Redlox M’wintir called a halt, sniffed the air, and poked at the ground with his stick. The M’wintir pixies had been wandering the plains of Nout for nearly a quartermoon now, searching for a safe resting place. Their friend-tribe, the Sheelyu, had assured them that they themselves had wintered in these plains without being disturbed, the place would surely be ideal for a few days’ rest.
Either the Sheelyu had deceived them, or something had changed on the plains. Something was wrong, Redlox knew, he could sense it in the air. Not a smell, exactly, and he could sense no trace of glamour or magic other than those used by his own tribe. It was a texture, perhaps, only not – the air felt slimy somehow.
“Chief.” It was Shora, his eldest son and head of the small guard that protected their large family. Redlox could hear the exhaustion in his voice. “We need to stop.”
“I know, son,” said the M’wintir chief. “I just… it’s everywhere. Can’t you feel it? I’d rather we kept going.”
“Hothel sleeps on his feet, and Feather has collapsed. We have no choice, Chief.”
Redlox scanned the wan faces of his ragged, glamour-drained family. Tribe pixies were exceptions in the Unseelie lands, because despite their diminutive class, they lived and moved close together, as a family. They knew that safety and strength came in numbers, and never forgot it. But such groups needed a chief, and Unseelie chiefs were, as a rule, chosen for their power, and therefore had a tendency to be overthrown unless they made themselves well-loved. Redlox had not been deaf to the grumblings of his fellows, nor had he ignored the rumours that age had him jumping at his own shadow. He’d have a rebellion on his hands if he pushed too far – something far more worrying than “slimy air”.
“Rest here then,” he grumbled eventually, and the entire tribe breathed a sigh of relief. As they began sculpting earthbeds in the short grass, he added “I want eight of you on guard, the ones that are still awake. Short shifts – eight on moonrise, eight on moonset, and so on. I’ll take first shift. Who’s with me?”
It took him a while to assemble seven other volunteers willing to stay awake another half-night while the rest slept, but Redlox was firm.
“Why eight?” yawned Heather, Feather’s twin who had volunteered. “Four is usually enough.”
“Something is wrong with the air here,” he repeated. “I don’t trust it. Stay alert, don’t let sleep get the better of you.”
But the moonrise was uneventful, and so was the moonset, which Redlox stayed up for, too. When only the stars lit up the sky, he let his children persuade him to take a nap.
“We’ll wake you the minute anything happens,” Heather assured him.
“The second,” Shora said, and Redlox reluctantly gave in to weariness.
The wrongness woke him.
He sat up, alert as he hadn’t been in a week, and stuck out his tongue. There was a taste to it now, faint but nauseatingly bitter. He saw Shora to his left, sitting in a slump, and cursed.
“Wake up, dolt of a boy! Can’t you feel the air?” He shook Shora by the shoulder, and his head fell back.
When a fairy screams, it is always an unearthly, horrible sound, but when an Unseelie scream, it is the kind of scream that curdles blood and freezes souls. If a human had heard Redlox’s scream that night, they would have died, ears bleeding, or gone mad.
As it was, the whole tribe came running, then fell back, their own screams echoing his.
Shora’s eyes had been ripped out, his face shorn to ribbons. Blood congealed under his sharp black nails, some of which were broken. His fingers were twisted in ways that shouldn’t be possible, and those who looked closer saw that his legs, seemingly crossed, had their feet turned backwards.
The wails of the tribe continued long into the night, followed by an even longer and terrible silence.
Finally, Redlox buried his son in the earth and ordered his tribe to move on. This time they headed back the way they’d come, to the pine forest that was the home of many bothersome brownies and a goblin or two, but nothing as terrible as whatever had killed Shora.
They hadn’t fully recovered, however, and before they were half-way back, four of their number collapsed into a deep sleep and couldn’t be woken. Redlox called a halt and ordered ten guards per shift, in groups of two.
He was woken by Feather shaking him frantically, in tears.
“Father, come, please, it’s Heather, she’s – she’s -”
Heather was eating her own fingers. Her eyes were blank and terrified, like those of a cornered animal, and when Redlox tried to stop her, she twisted in his grip until her arm snapped. Horrified, he backed away, and she went back to eating her fingers.
They tied her to their only wagon with spidersilk rope, and fled the place, to no avail. Heather pulled on her ties until her arms and legs all snapped, then shook her head from side to side until even the spidersilk chafed and cut into her skin, and even then she didn’t stop. When Feather tried to hold her head still, she turned with ferocious strength and bit her.
“She’s not ill,” Feather insisted. “Look into her eyes, she’s still there! She knows what she’s doing, but she can’t stop herself!”
But nobody dared look into Heather’s eyes. They avoided the wagon and Heather’s increasingly empty gaze. Only Redlox could bring himself to look at her, and all he saw was pain.
“This reminds me of his work,” said one of the elders, an uncle of Redlox’s who liked to glamour himself to look even older than he really was. “You know who I’m talking about, Chief. You remember the tithe?”
Redlox glanced uneasily towards the wagon, then looked away. “They took my brother Coren,” he said quietly. “Of course I remember.”
“Coren was a good lad,” said the elder.
“Coren was stronger than me,” said Redlox. “He would have been chief in my place. Mayhap he’d have had the sense to stop and rest before our guards were too worn to keep watch.”
“Mayhap he would, and mayhap it wouldn’t have made a difference. There’s no sense in dwelling on what might have been. If this is what we think it is, then there’s only one way to get rid of it.”
They left Heather tied to the ground and fled once more. Once the tribe had been told what it was, noone protested. Only Feather needed three of her brothers to drag her away.
“Heather! Sister! You can’t do this to her Father, please, she’s still in there, she’s suffering, please-”
“Could we not kill her at least?” asked Pol, Redlox’s second son.
“The Thrumli stays in her as long as she amuses it,” Redlox murmured back, glancing behind them. Heather’s silence was somehow worse than if she’d been screaming. “If we kill her, it’ll look for another victim, and we need time to get away.”
Pol looked as disgusted as he felt, but he nodded. Redlox pushed them on, determined to get out of the plains before they next had to sleep.
They never made it.
Feather’s screams turned to hoarse sobs, which faded in their turn. She stumbled between her brothers, no longer resisting, and noone noticed quite when her mourning silence turned into something else, until she turned around and slit her brother’s throat.
The shouts of her other guard turned to an animal scream, and before anyone had time to react, Feather had stabbed five of them and was after more. Redlox saw the terror in her gaze as she came at him, and promptly broke her neck.
There was a moment when those who saw it told the others, and everyone stopped running and turned to look, waiting. For a moment nothing happened.
Then a child started singing.
Everyone turned to look in confusion as one of Redlox’s younger nephews walked out to Feather’s inert body, slowly singing the Song of the Dead. They watched him kneel before her, clasp his hands in prayer and close his eyes. His voice was high and clear, and the song mournful, but noone joined in.
When he had finished the song, the boy looked into Redlox’s eyes, and Redlox almost thought it was alright.
Then the boy smiled sweetly at him, bit off his own finger, and stabbed himself with it.
The Thrumli let him scream this time, before taking control again and turning the screams to tearful laughter. The boy rose and stumbled towards the others, but they were scattered, and the Thrumli let him collapse. Redlox killed the boy quickly and saw another of his sons change direction and start killing those around him, then twist his own neck and collapse, to be replaced by another, and another. They ran, in vain. Redlox chased after the Thrumli, staring around him, but the nightmare creature was playing with him, taking those who were behind him so that he had to keep turning. He killed it each time, slaying his own with his bare hands or whatever weapon happened to be close, before throwing those weapons as far as he could before the Thrumli could possess him and make him turn it against them all.
By moonrise, they were all dead. Bodies littered the plain, the grass stained blue in the moonlight. Redlox stood in the middle of his fallen tribe, knowing the thing was there, knowing it was waiting for just the right moment to possess him, too…
He turned, staggered ten paces, and found the body of a child – scarcely more than a babe – her body covered in blood and her throat cut. He could not remember if the Thrumli had killed this one, or if he had.
The babe looked at him, her eyes glazed with pain, and he dropped onto his knees before her and cradled her little broken body, and for a second she gazed at him with her own eyes, before the Thrumli possessed her once more, the last of his kin, and he gave up.
“Get on with it, then,” he said to the thing inside his granddaughter.
The Thrumli smiled at him with her mouth and her eyes, and then she died.
And it was gone.
Redlox’s scream could be heard all the way back in the pine forest they’d been heading for. When the Sheelyu tribe found him, surrounded by the bodies of his kin, the dagger that had cut his throat was still in his hand.