As the creature reared its massive ugly head, we all trembled. We had never seen anything like it. Where had it come from? What was it capable of? And why hadn’t we seen it coming? The answers were more terrifying than we dared to imagine.
The sorcerer smiled thinly at the crowd from the platform. His beast towered behind him, held fast to the ground by a massive chain that rattled whenever it roared. We shuddered to think its master could unleash it on us at any moment.
“My friends”, the magician cried as the audience grew quiet, “I am honored to be your champion. My beloved pet and I will be proud to serve as your defenders in this new age of peace and prosperity. But trust me, we could not have succeeded in ending this terrible reign of oppression without your overwhelming support, courage, and spirit. We have all won a grand victory today. This day will be remembered for centuries as the day we ended tyranny, the day we crushed the bloodsucking rats who thought they could steal your freedom and leech off your hard labor forever.”
“He’s talking about us”, I heard one of my friends mutter next to me through the thunderous applause. It was true: every right we had worked for over the past decade, every step we had taken in the name of justice, everything we had thought was for the good of the people, was now being undone before our eyes because it was only ever good enough for us. It was a cruel reminder of how fragile our world really was; the harder you fought for change, the more afraid and resistant people became.
“This is your time, my friends”, the sorcerer continued. The cold look in his eyes as he addressed the people sent a chill down my spine. “It’s time you took back what is rightfully yours. Together, we can return this land to the thriving state it once was. Things are going to be very different from now on.”
The rows of people around the platform cheered, while those of us huddled in the back of the crowd remained more lost and confused than we had ever been in recent memory. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The queen and her army were supposed to save us, to fight the dark forces and vanquish the evil into oblivion. We were supposed to be celebrating today. Instead, she had been defeated and most of us were left cowering like frightened children in the wake of the revolution. What had gone so wrong?
Some of us blamed the town criers for carrying false news and exaggerated reports of the army’s successes. Some of us blamed the queen’s advisors for devising a military strategy that ultimately failed. Some of us blamed the queen herself for overestimating her own power and placing her trust in the wrong people. And some of us were reduced to blaming each other for taking our beloved leaders for granted and not doing our part to defend the progress they had made possible.
In the end, it didn’t matter. We were all to blame for this travesty, we knew that, and now it was too late to stop the storm. History had already been changed. So now what?
My gaze fixed on the stage, I saw the others turning to face me from the corner of my eye. It might have been the weight of my words that made them stare, or perhaps they were just surprised that I had spoken for the first time in hours.
“What are you saying?” said one of my companions, her voice small and nervous. I shook my head.
“Things are going to be different. This is just the beginning. The queen is gone, the army is scattered, even the scholars are starting to disappear. There’s nobody left to protect us… so we have to protect ourselves. No running, no hiding, no pretending that everything is normal. It’s time to organize. It’s time to fight.”
“But…” another friend stammered, “how are we supposed to fight them when they have that… thing on their side? It’ll kill us as soon as they know we’re coming!”
“And who’s going to see us coming?” I said, turning to the group at last. It was the first time I’d smiled in weeks. “We’re rats, remember?”
The monster roared again, flaming locks of fur flying as it convulsed like a raging madman. Somehow that horrible sound made the crowd cheer even louder. Stoic as I planned to be for the foreseeable future, I turned my back on the holes in the wall and jumped down to walk away into the darkening streets. I didn’t have to look back to know my friends were only a few steps behind, nor that nobody else saw us leave. They never even knew we were there.
We still remember it as our darkest day. And though none of us knew exactly what to say, to think, to feel anymore, of one thing we were absolutely certain: these were going to be the longest and hardest fought years of our lives.