• 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 28: Labor

Harlequin emerged from the darkness of the secret colony into a sunny courtyard. There were walls on all sides, and nearby an ancient-looking building with holes in the roof and a few missing windows. What few it still had were bright and colorful. Between the walls, shades were strung up, obscuring the courtyard where they stood even from the eyes of pegasus ponies flying above.

But while standing close, she could see the outline of the upper city high above, and closer, the shapes of ponies walking along the top wall. Private guards, like the kind she’d fought during the battle for Canterlot. At least, they looked similar to her.

“I am sorry if your feeding caught you off guard, Harlequin. I know many bugs can be confused about their first time. No two methods are quite alike, and there are some who don’t care for it.”

I can’t imagine why. Her wings buzzed unhappily. “Are you sure we shouldn’t be disguised up here?”

“Anywhere else? Yes. But not right here specifically.” He gestured at the entrance below. A shed had been built over the hole, much newer than the building beside it. It was painted the same way, but up close its age was obvious. “Our customers believe the soldiers you see above are there to keep us contained. We are still prisoners, you see. Still trapped inside the walls. It makes them think that they control us. It is critically important that you do nothing to disabuse them of this illusion.”

He turned to face her suddenly, locking his eyes with hers. She could feel the intensity behind them, the powerful wealth of magic. This was just another bug, but he was holding so much magic that he was becoming something more. He didn’t let her look away. “One lie is more important than all others. The soldiers are employed by House Platinum, in the upper city. They take a small cut of the profits from us—not because we pay them, but because they take what they feel they’re owed as a service to Canterlot. Do you understand?”

She nodded, though the more intense he got the more confused she felt. Why is this such a big deal? I wouldn’t have even brought it up if you hadn’t told me. “I understand, Hydrus.”

“Good.” He met her eyes for a moment more, then looked away. “You should do your best not to share information with them about the way we operate, just don’t get anything wrong about the guards. I am trusting you, Harlequin. Great Queens watch over me, but I don’t have another choice. Every clever bug I had to plot and plan is locked up in the dungeons. We’re the swarm now.”

Harlequin would never have dared it a few weeks ago. But time had changed her, broadened her mind. “Why did the Queen abandon us?”

“She protected the Swarm,” he answered, wings buzzing as unhappily as hers had. “Chrysalis is the Swarm. She can create a new hive somewhere else. Leaving us to find a way to cling on without her. We were built to survive, Harlequin. And now we’re going to survive.”

There were voices coming from somewhere—Harlequin turned, and she could see where. There was an opening in the wall—though it didn’t lead directly to a Canterlot street. Instead, it seemed to connect to a modest gatehouse, whose doors were only just opening.

Hydrus’s voice grew more urgent. “This is Prince Blueblood, of house Charming. They’re one of the few houses that was willing to cooperate with us when we took Canterlot. I’m going to need you to go with him in disguise. He’ll know what you are, but you… you get the idea.”

“W-what?” She stumbled back, confused. “Why?”

“Because his family is taking over management of the prisoners,” he said. “We’re arranging with them to get our bugs back. It’s going to cost a lot of metal, I think. Maybe other things of real worth. He’s not convinced that bugs can behave themselves. I need you to go with him, and do everything he says short of revealing our secrets. You can do that, can’t you?”

“He won’t hurt me, will—”

Hydrus stepped past her, obviously not listening as he spread his wings, raising his voice just a little. “Our honored guest! It’s a pleasure to have you here, P—”

The unicorn’s horn fizzed and sparked, and Hydrus fell silent. Harlequin hurried to catch up with him, to help if she could—but what was she supposed to do? Her magic couldn’t compete with a real unicorn!

“Be quiet, insect,” said the pony. He wore a white robe, completely obscuring his body except for his face and horn emerging from below. “You never know who might be listening. No names.” His horn stopped glowing.

Hydrus backed away, scratching at his throat in an exaggerated way. “O-of course,” he croaked, his voice scratchy. “I’ll remember for next time.”

“Good,” Prince Blueblood said. From beneath his cloak, Harlequin caught sight of white fur, and bright blue eyes. Watching the two of them with outright contempt. Is this really the house we want working with us? He doesn’t seem to like us much. “If you weren’t able to follow my instructions, I might need to find a replacement who could. Have you followed my instructions in the other respect, Hydrus?”

“I did.” He bowed again, another exaggerated gesture. Was that why he wanted them to be changelings, so they would be smaller than the pony? It was certainly working. The more Hydrus acted, the more smug the pony became. “I have brought a bug from among my court, chosen at random. You can see her—nothing remarkable in any way. She is ordinary, and represents the sort of bug you might be able to employ if you choose to finalize your relationship with us.”

“We’ll see,” Blueblood said. Now his eyes turned on her, wide and critical. “Tell me about yourself, insect. What is your name?”

“Harlequin,” she answered. By reflex, she duplicated Hydrus’s bow. He responded to that—she could feel his satisfaction radiating from him in slow waves.

“You have more than a letter,” Blueblood said. “And you’re certain this one isn’t going to go catatonic on me, Hydrus? I don’t like being disappointed twice.”

“Positive,” he said. “That was a fluke, a bug who was deprived of love and sleep. Harlequin is healthy, and she will serve well for your purposes. Return her here when you are satisfied.”

“Indeed.” The pony walked right up to her, then lowered his hood. He towered over her, with an exaggeratedly masculine scent. Like something he’d sprayed more than the real thing. “I can’t travel with you like that. Where we’re going, I require a unicorn. Do it now.”

Harlequin swallowed, feeling the pressure of his attention on her. She started to hyperventilate—what she might’ve been able to do for a bug she trusted suddenly felt confusing. Her memories of the Swarm’s instructions were distant and difficult to understand.

She changed into the pony whose body she had stolen. But no, she couldn’t be that pony anymore—she was wanted! She was a disgraced guard now!

She changed again, copying Blueblood’s perfectly white coat, along with a cutie mark of the only other thing she could see—a shut gate.

“I only asked you to change once,” Blueblood said, annoyed. “First thing you are required to learn with me, insect. Follow my instructions precisely. Scribe them on your mind, if your mind is capable of memory. Or I’ll find a better fate for you than the last Hydrus sent to me. Are we clear?”

She nodded, looking away from him and shuddering under his attention. “W-we’re… clear.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” He turned away. “Come on then, Harlequin. My carriage is already waiting outside. I must be back inside within another minute or two, or they will believe I have come here to patronize your disgusting establishment. I cannot abide stories spreading of me, even in the highest circles.”

She nodded, hurrying to catch up. She glanced once back at Hydrus, but only stern eyes met hers. Even without the Swarm connecting the two of them, she could read his mind just fine from that face. ‘You’re on your own.’

She hurried to keep up with the prince, her ears flat. “You, uh…” What was she even allowed to say? “I think I should warn you. Like, uh…”

The unicorn stopped walking in the doorway, raising one eyebrow. “Spit it out, insect. And it better not be a waste of my time.” His horn began to glow, and she could feel the spell surrounding her. Unlike Hydrus, she wasn’t an expert magical warrior filled with magic. It wouldn’t be an act if he attacked her.

“What you said with names to Hydrus. My name is criminal to the ponies. They already caught me once. You should, uh… call me something else just in case.”

His horn went out. “That is useful information. From this moment forward, I will call you… Dewdrop.” He turned away, continuing through the gatehouse. “You will answer to that name henceforth, understand?”

She nodded, hurrying to keep up with him. There were more guards inside, the same ones she’d seen from far away on the wall. Up close, they wore all red cloaks, and carried mostly clubs and other blunt weapons. They wore no armor, only a gold pin around their necks of a closed rose. Symbolic of the thing they guarded, maybe?

They passed out onto the street beyond. Instantly Harlequin could see a part of Canterlot that many ponies would probably avoid—there was a thick smell about the place, and the gas-lamps were mostly off. The outside walls were covered with uneven layers of paint, and the grass around them was overgrown.

On the street just beyond was a carriage—not nearly as fancy as she’d expected from a pony like this. It was the same yellow and black model she’d seen dozens of all over the city, with a pony in a similar uniform waiting outside.

He seemed surprised to see them. “You, uh… really meant it about not staying?”

“Quite so,” he said. “I was only here to prevent a relative from making a mistake she might regret.” He nodded once towards her. “Go on, Dewdrop. Get inside. Mind your tongue. After what you’ve done, I’m not in a tolerant mood.”

She didn’t need to be told twice about following directions. Harlequin climbed in as the pony hastily pulled the carriage open for them, cramming up against one of the tiny windows.

And just like that, she was free. After being trapped for who knew how long, she was out in the open air again. Even in the worst part of Canterlot, she was still surrounded by ponies. Ponies, and food. She didn’t have to starve in the dark anymore.

“We won’t be conversing further along the way,” the unicorn said, as he climbed in beside her. “You’ve been quite naughty, Dewdrop.” His voice brooked no argument—absolutely confident, his eyes fierce. Even if she hadn’t felt cooperative, she would’ve only needed a single glance at his face to know she would be obeying.

They began their ride up the city, taking a sweeping series of switchbacks through the rock rather than the more comfortable gondola to the upper city. Blueblood watched the earth pony struggle out front without the slightest sympathy on his face, only the occasional reminder that they wanted to get there before sundown.

Eventually the city outside transformed into something closer to what she’d expected—and what she remembered. White marble, wide streets, polished lamps. Up here she couldn’t even see the damage from the invasion anymore. The benches were all put back, and most of the homes were already repaired. How long had she been gone?

“We’ve arrived,” the pony said, stopping suddenly beside an unassuming building surrounded by shops on both sides. “I expect you’ll…” Blueblood exited out the open door, tossing a bag of bits contemptuously onto the pavement in front of him. “For your time and your discretion,” he said. “With me, Dewdrop. Now.”

She only had time for one last sympathetic glance for the pony before hurrying after him.

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