If Merlin had lived to see the hell wrought from his own, he would have wept. Or vomited. Perhaps a toxic mix of both.

Balthazar's musings were interupted by another of Horvath's volleys. It was much like Horvath himself, far too pretensious and flashy for Balthazar's tastes.

Disgusted, he shook his head, and tensed, waiting, projecting an almost bored calm with the whole situation.

Inwardly, Balthazar trembled. He knew well the madness of challenging Horvath, and accepted the odds with a dull resignation and the vague hope that he could buy himself and the world a bit more time.

It was as futile as it was noble, the end of a long, long hopeless quest that was now reaching its savage conclusion. Balthazar glanced, troubled for the writhing city around him, as the people continued their erratic, oblivious paths.

They deserved a more merciful ending than this. And, perhaps he, as well.

Time seemed like a well-worn noose, fraying and giving way a bit more with each of Horvath's attacks. He had hoped to God he had spared David the full knowledge of the finality. He felt the sad, bitter smile quirk at his lips. David had been horrified when he realized that Balthazar truly intended to take out Horvath, or die trying. And he could only stand there in dismayed bewilderment as Balthazar bid him that far too quick farewell, and disappeared too quickly for even a protest.

David certainly deserved more than being left with a bunch of complications, unresolved issues, angst and unending doubts. If there had just been more time...Balthazar shrugged off the useless fault, eyes narrowing as he warily watched Horvath.

The man had the air of a pouncing tiger. Balthazar drew a shaking breath. The last flare of magic had grazed him and burned before he had a chance to squelch it. Horvath seemed to find the whole situation rather festive, as he kept flinging the bright flares higher like confetti. Balthazar knew they were only intended to weaken his defenses by forcing him to deflect them with magic of his own.

It was slow, calculated, and sadly working.

His own ending, he had contemplated, of course. He just hoped that this wasn't it. He knew very well the difference of human flesh and its decay. He lived the the burden of artificially granted mortality, propped up by an aging spell, and rapidly wanning as Merlin's last grace so slowly crumbled.

Balthazar had been quietly decaying for a while now.

He was already weakened from the constant barrage of unseen blows that Horvath gleefully shot at random. Balthazar neither admitted, nor acknowledged how many of them he had deflected on behalf of both helpless civilian and a pathetically uncertain apprentice.

At first, they had only been glancing flickers, easily fended off, and much like an annoying swarm of mosquitos. Balthazar thought them both pathetic, and petty, a waste of magic.

Disgraceful, really, to treat the Art as if it were a plaything to torment others. And how very kind of Horvath to treat Balthazar to both a pretty fireworks display and a convient way of always knowing his location.

And then, Balthazar came to the sickening realization of Horvath's true attack, too late.

A slow, continual wounding that could bring down any enemy, given enough time.

Torture carefully parcelled out to allow no time for healing or recovery.

Balthazar snarled in irritation. How in the hell did he miss this?

Later. He would ponder it later, if he had that chance.

He stood at the edge of the growing flame, disgusted, horrified.
The Merlin's Circle, at one time, had been a haven. In all the eons he had walked this world, it was still the one constant that he considered home.

Until now.
Horvath had perverted it to a ring of bloodied fire, that rose and fell like the teeth of a ravaging animal.

Balthazar felt the nausea curl in his gut, sickened, and now, very afraid.

If Horvath could violate the thing that they all held so sacred, what was there left, untainted from all of this?

Those were his thoughts, when Horvath finally dropped any pretense and decided to kill in earnest.

A ripple through the air was the only warning before Horvath's spell collided againt Balthazar's shields. They shattered like mirrors being hit with a cannonball.

Balthazar recoiled from both the shock of Horvath's power, and the pain that reverberated through him.
Balthazar had been too stunned to counter the next attack at all.

Normally, it would have been humilating to be toppled by a flying metal newspaper rack. Maybe Horvath had added that petty cruelty for the embarrassment.

Later, Balthazar would jokingly describe the experience akin to being hit with a magically infused torpedo, with a twisted smirk. All he remembered was the odd scrape of metal, as his instincts screamed warning.

Air moving over his spine before he could pivot and ward off the attack. The rack, as it flickered into the light out of the corner of his eye, and flew towards him.

Thoughts fragmenting as instinct and magic slid upward, and surged through him.

In all other situations besides this, Balthazar would have sent the thing careening through the air, away.

Maybe he would have disolved the metal into a twisted form and label it modern art. Maybe he would have insulted Horvath's tastes by making it a flock of butterflies.

He would never know.

It was odd, savage, underhanded. Balthazar was not amused to realize how alike Horvath's attack reflected Horvath himself.

He heard the odd thud as the thing slammed into his back. The numb, bewilderment, the snap that sounded like a firecracker.

His body recoiled as metal collided with bone, and fractured both.
And then, he crumbled.
The concrete was brittle beneath his sprawl as he instinctively broke his fall with an elbow.

Human injury, or Horvath's cruelty.

The cause of the sudden paralysis mattered little when he hauled himself upward on shaking arms.

He started trembling anew when he realized his legs were slack as water behind him.

It would have been far more terrifying were it not so mercifully numb.

He couldn't move his legs.

Balthazar heard Horvath chuckle and utter another dark enchantment.

Numb. Everything was numb, as if some tether of body to sensation had been severed. Horvath certainly wouldn't be content to limit himself to only inflicting necessary force when he could torture.

Balthazar shuddered when the whiplash tore through his gut again. Grit his teeth, ignored it.

Balthazar could not stop the wince from contorting his face.

Horvath's chuckle sounded like breaking glass at his agony.

Grunting, Balthazar hauled himself upright a few inches, propped his entire weight on his shaking arm. The rest of his body was twisted and useless even as he tried to dig his boots into the wet pavement for some purchase.

He bit back the cry , as he groped forward the few inches he could lurch on his hands. Crawling like a worm, waiting for Horbath to simply raise a heel and grind him out of existance.

This would be a humiliating way to die.

He tensed when he felt Horvath's magic swath over him, violatingly close. It came to rest over his body, rolling over his broken back like skin.

Oh, God, the pain! It grew claws, teeth, bit down on his bones.

He choked, shut his eyes, tried to find some ground in his chaotic thoughts. He scraped what remained of his magic, visualized its warm glow, sent it lacing through his broken spine. The warmth trickled like water over his bones, but only reduced the raw agony to a level that he could breathe again.

The last of his magic disolved with the finality of a last breath.

Horvath relished Balthazar's flinch at the sudden words.

"The circle is nearly complete."

Horvath would have preferred fearful cowering to Balthazar's calm, irritated glare.

Balthazar seemed to find the announcement insultingly unnecessary.

Horvath merely gave him a languid smirk, completely unbothered at the torture he had just meted out.

"It must be awful, Balthazar."

Balthazar quirked an eyebrow, stared up at him, quizzically.

"Awful doesn't begin to cover it, Horvath."

Horvath frowned at that, clearly unamused. Balthazar managed a small smirk in answer at buying himself a bit more time.

Horvath did not trouble himself to continue the conversation. He was perfectly content to watch Balthazar's hopeless struggle with undisguised glee.

Balthazar's head was bowed,as he muttered another fractured attempt at a healing spell. Horvath boredly allowed it to light over Balthzar's broken back, before raising a fist and squelching its existance like a crushed butterfly.

He relished the sudden, soft groan.

"All these years, fighting to stop this one moment."

Ahh, the words had wounded what his magic could not. Balthazar stiffened, raised his eyes, and only stared as Horvath smiled.

So this was how Horvath summerized Balthazar's ending. It was both far too cheap, and far too sickening to contemplate.

The words felt like shards, which Balthazar ignored. He clawed forward, the few pathetic inches only won by his spasmed movement. It was a paltry trade, an unfair one that cost him precious energy.

"And then coming..up short."

It was purred triumph, as Horvath paused to savor Balthazar's humiliating attempt to rise, to crawl away, anything but lay there and die like this...

Balthazar raised his eyes to see Horvath standing over him, a condemning god finally allowed to carry out the long awaited sentence. The fire from Merlin's circle shot skyward, unfurled like dragon's wings, and lit the whole sky in flame. Weaving, the fire coiled into a spiral, then split and arched each line tracing Morgana's symbol.

Balthazar trembled at the hellish sight.

To be continued?