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
21: Into the Water
“Where the hell are you?” Kennet snarled. “Let me go right the fuck now!”
The need to breath was making him lightheaded. Magic swirled all around him, sending currents of icy water to coil around his body. Kennet struggled but that only made his lungs burn even worse. He stilled, one hand over his mouth while his chest heaved with the involuntary need to suck in air that wasn’t there.
“Oh, we can’t have that,” the disembodied voice said so calmly that Kennet glared on principle.
A bubble of air formed around Kennet’s face. It left his face completely dry even as his hair drifted in the water. Kennet carefully pulled his hand away from his mouth and nose, letting out a bit of the air in his chest. Nothing happened other than the outer edge of the bubble shifting a tiny bit further away from Kennet’s nose.
He blew out his lungs and gulped air, relaxing a tiny bit as the bubble didn’t immediately disappear. If anything, it grew larger as Kennet panted, supplying him with all the fresh air he needed. Bubbles drifted up and away from Kennet, carrying away his spent air to the surface so far above.
“Okay,” Kennet said as he experimentally kicked towards the surface. “I guess I won’t drown. But you still need to let me go.”
Kennet’s words came out a lot more politely than he’d intended. The heat was leaving his arm, leaving his body, as if the poison was being drained out of him. At the same time, Kennet felt stronger, healthier, as if he hadn’t been beaten half to death and traveled through the desert for days without adequate sleep, food and water. Maybe this wasn’t as bad as he’d thought it was when he fell into the pool.
As soon as he thought it, something moved below him in the inky black of the unnaturally deep water. Kennet peered down at it, kicking once more and growling that he couldn’t move. After a moment a sword rose out of the depths, moving more like a snake than a sword. The hilt looked like its head and the blade worked like a tail, propelling it towards Kennet who kicked and flailed his arms to try and get away.
“The fuck?” Kennet gasped, pure instinct demanding that he get away from the thing.
It was an old fashioned sword with a wire wrapped hilt and plain steel pommel. The blade was straight, double-edged and several inches too short for Kennet to use properly. Despite the simplicity of the blade itself, Kennet could feel magic roiling off it that made Elder Danek seem like nothing.
The waves of magic coming from it was enough to make Kennet curse and struggle without the way the thing studied him. There were no eyes, no face, no expression, but Kennet could feel himself being studied, probed, and poked as if the sword wanted to see what sort of person he was and how to make him do what it wanted. Fury at the thought of being used by someone else, even if it was obviously an Ancient artifact from before the Wars that ended the world, drove away a large portion of his panic.
“What the fuck do you want from me?” Kennet snarled at the sword. “I’m already in deep trouble. You gotta make my life even worse?”
“You wished for a sword by the edge of my pool,” the artifact that might not be a sword at all replied. It sounded quite amused by Kennet’s attitude. “I answered. This is not the act of worsening your life.”
“The fuck it isn’t,” Kennet said. “I’m already dying from fucking poison. Now I got some sort of Gods-damned artifact holding me under the water until I agree to whatever it wants.”
“Or perhaps until you explain why you need a sword so badly,” the artifact said perfectly mildly.
The sheer mildness of the words reminded Kennet of how he’d talked to King Rihab and Prince Didymos, how he’d tried to explain that his goals were small ones that didn’t require wealth, power or political position. Kennet bit his lip, abruptly feeling his youth when he hadn’t felt it for years.
“I’ve got people hunting me,” Kennet explained. “A hell of a lot of them. Plus the kid up topside is hunted and I’ve sort of agreed to get him to his father and brothers. It’s a fucked up mess and I know I’ll die if I don’t have a weapon to use. Makes sense to wish for a weapon, you know? I didn’t fucking expect to be dragged underwater and interrogated by you, though.”
Water swirled around Kennet. The blue light filtering down from above shimmered. It reminded Kennet of a really heavy man belly laughing without the belly or the laugh. He got a feeling of amusement from the sword floating in front of him along with something that brought back the bone deep ache of exhaustion from his darkest days in the Alliance training when he had teetered on the edge of giving in.
Tired, Kennet thought hopefully only in his own head and not where the artifact could hear it. The damned thing is tired. Exhausted. Wonder how close it is to giving up on the whole world?
It was strange to think that an artifact could be created to have so complete a personality, a soul, that it would be tired or suicidal or even just amused. Kennet had heard more than enough legends of the wonders from Before from Juraj’s Uncle Raj but he’d never believed them. Ships that sailed through the sky was a fantasy. Cities that stretched for a hundred miles in any direction, full of streets that were clean enough to eat off of? Ridiculous!
But the sword hovered in front of him, magic flowing off it like water welling up from a spring, and Kennet had to wonder if maybe Uncle Raj had been right about the way things were. Maybe they really had lost the memory of wonders after the war. Kennet sighed and shook his head only to have to push his hair back so that it didn’t drift into the bubble of air.
“Why me?” Kennet asked. “There’s got to be other people who would be a better choice than me.”
“I am afraid not. It has been quite some time since anyone worthy has appeared before me. You would not have been able to enter my oasis had you not be worth my attention and, perhaps, my assistance. The wards I set around my pool ensured that no one unworthy could see me.”
Kennet blinked, mouth open but nothing coming out. That explained how he’d been able to see the oasis when Idris hadn’t. Of course, it didn’t mean that King Rihab’s men would be equally blind to the oasis, especially if King Rihab helped them magically. Still, the sword could hide itself. Maybe it could hide Idris and Kennet, too. The thought of having magic on his side for once was tempting but not tempting enough to make Kennet reach out for the artifact.
“And why do I need your help?” Kennet asked warily. “Any old sword will work, you know.”
“I highly doubt that,” the artifact said. “I can feel the magic closing in on this place. It is as old as me, created for the as I was. Whoever carries my old opponent will not die for an ordinary metal sword. He will live and kill and never stop until he achieves that which he desires.”
“Okay, what the fuck does he, your opponent, desire?” Kennet asked because fuck if he wasn’t sure that Rihab was the sword’s opponent.
It figured that he’d pissed off not just one mage but two and one of them was apparently some sort of immortal. Only Juraj had worse luck than Kennet did on that front and by this point he was probably a brainless Blood Slave shuffling around doing Elder Danek’s bidding or more likely sitting at Elder Danek’s feet like a pet. The artifact seemed to stiffen and glare at Kennet’s thoughts of Elder Danek.
“That is most unfortunate,” the artifact murmured. “I would not have thought that the Immortals would have survived casting their spell. A problem for another day, I suppose. To answer your question, my opponent desires to consume the world in its flames. It was made do so, to bring all people, animals, plants and magics under its control, just as I was made to control the water and weather that depends upon it. We are… opposites.”
“Fire,” Kennet murmured, looking up at the light so far overhead. “King Rihab has a tattoo of flame on his arm.”
“The symbol of my opponent,” the artifact agreed. “Only one who hosted my opponent would wear that tattoo.”
“And now he’s going to hunt my ass down for all time,” Kennet said, cursing under his breath as he realized that maybe this wasn’t a battle he could win even with death. “He’s a fucking immortal Gods-damned mage who is flat determined to deliver my ass back to slavery and then kill everyone around me, including his own grandson. How the fuck do I stop that?”
“I could help with ensuring your freedom,” the artifact offered as if it was all sweetness and light.
Kennet could feel the anger, the want, the need surging behind the mild words. A shadow moved across the shimmer of light overhead. When Kennet looked up there was nothing there. He’d expected to see Idris falling through the icy water towards him, or at least to see his shadow extended over the light as he peered into the water.
It made Kennet wonder how much of this was real. The water around him couldn’t actually be water. The pool he’d fallen into was shallow, not so deep that you couldn’t see the bottom of it. Kennet shuddered as he realized that he’d been swallowed whole by the sword, the artifact, the magical creation that was trying to bargain with him for something.
No way did this offer come without strings. Kennet knew better than that. Everything had a price, from the simplest of actions on up to the most expensive thing ever created. From where he sat, floated, what the artifact offered was hellaciously expensive and so far there hadn’t been a cost mentioned at all. His wildest dreams could not get met for no price; Kennet’s luck didn’t work that way.
“I’m sure you could ensure my freedom,” Kennet drawled defiantly. “What’s the price and what’s in it for me?”
“You are so delightfully willful,” the artifact chuckled. “I must say that it is quite pleasant to find one who does not submit immediately. The price, such as it is, would be to kill King Rihab and to become my host. As to what benefit there will be for you, I can remove the poison from your body, heal your injuries, heal any future injuries and you will be able to use my magic for your own goals, simple as they are.”
“For how long?” Kennet asked. “Forever? Am I gonna live generations like that asshole Rihab?”
“I could extend your life,” the artifact said with a nod of the hilt like it was nodding its head, “however I do not think such a thing would be welcome to you, any more than it would be to me. No, I have no desire to walk among humans. I would prefer to live in the waters and be left alone for all time. When you are done with me, after Rihab has been killed and my opponent has been driven from his body to be destroyed, I will expect to be taken to the sea and thrown in.”
“Then we’re done?” Kennet asked, already going over the possibilities in his head.
He could probably kill King Rihab with the artifact’s assistance. Magic that opposed Rihab’s magic was good, it would help. That took one variable out of the battles. From what little he’d seen, King Rihab wasn’t a fighter for all that he moved like one. He didn’t do the killing himself. Instead he sent other people to die for him.
If Kennet could get close enough he was pretty damn sure he could kill the bastard with the many dirty tricks he’d learned fighting in the pits. That would free him as well as Idris. The kid really didn’t deserve to be a pawn in his grandfather’s insane war, any more than his half-brothers deserved the constant threats of assassination.
“Then we shall be done,” the artifact agreed. “It will not be easy. My opponent can heal Rihab as I will be able to heal you but I agree that should you get close enough the battle will more than likely go to you. Based on your perceptions of his host, your particular set of battle skills will make a significant difference. Formally trained fighters do not do well against street fighters in my experience.”
Kennet took a deep breath, shivering not from the cold of the water around him but from the feeling that he was jumping straight out of the frying pan and into the fire for real this time. Making a deal with a mage, or an Ancient artifact, was stupid but he didn’t have a hell of a lot of a choice.
If he took the artifact’s offer they both got what they wanted. Kennet lived, got his freedom. The artifact got to be tossed into the ocean where no one could find it. Even Idris would be free to go be with his father and his brothers which would be a hell of a lot better than being his mother and grandfather’s pawn.
Pure terror of submitting to anything magical made Kennet want to say no but he couldn’t afford to turn this deal down, not if he wanted to live to have his obscure little rabbit farm. Maybe it would work out. One way or the other, this was more of a chance of survival than he’d had before they’d found the oasis.
“Okay, I’ll do it but this better not be a fucking trick,” Kennet said after fighting his terror of magic down to the point that the words didn’t stick in his throat.
“No, it is not a trick,” the artifact said, amused by his attitude once again, “but you might wish to brace yourself. This will be somewhat… painful.”
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