Scribbler Prologue Lilly’s lamp blew out as she dashed down the hallway. She threw the lamp aside, splashing oil across the painted wall and fine rug. The liquid glistened in the moonlight. The house was still around her. Empty, silent save for her panicked breathing, coming in gasps. She’d given up on screaming. Nobody seemed to hear. It was as if the entire city had gone dead. She burst into a well-furnished room, then paused, uncertain what to do. A grandfather clock ticked in the corner, illuminated by moonlight through the broad picture windows. A beautiful city spread beyond, buildings rising up ten stories or more, springrail lines crisscrossing between them. Jamestown, her home for all sixteen years of her life. I am going to die, she thought. Desperation pushed her through the terrified stupor and she burst into motion. She didn’t run for the back door, however. She needed to fight. She shoved aside the rocking chair in the middle of the room, then hurriedly rolled up the rug so that she could get to the wooden floor. Then, she reached to the pouch tied to a loop on her skirt and pulled out a single, bone-white length of chalk. She knelt down on the wood planks, staring at the ground in front of her, trying to clear her mind. Trying to think, despite the horrors outside. Focus. She reached down, setting the tip of the chalk against the ground, and began to draw a circle around herself. Her hand shook so much, however, that the line was uneven. Professor Fitch would have been quite displeased with her, had he seen such a sloppy Line of Warding. She laughed to herself at the thought--a desperate, sound, more of a cry. Professor Fitch would never see this line. He and her other instructors seemed so far away now, though she’d seen them just earlier in the day. Sweat dripped from her brow, making dark spots on the wood before her. Her hand quivered as she drew several straight lines inside the circle--Lines of Forbiddance to stabilize her defensive ring. Then, she reached outside, trying to sort through her addled memories to remember the Matson Defense. Two smaller circles on the outside of her main ring, bound directly across from each other on top and bottom. A straight Line of Forbiddance to her right and to her left of the circle, to defend her back. Bind points Lines of Making on the small circles, at the-- She heard a sound. Lilly snapped her head up, looking down the corridor she’d run through a few moments later. A door sat at the end, leading to the street outside. A shadow moved on the other side of the door’s clouded window plate. The door rattled. She’d locked it. She doubted that would be enough “Oh, Master,” she found herself whispering. “Please. . . please. . . .” But the prayer wouldn’t come. The door stopped rattling. Lilly furiously turned back to her Rithmatic sketch, but now that she looked at it again, she could see just how uneven her lines were. She began to cry, and tears began to splat against the floor, joining the drops of sweat. The door burst open. She cringed, looking up. A figure stood, framed in moonlight, a top hat on his head, a short cape covering his shoulders and coming down to his waist. He stood with his hand on a cane to his side, and she could not see his face. A group of squirming, shifting, chaklings scrambled in front of the figure. Flat as a drawings, they slid along the floor and moved up the walls, formed of white chalk that seemed to glow in the moonlight. They made no noise as they moved forward with an eager glee. A thousand different shapes, climbing over one another with two- dimensional claws and legs. They looked almost like scribbles, not real chalkings at all, for they were unable to hold a firm shape. They advanced like a tide of grotesque, flat spiders, crawling on the floor, ceiling, and walls. They were only outlines. Only drawings. Bones of chalk. And Lilly knew them to be more deadly than any creature of flesh. Against all of her training, she dropped her chalk, kneeling back, bowing her head. To wait. Part One Scribbler Chapter One Joel was there the day that Professor Fitch was challenged. He stood at the back of the lecture hall-- which was shaped like a small amphitheater, with tiered seats leading down to the lecture floor. Though a few of the students glanced at Joel, Professor Fitch did not. The professor rarely noticed when he had deliveries from the office, and would ramble on for the entire lecture period before realizing that one of those watching wasn’t actually a member of the class. Joel didn’t mind that one bit. In fact, he counted on it. He smiled, watching. Today’s lecture was on the Easton Defense. “. . .is why this defense is one of the very best to use against an aggressive assault from multiple sides,” Fitch was saying as he stood with his back to the class. On the chalkboard he’d drawn a large circle of white, then affixed some Lines of Forbiddance to the circle’s bindpoints. “A circle is strong on all sides,” Fitch continued. “And with the Lines of Forbiddance anchoring you in place at the bindpoints, you not only prepare yourself against being shaken out of place, but give yourself nice walls to block enemy chaklings. “A traditional Easton Defense stops here, but I recommend surrounding these Lines of Forbiddance with circles of their own, which will give you a nice perimeter to funnel your opponent’s chalkings into much smaller avenues. Now, the traditional Easton Defense--one of the things it is most famous for--is the inscribed nonagon, or nine-pointed polygon, inside the circle. In drawing the nonagon, one omits every third line, leaving room to work and reach outside of the figure for further drawings. “This nonagon can give you incredible stability, but leave you to only attack in three directions. In addition, a misplaced corner with the octagon could break your circle and actually weaken you instead of protect you. “Of course, if you want a more aggressive defense of your own, you can also use the bindpoints on the smaller circles to bind chaklings of your own. This is one of the most common modifications to the Easton Defense.” What about Lines of Vigor? Joel thought. How do you defend against those? He’d always wondered how the Easton defense would counter them. He didn’t ask the question; he dared not draw attention to himself. The office would know, by now, not to expect him back anytime soon. Exton would probably be annoyed--the scribe had sent Joel to deliver a note to one of the professors in the humanities department. Yet, how much could Exton complain? Joel gave them his free period, running errands for the school office. Who were they to raise a fuss when he dallied on the job? He sat down, willing one of the other students to ask about the Lines of Vigor. However, they didn’t. The young Rithmatics lounged in their seats, boys in white slacks, girls in white skirts, both in grey sweaters--colors to disguise the ever-present chalk dust. Professor Fitch himself wore a deep red coat. Thick, with straight, starched cuffs, the coat reached all the way down to Fitch’s feet. When he turned to the side, Joel could see that the coat buttoned all the way to a tall collar, mostly obscuring the white suit Fitch wore beneath. The coat was the symbol of a full Rithmatic professor. Something Joel could never become. He couldn’t even be a student. “And that is why a Keblin Defense is inferior to the Easton in most situations.” Professor Fitch smiled, turning to regard the class, dusting off his hands. He was an older man, graying at the temples, with a spindly figure. The coat made, however, gave him an air of dignity. Or, perhaps, that was simply the way Joel saw it. Do you understand what you have? he thought, looking over the unengaged students. They were mostly about Joel’s age, making them fifteen or sixteen. All were Rithmatics-- Dusters as some liked to call them. The Master had chosen them, giving them Rithmatic powers, during their Inceptions at age eight. And yet, despite their noble calling, they acted like. . .well, teenagers. Fitch was known to run a loose classroom, and many of the students took advantage, ignoring the lecture, whispering with friends, or lounging and staring at the ceiling. A couple at the top of the room, near Joel, actually appeared to be sleeping. “Well, then,” Fitch said. “If there are no questions, perhaps we can discuss how to beat an Easton Defense. The more astute of you will have noticed that I made no mention of Lines of Vigor in my previous explanation. That is because those are better talked about from an offensive point of view. Perhaps once you see how to attack the Easton Defense, you’ll understand potential ways to modify it to your situation. Now--” He cut off as the door to the lecture hall opened. Fitch turned, chalk held between two fingers, a curious expression on his face. He frowned as a tall figure strode into the room, causing some of the lounging students to perk up. The newcomer wore a grey coat, after the style of a Rithmatic professor of low rank. Not a full tenured lecturer, but an assistant tutor. The newcomer was young, with stark blonde hair and a firm step. His coat fit him well, buttoned up to the chin, loose through the legs. He walked with a firm step. “Yes?” Professor Fitch asked. The newcomer passed Professor Fitch and pulled out a piece of chalk--red--then began to draw on the chalkboard. He outlined half of a rectangle, tracing the very edges of the board. Some of the students began to whisper. “What is this?” Fitch asked. “I say, did I pass my lecture time again? I heard no sound for the clock. I’m terribly sorry if I’ve intruded into your time.” The newcomer turned. His face seemed smug to Joel. That bothered him. “You didn’t go over, professor,” the man said. “This is a challenge.” Fitch looked stunned. Finally, he seemed to realize just what the newcomer had drawn. “I. . . . Oh, my. It. . . .” Fitch licked his lips nervously, then wrung his hands. “I’m not sure how to, I mean, what I need to do. I. . . .” “Draw your box, professor,” the newcomer said. Fitch turned, still looking shocked, and held his chalk against the lines he had drawn on the board for instruction. A few seconds later, they puffed away into dust, dispersing. Then, Fitch reached up and drew the other half of the box around the edges of the chalkboard. “That’s Professor Ron Nalizar,” whispered a girl seated a short distance from where Joel stood. “He gained his coat just two years ago from Mainford Academy. They say he spent the last year fighting in Nebrask!” “He’s handsome,” the girl’s companion said, twirling a bit of chalk between her fingers. Up at the chalkboard, the two men began to draw. Joel leaned forward. He’d never seen a real duel between two full professors before. He’d rarely even seen duels by students, and then from a distance. Even the Melee was hard to get into, if you were a general student. Both professors began by drawing circles--Lines of Warding, to block attacks from the opponant. Once either circle was breached, the duel would end. Perhaps because he’d been talking about it, Professor Fitch went with the Easton Defense, surrounding his Line of Warding with nine smaller circles touching at the bind points. Then, he moved to draw the nonagon in the center. It wasn’t a very good stance for a duel. Even Joel could see that. It was beautifully drawn, but the extra defense inside the circle was unnecessary--a duel would end, after all, the moment the outer circle was breached. The two continued to draw. If this had been a real battle, they would have drawn their circles on the floor and stood in the middle. Even many duels were conducted on the floor. The only reason for doing it on the board that Joel could determine was to give the students a nice view of the contest. Nalizar drew a modified Ballintain Defense--a weaker defense without only basic reinforcement and external circles. While Professor Fitch was still placing his internal nonagon, however, Nalizar went straight into an aggressive offense. He made Three Lines of Forbiddance to block and herd his drawings, then moved straight onto the chaklings. Chaklings. Drawn from Lines of Making, they were the core offense of most Rithmatic fights. Nalizar drew quickly and efficiently, creating chalkings that looked something like small dragons, with wings and sinuous necks. As soon as he finished the first one, it shook alife, moving across the board toward Fitch. Fitch looked nervous. Joel cringed as the middle-aged professor made a mistake, drawing one of his outer circles lop-sided. The instructional diagram he’d drawn earlier had been far, far more precise. Lopsided curves--Lines of Forbiddance that were not straight--were much easier to breach. Fitch wavered as he saw the poorly drawn circle, seeming to doubt himself. Come on! Joel thought. You’re better than this, professor! And he was. As a second dragon began to move across the board, Fitch recovered his wits and snapped his chalk back against the board. The gathered students were silent, and those who had been dozing before sat up, leaning forward. It wasn’t often one saw a display like this. Fitch threw up a short, curved Line of Warding, then slammed a curved, wiggly line behind it. A Line of Vigor, fourth and final of the Lines. The waveform finished, it pushed the Line of Warding across the board, ramming it into one of the dragons, throwing up a puff of dust and smashing half of its form. It began to wiggle about, going the wrong direction, its instructions half wiped away. The only sound in the room was that of chalk against board. Joel bit his lip as the duel became heated. Fitch had a better defense, but he’d rushed it too much, leaving sections that were weak. Nalizar had a much more sparse defense on the whole, but he’d gone aggressive so quickly that Fitch couldn’t finish his defenses or get out chaklings of his own. Fitch was kept throwing up Lines of Vigor, knocking out the seemingly endless waves of chalk creatures that flew across the board at him. Nalizar was good. He had a strong understanding of how chaklings worked, and programmed them with expert directions. Joel couldn’t help but be impressed. Nalizar sent some spider-like chaklings to crawl along the bottom or the top of the board, forcing Fitch to stay on his guard and watch himself from behind. Then, Nalizar began sending across Lines of Vigor himself--the wiggly lines, once finished, shot across the board like a wiggling snakes in a vibrating waveform, only vanishing once they touched something. Fitch’s sketches were brilliant and complex, but Nalizar was straightforward and brutal. He kept the pressure on, drawing without pause or hesitation. Fitch finally managed to get out a chakling of his own--a knight, beautifully detailed--which he bound to one of his smaller circles. How does he draw them so well, yet so fast? Joel wondered. Like most regular students, he’d secretly tried drawing chaklings of his own, though they never came to life. Though Joel was quite good with circles and lines, his chaklings were never had the right proportions--they never quite felt right. Fitch’s knight, however, was a work of beauty. The master Rithmatic’s skill was manifest in how easily the knight defeated Nalizar’s more plentiful, yet far more simply drawn, creatures. With the knight set up, Fitch could try some offensive shots of his own, drawing waveforms and trying to hit Nalizar’s defensive circle. The younger professor was forced to draw a few defensive chaklings--defensive, blob- like creatures that threw themselves in front of Lines of Vigor. Waves of creatures, lines, waveforms, and curves flew across the board--a tempest of white against red, chalkings puffing away, lines hitting the corners and blasting out chucks of the protective line, both men scribbling furiously. Dueling required a difficult balance, Joel knew--you had to keep watch on your opponant, to see what they were doing, to judge weaknesses in their defense. Yet, you could never stop drawing. You had to keep moving, keep the flood of attacks streaking across, forcing your opponant to be defensive. Joel rose slowly, then took an almost-involuntary step down toward the front of the room, transfixed by the fight. Doing so, however, let him catch a glimpse of Professor Fitch’s face. He looked frantic. Terrified, even. Joel froze. The professors kept drawing, but something about Fitch’s expression pulled Joel away from the conflict. Such desperate motions, such concern, face streaked with sweat. Slowly, the weight of what was happening began to dawn on Joel. This wasn’t a duel for fun and glory. It wasn’t practice. It was a challenge to Fitch’s authority--a disputation of his right to hold his tenureship. If he lost. . . . One of Nalizar’s red Lines of Vigor got past Fitch’s defense, sliding between two outer protective circles, hitting the main Line of Warding. The circle bent, distorting. Immediately, all of Nalizar’s chaklings began to move that direction, a frenzied chaotic mess of red motion. And, for just a moment, Fitch froze, looking overwhelmed. He quickly shocked himself back into motion, but it was too late. He couldn’t stop them all. One of the dragons got past his knight, then latched onto the weakened piece of Fitch’s circle. It began to claw furiously at the chalk line, distorting it further. Fitch cut his knight free, sending it over to attack, but it was struck from behind by a flood of red chalk monsters. Fitch hurriedly began to draw another knight. The dragon, however, ripped through his border. “No!” Joel cried, taking another step down. Nalizar ignored the outburst. The grey-coated professor smiled, removing his chalk from the board. She stepped back, dusting off his hands. Fitch was still drawing, working on the knight. “Professor,” Nalizar said. “Professor!” Fitch stopped, and only then did he notice that dragon, which continued to work on the hole, trying to dig it out enough that it could get into the center of the circle. In a real battle, it would have had to get inside and attack the Rithmatic himself. This, however, was just a duel--a breach in the ring was enough. “Oh,” Fitch said, lowering his hand from the board. “Oh, yes, well, I see. . . .” The professor turned, seeming a bit dazed, regarding the room full of students. “Ah, yes. I. . .will just go, then.” He began to gather up his books and notes. Joel sunk down onto the stone steps. In his hand, he held the slip of paper, almost forgotten. “Professor,” Nalizar said. “Your coat?” Fitch looked down. “Ah, yes. Of course.” He undid the buttons on the long red coat, then pulled it off, leaving him in his vest, shirt, and trousers. He held the coat for a moment, then laid it on the lecture desk. After that, he hurriedly gathered up his books and fled the chamber, stepping quickly. “Now then,” Nalizar said, voice curt. “I will take over instruction of this class for the last few days of the term, and will be teaching the summer elective courses that Fitch had planned. I have heard rather disgraceful reports of performance among students at Armedius, your cohort in particular. You will know that your free ride has come to an end. I will allow no sloppiness in my class, for your performance will reflect directly upon my reputation. You there, boy sitting on the steps.” Joel looked up. “What are you doing there?” Nalizar demanded. “Why aren’t you wearing your school uniform?” “I’m not a Rithmatic, sir,” Joel said, standing. “I’m from the general school.” “What? Why in the name of the heavens are you sitting in my classroom?” Your classroom? This was Fitch’s classroom, not that of this imperious man. Or, it should be. “Well?” Nalizar asked. “I came with a note, sir,” Joel said. “For Professor Fitch.” “Hand it over then,” Nalizar said, waving his hand. “It is for Professor Fitch personally,” Joel said, stuffing the note back into his pocket. “It wasn’t about the class.” Nalizar huffed in annoyance, then waved a chalk- powdered hand. “Well, be off with you then. Stop disrupting my classroom!” Joel backed away, then pulled open the door and stepped out of the lecture hall. Like most on the campus, the hall’s door led directly outside, onto the campus green. Joel looked about, scanning the landscape. Stately brick buildings rose around him, most of them set on hills. The Rithmatic campus in particular had an. . .aged air about it that Joel had always enjoyed. People crossed the lawn, many dressed in the white and grey of Dusters. One figure stood out in his black trousers. Joel dashed across the springy lawn, catching up to Professor Fitch. The man walked slowly, as if in a daze, a large bundle of books and notes collected in his arms. “Professor?” Joel said, stepping up beside the man. Joel was tall, even a few inches taller than Fitch. The older man turned with a start to see him. “Uh? What?” the professor asked. “Are you all right?” “Oh, um, why it’s the chalkmaker’s son. How are you, lad? Shouldn’t you be in class?” “It’s my free period,” Joel said, reaching and sliding some of the books free from the stack to help carry them. “Professor, are you all right? About what. . .happened in there?” “You saw that, did you?” Professor Fitch’s face fell. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” Joel asked. “You can’t let him take your classes away from you! Perhaps if you spoke to Principal York?” “No, no,” Fitch said. “That would be unseemly. The right of challenge has a very honorable tradition--an important part of our culture, I must say.” Joel sighed. He glanced down, remembering the note in his pocket. He turned back to Fitch, but seeing the shocked depression in the man’s face, he couldn’t bring himself to bring up the note right then. “I should have seen this coming, you know,” Fitch said, almost to himself. “That Nalizar. Too ambitious for his own good--I thought that very thing when we hired him last week. But, there hasn’t been a challenge at Armedius for decades, I should think. How was I to have guessed?” “What will you do?” Joel asked. “Well, that part is easy,” Fitch said as they walked along the path, passing under the shade of a wide-limbed red oak, its spring leaves pinkish as they came in. “Yes,” Fitch said. “Yes, well, tradition states that I take Nalizar’s place. He was hired on as a tutoring professor, to help remedial students who failed classes this year and are required to give up their summer elective. Ah, yes, well, I guess that is my job now. I should think I’ll be happy to be away from the classroom to have some peace of mind!” He hesitated, turning to look back toward the Rithmatic lecture hall. The brickworked structure, was block-shaped, yet somehow still artistic, with its patterns of brick on the walls. “Yes,” Fitch said. “I will probably never have to teach in a classroom again. . . .” he choked off that last part a bit. “Excuse me,” he said, ducking his head and rushing away, leaving Joel behind, holding a few of the textbooks. Joel raised a hand, but let him go, cringing slightly. Finally, Joel sighed, turning his own course across the lawn toward the office building. Well, he thought, thinking again of the crumpled paper in his trouser pocket, that was pretty much a disaster.