• 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 19: Queen

Harlequin led the way through Canterlot Caverns, with S following close at her hooves. The caves were so large she knew she could get lost forever if she went the wrong way. Ponies hadn’t really done much to change the caves when they built the place, just sealed up every exit they knew of and hoped for the best.

That could mean there’s a way out of here, if we can find it. The caves could go through the whole mountain. The Swarm could easily accomplish a task like that, exploring it with a growing cloud of knowledge of every cavern until they either found an exit or eliminated the option completely.

But there was no Swarm anymore, no means for perfect coordination. Ponies can work together. Equestria built this prison in a day. We can cooperate to escape it. And they would have to. Poor S looked like she was already showing the first signs of deprivation. Drones could go for weeks before they starved—but those weeks would be a terrible death.

“Are they this way?” she said, stopping at a fork in the path and gesturing towards the direction where the ground was a little muddy. “This is water you spilled, right? The bugs are living this way.”

S seemed confused for a few moments. She reached down, pawing at the ground with a hoof. “Sense. You must be right.”

That isn’t the same thing as an answer, she thought, frustrated. But S was already pathetic enough, bandaged and broken and thinking Harlequin was a queen. She couldn’t take out her anger on a bug like that.

Harlequin started marching on again, through the mud. She hadn’t been this way—it wasn’t in the housing area the ponies had built for them. It seemed like the bugs were actively avoiding anywhere that ponies had touched.

There was something on the ground not far ahead. Harlequin lit up her horn, spending a little precious magical energy to see what she was looking at.

It was a drone, collapsed to the ground and badly broken. She hurried over but stopped just out of reach without touching it. The bug wasn’t breathing. S, meanwhile, had stopped halfway down the cavern, staring in horror. “Bad,” she said. “Not that way. Bad.”

“You could’ve told me,” she said, backing up towards S. But she was too slow.

In the glow of her horn, a pair of figures appeared in the gloom, their shapes melting into the stone and fracturing into colored copies in the shadow of the huge crystals.

“Look at that,” said one of the bugs, their eyes settling on her horn. “A bug with magic. Lucky find.” She knew that look, the half-open way his mouth hung, the fangs glittering. That was desperate hunger.

“You want to live,” said another voice, behind her. A female, smaller than her partner, but just as fierce. She had wrapped one of her legs in dried slime, the changeling way of treating an injury. “Good, we want to let you live. You give us everything you have, you fly away. Otherwise…” She nodded towards the bug. “You die. Which is it?”

S made several insectoid squeaking sounds of protest, shuffling closer before the female shoved her back and out of the way. “Not even worth our time. You’re half dead already. Stay out of this.”

“You’re hurting other bugs,” Harlequin said, horrified. “You did this? Attacking us like our enemies do?”

The male bug shrugged, all the while closing in on her. She was already trapped in a space maybe five feet long. There was no room to squeeze past the male. She might be able to get past the female, back to the fork in the path. “The old queen trapped us. Minds… confined. Forced us to think her story. Now we think our own story. Our story is, give us your magic.”

“Or you die,” the other one said. “And wouldn’t that be a waste?”

Too bad they didn’t let me bring Nightender down here. She had no doubt what would happen if they tried that while she was still holding that sword. These bugs didn’t even have rocks for weapons, let alone swords. Levitation took precious magic, magic they wouldn’t have if they were attacking other bugs to steal what energy they could. Compared to them, Harlequin was overflowing with it. Maybe I could trick them. Give them a little and act like they got it all.

But if she showed them she could be intimidated that way, how long would her magic last? She had come down here overflowing with love. Maybe enough to survive to escape, if she fostered it carefully. Would she rather give it to bugs like S, or thieves who would kill another changeling?”

It wasn’t even a question. “Get back!” she screamed, her horn lighting up bright white. She hadn’t even known she could make it do that. “You want magic, I’ll give it to you! But you won’t like the way I do!” She had seen ponies throw changelings from the castle wall, seen them do all kinds of incredible things. Of course, she’d never tried to copy them—drones just didn’t cast spells. But now that she had a name, things were different.

And they did stop, the first sign of fear and caution in their expressions. The female was the next to speak, her tone doubtful. “Whose clutch were you, bug? Who was your Overseer?”

“Hydrus,” she answered, before she could even think about why they’d want to know. “He taught me everything.”

They both laughed. The male stomped his way forward again, and she was forced to turn sideways so that she wouldn’t run into either of them. Harlequin spread her wings wide, but even flying would be difficult in such tight quarters. There was no mystery about why these two evil bugs had chosen this spot. “Then we have nothing to fear. Hydrus doesn’t know how to fight. Queen’s personal guard… knew how to be soft with the ones she wanted to keep alive. Is that what you’re going to do to us, be soft? Whatever will we do?”

She had to act—they were psyching themselves up to attack her. Beaten badly enough, they’d probably be able to coax her to give up all her magic, and then some. Or maybe they’d kill her accidentally and lose all the power. But cold revenge that would be if she was dead.

Harlequin tried to picture the spell she’d seen from those guards, aiming her horn at the female. Her horn got brighter, and a few misshapen runes appeared in her mind. But she didn’t know what they were, didn’t know what the point of them was. She couldn’t exactly ask the Swarm, or else she wouldn’t have been here in the first place.

For a few moments, she could feel something happening in front of her. The space got hot, light burned at her eyes—then it fizzled, and something kicked her from behind. She heard the crack before she felt the pain, the crack of an injury that had damaged her shell. Her back legs gave out, and she crumpled to the floor. The world in front of her started to go fuzzy, and for a few seconds she couldn’t even move from pain. Her horn stopped glowing, her concertation broken. Harlequin screamed out in pain, trying to move out of the way.

“Waste,” said the female from in front of her. “Have you changed your mind now, bug? I can have Corkscrew hit you again. He’ll make it hurt more the second time, honest. Or you can give us everything you have. Don’t try and lie, either. There are easy spells for knowing how much magic a bug has. We’ll take it all.

Then something screamed from behind her, and the female went down in a blur of black shells. S was at her neck, biting and squealing. It wasn’t words exactly, but through the sounds Harlequin could make out a few sounds that were close. “Not… queen… stop!” she yelled. Harlequin tried to move forward, but her back leg just twitched uselessly with pain. Something moved above her, the bigger male bug climbing around her. He jerked forward, separating the two bugs, and tossing S against the wall so hard that her shell cracked too. She landed on her side, twitching like a beetle upside-down.

“Kill it,” the female whispered. “I don’t know what she’s doing to control it. We’ll take that first. We can use that magic too.”

“No!” Harlequin twitched uselessly as Corkscrew crossed the crystal cavern to where S had fallen, picking up a huge shard of broken rock and lifting it towards the bug’s head.

“Should’ve ran while you had the chance, bug,” he said. “Nothing personal. You’re too stupid to know what you’re doing.” He lifted the rock high, even using a bit of magic in the swing.

“NO!” Harlequin screamed again, and this time her body obeyed. Magic burned behind her, so bright that the cavern lit up green. Her leg knit itself back together in a matter of seconds, the wound covering over with a thin layer of slime. She sprang forward with the force of a charging lion, smashing into Corkscrew.

She felt as though she had the strength of all the earth ponies she’d protected flowing through her veins again, keeping her from harm while the other pony was blasted back. When the female came at her with her teeth, Harlequin stopped her with one hoof and shoved her back with another. “Get away from her!”

Corkscrew was already back on his hooves, bleeding from where he’d smacked into the wall. “She’s got too much—” he muttered, voice horrified. “Did you see that, Mandible? I snapped her leg, swear I did.”

“Run,” she said. “We’ll find… someone else.” They ran, trailing bits of fallen stone and stinking the whole cavern with hollow fear.

The anger burning in Harlequin’s chest demanded satisfaction. She almost chased after them, to do to the two of them what they’d wanted to do to her friend. But then S made a pained squeaking sound, rolling sideways onto her back, and all the strength left her. Whatever incredible instinct had motivated her, it was already running out.

“Queen,” the little voice said. Harlequin bent down beside her, taking one of her hooves and squeezing.

“Not… I’m not,” she answered. This poor bug had gone from bad to worse. She’d already been struggling to hold on when Harlequin rescued her, and now—blood seeped out from her bandages, and dribbled down her gaping mouth. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, though there was so little light that there wasn’t much for them to see.

“Tried… protect you… Queen,” said the little changeling, her voice shaking in the dark. “Was I… good bug…?”

“Yes!” Harlequin’s horn lit up again, and she struggled desperately in her memory for any of the medical spells she’d watched the unicorns use on Codex. Ponies had incredible healing powers, she could use them here! There had to be a way to fix this! “You’re a great bug, S! Now just… get up! We’ll get out of here. I’ll take care of you, I promise!”

But S wasn’t moving anymore, not even a twitch. Harlequin stared down into those multifaceted eyes and realized with horror that they weren’t following her anymore, weren’t responding to the light. They had killed her.

The incredible wealth of magic Harlequin had spent to save her meant nothing. Her effort to help had meant nothing. She saved me, but I couldn’t save her. Chasing after her attackers wouldn't help bring this bug back. She would've made it. She would've survived! How could bugs be attacking each other so quickly?

What could she do?

In seeing the Guard respond to their destroyed city, Harlequin now knew exactly what to do in a situation like this.

She bent down beside the little changeling and cried.

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