• 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 35: Home

It took hours, but Harlequin had never had a more attentive student. Actually, she’d never had any kind of student who actually cared about what she was teaching before. For everything Codex had been, full of resentment and anger at her for what she’d done, this pony was all gratitude.

Silver Smith had no idea what was ahead of him—he’d given up more than drinking tea. But considering it was that or being dead, he seemed to think it was a worthwhile trade.

It was only afternoon by the time she finished, but that was still far faster than she’d imagined she would manage. Hours of work and a good chunk of magic later, and she was finally saying goodbye to what looked like the pony that had arrived in the middle of the night.

She stood on the threshold of his secret door. “Listen carefully,” he instructed, settling her pouch of bits around her neck. “This exit will leave you in the Everfree, near the path. Take it, and travel towards where the trees grow thinner. You’ll arrive in Ponyville after less than a mile of walking. I don’t think I have to ask you not to speak of this.”

She grinned. “Mutual death for your family and mine,” she said. “I don’t know the history of changelings, but it feels like something even the Queen would be proud of.”

Silver laughed quietly. “The reports I heard of the invasion made you seem like alien monsters, dredged up from our ancient past to torment us. Nothing at all like ponies. They were all wrong. Few of my business partners or my own family would’ve risked so much for a stranger.” He took a few steps closer, meeting her eyes. He was still taller now that he was a pony again, though not by as much as she expected. She was bigger. “I will not forget your kindness, Harlequin. You entered my house as an enemy, but you will leave it as a friend. One day, I will repay the debt I’ve incurred to you. I can’t sleep well with an unbalanced account.”

There was no deception in his words. Shallow and empty though any changeling’s emotions felt, he really did feel indebted to her. There was no resentment for his transformation, though there was still anger somewhere deeper. It was focused elsewhere, sharper than a sword.

“Please don’t… make it obvious you know we have your expansion plans,” she answered. “Hundreds of bugs are starving, and my success is their only chance. Give me time.”

“I will,” he answered. “But that’s not good enough. I owe you my life—until I pay it back, nothing will be enough. But before you go—” He caught her on the shoulder with one leg. It no longer had that irresistible earth pony strength. She could escape him if she wanted to press. But she didn’t. “Where will I find my daughter? It doesn’t matter that she curses my name and won’t take anything but bits from me. I can’t allow my family to be… attacked, so directly. I intend to repay that debt to whoever incurred it, with interest.”

There was the anger, fierce and cold and calculating. She’d felt this before, but hadn’t understood it at the time. It was the way Hydrus felt about the Queen.

“It was Prince Blueblood,” she answered. “Or ponies working for him. I don’t know where they took her, but he said she would be drugged and kept out of the way for a few days. He said they would release her when I was done, and she wouldn’t remember what had happened.”

Silver let go, glaring out the window. It was open now, freely admitting the late afternoon sunlight. There was no reason to hide, when Silver looked just like any other earth pony, and she was just a pegasus. The same generic version of herself, with a shut gate as her cutie mark. “The prince himself? Celestia’s own nephew tied up in…” He shook his head. “Harlequin, I’m beginning to dislike you. Everything you say digs my account deeper into the red.” But he was smiling as he said it.

Harlequin could now understand his sarcasm perfectly, where before it had confused and intimidated her. “I need to get going anyway. I don’t want to miss my train.”

Though her limitless new wealth of magic called her to go another direction, flee away from this nightmare and never come back—she resisted. Hydrus was back there, and dozens of “broken” drones who had been her brothers and sisters. If Silver owed her a debt, then her debt was to them. The nameless who suffered and starved because they hadn’t had the attention she did.

She hadn’t just fed on Silver, she’d learned from him. Harlequin could repay her debts too.

She found a stallion with a rose waiting on the platform, off by himself. She sat down beside him without invitation, ignoring his pointed glares.

“This spot is taken,” he said, adjusting the flower pinned to his expensive vest. “I’m waiting for somepony.”

Harlequin glanced around to be sure that nopony was close enough to overhear, then lowered her voice to a whisper. “You’re waiting on Lady Irongate, if I’m not mistaken. She sent me to tell you she’s taken ill and will not be making the return trip to Canterlot. I’m going in her place.”

His eyes widened with recognition, and his annoyance flashed briefly to suspicion, then relief. “Celestia preserve us, her, uh… her Uncle would not have been happy if she missed her appointments today. He’s eager to hear from her.”

“We can sit together on the trip,” she responded. “I can tell you enough to satisfy Uncle’s curiosity.”

She did better than just recite what she knew on the way back—with Silver’s knowledge and cooperation, she gave him a perfect recreation of the map, drawn in exacting detail. She still didn’t know what any of the words said; even her sudden understanding could go only so far.

The stallion took her map, and sent her back to the common part of the train, without so much as a farewell. But that was fine—if Blueblood was connected to the group that had tried to murder a pony for purely selfish reasons, then she wanted as little to do with him as possible. She’d hated being with him the first time.

Eventually the train passed through the archways into Canterlot, which was thankfully still absent of its magical shield that had once killed every bug who touched it. The ponies still thought they were secure, and she certainly wasn’t going to try and persuade them otherwise.

She didn’t get off in the upper city, not when she knew the hive was located in the lower section. She stepped off a station that smelled far more of ordinary ponies just trying to survive, with feelings that edged far closer to desperation than the simple boredom or annoyance that governed the noble ponies of the upper city. Besides, if she stayed low, there was no chance of her accidentally running into Apple Cinnamon and giving away something she shouldn’t.

She didn’t actually know how to find the hive, unfortunately. It would be well and good to follow the bugs in disguise by tracing out hollow emotions, but none of the ponies she passed were bugs in disguise. The ponies might not have any surefire way to reveal them, but if there were still any bugs hiding among their number, they were doing so in better places to live.

Eventually she struck on another idea: if she couldn’t follow her own kind, she could follow ponies. If there was one thing about their reactions that seemed consistent, it was their shame. So she followed that.

After a few blocks of wandering, she found a street she remembered taking with Blueblood’s carriage, and from then on all she really had to do was follow the streets back.

She found the old, hollow building on the corner of old warehouses and an overgrown park, exactly where it had been last time. It was mostly empty, though she could see a few pony guards lingering on the walls. Real pony guards too, not just Hydrus’s bugs in disguise. Right, because he doesn’t have very many who can pass as ponies. Easier to give them metal.

She gave her own pouch of bits a pat for good luck, then marched up to the entrance door and knocked.

It swung open quickly, with an annoyed-looking soldier in a plain uniform peeking out in her direction. She hadn’t seen him before, but that didn’t matter. “Filly, you’re too young for this place. Keep your bits and go somewhere better.”

Harlequin stuck her hoof in the door before he could shut it, smiling in satisfaction at her pony impression. Apparently she’d got good enough at it that guards around a changeling hive thought she was real. “I’m here to see Hydrus,” she whispered to him. “He’ll be expecting me.”

The guard’s eyes widened. He spun around, calling a command to a pony Harlequin couldn’t see. Then he got out of the way, urging her forward. “We can wait for him in here.”

They didn’t go through the large gate to one side, but into the building itself, where she was taken to a well-appointed room to wait. A pony servant arrived after a few minutes, with a tray of little snacks, but she sent him away. They didn’t look like they’d been made with love. Besides, she felt like she wouldn’t be hungry for weeks.

Eventually Hydrus did enter, though not as a bug. He had chosen a unicorn body for himself, tall and strong with a wickedly pointed horn. Of course she wouldn’t have known it was him, except for the way he spoke. The emotions underneath—suspicion, curiosity, and greed—were familiar to her, even if the latter one had been indecipherable until today.

“You knew my name, stranger.” His eyes lingered on her cutie mark, and he relaxed. “You don’t have to scare me like that, Harlequin. For a second I almost thought those emotions were real. I really do have an eye for talent…” He changed smoothly back into himself, stalking up to her. “I just received a messenger about House Charming. They took the prison contract, we’ll be getting our kin returned in short order. Fantastic news, all thanks to you.”

He circled slowly around her, as though he was sniffing for something. Harlequin changed back by reflex, lowering her head respectfully to him. “It was an honor to serve. But I don’t like Blueblood very much. He seems like he doesn’t really care about us. He just thinks we’ll be able to get him something.”

“Well yes,” Hydrus answered, stopping right in front of her and meeting her eyes. “Do you think the ponies drowning in happiness and friendship would’ve been willing to betray each other to help the swarm? We don’t have the luxury of choosing allies.”

She lowered her head obediently—not so much because she agreed as it helped hide that she was taller than she was before. Would he notice?

His eyes narrowed suspiciously, staring at her. Of course he knew—he was a changeling, he could read her just as easily as she could read other bugs. She hadn’t been lying when she said that changelings couldn’t lie to each other.

“I’ll… assume for your sake this was an honest mistake,” he said, reaching out towards her. But instead of doing anything violent, he yanked the cord holding the pouch of bits to her neck. “Remember in the future that anything you find belongs to the swarm. These should’ve been offered to me first, before anything else.”

He turned away, pushing another door ajar. This one led into the courtyard, and the entrance to the hive beyond. “Good work, Harlequin. I will ensure you are spared from all common work. But don’t stray far from the hive. When the next assignment comes outside our walls, I will call on you again.” He left, holding the pouch of metal up against his neck like a treasured grub.

You know what value is, Hydrus. But so do I.

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