• 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 13: Watchpony

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.”

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