• 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 33: Child

Harlequin learned something that night.

As it turned out, not everything she did had to be taught to her by the Swarm. She remembered this process, though the bug who had done it had been barely alive by her current understanding. Feeding on Codex and transforming him was something she never could’ve done without Hydrus.

Every second she worked, she could hear Codex’s voice in the back of her mind, chastising her for how insane this was. You met him for five minutes. Why didn’t you let him die? He’ll hate you for this, he’ll expose us all, and he’ll be right to do it because you did worse than kill him.

Would he say things like that now, the way he had when they’d first met?

Feeding was a strange thing—she wasn’t lost in an overflow of excess this time, not when she was already full of a magic far stronger than the one she was extracting from him. She was able to think, to put her hunger aside for a few moments and do other things. Such as locking the doors, drawing all the curtains, and yelling through the door whenever Lacework arrived that she didn’t want anypony else.

It was a good thing they followed her instructions, because the alternative would’ve meant certain death for her “father.”

Eventually she had him wrapped in a protective cocoon, which she further covered with blankets taken from all around the room until its shape was obscured. The magic had certainly worked—it glowed bright green whenever she lifted the blankets, rather than losing all its light and rupturing all over the floor.

That might still happen, and if it did—Lord Irongate would certainly die.

If he dies, he died thinking his daughter forgave him. The pain that came after will be forgotten.

It was only after she was done that the weight of her mistake came crashing down on her. Harlequin’s mind raced, spinning faster than she could remember. As she curled up on the couch pushed up against the door, a dozen different scenarios ran through her head.

There was one truth that weighed heaviest of all: by saving this pony’s life, she’d revealed that there were changelings at large in Equestria. That means he needs to live, and I need to teach him to transform back into himself before he can see anypony else. How hard would that be, anyway? Could it even be achieved at all?

There was fear for the future there, but she found it hard to care. Harlequin buzzed with so much power now that she felt like she could do just about anything she wanted. Helping the drones, she could do that. Maybe she should cut those changelings out of prison herself…

She didn’t sleep—changelings didn’t need much of that, but she did drift on the couch, as she guarded over her mistake. Her mind returned to that dark place, where a voice she couldn’t see whispered help and mockery both.

Tonight the voice was deadly dangerous, neither angry nor pleased. If you want a place in your own stories, you can’t take others out of theirs. Lord Irongate’s tragic death has ramifications—every thread is twined to a hundred others, and cutting one is not a decision made lightly. I will not help you rectify what you have done.

Harlequin wanted to tell the voice that she didn’t give a damn what she got help with—she’d saved that pony because it was the right thing, despite the cost. What mattered more than that?

She woke with a thump. Not coming from outside the room—evidently Lacework was actually keeping to her instructions. Instead, it came from behind her. Bright orange light spilled in from behind the curtains.

So he was right. No doctor came. Charon kept them away somehow.

But now something was moving in the cocoon—he was hatching.

Harlequin tore the blankets and rugs away, yanking them to the floor in time to watch with morbid fascination as the thing inside struggled to escape. A bug, just like her, black coat and milky eyed, banging his head into the semitransparent barrier containing him.

Harlequin could’ve taken a letter-opener and forced it, or used magic. But there were rules about this, rules that went deeper than the swarm. This was a bug’s first victory, and she wouldn’t take it away.

A few seconds later, and Silver Smith cut through. Slime poured out onto the floor, taking the pony with it. Well—not quite pony now. He shared all of Harlequin’s colors, just as she shared all the colors of the Queen. Though this fresh, his fins were still folded down and gray. He coughed and spluttered, hacking out lungfuls of slime.

Harlequin wasn’t wearing the disguise anymore. If something forced its way in now, there was no sense trying to hide when the evidence was so clear.

Silver looked up from the floor, silent for almost a full minute. When he finally spoke, his voice resounded just like any other changeling. Except there’s no swarm. I’m sorry you’re born without it.

“I am… changed,” he said. He reached down, feeling his underbelly with the side of one hoof. But if he was feeling for the wounds there, he wouldn’t find them. “What did you… what have you become?” He stumbled forward, to a tall mirror beside the desk. His eyes widened in terror and he retreated a few steps, slipping in the slime covering the floor.

“Celestia help me! I’m… I can’t be.” His voice no longer had any of the confidence of the night before. He sounded confused, terrified. “I can’t be a changeling.”

She walked over to him, offering him a blanket to use for drying. It was the best they had in here—there were only two doors leading out, and she didn’t know where the other one went. At least nopony had tried to use it to sneak inside.

“You are,” she said flatly. After feeling so much love from this pony, she let herself hope that his emotions might be different. Maybe they had found the first bug whose feelings were strong enough to harvest, ending their dependence on ponies forever.

But no. He was washed-out and gray, just like every other bug. Without the Swarm there, he barely seemed to know what to do with his wings. They were curled up on his back, slowly uncurling as they filled with hemolymph. “I said I could save your life, but the price would be terrible. Transforming you into a changeling regrows your body. I saw it before—I knew it would work.”

“Into a changeling…” he repeated, still staring at her. “Is this… the reason you’ve been so silent with me? Has all of this just been… because you replaced my daughter? She died then, years ago… and it’s all been a ruse. Brass Bell doesn’t—”

Harlequin was taller than this new drone, despite how much bigger he’d been the night before. She stood right over him without fear. This pony’s feelings were a confusing mess, he wasn’t going to call the authorities down on them now. “She was not,” she declared, voice confident. “The Queen hardly did anything to prepare for this invasion. She only replaced Princess Cadance, nopony else. When the army arrived in Canterlot, that was the first.”

“And why should I believe you?” he asked. He struggled to his feet, making it out of the slime before slumping back down again. He was still so weak, his body too soft to do anything yet. He needed to relax, otherwise he might tear his shell before it hardened, and be stuck with damage until he next molted. “This is more invasion. You… failed to take the throne with your army, and now you do it by stealth.”

“No.” Harlequin reached down, forcing him to meet her eyes. She spoke slowly, her voice absolutely confident. “Your pony enemies kidnapped your daughter yesterday, not changelings. We had nothing to do with it. I was sent here because you were supposed to be in Griffonstone. I wasn’t supposed to see you at all. When you returned from your trip, your daughter would be free again, and we would never meet.”

Silver had already opened his mouth to argue with her. But now he shut it again, stupefied. “You just… told me all that. Why?”

Harlequin saw the world larger, saw a queen looming over her. A queen whose words she didn’t understand. “Because I… I don’t know. It was incredibly stupid and may get creatures I love killed. But I couldn’t watch you die. I felt your pain, your regrets. I couldn’t just sit there and eat it all, pretending I was your daughter until you died. It wouldn’t be…” She reached out for the Swarm again, searching desperately for what she meant.

The Swarm didn’t answer.

“It wouldn’t be right,” she finished lamely.

The pony stared at her for a few moments more—then he started laughing. His wings spread, shaking the slime weighing them down as they did so. He laughed so loud that Harlequin was fairly certain she heard hoof steps coming.

The stallion’s voice finally relaxed. He shoved past her, resting a soft leg on her shoulder. “Charon thought they would kill me and rob me on the same night. The assassin did his work, and the robber nearly succeeded as well. You did steal something, I suppose...” He was still grinning, despite everything.

We should do something about that. Harlequin moved quickly, tossing every blanket and pillow she could find into the fireplace. The magic came so easily to her now that she hardly even needed to think about it. Five or six objects at once all went flying, then the empty cocoon last of all.

“Lady Irongate,” said a soft voice from the other side of the door. It was Lacework again, as she’d expected. “I’m so sorry that the Ponyville surgeon hasn’t… we still don’t know what went wrong there. We’ve sent three of the house guard to inquire, and they all returned unsuccessfully. Is there anything I can—”

“Yes, Lacework,” Silver said. His voice was still strange and vibrating, but it was also about the right tone. Would that be good enough? “I want fresh tea brought to my bedroom, then the windows shuttered and the doors not leading to the study to be locked and guarded.”

There was a thump on the other side of the door. A few seconds later, another voice spoke, the soldier who had greeted Harlequin earlier. “Lord Irongate? You sound… unwell. I think she fainted. Should I come in, and—”

“No!” he called instantly. “Absolutely not. Bring her somewhere to rest, then carry out my orders. Actually, sans the tea. Just lock and seal my bedroom. Do not enter the study, or my bedroom until I exit. Send the coroner away if he arrives, as well as any doctors. Tell them I will explain everything myself after some bedrest.”

“Of course, sir!” the soldier said. “Right away.” Then much lower, “Oakroot, help me with Lacework. Yeah, you get her other leg. Come on…” And they left.

Finally Silver spun back around to meet her eyes. “I can’t believe this. I’ve actually… cheated death. Become some… unholy abomination, it appears. But we can only ford one river at a time.” He wasn’t smiling exactly as he crossed the room again. “Do you need help with the fire? I have a tinderbox in the desk I use for cigars.”

“No,” she said, aiming her horn in. She didn’t know the first thing about unicorn magic, but she currently had so much magic she didn’t have to. Light blasted from her forehead, and the foul-smelling assembly all caught fire. Thick black smoke rose from the soaked garments and carpets, rising up the chimney and out of sight.

“I do wish… well, I suppose if I can cheat death, I can somehow find a way to get Brass Bell to speak to me. The real Bell. But first… you need to teach me how all this works. Don’t worry about the tea—the house guard couldn’t brew a good cup with all the leaves in Equestria. But I can, and you can tell me everything.”

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