• 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 21: Swarmlore

“So maybe you don’t want to hurt me,” Codex said, as soon as they’d finished barricading the door. Harlequin had started dragging crates over, but the other bug was cleverer than that. He stuck a rod between the handles, and just like that it couldn’t be swung in either direction. He added a few more, and the heavy wooden doors were about as secure as any doors could be.

We could break them if we were a swarm. But if we were still a swarm, we would escape this place. She hadn’t felt the Swarm anywhere in the dark, unless that strange queen she saw in the dreamless darkness was what a swarm looked like when it was starting.

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to do what you say. You’re still the one who ruined my life. There’s no one in the universe I should hate more. You took my family away, you got me thrown down here…”

Harlequin pushed him against the wall, hard enough that she jostled the pillar, and the pony light crystal came on. She bore her teeth, hissing at him. “You are the only reason you are down here, Codex. I was installed in the pony guard. I was going to get everybug out. The only thing you had to do was wait patiently.” She shoved him back, collapsing onto her haunches and panting hard. “I got myself assigned to guard the prison! All I had to do was wait for the right opportunity, and this would be over! We’d be long gone from this awful city…”

“You’re not really making your case,” Codex argued. “You wanted to let free a prison full of murderers and war criminals.” He flicked his tail back at the door as it jostled slightly. Maybe the scavengers outside hadn’t gone as far as they hoped. “Look at that. That is what the ponies of Equestria would’ve faced if I hadn’t stopped you. Even if ponies rejected me…” He stood a little straighter, though his voice quavered slightly. “It doesn’t matter if they never know my name. I still did my best to save them. One day, Princess Celestia will honor me for it.”

“Whatever.” Harlequin picked a cot at random, slumping sideways onto it. “That sounds exactly like the kind of thinking that got us into trouble. Believing our queen no matter what she told us.” The words felt like they should catch fire in her mouth as she said them. But there was no poison dripping down her tongue, and Chrysalis didn’t appear from the shadows behind her with a dagger to reward her for her disloyalty.

She went on. “She left us behind. Left us to be captured, doesn’t seem to care that we’re suffering. What makes you think your princess is different?”

“Because she is,” Codex said, as though commenting on the weather. “They’re nothing alike. You invaded us, Harlequin. We just wanted to live peacefully here. I wanted you to live peacefully. I suspect I even know more about changelings than you know about yourselves. Your culture has become a degenerate shadow of itself. But I suppose that’s the natural consequence of relying on your linked mind-structure over the course of—”

Harlequin sat up suddenly, spreading her wings as she interrupted him. “Hold on. I… I remember. You did talk about us before. You said you were… an expert on magical creatures. You weren’t lying to me?”

“No,” he said, more annoyed than defensive this time. “Of course not! Why would I lie about that? Pointless. Obviously I should have lied. If I told you I was a chef, I’d be home with my family right now, sipping coco and wondering what the princess was going to do with the invaders. Not… rotting with you in prison.”

This argument was going nowhere. But that didn’t mean she was completely wasting her time. “How did you know about changelings? Ponies didn’t know what we were when we started sneaking in. Only when the Queen ordered an invasion… I think.” She didn’t know what had been happening back then, obviously. She barely had a dozen memories from that long ago, and most of them were abstract snapshots of a few moments at a time.

“I studied,” Codex answered. It seemed like he’d claimed a section of the prison for himself, clearing off a few of the cots, pushing them together, and opening the little kits at the foot of each bed. Fine, she had no reason to try and stop him. Routine was good for a bug. “There are ancient records of you, just like most things. Ponies knew their world better in the past. We’ve been so frightened of the monsters that lurk in dark corners that we’ve forgotten how we fought them. It’s just so much easier to leave you alone. Hope you won’t come back, hope you weren’t looking. See what good it did.”

Harlequin frowned, watching this changeling move. His shell still didn’t look like it was formed right, and now had several more openings than it should, held together with thin thread from pony stitching. Whatever medicine they’d done to try and heal him had been only partially successful.

Maybe they dumped him down here after they found out about me. Or maybe Codex just upset them so much they got frustrated with dealing with him. That certainly seemed plausible, given the pain he was for her most of the time they were together. But the Queen thought you were valuable enough to convert. She wanted you specifically, and Hydrus searched for you. You must know something. “Tell me what you know,” she said, without preamble. “About changelings. You wrote about us, isn’t that what you said? In a pony book.”

“In my doctoral thesis,” he corrected. “Yes, I did. You were fascinating creatures when I could think about you in the abstract. Nopony guessed you might still be alive in numbers like this. Or that you might be coming back to Equestria. That you’d attack us again… obviously the princess must not have considered it, or we would’ve been better defended. I’m sure we will be now.”

“Probably,” she agreed. She’d already seen the Guard adapting. They would be teaching that spell used to fight changelings. They wouldn’t be so easy to invade next time. “What do you know about us? Maybe it can help?”

“Help,” he muttered, glaring at her. “You’re under a mistaken impression if you think I’m going to help you, Harlequin. You’re the one who ruined my life. There isn’t a pony in the world I hate more, despite all you’ve done to keep me alive. You can’t assuage your guilt with virtuous deeds. The damage you’ve done is permanent. I know this process is irreversible. Even if I somehow escape, my family knows. My wife will think I’m an imposter bent on harvesting her. My daughter will fear me as a monster. You’ve taken everything and left me with nothing. Maybe you shouldn’t have saved me at all.”

Harlequin just folded her wings, closed her eyes. Their supply of energy was a fixed quantity now and would be running out the longer she stayed. The best way for her to conserve it was to move as little as possible. There was no arguing with him there—she really had ruined his whole life. Well, her and the rest of the invasion. “If I hadn’t fed on you, some other bug would. You’d just be here with someone else for company.”

He didn’t respond for several seconds, but from the anger in his tone her case wasn’t very convincing. “I’m still not going to help you escape. Equestria is my home. It isn’t my family’s fault they hate me, it’s yours. I can still give them a better life by keeping you all trapped down here.”

Harlequin opened one eye, watching him make the bed. He did it exactly like the refugees she’d lived with for that first night. Almost like he was still in touch with some invisible pony swarm, guiding him. “Don’t help me escape,” she said. “How about this. Think about how hungry you are. I bet you were a prisoner long enough to eat some pony food. You know how much good that did. You’re just going to keep getting worse. Equestria knows so little about us they’re still sending down plants for us to eat. Do you want to starve?”

That silenced him. Codex had no snappy response to that, and she could see his ears flatten as she said it. After a few long moments, he finally spoke. “I guess there’s no harm in telling you the story. It’s not going to make finding an exit to this cavern easier. Do you know where changelings came from?”

“The badlands,” she answered instantly. “It’s… south of here, I think. Lots of dirt, not much grows…”

“No,” Codex shook his head. “Not where you came from physically. How you came to be.”

Harlequin shook her head. But she sat up as he asked, watching him intently. That sounded interesting, even if it didn’t seem like something that would get them out or help them find food. “That’s Swarmlore. I think the Queen must’ve known, but… I never did. I was too little to care about things like that.”

“There are multiple stories in Equestria,” he went on. His tone changed, all anger fading. He sounded more like a pony who was teaching. He went in regular, repetitive cycles through each sentence, returning to the same tone of voice with each one. “The stupid—some ponies think that Star Swirl probably did it, some mistaken enchantment on an insect or something. Ludicrous.” He shook his head once, and she found herself in agreement there. That was obviously wrong.

“The oldest story I could find—and oldest often means most accurate with accounts like this—is that you were descended from ponies. Long ago, before any of the ponies we know were ever born, even Celestia, there was a disagreement. It was so long ago that nopony remembers what it was about. But what we do know is that there were three factions. Some say those three factions became the three tribes we know today, losing their Alicorn powers forever. But I think it’s something else.

“The story goes like this: An Alicorn traveler arrived in Dream Valley one day, with a strange gift for all who saw her. ‘Take this,’ she said. ‘And it will make you strong.’ ‘Take this, it will make you wise.’ Some ponies ran to her, eagerly accepting the gifts. They became the ponies you know, inheriting all the world. But some feared her. They rejected her gifts and found their own magic. I think those were the ones who turned into you. They had to run far to get away from her, eating strange food and cowering away from the sun. Eventually they were changed, and they look like you do now. Well… like we do.”

I wish the Swarm was still there. I could ask them if the story was true. If she’d cared about abstract things, she probably would’ve already known that story. “Do you know anything that could help us find food?” she asked, voice desperate. “I have a little time, but you don’t. Those ponies weren’t treating you very well. I bet you were hungry when you got here.”

Codex’s expression was all the confirmation she needed—there was fear, and barely contained animal instincts. It was wanting to strike out and take relief, but not knowing where to find it. Harlequin knew it well. “Well… the story has another part. The Alicorn who visited discovered the ones who had fled, and she cursed them. ‘May you always depend on the kindness of others,’ she said. ‘Until you learn to show kindness in return and accept your place in the story.’”

“And that’s supposed to help us,” she muttered, pawing angrily at the cot below her. “Not sure how.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t know,” he said, glaring at her again. “You only care about yourself. But the story seems to say that you don’t need to steal love forever. Maybe there’s a way for you to be free. For us to… to change back into ponies.” He sunk down onto his haunches, staring down at his hooves. “There has to be a way. A way to… share enough kindness. Overcome the curse. Nightmare Moon was real—I’m sure this story is too.”

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