• 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 20: Lost Codex

Harlequin must’ve fallen asleep at some point, because she found herself back in that sightless void, where there had once been the Swarm to protect her and make her feel welcome. She could still remember it, the thousands of others that would surround her in her sleep. The memories she could see from other bugs filled her with strength and pride. Her ancestors had been mighty creatures once, and one day they would rule again.

But now she was alone, both in waking life and in dreams. She couldn’t even save a single bug.

“You know why that is, child,” said a distant voice, so faint she almost thought another bug was approaching. “It isn’t your fault she had no place in the story. There’s none for you either—not because of anything you did. Is that the future you want?”

“No,” she thought into the darkness, searching for the one who spoke. She could barely move; her whole body was in slow motion. Her hooves struck out under her, and she tried to run. But it was like she was moving through half-hardened slime, sinking down around her, and slowing her to a crawl. “I want to change it! This is all wrong! Our queen left us!”

For a moment, she could almost see something in the darkness around her. A figure moved—not a pony exactly, but like one. An outline swimming towards her, one of greater darkness. “I will find a use for you.”

Then she woke. She hadn’t gone far from where S had fallen, just a few steps into a dark corner where she’d crawled in a near-daze. She could still smell the death nearby. Harlequin shuddered, shook the sand from her fins, then rose. The crystals around her reflected sound strangely, making it hard to find her way, hard to keep track of where she’d gone. Obviously, the path she’d been taking with S would be out. She turned around, keeping to the largest tunnels.

She had an advantage none of these bugs had—she’d been here when the prison was built. She knew that bigger tunnels would always lead towards the entrance, at least if she stayed close. What might be true if she wandered further wouldn’t matter so long as she always stayed close to where the food came in.

The food that no bug could eat. And why should they bother? Harlequin had suffered as they did, she knew the pain they felt. When she saw the drones, all lined up in the street, the Swarm taken from them, she could imagine their despair. Now she felt it herself. She’d been finding a place in the Guard for herself—but now that was taken away. She’d tried to help another bug, like she would’ve done with the Swarm intact—that had failed too.

So she wandered. Not towards the front, exactly, but from one room to another. She kept her horn dark this time, not wanting to attract attention to herself. There would be other opportunists in the tunnels. She didn’t want to fight again.

Her reserves of love were no longer full, though she was still some distance from starvation. Defending S had taken less than she had spent healing her leg. But she no longer felt curious about why. She just wandered.

Time passed, she couldn’t have said how much. Eventually she ended up in a pristine, empty space full of cots. She walked up, and a pony light crystal came on, illuminating a bunk area for fifty bugs, little blankets folded on the pillows and small bags of pony grooming supplies in front of each one. What were bugs supposed to do with soap and deodorant?

Harlequin no longer cared. She shut the door behind her, pushed a cot up in front so it wouldn’t swing open easily, then crawled all the way to the back. She got far enough away that the light crystals all went out again, and she was left in the gloom. Left to the sound of her breathing, and a distant drip of water.

She spent a long time in that room. She didn’t need to go eat—pony food wouldn’t have done anything for her anyway. When she got thirsty, she didn’t go further than the sound of dripping on the far end of the room, holding her tongue out under the moisture until it didn’t hurt anymore.

She spent a long time with her thoughts, imagining how differently that fight could’ve gone if only she had Nightender. Or any weapon, really. She did have the power to change the world—but why should she bother?

Getting a name was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me. At least if I was like them, I wouldn’t understand all of this. I’d think that my Queen was perfect and coming to save me, right up until I died. Like S, dying to save her “queen.”

Some way to thank you for your help this is.

Changelings weren’t supposed to sleep like ponies did, but they could hibernate. Harlequin didn’t spin herself a cocoon, even though she had the magic for it. Instead she piled up a mass of pony cots, covered them with blankets, and tried to imagine she was back in the pony barracks. Back with the ones who had cared about her name, who talked about her like a hero. Who thought she could be better than she was.

She probably wouldn’t have responded at all, except for the voice that she heard. It wasn’t the bugs who had attacked her and S, though revenge might’ve motivated her. It wasn’t even her queen.

The voice she heard came from the bug who was most responsible for her being trapped here in the first place. The single reason she hadn’t been able to get the others free.

“I don’t belong down here!” he called, his voice distant and distorted. But the ramp down must’ve been close to the sleeping areas. It would make sense. The ponies had imagined their prisoners would organize themselves and act just like ponies might in the same situation.

He’s the reason you’re here. He betrayed you. You could have set him free if only he’d let you. The quiet voice was right, of course. Everything was completely his fault. Even S’s death, in a roundabout way. At least she could’ve lived a few more days carrying water for… someone.

Harlequin rose to her hooves, scattering the blankets and cots. She probably smelled awful, like a bug that hadn’t molted right in weeks. But there was no way around that now. Maybe the best thing to do would be to let him wander into the caverns and let them steal his magic. Corkscrew could kill him too.

But while that thought should’ve filled her with satisfaction, it only made her go faster. Some part of her might want to see him punished, but another part couldn’t forget that she had already fed on him once. Codex was the reason she had a name now. Codex and Hydrus together. She couldn’t abandon him now.

So she ran, shoving the door open and following the sound of Codex’s panic. “Don’t leave me down here!” the bug was shouting. He might as well be chumming the water for sharks.

The ponies at the top of the slope didn’t answer. Some part of Harlequin was surprised that Codex had even run to the bottom. If he just stopped at the top to yell, soon enough the pony magic would burn him away like all those others.

She wasn’t the only one to emerge in the huge entry cavern, with its yellow and pink crystals and cloud of flies. The mountain of food had gotten considerably larger since last Harlequin looked, with a few signs of looting. How long had she been drifting, anyway? Her magical reserves had drained to about half of what she could hold now, most of that gone trying to save S.

The figures she saw lurking in the gloom around the light-crystals at the base of the railway were barely even bugs anymore. Withered, shrunken, their shells white and malformed. The darkness was no harm to a bug, but starvation appeared to be doing terrible things to them. They were small, creatures that had never had names. But they had teeth now, and predatory looks in their eyes.

Have they lost so much? “Codex!” she called from across the room, standing as straight as she could and lighting up her horn bright green. It was a gamble—such a show of strength would either frighten away the scavengers or goad larger predators into appearing. “Codex, get over here right now.”

He stopped yelling up at the railway, slowly turning on his hooves. His eyes filled with anger as he saw her, and he didn’t take so much as a single step towards her. “You are the reason for this, Harlequin. You deserve this. But I don’t. I never did anything wrong.”

“Codex,” she said, taking another step closer to him. She wasn’t going to keep wasting her magic on light for much longer, but for now she could see the figures scattering in front of her. “You are in danger. If you don’t come with me, you’re going to die. I already saved you once.”

Against my better judgement. If you had just kept your stupid mouth shut, I would still be in the Guard. I might be halfway to freeing the other bugs by now. But she couldn’t really hold that against him, could she? He didn’t have the Swarm to guide him anymore. He’d never really had it. Why should he care what happened to other bugs?

I must help him. I changed him in the first place.

At least this time he seemed to be responding. Codex backed towards her, his fins flicking from one side to the other in agitation. “In prison? Why would prison be dangerous?”

“You’re still half covered in bandages, Codex. Why do you think?”

His eyes widened—that was apparently enough to finally reach him. He started running towards her. Exactly the wrong move. Running wasn’t just showing his back, it was also showing fear and weakness. Both things that a bug never ought to do to a predator. Harlequin turned to run with him, letting her horn settle into a gentle green glow as she pointed. “This way! This is part of where ponies built… it has doors!”

They ran. Drones gone mad screeched behind them, a dangerous flock that grew denser as they moved. Harlequin could barely even recognize most of the sounds they made. They didn’t seem like anything she’d heard in the hive before. This is what happens without the Swarm. When bugs starved back home, they just died. Everyone knew it could happen.

Maybe the Queen had been protecting them after all—protecting them from themselves.

Codex screamed as one of them tried to latch onto his leg. His shell was too strong for a single bite, but the bandages on his thigh caught the teeth, slowing him and making him trip end-over-end.

Not again! Harlequin caught him in her magic, settling him down and scanning the area around them. Last time they’d been beaten, it was because she hadn’t had any way of defending herself. Even two days in the Guard were enough for her to know that keeping a weapon close was the most important thing. And unlike medical magic, she had learned to fight from the Swarm. There, an unassembled pony cot in a pile of many others. She reached out, pulling out the long wooden rod and spinning it in the air in front of her. I could make a spear out of this.

But for now, it was just a staff. She faced out at the crowd, roaring. “Get away from him!” she called, smashing it into the drone’s side before it could bite at Codex again. “Find something else to eat!” The bug rolled away, squealing with pain.

It worked. The crowd of angry eyes stopped just out of sight, their eyes animal hunger as they stared out from the darkness at them. They hissed, backed away. They would find something else to eat.

Harlequin started backing up. “Get up, stupid. Open door just behind us. Go.”

He went, without arguing this time. Harlequin kept the rod in front of her until she could pull the door shut behind them.

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