Being enslaved was better than dying but only barely. Kennet did what he had to in order to survive as a slave with the knowledge that freedom would risk being found by the people who drove him into slavery. Kennet saw no reason to do anything extra for the men who bought him. They didn’t care about him and he didn’t care about them.
That was true until the royal family of Penhale purchased Kennet guard Prince Didymos. Protecting Prince Didymos from the assassins seeking to kill him dragged Kennet into the world of national politics and onwards to face an enemy that threatened to destroy not just Kennet but the whole world.
Kennet didn’t want to deal with any of it, the assassins or the magic that lurked around him but if he wanted to survive, Kennet would have to not just face down the threats surrounding them but also track the assassins back to their shadowy leader.
What he found at the source of the chaos changed Kennet in ways he could never have anticipated, taking him in all new directions. Hopefully Kennet’s new skills would be enough to let him save the world, his lovers and himself.
Artifacts of Awareness
By Meyari McFarland
12: Rooftop Battle
“Where are the guards?” Rani shouted as they ran up the stairs.
“Dead, paid off or fucking hiding,” Kennet snapped at her.
He caught Prince Telamon when he slipped and nearly fell on a bloody patch on the stairs. Ruy had Prince Didymos’ wrist in one hand, dragging him up the stairs as if he was a child. Kennet leaped over a dead body as they made it to the balcony, glancing quickly down the connecting hallways to see which way they should go.
“Fucking hell, they sent an army!” Kennet yelled and wasn’t at all ashamed of the way his voice came out higher than normal.
More assassins in their black and blue clothes with scarves tied over their mouths ran at them from both connecting hallways. Rani’s curse was almost reverent while Prince Telamon screamed. This time it was Prince Didymos moving first. He ran up the stairs, heading for the roof of the fortress. There wasn’t anywhere else to go so Kennet followed along with Prince Telamon, Ruy and Rani.
The assassins ran on their heels, occasionally flinging knives at them that went wild because there just wasn’t enough room on the stairs for a good throw. Two flights of stairs had Kennet panting and pale with burning weakness that he knew wasn’t normal. Ruy saw it first. He pushed Kennet towards the rear and took the lead. Rani saw it right after that. Her sympathetic look made Kennet snarl. There was no time for anything but escaping.
“What do we do now?” Prince Didymos asked once they were all on the roof.
The men that normally guarded the battlements of the fortress lay dead in pools of blood. Kennet looked around and then shoved the door shut just as three knives flew at him. They embedded themselves in the heavy wood door with a thunk that echoed down the stairwell. Ruy helped him bar the door, not that it was going to hold for very long with that many assassins pounding against it.
“They came up on ropes,” Rani reported from the edge of the roof.
“There’s no other way down,” Prince Telamon said as he clutched Prince Didymos’ hand. “Is there? They’ve taken out all the guards. We have to go down the ropes to escape them.”
“No, there is no other way down, damn it,” Kennet said as he hurried to the far end of the battlements.
Kennet’s side tingled as he did his best to ignore the ranks of mountains surround them. The view from the top of the Fortress was stunning, allowing him to see the great river dividing Penhale, Chargrene and Kelairn from each other. It surged at the base of the cliff, its muddy waters moving in a roar that carried all the way up to the roof. He pushed his mind away from it, well aware that the last moments of his life slipping away. The risk of Prince Didymos and Prince Telamon dying with him rose the longer he wool-gathered.
The cliff had a narrow ledge below them. Kennet stared down at it, looking at Rani and Ruy who both made faces, Rani disgusted and Ruy worried. Prince Didymos gulped when he looked over the edge but Prince Telamon, apparently the only level-headed one in their group, ran to get the ropes that the assassins had used to scale the back of the Fortress. Rani helped, whispering something that Prince Telamon shook his head no at.
“We can’t go down there!” Prince Didymos squawked. “Kennet, there’s no way we can do this.”
He meant that there was no way he could do it. Kennet glared at him, infuriated that he would even dare giving up when they’d made it this far. There was a way out, granted a horrible way that was dangerous as all hell, but it was a way out. No matter how scared Prince Didymos was of the climb, he was going down the damned rope.
“You don’t have fucking choice, Highness,” Kennet snarled at him. “You’re going. Rani, you go first. Prince Telamon, you’re second, followed by your brother. Ruy, you’re after them and then I’ll follow.”
“Why are you last?” Prince Didymos said in what had to be one of his automatic protests because he was staring over the edge while shaking like a leaf in a storm, not looking at Kennet.
Ruy and Rani’s eyes went to the cut on Kennet’s side while Prince Telamon’s eyes flicked to the sweat beading Kennet’s forehead. None of them said anything for a moment but that could be because Rani and Prince Telamon were too busy securing the ropes for the descent.
“He’s strongest,” Ruy said when Kennet didn’t bother answering him.
“Agreed,” Rani said.
She swung over the side and went down the rope as if it was greased, landing safely on the ledge. While narrow, the ledge was easily wide enough for her to stand on. That seemed to reassure both Prince Didymos and Prince Telamon. Ruy dragged over another rope and began securing it as Prince Telamon eased over the edge and began his way down it towards Rani.
“Get going, Highness,” Kennet said before Prince Didymos could protest or ask for a kiss or something equally idiotic.
“How long?” Ruy asked in a low murmur that barely carried over the pounding on the door and the roar of the river below.
“Long enough for you guys to run,” Kennet murmured back. “Now go. Get him to safety.”
“I will,” Ruy said.
The assassins were busy beating on the door to the roof. It wasn’t going to take very long for them to break through so Kennet helped Ruy secure a second rope. Ruy skinned down the second rope like a professional, joining Rani at the base of the Fortress in just a handful of seconds. Prince Didymos bit his lip but went over the edge nearly as quickly. He didn’t move down the rope as fast but he was a lot bigger than his younger brother so it took a bit more effort.
Ruy looked up at Kennet, watching him instead of watching Prince Didymos as he descended. He didn’t have say what had to be on his mind. Kennet was a fucking idiot to sacrifice himself for Prince Didymos. In truth, Kennet wasn’t. His life was already over. The poison was obviously a quick acting one. Pretty soon he wouldn’t be able to fight, even if the poison didn’t ultimately kill him.
Given how he felt, though, it was likely that it was going to end his life. The fight for his freedom was what had defined his entire life. Maybe once he was dead he’d have the chance to punch a few gods in the face for all the crap they’d leveled on him in this life.
“Doesn’t matter,” Kennet thought as he used his stolen knife to cut the slave collar off his neck in defiance of everything he’d been trained to do in the Alliance. “I was born a free man and, fuck it all, I’m not going to die with a damned slave collar around my neck.”
The collar’s silver links split just as the assassins broke through the door. They yelled and charged at Kennet. He tossed the collar aside and raised his sword and knife. There was a fine tremor in his hands but it didn’t affect his grip or his strength. Yet.
“Come and get me!” Kennet yelled at them.
They did. The first died on Kennet’s sword. The second went over the side of the Fortress, screaming as he plunged down into the river below. Kennet broke the knee and then the neck of the third, realizing as he did it that he knew that one. He’d seen the man serving tea and drinks to Lord Aeneas. Each of them was someone from the Fortress, other than a couple of assassins in properly dark, tight clothing behind them.
“Cowards!” Kennet yelled at them. “Fight your own damned battles!”
He got a snort from the ones hanging back and a knife cut on his cheek from one of the attackers for his trouble. It burned nearly as bad as the cut on his side. Kennet didn’t let it slow him down. Nothing was going to slow him down, not one fucking thing. It took what felt like an eternity to kill all of the servants who’d been coopted into becoming assassins but it was actually only a handful of seconds before the roof was littered with dead bodies. No one breathed other than Kennet and the two professional assassins.
“Still don’t have the princes,” Kennet said with as cocky of a grin as he could manage.
The assassins looked at him, eyes narrowed. Neither of them said anything. The taller of the two snorted when he realized that Kennet was shaking from the effects of the poison. It took a moment for the shorter assassin to realize it. Once he did the shorter one laughed, a single bark that was anything but amused.
“You took the poison for the prince,” the shorter assassin said as he pulled a long knife that was visibly stained with venom.
“Yup,” Kennet replied. “Couple of doses actually. Assume you dosed all the knives.”
Both assassins glared at him as if they were impatient for him to fall over and die. Kennet smirked at them. He was tougher than that. After everything he’d been through in the fucking Alliance, he was one hell of a lot tougher than they thought. The poisons would probably kill him but it was going to take hours, maybe days, to do it. His trainer had wanted him to be able to detect poisons for his future masters which meant that he was resistant to a lot of them. Kennet could feel himself losing control of his body but he wouldn’t be dead for a good long while.
Kennet brought his sword down and cut the ropes, certain that Prince Didymos was going to wail as soon as he saw it. The Great God Haraldr knew that Prince Didymos was too fucking stubborn to leave the spot without being forced. He wasn’t at all surprised to hear a wail but it was a lot farther away down the base of the Fortress than he’d expected. Prince Telamon must have used little brother persuasive powers to get Prince Didymos to move, or Ruy had picked him up and carried him away. That made Kennet smile grimly at the assassins.
“Gonna have to actually kill me,” Kennet told them. “I’m not dying for days, if then. Your poison’s shit.”
“You will die now!” the shorter assassin snarled. “We don’t have time for this foolishness!”
They charged at him, weapons at the ready. Kennet knew he couldn’t take them. He was way too slow and they were blindingly fast with the poison slowing him down. Instead Kennet decided he had to wound them in obvious ways. There needed to be a trail that King Barabbas’ men could follow back to whoever was behind all of these attacks. Visible wounds, easy to track ones, would make it easier for King Barabbas to end all this insanity once and for all.
The shorter one was angrier at Kennet blocking them than the taller one. He darted in and took Kennet’s borrowed knife in his left thigh. Kennet grinned as the shorter assassin shouted and fell, clutching his thigh before going pale.
“Fuck yeah, asshole,” Kennet said in Vorenic because he just didn’t give a damn about being understood anymore. “Die with your own poison!”
The taller one took Kennet’s moment of distracted gloating as the perfect opportunity to attack. He lunged, scoring a long cut along Kennet’s left bicep before taking the hilt of Kennet’s sword to the face. Kennet shoved him back but between the poison in his veins and the cut to his arm, he didn’t have the strength to push the man far enough away.
“Die!” the taller assassin shouted, a black eye already blooming from where Kennet had broken his cheekbone.
He smashed into Kennet to drive him backwards against the battlement. Kennet tasted blood as he sucked in a breath. Rather than try to wrestle the assassin and escape, Kennet dropped his weapons to clutch the assassin as he drove Kennet over the edge. The assassin screamed in rage and fear as they toppled over the edge together.
The assassin tried to break free from Kennet as they went over but Kennet held on, grimly clinging to the assassin despite several brutal blows to his ribs. Seconds felt like years as wind whistled around the two of them. The roar of the river surged up at them. At the last minute, Kennet shoved the assassin underneath him. Somewhere back at the top of the cliff he heard Prince Didymos scream his name in a long wail that carried down the gorge and away from Kennet.
They hit the water in an all-mighty splash of muddy brown waters. Kennet immediately lost his grip on the assassin but that was okay. He wasn’t dead yet. Holding his breath, Kennet fought against the current until he got his face above the water. When he blinked the water out of his eyes he realized that he was already being swept down the river. The water was surprisingly cold given how far south they were.
“Fuck,” Kennet gasped.
He rammed into a rock under the water, going under for a moment before finding the surface just long enough to gasp for air. A second rock sent him down again, this time with a blinding pain in his right knee. Kennet made it back to the surface in time to smack into a tree trunk caught in the force of the water just like he was.
He grabbed at the branches, dragging himself on top of the thing. His shaking fingers barely managed to cling to the bark, partially because of the cold and shock that he knew was catching him. Most of it was the poison, possibly two different poisons, which were playing havoc with his body.
“Oh yeah,” Kennet muttered through his chattering teeth. He spit out some of the water. “Gonna punch all the Gods in the face for this one.”
The last thing he thought as consciousness fled was that at least he died without a slave collar around his neck. He might legally still be a slave but he didn’t have to feel like he was one in his final moments.
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