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The Rithmatist (Page 43)

Joel’s father was one of the first on the list. His father’s first visit to Zona Arida had come only a few weeks after he had checked out the book.

Joel flipped open the volume, scanning the chapter lists. One was called “Historical New-Line Theories.” He flipped to that one, skimming the contents by the light of a single lantern. It took several hours to find what he wanted.

Some early explorers reported strange designs upon the cliffs of these islands in the southwest. We cannot know who created them, since much of America was uninhabited at the time of European arrival.

Some have claimed that lines drawn after these patterns have Rithmatic properties. Most scholars dismiss this. Many odd shapes can be drawn and gain chalkling life from a Line of Making. That does not make them a new line.

Joel turned the next page. There, facing him, was a sketch of the very creature he’d seen in the chamber of inception earlier that day.

What is going on here? Joel thought, reading the caption to the picture. It read: One of the many sketches made by Captain Estevez during his explorations of Zona Arida Island.

Joel blinked, then looked back at his table.

Something tapped at his window.

He yelped, jumping up out of his chair. He reached for the bucket of acid he’d taken from Inspector Harding, but then saw what was on the other side of the window.

Red hair, wide eyes. Melody grinned at him, waving. Joel checked the clock. It was two in the morning.

He groaned, walking out and then climbing the steps to open the dormitory door, which was locked. Melody stood outside. Her skirt was scuffed, and there were twigs in her hair.

“Melody,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“Standing in the cold,” she said. “Aren’t you going to invite a lady in?”

“I don’t know if it would be proper.…”

She pushed her way in anyway, walking down to the workroom. Joel sighed, closing the door and following her. Inside, she turned to him, hands on hips. “This,” she said, “is appalling.”

“What?” he asked.

“It really doesn’t work as well as the word ‘tragic,’ does it?” She flopped down into a chair. “I need a different word.”

“Do you know what time it is?”

“I’m annoyed,” she said, ignoring his question. “They’ve had us locked up all day. You’re an insomniac. I figured I could come bug you.”

“You snuck past the guards?”

“Out the window. Second story. There’s a tree close by. Harder to climb down than it looks.”

“You’re lucky the policemen didn’t catch you.”

“Nah,” she said. “They aren’t there.”

“What?”

“Oh, there are a couple at the main door,” she said. “But only those two. The ones that patrolled below the windows left a short time ago. Guess they changed shift or something. Anyway, that’s not important. Joel, the important thing is this tragedy I’m trying to tell you about.”

“You being locked up?”

“That,” she said. “And Exton being locked up. He didn’t do it, Joel. I know he didn’t. The guy gave me half of his sandwich once.”

“That’s a reason for him not being a murderer?”

“It’s more than that,” Melody said. “He’s a nice man. He grumbles a lot, but I like him. He has a kind heart. He’s also smart.”

“The person doing this was smart.”

“Exactly. Why would Exton attack the son of a knight-senator? That’s a stupid move for him, if he wanted to remain inconspicuous. That’s the part of this that doesn’t make sense. We should be asking why—why attack Charles? If we knew that, I’ll bet the real motive for all of this would come together.”

Joel sat thoughtfully.

“Harding has evidence against Exton,” Joel said.

“So?”

“So,” Joel said. “That’s usually what proves that a person is guilty.”

“I don’t believe it,” Melody said. “Look, if Exton got kicked out of here all those years ago, then how in the world was he a good enough Rithmatist to create a line nobody else knew of?”

“Yeah. I know.” He stood. “Come on,” he said, walking out the door.

Melody followed. “Where are we going?”

“Professor Fitch’s office,” Joel said, crossing the dark campus. They walked in silence for a time before Joel noticed it. “Where are the police patrols?”

“I don’t know,” Melody said. “See, I told you.”

Joel hastened his step. They reached Warding Hall, then rushed up the stairs. Joel pounded on the door for a while, and eventually a very groggy Professor Fitch answered the door. “Hum?”

“Professor,” Joel said. “I think something’s going on.”

Fitch yawned. “What time is it?”

“Early,” Joel said. “Look, Professor, you saw the lines that were intended to trap me? The cage of Lines of Forbiddance that Exton supposedly drew?”

“Yes?” Fitch asked.

“How well were the lines drawn?”

“They were good. Expertly straight.”

“Professor,” Joel said, “I saw lines that Exton drew at the door. They weren’t shaped right. He did a terrible job.”

“So he was trying to fool you, Joel.”

“No,” Joel said. “He was afraid for his life. I saw it in his eyes. He wouldn’t have drawn poor lines in that case! Professor, what if Nalizar—”

“Joel!” Fitch snapped. “I’m tired of your fixation on Professor Nalizar! I … well … I hate raising my voice, but I’m just fed up! You wake me up at awful hours, talking about Nalizar? He didn’t do it, no matter how badly you want him to have.”

Joel fell silent.

Fitch rubbed his eyes. “I don’t mean to be testy. It’s just … well, talk to me in the morning.”

With that, and a yawn, Fitch closed the door.

“Great,” Melody said.

“He’s not good with lack of sleep,” Joel said. “Never has been.”

“So what now?” Melody asked.

“Let’s go talk to the policemen at the front of your dormitory,” Joel said, rushing down the stairs. “See why the others aren’t on their patrol.”

They crossed the campus again in the dark, and Joel began to wish he’d brought that bucket of acid with him. But surely Harding’s men would—

He pulled up short. The Rithmatic student dormitory was straight ahead, and the door was open. Two forms lay on the grass in front of it.

“Dusts!” Joel said, pelting forward, Melody at his side. The forms proved to be the policemen. Joel checked the pulse of the first one with nervous fingers.

“Alive,” Joel said. “But unconscious.” He moved over to the other one, finding that he was still alive as well.

“Uh, Joel,” Melody said. “You remember what I said this morning, about being angry at you for not inviting me to be attacked with you?”

“Yeah.”

“I completely take that back.”

Joel looked up at the open doorway. Light reflected distantly inside.

“Go for help,” he said.

“Where?”

“The front gates,” he said. “The office. I don’t know! Just find it. I’m going to see who’s inside.”

“Joel, you’re not a Rithmatist. What can you do?”

“People could be dying in there, Melody.”

“I’m the Rithmatist.”

“If the Scribbler really is in there,” Joel said, “it won’t matter which of us goes in. Your lines will be little defense against him. Go!”

Melody stood for a moment, then bolted away at a dash.

Joel looked at the open doorway. What am I doing?

He gritted his teeth, slipping inside. At the corner, he found some buckets of acid, and he felt more confident carrying one as he snuck up the stairs. Boys were on the first floor, with girls on the second, some families of professors on the third. There were hall mothers stationed on the second floor to keep watch. If Joel could find one of them, perhaps she could help.

He rounded the top of the stairs on the second floor, slipping into the hallway. It appeared empty.

He heard something on the stairs behind him.

He looked with a panic to see something coming down from the third floor, moving in the darkness there. Barely thinking, Joel hefted his bucket of acid and tossed it.

The something turned out to be a person. The wave of acid completely drenched the surprised Nalizar.

The professor gasped, rubbing his eyes, and Joel yelped, scrambling away down the second-floor hallway. In his panicked mind, he thought to make for Melody’s room, where he could use the aforementioned tree to climb away. He heard Nalizar follow, cursing.

Joel smacked straight into something invisible. It threw him backward to the ground, stunned. The hallway was barely lit, and he hadn’t seen the Line of Forbiddance on the ground.

“Foolish child,” Nalizar said, grabbing him by the shoulder.

Joel yelled and punched as hard as he could at Nalizar’s gut. Nalizar grunted, but didn’t let go. Instead, he stuck his foot out, scraping it along the ground. It left a chalk line behind it.

Chalk on the bottom tip of the shoe, Joel thought. Good idea. Hard to draw straight lines, but good idea.

Nalizar shoved Joel to the floor, then finished a Box of Forbiddance around him. Joel groaned at the pain in his arm—Nalizar had a powerful grip.

Trapped.

Joel cried out, feeling at the invisible box. It was solid.

“Idiot,” Nalizar said, wiping his face with a dry section of his coat. “If you live this night, you’re going to owe me a new coat.” The professor’s skin looked irritated from the acid, and his eyes were bloodshot. The acid used wasn’t powerful enough to be truly dangerous to a person, however.

“I—” Nalizar said.

One of the doors in the hallway opened and interrupted him. Nalizar spun as a large figure stepped out into the hallway. Joel could just barely make out the face in the dim light.

Inspector Harding.

Nalizar stood for a moment, dripping acid. He glanced at Joel, then back at Harding.

“So,” Nalizar said to Harding, “it is you. I’ve tracked you down at last.”

Harding stood still. In the shadowed light, his domed police officer’s hat looked an awful lot like a bowler. He lowered his rifle, resting his hand on the butt, the tip against the ground. Like a cane.

His hat was pulled down over his eyes so that Joel couldn’t see them. Joel could see the inspector’s ghastly grin. Harding opened his mouth, tipping his head back.

A swarm of squirming chalklings flooded out of his mouth like a torrent, scurrying down his chest and across his body.

Nalizar cursed, dropping to his knees and drawing a circle around himself. Joel watched as Nalizar completed the Easton Defense with quick, careful strokes.

Harding, Joel thought. He said there was a federal police station near Lilly Whiting’s house. And he said he was on patrol in the very area where Herman Libel was taken—Harding claimed that the Scribbler was taunting him by striking so close.

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