When the doors finally closed, everyone who had gathered in front of them just looked to the ground. They slowly went back to their duties in the palace or to their new houses in the lower levels, where they had been accepted just some hours ago. Another door that had closed was the one of the throne room, as the emperor had demanded to be left alone as he had “a strategy” to think about. The truth was, and everyone knew this, that the enemy was coming fast and that it couldn’t be stopped. It had been announced that they would destroy everything and everyone on their path and that’s why many had found shelter in the palace. The idea was that, as strong as the enemy was, they behaved like a group of buffalos. They charged until they hit something and then they moved on.
The funny thing there was that no one really knew anything about the enemy except what people coming from other towns said. They were called “survivors” as they always arrived on the verge of collapse and they all had the same story about how awful and terrible the enemy was. However, despite been able to describe how their own tows burned and how people had been killed, they couldn’t tell anyone about the general aspects of the enemy. It was strange, but it was as if they had seen a shadow destroy all of those towns. No physical traits of any kind had been revealed, only the way they operated and that had been scary enough for everyone to take shelter in a building that was normally reserved for the rich and noble. That said a lot about their fear.
The palace was a structure built in ten concentric rings, the highest been the one where the emperor lived and the lower ones where his staff lived. There were also some sublevels, normally catacombs used as prisons and to get access to a subterranean river. All of that space was now been used by the families that lived in the town and that had been allowed to come in by order of the empress. She was the one that was doing the most. Her name was Serena and she even went down to the sublevels and helped people build a house in the many rooms and spaces that had been only populated by rats for several hundreds of years. Her husband, however, was too scared or apprehensive to do nothing.
No one knew if he had seen the enemy first hand or if he just felt this was the end of his reign. He had been emperor for fifty years; since he was a very young boy and this was the first time someone defied his power. And the truth was, he was very scared about it. Specially because there wasn’t a single man in the entire kingdom that could tell him anything useful about the enemy. No any general characteristics, not a weakness, not even the way they killed. It was true he was planning and working on the problem but it was also the truth that there was nothing he could really do about it.
In the lower levels, many families tried to create the feeling of a home but it was practically impossible. Many of them were staying in rooms that felt too much like a prison and they soon realized that if the enemy didn’t walk through town but instead came to the palace, they would be trapped in the catacombs. The only way out was through the underground river but no one really knew how to navigate it and not everyone would be able to use the only boat that remained there. It was said that many of the emperor’s servants had escaped on other boats, leaving only one in the docks. Many children of these refugees loved to go and play in the docks as it was the only place that felt different and worth exploring, even if it was as dark and moist as the rest of the sublevels.
Life in the upper levels, however, rapidly went back to normal. All the people working for the emperor resumed their work: they cooked big feasts for the few members of royalty, they made fabulous robes and they even brought in objects from the outside by specially trained hawks. They brought jewelry from very far cities and also delicacies that the king always liked. But the empress wasn’t too impressed by this. She was actually revolted by the fact they were eating a five-course meal as the people in the catacombs had only some bread to feed their children. She tried to protest before her majesty but his aides wouldn’t let her, as she would disturb him greatly. They didn’t want to bother him as he drank his beer.
Serena decided to go for a walk around all the levels and wrote on a piece of paper everything that she saw that was wrong: too much water been wasted on plants in the gardens, a whole level dedicated to keeping his majesty’s clothes cleaned and perfect, the vaults of money and jewels been filled everyday despite the industry and commerce coming to halt, the closure of the market that had always worked in front of the main entrance, the fact that the his majesty’s guard was very numerous but there were only a few men guarding the first wall that would prevent the enemy from coming in and many other things. She actually ran out of paper as she walked along the edge of the wall, looking towards the town where only ghosts lived now.
But she realized she was mistaken. There was smoke coming out from one of the houses chimney. She asked one of the few guards for how long that smoke had been there and they said that since the time the people of the town entered the palace. She concluded then that someone, maybe an entire family, had decided to stay behind and leave their lives as always. They didn’t care about the enemy, about wars or even about their emperor. They just wanted to keep living and Serena admired that. She asked her husband to let her go to the town, but his answer was obviously negative.
But Serena wasn’t really one to wait around for others to approve. She had always been rebellious and she had always been curious about her marriage to the emperor. Despite having even younger sisters that were a lot less trouble, he had chosen her to be his wife. He said that it was because of her hair, which reminded him of wheat. But it had to be something else, or so she hoped. One night, she slipped out of her room and disguised herself as one of the refugees. Her handmaiden had gotten the clothes. Serena descended through secrets stairs and hallways that only a few knew about and finally reached the market in front of the entrance. There, she had to run through the square and reach a dark wall on the other end. There was a secret passage there too but the soldiers could see her if she made too much noise.
She stopped first to calculate how to cross the square and then breath heavily in order to get herself pumped up. She then ran for her life like a mad person and reached the dark wall in seconds. It was strange that no one had seen her, as the moon was particularly bright, but she moved on. The tunnel she was walking on was very humid and full of moss. She fell a couple of times before reaching the end of the path. The tunnel ended in a small room, right in the middle of town. It was amazing no one knew about it. Serene walked out of it slowly and looked at the sky, looking for the smoke.
The house she was looking for was just a couple of streets away. She walked slowly but not really trying not to make noise, as supposedly, there was no one in town. When she arrived at the house, she knocked. Maybe it had been a bold move but she really didn’t have time to play around. No one answered so she knocked again. Then, she let out a scream as someone pulled a curtain and looked out. Then the door opened and scared faces looked straight at her. There wasn’t one family living there, but two: three adults and five children. They recognized her and that was why they let her in. They were visibly nervous and she tried to reassure them but it was a lost cause. In the end, it was pretty reasonable to be scared and jumpy after been through so much.
Serena was about to speak when the ground started to tremble. Everyone pulled back from the door and the walls and ran towards a hatch on the ground. Serena didn’t. She was too curious, too urged for the truth. She walked to the curtain and stood still, looking through the window, not even moving. The tremor grew stronger and then, what felt like hundreds of boars passed in front of the house. They were huge, with big horns and red eyes. They destroyed everything outside but they passed fast. She breathed again but it was too soon. Something else was coming down the street and she had to cover her mouth in order not to scream and reveal her position.
In the palace, they finally realized something was wrong. But it was too late as the moon revealed what was happening there, in the town. And it also revealed that the palace wasn’t safe because, whatever was causing the ground to shake was coming their way. It was only a matter of minutes before the boars overran the market square. And even then, watching it all from his room, the emperor did nothing. Not even thinking about his wife.