• Published 12th Dec 2018
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Child of the Invasion - Starscribe

The changeling army has taken control of Canterlot. While their queen secures her grip over this newly captured territory, what happens to the drones who made up her army?

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Chapter 10: Insider

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.

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