The world smelled like death and hopelessness.
Four riders galloped across narrow spaces among stacked cars that had now been rotting for almost a hundred years. They were no more than metal carcasses, silent witness to The Last Day. Empty skyscrapers rose up on both sides, glass shards sticking on their facades like rotting teeth, occasionally buffeting and plummeting to their eventual death like millions of glass diamonds, sprinkling the pavements from time to time.
The horsemen rode on, untiring.
The air was thick with the burning, papery smell. Small glowing parchments, ghosts of bygone books, floated down and disappeared in the gutters. The last books that had been known to mankind had been set on fire in the final pile right outside the main city. It had burned high and bright, finally smoldering into nothingness, the last sigh of their souls borne on the winds. It was the end, it should have been. That was before the dying man had made a startling revelation.
Someone had been stealing books from the pile.
The four horsemen had been pressed into action. Their forms hidden within black flowing robes, they traveled swift and confident, their sense of direction as sure as breathing. They rode, navigating through twists and turns, slowly going further out into the open plains, where whatever was left of the pile, remained. It should have been just a pile of ashes, but the startling news had proved to be a major setback to their plan.
For what could one need books for? The world that was once known was now reduced to imaginations. There were more pressing needs to be thought about. Food. Clothes. Shelter. One knew there was no space and time for distractions.
The Purge had started soon after the world as one knew it came to an end. Hundreds of survivors set out to find every last book they could lay their hands on, ensuring that they were decimated. With the blackout, one knew that no technological manuscript survived. Only the words bound in woodpulp stood out quietly in silent rebellion.
But that’s all they could do. Stand and not run.
So one by one, they were extinguished. From schools and colleges, from homes and shelters, from public libraries to private collections, they were dragged out one by one. They did not put up a word of protest so everyone thought it was okay.
And to be completely frank, no one cared.
It wasn’t as if a loved one was being put to death. Or a source of water was being plugged or dried. Or a food bank was being pulverized. These were the things that mattered now. With the daily struggle for survival, sentimentality for books was the last thing on their minds. More importantly, after the complete loss of fuel sources, books turned out to be perfect kindling. During the day, they scrounged, looking for books inside rundown buildings and under overturned furniture. They got them together and deposited it in huge piles. At night, they set fire to it and sat in the warmth of their wordless memories under the star.
In spite of the blaze, some shivered.
The horsemen sped up on the last stretch of city streets. A rectangular pillar of light poured in from where the city limits ended and the wasteland began. The smell of smoke was heavy here, the air would singe skin on contact. The riders didn’t feel a thing. No one, in living memory, had ever seen their face.
After forty years, the books were all but gone. The Hoarders, a fast disappearing tribe of men and women, were one by one laid to rest, their stocks gutted. Soon, there was no one with a single book left. When finding stragglers became almost impossible, the ones in power constituted the four horsemen. They rode with surprising agility, discovering books where there weren’t supposed to be any. They cut through timber and concrete like butter, pulling out tomes by the dozens. The fires blazed again. And this went on for twenty more years.
The four were now standing in front of the smoking pile situated at the edge of the wasteland. Across the pile, the shadow of a man shimmered. He was astride a horse, quite like theirs. The man wore a much faded and worn out red cloak. His face blurred and focused like an apparition. His horse was covered with mud. It was slightly frothing, as if it had borne its rider from a distant place.
In his hands rested a leather bound book.
The man smiled. The horsemen couldn’t see it from the distance. He pulled at the reins lightly and patted the horse. The horse snorted back in reply.
With a ‘HYAAH!’, the man took off, the book safely tucked in his belt. The horsemen let out a collective roar of disappointment, taking off after the outlaw. Behind them, unseen by the horsemen’s eyes, little figures came out of hiding and quickly started sifting through the ashes.