Chapter 18:

Dave leaned back against the crate, lost in thought. Torture... Balthazar's body had been torn apart, both inside and out. And his mind had been tampered with, probably irreparably if Merlin had been unable to fix it. No wonder he'd been different after he'd come back. And no wonder he was, by his own admission, a little crazy these days...

Dave glanced over at the Incantus on the crate Balthazar had been leaning against, a sudden thought striking him. A bout of curiosity. If it had been possible to hear Balthazar at his worst... shouldn't Dave be able to see what he was like under Merlin? Before the torture?

Suddenly Dave had the overwhelming need to see his master, his friend, as he had been, even if only as a memory. The worry was gnawing away at him. He needed something to show him that it would all be okay eventually. Balthazar had dealt with Jacobus before and look how good he'd turned out. Dave stopped a bit at that, as he pictured his the ancient sorcerer in one of his pissier moods... He winced... Which was honestly like ninety percent of the time...

He shook his head to clear his mind. Okay, fine... So, maybe "good" wasn't exactly the word he was looking for. Still... almost anything was better than the old man's current self-prognosis...

He pulled himself carefully to his knees and, after testing to be sure he wouldn't collapse again, moved over to Balthazar's crate and dragged the Incantus down, plopping it onto his lap. He yanked it open and began flipping pages, hunting for the right section. After a couple minutes of hunting, he finally came to the right chapter: The Lives of Sorcerers.

How had it worked? He'd just touched Balthazar's name, hadn't he? He lifted his hand, ready to brush his fingers against his Master's name when the memory of Veronica's words came back to him: "Merlin believed that everyone has a right to his their privacy..."

Dave hesitated. Balthazar wouldn't appreciate Dave interfering. But he was only looking for good bits. Just enough to put his own mind at ease. And to remind Balthazar that he'd been, and still was, a good person. Maybe he'd even find a couple of his lost memories. That couldn't be so bad, right...?

He pushed any doubts from his mind and dropped his hand to the paper, studying the lists of names carefully. What had he done last time? Hadn't he just touched Balthazar's and Jacobus's names and it had shown him a clip of their time together? Was it really that simple?

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, preparing himself for anything as he moved his fingers to Balthazar's name.

"Here goes nothing," he muttered, brushing his fingers across the rough paper.

No change in sound. He heard sirens in the distance. He highly doubted they had police cars back then.

He cracked one eye open just in case there was some visual for him and the sound was just broken or something.

Nope. Nothing.

He gritted his teeth, frustrated, still running his finger lightly over the names. What am I do differently? He tried rubbing harder. "Come on," he muttered. "Stupid thing. Why do you always listen to him when he wants something?" He glared at the offending object on his lap. "I just want to see them. Is that so much to ask?"

Before the words had escaped his lips, there was a flash of light and an explosion of sights and sounds all around him. It wasn't what he'd expected. He'd been anticipating quiet moments with Veronica or training with Merlin... Even... friend stuff with Horvath, as weird as that would be.

He hadn't expected an explosion near his head as a tree shattered into a million pieces from what appeared to be an intense plasma both. Instinctively, Dave covered his face to protect himself, but the pieces flew harmlessly by. Carefully, he opened his eyes. It's just an image, Dave, he reminded himself. Like a hologram or something. It's not real... At least... not anymore...

But it had been real once...

Dave looked around to see sorcerers in the distance, fighting, and killing each other. His eyes scanned past the people as he tried to see details in the smoke and chaos around him. He was glad he could only see and hear what was going on. The smoke, he was certain would be choking him by now otherwise.

His eyes scanned the area. He was in a village by the looks of it. The kind he'd seen in old King Arthur movies. Only shabbier. There were no villagers to be seen. Only sorcerers bent on killing each other. Dave hoped the people who lived here had left and weren't...

He tore his eyes away from burning thatch.

The sorcerer wars that Balthazar had spoken about... Dave had somehow pictured it differently: Off in its own secluded little hole in the world while ordinary folk were mostly kept out of it. He didn't like this reality.

Small cottages and shacks were on fire. Animals were running in a panic. There was a dark, sooty cloud filling the air and obscuring much of Dave's view to his right. There were screams of pain and anger and sadness all around him. Hatred so strong he could almost feel it, even though this was all centuries away from him.

And magic. There was magic all around him. Wielded by men and women bent on destruction.

Dave wasn't sure what bothered him worse. The pain and despair he could hear riding on a wind that couldn't touch him. Or the fact that he couldn't tell who was causing it. Were the victims Merlinian or Morganian? A part of them hoped they weren't Merlinian, but if not. If they were innocent outsiders—or even Morganians—then why were they still suffering? Weren't Merlinians around? Why were there people untreated and suffering? Where were the good guys? Everyone seemed the same in this place. Everyone bent on killing everyone else. He'd always assumed that the war had been a large-scale version of Battery Park. Where good triumphed over a clear evil. But this... this was just chaos. And as much as Dave hated to admit it, he had a feeling that some of the Merlinians here weren't all that much better than the Morganians. Every Merlinian apparently was not like Balthazar and Veronica. Those two were apparently better than most. The rest... Maybe it was just his vantage point... He hoped so. He preferred believing that all Merlinians had been as good as his friend...

Suddenly Horvath's betrayal, while still terrible, suddenly seemed less surprising. It was still terrible, and Dave didn't know if he could ever really forgive the man. But he could see how there were levels of morality in each faction of the war, just like in the real world. Just because you were a peacekeeper—a Merlinian—didn't mean that you were any more moral than a Morganian. Not really.

And that was the reason idiots like Horvath could so easily turn their backs on everyone they love. And the reason Morganians like Balthazar had been could grow into someone Dave could hold in such high regards. Weak men were always weak, even when given great power. Whereas great men could have their magic stripped from them and still be worth infinitely more.

There was another explosion, nearer than the last one. Once again out of pure instinct, the young sorcerer covered his head before remembering that nothing could hurt him here. It didn't stop his heart from racing though. Enough with the analyzing, Dave. This isn't a movie. It's the real world. Dave glanced around again, that thought jarring him back to reality, as skewed as it currently was. Sort of...

Speaking of great men and idiots... Balthazar was here somewhere in this mess. And likely so was Jacobus. Which battle was this? Dave paled as a terrible thought struck him. Not the one when Jacobus and Gwen took him... He hoped to God not. He didn't want to see that. Especially knowing that he couldn't do anything to help his friend...

There was a shout very near to him, and Dave spun to see a couple of sorcerers approaching; a small red-haired girl with bright green eyes who couldn't have been more than eighteen-years-old, if that, and an even younger boy. Twelve... thirteen at best. It was hard to say. Both of them appeared to be wearing rust-colored tunics of an odd, irregular shade.

It took Dave a long moment before he realized that the tunics hadn't originally been that color.

The girl shouted something to the boy and motioned in Dave's general direction. Dave cringed back for a moment, afraid that the girl could somehow see him. There was something about her eyes that frightened him. She was obviously Morganian. The boy probably was, too.

Geez... how many kids were dragged into this thing?

The boy turned to look in the direction she'd pointed, his blue eyes focusing on something in the distance, just past Dave.

For a single moment, Dave stopped breathing, a fascinated, horrified recognition kicking in. His eyes were fixated in awe at the boy his master had been. He didn't look so different from now, really, now that Dave could see his face. Shorter and that sort of awkward skinny of young teens, even if they were strong. Dave had been that way, too—Well, he still was, to be honest—But aside from that, and the lines absent from his master's face, Balthazar was still clearly recognizable as Balthazar.

Except for the poison in his eyes. Whether Dave liked it or not, this boy was a killer. He was Morganian. The blood he was wearing was not his own. And his eyes held no remorse.

"Balthazar..." Dave whispered.

Balthazar's head abruptly jerked at that small sound and the boy stiffened, his cold eyes narrowing, scanning the area.

"What?" the girl asked, her voice smooth and soft as satin.

"We're being watched," he murmured.

"We're among people," she replied simply. "Of course we are."

"Not that way," he responded. "Not with normal eyes."

Her brows drew together at that, and she stiffened, closing her eyes. She appeared to be listening carefully to something. After a moment, they snapped open again. "You're wrong," she announced flatly. There's nothing."

"I heard. Just let me—"

"Well, you're wrong," she snapped, her voice suddenly taking on a harsh, vicious tone. "Do you want me to tell Jacobus that you're stalling on his directives?"

The boy paled at those words, and a cool smile curved her lips. "I thought not. I need to get back to them. Our masters are waiting. You know your orders. We will meet you after. Now go."

He nodded shortly, his eyes still suspicious, but clearly the threat of Jacobus was enough to close that topic of discussion. "Yes, Gwen," he murmured sullenly. "Of course."

Dave jerked back so hard at the sudden recognition of her name that his true form jerked as well, and the Incantus dropped from his lap, causing the image to abruptly disappear.

Gwen? Dave shook his head. No. It has to be another Gwen. That... that kid's younger than me! She can't be the sadist who tortured Balthazar... she... But his mind drifted back to the look on her face. The harsh venom in her voice. The flickers of fear that had played across Balthazar's features as she spoke, and he knew it was her.

"Geez..." he whispered. "Can this whole thing get any more messed up?"

"Probably. It usually does."

For the second time in less than five minutes, Dave nearly had a heart attack. His head whipped up and he saw his master standing in the bathroom doorway, drying his dripping hair with a towel.

"Do you have to sneak up on me like that?" snapped Dave. "Every single flipping time?"

Balthazar almost managed a weak smile at that, his eyes for a fraction of a second returning to normal. "Have to get my kicks somehow. Why are you so jumpy?" His eyes fell on the Incantus on the floor beside his apprentice.

For once, Dave was grateful for klutizly dropping the Incantus. "Do you really want me to answer that?" he replied simply, hoping to God Balthazar didn't ask for further clarification.

But the old man simply shrugged and motioned to the shower. "Your turn. Are you feeling well enough to get up yet?"

The boy nodded and slowly heaved himself to his feet. "Yeah," he replied a touch awkwardly, unable to meet Balthazar's eyes. "I'm better. How about you?" He picked up the heavy tome and set it on the crate he'd been leaning against, more to give himself an extra moment before he completely had to straighten and deal with the bout of lightheadedness that was sure to follow. "That was an awful quick shower, Balthazar." He finally took a breath and straightened, looking the man in the face. "Did you bother bandaging yourself?"

The elder man snorted softly at that. "I'm fine. Worry about yourself."

"So the answer is no," Dave replied flatly.

He was rewarded with a sour glare. "Shower."

Dave opened his mouth, but Balthazar levelled him with a look so worn and tired that it silenced him. "Now."

As much as the youth wanted to push the point—maybe even attempt to force-heal it—he didn't. An argument wouldn't change anything. Balthazar was too stubborn, and bickering would only further wear on the man. Dave didn't want to be the straw that broke his master's back...

Instead Dave sighed and just shook his head, stomping into the shower room. He stripped quickly and hopped in, cranking the squeaky metal faucet and yelping a little as cold water poured over him, numbing his body. Causing his neck to throb. His mind still raced. The book hadn't helped. All it had done was worry Dave further. Balthazar hadn't started off bad—even he admitted that, which was saying something—but the boy Dave had seen in the Incantus had been a hardened killer. Dave couldn't say how he knew, beyond a gut feeling and the connection he had to the old man. He had felt it. If Jacobus had managed to change him so much in only a few short years... What would he do if he got a mature, experienced and incredibly powerful Balthazar now? How long would it take to turn him again? The old man might be able to fight Jacobus off, but it had become obvious that he couldn't do it forever. And if Jacobus tried to brainwash him again...

What to do? What to do? What to do?

What was even the priority? Dave had assumed it would obviously be destroying Jacobus, or at very least trapping him in the Grimhold, but he was finally starting to accept that taking Jacobus down might not be an option. Sure, Dave had destroyed Morgana, but that had been with Balthazar's help as well. And there was something completely different about Jacobus. He was like a wild animal: unpredictable and powerful. And although he was only Morgana's apprentice... unlike her, he'd had the past millennium or so to hone his skills. If Morgana had been deadly, Dave had no idea how to classify Jacobus... The apprentice, Prime Merlinian or not, couldn't take the elder sorcerer down alone, at least not alone...

Dave got the impression that Veronica couldn't either. Maybe Balthazar, with all his years of experience, could have managed it if he hadn't been taken by surprise and disarmed, but now...

Dave sighed, shivering in the cold water, scrubbing himself down as quickly as he could. Taking extra care to be gentle with his bruised neck. It was a moot point anyway. Balthazar couldn't fight Jacobus without his ring.

The ring... Dave stiffened. That's it. We just need to get his ring...

His shoulders slumped. Yeah right... and pigs would fly. Jacobus had been wearing it each time Dave had seen him. The only way to get it from him would be to catch him asleep or something. And the only way that was going to happen would be if Dave were taken prisoner and got lucky enough to break out... He snorted at that mental image. Again with the flying pigs. Maybe Balthazar would have a chance at that, but Dave...?

Almost as soon as that thought formed solidly in his mind, a sick realization kicked in. Balthazar would do anything to protect them. Even walk into one of Jacobus' traps by himself. If he believed that were the only way to get the ring back...

And Dave had left him out there alone...

"Dammit!"

Dave jerked the tap off and leapt out of the shower before the water was even quite done. Throwing a towel around his waist, he burst into the lab's huge main room, throwing the door open with such an urgent force that it clattered loudly against the cement wall.

"Balthazar?"

Silence, save his own rasping breath.

"Balthazar!" he shouted.

The only response was his own echo, mocking him. It was no use. Balthazar was gone.

Shit. Where would he go? The apartment? Not likely, as it would just draw Jacobus to Veronica. More likely he'd have gone hunting for his old master alone, like the absolute idiot that he could sometimes be...

He scanned the room hopefully, praying that maybe he was wrong. Maybe Balthazar had a logical reason for being missing. Maybe he'd even left a note... Yeah right. And maybe Jacobus will turn over a new leaf and leave us alone...

Even with the complete unlikeliness of the situation, he found himself approaching the crate that held his Incantus. Nothing rested on the book except the Dave's cell phone. Dave stared at it a moment in confusion. He hadn't left the phone on the crate. He'd shoved it back into his jacket pocket. Had Balthazar used it? Who would he have called? Dave stepped in front of the heavy wooden box, and numbly bent to pick up the phone.

He flipped it open. Three voicemails. Dave scrolled down the list to find the most recent numbers.

Veronica.

Hope welled up inside of him. So, maybe Balthazar really did have a valid excuse. If she'd needed him to come... It wasn't likely that he'd have left without at least telling Dave, but still... if it were important...

Dave selected the first message and hit play. Her familiar voice rang out through the tiny speaker. "Dave, if you and Balthazar are done in the lab, I need you to come back to the apartment. There's something you need to see. The wards have been modified. I thought Jacobus had just weakened them last night, but there's something else I can't place. Something cloaked. I'd like your opinion. And I'm going to need help tightening them again. Hurry. And please be careful. If he can modify these, then he can do the same to the wards at the lab."

Dave stared at the phone stupidly. Jacobus had visited the apartment last night? Why had she waited until now to tell them? His lips tightened into a thin line. Then again, she'd spoken as though she didn't expect it to be a surprise to at least one of them.

Too worried to be properly annoyed, Dave played the second message.

"Hello, young David." That cheerful voice drove a cold icicle deep into Dave's heart. "Do put your master on. I'd like to have a word with him, and he's ignoring me now." There was a long pause, before he continued as though the psychopath actually believed Dave would have passed over the phone. "Hello, old man! Did you have fun playing with your apprentice? I hope he didn't tire you out too much. I have use for you..." There was a pause before he continued, if possible sounding even more cheerful than before. " Or rather, your wife does. Your lovely Veronica is quite adept at wards. I've had quite a difficult time of these. Except that apparently your young pupil helped her build some of them. Hers are quite a challenge to crack. I've not been able to find a chink in the wards around the room. His wards over the structure itself, however... those were quite a different matter, given that he's allowed me access once in your training area." His voice was mocking.

"But I digress. Your wife... You have thirty minutes to bring me what I want or else she will die. Even if I can't get into the apartment, that won't do her much good when the entire building blows up. Even the best of buildings can have issues with gas lines now and then." His voice was pleasant. "I'll see you in the basement. I do hope you check this message in time. Goodbye, old man." The message ended.

Dave was almost sick.

No. Not Veronica. He can't have Veronica. He shook his head. She's too strong. He's bluffing.

But what if he wasn't? And did it matter if he was? Balthazar obviously had heard the message and believed him, which meant bluff or not, the old man was now in danger, himself.

He glanced at the clock, then back down at the phone to read the time of the call. It had been five minutes already. If he ran, he'd be lucky to make it to the building on time. He didn't have time to worry. He just needed to act. He turned back toward the shower room to grab his clothes. Then, after hastily throwing them on, he clattered up the steps and out the door at a breakneck pace.

In his hurry, it never even occurred to Dave to play the last message.


Author's Note: First of all, I'm so so so sorry for the incredibly long wait. And I'm sorry the chapter wasn't longer. For those of you who are still with me, thanks for your patience. I appreciate it. For new readers and old, thanks so much for reading. As always, reviews are appreciated, but certainly not required. I'm just happy that you're reading. (I do love reviews, though. I admit it. I'm a review junkie. Heh...) Anyway, thanks to you all. This chapter was difficult for me to write, and I've been terribly busy, but hopefully now things are back to a pace where I can work on this with more regularity!

Thanks as always to my betas Kaytori, lolo popoki and FrostPhoenix, as well as sueb262! They have all edited, prodded, coaxed and threatened to help get this chapter to you! They deserve a hand!

Ciao!

Sirius:)

P. S. One last note. I've mentioned it before, but it was a belated "P.S." on the last chapter, and I feel like it's worth mentioning again. Please, check out Kaytori's "Plot Bunnies". One of her chapters is a spin-off of "Against All Odds." She rewrote the attack in Chapter 16 of "Against All Odds" from Balthazar's POV and it is excellent, so please read it and review for her! :D