Just off the mainland, a small archipelago sat nestled into a calm nook of the ocean. The air was pleasant as it listed lazily through the towns and open fields. It was just cool enough to cut the edge of the summer sun, making working outside a pleasant experience, shiny skin and worn muscles were barely noticeable under the beaming grins on everyone’s faces. They all sang as they worked, and when they were still, they spoke kindly to one another and with reassurance. As the day cooled, the workers took advantage of the last heat by diving into the ocean; cerine and blue glistened. To get all the mud from their bodies, they would rub the sand over them; it was course, but pleasantly so. As they ambled from the ocean, they dried off and made their way into the local restaurant; it was nothing fancy visually, but what it held inside was worth more than gold to the inhabitants.
Sand stepped into the restaurant despite the best efforts of those entering, not that it mattered, no one would notice. The tables were set up close, so patrons were nearly touching. There was no room for the wait staff to reach specific tables, but it did not matter; when the food arrived, it was passed by the seated patrons to the appropriate person, and even this simple act was enough to bring cheesy smiles to people’s faces. Plenty of laughter and chatter was joined by the clanging of glasses, bowls, and plates. It all felt harmonious, as all the noises came together in one big symphony until the person at the centre of a raised platform started to clear their throat. It was mere seconds after clearing their throat that the whole room fell silent; no one dared move, let alone speak.
As the silence was held, impatient people shifted in their seats, their movements sounding creaks and groans from the tired-looking furniture until finally, the artist bowed their head and began to sing. It started off slow and baritone, but as the piece progressed, they became much more tenor; a slight vibration gave texture to how their voice resonated in the air.
But their voice warbled and tripped before falling flat and silent as the restaurant’s calming atmosphere was taken over by the cacophony of a screaming person being tossed through the front doors before sliding on the ground, leaving a thick trail of blood behind them.
The entire establishment turned to see one of their people, barely able to move, squirm on the floor in pain as a tall, chitinase, locust humanoid stood in the door, their wings twitching intermittently. As the locust stepped forward, the weight of their body was apparent as the wood panelling under their feet warped, cracking in places where others groaned at the heavy footfalls stamping their way across the floor until the final cracking squelch as they put their clawed foot through the head of the person on the floor, silencing the room once again. This time, the air was filled with tension of dread, no longer the suspense of beauty as it had been before.
The locust continued to stomp around the restaurant; each grouping of tables it passed lowered its head, not daring to look into the eyes of the seven-foot armoured creature that walked among them. It looked through them all like it was looking for something or someone. It finally stopped when it reached the person on the stage; taking one last look around the room, one of its four arms snatched the person by the collar with lightning speed, suspending them from the ground by the scruff of their neck. The restaurant stood rapidly, fists tensing tight as they stared at the locust.
“Fear and shame, that is all your eyes say. No wonder you hid them from me.” The locust looked around again, still unable to see what they sought. “A crate was dropped from our ship during a recent storm just off your shores. There is no way the storm cracked this case, and we know it can’t sink; it has to be here, or at the mainland, and we have searched the mainland with impunity.”
Several people were grating their teeth together as they all looked to one another to glimpse a potential plan, but there was nothing, just them, and the locust; until a timid voice spoke out.
“Entomonids don’t have boats.”
The locust turned to the noise so fast that everyone watching stepped back in shock. A woman was shushed by those around her as she fought away hands, attempting to cover her mouth.
“What was that?”
“I said.” She paused to push away the last hands, standing up. “I said that the Entomonids do not have boats.”
The locust’s legs twitched as it started its march again. Stomping so hard this time that the floorboards began to crack.
“Are you calling me a liar, human?”
“I am.” She said with her voice cracking. She cleared her throat before continuing. “Also, there have been no storms but clear skies.” The woman looked up to the locust with glassy eyes and a sniffle.
A sickly cackle came from the locust as it leant down to the woman.
“What is your name human?”
The woman looked around at those around her, who were all shaking their heads, still looking down at the table. She turned back to the armoured face of the locust, watching as the plating around the mouth shifted slightly, temporarily revealing the mouth that hid below before looking up to its giant eyes and watching how the pupils twitched.
“My name is Ganoko.”
A minor release of air from the locust’s mouth hit Ganoko’s face, bringing with it the smell that caused her to gag, causing her eyes to water even more.
“I am Orius. Does my visage scare you? Is that why you all look away from me?”
“Yes. But more than anything, the stories about you scare us. We don’t have Entomonids in this region; we barely have anything but humans here.”
“I thought this region smelled plain.” Orius took a deep breath before breathing heavily again, to Ganoko’s disgust. “Why is it that you humans hide in the corners of the world? You hold some of the strongest holds in the world, yet you are all scattered and scared.”
Another man stood up nearby, attracting the attention of Orius.
“We, most of the older ones here at least, chose not to be a part of the bigger cities. It is a simpler life, a way of community, hard work, and being a part of something greater.”
“It is a way of being a part of the dirt.” Orius turned away from those talking and started to leave.
“You humans think you can hide from the war? It is everywhere; not even my homeland can hide from it. Nowhere is safe, and you are no exception. You flee from your cities, thinking you might outrun the carnage. Do you really think fertile, hard-to-reach land isn’t more desired than the stench of your cities?”
Orius stopped at the door, cracking the door slightly. The sounds of wings vibrating entered the room.
“The box was not on one of our boats; it was on one of yours, but the contents are ours. I recommend looking because if we don’t find it, you will experience the consequences of decisions made by those who live in your castles.
Orius opened the doors to reveal a plague of normal-sized locusts flying around, consuming everything they landed on. The people in the restaurant ran to the door; standing outside, they couldn’t believe how fast the vegetation had been stripped from the land. Tears started to flow freely as they watched their livelihood consumed before them.
“Stop it! It is all we have, we don’t have your box, we don’t know what it is just leave us alone!” Ganoko cried out, tugging at one of Orius’s four-spined arms.
He turned rapidly and pushed her from him.
“Do not touch me, parasite; your kind invades our lands and burns our homes in their effort to rule. Do not take the kindness that your kind gives to us, and say it is cruelty when we give it back. Be thankful that the land will still be useful when we are done, unlike the charred and salted earth your kind leave behind.”
“We have done nothing; we are not in contact with the cities, we farm, and we live in peace; that is all we do.”
Orius grabbed Ganoko by the throat, their hard exoskeleton cutting into her throat as he squeezed.
“If we do not find this box, the only thing you shall do is bleed, and even then, you won’t do it for long.”
Ganoko choked, her hands gripped onto Orius’s arm, the barbs in his exoskeleton stabbing into her hands as she slowly began to lose consciousness. Then suddenly, she was dropped to the ground, spluttering, blood pouring from her neck and hands.
“Did you not hear what I said? Start searching, or I will ensure you don’t live to see the sunrise. Raise your torches, bring whatever light you need, and search.”
Orius crouched down, the wings on their back extended before moving so fast that they blurred. The sound was incredible as he took to the skies and darted off more quickly than anyone could keep track of. While some took the time to help Ganoko, the others headed off to start looking.
“Are you okay, Ganoko?”
“Not really; I thought that we were safe here. Far enough away to be safe from all of this.” She said through her compressed vocal cords.
“I guess not even here is far enough out for us to avoid the war. We may not be on the front lines anymore, but collateral damage is more than enough for me.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t survive much more than this. I couldn’t even hold onto that thing without cutting up my hands,” she said as she revealed the deep cuts in her hands. “I guess I won’t be working the fields soon.”
“I don’t think we will work the fields soon.” The person said as they looked out over their land. “I’ll help you clean up and put you to bed.”
“No, I can’t. I won’t sit inside while everyone else works. Every set of eyes is important here.”
“What about community care? The weak, sick, and injured are ours to care for.”
“If we don’t find this box, I don’t think any injured people will be left to care for. Stop the bleeding, then I will join you.”
All through the night, the island was swarmed by tiny locusts devouring everything that they touched, feeding until the point of bloating, where they would fall to the ground and die. All the while, the humans and other inhabitants of the archipelago searched tirelessly for a crate; not sure exactly what they were looking for, they offered the few found crates to the sky where an Entominid would descend, crack it open, toss the contents, and tell everyone to keep looking. Hours rolled by, and all was beginning to look hopeless.
“There is no hope we find this crate before morning.” Cried a man.
“We have to keep looking.”
“But with all the caves around here, it could have easily been sucked into one of those, pulled deep below the planet’s surface, and currently sitting in a dank cave somewhere no one will find it.”
“We are looking through the caves, we will see it.”
Ganoko’s eyes shot open as she suddenly recalled something.
“Verun!” She screamed as she looked at the people next to her. Their eyes also widened.
“If it was going to be anywhere, it would surely be in that cave, right?”
The others agreed, and then, as one, they all turned and started running.
“Verun may not even know any of this is even happening. We have to see if we can find him.”
Deep into one of the cave networks of the archipelago, a man sat with his knees raised to his chest and wrapped in his arms. His eyes were closed as he took his time to breathe in and out methodically. The only noise being made was the periodic drips of water echoing throughout the cave.
His serene exterior became agitated when a new sound was introduced, the irregular pattern of knocking wood on stone. His eyes eventually open as he sighs with slight aggravation.
“I told people I need my space. Trying to figure out everything I need, okay?”
Looking around, he sees he is still alone and confused.
“Oh great, more trash from the ocean. Wonder what it could be this time.”
The soft slaps of his feet hitting rock echoed softly as he wandered around, searching for the source of the sound. After walking around calmly for a short while, he finds a small crate bouncing around one of the many streams that travel deep into the planet.
“Hello, strange little one; I have never seen anything intact before.”
Verun picked up the small crate and examined it thoroughly; twisting it in his hands, he frowned.
“Strange, you don’t have a single blemish on you. I wonder how you made it down here in such good condition.”
His fingers traced where the nails had been hammered into the surface to seal it shut; there were no frayed edges, almost as if the wood naturally had holes for the pin to fit into. He looked over it, confused as he looked for any blemish. His attention being drawn from the crate, he looked up to see Ganoko standing behind Orius.
Orius marched forward and ripped the small crate from Verun’s hands, examining it with a near hysteric demeanour.
“Ganoko, what is going on, who is this?”
“Just step back, let him take it, and everything will be fine.”
Verun’s eyes noticed the fresh bandaging on Ganoko and audibly gasped.
“What happened to you? Why are you covered in bandages?”
Orius screamed as he opened the crate to find it empty. He grabbed Verun and yelled at him.
“Where is she?”
“Where is who?” Verun answered in a panic.
“This crate, it had her in it. Where did you find it?”
“I found it right here; what is this…?”
Verun couldn’t finish as he was tossed to the side, Orius started to fly, flicking through the cave he searched high and low, screaming in frustration as he did.
Ganoko picked up Verun, and they both left the cave as locusts started to swarm inside. The insects covered every surface of the cave while the Entomonids searched relentlessly. Above ground, those living on the archipelago watched as the sun rose.
The sky was illuminated with vibrant pinks and oranges. As the clouds filled with colour, the sun’s warmth started to reach the people. In just one night, their fields had been stripped clean, trees were barren of green, and their stores filled with nothing but fat corpses of insects.
Verun was left speechless as he looked around at his people, their faces indicating their defeat.
“The war caught up with us, we got stuck in something our king started, and now…”
“And now we have nothing.” Verun interrupted the man who answered him.
“Yeah, which means we must head back inland again.”
“Is all our work gone?”
“We have almost nothing left; some dried meats and fishing boats still have their haul. But really, only enough to get us through a day. We have to pack up and move immediately.”
“Maybe we just take a moment to rest.”
“No, you don’t understand; we are effectively refugees now. We have enough for today, and only barely. We need to find somewhere that will take us in.”
“You have been dealing with this for about an hour; we have been out here all night. Learn to make your peace, Verun; we are leaving.”
Down below the locusts continued to search, Orius smashed the box on the ground in frustration, sending splinters of wood everywhere. A few chunks dropped into one of the small streams, slowly making their way past the cave’s chaos. They picked up speed as they went. Eventually, they were dragged under, pulled through the downward torrent, and dove deep into the planet. They were removed for a short while before dropping into an underground lake. The pieces of wood slowly made their way to the shore, where a shale beach was disrupted by the shuffling of a strange creature, no bigger than a small case.
Its malformed visage wriggled, clawed, and inched through the stones. Upon reaching an obstacle, it shivered briefly before teleporting a short distance past it; a strange gurgling screech escaped its many mouths as it celebrated passing each barrier that provided difficulty. Suddenly, the ground shook silently until they stopped as a stone-like foot landed next to the creature.
“Strange thing, never seen anything like you.”
Said a loud booming voice as a craggy hand reached down and picked up the insectoid monstrosity.
“Don’t panic, little one,” the voice said as the insect squealed. “I’ll keep you safe and sound.”