The Rithmatist

PROLOGUE

Lilly’s lamp blew out as she bolted 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 empty. Silent, save for her panicked breathing. She’d given up on screaming. Nobody seemed to hear.

It was as if the entire city had gone dead.

She burst into the living room, then stopped, uncertain what to do. A grandfather clock ticked in the corner, illuminated by moonlight through the broad picture windows. The city skyline spread beyond, buildings rising 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 through her terror. 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. She reached into the pouch tied to a loop on her skirt and pulled out a single bone-white length of chalk.

Kneeling on the wood planks, staring at the ground, she tried to clear her mind. Focus.

She set the tip of the chalk against the ground and began to draw a circle around herself. Her hand shook so much that the line was uneven. Professor Fitch would have been quite displeased to see such a sloppy Line of Warding. She laughed to herself—a desperate sound, more of a cry.

Sweat dripped from her brow, making dark spots on the wood. Her hand quivered as she drew several straight lines inside the circle—Lines of Forbiddance to stabilize her defensive ring. The Matson Defense … how did it go? Two smaller circles, with bind points to place Lines of Making—

Scratching.

Lilly snapped her head up, looking down the hallway at the door leading to the street. A shadow moved beyond the door’s clouded window plate.

The door rattled.

“Oh, Master,” she found herself whispering. “Please … please…”

The door stopped rattling. All was still for just a moment; then the door burst open.

Lilly tried to scream, but found her voice caught in her throat. A figure stood framed in moonlight, a bowler hat on his head, a short cape covering his shoulders. He stood with his hand on a cane to his side.

She could not see his face, backlit as he was, but there was something horribly sinister about that slightly tipped head and those shadowed features. A hint of a nose and chin, reflecting moonlight. Eyes that watched her from within the inky blackness.

The things flooded into the room around him. Angry, squirming over floor, walls, ceiling. Their bone-white forms almost seemed to glow in the moonlight.

Each was as flat as a piece of paper.

Each was made of chalk.

They were each unique, tiny picturelike monsters with fangs, claws. They made no noise at all as they flooded into the hallway, hundreds of them, shaking and vibrating silently as they came for her.

Lilly finally found her voice and screamed.

PART

ONE

CHAPTER

“Boring?” Joel demanded, stopping in place. “You think the 1888 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