• 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 22: Defiance

Harlequin was small. The hive where she had grown was a strange place, with hallways that moved, doors that opened and closed and strange rules of magic she had been too young to understand. Like all the smallest bugs, she spent most of her time in the cracks and crevices, crawling along the ceilings and feeding on love the adults brought them.

“It seems like, maybe there might be a better way,” said a voice from far below. Harlequin hadn’t known it then, but now she recognized the throne room. The massive stone chair, and space where many other important bugs came to speak with the queen. She was one of many who wanted to be around her queen too, even if she didn’t really understand what happened around her.

“Thorax is the voice of caution, as he always is,” said a voice she knew well. Even if she didn’t understand the things she said, Harlequin knew her queen. Chrysalis could only be correct. “He should not be reprimanded for it.”

“No,” said Pharynx—another voice she hadn’t known at the time. “But that doesn’t mean we should listen to his advice. Caution has guided the swarm for centuries, Queen. If we call off the attack now, last year’s famine will be a mild annoyance compared to the death coming for us. The army we’ve grown cannot survive without a new source of food.”

“They will be ready soon,” the queen said. Harlequin felt something—a slight shimmering around her limbs. She squirmed a little, but as soon as she saw she wasn’t falling, she stopped fighting. She wasn’t a grub anymore; her body was fully developed now. Even if her fangs weren’t sharp, and her wings were too small to fly. Something settled her down on the table, with bugs watching her from all sides. Strange bugs, many times her size. She was standing in a tiny city made of stone, built on the side of a slope that was difficult for her to stand on. “This is one of them. See, she is almost ready. I believe the time has come for me to begin the infiltration. I trust my orders to be obeyed in my absence.”

“Of course.” All the bugs around the room bowed their heads in respect. Harlequin did the same thing, even if she didn’t know why they were doing it. But there was never a time she couldn’t do the right thing by copying.

“The army will soon be prepared,” said the Queen, walking up to the side of the table. Though she was massive and dangerous-looking, Harlequin knew she had nothing to fear. The Queen reached out, running one leg down her face. “We have a responsibility to them. We will take a world for the next generation, a world where starvation isn’t hunting them their whole lives.” Something banged loudly from down the hall, and the image dissolved all around her.

Harlequin blinked, twitched, sat up. The memory faded into sleep, returning her painfully to the real world. She was in one of the pony cots, and from the stiffness she felt she’d been hibernating for a long time. Something banged again, this time accompanied with the cracking sound of crystal as it splintered. What in the Queen’s name is going on?

She rolled out of bed, following the sound to the end of the room. There was the opening in the ceiling, where moisture dribbled down from above. Codex had taken a large bit of rock, and he pounded away at the stone with his magic. He’d already made a large basin, and with each hit the opening got wider. “What are you doing?” she asked, watching him with worry. “You know you’re using magic to levitate that. You should conserve.”

“I’m using… what?” Codex dropped the rock, wiping away at his forehead as though he expected something there. But of course he was a bug, so there was no sweat.

“The love we eat,” she said. “The magic powers everything. Including moving things around, light… all of it. I thought you were a bug expert.”

The pony glared up at her, as though he was about to say something rude. But instead he just shook his head once, then looked away. “I suppose that’s to be expected. The literature had no way of venturing into specifics like that, given we haven’t had a living specimen to study in so long. This… this will do.” He bent down, using a blanket in his hoof to wipe away the dust and grime from the hole. Then the first few drops of water fell from above, right into the opening. More followed. Waste of power though it was, he’d made a convenient reservoir. Better than standing under it for hours.

“I’ve made a decision, bug. We’re going to survive.”

“Oh.” One of her eyebrows went up. “You decided? So how do we do it? Finite love running out every minute. Dangerous insane bugs outside who already ran out. What are we supposed to do?”

“Make our own,” he declared. “I’m certain that’s what the story meant. We just live like ponies. Abandon your ties to this strange form, your dependence on parasitism. I think having more individuals would be beneficial. There are bound to be others—and we’ll need more friends for this to work. Two just won’t be enough.”

“You want to invite more bugs here,” she said. “I… that won’t be easy, Codex. I’ve only been out twice. One time a helpless bug got killed right in front of me. The other time I rescued you. I don’t even know where they’re hiding.”

He shrugged one shoulder dismissively. “Leave that to me. We’re talking basic unicorn magic. All ponies need to breathe, even bugs like you. All we have to do is monitor the concentration of gasses in the air—it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Wherever the others are hiding, we’ll find them. Or maybe we’ll find they’ve already escaped. In which case… we’d be fools not to follow them.”

I don’t think they escaped if there are drones wandering around attacking other bugs, she thought. But she didn’t argue. Harlequin had spent her whole life being told what to do. Maybe having a goal would be a good thing. I had a goal, then he took it away from me. It’s only fair that Codex would give me a new one.

“They might come with us,” she answered. “But they might just attack us. Isn’t there something we can do to make ponies… not kill us all?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” he said, grin getting a little wider. “I think that ponies would be horrified to discover the conditions down here, even after the invasion. But none of them know. They just dump enough grain down here to feed all their prisoners and imagine it’s job done. We need to get the truth out. Once they discover the way we’re living, they’ll want to fix it. Ponies outside of Canterlot especially.”

“You say it like it’s easy,” Harlequin said. “They threw me down here so fast they didn’t even get my side of the story. Didn’t care about the ponies I saved. How will it be any different? When they finally remember us, they’ll open the door to find we’ve all starved to death.”

Codex shuddered, and she could see from his expression that he thought her prediction was as plausible as she did. “We could… try to escape,” he eventually said. “But that wouldn’t be a safe way to ask for their help. They’d just throw us back down here and be right to be terrified. We already got away once, we might escape again! We’ll just have to stay close and hope they come down to try and get some of us out for trial soon. Then we can talk to them, maybe… try and make them see.”

“You couldn’t even convince them you were a pony,” Harlequin muttered. But she didn’t really try to rub it in. The reality was bleak enough without the extra salt.

“We’ll have to do better. But in the meantime, I would like your help, if you’ll give it to me. I’m sure there are ponies out there in the cave, just as desperate and frightened as I would’ve been if I was alone in the dark. Here we have all the hardware Equestria left to build the prison, unused. We can make it into somewhere more comfortable to live. No need to grow food, but… we can do other things. Make the place nice. Make beer, maybe. Do bugs drink?”

Harlequin shrugged. “Maybe a little. I kinda liked the ale I drank at the guardhouse. It tasted just as bad as other pony food, but it made me feel kinda warm after, so that was nice.”

“Perfect, we’ll do that. And… whatever else we can manage. You’ve never had pony ingenuity thrown at this starvation problem before. Maybe we can work something out.”

“You really want to work with me?” Harlequin asked. She tried not to sound angry, not compared to the way he was always talking to her. “I thought you hated me.”

Codex hesitated. “I hate what you did. But I remember you before. You were barely even aware. You couldn’t have resisted your instructions to feed on me, even if you had understood the moral consequences. This doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you. You ruined my life. But… I think we can work together. You’re the most cooperative changeling I’ve ever met. The others in the prison were… nowhere near as civilized as you. Positive relationships between us are the only way we’re not going to starve, isn’t that right?”

“Well…” She winced. “Those bugs outside… there is another way. Eating corpses. No bug wants to—it’s… disgusting. But if you starve for long enough, you’ll do anything. I think that’s what those bugs outside are like. Even changelings love life… they’ll eat that, if it’s all they can find.”

Codex shuddered. “We won’t be doing that. But we would be fools to go out there unprepared.” He searched around the room. But of course, ponies hadn’t left them with any weapons, or anything that could be converted without much effort. If they wanted anything, they’d have to get creative. “You were part of an invading army, Harlequin. What weapons can you wield?”

“Sword, shield, halberd, mace, spear, scimitar, crossbow, longbow…” she went on, until Codex pressed a hoof to her mouth, silencing her.

“You can really do all that?”

She nodded. “The Swarm taught me everything about fighting. I didn’t understand it all very well, but… it’s still in there. I think the older I get the more sense it makes.”

“Well, a spear would be easiest.” He levitated over a wooden rod, inspecting it. “This is good hardwood. We could carve a point, then harden it with flame. Will you fight your own kind?”

The question would’ve horrified her only a few days before. But then she’d seen Corkscrew beat S to death. Seen creatures that were not even changelings anymore, hissing in the dark like monsters. We’ll be doing them a favor. “Yes,” she said. “But I was young, Codex. Look at me. I was only born a little while before the invasion. There are old bugs down here, powerful bugs. Thousands of them we didn’t even see. I think someone must have enough power to command the drones, because I found a drone carrying water. Maybe they’re already building something here, and we don’t need to go to all this effort.”

“I doubt it,” Codex muttered. “Changelings don’t build, not really. You’re scavengers. You adapt what you can to your needs, and the rest you destroy. We’ll be more help for any of them than they could get on their own. They’ll see that. It’s hard to resist safety and a warm bed. Maybe a shower too. I bet we could pump water up from the well, get a working latrine. Something to think about when I’m not quite so hungry…” He groaned, scratching a little at his chest. But of course, nothing he could put in there would help. Except one thing.

“Open your mouth,” Harlequin ordered. “I’ll share with you.”

“Open my—” Harlequin interrupted him, touching to his mouth. Ponies would’ve called it kissing. But ponies didn’t have hollow fangs, and the other host of automatic processes that would give a little of her precious energy to the other bug. Codex’s eyes rolled back, and he stopped resisting.

Harlequin gave him enough energy to make a hungry drone feel full, at least for a few hours. Her reserves were burning fast, but this seemed like a fair use. Some of that magic had been his to begin with. “There,” she said, wiping her mouth after a few seconds. “Better?”

He nodded, though for a few seconds he couldn’t speak. “What… was that?”

“Food,” she said. “Now show me how to make a spear. I want to learn.”

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