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The Rithmatist (Page 39)

Nebrask. He’d have to go to Nebrask. He didn’t know much about what happened at the place. There were the wild chalklings, of course. The Rithmatists on the island maintained their enormous chalk Circle of Warding, thousands of feet in diameter, to keep the chalklings and the Tower locked in.

There were the reports of other things on the island as well. Dark, unexplained things. Things Joel would eventually have to face, should he be made a Rithmatist. And he’d only have one year to prepare and learn, while other students had eight or nine.

That’s why they don’t let older people become Rithmatists, he realized. They need to be trained and taught when they are young.

Students went to Nebrask their final year of schooling. Ten years of service came next, then freedom. Some chose to work at the spring-winding stations, but others stayed at Nebrask, Melody said. Not for the money, but for the challenge. For the struggle and the fight. Would this be Joel’s future?

This is all moot anyway, Joel thought, rolling over, trying to force himself to sleep. I’m not going to become a Rithmatist. The Master won’t pick me because I won’t have enough time to train.

Yet there was a chance. Over the next thirty minutes or so, thinking about that chance kept him from being able to sleep.

Eventually, Joel rose and reached for the lamp beside his bed. He cranked the key on the side, then watched through the glass as the spinners inside began to twirl. Several small filaments grew hot from the friction, giving out illumination, which the reflectors inside concentrated and bounced out the top.

He stooped over, picking through the books beside his bed. He chose one. The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, the first page read. A diary, one of the earliest recorded bits of literature from the original settlers of the American Isles. It had happened before the wild chalklings began their main offensive, but after they began to harass people.

The sovereignty and goodness of THE MASTER, together with the faithfulness of his promises displayed, being a narrative of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. The second Addition Corrected and amended. Written by her own hand for her private use, and now made public at the earnest desire of some friends.

On the tenth of February, sixteenth year of our arrival, came the wild chalklings with great numbers upon Lancaster. Hearing the sounds of splashing, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. The monsters were visible upon the ground, dodging between the buckets of water thrown by our men.

Water. It washed away chalk, but not very well. They hadn’t yet discovered the composition of acids that would dissolve the chalklings with a single splash.

There were five persons eaten in one house; the father, and the mother and a sucking child, they stripped of skin, then ate out the eyes. The other two they herded out the doorway. There were two others, who being out of their garrison upon some occasion were set upon; one was stripped of all skin, the other escaped.

Another, seeing many of the wild chalklings about his barn, ventured and went out, but was quickly set upon. They ate at his feet until he screamed, falling to the ground, then swarmed above him. There were three others belonging to the same garrison who were killed; the wild chalklings climbing up the sides of the walls, attacking from all sides, knocking over lanterns and beginning fires. Thus these murderous creatures went on, burning and destroying before them.

Joel shivered in the silence of his room. The matter-of-fact narrative was disturbing, but oddly transfixing. How would you react, if you’d never seen a chalkling before? What would your response be to a living picture that climbed up walls and slid beneath doors, attacking without mercy, eating the flesh off bodies?

His lantern continued to whir.

At length they came and beset our own house, and quickly it was the dolefulest day that ever mine eyes saw. They slid beneath the door and quickly they ate one man among us, then another, and then a third.

Now is the dreadful hour come, that I have often heard of (in time of war, as it was the case of others), but now mine eyes see it. Some in our house were fighting for their lives, others wallowing in their blood, the house on fire over our heads. Now might we hear mothers and children crying out for themselves, and one another, “Master, what shall we do?”

Then I took my children (and one of my sisters’, hers) to go forth and leave the house: but as soon as we came to the door and appeared, the creatures outside swarmed up the hill toward us.

My brother-in-law (being before wounded, in defending the house, his legs bleeding) was set upon from behind, and fell down screaming with a bucket of water in his hands. Whereat the wild chalklings did dance scornfully, silently, around him. Demons of the Depths they most certainly are, many made in the form of man, but created as if from the shape of sticks and lines.

I stood in fright as we were surrounded. Thus was my family butchered by those merciless creatures, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels. The children were taken as I ran for the bucket to use in our defense, but it was emptied, and I felt a cold feeling of something on my leg, followed by a sharp pain.

It was at that point that I saw it. Something in the darkness, illuminated just barely by the fire of our burning house. A shape that did seem to absorb the light, created completely of dark, shifting blackness: like charcoal scraped and scratched on the ground, only but standing upright in the shadows beside the house.

It did watch. That deep, terrible blackness. Something from the Depths themselves. The shape wiggling, shaking, like a pitch-black fire sketched in charcoal.

Watching.

Something cracked against the window of Joel’s room.

He jumped and saw a shadow moving away from the small pane of glass. The window stood at the very top of the wall, in the small space between where the ground stopped and the ceiling began.

Vandals! Joel thought, remembering the curse that had been painted on the humanities building. He jumped from the bed and rushed for the door, throwing on a coat. He was up the stairs and out the door a few moments later.

He rounded the building to see what the vandals had written. He found the side of the building clean. Had he been wrong?

That was when he saw it. A symbol, written in chalk on the brick wall. A looping swirl. The Rithmatic line they still hadn’t been able to identify.

The night was strangely quiet.

Oh no … Joel thought, feeling a horrible chill. He backed away from the wall, then opened his mouth to call for help.

His scream came out unnaturally soft. He felt the sound almost get torn away from his throat, sucked toward that symbol, dampened.

The kidnappings … Joel thought, stunned. Nobody heard the Rithmatists call for help. Except for a few servants, on the side of the hall where that symbol had been drawn too hastily.

That’s what the line does. It sucks in sound.

He stumbled back. He had to find the police, raise the alarm. The Scribbler had come to the dormitory for …

Dormitory. This was the general dormitory. There were no Rithmatists in it. Who had the kidnapper come for?

Several shaking white shapes crawled over the top of the building and began to move down the wall.

For Joel.

Joel yelled—the sound dying—and took off at a dash across the green. This can’t be happening, he thought with terror. I’m not a Rithmatist! The Scribbler is only supposed to come after them.

He ran madly, screaming for help. His voice came out as barely a whisper. He glanced back and saw a small wave of whiteness following him across the lawn. There were about a dozen of the creatures—fewer than the attacks indicated had taken the others. But then, Joel wasn’t a Rithmatist.

He yelled again, panicking, his heart thumping, his entire body feeling cold. No sound came from his mouth.

Think, Joel, he told himself. Don’t panic. You’ll die if you panic.

That sound-stealing line can’t have this long a range. Someone at one of the other crime scenes would have noticed that they couldn’t make sound, and that would have given it away.

That means there must be other copies of the symbol nearby. Drawn in a row, because …

Because the Scribbler guessed which direction I’d run.

Joel pulled up sharply, looking wildly across the dark green. It was lit only by a few phantom lanterns, but in that light, he saw it. A white line drawn across the concrete walk ahead. A Line of Forbiddance.

He turned, looking behind him. The chalklings continued onward, pushing Joel toward the Line of Forbiddance. Trying to corner him and trap him. There were probably lines to the sides as well—it was hard to draw with chalk on earth, but it was possible. If he got trapped behind Lines of Forbiddance …

He would die.

That thought was almost enough to stun him again. The wave of chalklings approached, and he could see what Charles had described in his final note. The things weren’t like traditional chalklings. Their forms shook violently, as if to some phantom sound. Arms, legs, bodies melding together. Like the visions of an insane painter who couldn’t make up his mind which monstrosity he wanted to create.

Move! something inside of Joel yelled. He sucked in a deep breath, then took off at a dash straight at the chalklings. When he drew near, he jumped, soaring over the top of the creatures. He hit the ground and dashed back the way he had come.

Have to think quickly, he told himself. Can’t go to the dormitory. They’ll just come under the doors. I have to find the policemen. They have acid.

Where were Harding’s patrols? Joel ran with all his might toward the Rithmatic side of the campus.

His breath began to come in gasps. He couldn’t outrun chalklings for long. Ahead, he saw lights. The campus office building. Joel let out a ragged yell.

“Help!”

Blessedly, the sound came in full force. He’d gotten away from the trap. However, though sound was no longer dampened, his voice felt weak. He had been running at full speed for too long.

The door to the office flung open and Exton looked out, wearing his typical vest and bow tie. “Joel?” he called. “What’s wrong?”

Joel shook his head, sweating. He dared a glance behind, and saw the chalklings scrambling over the grass just behind him. Inches away.

“Blessed heavens!” Exton shouted.

Joel turned back, but in his haste, he tripped and fell to the ground.

Joel cried out, hitting hard, the breath knocked from him. Dazed, he cringed, waiting for the pain, the coldness, the attacks he had read about.

Nothing happened.

“Help, police, someone!” Exton was screaming.

Joel lifted his head. Why wasn’t he dead? The grass was lit only by a lantern shining through the window of the office building. The chalklings quivered nearby, surrounding him, their figures shaking. Small hands, eyes, faces, legs, claws formed periodically around whirling, tempestuous chalk bodies.

They did not advance.

Joel raised himself up on his arms. Then he saw it: the gold dollar Melody had given him. It had fallen from his pocket and lay sparkling on the grass.

The gears inside it ticked quietly, and the chalklings shied away from it. Several of them tested forward, but they were reticent.

There was a sudden splash, and one of the chalklings washed away in a wave of liquid.

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