• 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 12: Reward

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.

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