• Published 12th Dec 2018
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Child of the Invasion - Starscribe

The changeling army has taken control of Canterlot. While their queen secures her grip over this newly captured territory, what happens to the drones who made up her army?

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Chapter 14: Codex

Harlequin was guarding the prison.

There was only one entrance meant to be used, where the dungeons descended into the rock of Canterlot’s mountain. In the time since she’d arrived to help, the ponies had filled the upper cells with prisoners.

She knew they were different from the way they dressed—many of them had little scraps—a hat here, some socks there, or something clipped into the tail. They’d been allowed to keep their clothes, but not the holsters and weapons that almost all the changelings with names carried as a matter of course.

Including her.

Harlequin wasn’t expected to do much, just to stand near the heavy gate leading down into the caverns, surrounded by captured changeling officers in the cells on either side.

“Word of advice—” said the guardspony as they arrived, resting his wing briefly on Harlequin’s shoulder. “Don’t give them attention. Just a little bit of kindness, and they won’t leave you alone all shift. Ignore them.”

“No need to tell her what to do,” Azure Sigil said from beside her. “Harlequin here is a changeling expert.”

A changeling expert who thinks she may also be an idiot. Getting up close to them was the best possible position for her if she wanted to set them free—but she couldn’t do it the first five minutes of her shift! What if they recognized her?

They can’t. The Swarm’s connection is broken. I look just like a pony. Except there was still one way that they would be able to sense, one that would keep working regardless of her form. They couldn’t feed on her.

She descended the steps into the dungeon, and had to resist the urge to drop onto her knees and bow.

These were the greatest of the Swarm, the sort of bugs she had previously seen hovering around the Queen. She hadn’t understood the things they said, though she recognized the bright colors of their fins as a sign of power and authority.

Now along with their stolen clothes they wore iron around their necks, each one chained down to the floor like a wild animal. As she passed the cages on either side, Harlequin called out with her mind, trying to reach the Swarm again. I’m here to rescue you! Don’t worry, I’ll get you free!

But there was no response. Bugs huddled against the floor, bugs rested in the half-sleep she knew was meant to conserve energy until prey returned. Bugs strained against their chains, gnashing against them with their teeth. But what none of them did was transform. Symbols on the metal. Magic, then? The ponies had barely known about them for a week, and already they were inventing new spells.

“I wouldn’t normally stand a watch like this,” Sigil said conversationally, once they reached the end of the row. “But you’re new, and it’s tradition. I recruited you, so now we’re comrades. Until death, just like General Hussar said. So I hope you’re as brave as all those ponies claimed.”

“I’m brave,” she said weakly. She probably didn’t sound it, because she didn’t feel it just now. There were about a hundred changelings up here—the ones she’d thought were above her, the ones who had whole names when she didn’t even have one letter.

Her eyes scanned them all the time, searching. There was no Hydrus, no Thorax, no Pharynx. Those were the only important bugs whose names she knew. Each one of these faces would’ve come with knowledge from the Swarm, their talents and accomplishments and feats of heroism. Except now she could feel nothing. They were all separate. The bugs chained up in this lonely hallway were as separate from each other as she felt from the ponies.

Sigil leaned in close, her voice sympathetic. “Don’t feel bad for them, Harlequin. These creatures aren’t innocent, and they aren’t ignorant. They’re the ones who knew what they were doing. I’ve heard the stories going around… ponies talking about changelings like they’re animals who don’t know any better. These did. Aside from their queen, these are the reason anypony died. We both could’ve kept living in peace if it wasn’t for them.”

“Yeah,” Harlequin answered, voice faint. “I know. It’s just… it’s hard.” Maybe there was some mercy. Maybe all the bugs she knew had escaped, beside the queen that had led them into so much danger. Harlequin could hope that, and maybe it would be true.

The watch lasted four hours. Harlequin hadn’t fully understood pony time when they told her that, but now she knew. It meant: basically forever.

Near the front of some of the cells bugs kept screaming at them almost the entire time. “Chrysalis hasn’t forgotten you! She’s going to avenge her children, you’ll see! Every one of you will suffer a hundred times what you did to us! If you want your families to live, let us go!”

Azure Sigil acted like she couldn’t hear them, and Harlequin did her best to copy. Except she couldn’t.

They took turns—one walking a slow patrol up and down the cages to make sure none were trying anything, the other remaining beside the locked gate that led into the Crystal Caverns. That there were only the two of them in the room was a testament to just how beaten Equestria thought the changelings to be.

What are we supposed to do? I don’t have keys. Maybe there was magic that could unlock sturdy locks. But Harlequin had never learned it, and now its mysteries were probably lost to the Swarm forever.

“Your turn to patrol,” Sigil offered, settling her back against the wall facing the gate down. None of the drones and lesser changelings below had tried to fight their way up—Harlequin wondered if any of them were even still alive.

“Alright.” She rose, adjusted her sword, then began her mournful procession up and down the line. I can’t get too upset, or Sigil might not let me come back here. I have to be here if I want to let them out. Maybe if she found the right bug she could ask them for advice.

The only trouble was: there were two of them down here. Almost as though the Equestrians had known to expect an intruder, and had wanted a second set of eyes. The Canterlot dungeons were a single, long stretch, with lots of little cells and doorways along it. Far from the perfect little houses in the rest of the city, this place looked like it had barely been used. Where changelings had been chained up, she saw paths through thick dust, thick enough that she could count every hoofprint.

But talking to them wouldn’t be so strange, if only she could find the right one. Did any of them look like they knew how to help?

The last guard’s advice was wasted on her—the trapped changelings watched her with a little anger sometimes, but no interest. Even as her heart raced with fear and guilt, it would seem to them like she was disinterested and apathetic—too neutral to feed on.

Then, at precisely the same moment, one of the trapped changelings seemed to see her. One of the smallest she’d seen so far, with a strange indentation in the creature’s middle and a shell that looked like it hadn’t been molted right.

Great queens, it’s…

“Harlequin! Yeah, that’s you under all that armor! I remember your sword!” the changeling called, sitting up from where he’d been lying in the center of a cell, surrounded by a dozen other smaller, younger prisoners. “You have to tell them!”

Harlequin winced, glancing over her shoulder to see if Sigil was listening. But she was on the other side of the prison, all the way down past angry changelings. She wouldn’t overhear.

But the other changelings nearby did, and several of them snapped out of their apathy.

Harlequin had hoped Codex had found his way to safety, but… apparently he hadn’t. At least he didn’t seem like he’d been hurt too badly during his capture. I’m here to help you, Codex!

“They won’t believe any of us, Harlequin! Changelings are so poorly known in Equestria that nopony knew you could reproduce through assimilation. The university’s local expert on rare magical creatures vanished, you see, presumed dead in the invasion. You have to tell them!”

Harlequin turned to face him, glaring knives through the bars. “Be quiet, Codex. I’m going to get you out of here, I promise. But right now there’s nothing I can do.”

“Just him?” asked another bug, two chains over. This one wore a pony hat backwards on her head, and little clips on her wings. “What about the rest of us?”

“Everybug here,” she whispered. “But I need everyone to be quiet about it.”

Eyes from all around the cell turned on Codex, hisses and glares and bared teeth. The ponies had taken great pains to make sure none of the changelings could escape, but done almost nothing to make sure they couldn’t hurt each other.

“No plans,” Codex said. “No need! J-just… call that guard here, and tell her what you did to me! They’ll have to let me go!”

The bug beside him tackled him to the ground with a smack. “Be quiet,” she said, and soon several others had joined her. Codex screeched in pain as he went down, kicking and struggling—and in a few seconds, the entire cage had dissolved into a brawl.

There was no Swarm anymore, no queen to calm them and refocus their energy. Bugs struck improperly, chains whipped around, and soon half the cages were brawling.

A single yell out of many was far too quiet for Sigil to notice from across the room. But this—she came running, watching through the bars as bugs fought. And while Codex’s cell had heard what she had to say, the shouts coming from some of the others were a mess. “We’re getting out!” some of them screamed, struggling in vain against their chains.

“What in Celestia’s name did you just do?” Sigil asked, skidding to a stop beside her and staring into the cage. Her eyes cut right through the brawl in all the others to the concentrated violence against Codex right at the center. She’d even realized it before Harlequin herself did—the bugs were going to kill him.

Of course they are. These bugs know how to keep a secret, and they know I’m their only hope. If he reveals anything about me, they’re finished. “I don’t know! They just started fighting!”

“Monsters,” Sigil muttered under her breath. Then she stomped one hoof, and her horn flashed brilliant white. Harlequin’s world turned to a fuzzy blur of pain and confusion. She struggled to stay standing, and without meaning to her magic started to drain away. Her body flooded with love, healing whatever had happened to her head.

She shook herself out, and saw that Sigil was opening the door with a lock on her keyring. “Quit the act, Harlequin, I know it only works on them. Help me.”

“Right.” She blinked, shaking her head once. The cages all around them were suddenly packed with motionless changelings. It’s like what happened when the Swarm’s voice stopped, only smaller.

Not a single bug was fighting anymore, even those in the far cages. They were all watching the two of them, as they extracted Codex from the pile of changelings, removed his restraints, and levitated him out of the cage.

It hadn’t taken them long. His shell was already cracked open in a few places, leaking greenish blood from within.

Into the pile of bodies he goes, she realized. Second pony I killed. And unlike the last time, there was no threat of her own death if she failed. This is just happening because I’m evil. Put me in the cage, Sigil. Not them.

“Come on,” Sigil called, gesturing up the stairs. “There’s a medic on the floor above us. We can’t just leave it like this.”

She cares? Why? But she didn’t stop to ask, just hurried behind Sigil as fast as her hooves would carry her.

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