Once upon a time, there was a cruel and wicked prince in a kingdom called Etheria. When his parents left on a trip to another kingdom, he secretly misbehaved and took over at home. He spread false rumors about the royals’ accomplishments and skill. Some even heard him say that soon, he’d become the permanent king of Etheria.
Most believed that the prince just acted this way out of naivety and arrogance, and simply ignored him – but they never realized that he’d turn out to be such a monster.
While it wasn’t obviously declared, anyone who opposed him would have their head cut off.
The prince ordered for so many people to be killed that soon, there were enough skulls to mount into a huge, bone-white pile.
When the kingdom’s soon-to-be princess, or his betrothed, confronted him about it, he only grew more upset. They had never been close, and she was only a commoner that the queen had favored. How could she order him around, he thought? Did she really think that being the “Cinderella” of the kingdom meant she’d get all the power?
So, the fourth time she pestered him about his actions and lies, he made up a story to interrupt her.
“What if once, there was a princess who refused to mind her own business – and one day, she suddenly disappeared?
Somehow, she’d gotten severely ill. She couldn’t talk or move from her bed anymore. The princess was confined to her room, and nobody saw her for weeks.
Until one day, she was gone, and that was the last people heard of her.”
The princess seemed to understand. Her face paled and disbelief shadowed the expression in her eyes.
“____...You can’t be serious.”
But he was. Surely, it’d happened before in history, so why wouldn’t it happen again? He might be the first to repeat the story in a long time, just to make things interesting.
“And that was how the fairytale ended. If only ‘Cinderella’ had minded her own business, maybe she wouldn’t have fallen so ill.”
Two months later, the king and queen returned. They were expected to stay in the castle and rest, so the prince tried to destroy all indoor evidence and make sure those who knew wouldn’t speak. It took time, and patience, and a lot of work – but he figured that for now, his naive parents would believe their only son.
Except if some people had liked to rebel against everything he said.
There’d been a rumor about the pile of skulls that had reached his parents, and he had to write a pile of letters to assure them they were only lies. And word had spread that Ella was never actually sick; they claimed the prince had something to do with her death. Luckily, those rumors were too quiet for the king and queen to notice.
By the time they entered the palace, exhausted and unaware, everything was in its place.
The king was unwell from the journey, so he was ushered into his rooms and did little to look around.
The queen was heartbroken to hear about the loss of Ella, and she quickly called for Ella’s family and friends. Only one person showed up a few days later – her cousin, Lana, whom the prince had never met before.
They had a quiet lunch together in the dining room. Since he didn’t feel like talking about Ella, the prince asked about his father’s health instead.
“He’s alright,” the queen answered. But as her gaze fell to her bowl of soup and she swallowed a spoonful, he noticed his mother’s frown.
“I’m a little worried,” she admitted, “that he’s fallen ill so quickly. He can’t even talk or move around as much as before.”
Lana suddenly raised her head, listening with guarded attention. The prince tried to ignore it.
“He’s been confined to his room for days now, and nobody has been able to see him,” the queen added, pursing her lips. “I’m worried about him. Not even the doctors seem to know what it is.”
The prince froze, a single thought resonating through his head. Why does that sound so familiar…?
Then a memory struck him, and his heart took a slingshot against his chest. Ella.
Lana and the queen glanced over at him, but he couldn’t meet their gaze – only left his own on the plate in front of him. He couldn’t give anything away, not now.
The prince must have uttered a response, because eventually, his mother turned away and switched to another topic. But the same news kept repeating in his ears.
It must be a coincidence, he reassured himself. How else could the story he made for Ella match with his father’s condition?
After that, he felt Lana watching him. But every time the prince looked up, all he could see was her head as she swung her gaze back around to the food.
It was too obvious. He’d been too obvious. Is she already finding out? The prince wondered.
They both pretended to pay attention to the queen’s words, but inside, he knew neither of them were listening. His heart continued to race with anxiety. Briefly, he wondered if she was just as afraid.
…No, probably not. For all Lana knew, everyone in this room could be innocent.
But the prince knew he was guilty.
The secret followed him in the form of restless shadows and invisible stares.
Even after the meal had passed, it kept feeling like he was being watched by many, many eyes – even when he knew it wasn’t Lana, the owls perched outside the window, or the drawing of the snake on the castle’s numerous, green-and-gold banisters.
Still, the day passed, and Lana said nothing. His worry eased, and the shadows faded away.
As if they ever existed, he tried to tell himself. They had to be his imagination. Even if they weren’t, no matter; so far, he was getting away with this.
If he really had to, he could just get rid of Lana -- or even his parents someday, the prince thought. He knew he had people backing him.
However, the prince had trouble sleeping for the next few nights. No matter how much he tossed and turned, the bed felt uncomfortable and…strange. Sometimes, it felt like there was something bony poking into his back, only to vanish a moment later. His blanket became the only shelter, especially when he started to feel like there was something he should be hiding from.
Again, the prince tried to dismiss it. I’m not a child afraid of some monster under the bed.
But his uneasiness grew until finally, he chose to investigate.
One night, the prince swallowed his fears and slowly, carefully reached into the dark space beneath his bed. To his surprise, there was something underneath.
Once he retrieved it, out of the darkness came a brittle, white skull. His thumb lanced right through its hollow eye socket.
He screamed, instinctively jerking his hand away, and hit the skull in the process. It rolled once, twice, thrice, before striking the wall with a sickening crack. Though the front was turned away, his heart pounded, remembering its white visage and huge, smiling teeth.
“This has to be a nightmare,” he thought, scrambling to the other side of the room. “This can’t be real!”
He retreated into a corner, pulse racing, trying to wake up. After all, he had ordered for the victims’ skulls to be burned or buried already – it wasn’t possible for them to be here.
It was impossible. He clutched at his head, wishing he could somehow dig into his memory and erase the sight.
And yet, from where he was, he could see the sickening display under his bed. It hadn’t been just one skull, one life that he’d carelessly ended.
Dozens of them lay there, gaping eyes and screaming mouths hanging open. The heads filled the space from the floor to the bed. Their skeletal features were white and protuberant – as pale as the victims’ faces must’ve turned before their executions. He stared at them, frozen with shock.
That was when icy fingers suddenly grasped his shoulder, almost painful in its coldness.
“What were you expecting?” a voice asked.
The prince couldn’t move. He wanted to run, but his limbs were paralyzed with fear. He could only listen as the cold seemed to radiate off her, sinking into his bones.
“There’s no monster under the bed, Prince of Etheria,” Ella’s voice spoke.
“The only monster here is you.”
When morning came, the queen arrived at her son’s door. With her were Lana and four other guards. She knocked and called out to him, begged and cried… but it wasn’t until the door was broken down that she breathlessly entered and found her son.
The prince was still curled up in that same corner of the room. Sunlight filtered weakly through the windows – all drawn shut with gloomy curtains – and shone over a room that looked otherwise normal.
“Son,” the queen whispered pleadingly. “What’s happened to you? Tell me.”
She did not come any closer.
The prince looked up at her, his eyes wide.
“Mother?” he asked. “Are you here to see them, too?”
With a trembling arm, he raised one hand and pointed at the empty space beneath the bed.
“Skulls,” he whimpered, unable to keep his secret for any longer. “There are so many of them… R-right under the bed!”
It was obvious now, what he’d done. For the queen, the most unthinkable rumors had become the truth.
She fell to her knees, sobs racking her body as she screamed and wept. The guards stood by, their spears out to protect her. And then, in the space of a second, her son glanced up and saw Lana’s glare.
She was looking at him just like Ella had, a few hours ago as well as that final time the week before.
She was watching him as if he were a monster.
Once upon a time, there was a princess who tried but failed to defeat a monster in life...
So in death, she decided not to give up
And came back to try again.