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"Boring?" Joel demanded, stopping in place. "You think the1888 Crew-Choi duel was boring?"
Michael shrugged, stopping and looking back at Joel."I don’t know. I stopped reading after a page or so.""You’re just not imagining it right," Joel said, walking up and resting one hand on his friend’s shoulder. He held his other hand in front of him, panning it as if to wipe away their surroundings— the green lawns of Armedius Academy— and replace them with the dueling arena."Imagine," Joel said, "it’s the end of the Melee, the biggest Rithmatic event in the country. Paul Crew and Adelle Choi are the only two duelists left. Adelle survived, against all odds, after her entire team was picked off in the first few minutes."A few other students stopped on the sidewalk to listen nearby as they passed between classes."So?" Michael said, yawning."So? Michael, it was the finals! Imagine everyone watching, in silence, as the last two Rithmatists begin their duel. Imagine how nervous Adelle would have been! Her team had never won a Melee before, and now she faced down one of the most skilled Rithmatists of her generation. Paul’s team had shielded him at their center so that the lesser players fell first. They knew that would get him to the end practically fresh, his defensive circle almost completely untouched. It was the champion against the underdog.""Boring," Michael said. "They just sit there and draw.""You’re hopeless," Joel replied. "You are going to the very school where Rithmatists are trained. Aren’t you even a little interested in them?""They have enough people interested in them," Michael said with a scowl. "They keep to themselves, Joel. I’m fine with that. I’d rather they weren’t even here." A breeze ruffled his blond hair.Around them spread the green hills and stately brick buildings of Armedius Academy. Nearby, a clockwork crab continued its quiet duty, chopping at the grass to keep it level."You wouldn’t think that way if you understood," Joel said, getting out some chalk. "Here, take this. And stand here." He positioned his friend, then knelt and drew a circle on the sidewalk around him. "You’re Paul. See, defensive circle. If that gets breached, you lose the match."Joel paced back a ways on the concrete quad, then knelt and drew his own circle. "Now, Adelle’s circle was nearly breached in four places. She quickly began to shift from the Matson Defense to . . . Okay, you know what, that’s too technical. Just know that her circle was weak, and Paul had a strong, dominant position.""If you say so," Michael said. He smiled at Eva Winters as she walked past, holding books in front of her."Now," Joel said. "Paul started pounding her circle with Lines of Vigor, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to shift defenses quickly enough to recover.""Pounding . . . Lines of what?" Michael asked."Lines of Vigor," Joel said. "Duelists shoot them at each other. That’s the point; it’s how you breach the circle.""I thought they made little chalk . . . things. Creatures.""That too," Joel said. "They’re called chalklings. But that’s not why everyone remembers the 1888 Melee, even some twenty years later. It was the lines she shot. Conventional wisdom would have been for her to last as long as she could, draw out the match, make a good showing of it."He set his chalk out in front of his circle. "She didn’t do that," he whispered. "She saw something. Paul had a small weakened section on the back of his circle. Of course, the only way to attack it would be to bounce
a shot off three
different lines left by other duelists. It was an impossible shot. She took it anyway. She drew one Line of Vigor as Paul’s chalklings ate at her defenses. She fired it and . . ."Caught up in the moment, Joel finished drawing the Line of Vigor in front of him, raising his hand with a flourish. With surprise, he realized that some thirty students had gathered to listen to him, and he could feel them holding breaths, expecting his drawing to come to life.It didn’t. Joel wasn’t a Rithmatist. His drawings were just ordinary chalk. Everyone knew that, Joel most of all, but the moment somehow broke the spell of his story. The gathered students continued on their way, leaving him kneeling on the ground in the middle of his circle."And let me guess," Michael said, yawning again. "Her shot got through?""Yeah," Joel said, suddenly feeling foolish. He stood up, putting away his chalk. "The shot worked. She won the Melee, though her team had been lowest favored in the odds. That shot. It was beautiful
. At least, so the accounts say.""And I’m sure you’d love to have been there," Michael said, stepping out of the circle Joel had drawn. "By the Master, Joel. I’ll bet if you could travel through time, you’d waste it going toRithmatic duels!""Sure, I guess. What else would I do?""Oh," Michael said, "maybe prevent some assassinations, get rich, find out what’s really happening in Nebrask. . . .""Yeah, I suppose," Joel said, pocketing his chalk, then jumping out of the way as a soccer ball shot past, followed by Jephs Daring. Jephs gave Michael and Joel a wave before chasing downhis ball.Joel joined Michael, continuing across campus. The beautiful, low green hills were topped by flowering trees, and green vines wound their way up the sides of buildings. Students darted this way and that between classes, in a variety of dresses and trousers. Many of the boys wore their sleeves rolled up in the late spring warmth.Only the Rithmatists were required to wear uniforms. That made them stick out; a group of three of them walked between buildings, and the other students casually made way, most not looking at them."Look, Joel," Michael said. "Have you ever wondered if maybe . . . you know, you think about this stuff too much? Rithmatics and all that?""It’s interesting to me," Joel said."Yes, but . . . I mean, it’s a little odd, considering . . ."Michael didn’t say it, but Joel understood. He wasn’t a Rithmatist, and could never be one. He’d missed his chance. But why couldn’t he be interested in what they did?Michael narrowed his eyes as that group of three Rithmatists passed in their grey- and- white uniforms. "It’s kind of like," he said softly, "it’s kind of like it’s us and them, you know? Leave them alone to do . . . what ever it is they do, Joel.""You just don’t like that they can do things you can’t," Joel said.That earned Joel a glare. Perhaps those words hit too close to home. Michael was the son of a knight-senator, a son of privilege. He wasn’t accustomed to being excluded."Anyway," Michael said, looking away and continuing to hike down the busy sidewalk, "you can’t be one of them, so why keep spending all of your time talking about them? It’s useless, Joel. Stop thinking about them."I can’t ever be one of you either, Michael,
Joel thought. Technically, he wasn’t supposed to be at this school. Armedius was horribly expensive, and you either had to be important, rich, or a Rithmatist to attend. Joel was about as far from any of those three things as a boy could get.They stopped at the next intersection of sidewalks. "Look, I’ve got to get to history class," Michael said."Yeah," Joel said. "I’ve got open period.""Running messages again?" Michael asked. "In the hope that you’ll get to peek into a Rithmatic classroom?"Joel blushed, but it was true. "Summer’s coming up," he said. "You going home again?"Michael brightened. "Yeah. Father said I could bring some friends. Fishing, swimming, girls in sundresses on the beach. Mmmm . . .""Sounds great," Joel said, trying to keep the hopeful tone out of his voice. "I’d love to see something like that." Michael took a group each year. Joel had never been invited.This year, though . . . well, he’d been hanging out with Michael after school. Michael needed help with math, and Joel could explain things to him. They had been getting along really well.Michael shuffled his feet. "Look, Joel," he said. "I mean . . . it’s fun to hang out with you here, you know? At school? But back home, it’s a different world. I’ll be busy with the family. Father has such expectations. . . .""Oh, yeah, of course," Joel said.Michael smiled, banishing all discomfort from his expression in an instant. Son of a politician for sure. "That’s the spirit," he said, patting Joel on the arm. "See ya."Joel watched him jog off. Michael ran into Mary Isenhorn along the way, and he immediately started flirting. Mary’s father owned a massive springworks. As Joel stood on that sidewalk intersection, he could pick out dozens of members of the country’s elite. Adam Li was directly related to the emperor of JoSeun. Geoff Hamilton had three presidents in his family line. Wenda Smith’s parents owned half of the cattle ranches in Georgiabama.And Joel . . . he was the son of a chalkmaker and a cleaning lady. Well,
he thought, it looks like it will be just me and Davis here all summer again.
He sighed, then made his way to the campus office.Twenty minutes later, Joel hurried back down the sidewalk, delivering messages around campus during his free period. Those sidewalks were now mostly empty of students, with everyone else in class.Joel’s moment of depression had vanished the instant he’d looked through the stack. There had been only three messages to deliver today, and he’d done those quickly. That meant . . .He clutched a fourth message in his pocket, one that he himself had added without telling anyone. Now, with some time to spare because of his speed earlier, he jogged up to Warding Hall, one of the Rithmatic lecture halls.Professor Fitch was teaching in there this period. Joel fingered the letter he carried in his pocket, penned— after some nervousness— to the Rithmatic professor.This might be my only chance,
Joel thought, shoving down any nervousness. Fitch was a relaxed, pleasant man. There was no reason to be worried.Joel scurried up the long flight of steps outside the vine-covered, grey brick building, then slipped in the oak door. That brought him into the lecture hall at the very top. It was shaped like a small amphitheater, with tiered seats. Schematics depicting Rithmatic defenses hung on the whitewashed walls, and the plush seats were bolted in rows along the tiers, facing toward the lecture floor below.A few of the students glanced at Joel as he entered, but Professor Fitch did not. The professor rarely noticed when he got deliveries from the office, and would ramble on for the entire lecture before realizing that a member of his audience wasn’t actually a member of the class. Joel didn’t mind that one bit. He sat down on the steps eagerly. Today’s lecture, it appeared, 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 down below. He pointed with a long red baton toward the floor where he’d drawn a large circle. The hall was arranged so that the students could look down at his Rithmatic drawings on the ground.With his pointer, Fitch gestured toward the Lines of Forbiddance he’d affixed to the bind points on the circle. "Now, the Easton Defense is most famous for the large number of smaller circles drawn at the bind points. Drawing nine other circles like this can be time- consuming, but they will prove well worth the time in defensive capabilities."You can see that the inner lines form an irregular nonagon, and the number of arms you leave off will determine how much room you have to draw, but also how stable your figure is. Of course, if you want a more aggressive defense, you can also use the bind points for chalklings."What about Lines of Vigor?
Joel thought. How do you defend against those?
Joel didn’t ask; he dared not draw attention to himself. That might make Fitch ask for his message, and that would leave Joel with no reason to keep listening. So, Joel just listened. The office wouldn’t expect him back for some time.He leaned forward, willing one of the other students to ask about the Lines of Vigor. They didn’t. The young Rithmatists 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. The coat buttoned up to a tall collar, mostly obscuring the white suit Fitch wore beneath. It had a militaristic feel to it, with all of those stiff lines and straps at the shoulders almost like rank insignia. The red coat was the symbol of a full Rithmatic professor."And that is why a Keblin Defense is inferior to the Easton in most situations." Professor Fitch smiled, turning to regard the class. He was an older man, greying at the temples, with a spindly figure. The coat gave him an air of dignity.Do you understand what you have?
Joel thought, looking over the unengaged students. This was a class of fifteen- and sixteen- year- old students, making them Joel’s age. 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. Several near Joel actually appeared to be sleeping. He didn’t know their names—he didn’t know the names of most of the Rithmatic students. They generally rebuffed his attempts to chat with them.When nobody spoke, Fitch knelt and pressed his chalk against the drawing he’d done. He closed his eyes. Seconds later, the drawing puffed away, willed by its creator to vanish. "Well, then," he said, raising his chalk. "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. That is because those are better talked about from an offensive viewpoint. If we were to—"The door to the lecture hall banged open. Fitch rose, chalk held between two fingers, eyebrows raised as he turned.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. The man was young, with stark blond hair and a firm step. His coat fit him well, buttoned up to the chin, loose through the legs. Joel didn’t know him."Yes?" Professor Fitch asked.The newcomer walked all the way to the floor of the lecture hall, passing Professor Fitch and pulling out a piece of red chalk. The newcomer turned, knelt, and placed his chalk against the ground. 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 looked up. His face seemed smug to Joel. "No, Professor," the man said, "this is a challenge."Fitch looked stunned. "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 . . .""Ready yourself to draw, Professor," the newcomer said.Fitch blinked. Then, hands obviously shaking, he got down on his knees to place his chalk against the ground."That’s Professor Andrew Nalizar," whispered a girl seated a short distance from Joel. "He gained his coat just three years ago from Maineford Academy. They say he spent the last two years fighting in Nebrask!""He’s handsome," the girl’s companion said, twirling a bit of chalk between her fingers.Down below, the two men began to draw. Joel leaned forward, excited. He’d never seen a real duel between two full professors before. This might be as good as being at the Melee!Both began by drawing circles around themselves to block attacks from the opponent. Once either circle was breached, the duel would end. Perhaps because he’d been talking about it, Professor Fitch went to draw the Easton Defense, surrounding himself with nine smaller circles touching the larger one at the bind points.It wasn’t a very good stance for a duel. Even Joel could see that; he felt a moment of disappointment. Maybe this wouldn’t be that good a fight after all. Fitch’s defense was beautifully drawn, but was too
strong; the Easton was best against multiple opponents who surrounded you.Nalizar drew a modified Ballintain Defense— a quick defense with only basic reinforcement. While Professor Fitch was still placing his internal lines, Nalizar went straight into an aggressive attack, drawing chalklings.Chalklings. Drawn from Lines of Making, they were the core offense of many Rithmatic fights. Nalizar drew quickly and efficiently, creating chalklings that looked like small dragons, with wings and sinuous necks. As soon as he finished the first, it shook to life, then began to fly across the ground toward Fitch.It didn’t rise into the air. Chalklings were two-dimensional, like all Rithmatic lines. The battle played out on the floor, lines attacking other lines. Fitch’s hands were still shaking, and he kept looking up and down, as if nervous and unfocused. Joel cringed as the middle-aged professor drew one of his outer circles lopsided—a major mistake.The instructional diagram he’d drawn earlier had been far, far more precise. Lopsided curves were easy to breach. Fitch paused, looking at the poorly drawn curve, and seemed to doubt himself.Come on!
Joel clenched his fists. You’re better than this, Professor!
As a second dragon began to move across the ground, Fitch recovered his wits and snapped his chalk back against the floor. The gathered students were silent, and those who had been dozing sat up.Fitch threw up a long wiggly line. A Line of Vigor. It was shaped like a waveform, and when it was finished, it shot across the board to hit one of the dragons. The blast threw up a puff of dust and destroyed half of the creature. The dragon began to wriggle about, moving in the wrong direction.The only sounds in the room were those of chalk against floor accompanied by Fitch’s quick, almost panicked breathing. Joel bit his lip as the duel became heated. Fitch had a better defense, but he’d rushed it, leaving sections that were weak. Nalizar’s sparse defense allowed him to go aggressive, and Fitch had to struggle to keep up. Fitch continued throwing up Lines of Vigor, destroying the chalk creatures that flew across the board at him, but there were always more to replace them.Nalizar was good, among the best Joel had ever seen. Despite the tension, Nalizar remained fluid, drawing chalkling after chalkling, unfazed by those that Fitch destroyed. Joel couldn’t help but be impressed.He’s been fighting the wild chalklings at Nebrask recently,
Joel thought, remembering what the girl had said. He’s used to drawing under pressure.
Nalizar calmly sent some spider chalklings to crawl along the perimeter of the floor, forcing Fitch to watch his flanks. Next, Nalizar began sending across Lines of Vigor. The snaky lines shot across the board in a vibrating waveform, vanishing once they hit something.Fitch finally managed to get out a chalkling 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. Fitch’s knight was a work of beauty, with detailed armor and a large greatsword. It easily defeatedNalizar’s more plentiful, yet far more simply drawn dragons.With the knight set up, Fitch could try some more offensive shots. Nalizar was forced to draw a few defensive chalklings— blob creatures that threw themselves in front of Lines of Vigor.Armies of creatures, lines, and waveforms flew across the board— a tempest of white against red, chalklings puffing away, lines hitting the circles and blasting out chunks of the protective line. Both men scribbled furiously.Joel stood, then took an almost involuntary step down toward the front of the room, transfixed. Doing so, however, let him catch a glimpse of Professor Fitch’s face. Fitch looked frantic. Terrified.Joel froze.The professors kept drawing, but that worry in Fitch’s expression pulled Joel away from the conflict. Such desperate motions, such concern, his face streaked with sweat.The weight of what was happening crashed down on Joel. This wasn’t a duel for fun or practice. This was a challenge to Fitch’s authority— a dispute over his right to hold his tenure. If he lost . . .One of Nalizar’s red Lines of Vigor hit Fitch’s circle straight on, almost breaching it. Immediately, all of Nalizar’s chalklings moved that direction, a frenzied, chaotic mess of red motion toward the weakened line.For just a moment, Fitch froze, looking overwhelmed. He shook himself back into motion, but it was too late. He couldn’t stop them all. One of the dragons got past his knight. It began to claw furiously at the weakened part of Fitch’s circle, distorting it further.Fitch hurriedly began to draw another knight. But the dragon ripped through his border."No!" Joel cried, taking another step down.Nalizar smiled, removing his chalk from the floor and standing. He dusted off his hands. Fitch was still drawing."Professor," Nalizar said. "Professor!"Fitch stopped, and only then did he notice the 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 moved in to attack the Rithmatist himself. This, however, was just a duel— and a breach in the ring meant victory for Nalizar."Oh," Fitch said, lowering his hand. "Oh, yes, well, I see. . . ." He turned, seeming dazed, regarding the room full of students. "Ah, yes. I . . . will just go, then."He began to gather up his books and notes. Joel sank down onto the stone steps. In his hand, he held the letter he had written to give to Fitch."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 white vest, shirt, and trousers. He looked diminished. Fitch held the coat for a moment, then laid it on the lecture desk. He gathered up his books and fled the chamber. The door to the ground-floor entrance clicked shut softly behind him.Joel sat, stunned. A few of the members of the classroom clapped timidly, though most just watched, wide-eyed, obviously uncertain how to react."Now then," Nalizar said, voice curt. "I will take over instruction of this class for the last few days of the term, and I will be teaching the summer elective course that Fitch had planned. I have heard reports of rather disgraceful performance among students at Armedius, your cohort in particular. I
will allow no sloppiness in my class. You there, boy sitting on the steps."Joel looked up."What are you doing there?" Nalizar demanded. "Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?""I’m not a Rithmatist, 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. Or . . . it should be."Well?" Nalizar asked."I came with a note, sir," Joel said. "For Professor Fitch.""Hand it over, then," Nalizar said."It is for Professor Fitch personally," Joel said, stuffing the letter into his pocket. "It wasn’t about the class.""Well, be off with you then," Nalizar said, dismissing Joel with a wave of his hand. The red chalk dust scattered on the floor looked like blood. He began dispelling his creations one at a time.Joel backed away, then rushed up the steps and opened the door. People crossed the lawn outside, many dressed in the white and grey of Rithmatists. One figure stood out. Joel dashed down the stairs across the springy lawn, catching up to Professor Fitch. The man trudged with slumped shoulders, the large bundle of books and notes collected in his arms."Professor?" Joel said. Joel was tall for his age, a few inches taller, even, than Fitch.The older man turned with a start. "Uh? What?""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 two of the books off the stack to help carry them. "Professor, are you all right? About what just happened?""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! Perhaps if you spoke to Principal York?""No, no," Fitch said. "That would be unseemly. The right of challenge is a very honorable tradition— an important part of Rithmatic culture, I must say."Joel sighed. He glanced down, remembering the note in his pocket. A request from him to Fitch. He wanted to study with the man over the summer, to learn as much about Rithmatics as he could.But Fitch wasn’t a full professor any longer. Would that matter? Joel wasn’t even certain the man would take a non-Rithmatic student. If Fitch wasn’t a full professor, might he have more time for tutoring students? Thinking that immediately made Joel feel guilty.He almost pulled the letter out and gave it to the man. The defeat in Fitch’s face stopped him. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time."I should have seen this coming," Fitch said. "That Nalizar. Too ambitious for his own good, I thought when we hired him last week. There hasn’t been a challenge at Armedius for decades. . . .""What will you do?" Joel asked."Well," Fitch said as they walked along the path, passing under the shade of a wide-limbed red oak. "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. 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 structure was block- shaped, yet somehow still artistic, with its diamond patterns of grey bricks forming the vine-covered wall."Yes," Fitch said. "I will probably never have to teach in that classroom again." He choked off that last part. "Excuse me." He ducked his head and rushed away.Joel raised a hand, but let him go, still holding two of the professor’s books. Finally, Joel sighed, turning his own course across the lawn toward the campus office building."Well," he said softly, thinking again of the crumpled paper in his trouser pocket, "that was a disaster."
Copyright © 2013 by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
Reading and Activity Guide copyright © 2013 by Tor Books