• 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 42: Insanity

There hadn’t been much time to recover from what she had seen. But Harlequin spoke anyway, relieved that there was anyone she could tell. Hydrus’s last words boiled in the back of her mind, the reminder that those she cared about were at the mercy of his indulgence. If he thought she was betraying his swarm, then both of them might be the next to burn.

Eventually there was nothing left to say. She slumped onto the couch, exhausted. She wasn’t even really sure she expected Silver to have anything like advice: she just wanted to tell someone.

She dozed there in the gloom, her mind drifting to the spectral land of golden phantoms. Not dreams, as the being there so often reminded her. Dreams were for creatures with a story, and she had none. Instead of the mind of the Swarm, she was alone.

“You’ve come so far, Harlequin,” it said. “All the pieces are almost in place. You’ve toppled a rook, a knight, and many pawns. All that’s waiting is the king.”

She woke, feeling a blanket wrapped around her shoulder. She looked up, eyes wide with panic—but it was still night. A full night’s sleep for a changeling was never long.

“I thought you needed some time to rest,” said a voice from the other side of the room. Silver Smith, of course, sitting at the desk surrounded by books. “You gave me a little time to think about what you said. This new… independence from tiredness truly is remarkable, by the way.”

She sat up, shaking out the blanket. “Thanks.” She did feel better, though the guilt was still there. It had scabbed over, and the force holding her together was a feeble one. “Did you think of anything I could do?”

“Nothing you’ll like.” He closed the book in front of him with a snap, and obvious concentration. His horn glowed for a few seconds, and he looked immensely proud of himself. “You’ll be unsurprised to hear that there’s no easy solution to this. From the sound of it, your creatures are ruled by an evil tyrant. He sacrificed dozens of them because he thought they were a threat to his rule. Monsters who value rulership more than the ones they rule often make decisions like this. No matter what he says, this act won’t be his only one. Anytime he thinks he can solve a problem with blood, he’ll try.”

“I… yeah.” She nodded weakly. “Hydrus is a monster. He doesn’t feed the drones enough either. If I hadn’t started taking over, they’d be starving. It’s… the worst way to die. Withering away until there’s nothing left. I saw what happened to some of those bugs.”

“So he needs to go,” Silver finished. “A hostile takeover is the only option, given what he did just now. Power would’ve peacefully changed hooves, and he refused to give it up. You will have to take it.”

She whimpered, staring down at her hooves. It wasn’t that she was afraid of fighting—Harlequin’s last knowledge from the Swarm was in combat. But Hydrus had the Swarm too, for many years longer than she. He seemed to understand magic in a way that was only just now opening to her. And he could read.

“I don’t know if I can. He has all that love… For changelings like us, love is power. It’s how we can win against ponies that have way stronger magic than we do. A pony only has so much magic in them at once—but we can use all of it. If he thought I was a real threat to him, he could turn me into a crater. Maybe the whole colony with me.”

Silver winced, nodding gravely. “I heard that your—our… no, let’s go with ‘the previous’ changeling queen. I wasn’t at court that day, but I have a friend who was in the audience for the wedding. The queen defeated Celestia herself in single combat. I imagine you’ve just explained how this is possible.”

Harlequin nodded again. “I don’t think Hydrus could beat her. Once they really started fighting us, Princess Cadance basically ended our civilization with one spell. No more Swarm… we’ve been broken ever since. But if I fought him, I’d be way worse off than Celestia. I wouldn’t get captured, I’d get… melted.”

Silver rose from the desk, circling around past the bookshelf to an ancient-looking painting, framed in dark wood. It depicted the day and night, polarized with a single moment connecting them over an older, smaller version of Canterlot Castle. “Then you will like my advice even less. I’m sure you’ll ignore it, and I won’t take offense. I know how it will probably sound to one who has done nothing but fear us her entire life. The things you saw from Equestria after the war ended, you were right to fear. But if I were in your hooves, your leader’s actions would give me no choice.”

He hovered, gesturing at the oversized version of Celestia’s cutie mark in the air. “There’s only one creature in the world that can help your hive. With Celestia’s help, maybe you can stop Hydrus from getting everypony killed. Without her… it will just be one nightmare after another.”

He was right about one thing: she didn’t like the idea.

Harlequin backed away, her wings buzzing again in agitation. She turned instinctively towards the window, though of course she couldn’t use it. She didn’t try. “What do you think…” She was looking at another bug, one who’d been kind to her. One who she knew felt nothing but loyalty towards her. This isn’t an attack. He isn’t trying to trick me. He really believes this.

She took a deep breath, clearing her mind as much as she could before daring to speak. “I don’t know what Celestia could do for me, Silver. She hates us. She cared so little about bugs she didn’t bother to see if we could eat the food. She sold the prison contract to a noble pony who helped burn us to death the same day he got it.”

“Exactly!” Silver crossed the distance between them in a few quick strides, getting a little more energetic. “Harlequin, I know this is hard for you to accept—but my family is in the court. I’ve watched her rule of Equestria for thirty years. I’ve seen Princess Celestia do the best she could for everypony in her kingdom. She even rehabilitated Nightmare Moon, letting her sister return to power. She’s not above forgiveness.

“More importantly, I think she’s going to be furious about this accident. Perhaps it was foolish of her to assume that all creatures could eat the same food. But forgive her that mistake, and realize that the disaster you suffered is one that will prime her to intervene. I can get you into the court. We can go together, and with my help, she’ll listen to you.”

Harlequin stopped, considering that. Any fear this might be a trap faded with those words. “If you go into the castle with me… Silver, you know the danger you’ll be in. She’ll see I’m a changeling, she’ll suspect you are too. I’ve already seen one pony stolen from his family because Equestria didn’t believe that I could make a bug out of a pony. They won’t believe you either, and you’ll end up in prison with me to face Hydrus’s wrath.”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve been anxiously engaged in this cause since you first changed me. Every secret is a fleeting thing—my company succeeds because we openly provide the best transportation to everypony, not because we plot and manipulate them.” He shrugged. “If every strategy I have employed ends in failure, I will not mourn it. My life in exchange for the creatures who saved me—it’s a hard bargain, but fair.”

Harlequin nearly cried again. He couldn’t hide his honesty from her. He really was willing to die, if it came down to that. Those words carried magic more powerful than anything Hydrus’s workers could harvest in the brothel. Not enough to win a fight against him, but… it was something. You’re wrong too, voice. Who said we can’t have our own stories?

“That’s all you think it would take?” she asked. “We visit the court, and you introduce me to Celestia? Then I explain what’s going on, and she fights Hydrus?”

“Well…” Silver finally looked away. “Maybe not that easy. I could get you time at court, but there are other ponies in attendance. I think you’re familiar with one of those who holds the most influence there—Blueblood. Ousting Hydrus would destroy a powerful ally of his, and put his power at risk. He will do everything within his ability to stop you. We might both not survive it. But whose lives matter more: yours, or every other bug?”

She shivered at the heady flavor of that love. Even the faint echo a changeling could produce was momentarily overwhelming. He actually meant it. It was what the mindless drones did for the swarm, only with individuality and intelligence. Knowing they might die. Could she feel that much love for another creature?

“He might kill my friends,” Harlequin whispered. “He has… hostages. A professor named Codex, and a bug who helped me when I was young, Thorax. If he finds out what I’ve done before Celestia gets there. Am I allowed to make a decision that might put them at risk?”

Silver shook his head. “You aren’t the one making that decision. You aren’t responsible for the evil done by others, Harlequin. His hoof has the knife. And if it’s a barter, then it’s still four lives against all of them. Grisly mathematics, but scarcity usually is.”

It wasn’t much of a plan. But there weren’t many other choices. Either she could fly back to the swarm and be complicit in their evil, or she could fight, and risk a few lives to stop Hydrus from killing any more.

Pharynx loved the other bugs too. He was in the warehouse when it burned because of me. So were all those others.

“I guess…” This wasn’t much of a choice, but who else was there to make it? Queen Chrysalis was the one who should be caring for the Swarm, and she’d abandoned them long ago. Somepony had to do something. “I’ll do it. We can do it. If you’re willing to get me in.”

He met her eyes, nodding gravely. “I’m glad you didn’t make that decision lightly. But I think it’s the right choice. For you, for me… for every changeling who lasted this long.”

“How, uh… how quickly can we do it? If I stay away for very long, Hydrus is going to think I betrayed him already. The quicker this goes, I think the better our chances.”

Silver nodded. “You’ll have to impersonate my daughter again if we’re going to make the visit unannounced. I should be able to call in a favor or two to get some time on the floor. There are some risks, of course. You were sent to impersonate her once before, so that route does eliminate any chance our enemies won’t realize what you’re doing.”

“They don’t know you’re a bug too,” Harlequin said. “If anyone dies today, it will be me. So many others already did… it’s only fair if I join them. Just get me through the door.” She rose to her full height, silencing him suddenly with a wing. “No, I’m not going to argue with you. I don’t care what I’ve done for you. At least if you live, you can survive to spite that awful family for what they tried to do. If it goes badly, you’re going to sell me out. Tell them all the ways I manipulated you, and renounce me. Are we clear?”

Silver Smith’s expression twisted in rebellion, and a battle raged just under the surface. Harlequin stared imperiously at him, until obedience won out over everything else. “As you say,” he muttered. “But I don’t think it will be necessary, you’ll see. Princess Celestia will help us.”

Or we’re all dead.

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