• 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 38: Shattered

Harlequin followed Hydrus’s instructions about her disguise, though she didn’t really need them. There was no way she would travel across Canterlot without making herself look like a pony first.

She found the carriage parked beside the complex, and this time there was no missing the huge mark plastered along its side. It wasn’t the only one, either. She wondered briefly what had changed Blueblood’s mind about being seen, at least until she bothered to look down the street.

There were hundreds of ponies wearing that same mark—on sashes, shirts, hats. A massive metal bin as big as a building itself had been used to block the street, and a huge crew of ponies was hard at work making the finishing touches to a large warehouse. It looked mostly unfinished, though the basic structure was in place and the walls of steady wood were thick enough that even an earth pony probably couldn’t crack them.

Harlequin knew little about them, though she had seen ponies going in and out of them more than once. There were shops in there, and she was pretty sure some ponies lived on the top floors.

Not anymore.

Harlequin climbed into the carriage, and she hadn’t even got her back legs in before they started to move.

“About time. We’ve got a difficult day ahead, and it won’t be made easier with your delays.”

“Of course.” She lowered her head submissively. The unicorn didn’t frighten her the way a smaller Harlequin might’ve been frightened, but it still seemed like the right thing to do. It was what Hydrus did for Blueblood, and he was the master at this. “You’re our Nightmare goat?”

“I have… no idea what that means,” she answered, settling across the carriage. The pony glowered at her as she sat, almost as though she expected her to stand awkwardly in the aisle for the entire trip. But Harlequin wasn’t that committed to being afraid.

“It means you’re going to make sure the bugs don’t cause trouble,” she said, filling the air with frustration and indignation in equal measure. This pony hated that she’d been given this job. I just felt more love from a changeling.

Well, that was what she remembered. She was obviously wrong, somehow. Bugs couldn’t share love, that just wasn’t how it worked. It was just what happened when she shared so much of her supply. She was getting hungry again, that was it.

“Yes,” Harlequin agreed. “Hydrus said I’m supposed to help you bring them down here to the new prison.”

“The ones we can salvage,” she repeated, looking away. “I’ve been in that prison, and I have a realistic idea of our ability to find anything useful there. But we’re here to make a new world together. Your master, my employer. We can engage in functional cooperation even when we find each other detestable, can we not?”

Detestable. Harlequin hadn’t even recognized the emotion until Marquesa put a name to it. She wasn’t just afraid of her, she was actively disgusted to be near her. It was the same feeling Harlequin might have for an old cocoon left in the sun for a few days, or the refuse pile at the corner of a hive.

“I can work with anyone,” Harlequin answered reflexively, her tone flat. “We’re making a better world for my kind. One where we can live in the same city as yours. That seems worthwhile to me.”

Marquesa rolled her eyes. “You better not be bloody telling me that Hydrus sent me some kind of… idealist. How in Celestia’s name do you even get anything done in that hole?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, though. She turned away from Harlequin suddenly as they reached something outside the carriage, something Harlequin could see through her window.

There was a gathering of ponies there, packed in tight military rank and file. Harlequin’s confidence faded instantly as her memory filled with images taken from tiny eyes high above this city, where ponies in gold armor defended their homes from an army that shouldn’t be there.

But the crossbow bolts didn’t fly around her, killing dozens of her brothers and sisters while they were nameless. They didn’t even see her.

“If you have some kind of attack in front of me, I’m going to throw you out into the street.”

Harlequin blinked, straightened her posture, then looked back out. “Apologies,” she said, imitating the tone Blueblood had used. Then she looked again.

Most of them weren’t the guards in gold armor, but burly ponies with rusty metal instead, and sashes across their chests with the sun and pillar. House guards. Irongate’s house had similar guards, though far fewer.

Blueblood has his own army.

Marquesa leaned out past her, shoving the door open for a moment. “Captain Fortnight, is your company prepared?” Past the marshaled soldiers, citizens looked on with confusion. Harlequin could sense their worry, rising as they saw the armed soldiers, then fading again once they saw the golden armor around them. The house guards outnumbered the City Watch ten to one, but their presence still reassured them.

You’re wondering if your city is being invaded again. So am I.

“We would’ve been ready two hours ago on schedule, if it wasn’t for the city auxiliary.” A pegasus emerged from the crowd, pulling off his helmet. He was a pink pegasus, with a black streak of a mane that was shaved almost to nothing. Fortnight, apparently. “We’re ready, ma’am.”

“Then lead on,” she said. “Time to clean the castle dungeons.”

“Crimson Guard!” he roared, pulling on his helmet and taking to the air ahead of them. Every soldier in dull metal armor straightened, raising weapons over their shoulders. Their movements were more precise than Harlequin had ever seen from the watch. “Left-pace!” They spun together, somehow keeping their perfect lines, just facing towards the back road leading to the upper city. “Trot-march!”

Harlequin felt almost as little from them as she would’ve from an army of drones. They seemed to move even more in sync than the drones might. Only a slight edge of anticipation tinged the air around them, mixed with fear from their companions.

The City-Watch ponies followed in a disorderly mob, and Harlequin could see why. These were mostly recruits, so much so that she even made out a few familiar faces. Apple Cinnamon, what are you doing here?

She watched him through the glass, trying to get a sense of what he might be feeling in the crowd of so many. Was that… guilt? Hope? I bet he volunteered for this. He wants to see if I’m okay.

She would have to tell him, somehow.

They marched like that all the way to the upper city, stopping once or twice for the beleaguered City Watch to keep up. Harlequin felt their satisfaction grow a little each time, and the embarrassment and resentment of the City Watch grow in equal measure.

Even if the crowd of citizens wasn’t following from the lower city, there were plenty of ordinary ponies here to see. Traffic stopped as they approached, and Harlequin could catch a little of their fear. Of what the army was going to do, or maybe the army itself? She couldn’t tell.

She knew where they’d be going—past Canterlot Castle’s glorious front entrance, and around to the back where there was a squat stone fortification of perfectly regular blocks. There were no tourists here today, or in the gardens all around it. The whole area had been emptied.

They waited for a moment, watching as house guards poured into the double doors, forming a dense circle around the entrance. Even as she watched, another carriage pulled up, this one filled with identical wooden crates. She watched a pony empty them out, opening the first.

Fortnight landed beside it, yanking it open. “Crossbows, line up. Remember, aim for the wings. If one bug flies out of this, you’re bucked. It is better to kill than to risk an escape. If you see any suspicious behavior, you will shoot.”

Harlequin shrunk down into her seat, removing the glowing jar from where it was tucked into her satchel. The warmth of the love inside gave her no comfort, however. It tasted hollow even through the glass, compared to what she’d eaten lately.

Finally, Fortnight approached their carriage, knocking once on the wood. “Do we have our goat?”

“Get out there,” Marquesa said. “Tell them not to do anything stupid, please. I’m going to have enough paperwork after today.”

Harlequin slipped the jar away, then clambered out. The armored pegasus towered over her, as thick as two bugs. He had a crossbow on his back, and wings.

He squinted down at her, removing his helmet and holding it under one leg. “Is that supposed to fool me?”

She met his eyes, glaring. “No.”

“Good.” He started walking towards the double doors, forcing her to hurry to keep up with him. “You’re going to go in there and tell them they’re being moved. You tell them there’s food where they’re going, tell them whatever the buck you want to tell them so long as they cooperate.” Unlike Marquesa, he wasn’t disgusted by her. She could feel almost nothing for her. Almost. This still wasn’t a bug.

Harlequin passed through the doors, down the same hallways she’d once been sent to guard. It felt like so long ago, like she’d been a different bug then. But she still remembered the way. Changelings had good memories.

There were no opportunities for mistakes, in any case. Hallways had been blocked up from one end to the other, and any passage that didn’t lead directly to the prison was either sealed or guarded. Nothing that would’ve made a difference against the Swarm fighting together—together they could’ve seen the whole battlefield, and dismantled any barricade. But the Swarm was dead.

Harlequin reached the final set of doors, and a set of nervous-looking house guards. They backed away from her as she approached, holding spears out towards her. “We know what you are,” one of them said. “Go on. Do whatever you’re going to do. Make it quick.”

Harlequin walked around them, keeping out of reach of their spears. She knew incompetence when she saw it. As a matter of fact… “Get out,” she said. “And give me the keys. I’ll take care of this.”

She imitated Fortnight’s tone almost perfectly—enough that one of them actually dropped his spear. The other was a little more disciplined, and he tossed her the keys. “You know what they’ll do to you if you try to escape, right?”

“We’ll all die, I’m sure,” she said. “We have no reason to escape. I’ll make them see.”

That was apparently satisfying, because the two of them did nothing more than trot-march to get out of her way.

She passed through the final doors, then down the ramp into the prison.

The first thing that hit her was the smell, like bugs who hadn’t washed or molted in weeks too long. There was an unhealthy mildew to the place, and more than one of them had mold-spots on their coats. It was what happened when a bug didn’t have the energy to molt. She could feel the agony from them.

Harlequin felt eyes on her as she stepped into the room. There were far fewer eyes in here this time. She didn’t want to know what had happened to the others, but she could guess.

Hydrus had been right about the madness too. She felt their wild, unfocused attention, very much like the drones she taught below the hive. They watched her because she was something new, though there was no expectation in them that anything good would come of it.

She walked along the cages all the way to the end, where the pit that emptied into the lower dungeons was located. She had half a mind to let them all loose into it, flipping the magical lever so they could escape. Fortnight and his army were obviously not beholden to Hydrus. Could she really trust her kind to their mercy?

I don’t have a choice. The drones still in the tunnels down there will tear these weak bugs apart.

Harlequin stopped at the end of the hall, changing back into herself. Magic melted away the disguise, and instantly every bug in the room focused on her. Bugs that were too weak to move at least sat up, while many others rose from their dozing to stare.

These were the noble and great of her swarm, or they had been. Now they were barely alive and mostly starved. “Every bug on your hooves,” she instructed. “We’re leaving.”

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