• 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 17: Justice

Harlequin could feel that something was wrong before they even stepped through the door. She knew little about medicine—the Swarm never had hospitals or doctors when anyone in it could be suddenly empowered with the knowledge to treat whatever wounds were present.

Even without anything to compare against but her last visit, there was so much suspicion. Where there had been only a handful of doctors and the sick before, the ponies she sensed inside now seemed healthy and numerous. They were… waiting.

“I, uh…” Harlequin stopped in the hallway, right at the top of the stairs. The doors into the medical wing were shut, without any guards outside. There was no reason to have them inside the castle, when there were so many so close. “I think I’d like to give that changeling more time to recover before I visit him. Now, uh… now wouldn’t be a good time.”

Azure Sigil stopped in the hallway, raising an eyebrow and staring at her. “Harlequin, you aren’t avoiding this. I know you’re feeling guilty—that’s normal, it’s fine. But running away from the things that scare you doesn’t make them go away. Confronting them is the only option. We’re going to go in there and find out what happened to the changeling you hurt. You’re coming with me.

Can she make me? Harlequin glanced down the stairs, shifting on her hooves and spreading her wings. She could just try and run away. But she was in the castle, and the invasion had only been days ago. If she ran, there would be hundreds of soldiers to bring her down. Then they would have reason for thinking she was guilty.

Can’t get away. Have to go through. Finally she nodded and started walking again. She adjusted the sword on her belt a little, settling its weight comfortably against her side. Could she even use it to fight ponies? She didn’t really know how to use a sword! She could wave it through the air, but… that wasn’t really the same thing.

The door opened, and she winced involuntarily—her senses for pony emotions were apparently working fine. There were just about a dozen pony soldiers in the room. Two of them sat by every entrance, and four more around the bed of the injured changeling.

Not a single one of the other beds was occupied.

Codex was still here, covered in several layers of bandages. His body was bruised, and there were plenty of pony medical supplies around him, holding him together. They probably don’t even realize that the care is more important for him than what they’re actually doing.

“You’re back,” said Dr. Atrium, with a tone of forced casualness. She barely even saw Sigil—her eyes were only for Harlequin.

Queens I’m in trouble. But now she’d walked into the room with all these guards. If she tried to run from the ponies, she wouldn’t even make it to the door. It’s what you deserve.

“We’re here to check on the patient,” Sigil said, apparently oblivious to any changes in the room. “Harlequin here was overcome with concern for the prisoner injured during her first watch. We’re here to help you deal with him.”

Harlequin will be happy to hear that we saved his life,” Atrium said. “The operation wasn’t easy, but we managed. There was some internal bruising, damage to the exoskeleton that needed to be repaired. We used medical glue for most of that, should hold together until he molts again.”

“Good,” Sigil said, turning back. “See? And you were worried about him. I don’t know what we were so concerned about. How long will he have to stay here?”

“Another week or so, until the glue sets,” Atrium said. She shifted uneasily, staying out of reach of Harlequin.

What do you know?

The ponies in the room were moving. She hadn’t turned around once, but she could feel more minds emerging from somewhere just outside, blocking off the door.

“Well, I guess we can come back then,” Sigil said, turning back the way they came. “Officer Harlequin here is stationed in the second upper garrison, red brigade. You can contact her for help when it’s time to move the prisoner. Can’t they, Harlequin?”

“There’s… something else,” said a guardspony, the one that had been sitting beside the door when they walked in. Harlequin hadn’t noticed before, but as he stood, she realized there were bars on both of his shoulders. A colonel—high enough that he had a magic sword of his own. He was also a unicorn, his body aged enough to have lines, but not weaker for it. “The prisoner spoke with us. Shared some information that we need to verify.”

“What did he say?” Sigil’s eyebrows went up, and she glanced briefly at the pony’s breast just as Harlequin had done. “…sir,” she added, just a little awkwardly. “We’re curious about that ourselves.”

“I bet.” The pony tapped his hoof, and the whole room sprang into action. Guardsponies rushed them from all sides, knocking over empty cots and shoving past medical staff. Spears and swords and crossbows were suddenly pointed at them both. Sigil froze, but she didn’t make a single hostile move. Her expression was shocked, bewildered, but unafraid.

“You got information from a changeling,” she said, voice flat. “And you trusted it enough to react like this? Sir.”

The pony’s horn flashed, and he drew the sword into the air in front of him. The blade remained still as he held it there, close enough to swing towards either of them if they tried to move. I could run. It probably wouldn’t hurt too bad. Quick.

But Harlequin didn’t entertain that thought for long. She’d lived through the siege, she was going to live through this. Somehow.

“Some stories are convincing enough to be worth an investigation. Surely you would wish no less precaution shown in your own squad, if you heard that one or more ponies might be compromised.”

“I would,” she admitted. “But there’s no point. We’re both loyal ponies of the princess. Harlequin here was just sworn in yesterday.”

“Indeed. I have no doubt you would say that, Captain. You would say that, and so would a changeling spy who had found a way to infiltrate the palace. This changeling here—Codex—he claims to have been a pony until recently. That much is obviously absurd, but some of the other things he said… about Harlequin, for example. Apparently she’s one of them. I find it hard to believe that any captain in my command could be so incompetent as to allow that.”

Harlequin wanted to back up, but she couldn’t go more than a few steps before she reached the spears pointed at them from every direction.

Azure Sigil glanced around the group. “You just said you’re not taking what he said seriously. He claimed to be a pony. Why believe this accusation? Harlequin isn’t some spy, she’s saved ponies. I have a dozen witness accounts of her fighting against changelings during the invasion. What does that make her?”

The captain shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps she’s a traitor to her kind, who only cared about saving her own skin. Their queen was that way, why not those under their command. Or… the other possibility, you’re both changelings. You know as well as I do we can test you.”

Sigil nodded. “A waste of your time, sir. I promise you. Look at your sword—that’s the test I used on Harlequin there. She has one of them herself, you might notice. Where’s the magic to strike down Equestria’s enemies?”

“That… isn’t how they work,” the pony answered. He moved the sword slowly through the air, then sheathed it again. “The Helios-blades sense intention, Captain. They can’t judge the character of a stallion, tell you whether he is good or evil. Only the princesses can do that. But they can tell you if he intends to hurt you or not. You could fool them easily by not wishing violence. I’m… surprised you don’t know that. But I guess few ponies have ever used the blades. You can’t be held responsible for not knowing. But if you’re one of them…”

His horn began to get brighter. “Hold still, both of you. If you resist, we’ll take that as an admission of guilt and confine you for interrogation. If you’re honest ponies of the princess, you will allow us to make certain of your loyalty.”

Is this what you thought was a good idea, Codex? How am I supposed to get you free with the others if I’m in jail with you? She could see that future coming like a runaway boulder as it crashed down the hive, crushing anyone in its path. She wouldn’t be able to roll out from this one in time.

“We won’t resist,” Sigil said. “But I wouldn’t mind an apology when this is over, sir.”

White light built around his horn, and Harlequin knew the spell before he even cast it. It was the same thing Sigil had done, but this unicorn was older and more powerful. His eyes glowed faintly, and a mist seemed to drift from around him as the magic built in the air.

Then the spell crashed down around her. For an instant she heard Codex from his bed, coughing and moaning and trying to cover his face. But he wasn’t fast enough. Harlequin was, lifting a wing to shield her eyes, but it made no difference.

For the second time, Harlequin was cast into darkness, far from the stolen love of ponies. Magic drifted away from her, like a flower wilting under intense sunlight. The shape of angry ponies became only dim outlines she could barely see. Outlines wrapped in red thread, tying them about their hooves, around their necks. The thread reached for her, though it never touched.

She tried to move, tried to lift her hooves… but they wouldn’t respond. Everything was so heavy.

The ringing in Harlequin’s ears finally faded, and the ponies’ words came back into focus. Shapes were still unclear, and she could do little more than drool. But she could feel it. This is what the drones went through. This, but they barely had any minds of their own. Suddenly alone, cold, confused. Had any of them survived?

“It’s fortunate that we listened to the injured changeling. This probably explains why the others attacked it so violently—they didn’t wish for it to reveal their scheme.”

Harlequin moaned, rolling onto her side. She felt something slide off her back, and realized it was the belt. She was back as herself, the ponies towering over at twice her size and with five times the hatred.

All except for Azure Sigil, who didn’t even look at her. Shame radiated from her thick enough that it was even stronger than the hate the others felt. Shame and despair.

“We will have to reward this one,” the colonel went on, striding past Harlequin and gesturing at the bed. “A private cell for him, far from the others. Conditional on his behavior, of course.”

“I…” Codex had been further away from the blast, apparently far enough that he was already starting to recover. He spoke in a choking rasp. “Isn’t this proof? I’m telling the truth! I’m a pony! I have a wife in the city, Upper Limit! A son… Celestia, they need to know I’m alive. I’m not a changeling!”

“The princess will evaluate your case,” the colonel said, turning away from him with annoyance. “Be silent, prisoner, or we’ll remit our generosity.” His eyes narrowed, focusing on Harlequin. “As for you, I wish very much for you to resist arrest. Please, draw that sword. No doubt you planned on slitting the throat of the pones who took pity on you. Starting with your friend there, Captain Sigil. Her life is over after today, letting you in here. She spoke for you; do you know that? Do you even care?”

Maybe she should’ve fought back. It would be better—she didn’t think she could face anyone after today.

“No,” she muttered, lowering her head. “I won’t fight. It’s what I deserve if you want to kill me anyway.”

The colonel grunted. From his emotions, it seemed like he wanted to. But that passed quickly. “Very well. No… no special treatment for this one. Captain Sigil, take her to the common prison. She can fend for herself in there with the others. Make sure you warn the guards about the pony she was impersonating.”

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