• 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 31: Mission

Harlequin stared at the strange pony, body completely frozen with horror. So far as she knew, she’d made the trip totally safely, without doing anything to reveal who and what she was.

Yet here was a pony to show her just how wrong she was. Without any effort, this pony had known she was a changeling. And she still wanted to claim that she wasn’t here for some hostile reason? “What do you want?” Harlequin asked. It was the closest thing she dared to a denial.

“First, to introduce myself,” she said, removing a flask from her vest and taking a sip. She offered it to Harlequin, before tucking it away again. “I’m agent Sweetie Drops. You may see me again, so remember it. Equestria knows what the bugs have done,” she said. “The, uh… facility you established in the lower city.”

Harlequin tensed visibly. She wanted to get up and run—maybe she could fly off the train, back in time to warn them. She had to do something!

But she didn’t move. This pony wore a heavy jacket, and there might be weapons inside. I can’t just run away. I have to be cleverer than that. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Princess Celestia was furious with what your ruler attempted to do,” Sweetie Drops went on. “Seizing Equestria through violence and arms—it hasn’t happened for centuries. Her memory of the last attempt remains fresh.”

Harlequin remained silent. She watched the window as Canterlot fell into the distance, and with it any chance she had of making it back to warn them. If the ponies plan anything, they probably already have ponies in place. They wouldn’t have told me unless it was too late to stop this.

Her sister is kinder, however. Princess Luna was not involved in the invasion, and she doesn’t wish to see your species wiped out. That’s why she was placed in command of the S.M.I.L.E. Agency in the first place. So she made sure that ponies looked the other way.”

“I still don’t see why you’re telling me this,” she said. “Even if it’s true. And I’m not admitting to anything, so you know. I’m not going to screw this up.”

The mare rolled her eyes. “I’m supposed to give you a message for whoever is in charge. It’s a stallion, I think his name is Hydrus. Tell him this: Equestria is watching. We don’t want to see you starve. But if you ever attempt to do what your queen did, you will lose the tolerance of Princess Luna. She’s taking a chance on you. Don’t make her regret it.”

She rose, turning away. “Enjoy your trip.” She left without another word, without waiting long enough for Harlequin to get a word in edgewise. The door clicked shut behind her.

She spent the remainder of the trip on her own. A conductor arrived at some point to put a hole in her ticket and ask what she wanted for lunch service. Not knowing what else to say, Harlequin just told him she wasn’t hungry and took tea.

It wasn’t as good as the time Apple Cinnamon had made it in the barracks, but it was still tea. Even if it did nothing to nourish her, it was a pleasant reminder of something she’d almost had.

Would I be happier if I still thought I was the last free bug? Would I rather be pretending to be a pony for myself instead of Hydrus?

She couldn’t answer.

The train took her gradually down from the great height of Canterlot to the low valleys around it, the parts of Equestria she’d seen only from far above. Harlequin leaned up close to the glass, sipping her tea as the fields passed on either side. Little pony settlements of a few homes, with creatures hard at work. Oblivious to the invasion that had taken place so closely.

The sheer scope of Equestria was daunting to her, almost more than she could think about at once. Her home in the Badlands was only one place—smaller than Canterlot by far. But it seemed no matter how long she kept going on the train, Equestria still didn’t run out. How far in each direction could she go and still be inside it?

The temptation to stay on the train when it finally stopped—to ride it as far as Equestria went, and further—was hard to resist. But she had to get off—her mission had only just begun.

Harlequin expected Ponyville to be exactly like Canterlot, except maybe that it would be on flat ground instead of hills.

She was completely wrong—the ponies had built an entirely different second city than their first one. Here the buildings were all made of wood, with strange grasslike fibers for their roofs instead of tile and glass. The ground under her hooves was mostly dirt, with only little patches of cobblestone.

Strangest of all, it was the first time she had a clear look at the night. There weren’t magical streetlights glowing on every street corner, filling Ponyville with white even in the darkness. Instead there were only a few gas lamps burning just outside of the train station, leading to one of the roads into town. The others were mostly dark, and what lights there were came only dimly.

Rent a carriage. Stay focused, Harlequin.

Fortunately for her, there were a few ponies with carriages waiting just outside the train station. One of them approached her without prompting, nodding towards the covered car.

Compared to the fancy enclosed cars in Canterlot, this one seemed almost comedic. “I’m looking to go north of Ponyville,” she said. “There’s a manor there, can you take me?”

“Of course!” The pony saluted. “You wouldn’t want to walk so far on your own at night. Three bits for the trip.”

Three bits? How many bits of metal did she have left? Harlequin opened the pouch, sticking her nose in for a second and pulling out three pieces, tossing them to him.

The earth pony caught them, looking them over with wide eyes. “Uh… these are platinum, miss. Sorry, dark. Here.” He tossed two back, then hurried off to his cart with the one. He came back with a pouch twice as large as the one she’d been given. “Your change.” It thumped onto the ground in front of her, heavily enough that the metal inside sagged against it.

“I didn’t change,” she said stubbornly. “I just want a trip to my manor.”

The pony just stared stupidly at her. “You didn’t… what?” Then he straightened. “Ma’am, if you’d prefer to give me regular bits instead, I wouldn’t have to break your platinum. I almost didn’t have enough in the cart.”

What does he mean? The other passengers were staring at her. Instead of arguing, Harlequin took the second sack of metal and added it to her first, following the pony to his carriage. At least she knew how to get in one of these, and the poise she was supposed to demonstrate while riding.

“I’m Regular Pace, by the way,” he said, once she was inside. He secured himself to the front of the cart by way of thick straps then took off down the road. Harlequin could see why the wheels were so much larger—with such an unfriendly dirt road, they probably needed to be to stop the little vehicle from skidding to a stop. “And you must be… the lady of the house, isn’t that right? Daughter of, uh…”

“I’m Lady Irongate,” she confirmed. There was no roof, so nothing to stop her from watching the little town as they passed through it. Buildings were much further apart here, and she wondered why. But not enough to ask.

Then they passed a gigantic tree, and she nearly fell over sideways. There was a pony outside, sweeping the steps leading up with her magic. A pony that Harlequin recognized from the last day of the occupation.

Pace noticed her discomfort, and apparently took it the wrong way, because he slowed to a stop near the front of the tree. “Did you need something from the library, Lady Irongate? It’s after closing, but I could ask Twilight for you if you—”

“No!” she squeaked, ears flat. “Nothing. Keep going, keep going!”

The unicorn had stopped her sweeping and was watching her now, expression curious. This was the same pony Harlequin had seen blast changelings away like they were nothing. This pony was precisely why they’d underestimated ponies so much—they seemed so innocent, so weak. Until they weren’t anymore.

Then Pace started moving again, and she could finally breathe. She kept her head down even so, wishing she could change into something smaller. But of course if she did that, then any chance of pulling this off would be gone.

Equestria knows about us after all. Princess Luna is okay with us trying to feed ourselves. That meant that if she could make it back safely, and find out about the things that pony had wanted to know, then the bugs in prison could stop starving.

Almost as soon as she’d entered Ponyville, it seemed like they were leaving it behind. Little lights burning in tiny windows gave way to the starlight and full moon overhead. Harlequin leaned back, breathing in the cool evening air and enjoying the gloom.

After a few glances behind her to confirm the unicorn wasn’t following, she finally let herself relax. “Tell me about Ponyville,” she said. Was it alright for her to order him around? Too late, she already had. “You’ve lived here for some time, yes?”

“My whole life,” he agreed. “It’s a… nice town. Mostly earth ponies. Most of us connected back to the first generation of Apple Family ponies here three centuries ago. Nothing like you ponies from the court… we’re humble folk. Farmers, merchants, craftsponies.”

“What do you…” How could she even ask. “You grow… food, right? Is that what farmers do?”

To her surprise, he didn’t seem to think her question was that strange. “Yes,” he said. “There’s the Apple Family farm, Sweet Apple Acres, still owned by the same ponies after all this time. There’s a pear orchard nearby, and… your family’s land. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about that.”

I wish you would anyway, she thought. “Does news travel this far?” she asked. “From Canterlot, I mean.”

“Sometimes,” he said. “We follow the NHL, if that’s what you mean. We have one of the best Hoofball teams in the midwestern block.”

“What about…” She winced. “Other things. Like the changeling invasion in Canterlot. How did that affect you?”

He chuckled. Ponyville had faded into the distance now, so far that she almost couldn’t see it. If they weren’t climbing up a gentle slope, it would probably be gone completely. Here were the apple trees he’d mentioned, with a distant farmhouse already gone dark for the night. “Not at all, if we’re being honest. We’re too small for national guardsponies, so we didn’t even have anypony to send. We got the warnings same as anypony, and so we stopped any trains from going on to Canterlot.”

Now that he’d started, he didn’t seem to want to stop. She opened her mouth, but she didn’t get a chance to speak again. “We didn’t evacuate either. Ponies were prepared to defend the town if it came to that. But our best were already there—Twilight, the librarian, she’s only one. The Elements of Harmony were there for the wedding. Everypony knew they would take care of it, and they did.”

A set of heavy iron gates rose into the distance. There were more trees behind them, organized into sections of different species. But Harlequin didn’t know quite enough to tell one kind of tree apart from another.

There was a tiny building beside the gate, with an even electric light glowing inside. A single pony wearing a black vest sat inside, watching them as they approached.

“I’m glad nopony from Ponyville was hurt,” she said.

“Me too,” he agreed. “The news doesn’t say anything specific, but we all know ponies died. There were real funerals and everything. Almost… impossible to believe that kind of thing can happen. That there’s real evil out there in the world.”

He stopped just in front of the gate, pausing as the guard approached. He took one look inside the cart, then jumped to attention. “Lady Irongate! I had… no idea you were visiting!”

“Neither did I, until I got here,” she said. “Open the gate.”

He hurried to obey, and soon they were walking up the long, cobbled drive. The manor was larger than most of the buildings of Ponyville behind them, with a style obviously reminiscent of Canterlot. Huge columns, pink glass windows, wide balconies on the upper stories. But it would have seemed small and puny compared to most of the upper-city buildings.

“Is there anything else you require, Lady Irongate?” Regular Pace said, as they reached the front doors. There were guards waiting outside, two stallions in black with swords on their backs. They too rose to unexpected attention, staring at her with shock.

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