When stable boy Arcturus accidentally summons a demon and becomes Hominum's first common summoner, he becomes the key to a secret that the powerful overlords would do anything to keep hidden.
Whisked away to Vocans Academy so he can be kept watch over, Arcturus finds himself surrounded by enemies. But he has little time to settle in before his life is turned upside down once again, for Hominum Empire is in turmoil.
Rebellious intent simmers among the masses, and it will not be long before it boils over. Arcturus must choose a side . . . or watch an Empire crumble.
The Summoner Trilogy
Also in the Summoner series
The Outcast (Summoner: The Prequel)
The Summoner’s Handbook (Fall 2018)
A Fine Welcome: Othello’s Journey (A Summoner Short Story)
About the Author
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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.
With a yell, he leaped to his feet, striking out with a clenched fist. It met a furry muzzle, rewarding him with a yelp as the creature fell back. Emboldened, Arcturus struck out again, sending the creature skittering into the shadows. It was clumsy, stumbling and tripping over itself as it ran.
Arcturus grabbed his pack and sprinted to the door. The inn was dark still, with no signs of movement. He grinned with relief, realizing he might still have a chance to escape. If he was lucky, the horse might not be far away.
But as he began to leave, a strange feeling came over him. Pain and ... betrayal. He shook his head and took another step, but the feeling intensified. On the edge of his consciousness, Arcturus felt something stir. The creature was connected to him somehow, as if by a mental umbilical cord. Suddenly, Arcturus was overcome with an immense feeling of loneliness and abandonment, emotions that were all too familiar to him.
He turned and stared into the darkness of the stables. In the light of the moon, the entrance yawned like a cave mouth, shrouded in shadow. The creature was whining, like a dog whose master had kicked it. He felt guilty, for the demon had only been licking his face. Of course ... a demon. The noble was on his way to Vocans Academy to learn the art of summoning them after all. Had Arcturus just done that? Summoned this demon? But that was something only nobles could do ... wasn't it?
As if it could sense his guilt, the demon tumbled out of the stable, blinking in the moonlight. It was not as huge as he had thought, only the size of a large dog. In fact, it had the head of a dog too, with a pair of large blue eyes, followed by a second, smaller pair behind them. It was entirely black, with a shaggy ridge of hair along its spine. This ridge continued on to a bushy, fox-like tail, though it swished back and forth much like an eager pet. Strangest of all was its body, muscled like a jungle cat with sharp, dangerous claws and powerful limbs.
"What are you?" Arcturus whispered, holding a calming hand out. He could feel the demon's fear dissipating, replaced with an eager desire to please. The demon took a wary step forward, and licked his hand with a rough, wet tongue.
Arcturus examined it more closely, stroking its head. Despite its size, the creature looked young, with an overlarge head and clumsy, thick limbs that gave it a puppy-like mien.
"Do you want to come with me?" Arcturus asked, rubbing the creature under its chin. It closed its four eyes and nuzzled back, panting with pleasure. With each scratch Arcturus felt a keen sense of satisfaction on the edge of his consciousness.
"I bet any passing brigands would think twice before attacking us, eh?" Arcturus murmured, smiling. "Let's just hope you don't scare the horse too. We're going to need him tonight."
He turned, just in time to see a cudgel lashing toward his face.
Then nothingness.CHAPTER 2
Arcturus awoke in darkness. For several agonizing seconds, he thought the attack had blinded him. It was only the thin sliver of light at the end of the room that told him otherwise.
The air was stale and heavy, as if it had not been disturbed for some time. The stone underneath him was chilled, devoid of any warmth or comfort. Pain twinged through his skull with every turn of his head, and a tentative feel of his temple revealed a lump the size of a goose egg.
He lay in the gloom, bracing himself to stand and explore his confines. Perhaps if he crawled to the light, he could call for help. He tried to speak, but couldn't manage more than a raw croak. A thirst he had never known was raging inside him, leaving his swollen tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth like a slab of salt pork.
Footsteps, loud and purposeful, echoed from the source of light. The door, for that is what it was, swung open, blinding him with the glow of a torch. He blinked in the new light, shading his eyes with a hand.
"Awake already, are you?" a cold voice snapped, lifting the flame higher.
Arcturus squinted, revealing brass buttons on black cloth — the uniform of a Pinkerton. The man had a handsome face, but his eyes were cruel and devoid of empathy. He approached Arcturus and crouched down to examine him.
Arcturus spied a tankard of water in the man's hand and snatched it, all sense of decorum forgotten. He took deep, noisy gulps, filling his belly until the liquid sloshed inside him as if in a half-empty gourd. The man chuckled and lifted him to his feet, his grip like a vise on Arcturus's shoulder.
"Thank you for the water," Arcturus gasped, dizzied from standing so suddenly.
"It wasn't for drinking. It was for throwing over you to rouse your lazy carcass. Two days you've been in and out of consciousness. That noble must have hit you something fierce." The Pinkerton laughed again, then pulled Arcturus out of the cell and down a narrow corridor.
"Where are we going?" Arcturus slurred, his gorge rising as a bout of nausea overcame him.
Forks of pain spread through his brain with every step, as if his skull were full of lightning. He felt the demon on the very edge of his consciousness, awash with confusion and terror.
Arcturus preferred the sensations in his own mind. Pain he was used to, for his master would knock him about when the mood took him. It was the demon's fear he could not abide, though he was getting flashes of his own as the Pinkerton ignored his question, dragging him up some stairs.
The stairs opened into a small hallway with a set of double doors at the end carved from dark oak and stamped with the insignia of a noble house. They spoke of wealth and power, the old kind that was passed from generation to generation. Paintings lined the walls: portraits of old men with beady eyes that seemed to follow him as they went by.
"You're to go in alone. Be quick about it. It doesn't do to keep a king waiting," the Pinkerton snapped, then grinned at the shock on Arcturus's face. "That's right, boy. You're in that much trouble."
He shoved Arcturus through the doors, then slammed them shut behind him.
Arcturus stumbled and collapsed to the floor, meeting the soft down of a bearskin rug. Bookshelves lined the walls, broken only by the door behind him and a crackling hearth in front. It was uncomfortably hot in the room, as if a sick man was being purged in a sweat lodge.
There were two armchairs and a stool by the fireplace. The young noble was in the smaller seat, eyeing Arcturus with trepidation. Behind him sat two middle-aged men, both with silver dusting their black hair at the temples. One appeared as the portraits did, his eyes beady with a hooked nose. He bore some resemblance to the young noble, and Arcturus guessed that he was his father.
The other wore a circlet around his head and a scowl, twisting an otherwise handsome face into a savage expression. He could only be King Alfric, ruler of Hominum. The three wore expensive clothing, all velvet, silk and silver lacing.
"Tell us exactly as it happened, Charles," King Alfric growled at the young noble, his voice low and angry. "Leave nothing out."
"I told you already. I left the summoning scroll and leather in my panniers and bedded down in a filthy inn just outside Boreas. I woke up to a great racket from outside, so I went to investigate. Next thing I see is this ... hoodlum ... petting my demon!" Charles pointed a wavering finger at Arcturus, spitting as he spoke. "I knocked him out with my blackjack and got the innkeeper to fetch the Pinkertons while I trapped the beast in the stable. It's not me you should be questioning. Ask the delinquent."
"You will speak to your king with respect!" the father bellowed, leaping to his feet and slapping Charles across the face. He lowered his head and bowed to the king, who waved a languorous hand in acceptance.
"Calm yourself, Royce. We have more important things to worry about than petty niceties." The king turned to Arcturus and gave him a forced smile, trying to put him at ease. It had the opposite effect.
"Listen carefully, stable boy. You are the only witness to the theft of Lord Faversham's demon ... or should I say, his son's demon. The scroll and leather Charles mentioned are a way of transferring a demon from one noble to another, usually a parent to a child. Now, I want you to think very carefully. Who was it who took the items from the bag and summoned the demon in the stable? Did you see an insignia on their clothing, or perhaps a distinctive color?" King Alfric turned back to Lord Faversham before Arcturus could answer, which was just as well. His mind was still reeling.
"Lord Lovett has been blessed with four adept children, rather than the usual firstborn. His youngest daughter is joining Vocans Academy this year, just like Charles. Providing a fourth demon for her would be difficult, especially for a weak summoner like him. You don't think ...?"
"My king, he would not dare. The Lovetts are rulers of Calgary, a poor fiefdom by all accounts. It is nothing more than a few farms and rivers. It would be too great a risk for him. If he was caught, my bodyguard would storm Calgary and take back what is ours, and more besides. With your permission, of course." Lord Faversham inclined his head respectfully.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Outcast"
Copyright © 2018 Taran Matharu Ltd..
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