The Age of Atrocity
The Age of Atrocity
The Age of Atrocity first began all those years ago for one very simple reason. All it took was a single, solitary raincloud. On the first day of what would prove to be a very bitter and fateful winter, the sky darkened, the heavens opened and promptly started to tip out their contents for one whole month, without respite or pause for thought. Now, a bit of rain was nothing out of the ordinary for these people, it was inevitable and expected. It was welcomed in reluctantly, like a senile old uncle who must be endured out of necessity, but even so they had never seen anything quite like this.
In the first week of the onslaught, the waters throughout The Kingdom started to rise, the rivers burst their banks and it was very soggy and inconvenient underfoot. There was enough water to raise some concerned eyebrows. By the second week, those that were lucky enough to live in houses made of bricks and mortar abandoned their kitchens and libraries and were forced to make do with just the upper floors of their magnificent homes.
The not so fortunate, as if luck was not already against them, those who lived lying with their backs to the earth were flooded out of their crude homes made of mud and things scrounged from woodland and pilfered from other people’s gardens and were forced to move to higher ground to escape the ever creeping, grasping flood waters.
In the third week, boats were able to sail up and down the streets in ridiculous parades of wealth. They bobbed along between the turrets of castles and the chimneys of palaces. This was much to the delight of the rich folk who lived there, who were dragged from their roof tops and carried eagerly away to safety, waving arrogantly to those left behind in the swirling torrents of water.
By the fourth and final week of the flood, for many thousands the battle for survival had been lost. With starvation, frost bite, water clogged toes and utter hopelessness all stretching out their palms to greet them, what chance did they have?
Finally, on the first day of the next month, the rain stopped and the sky wiped itself clean, leaving people blinking stupidly into the weak and watery sunlight of a new, unwelcome life. Eventually the water started to recede and when it did many people wished that it hadn’t bothered because what they found below was far worse than what had been above. The tallest and grandest monuments were reduced to piles of rubble. Houses had been snatched out of the ground and whisked away like a dandelion clocks in the wind.
But worse than the total destruction of the entire Kingdom was the thick layer of humus and death that littered the ground. It was many feet deep, embedded with the filth of the hundreds of thousands of dead that had floated down to the streets and taken up their resting places. The stench seemed to come up from far underneath the earth, right from the devils dining room.
So, just like that, The Kingdom had been reduced to nothing. Generations had spent hundreds of years building their homes and their lives and it had all been washed away in a month. Like a great purge. As if someone far above, the one who makes all the big decisions,
was unimpressed with what they had created and wanted to give them the grand opportunity of a fresh start.
Along with the ruin of all the things man had built came the collapse of man themselves. The playing field had finally been leveled. Who you were and what you owned was no longer a consideration in this new land made only of debris and sorrow. Nobody had anything anymore and if people had nothing, then they were worth nothing. It was then, in this apocalypse that The Divide began. It did not take long for people to pick their sides.
The greedy and the selfish who had escaped upon the boats and had spent the month holed up beneath deck drinking decadent spirits and playing cards, began to hungrily gather up stones and bricks that had been scattered in order to quickly rebuild their own estates and place themselves firmly at the top of the new hierarchy. Whilst those that had lost their loved ones and had nothing before The Great Flood anyway, endeavored to put names to all the decomposing faces and return them to their families who would then bury them with all the respect that they deserved. It was unpleasant work but it was righteous and just. So, it is easy to see in this case that it was people’s choices between helping themselves and helping others that instantly sparked The Divide.
The Divide widened rather rapidly. Bigger and bigger, like two sides of a vast canyon, it grew until it became clear that the two sides could not continue to live in each other’s company. It appeared that the poor folk were nothing more than vermin feeding off the landscape that the rich and deserving were remolding and redeveloping single handedly. This injustice was not to be endured and so the poor were banished, far, far away to an empty and desolate part of The Kingdom and left to fend for themselves once more.
These people, who had nothing left but their souls and spirits, were those named ‘The Hopefuls’. Those with their hands firmly in their pockets and hearts in dark places were dubbed ‘The Crookeds’ because they were crooked, right down to the souls of their feet.
For a while it was deemed that The Crookeds had solved the problem by exiling the unworthy and they patted themselves gleefully on the back. The Kingdom had been rebuilt and scrubbed up to its former glory, things had never been better. They lived in the glow of a job well done for many, many years. They threw parties and stole from their neighbours and then their neighbours stole back from them and then their neighbours murdered them in their beds for their trouble and they all became crookeder and crookeder by the day.
As time slipped by, something dark and terrible began to happen to The Crookeds. It was an unworldly thing, something they didn’t even notice as it started to occur. Day by day, they drifted into beings that were less human somehow. Their lives started to last much longer than they ought to, much longer than anyone with an average human heart ought to live. Perhaps it could be assumed that their souls had departed from their bodies too early and the flesh surrounding them had continued to live on without it. The ugliness of their hearts manifested on their faces, they became pinched and diseased looking. Their eyes turned to wicked little pin pricks. Their bones seemed sharper than normal, they cut through their paper like skin as if it were butter. But most of all, they were distinguished by an uneasy feeling of evil that they wore about them like a shroud, it entered a room before they did, it entered the dreams of Hopefuls from the other side of The Kingdom like a slow dispersing poison.
It was an unfortunate day when The Crookeds lifted themselves from their stupor and decided it might be a good idea to check up on The Hopefuls. They wondered if they might have something that was worth stealing by now. They couldn’t allow them to become comfortable. They needed reminding of the natural order of things. So, two of their number travelled the many miles across country and through a long, dense and fearsome forest called The Dark Wood. This monstrous wood split the land in two like a great scar. It was to the other side of this wood that The Hopefuls had been sent to live; The Crookeds had known they would never dare to cross the wood and risk inciting their wrath once more.
From their lurking place under the shelter of the trees, The Crookeds leered upon the unsuspecting Hopefuls. What they saw was deeply unsettling. To their horror The Crookeds found that they had made happy and comfortable homes for themselves out there in the wilderness. They’d constructed sturdy houses made of bracken and mud and twine. They looked to be eating well off the fat of the land that was now extremely fertile thanks to all the mud. A few of them even dared to look portly around the middle.
The Crookeds flew back to their stronghold with the news that The Hopefuls were ‘thriving’. Furious, The Crookeds in charge of the deplorable operation decided that further action needed to be taken. It must not be allowed to continue.
And so, in the dark of the night, The Crookeds crossed the forest between the two sides of The Kingdom. In their hundreds they snuck into the first camp where they began their warpath. They had one instruction; drive The Hopefuls to extinction. No person was to be left alive, no home was to be left standing and anything worth keeping or eating was theirs for the taking.
A lighted torch held against a house made of straw started the tirade, an act known later as The Burning. The village sparked and flamed to the ground in a heartbeat and any person that crossed their path was murdered with bloody fingers. The Hopefuls were not prepared for a fight; most of them had been tucked up in bed. They were done for.
They repeated their barbaric routine at every encampment they came to. It was very easy pickings. They were almost disappointed not to be presented with any kind of fight. They moved swiftly, without mercy, enjoying watching The Hopefuls scuttle away from them like ants only to squash them brutally under their thumbs, moments later.
Whilst destruction reigned, at the furthest camp away from the chaos, a father ordered his children to run into The Dark Wood. He told them that they must hide and must not move until silence had fallen again. He dashed away, asking Evelyn and Michael to sit tight for just one moment more. His frantic and incoherent orders and the far off cries of terror had frightened the children. They huddled together, knowing their father would never make them do anything he didn’t think was a good idea.
He returned a few moments later herding twelve more weeping children in their direction.
“Go,” their father said breathlessly, before turning and heading back towards the swarming flames that were drawing closer and more riotous with every moment that passed. The children grasped hands and ran as the smoke rose in spirals above them and the screams ricocheted around the night.
Evelyn looked back once more over her shoulder to see her father streaking away towards the battle. She called out to him but he did not hear, or maybe he did but could not bear to see his children running away to their most probable death.
They had not gone far before Evelyn was forced to carry two of the youngest children, one in her arms and one clutching on around her neck, sobbing and wailing in their confusion.
“Please stop crying,” Evelyn whispered to them. She did not know what was behind them. She didn’t know what fresh horror their world had met. She did however, have a good idea that they’d do a much better job of it all if they went unheard and undetected.
By and by they came to The Dark Wood, where the children had previously been forbidden to venture by their parents because of the monsters that lived amongst the tree tops and the spirits that wracked the air. This is what they told their children and the stories worked well enough, but of course they knew better. They knew that no one could cross the forest because on the other side lay the Crookeds. And they were never to be disturbed.
“Perhaps this isn’t such a good idea,” she whispered to her brother, just before they crossed the ominous moss coated threshold.
“Have you got a better one?”
“No,” she admitted and placed one foot tentatively in front of the other, leading the children slowly and reluctantly into the abyss. Having no idea where she was going, she kept the children moving silently through the wood for perhaps an hour, until they were far enough away that the screams sounded like wind blowing through leaves.
Then Evelyn set about hiding the children. She made them sit underneath bushes, amongst piles of leaves, inside a hollow tree. Then she whispered around to all of them, “We’ll only win the game if you stay silent and still as statues. Not a peep from any of you. When the sun rises we can go back home. Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anything happen to you, any of you.”
She could see the children’s terrified and glassy eyes glinting back at her in the dappled moonlight. She had meant that promise. She would not let anything happen to them. Or she would try very hard at least. She then settled herself down next to her brother inside the tree and waited.
It wasn’t long before he was asleep, his head lolling onto her shoulder. She smiled weakly at how easily he managed to drift off, but Evelyn could not sleep. She was the shepherd of the flock, guarding them from wolves.
The battle drew closer and closer to their hiding place. The sounds of hysteria were catching up with them. And every so often the white noise was punctuated with a high and cruel cackle, bitter and gleeful.
Tears rose in her eyes for she really was the only child old enough to know who these people might possibly be and what they could expect to find in the morning if it was indeed who she suspected.
“It’s over,” she whispered to herself, for she could see no way out of this now. She could not protect the lambs from this when she was still one herself.
It was just when she was drifting into that slow motion, improbable world of impossible thoughts that a noise, the snapping of a twig maybe, yanked her instantly back to consciousness. Her eyes darted and scoured the undergrowth for movement but it appeared they were as alone as she felt. It was just when she thought the danger had passed though, that she saw them silhouetted by the light of fire, just a few hundred yards away.
At first she couldn’t hear what they were saying but as they drew nearer and nearer she made out a kind of hissing and grunting. Nothing like speech she had heard before, but speech it must have been because suddenly they laughed high and cold, at some mutual joke.
They were only moments from discovery and then all this would be over. She shut her eyes and pulled her brother close to her body, praying that they would at least make it quick. And then after a few more agonising moments she heard them move off again, deeper into The Dark Wood. Evelyn exhaled the same anguished, strangled breath every Hopeful had exhaled since The Divide first began all those years before.
So, she had been right. It was The Crookeds who had once again slipped out of the woodwork. Just as everyone had always said they would. Eventually. And that surely meant the end for the children squirreled away in the woods. However hopeful they might be, they did not have a hope at all.
The Crookeds believed that they had achieved total obliteration of the race of Hopefuls that night. But Evelyn knew that they had stumbled somewhere along the way and had somehow missed those children in the woods, who were called; Joseph, Delilah, Margret, Noah, Rosaline, David, Pearl, John, Molly, Christian, Fern, Michael, Ewan and Evelyn.
Later, Evelyn would be known as The Saviour of The Hopefuls, the one who fought for the children, started to rebuild all that had been lost and mysteriously managed to drive The Crookeds back into submission for many a peaceful year, drawing an end to The Age of Atrocity. She had some help from the others, of course. But Evelyn was still the one everybody talked about. She was the past that people spoke about as they tried to make sense of their present. The story was poked and prodded, clues were unearthed. Riddles lying long unsolved on pieces of paper hidden between the pages of a book or the story of an old bird cage rusting in an attic were answered when they spoke of her. But her story is an old one now with the new story only just beginning. They could pretend all they liked but The Crooked’s were still out there.
These particular cruelties had long since ended and were now a mere flutter of unease in the mind of most. It was long enough ago for people to have forgotten and grown complacent. They had lived in fear for too many years until, one day, somebody somewhere simply stood up in a hushed and crowded room and said “Enough is enough. We begin again. Crack open the wine.” And indeed since that day, there had been no reason for the people to feel fear that the war was going to rear its ugly head ever again. But dark secrets that have been swept under the carpet are tricky. Sooner or later someone will lift up the rug and tread it about the floor again.