Child of the Invasion

by Starscribe

First published

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?

Queen Chrysalis planned for months to finally take Canterlot for herself. Months of reconnaissance, bribery, and maneuvering to finally lower the defenses of the Equestrian capital at just the right moment. But while her stated goal was always to have enough love to feed the desperate Swarm, the reality of the invasion was something else.

The queen spawned thousands of drones, filling the sky with untrained warriors in order to marshal the greatest forces when the day of battle arrived. But then that day came, and they won. Now what? Most of those drones didn't even matter enough to earn a name, and so they will probably die unremembered. But at least one is determined to make something of herself in her queen's new world. She's determined to understand these strange creatures called ponies, and to survive the invasion no matter what.

Begins during a reimagined Canterlot Wedding. Updates every Wednesday.

Sponsored by TyrannisUmbra on my Patreon. Edited by Two Bit and Sparktail. Cover by Zutcha.

Chapter 1: "H"

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Even after hours of assault on the surface, her eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the brilliance of sunlight. Everything was washed out, colors drained away to a few feeble pastels.

She was one drone among hundreds of thousands, a creature of black chitin and sharp teeth. She could fly, without having ever been taught to fly. There were others in the air beside her—creatures that were like her and also nothing alike. They were so much bigger than she was, and every time they spoke the things they said were so complicated that she had to strain her mind to understand.

Below them was food, she understood that much. From the first instant of her existence until the present moment there had been hunger in the back of her mind, and that hunger hadn’t ever been sated. But here at last was enough to eat, enough for numberless brothers and sisters.

There were so many others like her that they darkened the sky over the food-place, so many that she hadn’t been able to see the pink-thing until it was nearly her turn to go against it.

She felt it before she saw it, an energy that was like food but much less friendly. It glowed soft pink, visible even with the huge cloud of her kind covering up the sun.

They flew down in ranks, and the group ahead of her began lining up. She saw the resolve on their faces, felt their hunger as fierce as her own. The queen had promised food, and it was down there. They would bring it.

She formed her own line, ready with the next rank, next in line to attack.

One of those who was like her but not like her hovered in the air beside it all, not in any rank. Was that right? How was he brave enough not to fly in line? “Attack,” he ordered, and the group flew down towards the pink-thing.

The air was filled with an acrid burning as the sisters in front of her attacked. She saw it, saw their bodies go from healthy black to crumbling, empty black, blown away on the wind and leaving only a terrible cloud in the air behind them.

It was not a pink-thing at all, it was a death-thing.

“Forward!” commanded the one who was not like her. And she obeyed, just as all her brothers and sisters obeyed. She looked for fear in their faces, wondering if they had been watching when she watched. Didn’t they care? The death-thing hadn’t moved, and they were going to attack it! This wasn’t food!

But if they were afraid, they were better at hiding it than she was. Not one of them floated out of line, not even an inch. In their scents, she could detect only their hunger.

“Attack!” called the voice that wasn’t hers. They came down.

She followed with them, though she didn’t know why. Maybe because she knew she didn’t have anywhere else to fly—or maybe she hoped that the promise made to her would be kept.

It was. She heard squeals of pain from around her, and saw the most eager of the flyers blow away in the wind as so many before. But then the pink stopped glowing. For a few seconds it looked like the inside of a cocoon, without any of the light illuminating it and burning everyone who touched. Then it started to crumble away. Huge chunks tumbled down, and her weak eyes were able to settle on the thing that was beyond it.

Air went on for ages, though not as far as the trip here had taken. But down there, way down there, she saw shapes. Blocky, orderly shapes, like the inside of the hive but dryer and not inside. And all around them, just like the voice had promised… was food.

She no longer thought. There was food down there, and the voice beside her commanding everyone to attack. But she would have attacked even without the voice—and if it had told her to stop, she probably would’ve attacked the voice too.

They descended on the food-place.

It was not a conscious state that she existed in during the assault, for she had yet to ever be conscious. She joined with thousands of others, expecting an easy meal—but just like the death-thing, being big didn’t mean it was easy.

There was food in the food-place, but also lots of hard-shapes that didn’t want them to have food. Some of them had sharp sticks, some of them had pieces of wood that made other sharp sticks fly through the air. Some of them got really hot and burned away at you just like the death-thing.

When she saw one of the hard-shapes, she pulled back, letting the swarm fly around her and descend on them. But while many of the others didn’t seem to care as dozens of them died to bring down a single shape, she didn’t want to be first anymore. If she could have a little less food but not have to fight the hard-shapes, that was a trade she would happily take.

The bodies of the ones like her soon covered the streets, beaten off by the tens and hundreds. But there were always more—the swarm went on forever. Eventually all the hard-shapes were captured or eaten, and all the food-place was theirs.

It was a good night for her. She had been part of the first wave into the city, everyone knew it, and that made her important. All who had come before had died, but her group had made it in for everyone.

She got to eat near the highest part of the food-place, where the shapes glowed all night and were made of the cleanest rocks. It was a good place, and she felt full.

When the morning came, she was hungry again. She rose from where she’d slept, surrounded by hundreds of other survivors of her group, and just listened. Now that she’d eaten for the first time, she didn’t feel so afraid that she wouldn’t get food again. The queen had promised them they would have food forever if they took the food-place, and here they were. Life would be perfect forever.

I wonder what makes the bigger ones different, she thought, for the first time in her brief existence.

She watched the ones who had given her group commands the day before, watched and listened but didn’t try to find more food.

They were speaking to each other, and neither of them was hurrying off to obey. Why?

She found she knew the meaning of their words in the same way she knew how to fly, though she couldn’t have explained where either had come from. Certainly she’d never been taught.

“The queen wants the upper district secured against the return of the Equestrian army,” said one of the ones who was like her. Except he was much taller than she was, and the others responded to him with fear every time he gave them a command.

“Yes, Pharynx. I have just the drones in mind for the task.”

“Good. Do not disappoint me, Hydrus. Our queen lost many in her council. There may be a place waiting for you when the dust settles.”

That was it, the thing they had that she didn’t. A name. But where did one get a name? Maybe she could ask?

She waited until the one called Pharynx had flown back to the massive stone and glass thing, before rising from where she was hiding and crossing quickly over. Her little wings buzzed nervously behind her—none of the others were asking questions, they were sleeping off the glut of food they’d consumed the night before.

But she hadn’t fought as hard, so she hadn’t eaten as much. It didn’t matter if they got to grow a little bigger than she did. They were all one swarm anyway, weren’t they? “Hi.” Her throat felt strange, like she was doing something she shouldn’t. But the others spoke, and if she wanted to be like them, she had to speak too.

The one that was like her but not was different than her in other ways, she now noticed. He wasn’t naked like her, but wore something shiny around his chest. It was like the thing the hard-shapes wore, that stopped teeth and kicks for a while. This one hadn’t been broken into little pieces or dented so bad it couldn’t be worn.

“Hi.” His eyes seemed to focus on her for the first time in her life. Actually it was the first time anyone had. “Sleep with the others. When the sun is up, we will have more to do.”

“Can I have a name?” she asked. “I want to be called something, like you are called Hydrus.”

He frowned, and she could smell his discontent. He was bored with her already. But she remained where she was, despite the risk. If she angered him, something terrible might happen. But if she left too early, she wouldn’t get a name.

“I will call you… H,” he said. “Now rest. We fight again soon.”

H could almost feel it then—like food, except it came from one like her. How could that be?

H turned away from Hydrus, hurrying back out of his sight to the place she’d slept.

It was the inside of a place that lots of food had been visiting when they attacked, a place with glass on the front and little tables with squishy things inside. The soft things had been comfortable, so her brothers and sisters pulled them all onto the floor to make a nice place to sleep. H returned to the warmth of the room, but she didn’t try to sleep again.

She had a name now, the first thing that made her different from the big ones. What was next? Should she try to get some of the hard-thing for herself? Was there any small enough?

She didn’t want to ask Hydrus, not with how annoyed he had been just to have her nearby. But maybe she could find someone else.

She watched the room for movement, and saw another drone rising as she had. But where she had gone out of the room and wanted to look and listen, this one was only going to the smaller room in the back, where water came out of the wall when you pulled. She was just thirsty.

H followed her anyway. “Hey,” she squeaked, as quiet as she could. “Do you have a name?”

The drone stopped, glancing at her with obvious confusion. “More… food?” she asked, her voice straining with every syllable.

“I don’t think that’s your name.”

“Thirsty,” the drone said, turning away and pushing the door to the wet-place open. She pulled on the wall, then held her face under the water as it came out. “And tired. Go.”

H went, even if she didn’t want to. Why doesn’t anyone else care? The big ones tell us what to do. Don’t they want to be like them? Apparently not.

A smell of command rose from the space outside their shelter, and drones began to rise. Out of every makeshift nest they came, much less ferocious than they had been the day before.

“Everyone listen!” Hydrus called, hovering in the air above them all. He spoke with such command that H listened as intently as all the others, even if she hid in back like she had the night before. “We won, but we aren’t done working. There are still places where ponies are hiding, places where they fight. We’re going to find all their places, and bring them all out.”

“More food?” someone asked.

“More food,” Hydrus called back. “Last night was good, but we have to manage our food. Don’t worry, our queen will show us the way. All you have to do is come with me, and fight like you did last night.”

They obeyed. They didn’t know anything else to do—the ones who were like them and not like them smelled like they knew. Of course the rest would listen.

“Are you H?” asked a voice from behind her. It was a male this time, a little bigger than she was but not much. “I am K. Hydrus wants you to fly with us.” He pointed, at the little group of drones that flew close behind Hydrus. Every one of the same-but-different had them, and she hadn’t known why until now.

Now she did. She had a name. She was becoming like them. H beamed back at K, nodding eagerly. “I will.” And she followed.

The food-place was the best thing that had ever happened to them. It would only get better.

Chapter 2: Surrender

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H knew that things were looking up the instant she joined the other different changelings. Some of them were like Hydrus, with a strange name and access to others like them that somehow had the power to give directions.

Her guess was right—they all had names. H was placed into the back of the line, without ever having to be told exactly where she ought to go. But she was the smallest, the newest, so it made sense.

The crowd of drones below moved like a single organism, with buzzing ripples that passed through it like the waves on a little black lake. They moved towards loud noises in the distance. H could see walls within walls, and hear occasional rumbles and screams.

Apparently the food-place still had some fighters left, and they were going to get rid of them.

“Hi,” she said, to the one ahead of her in line. He was so much bigger that she almost thought he must be lost—but despite his size he didn’t have things to put on his body, so he must belong. “I’m H. Do you have a name?”

“Thorax,” he said, voice quavering. “You think we’ll have to fight, H?”

“Probably,” she answered. “Fight, then eat. That’s what the queen said.”

“I don’t like it,” he muttered, mostly to himself.

The words didn’t make sense to her, and H’s wings briefly stopped beating. She buzzed to catch up, ears curling in embarrassment, but the one called Thorax was so lost in thought that he didn’t notice her.

Queen said.

Don’t like it.

She tried to put those thoughts together, and couldn’t. They were what the queen wanted. They were her hooves. Hadn’t she learned yesterday that the queen’s promises always came true? She said they would get food after their hard fight, and they had.

“You seem confused,” she finally said, sounding thoroughly confused herself. “The queen promised a place with enough food for forever. Here we are.”

“I guess.” Thorax didn’t sound argumentative as they reached the enclave and its walls—if anything he sounded sick. “I think maybe that’s why she demoted me so many times. She confuses me.”

Demoted. That word hadn’t meant anything to H, but all she had to do was think about it and the meaning came. It was something she didn’t want. This one had been more important, but now he was less because he had been bad somehow.

H’s entire world shifted in that instant, from a waterfall into a mountain. She couldn’t just ride it up to being more, she had to climb. She could act wrong, act like Thorax, and go back down.

H flew further from Thorax the rest of the way, afraid whatever had confused him would infect her too.

She smelled the blood as they got close, and watched as the drones surged over the walls. Many fighters died, as they had died before, but there were so many more of them. Soon enough all the food was captured, and the black river now sloshed through the streets.

Hydrus returned to the air, flying past them in a row. “I can’t trust the drones to capture their homes,” he said. “They’ll do too much damage. A pony dead is a lifetime of food thrown in a gutter to rot, you understand?”

They seemed to understand, even if H didn’t.

“We’re going to get the ponies out,” he went on. “Out of their houses, and down into the lower city with all the others. They think because they had bits that the swarm will treat them differently. But food is food.”

H probably should’ve kept her mouth closed at the back of the line. But she was overflowing with questions. “What is bits?” She could think about the word, and little bits of metal came to mind. But why would having pieces of metal make some ponies act differently than others? Is it the same thing the bigger changelings do? Did ponies have ranks like changelings?

“The reason we’re here,” Hydrus grunted, annoyance instantly returning to his voice. “They buy guards and walls and magic spells.”

H tilted her head to one side. “What is… buy?” She could picture a wall, and she had seen plenty of magic spells. But thinking about “buy” brought images that made even less sense than bits. Ponies in groups, giving things back and forth without knowing their proper order or fighting over them.

Apparently she’d pushed a little too hard. “Come and see,” Hydrus said, gesturing impatiently forward. And she obeyed, buzzing up to him and holding her best battle stance. She could do it way better than the army had the night before.

“You don’t have any weapons…” he muttered. “Lost?”

“Nothing lost,” she muttered. “My teeth are strong; my hooves are fast.”

“Great queens, she’s freshly spawned,” muttered one of the other important ones. She watched H with more than just annoyance, but… disgust. It was like what she had felt around Thorax. This one thought she was better than H. And she might be right… she was so much bigger, and she spoke so much more clearly. “Put her back with the cannon fodder, Hydrus. She can’t negotiate and take prisoners—she’s just going to bite everything until they step on her.”

I want to be like her. “I can do it!” she insisted, wings buzzing a little faster in her agitation. “I can do those! Prisoners… negotiation… I can do the best at those!”

There was laughter from the others like her in the air—all of them but Thorax.

“We’ll see,” Hydrus said. “Okay, H.” He levitated something off his back—one of those wooden things the food fought with, with the metal sharp parts that could kill you from far away.

“One of the good crossbows? That’s a waste, Hydrus.”

“Quiet!” he hissed, holding it out to her. “Can you use this, H?”

H beamed, taking the object in her magic. It took all the concentration she could muster just to hold it up and fly at the same time, but at least she didn’t drop it and look silly. “Yes! I watched the food fight with these. They point it, and pull that bottom part, and…”

“Buzz she actually knows,” someone else muttered. “Can we watch, Hydrus? I want to see what happens.”

“Yes, in fact I want all of you to watch.” Hydrus flew alongside H for some distance, leading her past several of the nests the food lived in. They really did look pretty in the sunlight, with their many colorful windows to let different colors in. Maybe changeling hives should be like that, instead of just green.

“Right here.” Hydrus landed on the ground in front of the house at the very end of the street. Off to one side H could see the bodies of many of her kind, along with a few guards in bright armor made from lots of metal pieces. “There are at least three ponies inside this building, H. I need you lead them out. Do not kill any of them unless I tell you, okay? The food they’ll make is worth more than you. If you get them out, lots of us eat. Understand?”

“Yeah!” She lifted the crossbow. “Get the ponies out. I can do it.”

“Good.” He took a step back. Several of the others joined them on the ground, scattering the drones.

Drones! That’s what that word means. Changelings without names… Did that mean H wasn’t a drone anymore? Was that good, or…

H made her way up to the house, slowing a little to stare at the dead as she passed. The blood was still green from these, hadn’t turned brown in the air yet. They’d probably died in the fighting while she watched. Without names.

H stopped in front of the door, nudging it with a hoof. It swung inward off its hinges, a massive slab of wood that smashed tile where it hit.

H took off, hissing and baring her fangs at it and forgetting about the weapon completely.

“Inside,” Hydrus called from behind her, annoyed. “Don’t take too long! We’re sure they’re in there. Just find the food and bring it out.”

Right. Finding food couldn’t be that hard. And if she did it, then she wouldn’t be like Thorax. She didn’t have to be demoted and forgotten.

The food nest was all wrong. The air was dry, and there wasn’t a patch of comfortable darkness to be seen. Instead of soft slime, the ground was naked stone, along with something that looked a little like food fur.

She stepped over the fallen door, feeling for the food as Hydrus had told her. It was all further—up a slope of little flat pieces. Stairs. Almost everything in the nest was strange to her—patterns attached to the walls, flat containers filled with other objects. As she saw each one, the words came. Pictures, shelves, books. Changelings knew about all these things, but she’d never seen any of them before.

For a place where the food raised their young, it seemed a frighteningly bleak nursery. There was nowhere warm and wet enough for young to survive, only more empty rooms. They trap their rivers in the walls. Maybe they don’t have any young to care for right now.

H reached another sturdy door, behind a pile of debris probably left by the prey as they fled. They were all inside, three just like Hydrus said. All she had to do was get them out.

H banged on the door with one hoof, but it didn’t fall over like the front one had. “Food!” she called, as loud as she could. That was a lot of wood to be in the way. “You need to come out now!”

There were voices on the other side, voices overflowing with energy. Even the fear she tasted on them was delicious, though it was far from her favorite food. “Does she think we’ll just open it?”

Another voice, more quietly. H could hear the emotion thick in the voice, a sickening taste that she tried to banish from her tongue as soon as she felt it there. “Dad needs a doctor. Maybe… maybe if we give up, he can…”

“No, sweetheart,” said a third voice. “I’ll be fine. We can’t open that door. I saw what the monsters did to Soul Shield and Quickstrike. They aren’t letting ponies surrender.”

“We are!” H corrected helpfully, stepping right up to the door. “The fighting’s over! Lots of my brothers and sisters died, it’s really sad. I don’t think they even had names. But no one is fighting anymore.”

She listened, waiting to see how the food would respond. But it had fallen silent, the fear largely replaced with confusion. Confusion, and a few tantalizing drops of hope. That she wanted. So she went on. “Hydrus told me to come in and bring you. They’re taking all the ponies down to the lower city.”

“Soulless barbarians!” shouted a voice from the other side—male, filled with pain and unimaginable anger. “I slew a dozen of you before the walls fell, and I’ll slay a dozen more before you lay a hoof on my family! Open that door and see if I don’t!”

H retreated from the door as though she’d been hit, and would’ve fired the crossbow if she still had it. How could so much hate fit in just one creature? This food has gone bad. I’d be sick for a moon if I ate that.

But no—the food could feel how wrong it was. H felt the hurt coming from him, and knew it was the same one. It’s not good to feel that way. But she couldn’t tell him that, not through a door. He’d only get mad again. So she would have to try something else.

“There are a lot more than… a dozen? What is a dozen? Is that more than three?” And as she needed the knowledge, it came. After three came four, then five, and so on until she got to twelve. A dozen was that many. “Yeah. There’s a lot more than that. There are… so many drones I can’t count them. Lots of them didn’t get to fight. I bet you could probably kill a lot of us—you’re so much bigger and stronger than me. But there’s so many, you’d lose. I think it would be better if nobody fought. Then nobody gets hurt.”

Chapter 3: Blood

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H held still as noises sounded from the other side, coming from the door. There was something mechanical to them, but she didn’t actually know what let some doors open and kept others closed. Maybe they’re giving up? Her promotion was coming for sure.

The door opened in a crack, and H got her first look at the other side. There were three ponies just as she had sensed, an adult mare in some fancy cloth that had been torn in ways that didn’t look intentional. A much smaller filly, even smaller than she was, with similar looking cloth wrapped around her, stained with various bits of dark brown.

On the ground behind them was a pile of blankets, and a stallion sprawled on them. His torso was wrapped in white cloth, though it was leaking red. It looked bad—the kind of wound that would’ve killed one of her own kind. But ponies were… more real, somehow. They didn’t die as easy, and their feelings weren’t hollow echoes.

“You promise not to hurt us?” asked the mare, her face emerging from the cracked door. She held a bit of metal in the air beside her, levitating in her magic. A knife, dripping with greenish blood. That knife had already hurt, probably the drones who had attacked last. “We’ll be prisoners. My husband gets to a doctor.”

“I don’t know what a doctor… is…” H said. “But if you come out, I won’t hurt you. Prisoners, yeah. That’s what Hydrus said. You’ll be prisoners. Actually he didn’t want me to kill you unless I had to. Said that… you’re worth more than I am? Anyway, you should come out. The ones who would go next were mean to me. I bet they’ll be mean to you too.”

The pony glanced over her shoulder, and the door shut behind her. There weren’t so many sounds this time. And it didn’t stay closed for nearly as long this time—less than a minute of pacing later, and the mare opened the door again. “We’re watching,” she said. “If you do anything…”

“I can do lots of things,” H said. But the ponies looked so scared, and they seemed to get more frightened the closer she got. So she backed away, so far back that they could make it all the way to the stairs without getting close to her. “But all I have to do is get you to leave. Then you can go be… prisoners. With the other fo—ponies.”

She waited with tapping hooves as the ponies moved. The mare kept her knife, but she had to help the stallion onto his hooves. He looked like food that really needed a… doctor. Maybe she would get to see one of those next.

“You probably should put the knife down,” H suggested, once they made it out of the room. “I mean… don’t let me tell you to do things. I don’t get to tell anyone to do anything. But the last time I saw food with weapons, we…” She trailed off. “Drones died, then food got wasted. Everybody loses.”

“Why are you doing this?” asked the filly, her voice quavering. She glanced out at H from behind her parents, feeling simple terror. It was so pure an emotion H almost could’ve eaten it, though it still would’ve made her sick. Only the few scraps of hope behind it stopped her from withdrawing in disgust.

“We were hungry,” H answered. “Our queen said there was a place full of food, and there was. It’s here.”

“Hush, Chalice,” whispered the mare, moving past her towards the stairs down. But she did lower the knife, letting it fall and sink into the carpet. “You won’t learn anything talking to a monster. We just have to stay safe until Celestia saves us.”

That was another important word—a word that made all three of the ponies feel different the instant she said it. What makes a Celestia so great? H tried to figure out the way she got answers to everything, but this time she only saw images of the sun. And that didn’t make any sense, since the sun wasn’t going to stop them from taking the food city.

“What is a Celestia?” she asked, buzzing down the stairs after them. She didn’t get too close, and flying was easier than climbing—the ponies should’ve just made ramps like they did. “Why do you think the sun is going to help you?”

The mare looked like she might actually answer the question, except then the stallion’s legs gave out from under him and he bounced painfully down a few steps. Blood trailed down the walls, and the little pony squealed pitifully, recoiling back towards H.

Hydrus poked his head in through the door, his crossbow levitated in the air beside him. He looked around. “Alright, you killed one of our drones, that means—” He fell silent, staring up at them with widening eyes.

Then he stepped back, calling out towards the watching drones. “Great Queens before us, she did it! Pay up bugs! Starting with you, Myosin. Yes, right here. Don’t think I forgot about you, Gossamer.”

“She didn’t even bring the crossbow. It doesn’t make sense.”

“She’s not out yet,” someone argued. “She didn’t do it until she’s outside.”

“Is that the queen’s daughter or something, Hydrus? You scamming us?”

“Of course it’s the queen’s daughter,” Hydrus argued. “They’re all the queen’s daughters. Pay up.”

While all that went on, the mare had followed her mate to the bottom of the stairs, with the little one trailing behind like a frightened animal.

“Get the prisoners out here, H!” Hydrus called from out the door. “You’re not done yet. They’ve got a long walk ahead of them.”

“Please—” the mare called back, all the confidence in her voice gone. “My husband needs a doctor. He can’t walk any further. You must let the house guard return, take us—”

“We must do nothing,” Hydrus said, stepping in over the wreckage of the massive door. “You are prisoners of the swarm now, like all the others. If you cooperate, you will be taken with them. If you resist…” He flourished the crossbow meaningfully. “Now get out.”

H watched the exchange from further and further away. The ponies weren’t responding well to this instruction. She could sense the resistance building in them—all the cooperation H had helped create turned to regret and terror. Except for the little one, who only felt afraid.

The stallion rose suddenly to his hooves, face contorted in pain. He stepped forward, trailing blood as he went, legs shaking with every step. They’re so strong. He just keeps going.

“Stay close to us, Chalice,” the stallion said. “Come on.”

“We’re going,” he said, his voice shaking. “Don’t hurt them, please. We’re going.” They walked slowly out, with the mare helping the hurt pony all the way, watching their child to make sure she was keeping up. They slowed as they passed through the doorway, staring at the pony corpses outside.

“Descent, you killed him too,” the stallion muttered. “He was trying to surrender, monsters. I heard it.”

“Enough!” called one of the mean drones from earlier, landing on the ground beside the stallion. “With a mouth like that, you’re not worth our time. Probably just going to get the rest of the food sick.” He brought his sword down casually, straight for the pony’s neck. So fast that H was as frozen as everyone else.

Except for the stallion. His horn lit up, and the sword turned in the air. There was a flash of green as the pony’s magic overpowered it, and the sword swung backward. The drone toppled to the ground without a head a second later, spurting blood.

Gasps rose from Hydrus’s entourage. H could sense the attention of the drones, which had been ignoring them until that moment. The assembled masses could smell battle starting soon. If they start fighting, I need to get out quick.

“Back away, all of you!” the stallion roared, brandishing the sword in his magic. Pale sunlight seemed to glow there, and the green blood staining it bubbled and steamed away. “Let us pass!”

Hydrus wasn’t frozen like so many of the others. He took aim, fired straight into the pony’s torso. There was a little flash of magic from the pony’s horn, but the bolt still smacked into him, sinking down to the fletching. The pony buckled, dropping to the ground. The sword fell.

“H, right here, right now!” He started cranking the crossbow beside his head, ignoring the mare’s terrified screams. All threat from her was gone, and now she was clinging desperately to her fallen husband, her horn glowing faintly. Was she trying to… help him somehow?

H landed in front of Hydrus, trying not to look at the corpse of the fallen changeling. Should it feel good to see someone who had been mean to her die like that? It didn’t.

“I got them, like you said…”

Hydrus grunted something that wasn’t quite any word. “What you did is get Dark killed. That’s the sort of pony we can’t take prisoner. Fighting like that… breeds rebellion. What do you think would happen if he got into the food pen? He’d inspire them to fight, that’s what.”

It didn’t look like he was going to be inspiring anything soon, not broken like that. His breathing came only laboriously, blood trailing out his mouth. He couldn’t speak anymore. “Time to fix it,” Hydrus went on, pointing down at the fallen sword. “Take that, and kill it. The smaller ones shouldn’t resist after that.”

H stared at the sword, lifting it only with difficulty. It was made of a bright metal she hadn’t seen before, which already looked clean despite what it had done to Dark. Was she crazy, or could she feel the sword hating her? But metal doesn’t have feelings.

She could still lift it, facing the ponies again.

“Please…” the mare whispered, her voice feeble. “Don’t. My husband… defending himself. You saw… what was he supposed to do?”

And behind her was the little one, clinging to her father’s bloody tail, eyes wide. She didn’t say anything—maybe she never would again.

“Now,” Hydrus said into her ear, his anger focusing on her. It was nothing compared to what the pony had felt, but it would also bring more consequences. “Dark died because you didn’t control this one, H. This is your fault, so you get to fix it.”

“I thought you said they were worth more than me,” she whispered. “Shouldn’t we still try to… save it?”

“No,” Hydrus said. “It killed Dark, it doesn’t get to live. Now quit wasting time. You’re a warrior, H. You killed yesterday, you get to kill today.”

She had, probably. But nothing from the attack felt real. That had been a dream—a nightmare, maybe. And now she was remembering it.

Before she could second-guess herself again, H swung the sword. She wasn’t trained to use it, and didn’t know how to cut off a pony’s head. It wasn’t clean, and it wasn’t fast.

The mare screamed in agony, lashing out towards her—but Hydrus was there with a few more of his entourage, and they held her down. The little pony never looked away, not until she too was dragged off.

“Well look at that,” Hydrus said, when H was splattered with blood and surrounded by cheering drones. “Looks like she’s got some fighting spirit after all.”

The others moved up to them one at a time, spitting on the dead pony, clasping her on the shoulder.

“Good work!”

“Really made it pay for Dark.”

“You’re on your way, H. The swarm needs more heroes like you.”

But as she wandered away from the broken building, H didn’t feel like a hero. All the praise from the other changelings felt as empty as their feelings always did.

She could still feel the agony of that mare, as she watched her husband die. And in the smaller one, a betrayal that turned her mind to ice, and washed everything else away.

Now she knew what Thorax meant, and she hated it.

Chapter 4: Feast

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“That sword… it’s yours now,” Hydrus said, as soon as his entourage were done encouraging her. But for all their support, none of them had done anything for Dark’s fallen body. “Here, the scabbard.”

Hydrus removed a belt from the dead guard, made of the same gold-looking metal as the hilt of the sword. He settled it around her, tightening it until it held fast without constricting her wings. “It’s been a long time since I first killed. I wish I could remember. But now you can.”

He turned away, leaving H with a sword in her magic, surrounded by the dead.

She didn’t want the sword, and from the way it felt the sword didn’t want her either. It seemed that neither of them would get what they wanted.

H wasn’t ordered to extract the ponies from any more of their nests, though there were a few more close calls. Hydrus kept drones closer to them for the other homes, and whenever ponies fought back he just sent them in and let more die.

They don’t even care. H could see their numbers going down, but the drones didn’t care about it anymore than Hydrus did. Why don’t they care? Maybe there was more to death than she realized. She would have to find someone to ask about it.

A few hours later, and they were moved down into the lower city to watch over the food. They had found a huge round building to keep them all in, covered with almost as much fancy glass and stone as the castle. But none of that mattered to H.

“We can’t trust the drones in here…” he explained, as he led the others through the huge building. H wanted to stop and look at the huge stone sticks holding it up, or the images on the walls. This place had even more books than the last nest she had been inside. “The food… drives them crazy. And if they kill one by mistake, the prisoners will all panic.”

They reached a real nest that looked like it had been recently attached, some of the slime still sticky and soft. There were pony containers piled inside, many of them bigger than she was.

“And here they are…” Hydrus announced, as they got closer. The little nest had a lowered front, and the food lined up in front of it. Inside were a few like her, and… food. They weren’t trapped, weren’t tied up or shackled or anything.

H watched as a pony made it to the front of the line, said something. The pony in the nest made a few marks, then gestured. The drones with them brought out a little sack of something brown from a barrel of plant parts, and gave it to the pony. Then they left, scurrying away as fast as a drone after their first molt.

“Why are we letting them do that?”

“Because these ponies are sensible,” Hydrus said. “They cooperated with us when we took the university. A few of them even made the fight easier. Besides, do you know how much plant each one needs? There’s only so much in the city, and we can’t let it run out too soon.”

He spent a few minutes explaining what most of them would do, guarding the checkpoint and following instructions and mainly stopping the food from stealing. But while he gave instructions to most of them, he never said her name. Eventually all of them but her had been given their assignments, and wandered off. Only when he was finished did Hydrus turn on her.

“I had to pull some strings for this, H. You’re going to owe me for the rest of eternity when it’s done.”

“When… it’s…” she repeated. “What?”

“Follow me.” He took off, shoving past crowds of the captured food. They weren’t all restrained in here—it looked like they’d been separated. Up here were the ones that hadn’t fought back, left to more or less do what they wanted within the confines of their containment. But for as many of them as she saw, H didn’t feel like there was very much food. Not compared to the first night, when everyone got to eat as much as they wanted. How could she be surrounded by food and still feel hungry?

But she didn’t ask—Hydrus had that look he always had when he would get angry if she asked, so she kept quiet.

They passed down some stairs, where the hallways had all gone dark. But her eyes could still see fine, or at least well enough not to smack into the walls.

There were ponies down here too, locked in littler rooms, each one chained and trapped. This group looked stronger, and every now and then she could hear angry noises drifting down on them from the distance.

“Troublemakers,” she whispered. “These are the… bad ones. The ones you said I should kill, right?”

“Some of them,” he agreed. “But killing is only one solution to the problem. Sometimes there is something strong in the enemy, and we can take it for ourselves. That’s the way changelings have always been, H. We don’t need fate to give us things, we take them.”

The dark hallway ended in a gaping hole that had once been a door, covered with the slime of an interior nest. The warm green glow was almost enough to make her forget about the dead pony.

Then they stepped into the room. At first H thought it was a nest—there were cocoons covering the ceiling, each one of them attached to the thick green slime coating every surface in the room. It looked like it had held pony machines once, but now it was a nursery.

Except she could see none of the cells that larvae would’ve been growing in, couldn’t feel their wiggling through her hooves.

The cocoons on the ceiling were massive, bigger than she was. Big enough to hold a pony.

The floor wasn’t empty either. There weren’t chains, but instead a large metal cage that looked like it could come apart. And there was a pony inside.

It looked older, like the stallion she’d killed, but way weaker. It curled up in fear, hiding behind a few little pieces of glass on metal wire right in front of its face.

“Some enemies are too dangerous to let live,” Hydrus said, stopping in front of the cage. “But too valuable to waste. Do you see what this place is for?”

She tried to understand. It was something to do with food, certainly. Food, and the cocoons attached to the ceiling over her head. But how could those concepts be connected?

She shook her head. “That one doesn’t look like good food. Don’t you need more than one to eat anything?”

“Sometimes.” Hydrus turned to face her. “This isn’t any kind of feeding you’ve done before, H. This is a rare privilege. I could’ve claimed it for myself. But I didn’t, and I’ll expect gratitude. Once you’re… capable.”

“There’s really… no need for all of this,” came the tiny voice from within the cage. He had none of the courage that the stallion earlier today had. If she swung her sword at him, he’d probably just curl over and wait to die. “I can keep my mouth shut, honestly. The Hippology department barely even knew I worked here. They certainly didn’t know I studied mythical creatures! If my name meant anything, Canterlot would’ve been prepared for you, but here we are. There’s no need.”

“Quiet!” Hydrus banged against the cage, enough that the stallion lowered his head with a whimper. “You’ve been selected for a rare privilege. Your knowledge of our kind will serve the swarm now.”

H watched, confused. “What am I supposed to do?”

Hydrus pointed up at the ceiling. “Those used to be ponies up there, H. Fly up and look at them.”

She did, buzzing up towards the ceiling and looking for a cocoon with enough transparent parts to see through.

She found one, and her eyes widened at what was inside.

Was this where the ones who were like her but not came from? It was the size of a pony, but all the fur was coming off of it. The one inside rested with her eyes closed, black chitin slowly spreading where once there had been a coat.

She landed back in front of Hydrus. “Is that where you came from?”

“Me?” Hydrus actually laughed. “No, not me. A few in the swarm… but they’re older.” He pointed into the cage. “You’re going to do that to him. It’s like feeding. Once you get enough venom into his body, it will be easy. It will change you. Each time is like…” His eyes rolled back, and his tone stretched a little. “You won’t feel hungry for weeks, H. And in all that time, you’ll grow. Grow in ways those disposable drones outside will never have the chance.”

“Or you could let me go!” squeaked the voice from the cage, positively shaking with terror. “This entire invasion is pointless, you know. Emotions don’t have to be stolen to be consumed. You could just make friends with us the traditional way! It would be—”

Hydrus drew his crossbow, banging it against the bars. “I said quiet! Don’t make me ask a third time, professor. You’re lucky it was me who discovered you, and not Pharynx. He would probably have wanted you destroyed as a danger to the swarm. But once you’re one of us, you’ll be safe from his wrath. I’m the kindest, most generous bug around, and you’re going to owe me too.”

He glanced briefly back at her, lowering the crossbow and pulling out a set of rusty metal lumps. Keys. “You can do it, H. And when you get out, you’ll grow big enough to get more than just a letter. You can take Dark’s place. Who knows… when our queen rewards me for my loyal service during this invasion, I might even rise all the way to her court. Some bug will need to replace me. I would want it to be a bug I know is loyal, who will keep my troops loyal without my presence. That could be you.”

This was it—this was the key to her next step. H would be helping Hydrus to rise, and in the process she could rise into his place. Then she would be the bug giving orders, the bug who got to go in last and so was last to die to the food’s magic. It was her next step.

H nodded, lifting the sword in her magic and settling it down on the ground outside. Somehow, she didn’t think she would be able to manifest her own magic with that thing so close, hating her every second. “I’m ready.”

“Alright, professor, know your place. Stay back from the door or you get skewered. You know us so well, I’m sure you know we eat meat. You cooperate, and you live.”

He made a fearful squeaking noise in response, and didn’t rise from where he’d curled up against the floor. H could sense his helpless terror—he wouldn’t resist her.

H climbed into the cage, and was surprised to see Hydrus lock it behind her. She spun around, staring at him through the bars.


“In case something goes wrong,” he said. “Ponies are more powerful than they look. All power comes from risk, H. If you remember nothing else from today, remember that.”

All power comes from risk. She would try to remember that, if she could.

H stopped a few inches away from the pony, looking down at him as he shook in terror. “You’re lucky,” she said. “Didn’t you hear what Hydrus said? This is better.”

“I heard,” he whimpered. “Go on then. I know you’re not capable of making your own decisions. No appeal I make to you will make a difference. Hopefully when this is over you’re changed enough to regret it for the rest of your life. At least I’ll have that satisfaction.”

H leaned close to his neck, and bit. It was strange to feed this way—venom wasn’t for prey, not really. But as soon as she had the taste of blood in her mouth, she felt it all gushing into his body. And in response, something welled in the back of her throat that was far more delicious than blood.

H now knew what Hydrus had described. She felt herself tense as she was flooded with love as she’d never known it before. So much magic that it felt like her body would explode. But it kept coming, even as the pony beneath her squirmed and fought, shoving uselessly against her with his hooves.

Hydrus had been right. This would change her.

Chapter 5: Famine

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The process was neither swift nor pretty. But changelings were creatures of instinct, and H could do nothing if not follow them. Unlike when H wanted to know information about pony concepts that she had never seen, where the things she saw often didn’t make sense, the process of converting a pony into one of their own was something that came quickly.

Eventually the hours were over, and a few drones arrived to lift the new cocoon onto the ceiling to join the others. H bounced out of the cage with an energy she hadn’t had before. She hesitated near a bit of hard slime, staring at her own reflection.

She hadn’t been imagining things—she really was taller. Her wings seemed larger too, and her frills. There was magic flowing through her as she had never tasted in her life.

“That was…”

Hydrus had either waited for her, or known when to return—she couldn’t know, because while she fed she had been conscious of nothing else. But he’d been the one to let her out.

“I found this for you,” Hydrus said, offering a length of cloth. A scarf. The name came so easily to her now, without even thinking. It was quite long, made of squares of black, red, and white in alternating patterns. “You should have something. To go with the sword. Don’t forget it.”

She had hoped he would. But there it was, beside the cage where she had left it. It didn’t seem to hurt her any more as she levitated it up into the scabbard, but not any less either.

“Why did we need to come to the city?” she asked, wrapping the cloth around her neck as she imagined it should be done. Not too tight, or so loose it would slide off. “Just capture a few of them when we’re hungry, share this… wouldn’t it be easier?”

Hydrus laughed. “That glamour feels endless to you because you’ve never tasted it before. But think about this—when you’re done, you made another changeling. A few days stewing up there on the ceiling and he’ll be as hungry as you ever were. He’ll need food too. So we capture more… and after a great meal, the next meal we need is even bigger. Eventually we have to capture thousands of them just to eat a single meal, and you see why the queen forbids it.”

“The queen…” H’s wings folded close to her back, and she shuddered. “Did I just—”

“No, no!” He rested a leg on her shoulder. “Relax, H. The queen forbids harvesting ponies for food. She doesn’t forbid adding useful ponies to the swarm. The food you enjoyed just now, that wasn’t the purpose of your meal. That was just the bonus you receive from the queen as a reward for loyal service.”

He banged against her shell with one leg, grinning. “Don’t expect it often. Each feeding makes you more powerful, much faster than just eating emotions. This opportunity is granted by the queen, and can be given by the one who receives it to their inferiors. If you want to feel that way again, you will have to serve me well.”

He lowered his voice, waiting for the hauling drones to leave the way they’d come. “My other bugs, they have too many of their own ideas. Too much ambition. I want you to be a bug that I can trust. Do you know that word, H? Trust?”

She hadn’t before. It went into the same box as all the other things that didn’t have good pictures. Abstractions. It was an idea for something that couldn’t exist as an object. There were many of them. Emotions when felt were abstractions, even if they were concrete to a changeling. Trust was like loyalty, reliability. It was a little like love.

“Yes,” she said. “Now I do. That is… what you want from me? You don’t trust the others because… because of something.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about them, H. You’re here because I saw something in you. Because after your first meal, some part of you woke up and realized you didn’t want to be cannon fodder anymore. You felt the sun on your shell, the wind through your fins, and you realized there was more than just breathing, eating, and obeying the queen.”

She nodded, practically drooling. The queen really had picked the perfect bug to be in charge. Hydrus understood her in a way she didn’t think was possible. That was exactly how she felt. Because he went through it himself. He said he didn’t use to be a pony. That means he was a grub too, right?

“I can be loyal!” she exclaimed, without thinking. “I am grateful—that’s what you said, wasn’t it? The thing I would be. I am now. I can… it makes so much more sense now. The food we eat… it’s emotion. It isn’t even real, and I didn’t know!”

“There are many things you never knew,” Hydrus said. “Your first instruction, now that I think you’ll remember, is not to ask any other bug. If you need to know something, you come to me. In return, I promise always to answer. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” They knocked their hooves together, granting their words significance. Oath. Agreement. The very fundamental of changeling existence, and she hadn’t even known what they meant until that moment.

How much more is there to learn?

“But your vacation is over. You have more magic than others—you may not need to sleep for a week or more. I want you keeping the peace in the pens with the others. But I have a special instruction for you, one I didn’t give to them.” He leaned in close, and H craned her neck to listen.

“You must steal your name, H. More than just a letter—that sound is for a drone, and you’re more than that now. You still have the responsibility of keeping the peace here, and fighting beside us if the prisoners attempt an escape. But while you’re interacting with them, find a name and steal it. Then you will be ready for more.”

H felt so good she almost didn’t think about the pony she had left hanging on the ceiling. And if that’s all that happens, he really is lucky. Better to be up there than dead like the ones who fought us.

H wasn’t sure what “stealing a name” actually meant, but she knew where she would have to be to find one. She hurried to the top floor, and found Thorax waiting at the guard post.

“I’m… reporting,” she said, only stumbling over the word a little bit. “I guess I’m going to be helping you for a bit. Helping you with… this place.”

The guard post was located near the front of the building, past where any ponies would be allowed to go. That meant Thorax didn’t actually have to do any guarding, only handle administrative tasks as bugs came and went from their duties. But did Hydrus put you here to help you, or because you wormed your way in?

Even so, H wasn’t happy to see the building from the outside. It looked like it had been beautiful only recently, a single structure larger than the great hive would’ve been if taken above the ground. Or… maybe not quite that big.

But now that she was changed, H could smell the place, in more physical ways that had nothing to do with finding food. There were a lot of dirty, helpless ponies in there, and the malaise spread from the building into the streets.

Thorax had found himself some more clothes too since last she saw him—an oversized, fluffy jacket, with a bright pink hood and furry frills around where his head emerged. “You?” he exclaimed, stumbling back a little. “H? You’re so much taller! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drone grow so fast. Don’t you want a… I guess you probably don’t.”

“Want what?” she asked, tilting her head slightly to one side. “Did I want to get bigger? Have you seen what happens to the drones?” There were plenty within sight at that very moment—sleeping lazily on buildings, or under awnings, or just sprawled out in black clouds in the street. “We can barely even think.”

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” Thorax said, his voice distant. He seemed to be following her eyes, watching the endless crowd of drones. “Maybe the queen is a genius, but it seems… wrong. Using the young this way.”

“Young,” she repeated. It was another of those abstractions, one that had only meant ‘small’ to her before. But that wasn’t what Thorax meant when he said it. “Like I was. Before.”

“Yeah.” He slumped forward, resting his head on the table next to a pile of differently-colored bits of glass. There were two piles, actually, and his sole job seemed to be moving a single piece from one to the other whenever a changeling entered or left. “It’s supposed to take years and years to grow up. But that’s a lot of love, and little drones need almost nothing. They don’t even care if they have to eat meat instead.”

H knew what he meant. The night before, after the fighting was done… they had brought all the dead into another part of the city. It had been a little strange to her that none of the bigger changelings had wanted to be there—but it had taken so long to get full that way.

For some reason, the thought disgusted her now. She leaned forward, clutching at her stomach, and taking a few shallow breaths. “Don’t… talk about that.”

Thorax watched her, reaching out a concerned hoof. But he pulled it back again as another wave of guards passed out of the building, and he quickly straightened, moving the glass pieces around for a few seconds. The other changelings ignored H, passing beside her like she wasn’t even there.

“Real love helps us grow,” he went on, once he’d finished letting more bugs through. “I guess you must’ve got a lot.”

“I did,” she answered, shaking herself out like a wet cat. “Thanks to Hydrus. He…” She gestured towards her teeth. “I didn’t know so much. If I feed again, will I be able to think like the ponies do? Maybe… build things of my own?”

Thorax shook his head. “Sorry, H. Changelings don’t know how to make things. We take, sometimes we change, but… making something new is hard. We’ve been doing things this exact same way since… a really long time.”

She frowned. “Hydrus told me I had to steal a name. I guess that means I couldn’t just come up with my own.” She adjusted her scarf, straightening. “How do you know all this, anyway?” She moved right up to the counter, lowering her voice to a whisper. There were guards by the door, and she didn’t want them to overhear. “I think you must’ve been… important, once. Weren’t you?”

“I guess so,” Thorax muttered. “Drone has double meaning. I was… the other one.”

H thought about it, and something she’d never have understood before suddenly made sense. Her eyes widened. “You—were that close to the queen?”

He nodded. “Lots of you might be mine,” he said, voice wistful. “You might be, for all I know.” He raised a wing. “I know what you’re thinking. It’s because I didn’t like the idea of using you to fight. Drones have… helped defend the hive before, when monsters attacked. But that was an emergency. Maybe you’re right to want to grow up fast. It doesn’t look like the queen will give you a chance to grow up the other way.”

He looked away. “You’re probably not mine, with a spirit like yours. If I thought like you, I’d still be in the court.”

H left him behind then, hurrying into the building. Thorax hadn’t just been important, he’d been as important as any changeling could ever be. But despite all that, he’d fallen far enough that he had to move glass around and make sure there were enough guards in a food prison.

They can’t all be in there, right? Just one building for a whole city? But it wasn’t H’s problem what had happened to the others. Maybe there were lots of places for them to go. For now, she had a name to steal.

Chapter 6: Thief

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The request sounded simple on its face: find herself a name to steal. But what did that even mean? With everything else she’d done during the invasion, H had been able to rely on either instinct or imitation to get her through. She knew that food was good, and she knew that the bigger changelings would help her get more of it. She knew she wanted to be like them, not like the thousands and thousands of other drones who didn’t even have a single letter to their name.

But as she slipped into the pony prison, she found she didn’t know what she was looking for. What did a name even look like? How would she know when she found one?

She passed through the barricade, past the bored-looking changeling guards. As she walked, a few ponies were being chained up and taken the other way—for feeding time, she supposed. But she still wasn’t hungry, and so she didn’t have any trouble ignoring them.

Maybe the ponies will show me what it means. Lots that they did still had no words for her, and no easy way to extract what they really wanted. But if H couldn’t learn by asking, she would learn by watching.

Through the barricade, ponies had been packed in far tighter than they lived on their own. They’d set out little sleeping spots for themselves using desks, blankets, or anything else they could find in here. What’s the point of claiming a tiny piece of ground? Won’t the other ponies share with you when you need it?

That was one aspects of ponies she just hadn’t wrapped her head around quite yet. Some of them had a kind of status that meant they got to live better lives, that they had guards to protect their houses while most of them lived in the lower city and didn’t. But H hadn’t been ordered to the lower city, so she didn’t know how the fight there had gone. Maybe I could steal a name from them?

It would be a good backup plan.

As she walked, every pony that saw her backed away, clearing a path in front of her as though she were their queen. A few of them whimpered or cowered at her presence. Steal means I have to take it. But who do I steal a name from?

She picked one of them at random, an isolated male with a horn. His fancy outfit had been torn and stained during the battle, and as she approached he cowered away from her in utter terror. “You,” she said, pointing with a wing. “You have a name?”

“Dust Cover,” he answered. “Y-yeah.”

Could she just… steal it? First one she’d found, and she could be done. Except hearing it didn’t seem to be enough, and also she didn’t want Dust Cover. It didn’t even start with the right letter. “How do ponies get their names?”

This seemed to confuse him, and a little of his fear melted away. She could still sense the disgust, the desire to run, and deep down, a wish that he was brave enough to fight. But he didn’t fight her, and he didn’t run. “What?”

“Names.” She sat down in front of him, feeling the weight of her sword scrape against the ground. Though the ponies around him had scattered, she could see fearful eyes poking out from a nearby classroom. Ponies were watching her. “How do ponies get their names?”

“They, uh…” He glanced briefly at his cutie mark. “From our parents? When you’re born, your p-parents…” He shook his head. “Why are you asking me? Aren’t we just your food?”

“I used to think so.” H tilted her head to the side. “I don’t know right now. I’m trying to figure it out. Help me, please.”

The stranger she acted, the less afraid this pony seemed to become. He wasn’t slouching anymore, and any desire he had to run had faded so far that she couldn’t sense it anymore. He was barely afraid of her, though the fear for changelings as a whole was undiminished. There’s a difference. I’m not all changelings. He thinks of us different.

“Can you let me go?” he asked, curious. “If I help you.”

She shook her head. “I might be able to get them to put you in the Swarm. But the last pony I saw didn’t like that much. You probably shouldn’t ask for it.”

He shivered all over, retreating. He glanced to one side, and she could see his legs tense.

H stepped to the side. The stallion was taller than she was, and despite not being fully grown, he was probably physically stronger too. Even the horned ones were stronger than a drone. “I’m not done,” she said. “You can leave when you help me. Where do ponies get their names?”

He still seemed to doubt her question, and it took him a few seconds to even respond this time. “When a foal is born, its… parents name it. They try to guess what they’re going to be, or use old family names, or… that kinda thing. My parents named me Dust Cover, because I guess they thought I would be good at books or whatever.”

H didn’t understand what “good at books” meant, but she hardly cared. There was another problem with this answer. “What happens if they forget?” She advanced on him, not even trying to hide her desperation. And as she moved, his fear returned, and he backed up into a corner between a shelf and the wall.


“Like if there’s, uh…” She reached for the number of drones in her generation, but it just got bigger and bigger. She couldn’t keep it in her head long enough to write it down. “Lots. What if there were so many that your queen couldn’t name all of them? How would ponies name them then?”

“W-we don’t… we don’t have a queen. And I’ve never heard of more than t-two ponies born at the same time. Their parents wouldn’t forget.”

She was getting nowhere. This pony knew what she wanted to know, but for some reason he wasn’t very good at explaining it. H turned away from him, wandering a few steps before she realized something else, and spun quickly around. She stopped him with one hoof, yanking him back. “The other thing you said!”

The pony quivered in fear, making a terrified squeaking sound. Despite his size, despite his magic and his strength, he withdrew from her touch as though she’d burned him. “O-other—”

“You said parents try to guess what their eggs will be, right? Guess how? How do you know from looking at an egg what kind of drone it’s gonna be when it gets bigger?”


“Like, do names just mean what you’re good at? If I wanted to be good at fighting, should I steal Pincers or maybe Fangs?”

The classroom door that had just been open a crack finally spread a little wider, and half a dozen ponies crowded the doorway, all watching her. They were a mix of various races, not just the ones with horns. More importantly, they were all resolved, with only a tiny bit of fear. Uh oh.

“You already put us in here,” said one of them—an earth pony mare built like a rock. “You aren’t going to hurt us anymore.”

“No,” she answered, retreating a little. Probably she should draw the sword, teach them a lesson or something. But Hydrus wasn’t here, and he didn’t have to know this had happened. “I just want to know about names. Maybe you can tell me.”

“Maybe you should go back,” the mare responded, advancing on her. “Dust Cover here answered your questions already. You should go back to enjoying Canterlot while you can. Because pretty soon, Princess Celestia is going to put an end to all of this. Then you’ll be the one in a cage.”

It was the same fierce anger she’d sensed from the pony she’d killed. This pony really did want to see her locked into a cage, maybe worse.

H wandered away, slipping down a different hallway and up the stairs to the second floor. Here it was much more open, with wide sun windows and vaulted ceilings that would even have given them enough room to fly. A few of the flying ponies actually were flying, though they stayed away from the biggest windows. There were changeling guards standing in front of them, drones with hungry expressions and spears they didn’t know how to hold straight.

But H ignored them—she wasn’t going to be able to steal a name from a changeling, or else Hydrus could’ve just given it to her.

She searched, listening to the conversations of ponies as she passed and letting herself wander. She didn’t know what she was looking for anyway, so it wasn’t like choosing a direction would make much difference. At least if she kept moving there was no reason for her to attract resistance from the ponies.

She heard a voice coming from an open door, a voice almost as afraid as she had briefly felt. H turned, advancing on it. Nervous and afraid wasn’t food, but it probably wouldn’t be about to fight her.

She peeked in through the doorway.

Inside, a number of pony-shaped statues were set up against the wall, and each of them had different clothes hanging on top. There were racks of colored cloth against one wall, and in the center, a single pony. She wasn’t very old, though she was old enough to have a mark on her. It looked like one of the machines she was using, bright and colorful.

She’s making clothes! H realized, as she passed in through the doorway.

But the pony noticed her. She looked up, eyes widening a little, and she made to stand from her machine.

“No, keep working!” H spread her wings, blocking the doorway. “I just want to watch. I wondered where you found all your clothes.”

But the pony didn’t stay sitting, despite her prompting. She rose from the machine, stumbling backward through the room. She passed the rack of different cloth, muttering as she went. “Damask, Matelasse, Paisley…”

Even her connection with the others in the swarm wasn’t helping her there—for all she knew this pony spoke an entirely separate language.

There was something different about her thoughts now, something subtly off and broken. “Hey, pony… you should really relax.” She followed her across the room.

“Ogee, Ikat, Jacobean…” H settled one hoof on her shoulder, holding her still. The pony froze, eyes staring up towards her. Except they were glazed and wild, and didn’t even seem to see her. “Harlequin.”

H could feel it then—something she hadn’t felt around any of the ponies before now. There was more than just their emotions—they had a pattern, similarities in body and behavior that were so simple, she could almost…

H changed. There was a brief flash of green light, enough to blind her and make the pony stumble back in shock and surprise. It only lasted a moment, but when it was gone—H felt taller.

The pony squeaked in terror, falling over herself as she retreated. “Basketweave, Brocade, Chevron…” She made it to the door, then spread her wings and flew—a few feet, until she bumped into the ceiling.

But she no longer cared. She stumbled forward, staring at her reflection in a large mirror. It wasn’t the reflection of a changeling anymore, but of the tall pegasus she’d seen before, right down to the feathery wings and pattern like the clothing machine. I did it.

This had to be what Hydrus meant when he told her to steal a name, right? She hadn’t actually taken anything from the pony, only copied her. But maybe that was enough.

It was costing her to stay like this. She blinked, shook herself out like a cat that had just been sprayed. Magic went with it, and there was another faint flash of light. She returned to her regular size, feeling drained but immensely proud.

Harlequin. I have a name.

Chapter 7: Liberation

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Harlequin could hear the shouting as she emerged, though it was faint and filtered through many confused voices. She partially wanted to go after the one she’d just stolen her name from, try to learn more—but the screams were more important.

“You don’t understand, I’m not one of them! It’s me, Codex!” She didn’t know the name, but she recognized the voice. A voice that now reverberated in the changeling way, and was markedly higher-pitched than a pony male.

Some part of her wanted to be as far away from that voice as she possibly could. But another part—maybe the stronger part—knew that running away wouldn’t make her feel less guilty about it. That pony had given her something, whether or not the process had been willing.

Harlequin took a few steps over to the highest bit of the vaulted ceiling, where a balcony looked down on the building below. Then she jumped. It didn’t take much, just a little buzzing from her wings, and she was down on the first level. It seemed the ponies had probably built it with that in mind, because a few parts of the balcony had convenient steps, letting her leap in less than a second and land on the floor below.

She followed the voice, but didn’t have far to go. She wouldn’t have been able to hear him if he’d been on the other side of the building.

There, surrounded by a crowd of absolutely terrified-looking ponies, was a single drone. He had no weapons, no armor, and no clothing at all, and indeed his shell had the matte look of a molt that hadn’t finished drying yet. Idiot. You’re supposed to stay where it’s safe until after you dry. What if one of those ponies tries to hurt you now? You don’t even have a proper shell.

And from the look of things, that probably wouldn’t take too much longer. “It’s me, don’t you understand? I can prove it! Ask me anything? About the study of supernatural beasts, perhaps? I could give a lecture about the invaders, or—”

“You are an invader,” growled a voice. She wore one of the fancy robes that seemed common in here—the ones that Harlequin suspected had never left the building from the beginning. “You aren’t even bothering to impersonate Professor Codex. If you’re going to try and pretend you didn’t drag him away to eat him, you could at least put on a better show than this.”

“But now we’ll know you’re a fraud,” somepony else said. “You murdered him, and now you’re trying to impersonate him. You think his family would be fooled?”

“Celestia’s going to make you all pay for this.”

It was the second time Harlequin had heard something like that, and it didn’t make any more sense now. The Queen promised she would take care of the pony princesses, and she has. They’re getting excited over nothing.

But if she didn’t do something, it looked like these fancy ponies were about to get violent. Harlequin stood as tall as she could, drew her glowing sword from its sheath, and marched right over to the crowd like she was about to start swinging.

The ponies didn’t know the sword wanted to hurt her. They couldn’t know that if they took it, it would probably cut her in half. As she approached, a few in the back of the crowd noticed her and scattered like they’d blown away in the wind. Those on the other side started backing away, searching for an escape route.

“It’s me!” Codex had his back to her, so he alone didn’t notice. “I can prove it however you want! They transformed me, Underscore! You have to believe me! They transformed me, but I escaped and I’m trying to help! I’m sure if we can get into the forbidden section, we’ll be able to find a treatment! There has to be something…”

But the ponies around him didn’t seem to be listening anymore. All their eyes were for Harlequin. “And here they are to protect you,” said the first speaker, bitter. “Saw we weren’t fooled, and came to your rescue. Don’t worry, Codex. We’ll make sure his family knows what you did. You’ll never impersonate him again without them knowing, even if you do remember to transform for it next time.”

The crowd began to disperse—probably something Hydrus wouldn’t have allowed. Again, she could feel the sense of general rebellion rising in these ponies. She probably should’ve done something to make that go away. But she couldn’t think of what, and after a few seconds she just put the sword away again.

Once its glowing light wasn’t on her coat anymore, she felt a little better. “Codex,” she said. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

He spun around, eyes desperate and afraid. His emotions were pale reflections of what they’d once been, though. Nothing edible anymore. He was part of the Swarm. “You’re here to drag me away? Here to put me back in a cage?”

“You weren’t in a cage,” Harlequin said, her voice flat. “You were in a cocoon because you weren’t finished changing. You’re still not finished.” She stuck out one leg in front of him, so he could see. “See how shiny I am? You’re supposed to dry before you molt. If you move around too much, you’ll dry funny and it’ll hurt until you molt again.”

Codex slumped down onto his haunches, eyes following the retreating robes of his pony friends. Harlequin knew this emotion only too well, because she’d felt it from the child of the pony she killed. Despair. “You harvested me,” he said. “That’s all I was to you, food. And now I’m this… discarded husk. There are voices—like hundreds of ponies I can’t see, watching me. But whenever I turn my head, there’s nopony there.”

“That’s the Swarm.” Harlequin advanced on him, eyes glancing nervously up and down the hallway. What if those ponies had gone away to get help? They were an awful long way from the entrance and the guards. “You’re hearing everyone. If you ask them a question, they’ll answer. It’s how we do… everything. How we learn, how we know what to do, how we…” But she trailed off, because at that moment Harlequin realized she was lying. It had been how she learned, and how she got her instructions. But that was before she’d earned her name.

Now most of the time the swarm wasn’t able to tell her the things she wanted to know. And instead of just feeling where she was wanted, she got vocal instructions from Hydrus. She didn’t want this new changeling to learn the wrong thing, so she just stopped, frowning.

“What happens to me now?” Codex asked, either not noticing or not caring about her confusion. “You did this—it’s your responsibility. If you’re going to kill me, there’s your sword.” He stuck out his head, holding his neck right in front of her. “To my family and friends I’ve already dead. Might as well make it official then, go on. Do it.”

Harlequin stared at the changeling, trying to figure out why he was acting so strange. “You have us now,” she said, honestly. “The swarm has enough food to last a thousand years, that’s what the queen said. We only have Canterlot now, but soon all Equestria will follow. You won’t go hungry, don’t worry.”

He looked up, glaring at her with a nervous anticipation that seemed to be rapidly transforming into frustration. If he expected her to kill him, he was going to be disappointed. Drones didn’t attack each other like that.

“I don’t want anything to do with you!” he was screaming, voice desperate and afraid. “You’re monsters who destroyed my home! Even if you were going to shower me with gold, I wouldn’t take it. If your queen walked right up and offered me that tenure I’ve always been striving for, I’d tell her to eat a roadapple!”

“I wouldn’t.” Harlequin shuddered visibly at such disrespectful use of the Queen’s office. The thought made her physically sick, but didn’t seem to affect this new drone even a little bit. If anything, he only grew more emboldened by her reaction. He just doesn’t understand. “She’s our protector, yours too… did you see the way those ponies treated you? Everything in the world hates us because we don’t live like they do. If it wasn’t for the Queen, we would have all starved a long time ago.”

Codex froze, the anger in his eyes cooling slightly. “I feel… I feel it. The hatred, the anger, suspicion, fear… it’s everywhere. A sea of rotting fish and burning oil.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “You sense it. We’re surrounded by ponies right now.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Maybe you should go on hating outside, where they won’t attack you? Unless you really do want to die. Ponies are a lot stronger than we are.”

Despite his shouting, despite his blazen declarations that he wanted nothing to do with them, Codex followed timidly behind her as she slipped through the crowd. Once they were moving again and looked like they belonged, the ponies largely gave them their space. They were dangerous, and trying to stop them might have terrible consequences. It was a good thing no one tried.

They made it outside without any more violence, which was good since Harlequin had hated it last time.

That was about the time she saw the explosion. She turned to stare with all the others, momentarily swallowed in the will of the swarm as its attention was turned on the lower city. She was no queen who could see through her sisters’ eyes, but she could feel, feel the fear and rage as a group of ponies broke through a barricade and raced up towards the upper city. They’ll pass this way.

“Stop them!” Hydrus was there, emerging from a nearby building and shaking his head free of the fancy jewelry he’d been collecting from inside. It clattered on the ground forgotten as drones began to assemble. “The Queen senses danger from those who come—they must not reach the palace!”

Harlequin lifted into the air a few meters, gazing down the road in search of the ones in question. She saw six ponies of mixed species emerge from around the corner, a unicorn in the lead.

A drone leapt out at the pony, oblivious to the danger that Harlequin now felt as surely as she knew that darkness was safe and cold was bad. The changeling transformed to charred ash a second later, and the unicorn kept going without even slowing down.

But drones didn’t know, and they didn’t care. The streets became clogged with them, struggling desperately to bring the unicorn and her companions down.

“It’s happening,” Codex said from beside her, his voice distant. “This is the beginning of the end for you, changeling. Your queen shouldn’t have come up against the power of all Equestria. Our princess raises the sun.”

Harlequin landed on the pavement beside him, letting the flow of soldiers sweep around her. Hydrus commanded they all join the fight, but she ignored the order. Her old self would’ve fought and died without thinking, but now… now she couldn’t make her hooves move.

Codex was still talking. “They were too late. Too late for me, and those others. After an invasion… after ponies died… they’ll never believe I’m not one of you. I’m dead. All those years of research and study, everything I ever learned… it will be like they never happened.”

“You want to live?” Harlequin asked, finally turning to face him. This strange changeling who wasn’t quite a changeling yet—Codex, his words had awakened something in her. Though he was only saying what all the other ponies had, somehow she knew it was true. They had taken too much, too fast, and soon they would pay for it.

Codex’s eyes hardened as the battle got closer. Eventually, he nodded. “I didn’t finish my book. I didn’t even get to defend my dissertation. If you’d waited until next year, I would’ve been a doctor.”

Harlequin shoved him roughly, taking them both stumbling into a nearby alley. The drone had no strength to protest, and with such a weak shell the gesture had probably hurt him. He grunted in pain, but couldn’t resist her.

And so they were both well out of the way when the attack rolled past them.

Chapter 8: Charity

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The fight didn’t seem to be going well. Harlequin kept her distance from the opening to the alley, watching as a veritable storm of ponies went by. They fought so quickly that she barely got a good look at them, but she could see well enough to be afraid.

How are they winning so easily? She crouched low, watching as a dozen different drones surrounded their little group, attacking all at once. The ponies responded with equal synchronicity, with the horned one and an unhorned one blasting away half of them with magic Harlequin couldn’t even understand.

She felt Codex crowd close to her left side, watching from the shadows as she did. “You didn’t have to fight me, I would’ve seen the need. They don’t recognize me.” He retreated into the gloom as the ponies went past, trailed by a thickening group of changelings following them towards the palace.

But whatever they were going to do, Harlequin wouldn’t be stopping it. If all those changelings working together hadn’t been able to stop them, then what good would one more have done? Hydrus is going to be furious with me. I’ll be just like Thorax, small and forgotten.

But if she was alive, would it matter?

“Maybe I could wear a mask…” Codex muttered. “A mask, a cloak, maybe a set of boots… and no one would be able to tell I was a monster.”

“Your voice,” Harlequin pointed out. “Not ‘monster’. You’re a changeling. You should see the land we come from if you think we’re monsters.” But even as she said it, Codex’s words were giving her an idea. If ponies were about to retake their city, maybe not looking like a changeling would be a good idea.

She’d only learned five minutes ago, but maybe…

“That’s too complicated,” she said. “Ponies could just take your clothes away and they would know what you are.”

“Yeah.” He slumped onto the ground, apparently not caring about the slime there. “It might have worked before, but not after this invasion. Ponies will be suspecting a changeling anytime something goes wrong for years after this.”

“But you could hide,” Harlequin went on. “Like this.” She wasn’t sure she was going to be able to do it, however confident she might’ve sounded. But then she closed her eyes, imagined the pony she’d been before… and suddenly she was. She felt taller, her hooves settling on the ground without the uneven ridges of their holes. Her wings rippled in the wind, covered in real feathers.

“See? You don’t need clothes. Just do what I did.”

“Do what you did…” Codex repeated, his voice scornful. “You’re one of them, uh…” He frowned. “H, right? That’s all I… who are you?”

“Harlequin.” She said it without hesitation, without feeling like she needed Hydrus’s approval. Not that he’ll give it about anything after what just happened. Even if he hadn’t seen her flee, he would know she knew it was time to fight, and hadn’t been there. If she was lucky he would just assume she’d died.

“Harlequin,” he repeated. “You’re a changeling. You’ve been raised to this your whole life. Even accepting that I’m physically indistinguishable from one of your kind, that doesn’t assume the associated suite of mental capacities to make use of those abilities.”

She tilted her head to one side, trying in vain to understand what he’d just said. But the Swarm wasn’t helpful—not when so much of its attention was focused on fighting. There were more little rebellions now, breaking out all over the city. She could hear a struggle from inside the big building. What few guards had stayed inside would probably not be enough to fight the incredible number of upset ponies trapped there.

Codex’s prediction was coming true. “I dunno what that means, but I learned today. I think… the Swarm taught me. They knew, so when I wanted to copy, I copied.” She started backing away from the alley entrance—by the sound of it, there would soon be a lot more ponies on the street. The injured and beaten drones the first pony attack had left behind would not be enough.

It took a little of her concentration to stay transformed, but less than she’d expected. It was hard to explain, but it also seemed like she was going through her magic just a tiny bit faster. The feast she’d gotten from Codex wouldn’t last quite so long if she spent it looking this way.

“Right, right. Your… collective intelligence. I suppose I would have access to it, given the circumstances. I’m not sure I like the idea of my mind being subsumed into the intelligence of others I haven’t met. Even individually stupid, there are so many of you. Err… forget I said that last part. I don’t mean to be inflammatory.”

Codex closed his eyes, then there was a brief flash. There were now two gray pegasus ponies standing in the alley, identical copies of each other. Codex blinked, held out one hoof, and spoke in her voice.

Well, not her voice exactly. Harlequin hadn’t ever learned the name of the pony it belonged to, strictly speaking. But maybe that didn’t matter. “That wasn’t that different from a number of other complex transfiguration spells. It’s really just that this body is uniquely… and I sound like a mare.”

“You look like one too,” Harlequin muttered, yanking on his hoof and dragging him deeper into the gloom. “You can find a stallion to copy later, come on.”

“Come on… where?” he asked, curious. “I don’t mean to make suggestions against my own country, but shouldn’t you be joining the others at the palace. Surely if there’s any chance for you to carry the day, it will happen there.”

“I’m not a very good fighter,” she said, honestly. “And when I see other drones fighting, mostly I watch them die. Our queen cares about the swarm as a whole. She doesn’t… seem to see us much.”

She lowered her voice to a whisper, but at least now she didn’t have to drag her companion along beside her. She didn’t know where she was going exactly, but there was the slope between different levels of the city. So long as she was walking down, she would eventually find a stairwell, or somewhere they could glide from.

“When I went looking for a name, I met a pony who told me that you get your names when you’re born. Is that true?”

“Yeah.” Codex didn’t even hesitate. So it was probably true. “Your parents have to put something on the birth certificate. More often than not it seems to turn into a game of outdoing the last generation for pressuring their foals into a life-path they probably don’t even want. But that’s linguistic determinism for you.”

The alley opened into a street filled with broken carts and overturned wagons. Harlequin hadn’t been fighting here, but she’d heard some of the loudest violence coming from this part. There were plenty of mysterious brown or green stains in the pavement that suggested her ears had been right.

The path made a straight shot through most of Canterlot if she remembered, all the way to the train station. We can go that far, then fly into the wilderness.

If things went well, they could say they’d been hurt in the attack and crawled somewhere to hide. If they didn’t… well, then Harlequin wouldn’t be in town, and neither would this pony. Even if she didn’t understand most of what he said, she did understand that his death would be her fault.

“What really interests me is how your species has survived this long,” he muttered. “You were so scarce for so long that you were only a footnote in most mythical creatures manuals. There are probably fewer books about you in Canterlot’s library than I have hooves, all Starswirl era or older. You’re basically extinct.”

“We… were,” she muttered. “Almost extinct. I think. I wasn’t alive before… the first thing I remember is… the Queen’s voice. Promising us that there would be enough food for everyone soon. That she was taking us to a perfect place to live. After a little fighting, we’d be able to make it our home.”

Codex’s hoofsteps slowed beside her. He seemed to be having trouble with the wings, leaving them out at odd angles and twitching them seemingly at random. But the change was still convincing enough, even if it would probably make him look sick or in pain. But now he watched Harlequin with sympathy. “You were created for this war?”

“I… guess so.” At least he wasn’t using words that she’d never heard before. “Everyone has a purpose, don’t they? We’re made for something. The ones above me were made to lead. The Queen was made so she could keep us all fed and happy. Even you ponies are like that. Your marks—” She glanced slightly to the side. “They’re what you are, right?”

“Not… quite.” He shook his head, in a way that no pegasus mare ought to. The mane went crazy, making him look even sicker than before. But Harlequin hardly noticed that, there were more pressing concerns.

Concerns like the slow rumble coming from up the hill, like a geyser about to erupt. Something was happening in that palace, something they would not want to be caught in when it happened.

Harlequin wasn’t listening to his explanation anymore. However much she wondered about cutie marks, she wanted to stay alive more. She hovered in the air, finding the pegasus wings clumsy but good enough. “We should fly, Codex. Can you feel it? Something bad.”

“Perfect,” he answered. His wings held suddenly stiff, as far out as they would go. “I… have no idea how to fly.”

“Listen!” She zoomed right up to him, yanking on one hoof. “It’s the same as changing! Listen to the others! Everyone knows how to fly, that’s part of being a changeling. One of the first things you get after your first molt, once your legs work.”

For you!” he called, voice high and frightened. But he tried anyway, flapping desperately. Nothing much happened—he was out of sync, and obviously not pushing correctly. There was a technique about flight, and obviously Codex wasn’t learning it from the Swarm.

You can’t stay here! She could feel a spell approaching now, somewhere far away. Like a storm she could see building on the horizon, but she didn’t have to be looking to feel it. The Swarm knows. Would it be like the death-thing, that burned every drone who touched it?

I’m not ready. Maybe she should’ve been like the others, never thinking, never knowing how much danger they were in or how quickly they might die. But even if she wanted to go back to that, Harlequin couldn’t. She wanted to live! She’d already run away from one battle, she could run from another.

She tugged on Codex’s leg one last time, trying to yank him up into the air with her. But no success—the pony only squealed in pain, shoving her away. “It isn’t working! They aren’t telling me things anymore! I think they’re—”

Then she saw it. A wave of magic had taken physical form, bright and glowing and expanding outward from the palace. She cried out in desperation to the Swarm to know what it was, but got no answer.

Harlequin didn’t keep tugging, or keep asking. She let go, tucked her head, and flapped her wings with all her might, angling down for the lower city.

The wave of magic was a terrible hurricane, and she could sense the pain from those it overtook. There was a brief flash of pain, then their voices vanished from the Swarm. Already it was half the size she’d known, and getting smaller. Are they really killing all of us? It didn’t look like the death-thing, and it didn’t burn the air.

But it was coming after her.

Harlequin left Codex behind to be swallowed by the magic, even as the floor dropped out from under her.

That was it—hundreds of feet of open air, then the lower city. Harlequin dove away from the barrier with all her might, straight down the mountainous slope. It was her only hope.

Chapter 9: Hero

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It looked like Harlequin was going to escape the blast, though she could only glance panicked over her shoulder once as she shot straight down. With every flap of her wings the wave of magic got more tenuous, and street level below rose to meet her.

But even then, she wasn’t fast enough. She felt the wave of magic catch her in the air, or what little was left of it. She couldn’t have said what happened to those changelings that were caught in the blast, like the one she’d left behind.

The magic washed over her, leaving Harlequin hovering in the air. What did it…

Then she realized what had happened. She hadn’t been burned to ash, she hadn’t even been forcibly changed back into a changeling. It was what she’d already noticed: the voices of the others in her head were suddenly gone.

Harlequin fluttered down onto the sidewalk of the lower city, packed in among structures so close together that it looked like the city might overflow. Instead of the wide beautiful streets, these were small, stained, and barley wide enough for a single cart to move in one direction.

The streets were empty around her—Harlequin couldn’t see a single changeling guard patrolling them, only the occasional broken window or crushed light fixture to show where the battle for the city had taken place.

“Hello?” Harlequin sat down on her haunches, eyes desperate. “Where is everyone?”

There was no response. For a few moments she sat in silence there on the sidewalk, confused and afraid. Even while she’d been actively breaking the instructions Hydrus had given her, Harlequin had felt like the Swarm was only a hoof’s reach away. They had been there from the beginning, the collective wisdom to understand a pony-made world that made no sense to her.

Now as she looked around her, she found objects without names, structures that didn’t make sense, and a profound silence that seemed to penetrate the stone. Despite her wings and pretend pony body, Harlequin felt then as she had never felt before: she didn’t belong.

But then she heard screaming. It sounded pony more than changeling, coming from just down the road. Wasn’t there some kind of fight going on here? She couldn’t remember, and now that her connection had been severed, she couldn’t rely on other drones to remember for her.

Harlequin started running anyway. Just then she didn’t much care if there was a jail cart waiting at the end of the road, so long as she would be with someone when they locked her up.

The lower city was built too tight to get a good view of something even a few streets over, so she couldn’t see what was making all the noise. Not until she finally rounded the end of the street, and could look down into the city below.

There Harlequin could see the marshaled strength of thousands of changeling drones, perhaps the majority that had survived the siege. Compared to the school where they were keeping captives in the upper city, this place looked truly terrifying: an entire street and all the buildings along it had been walled off, with ponies packed in so tight that there wasn’t even room to walk in places.

Or at least they had been. Their guards, all the drones that had surrounded this place and probably been feeding on it too, looked like they were going to war again. With everything.

There was no sign of the careful discipline, the coordinated ranks of attacks that poured down into the city and broke the spell. Instead, the drones looked to be attacking everything and everyone within reach. A group charged straight up against a confining fence, tearing at the foundation until the whole thing came down on them. A few feeble voices from inside sounded like the equivalent of Hydrus for these drones, ordering them to be calm and to work together.

But the drones didn’t listen, and Harlequin shuddered and looked away as several of them were torn apart. But for every changeling with a name and desires, there were hundreds of changelings attacking each other.

Worst of all were the ponies, though. The camp scattered in all directions as their guards transformed from calm and disciplined to a dense cloud of monsters, screaming in terror as they fled. It was the running that was probably their mistake.

Harlequin knew how those drones felt—they were desperate, afraid, confused, and angry. They had been promised somewhere comfortable and safe, but what they got instead was isolation and confusion. We shouldn’t be alone. We’re not built for it.

And the ponies running right past them, they were something familiar. Food-thing, prey. A reminder of what they were supposed to be.

Maybe enough food will make me feel normal again. Harlequin dismissed the thought as quickly as it came, shaking her head to try and clear it. But it didn’t clear—there was no confidence of the Swarm in the back of her mind. She couldn’t be sure about anything in her world.

Then a tiny group of ponies came running past. Their eyes seemed to glaze over her without even looking, all their attention focused behind them, at the ones chasing them.

There were a dozen drones charging up the hill, not so much a formation as a pack, teeth gnashing in mad fury. “Stop!” Harlequin called, trying to use the same voice Hydrus did when he gave instructions. But the drones seemed to sense her lack of authority, because they didn’t even slow down. Rather, a few of them seemed to be looking at her.

“Come on!” One of the slowest ponies in the group, an earth pony stallion, gripped onto one of her legs with an irresistible force. He tugged so hard that she was torn right off her hooves and into a glide behind him. “You want to get eaten too?”

Harlequin felt a sudden swell of love in her chest. It was far fainter than feeding on Codex had given her, but that didn’t matter. She’d gathered it all on her own.

Ponies really are food-things. This one wants me to be safe even though he hasn’t even met me. After a few moments of struggling, she got her wings under her, and was soon flying alongside the group of ponies. She couldn’t pass them, though she suspected a skilled pegasus could’ve done so easily. “Where are we going?”

“Up!” somepony called from the front of the group. “I didn’t see any of them anywhere near the gondolas, we can go up there! Those changelings really hated what’s going on up near the castle, so that’s where we should be.”

They weren’t going to make it. The drones following them were faster on their hooves, and they hadn’t been half-starved in some awful camp. One of them got close enough that he snapped at the earth pony, jaws sliding harmlessly off magically protected flesh.

“We won’t last!” Harlequin called, finding her voice came out far less confidently than she imagined. “They’re moving too fast!”

Then they rounded a bend, and the group nearly smacked into each other. The alley hadn’t led to the stairs up to the gondola, but to a dead end.

The ponies with wings lifted up into the air, trying to tug their friends up with them—without success.

“Go!” said the pink unicorn at the front of the group. “Save yourselves!”

Harlequin landed at the front, facing away from the trapped ponies. The earth pony who had saved her stopped too, looking sidelong at her and finally noticing her belt. “You… is that a sword?”

She couldn’t lift it in her magic, not with wings. But maybe that didn’t matter. These drones were being driven by instinct, and she had something with some powerful ways of influencing instincts.

Harlequin drew the sword with a single sweep, and immediately it started glowing. She felt sickness ripple through her body, and for a moment she wasn’t sure if she was going to lose her transformation and be revealed to these ponies for what she was.

But then she felt their admiration, and the surge of desperate, terrified hope. Though she couldn’t sense any other minds, couldn’t share their knowledge or their support, this tiny group could still be her anchor.

Harlequin stopped feeling sick as she advanced on the oncoming drones, waving the sword around wildly. She didn’t really know how to fight with it, and now she couldn’t rely on the others to know. But that didn’t matter. She didn’t want to fight them.

And she didn’t have to. The other changelings skidded to a stop, all staring up at the glowing edge of the sword. They squeaked to one another in things that weren’t quite words, but that Harlequin could understand.

“Not safe”


“Other way”

“Yes!” Harlequin instructed, relief flooding her. I couldn’t hurt them. It’s not their fault they’re afraid. “Go away!”

They did, turning and scattering out into the city in all directions. There were plenty of other places to hide, plenty of safer targets. They left.

Harlequin felt it before she saw it—like rays of sunlight flowing down on her in all directions. The ponies—seven in all—were cheering. Their love and appreciation washed over her like a wave. She almost lost her shape for the second time in the sudden overflow of food, so much she couldn’t even hold it all.

Why had this sword made her sick again? Harlequin stared up at the blade for a few more seconds, but she couldn’t even see the glow anymore through the sunlight. She sheathed it anyway, mostly so she didn’t have something in her mouth.

“Woah. You must be with the guard or something. Are you undercover?”

“Did you see the way she swung that sword?”

Like a wet grub? But she didn’t care. She could accept their praise all day long. I wish you could’ve flown with me, Codex. I hope you made it up there.

“I’m nobody’s guard,” she said, when they were done. She didn’t quite know what undercover meant, but she could guess based on the context. “I just, uh… found this sword when I escaped!”

“Well, you should join,” the earth pony said. “I’m Apple Cinnamon. What’s your name?”

“Harlequin,” she said, not even hesitating. Why should she—not even Hydrus knew she’d stolen the name.

The earth pony took one look at her scarf, then nodded. “Well, Harlequin… everypony… we probably shouldn’t stay down here. There were a lot of changelings. You think we could get the gondolas working again?”

“I could,” said the pink unicorn, sliding out from behind the others and pointing with her horn. “I’ve seen how they do it. It’s just about getting the levers right.”

“We should be safer once we’re off the ground,” Cinnamon said. “I saw them fly during the invasion, but these seem… different, somehow.”

“The princess cast a spell on them,” somepony else said from the back of the crowd. “I saw it. They were fine one minute, then they started attacking each other.”

Their group hurried from the alley, searching for another route up to the gondola station. Harlequin kept her sword ready to draw, though they didn’t need it again. Something seemed to have drawn most of the changelings’ attention, something that was moving up from the bottom of the city. She couldn’t reach out to them to feel what it might be.

It’s not coming back, she realized with horror, as they reached the edge of the building. Lots of sturdy wood, with broken glass windows and overturned queue lines.

Harlequin guessed the wooden box everyone was climbing into was the “gondola” they kept talking about, with its clear windows and little benches inside. But instead of having wheels, this cart seemed to go straight up into the sky, riding along thin wires up the side of the city. Do I really want to go back up there?

She stood back as the unicorn started fiddling with the switches and levers, and a series of blue crystals started to glow. I probably shouldn’t go back up there. If I run away now, I could escape. Fly away from Canterlot.

Ten minutes ago she never would’ve imagined it. But she was already torn away from the Swarm. Their voices were quiet. Their queen had failed them.

This isn’t a test. All the things the Queen would do, she wouldn’t hurt us this way. The ponies won.

But there are still thousands of drones up there. What if they make it to the top and get eaten?

“Are you coming, Harlequin?” Cinnamon asked, poking his head out the sliding door. The car was already moving, though slowly. She would have to trot to catch up before the platform ran out. “Come on!”

Harlequin ran, leaping over the slight gap as the car cleared the end of the platform.

Chapter 10: Insider

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Harlequin’s trip back to the upper city was far less eventful than her flight down. There was no wave of magic following them, no other signs of spells radiating away from the palace.

Under other circumstances, she probably would’ve been fascinated by the ingenuity of the gondola car. It was an incredible little invention, a safe and warm way for the ponies without wings to ride from one part of the city to another. The three earth ponies in the group kept well away from the windows, looking different shades of afraid, but the others didn’t seem to mind.

Actually, she had a hard time finding room up against the glass to look down at the city. But the car had been made to seat twenty ponies at least, so all she had to do was walk past her group a way until she found an empty row.

The scene in the camp seemed to be repeating itself all over the city. Instead of disciplined occupation, changelings seemed to have gone insane, and were attacking every part of the city they could get their hooves on. If there were other changelings like her somewhere in that mess, like Thorax, she could see no sign of them. From up above, it was only the huge groups that stood out clearly.

Huge plumes of smoke were rising where new fires had sprung up, and were slowly spreading across the city. But from up ahead of them, there was only mystery.

“They won’t catch us off-guard like this again,” Cinnamon said beside her, his voice confident. “Now we know they’re out there. Equestria will be ready next time.”

Harlequin shivered, ears flattening to her head. They hadn’t come to destroy Canterlot, but that was what was happening below them. But more than that, she knew the chances those drones had against a real army.

“Look, do you see?” Cinnamon pointed out the rear windows, facing furthest down the mountain. She followed his leg, to where gold figures were pouring out of the train station, sweeping over the drones there like a tide. “That’s the royal guard. I bet they’ve been gathering from all over Equestria these last few days, rushing here. These changelings don’t seem to understand what they’ve done.”

Neither did Harlequin. “You don’t think the Queen knew what she was doing? That she didn’t know they would win when they attacked?”

If Cinnamon recognized her words as being even a little strange, he didn’t react. “Their queen…” His eyes narrowed as he stared off the edge of the car. “She didn’t know just how big a mistake she made attacking us. I hear…” He turned. “Lilac, what did you say about the changelings? Didn’t they take you away for a bit?”

She nodded, ears flattening. For all Cinnamon’s enthusiasm, she responded with obvious pain in her voice. Harlequin could sense it there, a deep and recent wound. “They don’t eat ponies, they eat… l-love. I think.”

If the swarm had still been there, Harlequin would’ve asked why this pony would be so confused and pained by that. She’d been feeding Harlequin for the last hour and hadn’t even realized. But she couldn’t ask, and from the pain in her voice she knew she shouldn’t.

“Right,” Cinnamon cut in. “They eat love. So what’s the stupidest possible thing you could do to a nation if you want to eat love?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “How about attacking them? Make them afraid of you, make them hate you. Remember that you killed their grandmother, or their best friend.” He settled down on his haunches, looking distant. “When this is over, the changelings won’t be getting a drop from us.”

Why did it make so much sense? Harlequin stumbled away from Cinnamon as though he’d punched her in the face. He watched her silently, with what little time he was even looking in her direction.

The Queen can’t be wrong. She knew what she was doing. She took us here because it was where we should be.

Yet Cinnamon’s words made sense. The Swarm no longer demanded respect for Chrysalis, no longer made her knees weak and her stomach turn over at the thought of doing anything the Queen wouldn’t want. I’ve only been with ponies for an hour, and I already feel full.

Could Chrysalis be wrong?

They arrived in the upper station a few minutes later, with a slight bump shaking through her hooves and a little shaking from side to side. The door opened, and Harlequin could tell instantly that she would not be needing to protect her new friends from insane drones.

The station had just over a dozen of the pony guards inside, with weapons drawn and gold armor gleaming. There were no changelings in sight, at least not inside. Just out the building, she could see tight clumps of them in the center of the street, surrounded by armed ponies.

The ponies had taken back the upper city.

One of the guards stepped forward, a pale blue and orange unicorn with her helmet off and a spear leaning up against her. “Out, all of you, but don’t go much further.”

They obeyed, hurrying to exit before the car could completely leave the station behind.

Oh no. Harlequin made her way out at the back of the group, doing her best to stay behind the other ponies.

“The lower city hasn’t been recaptured,” the pony explained. “I’m sure you all know that, having come from there.”

The soldiers surrounded them, closing in on both sides and blocking any possible path of escape. Except down into the space the car had taken. Harlequin glanced after it, and down into the empty sky. She could turn, fly off, make a break for it.

No, stay still! There’s no reason for them to suspect you! She swallowed, turned, tucked her wings against her side. But her other instincts were broken—she couldn’t turn back on the Swarm for confidence, not when it didn’t exist.

“We know,” Cinnamon said. “We barely made it out.”

“Let’s hope you did,” the blue unicorn said. “My name is Captain Azure Sigil. You might be aware, but the changelings’ name is not hypothetical. They can impersonate ordinary ponies. So far as we can tell, there’s no way to determine which is which.”

“The changelings were all going… crazy,” Lilac pointed out. “We saw it, that’s how we got away. Our guards just… started attacking each other. Can they still pretend to be us?”

Sigil nodded. “Princess Cadance’s spell was more pronounced up here, but we’ve encountered a few who tried. So I just have to ask you—has anyone in your group acted suspicious? Joined you under mysterious circumstances, perhaps? Tried to get you into danger, or trick you into doing things for them?”

Silence. The ponies in their little group scanned each other’s faces with a brief surge of suspicion, dampening any remaining glow of gratitude that had been echoing through the gondola on the way over.

For nearly a full minute, they sat in awkward silence together. Until Cinnamon finally spoke up. “We escaped from the… place they were keeping us… together.”

“Grew up on the same street!” somepony else said. “Except Harlequin, but she’s not a changeling.”

“Grew up on the same street…” Sigil gestured, and the guard beside her made a few scratches on a notepad. “Except for one? Which of you is Harlequin?”

All eyes turned on her. There was no sense trying to hide it. She stepped forward, meeting the soldier’s eyes. “That’s me.”

“Interesting name,” Sigil said. “But… yes, that’s a sewing machine. So you’re into fashion?”

What was she supposed to say? No I’m not, please arrest me! Maybe the Swarm could’ve given her advice, but she still couldn’t feel it. Her mind had not cleared even slightly since the explosion. Will it ever come back?

But she didn’t get a chance to answer, because Cinnamon stepped up beside her. “Harlequin saved all our lives from the changelings, Miss Sigil. We were running away, and got turned around in the Ivory district. You know how confusing those streets can be. We… would’ve been eaten. But she pulled out her sword and fought them off.”

“If she’s a changeling, she’s not a very good one,” Lilac added, though she wasn’t brave enough to join Cinnamon and stayed tucked in beside the other ponies. Her voice was acidic, furious. “They’re all bucking heartless monsters. They can’t do anything good.”

“Is that true?” Sigil asked, glancing around the group. “This pony here took that sword she’s wearing and protected you from changelings?”

Harlequin glanced over her shoulder in time to see them nod. Their suspicion hadn’t lasted.

“Well then.” Azure Sigil clasped her on the shoulder suddenly, grinning from ear to ear. “You did great work for your fellow pony, Harlequin. I’ll make sure the stenographers take your story in detail. And if you’re looking to move out of that career in fashion and protect your country, the guard could use a pony like you.”

That was it. The captain seemed to lose interest in them, directing them instead to a number of other guards, who walked with them out through the building and onto the street.

It was full of drones.

They weren’t bleeding, they hadn’t been beaten, or killed. They were just… lying there. One nearby had its eyes open, staring straight through her. “Can you hear me?”

She felt nothing from them—no more than she had from any part of the Swarm. These drones were still breathing, but they didn’t look like they’d stay that way for much longer.

Ponies had begun moving between them, securing their hooves with a length of rope. It wasn’t hard—the changelings weren’t resisting anymore.

Their escort seemed to notice her eyes, because he nodded. “Princess Cadance cast that spell. It didn’t affect all of them, though. Their leaders escaped during the chaos, we’re fairly sure. Danger isn’t past us forever.”

“Escaped…” Harlequin repeated, speeding up to walk beside him. “Their leaders, do you mean… the Queen? Did she abandon them? Left us behind?”

“Yeah. Her and some others. None of these smaller ones, though. We were hoping the spell went through the whole city, but I guess not.”

“What happens now?” Cinnamon asked, the first one brave enough to voice their confusion at where they were actually going. “To us, I mean. We still don’t have the city back. We can’t return to our homes.”

Their escort shrugged. “For now the princesses are taking everypony to the palace, at least everypony who makes it up here. The Guard is working on the lower city now. My guess is you should be able to return to your homes tomorrow.”

As they got closer to the castle, Harlequin saw more of the battle that hadn’t ever been made for her eyes. Sections of the walls had caved in, and there were numerous dead changelings here. Drones with no names, who died for no reason. Probably they’d died trying to stop that last group from reaching the castle. Would Codex and I have made a difference?

It didn’t look that way, not from the way many of these bugs had died. It was so awful that even the ponies—embittered and angry as they were—looked away.

“What are we going to do with the…” She hesitated. “Prisoners?”

They passed through the open gates, where guardsponies waited on the walls watching carefully with their crossbows.

“Dungeons aren’t big enough,” he answered. “Not sure where they’ll go. Tartarus wouldn’t hold that many, I don’t think. Glad it isn’t my problem to figure out.”

“There’s no hole deep enough,” Lilac muttered. “No banishment far enough away. After what they did to us.”

They passed through a massive archway, through more incredible structures made of polished white stone. How do they get them to stand so tall? Why doesn’t the castle fall over? Now she had no one to ask. The Swarm might still be alive, at least some of them. But they were separated now. Maybe forever.

“For now, Shamrock is down there, checking ponies in. She’ll make sure you have a place to sleep and food to eat for the night.”

Harlequin followed her group into a throne room packed with ponies, desperate and pained but no longer terrified. Seeing her seven make it filled her with a warmth she couldn’t explain.

But at the same time, there were thousands outside, changelings who hadn’t even had names. Their queen was gone, their leaders were captured. Who would care for them? Was Codex out there somewhere, catatonic like the others? Or maybe he’d found somewhere else to hide.

I have to find him, she decided, as they settled into the check-in line. And Hydrus too, if I can. Maybe I can help them escape whatever jail the ponies put them in.

Maybe, but she’d have to stay hidden long enough first.

Chapter 11: Build

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Harlequin spent that night in the lair of her enemies.

At first it didn’t seem like much had changed between having ponies in charge and when her own kind had ruled ruthlessly over the city. Ponies still separated into small groups, with tiny sleeping areas they made for themselves.

Only this time, Harlequin came with them. The room they were led to was little bigger than a storage closet, with cots packed in with barely enough room to walk between them. Without any conversation between them, Harlequin took the first spot for herself, as though she would be the one to defend the doorway if they were attacked.

Of course they weren’t. “Listen for the bell, dinner in the great hall. If you miss it, you miss it. Bathroom at the end of the hall, water too. Medical is on the bottom floor if you need it.” And they were left alone.

Harlequin kept mostly to herself after that, watching the ponies silently from her cot and listening for any information about the Swarm. They were certainly a popular topic of conversation among the ponies here—mostly in their satisfaction that they’d been defeated.

Their room didn’t have a window of its own, but the hallway did. Harlequin wandered down it more than once, past empty suits of pony armor and disapproving faces looking down on her from wall-mounted portraits. There was a constant fear in the back of her mind—fear that any moment one of the Alicorns would come storming down the hallway with rage in their eyes for the intruder in their castle.

Little Harlequin certainly wouldn’t be able to fight them where even the Queen had failed. They would kill her, and everything she’d learned would be gone.

But no attack came. She followed her group back into the room after a meal she hadn’t really eaten, and pretended to sleep on her cot until she felt each of them settle into unconsciousness one at a time. She knew the moment not from the sound of their breathing, but from the unfocused feelings of their minds, no longer holding any emotion but still distinctly alive.

She waited a little longer before settling her sword-belt across her shoulders and creeping out through the door.

She could hear the sound of hushed pony conversations coming from dozens of little rooms as she crept along the hallway, keeping her body low and muscles tight. Hydrus had given her more than a name—choosing her to feed on Codex of all drones meant that she had magic to spare. Enough magic that she wouldn’t run out just by imitating the ponies a little longer. Enough magic, maybe, to accomplish her mission.

The windows outside showed her what she’d wanted to know—the changelings that had been gathered in the street in ordered lines were gone. Well, most of them were. She could see a pile of dark shapes in the castle courtyard, with flames leaping and sparking across it from inside. Every one of the bodies she saw looked small—smaller than her. They were drones, apparently. Either they’d been killed when ponies took the city back, or they hadn’t been able to survive the shock of losing the hive-mind.

But where did they take the survivors? Harlequin reached out with her mind as she’d done so many times before, searching for the strength of the Swarm. Her source of confidence, stability, knowledge… still wasn’t there.

She whimpered, slumping forward against the polished stone wall and staring through a window at nothing.

Codex was right. We never should’ve come here. Ponies were too strong. Now look at us. She was one of the lucky ones. How many others like her were hiding out among the victorious ponies? How long could they stay hidden?

“You there!” a voice called from down the hall—she didn’t even have to look up to realize it was a guardspony. But she did look up, into an armored stallion’s face. A real spear rested over his shoulder, though he wasn’t actually pointing it at her. “You’re… armed. And out of your room. Why?”

She resisted the temptation to run not through discipline or calculation, but simple despair. “I want to help,” she said. “So many got hurt for no reason… and I want to do something about it. But I don’t know how.”

For a long, painful instance, she felt the guard’s suspicion nearly boil over. He didn’t take his eyes from her; his body tense every second for what she might do.

Strange how I can still feel pony emotions perfectly, but I can’t feel the Swarm. What kind of spell could do that?

Too bad pony magic was so different from theirs, or else she might know. As it was… she could only be confused. There are smarter bugs than me who might be able to figure it out. Like Codex. He seemed to know as much about changelings as Hydrus, maybe more. He could figure this out.

“I see.” The stallion—a pegasus, with brown wings, reached out for her, touching her shoulder with an awkward, tentative pressure. She could feel his nervous fear at how she might react. “You aren’t the only one to feel that way. We all wish there was more we could’ve done. That doesn’t mean you should stay awake blaming yourself.

“Name’s Spearhead. What’s your name?”

“Harlequin,” she replied, as smoothly as before. It was becoming increasingly natural to say, no longer requiring any thought. It was just her name now, no matter the method she’d got it. Why should she be ashamed?

“Well, Harlequin. Do you really want to do something about it? Or just mope about up here and feel sorry for yourself? I see you’ve got a sword there. Can you use it?”

“Y-yeah,” she stammered, straightening. She wiped away her tears, settling her wings more securely against her side. It would be awkward to use the sword if he actually asked her to—without a horn currently, she couldn’t use magic without giving herself away. But she had used her mouth for it before. “Of course I want to do something about it.”

“It won’t be easy,” Spearhead continued. “Real hard work, actually. But it will make a difference.”

“I always work hard,” she answered, instinctively. Her early life had included nothing else.

“Then come on.” He gestured down the hall. “They’re looking for volunteers down in the caverns. We’re… turning them into a prison. More hooves, quick work.”

Oh no. But what had she expected the pony was talking about? They didn’t care about what the Swarm was going through. It didn’t seem like the regular ponies could even understand!

It was almost like he could read emotions himself, because he seemed to sense her hesitation. Maybe he was watching her eyes, and the way she glanced back at the bedroom. “You don’t have to come,” he said. “You could go back to sleep, nopony will judge you. But if you feel the way I think you do… that won’t help. You’ll wake up feeling even worse that you didn’t do anything to help. You might not sleep until sunrise this way, but when you do, you’ll feel like you earned it.”

“I’m not very strong,” Harlequin said, honestly. “And I’m only an okay flyer. Is that good enough?”

“Oh, yeah.” He kept walking. “They know how strong a pegasus is, you don’t have to worry about it. They won’t expect you to haul like an earth pony or cast spells like a unicorn.”

It was her last chance to retreat. Maybe she should’ve, but… at the same time, she couldn’t keep his words from her mind. ‘Turning them into a prison.’

She might not know where the changelings had gone, but she knew where they would end up. Helping build it seemed like a betrayal… but maybe it could help, too. Somehow.

The Swarm would tell me what to do. It would tell me if that was allowed. But the Swarm hadn’t come back. It wasn’t like an injury slowly healing, with little flashes and suggestions of the unconscious voices of the Swarm just out of reach. She still felt only silence.

But that didn’t stop her from following Spearhead through a maze of passages and corridors—which she would have to remember on her own, since the Swarm couldn’t help her anymore. She waited in a shorter line, gave her name and told them she’d be willing to work until sunrise…

And then she did. The ponies were using the very same caves that the Queen had used to imprison the captured princess.

“Basic layout is gonna be like this…” explained a tired-looking earth pony, between cups of coffee. He had a map of the caverns up on the wall for her and the other volunteers to look at.

“Caverns are way too big for us to know everything—but this upper part used to be Psian Mines, so they loaned us the map. We seal off the whole thing, and we can keep the changelings in here as long as we need.”

He pointed at a few key sections of the map in turn. “Plan is to stay hooves-off, let the changelings take care of themselves. The right here is a well—there’s enough water in that aquifer to keep Canterlot itself supplied for a thousand years, so they won’t get thirsty. This mineshaft here, it’s getting reinforced with every anti-changeling spell there is. We can send carts of food down that way, then wheel them back up.”

He moved on. “There are six ways in we know about, we’ll mostly be sealing each of them. Builders, that’s the earth ponies, you’ll be setting the bars. Finishers, that’s… everypony who en’t a unicorn ‘sides the builders… you’ll be supplying the accommodations.” He gestured over his shoulder at several massive crates. From the symbol on the side, they held the same sort of cots as the ones set up for frightened ponies upstairs.

“E-excuse me…” Harlequin probably should’ve kept her mouth shut, but her curiosity wouldn’t let her. It never really did. “When you say food, um… how are you going to get love into a cart?”

The entire room went silent. Ponies—grizzled, worn ponies, mostly stallions, watched her as though she’d just asked where the Queen had come from.

“Sweetheart,” the construction pony began, his voice gentle. “Are you sure you’re cut out for this? That doesn’t seem like the sort of question… a pony who belongs here would ask.”

“I am!” She stepped forward, twisting just a little so he could see the sword hanging from her side. “I fought them, I know them. The changelings don’t eat food, they eat love. You would need a way for their food to visit for them to get any. If you give them… what ponies were eating in the cafeteria upstairs… they’ll all starve.”

“That sounds like a fair punishment,” said a unicorn mare’s voice—one that made Harlequin’s blood feel suddenly cold. She’d seen that mare before—weeping over the body of her husband. “Last time I checked, we were in the hundreds of ponies who won’t be coming back to their families, because of them. We can’t know which ones are killers and which ones aren’t, so… we punish them all.”

Harlequin sank quietly back into her seat, ears flattening to her head. Great Queens before me, did she see the sword from over there? Hatred as pure as anything she had ever felt from the Queen radiated from this pony like a flame. It burned so hot that it might very well make Harlequin hungrier if she thought about it for too long. She tried not to.

But no, the unicorn wasn’t watching her anymore. She was on the other side of the room, so she probably hadn’t had a good look.

This is the prison that Celestia approved,” said the lead pony. “This is the one we have to put up. By morning, if we can. Somewhere to hold them while the nation decides something more lasting. So get into your assigned groups and get to work. Your equipment is waiting.”

Chapter 12: Reward

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Ponies worked fast. It was amazing just how quickly the cave transformed around her—whole sections of crystal cut down while carts with massive lengths of steel were rolled in past her. Harlequin got a chance to see firsthoof just how the ponies built such amazing things.

She did her best not to do her assigned job of setting out cots and blankets—things that changelings didn’t use to begin with—and instead tried to memorize the map. It was hard, and even harder to be sure that she was remembering anything correctly. There were numerous cracks and crevices, which ponies either packed with crystals or else sprayed with a long pipe of liquid rock that hardened a few minutes later.

But what was she supposed to do, tell the construction crew not to seal it up? All that would accomplish was make sure she was the first one to try out the new prison for herself.

She didn’t know how late it was when the work was finally done, since there wasn’t a single view of the sun from anywhere in the caverns. But eventually the ponies seemed satisfied, and they passed up the long ramp through the dungeons that prisoners would soon be using.

Good thing they didn’t send us back in carts. Were the spells around those carts in place yet? That would just serve her right—helping them make a place to trap the other changelings would result in her being the first one imprisoned there.

The castle had been transformed while she slept. The bodies were gone, the pile of corpses were gone, and fresh decorations had been hung on the walls. I guess this is why ponies aren’t staying in the great hall, she thought, as they passed a room filled with flowers.

“What’s…” She hesitated for another second, but as before didn’t stay quiet for long. “What’s going on?”

“Wedding is back on,” one of the construction crew said from behind her. “We’re part of how that gets to happen. City safe, Princess Cadance finally gets the wedding the changelings tried to steal.”

“And you’re all invited!” their night-time supervisor, Hard Hat, cut in. “It’s tonight, just before sunset. Cadance’s orders were to grant an invitation to anyone who helped make the city safe, or begin to repair the damage. She’s insistent on going through with this despite everything. Good on her for tenacity.”

They returned to the tiny basement room where she’d checked in, and Hard Hat dispensed invitations. “But probably clean yourself up before this evening. Smells like you lost a fight with the caverns tonight, and our princess deserves better.”

There were exhausted sounds of agreement as the crowd of ponies began to disperse. But she couldn’t share it—Harlequin wasn’t a pony. An hour or so of inactivity, and she’d be herself again.

She followed the thoughts of familiar minds back to the third-floor storage room converted into a temporary bedroom, stashed the sword and the invitation, then spent the next few minutes appreciating the wonder of a pony shower for the first time.

There was hot water in there, and dozens of differently colored soaps. The mystery of ponies’ strange smells was solved. Still doesn’t seem as nice as a real grooming, though.

Apple Cinnamon caught her coming back, right around the time the others were waking up. “Where were you?” he asked, groggy. “Were you gone all night?”

She winced, looking away from him. But there was no reason to fear this would give away her secret. “They were looking for volunteers… to help build a prison for the, uh…”

“Oh.” He winced. “And you didn’t wake me? Bet they would’ve gone faster with a pair of strong hooves, eh?” He grinned back at her—though she couldn’t have said why.

“Here, uh… you can have this.” She held it up for him, nodding in something like a polite bow. “I’m too tired to go.”

He took the invitation, tearing into the stained and imprinted paper with surprisingly delicate pressure between his hooves. A lacy, frilly bit of paper slipped out onto the cot in front of him.

“Y-you’re invited? You know the princess?” Suddenly he sounded awed. “I guess I… should’ve expected. I heard she used to be a pegasus, and… knowing how to fight like you do. You’re undercover, aren’t you?”

Harlequin tensed, visibly enough that even the pony noticed. He nodded solemnly to himself. “Don’t worry, Harlequin. I can keep your secret.”

“I don’t have any—” But she couldn’t finish her sentence. It wasn’t true, and feeling the warmth and admiration coming from this pony—that would be like sticking a rock in his mouth in exchange.

“Riiiight.” He winked. “Are you sure you don’t want to attend? The wedding… seems like it would be an important occasion for you. Protecting some of her subjects the way you did… I bet you were out hunting escaped changelings all night, not building a room. But don’t worry, I’ll keep your story for you.”

Even whispering, the others in their little bedroom were waking up. They wouldn’t be able to have any kind of private conversation any longer. “Just… go for me. Or find somepony you think should go. I need to rest.” She clambered into bed, pulling the thin sheet over her. It didn’t make a difference—Harlequin still hadn’t figured out what about these things was supposed to make ponies more comfortable. But at least it was a sign to Cinnamon that he should finally leave her alone.

Harlequin could easily sleep through almost anything—through new drones hatching, to fights over dominance in the hive, to structural shifts and collapses in its ever-unpredictable structure. But being surrounded with food kept her up.

When she finally slept, she was only unconscious for an hour or so.

It was the darkest thing she’d experienced so far, worse even than seeing all the drones chained up in the street. Changelings did not dream, but the Swarm that was asleep could be part of the collective more completely than when they were awake.

Harlequin could remember many lessons she had learned there, watching the memories of other sleeping drones and feeling their universal fellowship and purpose.

There was nothing in her sleep now, and Harlequin spent an hour drifting alone in the abyss. She could almost feel a pair of judgmental eyes watching her, a magic far larger than herself no longer kept at bay by the might of the Swarm. This is me… this is the rest of my life. The others aren’t coming back.

And when she woke up, they hadn’t. But at least the pony bedroom was empty. There weren’t even possessions stashed anymore, aside from her sword leaning up against the bed. She donned it along with the scarf, before striding down the hall.

Maybe she could try and sneak off to the prison and find a way to open it.

She didn’t even make it to the stairwell before somepony stopped her. Not a guard this time, though—this pony looked more like one of Celestia’s servants. She had the same look of submissiveness about her that the Queen’s entourage had, and when she looked at Harlequin there was no concern of her own. “Lady, umm… I’m sorry to say the ceremony has already started below. If you were headed that way…”

“I’m not,” Harlequin answered hastily. “I’m looking for the way down to the courtyard. Can you show me?”

“I… cannot leave my post, lady, but… if you continue down…” Harlequin listened to the directions, then hurried away. There was another few hallways, a door concealed behind a false panel of wall, then a long stretch through the gloom until she emerged from what seemed like more wall on the castle grounds.

It’s a little like the hive. The ponies have secret passages running all through it, concealed. They hide knowledge even from each other. She would’ve liked to ask the Swarm about it, but…

There were still guards on the wall, with their crossbows ready and their armor gleaming. Harlequin did her best to ignore them as she walked, feeling very out of place. Occasionally one of them would glance in at her, but then turn their eyes back out at the city.

Harlequin in turn checked her reflection in the glass, to be sure her magic hadn’t somehow ended without her realizing it. But no, she was still in the body she’d copied. The body that could pass through Equestria without notice.

She reached the front of the castle, and with it the apparent location of the many ponies who had been living inside before. They were waiting in line, for yet another booth.

“Hey, Harlequin!” One of the ponies separated out from the crowd, and again she winced at the face she saw. It was Azure Sigil, the unicorn that had greeted them in the upper city. “Slept in a little, eh?”

“H-helped with the prison,” she mouthed, scraping at the dirt with one nervous hoof.

“Of course you did. Hero of Canterlot like you would spend her whole night working for us, then not go to the party.” She pushed up against her, turning Harlequin out towards the city. “Come on, my duty shift just ended. I don’t want a hero like you waiting in line with the rabble, you know?”

“R-right…” Harlequin glanced desperately to either side, but there was no sign of an easy escape. She was trapped as they made it through the gates, then out into Canterlot’s upper district.

It no longer looked deserted. Teams of ponies wearing similar clothing were already moving up and down, gathering up rubble into carts and replacing broken fixtures with intact ones.

How long until there’s no evidence we were even here? Locking up the survivors underground, fix the things that got broke during the attack… How many times had Equestria been invaded in the past, and they couldn’t even see?

“Where are we going?” Harlequin asked, her voice tentative. “I mean… not that I don’t like taking trips and seeing stuff, I just….”

“You… weren’t actually in line,” Sigil said, as though she were just realizing it. “Right, sorry. I guess you might not have been listening. So far as we can tell, the last changeling is out of Canterlot, and ponies can return to their homes. But we’re taking ponies back with a guard nearby, just in case there were traps left behind, or maybe stragglers hiding that weren’t rounded up. There were… incidents earlier. You’re already armed, so it shouldn’t be very hard. Where are we going? Gondola is up and running again, if it’s not in the upper city. No judgement for heroes based on their postage code.”

Harlequin hesitated, slowing a little as she thought. There had to be a way to answer this question that wouldn’t make her look suspicious, right?

“I was… visiting,” she said, speaking slowly, and watching Sigil’s emotions with every second. Ready to change tact the instant it seemed like she’d said the wrong thing. “I don’t live in Canterlot.”

“Really?” Sigil’s eyes trailed down to the sword at her belt. “May I?” She didn’t wait for permission, undoing the clasp and drawing it with her magic.

Harlequin winced, expecting to be blasted with unfriendly light—but nothing happened. The metal seemed uninterested in her for the moment. Maybe it’s because I’m transformed! It can’t see me! That was one theory, anyway.

“If you… look on the hilt, here, you’ll see…” She looked. There was a carving on the sword, one she hadn’t noticed before. Canterlot itself was depicted there, the densely-packed buildings and the palace on top. “This weapon comes from the Canterlot City Watch. They’re awarded to those who reach the rank of colonel, and enchanted by Celestia herself. There are… two hundred of them in circulation, maybe less.”

She held it up towards her face, squinting. “Nightender. I wonder where this one was. I particularly wonder how you came to own it, Harlequin. Given that you aren’t a member of the Guard, and aren’t even from Canterlot.”

There it was—all the suspicion and doubt she’d been expecting any moment. The unicorn’s eyes narrowed, and the sword hovered there, a few inches from her neck.

And if she swings it, it’ll be what I deserve.

Chapter 13: Watchpony

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Harlequin faced down Azure Sigil, magic sword only a foot away from her neck.

This would be the moment where a better changeling than her would come up with some clever lie. Hydrus would probably already have had one in reserve, just in case someone asked about where the sword came from. If the Swarm had still been within reach, she could’ve asked their collective reasoning for help. But they were gone, and she was alone.

Harlequin winced, then met the pony’s eyes. “I found it on a dead pony. I had to kill with it, or Hydrus would’ve killed me too.” She closed her eyes, tensing against the swing. In spite of all her best efforts, the ponies had found her within a day.

Sigil didn’t swing the sword, though. Instead the unicorn offered it to her, hilt first. “I know we have a… stigma… about taking from the dead. But there’s no reason for you to be ashamed. You would be amazed at how many ponies would’ve just run away. But not you.”

“Not me.” Harlequin took the sword back in a daze, returning it to the sheath. It didn’t so much as buzz in her mouth. “I thought you were going to… attack me or something for a second there.”

Sigil chuckled. “Nightender there would’ve told me everything I needed to know, even if I didn’t have witness accounts of you saving all those ponies. I guess you… might not have noticed. A sword like that isn’t just sharp. It knows evil, tastes it. They’re so sharp they can even cut through an evil unicorn’s spell before it gets to you.”

“Oh.” Harlequin stared down at the sheath, and the intricate engraving on the hilt she hadn’t even noticed before.

“I’m sorry to say you may not be able to keep her. They usually stay in the family who won them. I’ll find the previous owner’s next of kin, and they can decide what happens to it. But if they do want it back… I’ll make sure to get you a replacement, alright? Won’t be enchanted, but… I know some fine blacksmiths. I’ll put a sword in your hooves any guardspony would be proud to carry. But until then, you can hold onto it. Never know what evil might still be lurking in Canterlot.”

“R-right.” Harlequin stared down at the sword, confusion on her face. I must be evil, I killed a pony! You hated me then! The sword didn’t respond. From what she could see, it didn’t even look like it was glowing any differently. It must not be as good at finding evil as they think, that’s all. Can’t see through my transformation.

“So you’re a visitor…” Sigil continued. “Who were you visiting? Relatives?”

“N-no… just wanted to see… see the city. Nothing like this where I come from.”

“Well that’s certainly true. Even if you’re from Manehattan you won’t have a city like this. You might have skyscrapers, but our city was built by the ancients.”

There was an awkward silence. She could feel the pony’s eyes on her even then, though what she was looking for, Harlequin couldn’t sense. Her emotions had settled back down into ambivalence and neutrality, which made the subtler shades around that middle impossible to judge.

“Well, Harlequin. There are a few hotels in the city that are opening back up, but most of them are packed with ponies. Homes destroyed… not a lot of spare rooms. You’re welcome to leave the city—I know there are plenty in the Guard who would love a vacation right now. So long as you leave the sword behind. Or…” She trailed off.

I can’t go, not with the other changelings trapped. She didn’t know what would happen to them. Could the drones without names even survive without the Swarm to guide them? “No,” she said. “I’m not leaving.”

“Well then.” Azure Sigil grinned a little wider, offering a hoof. “Want a job?”

“A… job…” she repeated the word, sounding it out, trying to make sense of what it implied. The pony said it with greater weight than she could explain, a sure sign that Harlequin didn’t know something. “Like… building the prison?”

“Sure,” Sigil chuckled. “Like that, except you’ll get paid for it. We’ve got hot food, warm beds, and more importantly…” She leaned in close. “We get to make a bucking difference. I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you, Harlequin… we lost a lot of good ponies in the invasion. Lots of our friends didn’t come home. But I know they’d be happy to see their empty beds filled by new heroes. The process to get into the Guard is usually pretty involved—a century ago, you wouldn’t stand a chance without the right bloodline.”

She seemed to sense Harlequin’s hesitation, because she stepped back, raising a hoof defensively. “I’ll admit it! I planned on asking you about this no matter what we found. I planned on it being a little more dramatic—your house would be all broken into and trashed, and I’d say ‘you know our water still works’ or something, invite you to stay at the barracks. So here’s my offer. Join the Guard. In light of your obvious qualifications, I can even offer a skip from technician straight to officer. You can have your own shiny set of armor in an hour, and be out on the streets of Canterlot making a difference in two.”

Could she say no? Sigil seemed so determined to have her. It sounds like the ponies had just as many die as we did. They just respond to it differently. It seemed like the guard couldn’t spawn new members, so they had to recruit another way. From her.

“I want to… make a difference. With the changelings.”

“I’ll make sure you can.” She stuck out a hoof. “Come on, Harlequin. That’s a great sword you’re wearing, now it’s time to earn it.”

The Swarm hadn’t come back, and didn’t seem to be no matter how long Harlequin waited. Even so, she imagined she could hear their distant voices in the back of her head, screaming warnings that she needed to turn around, and demanding that she get herself to safety.

You need to survive to free us! Her own voice demanded. You’ve gone to the most dangerous place in the whole world! Escape while you still can!

Harlequin followed Azure Sigil through a sturdy building apparently made of a single, incredibly huge chunk of featureless gray rock. While many of the surrounding structures had been burned or had their windows broken, this one still had its walls standing, and its own grave for the changelings who had tried to get inside.

She wasn’t the only one inside, either. Harlequin was taken to a small room filled with pony clothing, and found a familiar pony already inside getting dressed.

“Apple Cinnamon!” she exclaimed, passing through the stallion section for the other side. “You’re here too?”

He nodded. “Apples have always protected Equestria, Harlequin. One of my cousins is an Element of Harmony! I ain’t some fancy pony like that… but I can swing a hammer, and maybe that’s enough. I gave your invitation away to Lilac, I hope you’re not mad. I’ve never been much for watching rich ponies show off how rich they are, princess or not.”

Harlequin had no idea how to pick clothing that fit, and probably would’ve been even more out of place if the ponies hadn’t put up little signs to label who they thought would be wearing their clothes. One of the plaques showed a winged mare, and she picked a vest from there. It was too loose, but the third one she picked almost fit.

“What about you, Harlequin? Couldn’t resist being a hero?”

“Nope,” she answered honestly. “I want to help.” Nothing else I could do would put me closer to the others. I have to help them.

Harlequin waited in a short line to go into another small room, this time with several other ponies and huge bins filled with bits of golden armor. She stood in place while a unicorn tried different pieces on her, assembling a set of bright gold armor around her. “Now make sure you’re watching this. You won’t have magic to do it this way, so you’ll be on your own. Each piece hooks on to the one that came before, see? Now show me how I did it.”

She did. Harlequin could never have figured it out on her own, but she’d watched a pony do it in front of her. She was a pro at copying.

Then came a room filled with ponies, yet so quiet she could practically hear them breathing. They sat in chairs arranged around the central path to the end. Stained glass windows shone behind them. Harlequin looked up, and saw scenes of battle. Ponies battled against dragons, ponies held back the griffons, they charged across burning bridges. All wearing gold armor.

They were admitted one at a time. Apple Cinnamon went in first, past a pair of guards wearing shiny, ceremonial swords.

She got to the end, where two ponies were waiting. One of them wore her gold armor—Azure Sigil. Beside her was a stallion, old and wearing robes. His face had so many wrinkles she could barely see his eyes. But he seemed able to see her.

“I speak for this one,” Sigil said. “I will witness for her. She is called Harlequin, a houseless mare honored by her conduct in the invasion.”

Harlequin stood up straight in the heavy armor, feeling awkward as it shifted and clanked together. She hadn’t even seen Sigil since they came into the building. Did she even belong here?

“Recruit Harlequin,” said the stallion. Despite his weak-looking body, his voice was so strong it reverberated through the room all around them. “You have come to the Canterlot Royal Guard at a time of great trial. Many of those who you would have called brother or sister are dead on the streets of the city outside. Where once we cleaned tombs and changed flags, the Guard is once again called to follow the drums that march to war. Do you understand that violence may be asked of you?”

“Yeah,” she answered. “I can—”

But the stallion’s stern eyes silenced her. “The words are ‘I do’ or ‘I will.’” He looked past her. “Captain Sigil, did you prepare her to be sworn in?”

“I… may have let some of the formalities escape me, General. Apologies.”

He cleaned his throat, glowering at Sigil for a few more seconds. Then he started again. “Do you understand that violence may be asked of you?”

“I do.” At least she could follow directions.

“Equestria is surrounded by dangers. Will you put your life between them and its ponies?”

She nodded again. “I will.”

“By joining with the Royal Guard, do you understand that your duty to protect Equestria will continue until your death? Even after your term of service is over, you may still be called upon to fight for Equestria and its princesses. Will you take up your weapons again when called upon, no matter the hour or the year?”

What’s the point of all this? She kept expecting to be blasted by magic, but… nothing happened. She was just saying words.

“I will.”

“Then you are a pony of the Royal Guard. May your watch continue in honor until your death.”

Ponies all around the room stomped their hooves for her, and for an instant Harlequin could almost feel a spell. Except it wasn’t magic she felt from these ponies, they weren’t casting a spell. They were accepting her into their family.

“Sorry about, uh… not telling you what to expect,” Sigil muttered, as they left the little room behind. “It slipped my mind. I was really little when I joined, and… well, you did fine. Now let’s see about getting you a bunk, then… a place on the duty roster, Officer Harlequin.

“Remember what I asked,” she said—all she could muster. She felt like a grub that had cocoon stuck to her underside during a meeting with the Queen. Magic sword, could you kill me please? I don’t belong here.

The sword didn’t react.

“I remember. And you’re in luck—most of a new recruit’s time is spent training, but… not all of it. I’ve got a job I think you’ll appreciate.”

Chapter 14: Codex

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Harlequin was guarding the prison.

There was only one entrance meant to be used, where the dungeons descended into the rock of Canterlot’s mountain. In the time since she’d arrived to help, the ponies had filled the upper cells with prisoners.

She knew they were different from the way they dressed—many of them had little scraps—a hat here, some socks there, or something clipped into the tail. They’d been allowed to keep their clothes, but not the holsters and weapons that almost all the changelings with names carried as a matter of course.

Including her.

Harlequin wasn’t expected to do much, just to stand near the heavy gate leading down into the caverns, surrounded by captured changeling officers in the cells on either side.

“Word of advice—” said the guardspony as they arrived, resting his wing briefly on Harlequin’s shoulder. “Don’t give them attention. Just a little bit of kindness, and they won’t leave you alone all shift. Ignore them.”

“No need to tell her what to do,” Azure Sigil said from beside her. “Harlequin here is a changeling expert.”

A changeling expert who thinks she may also be an idiot. Getting up close to them was the best possible position for her if she wanted to set them free—but she couldn’t do it the first five minutes of her shift! What if they recognized her?

They can’t. The Swarm’s connection is broken. I look just like a pony. Except there was still one way that they would be able to sense, one that would keep working regardless of her form. They couldn’t feed on her.

She descended the steps into the dungeon, and had to resist the urge to drop onto her knees and bow.

These were the greatest of the Swarm, the sort of bugs she had previously seen hovering around the Queen. She hadn’t understood the things they said, though she recognized the bright colors of their fins as a sign of power and authority.

Now along with their stolen clothes they wore iron around their necks, each one chained down to the floor like a wild animal. As she passed the cages on either side, Harlequin called out with her mind, trying to reach the Swarm again. I’m here to rescue you! Don’t worry, I’ll get you free!

But there was no response. Bugs huddled against the floor, bugs rested in the half-sleep she knew was meant to conserve energy until prey returned. Bugs strained against their chains, gnashing against them with their teeth. But what none of them did was transform. Symbols on the metal. Magic, then? The ponies had barely known about them for a week, and already they were inventing new spells.

“I wouldn’t normally stand a watch like this,” Sigil said conversationally, once they reached the end of the row. “But you’re new, and it’s tradition. I recruited you, so now we’re comrades. Until death, just like General Hussar said. So I hope you’re as brave as all those ponies claimed.”

“I’m brave,” she said weakly. She probably didn’t sound it, because she didn’t feel it just now. There were about a hundred changelings up here—the ones she’d thought were above her, the ones who had whole names when she didn’t even have one letter.

Her eyes scanned them all the time, searching. There was no Hydrus, no Thorax, no Pharynx. Those were the only important bugs whose names she knew. Each one of these faces would’ve come with knowledge from the Swarm, their talents and accomplishments and feats of heroism. Except now she could feel nothing. They were all separate. The bugs chained up in this lonely hallway were as separate from each other as she felt from the ponies.

Sigil leaned in close, her voice sympathetic. “Don’t feel bad for them, Harlequin. These creatures aren’t innocent, and they aren’t ignorant. They’re the ones who knew what they were doing. I’ve heard the stories going around… ponies talking about changelings like they’re animals who don’t know any better. These did. Aside from their queen, these are the reason anypony died. We both could’ve kept living in peace if it wasn’t for them.”

“Yeah,” Harlequin answered, voice faint. “I know. It’s just… it’s hard.” Maybe there was some mercy. Maybe all the bugs she knew had escaped, beside the queen that had led them into so much danger. Harlequin could hope that, and maybe it would be true.

The watch lasted four hours. Harlequin hadn’t fully understood pony time when they told her that, but now she knew. It meant: basically forever.

Near the front of some of the cells bugs kept screaming at them almost the entire time. “Chrysalis hasn’t forgotten you! She’s going to avenge her children, you’ll see! Every one of you will suffer a hundred times what you did to us! If you want your families to live, let us go!”

Azure Sigil acted like she couldn’t hear them, and Harlequin did her best to copy. Except she couldn’t.

They took turns—one walking a slow patrol up and down the cages to make sure none were trying anything, the other remaining beside the locked gate that led into the Crystal Caverns. That there were only the two of them in the room was a testament to just how beaten Equestria thought the changelings to be.

What are we supposed to do? I don’t have keys. Maybe there was magic that could unlock sturdy locks. But Harlequin had never learned it, and now its mysteries were probably lost to the Swarm forever.

“Your turn to patrol,” Sigil offered, settling her back against the wall facing the gate down. None of the drones and lesser changelings below had tried to fight their way up—Harlequin wondered if any of them were even still alive.

“Alright.” She rose, adjusted her sword, then began her mournful procession up and down the line. I can’t get too upset, or Sigil might not let me come back here. I have to be here if I want to let them out. Maybe if she found the right bug she could ask them for advice.

The only trouble was: there were two of them down here. Almost as though the Equestrians had known to expect an intruder, and had wanted a second set of eyes. The Canterlot dungeons were a single, long stretch, with lots of little cells and doorways along it. Far from the perfect little houses in the rest of the city, this place looked like it had barely been used. Where changelings had been chained up, she saw paths through thick dust, thick enough that she could count every hoofprint.

But talking to them wouldn’t be so strange, if only she could find the right one. Did any of them look like they knew how to help?

The last guard’s advice was wasted on her—the trapped changelings watched her with a little anger sometimes, but no interest. Even as her heart raced with fear and guilt, it would seem to them like she was disinterested and apathetic—too neutral to feed on.

Then, at precisely the same moment, one of the trapped changelings seemed to see her. One of the smallest she’d seen so far, with a strange indentation in the creature’s middle and a shell that looked like it hadn’t been molted right.

Great queens, it’s…

“Harlequin! Yeah, that’s you under all that armor! I remember your sword!” the changeling called, sitting up from where he’d been lying in the center of a cell, surrounded by a dozen other smaller, younger prisoners. “You have to tell them!”

Harlequin winced, glancing over her shoulder to see if Sigil was listening. But she was on the other side of the prison, all the way down past angry changelings. She wouldn’t overhear.

But the other changelings nearby did, and several of them snapped out of their apathy.

Harlequin had hoped Codex had found his way to safety, but… apparently he hadn’t. At least he didn’t seem like he’d been hurt too badly during his capture. I’m here to help you, Codex!

“They won’t believe any of us, Harlequin! Changelings are so poorly known in Equestria that nopony knew you could reproduce through assimilation. The university’s local expert on rare magical creatures vanished, you see, presumed dead in the invasion. You have to tell them!”

Harlequin turned to face him, glaring knives through the bars. “Be quiet, Codex. I’m going to get you out of here, I promise. But right now there’s nothing I can do.”

“Just him?” asked another bug, two chains over. This one wore a pony hat backwards on her head, and little clips on her wings. “What about the rest of us?”

“Everybug here,” she whispered. “But I need everyone to be quiet about it.”

Eyes from all around the cell turned on Codex, hisses and glares and bared teeth. The ponies had taken great pains to make sure none of the changelings could escape, but done almost nothing to make sure they couldn’t hurt each other.

“No plans,” Codex said. “No need! J-just… call that guard here, and tell her what you did to me! They’ll have to let me go!”

The bug beside him tackled him to the ground with a smack. “Be quiet,” she said, and soon several others had joined her. Codex screeched in pain as he went down, kicking and struggling—and in a few seconds, the entire cage had dissolved into a brawl.

There was no Swarm anymore, no queen to calm them and refocus their energy. Bugs struck improperly, chains whipped around, and soon half the cages were brawling.

A single yell out of many was far too quiet for Sigil to notice from across the room. But this—she came running, watching through the bars as bugs fought. And while Codex’s cell had heard what she had to say, the shouts coming from some of the others were a mess. “We’re getting out!” some of them screamed, struggling in vain against their chains.

“What in Celestia’s name did you just do?” Sigil asked, skidding to a stop beside her and staring into the cage. Her eyes cut right through the brawl in all the others to the concentrated violence against Codex right at the center. She’d even realized it before Harlequin herself did—the bugs were going to kill him.

Of course they are. These bugs know how to keep a secret, and they know I’m their only hope. If he reveals anything about me, they’re finished. “I don’t know! They just started fighting!”

“Monsters,” Sigil muttered under her breath. Then she stomped one hoof, and her horn flashed brilliant white. Harlequin’s world turned to a fuzzy blur of pain and confusion. She struggled to stay standing, and without meaning to her magic started to drain away. Her body flooded with love, healing whatever had happened to her head.

She shook herself out, and saw that Sigil was opening the door with a lock on her keyring. “Quit the act, Harlequin, I know it only works on them. Help me.”

“Right.” She blinked, shaking her head once. The cages all around them were suddenly packed with motionless changelings. It’s like what happened when the Swarm’s voice stopped, only smaller.

Not a single bug was fighting anymore, even those in the far cages. They were all watching the two of them, as they extracted Codex from the pile of changelings, removed his restraints, and levitated him out of the cage.

It hadn’t taken them long. His shell was already cracked open in a few places, leaking greenish blood from within.

Into the pile of bodies he goes, she realized. Second pony I killed. And unlike the last time, there was no threat of her own death if she failed. This is just happening because I’m evil. Put me in the cage, Sigil. Not them.

“Come on,” Sigil called, gesturing up the stairs. “There’s a medic on the floor above us. We can’t just leave it like this.”

She cares? Why? But she didn’t stop to ask, just hurried behind Sigil as fast as her hooves would carry her.

Chapter 15: Reparation

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The ponies in the medical tent seemed confused with the one they were bringing. Harlequin remained in back, letting Azure Sigil do the talking.

When the medical ponies suggested just putting the injured changeling back in the cages and ‘letting things happen,’ Sigil just shoved past them all and deposited the injured changeling at one of the cots anyway.

“We’re wasting time!” The doctors all wore the same white coats. This one was taller than most, with a stern face and a pair of glasses perched just on the edge of her nose. “Azure Sigil, Canterlot is full of ponies who need medicine right now. This changeling should wait.”

“No,” Sigil argued. “This changeling was injured in our prison. We’re going to care for him. Officer Harlequin and I are going to sit here until you do.”

Codex took one struggling, raspy breath after another. Sigil couldn’t know it, but her powerful resistance was probably the reason that he was still alive. She was putting herself at risk for him, at least her rank anyway. Self-sacrifice was one of the strongest kinds of love there was. Strong enough that Harlequin could taste it in the air, even if it wasn’t for her.

“Fine!” Dr. Atrium exclaimed, exasperated. “Fine, we’ll give him first aid. That doesn’t mean we can do much—their biology is confusing, and we don’t have blood or regeneration spells that work on changelings. But we’ll treat him. Nurse Tenderheart, prep the operation area. And call Cardio off of his lunch break. We’ve got a job here.”

Codex didn’t say anything, he was much too hurt for that. One of his eyes was bruised and swollen, but the other watched Harlequin unblinkingly, accusation in it every moment.

It’s not my fault you’re an incredible idiot, Codex. All you had to do was keep your mouth shut. The others only attacked you because you threatened to ruin everything. But there was no way to send that message, no matter how hard she strained. If she pushed with her magic too intensely, she would only break her illusion, and ruin the only chance her people had.

“Don’t put him back into any of the cells with the officers,” Sigil said, as soon as they’d started working. “Restrain him in Medical. I’ll find somewhere to put him where he won’t get killed by the others.” She looked to the side. “You were there to see it, Harlequin. Maybe you have some ideas for what we could do with him.”

“Maybe,” she said, voice feeble. Of course she knew exactly why Codex had been attacked. But explaining it. “If he makes it, we can come up with something.”

“We have a watch to finish,” Sigil continued. “If I find out you doctors did anything less than your best work on this changeling…”

“Don’t bother threatening,” Dr. Atrium barked. “We don’t do anything halfway. We’ll treat him the best we can.”

“Good.” They left.

The rest of the watch was accomplished without much effort. The changelings trapped in the cage watched her sidelong whenever they thought she was alone, but Sigil didn’t give her much distance to try talking to any of them. She learned why when it was over.

“I know how much you must hate them,” Sigil said, once they’d changed places with the next two ponies to guard the prison. “It’s not wrong to hate them, I get that. But whatever you did… I expect better of you in the future.”

“I don’t understand,” Harlequin said, without any manipulation in her tone. “I didn’t do anything.”

Azure Sigil stopped her with an outstretched leg, right at the edge of the stairs. “You’re furious about what they did to Canterlot, we all are. The ones they killed… you think you saw it closely, you’re wrong. Half the Guard are dead. I know ponies that want every one of those bugs on a pike out in front of the castle. Do you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “There’s no place for a pony like that anywhere near them. It’s not wrong to hate, but it is wrong to act like them. Ponies have to be better. We don’t get to resort to evil just because it’s used on us. That means the ones in our care—you don’t get to provoke them into killing each other. It’s still your fault, even if you never swing the sword.”

“I really didn’t mean—”

But Sigil didn’t seem interested in listening to her excuses anymore. She didn’t mean it, that much was true. But it was also true that Codex probably wouldn’t have been attacked if she had just kept her mouth shut and let him yell.

“I want your word you aren’t going to do that again, Harlequin. I want your word that you aren’t ever going to use your position of power and authority over the ones you’re guarding. If you can’t promise me that… no big deal. Lots of ponies couldn’t. But I’ll have to move you somewhere that you can’t abuse the ones you hate. Our enemies deserve fair treatment. If we can’t do that, then we aren’t ponies at all.”

“I promise,” she said, looking up into the angry unicorn’s eyes. “I won’t try to talk to them that way again.”

That was the response Sigil was apparently looking for. She finally let go, and they continued through the castle and back onto the streets of Canterlot. Somewhere not too far away, she could hear the sound of music. Probably celebration from the wedding. She could feel the distant pressure of love from the castle grounds, where there was no doubt the promise of a good meal. And princesses who would see through my disguise and kill me.

She continued with Sigil to the barracks, where plenty of other guards were just returning from their first shifts. There was a meal waiting for them all, though instead of the fancy deserts that would be served at the castle, it was only a warm stew and a single glass of wine.

At least she could sit with Apple Cinnamon near the back. Harlequin got the smallest bowl that she could, and the smallest possible glass that wouldn’t draw attention. Changelings could eat regular food, as they still had many of the systems in place they used as grubs. But it no longer sustained. While the ponies all around her stuck their noses into the stew with relish, Harlequin smelled nothing at all. She took a sip anyway, and it felt like hot water with bits of soft things floating in it.

She swallowed, pretended to smile. “Where were you, Cinnamon? Anything interesting?”

“Lower city,” he muttered. “Mostly there to stop the looting. Ponies are desperate, and the supplies aren’t getting passed out fast enough. Desperate ponies can act pretty dumb. But when we’re there, we can remind them.” He sighed, swirling around his soup. He didn’t seem to have much of an appetite. “What about you? Bet you could write your own ticket, with how you saved us during the invasion. I see you’ve got a knot on your shoulder. They promoted you straight out?”

“Yeah.” She nodded weakly. I don’t deserve it. You should’ve got it. It was true that she’d saved those ponies. But hadn’t it just been for herself? It wasn’t. You saved them because it was the right thing to do.

“So where? Where does an officer serve her first watch?”

“Canterlot Dungeons,” she answered. Several of the nearby ponies turned to stare in shock, mouths agape. Some of them had more knots on their uniforms than she did, yet they looked impressed.

“With the invaders?” somepony else asked from her other side. Most of the ones at their table were fellow recruits—and the ones that weren’t were obviously acting like they weren’t listening. “You did your first watch with changelings? Didn’t they kill… lots and lots of ponies?”

“Yeah,” she answered. “And I guess they did. I don’t remem—” Probably not the right thing to say. Her memories of the invasion hadn’t been on the right side. “I don’t know how many.”

“How was it?” Cinnamon asked. “I hear they can suck the life out of you. The… smart ones in the dungeon, I mean. Transform into the ones you love, then stick their fangs into your shoulder and suck the love right out.”

“They don’t use fangs for that,” she answered by reflex. “But the rest is true. The ones in the Dungeon are sealed up with… some kind of stabilization spell. I’ve never seen it before, but it seems like it would stop any kind of transformation from working. They won’t be able to trick anyone.”

“That’s a relief,” said another pony. “Makes sense the princess would be adapting to their strategies. Cadance already came up with that excellent spell. Every unicorn in the city should be learning it.”

“Oh, yeah. Sigil used that. It was…” She shuddered. “Effective. We had to open one of the cages at one point, and she just blasted all of them.”

“Of course Sigil could stun that many at once,” Cinnamon muttered. “She’s one of the Castle Garrison. I heard she was on the team that took back the palace.”

“She’s good,” Harlequin agreed. “One of the best.” Not just her magic. She actually thought I was treating the changelings unfairly. How many other changelings would’ve done so much to protect one of their own, let alone a captured enemy? Azure Sigil was everything good in the world. Maybe Hydrus was like that too. He helped me discover myself. If it hadn’t been for letting me feed on Codex, I would probably be half-conscious in the prison with the others, unable to move.

She would have to find him, make sure he escaped. And Codex too.

But not that day. When their first meal was done, plenty of the ponies left their armor behind and returned to their homes. But not Harlequin, and not several of the other recruits. Apple Cinnamon was apparently among them, and they ended up in bedrooms just across the hall.

“You don’t have somewhere to go?” she asked, with her bundle of standard bedsheets tucked under one wing.

“Nope,” he answered. “My family moved Appleloosa not long ago, it’s this… little town a good ways from here. If I took a train back and forth every day, I wouldn’t have a paycheck to send home. They’ll need those bits to replace me on the farm.”

“Oh.” She swallowed, falling silent. “And you joined the Guard anyway?”

“Yeah.” He smiled weakly. “Guess I couldn’t resist your example, Harlequin. Farming fruit is one thing, but… this is better. We’re making a difference. Maybe they won’t need me here in a year, once the changeling situation is dealt with and everypony has returned to their lives. I don’t think I’m in it for the career like Sigil and the others. But I don’t mind doing it for a bit. Long enough that the city will be better when I’m done.” He turned into the tiny bedroom. “Sleep well, Harlequin.”

Was that… affection? She could taste it in the air, if only for a second. He was probably trying to suppress it, then. He didn’t think it was appropriate. “Night.” Don’t be stupid. If he knew half of the things you’d done, he’d hate you. If he saw what you looked like, he’d hate you even more.

Harlequin shut her little bedroom door, and didn’t bother turning on the light. The little glow from under the door was plenty to illuminate the small space. There wasn’t much in there anyway, just a single bed with enough room for one pony, a wooden box for her belongings, and a tiny table by one wall with a cushion for study or eating.

Harlequin didn’t know how to make a bed, but she curled up with the fallen blankets anyway, holding them close to her chest and whimpering in loneliness. Why couldn’t they give us group rooms. She wouldn’t be able to change back into herself in a room like that, so she’d probably have wasted more magic that way. But a whole night alone… she was going to lose her mind.

Harlequin closed her eyes and cried herself into the swarmless void of sleep.

Chapter 16: Honor

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Harlequin didn’t need to sleep like a pony, and so she spent most of the night awake in bed. Eventually she would probably find a way to sneak out and do something else at night. Maybe work on the escape plan for the other changelings. If I can get out without being seen, the ponies will think I’m asleep in bed here. They won’t suspect anything was me.

There was no organized meal for breakfast, just ponies coming and going between bowls of cereal and offered fruit. The selection was interesting to Harlequin for its own reasons—reasons that didn’t include actually eating any of it.

To her surprise, Azure Sigil found her near the back of the room, grinning with excitement. “Hey, Harlequin. You’re done with breakfast? Good, you should come with me!” She doesn’t feel suspicious.

Harlequin followed her, mostly because she didn’t know what else to do. She slipped out of the barracks and out into Canterlot’s upper city. Pony crews were already hard at work—it was mostly broken windows today, with huge wagons of shattered glass going up and down. For not having a swarm, they do work fast.

“What’s up?” she asked, adjusting her mane. “I thought you said I’d be working evening watches for my first few months.” Those were ponies’ least desirable times—recruits working them meant that the veterans could have better shifts to themselves.

“Well yeah. You won’t be doing your next watch with me, that was only for the first one since I recruited you. I didn’t tell you to get your armor, did I?”

“Oh.” She blinked, looking away. “Right, I’m stupid.”

The pony chuckled. “Don’t say it like that. You just didn’t know what to expect, it’s fine. Everypony sucks at something when they’re new.”

We didn’t used to. The Swarm knew how to do everything perfectly, and we could follow its directions perfectly. But it still hadn’t come back. She had seen no bugs in her sleep the night before, and could feel none of them now. “So what are we doing?”

“It’s about the sword, Nightender.” She gestured at the sword on her belt. “I found the pony who owns it. She’s willing to let you keep it, at least for the next few years. Her only condition is that we take you to meet her and her daughter. If the little pony grows up to be in the Guard, she gets it back. Otherwise, you can keep it.”

“That’s it? I thought you said those things were… really rare.”

“They are!” Sigil beamed. “You’re about to be the envy of the Guard, Harlequin. There are officers who serve their whole lives without ever seeing one of these. Does mean you’re going to have to have a little decorum about it. Right now I’m your superior officer, but your next one won’t like you flashing that sword around them all the time. Think carefully, use an armory-issued weapon while on drills or for dress review. But while you’re on duty… you can have the real thing.”

They turned down a side-road, one that led to a small inner wall and a ring road of expensive-looking manor houses. Harlequin’s steps began to slow, and her eyes widened in horror. She had seen this place before, during the invasion. It was where Hydrus had taken her. Of course it is, stupid! She said she found the one who owned the sword. You know where you’re going.

She did now. Many of the houses had their own walls, including the one they’d chosen. There was still a dark stain on the pavement where Harlequin had killed for the first time. I didn’t have a choice. They would’ve killed me if I didn’t. He killed a changeling, it was war. All the excuses in the world didn’t make her feel any better about it.

Worse, Sigil seemed to be able to sense her discomfort. She slowed a little, letting Harlequin brush up against her side as she passed. It seemed like a gesture meant to comfort. “This place is familiar to you, isn’t it?”

They stopped in front of the door. Sigil didn’t knock yet—and Harlequin didn’t dare. She nodded weakly, surpressing tears.

“I’ve seen that look before,” Sigil said, settling one leg on her shoulder.

“Y-you have?”

“Yeah. It’s survivor’s guilt. You saw something terrible happen here, and you think—because you saw it, it should’ve happened to you too. Well, that isn’t how the world works. Fate’s cruel and she’s capricious, and she’s never fair. You don’t deserve something just because you saw it. And nopony in the world would expect an untrained little pony like you to stop the whole thing by yourself just because you found a sword.

“You joined the guard, Harlequin. You decided to make a difference. That’s more than most ponies in the city. And if the changelings ever come crawling back…” She swung the padded bundle through the air in front of them, grinning. “You’ll have Nightender here. Evil undone, the morning breaks. In your hooves.”

She whimpered, wiped away tears, then nodded. “I don’t suppose there’s any way to get out of talking to them.”

“Not if you want this. And you do. You have no idea how generous this is. You think I will ever live in a house like this? You think you will? Ponies don’t like to talk about it, but it’s good to have friends in high places. When promotion time comes around, you want a perfect service record and some friendly eyes on it. So come on.” She knocked.

There was rustling from inside, then the door swung open a crack. From the look of it, several new locks had been installed. But Harlequin knew that pony’s face perfectly. She could still see her snarl of hatred from a few days ago. She recoiled involuntarily at the memory alone, but the pony didn’t react. Her attention was mostly for Azure Sigil.

“Hello again, Captain Sigil.”

“Morning, Miss Triptych. We spoke last evening. I brought the pony for your inspection.”

“Ah, yes. One moment.” The door shut again, and there was more metallic rustling. It took almost a full minute before it swung open. “You’ll both have to forgive the state of my home. It was recently ransacked.” She gestured over her shoulder, into the same spacious interior that Harlequin remembered. Only now there were lights in all the candelabras, and every bit of broken art was missing.

The pony directed them into a spacious sitting room, where the fire had already been lit and a familiar little pony sat in one corner. Harlequin still remembered her too, and her terrified face as she’d killed her father. Now she wore black just like her mother, with an expression like glazed pottery. She stared off into space, barely seeing anything. She didn’t even react as they came in.

“May I see the sword?” Triptych asked, as soon as they’d settled down on opposite sides of the elegant couch. Apparently the raiding party hadn’t seen anything to steal in here.

“Of course. It’s your sword, miss.” Sigil held it out, and the other unicorn took it in her magic. She carefully removed the wrapping, swinging it weakly through the air at nothing with the sheath still on. Then she settled it down on the table between them, so gently that it didn’t dent the wood.

“And you, uh… I don’t believe I got your name. How did this sword come into your possession?” Harlequin opened her mouth to answer, but it didn’t seem like the pony actually wanted one. She was already moving on. “The one I last saw use this sword… took my husband from us. Gilded Chalice, my daughter… she’ll never see her father again because of them. The changeling negotiator… liar. I want to know what you did to it.”

Harlequin swallowed, feeling their eyes on her. She opened her mouth with a lie, and found her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes never left the sword. She could still feel it swinging through the air towards the neck of the pony. Feel as it bit into his flesh.

She almost puked right there onto the polished wood table. She sat up, adjusted her wings, and looked back into the pony’s eyes. “Dead,” she declared. “That drone is dead. I had to fight her, she didn’t want to give it up… but she’s better off gone forever. It doesn’t matter that she was tricked into hurting ponies without meaning to. She still did, and the consequences won’t ever go away. Maybe she’ll be lucky and get erased forever.”

The awkward silence continued for a few more moments, broken only by a loud pop and crackle of wood from the fireplace. Eventually, Triptych turned the sword on the table so the hilt faced Harlequin. “I wish I could’ve been there to see it,” she said. “I hope you made it hurt. But… I can see this is difficult for you. I won’t ask for those details. It is my pleasure to know that Nightender will be wielded by the one who brought justice to my family. If the changelings ever attack us again, I hope I can see you on the castle wall, cutting down hundreds of them with it.”

“Th-thank you.” She swallowed, reaching out with one hoof. She expected the metal to burn when she touched it—the spell ought to hate evil, and there was no pony in the world more evil than her. But nothing happened. “I will.”

“When Chalice comes of age… I may call on you again,” she went on. “Assuming she chooses to join the Guard. I don’t think she will, though. She was always a sensitive child, and recent events will probably not… encourage that direction in her. Perhaps we will attend your future promotion ceremonies. If my household will not be holding that sword anymore, then at least we’ll know we have a friend in the Guard.”

Harlequin was crying as they finally left the kitchen behind. The taste of the mare’s gratitude was fresh in her mouth. But all the relief and satisfaction tasted like acid going down her throat. Isn’t this what changelings are supposed to do? You tricked a pony from hating you into loving you.

Maybe the Swarm would’ve told her that. But there was no swarm in Harlequin’s mind, and so she was left only with guilt. The weight of the sword on her belt seemed enough that it would crush her at any moment. This sword is a reminder of the one I killed. Now the blood will follow me wherever I go.

“It’s tragic, I know,” Sigil said, slipping in beside her. She directed them not towards the barracks, though, but the castle hill. “Their family isn’t the only one like it, you know. Up here in the upper city, it was mostly the ponies who fought back. Down below… they were even less careful. I don’t really understand how the changeling army is structured… but I know they didn’t keep control of their troops very well. Ten times as many ponies died in the lower city.”

“I didn’t see very much down there,” she whispered. “But it looked bad. This whole thing is a mess.”

“Well… we’re making it less so, every day. We can’t bring back the dead, but we can… do the next best thing. Care for the ponies we have. Make Equestria safer against the next attack. Set an example of honor and dignity in our actions.”

She couldn’t meet Sigil’s eyes then. Couldn’t the rest of the way to the castle, as they passed through guard checkpoints and towards the second floor. “We’re going to see the doctors,” she realized. “This is the emergency hospital.”

“Not the doctors, exactly,” Sigil answered. “Your ‘friend’ from yesterday, the one that got the stuffing beat out of him. If he’s still alive, we’re going to have to figure out where to put him. And if not… congratulations, officer, you’ll get to organize your first burial. Either way is the least you can do to make up for putting him in here.”

More true than you know.

Chapter 17: Justice

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Harlequin could feel that something was wrong before they even stepped through the door. She knew little about medicine—the Swarm never had hospitals or doctors when anyone in it could be suddenly empowered with the knowledge to treat whatever wounds were present.

Even without anything to compare against but her last visit, there was so much suspicion. Where there had been only a handful of doctors and the sick before, the ponies she sensed inside now seemed healthy and numerous. They were… waiting.

“I, uh…” Harlequin stopped in the hallway, right at the top of the stairs. The doors into the medical wing were shut, without any guards outside. There was no reason to have them inside the castle, when there were so many so close. “I think I’d like to give that changeling more time to recover before I visit him. Now, uh… now wouldn’t be a good time.”

Azure Sigil stopped in the hallway, raising an eyebrow and staring at her. “Harlequin, you aren’t avoiding this. I know you’re feeling guilty—that’s normal, it’s fine. But running away from the things that scare you doesn’t make them go away. Confronting them is the only option. We’re going to go in there and find out what happened to the changeling you hurt. You’re coming with me.

Can she make me? Harlequin glanced down the stairs, shifting on her hooves and spreading her wings. She could just try and run away. But she was in the castle, and the invasion had only been days ago. If she ran, there would be hundreds of soldiers to bring her down. Then they would have reason for thinking she was guilty.

Can’t get away. Have to go through. Finally she nodded and started walking again. She adjusted the sword on her belt a little, settling its weight comfortably against her side. Could she even use it to fight ponies? She didn’t really know how to use a sword! She could wave it through the air, but… that wasn’t really the same thing.

The door opened, and she winced involuntarily—her senses for pony emotions were apparently working fine. There were just about a dozen pony soldiers in the room. Two of them sat by every entrance, and four more around the bed of the injured changeling.

Not a single one of the other beds was occupied.

Codex was still here, covered in several layers of bandages. His body was bruised, and there were plenty of pony medical supplies around him, holding him together. They probably don’t even realize that the care is more important for him than what they’re actually doing.

“You’re back,” said Dr. Atrium, with a tone of forced casualness. She barely even saw Sigil—her eyes were only for Harlequin.

Queens I’m in trouble. But now she’d walked into the room with all these guards. If she tried to run from the ponies, she wouldn’t even make it to the door. It’s what you deserve.

“We’re here to check on the patient,” Sigil said, apparently oblivious to any changes in the room. “Harlequin here was overcome with concern for the prisoner injured during her first watch. We’re here to help you deal with him.”

Harlequin will be happy to hear that we saved his life,” Atrium said. “The operation wasn’t easy, but we managed. There was some internal bruising, damage to the exoskeleton that needed to be repaired. We used medical glue for most of that, should hold together until he molts again.”

“Good,” Sigil said, turning back. “See? And you were worried about him. I don’t know what we were so concerned about. How long will he have to stay here?”

“Another week or so, until the glue sets,” Atrium said. She shifted uneasily, staying out of reach of Harlequin.

What do you know?

The ponies in the room were moving. She hadn’t turned around once, but she could feel more minds emerging from somewhere just outside, blocking off the door.

“Well, I guess we can come back then,” Sigil said, turning back the way they came. “Officer Harlequin here is stationed in the second upper garrison, red brigade. You can contact her for help when it’s time to move the prisoner. Can’t they, Harlequin?”

“There’s… something else,” said a guardspony, the one that had been sitting beside the door when they walked in. Harlequin hadn’t noticed before, but as he stood, she realized there were bars on both of his shoulders. A colonel—high enough that he had a magic sword of his own. He was also a unicorn, his body aged enough to have lines, but not weaker for it. “The prisoner spoke with us. Shared some information that we need to verify.”

“What did he say?” Sigil’s eyebrows went up, and she glanced briefly at the pony’s breast just as Harlequin had done. “…sir,” she added, just a little awkwardly. “We’re curious about that ourselves.”

“I bet.” The pony tapped his hoof, and the whole room sprang into action. Guardsponies rushed them from all sides, knocking over empty cots and shoving past medical staff. Spears and swords and crossbows were suddenly pointed at them both. Sigil froze, but she didn’t make a single hostile move. Her expression was shocked, bewildered, but unafraid.

“You got information from a changeling,” she said, voice flat. “And you trusted it enough to react like this? Sir.”

The pony’s horn flashed, and he drew the sword into the air in front of him. The blade remained still as he held it there, close enough to swing towards either of them if they tried to move. I could run. It probably wouldn’t hurt too bad. Quick.

But Harlequin didn’t entertain that thought for long. She’d lived through the siege, she was going to live through this. Somehow.

“Some stories are convincing enough to be worth an investigation. Surely you would wish no less precaution shown in your own squad, if you heard that one or more ponies might be compromised.”

“I would,” she admitted. “But there’s no point. We’re both loyal ponies of the princess. Harlequin here was just sworn in yesterday.”

“Indeed. I have no doubt you would say that, Captain. You would say that, and so would a changeling spy who had found a way to infiltrate the palace. This changeling here—Codex—he claims to have been a pony until recently. That much is obviously absurd, but some of the other things he said… about Harlequin, for example. Apparently she’s one of them. I find it hard to believe that any captain in my command could be so incompetent as to allow that.”

Harlequin wanted to back up, but she couldn’t go more than a few steps before she reached the spears pointed at them from every direction.

Azure Sigil glanced around the group. “You just said you’re not taking what he said seriously. He claimed to be a pony. Why believe this accusation? Harlequin isn’t some spy, she’s saved ponies. I have a dozen witness accounts of her fighting against changelings during the invasion. What does that make her?”

The captain shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps she’s a traitor to her kind, who only cared about saving her own skin. Their queen was that way, why not those under their command. Or… the other possibility, you’re both changelings. You know as well as I do we can test you.”

Sigil nodded. “A waste of your time, sir. I promise you. Look at your sword—that’s the test I used on Harlequin there. She has one of them herself, you might notice. Where’s the magic to strike down Equestria’s enemies?”

“That… isn’t how they work,” the pony answered. He moved the sword slowly through the air, then sheathed it again. “The Helios-blades sense intention, Captain. They can’t judge the character of a stallion, tell you whether he is good or evil. Only the princesses can do that. But they can tell you if he intends to hurt you or not. You could fool them easily by not wishing violence. I’m… surprised you don’t know that. But I guess few ponies have ever used the blades. You can’t be held responsible for not knowing. But if you’re one of them…”

His horn began to get brighter. “Hold still, both of you. If you resist, we’ll take that as an admission of guilt and confine you for interrogation. If you’re honest ponies of the princess, you will allow us to make certain of your loyalty.”

Is this what you thought was a good idea, Codex? How am I supposed to get you free with the others if I’m in jail with you? She could see that future coming like a runaway boulder as it crashed down the hive, crushing anyone in its path. She wouldn’t be able to roll out from this one in time.

“We won’t resist,” Sigil said. “But I wouldn’t mind an apology when this is over, sir.”

White light built around his horn, and Harlequin knew the spell before he even cast it. It was the same thing Sigil had done, but this unicorn was older and more powerful. His eyes glowed faintly, and a mist seemed to drift from around him as the magic built in the air.

Then the spell crashed down around her. For an instant she heard Codex from his bed, coughing and moaning and trying to cover his face. But he wasn’t fast enough. Harlequin was, lifting a wing to shield her eyes, but it made no difference.

For the second time, Harlequin was cast into darkness, far from the stolen love of ponies. Magic drifted away from her, like a flower wilting under intense sunlight. The shape of angry ponies became only dim outlines she could barely see. Outlines wrapped in red thread, tying them about their hooves, around their necks. The thread reached for her, though it never touched.

She tried to move, tried to lift her hooves… but they wouldn’t respond. Everything was so heavy.

The ringing in Harlequin’s ears finally faded, and the ponies’ words came back into focus. Shapes were still unclear, and she could do little more than drool. But she could feel it. This is what the drones went through. This, but they barely had any minds of their own. Suddenly alone, cold, confused. Had any of them survived?

“It’s fortunate that we listened to the injured changeling. This probably explains why the others attacked it so violently—they didn’t wish for it to reveal their scheme.”

Harlequin moaned, rolling onto her side. She felt something slide off her back, and realized it was the belt. She was back as herself, the ponies towering over at twice her size and with five times the hatred.

All except for Azure Sigil, who didn’t even look at her. Shame radiated from her thick enough that it was even stronger than the hate the others felt. Shame and despair.

“We will have to reward this one,” the colonel went on, striding past Harlequin and gesturing at the bed. “A private cell for him, far from the others. Conditional on his behavior, of course.”

“I…” Codex had been further away from the blast, apparently far enough that he was already starting to recover. He spoke in a choking rasp. “Isn’t this proof? I’m telling the truth! I’m a pony! I have a wife in the city, Upper Limit! A son… Celestia, they need to know I’m alive. I’m not a changeling!”

“The princess will evaluate your case,” the colonel said, turning away from him with annoyance. “Be silent, prisoner, or we’ll remit our generosity.” His eyes narrowed, focusing on Harlequin. “As for you, I wish very much for you to resist arrest. Please, draw that sword. No doubt you planned on slitting the throat of the pones who took pity on you. Starting with your friend there, Captain Sigil. Her life is over after today, letting you in here. She spoke for you; do you know that? Do you even care?”

Maybe she should’ve fought back. It would be better—she didn’t think she could face anyone after today.

“No,” she muttered, lowering her head. “I won’t fight. It’s what I deserve if you want to kill me anyway.”

The colonel grunted. From his emotions, it seemed like he wanted to. But that passed quickly. “Very well. No… no special treatment for this one. Captain Sigil, take her to the common prison. She can fend for herself in there with the others. Make sure you warn the guards about the pony she was impersonating.”

Chapter 18: "S"

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Harlequin was no stranger to the look of the changeling prison as the pony guards escorted her down. After all, she’d been there when much of it was dug. She knew about each of the fortifications in place, knew where each of the attendant guards would be standing, and was ready for them.

What she didn’t expect was the blacksmith waiting at the end of the ramp. “Another straggler, huh? Will we need to get it out again?”

“Likely,” said one of the guards. “Pretty elaborate scheme going to replace one of us. I’m sure she’ll have a trial.”

“Right then.” The earth pony scratched his beard, looking her up and down for a second. “Alright, changeling. Listen careful if you can. We’re about to put a collar on you. This collar is the only way for you to prove your identity.”

Would I want to? Unless a trial is something I want. It didn’t sound like something she would want, not from the satisfaction the guards felt when they spoke about it.

Harlequin nodded weakly as they measured her, then held her neck out for the collar. The pony blacksmith applied it with a routine that suggested he had done hundreds exactly like it, complete with a little metal disk on the end. “874,” she read. “What is 874?”

“You,” one of the soldiers answered, shoving her forward. “You hid better than most, so your number is up there. Congratulations.” They laughed, though she couldn’t tell what was funny about it.

Then it was through the last set of security doors to where the minecart track traveled into the dark.

“Supplies come down this track twice a day,” said one of her escort ponies, a pegasus with a dark coat and stern eyes. “You don’t want to be anywhere near the track most of the time. Defensive spells will electrocute anything alive that gets close.” He reached to one side, pulling a lever down with dramatic flair while his partner fumbled with the lock on the door. “That’s the defenses turned off. Get to the end before we switch them on again, or…” He didn’t finish the threat, but Harlequin didn’t need him to. His intentions were clear enough.

The door swung open. The path down was lit in the pony way, with regular magical crystals glowing faintly white. “Go on,” said the other. “We’ll count from… thirty. Start running.”

She ran. The collar was tight around her neck, restricting her movements and making it difficult to turn to either side. She could barely look down at her hooves, and stumbled more than once. But her wings were free, and she could catch herself before she fell. The track was already well worn, with scorch marks and piles of indeterminate black sludge on the side. Oh Queens. Did bugs try to fly up here through the defensive spells? It was like the city’s shield all over again.

Every second Harlequin kept a count in her head. She’d just about reached ten when she finally saw the bottom of the track.

Here there was a pile of wooden carts, almost untouched from where they’d dropped their contents. The smell of rotting food was thick, along with the buzzing wings of flies.

She felt it in the air—a faint heat beginning from behind her, getting hotter by the second. The spell was probably designed that way, to pressure creatures away from the tracks rather than killing them instantly when they stepped on them. They didn’t even give me thirty seconds!

Harlequin lowered her head and flew for everything she was worth, into the huge crystal cavern that was the center of the prison. Fire scorched at her tail, melting the layer on her shell. She closed her eyes, kept flying desperately, knowing she would be just another pile of melted sludge if she failed…

She passed over the graveyard of broken minecarts, avoiding a few crystal stalagmites before landing on open ground. For a few seconds she just stood there, catching her breath and letting herself cool down after the heat of the passage.

Ponies had lit the entire thing with their characteristic clumsiness, with glowing crystals on the ceiling illuminating the entrance cavern in white that fractured into every color of the rainbow as it passed through crystals on the wall.

The minecarts hadn’t even been removed from the bottom of the track, their wrapped bundles of supplies left exactly where they had landed. They’d piled up so much that instead of hitting the rubber stoppers, they smacked into the earlier carts and rolled off to spill their supplies all over the place. A cloud of flies as thick as the swarm had ever been hovered around the pony food, without any sign that the changelings had disturbed it.

“Hello?” Harlequin whispered, reaching out instinctively for the comfort of the swarm. But of course it wasn’t here, not even a suggestion of how many bugs might be down here. They had no feelings she could read, so she couldn’t gauge their numbers the way she had guessed there were guards in the field hospital. There are probably 873 others in here, Harlequin. That’s how numbers work.

She kept her head down, creeping forward towards the well. It was a good distance away from the food carts, which was probably good. If all the bad food started falling down there, that certainly wouldn’t have helped the bugs living here. They did still need to drink.

A layer of green slime coated the ground near the well, covering up the little wall ponies had built along it and leading deeper into the caves. Harlequin stepped onto it easily, feeling the slight yield under her hooves and relaxing. It was nice to be near something familiar. Maybe there are good things about this. I barely even got my name. There are other bugs who would be better at saving everyone. I’m not the one they should expect to do the saving.

Harlequin moved mostly by reflex. She lowered the bucket by the crank, drew up some water, splashed it on her face. The crisp chill helped clear her mind—it was the only clear thing in her whole world. All the pony light in the world couldn’t make the cave feel less bleak.

We’re all going to starve down here. Her own appetite for love had grown since her earliest memories—how long could she go without a meal? She probably could’ve lasted for a month before being blasted with that spell. But whatever it was, it had taken away most of her reserves when it took her illusion away. She would have to be careful with her magic, or else…

What difference does it make? Everyone’s going to starve down here. The ponies understand us so badly they’re still sending their own food down to rot. How had none of the important bugs explained how they worked? Unless the ponies didn’t even listen.

Harlequin could feel the slimy floor sink slightly behind her, and she spun around, kicking the bucket back down into the darkness. A drone emerged from the gloom, looking a little emaciated and with only one of its wings intact. It barely seemed to even see Harlequin.

But it was still the first changeling she’d met under friendly circumstances. She moved out of the way of the well, smiling in spite of herself. “Sister,” she said. “Where is the Swarm?”

The changeling looked at her as she approached, one wing and the missing stump of her other wing twitching weakly. As she got closer, Harlequin could see makeshift buckets wrapped around her back, and little grooves in her shell from repetitive strain. This bug had been doing the same thing for so long she was hurting from it.

“Hey,” Harlequin stuck out a wing in front of her, forcing the bug to meet her eyes. “Can you talk?”

She could see recognition in its eyes, or thought she could. Without their mental connection, she couldn’t be sure. I’m fumbling in the dark. How is the Swarm supposed to get anything done like this? “That harness is hurting you, here. Let me… get it off.” Harlequin lifted with a little magic, undoing the rope. It was rough twine braided together, probably made of the stuff securing pony food packages. The harness came off, revealing faint wounds underneath from where the rope had bit through her shell.

The drone didn’t fight her. As Harlequin worked, she seemed to grow more alert, her mouth half open. She didn’t look much older, but Harlequin was nearly a full head taller. “There. How’s that?”

“Alone.” The drone’s voice shook, obviously a great strain to say even that.

Harlequin nodded weakly, kicking the harness away. “Yeah.”

“You… are.” The drone fixed her with desperate eyes, her whole body shaking. “Queen?”

“No.” She whimpered, eyes scanning the space around them for anything she could use to treat the drone’s wounds. Harlequin hadn’t been a doctor, and she’d never held any of those parts of Swarm lore. But she had watched pony doctors treat Codex just yesterday. She could copy just fine.

“Fill that bucket, bring it over here. Let’s see what we can do about that shoulder.”


“Yeah, I can see that. I’ll help. Uh…” She hesitated. “Do you have a name?”

“Name.” She picked up the bucket in her mouth, so at least she understood that part.

“Name, uh… alright. I think the way this works is… we start with a letter? You can be… S. Is that okay?”

“S!” the drone repeated, grinning at her. One of her fangs was missing. “S!”

Harlequin nodded, moving past her to where the pony supplies had fallen. The cloud of insects were thick enough that seeing anything was difficult, their buzzing angry. But while these bugs might’ve bit and stung at ponies with their weak coats, a changeling shell was too strong. She didn’t need to fear them, so long as she was careful with her eyes.

Had the ponies sent anything she could use?

Most of the broken containers were sacks of grain, the same stuff ponies made into their stew to feed guards and others. Grain wouldn’t help S, but… there, those boxes were marked differently! Harlequin levitated one out, settling it on the ground far from the pile. There was a bright red symbol on the side, the same one she’d seen all over the field hospital. She fumbled with the latch, then pushed it open.

Bundles of white cloth were inside, along with little bottles marked with tiny writing. She recognized the word on the one she needed: “Antiseptic.”

“Okay S, bring the water over here, and sit down.”

“Sit.” That was something she understood. She grinned proudly as she looked up, apparently expecting praise for it.

“This is… going to hurt while I do it,” Harlequin said, as gently as she could. “It hurt Codex. But he got better after. If you let me do this, you will get better. Okay?”

“Okay.” S sounded uneasy, but she continued watching with trust. Harlequin could practically see what she was thinking through her expression—that was the trust every bug felt for the ones who fed them. It was gratitude for love received.

Harlequin blinked, checking her reserves by reflex. It was exactly how she thought—she hadn’t been feeding this drone. Must just be old instincts. You’re not as good at reading expressions as you think you are, Harlequin.

She worked by the faint white glow of magical lights, using pony tools and imitated pony strategies. Changelings had their own ways of helping injured drones to heal, secret methods that the Swarm could’ve shown her. But failing that, some bandages and antiseptic weren’t the worst thing in the world.

After an hour of work, Harlequin could feel the weight of exhaustion on her shoulders. She’d gone through most of the bandages and both bottles of antiseptic—but S’s body looked much better. Instead of open wounds seeping blood, there were now bandages on her back, over the stump of her wing. She looked much better, her eyes less glazed and her cheeks no longer sallow.

“Queen,” S said, when she was done. “Queen here. You.”

“No. But I’ll try to protect you like one. If you… want to stay with me for awhile.”

“Yes!” S exclaimed, bouncing up and down beside her. Probably shouldn’t be moving like that. Those bandages are barely holding you together.

“Alright, alright.” She rested one leg on her shoulder. “Slow down, S. Why don’t you… see if you can show me the way you came. I’d like to meet whoever is in charge down here.” Harliquin took one last glance at the railway leading up, then turned her back on the ponies above. She followed S into the darkness of the prison.

Chapter 19: Queen

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Harlequin led the way through Canterlot Caverns, with S following close at her hooves. The caves were so large she knew she could get lost forever if she went the wrong way. Ponies hadn’t really done much to change the caves when they built the place, just sealed up every exit they knew of and hoped for the best.

That could mean there’s a way out of here, if we can find it. The caves could go through the whole mountain. The Swarm could easily accomplish a task like that, exploring it with a growing cloud of knowledge of every cavern until they either found an exit or eliminated the option completely.

But there was no Swarm anymore, no means for perfect coordination. Ponies can work together. Equestria built this prison in a day. We can cooperate to escape it. And they would have to. Poor S looked like she was already showing the first signs of deprivation. Drones could go for weeks before they starved—but those weeks would be a terrible death.

“Are they this way?” she said, stopping at a fork in the path and gesturing towards the direction where the ground was a little muddy. “This is water you spilled, right? The bugs are living this way.”

S seemed confused for a few moments. She reached down, pawing at the ground with a hoof. “Sense. You must be right.”

That isn’t the same thing as an answer, she thought, frustrated. But S was already pathetic enough, bandaged and broken and thinking Harlequin was a queen. She couldn’t take out her anger on a bug like that.

Harlequin started marching on again, through the mud. She hadn’t been this way—it wasn’t in the housing area the ponies had built for them. It seemed like the bugs were actively avoiding anywhere that ponies had touched.

There was something on the ground not far ahead. Harlequin lit up her horn, spending a little precious magical energy to see what she was looking at.

It was a drone, collapsed to the ground and badly broken. She hurried over but stopped just out of reach without touching it. The bug wasn’t breathing. S, meanwhile, had stopped halfway down the cavern, staring in horror. “Bad,” she said. “Not that way. Bad.”

“You could’ve told me,” she said, backing up towards S. But she was too slow.

In the glow of her horn, a pair of figures appeared in the gloom, their shapes melting into the stone and fracturing into colored copies in the shadow of the huge crystals.

“Look at that,” said one of the bugs, their eyes settling on her horn. “A bug with magic. Lucky find.” She knew that look, the half-open way his mouth hung, the fangs glittering. That was desperate hunger.

“You want to live,” said another voice, behind her. A female, smaller than her partner, but just as fierce. She had wrapped one of her legs in dried slime, the changeling way of treating an injury. “Good, we want to let you live. You give us everything you have, you fly away. Otherwise…” She nodded towards the bug. “You die. Which is it?”

S made several insectoid squeaking sounds of protest, shuffling closer before the female shoved her back and out of the way. “Not even worth our time. You’re half dead already. Stay out of this.”

“You’re hurting other bugs,” Harlequin said, horrified. “You did this? Attacking us like our enemies do?”

The male bug shrugged, all the while closing in on her. She was already trapped in a space maybe five feet long. There was no room to squeeze past the male. She might be able to get past the female, back to the fork in the path. “The old queen trapped us. Minds… confined. Forced us to think her story. Now we think our own story. Our story is, give us your magic.”

“Or you die,” the other one said. “And wouldn’t that be a waste?”

Too bad they didn’t let me bring Nightender down here. She had no doubt what would happen if they tried that while she was still holding that sword. These bugs didn’t even have rocks for weapons, let alone swords. Levitation took precious magic, magic they wouldn’t have if they were attacking other bugs to steal what energy they could. Compared to them, Harlequin was overflowing with it. Maybe I could trick them. Give them a little and act like they got it all.

But if she showed them she could be intimidated that way, how long would her magic last? She had come down here overflowing with love. Maybe enough to survive to escape, if she fostered it carefully. Would she rather give it to bugs like S, or thieves who would kill another changeling?”

It wasn’t even a question. “Get back!” she screamed, her horn lighting up bright white. She hadn’t even known she could make it do that. “You want magic, I’ll give it to you! But you won’t like the way I do!” She had seen ponies throw changelings from the castle wall, seen them do all kinds of incredible things. Of course, she’d never tried to copy them—drones just didn’t cast spells. But now that she had a name, things were different.

And they did stop, the first sign of fear and caution in their expressions. The female was the next to speak, her tone doubtful. “Whose clutch were you, bug? Who was your Overseer?”

“Hydrus,” she answered, before she could even think about why they’d want to know. “He taught me everything.”

They both laughed. The male stomped his way forward again, and she was forced to turn sideways so that she wouldn’t run into either of them. Harlequin spread her wings wide, but even flying would be difficult in such tight quarters. There was no mystery about why these two evil bugs had chosen this spot. “Then we have nothing to fear. Hydrus doesn’t know how to fight. Queen’s personal guard… knew how to be soft with the ones she wanted to keep alive. Is that what you’re going to do to us, be soft? Whatever will we do?”

She had to act—they were psyching themselves up to attack her. Beaten badly enough, they’d probably be able to coax her to give up all her magic, and then some. Or maybe they’d kill her accidentally and lose all the power. But cold revenge that would be if she was dead.

Harlequin tried to picture the spell she’d seen from those guards, aiming her horn at the female. Her horn got brighter, and a few misshapen runes appeared in her mind. But she didn’t know what they were, didn’t know what the point of them was. She couldn’t exactly ask the Swarm, or else she wouldn’t have been here in the first place.

For a few moments, she could feel something happening in front of her. The space got hot, light burned at her eyes—then it fizzled, and something kicked her from behind. She heard the crack before she felt the pain, the crack of an injury that had damaged her shell. Her back legs gave out, and she crumpled to the floor. The world in front of her started to go fuzzy, and for a few seconds she couldn’t even move from pain. Her horn stopped glowing, her concertation broken. Harlequin screamed out in pain, trying to move out of the way.

“Waste,” said the female from in front of her. “Have you changed your mind now, bug? I can have Corkscrew hit you again. He’ll make it hurt more the second time, honest. Or you can give us everything you have. Don’t try and lie, either. There are easy spells for knowing how much magic a bug has. We’ll take it all.

Then something screamed from behind her, and the female went down in a blur of black shells. S was at her neck, biting and squealing. It wasn’t words exactly, but through the sounds Harlequin could make out a few sounds that were close. “Not… queen… stop!” she yelled. Harlequin tried to move forward, but her back leg just twitched uselessly with pain. Something moved above her, the bigger male bug climbing around her. He jerked forward, separating the two bugs, and tossing S against the wall so hard that her shell cracked too. She landed on her side, twitching like a beetle upside-down.

“Kill it,” the female whispered. “I don’t know what she’s doing to control it. We’ll take that first. We can use that magic too.”

“No!” Harlequin twitched uselessly as Corkscrew crossed the crystal cavern to where S had fallen, picking up a huge shard of broken rock and lifting it towards the bug’s head.

“Should’ve ran while you had the chance, bug,” he said. “Nothing personal. You’re too stupid to know what you’re doing.” He lifted the rock high, even using a bit of magic in the swing.

“NO!” Harlequin screamed again, and this time her body obeyed. Magic burned behind her, so bright that the cavern lit up green. Her leg knit itself back together in a matter of seconds, the wound covering over with a thin layer of slime. She sprang forward with the force of a charging lion, smashing into Corkscrew.

She felt as though she had the strength of all the earth ponies she’d protected flowing through her veins again, keeping her from harm while the other pony was blasted back. When the female came at her with her teeth, Harlequin stopped her with one hoof and shoved her back with another. “Get away from her!”

Corkscrew was already back on his hooves, bleeding from where he’d smacked into the wall. “She’s got too much—” he muttered, voice horrified. “Did you see that, Mandible? I snapped her leg, swear I did.”

“Run,” she said. “We’ll find… someone else.” They ran, trailing bits of fallen stone and stinking the whole cavern with hollow fear.

The anger burning in Harlequin’s chest demanded satisfaction. She almost chased after them, to do to the two of them what they’d wanted to do to her friend. But then S made a pained squeaking sound, rolling sideways onto her back, and all the strength left her. Whatever incredible instinct had motivated her, it was already running out.

“Queen,” the little voice said. Harlequin bent down beside her, taking one of her hooves and squeezing.

“Not… I’m not,” she answered. This poor bug had gone from bad to worse. She’d already been struggling to hold on when Harlequin rescued her, and now—blood seeped out from her bandages, and dribbled down her gaping mouth. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, though there was so little light that there wasn’t much for them to see.

“Tried… protect you… Queen,” said the little changeling, her voice shaking in the dark. “Was I… good bug…?”

“Yes!” Harlequin’s horn lit up again, and she struggled desperately in her memory for any of the medical spells she’d watched the unicorns use on Codex. Ponies had incredible healing powers, she could use them here! There had to be a way to fix this! “You’re a great bug, S! Now just… get up! We’ll get out of here. I’ll take care of you, I promise!”

But S wasn’t moving anymore, not even a twitch. Harlequin stared down into those multifaceted eyes and realized with horror that they weren’t following her anymore, weren’t responding to the light. They had killed her.

The incredible wealth of magic Harlequin had spent to save her meant nothing. Her effort to help had meant nothing. She saved me, but I couldn’t save her. Chasing after her attackers wouldn't help bring this bug back. She would've made it. She would've survived! How could bugs be attacking each other so quickly?

What could she do?

In seeing the Guard respond to their destroyed city, Harlequin now knew exactly what to do in a situation like this.

She bent down beside the little changeling and cried.

Chapter 20: Lost Codex

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Harlequin must’ve fallen asleep at some point, because she found herself back in that sightless void, where there had once been the Swarm to protect her and make her feel welcome. She could still remember it, the thousands of others that would surround her in her sleep. The memories she could see from other bugs filled her with strength and pride. Her ancestors had been mighty creatures once, and one day they would rule again.

But now she was alone, both in waking life and in dreams. She couldn’t even save a single bug.

“You know why that is, child,” said a distant voice, so faint she almost thought another bug was approaching. “It isn’t your fault she had no place in the story. There’s none for you either—not because of anything you did. Is that the future you want?”

“No,” she thought into the darkness, searching for the one who spoke. She could barely move; her whole body was in slow motion. Her hooves struck out under her, and she tried to run. But it was like she was moving through half-hardened slime, sinking down around her, and slowing her to a crawl. “I want to change it! This is all wrong! Our queen left us!”

For a moment, she could almost see something in the darkness around her. A figure moved—not a pony exactly, but like one. An outline swimming towards her, one of greater darkness. “I will find a use for you.”

Then she woke. She hadn’t gone far from where S had fallen, just a few steps into a dark corner where she’d crawled in a near-daze. She could still smell the death nearby. Harlequin shuddered, shook the sand from her fins, then rose. The crystals around her reflected sound strangely, making it hard to find her way, hard to keep track of where she’d gone. Obviously, the path she’d been taking with S would be out. She turned around, keeping to the largest tunnels.

She had an advantage none of these bugs had—she’d been here when the prison was built. She knew that bigger tunnels would always lead towards the entrance, at least if she stayed close. What might be true if she wandered further wouldn’t matter so long as she always stayed close to where the food came in.

The food that no bug could eat. And why should they bother? Harlequin had suffered as they did, she knew the pain they felt. When she saw the drones, all lined up in the street, the Swarm taken from them, she could imagine their despair. Now she felt it herself. She’d been finding a place in the Guard for herself—but now that was taken away. She’d tried to help another bug, like she would’ve done with the Swarm intact—that had failed too.

So she wandered. Not towards the front, exactly, but from one room to another. She kept her horn dark this time, not wanting to attract attention to herself. There would be other opportunists in the tunnels. She didn’t want to fight again.

Her reserves of love were no longer full, though she was still some distance from starvation. Defending S had taken less than she had spent healing her leg. But she no longer felt curious about why. She just wandered.

Time passed, she couldn’t have said how much. Eventually she ended up in a pristine, empty space full of cots. She walked up, and a pony light crystal came on, illuminating a bunk area for fifty bugs, little blankets folded on the pillows and small bags of pony grooming supplies in front of each one. What were bugs supposed to do with soap and deodorant?

Harlequin no longer cared. She shut the door behind her, pushed a cot up in front so it wouldn’t swing open easily, then crawled all the way to the back. She got far enough away that the light crystals all went out again, and she was left in the gloom. Left to the sound of her breathing, and a distant drip of water.

She spent a long time in that room. She didn’t need to go eat—pony food wouldn’t have done anything for her anyway. When she got thirsty, she didn’t go further than the sound of dripping on the far end of the room, holding her tongue out under the moisture until it didn’t hurt anymore.

She spent a long time with her thoughts, imagining how differently that fight could’ve gone if only she had Nightender. Or any weapon, really. She did have the power to change the world—but why should she bother?

Getting a name was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me. At least if I was like them, I wouldn’t understand all of this. I’d think that my Queen was perfect and coming to save me, right up until I died. Like S, dying to save her “queen.”

Some way to thank you for your help this is.

Changelings weren’t supposed to sleep like ponies did, but they could hibernate. Harlequin didn’t spin herself a cocoon, even though she had the magic for it. Instead she piled up a mass of pony cots, covered them with blankets, and tried to imagine she was back in the pony barracks. Back with the ones who had cared about her name, who talked about her like a hero. Who thought she could be better than she was.

She probably wouldn’t have responded at all, except for the voice that she heard. It wasn’t the bugs who had attacked her and S, though revenge might’ve motivated her. It wasn’t even her queen.

The voice she heard came from the bug who was most responsible for her being trapped here in the first place. The single reason she hadn’t been able to get the others free.

“I don’t belong down here!” he called, his voice distant and distorted. But the ramp down must’ve been close to the sleeping areas. It would make sense. The ponies had imagined their prisoners would organize themselves and act just like ponies might in the same situation.

He’s the reason you’re here. He betrayed you. You could have set him free if only he’d let you. The quiet voice was right, of course. Everything was completely his fault. Even S’s death, in a roundabout way. At least she could’ve lived a few more days carrying water for… someone.

Harlequin rose to her hooves, scattering the blankets and cots. She probably smelled awful, like a bug that hadn’t molted right in weeks. But there was no way around that now. Maybe the best thing to do would be to let him wander into the caverns and let them steal his magic. Corkscrew could kill him too.

But while that thought should’ve filled her with satisfaction, it only made her go faster. Some part of her might want to see him punished, but another part couldn’t forget that she had already fed on him once. Codex was the reason she had a name now. Codex and Hydrus together. She couldn’t abandon him now.

So she ran, shoving the door open and following the sound of Codex’s panic. “Don’t leave me down here!” the bug was shouting. He might as well be chumming the water for sharks.

The ponies at the top of the slope didn’t answer. Some part of Harlequin was surprised that Codex had even run to the bottom. If he just stopped at the top to yell, soon enough the pony magic would burn him away like all those others.

She wasn’t the only one to emerge in the huge entry cavern, with its yellow and pink crystals and cloud of flies. The mountain of food had gotten considerably larger since last Harlequin looked, with a few signs of looting. How long had she been drifting, anyway? Her magical reserves had drained to about half of what she could hold now, most of that gone trying to save S.

The figures she saw lurking in the gloom around the light-crystals at the base of the railway were barely even bugs anymore. Withered, shrunken, their shells white and malformed. The darkness was no harm to a bug, but starvation appeared to be doing terrible things to them. They were small, creatures that had never had names. But they had teeth now, and predatory looks in their eyes.

Have they lost so much? “Codex!” she called from across the room, standing as straight as she could and lighting up her horn bright green. It was a gamble—such a show of strength would either frighten away the scavengers or goad larger predators into appearing. “Codex, get over here right now.”

He stopped yelling up at the railway, slowly turning on his hooves. His eyes filled with anger as he saw her, and he didn’t take so much as a single step towards her. “You are the reason for this, Harlequin. You deserve this. But I don’t. I never did anything wrong.”

“Codex,” she said, taking another step closer to him. She wasn’t going to keep wasting her magic on light for much longer, but for now she could see the figures scattering in front of her. “You are in danger. If you don’t come with me, you’re going to die. I already saved you once.”

Against my better judgement. If you had just kept your stupid mouth shut, I would still be in the Guard. I might be halfway to freeing the other bugs by now. But she couldn’t really hold that against him, could she? He didn’t have the Swarm to guide him anymore. He’d never really had it. Why should he care what happened to other bugs?

I must help him. I changed him in the first place.

At least this time he seemed to be responding. Codex backed towards her, his fins flicking from one side to the other in agitation. “In prison? Why would prison be dangerous?”

“You’re still half covered in bandages, Codex. Why do you think?”

His eyes widened—that was apparently enough to finally reach him. He started running towards her. Exactly the wrong move. Running wasn’t just showing his back, it was also showing fear and weakness. Both things that a bug never ought to do to a predator. Harlequin turned to run with him, letting her horn settle into a gentle green glow as she pointed. “This way! This is part of where ponies built… it has doors!”

They ran. Drones gone mad screeched behind them, a dangerous flock that grew denser as they moved. Harlequin could barely even recognize most of the sounds they made. They didn’t seem like anything she’d heard in the hive before. This is what happens without the Swarm. When bugs starved back home, they just died. Everyone knew it could happen.

Maybe the Queen had been protecting them after all—protecting them from themselves.

Codex screamed as one of them tried to latch onto his leg. His shell was too strong for a single bite, but the bandages on his thigh caught the teeth, slowing him and making him trip end-over-end.

Not again! Harlequin caught him in her magic, settling him down and scanning the area around them. Last time they’d been beaten, it was because she hadn’t had any way of defending herself. Even two days in the Guard were enough for her to know that keeping a weapon close was the most important thing. And unlike medical magic, she had learned to fight from the Swarm. There, an unassembled pony cot in a pile of many others. She reached out, pulling out the long wooden rod and spinning it in the air in front of her. I could make a spear out of this.

But for now, it was just a staff. She faced out at the crowd, roaring. “Get away from him!” she called, smashing it into the drone’s side before it could bite at Codex again. “Find something else to eat!” The bug rolled away, squealing with pain.

It worked. The crowd of angry eyes stopped just out of sight, their eyes animal hunger as they stared out from the darkness at them. They hissed, backed away. They would find something else to eat.

Harlequin started backing up. “Get up, stupid. Open door just behind us. Go.”

He went, without arguing this time. Harlequin kept the rod in front of her until she could pull the door shut behind them.

Chapter 21: Swarmlore

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“So maybe you don’t want to hurt me,” Codex said, as soon as they’d finished barricading the door. Harlequin had started dragging crates over, but the other bug was cleverer than that. He stuck a rod between the handles, and just like that it couldn’t be swung in either direction. He added a few more, and the heavy wooden doors were about as secure as any doors could be.

We could break them if we were a swarm. But if we were still a swarm, we would escape this place. She hadn’t felt the Swarm anywhere in the dark, unless that strange queen she saw in the dreamless darkness was what a swarm looked like when it was starting.

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to do what you say. You’re still the one who ruined my life. There’s no one in the universe I should hate more. You took my family away, you got me thrown down here…”

Harlequin pushed him against the wall, hard enough that she jostled the pillar, and the pony light crystal came on. She bore her teeth, hissing at him. “You are the only reason you are down here, Codex. I was installed in the pony guard. I was going to get everybug out. The only thing you had to do was wait patiently.” She shoved him back, collapsing onto her haunches and panting hard. “I got myself assigned to guard the prison! All I had to do was wait for the right opportunity, and this would be over! We’d be long gone from this awful city…”

“You’re not really making your case,” Codex argued. “You wanted to let free a prison full of murderers and war criminals.” He flicked his tail back at the door as it jostled slightly. Maybe the scavengers outside hadn’t gone as far as they hoped. “Look at that. That is what the ponies of Equestria would’ve faced if I hadn’t stopped you. Even if ponies rejected me…” He stood a little straighter, though his voice quavered slightly. “It doesn’t matter if they never know my name. I still did my best to save them. One day, Princess Celestia will honor me for it.”

“Whatever.” Harlequin picked a cot at random, slumping sideways onto it. “That sounds exactly like the kind of thinking that got us into trouble. Believing our queen no matter what she told us.” The words felt like they should catch fire in her mouth as she said them. But there was no poison dripping down her tongue, and Chrysalis didn’t appear from the shadows behind her with a dagger to reward her for her disloyalty.

She went on. “She left us behind. Left us to be captured, doesn’t seem to care that we’re suffering. What makes you think your princess is different?”

“Because she is,” Codex said, as though commenting on the weather. “They’re nothing alike. You invaded us, Harlequin. We just wanted to live peacefully here. I wanted you to live peacefully. I suspect I even know more about changelings than you know about yourselves. Your culture has become a degenerate shadow of itself. But I suppose that’s the natural consequence of relying on your linked mind-structure over the course of—”

Harlequin sat up suddenly, spreading her wings as she interrupted him. “Hold on. I… I remember. You did talk about us before. You said you were… an expert on magical creatures. You weren’t lying to me?”

“No,” he said, more annoyed than defensive this time. “Of course not! Why would I lie about that? Pointless. Obviously I should have lied. If I told you I was a chef, I’d be home with my family right now, sipping coco and wondering what the princess was going to do with the invaders. Not… rotting with you in prison.”

This argument was going nowhere. But that didn’t mean she was completely wasting her time. “How did you know about changelings? Ponies didn’t know what we were when we started sneaking in. Only when the Queen ordered an invasion… I think.” She didn’t know what had been happening back then, obviously. She barely had a dozen memories from that long ago, and most of them were abstract snapshots of a few moments at a time.

“I studied,” Codex answered. It seemed like he’d claimed a section of the prison for himself, clearing off a few of the cots, pushing them together, and opening the little kits at the foot of each bed. Fine, she had no reason to try and stop him. Routine was good for a bug. “There are ancient records of you, just like most things. Ponies knew their world better in the past. We’ve been so frightened of the monsters that lurk in dark corners that we’ve forgotten how we fought them. It’s just so much easier to leave you alone. Hope you won’t come back, hope you weren’t looking. See what good it did.”

Harlequin frowned, watching this changeling move. His shell still didn’t look like it was formed right, and now had several more openings than it should, held together with thin thread from pony stitching. Whatever medicine they’d done to try and heal him had been only partially successful.

Maybe they dumped him down here after they found out about me. Or maybe Codex just upset them so much they got frustrated with dealing with him. That certainly seemed plausible, given the pain he was for her most of the time they were together. But the Queen thought you were valuable enough to convert. She wanted you specifically, and Hydrus searched for you. You must know something. “Tell me what you know,” she said, without preamble. “About changelings. You wrote about us, isn’t that what you said? In a pony book.”

“In my doctoral thesis,” he corrected. “Yes, I did. You were fascinating creatures when I could think about you in the abstract. Nopony guessed you might still be alive in numbers like this. Or that you might be coming back to Equestria. That you’d attack us again… obviously the princess must not have considered it, or we would’ve been better defended. I’m sure we will be now.”

“Probably,” she agreed. She’d already seen the Guard adapting. They would be teaching that spell used to fight changelings. They wouldn’t be so easy to invade next time. “What do you know about us? Maybe it can help?”

“Help,” he muttered, glaring at her. “You’re under a mistaken impression if you think I’m going to help you, Harlequin. You’re the one who ruined my life. There isn’t a pony in the world I hate more, despite all you’ve done to keep me alive. You can’t assuage your guilt with virtuous deeds. The damage you’ve done is permanent. I know this process is irreversible. Even if I somehow escape, my family knows. My wife will think I’m an imposter bent on harvesting her. My daughter will fear me as a monster. You’ve taken everything and left me with nothing. Maybe you shouldn’t have saved me at all.”

Harlequin just folded her wings, closed her eyes. Their supply of energy was a fixed quantity now and would be running out the longer she stayed. The best way for her to conserve it was to move as little as possible. There was no arguing with him there—she really had ruined his whole life. Well, her and the rest of the invasion. “If I hadn’t fed on you, some other bug would. You’d just be here with someone else for company.”

He didn’t respond for several seconds, but from the anger in his tone her case wasn’t very convincing. “I’m still not going to help you escape. Equestria is my home. It isn’t my family’s fault they hate me, it’s yours. I can still give them a better life by keeping you all trapped down here.”

Harlequin opened one eye, watching him make the bed. He did it exactly like the refugees she’d lived with for that first night. Almost like he was still in touch with some invisible pony swarm, guiding him. “Don’t help me escape,” she said. “How about this. Think about how hungry you are. I bet you were a prisoner long enough to eat some pony food. You know how much good that did. You’re just going to keep getting worse. Equestria knows so little about us they’re still sending down plants for us to eat. Do you want to starve?”

That silenced him. Codex had no snappy response to that, and she could see his ears flatten as she said it. After a few long moments, he finally spoke. “I guess there’s no harm in telling you the story. It’s not going to make finding an exit to this cavern easier. Do you know where changelings came from?”

“The badlands,” she answered instantly. “It’s… south of here, I think. Lots of dirt, not much grows…”

“No,” Codex shook his head. “Not where you came from physically. How you came to be.”

Harlequin shook her head. But she sat up as he asked, watching him intently. That sounded interesting, even if it didn’t seem like something that would get them out or help them find food. “That’s Swarmlore. I think the Queen must’ve known, but… I never did. I was too little to care about things like that.”

“There are multiple stories in Equestria,” he went on. His tone changed, all anger fading. He sounded more like a pony who was teaching. He went in regular, repetitive cycles through each sentence, returning to the same tone of voice with each one. “The stupid—some ponies think that Star Swirl probably did it, some mistaken enchantment on an insect or something. Ludicrous.” He shook his head once, and she found herself in agreement there. That was obviously wrong.

“The oldest story I could find—and oldest often means most accurate with accounts like this—is that you were descended from ponies. Long ago, before any of the ponies we know were ever born, even Celestia, there was a disagreement. It was so long ago that nopony remembers what it was about. But what we do know is that there were three factions. Some say those three factions became the three tribes we know today, losing their Alicorn powers forever. But I think it’s something else.

“The story goes like this: An Alicorn traveler arrived in Dream Valley one day, with a strange gift for all who saw her. ‘Take this,’ she said. ‘And it will make you strong.’ ‘Take this, it will make you wise.’ Some ponies ran to her, eagerly accepting the gifts. They became the ponies you know, inheriting all the world. But some feared her. They rejected her gifts and found their own magic. I think those were the ones who turned into you. They had to run far to get away from her, eating strange food and cowering away from the sun. Eventually they were changed, and they look like you do now. Well… like we do.”

I wish the Swarm was still there. I could ask them if the story was true. If she’d cared about abstract things, she probably would’ve already known that story. “Do you know anything that could help us find food?” she asked, voice desperate. “I have a little time, but you don’t. Those ponies weren’t treating you very well. I bet you were hungry when you got here.”

Codex’s expression was all the confirmation she needed—there was fear, and barely contained animal instincts. It was wanting to strike out and take relief, but not knowing where to find it. Harlequin knew it well. “Well… the story has another part. The Alicorn who visited discovered the ones who had fled, and she cursed them. ‘May you always depend on the kindness of others,’ she said. ‘Until you learn to show kindness in return and accept your place in the story.’”

“And that’s supposed to help us,” she muttered, pawing angrily at the cot below her. “Not sure how.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t know,” he said, glaring at her again. “You only care about yourself. But the story seems to say that you don’t need to steal love forever. Maybe there’s a way for you to be free. For us to… to change back into ponies.” He sunk down onto his haunches, staring down at his hooves. “There has to be a way. A way to… share enough kindness. Overcome the curse. Nightmare Moon was real—I’m sure this story is too.”

Chapter 22: Defiance

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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.”

Chapter 23: Swarm

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“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.

Chapter 24: (not a) Queen

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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.”

Chapter 25: Supply Chain

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Harlequin sat in an impossibly beautiful space, furnished more like a pony than any bug could’ve created. “The answer to your question is simple, Harlequin. I understand what creatures value. This is the secret that even our queen never mastered—the way to control ponies without conquering them.”

He set his empty glass down, then reached below his desk again. He dropped a bundle on the desk between them, wrapped in brown cloth and sounding like it was full of metal.

Harlequin reached down, pulling at the string until it opened wider. Little metal disks were inside, glittering in the pony light. “I don’t get it.”

“That’s money,” Codex offered helpfully. “Platinum bits. Each one is worth…”

“Worth,” Hydrus repeated, sounding pleased. “That’s the secret in one word, Harlequin. The reason the invasion was doomed to fail from the start. The reason we never needed it to succeed. I only recently understood the idea. But now that I do… everything is clear.

“Ponies aren’t like us, Harlequin. They don’t know how to work together. They don’t know how to sacrifice for the good of the collective. Their world is drowning in love, but they ignore all of it so they can gather up bits of metal. This is ‘worth’ to them. All that matters is the metal be made of the right material and in the right shape, and… well, you can get almost anything.”

Codex’s eyes got wider the longer he spoke. Harlequin could only imagine what he might’ve said if he could’ve spoken to her privately. But he couldn’t, and instead he said, “You’re talking about currency. Trade. Capitalism. The… ability to buy and sell.”

“You have so many different words,” Hydrus said, waving a dismissive wing. “We don’t need to get into the specifics. Here’s what matters, Harlequin. One of my bugs persuaded me that this invasion was doomed. He had fought against the Queen, trying to stop it… and he failed. But I did not ascend so high because I ignore good information when I hear it. Once those ponies fought past us to the palace… it was clear what would happen next.”

“But you’re still in prison,” Codex argued. “You’re down here with every other bug. Except…” He looked up again. There was still sunlight from up above. Not much, but… enough. “There’s a way out. And you’re… still here. Even when you could be free.”

“There’s an opening to the surface,” Hydrus agreed. “It leads to a specific location in the lower city, fairly near the monorail station. We, uh… paid, I think you call it? We paid for it in bits. We… pay… the ponies up there. But escape… no. Why would we run away from our food?”

We’re not all dying in the dark. Some bugs really did find a way to survive. To get love, somehow.

“Here’s what I learned about ‘worth.’ Ponies will give us metal in exchange for what they want. If they don’t understand that they’re also giving us something of real value, then the swarm can grow even stronger. I am pleased to have you both here. Codex, you have knowledge about us, knowledge that should belong to the Swarm. I wish you could’ve shared it with all… but we will have to copy your methods of teaching as well. And Harlequin—I saw your potential before, and I see I was not mistaken. The swarm is pleased to have you back. I can see you must be hungry—it’s been so long since you recruited Codex here, that love is long gone. Let me share with you.”

He got up, walked around the table. Harlequin accepted, meeting his mouth for a few faint drops of love. It would’ve been a fortune to one of those starving drones, but for her… He doesn’t realize I’ve been getting love from ponies. I saved ponies, the guards looked out for me, Azure Sigil stood up for me.

She accepted anyway. A day’s worth of love was a day more than she had. Besides, this was what she’d always done. This was how love was passed to the ranks, through their leaders. Accepting food from him was like being welcomed back into the swarm.

“And you, Codex. Will you join us? Or would you rather starve in the caves like the others who refuse my rule?”

“I want to live,” Codex said, eyes downcast. “I know I… shouldn’t help you. After what you did to my country. If I live… maybe one day I can see my wife and son again.”

“Wise,” Hydrus said. “And maybe. I am only beginning to understand this pony invention called ‘worth.’ I think it may even be possible to change their laws, change their opinions, get them to accept us. For enough pieces of metal, a pony will do almost anything. We may be able to trade some metal for your family again.”

“Maybe.” He didn’t sound like he believed it.

Even so, Hydrus opened his mouth to share a few drops of love with Codex too. In the days of the Swarm, a bug’s strongest connection was always to the one they’d last received food from. Now that it was gone… it was only ceremonial.

“I have important tasks to accomplish,” Hydrus said, as soon as he was finished. “Go up those stairs. You will find Thorax there. He can answer your mundane questions, and get you a place in the Swarm. We are… making many alterations now that we cannot share our thoughts. I will speak with you again tomorrow, Harlequin. I will hear of what has happened to you since the invasion.”

He waved his wings again, dismissive, and the two of them retreated up the stairs. Real stairs too, with steps a pony could actually walk. There are non-bugs down here sometimes. All those objects down there must be to impress his visitors.

Harlequin still wasn’t sure yet if she should be impressed with what Hydrus had managed to build down here, or upset that there were bugs outside his domain, hunting and killing each other in the caves.

Codex stopped her in the stairs, pulling on her fin painfully and yanking her to one side before they could fully reach the floor above. He lowered his voice to a whisper, leaning up to her.

“Does this whole thing feel wrong to you?”

Harlequin shrugged one shoulder. “You mean like…”

“Like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “Hydrus didn’t tell us where the magic is coming from. We need it to survive, right?”

She nodded. “Does it… matter? Ponies didn’t share any with us. Lots more bugs would’ve starved already if someone didn’t do something. Do you really think your idea of… pretending to be ponies… would work better than this?”

“I don’t know.” He finally let go, pushing her away. “I need more time to get my bearings. I trust my gut though, Harlequin. My gut was screaming at me to keep my damn mouth shut trying to help you bugs, and see what it got me. I’m not going to ignore it again.”

She didn’t really know what he meant, so she didn’t bother trying to make sense of it. Just shrugged, and continued up the stairs.

This room was much larger, so big that it was built in a curve around the central shaft. Unlike the rooms below, the spire of white quartz was exposed here, and polished to a glittering shine. Real light shone in from up above, breaking into a thousand fractals as it passed through the rock.

The guardhouse had rooms like this—a cramped office with shelves and books and desks. Half a dozen bugs were here, most of them drones. Harlequin stepped off the stairs, which continued up into the ceiling, crossing the room towards the only one she recognized.

“Thorax!” she exclaimed, grinning at him.

The bug set down his quill, face lighting up in response. “H! You survived!” He leaned forward to embrace her, and Harlequin returned the gesture. There was no love exchanged, but it still felt nice to see someone she remembered. A bug who didn’t look down on her as an inferior he’d taught to think.

“You’re Thorax,” Codex said from behind her, his voice flat. “The one who… runs this place?”

“Runs,” Thorax repeated, sitting down. “I don’t have to run very often anymore, now that we connected the cavern to the prison. Now we have lots of drones for that kind of work. Before that I had to run.”

“I think you’re…” Codex rolled his eyes. “You can’t be serious. Harlequin, are all of you like this?”

“Harlequin,” Thorax repeated, grinning. “You got a name! That’s great!”

“Like what?” she asked, annoyed.

Codex muttered something under his breath, sitting down on his haunches. “Nevermind. We’re here because we’re trying to join. Apparently you’re the one to see.”

“All those books and papers are what you use instead of the Swarm?” Harlequin said. “You have to put us in your book?”

“I do,” he said, levitating one over from the shelf and shuffling through to the end. “Did Hydrus say what you’ll be doing? He must trust you if he sent you up by yourselves.”

“Codex is going to be a… teacher. And I’m… supposed to come back tomorrow for Hydrus to tell me. What does tomorrow even mean when you’re in a cave?”

Thorax nodded towards the crystal. “We get sunlight from up above. Not as much makes it down into the cave, but ponies spend a lot of time in this part, and they don’t like the dark so much.” He scribbled down a few things, then rose. “Usually I would have a drone take you, but… I can do it. You look worried about something.”

She glanced sidelong at Codex, but he looked away awkwardly. He didn’t trust this bug. Harlequin didn’t care much—she did. “We’re worried about where the love comes from,” she said. “There’s hundreds of bugs here, and all this building. Maybe more than we did at the old hive. That must take tons of magic. How are you doing it if the ponies don’t give us any food?”

“Oh.” Thorax nodded knowingly. “Every bug wants to know where the food comes from. I can show you before I get you a cell. You… won’t believe it. I know I didn’t. But… it’s real.” He gestured up above them, where a thin shaft climbed into the darkness.

Codex took one look, then shook his head. “You look, I’ll wait here.”

So she took off, following Thorax up. They passed above the ceiling, to where a series of glass windows were facing them. Thorax stopped in front of one, hovering in place and gesturing inside. “These are magic pony glass,” he said. “From the other side, they’re mirrors. Ponies can’t see through.”

Harlequin looked through the magical glass, and couldn’t tell what she was looking at. Like a little pony bedroom, with a large bed, a fancy painting on one wall, and a light. “Love comes from… here?”

“No.” Thorax lowered his voice to a whisper. “Don’t talk when we go higher. The walls are too thin. Just look.”

They flew, and she looked. Not all the rooms were empty. There were at least two creatures in each one, and she could feel the real emotions coming through the walls. Real ponies were in there, with bugs. Some rooms were fancier than others, like tiny pony houses. Others had more bugs in them, or less.

They dropped back down after they’d flown to the top. Harlequin’s eyes were wide, and her fangs sticking out of her mouth.

“So?” Codex asked, expression grim. “What did you see up there? Are they eating foals or something?”

Thorax’s eyes widened, horrified, but Harlequin answered first. “No. It’s just… ponies. There are a dozen of them up there, being harvested. But they’re not prisoners… some of the doors aren’t even shut. They looked like they liked it.”

“They do,” Thorax said. “They want to come here so bad they give us metal even though they’re already feeding us love. It’s not the best kind… but it’s better than starving, right?”

“I don’t understand,” Codex said. “Ponies pay you to come down here and get harvested?” Thorax nodded. “And they want that?” He nodded again. “Why?”

“I… don’t really understand it,” Thorax admitted. “I think it’s because… not every pony can have the love they want? But when they come here, they can. We have all kinds; we can look like whatever they want.”

“Oh.” Codex slumped back down, defeated. “You built a brothel.”

Chapter 26: Intrusion

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Thorax took them back into the cavern below, helping Harlequin carry Codex during the drop. “We have cells big enough for two bugs,” he said, as they landed in the honeycomb of an upper level, with only thin walkways between each section. “You’ll want to be together, right?”

“Yes,” Codex said, before she could even open her mouth. “Harlequin is one of the few bugs I trust so far. Not that… I’m sure you’re great. But she’s so guilty about me that I can trust she won’t betray me. Not so much with the rest.”

Thorax stared at him like he hadn’t even understood his language. “Right, you were a pony. I forget how confrontational with each other you can be.” He took them down a few twists and turns, until they were in a tiny side-cavern, near some running water. The entrance was tightly blocked-off with slime, so that they had to squeeze through the center. The interior had an adhesive section of wall, with enough room for a bug to spin the cocoon closed if they wanted to. No blankets, no pillows, not even a place for personal possessions. Bugs didn’t really have those things.

“You can probably talk to Hydrus tomorrow to figure out where you’ll be with food. Every bug doesn’t get it from him. I came up with this great system of shapes where each part of the cave has one, and they have harvesters that bring back…” He trailed off. “You don’t care.”

“This is… where bugs sleep?” Codex asked, climbing out from the tiny space. “I can barely stand up in here.”

“Why would you want to stand up while you sleep?” Thorax asked. Codex had no response to that, and ended up just staring stupidly at him as he walked away.

Harlequin climbed in past him, laying sideways against the wall and memorizing the scent. Every cell would have its own, and she would need to know how to find her way back to this one.

“These are worse conditions than we had you in,” Codex said, once Thorax was gone. “Do they really expect us to use this?”

“For sleeping,” she answered. “How often do we sleep?”

“Often enough that I… don’t want to feel like a pencil in somebody’s drawer while I do it,” he argued, but most of the energy was gone. “Guess I don’t have a choice. Got recruited to the faction, so… I just get what you give me at this point.”

“It’s better than starving,” she answered. “Maybe way better. Doesn’t even seem like ponies are hurt in keeping us fed. Hydrus basically saved the swarm.”

“Saved,” Codex repeated, doubt in his voice. “But for what? This brothel sure seems… efficient. What do the rest of us do? Or do you think he’s keeping hundreds of bugs out of charity. I’m pretty sure that concept doesn’t even exist in your culture.

Harlequin didn’t want to admit that she didn’t know what the word meant, so she couldn’t argue directly. “Hydrus was a leader. When our queen abandoned us, he was there. What does it matter what else he wants? If he wants to collect pony metal, so what? Do you think it’s worse than letting your prisoners die?”

From his silence, she could guess that he didn’t.

“Besides, ponies come here willingly. They aren’t getting foalnapped. They aren’t vanishing into the night never to come back. Seems like everyone gets something they want.”

“Until Equestria figures out what you’re doing down here,” he said. “The leader bugs in the Canterlot cell… ponies aren’t dumb. They’ll realize none of them are eating, that they’re all going insane. Maybe they’ll finally listen. When that happens, they’re going to feel terrible about what they did, and go down into the prison to try and fix their mistake. If they find this…”

Harlequin could only shrug. “When that happens, we tell them we ate what we could find. Let the ponies feel guilty for starving us.”

They didn’t argue for much longer. Codex seemed to want some privacy, so she went off to explore the colony, searching for more bugs she knew. Trouble was, she knew so few that she couldn’t find any.

She did get a chance to venture deeper, where the drones had been packed into cells not even half the size of their own.

Almost all of them were fully cocooned for hibernation, where they would require only drops of love to sustain them. What few drones she did see were all busy with manual labor, carrying water or cleaning away waste or doing other menial work.

“Hey bug,” she said to one she found, replacing a section of collapsed honeycomb. “Do you like being in Hydrus’s swarm?”

The bug wasn’t all that much smaller than Harlequin, but the eyes that looked up at her seemed barely comprehending. Even S had more life in her than this. “Work,” it said. “For the swarm.”

“For the swarm,” Harlequin repeated. “What’s your name?”

“Work,” it said again. Then it started regurgitating fresh slime, and it couldn’t say anything.

“Work,” she said, defeated. She tried a few more drones, with similar results. Many weren’t even able to speak, even to imitate her. They were just like S, shriveled and barely fed.

Hydrus isn’t giving you enough. He’s drowning in love up in the tower, while you’re all worked dry. He must not realize what he’s doing.

Nightfall came to the world above, and with it a diffuse blue glow that lit the cavern only faintly. It was still more than bright enough for her sensitive changeling eyes. Activity in the cave was completely unaffected by the darkness. And up above, it felt like there were even more ponies coming to visit.

I wonder if Equestria knows about this after all. Maybe this is the way they let us get food. We aren’t trying to escape, so they’ll look the other way.

Except there were plenty of bugs that weren’t being seen to, out in the rest of Canterlot Caverns. Bugs that were so far gone that there might not be anything that could be done for them.

By the time she made it back to their cell to rest, she found Codex already inside. He wasn’t asleep, just staring at her as she climbed in. He probably expects me to be like a pony and give him personal space.

She didn’t, climbing in right beside him as she would’ve done with any other member of her hive. She could feel him tense, and wondered briefly if he would climb out. But he didn’t.

The slimy entrance sealed closed, deadening the sounds from the cavern and blocking what little light might’ve penetrated. Her cell was damp, and she had another bug beside her that she trusted. Such relaxing conditions that she could feel herself start to drift.

She closed her eyes, and could almost imagine she was back in the real hive, long ago. When the world was simple, when she hadn’t had a name or even understood what that meant. When she still thought her queen loved her.

“How was it out there?” Codex asked, voice so quiet she almost thought she was hearing his thoughts. “Was it as good as you remember?”

“No,” she admitted. “He’s keeping most of the bugs asleep, and the drones that are awake are being worked too hard. It’s like… when I first got down here, I found a bug hauling water. She was badly hurt, probably from the fight against Equestria. I think maybe Hydrus is…”

After a minute or so, she still hadn’t answered, and Codex nudged her. His body wasn’t warm exactly, they didn’t have body heat the same way ponies did. It wasn’t soft either, since he had a shell. But it was comfortable to have him close. “You think Hydrus is what?”

“Oh.” She opened her eyes, forcing them to stay open this time so she wouldn’t drift. “I think he’s acting like the queen.”

Codex didn’t seem to understand that, but she wasn’t in a hurry to explain. Not with the memory of S’s desperate face fresh in her mind. Hydrus has so much love, he doesn’t need it all. We can make sure other drones get it too—then they can get their own names, their own futures and dreams.

She returned to the darkness. But despite what Codex said, Harlequin wasn’t alone there. Eyes watched her from the void, the eyes of a creature she could sometimes glimpse. So long as she didn’t look directly at her, the pony-shaped figure seemed distinct. When she tried to see her directly, she dissolved into smoke.

“You see the story before you, its threads unraveled. Do you know why?”

“No,” her sleeping self responded. “It shouldn’t be this way.”

“What is should and shouldn’t for a creature with no story? You have no mark, no string to weave. You failed because taking the world for yourselves would be a story. But failure only makes you a footnote in someone else’s.”

She woke after an hour or so of rest, about the same time that Codex did. She heard his breathing accelerate, right when hers did, even feel the twitch of one of his wings against her chest.

“I’ve been an insect for weeks,” Codex said, his voice still bleary from sleep. “It should be stranger to feel so rested after so little time. It must be… connected to our magic somehow. Maybe creating our own emotional energy is connected to sleep. Did any bug ever think that maybe you’d be able to do it too if you got eight hours like other creatures?”

“No,” Harlequin said. “I don’t think you could force a bug to take more. If you want, I’ll try to go back to sleep with you for another hour. We don’t have a job yet; no bug will notice.”

“Our plants will notice,” he said, obstinately. “And if we wait too long, scavengers will get into our colony.”

Harlequin shrugged. “Testing your idea was the best chance we had, but… this is a better one. Hydrus has love. Hundreds of bugs are living here. Changelings aren’t meant to live alone. This is better.”

“Maybe we can get them to see my way,” Codex said, climbing past her and towards the thin layer of slime. Without being told, he pierced it with his fangs, cut a line through it, then crawled out. “Hydrus seemed like a reasonable pony. He even knew pony artists. Wouldn’t a way for bugs to not depend on love be interesting to him?”

Told you we couldn’t sleep more. Harlequin followed him, sealing it back up on her way out. “Maybe. But he wasn’t a swarmlore expert. Those creatures were… back home, in the hive. They’re so old they can’t travel. I hope… I hope there’s enough bugs left behind to feed them.”

It was still night, but that didn’t really matter. Hydrus had said to see them tomorrow, and he would mean after they rested. It was time.

Still no guards following us. This means I can trust him, right? Besides, those monsters who killed S hated Hydrus. If they didn’t like him, it must mean he’s good. There were just a few little things about the drones for him to improve, that was all.

Together they hiked towards the tower, and the activity they could sense from within. Harlequin could see the faces of many hungry bugs looking up at it, their fangs exposed and drool dribbling down their mouths. Real food wasn’t something a hungry bug could miss.

How many scavengers are in the caves? Will they get desperate and come for this place?

There were guards at the base of the tower, and they weren’t allowed to climb up the way they’d gone the first time. They were pointed towards the back-exit Thorax had taken them through, which without flight involved a near ten-minute hike up the wall.

“I’m going to puke,” Codex kept saying. “All my fluids are going where they shouldn’t. I’m going to bucking puke.”

“Then learn to fly,” she countered. “Maybe we can ask for some lessons for you.”

“Not if I die on the way up,” he said. He couldn’t hold her, since he had to keep all but one limb on the wall at all times. Even so, he walked as close to her as he could.

“Quit looking behind you!” she said. “It’s only the wrong way if you think about it. Just… climb. Watch the path in front, pretend it’s the floor… and we’re there!” They climbed inside, standing in one of the upper hallways with its fancy carpets.

Harlequin was the first inside, and so she was first to come face-to-face with a Royal Guard.

Chapter 27: Induction

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Harlequin froze completely still as the guard met her eyes; horror plastered all over her face. They found us. She hadn’t been in this colony one day and Equestria had found them.

This is when we get shut down and we all starve, just like before. It was like the voice said. They weren’t part of a story, so they were destined to lose. Every single thing they tried…

“You, uh… I kind of expected you to be more charming than this, if I’m being honest.” The guard walked slowly up to her, apparently ignoring Codex completely. Or… no, Codex hadn’t climbed in. His head poked briefly through the entrance, then he dropped back down over the surface.

Please don’t fall off, you big idiot.

The pony pressed right up beside her suddenly, a stallion much taller and stronger than she was. “I hear you can be anything I want,” he said, voice low. “Anypony I want, even. Is that true?”

She nodded weakly, realization dawning on her. You’re not attacking. There isn’t even a sword in your belt. This guard was here to give love in exchange for metal. Or… no, that wasn’t quite right. Hydrus’s discussion of “worth” was still a little hard on her brain.

But one glance down the hall told her nopony else was coming. Had they forgotten this guard? “Yeah,” she answered. “I’m… I don’t do the harvesting. I just got here, uh—”

The stallion cut her off, lifting one hoof from below her mouth and closing it gently. “That’s more like it. Helpless, confused, afraid. Now ditch the costume. You’re disgusting like this. How about… a pegasus. Something soft, with lots of fluff up front. Birds make the best sounds when you pull their feathers just right.”

Harlequin tried to back away from him—unsuccessfully. The more she moved, the more forceful he got. “Go on, bug. That’s what you’re good for, right? So long as those soldiers up there keep you all in your prison… might as well get some use out of you.”

Harlequin thought about trying to fight him. He’d made a mistake exposing his neck to her like this—she could probably crush his windpipe and escape with a good kick at just the right angle.

And what happens to the colony if I do? If a guard goes missing down here, we won’t be able to get food anymore. How did you let this happen to me, Hydrus?

She glanced to the door leading down to his office one last time, but still nothing. No help, not even from Thorax. “I’m not one of them,” she said again, her voice a reedy squeak. “Other bugs need the love more than I do. I’m a soldier.”

“That’s cute,” he said, closing her mouth again. “But less amusing the longer you keep it up. I want to see a transformation, or I’m going to get annoyed.”

She changed. She didn’t have a blueprint like her last time, not when he wanted a pegasus. But she’d seen plenty of them in the city while she was a guard, and she could pick one of them. Harlequin got much taller, and her wings transformed into white feathers. Her whole body went white, except for a few darker patches on her underbelly and her face. She wasn’t sure what extra fluff up front meant, but it was a pegasus anyway.

“Well buck me sideways,” the guard said. “It is real. You were wasted as invaders.” He leaned closer to her again, sniffing her, touching her back with his nose. Her wings spread involuntarily, and she squeaked faintly in surprise. “Realistic, too. Just like the real thing.”

He finally let her go, looking around. “Well, where do we go for this? I assume we don’t just… right in the open like this? Do we? I guess there are ponies into that.”

At least this time she had an answer for him, thanks to the tour Thorax had given her. She led him up the stairs to the tiny rooms, and found one with an open door.

There were a few armed changelings in the hallway up there, though they only had clubs, and no armor at all.

“Let me… ask which room…” she muttered, hurrying over to one before the pony could stop her. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I came to meet with Hydrus, I shouldn’t be up here.”

The bug met her eyes without sympathy. “You’re saying you aren’t hungry? He put you at the top of the list. First time clients always give the best.”

Harlequin stopped dead, confused. Everything she’d learned from ponies was horrified by this encounter. But what was she thinking? There was food right behind her. Food that Hydrus had apparently prepared especially for her.

“Just pick one!” said the guard from behind her. “I don’t need the deluxe suite. You’re what I’m really here for.”

The armed bug gave her one last confused look, then pointed with his club towards an open door. “There, sir.”

“What I thought,” he said. “We want wine, too. In twenty… no, an hour.”

This should be good, right? He’s coming to me! But why do I feel so trapped?

Harlequin had never harvested lust before. The pony seemed to enjoy it, though for her she was mostly trying to keep herself from breaking down. When it was done, she felt full—but much less satisfied than she had working with the Guard. It was love, but… hollow, somehow. That pony hadn’t even asked her name, or given his.

When he was gone, she lay on the bed, looking back at her reflection in the magical pony mirror. She hadn’t changed back yet, so she still looked like a pegasus. A blue one this time, with stubby wings. The pony hadn’t been able to make up his mind.

I miss Apple Cinnamon, she thought, finally rising to her hooves.

One of the changeling guards was waiting just outside, with a tiny glass levitated in front of him, with a thin wax top. “Fill this,” he ordered. “The rest is yours.”

Harlequin stared down at the container in disbelief, though only for a few seconds. If she’d been planning on asking whether or not it was possible to put love into an object, obviously it was. She lifted it up to her fangs, then bit down.

Instead of the rewarding feeling of offering love to another bug, and strengthening their bond, she felt only emptiness as she filled the container with glowing magic. Obviously there was some kind of enchantment involved to keep it intact—but that was beyond her power. She held it out, shuddering slightly. The majority of the love she’d just harvested was gone now, a bright green glow in the jar.

“Hydrus wants to see you,” the guard said, once she’d let go of the container. “You can wash down the hall if you like, then go talk to him.”

She nodded, and hurried quickly down the hall in the indicated direction. Getting clean would be good. She was rewarded with a pony-style shower instead of something bugs might use, and she made ample use of hot water, returning to herself and getting all the smells off of her. Why didn’t I enjoy that? Food came right to me. It’s everything a bug would hope for.

It was even easier than what Chrysalis had created in Canterlot, where bugs had to take ponies and force them to obey. It was the perfect hive, and she hated it without even understanding why.

“Harlequin!” Hydrus called from behind his desk, gesturing for her to join him. Codex was already here, apparently not squished to death from a high fall. She could sense the relief when he finally saw her, settling back into his seat. “I have to say, Harlequin, your recruit is more loyal to you than any I’ve ever seen. He was unwilling, yet… he marches in here demanding you get released. He hasn’t left my office.”

“It’s unacceptable,” Codex said, unafraid. A glass of fancy pony liquid sat in front of him, untouched. “Forcing us into that entrance, then not helping you escape.”

“I didn’t force anything,” Hydrus said, exasperated. “This isn’t unusual for recruits, unfortunately. They don’t understand our ways. Even one who studies us specifically is ignorant.”

“It’s not wrong to be worried,” Codex insisted. He rose to meet her, touching her lightly on the side and looking her over. But whatever he was searching for, he didn’t find. “These places shouldn’t exist in a respectable world. Ponies should be better than patronizing you.”

“Should be,” Hydrus said. “Spoken like a pony. We don’t deal in the world as we believe it should or shouldn’t be, pony. We only live in what is. We need love, ponies have it, and they want to come give it to us. This is the tamest colony we’ve ever built. Aside from… missing a queen. But one problem at a time.”

Hydrus gestured to her, more urgently. “Harlequin, you were one of my own bugs. I can see to it that you have a chance to feed once every week… that’s twice as often as many other bugs.”

“I think there are drones not getting enough,” she said, coming out in a sudden rush. “Down in the bottom of the colony, they were clearly starving. Some of those bugs looked like they were going to collapse.”

Hydrus’s good humor vanished, like she’d just let loose a disgusting fart. “Those are drones, Harlequin. That’s always what we’ve used them for. If you give them too much love, they’ll start to think. Then they need more and more, like you did. Look around, we already have enough labor. Besides, most of those drones are damaged from the invasion. Feeding them too much would mean a bug would have to know how broken they were.”

Just like S. She was one of Hydrus’s bugs all along.

A plan formed in her mind before Hydrus even said his next sentence.

“Anyway, more important matters. I used my, uh… extra time with Codex here to learn a little about what you’ve been up to. Apparently you were so good at passing among them you actually got in to guard the prison.” He grinned proudly. “That’s why all those other bugs are in that buzzing prison and I’m here, Harlequin. Eye for talent.”

“It’s true,” she said. “I was part of the Guard. Codex, uh…” Did she want to reveal how she’d ended up here? “I saw Codex in the prison.”

“Whatever.” Hydrus rose. “Do you think you could do it again? I need bugs for that kind of work, and… I don’t know if you’ve seen the louts here, but most of them are pretty clueless. Equestria is keeping all our leaders locked up in the prison, so only the dregs were left to me. You’re one of the smartest bugs I have.”

“I could help her,” Codex said. “Whatever you’re thinking. I was actually a pony; I can pass perfectly. So long as you aren’t doing anything that might be damaging to Equestria…”

Hydrus shook his head. “I need you teaching. I can use my hooves to count all the bugs I have smart enough for that job, and one of them is me. Trouble is…”

He lowered his voice, leaning in. “We’re having clients complain. The guests don’t think we’re real enough. Ponies sometimes want other kinds of love—conversation, friendship, whatever. But when you grew up in a cave, you can’t really hold a conversation with some rich scholar or a frustrated noble wife, can you? I have a list of the best harvesters, and I’m going to need you to train them.” He gestured to the stairs. “Thorax is waiting upstairs, he’ll introduce you. Harlequin and I would come with you, but we have to be somewhere. We’re meeting a pony on the surface.”

Do I really want to be part of this? Harlequin didn’t know yet, but she didn’t argue. She was just a bug, a single part of a complex machine. She followed Hydrus up the stairs and didn’t complain.

Chapter 28: Labor

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Harlequin emerged from the darkness of the secret colony into a sunny courtyard. There were walls on all sides, and nearby an ancient-looking building with holes in the roof and a few missing windows. What few it still had were bright and colorful. Between the walls, shades were strung up, obscuring the courtyard where they stood even from the eyes of pegasus ponies flying above.

But while standing close, she could see the outline of the upper city high above, and closer, the shapes of ponies walking along the top wall. Private guards, like the kind she’d fought during the battle for Canterlot. At least, they looked similar to her.

“I am sorry if your feeding caught you off guard, Harlequin. I know many bugs can be confused about their first time. No two methods are quite alike, and there are some who don’t care for it.”

I can’t imagine why. Her wings buzzed unhappily. “Are you sure we shouldn’t be disguised up here?”

“Anywhere else? Yes. But not right here specifically.” He gestured at the entrance below. A shed had been built over the hole, much newer than the building beside it. It was painted the same way, but up close its age was obvious. “Our customers believe the soldiers you see above are there to keep us contained. We are still prisoners, you see. Still trapped inside the walls. It makes them think that they control us. It is critically important that you do nothing to disabuse them of this illusion.”

He turned to face her suddenly, locking his eyes with hers. She could feel the intensity behind them, the powerful wealth of magic. This was just another bug, but he was holding so much magic that he was becoming something more. He didn’t let her look away. “One lie is more important than all others. The soldiers are employed by House Platinum, in the upper city. They take a small cut of the profits from us—not because we pay them, but because they take what they feel they’re owed as a service to Canterlot. Do you understand?”

She nodded, though the more intense he got the more confused she felt. Why is this such a big deal? I wouldn’t have even brought it up if you hadn’t told me. “I understand, Hydrus.”

“Good.” He met her eyes for a moment more, then looked away. “You should do your best not to share information with them about the way we operate, just don’t get anything wrong about the guards. I am trusting you, Harlequin. Great Queens watch over me, but I don’t have another choice. Every clever bug I had to plot and plan is locked up in the dungeons. We’re the swarm now.”

Harlequin would never have dared it a few weeks ago. But time had changed her, broadened her mind. “Why did the Queen abandon us?”

“She protected the Swarm,” he answered, wings buzzing as unhappily as hers had. “Chrysalis is the Swarm. She can create a new hive somewhere else. Leaving us to find a way to cling on without her. We were built to survive, Harlequin. And now we’re going to survive.”

There were voices coming from somewhere—Harlequin turned, and she could see where. There was an opening in the wall—though it didn’t lead directly to a Canterlot street. Instead, it seemed to connect to a modest gatehouse, whose doors were only just opening.

Hydrus’s voice grew more urgent. “This is Prince Blueblood, of house Charming. They’re one of the few houses that was willing to cooperate with us when we took Canterlot. I’m going to need you to go with him in disguise. He’ll know what you are, but you… you get the idea.”

“W-what?” She stumbled back, confused. “Why?”

“Because his family is taking over management of the prisoners,” he said. “We’re arranging with them to get our bugs back. It’s going to cost a lot of metal, I think. Maybe other things of real worth. He’s not convinced that bugs can behave themselves. I need you to go with him, and do everything he says short of revealing our secrets. You can do that, can’t you?”

“He won’t hurt me, will—”

Hydrus stepped past her, obviously not listening as he spread his wings, raising his voice just a little. “Our honored guest! It’s a pleasure to have you here, P—”

The unicorn’s horn fizzed and sparked, and Hydrus fell silent. Harlequin hurried to catch up with him, to help if she could—but what was she supposed to do? Her magic couldn’t compete with a real unicorn!

“Be quiet, insect,” said the pony. He wore a white robe, completely obscuring his body except for his face and horn emerging from below. “You never know who might be listening. No names.” His horn stopped glowing.

Hydrus backed away, scratching at his throat in an exaggerated way. “O-of course,” he croaked, his voice scratchy. “I’ll remember for next time.”

“Good,” Prince Blueblood said. From beneath his cloak, Harlequin caught sight of white fur, and bright blue eyes. Watching the two of them with outright contempt. Is this really the house we want working with us? He doesn’t seem to like us much. “If you weren’t able to follow my instructions, I might need to find a replacement who could. Have you followed my instructions in the other respect, Hydrus?”

“I did.” He bowed again, another exaggerated gesture. Was that why he wanted them to be changelings, so they would be smaller than the pony? It was certainly working. The more Hydrus acted, the more smug the pony became. “I have brought a bug from among my court, chosen at random. You can see her—nothing remarkable in any way. She is ordinary, and represents the sort of bug you might be able to employ if you choose to finalize your relationship with us.”

“We’ll see,” Blueblood said. Now his eyes turned on her, wide and critical. “Tell me about yourself, insect. What is your name?”

“Harlequin,” she answered. By reflex, she duplicated Hydrus’s bow. He responded to that—she could feel his satisfaction radiating from him in slow waves.

“You have more than a letter,” Blueblood said. “And you’re certain this one isn’t going to go catatonic on me, Hydrus? I don’t like being disappointed twice.”

“Positive,” he said. “That was a fluke, a bug who was deprived of love and sleep. Harlequin is healthy, and she will serve well for your purposes. Return her here when you are satisfied.”

“Indeed.” The pony walked right up to her, then lowered his hood. He towered over her, with an exaggeratedly masculine scent. Like something he’d sprayed more than the real thing. “I can’t travel with you like that. Where we’re going, I require a unicorn. Do it now.”

Harlequin swallowed, feeling the pressure of his attention on her. She started to hyperventilate—what she might’ve been able to do for a bug she trusted suddenly felt confusing. Her memories of the Swarm’s instructions were distant and difficult to understand.

She changed into the pony whose body she had stolen. But no, she couldn’t be that pony anymore—she was wanted! She was a disgraced guard now!

She changed again, copying Blueblood’s perfectly white coat, along with a cutie mark of the only other thing she could see—a shut gate.

“I only asked you to change once,” Blueblood said, annoyed. “First thing you are required to learn with me, insect. Follow my instructions precisely. Scribe them on your mind, if your mind is capable of memory. Or I’ll find a better fate for you than the last Hydrus sent to me. Are we clear?”

She nodded, looking away from him and shuddering under his attention. “W-we’re… clear.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” He turned away. “Come on then, Harlequin. My carriage is already waiting outside. I must be back inside within another minute or two, or they will believe I have come here to patronize your disgusting establishment. I cannot abide stories spreading of me, even in the highest circles.”

She nodded, hurrying to catch up. She glanced once back at Hydrus, but only stern eyes met hers. Even without the Swarm connecting the two of them, she could read his mind just fine from that face. ‘You’re on your own.’

She hurried to keep up with the prince, her ears flat. “You, uh…” What was she even allowed to say? “I think I should warn you. Like, uh…”

The unicorn stopped walking in the doorway, raising one eyebrow. “Spit it out, insect. And it better not be a waste of my time.” His horn began to glow, and she could feel the spell surrounding her. Unlike Hydrus, she wasn’t an expert magical warrior filled with magic. It wouldn’t be an act if he attacked her.

“What you said with names to Hydrus. My name is criminal to the ponies. They already caught me once. You should, uh… call me something else just in case.”

His horn went out. “That is useful information. From this moment forward, I will call you… Dewdrop.” He turned away, continuing through the gatehouse. “You will answer to that name henceforth, understand?”

She nodded, hurrying to keep up with him. There were more guards inside, the same ones she’d seen from far away on the wall. Up close, they wore all red cloaks, and carried mostly clubs and other blunt weapons. They wore no armor, only a gold pin around their necks of a closed rose. Symbolic of the thing they guarded, maybe?

They passed out onto the street beyond. Instantly Harlequin could see a part of Canterlot that many ponies would probably avoid—there was a thick smell about the place, and the gas-lamps were mostly off. The outside walls were covered with uneven layers of paint, and the grass around them was overgrown.

On the street just beyond was a carriage—not nearly as fancy as she’d expected from a pony like this. It was the same yellow and black model she’d seen dozens of all over the city, with a pony in a similar uniform waiting outside.

He seemed surprised to see them. “You, uh… really meant it about not staying?”

“Quite so,” he said. “I was only here to prevent a relative from making a mistake she might regret.” He nodded once towards her. “Go on, Dewdrop. Get inside. Mind your tongue. After what you’ve done, I’m not in a tolerant mood.”

She didn’t need to be told twice about following directions. Harlequin climbed in as the pony hastily pulled the carriage open for them, cramming up against one of the tiny windows.

And just like that, she was free. After being trapped for who knew how long, she was out in the open air again. Even in the worst part of Canterlot, she was still surrounded by ponies. Ponies, and food. She didn’t have to starve in the dark anymore.

“We won’t be conversing further along the way,” the unicorn said, as he climbed in beside her. “You’ve been quite naughty, Dewdrop.” His voice brooked no argument—absolutely confident, his eyes fierce. Even if she hadn’t felt cooperative, she would’ve only needed a single glance at his face to know she would be obeying.

They began their ride up the city, taking a sweeping series of switchbacks through the rock rather than the more comfortable gondola to the upper city. Blueblood watched the earth pony struggle out front without the slightest sympathy on his face, only the occasional reminder that they wanted to get there before sundown.

Eventually the city outside transformed into something closer to what she’d expected—and what she remembered. White marble, wide streets, polished lamps. Up here she couldn’t even see the damage from the invasion anymore. The benches were all put back, and most of the homes were already repaired. How long had she been gone?

“We’ve arrived,” the pony said, stopping suddenly beside an unassuming building surrounded by shops on both sides. “I expect you’ll…” Blueblood exited out the open door, tossing a bag of bits contemptuously onto the pavement in front of him. “For your time and your discretion,” he said. “With me, Dewdrop. Now.”

She only had time for one last sympathetic glance for the pony before hurrying after him.

Chapter 29: Blueblood

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At least I’m with a pony who spends almost as much time pretending as I do, Harlequin thought, as she made her way into the single unmarked door between two fancy shops. On either side ponies moved—one sold food, with a line running out onto the streets filled with eager ponies.

How easy would it be for her to slip off into that group, change into somepony else, and vanish completely? She could be free of this entire world forever—leave Canterlot, not look back.

She didn’t feel the same loyalty to Hydrus as she had to the queen. But even so, there was something to stop her—Codex, trapped underground. He deserved better than to be left behind. And if she screwed this up, he might suffer.

So she went where she was told, keeping her head down.

Through the door was a series of thick metal locks, which Blueblood began to open one after another with his magic. “You can’t imagine the worth of what is before you, Dewdrop. Can’t imagine the opportunity you’ve been given with this contact between us.”

“You’re right,” she admitted. “I don’t know. Hydrus didn’t tell me… much of anything. Just that I’d be going with you.”

“That’s part of the test,” Blueblood said, his voice conversational. The closest thing to normal he’d sounded like since she met him. “I didn’t want to see what a pony he’d carefully trained would be like. I already know you can imitate a pony of culture, just as well as the rest of Equestria. But I don’t require you to pretend to be an Alicorn, or anything like one.”

She nodded weakly. “I’m a… that’s good. I’m not as good as Hydrus. I only recently learned how to transform.”

“Really?” He turned; eyebrow raised. “You seemed competent enough to me. But no matter, that only serves our purpose.” The final door opened—a heavy metal one, which squeaked as it permitted them inside.

Through the gloom was a set of shelves, each one packed with identical little boxes filling every inch of available space. They were packed in tight—a storage room of some kind. But why would she be brought here?

Blueblood strode forward between them, ignoring the shelves, ignoring her even. “Do you know why you failed to take Canterlot, insect?”

He’s not afraid of being overheard in here. Not now that we’ve got all those locked gates behind us.

“I, uh… no.”

“Well, at least you’re honest.” He passed through an opening between the shelves, into a tiny open space. There was a mirror on the wall, some bright lights, and a few mannequins standing to one side. They held… was that a suit? A suit with a sword and little gemstones encrusting everything. Blueblood removed his robe, then began to dress in front of her.

“It’s because you lacked vision,” he went on. “We didn’t. My family could see what value you might really have. It was obvious you made terrible rulers. But there are other purposes you could serve. Purposes that every family needs.”

“I don’t need to feed,” she said, mostly by reflex. Would it stop him even if she said it?

The stallion in front of her was already wearing his trousers. He froze, levitating the jacket beside him. Then he laughed. “I don’t think you know me very well if you thought you needed to say that. I’ve no interest in junk food.”

He meant it, she realized. She could feel his emotions perfectly—and she didn’t sense a drop of attraction. None of the hunger she’d felt from the guard, resulting in such a terrible time for her. He was thinking about her, but in a way that was far more calculating. He saw her not as a pony at all, but as a tool. Whatever he was going to gain from her, it would be indirectly.


“Don’t sound so disappointed,” he said. “I’m sure you get enough of that working in that pit, don’t you? That is what you do.”

“No,” she said, more definitively than she’d said anything in her life. “I hate being used to harvest love.”

The words were as shocking to her as her first denial of the Queen—but they were just as true.

Blueblood didn’t seem to notice. “Well you’re here to be used, insect. That’s why you’ve been given to me. Used for an experiment. You don’t even know what that experiment is, because it would compromise the test. But you’re about to, and I think it’s going to be very interesting.”

He was now properly dressed—jacket, belt, sword and all. In his own way, he was a pony just as frightening as any changeling with war paint on their shell and rage in their eyes. Maybe moreso, since there was no swarm for him to tell her what he was thinking.

And though Blueblood’s pony emotions were open before her, the message she saw still confused her. He wanted something from her very much, but not her the way the guard had.

Then he turned, removing a photograph from beside the mirror and showing her. There was a mare there—an earth pony mare, with curled hair and a fancy dress.

“I have a purpose for you,” he said. “If you succeed, then my family will do as your Hydrus has asked. If you fail, then… well, you’ll be dead, and Hydrus will be out of luck. Do you care what happens to your imprisoned brothers and sisters? I don’t, but…” He watched her. “Yes, you do. You don’t want them to suffer, do you?”

She winced, avoiding his eyes. How do you know what I’m thinking without me saying anything? You’re not a changeling.

Be her,” he ordered. “That’s your first assignment. Do it now.”

She stared at the photo, taking in its every detail. A few weeks ago, she would’ve been amazed by its simple existence. Ponies could create such amazing things, including perfect recreations of the real world frozen on flat sheets.

But now there was no time for amazement, only fear.

Harlequin blinked, staring down and trying to concentrate with everything she had. It was no easy task, but… yes, it wasn’t that complicated. Just an earth pony, she only had to remove some of the stuff she was used to. A few subtle adjustments to match her dark splotched coat, and she was finished.

“H-how’s… this, uh…” She winced again. “What am I supposed to call you? You told Hydrus not to use your name.”

“And you were listening. Points for that, I wasn’t sure you could. I suppose for the sake of this business, you should just call me ‘Uncle.’ Master would be more correct, but also a little too obvious for the streets of Equestria. Ponies would get the wrong idea.”

He levitated the picture in the air beside her, comparing it with a frown. “Hmm. You haven’t done a perfect job with her face. I have a few more images, perhaps these will help. You aren’t going to be fooling her father, but you will need to convince the servants of one of her households. That job simply won’t do.”

She looked at the other photos, then up at the mirror. It seemed like it was here more for Blueblood’s needs than for her own, but she could use it. Her reflection was enough help to see what she should be doing.

She changed over a dozen times before she finally settled on something Blueblood liked. Each transformation burned a little more of her magic, eating through the reserve of what she’d harvested that day and into her earlier supply. It’s okay. I can get more if I need it. She hated Hydrus’s system, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t eat if that was the only love she could find.

“That will do,” Blueblood said. There was little approval in his voice—she wasn’t sure he even could demonstrate a positive trait like that. “Now your assignment, come here.”

He gestured to a stack of papers, lifting one from the bottom and spreading it on top for her to see. “House Irongate has a small manor located just outside the town of Ponyville. Know it? Never mind, I don’t care. The real Lady Irongate has suffered a bit of an accident. She’s going to be out for a few more days, and when she returns, she won’t remember where she’s been. In the meantime, you are going to take her place. That property is one she rarely visits, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to fool them.

“You will take the train from Canterlot to Ponyville, rent a carriage to the house, then enter it. Your ‘father’ is on business in Griffonstone, and shouldn’t present any difficulty to you. Go inside his study, and obtain or memorize his map of future expansion for EQRail Limited.”

Blueblood stepped in front of her, eyes harsh. It wasn’t unlike what Hydrus had done, only there wasn’t even a trace of concern for her. “Repeat the mission I just gave you in exactness, now.”

She did, as best as she could remember. She might not be smart, not be a trained infiltrator, but Harlequin could still copy like a pro.

“Well, the wording wasn’t perfect, but I’ll accept that.” He looked away. Still nothing like an emotion she could harvest. Was Blueblood even capable of showing her compassion? “Now, understand that the involvement of my house is contingent upon your success. The changelings locked up in Canterlot Castle will keep rotting where they are without me.”

“I understand,” she muttered, looking away from him. Everything she had learned during her brief time with Apple Cinnamon, now she was unlearning it.

“And not just that,” he went on. “Your kind are known as infiltrators and kidnappers all over Equestria. That is what makes you such a perfect scapegoat for this adventure. Should you be detected, I will do nothing to protect you. So long as you do not mention my name to the authorities, I will leave the other changelings alone. If you do forget your discretion suddenly, then expect swift retaliation for your kind. And worse, you can be assured that nopony will believe you. There are no traceable connections between my house and you. If you are caught, the smartest thing for you to do is die quietly. Understand?”

She gulped, then nodded again.

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Y-yes Uncle.”

He grunted, levitating another mannequin out of the shadows and depositing it in front of her. It modeled an expensive dress, though nothing like what Blueblood himself wore. There were no gemstones, but it still looked like something that a pony had loved. That made it worth something, right?

“Wear this now. When you are finished, you may exit down that hallway.” He pointed with one leg. “You will find it leads several streets over, then connects to an unmarked apartment building’s service stairwell. Take those stairs to the first floor, then travel to the railway.”

He dropped a bag of metal pieces on the counter next to her, undoing the ribbon so she could see inside. He evidently expected her to be impressed, so she made a show of backing away, eyes wide. Hydrus had taught her that much.

“That will be more than enough for you to travel in luxury. I would rather send you in a fruit-crate befitting your stature, but alas. Lady Irongate must be seen as a young mare of distinction. If she suddenly appeared without traveling the path between, then our espionage will become obvious to later investigators.”

She started getting dressed. Harlequin had never worn a fancy dress before, but she could see the holes, and by now her copy of the pony’s body was pretty good. The dress fit snugly once it was on, and somehow she felt… taller? Was that possible? How could just changing her outfit make her hold her back straighter, and look Blueblood in the eye a little more.

“One more thing,” he said. “You didn’t ask about where to go when you were finished. You are to take a train back to Canterlot. I will have a stallion join you. If he gives you a rose, then you trade him the information. If you aren’t able to make the return trip in disguise, then I will obtain the information from Hydrus after you return to the hive. Which you will do, or else I will consider your mission a failure, and your bugs will rot. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

Chapter 30: Reunion

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Harlequin couldn’t leave that hidden vault fast enough for her liking. Even as she hurried up the service stairwell and out onto Canterlot’s streets, she imagined she could still feel the eyes of Prince Blueblood watching the back of her head, just daring her to make a mistake.

If I can do this, I’ll be able to set the other bugs free. Or free to come back to us. They won’t have to starve.

She didn’t need to be told to hurry, or to treat the mission as urgently as she could. She couldn’t imagine they were getting any better care than when she’d been guarding their cell. How can ponies be so stupid? We don’t eat their food!

Even on her last day with Codex in the old prison, ponies had still been throwing plants down the mineshaft. She could only assume they were feeding the important prisoners’ food that was equally useless.

Harlequin was so twisted up in her own thoughts that she almost didn’t notice the freedom all around her. She stepped out onto the street, and ponies were suddenly giving her space. They walked around her spot in the center of the sidewalk, without needing to be told. They didn’t seem to care that she was even standing there.

More than that, she was free. There was no powerful unicorn watching over her shoulders for her to make a mistake. She could dodge into an alley, change into something with wings, and fly away for dear life. She’d never have to see this awful place again.

She didn’t, though. Maybe Blueblood was wrong to think the last bug had cared about the Swarm, and they’d just escaped instead of helping him. But Harlequin did care, at least about Codex. She wasn’t sure what to think about Hydrus yet, that would take more time.

But there were all those drones slaving away on the bottom of the colony, and so many more that slept. What kind of mercy was it to let the broken ones work to death?

Maybe I can save up enough love to feed them properly. S deserved better, the rest of them do too.

The ponies sure did know how to make a beautiful city. She didn’t know where to find the train station at first, so she just walked, holding her dress above the ground as Blueblood had taught her. Yet she wasn’t nearly as confident she would actually be able to pass as the pony who had gone missing. How well could she pretend?

At least the ponies around her didn’t make it very hard. Her presence on the street was enough for most of them to get out of her way, and what few didn’t also didn’t accost her.

Even if she might not be free to fly away and escape, she was still free to walk on the surface again. To feel nothing from the ponies around her but modest, casual interest. She searched for the glint of armor, and found a pony covered in gold on a street corner.

She was already halfway to him before she realized she recognized the earth pony. Apple Cinnamon looked a little worn down—his mane was cut short now, his armor not as polished as the last time. But he was still unmistakable.

She swiftly turned away, or tried to—but now he’d seen her. She was much too slow to get away as Apple Cinnamon hurried up beside her. “Here, ma’am. Let me help you. Are you not feeling well?”

“I’m fine,” she said. She didn’t worry about being recognized—her voice would change with the body. Indeed, Apple Cinnamon showed no sign of recognition. “Just realized I was going the wrong way. Got a little lost.”

He let go a moment later, straightening. “Well ma’am, I’ve been in Canterlot a few weeks now. Perhaps I can escort you to your destination. I’m only out on patrol, and there’s been nothing of consequence in the city since the invasion. Or a week after it, anyway…”

She should’ve told him no, should’ve walked away and made up some excuse. But she wanted to be near him, to find out what had happened in the Guard, maybe what he thought of her. Could she ask those questions without being thrown into prison as a changeling spy?

That sure wouldn’t impress Blueblood, if his spy gets captured before even leaving the city.

“I’m looking for the train station,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten turned around.”

“Oh.” He smiled weakly. “There’s a station in the upper city, it’s not far. The tickets are several times as much as the ones sold down below, but… I expect you don’t care about that, do you?”

She shook her head. “Closer is better, I think. I wouldn’t want to miss my train.” She didn’t know how to be a wealthy mare, but maybe she could imitate Blueblood. He seemed like the pony to copy on the subject.

“Well, follow me then. I’m Guardspony Cinnamon, by the way. Just a recruit for now, but everypony starts somewhere. Who are you?”

She followed him, at an appropriate distance. “I’m, uh… Lady Irongate.”

“Oh.” His ears flattened, and he looked away. “That sounds like a name I ought to know, miss, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t. I’m new in town and all. Or I could stop us by the guardhouse and get somepony more suited to yer tastes.”

“No Apple,” she snapped. “You can take me there. I’m just catching a train.”

His eyes widened. “The accent was that obvious? Gosh if I’m not a fool for thinking I could fit into this city.”

She winced, but couldn’t look away. She was a noble pony, she had to keep her back straight. It wasn’t just the guard watching her, but numerous other ponies from every side. If her behavior seemed strange to even one of them, stories would be whispered, and bugs would starve.

“I’m sorry,” she said. It was the only thing she could think of. “I’m sure you, uh… I’m sure you joined for good reason. You’re trying to protect Equestria, right? That’s noble.”

“Noble,” he repeated. “‘Bout the only thing about me that is, ma’am. But I suppose there’s something of nobility to it.” He trailed off, sounding like he regretted assisting her as much as she regretted asking for his help. “The train station is just another block this way. You’ll be able to see it as soon as we’re around the corner.”

Harlequin was running out of time. She couldn’t stay silent, or else she’d lose this chance. She had to do something! “So things have been quiet since the invasion?” she asked. She couldn’t even be bothered imitating Blueblood’s way of speaking. She didn’t know enough of his silly words to keep up a whole conversation that way. “No trouble in the city?”

He hesitated for a second, looking her over. Did he somehow suspect who she was? No—only a few seconds later, and he went on. “I suppose it can’t be any harm to tell a pony as important as you. You all… have better information than I do. Just asking to get the perspective on the ground, is that it?”

She nodded. She wasn’t going to refuse a gift-wrapped solution if he offered one.

“Nothing major since the attack. A few dozen stupid rumors started by ponies who should know better. Now that the changelings have attacked everypony seems to see them behind every corner. Guess it’s… better to be observant and see tons of false positives than to ignore the obvious evidence until it’s too late.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I, uh… yeah. I like it that ponies are observant. Were any of the rumors true?”

“A few…” He trailed off. “Infiltrations. Most of them weren’t terribly clever, or last very long. Changelings are good at looking like us, but most of them aren’t very good about acting like us. The one who impersonated Princess Cadance was their queen, their very best. All the others are worse at it than she is.”

He couldn’t even keep the pain from his voice, much less the emotions she could sense. Apple Cinnamon was personally hurt by what happened. There was only one bug he could be thinking off. “Did they attack you or something?” she asked. “The Guard, I mean.”

“They…” He looked away. “There’s the railroad station, ma’am. I should probably get back to my patrol.”

“Thank you,” she said. “And Cinnamon.” She stopped him, settling a hoof briefly on his shoulder. It was strange enough that it attracted the attention of a few nearby ponies. “Maybe the reason you were tricked was that she wasn’t pretending. Maybe she really was your friend.”

His mouth hung open. She didn’t wait to see what he would do next, just turned and walked away. No shouting followed her, no guards. She reached the railroad office without difficulty. Buying a ticket was a bit of a challenge, mostly because she couldn’t tell the difference between different kinds of metal.

In the end she faked a minor accident, dropping the bag directly onto the counter and spilling its contents. “Just sort it out,” she instructed, turning up her nose. “Private car for Ponyville, next train. The rest goes back into the bag.”

That worked—though annoyed, the unicorn behind the counter did as she was told, levitating the bag back out without some of the metal. She tucked it away in her pocket, along with the ticket marked with pony writing.

Writing. It wasn’t just something ponies did. Those symbols… meant something. She stared down at the ticket in her mouth, as though she were waking up to something for the first time.

Letters weren’t just sounds, they could be written! And just like letters could be combined to make names, they could also be put together into words.

Words like the ones on her ticket. A telepathic message from the swarm, but trapped in one little slice of space. She sat on the nearest bench, staring down at her ticket and thinking as hard as she could.

What secrets do you have? Tell me what you know. There was a picture of a train, a simple outline, along with a tiny patch of writing on one side and some big letters on the other. She knew those, somehow. C-3. But what words you made when you put them together, that was harder for her.

Codex would know! He can teach me how to make books work.

Then the train rolled into the station. It was so loud, so massive and threatening that she rose instantly from her seat, dropping the ticket in her haste to get away. Steam belched out from its nose, filling the air with heat and moisture and it squeaked loudly into place.

“Ma’am,” said a voice from in front of her. A pony in a black uniform, holding the ticket in his wing. “I think you dropped this?”

“Y-yes…” She took it, tucking it away into her dress in the hidden pocket. “I’m sorry. Just got flustered is all.”

The incredible beast didn’t attack her—instead, its sides opened, and ponies emerged from within. Once they’d all left, another pony started shouting. “Train for Manehattan! Stops in Ponyville, Appleloosa, Cherry Valley, and others. All aboard!”

She couldn’t read the sign hanging from the side of the train—but she knew the name. She rose, striding up to the open door on the front. The pony took one look at her ticket, then nodded.

“E-excuse me,” she said. “Do you, uh… where is this?”

“Third door,” he said. “Letters are on the windows.”

“Right.” She walked to the third door—counting she understood. It was critical for war in a way writing never had been. I think Hydrus knows how to steal secrets from books. He had them on his shelves.

There was the door with C-3, gold etching on frosted glass. She pushed it open, then walked inside. She shut it behind her, scooting all the way over to the window. She looked out on the city as afternoon turned to evening. The sky was bright orange by the time she felt the floor moving.

Her car slid open, and a pony wearing a simple black suit entered. She didn’t ask permission, but she did do something to the lock, twisting it until it clicked.

“I think you must have the wrong car,” Harlequin said. “This one’s mine.”

“No,” she said. “I think you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be.” The earth pony mare lowered her glasses, letting their eyes meet for a second. “Don’t run. Don’t try to get away, Changeling. I’m only here to talk.”

She swallowed, forcing her eyes back to the window. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” The pony slid closer. “Just listen. I’m not here to fight you. We at S.M.I.L.E. understand the nuance as other ponies haven’t yet realized.”

Chapter 31: Mission

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Harlequin stared at the strange pony, body completely frozen with horror. So far as she knew, she’d made the trip totally safely, without doing anything to reveal who and what she was.

Yet here was a pony to show her just how wrong she was. Without any effort, this pony had known she was a changeling. And she still wanted to claim that she wasn’t here for some hostile reason? “What do you want?” Harlequin asked. It was the closest thing she dared to a denial.

“First, to introduce myself,” she said, removing a flask from her vest and taking a sip. She offered it to Harlequin, before tucking it away again. “I’m agent Sweetie Drops. You may see me again, so remember it. Equestria knows what the bugs have done,” she said. “The, uh… facility you established in the lower city.”

Harlequin tensed visibly. She wanted to get up and run—maybe she could fly off the train, back in time to warn them. She had to do something!

But she didn’t move. This pony wore a heavy jacket, and there might be weapons inside. I can’t just run away. I have to be cleverer than that. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Princess Celestia was furious with what your ruler attempted to do,” Sweetie Drops went on. “Seizing Equestria through violence and arms—it hasn’t happened for centuries. Her memory of the last attempt remains fresh.”

Harlequin remained silent. She watched the window as Canterlot fell into the distance, and with it any chance she had of making it back to warn them. If the ponies plan anything, they probably already have ponies in place. They wouldn’t have told me unless it was too late to stop this.

Her sister is kinder, however. Princess Luna was not involved in the invasion, and she doesn’t wish to see your species wiped out. That’s why she was placed in command of the S.M.I.L.E. Agency in the first place. So she made sure that ponies looked the other way.”

“I still don’t see why you’re telling me this,” she said. “Even if it’s true. And I’m not admitting to anything, so you know. I’m not going to screw this up.”

The mare rolled her eyes. “I’m supposed to give you a message for whoever is in charge. It’s a stallion, I think his name is Hydrus. Tell him this: Equestria is watching. We don’t want to see you starve. But if you ever attempt to do what your queen did, you will lose the tolerance of Princess Luna. She’s taking a chance on you. Don’t make her regret it.”

She rose, turning away. “Enjoy your trip.” She left without another word, without waiting long enough for Harlequin to get a word in edgewise. The door clicked shut behind her.

She spent the remainder of the trip on her own. A conductor arrived at some point to put a hole in her ticket and ask what she wanted for lunch service. Not knowing what else to say, Harlequin just told him she wasn’t hungry and took tea.

It wasn’t as good as the time Apple Cinnamon had made it in the barracks, but it was still tea. Even if it did nothing to nourish her, it was a pleasant reminder of something she’d almost had.

Would I be happier if I still thought I was the last free bug? Would I rather be pretending to be a pony for myself instead of Hydrus?

She couldn’t answer.

The train took her gradually down from the great height of Canterlot to the low valleys around it, the parts of Equestria she’d seen only from far above. Harlequin leaned up close to the glass, sipping her tea as the fields passed on either side. Little pony settlements of a few homes, with creatures hard at work. Oblivious to the invasion that had taken place so closely.

The sheer scope of Equestria was daunting to her, almost more than she could think about at once. Her home in the Badlands was only one place—smaller than Canterlot by far. But it seemed no matter how long she kept going on the train, Equestria still didn’t run out. How far in each direction could she go and still be inside it?

The temptation to stay on the train when it finally stopped—to ride it as far as Equestria went, and further—was hard to resist. But she had to get off—her mission had only just begun.

Harlequin expected Ponyville to be exactly like Canterlot, except maybe that it would be on flat ground instead of hills.

She was completely wrong—the ponies had built an entirely different second city than their first one. Here the buildings were all made of wood, with strange grasslike fibers for their roofs instead of tile and glass. The ground under her hooves was mostly dirt, with only little patches of cobblestone.

Strangest of all, it was the first time she had a clear look at the night. There weren’t magical streetlights glowing on every street corner, filling Ponyville with white even in the darkness. Instead there were only a few gas lamps burning just outside of the train station, leading to one of the roads into town. The others were mostly dark, and what lights there were came only dimly.

Rent a carriage. Stay focused, Harlequin.

Fortunately for her, there were a few ponies with carriages waiting just outside the train station. One of them approached her without prompting, nodding towards the covered car.

Compared to the fancy enclosed cars in Canterlot, this one seemed almost comedic. “I’m looking to go north of Ponyville,” she said. “There’s a manor there, can you take me?”

“Of course!” The pony saluted. “You wouldn’t want to walk so far on your own at night. Three bits for the trip.”

Three bits? How many bits of metal did she have left? Harlequin opened the pouch, sticking her nose in for a second and pulling out three pieces, tossing them to him.

The earth pony caught them, looking them over with wide eyes. “Uh… these are platinum, miss. Sorry, dark. Here.” He tossed two back, then hurried off to his cart with the one. He came back with a pouch twice as large as the one she’d been given. “Your change.” It thumped onto the ground in front of her, heavily enough that the metal inside sagged against it.

“I didn’t change,” she said stubbornly. “I just want a trip to my manor.”

The pony just stared stupidly at her. “You didn’t… what?” Then he straightened. “Ma’am, if you’d prefer to give me regular bits instead, I wouldn’t have to break your platinum. I almost didn’t have enough in the cart.”

What does he mean? The other passengers were staring at her. Instead of arguing, Harlequin took the second sack of metal and added it to her first, following the pony to his carriage. At least she knew how to get in one of these, and the poise she was supposed to demonstrate while riding.

“I’m Regular Pace, by the way,” he said, once she was inside. He secured himself to the front of the cart by way of thick straps then took off down the road. Harlequin could see why the wheels were so much larger—with such an unfriendly dirt road, they probably needed to be to stop the little vehicle from skidding to a stop. “And you must be… the lady of the house, isn’t that right? Daughter of, uh…”

“I’m Lady Irongate,” she confirmed. There was no roof, so nothing to stop her from watching the little town as they passed through it. Buildings were much further apart here, and she wondered why. But not enough to ask.

Then they passed a gigantic tree, and she nearly fell over sideways. There was a pony outside, sweeping the steps leading up with her magic. A pony that Harlequin recognized from the last day of the occupation.

Pace noticed her discomfort, and apparently took it the wrong way, because he slowed to a stop near the front of the tree. “Did you need something from the library, Lady Irongate? It’s after closing, but I could ask Twilight for you if you—”

“No!” she squeaked, ears flat. “Nothing. Keep going, keep going!”

The unicorn had stopped her sweeping and was watching her now, expression curious. This was the same pony Harlequin had seen blast changelings away like they were nothing. This pony was precisely why they’d underestimated ponies so much—they seemed so innocent, so weak. Until they weren’t anymore.

Then Pace started moving again, and she could finally breathe. She kept her head down even so, wishing she could change into something smaller. But of course if she did that, then any chance of pulling this off would be gone.

Equestria knows about us after all. Princess Luna is okay with us trying to feed ourselves. That meant that if she could make it back safely, and find out about the things that pony had wanted to know, then the bugs in prison could stop starving.

Almost as soon as she’d entered Ponyville, it seemed like they were leaving it behind. Little lights burning in tiny windows gave way to the starlight and full moon overhead. Harlequin leaned back, breathing in the cool evening air and enjoying the gloom.

After a few glances behind her to confirm the unicorn wasn’t following, she finally let herself relax. “Tell me about Ponyville,” she said. Was it alright for her to order him around? Too late, she already had. “You’ve lived here for some time, yes?”

“My whole life,” he agreed. “It’s a… nice town. Mostly earth ponies. Most of us connected back to the first generation of Apple Family ponies here three centuries ago. Nothing like you ponies from the court… we’re humble folk. Farmers, merchants, craftsponies.”

“What do you…” How could she even ask. “You grow… food, right? Is that what farmers do?”

To her surprise, he didn’t seem to think her question was that strange. “Yes,” he said. “There’s the Apple Family farm, Sweet Apple Acres, still owned by the same ponies after all this time. There’s a pear orchard nearby, and… your family’s land. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about that.”

I wish you would anyway, she thought. “Does news travel this far?” she asked. “From Canterlot, I mean.”

“Sometimes,” he said. “We follow the NHL, if that’s what you mean. We have one of the best Hoofball teams in the midwestern block.”

“What about…” She winced. “Other things. Like the changeling invasion in Canterlot. How did that affect you?”

He chuckled. Ponyville had faded into the distance now, so far that she almost couldn’t see it. If they weren’t climbing up a gentle slope, it would probably be gone completely. Here were the apple trees he’d mentioned, with a distant farmhouse already gone dark for the night. “Not at all, if we’re being honest. We’re too small for national guardsponies, so we didn’t even have anypony to send. We got the warnings same as anypony, and so we stopped any trains from going on to Canterlot.”

Now that he’d started, he didn’t seem to want to stop. She opened her mouth, but she didn’t get a chance to speak again. “We didn’t evacuate either. Ponies were prepared to defend the town if it came to that. But our best were already there—Twilight, the librarian, she’s only one. The Elements of Harmony were there for the wedding. Everypony knew they would take care of it, and they did.”

A set of heavy iron gates rose into the distance. There were more trees behind them, organized into sections of different species. But Harlequin didn’t know quite enough to tell one kind of tree apart from another.

There was a tiny building beside the gate, with an even electric light glowing inside. A single pony wearing a black vest sat inside, watching them as they approached.

“I’m glad nopony from Ponyville was hurt,” she said.

“Me too,” he agreed. “The news doesn’t say anything specific, but we all know ponies died. There were real funerals and everything. Almost… impossible to believe that kind of thing can happen. That there’s real evil out there in the world.”

He stopped just in front of the gate, pausing as the guard approached. He took one look inside the cart, then jumped to attention. “Lady Irongate! I had… no idea you were visiting!”

“Neither did I, until I got here,” she said. “Open the gate.”

He hurried to obey, and soon they were walking up the long, cobbled drive. The manor was larger than most of the buildings of Ponyville behind them, with a style obviously reminiscent of Canterlot. Huge columns, pink glass windows, wide balconies on the upper stories. But it would have seemed small and puny compared to most of the upper-city buildings.

“Is there anything else you require, Lady Irongate?” Regular Pace said, as they reached the front doors. There were guards waiting outside, two stallions in black with swords on their backs. They too rose to unexpected attention, staring at her with shock.

Chapter 32: Irongate

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In the beginning, Harlequin’s infiltration plan worked perfectly.

The Irongate guards let her past without resistance, looking more than a little confused as she went by. But they didn’t try to stop her, or even question what she was doing there.

The same held true for the house steward, who seemed either like her boss in the house, or the one who she told what to do. Maybe both?

After giving her contrived story of the sudden change of plans and feeling unwell, she was escorted to the lady’s chambers for a change of clothes and an emergency meal provided by hastily roused servants.

It was luxury like she’d seen only once before, when she broke into the home of Triptych in order to negotiate a peaceful surrender. The house seemed to be built in some of the same ways, with elegantly carved wooden paneling, and floors that were polished to a perfect marble shine. If anything, this further manor house was even more luxurious, since there was so much space to work with.

The steward didn’t feel suspicious, which was her only comfort. Instead, that pony shuffled from mild annoyance at being woken to fear something terrible was happening to the house, then back again.

Once she’d been served some thin broth with rotten-smelling grape juice beside it, she summoned her again.

“Have somepony help me to the study,” she said, feigning her mysterious illness with shaky hooves and an uneasy voice. “There are some matters I would like to review before I retire.”

Was that elegant enough? Apparently, because Lacework took her herself, down a connecting hall and up a stairwell towards the top of the house. She flung the doors open, looking concerned. “I’ll send somepony to light the fire for you, mistress. But are you quite certain you’d like to do all this reading tonight? You’re clearly exhausted from your trip here. Perhaps it would be better to return to this in the morning.”

“Perhaps,” she agreed. “But I’m set on it. Go ahead. I’ll… be here.”

She waited until the steward was gone, before hastily scanning the room. She didn’t need the fireplace to see in the dark, the moonlight streaming in through a shut window was enough for that.

The study was massive, with so many shelves of books that she could hardly count them all. They rose so high into the air along the rim of the wall that a brass track went with them, along with a stepstool that could be pushed anywhere in the room it needed to go.

A few shelves were glass, with delicate-looking locks holding them in place. Old queens before us if what I need isn’t in there.

She was fairly certain one of the books had a little train-car embossed on the cover, at least if those were the thing she’d ridden to get here. Maybe the expansion plans would be in there?

Why does Blueblood want this? They’re guarding bugs, aren’t they? Not building trains.

They were wrong to think of ponies as simple creatures that didn’t plot and plan. They might not be constantly trying to take love, but they wanted some things. Value, as Hydrus had said.

The door opened again, and a servant entered, rolling a little wagon behind them with wood and clear liquid.

“Is there anything else you require?” he asked, as soon as the fire was burning.

She shook her head, nodding politely to him. “No, I think that’s it. Ensure I’m not disturbed while I work, please.”

He left, and she locked the door behind him. That much was easy. Actually getting into the glass shelf proved to be a little harder.

She searched the rest of the room first, skimming over the various books that looked like they had something to do with trains. But discovering specific things about the “expansion plans” of the railroad when she couldn’t actually read anything that had been written about it…

After an hour or so of futile searching, without a sign of anything she could bring back to Blueblood, Harlequin found a key tucked away in a hollow book in the desk-drawer, one that looked like it would fit perfectly in the locked shelves. She went straight for the one with the little railroad picture. The lock clicked, and the glass was free to swing out of the way.

Then she reached in, snatching the book and curling up in a corner to read.

Well maybe not “read” since she didn’t know how, but… curl up in a corner to look at what the book had inside. She squinted, as though looking closer would somehow let her understand more of the secrets the book contained. But no, the patterns didn’t reveal their meanings to her.

I wonder how hard it would be to learn. I can already talk just fine, that’s connected. Maybe if I could learn what sounds those letters make, I could say it to know what it was saying.

That might be a good plan, but there was no time for learning now. She skimmed from page to page, past writing that wasn’t blocky like most of the other books, but graceful and elegant as though a set of real hooves had written it. She was almost to the end before she finally reached something that looked interesting.

It was a map of Equestria, with little crossed lines she took to mean the places trains could go. There was one leading to Canterlot, then down the mountain to Ponyville. But there were other lines, red ones that went to other places further away labeled with words she couldn’t read.

Harlequin stared at the image for at least ten minutes, memorizing its every aspect the same way she would memorize a pony she wanted to copy. She saw every letter, every pattern on the map. If this wasn’t it, what was?

Something rumbled down the hall, at least half a dozen hooves. Guards? Harlequin whimpered, darting across the room and tossing the railroad book back into place. She had shut the cabinet by the time someone tried to open the door. It rattled in its frame without budging, and she raised her voice a little. “Coming! Be right there!”

She wasn’t going to have that kind of time. They weren’t knocking the door open with their hooves, but something metal slid into the lock.

Harlequin put the key back in place, slamming the little book into a drawer and then selecting a book at random to open in front of her as the door swung open.

She’d been right in her guess—all the guards she’d seen tonight were there, carrying a cot between them. They ignored Harlequin completely, making their way to the table in the middle of the room, surrounded by the comfortable chairs. They pushed the other books there aside, then lowered the cot onto the table.

“Lady Irongate,” Lacework called, shuffling in behind them. “He only just arrived. I assure you, we’ve called for the authorities, and the Ponyville doctor is on their way. We’ll find out what happened.”

“You won’t!” the pony croaked. Harlequin made her way over, looking down at the pony sprawled there.

He was older, with gray hair in his mane and a worn expression on his face. Something in her recognized him, even though she had no reason to actually know him. He looked so like the pony she was pretending to be, which meant he could only be—

“Come closer, child,” he said. “A gift from the sun herself that I can see your face before the end.”

She obeyed, stumbling over to him with eyes wide with horror. The other ponies had felt terrified, but it wasn’t of her. It was worry for the fate of this pony. His chest was wrapped in makeshift bandages, bruises swelling on his face and near his neck. She’d seen ponies younger than this die from wounds like these in the invasion—but this grizzled old earth pony looked up stoically. As she came closer, he reached out with a hoof, taking one of her legs and forcing her to meet his eyes.

“I know we’ve… never seen eye to eye, daughter, but… please. Don’t leave me now.”

Harlequin’s legs buckled under her, and she dropped to the ground. Magic unlike anything she’d ever felt before washed over her. She recognized it, even if she’d never experienced it. “I think… I was a fool to go so far. But I didn’t think they’d be so bold…”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, master. The doctor is on the way. You’re going to be fine.”

No he isn’t. Harlequin knew a dying creature when she felt one. He’d lost blood, and his body was failing. Though then again, she did know one way he might survive this…

“Everypony else, outside!” he roared, trying and failing to sit up from his cot. Harlequin was there to catch him, stopping him from tumbling off the stretcher to the floor. He looked up, eyes wide with shock. Do bugs know ponies can make so much love when they’re dying? A few drops of this could easily have filled up the awful harvesting bottle, stop her from needing to… harvest again.

“Brass Bell,” he whispered. “I’m glad you’ve decided not to… not to hate me, at the end.”

He fell still as the others filed out. “I’ll alert you as soon as the doctor arrives,” Lacework said, shutting the door behind her. Finally the two of them were alone. Lord Irongate looked up, and in just watching her she felt like she might explode with all the love.

And something else. The more love he provided, the guiltier she felt. Was it wrong to lie to this pony? Maybe she shouldn’t be filling him with hope about a daughter that probably didn’t feel any differently about him.

I need to let him die here, she thought, letting him grip her leg with fierce earth-pony strength, despite his wounded chest. That’s the only smart choice. There’s only one smart choice here, Harlequin.

“How did you find yourself at the old family home, daughter? On this night, of all nights?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, even though it didn’t actually answer anything he’d asked. But as usual, he didn’t seem to notice. “It isn’t important, er… father. Who did this to you?”

“Who do you think?” He glanced up at her, but whatever he was expecting, she didn’t know how to respond. “I can’t forget… of course you don’t know. It was Charon Holdings. Of course, it’s always them. No, I won’t be able to prove it. But they’re the only ponies who would. They want that EIC contract.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, so she said nothing, letting him hold her. She didn’t know where she was putting all this love by now. Felt like her body might split right down the middle. But this time, she didn’t. Why?

“You don’t buckin’ give it to them when I’m gone. I know you… never took much interest in the family business. But if you ever loved your father, I need you to do this for me. Don’t let Charon take those contracts. We’re the reason that anypony in Equestrian can afford to ride. Don’t let them take our engines and our tracks and… ruin them.”

“I won’t,” she promised. It still felt like she might explode, but she didn’t look away. I should be running. I should fly back to the city by night, not even wait here. The guards will be involved now. Guards and doctors.

Doctors who couldn’t help him. This pony didn’t have long.

Harlequin stared down at that broken pony, bleeding and dying. She didn’t even know his name, but all this love for her—it was almost enough to…

“You don’t think the doctors can help you?” she asked. “Here in Ponyville… aren’t they skilled?”

“Not that,” he muttered. “Charon is too… too good. Something will go wrong. Pony gets lost, or wanders off, or… if I was in Canterlot, I could pick a hospital at random. But they might not know how to fix a wound like this.” He trailed off, staring at her again. “I can feel it, Bell. My life, draining away. It won’t be… much longer now.”

“Do you want to live?” she asked faintly. “What if there was another way, something the doctors couldn’t do. Would you take it?”

For the first time, Lord Irongate’s eyes narrowed. “My daughter speaks of philosophy now, at the end. What have you done with the real Brass Bell?”

Harlequin tensed, eyes widening—but then he laughed. “Relax, Bell. I know I shouldn’t. It’s just so good to hear your voice again.”

He was fading fast. If he didn’t make a choice now… “I can save your life,” she said, voice urgent. “I don’t need a doctor. I can do it here. But the price will be terrible—the last time I saw it, the pony wished he had died. But I think he’s getting used to it.”

I have to make it back so I can see him and find out. And learn how to read.

Lord Irongate froze, looking thoughtful. “You aren’t… being hypothetical, at the end. You’re not trying to get me to tell you that I’m satisfied with the way my life went, and that I’m ready to go? Because I won’t lie, daughter. I’m not… I wasn’t ready. Charon is changing the story. I need you to stop them.”

“No,” she said flatly. “You can stop them yourself. Tell me now, Lord Irongate. I don’t know how much good it will do if we wait. But if you let me save you—”

“Yes,” he answered. “Obviously yes. I’m not ready to say goodbye to you yet. Or my work, or… any of it. It’s all too cruel. But I don’t feel any anger that you can’t… solve all of it, sweetheart. I’ll die remembering your forgiveness.”

Harlequin let go, walking around his cot to his neck. “Don’t forgive. Survive.”

Chapter 33: Child

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Harlequin learned something that night.

As it turned out, not everything she did had to be taught to her by the Swarm. She remembered this process, though the bug who had done it had been barely alive by her current understanding. Feeding on Codex and transforming him was something she never could’ve done without Hydrus.

Every second she worked, she could hear Codex’s voice in the back of her mind, chastising her for how insane this was. You met him for five minutes. Why didn’t you let him die? He’ll hate you for this, he’ll expose us all, and he’ll be right to do it because you did worse than kill him.

Would he say things like that now, the way he had when they’d first met?

Feeding was a strange thing—she wasn’t lost in an overflow of excess this time, not when she was already full of a magic far stronger than the one she was extracting from him. She was able to think, to put her hunger aside for a few moments and do other things. Such as locking the doors, drawing all the curtains, and yelling through the door whenever Lacework arrived that she didn’t want anypony else.

It was a good thing they followed her instructions, because the alternative would’ve meant certain death for her “father.”

Eventually she had him wrapped in a protective cocoon, which she further covered with blankets taken from all around the room until its shape was obscured. The magic had certainly worked—it glowed bright green whenever she lifted the blankets, rather than losing all its light and rupturing all over the floor.

That might still happen, and if it did—Lord Irongate would certainly die.

If he dies, he died thinking his daughter forgave him. The pain that came after will be forgotten.

It was only after she was done that the weight of her mistake came crashing down on her. Harlequin’s mind raced, spinning faster than she could remember. As she curled up on the couch pushed up against the door, a dozen different scenarios ran through her head.

There was one truth that weighed heaviest of all: by saving this pony’s life, she’d revealed that there were changelings at large in Equestria. That means he needs to live, and I need to teach him to transform back into himself before he can see anypony else. How hard would that be, anyway? Could it even be achieved at all?

There was fear for the future there, but she found it hard to care. Harlequin buzzed with so much power now that she felt like she could do just about anything she wanted. Helping the drones, she could do that. Maybe she should cut those changelings out of prison herself…

She didn’t sleep—changelings didn’t need much of that, but she did drift on the couch, as she guarded over her mistake. Her mind returned to that dark place, where a voice she couldn’t see whispered help and mockery both.

Tonight the voice was deadly dangerous, neither angry nor pleased. If you want a place in your own stories, you can’t take others out of theirs. Lord Irongate’s tragic death has ramifications—every thread is twined to a hundred others, and cutting one is not a decision made lightly. I will not help you rectify what you have done.

Harlequin wanted to tell the voice that she didn’t give a damn what she got help with—she’d saved that pony because it was the right thing, despite the cost. What mattered more than that?

She woke with a thump. Not coming from outside the room—evidently Lacework was actually keeping to her instructions. Instead, it came from behind her. Bright orange light spilled in from behind the curtains.

So he was right. No doctor came. Charon kept them away somehow.

But now something was moving in the cocoon—he was hatching.

Harlequin tore the blankets and rugs away, yanking them to the floor in time to watch with morbid fascination as the thing inside struggled to escape. A bug, just like her, black coat and milky eyed, banging his head into the semitransparent barrier containing him.

Harlequin could’ve taken a letter-opener and forced it, or used magic. But there were rules about this, rules that went deeper than the swarm. This was a bug’s first victory, and she wouldn’t take it away.

A few seconds later, and Silver Smith cut through. Slime poured out onto the floor, taking the pony with it. Well—not quite pony now. He shared all of Harlequin’s colors, just as she shared all the colors of the Queen. Though this fresh, his fins were still folded down and gray. He coughed and spluttered, hacking out lungfuls of slime.

Harlequin wasn’t wearing the disguise anymore. If something forced its way in now, there was no sense trying to hide when the evidence was so clear.

Silver looked up from the floor, silent for almost a full minute. When he finally spoke, his voice resounded just like any other changeling. Except there’s no swarm. I’m sorry you’re born without it.

“I am… changed,” he said. He reached down, feeling his underbelly with the side of one hoof. But if he was feeling for the wounds there, he wouldn’t find them. “What did you… what have you become?” He stumbled forward, to a tall mirror beside the desk. His eyes widened in terror and he retreated a few steps, slipping in the slime covering the floor.

“Celestia help me! I’m… I can’t be.” His voice no longer had any of the confidence of the night before. He sounded confused, terrified. “I can’t be a changeling.”

She walked over to him, offering him a blanket to use for drying. It was the best they had in here—there were only two doors leading out, and she didn’t know where the other one went. At least nopony had tried to use it to sneak inside.

“You are,” she said flatly. After feeling so much love from this pony, she let herself hope that his emotions might be different. Maybe they had found the first bug whose feelings were strong enough to harvest, ending their dependence on ponies forever.

But no. He was washed-out and gray, just like every other bug. Without the Swarm there, he barely seemed to know what to do with his wings. They were curled up on his back, slowly uncurling as they filled with hemolymph. “I said I could save your life, but the price would be terrible. Transforming you into a changeling regrows your body. I saw it before—I knew it would work.”

“Into a changeling…” he repeated, still staring at her. “Is this… the reason you’ve been so silent with me? Has all of this just been… because you replaced my daughter? She died then, years ago… and it’s all been a ruse. Brass Bell doesn’t—”

Harlequin was taller than this new drone, despite how much bigger he’d been the night before. She stood right over him without fear. This pony’s feelings were a confusing mess, he wasn’t going to call the authorities down on them now. “She was not,” she declared, voice confident. “The Queen hardly did anything to prepare for this invasion. She only replaced Princess Cadance, nopony else. When the army arrived in Canterlot, that was the first.”

“And why should I believe you?” he asked. He struggled to his feet, making it out of the slime before slumping back down again. He was still so weak, his body too soft to do anything yet. He needed to relax, otherwise he might tear his shell before it hardened, and be stuck with damage until he next molted. “This is more invasion. You… failed to take the throne with your army, and now you do it by stealth.”

“No.” Harlequin reached down, forcing him to meet her eyes. She spoke slowly, her voice absolutely confident. “Your pony enemies kidnapped your daughter yesterday, not changelings. We had nothing to do with it. I was sent here because you were supposed to be in Griffonstone. I wasn’t supposed to see you at all. When you returned from your trip, your daughter would be free again, and we would never meet.”

Silver had already opened his mouth to argue with her. But now he shut it again, stupefied. “You just… told me all that. Why?”

Harlequin saw the world larger, saw a queen looming over her. A queen whose words she didn’t understand. “Because I… I don’t know. It was incredibly stupid and may get creatures I love killed. But I couldn’t watch you die. I felt your pain, your regrets. I couldn’t just sit there and eat it all, pretending I was your daughter until you died. It wouldn’t be…” She reached out for the Swarm again, searching desperately for what she meant.

The Swarm didn’t answer.

“It wouldn’t be right,” she finished lamely.

The pony stared at her for a few moments more—then he started laughing. His wings spread, shaking the slime weighing them down as they did so. He laughed so loud that Harlequin was fairly certain she heard hoof steps coming.

The stallion’s voice finally relaxed. He shoved past her, resting a soft leg on her shoulder. “Charon thought they would kill me and rob me on the same night. The assassin did his work, and the robber nearly succeeded as well. You did steal something, I suppose...” He was still grinning, despite everything.

We should do something about that. Harlequin moved quickly, tossing every blanket and pillow she could find into the fireplace. The magic came so easily to her now that she hardly even needed to think about it. Five or six objects at once all went flying, then the empty cocoon last of all.

“Lady Irongate,” said a soft voice from the other side of the door. It was Lacework again, as she’d expected. “I’m so sorry that the Ponyville surgeon hasn’t… we still don’t know what went wrong there. We’ve sent three of the house guard to inquire, and they all returned unsuccessfully. Is there anything I can—”

“Yes, Lacework,” Silver said. His voice was still strange and vibrating, but it was also about the right tone. Would that be good enough? “I want fresh tea brought to my bedroom, then the windows shuttered and the doors not leading to the study to be locked and guarded.”

There was a thump on the other side of the door. A few seconds later, another voice spoke, the soldier who had greeted Harlequin earlier. “Lord Irongate? You sound… unwell. I think she fainted. Should I come in, and—”

“No!” he called instantly. “Absolutely not. Bring her somewhere to rest, then carry out my orders. Actually, sans the tea. Just lock and seal my bedroom. Do not enter the study, or my bedroom until I exit. Send the coroner away if he arrives, as well as any doctors. Tell them I will explain everything myself after some bedrest.”

“Of course, sir!” the soldier said. “Right away.” Then much lower, “Oakroot, help me with Lacework. Yeah, you get her other leg. Come on…” And they left.

Finally Silver spun back around to meet her eyes. “I can’t believe this. I’ve actually… cheated death. Become some… unholy abomination, it appears. But we can only ford one river at a time.” He wasn’t smiling exactly as he crossed the room again. “Do you need help with the fire? I have a tinderbox in the desk I use for cigars.”

“No,” she said, aiming her horn in. She didn’t know the first thing about unicorn magic, but she currently had so much magic she didn’t have to. Light blasted from her forehead, and the foul-smelling assembly all caught fire. Thick black smoke rose from the soaked garments and carpets, rising up the chimney and out of sight.

“I do wish… well, I suppose if I can cheat death, I can somehow find a way to get Brass Bell to speak to me. The real Bell. But first… you need to teach me how all this works. Don’t worry about the tea—the house guard couldn’t brew a good cup with all the leaves in Equestria. But I can, and you can tell me everything.”

Chapter 34: Legitimacy

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Harlequin didn’t tell Silver Smith everything, but she did tell him everything she thought mattered about being a changeling. What she knew about their powers, even those she’d seen from bugs who actually mattered, instead of a little drone like herself. She told him what she’d learned during the last few weeks living without the Swarm, a concept that clearly made no sense to him.

Though Silver’s emotions were faded and washed-out, he clearly wasn’t angry with her anymore, wasn’t afraid. There was something much deeper there, aimed right past her towards concepts that she wouldn’t have understood. It was Charon that he hated, not the ones they had employed.

Why couldn’t you be like this, Codex? We would’ve got along so much better.

“And who are you?” Lord Irongate asked, when she had finally finished explaining everything. Lacework had come to the door several times, asking for confirmation. Apparently the doctor had arrived outside—much too late to make a difference.

“I’m Harlequin,” she answered. “I was… well, I told you why I’m here.”

“A thief,” he supplied. “You were going to steal information from me, but instead you took my… what, exactly? My soul?” He put out one leg in front of him, holding it towards a window. Only a thin line of light penetrated around the curtains, but that didn’t matter. Changeling eyes were very good in the dark, and bugs didn’t typically mind when there was no light at all.

“I don’t know what that is,” she admitted. “But I don’t think so. I took all the… emotional magic. I guess the thing that makes emotions that can be harvested instead of just felt.”

“I was going to say. I assure you, I can feel just fine.” He reached down to the tea-tray between them, lifting the tea again—then knocked the cup over with the edge of his hoof, dumping it out on the wood. “This is the worst glass of tea I’ve ever had. It tastes like somepony mixed this with mud, but I can see I didn’t.”

She nodded. “You can eat pony food forever, and it won’t help you. Unless… it was loved? I don’t quite understand that, I’ve only done it once. But I think if the creator of something loves it, then you can… see it the way they do.”

She whimpered, looking away from him. She now knew how desperately this pony loved his family. What was life and death to him, she had harvested.

He didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he did, and he wanted to spare her the embarrassment. Either way, he went on. “And now we’re left with an interesting question, Harlequin. What I do with you, an invader and a thief… but also the one who saved my life. It certainly is a conundrum.”

“If you wanted to turn me in, you should probably have got me to teach you how to change into a pony first,” she said, grinning weakly. “And then forget about ever lying to another changeling again. We can still feel each other’s emotions, we just can’t use them. I know you aren’t going to turn me in.”

He smiled weakly, removing a stale teacake from the tray. He bit into it, then sighed. “Well, at least I know the fine ponies of Sugercube Corner love their work. As chasers go, could do worse.” He offered the container to her—not in his new magic. But how would he have known how?

Harlequin lifted it in her magic, then took a bite. He was right. But it didn’t matter—a pony who loved these had baked them, and she could taste it. The touch of sweetness to an otherwise firm pastry.

“It makes negotiation unfair,” he said. “Here I am trying to think how I can repay you, seeing as I completely depend on your help not to go deep into Canterlot’s prisons with the rest of you. And… unless I’m mistaken, Charon will be taking over that contract soon. Stars preserve me if I was in a prison they ran. I can’t imagine how bad things will get.”

It was Harlequin’s turn to laugh. She almost said, “that was the whole point,” but finally managed not to do something dumb. “How about…” She stopped suddenly. “The thing I came to steal, it was your expansion plans for EQRail Limited. Make sure you… don’t change them right away. Just know that Charon knows now, and they’re going to be trying to outguess you. You can probably use that.”

Silver reached across the table, settling one leg on her shoulder for a second. “Harlequin, you’re adorable. You just gave me more. I didn’t know what you’d come to steal before, and you just… shared it for free. Do yourself a favor and don’t get into politics. Or business. But… I’m sure your mother must be proud of the upstanding pony you’ve become. Err… do you have one?”

She shook her head without thinking. “Not the way you imagine that word means. There are… I sometimes think that we should. But instead of raising me, Queen Chrysalis raised an army.” It doesn’t hurt to say anymore. Even after the Swarm was gone, she still felt sick. But not anymore. I don’t care what the Queen wants! I don’t care!

“Well, I expect the most sensible thing to do is teach me not to…” He held out one leg. “Look like this? I won’t be able to return Charon it’s kindness if I’m in one of their cells.”

Harlequin’s eyes widened. “You just said… You just called them kind when you actually meant they’re mean!” She got up from the couch, bouncing up and down with excitement. “You can say one thing and mean something else!” She stopped, looking down. “Codex wasn’t as nice as I thought.”

Silver didn’t look away from her. “Sweetheart, err… no, that’s wrong. You’re not my daughter. Harlequin, you can’t be serious. You mean sarcasm? You didn’t know what… If Celestia bucking knew we’d been invaded by foals. I can’t imagine she’d be pleased about what happens in her dungeons.”

“Sarcasm,” she repeated. “Yes. But you’re right, I need to teach you. Never taught before, but… have to figure it out fast. If I don’t get back to Canterlot by the end of the day, the one who sent me will think I failed. Bugs will keep starving. I nee—”

Something banged down the hall, half a dozen hooves moving together. She felt the anger and suspicion that guided them. Silver clearly did as well, because his eyes widened in panic. She’d seen plenty of drones look that way.

Now it was up to her to protect him. “Hide,” she said flatly, turning towards the door.

“I told them you didn’t want to be disturbed—” Lacework called, her voice soon overwhelmed by another speaker on that side.

“Lord Irongate!” called a brusque voice, using a tone Harlequin knew well. That was a Royal Guard, or someone who thought they were one anyway. “I’ve received word from Griffonstone that you were attacked on your way home. My platoon is here to verify your survival on behalf of the royal family.”

“Bucking liar,” whispered a voice from somewhere behind her. Harlequin didn’t even turn around to look. “Charon wants to make sure no one in the household is concealing my death. They want a scandal.”

“Open the door,” the Royal Guard ordered. “Or my stallions will open it for you.”

“There’s no need!” Lacework said, voice sounding far away. “I have a key right here. I’m terribly sorry, Lord Irongate. They just want to see that you’re alright.”

Panic spun in her mind as metal clicked, and the mechanism turned. Then magic took its place.

The door swung open, revealing exactly what she’d expected—half a dozen Royal Guards in gold armor, with the house guard trailing behind them looking frustrated and impotent. She recognized this captain by sight—he’d been at the meeting when she was sworn to the city watch.

The guards froze where they were, staring at her in open astonishment. “Lord Irongate!” The captain stumbled forward, dumbfounded, while the soldiers behind actually bowed. “I was told you were attacked on the road.” He walked into the room, nudging at her underbelly with one leg. “We interrogated your steward, she said you were barely alive when you arrived.”

Harlequin stood up straight, shoving the guard roughly away. She didn’t have earth pony strength, but she had a nearly limitless stockpile of magic from two separate feedings. She could imitate it well enough. “That was precisely what I wished for my servants to think,” she said, walking in a slow circle to show the complete lack of injuries. “I was attacked. But my assassins were less successful than they thought.”

They stumbled back from her, dumbfounded. Finally the captain gestured, and one of his soldiers produced a clipboard covered in scribbled writing. He held it in his magic, walking around the room in a slow circle. Harlequin shuddered at what he might see—but Silver was gone.

“How did you, uh… how did you do it?”

“Fake my injuries?” She raised an eyebrow. “I was covered in blood when I arrived. But that doesn’t mean it was mine.”

He scribbled a few things, then glanced down the open hallway to the study. “What about… I’m told your daughter visited last night. We would like to question her as well.”

Harlequin glowered at him, her expression as harsh as she could make it. “You don’t think I let my daughter stay here on a night when my own life was at such risk, do you? She’s been gone for hours.”

“To where?” The captain latched on to that, taking a few steps down the hall. “I’m told nopony has been seen leaving this property since last night.”

Harlequin did her best impression of the Queen’s scornful laughter. “Then my daughter is more skillful than whoever you had watching for her.”

She watched the pony’s mind, as feelings of suspicion mixed freely with disappointment, annoyance, and fear. He wanted to do much worse to her, but in the end he only turned sharply away. “I’m certain you’ll be hearing from the Guard again in the coming days. For… wasting our resources.”

Harlequin didn’t laugh again. “Yes, I’m sure. Someone else sent you to barge into my house and confirm my untimely accident, but I was healthy instead. A terrible tragedy for Equestria. Now get out of my house.”

She glowered daggers at them as they began to leave. Harlequin lowered her voice as Lacework approached. “Make sure they all leave the manor completely.”

Before she could protest, Harlequin shut the door behind her, locking it.

She waited almost a minute before she finally relaxed, letting the transformation fade. “I can’t believe I made that work. A pony I only saw once, covered in wounds…” I’m getting better at this. She stepped forward into the room, looking around. “But now… where are you? Must have a good hiding spot.”

The wardrobe opened, and Silver emerged from within. Behind the layers of hanging clothes, a wooden pannel had been pushed to the side. A narrow corridor was visible beyond, with stairs leading down. “I always knew I had enemies. Every family of size has plans in place to escape if we must.” He sighed. “Your performance wasn’t terribly accurate. Poor Lacework is probably having a minor breakdown right now. But it got those soldiers to leave. I can hardly ask for more.”

“One thing more,” she said. “I need to try to teach you something that the Swarm taught me. Otherwise you’re going to get caught.”

“Charon would just love that,” he said, lowering his voice to an angry mutter. “Not just killed, but disgraced. Everything I’d ever built would be dismantled, not just given to a daughter who doesn’t know or care how to use them. Don’t worry, I’ll listen. Even if the tea is dreadful, I intend to use this second chance.”

Chapter 35: Home

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It took hours, but Harlequin had never had a more attentive student. Actually, she’d never had any kind of student who actually cared about what she was teaching before. For everything Codex had been, full of resentment and anger at her for what she’d done, this pony was all gratitude.

Silver Smith had no idea what was ahead of him—he’d given up more than drinking tea. But considering it was that or being dead, he seemed to think it was a worthwhile trade.

It was only afternoon by the time she finished, but that was still far faster than she’d imagined she would manage. Hours of work and a good chunk of magic later, and she was finally saying goodbye to what looked like the pony that had arrived in the middle of the night.

She stood on the threshold of his secret door. “Listen carefully,” he instructed, settling her pouch of bits around her neck. “This exit will leave you in the Everfree, near the path. Take it, and travel towards where the trees grow thinner. You’ll arrive in Ponyville after less than a mile of walking. I don’t think I have to ask you not to speak of this.”

She grinned. “Mutual death for your family and mine,” she said. “I don’t know the history of changelings, but it feels like something even the Queen would be proud of.”

Silver laughed quietly. “The reports I heard of the invasion made you seem like alien monsters, dredged up from our ancient past to torment us. Nothing at all like ponies. They were all wrong. Few of my business partners or my own family would’ve risked so much for a stranger.” He took a few steps closer, meeting her eyes. He was still taller now that he was a pony again, though not by as much as she expected. She was bigger. “I will not forget your kindness, Harlequin. You entered my house as an enemy, but you will leave it as a friend. One day, I will repay the debt I’ve incurred to you. I can’t sleep well with an unbalanced account.”

There was no deception in his words. Shallow and empty though any changeling’s emotions felt, he really did feel indebted to her. There was no resentment for his transformation, though there was still anger somewhere deeper. It was focused elsewhere, sharper than a sword.

“Please don’t… make it obvious you know we have your expansion plans,” she answered. “Hundreds of bugs are starving, and my success is their only chance. Give me time.”

“I will,” he answered. “But that’s not good enough. I owe you my life—until I pay it back, nothing will be enough. But before you go—” He caught her on the shoulder with one leg. It no longer had that irresistible earth pony strength. She could escape him if she wanted to press. But she didn’t. “Where will I find my daughter? It doesn’t matter that she curses my name and won’t take anything but bits from me. I can’t allow my family to be… attacked, so directly. I intend to repay that debt to whoever incurred it, with interest.”

There was the anger, fierce and cold and calculating. She’d felt this before, but hadn’t understood it at the time. It was the way Hydrus felt about the Queen.

“It was Prince Blueblood,” she answered. “Or ponies working for him. I don’t know where they took her, but he said she would be drugged and kept out of the way for a few days. He said they would release her when I was done, and she wouldn’t remember what had happened.”

Silver let go, glaring out the window. It was open now, freely admitting the late afternoon sunlight. There was no reason to hide, when Silver looked just like any other earth pony, and she was just a pegasus. The same generic version of herself, with a shut gate as her cutie mark. “The prince himself? Celestia’s own nephew tied up in…” He shook his head. “Harlequin, I’m beginning to dislike you. Everything you say digs my account deeper into the red.” But he was smiling as he said it.

Harlequin could now understand his sarcasm perfectly, where before it had confused and intimidated her. “I need to get going anyway. I don’t want to miss my train.”

Though her limitless new wealth of magic called her to go another direction, flee away from this nightmare and never come back—she resisted. Hydrus was back there, and dozens of “broken” drones who had been her brothers and sisters. If Silver owed her a debt, then her debt was to them. The nameless who suffered and starved because they hadn’t had the attention she did.

She hadn’t just fed on Silver, she’d learned from him. Harlequin could repay her debts too.

She found a stallion with a rose waiting on the platform, off by himself. She sat down beside him without invitation, ignoring his pointed glares.

“This spot is taken,” he said, adjusting the flower pinned to his expensive vest. “I’m waiting for somepony.”

Harlequin glanced around to be sure that nopony was close enough to overhear, then lowered her voice to a whisper. “You’re waiting on Lady Irongate, if I’m not mistaken. She sent me to tell you she’s taken ill and will not be making the return trip to Canterlot. I’m going in her place.”

His eyes widened with recognition, and his annoyance flashed briefly to suspicion, then relief. “Celestia preserve us, her, uh… her Uncle would not have been happy if she missed her appointments today. He’s eager to hear from her.”

“We can sit together on the trip,” she responded. “I can tell you enough to satisfy Uncle’s curiosity.”

She did better than just recite what she knew on the way back—with Silver’s knowledge and cooperation, she gave him a perfect recreation of the map, drawn in exacting detail. She still didn’t know what any of the words said; even her sudden understanding could go only so far.

The stallion took her map, and sent her back to the common part of the train, without so much as a farewell. But that was fine—if Blueblood was connected to the group that had tried to murder a pony for purely selfish reasons, then she wanted as little to do with him as possible. She’d hated being with him the first time.

Eventually the train passed through the archways into Canterlot, which was thankfully still absent of its magical shield that had once killed every bug who touched it. The ponies still thought they were secure, and she certainly wasn’t going to try and persuade them otherwise.

She didn’t get off in the upper city, not when she knew the hive was located in the lower section. She stepped off a station that smelled far more of ordinary ponies just trying to survive, with feelings that edged far closer to desperation than the simple boredom or annoyance that governed the noble ponies of the upper city. Besides, if she stayed low, there was no chance of her accidentally running into Apple Cinnamon and giving away something she shouldn’t.

She didn’t actually know how to find the hive, unfortunately. It would be well and good to follow the bugs in disguise by tracing out hollow emotions, but none of the ponies she passed were bugs in disguise. The ponies might not have any surefire way to reveal them, but if there were still any bugs hiding among their number, they were doing so in better places to live.

Eventually she struck on another idea: if she couldn’t follow her own kind, she could follow ponies. If there was one thing about their reactions that seemed consistent, it was their shame. So she followed that.

After a few blocks of wandering, she found a street she remembered taking with Blueblood’s carriage, and from then on all she really had to do was follow the streets back.

She found the old, hollow building on the corner of old warehouses and an overgrown park, exactly where it had been last time. It was mostly empty, though she could see a few pony guards lingering on the walls. Real pony guards too, not just Hydrus’s bugs in disguise. Right, because he doesn’t have very many who can pass as ponies. Easier to give them metal.

She gave her own pouch of bits a pat for good luck, then marched up to the entrance door and knocked.

It swung open quickly, with an annoyed-looking soldier in a plain uniform peeking out in her direction. She hadn’t seen him before, but that didn’t matter. “Filly, you’re too young for this place. Keep your bits and go somewhere better.”

Harlequin stuck her hoof in the door before he could shut it, smiling in satisfaction at her pony impression. Apparently she’d got good enough at it that guards around a changeling hive thought she was real. “I’m here to see Hydrus,” she whispered to him. “He’ll be expecting me.”

The guard’s eyes widened. He spun around, calling a command to a pony Harlequin couldn’t see. Then he got out of the way, urging her forward. “We can wait for him in here.”

They didn’t go through the large gate to one side, but into the building itself, where she was taken to a well-appointed room to wait. A pony servant arrived after a few minutes, with a tray of little snacks, but she sent him away. They didn’t look like they’d been made with love. Besides, she felt like she wouldn’t be hungry for weeks.

Eventually Hydrus did enter, though not as a bug. He had chosen a unicorn body for himself, tall and strong with a wickedly pointed horn. Of course she wouldn’t have known it was him, except for the way he spoke. The emotions underneath—suspicion, curiosity, and greed—were familiar to her, even if the latter one had been indecipherable until today.

“You knew my name, stranger.” His eyes lingered on her cutie mark, and he relaxed. “You don’t have to scare me like that, Harlequin. For a second I almost thought those emotions were real. I really do have an eye for talent…” He changed smoothly back into himself, stalking up to her. “I just received a messenger about House Charming. They took the prison contract, we’ll be getting our kin returned in short order. Fantastic news, all thanks to you.”

He circled slowly around her, as though he was sniffing for something. Harlequin changed back by reflex, lowering her head respectfully to him. “It was an honor to serve. But I don’t like Blueblood very much. He seems like he doesn’t really care about us. He just thinks we’ll be able to get him something.”

“Well yes,” Hydrus answered, stopping right in front of her and meeting her eyes. “Do you think the ponies drowning in happiness and friendship would’ve been willing to betray each other to help the swarm? We don’t have the luxury of choosing allies.”

She lowered her head obediently—not so much because she agreed as it helped hide that she was taller than she was before. Would he notice?

His eyes narrowed suspiciously, staring at her. Of course he knew—he was a changeling, he could read her just as easily as she could read other bugs. She hadn’t been lying when she said that changelings couldn’t lie to each other.

“I’ll… assume for your sake this was an honest mistake,” he said, reaching out towards her. But instead of doing anything violent, he yanked the cord holding the pouch of bits to her neck. “Remember in the future that anything you find belongs to the swarm. These should’ve been offered to me first, before anything else.”

He turned away, pushing another door ajar. This one led into the courtyard, and the entrance to the hive beyond. “Good work, Harlequin. I will ensure you are spared from all common work. But don’t stray far from the hive. When the next assignment comes outside our walls, I will call on you again.” He left, holding the pouch of metal up against his neck like a treasured grub.

You know what value is, Hydrus. But so do I.

Chapter 36: Silent

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Codex found her deep in the hive, several hours after Harlequin began. “I heard you were back. You didn’t even say hello?”

Harlequin stopped, turning away from the construction bugs constantly rebuilding the support to the central tower. They had to, or the weight above would tear the building right off the rock.

She noticed something else right then—there were dozens of drones all around her, a crowd of every one she’d fed and more that were hoping for food. It was a little like being back in the hive, the real one. Except she couldn’t feel all their minds around her. Just the names she’d given them, and their eyes watching her like a queen.

Finally she found Codex in the crowd. He was taller than all of these, though no longer larger than she was. Actually, they were probably the exact same height now, or close to it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was going to check on you, but I didn’t think you needed me back as quickly. These bugs, though…”

“You brought food for them,” he said flatly. “Has Hydrus been forcing you to…” He looked sick, turning away. “Have you been working for two days straight?”

Why was he suddenly so disgusted? At first he’d been just curious, but now she was having a hard time reconciling those emotions. She probably wouldn’t have been able to without her last feeding. But now all these layered feelings made sense to her. This was why ponies had seemed so alien—they weren’t just guided by their instincts to feel whatever made the most sense. There was a little storm inside each of them, including the ones that got changed into bugs.

She understood. “Not that kind of work,” she said, looking up the steep stone tower to the top. “I’m hoping never to work there again. But… there’s something else, I’m glad you’re here.” She reached forward, yanking him into the center of the group of drones. They all watched with unblinking eyes, curious.

Hydrus hadn’t even been right about them all being broken. Some were, but plenty of others just looked like they hadn’t had enough food. Harlequin had a sick feeling that she might know why. He’s probably replacing them as they die off. But why doesn’t he feed the new ones properly?

Of course, plenty were broken—limping, missing wings or eyes or legs. But that didn’t make them watch her any less attentively.

“Everyone, this is Codex. He taught me things.”

“Codex,” many repeated. Some were too weak to speak, or couldn’t manage to say they name correctly. But they all tried, and that was enough.

“What are you doing, Harlequin?” he snapped. “I don’t believe for two seconds that Hydrus sent you down here. He doesn’t care about these changelings.”

“He should,” she whispered, quiet enough that only he could hear. “They’re my brothers and sisters. They were part of the invasion. They did their part, they risked their lives. They fought. Shouldn’t they eat? Shouldn’t they get names?”

Codex pulled her in close, lowering his voice. “Harlequin, I don’t know what got into you… but there’s nothing you can do. You’re not the one in charge here. You don’t control where the food goes. I’ve been here longer than you now, and I’ve been up here most of the time. I saw the way this works. Hydrus is in charge of everything. He has all the food, and all the money.”

She shook her head. “You were teaching his harvesters, weren’t you?”

He nodded. “I thought you were dense. But they’ll learn. They’re very good at imitation, and for their job, that’s probably good enough. Nopony who comes to a place like this really cares what the entertainment has to say.”

“Could you teach them too?” she gestured out at the drones around them. “When they’re not working.”

“They’re not working now,” Codex pointed out. “How long until somepony notices? You can’t just… you can’t just gut this thing from underneath and expect to get away with it. There are consequences.”

He was probably right about that. They weren’t in a separate chamber, and on levels just above theirs bugs were watching. Bugs who would talk to Hydrus, eventually.

“Everyone,” Harlequin said, a little louder. “Go back to the jobs you were given before. But I’m going to come back here tomorrow. Meet me, uh… right here. When I come back.”

It wasn’t so easy. Plenty of the bugs didn’t seem to know how they’d got there, and she had to lead them back to their jobs. But once she did, they went back to the routine—looking far more alive than they had when she found them.

Finally they left the lower levels behind. Without a word exchanged between them, Harlequin knew where Codex wanted to go. They found their cell, tucked away among so many others, and climbed inside, sealing it behind them. It wasn’t that she needed sleep—she’d done that the night before, while she watched over Silver.

But once they were sealed inside, Harlequin no longer worried about being overheard. “What did you do out there? You’re… different, Harlequin. Going straight down to those bugs like you’re their mom. And… are you taller?”

She nodded absently. “A little, I think. That… happened last time too. Only this time it was from saving somepony, instead of just feeding on them like you.”

“Oh.” His ears flattened, his wings folding to his back. He pulled away from her, and she could taste his anger. “All this time, and you didn’t learn.”

“Don’t start!” she cut him off. “The pony was bleeding to death. Someone tried to kill him, and I stopped it from happening. You want to fly back with me and tell him he should be dead instead? Maybe you want to get a knife and kill him yourself!”

Codex’s eyes widened, and he spread his wings again in the tiny space, looking away from her. “Alright, alright! You’re… really defensive about this. This pony must mean a lot to you. Or… not pony anymore. This changeling.”

“Not really,” she answered honestly. “I did learn his name, and a little bit about him. But… does it matter? He would’ve died without my help, Codex. I was there and had the magic to save him. I used it, and now he’s still alive.”

“I guess it doesn’t.” Codex looked away from her, obviously concerned. Again she felt a complex mixture of emotions that wouldn’t have made sense only a short while ago. “That sounds an awful lot like… like you have morality. I didn’t think bugs had those. You just did what the Swarm told you. You obeyed, and you weren’t allowed to question. Is that not the way it is?”

“Not for me,” she answered. “Basically never was. I didn’t want ponies to die during the invasion, even you. And I think there are others like me. I can’t ask around without the Swarm.” But if there had still been a Swarm, everything Hydrus had done would be impossible. The collective will of every trapped bug would’ve found another way, probably to escape. Fighting in the open as the Queen had forced was uncomfortable and unnatural. Bugs belonged in the dark, where they could be safe.

Harlequin should probably have just kept her mouth shut, but she couldn’t help trusting Codex. In a way, he was the first member of her swarm. First of two. Or maybe a hundred, thanks to the drones. And S. Can’t forget her.

So she told him everything—what she’d been sent to do, and what she’d accomplished. His expression got more fearful the more she told him. Until eventually he had pushed into a sitting position against the stone wall on the far side, horrified. “Harlequin… do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

She watched his feelings, trying to guess. But whatever he was afraid of, it was still too complex for her to read. She shook her head.

“You played both sides. We were supposed to be working with the Charmings, but you gave even more help to Irongate. You brought him back to life—we can only hope that Blueblood wasn’t actually the one who wanted Silver Smith dead. Because you can bucking bet he’ll guess you had something to do with it.”

“I don’t think so,” Harlequin argued. “Not even you knew that bugs were able to make ponies into more bugs. You wouldn’t be in prison in the first place if anypony believed you. He’ll accept the story I gave about their assassin failing. And Silver is going to do everything he can to keep me out of the story. He has as much to lose as us.”

“Well yes, but… he’s also a second point of failure. Him being out there means that no matter how perfect we do things here, we could still have the guards crashing down on us tomorrow. If he’s revealed, he could compromise the whole thing.”

“I didn’t tell him where we were. I didn’t tell him what we did, or… Codex, ponies are coming here from all over the city. It isn’t going to be some noble stallion a city over who turns us in, it’ll be one of our clients. And even if he was a risk, he’s also a big important pony. He’s got lots of bits, he’s got somewhere safe far away. His farm is so huge, I bet hundreds of bugs could live there and never be seen. Isn’t making a new friend worth the risk?”

That shut him up. He looked her up and down, then closed his eyes. “That’s weird from you. You’ve grown… so much, since you left. I wonder if that’s how changeling queens come to be. Just steal enough magic from ponies until you’re more powerful than they are.”

“I don’t know Swarmlore, but maybe. My magic feels stronger. I think… I could probably learn real spells if I really tried. Instead of just moving things around. Guess you probably couldn’t… oh, but I want to learn something else!”

Her horn lit up, and she started drawing in the slime with her hoof. Recreating some of the letters she’d seen. “Could you teach me how to read? I wish I’d asked the Swarm how to do that before it died forever, but I never needed it, and now… now I can’t. Forever probably, if it doesn’t come back.”

“A changeling soldier, turned spy, turned charity worker. Why would you want to know how to read?”

She rolled to one side, embarrassed. “When I was out there, I saw so many secrets. Books, signs, scrolls, tickets. They all had secrets I couldn’t get to, because they were hidden with words. I want to learn to see them. Maybe to make some secrets of my own, one day.”

“I’ve never heard it put that way,” he said. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever teach those harvesters. They’re so set on learning things that can help with their work that nothing else sticks. But maybe you could. I’m not sure why I should.”

“Because if you do, I’ll share love with you, and you won’t have to harvest it yourself.” She shuddered at the thought, thinking back to those tiny rooms, and the stallion who’d looked at her like a thing and not a person. “I didn’t like it. You’ll like it even less.”

His face went green. “That sounds like… I can’t wait to teach you how to read.”

“And the drones too! Not how to read, but… help me teach them. I taught a bug for the first time yesterday, and I don’t think learning how to copy is the most important thing for those drones. Maybe talking would be a more important place to start.”

“Tall order,” he said. “But considering I could be starving to death in a cave, or cast into… sexual indentured servitude—I’ll take it.”

Chapter 37: Hearts

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Time passed in the secret swarm hidden beneath Canterlot. Harlequin couldn’t be sure exactly how long it was—time wasn’t something that bugs cared much about, even with the sun and the moon visible briefly through the crystals over her head.

Every day she learned a little more about how to read and write—it wasn’t nearly as hard as she thought. Each letter just stood for a sound, one she could replace in her mind to figure out what the word was supposed to be.

Learning how to write was much harder, since not every word she wanted to make used the letters she expected. Language was old and complicated, with layers of secrets that went back centuries. If she wanted to write her own story, she would need to study for far longer.

The other bugs learned… less well. For them, just communicating at all was a task often too difficult to complete. They showed their emotions in physical ways, buzzing their wings, or rubbing their legs together, or moving up and down when they wanted Harlequin to notice them.

But they were reacting. By her third visit, there weren’t any more open wounds, and the number of drones had stopped dropping. She knew their number, and had learned every possible letter she could use. There were enough bugs down here that she had to use two letters for some of them. But she never forgot a name, even if she only gave it casually. The very act of naming them seemed significant.

One thing Harlequin didn’t do was return to “harvest” love for the swarm. Doing so was a privilege to many of the other love-starved bugs, and so she wasn’t missed. When she was told it was her turn, she just didn’t go. I don’t know how you can stand it.

Harlequin was so occupied caring for her bugs that she barely even noticed the pair of Hydrus’s guards coming upon her one evening, armed with their spears and shields as before.

Her drones were more attentive to these details—they’d long come to associate the guards with danger, with hard duties and bad treatment, so they scattered, vanishing into the cracks and down the slope before Harlequin even realized what was happening. She turned slowly, feeling a growing dread in her chest.

There were only two, the same two she saw often loitering around where bugs harvested. She didn’t know their names. “Hydrus wants me?” she asked, rising to her hooves. “What’s the point of bringing weapons?”

“The drones are strange,” said one of them, casting about in the darkness around himself with the spear. Have you been guarding the brothel for so long that your eyes can’t adjust to the darkness?

“We thought you might be in danger,” said the other. “Heard there were several down here, that you’d gone into the dark. Didn’t come back.”

“I kept them at bay,” Harlequin said noncommittally. She glanced up briefly, eyes fixing on the crystal over their heads. A glow came down through it, telling her everything she needed to know about the time. “Is this just a rescue?”

“No. Hydrus needs you, up above.” He pointed. “No convert to slow you down. Fly straight to the office, and don’t hesitate. Very urgent.”

She obeyed, taking to the air. She spared one last glance for the dark crags and smaller corners of the cavern around her, where the drones she’d been speaking to had vanished at their approach. She could only hope they would stay hidden from Hydrus’s guards a little longer, or that they’d lose interest completely.

They’re still getting their work done. You have no reason to attack them.

She arrived in the office a few minutes later, landing outside and climbing up through the rear entrance. She was no longer intimidated by all the soldiers, or frightened out of going inside.

Hydrus wasn’t alone inside this time—there was a pony waiting there. She hesitated in the doorway, feeling a brief spike of fear in her chest. Ponies meant danger, didn’t they? Yet this one was looking directly at Hydrus, completely undisguised, and she felt only bored.

She was a tall unicorn, taller than Hydrus or Harlequin, with a sharply pointed horn and an angular face. She wore a simple vest, with a symbol along one side. A sun mark cast partway behind a pillar.

I’ve seen that before. It was on the inside of the building Blueblood had taken her.

Suddenly everything made sense.

“Harlequin, you’re here!” Hydrus didn’t stand for her, just pointed at the empty chair. “This is Marquesa, she’s, uh…”

“Supervisor to Charming’s corporate interests, among which include the prison contract he recently took on,” she supplied.

Harlequin had heard more love and affection in the voice of her old queen.

Great. Harlequin sat down, grateful that ponies at least couldn’t sense emotions. This one would have no way of knowing how unhappy she was to be here.

“This is the pony I was telling you about,” Hydrus went on. “She’s my finest. She completed that infiltration for your master so successfully last week.”

“My employer,” Marquesa corrected coldly. “Ponies do not have masters as insects do. Kindly remember that.”

“Yes yes.” Hydrus’s wings buzzed. “Whatever. She’s the pony I trust to accomplish this task. The only one.”

She rose from her seat. “Then you may explain it to her. I tire of the darkness and moisture. I’ll wait in the carriage.” She left without another word, vanishing up the stairs and out of sight.

Hydrus waited for her to retreat up the steps, seeming more relieved by her departure than anything. “Sometimes I regret cooperating with them,” he whispered. “Every one of these ponies acts like queen of their own swarm.”

You got that impression too. Harlequin almost asked him if he was going to change his mind about the way he treated the drones—but she resisted. For the moment, her own personal reserves hadn’t yet emptied. So long as she kept going on missions, she should be able to take care of them herself.

But will I be converting a new bug each time? The mysterious voice in her dreams hadn’t liked that, and it hadn’t returned since. Maybe it was punishing her.

“I guess you’re sending me out again?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “You’ve seen the others down there. So few of my bugs can understand complex tasks. They only think of their next meal.” Maybe they wouldn’t if you fed them better.

“Regardless, it’s time for us to collect on our partnership with Blueblood. He’s taken the prison contract from Celestia, and with little time to spare. If those bugs starved, we would get awkward questions asked about the rest of the prison, and they might start investigating. We’re going to put an end to it.”

You don’t care if they starve? “We’re going to… what, bring them here?”

“Yes,” Hydrus said. For a second, Harlequin thought she felt something from him, a stir of more complex emotion. He’s not telling me everything. But he hurried forward so fast that she didn’t have the time to ask.

“Our goal is to eventually transition this establishment into something more… recognized. Accidental discovery would be our destruction at this stage. That need not be the case. First the prison will be established nearby—or so the paperwork will say. Then Blueblood’s guards will ‘discover’ our need for love and will look the other way while we try our solution. Which we’ve already done, but nopony will get too picky about the timeline.”

“That… makes sense,” Harlequin said. “But you brought me here. What do I do?”

“You’re going to go with the soldiers, and convince the prisoners that they’re being brought to safety. They’ve become accustomed to the trickle of love they can harvest from guards and visitors. Show them we have more.” He reached into his desk, removing a jar. It glowed bright green, completely filled. She recognized it well, since she’d had to fill one of these herself. So far, there’d been no consequence to her not returning to do so again.

“That sounds easy,” Harlequin said. “Good, even. I just have to go up there and… tell them how safe it is? Share this love with them?”

“That’s the idea,” Hydrus said. “Tell them how safe it is, how much better off they’ll be, and then let the guards get them down here. You’ll be in disguise the whole time, so make sure you stay with the guards.” He leaned across the table suddenly, expression intense. “It’s very important you stay with the pony guards at all times, is that clear?”

She nodded. “Why? They’re part of the swarm too, aren’t they? Are you afraid they’d…?” But she didn’t even finish.

Hydrus vanished from his side of the table, shoving her up against one wall. He was still taller than she was, and much stronger. Whatever emotion he’d been hiding before, it was coming out now. “They’ve been slowly losing their minds over the last two months. Have you seen what that looks like? No, of course you haven’t, you didn’t see anything before the invasion. Well, I have. Chrysalis used to do it to bugs who’d failed her, or were disloyal. Lock them away until they starved.”

He let go, turning towards the window and looking down through the slime into the dimly lit burrow. “The longer you go without food, the more the mind cannibalizes itself. Everything you’ve achieved in understanding the world goes backwards. You forget who you were, forget what you knew, eventually forget your name. Once that happens… you’re worse than a drone. I’ve never seen a bug come back from it.”

He met her eyes again, and she could feel his powerful worry for her safety. It wasn’t affectionate, wasn’t genuine the way she’d felt from Apple Cinnamon or Lord Irongate. Hydrus worried for her because of entirely selfish reasons, he didn’t want to lose a valuable tool.

He’s not betraying me. I’m too useful. The more she understood, the more she felt like everything in the world around her was becoming dangerous. “You think the guards can contain them?”

“Yes,” he answered. “Those bugs are the Queen’s most important, or they were. Her Obsidian court, her leaders. We need to separate the ones who have escaped with their sanity intact from those who haven’t—but that won’t be your job, it will be mine. Just get them here, Harlequin. Once we have our smartest bugs returned to us, what the swarm can do will be greatly expanded. We’ll only be missing a queen.”

She nodded. “Right away.” She made to leave, but Hydrus stopped her in the doorway. “I suggest playing that same unicorn you did last time. Every time you’re seen in the same body, you strengthen that body’s credibility. Ponies expect it to be real.”

He waited for her to change before he finally moved out of the way. “Good luck, Harlequin. Make it back alive, please. I wasn’t lying when I called you the most capable bug I have.”

I won’t be when I’m done with this mission, she realized. Accomplishing this would turn her from a vital bug in the colony to someone who could slip through the cracks. But maybe that was for the best. If she wasn’t so important, maybe she could go out on her own, harvest her own love for the drones. Visit Lord Irongate, maybe…

She stopped in the makeshift classroom on her way out, poking her head in to watch Codex with the harvesters. The space was cramped and uncomfortable by pony standards, with a low ceiling and little floorspace. Half the bugs clung to the walls to listen to him, with Codex and the blackboard the only things that had space on the ground.

He stopped his explanation of “tea etiquette” for a moment, hurrying over to the doorway. “Harlequin? What are you doing up here?”

“Not that,” she said, wrinkling her nose at what he was thinking. “Though I don’t see why you would care.”

“No reason,” he lied, looking quickly away. “Another mission then?”

She nodded. She wanted to tell him—but there were guards everywhere. Hydrus wouldn’t approve. “Not hurting anyone,” she said instead. “A rescue.”

“Good.” He patted her once on the shoulder. “Be safe out there.”

Harlequin blinked, staring at his retreating back as he turned away. A few faint drops of his concern for her slipped down her throat, tasting of warm hearths on snowy mornings.

She left a few moments later, before any other bug could notice her shock.

Chapter 38: Shattered

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Harlequin followed Hydrus’s instructions about her disguise, though she didn’t really need them. There was no way she would travel across Canterlot without making herself look like a pony first.

She found the carriage parked beside the complex, and this time there was no missing the huge mark plastered along its side. It wasn’t the only one, either. She wondered briefly what had changed Blueblood’s mind about being seen, at least until she bothered to look down the street.

There were hundreds of ponies wearing that same mark—on sashes, shirts, hats. A massive metal bin as big as a building itself had been used to block the street, and a huge crew of ponies was hard at work making the finishing touches to a large warehouse. It looked mostly unfinished, though the basic structure was in place and the walls of steady wood were thick enough that even an earth pony probably couldn’t crack them.

Harlequin knew little about them, though she had seen ponies going in and out of them more than once. There were shops in there, and she was pretty sure some ponies lived on the top floors.

Not anymore.

Harlequin climbed into the carriage, and she hadn’t even got her back legs in before they started to move.

“About time. We’ve got a difficult day ahead, and it won’t be made easier with your delays.”

“Of course.” She lowered her head submissively. The unicorn didn’t frighten her the way a smaller Harlequin might’ve been frightened, but it still seemed like the right thing to do. It was what Hydrus did for Blueblood, and he was the master at this. “You’re our Nightmare goat?”

“I have… no idea what that means,” she answered, settling across the carriage. The pony glowered at her as she sat, almost as though she expected her to stand awkwardly in the aisle for the entire trip. But Harlequin wasn’t that committed to being afraid.

“It means you’re going to make sure the bugs don’t cause trouble,” she said, filling the air with frustration and indignation in equal measure. This pony hated that she’d been given this job. I just felt more love from a changeling.

Well, that was what she remembered. She was obviously wrong, somehow. Bugs couldn’t share love, that just wasn’t how it worked. It was just what happened when she shared so much of her supply. She was getting hungry again, that was it.

“Yes,” Harlequin agreed. “Hydrus said I’m supposed to help you bring them down here to the new prison.”

“The ones we can salvage,” she repeated, looking away. “I’ve been in that prison, and I have a realistic idea of our ability to find anything useful there. But we’re here to make a new world together. Your master, my employer. We can engage in functional cooperation even when we find each other detestable, can we not?”

Detestable. Harlequin hadn’t even recognized the emotion until Marquesa put a name to it. She wasn’t just afraid of her, she was actively disgusted to be near her. It was the same feeling Harlequin might have for an old cocoon left in the sun for a few days, or the refuse pile at the corner of a hive.

“I can work with anyone,” Harlequin answered reflexively, her tone flat. “We’re making a better world for my kind. One where we can live in the same city as yours. That seems worthwhile to me.”

Marquesa rolled her eyes. “You better not be bloody telling me that Hydrus sent me some kind of… idealist. How in Celestia’s name do you even get anything done in that hole?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, though. She turned away from Harlequin suddenly as they reached something outside the carriage, something Harlequin could see through her window.

There was a gathering of ponies there, packed in tight military rank and file. Harlequin’s confidence faded instantly as her memory filled with images taken from tiny eyes high above this city, where ponies in gold armor defended their homes from an army that shouldn’t be there.

But the crossbow bolts didn’t fly around her, killing dozens of her brothers and sisters while they were nameless. They didn’t even see her.

“If you have some kind of attack in front of me, I’m going to throw you out into the street.”

Harlequin blinked, straightened her posture, then looked back out. “Apologies,” she said, imitating the tone Blueblood had used. Then she looked again.

Most of them weren’t the guards in gold armor, but burly ponies with rusty metal instead, and sashes across their chests with the sun and pillar. House guards. Irongate’s house had similar guards, though far fewer.

Blueblood has his own army.

Marquesa leaned out past her, shoving the door open for a moment. “Captain Fortnight, is your company prepared?” Past the marshaled soldiers, citizens looked on with confusion. Harlequin could sense their worry, rising as they saw the armed soldiers, then fading again once they saw the golden armor around them. The house guards outnumbered the City Watch ten to one, but their presence still reassured them.

You’re wondering if your city is being invaded again. So am I.

“We would’ve been ready two hours ago on schedule, if it wasn’t for the city auxiliary.” A pegasus emerged from the crowd, pulling off his helmet. He was a pink pegasus, with a black streak of a mane that was shaved almost to nothing. Fortnight, apparently. “We’re ready, ma’am.”

“Then lead on,” she said. “Time to clean the castle dungeons.”

“Crimson Guard!” he roared, pulling on his helmet and taking to the air ahead of them. Every soldier in dull metal armor straightened, raising weapons over their shoulders. Their movements were more precise than Harlequin had ever seen from the watch. “Left-pace!” They spun together, somehow keeping their perfect lines, just facing towards the back road leading to the upper city. “Trot-march!”

Harlequin felt almost as little from them as she would’ve from an army of drones. They seemed to move even more in sync than the drones might. Only a slight edge of anticipation tinged the air around them, mixed with fear from their companions.

The City-Watch ponies followed in a disorderly mob, and Harlequin could see why. These were mostly recruits, so much so that she even made out a few familiar faces. Apple Cinnamon, what are you doing here?

She watched him through the glass, trying to get a sense of what he might be feeling in the crowd of so many. Was that… guilt? Hope? I bet he volunteered for this. He wants to see if I’m okay.

She would have to tell him, somehow.

They marched like that all the way to the upper city, stopping once or twice for the beleaguered City Watch to keep up. Harlequin felt their satisfaction grow a little each time, and the embarrassment and resentment of the City Watch grow in equal measure.

Even if the crowd of citizens wasn’t following from the lower city, there were plenty of ordinary ponies here to see. Traffic stopped as they approached, and Harlequin could catch a little of their fear. Of what the army was going to do, or maybe the army itself? She couldn’t tell.

She knew where they’d be going—past Canterlot Castle’s glorious front entrance, and around to the back where there was a squat stone fortification of perfectly regular blocks. There were no tourists here today, or in the gardens all around it. The whole area had been emptied.

They waited for a moment, watching as house guards poured into the double doors, forming a dense circle around the entrance. Even as she watched, another carriage pulled up, this one filled with identical wooden crates. She watched a pony empty them out, opening the first.

Fortnight landed beside it, yanking it open. “Crossbows, line up. Remember, aim for the wings. If one bug flies out of this, you’re bucked. It is better to kill than to risk an escape. If you see any suspicious behavior, you will shoot.”

Harlequin shrunk down into her seat, removing the glowing jar from where it was tucked into her satchel. The warmth of the love inside gave her no comfort, however. It tasted hollow even through the glass, compared to what she’d eaten lately.

Finally, Fortnight approached their carriage, knocking once on the wood. “Do we have our goat?”

“Get out there,” Marquesa said. “Tell them not to do anything stupid, please. I’m going to have enough paperwork after today.”

Harlequin slipped the jar away, then clambered out. The armored pegasus towered over her, as thick as two bugs. He had a crossbow on his back, and wings.

He squinted down at her, removing his helmet and holding it under one leg. “Is that supposed to fool me?”

She met his eyes, glaring. “No.”

“Good.” He started walking towards the double doors, forcing her to hurry to keep up with him. “You’re going to go in there and tell them they’re being moved. You tell them there’s food where they’re going, tell them whatever the buck you want to tell them so long as they cooperate.” Unlike Marquesa, he wasn’t disgusted by her. She could feel almost nothing for her. Almost. This still wasn’t a bug.

Harlequin passed through the doors, down the same hallways she’d once been sent to guard. It felt like so long ago, like she’d been a different bug then. But she still remembered the way. Changelings had good memories.

There were no opportunities for mistakes, in any case. Hallways had been blocked up from one end to the other, and any passage that didn’t lead directly to the prison was either sealed or guarded. Nothing that would’ve made a difference against the Swarm fighting together—together they could’ve seen the whole battlefield, and dismantled any barricade. But the Swarm was dead.

Harlequin reached the final set of doors, and a set of nervous-looking house guards. They backed away from her as she approached, holding spears out towards her. “We know what you are,” one of them said. “Go on. Do whatever you’re going to do. Make it quick.”

Harlequin walked around them, keeping out of reach of their spears. She knew incompetence when she saw it. As a matter of fact… “Get out,” she said. “And give me the keys. I’ll take care of this.”

She imitated Fortnight’s tone almost perfectly—enough that one of them actually dropped his spear. The other was a little more disciplined, and he tossed her the keys. “You know what they’ll do to you if you try to escape, right?”

“We’ll all die, I’m sure,” she said. “We have no reason to escape. I’ll make them see.”

That was apparently satisfying, because the two of them did nothing more than trot-march to get out of her way.

She passed through the final doors, then down the ramp into the prison.

The first thing that hit her was the smell, like bugs who hadn’t washed or molted in weeks too long. There was an unhealthy mildew to the place, and more than one of them had mold-spots on their coats. It was what happened when a bug didn’t have the energy to molt. She could feel the agony from them.

Harlequin felt eyes on her as she stepped into the room. There were far fewer eyes in here this time. She didn’t want to know what had happened to the others, but she could guess.

Hydrus had been right about the madness too. She felt their wild, unfocused attention, very much like the drones she taught below the hive. They watched her because she was something new, though there was no expectation in them that anything good would come of it.

She walked along the cages all the way to the end, where the pit that emptied into the lower dungeons was located. She had half a mind to let them all loose into it, flipping the magical lever so they could escape. Fortnight and his army were obviously not beholden to Hydrus. Could she really trust her kind to their mercy?

I don’t have a choice. The drones still in the tunnels down there will tear these weak bugs apart.

Harlequin stopped at the end of the hall, changing back into herself. Magic melted away the disguise, and instantly every bug in the room focused on her. Bugs that were too weak to move at least sat up, while many others rose from their dozing to stare.

These were the noble and great of her swarm, or they had been. Now they were barely alive and mostly starved. “Every bug on your hooves,” she instructed. “We’re leaving.”

Chapter 39: Containment

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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.”

Chapter 40: True Queen

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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.”

Chapter 41: Desperate

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Harlequin stared up at the flames, trying to block the screams from her mind. All the comfortable platitudes about how changelings couldn’t feel real emotions, that she would never be prey—all that was shattered now by the agony she felt. But what could she do? There were no convenient water towers to knock over, no storms she could summon to put out the flames.

Even if she could appear in Celestia’s court right now and beg for her help, the princess of Equestria would probably be pleased that those who had killed so many of her own were seeing justice in its own way. There were sirens sounding in the distance, calls of “Fire Patrol, out of the way!” But one look down the street told her they’d never make it in time. The retreating army wasn’t moving, permitting only a single wagon to squeeze through at a grub’s pace.

“I taste your pain,” Hydrus said, spinning to face her. “It is needless, Harlequin. The agony you feel is only the product of ignorance. Trust that you are serving the swarm faithfully, and be content.”

Harlequin nodded. She couldn’t have lied to Hydrus, and she didn’t even try. Besides, she couldn’t just be told not to hurt anymore. She hurt, and badly. “I need… to think, Hydrus. They trusted… and now this. I need space.”

Hydrus faced her, his horn glowing faintly. “Take what time you need. If you leave, pick a convincing disguise. I will not forgive disloyalty from you, bug. But I’m certain those worries are in vain, aren’t they? You have too many bugs depending on you in the hive below. Codex, Thorax… you fancy yourself a growing queen, don’t you? Your own little buzzing royal consorts.”

He vanished, reappearing inches from her, his fangs bared and his eyes intense. “You can’t ever be a queen, Harlequin. You’re a drone, you’re sterile. No royal jelly, no eggs, no challenge to the Swarm’s king. We have enough drones stored under there for a century if we keep our numbers down—and we will.”

He let her go—not violently, just stepped back. Worst of all, there was genuine compassion from him. He really didn’t want her to be guilty. But because he cares about my pain? Or because he doesn’t want to lose a tool? “You’ve earned a break. But remember the bugs who depend on you. Without you here, they might starve. I know you don’t want that.”

Harlequin couldn’t stand to be near him for another second. She concentrated, then suddenly she was a pegasus. It wasn’t her best work—she was copying one of the fire ponies down below. She didn’t care.

She took off in a blur of feathers, turning out over the city, then off the cliff from Canterlot. She expected an escort of royal guards to join her, firing crossbows until she fell in a trail of green blood—but none came. There were no ponies following her at all in fact, not even a less-than-covert changeling tail.

For a few minutes she didn’t even think about where she flew—she just wanted to be away from Canterlot. But no matter how far she went, the smell of woodsmoke and burned flesh was never far behind. She couldn’t outrun her sin.

Harlequin neared delirium in her flight, and after a time she thought another creature glided beside her. Her wings were vast, trailing silver thread through the air as she flew. She never flapped, and whenever Harlequin turned to look directly, the shape was gone. Yet she could imagine the voice, and see the creature so long as she didn’t try to look. The growing gloom of nightfall made it easier.

“They would have rejected. The end is well.”

She wasn’t sure what that meant—or maybe she just didn’t want to think about it, and hate this other creature that had dogged her thoughts since she first woke.

I wish I was just one of the drones, she thought, bitterly. I would be in pain, but I wouldn’t understand it. I wouldn’t resent it. I wouldn’t hurt so badly.

Her companion didn’t touch her, yet a thin cord around her neck seemed to yank her slightly to the left, changing her course from a senseless spiral into nowhere towards a more familiar destination. Ponyville. She’d already flown for so long that she’d passed most of the town, though she was now in the right place to approach it from the other direction, soaring over its remote orchards and farms. Irongate.

“Hydrus is a blunt instrument, and his usefulness is nearly done. You would make a much better queen.”

“Go away,” she whispered, bitter. “The ponies already want us dead. Why would Hydrus help?”

“All creatures have been buying power with lives. His exchange was fiercely bartered, but he did not lie. The dead would have retaken the swarm for themselves, and been impossible to resist. You would be nothing to them, and Hydrus himself would be punished. You might have died with him.”

Was that supposed to make it hurt less?

At least the plantation was finally coming into view. She recognized the fences from the air. On the second floor, the lights in Lord Irongate’s study were already glowing. Is he here? Please be here!

“I am not finished with you, Harlequin. You are chosen for a purpose. You will carry it out.”

“What?” she asked, glancing wildly around her. “I just got bugs killed for no reason. I thought I was being clever, but everything I do just makes things worse.”

“Put them back in the story,” she said. “There’s thread enough for all. Weave yourselves back, give your names to fate.”

She slowed a little in her flight, squinting down at the guards. Most of them were earth ponies, but if she was actually seen breaking into this place, it would raise awkward questions. Even thinking she would probably be welcome…

But she was a changeling, and they were earth ponies. Their mistake was always to see only the two dimensions around them, and ignore the gloom gathering above.

She glided down onto the balcony, then changed as quickly as she could. Passion burned in her chest, but just below the surface was a deep well of exhaustion, threatening to rise up and consume her at any moment.

She resisted for long enough to change back into the earth pony heiress, then knocked lightly on the glass balcony door. Nevermind that there was no way for her to have reached this point.

A confused voice sounded from within, too muffled to judge. Something ruffled around, and the blinds slid suddenly out of the way.

A single pair of insect eyes peered out at her from inside, just worried enough for her to sense. She waved, though she didn’t have the energy to smile. “Hey, uh… could you let me in, please? I’d be…” What was she even supposed to say?

Nothing was needed. The door swung open, and a bug watched her with a confused and slightly relieved expression.

Silver Smith was a little smaller than she was. More importantly, he was also completely useless as a bug. He still used his hooves on the door, instead of his horn. “I didn’t think I’d see you again so soon, Harlequin.”

He shut the door quickly, lowering the blinds. His study was more or less the way she remembered, though there were some rail maps prominently on one wall. Their contents didn’t look the same as the ones she’d brought to Blueblood. So maybe something good would still come out of her nightmare. Two things. Silver is still alive.

“I didn’t expect to make a…” She whimpered, shaking her head. Whatever she’d been about to say dissolved into blind panic as she saw that they weren’t alone.

Not a royal guard with a dagger at her throat, though the next worse thing. It was Lacework, casually cleaning the desk. The steward watched her with mild interest, her eyes barely even seeing the master of her house.

“Uh…” She whimpered. “Silver, I think you…”

“You think my secret is revealed and I should be terrified beyond reason,” he said. “What do you say to that, Lacework?”

The pony looked up, tossing a soiled cloth into a bin. “I think that would be premature under the circumstances.”

“I quite agree.” Silver paced back around to the now-clean desk, settling down behind it. “Lacework, this is the one who saved my life. I’m sure she’s torn with guilt over manipulating you during her visit.”

Harlequin wasn’t sure what else to do—she let her disguise fade in a flash of green magic, waiting for the wave of anger and revulsion.

It didn’t come. Lacework couldn’t pretend for her—she was clearly an ordinary pony, and she really wasn’t afraid of her. There was only a little disorientation when she first used her magic, and that was all. “I’d prefer you not feel any guilt over the deception, if you can manage it. Your presence saved the leader of a family mine has been dutifully serving for many generations.”

“I’m…” She looked away. It was precisely a pony sort of thing to do, thinking that she might be guilty over telling a lie. She was too busy hearing the screams to care about some words. But she could lie now. “Thank you, Lacework.” She turned back. “How many ponies know about you, Silver?”

“Just her,” Silver said. “My daughter probably would, if I thought she cared if I lived or died.” He sighed, then lifted a tiny cup of tea from the desk. “I shouldn’t burden you with this discussion, Harlequin. I imagine you’ve come for something important.”

She nearly lost all her strength right there. She’d come so far—while the sun still shone, she’d been liberating the most powerful changelings from their prison. Now they were dead, and it was her fault.

She whimpered, and started to cry. She fought it valiantly, leaning up against a bookshelf, wiping her eyes with the back of a leg. Her wings buzzed together with her distress, and she could only manage to squeeze out a few words. “I, uh… I came… nowhere… nopony… else to ask.”

“I see.” There was only sympathy in Silver’s voice. “Lacework, if you wouldn’t mind a bit of privacy.”

“Of course, sir.” She turned to go, taking the tray in her magic. “Will you be needing me again this evening?”

“No, Lacework. Thank you.”

Lacework bowed, making for the door. “If that changes, don’t hesitate to ring for me. I’ll make sure you aren’t interrupted by unexpected visitors.”

But Harlequin barely saw.

Silver settled down on an armchair nearby, close enough to watch her without being too close. He waited for her to look up to say anything. “You know—I’m ignorant about these things. But if my daughter came to me doing what you’re doing now, I’d say the thing she needed most was a hug. Do changelings do hugs?”

“N-not… not really,” she stammered.

“I think I see your problem then,” Silver said, spreading his forelegs. “You’ll feel better, Harlequin. Whatever it is that’s bothering you.”

He was right—she did feel better. The gratitude he felt for her had only strengthened with time, strong enough that she might not have known he wasn’t a pony, if she couldn’t feel the holes in his legs.

More than that, this was a creature who didn’t depend on her. She wasn’t feeding him, he didn’t need to teach her how to think. And he wasn’t trying to trick her into killing ponies.

For the first time in her life—or at least as long as she’d been awake enough to feel anything at all, Harlequin felt safe.

“Silver,” she said, her voice quivering. “I, uh… I need to ask for some advice. I just saw…”

She told him everything. It took much longer than it had to, considering her complete lack of emotional control. But he listened, letting her ramble as long as it took to explain everything.

It felt good.

Chapter 42: Insanity

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There hadn’t been much time to recover from what she had seen. But Harlequin spoke anyway, relieved that there was anyone she could tell. Hydrus’s last words boiled in the back of her mind, the reminder that those she cared about were at the mercy of his indulgence. If he thought she was betraying his swarm, then both of them might be the next to burn.

Eventually there was nothing left to say. She slumped onto the couch, exhausted. She wasn’t even really sure she expected Silver to have anything like advice: she just wanted to tell someone.

She dozed there in the gloom, her mind drifting to the spectral land of golden phantoms. Not dreams, as the being there so often reminded her. Dreams were for creatures with a story, and she had none. Instead of the mind of the Swarm, she was alone.

“You’ve come so far, Harlequin,” it said. “All the pieces are almost in place. You’ve toppled a rook, a knight, and many pawns. All that’s waiting is the king.”

She woke, feeling a blanket wrapped around her shoulder. She looked up, eyes wide with panic—but it was still night. A full night’s sleep for a changeling was never long.

“I thought you needed some time to rest,” said a voice from the other side of the room. Silver Smith, of course, sitting at the desk surrounded by books. “You gave me a little time to think about what you said. This new… independence from tiredness truly is remarkable, by the way.”

She sat up, shaking out the blanket. “Thanks.” She did feel better, though the guilt was still there. It had scabbed over, and the force holding her together was a feeble one. “Did you think of anything I could do?”

“Nothing you’ll like.” He closed the book in front of him with a snap, and obvious concentration. His horn glowed for a few seconds, and he looked immensely proud of himself. “You’ll be unsurprised to hear that there’s no easy solution to this. From the sound of it, your creatures are ruled by an evil tyrant. He sacrificed dozens of them because he thought they were a threat to his rule. Monsters who value rulership more than the ones they rule often make decisions like this. No matter what he says, this act won’t be his only one. Anytime he thinks he can solve a problem with blood, he’ll try.”

“I… yeah.” She nodded weakly. “Hydrus is a monster. He doesn’t feed the drones enough either. If I hadn’t started taking over, they’d be starving. It’s… the worst way to die. Withering away until there’s nothing left. I saw what happened to some of those bugs.”

“So he needs to go,” Silver finished. “A hostile takeover is the only option, given what he did just now. Power would’ve peacefully changed hooves, and he refused to give it up. You will have to take it.”

She whimpered, staring down at her hooves. It wasn’t that she was afraid of fighting—Harlequin’s last knowledge from the Swarm was in combat. But Hydrus had the Swarm too, for many years longer than she. He seemed to understand magic in a way that was only just now opening to her. And he could read.

“I don’t know if I can. He has all that love… For changelings like us, love is power. It’s how we can win against ponies that have way stronger magic than we do. A pony only has so much magic in them at once—but we can use all of it. If he thought I was a real threat to him, he could turn me into a crater. Maybe the whole colony with me.”

Silver winced, nodding gravely. “I heard that your—our… no, let’s go with ‘the previous’ changeling queen. I wasn’t at court that day, but I have a friend who was in the audience for the wedding. The queen defeated Celestia herself in single combat. I imagine you’ve just explained how this is possible.”

Harlequin nodded again. “I don’t think Hydrus could beat her. Once they really started fighting us, Princess Cadance basically ended our civilization with one spell. No more Swarm… we’ve been broken ever since. But if I fought him, I’d be way worse off than Celestia. I wouldn’t get captured, I’d get… melted.”

Silver rose from the desk, circling around past the bookshelf to an ancient-looking painting, framed in dark wood. It depicted the day and night, polarized with a single moment connecting them over an older, smaller version of Canterlot Castle. “Then you will like my advice even less. I’m sure you’ll ignore it, and I won’t take offense. I know how it will probably sound to one who has done nothing but fear us her entire life. The things you saw from Equestria after the war ended, you were right to fear. But if I were in your hooves, your leader’s actions would give me no choice.”

He hovered, gesturing at the oversized version of Celestia’s cutie mark in the air. “There’s only one creature in the world that can help your hive. With Celestia’s help, maybe you can stop Hydrus from getting everypony killed. Without her… it will just be one nightmare after another.”

He was right about one thing: she didn’t like the idea.

Harlequin backed away, her wings buzzing again in agitation. She turned instinctively towards the window, though of course she couldn’t use it. She didn’t try. “What do you think…” She was looking at another bug, one who’d been kind to her. One who she knew felt nothing but loyalty towards her. This isn’t an attack. He isn’t trying to trick me. He really believes this.

She took a deep breath, clearing her mind as much as she could before daring to speak. “I don’t know what Celestia could do for me, Silver. She hates us. She cared so little about bugs she didn’t bother to see if we could eat the food. She sold the prison contract to a noble pony who helped burn us to death the same day he got it.”

“Exactly!” Silver crossed the distance between them in a few quick strides, getting a little more energetic. “Harlequin, I know this is hard for you to accept—but my family is in the court. I’ve watched her rule of Equestria for thirty years. I’ve seen Princess Celestia do the best she could for everypony in her kingdom. She even rehabilitated Nightmare Moon, letting her sister return to power. She’s not above forgiveness.

“More importantly, I think she’s going to be furious about this accident. Perhaps it was foolish of her to assume that all creatures could eat the same food. But forgive her that mistake, and realize that the disaster you suffered is one that will prime her to intervene. I can get you into the court. We can go together, and with my help, she’ll listen to you.”

Harlequin stopped, considering that. Any fear this might be a trap faded with those words. “If you go into the castle with me… Silver, you know the danger you’ll be in. She’ll see I’m a changeling, she’ll suspect you are too. I’ve already seen one pony stolen from his family because Equestria didn’t believe that I could make a bug out of a pony. They won’t believe you either, and you’ll end up in prison with me to face Hydrus’s wrath.”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve been anxiously engaged in this cause since you first changed me. Every secret is a fleeting thing—my company succeeds because we openly provide the best transportation to everypony, not because we plot and manipulate them.” He shrugged. “If every strategy I have employed ends in failure, I will not mourn it. My life in exchange for the creatures who saved me—it’s a hard bargain, but fair.”

Harlequin nearly cried again. He couldn’t hide his honesty from her. He really was willing to die, if it came down to that. Those words carried magic more powerful than anything Hydrus’s workers could harvest in the brothel. Not enough to win a fight against him, but… it was something. You’re wrong too, voice. Who said we can’t have our own stories?

“That’s all you think it would take?” she asked. “We visit the court, and you introduce me to Celestia? Then I explain what’s going on, and she fights Hydrus?”

“Well…” Silver finally looked away. “Maybe not that easy. I could get you time at court, but there are other ponies in attendance. I think you’re familiar with one of those who holds the most influence there—Blueblood. Ousting Hydrus would destroy a powerful ally of his, and put his power at risk. He will do everything within his ability to stop you. We might both not survive it. But whose lives matter more: yours, or every other bug?”

She shivered at the heady flavor of that love. Even the faint echo a changeling could produce was momentarily overwhelming. He actually meant it. It was what the mindless drones did for the swarm, only with individuality and intelligence. Knowing they might die. Could she feel that much love for another creature?

“He might kill my friends,” Harlequin whispered. “He has… hostages. A professor named Codex, and a bug who helped me when I was young, Thorax. If he finds out what I’ve done before Celestia gets there. Am I allowed to make a decision that might put them at risk?”

Silver shook his head. “You aren’t the one making that decision. You aren’t responsible for the evil done by others, Harlequin. His hoof has the knife. And if it’s a barter, then it’s still four lives against all of them. Grisly mathematics, but scarcity usually is.”

It wasn’t much of a plan. But there weren’t many other choices. Either she could fly back to the swarm and be complicit in their evil, or she could fight, and risk a few lives to stop Hydrus from killing any more.

Pharynx loved the other bugs too. He was in the warehouse when it burned because of me. So were all those others.

“I guess…” This wasn’t much of a choice, but who else was there to make it? Queen Chrysalis was the one who should be caring for the Swarm, and she’d abandoned them long ago. Somepony had to do something. “I’ll do it. We can do it. If you’re willing to get me in.”

He met her eyes, nodding gravely. “I’m glad you didn’t make that decision lightly. But I think it’s the right choice. For you, for me… for every changeling who lasted this long.”

“How, uh… how quickly can we do it? If I stay away for very long, Hydrus is going to think I betrayed him already. The quicker this goes, I think the better our chances.”

Silver nodded. “You’ll have to impersonate my daughter again if we’re going to make the visit unannounced. I should be able to call in a favor or two to get some time on the floor. There are some risks, of course. You were sent to impersonate her once before, so that route does eliminate any chance our enemies won’t realize what you’re doing.”

“They don’t know you’re a bug too,” Harlequin said. “If anyone dies today, it will be me. So many others already did… it’s only fair if I join them. Just get me through the door.” She rose to her full height, silencing him suddenly with a wing. “No, I’m not going to argue with you. I don’t care what I’ve done for you. At least if you live, you can survive to spite that awful family for what they tried to do. If it goes badly, you’re going to sell me out. Tell them all the ways I manipulated you, and renounce me. Are we clear?”

Silver Smith’s expression twisted in rebellion, and a battle raged just under the surface. Harlequin stared imperiously at him, until obedience won out over everything else. “As you say,” he muttered. “But I don’t think it will be necessary, you’ll see. Princess Celestia will help us.”

Or we’re all dead.

Chapter 43: Assembly

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Harlequin pulled the fancy dress closer about her collar, conscious every moment of its many overlapping layers. This was nothing like the cheap substitute that Blueblood had found for her, which did a passable imitation of being expensive, but he hadn’t even cared about not getting it back. But all the fancy overlapping layers and deep red fabric could do nothing to make her feel more confident about the outcome.

At least this time she wasn’t leading an army up to the castle. They had no soldiers at all this time, only the house servants pulling the carriage. And we’re both bugs this time. One wrong spell, and I ruin the life I saved.

Worse thoughts billowed just under the surface—whether Hydrus would really murder Thorax and Codex to fight her. Even if the threat had been mostly a reminder to stop her from running away, she would give him every opportunity now. Once I do this, it’s war. Only one bug left standing. If that. There was still a decent chance Celestia would just burn her to ash and let the bugs keep doing what they were doing.

“Do you think she even cared enough to know what was happening to us?” Harlequin asked, her voice low and nervous. They were most of the way through the city now, with the tall castle walls in the distance. This was where the invasion had begun, and it might be where it finally ended. “Changelings were captive for… at least two months. I can’t imagine how she could not know, unless she didn’t care.”

Silver Smith glanced briefly at the window, as though checking to see if someone was flying alongside the cart while they spoke. Nopony was, obviously. They had received no more investigation than any other well-appointed carriage rolling through the city. There was a small chance they’d run into the real Brass Bell, but Silver seemed certain that wouldn’t happen in the court.

“A ruler like Celestia has many factors on her mind. It isn’t even just the one world anymore, and you aren’t the only threat to Equestria even in this one. For the sake of our plan, we have to hope that she gave the task to somepony else, whom she trusted… and who lied. That’s the trouble with sitting in positions of power. Creatures often go out of their way to serve, providing what they believe we want, often without knowing what it is. Maybe somepony thought that starving you was the fastest way to deal with the threat. Maybe they lost loved ones in the invasion and they’re getting their revenge… we don’t know. But what I do know is that Princess Celestia is a just, understanding ruler. Even if she hates changelings, she won’t want to see you slaughtered. That wouldn’t be right.”

“None of those words was merciful…” But she wasn’t really expecting it to be, either. The bugs hadn’t been set free, even the drones too foolish to know what they’d been doing.

They reached the castle gatehouse, where a pair of ponies in gold armor stood at attention. Harlequin glanced to the window, then immediately froze as she saw the pony approaching from the side.

Apple Cinnamon pushed the door open, glancing inside at the two of them. Then he saw her, and he seized up for just a moment.

Lord Irongate cleared his throat, scooting to the side just a bit. “Is there something wrong, officer? Something… with my daughter, perhaps?” He thrust a scroll towards Apple Cinnamon, fine parchment with golden tassels and the princess’s own cutie mark pressed into the seal. “We have writ of passage to all official functions. Court will be in session soon, unless I’m mistaken.”

“O-of course.” Apple Cinnamon took the scroll, opening it. “You must be… Lord and Lady Irongate.” He passed it back. “Enjoy your time at the castle. You should know that, after the…” His expression fell, and anger briefly surfaced there. He’d never been good at hiding his emotions. “After yesterday, the castle is on alert. Not even ceremonial weapons are permitted inside until things calm down.”

“We’ve got none, son,” Silver said, gesturing once at the empty carriage with them. “Just earth ponies, like yourself. No swords, no hidden spells.”

“Yes.” He looked around, even glancing up at the ceiling and tapping it with a hoof. “I mean no offence, Lord.”

Silver shrugged, settling back into his seat. “None taken, soldier. Thank you for zealously performing your duty.”

They rolled along, though not much further. There was a lot set aside, and a dozen or so other carriages just like theirs were already parked here. The servants who pulled them were off already—they wouldn’t be needed again until court ended, after all.

“Showtime,” Silver said. “We’re second on the agenda, so we’ll want to hurry.”

She followed him from the carriage, then up the sweeping steps into the castle’s front gate. Harlequin had never been here—never been anywhere close. But she knew where they were standing, knew its terrible significance. Here was where they had triumphed, and where the promises of the Queen had crumbled to ash in their mouths.

Just a little further, Harlequin. We’re almost done.

She settled in behind Silver Smith, doing her best impression of bored and a little intimidated. So long as ponies never employed changeling guards, they’d never be able to tell one trying to enter, not without another massive barrier to keep everything out. They hadn’t rebuilt that spell now that the wedding was over, and their enemy was inside the city with them.

Harlequin didn’t even need to pretend to be intimidated. Every step she took she worried might be her last. At a glance she saw a dozen different guards, including Apple Cinnamon. He stole one last glance in her direction before returning to the gatehouse and his spear. Not sounding the alarm.

The front door opened as they approached, and a little fleet of servants swept them up. They took Silver’s jacket, escorted them to the master-at-arms for a formal search. Once it was clear neither of them were carrying weapons, they made their way down another hall, towards the sound of music.

“That’s the anthem,” Silver whispered—there were several ponies in the hall already, most of them looking far less formal than the two of them. Almost all of them were pegasi, with notepads ready. They lingered in the hallway here like racers on a starting line. They got out of the way as Lord Irongate approached, without so much as a word required from him. He didn’t seem to care about them, either.

The music stopped, and Silver winced. “And… no second verse. Her sister isn’t here.” From his expression, he thought that news was about as dark as she did. He didn’t say so, and neither did she. “The first speaker will have ten minutes, then us. We can… go all the way to the last door.”

The last door in the row had no messengers waiting outside it. Instead there was gold trim around the wood, and pony script set into a plaque that was even more intricate than writing usually looked. A special kind of secret hid within that carving, though she couldn’t have said what it was.

“Ready?” he asked, smiling weakly.

“No.” She froze in the hallway, her legs locking up. She nearly lost her transformation right there under the eyes of a dozen messenger-ponies, but then Silver settled a hoof on her shoulder. It wasn’t food, but he was still trying to comfort her. That was something. “Should I be?”

“Nope.” He lowered his voice, whispering into her ear. “Assume the good in Celestia. Without that, we’re doomed.”

Assume the good, she repeated, saying it over and over in her head until it lost all meaning. She didn’t have to assume the good in her own friends. Codex was wise and clever; her drones were innocent and helpful. Thorax had looked out for her, helped her during the invasion. What would the other bugs think about her when this was over?

Will you love me for helping get rid of Hydrus, or hate me for telling Celestia about our secret hive?

There was no more time to deliberate. Silver nudged her forward with a hoof, pushing the door open ahead of them.

She stepped out into a well-appointed velvet box, with dark wood and gold trim on almost everything. Deep red carpet caressed her hooves as she stepped inside, and the air was thick with the smell of a much-loved incense.

There were a dozen comfortable chairs in the box, most of which were empty.

Not all. Three near the front were taken, and they were exactly the sort of ponies she’d hoped never to see.

Prince Blueblood was there in the largest, fanciest chair, his back straight and his nose up. He was focused on the room beyond the box, on the throne not far away, and the assembly of ponies far below with their tables and uncomfortable chairs. He wore a uniform no less refined than what they did. Yet for the second he looked, she felt profound recognition.

Of course he knows. I already impersonated this pony once before. Did he guess I tricked him already?

At his side was Marquesa, the same one who had been there during the fire. You knew what he wanted to do. He was going to burn us alive, and you just watched. You might be the biggest monster in this court.

Marquesa didn’t look away as they came in, watching them intently as Silver led them to the chairs furthest from Blueblood, in the front. At the end of the booth was a little wooden gate, and a stairwell leading to the floor. From there, a red carpet went straight to the bottom of the throne.

Lastly, there was another unicorn stallion, tall and lean. His eyes watched them critically, though they seemed most intent on Harlequin. She felt it just as that pony must—that creature was an empty pit of feeling, just like she was. She wasn’t the only changeling in the box.

The parliamentary hall was a massive room, even by pony standards. There were probably a dozen boxes on their side, each one with their own well-dressed nobility packed inside. Now she knew where the “lower assembly” got its nickname, considering they were almost thirty feet below her.

The princess herself was so imposing that Harlequin nearly locked up again. Celestia was a being beyond anything she’d imagined, even after her time with the Queen. Where she sat upon her throne was bathed in perpetual sunlight, which warmed the little spring and fed the flowers and lilies all around it. There were no windows in the parliamentary hall—they didn’t need any.

Finally, a choir tucked away below them finished their refrain, and silence descended on the hall. Someone from the lower assembly rose, looked once to Blueblood for approval, then stepped up to a lectern. “We gather today for the one hundred and fifty-first session of the Solar Court, in the year of…” Harlequin stopped listening, because at that moment Blueblood’s stallion settled into the chair just behind her.

His voice was as flat as his apparent emotions. That calm was as unreal as his skin.

“I know who you are, Harlequin,” Hydrus said. “What I don’t know is why in the name of the Great Queens you would have come here.”

She didn’t turn around, didn’t look away from the proceedings below. Celestia wasn’t looking at them—she didn’t seem to really see anypony. She radiated so much light, that it blinded even her.

“Eye for talent, that’s what I always said. Now here you are, and we’re almost equals. Your own noble, your own agenda. Fascinating how these things work…”

She glanced briefly back at him. There was no dagger aimed at her back, as she’d feared. No weapons at all, only an entirely fictional smile. “Know your actions have consequences. But there are better ones. Turn around, walk out. Forget whatever you were planning, and I’ll forget you ever planned. No one has to get hurt.”

You’re lying, she thought, bitter. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?

But what did it matter?

“The assembly calls on its first speaker!” said the pony from below. Prince Blueblood rose from his seat, and strode meaningfully through the gate, then down the stairs.

Chapter 44: Princess

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Harlequin froze, utterly still as Prince Blueblood strode down the steps and up to the massive lectern. Every eye in the room followed him as he settled there, including the princess herself.

“In the matter of…” He cleared his throat. “The investigation following the… prison fire.” Blueblood spoke with utter contempt, with no more respect for what had happened than he’d used when ordering Harlequin around. You’re talking to the princess! Are you insane?

“Consider my offer,” Hydrus said, not moving from his seat. “Not just for you. Those two bugs depending on you. I haven’t forgotten about them. The swarm is mine.” He settled back in his chair, apparently unconcerned with her answer. “You may leave whenever you wish.”

He could blast me into paste if he wanted. But then the princess would see. He can’t hurt me.

Social convention was a flimsy shield, but it was something. If I leave this room, he’ll follow and kill me. She couldn’t read his mind, and his emotions seemed obvious, but she knew that as clearly as she’d ever known anything.

Princess Celestia spoke, and her voice stilled every whisper in the hall. A thousand ponies straightened, watching her. It had to be true that the prince was Celestia’s nephew, because she spoke with a disappointment that even Harlequin could feel. “I entrusted you with lives, Prince. Convicted invaders, certainly. The least deserving of our mercy, absolutely. But nonetheless requiring justice. How many died in your prison?”

He stumbled, whatever prepared remarks he’d been planning falling apart. “I, uh… they, we…” He shook his head, recovering his composure. “My investigation did not discover survivors, Princess.”

Gasps and mutters broke the silence in the hall, even from the ponies. Are there really that many of you who care if bugs die?

Celestia’s expression hardened. She didn’t move, didn’t threaten, yet somehow the warmth filling the room became less “spring day” and more “desert badlands.”

Silver Smith leaned in a little closer, apparently relishing the moment. Maybe out of concern for the dead bugs, or maybe just the satisfaction of seeing a rival punished.

“Wheels within wheels,” Hydrus whispered. Harlequin glanced behind her, and realized there wasn’t even a unicorn stallion there. Now it was a scrawny little pegasus mare, matching one of the messengers she’d passed on the way in. She even had a notebook.

“After our investigation…” Blueblood went on, though he couldn’t come close to the dignity and confidence from before. He was sweating in his fancy uniform now. “We did conclude the cause. The construction crew we hired used pine oil to seal the timber, far more than required. The prisoners… dislodged a lantern. The heat overwhelmed them far faster than they could escape.”

You’re lying, Harlequin realized. He was very good at it, because not even Celestia objected. But she could feel just how empty his words had become. Lying about what?

“I’ve already prepared a list of names for your pleasure,” Blueblood finished. “The, uh… foreman on the project, who permitted the use of so much oil. The safety inspectors who approved the building. The—” He lifted a scroll in his magic, holding half a dozen names in neat black ink.

Celestia raised a hoof, silencing him. The entire room fell silent with him, all watching. Harlequin among them. Not that she had high hopes for this. Celestia hated changelings, didn’t she? Their deaths would be a relief for her, even if she didn’t want to admit it. More than that, Blueblood was supposed to be related to her, somehow. She could put on a show of acting stern, but not much else.

The list of names vanished from beside him, reappearing in front of Celestia. She skimmed it quickly, before rolling it up again. “Surely these hold the weight of a terrible crime,” she declared. “The lives of…” she trailed off. “How many dead were there, Prince? In the ruins?”

“Sixty-five,” he said, avoiding her eyes again.

Another lie. Where before Harlequin had felt hopeless, suddenly she sat up in her seat. She had wondered before, but now—now she knew.

So did Hydrus. He hopped off his chair, scribbling something with his mouth on the sheet of paper. Even while he did it, he whispered quietly to her. “Right now, or they’re dead. You too—but slowly.”

Irongate turned to glare, expression hard as stone. He only whispered, though he did it without fear. “Get the buck out of my booth. Do I need to call a bailiff?”

Hydrus stumbled, momentarily taken aback. Finally he seemed to see Silver Smith for the first time, eyes going wide. “So you slipped out,” he whispered. “Clever, impersonating the family. There’s nowhere you can fly that I cannot reach. Maybe I misjudged you, Harlequin. Fine. So turn and fly away. Try to run—at least then I won’t have a reason to follow. Sovereignty matters more than revenge.”

He didn’t wait for a response, just slipped back out the doors and down the hall. To order Codex and Thorax killed.

A part of her really did consider flying off on her own. Her younger self might’ve done it. But now she was the reason that bugs were dead. She couldn’t run away from that, even if she made it to the other end of Equestria. It’s not just the two bugs depending on me. Every drone in the hive needs me.

She couldn’t save “S”, but there was “A”, and “V” and a dozen others. Harlequin didn’t run.

Down below, Celestia wasn’t done with Blueblood, either. “Certainly there will be a trial for every pony who neglected their duty in this case. Wouldn’t you agree, Prince Blueblood? Nothing would be more proper, more just?”

He winced, avoiding her eyes. But there was nothing for him to do but agree. “I am… of course, your servant in all things.”

“I like where this is going,” Silver whispered. “But no matter how it goes, it’ll be time for us soon. Are you ready?”

She shook her head weakly. “You didn’t tell me!”

“I’m the oldest member of our family, so I have standing. I’ll walk down there, and turn my time over to you. You’ll have… whatever’s left. And don’t give up now, because I won’t be able to do this for another year. One seat, once a year. That’s how it works.”

She swallowed, whimpering. Any moment their ruse would be discovered, or maybe Hydrus’s secret backup plan would rush in and kill them all. But so far, nothing happened.

“And, as it happens, protecting those prisoners was your duty,” Celestia went on. “There were many levels of delegation. Many ponies who failed. But at the root of it all was the pony who should have known. The pony whose hooves should have been there, to inspect all that was built personally. You should have been in that prison when it was filled. You should’ve been there to guarantee that emergency services could arrive. All these will be punished, but they don’t hold all the guilt.”

Blueblood glanced up at their box, eyes briefly lingering on her before moving on to the seats on the other side. Marquesa seemed just as confused as he was—and then Hydrus’s empty chair.

Maybe I won’t have to say anything, Harlequin thought, again seized by a fresh wave of desperate hope. Maybe Blueblood will tell them about Hydrus. They can murder each other, and I won’t have to do anything.

Blueblood finally looked back, lowering his head to the princess. Fury boiled in him, stronger than all the emotions she felt below. There was cold calculation, and planning, and a fierce desire for revenge. But all he said was, “I did all I could to ensure the safety of my prisoners, Aunt. I wished only to serve Equestria.”

Celestia waved a hoof, and at once a set of uniformed ponies appeared beneath the throne. What had Silver called them, bailiffs? This wasn’t that kind of court, was it? Ponies were so confusing!

They didn’t have to drag him out. “I turn over the balance of my time to the floor.” Blueblood stepped down from the stand with dignity, spinning and joining the bailiffs. They didn’t even walk him off to a cell somewhere—but right back up the steps, into the booth.

“Sincere apologies, Prince Blueblood,” one whispered, once he was sitting down again. “We’ve been told to escort you to house arrest when the occasion is concluded.”

Somepony below hammered a gravel. “On the matter of… railroad appropriations, we have Silver Smith, Lord of House Irongate. You have the floor for—”

Silver rose from his chair, acting firmly like the hostage situation just beside them wasn’t happening. But he didn’t even get it open.

Celestia herself rose from her seat, spreading her wings wide. The court fell silent. “I pray the good Lord Irongate will forgive my interruption and accept reassignment to another date. I wish to address the court on the matter of the changelings.”

Harlequin’s heart sank in her chest. The color seemed to fade from the world all around her. She’d done everything she could—sacrificed the lives of her friends, and for what? She wouldn’t even get to say anything.

“These terrible events must serve as a lesson for all of us. Few of you represent Canterlot, but the pain that afflicts one of us is shared by all. Even in Equestria’s remote corners, members of your families were cut off. We can’t let the evil of others define us.”

Harlequin met Silver’s eyes. There was satisfaction there, and for good reason. He felt Celestia’s sincerity, just as she did. These weren’t empty words.

“What happened in the Lower City yesterday… makes me second guess everything I have accomplished in my reign. I didn’t imagine there could be ponies so vile and heartless.

“I wish to make it clear to all of you, so that you might share my message with the ponies you represent. I will not judge any of you by the way you treat—”

Harlequin could practically feel the invisible thread trying to keep her down. She rose, and the chair jerked forward with her a little. Nothing magical at all—that was her imagination. It was just the oversized dress, not meant to be used sitting down.

Even so, the scraping attracted attention. Several nearby boxes—Blueblood himself, and even Celestia turned an eye towards her. She didn’t stop.

For a single moment, Harlequin resisted the sheer, mind-bending absurdity of her plan.

Then she did it anyway. “Princess Celestia!” She shouted so loud that even Celestia stopped midsentence. Ponies turned—mostly bailiffs, by the look of it. More indignant eyes watched her than had watched Blueblood’s apparent arrest.

Celestia’s emotions were a mask, almost as convincing as a changeling. Except that when she looked, Harlequin’s senses didn’t go numb. Instead her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she nearly fell over. She squeaked, almost turned and ran. I can’t predict what she’ll do. Here was one being with self-control so perfect that she could hide what she was feeling, if she wanted to.

A few bailiffs were already running towards her booth. But Celestia raised a wing, gesturing forward. Her face was flat. “Is this remark relevant, Lady Irongate?”

She shoved forward, stepping as far away from Silver as she could when she did. Hopefully that would insulate him from the backlash. Except that he brought me here. He’s toast either way. “It is, Princess!”

Celestia’s eyes narrowed. “And is it more important than one of the Diarchs of all Equestria addressing the elected and noble-born ponies who officiate it? Is it worth disrupting my court at such a critical time?” No mystery about her feelings. Harlequin almost melted under the sheer force of her indignance.

But all that energy could give her courage, too. Hydrus might be about to kill her friends—or maybe Celestia could save them. Maybe Silver Smith was right about the princess. She was about to find out. “Yes!” she said. “I have critical information! You’re wrong to judge your ponies for this evil! They didn’t do it!”

Three more blue-robed bailiffs reached the steps, practically clambering over one another to get to her. One already had a baton drawn—somehow, she didn’t think she’d be shown the same polite deference as Blueblood. You look so smug about it too.

Then Celestia nodded. “Then come forward, and Harmony help you if you can’t prove it.”

Chapter 45: Celestia

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Harlequin could feel the eyes of dozens of ponies pressing in on her with an almost physical weight. But of the hundreds in the room—filled with hatred, anger, and suspicion—none were more important than the pony lording over her.

Her future was in the hooves of this princess, whose kingdom her own kind had invaded. Harlequin could’ve kept her mouth closed, and lived forever in the world that Hydrus created. They were safe, and so long as she didn’t upset him too much, he probably would’ve kept her forever as his useful tool. That path was burned now, and the invisible storyteller’s whims.

She couldn’t tell if that creature would’ve approved of this course, or if she was fighting it. But Harlequin no longer cared.

Harlequin passed several armed bailiffs, then down the steps onto the floor. There she was surrounded by nobles—many familiar faces, that she’d helped contain during the invasion. Would they remember her too? She could only hope not. Celestia’s eyes were harshest of all as she made her way to the podium, then cleared her throat.

“I, um… I’m not here to talk about railroads. I’m… I have more information about the way changelings have been treated since the invasion than anypony in this room.”

Just silence, with a little disordered muttering from some ponies. She could feel their hostility like a physical force in the air. They were eager for Celestia to judge her. Like they were anticipating the next act in a show.

“First, there’s one problem at the root of everything, that I’m not sure ponies understand. Changelings do not eat pony food, except when they’re grubs. For the rest of their lives, they depend on…” How could she even explain this? “Emotional energy. Love, friendship, kindness, loyalty… every positive feeling you experience is food to a changeling. That was what brought the invasion here in the first place. Equestria was so rich in love, that their queen thought she could feed all changelings with it.”

The hall wasn’t silent anymore. Ponies muttered and called indignantly to one another from the boxes and the floor behind her. She couldn’t make out any coherent words, but she could sense their disbelief.

All except Princess Celestia, whose overwhelming power meant her feelings were stronger than them all. She had gone from planning out an appropriate punishment for Harlequin to genuine curiosity. This was not what she expected. After a few more seconds of nobles arguing, Celestia tapped her hoof on the throne with a resounding click. “Allow the mare to finish her remarks,” she said, glowering out at the crowd. “There will be time for questions, and… an appropriate response. I’m sure your curiosity and mine overlap.”

Harlequin tensed slightly but she couldn’t let nerves overwhelm her now. “This meant that the prison you created after the invasion was… a torture chamber. The bugs you kept upstairs might’ve been able to harvest a little attention from their guards and visitors, but the ones you put underground were starving. If you go down your supply-ramp, you’ll find a mountain of spoiled food at the bottom, because no bug can eat it.”

Now there was silence. The weight of her accusation rested on them—even on Celestia. Was that a flash of guilt she sensed?

“Bugs can live for, uh… longer than ponies without food, I think. But as you starve, you lose your mind, become feral and dangerous. If you do go down that ramp to check my story, make sure you go in force. The creatures down there are not changelings anymore, they’re monsters.”

“What you’re saying…” Celestia said, her tone more neutral than any of the other creatures in the room. “I’m not sure I see how this relates to the prison accident. Unless you’re implying that some in this room might be complicit in the process, and… trying to erase the evidence of this mistake.”

Was Celestia actually believing her? Or just letting her finish so she could incriminate herself? Harlequin didn’t know, but it was far too late to try and escape this. She’d committed, now it was time to see it through to the end. She’d probably end up in chains, or dead a dozen different ways. But I died on my own terms. This is my story, no matter what she says.

“Some changelings are… little more than animals. The invasion force the queen brought was mostly drones, very young changelings that haven’t matured yet. Without love, they never will. But there were some in jail who weren’t. One of these was a leader in the swarm called Hydrus. He took precautions before the invasion was over, in case it failed. Set up a…” It felt wrong to even say the word in company like this. But she didn’t have much choice.

“He set up a brothel in your lower city. It’s inside an old church, near the end of Vapor Street. I have seen many in this room visiting it, so I’m sure knowledge of it is getting around.”

If her accusations before had been loud, this was like a bomb. She was completely overwhelmed with shouts—objections of many ponies to her outrageous lies, while others started accusing each other. Their emotions probably would’ve overwhelmed a younger Harlequin, washing away whatever she was feeling in the maelstrom of true emotions. But now she didn’t care what they felt about her. She had a higher loyalty.

Besides, there was only one pony in the room she really needed to convince, and that one went from open disbelief as she said it to some complex mixture of emotions Harlequin couldn’t describe the longer ponies debated. She knows they wouldn’t have reacted like that if I lied.

It was almost two minutes before she could finally speak again. A few ponies were dragged out by bailiffs, who had gone from getting ready to arrest her to mostly keeping ponies from her. Professionals, if nothing else.

Eventually the room fell quiet again, if only with Celestia’s prompting, and she could finish her story. “The Canterlot Caverns were connected to this facility, allowing the bugs who were smart enough somewhere to live and something to eat. Those who didn’t find it in time would’ve gone feral by now, or starved to death.”

“Is this all she has to say?” asked a pony from one of the upper boxes. A stuffy mare, wearing so many frills Harlequin could barely see her face. “No evidence, no connection to the prince’s troubling case. I’m not sure she hasn’t just wasted all our time with pointless scandal.”

Celestia turned on her. “Lady Cerise makes important points, if out of turn. Do you have evidence for anything you’ve just shared with us? And more importantly, you claimed that the disaster wasn’t Blueblood’s fault. I assumed you must be a plant of his, taking the responsibility for his failures. But I see no connection.”

“He agreed to help a murderer,” Harlequin said, without thinking. “He’s an accomplice to the crime. He orchestrated it. Maybe he’s more guilty. I’m not here to defend him. But… the one who wanted those bugs dead isn’t Blueblood. It’s the leader of the surviving swarm, centered in that brothel. His name is Hydrus, and the ones who died were his… rivals.” She blinked, wiping away tears. Pharynx might’ve helped the invasion, but he also cared about his bugs in a way Hydrus never did. None of those bugs deserved to die.

“You are so close, Harlequin. You understand what it means to have a place in your own story. When Hydrus is gone, I will accept you. Be the queen they deserve.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she finished. “Not to… defend Blueblood. But to beg for help for the swarm. Bugs were starving, they didn’t have a choice. But the ones who brought them to Equestria are all dead now. They just want enough to eat, they just want to live. But if Hydrus gets his way, maybe they never will. He doesn’t care about his bugs, all he cares about is ruling the swarm. I can’t… I can’t stop him, but maybe you can.”

Finally she fell silent on the stand, slumping with the effort of what she’d just said. Incredibly stupid things. Thinking about it did not fill her with confidence about the reception she would receive. Maybe she should’ve written some noble speech, planning it for weeks. But she hadn’t known Hydrus was evil, and she still didn’t know how to read.

“These are all… interesting claims,” Celestia said. “Disturbing claims, given how many of them would be my personal responsibility. But now that you’ve had your say, the court demands to know how you know so much. Our own magical experts have told us nothing useful about changelings since the invasion, yet you are the… daughter of a railroader. By reputation, you should have nothing useful to say in this court. Why should we believe any of these things are true?”

“Well…” She rose to her hooves again, though her energy was almost gone. She’d given up so much magic, and it had been ages since she tasted more. Maybe now she never would. “Some of this you can verify for yourself. The brothel is… well known, and I don’t think it could be evacuated before you verify it’s there.” And I might’ve damned every bug in there to a pony sword because I came here for help.

“You can check on the prison yourself. Though… prepare to fight, like I said, since the bugs in there are feral. You’ll find the food at the bottom.”

“That’s all?” Celestia said. “Those things can be verified, certainly. While you spoke, I have already begun to mobilize the guard. Yet… that doesn’t explain why we should treat you like an authority. I demand to know how you know all this about our invaders. Why should we believe what you’ve said? It reflects terribly on Equestria, despite the anger changelings rightfully deserve.”

“Because…” It might take a fair bit of magic to copy a pony, but it took almost none to dismiss her illusion. She changed back in an abrupt flash, feeling her hooves settle on the wooden dais, now much closer to head level. Even though she’d grown quite a bit as a bug, she was still shorter than a pony. “Because I’m one of them. Because I’ve been part of it since the beginning.”

It was probably the single stupidest thing she could’ve done. Ponies rose from their seats, screamed, backed away in terror. House guards stepped forward towards the balcony, and the bailiffs that had been protecting her before now actually drew their swords, all aimed at her.

All pointless. She stood only twenty paces away from the most powerful being in Equestria, maybe the world. Princess Celestia loomed over her, and the mixture of confusing emotions faded to something cold. She was actively suppressing her feelings now, and Harlequin didn’t have a prayer of guessing them. “Do not harm her,” Celestia called, her voice booming over the court. “She’s mine.”

The sun princess didn’t seem terribly bothered about the panic as ponies ran from her court. To their credit, not all of them fled. Some only slid their seats back, using their house guards as shields. Others watched with curiosity more than fear. Harlequin dared a single glance towards Silver, hoping he’d been part of the act. He would already be under intense suspicion after this, but if he played it off right, maybe he could…

No luck. He sat perfectly calm in his booth, watching her. If the event was a little different, he probably would’ve been cheering her on. Too bad she couldn’t feel his confidence through the crowd.

“You infiltrated my court,” Celestia said, rising to stand at her throne. “I have no doubt you committed numberless crimes to reach the ground where you stand. You’re an invader, a trespasser.”

She nodded. There was no point trying to argue. A pony was dead because of her, and there were two ponies who weren’t ponies anymore. She’d probably broken lots of other complex pony laws too. “I deserve whatever punishment you have for me, Princess. But please—save the other bugs. They’re in terrible danger under Hydrus’s rule. Nopony can stop him but you.”

It was time to face judgement. That wouldn’t be so bad, if she could save some of her brothers and sisters in the swarm while she was at it.

Chapter 46: Punishment

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Princess Celestia loomed over her, horn glowing with magical might. This might be Harlequin’s last few seconds of life—that magic could burn her to nothing just like the city shield had done so many times. But that terrible spell never came.

“What is your name, changeling? I know you must have one, if you were clever enough to reach me.”

“Harlequin,” she answered. Stole that too.

“Harlequin…” the princess repeated, ignoring the protests of the various nobles scattered around the room. “This solution of yours is… almost pony. You might very well be the most civilized changeling I have ever encountered. But… your fate is secondary. Bailiff, escort this changeling to a castle holding cell. She’s been polite thus far, I’m sure she’ll continue to be.” She straightened. “Court is adjourned. My sister and I must… deal with this threat to Canterlot. It’s… probably too late to keep this information private, but please don’t cause a panic.”

She vanished in a flash of bright light. Sure enough, ponies began to disperse, getting as much distance between themselves and the changeling as they could. Harlequin backed down the stand, wings flat to her back so they’d know she wasn’t going to run. “I’m not going to fight,” she said flatly. “Or run. Just… tell me where to go.”

They did, leading her from the hall. She passed through a torrent of emotions in the hall as they led her toward a door near the back, four stern looking unicorns in armor. This was what she’d expected—but her own future didn’t matter.

They opened an old metal door, then proceeded down a dark stone hallway. The ramp took her below the castle, in the same stone labyrinths where she had spent so much time a prisoner. At least the pressure of emotions on her mind wasn’t confusing her anymore. She could think.

“Almost done, Harlequin. The bishops of greed are burned. The knights of knowledge are severed. The queen of scorn has abandoned her children. All that’s left is the king of conquest. He would not bow. He wouldn’t accept your place in the story. But you will. You understand the value of being part of something greater than yourself.”

It was more than the voice had told her in a long time. It seemed almost conversational. I don’t understand, she thought back, hoping it would hear. She didn’t want to give these ponies any excuse to kill her before she could face judgement from the Alicorns.

She got no response, and so her mind began to wander again. The space around them didn’t look like it was going to lead to the dungeon she knew well. The torch brackets here were long empty, and there was thick dust on the floor.

That was when she realized, and her whole body tensed. They’d gone some distance from the pony court now, so she couldn’t feel them at all. She should’ve felt the hatred of these ponies, or their indignance, or just their commitment to duty.

Their feelings had been so confounded with those other ponies before, but now—they were flat. Hydrus. He replaced the bailiffs.

She barely skipped a beat, walking along as though she hadn’t noticed anything. But it was pointless. Her spike of shock and surprise was too obvious.

The guards walked two ahead, two behind, weapons always at the ready. Now one of the ones behind her finally spoke. “Do you know why Queen Chrysalis always ate her inferiors?”

The question was so matter-of-fact that she almost didn’t realize what she was hearing. The guardspony who spoke it sounded so casual, and so familiar. She knew that tone.

“Ponies crave domination and control. They’re eager to give their freedom away and have powerful rulers make them safe. They’re quick to forget what their impotence earned them.” They reached the end of the path, and a heavy iron hatch in the floor, recently pried free. Through the opening was darkness, and a terrible stench of decay.

Something flashed, and suddenly Hydrus was there, still wielding the spear in his magic. The rest of the uniform was gone. “We’re the inverse of ponies, I think. Every bug wants to be their own queen, they can’t help it. In the end, they always betray the ones who know better. That’s why I was content to be a in the background. While other bugs tore each other down to excel, none fought with me. I hoarded something much more valuable than glory: talent.”

He advanced on her, spinning his spear through the air. Harlequin retreated by reflex, towards the opening in the floor. There were no other exits, no windows. They were so deep underground that nopony would hear her scream. And if she tried to teleport past them, that spear would be in her neck before she finished the spell.

“I misjudged you. When I first saw little H, I thought she was something unique. A creature with some real loyalty. I took a gamble on her, and I thought it had paid off.” Then he moved.

His body blurred impossibly fast as he spent some of his vast wealth of glamour. He smacked the butt of his spear into her right foreleg with the force of a rock-crusher, shattering the exoskeleton. She screamed as the blow broke her, dropping to the ground. Thick blue slime oozed from the wound, momentarily stunning her.

“Turns out, you were a changeling after all. Maybe the truest bug of all. You didn’t just betray me. You betrayed all of us.”

“You…” She could barely form the words. She couldn’t concentrate on anything, her whole body fuzzed. He’s going to get away. The princess is going to attack a colony without a tyrant. It was all for nothing. “You stayed. Didn’t… take your hoard somewhere else?”

He chuckled. “I moved my hoard a long time ago.” He stopped just beside her, then smacked her again with the spear, shattering more of her chitin along her back. She screamed, body spasming in pain… but there was nowhere to go. No one to hear.

“You’re so young, Harlequin, you can’t see time the way I do. Drones live in the moment, and you’re… still stuck thinking that way.” He rose, tapping the side of his head with a hoof. “Think! The ponies aren’t stupid, they were going to realize how to feed us sooner or later. Realize we were missing. I’ve been laying up in store against that day, investing in talent as I never could before. Thousands of harvests, and ponies who see our powers as something to be envied. That was the last piece of the puzzle, Harlequin. We don’t need a queen to build the swarm, when we have so many ponies all around us.”

He dropped down beside her, his voice a whisper. “I was going to make you part of it, Harlequin. For a time, I thought you were my most faithful servant.” He shook his head. “But you’re a slave to something you don’t even understand.” He rose, circling past her to where the open shaft must be.

The place they were going to dump her body, obviously. It smelled like she wouldn’t be the first one. Or… no, that smell wasn’t just rotting bodies. It was the changeling prison, with festering pony food, dead bugs, and living creatures that weren’t quite bugs anymore.

“Y-you.. You know?” she whispered. But even as she said it, it felt wrong. She hadn’t fought him because the voice told her to. She fought because what he did was wrong. The bugs in the swarm with no names deserved their own chance to live. They deserved a leader who wouldn’t murder them to cement his own power. “The voice, the… Storyteller.”

He laughed, voice bitter and angry. “The Unturning,” he corrected. “A master crueler than Queen Chrysalis ever was.”

“W-who…” she stammered. “Who is she? What is she?”

For a second, it seemed like Hydrus was just going to stab her with the spear for her inopportune question. But he’d already shared so much information with the bug who was about to die. He almost seemed like he couldn’t help it. “The Lorekeepers are gone,” he said flatly. “With the mind gone, I lost that wisdom. But I remember one thing. She is our oldest sworn enemy. We gave up our… everything, to fight her. And yet she has made you a tool to destroy us. Our oldest adversary almost won.”

“Untrue. I have never meant to destroy you. Your actions will purify the Swarm’s ancient taint. You’ve learned so much from your time with ponies, Harlequin. Love as they love. Accept your place.”

He swung again, another terrible blow. She was bleeding from so many places now that she could hardly keep track. Every movement was another spear of agony through her body, making it hard to concentrate.

If only she’d had a weapon, she could’ve… well, not fought Hydrus, but at least killed one of his guards before she died. That might not sting so much.

“Your loyalty to another master has bought you more than just death. I could kill you here in the dark, and nopony would ever find you… but the punishment for treason is worse than simple death. It needs to be a death that bugs will tell stories about. Bugs in my swarm.”

She tensed, expecting him to swing again. She’d be beaten to death in a hallway, bleeding out onto the stone… but no.

Instead of swinging at her, Hydrus braced his spear up against her, and pushed. The other “guards” helped as well, shoving her roughly towards the opening.

Then she heard it. A hissing, animal roar. Her eyes widened as she recognized it—feral bugs. The last survivors of the changeling prison.

“I didn’t hurt your wings,” Hydrus said. “But I’ve never known a bug who could fight the instinct to use them. If you want one last mercy, hold still long enough to hit the ground and die. It’ll be easier than what they do to a broken bug like you.”

Then they shoved, and Harlequin tumbled over the edge.

Hydrus was wrong about her, though. She was plenty strong enough not to use her wings. She just didn’t want to. I want to live.

She buzzed her wings—not enough to fly back up, her body was too broken for that. The very act of falling filled her with pain, showering blood through the air behind her. Like chumming the water for a shark.

“I have a place in the story waiting for you, Harlequin. I require a queen who will abandon all the old feuds. I think that’s you.”

She landed with a harsh thump, bumping and rolling along rough stone. It felt familiar under her body as she spun, legs turning over each other and wounds getting worse. Finally she fell still, a moaning heap on the floor.

She hadn’t dared heal herself with Hydrus there, knowing full well that he’d keep breaking her until she had no magic left to spend. She stopped holding back, and all the magic she’d been hoarding exploded through her.

Her broken shell began to glow, as the vast fortune of love she’d gathered repaired the damage Hydrus’s blows had caused. With magic like this, she didn’t have to wait for her next molting.

She screamed with pain as the magic burned through her, and an incredible wealth of glamour was erased. But that didn’t matter—nothing mattered, because she was alive.

Harlequin stood, her legs shaking as she found her footing.

Somewhere far above, in an opening without even a glow from a pony’s horn, she heard Hydrus laugh.

Then she learned why. From all around the cavern, down a dozen different unseen passages, the degenerate things that had once been bugs all roared with hunger. Their voices had nothing of intelligence left in them anymore, only bestial need.

They would’ve noticed her blood eventually, but her magic was like a beacon. Every monster in the Canterlot Caverns was coming for her.

Chapter 47: Fate

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Harlequin stood against the bugs most broken by the invasion. Even in total darkness, she could feel them coming, clawing their way up through cracks in the rock, shoving aside rubble and piles of the dead. It was probably a mercy that she couldn’t see them. Their shells would’ve gone white by now, their eyes sightless, and their limbs half-transformed into terrible weapons.

She imagined what they looked like as they closed in around something that wasn’t strong like themselves, wings spread. She could take off now, fly up towards the opening in the ceiling—and have Hydrus blast her into powder. She needed something else.

“I don’t require the king’s services further, Harlequin. He is an ungrateful servant. You, though… you will rule well.”

Further. That word rubbed against her brain, like that uneasy feeling when you ran your hoof up a pony’s coat against the grain and they weren’t expecting it. Hydrus had known the speaker, had even had a name for her. The Unturning.

Somehow, this seemed more important to her than the claws tearing up the stone to reach her. Bugs swarmed in from all around, and she could hear their duels as they fought over the richest food they’d found in a long time. But she didn’t run—their senses were better, and they knew the cave. She lit her horn, fishing around for anything she could use.

There were pony supplies here, torn haphazardly open. She removed several tent-poles from the stack, spreading them around her. They were the closest to weapons she had. Lighting her horn made her even more of a target, but she didn’t care. She didn’t have enough magic left to win this fight.

“Did Hydrus work for you?” she asked, horrified. “The things he did…”

“Work is a concept of only one perspective. Hydrus served my ends for a time, this is true. But now he has failed, and must be removed.”

Was burning those bugs his idea, or yours?”

The Unturning didn’t answer. In that way, it was probably the worst thing she could’ve said.

Bugs squealed as they approached her, roaring their claim of this territory. She knew full well what would be waiting for her when they arrived. These insects had fallen so far that they weren’t capable of demanding she give up her magic. They’d kill her and eat her, even though her death would waste much of what she had.

“Your thread is waiting for you, Harlequin,” said the voice. “Your place in the story. I don’t promise to always be kind, I don’t promise that changelings will always prosper. But if you take this path, you can join the ponies. Never need to feed on them again.”

Harlequin saw herself, with a shell of soft blues and greens, and wings that shimmered and sparkled in the air. Thousands of bugs just like her, never hungering again. They would eat like ponies did, they could build their own cities. They could start again.

“What about all these?” she asked, gesturing around the cavern. Half a dozen desiccated corpses had fallen here, their shells slowly collapsing inward as they rotted. Eyes that were almost white watched her from the room, fangs exposed and dripping.

The predators of this prison didn’t go for her throat, not yet.

“The Canterlot water grid drains its emergency cisterns through these caverns. Over many months of failed inspection, the central tank is about to fail. It will wash them all away. We will sever all ties with the ancient changelings, leave you to start anew. You will take your place in the story.”

Hundreds would die. Monsters and predators, drones that hadn’t even had names the first time. Pharynx said that once a bug matured, they couldn’t be brought back. But these never had names. There might still be a way to help them.

A single golden thread seemed to hang in front of her, shimmering in the gloom. “Take your place in the story, Harlequin. Accept fate. You don’t care about the squabbles of ancient ponies long dead. Take it, and kneel.”

She could have a lifetime of never needing to feed on another pony again. She could be queen of bugs with their own stories. Or slave to somepony else’s.

What was everything she’d done so far, if not her story? She’d stood before the princess, she’d escaped the prison, she’d made a place for her among the nameless.

“Reject my offer, and I will abandon you,” the Unturning said. “You are surrounded by ravenous predators. My power confounds them, but when I withdraw it, you will be devoured. I will give great gifts to welcome your people back into my story, Harlequin. Bend your knees.”

All she had to do was submit to a being whose influence made creatures do horrible things. The one who wanted her to leave Irongate to die, because of what his name would’ve been as the martyr in her story.

“No.” Harlequin balanced the length of wood carefully on her back, preparing to use it. There was a good chance her refusal would get her eaten alive. “I won’t bow to someone who kills like you. We’re better than that.”

“You’re nothing,” the Unturning said, her voice bitter and furious. “Many-times child of creatures who thought they could defy a god. Now you’re insects. I don’t need you. My vision is everywhere, and my focus is unbroken. You will die unmoored and unremembered, when another creature takes your place.”

“Maybe,” Harlequin said. “But I’ll die free.”

The voice faded from around her, thread of magic before her eyes instantly withdrawn. A future of health without feeding on emotions vanished, maybe forever.

Not that it would matter to her. The Unturning was not lying about the forces she kept contained. Now they were unleashed, a mob that descended on her from all directions with teeth bared to consume her.

She dropped the staff. Even if she could fight a few, there were just too many. It wouldn’t save her.

I know the hunger you feel, she said, glamour on her tongue. “I know what it’s like to be abandoned.

They closed in around her, a crowd of misshapen changeling forms that packed into the cavern. Each one had transformed in horrible ways, growing additional limbs that tore painfully at their shells, or half melting into copies of other creatures, or just growing teeth along their whole bodies that oozed their own blood.

But there was more than hunger here. In these creatures stripped of everything, bugs who had never even known a name… maybe she could find a thread of something familiar. She didn’t need it given to her.

They circled around her, salivating—yet they didn’t attack. Almost like… There’s a mind here. Here in the dark, their bodies had fed on every scrap of magic. Including the spells cast on them. The ancient Swarm was gone, its collective destroyed.

They’d made their own. All these monsters together, hunting and fighting and devouring the animals of the caves.

You’re hungry,” she said again, straining against the pony magic that had taken her own links away. But while she could feel this new mind just within reach, she couldn’t touch it. Princess Cadence had destroyed her, and she would not survive what these ponies had endured.

She would have to hope that, together, they could understand. “You need a queen,” she said. “You’ve been starving in the dark all this time. Let me give you what you remember.

She picked one bug at random, holding it down with her magic. The swarm reacted with squeals of hostility and anger, but too slow. She latched onto it, and shared a little glamour.

The bug was so shriveled and starving it could take almost none, far less than she gave to the drones of Hydrus’s hive.

But it reacted all the same. Strange wings covered in fangs began to shrink away, leaving a dazed drone much smaller than she was, with less wildness in its eyes than simple confusion.

The bugs pressed in around her, and the glow of her horn was smothered. But they didn’t tear at her with their strangely mutated limbs. In feeding one, she’d fed them all. They squeaked and moaned pitifully, with instinct as old as the changelings themselves.

Harlequin fed them. She didn’t have a wealth of magic anymore, but they couldn’t eat much anyway. She didn’t feed them because of fear, but because it was the right thing to do. She would’ve named them too, if there was time. But a plan was forming in her head that couldn’t wait for getting to know these bugs.

“We can end this,” she said, even though they would barely understand. “The one who wants to treat all of us this way, to use us and forget us, he’s up there. We can kill him, and escape.”

Some part of her wondered deep down if that meant that she was no better than any of the others she was fighting. These bugs shouldn’t have to fight, and she was asking them to, knowing they would obey. Maybe she was just like Hydrus.

But she didn’t care. That bug was a murderer, and if she didn’t do something about him, he would escape. The bugs around her might not understand her words—maybe they would one day, or maybe they never would—but they understood her rage, and they could feel where it was directed. That was good enough.

They took off, a hundred buzzing wings all lifting in unison, just as the Swarm had done while it fought. Harlequin followed behind, taking a stick with her. She couldn’t share the combat skills the Swarm had given her all those months ago, but maybe she didn’t have to.

She could see the outlines move as Hydrus and his guards turned to flee. One of them shoved the cover down over the entrance—but it was no good. They’d already broken all the locks to get it open in the first place. The wave of bugs ahead of her shoved through it, bending metal back with unified pressure and surging forward down the hall like a living wave.

Harlequin couldn’t speak to them—but she could feel what they felt. Nameless bugs, desperate for something to blame for their lives of misery. She’d just given them something.

Flames scorched the hall as spells blasted around her. The swarm reeled as some of them died, voices vanishing. Harlequin landed in the opening, following close behind. One of the guards went down, a dozen bugs tearing him apart in a spray of green and blue slime. Harlequin picked up his spear and kept going through the carnage.

More blood, more screams, blasts of magic that shattered the stone around her. She whimpered as the pain of loss hit her, but didn’t turn around. She couldn’t be part of the swarm in mind, but she could fight beside them in body.

She watched Hydrus go down under the torrent of bodies, then vanish in a flash of light. His teleport was clumsy, taking several of his attackers with him and shattering the bodies of others. Harlequin took to the air with those who remained, guiding their rage. Queen Chrysalis was the pony who really deserved their anger. Without her, they’d still be home, growing up properly instead of fighting as children.

But Hydrus wanted to perpetuate that into the future. Maybe he could be their last battle.

Harlequin summoned a shield ahead of her, protecting the bugs flying beside her as she joined their formation. Hydrus was bleeding now, unable to take off, maybe unable to teleport. He was burning magic in a panic too, using attacks powerful enough to turn bugs into bloody smears instead of just killing them.

He was never a fighter, Harlequin realized. Hydrus wasn’t a soldier like us, he was too good for that. He doesn’t know how to fight.

Finally she reached him. Her shield shattered with another spell, but they kept going. She roared, dodging under another attack and stabbing her spear through Hydrus with all the strength she had.

Her new friends did the rest.

Chapter 48: Survivors

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Harlequin didn’t flee the empty Canterlot Castle hallway. The only thing waiting down that shaft was a prison, and possibly capture at the hooves of the very pony she’d sent to stop Hydrus. And I didn’t even need her help.

Hydrus hadn’t ever planned on returning to the hive to gather his power. Once he was revealed… she could only hope that his threats against the ponies she cared about were similarly empty. Thorax and Codex and all the drones didn’t deserve to get blasted by Princess Celestia.

Besides, she had enough to do caring for the wounded of her makeshift swarm. If there was one mercy, it was that Hydrus had been so deadly that he either killed bugs or missed them. His guards had scored a few blows, and she patched them up one at a time, using hard green slime and a dagger she found among the dead.

They didn’t grow impatient, though she found herself wishing she could join with these bugs and show them how to treat their own wounded. There wasn’t a single adult here—all those would’ve died.

I don’t want to think about how many didn’t make it out of this.

It was a good thing changelings didn’t need to sleep much, because she worked for at least ten hours straight before she was finished. The bugs curled up in the hall, radiating gratitude along with the loss of some of their members. Though given how immature these bugs were, a pony losing a leg might be a closer analogy. They had so little individuality… somepony would have to change that.

Finally she heard hooves coming down the hall. Marching ponies, armor rattling around them. She didn’t even bother picking up any of the weapons. She wasn’t going to fight, and she would keep these bugs from fighting too. Their little swarm was much too weak to win against ponies in their own castle.

A pair of earth ponies closed the hallway off with massive metal shields, each one almost as tall as the passage itself and much too heavy for her to lift. She stood up, walking out through the bloody hallway past her bugs. There wasn’t much left of their tormentors. She hadn’t been able to stop these bugs from following their instincts. They were very hungry.

“You’re not going to be able to crossbow us to death,” she called from the other side of the shield wall, horn glowing. For reasons she couldn’t quite figure out, she hadn’t run out of magic. But she still had power. Enough to block a few crossbow bolts. “I’ve got magic for a shield. But we don’t want to fight.”

“You don’t want to fight,” repeated a voice from the other side. A mature, confident voice, though she’d never heard it before. “There’s an awful lot of blood over there for a creature who doesn’t want to fight. You were to be escorted to a cell for trial, and now you’ve staged a prison riot and murdered four ponies.”

Harlequin rolled her eyes. “Look closer, whoever you are. Ponies don’t have green blood.”

There was a brief pause, before the voice spoke. “Open.”

The guards straightened, and their shields twisted to each side. Behind them were ponies not dressed in solar gold, but a silvery blue and purple, with strange weapons strapped to their sides.

But then she saw the one who spoke, and she forgot all about the unusual soldiers.

Princess Luna wasn’t as tall as her sister, but she shared many of her same unearthly properties. Her mane filled the air, its own ghostly glow. Behind her, creatures skittered back along the cavern, sensing her power and not understanding it.

Don’t fight, she begged silently. Don’t run. Be calm. Stay where you are. She couldn’t send words, but she could feel those things herself and hope they copied her. It was what changelings did best.

Princess Luna strode out from behind the shield, inspecting the ground with a disgusted sniff. “This was… gruesome. Explain what happened.”

She did. There was no reason to lie, when the one standing in front of her could easily burn her alive at a thought. Even with all these bugs, she knew how long this fight would last. Not that she wanted to. This pony wasn’t her enemy.

“My agent told you not to cause trouble,” Luna muttered, as soon as she finished. “We thought your solution to caring for your physical needs was the best that could be considered, under the circumstances. Your actions have made things… difficult.”

Harlequin shrugged one shoulder, ambivalent. “Would you have left your ponies under the rule of a tyrant?”

The princess didn’t answer for a long time. She looked past her, her horn glowing as she illuminated the cowering insects behind Harlequin. “The fruits of our ignorance are a bitter dish. I can see exactly what you mean… these creatures, barely alive, barely intelligent, because of where we put them. There were many in the Solar Court who thought our accommodations were generous.”

She rolled her eyes, and her horn went out. She didn’t seem bothered by the near-darkness the way most ponies were, though her mane meant that there was always a little light around her. “And now your leaders are dead. Those who orchestrated the invasion that killed so many ponies have joined them in the oblivion beyond. This leaves Equestria in… a difficult position, Harlequin.”

She nodded. “We’re still invading soldiers,” she said. “Many of us didn’t know what we were doing. But that doesn’t bring back the ponies who died. You’ll still want to see us punished. And me in particular, I guess. I’ll face… whatever you think I deserve. But please, don’t hurt the others. They don’t want to take over your city, they just want to eat. And… I know a pony transformed during the invasion that would really like to see his family again. If he… survived whatever your sister did to my hive.”

Luna tensed. “Princess Celestia did not harm the bugs in your ‘hive’. They were contained, and she traveled down to inspect what you had been doing. When she did not find the bug you described, she took no further action. Apparently there had been a battle there as well.”

Princess Luna gestured down the hallway. “It was rather like this, if you can believe it. Loyalists from Hydrus’s side attacked some bugs who liked your way of doing things a little better. Lots of… drones, I think you call them? Regardless, they were eager to tell us that Hydrus’s soldiers were dead. You bugs don’t do anything halfway.”

She finally rose. “Since Equestria’s ancient days, I have been the pony appointed to judge the creatures of the night. My sister sent me to judge whether there was anything worth preserving among your kind. Could we live together, or would we be forced to destroy an evil that would only return to vex Equestria again?”

Her horn glowed to life, with a violet light that hurt Harlequin’s eyes just to look at. It was the sort of spell that could scour her from the planet without a trace. It was the final judgement, the one she never should’ve trusted to ponies. Now she would die for it, and every other bug with her.

“Before I found you here, I was intercepted by a pony of the Solar Court. He spoke about you at great length, Harlequin. About the suffering you endured for your ponies—what you had done for him as a stranger, even at terrible risk to yourself.”

Her horn went from violet to soft white, illuminating the tunnel with a gentle light. “We are very different creatures. We’ve seen some terrible evil from you since the invasion. But I see enough good that you’re clearly worth saving. Even so, there will have to be… measures taken. Restitution paid for the harm you’ve caused, and a chance to reform. It shouldn’t be terribly difficult for creatures that can change their shape.”

She nodded, eyes wide with tears. She tasted a new kind of love flowing into her at that moment, so much that she almost choked. Alicorns were powerful creatures, and even the younger sister was still a force of might. The healing taste of mercy, worsening her tears. The bugs behind her stopped cowering, as one by one their stomachs were filled. There was more than enough love to go around, even for the injured.

“We have no leaders left to punish,” Luna went on. “So there are no creatures to put back into the dungeon. And given what happened last time, I don’t think that punishment is appropriate. I think we’re going to have to put you all on probation.”

“Probation?” She repeated the word, its taste strange on her tongue. “I don’t… I don’t know what that is.”

“It means we’re going to spread you out in Equestria,” she said. “Put you with ponies who need some help in one way or another. Farms, factories, hospitals… there are never enough hooves. Hydrus’s solution might’ve worked to keep you fed, but… no creature should be forced to debase themselves for others to survive. Perhaps a few of them will choose that life, but it didn’t seem to me like many of them were capable of choosing yet. You are… unique, among the bugs I have spoken to. A child of the invasion, yet… wise enough to decide.”

It was more mercy than she possibly could’ve hoped for. Really, it was a better future for the bugs of her little swarm than they ever could’ve had living with Hydrus. There were some unanswered questions in her mind, things they would have to work out together. These lonesome survivors of the tunnels would need care together for instance, until they were old enough to separate. To say nothing of the many creatures still sealed and sleeping in the old hive. Would they sleep forever, or be woken and spread through Equestria like the other bugs?

“As for you…” Luna continued. “We will keep you close. Still punished with the others, but… near enough to Canterlot that we can use your knowledge. We still know so little about changelings…”

“If I, uh…” Harlequin began, her voice a little nervous. “I know it’s probably… not my place to ask, but… I’ve got some friends in the City Watch. They seemed to think I did good work, before… they realized I was a changeling.”

Princess Luna smiled. “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. It’s perfect.”

The next few hours were chaos, of course. The bugs she’d brought out of the old jail certainly didn’t want to be separated from her, and there were enough of them to cause trouble for Canterlot Castle. In the end they just traveled in a few packed carriages down to the old hive, where they could be around their own kind.

There would be plenty of friendly faces—Harlequin’s own friendly drones had been the ones to fight.

Not only that, but she discovered something that even Princess Luna hadn’t known.

And good thing too, considering she seemed to be looking for leaders to punish.

Pharynx and a small group of fellow survivors, whose arrival had initiated the violence in the first place. She could only wish she had been there to help with the fight. But they hadn’t needed her, and Pharynx didn’t seem to want her.

“The ponies know about us now,” he said, pacing furiously back and forth in Hydrus’s old office. Thorax sat happily in a corner, apparently just wanting to be close enough though he had nothing to offer to the conversation. Harlequin didn’t ask him to leave. “Asking for help was stupid and unnecessary. You’ve cost us everything, Harlequin. And you didn’t even let me kill that slime myself.”

She shrugged. “Maybe you’d rather keep running this place… but spreading us out is a good thing. Bugs need love, and the ponies are going to give it to us. We’ll have to live their way, but… some of their ways are better than ours. The old queen promised us a life with as much food as we could eat. She might’ve abandoned us, but that promise will still be kept. Just not the way she thought.”

Epilogue: Mirror

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Harlequin glanced briefly outside the walls, confirming what she’d already thought. There was a carriage moving down the road towards them, in Princess Luna’s colors. She could sense no terrible magic radiating out from within, though. The alicorn herself was not in attendance.

The hive was surrounded by royal guards, growing more numerous by the minute. Of course, they weren’t here to lay siege—the changelings within had already surrendered. Princess Luna’s staff moved through the hive, making notes and taking tallies. To make good on the princess’s promise, they’d have to know how many bugs had to be placed.

Behind her, a door squeaked, and she heard hooves making their way up. They walked a little closer, then stopped not far away. “Harlequin,” Codex said. “I heard you made it back. But some of the bugs down there were saying you’d turned us over to the ponies, or…”

She darted over to him, ignoring his protests and hugging him tightly. He didn’t fight, at least not much. “I did,” she said. “Mostly because I thought that Princess Celestia was the only way to stop Hydrus. But then I killed him, and some bugs ate him, and so that’s all taken care of.”

“I’m the last one to be upset about getting ponies involved in this mess.” Codex shoved her away, eyes wide. “Wait, what was that last part?”

“He’s dead.” The carriage was pulling up to the gates, passing through the soldiers. She could make out two figures inside. “Codex, you know I’m sorry about everything you’ve been through. I don’t… If I could’ve understood what being a changeling would do to you, I would’ve stopped it.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Now you’re guilty? It’s a little late, bug. This is my life, better or worse. I have the same punishment waiting for me as the rest of you. And I’ll endure it, because at least I’ll know that Equestria is safe.”

“That’s noble of you,” Harlequin said, patting him on the shoulder. “But I don’t think it’s necessary. You should, uh… you should come with me.” She turned back for the stairs. “There’s some stuff I think you should see.”

He groaned, rolling his eyes a little at the comment. “That’s probably not… I’m not sure why you wanted to talk to me up here, if we were just going to go somewhere else.”

Even so, he followed her down the steps. “That new one thinks he’s in charge, but the drones listen to you. I think…” He lowered his voice. “I wonder if he would’ve hurt you otherwise. Pharynx really hates you.”

“I wonder why,” she repeated. “Was it our last ruler using me to trick him into a trap and getting most of his friends murdered, or turning over the hive to pony authorities? I should be the most popular bug in the hive after this.”

“Oh, yeah.”

They left the stairs, rounding the corner into the courtyard. Pony soldiers milled about, all armed, but none feeling terribly threatened. Nopony in the hive had fought them since they arrived. A few of them had probably been here as customers, they knew they weren’t in danger.

Through the line of soldiers, the little carriage rolled to a stop. Its captain, a stallion in a purple uniform, hopped down, hurrying towards her without opening it. He stopped in front of the two of them, seeming unafraid of just how changeling she was. “I’m looking for the one called Harlequin. You don’t have cutie marks, and… I’m ashamed to admit you all look the same to me.”

“I’m Harlequin,” she said. “Are you going to ask about Codex next?”

He stared for a few seconds, before nodding hastily. “That’s… yes, exactly. You knew I was coming then.”

“I hoped,” she answered. “I’ve already got more than I deserved today. I guess I hoped I might be able to get a little more.” She nudged Codex forward with her wings, gesturing at the carriage. “Thanks for your help, Codex. Thanks for teaching me, and the other bugs.”

“I don’t understand.” He glanced back at the low building that concealed the passage into the hive, then back at her. “What is this? Harlequin, am I… did you expedite my trial or something?”

The carriage door clicked open. A little pony head poked out, a cream-colored unicorn with bright green eyes. She stared across the clearing at them, fearful at what she saw. Even this filly had apparently seen enough during the invasion to be afraid.

But Codex melted. He shuddered, nearly collapsing under the pressure. His eyes got wider, and his voice cracked. “How?” he asked. “Harlequin… what’s going on?”

She shrugged. “I told the princess about you. They understand changelings a lot better than they did. There’s this noble named Irongate, you remember him? He told Luna everything. There’s no reason for you to be punished.”

Codex flashed briefly with magic, something he’d been practicing from the look of it. He went from an average-sized male to a unicorn stallion, taller than she was and with an unruly mane. She couldn’t remember everything exactly, but it looked pretty close.

The filly sure recognized him. She squealed suddenly, ignoring the protests of the pony in the carriage and darting down towards them. It was an awful lot of love for one place, and she’d already eaten today.

Some years later…

Harlequin tossed her uniform into the locker with everything else, slamming it closed with a hollow bang. The moisture of her shower was still wet on her coat, but she still wanted to look like a pony. She shook herself out a few times, using a little magic to straighten her mane. She didn’t smell like pony sweat anymore, and that was probably good enough for Apple Cinnamon.

He met her out in the Watch offices a few hours later. To her surprise, though, he wasn’t alone. Azure Sigil walked beside him, still in uniform and with a folder in her magic. Apple Cinnamon felt confused, maybe a little frightened. But Sigil was excited. “Harlequin,” she said, before Cinnamon could say anything. “Good to see you again.”

There was always a little tension in her voice when she spoke. There could be no forgetting that once, Harlequin’s manipulation had basically cost her a career. She was still in the Guard, but being Harlequin’s parole officer was hardly a promotion.

“You too,” she said, shaking hooves politely. She didn’t abandon the disguise—like all changelings who still had time to serve, Harlequin wore a dark metal necklace at all times, with a little green hexagon hanging from it. “Have I done something wrong? I didn’t think we had another review until next month.”

Not that she needed it. Her chosen uniform shape was familiar to both these creatures. Apple Cinnamon knew it intimately.

“Nothing wrong,” Sigil said, gesturing down the hall a little at a table and set of low cushions. “I was just talking to Apple Cinnamon about an opportunity in the Solar Guard. Something… I think both of you might be interested in.

Harlequin obeyed, though some part of her was a little annoyed to have her evening interrupted. She was already doing her time for Equestria, what more could the Guard want?

“It’s interesting stuff, Harlequin,” Cinnamon said. “You’ll want to hear it.”

Azure Sigil flipped open her binder for the two of them. “I knew you wouldn’t want to take the position unless Officer Cinnamon was going too. I’ve already spoken to him, and he’s open to the possibility.”

Harlequin nodded once. “What is it?”

“Something that could end your debt to Equestria in two more years instead of ten,” Sigil said. “I know you… like your work. But there’s somewhere you could do more than just catch petty criminals and help old nags cross the road. A place frightening enough that most ponies don’t last three months. But several changelings are already serving there, and not one has returned prematurely.”

“You’re talking about…” Harlequin’s eyes widened. “Through that mirror portal. You’re trusting bugs to go there now? I thought that place was… innocent. None of the ponies over there even knew they had magic. Aren’t you worried I’ll… mess them up?”

Sigil shook her head. “We’re not letting just anyone go. They need to have a record serving Equestria. You do.”

“It’s bad over there, Harley,” Apple said. “Their own countries are hunting them down, locking them away so their magic won’t spread. Shoved into a dark cage, maybe never to be released.”

She tensed, sitting up in her seat. “You need someone to save them? You’re desperate enough to take a bug like me?”

“Yes,” Sigil said, pushing the file towards her. The text was so dense that Harlequin didn’t stand a chance of reading it, though much of it did seem familiar. If she had a few hours, she could probably sound it out word by word. “Frankly, Harlequin, those ponies over there would be lucky to have anyone. Changeling or not.”

The important part was there, though. Another copy of this contract, with Apple Cinnamon’s signature on it already. He was willing to go. If he thought it was safe, then… it was probably safe. She lifted up the pen in her magic, and signed her name. Awkward and clumsy, but it was hers. “I’m in.”