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The Outcast (Summoner #4)
Author:Taran Matharu

The Outcast (Summoner #4)

Taran Matharu



To my readers





CHAPTER

1


ARCTURUS SHRANK DEEPER INTO the stable’s shadows, waiting for the dead of night. The clamor of the tavern next door had reduced to a gentle murmur, but it was not safe to come out yet.

If all went as planned, his master would ring the midnight bell soon, announcing to patrons that it was time to wend their drunken way home, or if they were lucky, to a room in the inn upstairs. Only then would Arcturus make his move.

It was a plan ten years in the making: almost two-thirds of his young life. He was going to escape the beatings, the endless hours of toil and the meager rations that were his only reward.

As an orphan, Arcturus’s value was determined by the yield of his work, rather than the quality of his character. The ox in the stock next to him was fed better than he was; after all, it had been purchased at several times the price his master had paid for him at the local workhouse. He was worth less than a beast of burden.

The bell chimed, disturbing Arcturus from his thoughts. There was a creak as the tavern door swung open; then the crunch of gravel signaled the departure of the drinkers, their coarse laughter fading until silence reigned once again. Even so, it was a full ten minutes before Arcturus padded from the shadows and into the night air of the stables. He adjusted his pack and wondered if he had everything he needed.

Escaping was not as simple as running away, something that Arcturus had learned from bitter experience. In the early days, before he was sold to the innkeeper, children often ran away from the workhouse. They always returned a few days later, starving, beaten or worse.

There was no work for scrawny, uneducated children who had nowhere to go. Arcturus knew that if he ran away unprepared, he would end up begging for scraps before returning, hat in hand, to the inn. In all likelihood he would be sent back to the workhouse. Back to hell on earth.

Arcturus knelt in the straw and checked his pack one more time. Forty-two shillings: his life savings from tips, loose coins and charity. It would last him a few weeks, until he found a new source of income. A thick fur, discarded by a passing trader for the wine stain that adorned its center, but still fit for Arcturus’s purposes; he would not freeze if he needed to camp overnight. A serrated knife, stolen from the tavern kitchen at great risk. Although it was not much of a weapon against a brigand, it gave him peace of mind. Two candles, some bread, salted pork and a few spare garments completed his supplies. Just enough to give him a fighting chance.

The neigh of a horse in the darkness reminded him why he had chosen that night. An opportunity unlike any he had seen before. A young noble had arrived only a few hours earlier, exhausted from a long day’s riding. He had not even bothered to unpack his saddlebags, simply throwing the reins disdainfully to Arcturus and trudging into the inn to book a bed for that night. Rude enough that Arcturus only felt a twinge of guilt about robbing the young man.

Arcturus knew where the noble was going. When they came of age, firstborn noble children attended Vocans Academy, to learn the art of summoning demons. The academy was all the way in the capital city of Corcillum, on the other side of the Hominum Empire. With any luck, the saddlebags would contain everything Arcturus might need for a similar journey, not to mention the fact that the wealthy young noble’s possessions might be extremely valuable.

He sidled up to the horse, clucking his tongue to calm it. As a stable boy, he had a way with horses. This one was no different, nuzzling his palm as if searching for a handful of feed. He stroked it on its muzzle and unclipped the saddlebags, letting them fall to the ground.

Arcturus searched through each pocket, his heart dropping as he discovered that the vast majority of them were empty. No wonder the noble had left without them.

Still, the noble’s steed was the real prize. Many horses passed through here, but this was a fine stallion, with long legs, muscled haunches and clear, intelligent eyes. It could outpace any riders who might follow him, be they thieves, brigands or even Pinkertons—Hominum’s police force. It was not unknown for them to chase down a runaway orphan if the reward was high enough.

Arcturus rummaged in the last pocket and smiled as he grasped something solid. It was hard to see in the dim light of the stable, but he could tell by touch it was a roll of leather. He unraveled it on the ground and felt the dry touch of a scroll within.

A thin stream of moonlight that cut through the slats in the roof allowed Arcturus to see printed black letters on the page. He held it up to the light and examined them more closely.

Arcturus’s reading ability was poor; his education had been limited to the one year of learning at the workhouse. Fortunately, the books that travelers abandoned in their rooms often found their way into his possession, allowing him to practice over the years. His reading was now better than most, but he still had to sound the words out as he read.

“Do rah lo fah lo go…” He whispered the syllables. They made no sense, yet he could not stop, his eyes glued to the page. As he spoke, a strangely familiar sensation suffused his body, starting as a dull giddiness and gradually growing in intensity as word after word rolled off his tongue. The gray of the stable seemed to become brighter, the colors intensifying in his vision.

“Sai lo go mai nei go…” The words droned on. His eyes roved back and forth across the page.

Heart pounding, Arcturus felt something within him stir. There was a flicker in the darkness of the stable. Beneath his feet, the leather mat glimmered with violet light, patterns flaring along its surface. Out of the corner of his eye, Arcturus saw the outline of a pentacle, surrounded by symbols on each point of the star. The glow pulsed like a beating heart, accompanied by a low hum.

As he reached the last line of the page, a spinning ball of light formed in the air, growing into a brilliant orb that seared his vision. His ears popped as the humming turned into a roar, growing louder with every second.

Arcturus spoke the last words, then tore his eyes away and dove to the ground, clamping his hands over his ears. He could feel a fiery heat washing over him, as if he were lying beside a great bonfire. Then, as sudden as a lightning strike, Arcturus’s world went still.

The new silence fell upon the stable like a cloak, only broken by Arcturus’s deep, sobbing breaths. He shut his eyelids tightly, shrinking into a ball on the ground. He knew he should be moving, gathering his things and riding away before anyone arrived to investigate. Yet the ice of fear had taken hold, leaving him petrified on the cold soil of the stable.

There was a snap as the noble’s horse broke its tether, then the thunder of hooves as it bolted into the night. The light, heat and noise had been too much for the well-trained beast. Realizing his best chance at escape had just galloped out of the door, Arcturus’s terror turned to despair.

Straw rustled in the darkness, followed by a low growl. Arcturus froze and held his breath. He kept his eyes shut and remained perfectly still. If he played dead, perhaps whatever it was would move on in search of more interesting prey.

The noise intensified, moving closer and closer, until he could feel the hot, moist breath of the creature in his ear. A tongue slid across his face, leaving a trail of saliva as it tasted him. Arcturus tensed, knowing he would have to fight.