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The Rithmatist (Page 17)

“We’re working on that,” Fitch said.

“I have confidence in you, Fitch!” Harding said, slapping the professor on the shoulder. He took a scroll out of his belt and set it on the desk. “Here are crime scene drawings from the second disappearance. Let me know what you discover.”

“Yes, of course.”

Harding leaned down. “I think these children are still alive, Fitch. Every moment is of the most essential importance. The slime who’s doing this … he’s taunting us. I can feel it.”

“What do you mean?”

“The first girl,” Harding said, settling his rifle on his shoulder. “Her home was just three houses down from a federal police station. After she vanished, I doubled our street patrols. This second student was taken from a building on the very block where we were patrolling last night. This isn’t just about kidnapping. The ones behind this, they want us to know that they’re doing it, and that they don’t care how close we are.”

“I see,” Fitch said, looking disturbed.

“I’m going to get him,” Harding said. “Whoever is doing this, I’m going to find him. You don’t attack children during my watch. I’m counting on you to help me know where to look, Fitch.”

“I will do my best.”

“Excellent. Have a good night, men, and work hard. I’ll check with you soon.” He nodded with a crisp motion to Joel, then let himself out.

Joel watched as the door closed, then turned eagerly to Fitch. “Let’s see what those new sheets contain. There might be more to the puzzle!”

“Joel, lad,” Fitch said. “Remember, this is a young man’s life we are talking about, not just a puzzle.”

Joel nodded solemnly.

“I’m still not convinced that involving you was a good idea,” Fitch said. “I should have talked to your mother first.” Fitch reluctantly undid the tie on the roll of paper. The top sheet was a police report.

VICTIM: Presumed to be Herman Libel, son of Margaret and Leland Libel. Age sixteen. Student at Armedius Academy. Rithmatist.

INCIDENT: Libel was accosted and kidnapped in his bedroom at the family estate, which he had visited for the weekend according to school protocol. The parents slept just three rooms down and reportedly heard nothing. The family servants also reported no sounds.

SCENE: Blood on the floor. Curious chalk drawings (Rithmatic?) discovered on the floor of the bedroom and outside the window.

PERPETRATOR: Unknown. No witnesses. Likely a Rithmatist.

MOTIVE: Unknown.

Professor Fitch flipped to the next page. It was labeled “Chalk drawings discovered at the scene of Herman Libel’s disappearance. Blood spots marked with X’s.”

The picture was of several large squares, each inside one another, with a circle at the middle. The squares had been breached at the corners, and their lengths were scored in the same way as the circle at Lilly Whiting’s house. There were other bits of lines scattered about, the remnants of destroyed chalklings, Joel guessed—but it was hard to tell.

“Hum,” Professor Fitch said. “He boxed himself in.”

Joel nodded. “He saw the chalklings coming, and he surrounded himself with Lines of Forbiddance.”

It was a terrible dueling tactic—a Line of Forbiddance not only blocked chalklings, but physical objects as well. The Rithmatist himself couldn’t reach past one to draw lines and defend himself. By boxing himself in, Herman had sealed his fate.

“He shouldn’t have done that,” Joel said.

“Perhaps,” Fitch said. “But, if he feared being overwhelmed, this could have been the only way. Lines of Forbiddance are stronger than a Circle of Warding.”

“Except at the corners,” Joel said.

Lines of Forbiddance had to be straight—and straight lines had no bind points. The chalklings had gotten in at the corners. But perhaps Fitch was right. Chalklings were fast, and running might have been a bad idea.

The only option would be to bunker in, drawing lots of lines, locking yourself in place and yelling for help. Then you’d wait, hoping someone would hear you and be able to do something. You’d sit, watching while a squirming mass of chalk drawings chewed and clawed their way closer, getting past the lines one at a time.…

Joel shivered. “Did you notice these specks?”

Fitch looked more closely. “Hum. Yes.”

“They look like they might be remnants of chalklings,” Joel said. “After they get torn apart.”

“Maybe,” Fitch said, squinting. “They weren’t re-created very well. Blast! The police sketch artists don’t know what is important and what isn’t!”

“We need to see the scene itself,” Joel said.

“Yes,” Fitch said. “However, it is probably too late now. The police will have moved about, scuffing the chalk, throwing acid on the Lines of Forbiddance to remove them so that they can search the room. And that means…”

He trailed off.

We won’t be able to look at a crime scene unless there’s another incident, Joel thought, and the police know not to touch anything until we get there.

That meant waiting for another person to disappear, which seemed like a bad idea. Better to work on what they had at the moment.

“Here,” Fitch said, looking at the third—and final—sheet. It contained a pattern of looping lines, like the one that had been discovered at Lilly’s house. The sketch was labeled “Strange pattern of chalk discovered on the wall outside the victim’s room.”

“How odd,” Fitch said. “The same one as before. But that’s not a Rithmatic pattern.”

“Professor,” Joel said, taking the sheet and raising it to the light. “I’ve seen that pattern somewhere before. I know I have!”

“It’s a fairly simple design,” Fitch said. “Perhaps you’ve just seen it on a rug or some stonework. It has an almost Celtic feel, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps it’s the symbol of the killer … or, um, kidnapper.”

Joel shook his head. “I feel like I’ve seen it somewhere having to do with Rithmatics. Maybe one of the texts I read?”

“If that is the case,” Fitch said, “it’s no text I’ve seen. That’s not a Rithmatic pattern.”

“Couldn’t there be lines we don’t know about yet?” Joel said. “I mean, we didn’t even discover Rithmatics was possible until a few centuries back.”

“I suppose,” Fitch said. “Some scholars talk about such things.”

“Why don’t you draw that pattern? Maybe it will do something.”

“I guess I could try. What harm could it do?” He got a piece of chalk out of his coat pocket, then cleared off the table.

He hesitated.

A thought struck Joel. What harm could it do? Potentially a lot, if the design really does have something to do with the kidnappings.

In his head, Joel imagined Fitch’s sketch inadvertently calling forth an army of chalklings or drawing the attention of the person who controlled them. One of the professor’s lamps began to wind down, the light fading, and Joel quickly rushed over to rewind it.

“I guess we’ll have to try it sometime,” Fitch said. “Perhaps you should wait outside.”

Joel shook his head. “So far, only Rithmatists have disappeared. I think I should stay, to watch and help in case something happens to you.”

Fitch sat for a moment, then finally he sighed and reached out to sketch a copy of the looping swirl on the desk.

Nothing happened.

Joel held his breath. Minutes ticked by. Still nothing. He walked nervously over to the desk. “Did you draw it right?”

“Hum. Well, I think so,” Fitch said, holding up the sketch. “Assuming the officers at Herman’s house copied it right in the first place.” He reached out and touched his chalk against the looping pattern, obviously trying to dismiss it. Nothing.

“It has no Rithmatic properties,” the professor said. “Otherwise, I’d be able to make it puff away.” He paused, then cocked his head. “I … appear to have made quite a mess on the top of my desk. Hum. I didn’t consider that.”

“We need to do more tests,” Joel said. “Try different variations.”

“Yes,” Fitch said. “Perhaps that is what I shall do. You, however, should go home and return to bed. Your mother will be worried!”

“Mother is working,” Joel said.

“Well, you are probably tired,” Fitch said.

“I’m an insomniac.”

“Then you should go and try to sleep,” Fitch said. “I am not going to have a student in my office until the early hours of the morning. It’s already too late. Be off with you.”

Joel sighed. “You’ll share anything you discover, right?”

“Yes, yes,” Fitch said, waving.

Joel sighed again, louder this time.

“You’re beginning to sound like Melody,” Fitch said. “Go!”

Melody? Joel thought, walking away. I am not!

“And … Joel?” Professor Fitch said.

“Yes?”

“Keep to the … well-lit parts of campus on your way to the dormitories, lad. All right?”

Joel nodded, then shut the door.

Chapter 11

The next morning, Joel rose early and left for Fitch’s office. As he crossed the dew-wetted green, he heard a clamor coming from the direction of the campus office. He rounded the hill to find a small crowd outside the building.

A crowd of adults, not students.

Frowning, Joel walked to the edge of the crowd. Exton stood to the side, wearing a red vest with dark trousers and a matching bowler. The rest of the people were dressed similarly—nice clothing, with bright, single-piece dresses for the women, and vests and trousers for the men. None wore coats in the summer heat, but most wore hats.

The adults muttered among themselves, a few shaking fists toward Principal York, who stood in the doorway of the office.

“What’s going on?” Joel whispered to Exton.

The clerk tapped his cane against the ground. “Parents,” he said. “The bane of every school’s existence.”

“I assure you that your children are safe at Armedius!” the principal said. “This academy has always been a haven for those chosen to be Rithmatists.”

“Safe like Lilly and Herman?” one of the parents yelled. Others rumbled in assent.

“Please!” Principal York said. “We don’t know what is happening yet! Don’t jump to conclusions.”

“Principal York,” said a woman with a narrow face and a nose pointy enough it could poke out someone’s eye if she turned in haste. “Are you denying that there is some threat to the students here?”

“I’m not denying that,” York said. “I simply said that they are safe on campus. No student has come to harm while on school grounds. It was only during visits outside the walls that incidents occurred.”

“I am taking my son away!” one of the men said. “To another island. You can’t stop me.”

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