The clockwork dawn is loudest in the old sewers. The sound of the machines pushing the sun across its track in the sky echoes through the tunnels, shaking the ground beneath my feet. Mortar crumbles from the ceiling and falls like snow- flakes, surrounding me in a column of white.
“Don’t worry,” I say, reaching out for Tansy’s hand. “This happens every day. It’s safe.”
She shrinks back from me, standing just beyond arm’s reach, twisting her hands together. “Where do we go?”
I turn in place, peering through the flakes of mortar. For a moment I’m disoriented, trying to make sense of the route I’ve known since childhood. There: a tunnel gapes black through the haze. “This way.”
Tansy can read the trees and the sky and the breeze, but this is my domain. This is the world I know. My path is certain—and where I falter, my brother’s ghost leads the way. It’s as though Basil’s just ahead, waiting for me to catch up.
I crawl into the sewer pipe and hear Tansy follow after. Her breathing grows sharp and heavy behind me, the air thick with magic and fear. She’s not used to confined spaces. In the clammy dampness of the sewers, her power shines in my second sight like a beacon, golden and warm despite the tunnel’s cold.
When we emerge into a junction, Tansy stumbles into the muck on her hands and knees. I reach out to help her to her feet, but she backs away, scrambling up on her own.
“Do you hear that?” she gasps.
I close my eyes, concentrating. There’s wind blowing some- where, whistling through the tunnels, and in the distance I can hear the rustling of leaves. But beyond that there’s something out of place, a sound that doesn’t belong. Pixies? No. Splash- ing, like footsteps. Kids, then. Rivals, trying to beat us to our destination. Other students come to break into the school.
“Come on, let’s move faster.” I can feel Basil’s ghost mov- ing further away, slipping out of my senses. “Hurry, and we can beat them there.”
“Wait, Lark.” She takes a step toward me, then stops, turning her head, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. “Listen. They’re dangerous.”
I close my eyes again, and this time I can hear their snarl- ing. My foot slips in the muck, splashing loudly, and the snarls change to howls. They’ve heard us. In my mind, I can see their hungry white eyes, their sickly grey skin, their ravenous mouths.
Tansy reaches for her bow, but she’s not wearing it. Her hand closes on empty space. “What if we run into them in the tunnels? There’s no room to fight in there.”
“Fight?” My stomach twists, sickening. “You can’t fight them, they’re just children. They’re just like me.”
“That’s your problem,” Tansy protests. “You’re too soft. Too trusting. They’ll take advantage of that.” She takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “Fine. If you won’t fight, then we need to run. What about this way?” She sticks her head into a pipe leading east.
I know that route. I used it when I was younger. But some- thing halts me, the hairs lifting on the back of my neck. Basil didn’t go that way. I can’t sense him anymore—and that alone is enough to trigger the alarm bells in my mind. Basil is ev- erywhere down here. It’s the only place I know he still exists, the only place where I have more than just a folded paper bird to remember him by.
“No,” I whisper. “No. Not that way.”
“Lark, we have to go! Now, or they’ll find us!”
“That way’s wrong, it’s too small. I’m too old now to pass that way.” Around us the snow is hissing into the water, melting against our skin. Tansy’s hair is a halo of white.
“I don’t want to die here, underground, so far from the sky.” She starts trying to force herself into the pipe, stopped first by her shoulders and then, when she tries to go feet-first, by her hips.
I move away from her, eyes scanning the junction. It looks familiar. I’ve been here before, although it’s different now. Vines have grown through the cracks in the bricks, swarming up the walls, reclaiming these sewers for nature. In the spring it will all be moss and flowers and earth, like there was never a city here at all.
A snowflake lands on my cheek, and I look up. Beyond the swirling white sky I can see a hatch.
“We have to go up.”
“What? Are you insane?”
“We’re underneath the Institute now. We can go there in-stead of the school. They’ll have the Harvest list there, too— we just have to get into the Administrator’s office.”
Tansy pries herself back out of the pipe and comes to- ward me, peering up through the snow. “We’ll never make it. There’s no ladder. I have no rope. We aren’t wearing climbing gear . . . ” Her voice fades into the background, still listing the things we’d need to climb up into the white sky.
In the distance, far above us, I can hear a bird singing. My brother speaks to me, as he often does down here in the old sewers, down here where I’m closest to him. I ask him, How did you do that?
He smiles. Magic.
“Tansy.” She stops abruptly, mid-word, turning toward me. I reach out. “Take my hand.”
She shrinks away, fearful. “I can’t.”
“You have to trust me.” I take a deep breath. “I promise, I’ll keep you safe.”
The howls have grown to the point where I can no longer hear the birdsong, but I know it’s still there.
Tansy hesitates a moment longer and then reaches out, her palm meeting mine with a jolt that sends the snow swirl- ing away from us, thrashing against the walls of the sewers.
We rise, and the snow rises with us, up into the sky. The hatch bangs open and we go soaring through it to land on the other side. The snow streams through after us, and it takes us both pushing with all our weight to close the hatch against the storm behind us. It slams shut, the sound echoing through the vastness of the space.
We’re standing in the rotunda of the Institute, with its domed sky inlaid with gold and precious stones in a mosaic meant to imitate the world beyond. The sun and moon dance across the interior of the dome in tracks much like the one in the Wall outside.
Tansy is silent now, not looking at me, arms wrapped around herself as she crouches on the marble floor. I can’t see the halo of power around her anymore—but there’s no time, and I haul her to her feet. She pushes my hands away, but at least she’s moving again.
Together we hurry across the floor towards a door on the far side marked “Harvest and Resource Administrator” and, below that, a plaque bearing the name “Gloriette.” Even though I know she won’t be inside—she’ll be preparing for the Harvest Day ceremonies where she officiates—my heart still pounds as we approach.
I press my ear to the door, but it’s made of iron, and I can hear nothing on the other side of it. But even if the other stu- dents don’t catch up to us, there are pixies everywhere, and we have no time to waste. I twist the handle, take a deep breath, and shove.
We stumble through, and the door bangs shut behind us. We’re standing in Dorian’s house, exactly as it was the day I left the Iron Wood. His bed is neatly made in the corner, the dresser stands covered in curios, and the map still hangs above it. I squint, trying to make out the city where my broth- er was headed, but the lines and words blur before my eyes, impossible to read.
A flicker of city magic, twisted and unnatural, touches my senses. Pixies.
“Come on, Tansy—we have to find the list of names for the harvest.”
I start rummaging through Dorian’s kitchen. My heart has risen into my throat, choking me, making my mouth taste like bile. Even though it will change nothing if I find the list, I have to know. Either my name is on it or it isn’t, but at least I can find out if all of this has been worth it—if this time, finally, I’ll be where I belong.
The discordant clang of city magic rises all at once, and something metallic and heavy bangs against the shutters. I slam shut the cupboard I’m searching and back away, scan- ning the room for a place to hide.
Tansy leaps forward before I can stop her. “Enough,” she cries, breaking her uncharacteristically long silence. “We have to fight.”
She throws open the shutters.
I gather my own magic, ready to smash the pixies into oblivion—but it’s not the city’s spies. It’s Nix, and it makes straight toward me, wearing its favorite bee form.
“They’re coming for you.” Its voice is urgent, clipped. “We have to go, now.”
Who’s coming? The other students in the tunnels? The city’s pixies? Gloriette and her machines? The Iron Wood scouts? The shadows? It doesn’t even matter. “I need to see that list,” I hiss.
As I drop to my knees to search under Dorian’s bed, Tan- sy heads for the door. “I’ll just go keep watch.”
Nix, hovering behind me, watches her go. “Is that wise?”
The space under the bed is empty. I sit up, turning to look at the pixie. “Is what wise?”
“Letting her out of your sight. What makes you think you can trust her?”
My stomach twists sickeningly. The pixie drops down to perch on Dorian’s dresser amidst the curios—on top of a leather folder. Somehow I’d missed it when I first scanned the room.
“Nix,” I breathe. “That’s it.”
I scramble to my feet. My hands are shaking as they reach for the folder, the one that will contain the list of names for this year’s harvest. Finally I can know whether I’ll be safe. Whether I can stop running.
From the doorway, a flash of light drags my eyes away from the desk. It’s Tansy, glowing with magic—and yet she’s not Tansy anymore. She’s a figure in white, light shining from every pore, pinprick pupils almost lost in white irises. Follow the birds, she says, and I look back down at the folder in my hands.
I pry it open. It’s empty, save for a single object—my brother’s bird, folded out of old, yellowing paper. As I watch, the edges begin to turn black, as if burned by invisible fire. The scorch marks race inward until the entire bird is con- sumed. It flaps its wings once, its song more a scream than music. I reach out to try to take it, save it, and it gives way to my touch.
In seconds the bird crumbles away to nothing—nothing except the shadow staining my fingertips.