• 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 40: True Queen

Harlequin was the first through the doors into the strange new prison. She didn’t expect much from the inside—it was basically just here to look nice while bugs were funneled across to the other side. They could tunnel over here, and bring bugs back whenever there was an inspection. It wasn’t like any of the ponies would be able to tell the difference between them.

Apparently they’d anticipated the state their prisoners would be arriving in, because right through the doorway she was struck with the stink of some kind of oil. Compared to the acrid tang of rotting shells, she’d take it.

Sure enough, their prison didn’t seem like it had been finished. There were huge structural beams of thick wood, the edges unsanded and the wood almost damp it had been so heavily lacquered. The ceiling overhead was wood too, huge beams that a bug would take weeks to chew through. There were no windows, only lanterns hanging from the walls. Their flames filled the space with a faint orange glow—not enough for a pony, but more than sufficient for a bug.

There was a single division in the front of the chamber, with a huge pile of metal bars spread across the space. They hadn’t even bothered to pound them in yet. Because they know we’re going to be leaving soon. We don’t have to escape.

“Those ponies didn’t feel very subjugated,” Pharynx said, as soon as they were through the doorway. He glanced over the space in a single sweeping motion, then lifted a metal bar into his magic. He held it up, as though he were guarding the entrance as the other bugs filed in. “What’s the nature of that arrangement, exactly?”

“We’re, uh…” She hesitated. “We’ve been winning over one of the pony families to help us. They take over guarding you, and we can smuggle you out. The prison is less than a block away from our headquarters. Hydrus said he’d be here to help sort the bugs out… I think he knew some of you wouldn’t be sane.”

“We’re not waiting for him.” Pharynx glanced out the open door, eyes narrowed as he stared at the soldiers. “I feel anticipation. Anticipation from an army is never a good thing.” He pointed towards the back of the room. “There, by the far wall! I see the foundation wasn’t finished there. We’ll begin to burrow immediately. Extinguish those lanterns, the darkness is ours.”

Pharynx had taken less magic than any of them—yet he led as though he still held the Queen’s commission even now. Though his eyes were furiously intense, for a moment she felt a little of what she’d known from Codex. His concern for his bugs was so real she could almost taste it. “You must return to Hydrus,” he said. “Tell him his orders. He is to tunnel here from the other side as quickly as possible. We will meet him in the middle. I believe these ponies mean to double-cross us.”

She nodded, then hurried back to the doorway. She could feel the pained eyes of bugs watching her all the way out, feel their indignation. But they didn’t try to stop her, or turn to follow her out. The heavy doors swung closed—the only things made from steel instead of wood. Harlequin hesitated, then called on a little of her magic… and vanished.

She reappeared on the other side of the door with a faint, magical pop. Soldiers gasped and stared—but of course, none of their prisoners would be able to do magic like that.

Soldiers actually hesitated with the door, as though they were going to demand she step back inside. Harlequin ignored them both, shoving one spear aside and marching for Fortnight. “Do you require my services further?” she asked, her voice icy cold.

He shook his head. “You’ve done excellently. For a moment I thought you were uninformed… you aren’t one of them, are you?”

She forced a smile—it seemed like what Hydrus would’ve done. “I thought my disguise was pitiful.”

“I always say that,” he answered, landing and tossing the crossbow casually over his shoulder. “I’ve killed two bugs with that line. But you didn’t flinch. Thought maybe you were just better fed at first. But teleportation, damn. We wouldn’t have taken back the city so easily if they could do magic like that.”

I didn’t know I could either. Harlequin nodded, then walked away. Despite his bravado, Fortnight hadn’t actually killed anyone. He hadn’t marched her bugs to death, or been pointlessly cruel with the injured. The more she thought about it, the more foolish her worries seemed. They aren’t going to leave us locked up in there. They didn’t even finish the prison.

Harlequin didn’t march straight across to the hive—she’d been seen with the bugs, after all, and the crowds were too thick. But after a few minutes of wandering through the crowd, copying ponies at random when no one was looking, she finally settled on a young earth pony stallion—the sort she figured would be visiting a brothel.

She let them lead her down as though she was a customer, only letting her disguise fall when she was underground.

The protective stone ceiling overhead and the moisture dripping from the walls were a faint comfort after what she’d seen, but they were something.

Harlequin marched straight for Hydrus’s office, ignoring the guards usually posted outside. They rose to stop her, but didn’t actually get in the way. Harlequin’s work today made whatever they could do to her seem petty and unimportant.

Hydrus reclined in a chair on the far side of the room, sipping at something red from a pony bottle and reading a pony book. He looked up as she came in, fiddling with the pony object in the corner. The strange sounds it produced suddenly stopped as he lifted the arm, and the black disk below just kept spinning.

“What’s that?” she asked, a little of her old self surfacing briefly. “That sound… I’ve never heard anything like it.”

“It’s a gramophone,” Hydrus answered. “And the sound it’s making is called music. I believe it’s called an orchestra. Listen carefully—you can taste how much they love their music.”

He lowered the little metal arm, and suddenly she could. Her eyes widened, and she was momentarily transported. Away from the dark prisons where bugs slowly starved, away from Canterlot and its ponies who hated them. She stood in a massive room, filled with grinning ponies, where a hundred different creatures each sat with their own unique instrument.

It wasn’t food, exactly. She didn’t feel her reserves filling up again. But listening to it, she could almost hear the voice of the swarm. But its vast knowledge was gone, its collective, inscrutable purposes. Now it expressed only joy.

Hydrus watched her closely, nodding with satisfaction. “I can see my effort in your education has not been wasted. That sensation you feel, do you know what it is?”

She shook her head reflexively. “What you’re experiencing—it’s called beauty. Sensations carefully constructed, to be experienced entirely for their own sake. The swarm had little of this—we rarely built things to last. But ponies all think themselves immortal, and what they build they expect to last. Maybe they’re right. You’ve grown… so much. More than I would’ve expected in so short a time. I forget how effective harvesting a pony can be.”

She didn’t look away. She couldn’t think about her guilt, couldn’t even think of thinking about it. But what she could do was change the subject. “Pharynx is alive,” she said. “He wanted me to… to give you orders. To dig them out as soon as possible. Oh, and he already killed the insane. There were… a dozen bugs who won’t be coming home. I have their names if you—”

Whatever paternal feelings Hydrus had been experiencing vanished as she invoked Pharynx’s name. He rose suddenly, flipping the music off. “Your mission is accomplished as I ordered?”

She nodded. “Every bug is in the new prison across the street, waiting for their rescue. I assume you picked the spot because of the soil. Easy to dig to, and…”

“Partly,” he said. “You’ve done good work, Harlequin. I’ll give you a break before I call on your services again after such a difficult job. But do me a favor and bathe before we speak again. The stench you carry is… unfortunate.” He left.

“But what about rescuing the—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Hydrus called back. “You’ve done your part. I will do the rest.”

She wandered out into the hall, then stopped when she saw Thorax waving at her.

She sighed, then hurried over.

“You were with the prisoners, weren’t you?”

She nodded, watching Hydrus vanish up the stairs. Despite not wanting to talk to her about the rescue, he did seem to be going up there.

“I had a brother, uh… do you know—”

“Pharynx,” she interrupted. “Yes, he’s there. The ponies didn’t execute him.”

“Oh good.” He slumped onto the table in front of him, feeling a wave of relief so intense she almost choked on it. And that’s number three. “Did he, uh… was he still…” He gestured weakly at his head with one hoof, then looked away awkwardly. “Sane?”

She nodded again. “Most of them were. I think they must’ve been getting a little food, because it wasn’t… nearly as bad as what I saw in the caverns. One in four were past saving, and he wasn’t. He helped me get every bug out.”

“Good.” Thorax looked towards the stairs leading up. “You know, there aren’t many bugs down here who even knew who they are. The bugs here are all… barely named, the way you used to be. Without any bug reminding Hydrus about our losses, I worried he might never save them.”

“Hydrus is…” She hesitated. She’d just sat with him appreciating pony music, but she wasn’t actually sure how to answer that question. “Loyal,” she finished. “He wouldn’t leave our friends to rot.”

“No, no. Of course he wouldn’t,” Thorax lied. “He’s a great leader. He saved so many in here, more than I would’ve that’s for sure. We should be grateful.”

Harlequin nodded her agreement, but whatever she’d been about to say seized on her lips. She smelled something drifting down from above, something she couldn’t easily explain. Fire, thick and oily.

“I’ll be back,” she said, turning for the stairs. She galloped past the guards—they weren’t about to stop her, she was important. She was one of a handful of bugs who could leave whenever they wanted. After all, they couldn’t ever know when she had a mission.

She had the presence of mind to change into a pony as she broke into the faint evening sun, stained orange with sunset. Thick black smoke rose over the distant walls, visible even through the canvas ceiling overhead. Great Queens, no.

Harlequin picked a direction at random, ascending the tower and shoving past the guards. They scattered before her, dropping their spears. She ran along the wall, to where another figure was already standing.

A unicorn stallion, one she didn’t recognize. At least until he looked up, and she heard his voice. “You came to see,” Hydrus said, staring across the road.

The fresh prison and every half-finished building around it was ablaze, so bright that she could feel the heat even at this distance.

“Do you know what I’m burning, Harlequin?”

She was frozen, completely transfixed by his words. A dozen little details she’d seen all settled into place. ‘I’m burning.’

Hydrus seemed to take her silence for a negative, because he gestured again, dragging her closer to the wall. “Those are the bugs who sent us to die by the thousands. Those are the bugs who made us enemies of ponies for no reason. Those are the criminals who raised your generation starved and stunted, and didn’t even bother giving you names. Why grow attached?”

She pulled away from him, eyes wide with horror. I led them there. I told them it was safe. Was it her imagination, or could Harlequin hear their screaming voices, even from here?

“They knew how many lives it would take to get through the Equestrian shield, you know. Seven thousand, seven hundred and seven. When you lined up that day, they knew how many would be ash. They listened to Chrysalis as she spent our lives like mayflies in summer, and they did nothing.” His eyes hardened. “The swarm is mine now.”

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