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The Rithmatist (Page 45)

“Hey, you started carrying some!” Melody exclaimed.

“My father’s chalk,” Joel said, sketching out a long rectangular maze pattern on the floor. “Go draw this in the corridor there. Make it as long as you can, and leave this little section open on the side and at the far end.”

She nodded, then moved over to begin drawing. Joel took his chalk and closed off the hole she left open.

“What good will that do?” she asked, drawing urgently.

“You’ll see,” Joel said, spinning back toward Harding and Fitch. Fitch drew furiously and was faring far better than Nalizar had. He had managed to enclose a couple of the Scribbler’s chalklings within boxes, trapping them.

Unfortunately, his outer defenses were nearly eaten away. He wouldn’t last long like this.

Joel gave Melody as much time as he dared. Then he yelled, “Hey, Harding!”

The inspector turned.

“Wednesday night,” Joel said, “you tried to kill me. Now is your chance. Because if you don’t, I’m going to go get help and—” He cut off, yelping. Apparently Harding didn’t need any encouragement, for a good third of his chalklings began scrambling back down the hallway toward Joel and Melody, taking some of the pressure off the beleaguered Fitch.

Joel turned and dashed down the hallway. Melody had drawn quickly, and while her lines weren’t perfectly straight, they would do. Joel entered the long corridor of chalk she’d made, with Lines of Forbiddance to either side of him, then wove through the short maze of lines.

As he’d expected, the chalklings piled in after him. They could have gotten through to Melody if they’d known that the section of the lines that Joel had drawn wasn’t Rithmatic—but, just like before, chalklings seemed as fooled by a fake line as a human might be, at least at first.

Joel burst through the hole in the end of the small maze. “Close it!”

Melody did so, blocking the chalklings. The things immediately turned around to escape back out the front of the maze.

“Come on!” Joel said, running, Melody at his side. They raced the chalklings, who had to weave through turns to get to the end. Joel and Melody passed through the gap where he had drawn a non-Rithmatic line, then Melody closed off the entrance to the maze.

She stood, puffing, the chalklings inside shaking angrily. They began to attack the walls.

Joel turned around. “Melody!” he said. Another group of chalklings had broken off from Professor Fitch and were heading toward him and Melody.

She yelped, drawing a line across the corridor, then down the sides of the wall to protect her and Joel.

That trapped them again. Harding left the second batch of chalklings there, chewing on the line blocking Joel and Melody from the combat.

“That’s all we can do, Professor!” Joel called, just quiet enough that the Lines of Silencing had no effect. Then, more softly, he added, “Come on.…”

Fitch drew with a look of intense concentration on his face. Every time he seemed to waver, he glanced up at Melody and Joel surrounded by chalklings. His face grew more determined, and he continued his work.

Harding—the Scribbler—growled, then began launching his enhanced Lines of Vigor at Fitch. The professor drew expert Lines of Forbiddance to not just block, but deflect the Lines of Vigor.

Joel watched, breathing quickly, following Fitch’s moves as Melody shored up their defense, drawing reinforcing lines where the chalklings looked like they might be close to getting through.

“Come on…” Joel repeated. “You can do it.”

Fitch worked furiously, drawing with both hands. His defense was expert—he coaxed the chalklings toward weak points, then blocked them off inside Lines of Forbiddance.

Then, with a smile, Fitch reached out and drew a jagged Line of Vigor like Harding had been doing.

It shot across the room and hit the surprised inspector, throwing him backward. Harding hit the ground with a grunt. He groaned, then stood back up, drawing a Circle of Warding around himself, followed by a Line of Forbiddance in front of it.

When did Harding become a Rithmatist? Joel thought, realizing the oddity for the first time. That Line of Warding is almost inhumanly perfect. And he drew it at a distance, with chalk on the end of his rifle!

Fitch wasn’t daunted. He expertly bounced two Lines of Vigor around Harding’s front defending wall. Harding was forced to draw Lines of Forbiddance at his sides.

Fitch then bounced a Line of Vigor off the wall Melody had drawn, hitting the back of Harding’s defense.

“Wow,” Joel said.

Harding bellowed, then drew a line behind himself as well.

“Ha!” Fitch yelled just as the chalklings burst through his circle.

“Professor!” Joel yelled.

Fitch, however, stood up and leaped out of the circle as the chalklings piled into it. They hesitated, and Fitch quickly drew a Line of Forbiddance to block off the circle, trapping them inside his own defense. Then he rushed across the room and drew a Line of Forbiddance across the hallway to trap the chalklings there against Melody’s line.

Finally, he turned toward Harding. The man, whatever he was, stood with eyes shadowed. He no longer smiled, but simply waited. The creature knew that soon, the chalklings would break free and attack again.

“Professor,” Joel called softly, something occurring to him. It was a long shot, but …

Fitch turned toward him.

“A clock,” Joel said. “Find a clock.”

Fitch frowned, but did as requested. He burst into one of the students’ rooms, then came back out with a clock and held it toward Joel. “What do I do with this?”

“Break off the face,” Joel said. “Show the creature the gears inside!”

Fitch did so, desperately prying off the front of the clock. He held it up, showing the gears. Harding shied back, dropping his rifle, raising his hands.

Fitch approached, displaying the ticking gears, the winding springs, the spinning circles. Harding cried out, and in the light of the single lantern, Joel could see the creature’s shadow begin to shake and twist. The shadow fuzzed, coming to look as if it were drawn in charcoal.

“By the Depths!” Fitch said. “A Forgotten!”

“What the dusts is a Forgotten!” Joel said.

“A creature of Nebrask,” Fitch said. “They lead the wild chalklings. But … how did one get all the way here? And attached to Harding! I wasn’t aware that was possible. This is dire, Joel.”

“I figured that last part out,” Joel said. “How do we kill it?”

“Acid,” Fitch said, proffering the clock. “We need acid!”

“Melody, let me out the back.”

“But—”

“Do it!” Joel said.

She reached back, dismissing the line. Joel dashed down the corridor and steps to where the second bucket of acid waited. He grabbed it, then ran back up the stairs. He rounded the hallway in the other direction, passing Nalizar on the ground and coming up behind Professor Fitch.

Joel hesitated beside the professor. Nearby, the chalklings Fitch had trapped inside his defense burst out, swarming across the floor.

Joel took a deep breath, then threw the acid toward Harding’s feet. The acid washed away the Line of Forbiddance and the Circle of Warding, splashing across Harding’s shadow.

That dissolved, as if it were made of charcoal. Or chalk. Blackness melted into the acid.

The inspector screamed, then collapsed to the ground.

The chalklings froze in place.

All fell silent.

Joel waited, muscles tense, watching those chalklings. They continued to remain frozen.

We beat him. We did it!

“My, my,” Fitch said. He reached up to wipe his brow. “I actually won a duel. That’s the first time I’ve actually won! My hands barely shook.”

“You did fantastic, Professor!” Joel said.

“Well, I don’t know about that. But, well, after you children left I just couldn’t sleep. After how I treated you and all. And, hum. Here you’d been right so many times, and I sent you away without even listening. So I came out to find you. Saw the policemen at the front of the building here, and…” He hesitated. “I say,” Fitch said, pointing. “What is happening to them?”

Joel glanced at the chalklings. They were beginning to quiver even more furiously than normal. Then they began to expand.

Uh-oh, Joel thought. “Dismiss the lines boxing them in! Quick!”

The other two gave him incredulous stares.

“Trust me!” Joel said as the chalklings began to take shape. Fitch rushed over to his defense and began to release the chalklings he’d captured in small boxes. Melody gave Joel a “you’d better know what you’re doing” look, then bent down to release her lines.

The first of the chalklings popped into three dimensions, forming the shape of the young woman Joel had seen taken earlier. Fitch exclaimed in surprise, then reached out with a second piece of chalk, releasing the chalklings more quickly before the people inside of them got squished by their confines.

In minutes, Joel, Melody, and Fitch were surrounded by a group of dazed people. Some of them were students—Joel recognized Herman Libel among the group—but many were older Rithmatists in their twenties, wearing the coats of graduates. Rithmatists from the fight at Nebrask.

“William?” Melody asked, looking at one of the younger Rithmatists—a man with red hair.

“Where the dusts am I?” the young man said. “Mel? What the…?”

Melody’s brother trailed off as she grabbed him in an embrace.

At that moment, Joel heard footsteps. A breathless Nalizar appeared around the corner, holding his chalk, still dripping slightly with acid.

“I will save—” he began, then stopped short. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Joel said. “Great timing, Professor.” He sank down, exhausted, leaning back against a wall.

Melody walked over, hands on hips. “Worn out already?” she asked with a smile, her confused brother trailing along behind her.

“Tragic, eh?” Joel asked.

“Definitely.”

Chapter 25

“I suppose we owe an apology to Professor Nalizar, don’t we?” Principal York asked.

Joel shrugged. “I’d apologize to Exton first, sir.”

York chuckled, his mustache quivering. “Already done, lad. Already done.”

They stood outside Warding Hall, groups of people piling in for the Melee. York had declared the campus open again after just one day of chaos following the Scribbler’s defeat. The principal wanted to make a point that Armedius would continue undaunted; he had been certain to publicize not only the return of the missing students, but the dozens of Rithmatists thought lost at Nebrask. The media was having a frenzy with that.

“And not one, but two new Rithmatic lines discovered,” York said, hands behind his back, looking utterly pleased.

“Yeah,” Joel said, a little noncommittal.

York eyed him. “I’ve sent letters to some of my friends who lead the other academies, Joel.”

Joel turned.

“I think that, in light of events, several of them can be persuaded to honor some of their contracts with your father. Armedius certainly will. It may not be the riches your father dreamed of, lad, but I’ll see your mother’s debts paid and then some. We owe you and Professor Fitch.”

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