• 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 15: Reparation

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.

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