• 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 11: Build

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.”

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