"I need you to do something for me, Dave. I need you to use your ring to locate the Grimhold. No, I don't want you going after it. I just need to find out where it is."

Dave looked at him, warily. "You just want me to track it? That's it?"

Balthazar kept his face deceptively placcid. "Yes, Dave, that's it. For now."

Dave raised an eyebrow at the deceptively inocent request. Shrugging, he raised his ring, shut his eyes, cleared his mind. Ran through all the steps, the same ritual a few thousand time practices until it was etched in instinct. The ring flared emerald, the jewel flickering against the darkness of the room. Dave never saw the look of longing that Balthazar forced back before his apprentice could see.

Balthazar sat tensely, watching as Dave grimaced and stiffened.

"Dave?" Balthazar asked worriedly. The ring flamed bright against Dave's knuckles, as he grit his teeth.

"Give me a sec, okay?" Dave's voice was tight with pain as he exhaled sharply. Balthazar shot to his feet when he saw his apprentice pale and start sweating.

"Never mind, Dave. Drop the spell." Balthazar barked out, ,as Dave just shook his head. "I'm fine. I've got this." Dave whispered as he started trembling.

"Dave, drop the spell!' Balthazar's words were laced with panic. The ring suddenly errupted into flame, as Dave clutched his head and screamed.

"Dave!" Balthazar nearly bolted from the couch as Dave slid to his knees. He would have collapsed if Balthazar hadn't swept him up, and carefully lowered him to the floor.

Prying Dave's clenched fingers apart, he finally clawed the ring free and sent it skittering across the floor. Ignoring the ring, Balthazar hoisted Dave onto the bed,and shoved a fearful palm over his nose and mouth to check for breathing. With shaking hands, he touched Dave's neck for a pulse.

Thank God, they were both regular. Balthazar never felt so helpless in his life as he stood over Dave, seeing him so still, and pale.

What the heck was he thinking in asking Dave to take such a risk?

He hadn't known. There was no way he could have known. It did nothing to change the searing guilt, or the helpless anguish as Balthazar eyed the clock. If Dave didn't rouse in the next five minutes, he'd have to call an ambulance.

Balthazar eyed Dave, fearfully. There was no visible wounds, no injuries that he could see. Balthazar had caught him before he had hit anything. He could sense no magic at work. Balthazar inwardly winced. He had lost his own magic. How would he know if Dave's fainting was from something physical or worse?

He couldn't, he realized savagely. He couldn't. Great.

"Dave?" Balthazar tapped Dave's shoulder. "Dave!" Balthazar made no attempt to hide his growing worry as he picked up his apprentice by the shoulders. Gently, he shook Dave.

He was rewarded by the soft groan, and Dave's bewildered, dark stare. Eyes fluttering shut, Dave put a palm to his forehead with another groan. Propping himself up on an elbow, he squinted up at Balthazar, and then his bed.

"Dave. What happened?" Balthazar's voice was tight, and heavy, as he stood over him, clearly demanding an answer.
"I...I don't know." Dave said softly, as he slowly shifted upright. He nearly fell back when he clapped a hand to his temple from the sudden dizziness.

Balthazar caught him, and glared. "Stay down until you can get up without toppling." Sighing, Balthazar shook his head. "Are you alright?"

Dave nodded, uncertainly. "I think so. What happened?"

"That was my question, Dave." Balthazar said evenly.

Something flickered in Dave's eyes as he shot upright in a panic. "My ring! Where is it?"

All he saw was Balthazar's eyeroll, as he turned away. A few footsteps, and Balthazar reappeared, the emerald ring gracing his palm.

"My apologies if I scared you, Dave. I took it off when you looked like you were going to faint."

"You what?" Dave blurted out as Balthazar hitched a shoulder apologetically, not wanting to anger his apprentice unnecessarily.

"You looked like you were suffering a reaction of sorts from the spell, and I couldn't just-"

"How did you get it off?" Balthazar only stared down at hm, nonplussed.

"Balthazar, how did you get my ring off?" Dave twisted to face him, the urgency in his question all the more strange.

Another condesending sigh, as Balthazar finally answered. "I pulled it off of your finger, Dave. I think that's the conventional way that most rings would be removed."

Balthazar held it out to him, expecting his apprentice to simply pick it up. Dave recoiled from the ring as if it were a drawn weapon.

"Dave. Take the ring." The order was only met by Dave's trembling, and the curt shake of his head.

The white line of frustration between Balthazar's eyebrows grew sharper as he thrust the ring out. "Dave, you need to take the ring. It's the only thing that's going to keep you safe."

Dave swallowed hard, and looked as if he were going to be sick. '"No!" He shook his head more violently as he cupped his forehead. "No way, not after what I saw."

Balthazar narrowed his eyes, but set the ring carefully on the side table.

"I hope you are aware of the fact that I still have no magic, so if something happens, I can't protect you." Balthazar sighed heavily. "Which is also why I left you at your apartment last night. To prevent anything bad from happening." Wryly, he shrugged. "Which, once again, is pointless."

"So." He said it so abruptly that Dave flinched. "Let's start with something simple, shall we?"

Dave squinted. "Are you alright, or not? Do you need a hospital?"

Dave groaned as he sprawled back on the bed. "I think I'm alright. And if I'm not, I don't think that a hospital would help much with this sort of thing."

"So it's not physical." Balthazar said with understanding as Dave nodded. "And without magic, once again, I can't help you."

"Balthazar, I'm alright!" Dave snapped irritably, as he rose on his elbow. Balthazar raised a doubtful eyebrow, but said nothing for a merciful two seconds.

"Why don't you want to put your ring on, then? And what was so mind-boggling about me taking it off?"

Dave shuddered, and shook his head. "No!" Shutting his eyes, he drew out a long, sharp breath. Balthazar stayed silent, waiting for him to gather his thoughts.

"I couldn't get the ring off." Dave said quietly. He held aloft his right hand, dangled the ring finger out so Balthazar could see.

Balthazar inwardly winced when he saw the swollen knuckle. The finger was bent, mishappen, purple and wilted with a bruise. It looked broken.

"Last night, when I tried to take it off, I wound up nearly dislocating the knuckle. But now, the weird thing is that my finger looks much worse but isn't hurting at all"

Balthazar scowled at that. "That doesn't hurt?" He asked doubtfully, as Dave shrugged. "It makes sense. The Prime Merlinian's ring would hardly be of use if it hurt the wearer."

"Balthazar, I couldn't get the ring off of my finger. And it wasn't just like it got stuck, either. It was more like..." Dave grimaced again, "like it somehow grew into my bones. Like it became part of my body or something, but it wasn't like part of me...it was more like a parasite."

Balthazar raised an eyebrow. "We're getting your finger examined. And possibly your head."

"But, it doesn't hurt!" Dave protested, as he flexed the finger and even popped a knuckle. "I know that it looks bad, but it's not painful or anything."

Balthazar only peered at him through the spill of curls. "Did I do that when I pulled it off, then?"

"No." Dave shook his head. "There's no way you could have, Balthazar. That's what I'm saying. I couldn't take it off, not even when I did a cast off spell. And now, you have no magic, but you can take my ring? That makes no sense."

Balthazar sat back, with a raised palm. "Actually, it does. There's a simple explanation for this. You are my apprentice, and I had your ring long before I met you. Only a Merlinian, or a trusted human-" he winced at the words,
"could take it from you."

Dave did not miss the bitterness in Balthazar's voice. "Then you're still a Merlinian? Even with Morgana-"

"Yes!" Balthazar snarled out as he abruptly rose. "I've *always* been a Merlinian, even with Morgana. Especially with Morgana."

He exhaled bitterly, and Dave inwardly flinched when he saw how old and tired Balthazar looked.

"You mean that you can hold her back, then?" Dave looked up at Balthazar uncertainly. Balthazar glared at the wall over Dave's shoulder for a long, brittle moment.

Finally, softly, he answered, "No. No, I can't."

His lip thinned into a grim line as he scrubbed a tired hand through his curls. "Never mind about that now. If something happens, you know to run, and you've still got your magic. That's better than hopeless."

"Now-" Balthazar said briskly, "Tell me what you saw."

Dave's face contorted, as he shut his eyes. Finally, he raised that tortured gaze to meet Balthazar's and finally choked out, "I saw you die."