• 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 39: Containment

Harlequin had seen plenty of these bugs before, from afar. They came in small groups, ordering Hydrus and passing on the Queen’s commands. She hadn’t understood at the time why they even bothered, when everyone had the Swarm they could rely on. And before that, she could see some of these faces in her dimmest memories, when she’d barely been awake enough to lay down memories at all. Before she’d understood what she was, or where.

Now they pressed up against the bars, not much above drones themselves. I see what you mean about them, Hydrus. I hope they’re still sane.

“Who are you?” asked one—a tall male, who would’ve been thicker and stronger-looking than Hydrus if he was here. Except for the painful-looking spots of decay on his shell. “I do not know your face. How did you escape capture?” She knew that voice, from some distant memory. The invasion?

I didn’t. But she didn’t think any case she could make would be terribly convincing to them just now. Instead she reached into the satchel, holding up the jar with its glowing contents. “I don’t have time to explain all that now. But I have food—a little for everyone.”

She knew starvation when she saw it, she couldn’t trust them to pass the jar around. Harlequin needed help—the one who had spoken. His skepticism meant he was still intact enough to be skeptical. “I am Harlequin,” she said, stopping in front of his cage. “Who are you?”

“Pharynx, firstborn of Lamprey, surviving captain of war. I broke the Equestrian defense, I penetrated this city. You presume to question me?” But for all his dignified anger, his eyes never left the jar. He was starving, just like everyone else trapped here.

“No,” she said. Then she lowered her voice. “Outside this building is an army of ponies we have subverted. They will escort you to our new hive, where there is love enough for all.” Except for the drones that they let starve. “Can you help me distribute this?”

He hesitated, straining against his chain, pressing up against the bars. “Answer one question for me first. My brother, Thorax. He’s… a bit useless. More than a bit, really. Do you know if he survived? He wasn’t important enough to imprison up here, Great Queens be praised. Do you know what became of him?”

She nodded. “Thorax? He’s alive! And… healthy, so far as I know. He was in my group, we both answer to the same bug. Hydrus.”

The transition was immediate, from cautious skepticism into trust. Pharynx wasn’t a bug she’d known well, but she did understand his position. He had been one of the most important bugs in the hive, a bug who spoke to the Queen directly. She was fairly certain she could remember one of Hydrus’s last orders coming from him… “I wondered if the ponies just wanted us to die down here,” he whispered. “Thought it couldn’t be, but… of course we found our own way. No doubt the Queen has been plotting carefully to rescue us as soon as it was safe.” He held out one leg, the one with the chain secured around it. “Unlock me, and I’ll help you.”

She hesitated another moment more, then opened the lock. The padlock fell away from around his hoof, and Pharynx stood up straight. The decay was worst around where the metal had wrapped, and he clearly favored the other leg. She had to look away, both from the painful appearance, and the smell.

“Right bugs, everyone up! We’ll be coming around to each of you. You see how much love we have—take a few drops and move on. Take more than your share, and I’ll kill you. Got it?”

He didn’t take any from the jar himself, leading the way down the aisle of trapped bugs and opening their bindings one at a time. Somehow he still had enough magic left to use levitation of all things, though Harlequin couldn’t imagine how that might be.

He stopped in front of each bug in the row. He seemed to know them each by name, and selected the healthiest, strongest looking bugs. Soon enough Harlequin was flanked by a group of Queen’s guard, or what was left of them. They were all bigger than she was, and some remnant of their power seemed intact despite their internment here. Though like Pharynx himself, they were all starved.

A few bugs began thrashing and screaming as he approached, yanking against their chains and snapping at the jar. “I’m sorry, sister,” Pharynx said to the first, gesturing to one side. Two drones flanked her, and there was a harsh cracking sound. She fell limply to the floor, and didn’t move again.

Harlequin shuddered, whispering so only he could hear. “Is it… isn’t there something we can do?”

“For the insane? No.” His voice was bitter, furious. “Feel no guilt, stranger. You did not starve these bugs. And I know from the pain you are feeling that you came as soon as you could. This blood is on the hooves of those ponies who cast us down into the dark.”

Harlequin nodded feebly, but just because she understood he was telling the truth intellectually didn’t mean she felt like he was right. Over the next half hour or so, nearly a dozen bugs ended up dead. Each time, it was a mercy for the madness in their eyes. Each crack she heard was another dagger in her gut, and a little more resentment she would carry towards Codex.

If you had kept your mouth closed, I might have been able to help these bugs escape. I was guarding them, I was going to get them free!

But there was nothing she could do about it now.

Eventually they’d drained her jar of love, which Harlequin covertly filled again when no bug was looking. She probably should’ve saved her magic for the drones at the bottom of the colony, but she couldn’t help it. These had suffered no less than the drones, even if it had been ponies who deprived them, instead of other bugs.

They drained the jar a second time, even if each of them took far less magic from it when it was full of something truer than lust.

Finally they were ready to leave, and Harlequin stopped them by the door. “There is a group of ponies waiting to take us down to the lower city. Do not try to escape them, or they will kill you. Canterlot is still terrified of us, so they need to be seen guarding us well. The hive is waiting for all of you.”

All of them who weren’t lying dead in their cells, anyway. There was no time to do anything for the dead, though that made her heart ache a little more. This is the fate of a creature without a story. The narrative ends, and their lives are forgotten. Their names are unremembered. This is the gift you gave to Irongate, and Codex. This is the nightmare you damned them to live.

The voice was so clear for that moment, she could almost see the pony standing beside her. But then she turned, and there was only an empty cell, with its few corpses staring empty-eyed at her.

At least I can tell Hydrus we already took care of the insane. At a glance, it looked like three in four bugs would be walking out of here. She could’ve done worse. Harlequin returned to her disguise as they left, earning herself a few more hungry looks. She felt guilty wasting magic on something so frivolous in front of these starving bugs—but she had to watch them from outside. Hydrus had been clear about that, even if it didn’t make sense.

Her confidence vanished as they passed out into the clean air of late afternoon, filled with the smell of flowers and freshly cut grass. Her group, by contrast, filled the clearing with a persistent stench of decay.

“This is what we feared?” Fortnight called, rising from where he had reclined under a garden tree and hurrying over to meet the crowd. As he rose, every soldier in the clearing stood alert, raising their weapons. “These were the monsters that haunted Canterlot?”

He strode up to Harlequin, lowering his voice to a dangerous whisper. “You took long enough.”

“They were all chained and barred. It took time.”

He rolled his eyes. “Waste of all our time. Would’ve been more efficient just to flood that dungeon. Cleaner, too.” He took to the air, glowering down at the changelings. “Listen carefully, invaders! Your lives mean less than nothing to me, and my army. You’ve been condemned by Equestria to a lifetime of internment. But the penalty for attempting to escape is death. My stallions will march you to your new prison—I’m told it’s better than the old one. Walk with us, don’t try to fly away or fight, and you get there safely. Resist, and die.”

He said it completely casually, without even a hint of hesitation. Every bug watching him would know he was being honest. Harlequin had heard the orders herself, so she knew just as well.

They marched. The changelings could not go quickly, not nearly as fast as these house guards with their rough metal armor. But they did their best, limping and dragging their hooves and occasionally looking wistfully up at the sky. Not one tried to fly away—they would feel the hatred and fear surrounding them, and see the crossbows kept in unicorn magic at every corner. They were outnumbered—even if they all worked together, they’d be brought down as a group.

Marquesa and her carriage seemed to expect Harlequin to rejoin her for the ride back down, but she didn’t. It didn’t feel right leaving these bugs behind, when she could feel their eyes on her every moment. It wasn’t Fortnight they watched for directions, though he was the one who gave them. They waited to see if Harlequin was obeying—then they obeyed.

I wonder if I would’ve believed myself, if I saw this back then. Here were all the bugs who ruled the Swarm, who had ruled the city for a short time, paraded through the streets like criminals.

That’s why Pharynx had to kill the crazy ones. If this army starts shooting us, they aren’t going to stop. He was protecting the bugs he could save.

They marched through the upper city, with the City Watch lagging at the outside of the crowd. Marquesa’s carriage gave up waiting for Harlequin after a bit, and rode off to the front of the group. She didn’t mind walking.

“Going a little above, aren’t you?” Fortnight asked, as they crossed the switchbacks down towards the lower city. “You don’t have to risk yourself like this. I’m told you have some value.”

She shuddered at the implication, but looked away. “I’m just trying to make this go as smoothly as possible. My presence calms them down.”

“Clearly.” He took to the air again, and didn’t say another word to her until they made it down to the lower city. Whole streets had been cleared in a wide arc, with wooden barricades and more City Watch ponies to keep ordinary ponies from danger. As though the bugs in her ragged band could hurt anyone at this point.

By the time they arrived, the skeletal building Harlequin had seen earlier had risen dramatically. Walls of fresh timber all around it, with a heavy wooden roof to hold it all in. It wasn’t directly across from the swarm compound, there was plenty of space between the two.

The building seemed about the same size as Blueblood’s warehouse, except that it had no windows and workers were installing a guard tower out front.

Their escorts surrounded them, leaving only the entry doors as a means of escape. “Every prisoner, inside. You’ve all made it this far alive, let’s complete this trip without blood. You bore my stallions, but I’m sure you prefer it that way.”

He gestured, and the soldiers nearest the doors pulled them open wide.

Again all eyes settled on Harlequin. Some of the bugs were subtle about it, others made it so obvious that even Fortnight himself stared.

Harlequin glanced up at the old church walls not far away, remembering Hydrus’s command. Then she turned her back on them, and led the way inside. “Come on, prisoners. This way to your new accommodations.”

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