Prince Nicolai McKenna stood viewing blueprints as workmen in orange vests scurried around the room. His jet-black hair was just short enough to not fall in his onyx colored eyes as they poured over the plans.
“I’m glad you’re remodeling the old throne room, Nic.” His best friend Hunter was peering over his shoulder. “You know I don’t believe in all that supernatural crap, but it’s a little… creepy in here.”
Hunter’s light golden brown hair flopped down into his copper-colored eyes as he glanced around the room.
“I thought the place could use a facelift,” Nicolai replied. “Besides, what do we need two throne rooms for? I’m thinking bowling alley!”
It was a mystery why the old one had stopped being used. There was nothing structurally wrong with it, even though it was close to four hundred years old. It had been sealed off and forgotten three centuries ago.
“Hey, guys, there you are!” a voice called from the doorway. “They told me I could find you in here. I got here early for the Ambassador’s Ball tonight, I thought we could grab some lunch!”
Nicolai turned to greet his new guest. “Hey, Rex. Come on in.”
Reginald Thatcher – Rex to his friends – hesitated at the threshold as his cobalt blue eyes swept the room. Dark, and dank, the smell of mildew permeated the air. Dingy stone floors stretched from wall to wall. Tall, stained-glass windows threw long, reddened shadows across the dim interior. The ceiling rose upwards three stories, with huge, exposed wooden beams. Candle chandeliers hung from the ceiling along the length of the room. Two thrones sat at the far end of the room on a raised dais, burnished gold gleaming dully in the deepening gloom. A chill crawled down his spine as he took in the murky interior, inky blackness coalescing in the corners, glimmering, almost breathing.
“N-No thanks.” He stepped back over the threshold, the hair on the back of his neck standing up as goosebumps erupted all over his body.
“What’s up with him?” Hunter frowned.
Nicolai shrugged. “Don’t know. But come on. Let’s go get some lunch!”
Hunter exited the room first. Nicolai followed behind him. As he reached the doorframe, he felt something brush the back of his neck. Like a lover’s soft exhale. He spun back toward the interior, peering into the gloom. Nothing but an empty room greeted him. He glanced up at the ceiling. A draft was getting in somewhere.
“You coming, Nic?” Hunter called. He and Rex were already halfway down the hall.
“Yeah, I’m coming.” He hurried through the doorway, sure that he heard a faint voice whisper his name. He dismissed it as a combination of stress and lack of adequate sleep.
Though he had been destined for the throne since the day of his birth, his father had largely neglected to adequately prepare him for it, but then he had neglected to be much of a father at all.
Now that the king was preparing to retire from public service, years sooner than expected, the young prince was struggling to get up to speed.
Late nights and long meetings were catching up with him, he decided, that was all.
The construction crew went to work with the demolition of what appeared to be a completely pointless wall protruding from the original stone on the north wall as soon as Nicolai and his friends left.
Four hours later, construction paused as a hole in the wall revealed a horrifying secret. A body. The clothes mostly rotted away, clinging to remnants of bone.
The crew stood around as the medical team swarmed the room. “We’re going to need to slowly remove the rest of this wall so we can get the skeleton out intact.”
“How old do you think it is?” the foreman asked.
“Hard to say until we can get a better look at it,” the medical examiner told him. “But this room has been sealed up for centuries, right?”
“Yeah. What’s really weird is how dry it is inside this wall,” he said as his gaze fell on the glistening dampness of the stone floor. The wall itself was incongruous with the rest of the room. The other three walls were still just the original stone. It’s why Nicolai had ordered it torn out.
“We’ll have to be careful not to damage the skeleton. It will be slow going. We’ll start in the morning!” the foreman replied before turning to his crew and shooing them out. They had already been dismissed for the day, but everyone had stuck around to gawk at the gruesome discovery.
The men filtered out of the room and the door was pulled closed for the night.
The sun went down. Darkness spilled across the stone.
In the deep quiet stillness of the night, something stirred inside the wall. It lifted and pulled away from the bundle of cloth and bone, freed from its prison at long last.
The door to the throne room slowly creaked open.
The gloominess of the old throne room was a stark contrast to what was going on down the original hallway, around the corner, and down the main corridor of the palace.
The grand ballroom was lit brightly with electric lights. Music from a live orchestra spilled out of the room and flowed down the hallways, echoing distantly down the ancient hallway.
Liquor and laughter flowed freely, handsome men in elegant tuxedos twirled beautiful women around as their dresses of fine linen, lace, tulle, and silk fanned out as they danced, vibrant colors on display.
Nelson Vandross was a little tipsy as he staggered down the grand hallway in search of a bathroom.
He’d been to the palace many times, but a bit too much champagne had him turned around. He was standing at the wrong end of the hallway, the one that intersected with the hall leading to the older parts of the palace.
He corrected his course, ready to head back toward the bathrooms when he heard his name.
“Nelson….” A woman’s voice, soft and pleasing, tempting, alluring.
He shivered as a sliver of desire pulled through him.
The voice called again, and he corrected course again, stumbling down the four hundred year old hallway toward the enticing sound.
Nicolai stood at the bar, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. The bourbon helped. He threw back his third or fourth glass of the night.
Sleep had become an elusive thing since his father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, ensuring the weight of the crown would be thrust upon him much sooner than expected. Perhaps tonight the alcohol would help.
He glanced at his watch. It was late, the ball was winding down. He said his goodbyes to the guests, waiting for the ballroom to empty before heading up to bed. He made his way through the darkened palace halls alone. Hunter lived at the palace, in the wing that housed the royal guards, and they would often walk back to their rooms together, but Hunter had disappeared with the daughter of a count an hour ago.
He froze as he heard his name. He glanced up and down the hallway in confusion. “Hello?”
No one answered. He shrugged it off and continued his trek toward the royal chambers.
He showered and changed, but sleep was still elusive. He poured himself another tumbler of bourbon and pulled open the ornate French doors of his balcony, letting the cold winter air waft into the room. He stepped onto the stone veranda and his gaze turned toward the tower that housed the old throne room. It was in the north wing of the palace, visible from his vantage point. His gaze fixed on it. He felt a pull toward it, an overwhelming desire to leave his room and follow the voice. Somehow, he knew that’s where it was coming from. She was calling him, and he wanted to answer.
Bourbon forgotten on the baluster, the young prince hurried back through the French doors and across his room. He threw open the door only to collide with the person on the other side. A woman with fiery red hair was standing there, hand raised to knock. “Oof!”
“Sorry, Esme! What are you doing here this late?”
Lady Esme Crassus had grown up at the palace with him and his younger brother after the death of her own parents two decades earlier.
Her father and his mother had been cousins, so the royal family had taken her in.
“I came to check on you.” She gave him a strange look, “What are you doing rushing out of your room at this hour?”
“I…I couldn’t sleep.” It wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t the truth either.
“Still having trouble sleeping?” She pushed past him into the room.
“Yes.” He reluctantly shut the door with a sorrowful glance into the hallway.
“Let me fix you the Crassus nightcap special.”
“If it’s bourbon, I’ve already tried that.”
She gave him a fond smile as she shooed him into a chair. “Sit. Trust me.”
He sat. He trusted her. Esme was like a sister to him.
With her body between Nicolai and the drink cart, Esme mixed bourbon, apple cider, and seltzer. She deftly pulled a small, green vial from her pocket and dumped the contents into the drink. She stirred it all together and added a cherry before turning and handing it to Nicolai.
He took it doubtfully. “I don’t see how adding fruity shit to my bourbon is going to help, Esme. No offense.”
“None taken. Just try it. For me.”
“Fine,” he sighed. The drink went down smoothly. It was good, just the right amount of sweetness blended with a faint hint of crisp autumn apples. Warmth and contentment seeped through his body, sinking into his very bones as he sipped it. Tension eased, and stress drained away. “Damn. That is good.”
Esme pulled the royal blue comforter and sheets back and gestured to the bed. “Why don’t you lie down? I’ll get out of here and let you sleep.”
“Good idea. Thanks, Esme,” he mumbled as he crawled under the covers. Sleep pulled him quickly under as the elixir worked its magic.
Esme slipped out of his room and down the hallway, her mind spinning with a wealth of new information. An ancient evil had awakened, and with it, her memories.
When the construction crew entered the original throne room in the morning, another gruesome surprise awaited them. Once again construction stalled as the medical team swarmed the room. This time the body was fresh.
Nelson Vandross was dead.
“There’s not a mark on him, no blood loss, no sign of trauma at all,” the chief of palace security told Nicolai.
The news had interrupted the breakfast Nicolai had been having with Hunter and Rex.
Rex had spent the night at the palace after the ball rather than make the long drive back to his duchy, so he tagged along. “So, it’s like something just sucked the life force out of him?”
“Don’t be dramatic, Rex,” Hunter scoffed. “There will be an autopsy. He probably had an undiagnosed heart condition or something. Maybe he suffered a stroke.”
“He was awfully young for a heart attack or stroke,” Rex said doubtfully.
Nicolai had other concerns. “But what was he doing here? In this part of the palace in the first place? It makes no sense!”
“Your Highness?” A young lieutenant approached him.
“Has anyone appraised you of the other body that was found?”
Nicolai blinked slowly. “What other body?”
The guardsman took them to the wall and explained the discovery that had been made the night before.
Hunter let out a low whistle. “I told you this room was creepy. Right, Rex? Rex?”
He looked around the room, but Rex was gone.
“He left the minute they said skeleton in the wall,” Nicolai chuckled. “As if a centuries old skeleton could hurt anyone. Come on, let’s go finish breakfast. There’s nothing more we can do here right now anyway.”
“Yeah,” Hunter agreed, unease spreading in his gut. “They’ll call us when they know something.”
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