Ella had died during the night.
Winter was upon them, the fire had burnt down to embers as she had slept, and the cold had killed her before she could rise and add more fuel to its hungry orange cinders. The frosty stone hearth that served as her bed had not helped the situation, nor had the moth-eaten blanket they had let her have to keep some of the cold away. The icy touch of winter had leeched through the blanket’s worn fibers and stolen her life away.
But here she was, rising just before dawn anyway.
She hadn’t realized she was dead until the voice had spoken to her, disturbing the most peaceful rest she had had since before her mother had fallen ill and had died. Ella had been enjoying that oblivion; no more demands, no more fatigue, and no more suffering. She had been wallowing in that pleasant nothingness when Tara had called to her.
“Get up. Get up, child, and walk again. Your work on this plane of existence is not yet done, any more than mine. There are wrongs to avenge. People must pay for the injustices wrought upon our family. You will not have peace until we have claimed that price—nor will I.”
Tara had been Ella’s godmother and had died three years earlier, poisoned, they said, by those who suspected her of being a witch. She had always claimed to have had the blood of the fey and the Sight, but had never cast baneful spells or placed hexes upon anyone while still living. All she had ever done was offer cures for ailments, help birth babies, and advise people on how to best plant their gardens.
Ella wasn’t so sure Tara had been poisoned for that reason. Her godmother had objected violently to the marriage of Ella’s father and stepmother. Tara had kept them apart as long as she had been alive. Once she was dead, however, there had been nothing left to stand in their way, much to Ella’s dismay. They had been married soon after.
While disrupting Ella from her ultimate sleep, Tara’s voice was still soothing. Ella’s godmother had never done anything by force, but always by encouragement. This was no different. Her dulcet tones brought back memories of a zaftig, earthy woman with great enthusiasm for life. Her rounded cheeks had always been rosy, and her booming laugh could be heard for miles. But despite a rather intimidating presence, everything about her had been natural and gentle. Ella had found Tara’s strong sense of self and innate power frightening at first—a woman with the stature and essence of a bear—but Ella had been equally quick to overcome her shyness and warm to her godmother as soon as she recognized that Tara’s power was no threat to her. The fey-blessed woman’s only intention was to protect her family and the lands that supported them.
“Let me sleep, Godmother. I’m so tired, and my life is spent. Please don’t make me rise again,” Ella begged in a faint phantom whisper.
Tara’s ghost was not satisfied with her response. She breathed fairy magic into the girl’s still body, a body that was refusing to stir. It was not the embodiment of life, the light and pure magic of the fey. Tara used the darker aspect of fey magic, the kind which they possessed once they had crossed over to the other side. Her spell launched a curse upon those responsible for Tara’s death, and the death of her cousin, Ella’s father. This would be the curse that Ella would be responsible to carry out, in spite of her own death.
“I would ordinarily never ask this of you, Ella, but you are the last of our line. Your stepmother and stepsisters must pay for their abuse and murderous deceit. If I allow you to pass on without finishing this, there will be no justice for our family. One of your stepsisters will claim the prince as her prize at the ball tonight, and they will live their lives enjoying great wealth and status without making amends for the blood they’ve spilled. But they are not the sole guilty parties. Anyone who turned a blind eye to their evils, anyone who chose to ignore their wrong-doings rather than investigating them, is guilty as well. I had little status by choice, but your father was well-known by high society. They were aware that questioning his death would bring scandal, and they were too comfortable with the status quo to stir up trouble. Many of them also knew you were being mistreated, but couldn’t be bothered to challenge your stepmother because it would disrupt their own lazy lives. I will use this opportunity to curse anyone who was aware of circumstances, but chose to remain idle.”
Ella felt her limbs animate, possessed by her godmother’s dark magic. Like it or not, she would have to serve as the tool for Tara’s vengeance. The sooner she made it happen, the sooner she would find peace again in the oblivion of death.
“I’m so cold,” Ella moaned. “I’m so tired.” Her voice was little more than a croak.
“As it will be, until my curse has done the required damage,” Tara’s disembodied murmur responded. “We have a lot of work to do, you and I. We must make sure you are stunning enough to steal away the heart and harden the prick of the lecherous royal whelp who will be the center of attention at this ball. His tyrant of a father has been mismanaging this kingdom for years. He is a drunken, greedy boor who cares nothing for his people or the land he rapes on a regular basis. Spread my curse to them and it will pass easily to those beneath them, those who fawn at their feet, kiss their hands, and yield to their whims. If you do as I say, by midnight, all high society will be doomed, and my temporary spells will be free to fall away, including the one that has reanimated you.”
Ella slowly sat up. Her arms and legs were numb and chilled, not very receptive to her demands.
“I can barely move,” she protested. She gazed down at her parasite-infested, cinder-coated corpse. “How am I supposed to seduce a man like this?”
A soft breeze, one with a tingling touch, brushed Ella’s icy cheek.
“Seduction is a matter of subtlety and suggestion. You won’t need grand gestures or lightning reflexes. Bend the right way, adjust your hair slightly, ease forward with a gentle sway—that’s all you need. My spells will do the rest…delighting the eye, taunting the senses, and stirring the soul. He will see only what he wants to see, and he will crave you. Thankfully, your mother gave me a proper foundation upon which to build. Your name, Ella, is the embodiment of all that is woman and you have grown into that name. You are beautiful even when you are not prepped and groomed, living or dead. I’m relying on that appeal. The spells only work to enhance; they cannot create what is not there. I will return to you when the Moon has risen and your sisters have set off for the palace. Be ready. I will have to work quickly, or they will have their claws in him before you can arrive there.”
Ella was forced to serve her stepfamily as she had ever since her father’s death, slaving thanklessly to sate their whims as much as their needs. They mocked her and bullied her, suggesting she was nothing better than livestock. When this did not elicit more than a cool demeanor and a wordless stare, they told her she was dirty and stank like some barnyard beast. They even complained that she was attracting flies. They were not far off—only the odor she was starting to emit was the reek of death, not animal filth. A scattering of flies were there despite the cold, hoping to seed her dead flesh with their maggots.
She did her chores, barely aware of each movement required for the tasks. She had no feeling in her extremities and no desire to do anything but return to her eternal rest. Time trickled away, the day fading into early evening. Finally, her stepsisters, powdered and perfumed, primped and preened, made ready to depart.
“We’re off now to a place much better than the likes of you,” the older stepsister said, looking down her nose at Ella.
“Keep the fire stoked for when we return, hearth harlot,” the second cackled. “You let it go out last night. My toes were frightfully frigid when I awoke this morning. There will be hell to pay for that tomorrow, when we are done with other things.”
Ella might have cringed and shrunk at the threat in the past, but it meant nothing to her now. She already was in hell. If all went as planned, however, that would change, and there would be no tomorrow for her in the process.
Once the young women and their mother were gone, the ghost of Tara returned.
“Come,” she instructed Ella. “Come into the garden so I can work my magic.”
Ella obeyed with quiet moans and jerky steps.
“First, we rid you of yesterday’s shame,” Tara murmured once Ella was standing at the center of the garden. The remnants of Ella’s rags disintegrated to dust, carried away by the wind. That same wind scoured Ella’s body with tiny flecks of ice, nipping away any hint of dirt or soot. She stood exposed as Tara looked her over, deciding what would come next.
“Cleansed of the taint imposed upon you by those who claimed to be family, I will hide the stench of death you now bear with scents of honeysuckle and orange blossom, blending them with a heavy dose of pheromones.”
Brown and withered vines greened and blossomed long enough to shed their perfume upon her pearly skin. A tree sprouted buds and flowered, sharing its essence with her as well before the plants curled in on themselves and returned to their wintery slumber.
“Next come your gown, shoes, and hair.”
Stalks of corn sprang up from the earth and shed mounds of their silk, threaded together with spider webs into a shimmering translucent sheath. It clung to her body in a way that left little to the imagination, showing off her womanly curves in all their glory. The strands of gold and silver also worked their way into her flaxen hair, surrounding her face with a majestic halo of luminescent tresses. Her footwear flowed up from the ground, a splash of water that adhered to her skin and had frozen there, looking like shoes of glass that had been fitted to her feet and hers alone.
“Some final touches,” Tara added.
The dust from moth wings powdered Ella’s skin and crushed rosehips colored her cyanotic lips and cheeks, disguising their bluish cast. Adornments of ice pellets, shining like diamonds, encircled her neck and clung to her ears.
“…and your transportation.”
Frosted morsels of rotting pumpkin from the garden’s pumpkin patch, silvery-orange chunks of ice, assembled themselves into a formidable carriage. White horses in ivory harnesses sprang up from the snow, formed only from the bitter white and standing at ready to draw Ella’s carriage. Tara sighed in satisfaction.
“Now go, my child, and do right by your family. My curse will carry your current condition to others. It can be spread through an exchange of body fluids: saliva to saliva through a kiss, saliva to blood through a bite, or your juices with a man’s seed, should one bed you. The magic will only last until midnight. This is your one and only chance to avenge us and restore yourself to rest in the process.”
Ella sighed softly too, but hers was an expression of torment and misery. She yearned for the grave, time spent among the living now her greatest burden.
She traveled as if frozen in place, unmoving in her seat like a glittering porcelain doll. The air was so chill, had she had breath slipping from her reddened lips, it would have escaped her in wisps of steam. Instead, the air was as dead and as still as she was.
Arriving at the palace, Ella moved in measured strides up the stairs. Advance too quickly, and her wobbling walk would have given her state of being away. Instead, her leisurely pace gave her an illusion of confidence and a sense of superiority, not the giddy excitement apparent in most of the hopeful young women. The palace had been constructed with the most expensive of materials, decorative marbles and rare woods, with garish ornamentation and lofty ceilings that screamed extravagance and excess. This—while most of the populace survived in hovels, with barely enough to fill their aching empty bellies.
Ella’s entrance immediately caught the eye of the prince, who was presently flirting with her pretentious stepsisters. They had been trying to bewitch him with their luxurious veneers, bejeweled and painted in a dazzling way; one they hoped would hide the ugliness they carried inside. He excused himself, abandoning them to greet Ella instead. Their catty stares would have burned into Ella, had she been alive to care. Unwounded by their jealousy, she received the prince by extending a pale hand and a cool smile.
Tara’s magic worked so well to entrance him that he didn’t care that Ella’s eyes were dead. Then again, he had no interest in her spirit. He cared only for her flesh and Tara had done well in her disguises, hiding the fact that it no longer offered a living essence. The fey magic that accentuated Ella’s natural beauty far outshone her stepsisters’ artifice.
The prince spoke to her, trying to seduce her, offering a steady stream of flattery and pleasantries. Even dead, Ella was aware of the ill-intent he attempted to hide with insincere words, but that would work to her benefit. She nodded stiffly, saying nothing in return. The prince noted her smile had not yet warmed to him. He decided his greatest allure would come in the form of a display of his wealth and his prominence. Taking her cold fingers in his own, he offered to guide her on a tour of his palace, since Ella was a newcomer there. He did not wait for an acceptance before dragging her away—cocky, privileged, and presumptive.
As Ella climbed the stairs from the ballroom, daggers sprang from her stepsisters’ narrowed and seething eyes, as well as from those of every other envious lady on the floor, reflecting their hateful thoughts towards her. They had all hoped to be the first to climb the stairs with the prince that night, and prayed that Ella would not be the last. Ella wished for that too, so that the curse would spread more rapidly and provide her with the promised release.
The prince made sure to point out all of the most valuable treasures on display, hoping to get a rise out of Ella. She remained aloof and this made him hungrier for her, the greatest challenge of interest ever to grace his palace walls. Deciding he would have her one way or another, and driven somewhat wild by the heady proximity of the pheromones with which Tara had laced her perfume, he took her next to his bedchamber. Once he had her in his room, he flung her to his bed. To his surprise, she did not resist. She simply lay there, waiting, her face forever adorned by her icy cold smile. He could not tear her clothes away quickly enough to his liking, panting and licking his lips as he fondled her frigid body.
“The drafts within our ballroom have chilled you, but I will warm you soon enough. I could tell that you wanted me, you terrible temptress. You teased me with your every movement and your every look. By the time I’m done with you, you’ll be heated through and through, from the fire in your loins once the waves of pleasure take you, to the burning of your throat from crying out too loudly in passion.”
Ella, however, made no sound as he grunted and pawed at her, lying idle with a simple expression of satisfaction as he rutted and crowed atop her. When he was spent, he glared down at her.
“I thought you would be more fun than that, you cold bitch,” he snarled, reaching for his leggings. “What sort of game are you playing?”
When she did not answer, he commanded her to get up and get out. “I’ll restore my strength and find a more enthusiastic partner, like the ladies who had captured my interest before you slunk in.”
Ella rose slowly, gathering the remains of her tattered dress about her. Before she could leave, the door of the chamber opened abruptly. The king himself stood in the doorway, his brow furrowed and his stare hard. He teetered a little, a symptom of his indulgence that night in too much fine wine.
“Your guests were all asking for you. You do recall that this ball is in your honor. How many times have I told you to make such encounters brief, or save them for after the event?” he spat, swaying slightly. “Go now. I’ll clean up your mess.”
The prince quickly finished dressing. With hunched shoulders and lowered head, he strode hastily out of his bedchamber.
The king looked Ella up and down, and then shook his head. “Pretty, but pointless. I thought my son had better taste than that—some middle-class trollop in fancy dressings. I won’t allow you to sully this night. I have a more promising union planned for him and you’d only get in the way. I’ll escort you to the servant’s exit myself, where you will depart with great discretion, and if you give me any trouble, a beheading will be the least of your worries.”
Ella could detect a glint of lust in his eyes as well, as she slipped slowly past him, but he showed some restraint, having more discipline than his impulsive offspring when it came to women. He gripped her by the shoulder, roughly forcing her forward. With little control over her limbs, she let him jostle her through the door. Needing to stall and wanting to see what had become of the prince, she stepped free from one of her glass-like shoes. The sudden drop yanked her free from the king’s grasp and she stumbled over to the railing, one shoe on, one shoe off. When she glanced down, she caught sight of her recent “lover.” He had returned to her stepsisters, just as he had suggested, and was greeting them with what would have been innocent kisses, had he not snuck his tongue in past each of their guards. They both gasped and blushed in turn, pressing hand to mouth. Ella knew that it was all in show. The intimate interaction was all that she needed to see.
The large clock overhanging the ballroom chose that moment to chime, drawing Ella’s attention. Midnight was almost upon them.
“Come along. Shoe or no shoe, your time here is done.” The drunken king gripped her shoulder again, much harder than was necessary. Ella glanced down at his plump and hairy fingers, white with pressure. Tara had mentioned that she wanted the king to pay as well.
There was no time—no time. Twisting her head at an unnaturally awkward angle, Ella drew back her lips and bit down on the forceful hand that held her, making sure her teeth pressed down hard enough to pierce skin and draw blood. She did not release the king until she tasted iron and salt in her mouth.
He yelped and stepped back, clasping wounded hand to his chest with the other. Furious, he then raised that uninjured hand to strike her.
It was done. All who needed to be tainted with the curse now were, and the undeath would spread to others. Only those willing to give up status and wealth, willing to flee without them, would have a hope of escaping its influence. Everyone else would fall victim to the rot and the ruin until they were nothing left but walking, worm-eaten bones. She was free.
Ella launched herself from the top of the stairs.
With the last strike, in mid-flight, Ella transformed. She disintegrated, crumbling away to her baser elements so that nothing recognizable as human remained. As her particles fluttered to the ballroom floor at the bottom of the stairs, nothing remained of the girl but a maggot-infested, well-decayed compost heap littered with bone chips and cinders. Her godmother’s curse had been unleashed, liberating her.
And now she could rest in peace.
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