I'm sure he guessed, but with no ability to break into my mind, he couldn't get me. But face-to-face...? We weren't sure if that proximity would make it too difficult for even Merlin to interfere. It was a long time before we realized that the connection between Merlin and I had grown stronger than my connection with Jacobus."
They were both quiet for a long moment.
"Why do you think he saved you? You never really answered that."
"I already told you. I don't know. Probably because I was dying. I was suffering and his only choices were to kill me or save me." he glanced away. "And if he saved me, he was responsible for what I did afterward."
"They were worse than you."
"You don't know that, Dave."
"I've seen what they did to you," the youth replied softly.
"That was mostly Gwen." Balthazar's expression was half-dead. His eyes distant. "She'd turn it into a game. Play with her victim until she got bored. Then she'd generally hand him over to me to finish the job so she could move on."
"Like a cat."
"A cat. That's why I hate cats. Dogs make it quick, but a cat... a cat will catch a mouse and then play with it for hours before it kills the poor thing."
Balthazar nodded. "That sounds about right." He paused thoughtfully. "I don't think Gwen ever actually killed any of the people we caught, though," he said suddenly. He shook his head. "It was always Jacobus and I."
"Really?" Dave answered, surprised. "She sounded like the kill-for-fun sort."
"Not really." Balthazar's brow furrowed as he thought back. "That's not entirely true. She did kill one man, but that was as much Jacobus as her. They kept trading him back and forth. Eventually Jacobus drove him mad. Gwen expected more of a fight, but didn't realize he was already too far gone to offer up any resistance."
"What did she do?"
"She stopped his heart."
"With her hand."
Dave looked green.
"She thought she could restart it, but he wouldn't wake up after she tried. Then I suppose too much time lapsed, so they left him to rot." There was an odd bitterness to his voice that didn't go unnoticed.
"They made you clean up, didn't they?"
"No," Balthazar replied quietly. "I was already gone."
Dave didn't know how to respond to that. "So," he said, anxious to keep Balthazar talking before he could withdraw too much again, "Gwen's the cat. And Jacobus...?"
Balthazar's eyes narrowed. "Jacobus... Have you ever taken a psychology class?"
Dave blinked, startled by the abrupt change in subject. "Yeah. Long time ago."
"Remember Skinner? The guy with the rats?"
"Jacobus is the type who would train the rats."
"I don't get it."
"If he were a psychologist, he'd be the type who would shock the rats every time they tried to drink. Scare them away from their own water. So that they would dehydrate with a bowl right in front of them."
"They'd die of thirst..."
"No. They'd die of fear."
"What were you then?"
"I was an exterminator. I just killed people to get rid of them. Anyone. Their lives meant nothing to me. And I killed hundreds."
"You've changed a lot, then." He studied his friend carefully, a thought coming to mind that had been bothering since he'd first learned of Jacobus and his sadistic wife. "Balthazar...?"
"What were you like before?"
Balthazar's eyes flicked up to meet Dave's, his brow furrowed, confusion evident in his blue eyes. "Before what? Before I met Jacobus? I already told you."
Dave shook his head, treading carefully. "No. I meant... Veronica said you were different before they... took you..." He turned away from Balthazar's intense gaze. "I just wondered..."
His master simply shrugged. "I'm sure I was. I know I feltdifferent." His demeanor was casual, but there was something different about his expression. A tightness that struck Dave as odd.
"You don't know?"
"I don't remember," Balthazar replied quietly. "It's been a long time." He closed his eyes. "...And there are ... gaps now..."
Dave's eyes narrowed. "Gaps?"
"Missing pieces. Things that are gone from my memory. Merlin couldn't get them back."
At first Dave didn't quite understand. Then a sick feeling settled in the pit of his stomach as realization set in... Gaps in his memory... after three weeks of torture, things were just... gone... Dave shut his eyes tightly. "Geez..." he whispered. "What did they do to you?"
Apparently this topic of conversation had pushed Balthazar past his limit, though, because with that question, he abruptly stood up, his strange, contemplative demeanor dropping off of him like a cloak as he rose. "I'm taking a shower," he announced. "Don't get up until I get back. You seem to be breathing fine now, but I don't want you getting dizzy and falling again."
"Just rest. If Veronica calls, don't give her details. I don't trust the phone. Just have her come and pick us up." He brushed the dirt and grime from the lab floor off of himself.
"Read your Incantus while you're waiting." He walked over to the floor where it was now resting and picked it up, bringing it over to his apprentice and dropping it on the floor next to him. "Defensive spells. Chapter Twelve has a number of defensive spells. I'll be quick." And with those words, Balthazar walked out of the room, leaving Dave to his jumble of thoughts.
Author's note: I'm so so so so so sorry about the ridiculously long wait for this chapter. This has been a ridiculously busy school year for me. I've had college classes to take and I'm teaching extra classes as well, so unfortunately real life attacked full force. Then there is the fact that I rewrote this chapter two or three times...
Anyway, point being I'm very sorry and I hope the next chapter will not take too long. Thanks to my betas kaytori, lolo popoki, and frost phoenix. And of course thanks to all of your for your patience. I hope you enjoyed the chapter.
P. S. One last note. Check out Kaytori's "Plot Bunnies". One of her chapters is a spin-off of "Against All Odds." She wrote Chapter 16's attack from Balthazar's POV and it is excellent, so please read it and review:)