• 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 18: "S"

Harlequin was no stranger to the look of the changeling prison as the pony guards escorted her down. After all, she’d been there when much of it was dug. She knew about each of the fortifications in place, knew where each of the attendant guards would be standing, and was ready for them.

What she didn’t expect was the blacksmith waiting at the end of the ramp. “Another straggler, huh? Will we need to get it out again?”

“Likely,” said one of the guards. “Pretty elaborate scheme going to replace one of us. I’m sure she’ll have a trial.”

“Right then.” The earth pony scratched his beard, looking her up and down for a second. “Alright, changeling. Listen careful if you can. We’re about to put a collar on you. This collar is the only way for you to prove your identity.”

Would I want to? Unless a trial is something I want. It didn’t sound like something she would want, not from the satisfaction the guards felt when they spoke about it.

Harlequin nodded weakly as they measured her, then held her neck out for the collar. The pony blacksmith applied it with a routine that suggested he had done hundreds exactly like it, complete with a little metal disk on the end. “874,” she read. “What is 874?”

“You,” one of the soldiers answered, shoving her forward. “You hid better than most, so your number is up there. Congratulations.” They laughed, though she couldn’t tell what was funny about it.

Then it was through the last set of security doors to where the minecart track traveled into the dark.

“Supplies come down this track twice a day,” said one of her escort ponies, a pegasus with a dark coat and stern eyes. “You don’t want to be anywhere near the track most of the time. Defensive spells will electrocute anything alive that gets close.” He reached to one side, pulling a lever down with dramatic flair while his partner fumbled with the lock on the door. “That’s the defenses turned off. Get to the end before we switch them on again, or…” He didn’t finish the threat, but Harlequin didn’t need him to. His intentions were clear enough.

The door swung open. The path down was lit in the pony way, with regular magical crystals glowing faintly white. “Go on,” said the other. “We’ll count from… thirty. Start running.”

She ran. The collar was tight around her neck, restricting her movements and making it difficult to turn to either side. She could barely look down at her hooves, and stumbled more than once. But her wings were free, and she could catch herself before she fell. The track was already well worn, with scorch marks and piles of indeterminate black sludge on the side. Oh Queens. Did bugs try to fly up here through the defensive spells? It was like the city’s shield all over again.

Every second Harlequin kept a count in her head. She’d just about reached ten when she finally saw the bottom of the track.

Here there was a pile of wooden carts, almost untouched from where they’d dropped their contents. The smell of rotting food was thick, along with the buzzing wings of flies.

She felt it in the air—a faint heat beginning from behind her, getting hotter by the second. The spell was probably designed that way, to pressure creatures away from the tracks rather than killing them instantly when they stepped on them. They didn’t even give me thirty seconds!

Harlequin lowered her head and flew for everything she was worth, into the huge crystal cavern that was the center of the prison. Fire scorched at her tail, melting the layer on her shell. She closed her eyes, kept flying desperately, knowing she would be just another pile of melted sludge if she failed…

She passed over the graveyard of broken minecarts, avoiding a few crystal stalagmites before landing on open ground. For a few seconds she just stood there, catching her breath and letting herself cool down after the heat of the passage.

Ponies had lit the entire thing with their characteristic clumsiness, with glowing crystals on the ceiling illuminating the entrance cavern in white that fractured into every color of the rainbow as it passed through crystals on the wall.

The minecarts hadn’t even been removed from the bottom of the track, their wrapped bundles of supplies left exactly where they had landed. They’d piled up so much that instead of hitting the rubber stoppers, they smacked into the earlier carts and rolled off to spill their supplies all over the place. A cloud of flies as thick as the swarm had ever been hovered around the pony food, without any sign that the changelings had disturbed it.

“Hello?” Harlequin whispered, reaching out instinctively for the comfort of the swarm. But of course it wasn’t here, not even a suggestion of how many bugs might be down here. They had no feelings she could read, so she couldn’t gauge their numbers the way she had guessed there were guards in the field hospital. There are probably 873 others in here, Harlequin. That’s how numbers work.

She kept her head down, creeping forward towards the well. It was a good distance away from the food carts, which was probably good. If all the bad food started falling down there, that certainly wouldn’t have helped the bugs living here. They did still need to drink.

A layer of green slime coated the ground near the well, covering up the little wall ponies had built along it and leading deeper into the caves. Harlequin stepped onto it easily, feeling the slight yield under her hooves and relaxing. It was nice to be near something familiar. Maybe there are good things about this. I barely even got my name. There are other bugs who would be better at saving everyone. I’m not the one they should expect to do the saving.

Harlequin moved mostly by reflex. She lowered the bucket by the crank, drew up some water, splashed it on her face. The crisp chill helped clear her mind—it was the only clear thing in her whole world. All the pony light in the world couldn’t make the cave feel less bleak.

We’re all going to starve down here. Her own appetite for love had grown since her earliest memories—how long could she go without a meal? She probably could’ve lasted for a month before being blasted with that spell. But whatever it was, it had taken away most of her reserves when it took her illusion away. She would have to be careful with her magic, or else…

What difference does it make? Everyone’s going to starve down here. The ponies understand us so badly they’re still sending their own food down to rot. How had none of the important bugs explained how they worked? Unless the ponies didn’t even listen.

Harlequin could feel the slimy floor sink slightly behind her, and she spun around, kicking the bucket back down into the darkness. A drone emerged from the gloom, looking a little emaciated and with only one of its wings intact. It barely seemed to even see Harlequin.

But it was still the first changeling she’d met under friendly circumstances. She moved out of the way of the well, smiling in spite of herself. “Sister,” she said. “Where is the Swarm?”

The changeling looked at her as she approached, one wing and the missing stump of her other wing twitching weakly. As she got closer, Harlequin could see makeshift buckets wrapped around her back, and little grooves in her shell from repetitive strain. This bug had been doing the same thing for so long she was hurting from it.

“Hey,” Harlequin stuck out a wing in front of her, forcing the bug to meet her eyes. “Can you talk?”

She could see recognition in its eyes, or thought she could. Without their mental connection, she couldn’t be sure. I’m fumbling in the dark. How is the Swarm supposed to get anything done like this? “That harness is hurting you, here. Let me… get it off.” Harlequin lifted with a little magic, undoing the rope. It was rough twine braided together, probably made of the stuff securing pony food packages. The harness came off, revealing faint wounds underneath from where the rope had bit through her shell.

The drone didn’t fight her. As Harlequin worked, she seemed to grow more alert, her mouth half open. She didn’t look much older, but Harlequin was nearly a full head taller. “There. How’s that?”

“Alone.” The drone’s voice shook, obviously a great strain to say even that.

Harlequin nodded weakly, kicking the harness away. “Yeah.”

“You… are.” The drone fixed her with desperate eyes, her whole body shaking. “Queen?”

“No.” She whimpered, eyes scanning the space around them for anything she could use to treat the drone’s wounds. Harlequin hadn’t been a doctor, and she’d never held any of those parts of Swarm lore. But she had watched pony doctors treat Codex just yesterday. She could copy just fine.

“Fill that bucket, bring it over here. Let’s see what we can do about that shoulder.”

“Hurt.”

“Yeah, I can see that. I’ll help. Uh…” She hesitated. “Do you have a name?”

“Name.” She picked up the bucket in her mouth, so at least she understood that part.

“Name, uh… alright. I think the way this works is… we start with a letter? You can be… S. Is that okay?”

“S!” the drone repeated, grinning at her. One of her fangs was missing. “S!”

Harlequin nodded, moving past her to where the pony supplies had fallen. The cloud of insects were thick enough that seeing anything was difficult, their buzzing angry. But while these bugs might’ve bit and stung at ponies with their weak coats, a changeling shell was too strong. She didn’t need to fear them, so long as she was careful with her eyes.

Had the ponies sent anything she could use?

Most of the broken containers were sacks of grain, the same stuff ponies made into their stew to feed guards and others. Grain wouldn’t help S, but… there, those boxes were marked differently! Harlequin levitated one out, settling it on the ground far from the pile. There was a bright red symbol on the side, the same one she’d seen all over the field hospital. She fumbled with the latch, then pushed it open.

Bundles of white cloth were inside, along with little bottles marked with tiny writing. She recognized the word on the one she needed: “Antiseptic.”

“Okay S, bring the water over here, and sit down.”

“Sit.” That was something she understood. She grinned proudly as she looked up, apparently expecting praise for it.

“This is… going to hurt while I do it,” Harlequin said, as gently as she could. “It hurt Codex. But he got better after. If you let me do this, you will get better. Okay?”

“Okay.” S sounded uneasy, but she continued watching with trust. Harlequin could practically see what she was thinking through her expression—that was the trust every bug felt for the ones who fed them. It was gratitude for love received.

Harlequin blinked, checking her reserves by reflex. It was exactly how she thought—she hadn’t been feeding this drone. Must just be old instincts. You’re not as good at reading expressions as you think you are, Harlequin.

She worked by the faint white glow of magical lights, using pony tools and imitated pony strategies. Changelings had their own ways of helping injured drones to heal, secret methods that the Swarm could’ve shown her. But failing that, some bandages and antiseptic weren’t the worst thing in the world.

After an hour of work, Harlequin could feel the weight of exhaustion on her shoulders. She’d gone through most of the bandages and both bottles of antiseptic—but S’s body looked much better. Instead of open wounds seeping blood, there were now bandages on her back, over the stump of her wing. She looked much better, her eyes less glazed and her cheeks no longer sallow.

“Queen,” S said, when she was done. “Queen here. You.”

“No. But I’ll try to protect you like one. If you… want to stay with me for awhile.”

“Yes!” S exclaimed, bouncing up and down beside her. Probably shouldn’t be moving like that. Those bandages are barely holding you together.

“Alright, alright.” She rested one leg on her shoulder. “Slow down, S. Why don’t you… see if you can show me the way you came. I’d like to meet whoever is in charge down here.” Harliquin took one last glance at the railway leading up, then turned her back on the ponies above. She followed S into the darkness of the prison.

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