• 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 23: Swarm

“Will the child of no reflection sing the song of seven strings?” asked the voice in her dreams.

“Why should I? What do I have to sing about? The joy was stolen from my life when I was small.”

“That is the most important reason to sing.”

Harlequin woke with a start, rising from their tiny sleeping area with a scattering of blankets and pillows. For a few seconds she just lay there, clutching at her racing heart and trying to remember the significance of what she’d been seeing.

There had been another creature there, not a pony but not a changeling either. A creature that seemed to think she was… amusing? Would she settle for pity?

“You’re up too?” Codex’s voice came from the cot across the room. A set of insect eyes watched her, glowing slightly in the near-darkness. They’d taken the pony crystals off the wall here, so at least they could sleep in comfort. There was enough room for ten, maybe twenty bugs if they got really cozy together. But since they only needed an hour or so of rest each day, they could’ve actually housed far more with a little rotation.

There were no other bugs. “I keep thinking that if I lay here long enough, I’ll… sleep like I used to. Princess Luna will watch over my dreams the way she’s supposed to, I’ll be protected. Maybe one day I’ll wake from this nightmare and be with my family again.”

“You don’t see anything?” Harlequin whispered. “No… creatures?”

“Nothing,” Codex said, one eyebrow going up. “You’re a real changeling, you’re supposed to be this way. This shouldn’t be weird for you.”

“I don’t see what I should,” she snapped, glowering. “The Swarm used to be there for us when we were unconscious. To share memories with other bugs, particularly the ones who were too weak to move anymore. They stayed in the hive, keeping memories for the rest of us who had physical work to do. I guess they… probably all starved. Unless the Queen got back and could feed them.”

“That’s… grim,” Codex said. “So your lives were somehow connected. But the… Swarm I briefly felt. Your sympathetic, telepathic bond. The one Cadence broke.”

Harlequin remained silent for a few seconds—but this was a pony. She was taking advantage of more and more opportunities to learn from him the longer they stayed together. “Do you think it will ever go away? Will we get the Swarm back?”

Codex rose from his cot, wings buzzing as he settled on the ground. He’d learned to glide and hover in their tiny prison cell—something to do, in case they were attacked. He reached the door—made of blankets he’d sewn together, and pushed it out of the way. Even blue light flooded in from pony light crystals.

“Do you want it back? Wait, no. Don’t just answer right away. Think about what the ‘Swarm’ made you do. If what you’ve told me is all true, you’ve basically been brainwashed into doing everything it says. You watched other bugs your age fly into the city shield. You could’ve been one of them, and that would’ve been the end. Why would you want that back?”

“It…” Harlequin wasn’t sure how to answer, not for a long time. She followed Codex out into their tiny central courtyard. It wasn’t that the rooms were different on their own—they had transformed them. “It’s not that simple.”

The large sleeping cavern picked by the ponies now had planter-boxes along the walls, surrounded by crystal lights that were just enough to coax some feeble green. The trickling water from the ceiling was now shunted to a reservoir with enough water for many changelings, so long as they used it wisely. The entrance had a gate covered in spikes they could raise and lower, making it impossible for wild bugs to attack them unexpectedly.

Harlequin’s strategic knowledge informed her of only a single weakness: the massive cavern only had the one entrance. If they were besieged, they would have no way to flee.

“Why not?” Codex stopped in front of a planter, lowering a tiny urn and watering them. Then he moved to the next. “It’s the same reason I’m here, by the way. Your swarm decided to attack my city. Both of us were living in peace, until you disrupted the balance.”

“Not… really,” she said. “The older bugs always said… we were starving. There wasn’t enough food. Not very many live out there, so there isn’t as much to harvest. And the worst kind of love… the kind that takes killing… it’s not sustainable. You can’t raise your own kind on an ocean of love to get a few sips when you hurt them. Until this place, I’ve never seen one bug hurt another. That’s what I miss. I miss… being part of something big. Knowing I was doing the right thing whenever I doubted. Having expert advice right when I asked for it.”

“Those things do sound…” He cleared his throat. “Interesting, I’ll admit. I wish I could have experienced more of them. But honestly, I don’t know that we will. That magic, the spell that hit us… it’s Alicorn stuff. It comes from one of the forbidden schools. I don’t know much about them… except they can make permanent changes. Cut something out of someone’s soul, or put it in again. I think they cut the Swarm out. Cadence… knows love better than anypony else alive. I think she knew how to hurt you most.”

Because we made an enemy we didn’t have to. Because we attacked the pony princess who might’ve been on our side. Because our queen is— But she couldn’t complete that thought, even without the Swarm. Her stomach dropped out, and she turned away. “I think we’ve done good enough preparing. Almost a week we’ve been here, and we’ve only ventured out…”

“Four times,” Codex said. “Three times with nothing, and one almost getting eaten by…” He twitched and shivered. “Those weren’t even changelings anymore.”

Some of them weren’t, now that Harlequin had put a spear through them. She had remembered how to fight—the desperate and starving bugs hadn’t.

“Well today will be different, I’m sure of it. There are thousands of bugs down here. We haven’t seen thousands of bodies. Even all the weird noises we hear don’t…” And she stopped. She couldn’t actually do the quick math in her head to make a guess about how many bugs they’d met so far. That was something the Swarm always handled for her.

“It was my idea to try building anything down here,” Codex muttered, heading towards the entrance with her. They’d used scrap wood to create a narrow funnel past a small entrance area, so that any bugs trying to force their way in would end up fighting them one at a time. Harlequin did know her tactics. “I do think we can… overcome the limitations of this species. Heal ourselves. Or… whatever. The original stories about you are more upsetting than they are helpful.”

“Heal what?” Harlequin now had a cloth holster for the spear, which had a flint tip instead of just fire-hardened wood. Steel would’ve been better, but they had almost no metal down here. Only rusty old minecart tracks further in the mine, too far away and too difficult to salvage.

Codex put on an identical spear—mostly just to look intimidating with it slung over his shoulder, though it would also be another convenient weapon for Harlequin to grab if she needed one. Hopefully she wouldn’t.

They lifted the spiked gate. They would have to leave the door unlocked, and in theory bugs could come in and tear up everything they’d done. In practice, Harlequin herself held the only thing of value they had: a dwindling supply of magic. Once that was gone…

She couldn’t think about that. Sharing their supplies as they were, it still felt like she had some reserves. Two weeks, maybe more if they were careful. I’m not going to be able to feed other bugs. They won’t be able to see me giving food to Codex.

He would have to be right about his theories, or else every bug would starve. With Harlequin either eaten out of jealousy, or left alive to watch them lose their sanity.

She poked her head out first, waving her spear around in the darkness ahead of her. A shard of pony light-crystal was attached near the head, leaving a luminous trail as she moved it.

The hallway outside their shelter had become worse, if that were possible. Ponies kept dumping food down here, apparently not caring that minecarts were now backing up a little way on the track, their wheels melted with magical energy and their frames warped from the defensive spells.

It was also the best hunting ground. Changelings might have no use for pony food, but rats did, and cockroaches, and all kinds of other pony vermin. Changelings could eat them, harvesting brief specks of magic and intelligence from them.

Living on the dead was never true life—it was a half-lucid nightmare, not quite intelligent but not frozen with pain or weakness enough that life could finally end, either.

The things that hunted here scattered before her light, recognizing it for the energy that it represented. These petty scavengers couldn’t talk—none of them had responded to her invitations thus far—but at least they didn’t attack.

It was the ones who hunted them that they needed to fear.

“You’re smart,” Harlequin muttered, as they left the pile of rotten food behind and ventured into the darker caverns. She found herself on the same path that S had been on, all that time ago. This time if she saw Corkscrew and Mandible, she would stab first and regret later. They had earned no mercy from her. “Aren’t you?”

There were a few fresh bodies in distant corners—sometimes food for rats, sometimes the missing pieces were too big to be from rats. Harlequin tried not to look at them too closely.

Conversation was a good way to distract themselves from the nightmares all around. Codex played along, even though Harlequin could feel that he still didn’t like her much. All the suffering he went through was really just a reminder of what she had done.

You should be blaming the ponies for not listening to you. You destroyed the life I was building and my chance to get these bugs free, and didn’t even escape in the bargain.

Maybe she should hate him more.

“There are many kinds of intelligence,” he said. “Many aspects. Shapes, relationships, memory. More. It’s true I have… some of them. You see the good it did me.”

“Does being smart mean… riddles? Answering questions no other bug can figure out?”

“I suppose so.” They both stopped for a moment as the wall on one side trailed away to an opening, with only darkness beyond. The shaft went on so far that even her spear didn’t illuminate the bottom. “Why?”

“There are… about three thousand missing bugs,” she said. “They should be going crazy by now. There should’ve been a terrible, bloody war. But we’ve only seen a few. Where did they go?”

“I…” He didn’t say anything as they passed the familiar place where Harlequin’s last battle had been fought and lost. She didn’t see the drone’s body here, thankfully. Scavengers had already taken everything from S that they needed, as was their way.

“When a question seems to have no solution, it usually means one of our assumptions is flawed. Maybe there were fewer bugs that we thought. Maybe the prison is larger than we thought. Maybe more were executed than we thought.”

“Some of those…” Harlequin shook her head. “I was in the Guard. I saw the list of bugs. You ponies didn’t know their names, but you still made a list. They wouldn’t lie, would they?”

“Probably not,” Codex said. “Not internally, that I can figure out. But then…” He stopped dead. “What’s that smell?”

Harlequin’s eyes went wide as she recognized it. The characteristic dampness of a hive, with a mixture of carefully cultivated fungi. It smelled like home.

Queens above, we’re not alone! Harlequin didn’t even think after that, she just ran.

“Wait!” Codex shouted from behind her. “We haven’t mapped this far yet! We don’t know what kind of predators are hiding this way!” She barely even heard him.

None of that mattered anymore. There was a swarm down here. Maybe even a queen. Maybe there was hope left after all.

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