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Swarm

They came like a storm, like a biblical plague, like a vast cloud of suffocation, rising over the horizon. When they were hungry, the sky turned black, and the flutter of their brown, papery wings was deafening. When the locusts came, the world went dark. When they came, there was nothing but smothering midsummer heat, and the subtle stench of insects, like rotten apples, and the only sound was the maddening drone of a billion wings, drowning out the screams.

The night before the swarm came, Alexander Riggs was crouched on the damp cement floor of his basement, staring at the objects that lay in front of him. A candle, already burning. A very old book. A knife. A jar. The last of these objects held something inside it, and had not been opened for a long time. In the flickering candlelight, Alexander picked it up, unscrewed the rusty lid, and reached inside. Sitting at the bottom of the glass container was the dry, dust-coated corpse of a locust. He pulled it out and gingerly placed it on the concrete in front of him. He would need it, for the end of the ritual.

Softly, Riggs began to read words from the open book before him. It was written in a language few people spoke, but he understood every line of it. His uncle used to read from it when Alexander was a child, and now he repeated what he'd heard two decades ago. When he was six years old, his uncle had said a day would come when he would need to use these words, and this was that day. The sounds came tumbling from his lips like a waterfall, as he chanted the verses.

"Htisis het dfowyr. Htisis het vapyer. Htisis het tucusl." He spoke these sentences again, five more times, and as he spoke he lifted up the knife. Holding its leather-wrapped handle with his right hand, he held out the left, the palm facing up. Still chanting, he carefully made a long slit down the length of each finger. Wincing only slightly, he touched his bleeding fingertips to the cool, grey floor, and drew a large symbol in red around the candle.

Finally, once the symbol had been finished, he picked up the dead locust. Holding it carefully, between his thumb and forefinger, he moved it just above the candle flame, then repeated the chant one last time. "I am the doorway. I am the vessel. I am the locust." On the last word, he dropped the insect into the flame. As it burned, he leaned over the candle and opened his mouth, inhaling the smoke. When the last fragment of wing and exoskeleton was reduced to ash, the candle went out, and Alexander's eyes slipped shut.

He woke the next morning to a soft, rapid clicking sound. It sounded like an old movie projector. He sat up and looked around. The blood on the floor had congealed and mixed with the dripping wax of the candle. The whole room stank of smoke, mixed with something else, a subtle, iron smell. The clicking continued. Riggs tipped back his head and yawned. He had slept poorly. His mind had been full of dark things, gnawing on bone marrow. As his mouth opened, something fluttered at the back of his throat.

He fell forward, onto his hands and knees, coughing profusely. Droplets of something black flew from his mouth and splattered the floor, and the things fluttering in his windpipe moved. He felt the tiny claws dig into the inside of his throat as they pulled themselves forward, upward, outward. Alexander toppled onto his side, twitching, as more of the thick, tarry, fluid gushed from his gaping mouth, and the creatures found their way out. He sputtered, unable to breathe, feeling his jaw dislocate, and a thick, brown cloud of buzzing, clicking insects streamed out of his mouth. His black-stained lips twisted into a smile. It had worked.

He opened his jaws, and the locusts streamed back in, crawling down into his lungs again. It had worked, and now those who had hurt him would pay. They would all pay. Nineteen years ago on this day, a mob of eleven angry, paranoid men had broken down the door of Alexander's father's cabin in the woods north of here. They had said he was unholy, that he did things to the townspeople. That he stole their children. Alexander still firmly believed that his father had never seen those children, but those who broke into his home that night disagreed. They were scared, and that was enough to turn eleven adult, educated people into mindless killers.

They had shot him twice, in the throat both times, then they doused him in gasoline, and they burned him, and the cabin with him. He had burned, and Alexander had watched. Now he would watch them burn, too. It had worked, and now it was time to take revenge.

Alex spent that day preparing. Of the eleven men, only six were still alive now. By sunrise tomorrow, there would be none. As the day went on, he practiced his newfound abilities. He made the locusts flutter to and from his mouth, around the room, through cracks in the walls of the cellar, even between his fingertips. This was only the beginning, though. After about an hour, he started to hear them talking inside his head, whispering in a croaking, dry voice, which was really many voices at once. At first, he couldn't tell what they were saying but they kept repeating the same phrase over and over, and soon, like an infant learning words, he understood.

"Feed us." The insects hissed, as they fluttered and clicked in his chest cavity, "Feed us. Feed us."

At first, Riggs thought of swarms diving from above and devouring crops, but these locusts didn't eat crops. These locusts were different. These locusts liked meat. He could feel them in his ribcage, twitching, nibbling, and knew if they weren't fed soon, they would devour him from the inside out. He thought of the buzzing, rusty, yellow-white refrigerator upstairs, and of the thin slabs of lunch meat inside. Yet even as this image passed through his mind, the locusts whispered that it wasn't enough. They needed fresh meat. They needed blood.

"Dog." Riggs muttered under his breath. The neighbors had a dog. It was scrawny and old, but it was living flesh, and that was just what the locusts needed. Soon, they'd be getting plenty of it. Alex turned, and walked up the concrete cellar steps, through the house, where the air was heavy with summer stench and filth, and out into the dead, brown yard. In the sunlight, he looked down at himself. He hadn't left the cellar since the previous night, and still wore the cloak from the ritual. He was caked with dust and sweat, but he didn't care. All that mattered now were the locusts.

Shifting his eyes upward, he gazed over a low chain link fence into the adjoining yard. The dog lay with its head resting between its front paws, tethered to a wooden stake in the middle of the decaying grass. The locusts quivered excitedly in Alexander's chest. His jaw fell open, and they began to stream out, flowing through the air like a dark liquid. They drifted lazily over the fence, the overwhelming thrum of their wings beating deep in his ears. The dog lifted its head. The insects fluttered closer, darkening a large portion of the lawn, as the animal got up and tried to back away. They hovered, patiently. The dog reached the end of the rope and its paws scrabbled on the dry, packed dirt as it stared up at the black cloud of tiny bodies above it. It let out a single, panicked yelp, and in a flash the locusts descended. They entirely covered its face, scuttling in through the eyes and nose as the dog released a series a strained, scared whines. It fell on its side and convulsed violently while the insects crawled in.

The howls became low, harsh wheezes as its legs flailed limply, and blood spurted from its gaping mouth in a fine, pink mist. In a matter of seconds, the flailing stopped, and the wheezes turned to wet, gurgling sounds, the blood now streaming out from behind its yellowed teeth, pooling on the bare lawn. From where he was watching, Alexander could see lumps in its skin moving and undulating as the bugs devoured it from the inside. It let out a rasping scream, and was still as the locusts swarmed out of its mouth and returned to their host. Riggs smiled.

On his bedroom wall, he had a map. It showed an overhead view of the small town, and the six houses of the six men were marked by six red pins. Alexander had looked at that map every day for the past two years. He knew the addresses by heart. After tonight, he could finally take the map down. He sat in the cellar, reading his father's journals and waiting for nightfall.

When the grey light streaming in through the slit of a window in the cellar faded away, Alexander stood up. The house closest to his was that of Richard Lark. 867, Birch Street. He ascended the steps and left through the front door. The neighbors weren't home yet, meaning they hadn't found what was left of their dog. Good. He didn't need them interfering now.

It was nine o'clock now. The street lamps hadn't switched on yet, and the pale aura of the sun still lingered over the hills. Inside him, the locusts' wings thrummed excitedly. They were hungry again. A cool breeze made the tall, dry grass lining the sidewalk shiver, and Riggs began to whistle to himself as he made his way to the house.

The streets were empty. No cars moving, no one walking past, no children squealing. Everyone was locked up safely inside. It was almost as if they knew what was coming. He moved up the front steps, onto Lark's porch, and stood for a moment, taking in the house's dusty pastel paint, the soft glow filtering through the translucent curtains of the windows upstairs. He looked back at the door, pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, so the shadows covered everything but his mouth, reached out, and rang the doorbell.

Alexander waited patiently, as he heard the bell's muffled ring from inside, followed by heavy footsteps. A balding man in faded jeans and a stained white dress shirt opened the door. Lark. He stood just inside the threshold for a moment, his jaw hanging loosely open as he looked at Riggs. Alexander had hated this man for nearly two decades now. Every single one of the locusts shivered eagerly. Richard Lark spoke.

"Halloween's over, buddy." The left corner of the bald man's mouth twitched in amusement at his own joke. "Now, I don't know if you're from some religious thing or something, but if you are, I'm sorry, I can't..." Alex interrupted.

"I am the monster you created."

"What?"

"Do you want to see? Do you, old man?" His voice rose in pitch, as Lark's smirk vanished. "Do you want to see what you did to me?" His mouth opened, and a buzzing storm cloud flew out. They enveloped Lark, clinging to his body like thick, living tar. He thrashed and writhed, falling backwards to the floor as hundreds of the insects stuffed themselves into his throat, and hundreds more chewed at his skin.

In his mind, Alex told them to leave Lark's eyes exposed. He wanted to watch them glaze over. The man's legs jumped and flailed in a horrific dance as he tried to scream. His mouth was wide open, stretching his face into a grotesque mask as it turned blue with suffocation. The inside of his gaping jaw was crammed with the papery brown bugs. By the time his legs stopped moving, the white shirt was deep red, and the flesh underneath was shredded. Riggs stepped back, and the locusts left Lark and went back into him. He shut the door, and started toward the next house.

As he walked, he could feel the creatures in him, grating their tiny, sharp mandibles together. Richard Lark hadn't satisfied them. They needed more. The next victim, John Louis, might help stave off their hunger. Mr. Louis lived in a decaying carcass of a house about six blocks away. The night breeze fluttered Alexander's cloak. His face bore a sadistic grin, filled with childish glee.

This time, the door was unlocked. He pushed it open, and stepped into the decrepit home. The place was full of a thick, yellow stink. Ammonia and cigarettes. Radio crackled from a stereo sitting on the counter, a preacher's strained voice droning out of the speakers.

"And He shall call fire down on those who deny His truth. His vengeance shall punish them. He shall punish the sinners with fire and smoke and vermin, and they shall know fear, and they shall know pain." Another voice interrupted the preacher's.

"Who's there?" It was gravelly and slurred, yet trembling. Riggs turned toward the sound of it. The radio voice carried on.

"He shall judge them, and as they burn, they will cast their eyes up from the pit and cry 'why have you forsaken us?'" The other voice repeated, echoing from down the hall.

"Who's there?"

"John Louis," Riggs replied, "I am the monster you created." Louis emerged from the shadows of the hallway and entered the filthy kitchen. There was something in his hand, something heavy and shiny and black. Riggs just barely glimpsed it as he opened his mouth, and the dense fog of locusts spread out. Before he could react, the gun was raised, and Louis's finger was curled around the trigger.

The shot exploded through the air like a deafening snare drum. Riggs let out a sharp cry as the bullet pierced through the cloud of bugs and slammed into his left shoulder. Blood sprayed from the wound in tiny droplets, spattering the ceiling and linoleum tiles of the floor. Alex staggered back, grabbing his wounded shoulder, ears ringing. His face was in an almost comical state of shock, mouth gasping, eyes bulging. Red seeped out from between his pale fingers. Louis was laughing, high-pitched hyena giggles.

Alexander turned to him and started to laugh, too. Louis cocked back the pistol again, but before he could fire, the locusts descended. They catapulted themselves at him, wings beating, jaws moving side to side. He screamed as they entered through his eyes and nose, and began gnawing at his brain. He toppled over, smashing his temple against the corner of the kitchen table, making his neck jerk to the side. From across the room, Alex could hear his victim's spine snap. It was a wet cracking noise, like damp wood breaking, and in Riggs's mind, it was louder than the gunshot. Louis's head hit the floor and cracked like an egg. Blood so dark it was almost black trickled from his mouth and empty eye sockets, while the locusts feasted, and the preacher kept spewing from the radio.

Alex sat down on the tile and ripped open the sleeve of his cloak to examine his injury. He drew in his breath, looking at his blood-streaked arm. The projectile had torn straight through his shoulder, leaving a tremendous hole. Dark liquid poured from it, and as he looked closer, he could see bone. He tried to lift the arm, and immediately regretted it. Pain raged through his arm and chest. Taking a strip from his tattered sleeve, he made a temporary bandage, tying it with his teeth. The bleeding slowed, and he got up. He wouldn't stop. Not yet. Not until his revenge was complete.

Four houses left. Just four. The locusts were still hungry when they finished eating Louis and returned to Alex. Somehow, the more flesh they consumed, the more they desired. They were no longer buzzing in his lungs, but thrashing instead, like broken windup toys. Their whispers inside his head had turned to screams, so loud he couldn't hear anything else. Their voices were harsh and raspy as they called out for more meat. As Riggs knelt on the blood-splattered linoleum, he replied.

"Soon."

They didn't listen. He could feel them working their jaws in anticipation as he shambled out of the shack, clutching his shoulder. He could hear their wings pulsing behind his eardrums as he made his way up the street, leaving a trail of little red specks on the asphalt. They were chewing on him from the inside. He could feel them tearing tiny chunks of flesh, feel them climbing up his windpipe, gnawing at his tongue as they emerged from his mouth. He tried to scream, but they filled his mouth.

Blood trickled down his throat, and he began to choke on it, as the locusts spread throughout his body. This shouldn't have been happening. The book didn't say anything about this. No one had told him there was a price for revenge. They never said there would be a price. He could feel them pushing behind his eyes, crawling under his skin, digging into his lungs. Red seeped out of his nose as they entered his brain. As his own creations devoured him, Riggs screamed for his father. He fell to the pavement like a puppet with its strings cut. His eyes were empty, gushing holes. As their master died, the swarm ascended into the air, and the sky turned black, and night fell forever.



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