• 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 24: (not a) Queen

Harlequin could feel herself getting closer before she could actually see anything. Changelings had incredibly weak emotions, nothing that could be fed on. But when there were enough all packed in one place… that changed the math. Still not enough to eat, but enough to feel.

Harlequin could feel them now, desperate fearful bugs living somewhere just ahead.

“Harlequin, we need to slow down! What are you doing?”

She didn’t slow, but she did turn to call back through the cave. “We’re close to finding something! I don’t know… I don’t know what… but it’s close!”

“You’re not thinking clearly,” Codex called, reproving. “Take a deep breath, realize how stupid this is. We’re getting lost. Slow down!”


She did, reluctantly. There was a current of air being drawn past her, towards some unseen destination beyond. That meant they were close. And maybe, just maybe… there was some kind of exit out here.

I’d feel really stupid if we were living in the dark when there was a way out waiting just a little distance away.

“Smell that,” she ordered. “That’s a hive smell. That’s… safe. That’s home. Don’t you feel it?”

“One time the university library got termites. I had to break into the walls until I found their nest. It smells a little like that. Safe isn’t quite where I would go with this… acrid rotten smell. Bad oil, poorly tended composter… gross.”

“You don’t understand!” She looped her leg through his, dragging him forward. “Changelings aren’t meant to be alone. We’re running out of food trying to do it. This is… this is how we…”

Then they emerged from the gloom into the nest.

Harlequin recognized it from memories buried deep in her subconscious, even if they were so old that she could barely even reconcile them with herself. A deep green glow suffused everything, coming from an opening in the ceiling that was incredibly far away.

Opening in the ceiling. Harlequin’s heart raced, though it wasn’t actually a hole in the cave. It was covered over with the same waxy material that made the nest, forming floors and honeycombs and comfortable layers. It couldn’t be navigated by creatures without wings, except for the areas near the bottom meant for the nursery. But… no, there was no nursery here. She could see adult bugs moving around down there, chipping away at the crystals and spreading green slime further.

This is why they weren’t starving, she realized. There’s a source of food here somewhere. Rats and bugs in the caves couldn’t feed this many changelings. Too small for thousands, but at least several hundred were probably clustered in this cavern, living all over every surface. Near the top, slime had been made into huge rooms, opaque from the outside except for the faint shape of creatures inside. Bugs or ponies, she couldn’t see at this distance.

She didn’t get to study the entrance for much longer, though. As she stood there, bugs emerged from the gloom around them. They didn’t have armor or weapons, but there were several times more of them. More importantly, they weren’t starved and crazy. They looked… alive.

“Identify yourselves,” said one. “If you cannot answer, you cannot come.”

They want us to have names. Would they have accepted just one letter? Could she have brought S here?

“I’m Codex,” he said. “And this is—”

“No,” another bug said, her voice cracked and reedy. “She has to do it. We don’t need any more mouths to feed. No pets allowed.”

“I’m Harlequin,” she said, glaring. “I’m no bug’s pet.”

“Not yet,” said another guard’s voice. “Refuge isn’t like any hive you’ve known before. But it’s safe. We know there are still scavengers out there. Monsters, criminals. Will you accept Hydrus’s directions and submit to his rule?”

“You lot are rather direct,” Codex said, just a little annoyed. “Hydrus is your… boss? He built this?”

“Must’ve found a real deep crack to crawl into if you didn’t know that,” said the first guard, pointing at the slime-covered tower in the very center of camp. The light came from the opening near there, and looked like it might’ve once been a spectacular length of white quartz. She could still make out some of the shape from within the slime.

“I know Hydrus,” Harlequin said. “He was always a good leader. Can we meet him now?”

“You don’t get a choice,” the bug answered. “You’re not dumb drones, so you might be useful. Come with us.”

Harlequin didn’t like the feeling of satisfaction radiating from this bug—but they didn’t exactly have another choice. She could see from the worry on Codex’s face that he was thinking the same thing. Maybe they should’ve been more cautious, only approaching when they were ready.

They climbed down a slippery ramp of slime, past a “moat” of sharpened spikes on either side. Harlequin held on to Codex’s leg, keeping him from sliding too far away from her and vanishing into the spikes.

“Don’t worry too much,” she whispered, once they were walking fast enough that most of the guards were too far away to hear. “I know Hydrus, he’s good. He’s the one who noticed me in the first place. I wouldn’t have a name if it wasn’t for him.”

“I don’t know if that makes me think more highly of him…”

Past the thin passage of slime, they entered the cavern proper, where bugs did many of the same things she was used to. Small amounts of physical food were stockpiled for the growing larvae, along with a shallow pond of rancid-looking drinking water.

At every step she could see the signs of the original cavern, bits of clear crystal shards emerging from walls or floors and refracting the stained green light from above.

Then the guards around them took off, and nearly left them behind before one of them dropped back. Harlequin was in the air, but poor Codex…

“You’re not serious,” the bug said, watching him struggle to get up with obvious disbelief on his face. “What kind of bug can’t fly? How did he… how did he live long enough to reach Canterlot if he didn’t come with the swarm?”

“He’s new,” Harlequin said, gripping him under one foreleg. “Come on, help me.”

She could see the concern on the guards’ faces, and for an instant it looked like they weren’t going to help at all. Or worse, maybe reconsider and throw him back into the caves alone. Without Harlequin beside him, she didn’t like his odds against the mad scavengers.

But then the other bug imitated her, and they hauled him up.

The large central spire had been thoroughly colonized, including a hollow space that might’ve been the queen’s chambers if they still had a queen. But Chrysalis wouldn’t have been put down here. And if she was here, she would’ve gotten us out by now, right?

They entered through the bottom, landing on the side of the mostly vertical space. Codex squealed in protest, eyes widening in terror at the opening still below them. But of course his hooves stuck firmly to the wall, and he didn’t fall.

“Absolute… madness…” he panted, wings fluttering in panic. “Construction ignoring gravity… no purpose whatsoever! You could’ve put in a perfectly good floor like everypony else…”

As he said it, his spear slipped forward out of its sleeve, landing beside the opening and sinking several inches into the green slime. Harlequin knew how to apply a little pressure to hers, keeping it in place. They didn’t take our weapons away. That’s probably good.

The walls were far enough apart that there was space for a bug on the opposite wall. Most of their guards hopped across, waiting as an opening in the ceiling appeared, and a bug emerged.

Hydrus was taller than Harlequin remembered him, and didn’t show even faint signs of deprivation. His eyes were alert, even more so than the guards, and his horn glowed constantly with an uncast spell.

“Bow before your regent,” the guards beside them ordered, voices harsh. Harlequin obeyed without thinking, though the bug had to smack Codex before he followed.

“I know you,” Hydrus said, his eyes narrowing as he stared across the opening. Walking on walls might be simple enough, but it was also meant to keep bugs uncomfortable. They had to constantly crane their necks, exposing themselves to attack. “You were… yes.

“You’re the expert on swarmlore that the queen wanted me to recruit. And…” Then his eyes settled on Harlequin, almost as an afterthought. “The first of our toy soldiers to grow up. Not the first place I would’ve chosen to raise the next generation…” He turned, gesturing for the opening. “Guards, take her spear, then you can go. She’s one of us, and the other one isn’t dangerous. Return to your posts.”

Harlequin almost argued as the bug stuck out their hoof expectantly—but then she shrugged, and removed the sling from her shoulder. “I’ll want it back.”

The bug only grunted in response.

Hydrus was already turning, towards the opening in the ceiling. “You two, this way. We don’t need to speak like envoys from separate colonies about to attack each other at any moment.”

Even Codex seemed eager to follow, watching his hooves carefully with each step as though some spell was going to wear off and drop him off the wall.

“Everything you know about bugs, and you didn’t know we could do this?” Harlequin whispered.

“I knew,” he snapped. “Isn’t the same as doing it. Feels like all the blood should be rushing to my head, then I remember I don’t have blood. It’s all… hemolymph now. Different properties. Different circulatory system.”

Harlequin had no idea what that meant, and just now she didn’t care. There were more important things—like Hydrus somehow building a colony in prison. The ponies had been right about bugs self-organizing after all!

“I looked for you in the place for important prisoners,” Harlequin said, as she clambered through the opening and onto an ordinary floor. It was a good thing she asked her question while her head was still outside, because as soon as she saw it, she stopped dead. “You weren’t there. I couldn’t figure out why—”

Rich carpets covered over the hardened slime floor, with tapestries and art arranged the way wealthy ponies might along the walls. This was an office or sitting room, with a fancy wooden desk on one side and a heavy metal safe, along with books and pony light crystals and…

Hydrus settled into a comfortable seat behind his desk, smiling up at them. Their reaction was apparently the correct one.

“Celestia preserve us,” Codex muttered, stumbling up to a framed painting on the wall. “This is…”

“An original Ponet,” Hydrus said, grinning. “Always pleased to meet a fellow patron of the arts. But then I shouldn’t be too surprised—you study changelings as well. Obviously a pony like you had good taste. Please, have a seat.”

His horn glowed, and a set of glasses emerged from the underside of the desk, along with a pony bottle. Codex’s further shock told Harlequin all she needed to know, even if one bottle was much like another to her.

“You’ll have to forgive me for not sharing with you,” Hydrus said, settling one glass in front of Codex and another himself as he poured. A tiny amount of gold liquid dribbled into both glasses, then he replaced the bottle. “You wouldn’t appreciate it. Don’t take it personally. And to you, Codex. I see you recognize this.”

He nodded. “A 37. This place is… how? How is this here? How do you…”

“How did you escape capture?” Harlequin asked, more clearly. The drinks just looked and smelled like pony food to her, so she didn’t care to be missing out. There were more important questions on her mind now. “How are you keeping this place fed? There are hundreds of bugs here, and it looks like this… spire… is made by bugs too. You must be harvesting… so much love.”

“Not as much as we wanted,” Hydrus said, lifting his glass and holding it towards Codex. “Drink with me, pony. To adaptation.”

Codex lifted the glass, tapping it against Hydrus’s in disbelief. “To adaptation.” They drank. Codex’s eyes got wider. “It doesn’t taste like ash. H-how…”

“It was loved,” Hydrus said, grinning in satisfaction. “More than any of us received, even from the Queen. I see your discomfort, H, it’s alright. Your anger is justified. I will teach you why.”

“Harlequin,” she corrected gently. “I stole the rest of a name.”

“Even better.” Hydrus grinned down at her. “Then you are even more prepared to understand.”

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