BREATH OF DEATH
Large capital letters appeared, letter by letter, side by side, as if signifying something important. I wrote my message slowly, the dust of the chalk drifting to the floor.
Different words every night, but always in the same spot –above the bed of the youngest sister.
TWELVE SISTERS ALL SO SWEET—COME TONIGHT AND WE SHALL MEET
I debated whether to sign my message with a flourish or a grand false name, but settled on my normal mark—the letter P.
Leaning backwards in the chair I claimed as mine, I studied the sisters as they jostled around my message. They read my words eagerly, chattering excitedly about what the night would bring.
Perhaps they should have questioned their eagerness. Perhaps they could have been saved.
Twelve nights of being good—behaving in a way I was not accustomed to—had got me this far. I wouldn’t fail now, not when I was this close. I smirked, congratulating myself on my plan. Twelve sisters, princesses even. Aged between twenty-nine, and seventeen, they were a rare and beautiful find.
As I shifted a chair from one corner of the room to the other, the sisters shrieked with laughter, only seeing the chair move with an invisible force. I liked to surprise them by rearranging their bookshelves, or slamming doors when the silence became too much for me to bear. Being a spirit, invisible in their world, enabled me to tease the beautiful sisters. But, I particularly liked playing with one of them—the youngest.
I tried, on numerous occasions, to single her out. She noticed when her favourite book appeared at her side, or the door opened for her as she reached for its handle. I could be a gentleman when I wanted to. But, I didn’t usually have a reason to behave in such a way. Whenever the youngest princess stepped through my spirit I experienced a strange sensation. Warmth flooded through me in a way I was unaccustomed to, and I revelled in the feeling only she could ignite.
The sisters speculated all week about who I was, what I was, and why I left them messages. My answers were simple—if I were to give them any. And tonight, they would get their answers, but for now I remained quiet, floating in-between them like any other ghostly spirit. They didn’t know of my importance. But they would later. I had plans—carefully prepared ones which would satisfy many.
I lived in a world where many aimless spirits floating around, lost in a sea of endless mist, struggling without purpose, fighting without reason, hating their existence. But not me. I had purpose, I had reason, I had a life—one in which I swept in and out of with ridiculous ease. The aimless spirits were not the ones I concerned myself with. I fed the souls, the remnants of the dead who found no peace in death—the ones with nowhere to go. They were restless, hungry, desiring what only I could give them.
Seated in my chair, I allowed the princesses to prepare for their evening. But my eyes never left the youngest. I studied her carefully, smiling at her proximity as she quietly debated which gown to wear. The choice was between a dark green and a deep crimson one. Leaning forwards I grabbed the green one and threw it to the floor.
“Red it is then,” she said quietly, looking towards my chair.
I wondered for a fleeting moment whether she could see me, or whether she was so used to me being near her, that she guessed where I was. Whatever the reason, it reassured me I’d made the right choice. She would be the last princess I spoke to tonight.
Beginning to rock in my chair, I enjoying the startled looks and the bashful way the sisters covered themselves. It amused me. Modesty was not necessary when I was around, I saw everything.
One of the sisters clapped her hands. “We must hurry, make our selection of gowns. Father will be here to check on us shortly, and we must pretend to be asleep so we can join our admirer.”
I huffed at her assumption as another sister giggled. I stopped rocking the chair. I hated gigglers. They literally made my short hair stand on end.
“Don’t you think it’s funny father locks us in?” she exclaimed loudly. “He thinks we can’t get out!”
The giggling increased and I flew from the chair, throwing books from the shelves to signify my annoyance. Silence soon filled the room, and I smiled, repositioning myself on the end of the youngest princess’s bed. They hurried, hiding their selected clothes, and curled up in their beds, waiting for their father.
As expected, the king checked on his daughters. He muttered as he left the room, locking them in. I followed him, curious as to whether he would be a suitable person to select for another night.
The king moved quickly for his age, and his bedroom door slammed shut behind him.
I growled before stepping through the solid obstacle. It was an action I didn’t like to do. My perfect invisibility was disturbed, and I hated the feeling of not being whole. Walls created the same effect. I avoided both if possible, preferring not to be seen in this world.
Observing the king as he slipped into bed, alone, I grinned. There was no queen to warm his bed. The king was alone. He only had his daughters. Soon he would not have them. He would have been perfect for a future visit. His grief would allow me to take him, just as I planned to take his daughters. The hungry souls would rejoice. The innocence of his daughters was a delicacy to be fed upon sparingly, lightly. His old age was a feast, ripe, rich, to be fully enjoyed. But he would be saved. I would feed the souls for the last time tonight.
Satisfied with my assessment of the king, I returned to the princess’s bedroom. They would already be waiting for me, dressed and ready for our night to begin.
As I stepped through their bedroom door, shivering at the effect, the sisters huddled together speaking in hushed whispers. They discussed who would be the lucky one who danced with the handsome prince tonight. I stifled a chuckle at their words. A handsome prince? Is that what they thought I was? If only they knew the truth.
Straightening my clothes, and running my fingers through already messed up hair, I walked to the centre of the room. There were no shrieks or screams of surprise when I pulled the old rug aside. It hid a trap door which they had stepped through several times this week already. As I threw the door open the princesses, without any instructions from me, disappeared through it.
For the past twelve nights, in my world through the trap door, I materialised as a well-dressed, educated man. I charmed the princesses, danced with each and every one of them, laughed and joked with them while the others danced with each other. But I noticed the way they stared at me, waiting for an opportunity to catch my eye. They thought they were special. They were—but not for the reasons they hoped.
Rushing excitedly down spiral steps, the princesses descended deep under the castle. Small, insignificant torches, lit their way as they urged each other on. Their excitement was easy to hear and I followed them, a lascivious smile curling at my lips.
The princesses smiled and gasped as they observed my world tonight. Gold, silver and diamond trees illuminated the forest before them. Branches formed a majestic arches which glistened with precious jewels. They were drawn towards the beauty, unaware of what lay beyond. It was part of the journey they would make tonight.
So lost in their awe of the world I had brought them to they didn’t see me approach. With a cloak hung over one of my arms I emerged from the shadows and took the hand of one of the princesses. To her I was the man who always greeted them. I was the prince who danced all night with each of them in turn. She smiled at me as I walked her through the arch toward a lake.
She trusted me.
They all did.
It was exactly what I had wanted, what I’d worked for the past twelve nights. Their trust would serve me well tonight.
“I should like to dance with your sister first, tonight,” I announced to the others.
They curtsied and dipped their heads.
“But, we will not dance here. I shall take you across the lake to a special place I know of.”
Stepping to the edge of the lake, my boat glided toward me.
“We cannot all travel in that,” one of the princesses stated. “It’s too small.”
“It is why I shall return for each of you individually,” I reassured them. “I shall not be long.”
After I helped the selected princess into my boat I threw my cloak across my shoulders. Moving silently across the water, out of sight of the other sisters, I waited for the mist to surround us. The princess didn’t look at me, she stared at the water.
“Why is the water dark?” she asked.
“Because it is has no end to its depth,” I replied, slowing my pace as the expected mist began to form. She shivered as the cold air wrapped around her.
“What is wrong princess?” I asked.
“Can you not hear them?”
I knew exactly what she referred to, but I ignored the cries of the dead echoing over the water.
“People moaning, crying . . .”
“There are no sounds to hear in the middle of the lake. What you are hearing is your imagination, nothing else.”
“And the smell?”
The smell of death, it surrounded us.
“Calm yourself. There is no need to worry.”
I stopped rowing to pull the hood of my cloak over my head.
Once the hood was in position I became what I was—the ghost of death.
Protruding bones and torn skin covered my face and hands, and as I reached for the princess, fear etched across her face, she screamed.
Breathing into her mouth, her death was instant.
I suspected this was her first kiss.
It was also her last.
After removing my cloak, I rowed back to the shore where the remaining eleven princesses waited for me. Gone was the ghost who frightened their sister, and in its place was the man they called a prince.
“Who’s next?” I called cheerfully, enjoying the small arguments between the sisters as they decided on who was to join me. I had never known such eagerness to meet death.
The eldest sister stepped forwards, and I took her gloved hand in mine.
As I rowed the boat into the lake she tried to talk to me, but I only answered with a slight smile. She would find out everything she needed to know very soon.
Once again in the middle of the lake, a mist surrounded us and a moaning, the sound of many dead soulless bodies, filled the air.
I dismissed the sound, just as before.
Pulling the hood of my cloak into position, my true form was revealed to the princess. She fainted. Leaning in to place first one, then a second kiss on her lips, I breathed death into her. Throwing her body into the water, she joined her sister and the other lifeless souls. Skeletal hands clambered over her body as she slowly sank. Taking souls was easy. Feeding restless souls was easier.
One by one, I took the princesses on a journey to the middle of the lake. Each time I returned to the shore there was one less for me to select from.
I left the youngest princess for last.
She remained silent as we glided across the lake, only becoming anxious when we reached the middle of it. Looking out across the water, narrowing her eyes to see through the thick mist descending, she turned to me. “What is it that makes such a sad mournful sound?” she asked.
“I hear nothing, for I am struck dumb by your beauty, princess.”
She smiled, cocking her head to the side.
“Are my sisters waiting for us at the other side of the lake?”
“Yes, they are at the other side.”
“Do you mind if we make them wait a little longer?”
I raised my brow, surprised at her suggestive words, but welcoming them all the same. I was confident I had made the correct choice of sister. She was the last one.
“May I kiss you?” I asked, prepared to play her games for a little longer.
The princess pushed a finger onto my lips as I leaned forward. “I do not know your name, or what kingdom you come from.”
“I shall tell you after I have kissed you. I shall answer your questions.”
“I must insist you tell me your name at least. How can I continue to call you the Prince?”
“It is best you call me that.”
The princess shook her head. “You play with me, sir, but I am more than willing to play your games.”
As I laughed at her stubbornness. Ripples lapped at the boat.
“You selected me last. I assume there is a reason.” The princess was insistent.
“A reason?” I replied, “Oh, yes. I always have a reason.”
“And will you tell me?”
“After I have kissed you. My secrets are only to be shared with the one I have chosen.”
The princess smirked as I placed my cloak around my shoulders, preparing for our moment.
“My kiss?” I asked, impatience, knowing I needed to kiss her twelve times, for she was the twelfth soul I would claim tonight.
“You may kiss me,” she said.
Lifting my hand to the back of her neck to hold her in place, I captured her soft lips. Sighing, I pushed my breath into her.
“Question?” I asked, my mouth hovering over hers.
Crashing my lips onto hers again, she would already be feeling the effect of the deathly breaths I passed into her.
“Another question?” I asked. She didn’t respond. I kissed her again, another breath entered her as I held her close to my chest.
“Are you a prince?” she managed to ask.
“Who are you?”
“Two questions, two kisses,” I said, quickly claiming her lips.
The boat suddenly rocked from one side to the other. The souls were impatient. They suspected there was another for them on my boat.
I stood, gripping the oar as I observed the writhing mass of bodies pulling at the boat. The waters of the lake churned with their movements.
“Get away, you mindless souls!” I shouted. “You must wait!”
As fingers appeared over the edge of the boat I struck them with the oar. The following wails and screams filled the air, and the princess in the boat sobbed.
I quickly placed another six kisses on her lips, silencing her tears as I passed my breath into her.
“What’s happening?” she asked. She would be struggling to understand the way her body was feeling. Numbness, fear, and disorientation would be overpowering her as my deathly kisses prepared her for her fate.
“You are joining me,” I told her. “One more kiss, and then we are together.”
Tears fell down her face.
I thought about the eleven princesses before her. They were stolen souls now, damned to a life in a world that greeted them with open arms.
“Twelve kisses for you, as you are the twelfth soul I have taken tonight,” I explained, although I doubted she understood.
Pulling my hood over my head I reached for the princess. Dragging her to her feet I looked directly into her eyes. I saw her fear when she focused on my true self—it was all I needed.
I kissed her, my final kiss as I breathed into her, filling her body with the essence of death. She slumped in my arms, not moving, not breathing.
I told myself I chose this princess for a reason. My reason—I’d had enough. I wouldn’t take any more innocent lives, not even their father.
Without further hesitation, I threw myself into the dark waters taking my princess with me. Hand in hand we sank.
I could never be with her while she was alive. But I would ensure I was with her in death.