• 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 41: Desperate

Harlequin stared up at the flames, trying to block the screams from her mind. All the comfortable platitudes about how changelings couldn’t feel real emotions, that she would never be prey—all that was shattered now by the agony she felt. But what could she do? There were no convenient water towers to knock over, no storms she could summon to put out the flames.

Even if she could appear in Celestia’s court right now and beg for her help, the princess of Equestria would probably be pleased that those who had killed so many of her own were seeing justice in its own way. There were sirens sounding in the distance, calls of “Fire Patrol, out of the way!” But one look down the street told her they’d never make it in time. The retreating army wasn’t moving, permitting only a single wagon to squeeze through at a grub’s pace.

“I taste your pain,” Hydrus said, spinning to face her. “It is needless, Harlequin. The agony you feel is only the product of ignorance. Trust that you are serving the swarm faithfully, and be content.”

Harlequin nodded. She couldn’t have lied to Hydrus, and she didn’t even try. Besides, she couldn’t just be told not to hurt anymore. She hurt, and badly. “I need… to think, Hydrus. They trusted… and now this. I need space.”

Hydrus faced her, his horn glowing faintly. “Take what time you need. If you leave, pick a convincing disguise. I will not forgive disloyalty from you, bug. But I’m certain those worries are in vain, aren’t they? You have too many bugs depending on you in the hive below. Codex, Thorax… you fancy yourself a growing queen, don’t you? Your own little buzzing royal consorts.”

He vanished, reappearing inches from her, his fangs bared and his eyes intense. “You can’t ever be a queen, Harlequin. You’re a drone, you’re sterile. No royal jelly, no eggs, no challenge to the Swarm’s king. We have enough drones stored under there for a century if we keep our numbers down—and we will.”

He let her go—not violently, just stepped back. Worst of all, there was genuine compassion from him. He really didn’t want her to be guilty. But because he cares about my pain? Or because he doesn’t want to lose a tool? “You’ve earned a break. But remember the bugs who depend on you. Without you here, they might starve. I know you don’t want that.”

Harlequin couldn’t stand to be near him for another second. She concentrated, then suddenly she was a pegasus. It wasn’t her best work—she was copying one of the fire ponies down below. She didn’t care.

She took off in a blur of feathers, turning out over the city, then off the cliff from Canterlot. She expected an escort of royal guards to join her, firing crossbows until she fell in a trail of green blood—but none came. There were no ponies following her at all in fact, not even a less-than-covert changeling tail.

For a few minutes she didn’t even think about where she flew—she just wanted to be away from Canterlot. But no matter how far she went, the smell of woodsmoke and burned flesh was never far behind. She couldn’t outrun her sin.

Harlequin neared delirium in her flight, and after a time she thought another creature glided beside her. Her wings were vast, trailing silver thread through the air as she flew. She never flapped, and whenever Harlequin turned to look directly, the shape was gone. Yet she could imagine the voice, and see the creature so long as she didn’t try to look. The growing gloom of nightfall made it easier.

“They would have rejected. The end is well.”

She wasn’t sure what that meant—or maybe she just didn’t want to think about it, and hate this other creature that had dogged her thoughts since she first woke.

I wish I was just one of the drones, she thought, bitterly. I would be in pain, but I wouldn’t understand it. I wouldn’t resent it. I wouldn’t hurt so badly.

Her companion didn’t touch her, yet a thin cord around her neck seemed to yank her slightly to the left, changing her course from a senseless spiral into nowhere towards a more familiar destination. Ponyville. She’d already flown for so long that she’d passed most of the town, though she was now in the right place to approach it from the other direction, soaring over its remote orchards and farms. Irongate.

“Hydrus is a blunt instrument, and his usefulness is nearly done. You would make a much better queen.”

“Go away,” she whispered, bitter. “The ponies already want us dead. Why would Hydrus help?”

“All creatures have been buying power with lives. His exchange was fiercely bartered, but he did not lie. The dead would have retaken the swarm for themselves, and been impossible to resist. You would be nothing to them, and Hydrus himself would be punished. You might have died with him.”

Was that supposed to make it hurt less?

At least the plantation was finally coming into view. She recognized the fences from the air. On the second floor, the lights in Lord Irongate’s study were already glowing. Is he here? Please be here!

“I am not finished with you, Harlequin. You are chosen for a purpose. You will carry it out.”

“What?” she asked, glancing wildly around her. “I just got bugs killed for no reason. I thought I was being clever, but everything I do just makes things worse.”

“Put them back in the story,” she said. “There’s thread enough for all. Weave yourselves back, give your names to fate.”

She slowed a little in her flight, squinting down at the guards. Most of them were earth ponies, but if she was actually seen breaking into this place, it would raise awkward questions. Even thinking she would probably be welcome…

But she was a changeling, and they were earth ponies. Their mistake was always to see only the two dimensions around them, and ignore the gloom gathering above.

She glided down onto the balcony, then changed as quickly as she could. Passion burned in her chest, but just below the surface was a deep well of exhaustion, threatening to rise up and consume her at any moment.

She resisted for long enough to change back into the earth pony heiress, then knocked lightly on the glass balcony door. Nevermind that there was no way for her to have reached this point.

A confused voice sounded from within, too muffled to judge. Something ruffled around, and the blinds slid suddenly out of the way.

A single pair of insect eyes peered out at her from inside, just worried enough for her to sense. She waved, though she didn’t have the energy to smile. “Hey, uh… could you let me in, please? I’d be…” What was she even supposed to say?

Nothing was needed. The door swung open, and a bug watched her with a confused and slightly relieved expression.

Silver Smith was a little smaller than she was. More importantly, he was also completely useless as a bug. He still used his hooves on the door, instead of his horn. “I didn’t think I’d see you again so soon, Harlequin.”

He shut the door quickly, lowering the blinds. His study was more or less the way she remembered, though there were some rail maps prominently on one wall. Their contents didn’t look the same as the ones she’d brought to Blueblood. So maybe something good would still come out of her nightmare. Two things. Silver is still alive.

“I didn’t expect to make a…” She whimpered, shaking her head. Whatever she’d been about to say dissolved into blind panic as she saw that they weren’t alone.

Not a royal guard with a dagger at her throat, though the next worse thing. It was Lacework, casually cleaning the desk. The steward watched her with mild interest, her eyes barely even seeing the master of her house.

“Uh…” She whimpered. “Silver, I think you…”

“You think my secret is revealed and I should be terrified beyond reason,” he said. “What do you say to that, Lacework?”

The pony looked up, tossing a soiled cloth into a bin. “I think that would be premature under the circumstances.”

“I quite agree.” Silver paced back around to the now-clean desk, settling down behind it. “Lacework, this is the one who saved my life. I’m sure she’s torn with guilt over manipulating you during her visit.”

Harlequin wasn’t sure what else to do—she let her disguise fade in a flash of green magic, waiting for the wave of anger and revulsion.

It didn’t come. Lacework couldn’t pretend for her—she was clearly an ordinary pony, and she really wasn’t afraid of her. There was only a little disorientation when she first used her magic, and that was all. “I’d prefer you not feel any guilt over the deception, if you can manage it. Your presence saved the leader of a family mine has been dutifully serving for many generations.”

“I’m…” She looked away. It was precisely a pony sort of thing to do, thinking that she might be guilty over telling a lie. She was too busy hearing the screams to care about some words. But she could lie now. “Thank you, Lacework.” She turned back. “How many ponies know about you, Silver?”

“Just her,” Silver said. “My daughter probably would, if I thought she cared if I lived or died.” He sighed, then lifted a tiny cup of tea from the desk. “I shouldn’t burden you with this discussion, Harlequin. I imagine you’ve come for something important.”

She nearly lost all her strength right there. She’d come so far—while the sun still shone, she’d been liberating the most powerful changelings from their prison. Now they were dead, and it was her fault.

She whimpered, and started to cry. She fought it valiantly, leaning up against a bookshelf, wiping her eyes with the back of a leg. Her wings buzzed together with her distress, and she could only manage to squeeze out a few words. “I, uh… I came… nowhere… nopony… else to ask.”

“I see.” There was only sympathy in Silver’s voice. “Lacework, if you wouldn’t mind a bit of privacy.”

“Of course, sir.” She turned to go, taking the tray in her magic. “Will you be needing me again this evening?”

“No, Lacework. Thank you.”

Lacework bowed, making for the door. “If that changes, don’t hesitate to ring for me. I’ll make sure you aren’t interrupted by unexpected visitors.”

But Harlequin barely saw.

Silver settled down on an armchair nearby, close enough to watch her without being too close. He waited for her to look up to say anything. “You know—I’m ignorant about these things. But if my daughter came to me doing what you’re doing now, I’d say the thing she needed most was a hug. Do changelings do hugs?”

“N-not… not really,” she stammered.

“I think I see your problem then,” Silver said, spreading his forelegs. “You’ll feel better, Harlequin. Whatever it is that’s bothering you.”

He was right—she did feel better. The gratitude he felt for her had only strengthened with time, strong enough that she might not have known he wasn’t a pony, if she couldn’t feel the holes in his legs.

More than that, this was a creature who didn’t depend on her. She wasn’t feeding him, he didn’t need to teach her how to think. And he wasn’t trying to trick her into killing ponies.

For the first time in her life—or at least as long as she’d been awake enough to feel anything at all, Harlequin felt safe.

“Silver,” she said, her voice quivering. “I, uh… I need to ask for some advice. I just saw…”

She told him everything. It took much longer than it had to, considering her complete lack of emotional control. But he listened, letting her ramble as long as it took to explain everything.

It felt good.

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