Home > Hollowpox The Hunt for Morrigan Crow

Hollowpox The Hunt for Morrigan Crow
Author: Jessica Townsend

CHAPTER ONE


Unit 919


Winter of Two


On a glossy black door inside a well-lit wardrobe, a tiny circle of gold pulsed with light, and at its centre was a small, glowing W.

Come in, it seemed to say with each gentle beat. Hurry up!

Morrigan Crow finished buttoning her starched white shirtsleeves, pulled on a black overcoat and carefully fixed her gold W pin to the lapel. Finally, she pressed her fingertip to the shimmering circle and, just as if she’d turned a key in a lock, the door swung open onto an empty train station.

These quiet, still moments had become Morrigan’s favourite time of day. Most mornings, she was the first to arrive at Station 919. She liked to close her eyes for just a few seconds, listening to the distant rumbling of trains in the Wunderground tunnels. Like mechanical dragons waking from slumber. Ready to carry millions of people all over the city of Nevermoor on a complex tapestry of tracks.

Morrigan smiled and took a deep breath.

Last day of the autumn term.

She’d made it.

The rest of her unit began arriving, shattering the peace and quiet as the remaining eight doors were flung open up and down the platform – from Mahir Ibrahim’s ornate red door at one end, all the way to Anah Kahlo’s small, arched, unvarnished wooden one at the other – and the tiny station filled with chatter.

Hawthorne Swift, Morrigan’s best friend, arrived in his typical morning state – unbalanced by armfuls of dragonriding gear, grey shirt not quite properly buttoned, unbrushed brown curls sticking out at wild angles, blue eyes sparkling with some mischief he’d either just dreamed up or just committed (Morrigan didn’t want to know which). Archan Tate – who was always impeccably mannered and dressed – took half of Hawthorne’s teetering pile of kit for him without a word and gave the badly buttoned shirt a discreet nod.

Cadence Blackburn was the last to make it this morning. She ran in with seconds to spare – thick black braid whipping behind her, long brown limbs taking great strides – and arrived just as a single, slightly battered train carriage chugged into view, trailing puffs of white steam. Painted on its side was the familiar W symbol and the number 919, and hanging halfway out the door was their conductor, Miss Cheery.

This was Hometrain, a mode of transport and home-away-from-home exclusively for them, the 919th unit of the Wundrous Society. Inside were beanbags, a lumpy old sofa, piles of cushions, a wood-burning stove that was always lit in winter and a ceramic polar bear biscuit jar that was rarely empty. It was one of Morrigan’s favourite and most comfortable places in the world.

‘Moooorning!’ the conductor shouted, beaming from ear to ear and waving a handful of papers at them. ‘Happy last day of term, scholarly ones!’

Miss Cheery’s role as Unit 919’s official ‘conductor’ was an interesting one – part transport operator, part guidance counsellor. She was there to smooth a path through their first five years as members of Nevermoor’s most elite and demanding organisation. The Wundrous Society was made up of extraordinary people with extraordinary talents, but most of them were too absorbed in their own extraordinary endeavours to pay much attention to the Society’s youngest inductees. Without their conductor, Unit 919 would be lost in the wilderness.

Miss Cheery was the only person Morrigan knew who utterly lived up to her name: she was pure sunshine. She was fresh linen, birdsong at twilight, perfectly cooked toast. She was all rainbow-coloured clothes and impeccable posture, deep brown skin and enormous smile, and when the light shone through the edges of her cloud-like halo of curly black hair, she made Morrigan think of an angel … though, of course, she would never say anything so cheesy out loud.

As their designated grown-up, the one thing she probably ought to have had was a bit more decorum. But 919 liked her exactly as she was.

‘Last! Day! Last! Day! Last! Day!’ she chanted, kicking her legs out from the train door in celebration, before it had even come to a halt.

Anah shouted back in a fretful voice, ‘Miss Cheery, that is NOT safe!’

Miss Cheery responded by contorting her face into something comically terror-stricken and flailing her arms as if she was going to fall out – and then actually falling out onto the platform when the train suddenly stopped.

‘I’m okay!’ she said, jumping up to take a bow.

The others laughed and applauded, but Anah turned to glare at them one by one, pink-faced, her blonde curls swinging dramatically. ‘Oh yes, very funny. Except who’ll be expected to stop the bleeding when she falls onto the tracks and snaps her tibia in half? I bet none of you even knows how to splint a leg.’

‘That’s why we have you, Anah.’ Archan smiled at her, his pale cheeks dimpling, and bent down to help Miss Cheery pick up the scattered papers with his free hand.

‘Yeah, Dr Kahlo,’ added the brawny Thaddea Macleod, nudging Anah in the side and nearly knocking her over. (It was a gentle nudge by Thaddea’s standards, but sometimes she forgot her own considerable strength.)

Anah made a face as she straightened up, but seemed somewhat mollified by Thaddea’s use of the word ‘doctor’.

‘Miss, what’s …’ Archan was staring at one of the papers, frowning in confusion. ‘Are these new timetables?’

‘Thanks, Arch. Help me pass them out, will you?’ the conductor replied, waving Unit 919 onto the train. ‘Come on, everyone aboard or we’ll be late. Francis, put the kettle on please. Lam, hand round the biscuit jar.’

Hawthorne gave Miss Cheery a puzzled look as she handed him his timetable. It was the last day of term, and they usually only received new timetables once a week. ‘You gave us these on Monday, Miss. Remember?’

He dropped into a beanbag while Morrigan settled on the sofa between Cadence and Lambeth, scouring her own timetable. As far as she could tell, it was identical to the one she’d been given at the start of the week: there was Tuesday’s workshop in Undead Dialects, and Wednesday’s masterclass in Observing Planetary Movements, followed by a class in the Sub-Five espionage wing called Cultivating and Handling Informants (that had been Morrigan’s favourite lesson of the week so far – turned out she was quite good at spy stuff).

‘I do remember, yeah,’ said Miss Cheery. ‘Despite my advanced age of twenty-one, Hawthorne, my decrepit brain does still allow me to reach into its vast memory bank to the distant past of four whole days ago.’ She smiled, raising an eyebrow. ‘These are new timetables. Please note where today has been updated.’

Morrigan skipped to Friday’s column and, spotting the difference, asked, ‘What’s C&D?’

‘I’ve got that, too,’ said Hawthorne. ‘C&D, Level Sub-Two. Last class of the day.’

Mahir put his hand up. ‘Me too!’

There was a general murmuring and comparing of schedules, and the scholars found they all had the same class. Mostly their timetables were individualised – tailored by Miss Cheery to help each of them develop their unique talents and work on their weaknesses – and it had been a couple of months since Unit 919 had had any lessons together as a group.

‘Miss, what does C&D stand for?’ asked Francis Fitzwilliam, sounding slightly worried. His brown eyes grew large. ‘Does Aunt Hester know about this? She says she has to approve any changes to my timetable.’

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