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
23: Old Friends
A wave of cold traveled outwards from Kennet, sweeping upwards to form a dome over their heads. The pounding heat of the sun and fire burning the treetops abruptly switched to a sort of rippling warmth, similar to the spring when the sun would burn through the clouds back home, giving you a false sense that any day now the snow would melt and the flowers would bloom.
Kennet could feel the artifact’s attention pushing upwards and away from them, so far up in the sky that he couldn’t follow it. He shook his head, fingers tightening on the magic blue sword. It seemed to flex comfortingly under his grip only to spring back to steel-hardness when Kennet’s fingers loosened once more. Rather than focus on the weirdness of the magic that threatened to send him into a screaming panic attack, Kennet turned to Idris.
“Get the horses!” Kennet snarled at Idris. “We need them if we’re going to escape!”
Idris stared up at him, eyes wide with abject terror, until Kennet grabbed his arm and all but flung him in the direction of the struggling horses tied to one of the burning trees. Together they got their horse with its burden of water and fruit, along with a second horse from one of the soldiers.
The flames consuming the palm fronds overhead didn’t reach down to them. Kennet watched one trail of fire as it burned lower, following a trail as if it was oil flung over the tree. It stopped about a yard over Kennet’s head as completely as if there was a brick wall between the fire and Kennet. To his not-quite surprise, the fire recoiled, crept to the side, poked and recoiled again. It was as unnatural as the ice flowing through Kennet’s veins.
Kennet glared over the sand dunes and then snorted as a circle of flame appeared at the crest of the nearest sand dune. Yeah, that must have been what the artifact felt, what kept it from killing the last of King Rihab’s men. The artifact resumed control over Kennet’s body, it’s awareness smoothly flowing back inside of him as it gently moved Kennet back into the imaginary space in his mind.
“I did not believe that you would be so bold as to attack directly, little brother,” the artifact said through Kennet.
His voice came out strangely formal and distant when the artifact used it. The blue sword in Kennet’s hand quivered slightly, emitting a humming sound that made the fiery circle shudder and fade for a moment. As it faded the heat from the fires around them faded as well, letting Kennet haul his horse out of the circle of burning shrubs and palms. He was followed by Idris who was whimpering prayers under his breath while coughing from the smoke.
“What is happening?” Idris pleaded. “Kennet, please! Tell me what is happening.”
“Do not worry, little one,” the artifact said through Kennet in what it probably thought was a reassuring, not creepy, voice. “This is but a moment in your life. You shall have much more exciting adventures later on to experience.”
“Who are you?” Idris whispered. He reached one hand out to catch Kennet’s arm only to gasp and pull his hand back as if he’d been burned. “You’re frozen! You are not Kennet!”
Kennet pushed to the front of his mind while artifact snorted mentally. He glared down at Idris who jerked and gulped at the sudden change of body language and expression.
“Quit it, kid! We got more important things to worry about right now than you having a minor heart attack. There are soldiers coming and your fucking grandfather’s behind that goddamned fire circle up there. Just shut your mouth and mount up. We’re leaving as quickly as we can.”
For whatever reason, Kennet’s abrupt manners were far more reassuring to Idris than the artifact’s calm words. Idris nodded and mounted up. His hands were shaking and the kid was seven shades too pale but he still sat solidly on the horse once he was mounted. It was a good thing because Kennet had to toss the reins for his horse at Kennet when the other eight soldiers who had been chasing them ran towards them screaming their lungs out. All of them had their swords drawn and Kennet could feel the fiery magic that filled the blades.
“This sucks!” Kennet snarled as the artifact took control of their body again.
“Not quite as badly as you think it does, my dear boy,” the artifact chuckled. “Those weapons might do a small bit of damage to you but not as much as you think they would. They hold only a tiny fraction of my younger brother’s power.”
It moved them away from Idris and the horses, taking several quick smooth steps that made Kennet think of a kid gliding across a frozen pond. As they slid away from Idris, a wave of cold swept over the area like a rogue ocean wave crashing onto the shore. The fires abruptly guttered and began smoking behind them while the sand underfoot shimmered strangely.
The men charging at them abruptly stumbled and fell as if the sand under their feet actually became ice. They took another step and Kennet realized that the ground actually was frozen. The sand under his feet crunched like snow dusted over ice. The eight men dragged themselves upright, shouting to each other with terror in their eyes. None of them had the slightest idea how to move on ice; Kennet could tell just from the awkward poses they took as they struggled to their feet.
At the top of the dune the circle of flame solidified again, this time forming a proper tunnel that Kennet could see through. On the other side of the tunnel of flame, Kennet saw the black tents of King Rihab’s encampment standing tall behind more soldiers wearing spelled armor and carrying the same flame-filled magic swords. Kennet killed the struggling soldiers in front of him as more soldiers ran through the circle of flame, most of them wide eyed and sweating. King Rihab appeared on their heels, glaring down at Kennet.
“So good to see you, Shihab,” the artifact called so cheerfully that the men around King Rihab shuddered.
“You should have taken my offer, Kennet,” King Rihab called back.
“I’m so sorry, Shihab,” the artifact said in a cloyingly sweet tone of voice. “I’m afraid that your little toy isn’t here anymore. That poison was rather nasty and his back was terribly infected. It was quite kind of your host’s grandson to prepare him for me though. So much of my power ingested and rubbed into his body; it was so very convenient to capture this host when his soul finally left the body.”
“No,” King Rihab hissed. “I do not believe you!”
The words were actually barely above a whisper but Kennet heard them through the artifact’s power. All around King Rihab, the soldiers were easing back, faces clammy with sweat and terror twisting their expressions into masks. Kennet couldn’t help but be amused by the artifact’s effect on King Rihab. He’d managed to piss the man off but never make him look that uncertain before. Mentally, he applauded the artifact’s efforts and encouraged him to continue.
“Now Shihab, why wouldn’t you believe me?” the artifact laughed, in part for Kennet’s approval and in part for the expression on King Rihab’s face. “It has been a very long time since you killed my host but I still know perfectly well how take one when it’s delivered to me so nicely.”
Kennet snickered inside their head as King Rihab’s eyebrows pulled together in the most obviously confused frown he’d ever seen. Even his Alliance training master hadn’t been that confused when Kennet had screamed and cowered away from a tiny spider that had invaded his training cell after it became clear he had to give the man something to hold over him or be mind-wiped. Na’im chortled at it, both internally and physically.
“Oh dear, have you forgotten what it’s like to have someone address you familiarly, little brother?” Na’im asked in a voice that oozed false concern. “It has been hundreds of years since the last time we talked.”
“A very nice effort, Kennet,” King Rihab snapped, “but ultimately wasted. I do not know what you expect to gain with this charade but I know who you are.”
Magic swirled away from King Rihab towards Kennet. Through Na’im’s senses Kennet could see the magic. It felt red and hot, like reaching too close to a fire but there was no actual color to it. The redness was all in Kennet’s perception of it, as if the actual color was just beyond ‘red’ and into some other range of colors that his eyes and mind could not perceive.
The frozen patch of sand around them steamed when King Rihab’s magic rolled over it. A gout of steam rolled up, blocking Kennet’s view of King Rihab. Na’im didn’t seem to even notice the cloud roiling towards the sky between them and King Rihab. His senses saw straight through it as though it wasn’t there.
“Do be helpful, Kennet,” Na’im murmured inside of Kennet’s mind. “Push at this for me while I taunt my younger brother for a bit longer.”
“And what the fuck is this supposed to do?” Kennet asked as he pushed Na’im magic towards the sky only to have it loop back down drawing icy winds from so high overhead that Kennet thought it was twice the height of Spider Mountain back home.
“Hopefully it will give Shihab a rather nasty surprise,” Na’im said with the sort of grim satisfaction that Kennet was used to after he’d defeated a particularly vicious opponent in the pits.
The air that came down from the sky was cooler and wetter, promising rain. Kennet considered that for a moment before pushing even harder at Na’im’s magic in the hopes that it really would rain. If Shihab was made of fire then rain would be his least favorite thing.
At the same time, Na’im whipped his magic into a swirling tunnel up into the air like a tornado’s vortex. It caught all the steam and the heat from King Rihab’s magic, swirling them away as though they were nothing. King Rihab snarled at them as his magic wrestled with Na’im’s for a moment. He cut the magic off when Na’im laughed.
“Such a graceless attack, little brother,” Na’im said, clucking his tongue disapprovingly. “I had thought that you gave up such amateurish attacks when our Father scolded you for wasting your energy.”
“You–!” King Rihab’s eyes went wide and his face paled. “How do you know that?”
“How would I not?” Na’im asked so mildly that it was a threat in and of itself. “Did I not watch your creation from the first moments of inspiration? I saw our Father sketch the runes that comprise your soul. I fed power into our Father to aid in your creation. We fought side by side against the Immortals and watched our Father fall together. There is no one who knows you as well as I do, little brother, just as there is no one who knows me as well as you.”
“Na’im,” King Rihab whispered. “It truly is Na’im.”
Kennet’s face grinned. It felt weird, like an honestly open and delighted grin instead of his normal smirk. The smile was so broad that it made his cheeks hurt. The artifact, Na’im’s, amusement at Kennet’s dislike for the smile only made them smile more widely. King Rihab stared for a long moment only to look up at the sky with curses in many languages falling from his lips.
Overhead, the falling air had somehow summoned clouds that spilled down at them like a big black wave. Lightning sparked off the leading edge of the clouds, drawing King Rihab’s men’s eyes upwards. Na’im kept their eyes firmly on King Rihab, his grin not budging in the slightest, but Kennet used his bit of Na’im’s power to tug harder on the clouds, to move them towards the oasis faster.
They felt heavy and wet, like hauling an enormous sponge soaked with water in a leaky reed basket. Kennet cursed when the rain started to fall half a mile away from them but Na’im’s delight in that made him think that it was actually a good thing. King Rihab whirled and ran for his fiery tunnel, shouting to his men to retreat. He ran into the tunnel before the leading wave of rain reached the far edge of the oasis, his men on his heels.
“Why, Shihab,” Na’im called after King Rihab. “Wherever are you going? It’s been so long since we talked and you’re already leaving? I believe my feelings are hurt.”
King Rihab ignored them. He ran through the tunnel which collapsed after him. The heat left the area as rain swept over them. Kennet staggered a little as control of his body returned. When he looked up the skies were dark with heavy thunder clouds that poured down rain. Lightning sparked between the clouds, occasionally lancing down to strike the sand dunes. Na’im laughed inside of Kennet, soaking up the rain as it fell on their face. After a moment of shaky relief, Kennet cautiously pulled the sword back into his body.
It felt bizarre, cold and liquid flowing into his veins instead of something solid being pulled back into a sheath. Kennet looked at the dead men, then at the smoldering oasis. It looked like water wasn’t going to be an issue anymore but food was still something they needed to be concerned about. The soldier’s horses were right there so Kennet clucked his tongue and lured them close enough that he could raid their saddlebags for any food they had stored in there. Three saddlebags later Kennet had enough food to tide the two of them over for several days at least so he walked back over to Idris’ side.
“What are you?” Idris asked, his voice young and terrified. “What has happened to you?”
“Kid,” Kennet said because Na’im didn’t pipe up with anything at all, “I wished for a fucking sword and got a hell of a lot more than I expected. Let it be a lesson to you. Don’t wish for things in the middle of fucking magic forbidden oasis. Sometimes you get nasty damn surprises.”
“I think I object to being called a ‘nasty’ surprise,” Na’im objected in a very mild tone of voice that didn’t at all match the irritation inside Kennet.
“For fuck’s sake,” Kennet groaned. “I hate magic! Anything magic is always going to be a nasty gods-damned mess as far as I’m concerned. Don’t get upset at me. You already know exactly who to blame for that, Na’im.”
Idris’ eyes were as wide as saucers as he stared at the two of them. For a moment it really felt like there were two of them standing there having an argument but after a second Kennet realized that no, it was just him. No matter how it felt to Kennet, to everyone else it looked like he was having a detailed argument with himself. He groaned and let his chin slump down to his chest.
“This is going to be so fucking awkward,” Kennet complained. “Forget about it for the moment. Let’s get the hell out of here before your asshole of a grandfather can send more people after us, kid.”
“Yes, please,” Idris said. “An explanation as we go would be very helpful.”
Kennet swung up onto the horse’s back. “Do my best, kid, but I don’t know a hell of a lot more than you do. Let’s ride. We can try talking to my ‘guest’ as we go.”
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