They had barely made it out of the hive proper before the alarms rang. As is customary in most other parts of the world, the call to arms was sounded by massive bells, ringing to no rhythm and crying out without end.
The bells themselves, however were nothing like those found among the more 'civilised' nations. They were colossal tubular things, formed from thrice-hardened resin and polished until they looked as though they were made of some strange, greenish-black metal. Their tolling was as bizarre as their construction. A short, sharp shriek that quickly sank to a low, almost subsonic hum as the bells shivered in their supports.
Within seconds, the guards at the hive's walls were on alert, blank blue eyes swivelling this way and that, watching the gloom for some sign of whatever had roused the hive. It was a useless endeavour; though they didn't know it, they were hunting for black bodies on a black background. But it gave them a purpose, and let them feel as though they were useful.
Mere minutes after the bells began to ring, a phalanx was drawn up at the main gate, standing to attention in perfect rank and file. Clad in the same resin as their bells, their horns ground and sharpened, they were the Queen's Guard; the ultimate warriors, sworn to defend the hive to their last breath and beyond, never to venture beyond its borders or risk abandoning the hive to invasion. But their quarry was still within the limits of their boundaries, for the time being. So, with an almost casual gesture, their captain set them loose. The formation lurched into movement, clearing the gate and fanning out into an extended double line.
Above their heads, less heavily clad outriders flitted into the dark. Their purpose was twofold; sweep the skies and the ground from above, and once they reached the border line, they would double back, aiming to drive their prey towards the waiting maw of the ground-based formation.
From the walls, the guards on duty watched the show, knowing that their part was done, at least for the moment. The younger, more rebellious ones talked amongst themselves in quiet whispers, wondering what the elite were hunting. The traditionalist simply watched with detached interest, content to play the part that their queen had set aside for them without question. It could have been many things; foreign infiltrators, an animal attack, maybe even a rival hive. It was not their place to know.
And with good reason. For if they had known what their drone-brothers were hunting, the consequences for the hive would have been beyond disastrous. It would have shaken the beliefs of the traditionalists to the very core. It would have spurred a few of the most rebellious into action. It had the potential to destroy the hive.
For the unthinkable had happened.
A pair of changelings had committed the ultimate act of betrayal.
They had fled the hive.
They didn't have names. Names were a distinction. They promoted individuality. You were only an individual if you performed with exceptional distinction, and even then only if it was in the hive's best interests. If you did not, or it was not, then you were nothing more than another drone. One of a thousand expendable units. Individuality was not expected of the rank-and-file. It was not encouraged.
An average changeling was expected to do its allotted duty without question, without standing out in any way except in the quality of its work. After all, what use was individuality in a society where every member was either functionally identical, or could literally be anyone? It was easier to simply be a drone, in almost every sense of the word. The hive spoke with one voice. This was what they had been taught. This was what they believed. This was why they were not named.
It is not important, however, that these two didn't have names. What is important is that they wanted them.
They ran through the darkness, ducking every so often behind a tangled shrub or in a dusty hollow. Both were exhausted. Streaks of dust dulled their chitin hides and filled their mouths. Saddlebags that had seemed distressingly light before they'd left now felt as though they'd been weighed down with lead. The Badlands stretched away for countless miles ahead of them, while home was but a few miles behind.
But neither of them could turn back now.
They dropped into a shallow dip, paused for a moment, then dashed forward and dropped again. There was precious little cover out here, but the night hid them well enough for the time being. They didn't have much further to go before the immediate threat was gone. Just a mile or two, and then they would be at the border of the hive's land.
One renegade, darker than his comrade and obviously the leader, rose. The second, clearly a follower through and through, mimicked him after a moment's hesitation. They moved ahead, trusting the scant light of a pale moon peeking out from behind a shred of cloud to guide their path. From there, her seat on high above the world, the Queen of the Moon Hive watched dispassionately. The follower spared it a moment's glance, praying that she would show them some favour.
They ducked behind a shrub at the sound of a flutter overhead. Nothing came of it. Just a bird passing by. They rose, and started their dash to the next piece of cover.
The pair pulled up short. One of the outriders touched down in front of them.
Three pairs of blank blue eyes peered at each other from the gloom. The lead renegade pawed at the dust, his wings gently twitching. His companion shifted his gaze from one to the other. The outrider simply stood, calm and solid.
"It's over," he said. "Stop this idiocy and surrender."
The lead narrowed his eyes.
"It won't be over until we're free or dead. We're not going back there. Not ever."
"Guardsling, this is foolish! If you run now, they will kill you. Come back with me, and this can be fixed."
"'Fixed'?" The renegade laughed. It was a harsh, dry, buzzing cackle. "You think this can be fixed? We're a stain on the very idea of the hive. There's only one way to remove that stain. Or do you think the queen would welcome us back with open hooves?"
"The idea can be repaired. Noling has to know what happened. And the word of the Queen's Guard is a powerful force. You know the rule of the hive; where one speaks, all speak with one voice. Come back now, and you have my word in your defence. The word of the Queen's Guard."
"Even if that were enough, it wouldn't do anything to bring us back. We're leaving. If you were to stop blinding yourself with her lies, you'd come with us too."
"Enough!" the outrider cried, wings flaring. "Lies and blindness? What about the hive? It's our duty to serve it! Our purpose!"
"Serve it as what?" said the lighter renegade, the follower, quietly. "Slaves? Less than that?"
"Slaves? What are you talking about? You're changelings! We stand as one!"
"'Voice of one, voice of the hive'. I know," the leader nodded. "But don't you see? That's the biggest lie of all! And it won't be enough to save us."
He stepped forward. "We're leaving."
"And just where in the world do you think you'll go?"
"Anywhere that isn't here. That sounds good to me."
"You'll starve before you even leave the Badlands."
"Then at least we'll die free."
The outrider's mouth hung open. His face twisted in confusion, and in sorrow. Then his expression hardened. He lowered his head, wings buzzing, horn flaring to life. "Fine. I gave you your chance, but you throw it back in my face. If you're so desperate to die in 'freedom', I'll oblige."
There was a space, barely the span of a heartbeat, as the outrider and the renegade stood head to head, neither moving. That moment stretched out longer than seemed possible. The two seemed trapped in it, as if they were caught in a binding spell, or stuck in a photograph. A moment preserved forever on a piece filmy paper.
Then the spell ended, the photo springing to life.
The renegade moved first, shifting from flight to fight in less than an instant. He stormed forward, carried along by the beat of his hooves and the whirring buzz of his wings. The outrider stood his ground, taking the charge head-on. There was a strange, almost hollow clack of chitin on chitin as the pair tumbled over into the dust.
They landed, the renegade on top. He threw a short punch. It hit dirt. He lashed out with his horn, not daring to let the flare of a spell give himself away to the others, but the outrider shifted under him. The strike went wide, leaving him unsteady and off balance. The outrider kicked upwards. The force of the blow lifted the renegade and sent him sprawling back a good yard. The follower cried out something, but did little more than watch from the side. He was young, too young to have done anything as a guardsling but stand on walls and watch for wild animals. He'd never seen a real fight.
Rising to his hooves, the outrider spat a wad of greenish phlegm and ignited his horn. A pulse of acid green light flashed above their heads. An unmissable beacon, sent to bring the rest of the search swarm down on top of them.
The renegade tried to rise, but the outrider was there, pushing down on his chest with a hoof.
"Now it's over," he snarled. His horn ignited again. The light cast long shadows across the dusty ground. A stray gust of wind kicked a few grains into the air, where they hovered for a moment in the glow of the outrider's horn, tiny points of light against the dark ground that looked for all the world like stars.
The passage of the follower sent them spiralling away out of the light's reach. He barrelled into the outrider, an uncontrolled blur of chitin and bone. The outrider went down, but sprung back onto his hooves with a practised flick of his wings. The follower had less skill, but more luck. He stumbled, but kept his balance.
The renegade hauled himself up. His mouth opened, an order on his tongue, when the follower charged again.
"Hold!" he cried. The follower didn't listen. Too eager to press an advantage he'd already lost, the follower thundered ahead. The outrider simply stepped to one side and let his opponent's headlong dash carry him by. A flash of his horn, and the follower's legs tangled. He went down, head first into the dust. The outrider lowered his head, lining up a shot. No time to waste making taunts now. His horn flashed again, and he fired a simple, needle thin lance of glowing green.
The shot went wide, just clipping the follower's head. The renegade had fired his own blast. A less precise piece of work, it was nothing more than a crude kinetic blast. But it did the job of hurling the outrider once again off of his hooves.
"Guardsling, on your hooves!" the renegade yelled, as loudly as he dared. "Flank him!"
The follower nodded, rising shakily. The outrider was already back into it, hovering a few inches off the ground now. He glanced between his opponents as they circled, placing themselves on either side of him. Poor positioning. They couldn't catch him in crossfire without risking themselves to each others magic. But then, they weren't going to use magic. The flash and thunder of a magical discharge was as much a beacon as the glowing ball he'd launched less than a minute ago. Between that and the spells that had already been used, they couldn't risk another, lest they bring the search swarm down on them even faster.
The outrider had no such reservations. His mouth twisted into a smirk, fangs gleaming as he prepared another spell. His foes saw what he was doing. The renegade's eyes narrowed.
The follower moved, buzzing wings adding more speed to his charge. The outrider reacted without thinking, turning, ready to impale the follower on a needle-thin beam. His smirk became a snarl.
The renegade's horn met his side. Chitin cracked beneath the point, and the whole curved structure sank deep into the the outrider.
The force of that last rush carried them both through the air. As they landed, the outrider shuddered as he slid off the renegade's horn. Dark green blood fell onto the dust beneath him. Hissing in pain, he tried to rise, tried to summon the focus to launch one last desperate attack. But pain defeated him. It was all he could do to make his horn splutter weakly.
Stupid. So stupid. He should have seen the feint for what it was. The renegade was better than he'd thought. Or was he just that much worse?
The renegade was there. The outrider tried again to attack. This time, desperation lent him the strength he needed. One last strike. It would delay his death, even if just for a moment, and give the swarm one last signal to home in on. Even if he died here, these two traitors would be found. The thought gave him cause, one last time, to smile. It was a thin, pained, bitter thing, but a smile nonetheless.
It didn't last.
The renegade covered the ground between them faster than seemed possible. One hoof struck the outrider's horn, breaking his focus and dispelling the gathering light. He set himself down so that he was sitting on the other changeling's chest. His other foreleg was placed, crosswise, across the outrider's throat.
A moment's hesitation, and the renegade pressed down.
Chitin buckled. The outrider's eyes opened wide in panic. All four of his legs scrabbled in the dust. His wings, pressed against the ground, buzzed desperately. He tried to beat at his attacker, to summon a spell, any spell, but he could do nothing. His blows were too weak to shift the renegade, and his mind too addled by pain and suffocation. He could do nothing but put up a futile, token fight and watch his vision darken.
Eventually, his struggles ebbed, and he gave one last choking gasp for air that would not come. The renegade waited, even after the outrider's last twitches had faded, before finally standing and shaking drying blood from his horn.
The fight was over. All in all, it had taken less than two minutes. Most of that time had been waiting for the outrider to finally stop moving.
To the follower, watching the loyal changeling die had taken a lifetime. Desperate not to see, but unable to look away, he had watched the outrider's struggles grow ever more desperate, even as they grew ever weaker. As he watched the renegade finish and stand, he felt the world shift around him and realised he was seconds away from passing out. He would have vomited, but he was a changeling; food was a luxury, and one not normally afforded to him.
He swayed one way, almost losing his balance entirely. The renegade was there in front of him, steadying him with a hoof.
"Are you all right?" His eyes widened a touch. "You're hurt."
"I am?" the follower said faintly.
He was. The outrider's attack, that had so nearly drilled a hole through his head, had instead drawn a thin but deep line down the right side of the follower's muzzle.
"Don't worry, it's not too bad. We can look at it when we're out of this mess."
Renegade stepped away, but as an afterthought stooped next to the outrider's body and, with quick methodical movements, stripped it of anything small that might be of value.
Follower watched, still wavering on his hooves. "This wasn't supposed to happen..."
He moved, jerked into motion like a puppet yanked about by an over-rough puppeteer, his breath coming in short, quick gasps. "It wasn't supposed to be like this! We were just supposed to run! Noling was supposed to die!"
Renegade turned, grabbing his companion.
"Hey. Hey! Look at me! Breathe! Come on, you have to calm down. Nice, easy breaths."
With a few choking sobs, Follower's breathing slowed, and he rested his head against Renegade's shoulder.
"That's it," Renegade said. "That's good. Now listen. You're right, it wasn't supposed to turn out like this. But it did."
He sighed, turning away. "We knew this wouldn't be easy. But we both agreed it was worth it."
"He wouldn't agree." Follower's voice had shrunk from an almost manic yell to a soft whisper.
"I know. But we don't have time to grieve. The swarm..." He paused, head cocked.
There was a high, keening cry on the wind, caught somewhere between a shriek and a hiss. Then, like avenging locusts, the outriders of the swarm appeared, bearing down on the pair from on high.
Renegade swore. "Come on, Guardsling, let's move!"
Spurred into action by the voice of authority, Follower did what he did best. He followed Renegade into the night, every limb pushing him onwards as fast as his body would allow. The outriders were still a ways behind them, but the first could see the body of their comrade, and between cries of grief and fury they let off graceless, concussive blasts of magic.
Even firing blind, the sheer volume of fire they put out was enough to scatter stones and dust in the path of the fleeing pair, or set alight patches of scrub and thorn. One blast went off a few scant yards to their right. The shockwave almost toppled Follower, but a quick blurt of Renegade's magic kept him on his hooves and on the move.
But even that tiny glow was enough to draw the attention of at least one outrider. More blasts were coming at them. Most of them went wide. One or two were dangerously close. And the ground formation was coming after them now, drawn by the firestorm let off by their comrades.
Renegade was flagging. Dashing between points of cover was one thing. One long sustained sprint? That was another thing entirely. His legs felt like they were made of lead. His breath rattled in his throat. A string of sticky spittle hung from his mouth. He couldn't keep going. He couldn't...
Then Follower gasped out something unintelligible. Renegade looked around, and he saw it. A marker stone, jutting out from the dust like a broken fang. One hundred yards from there to the edge of the hive-land.
A wave of new strength flowed into his limbs. His pace redoubled. Follower matched him stride for stride, buoyed up on the same desperate energy. The outriders had stopped firing, and were following close, but the light of their salvoes had blinded them in the dark. The ground troops were too far away to see anything. Renegade let a loose smile spread across his muzzles. They were home free.
One last bolt impacted somewhere to their right, then they crossed the border. Even though they saw nothing to mark the passage, they could feel it. Like an electric shock in the backs of their minds that, when it stopped tingling, left them feeling hollow. A part of them was missing. A constant murmur at the edge of consciousness that they had never truly noticed before. They knew what it was, and they knew that the other felt the same absence, even without looking at each other.
For another hundred yards they kept up a reasonable pace, then toppled down behind another broken marker stone, serving the same purpose as its twin on the other side of the line. A warning that the hive lay just beyond. For now, it was shelter. The pair sank to the ground, sides heaving and limbs burning.
There was no danger, and there wouldn't be for a while now. They were beyond the border. The Queen's Guard might have been formidable, but they could not cross. Their oath, taken before the queen herself, left no room for doubt. To cross the border, even in pursuit of a pair of traitors, would be to abandon the hive, and there were few greater crimes. The drones of the regular guard could, and they were already leaving the hive to do so, but they were slow. By the time they could arrive, the pair would be long gone.
They rested for a moment, then rose. As if marking their passage, a spear of green burst into the sky behind them. Another beacon, meant to light the way for the swarms, and to warn other hives that something terrible had happened. Follower paused, ears drooping, framed by the green glow, to cast on final glance back. He could see the hive proper, a great mound higher than it was wide and ringed by a wall of resin, rising from the horizon. That place that had been his home for as long as he could remember. He lingered for a moment longer. Then, at a touch from Renegade, he moved.
The journey ahead of them was long, and they had precious few supplies. Only what little they had the time to gather before making their move, and the precious little of value that the outrider had been carrying; a flask of water, a few coins made of some strange precious metal, and a length of wire to add to their own meagre belongings.
The outrider had been right. They were most likely going to starve before they reached the edge of the Badlands. There was so little life out here that could offer them sustenance. Birds, insects, nothing with any real capacity for true, life-sustaining love. And even if they did reach civilisation, there was no guarantee that they would be in any position to harvest it.
But that didn't matter. Live or die, none of it mattered. All that mattered was that they had done the unthinkable. They had fled the hive, and lived.
From that moment on, whether they lived or died, they were free.