• 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 16: Honor

Harlequin didn’t need to sleep like a pony, and so she spent most of the night awake in bed. Eventually she would probably find a way to sneak out and do something else at night. Maybe work on the escape plan for the other changelings. If I can get out without being seen, the ponies will think I’m asleep in bed here. They won’t suspect anything was me.

There was no organized meal for breakfast, just ponies coming and going between bowls of cereal and offered fruit. The selection was interesting to Harlequin for its own reasons—reasons that didn’t include actually eating any of it.

To her surprise, Azure Sigil found her near the back of the room, grinning with excitement. “Hey, Harlequin. You’re done with breakfast? Good, you should come with me!” She doesn’t feel suspicious.

Harlequin followed her, mostly because she didn’t know what else to do. She slipped out of the barracks and out into Canterlot’s upper city. Pony crews were already hard at work—it was mostly broken windows today, with huge wagons of shattered glass going up and down. For not having a swarm, they do work fast.

“What’s up?” she asked, adjusting her mane. “I thought you said I’d be working evening watches for my first few months.” Those were ponies’ least desirable times—recruits working them meant that the veterans could have better shifts to themselves.

“Well yeah. You won’t be doing your next watch with me, that was only for the first one since I recruited you. I didn’t tell you to get your armor, did I?”

“Oh.” She blinked, looking away. “Right, I’m stupid.”

The pony chuckled. “Don’t say it like that. You just didn’t know what to expect, it’s fine. Everypony sucks at something when they’re new.”

We didn’t used to. The Swarm knew how to do everything perfectly, and we could follow its directions perfectly. But it still hadn’t come back. She had seen no bugs in her sleep the night before, and could feel none of them now. “So what are we doing?”

“It’s about the sword, Nightender.” She gestured at the sword on her belt. “I found the pony who owns it. She’s willing to let you keep it, at least for the next few years. Her only condition is that we take you to meet her and her daughter. If the little pony grows up to be in the Guard, she gets it back. Otherwise, you can keep it.”

“That’s it? I thought you said those things were… really rare.”

“They are!” Sigil beamed. “You’re about to be the envy of the Guard, Harlequin. There are officers who serve their whole lives without ever seeing one of these. Does mean you’re going to have to have a little decorum about it. Right now I’m your superior officer, but your next one won’t like you flashing that sword around them all the time. Think carefully, use an armory-issued weapon while on drills or for dress review. But while you’re on duty… you can have the real thing.”

They turned down a side-road, one that led to a small inner wall and a ring road of expensive-looking manor houses. Harlequin’s steps began to slow, and her eyes widened in horror. She had seen this place before, during the invasion. It was where Hydrus had taken her. Of course it is, stupid! She said she found the one who owned the sword. You know where you’re going.

She did now. Many of the houses had their own walls, including the one they’d chosen. There was still a dark stain on the pavement where Harlequin had killed for the first time. I didn’t have a choice. They would’ve killed me if I didn’t. He killed a changeling, it was war. All the excuses in the world didn’t make her feel any better about it.

Worse, Sigil seemed to be able to sense her discomfort. She slowed a little, letting Harlequin brush up against her side as she passed. It seemed like a gesture meant to comfort. “This place is familiar to you, isn’t it?”

They stopped in front of the door. Sigil didn’t knock yet—and Harlequin didn’t dare. She nodded weakly, surpressing tears.

“I’ve seen that look before,” Sigil said, settling one leg on her shoulder.

“Y-you have?”

“Yeah. It’s survivor’s guilt. You saw something terrible happen here, and you think—because you saw it, it should’ve happened to you too. Well, that isn’t how the world works. Fate’s cruel and she’s capricious, and she’s never fair. You don’t deserve something just because you saw it. And nopony in the world would expect an untrained little pony like you to stop the whole thing by yourself just because you found a sword.

“You joined the guard, Harlequin. You decided to make a difference. That’s more than most ponies in the city. And if the changelings ever come crawling back…” She swung the padded bundle through the air in front of them, grinning. “You’ll have Nightender here. Evil undone, the morning breaks. In your hooves.”

She whimpered, wiped away tears, then nodded. “I don’t suppose there’s any way to get out of talking to them.”

“Not if you want this. And you do. You have no idea how generous this is. You think I will ever live in a house like this? You think you will? Ponies don’t like to talk about it, but it’s good to have friends in high places. When promotion time comes around, you want a perfect service record and some friendly eyes on it. So come on.” She knocked.

There was rustling from inside, then the door swung open a crack. From the look of it, several new locks had been installed. But Harlequin knew that pony’s face perfectly. She could still see her snarl of hatred from a few days ago. She recoiled involuntarily at the memory alone, but the pony didn’t react. Her attention was mostly for Azure Sigil.

“Hello again, Captain Sigil.”

“Morning, Miss Triptych. We spoke last evening. I brought the pony for your inspection.”

“Ah, yes. One moment.” The door shut again, and there was more metallic rustling. It took almost a full minute before it swung open. “You’ll both have to forgive the state of my home. It was recently ransacked.” She gestured over her shoulder, into the same spacious interior that Harlequin remembered. Only now there were lights in all the candelabras, and every bit of broken art was missing.

The pony directed them into a spacious sitting room, where the fire had already been lit and a familiar little pony sat in one corner. Harlequin still remembered her too, and her terrified face as she’d killed her father. Now she wore black just like her mother, with an expression like glazed pottery. She stared off into space, barely seeing anything. She didn’t even react as they came in.

“May I see the sword?” Triptych asked, as soon as they’d settled down on opposite sides of the elegant couch. Apparently the raiding party hadn’t seen anything to steal in here.

“Of course. It’s your sword, miss.” Sigil held it out, and the other unicorn took it in her magic. She carefully removed the wrapping, swinging it weakly through the air at nothing with the sheath still on. Then she settled it down on the table between them, so gently that it didn’t dent the wood.

“And you, uh… I don’t believe I got your name. How did this sword come into your possession?” Harlequin opened her mouth to answer, but it didn’t seem like the pony actually wanted one. She was already moving on. “The one I last saw use this sword… took my husband from us. Gilded Chalice, my daughter… she’ll never see her father again because of them. The changeling negotiator… liar. I want to know what you did to it.”

Harlequin swallowed, feeling their eyes on her. She opened her mouth with a lie, and found her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes never left the sword. She could still feel it swinging through the air towards the neck of the pony. Feel as it bit into his flesh.

She almost puked right there onto the polished wood table. She sat up, adjusted her wings, and looked back into the pony’s eyes. “Dead,” she declared. “That drone is dead. I had to fight her, she didn’t want to give it up… but she’s better off gone forever. It doesn’t matter that she was tricked into hurting ponies without meaning to. She still did, and the consequences won’t ever go away. Maybe she’ll be lucky and get erased forever.”

The awkward silence continued for a few more moments, broken only by a loud pop and crackle of wood from the fireplace. Eventually, Triptych turned the sword on the table so the hilt faced Harlequin. “I wish I could’ve been there to see it,” she said. “I hope you made it hurt. But… I can see this is difficult for you. I won’t ask for those details. It is my pleasure to know that Nightender will be wielded by the one who brought justice to my family. If the changelings ever attack us again, I hope I can see you on the castle wall, cutting down hundreds of them with it.”

“Th-thank you.” She swallowed, reaching out with one hoof. She expected the metal to burn when she touched it—the spell ought to hate evil, and there was no pony in the world more evil than her. But nothing happened. “I will.”

“When Chalice comes of age… I may call on you again,” she went on. “Assuming she chooses to join the Guard. I don’t think she will, though. She was always a sensitive child, and recent events will probably not… encourage that direction in her. Perhaps we will attend your future promotion ceremonies. If my household will not be holding that sword anymore, then at least we’ll know we have a friend in the Guard.”

Harlequin was crying as they finally left the kitchen behind. The taste of the mare’s gratitude was fresh in her mouth. But all the relief and satisfaction tasted like acid going down her throat. Isn’t this what changelings are supposed to do? You tricked a pony from hating you into loving you.

Maybe the Swarm would’ve told her that. But there was no swarm in Harlequin’s mind, and so she was left only with guilt. The weight of the sword on her belt seemed enough that it would crush her at any moment. This sword is a reminder of the one I killed. Now the blood will follow me wherever I go.

“It’s tragic, I know,” Sigil said, slipping in beside her. She directed them not towards the barracks, though, but the castle hill. “Their family isn’t the only one like it, you know. Up here in the upper city, it was mostly the ponies who fought back. Down below… they were even less careful. I don’t really understand how the changeling army is structured… but I know they didn’t keep control of their troops very well. Ten times as many ponies died in the lower city.”

“I didn’t see very much down there,” she whispered. “But it looked bad. This whole thing is a mess.”

“Well… we’re making it less so, every day. We can’t bring back the dead, but we can… do the next best thing. Care for the ponies we have. Make Equestria safer against the next attack. Set an example of honor and dignity in our actions.”

She couldn’t meet Sigil’s eyes then. Couldn’t the rest of the way to the castle, as they passed through guard checkpoints and towards the second floor. “We’re going to see the doctors,” she realized. “This is the emergency hospital.”

“Not the doctors, exactly,” Sigil answered. “Your ‘friend’ from yesterday, the one that got the stuffing beat out of him. If he’s still alive, we’re going to have to figure out where to put him. And if not… congratulations, officer, you’ll get to organize your first burial. Either way is the least you can do to make up for putting him in here.”

More true than you know.

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