• 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 45: Celestia

Harlequin could feel the eyes of dozens of ponies pressing in on her with an almost physical weight. But of the hundreds in the room—filled with hatred, anger, and suspicion—none were more important than the pony lording over her.

Her future was in the hooves of this princess, whose kingdom her own kind had invaded. Harlequin could’ve kept her mouth closed, and lived forever in the world that Hydrus created. They were safe, and so long as she didn’t upset him too much, he probably would’ve kept her forever as his useful tool. That path was burned now, and the invisible storyteller’s whims.

She couldn’t tell if that creature would’ve approved of this course, or if she was fighting it. But Harlequin no longer cared.

Harlequin passed several armed bailiffs, then down the steps onto the floor. There she was surrounded by nobles—many familiar faces, that she’d helped contain during the invasion. Would they remember her too? She could only hope not. Celestia’s eyes were harshest of all as she made her way to the podium, then cleared her throat.

“I, um… I’m not here to talk about railroads. I’m… I have more information about the way changelings have been treated since the invasion than anypony in this room.”

Just silence, with a little disordered muttering from some ponies. She could feel their hostility like a physical force in the air. They were eager for Celestia to judge her. Like they were anticipating the next act in a show.

“First, there’s one problem at the root of everything, that I’m not sure ponies understand. Changelings do not eat pony food, except when they’re grubs. For the rest of their lives, they depend on…” How could she even explain this? “Emotional energy. Love, friendship, kindness, loyalty… every positive feeling you experience is food to a changeling. That was what brought the invasion here in the first place. Equestria was so rich in love, that their queen thought she could feed all changelings with it.”

The hall wasn’t silent anymore. Ponies muttered and called indignantly to one another from the boxes and the floor behind her. She couldn’t make out any coherent words, but she could sense their disbelief.

All except Princess Celestia, whose overwhelming power meant her feelings were stronger than them all. She had gone from planning out an appropriate punishment for Harlequin to genuine curiosity. This was not what she expected. After a few more seconds of nobles arguing, Celestia tapped her hoof on the throne with a resounding click. “Allow the mare to finish her remarks,” she said, glowering out at the crowd. “There will be time for questions, and… an appropriate response. I’m sure your curiosity and mine overlap.”

Harlequin tensed slightly but she couldn’t let nerves overwhelm her now. “This meant that the prison you created after the invasion was… a torture chamber. The bugs you kept upstairs might’ve been able to harvest a little attention from their guards and visitors, but the ones you put underground were starving. If you go down your supply-ramp, you’ll find a mountain of spoiled food at the bottom, because no bug can eat it.”

Now there was silence. The weight of her accusation rested on them—even on Celestia. Was that a flash of guilt she sensed?

“Bugs can live for, uh… longer than ponies without food, I think. But as you starve, you lose your mind, become feral and dangerous. If you do go down that ramp to check my story, make sure you go in force. The creatures down there are not changelings anymore, they’re monsters.”

“What you’re saying…” Celestia said, her tone more neutral than any of the other creatures in the room. “I’m not sure I see how this relates to the prison accident. Unless you’re implying that some in this room might be complicit in the process, and… trying to erase the evidence of this mistake.”

Was Celestia actually believing her? Or just letting her finish so she could incriminate herself? Harlequin didn’t know, but it was far too late to try and escape this. She’d committed, now it was time to see it through to the end. She’d probably end up in chains, or dead a dozen different ways. But I died on my own terms. This is my story, no matter what she says.

“Some changelings are… little more than animals. The invasion force the queen brought was mostly drones, very young changelings that haven’t matured yet. Without love, they never will. But there were some in jail who weren’t. One of these was a leader in the swarm called Hydrus. He took precautions before the invasion was over, in case it failed. Set up a…” It felt wrong to even say the word in company like this. But she didn’t have much choice.

“He set up a brothel in your lower city. It’s inside an old church, near the end of Vapor Street. I have seen many in this room visiting it, so I’m sure knowledge of it is getting around.”

If her accusations before had been loud, this was like a bomb. She was completely overwhelmed with shouts—objections of many ponies to her outrageous lies, while others started accusing each other. Their emotions probably would’ve overwhelmed a younger Harlequin, washing away whatever she was feeling in the maelstrom of true emotions. But now she didn’t care what they felt about her. She had a higher loyalty.

Besides, there was only one pony in the room she really needed to convince, and that one went from open disbelief as she said it to some complex mixture of emotions Harlequin couldn’t describe the longer ponies debated. She knows they wouldn’t have reacted like that if I lied.

It was almost two minutes before she could finally speak again. A few ponies were dragged out by bailiffs, who had gone from getting ready to arrest her to mostly keeping ponies from her. Professionals, if nothing else.

Eventually the room fell quiet again, if only with Celestia’s prompting, and she could finish her story. “The Canterlot Caverns were connected to this facility, allowing the bugs who were smart enough somewhere to live and something to eat. Those who didn’t find it in time would’ve gone feral by now, or starved to death.”

“Is this all she has to say?” asked a pony from one of the upper boxes. A stuffy mare, wearing so many frills Harlequin could barely see her face. “No evidence, no connection to the prince’s troubling case. I’m not sure she hasn’t just wasted all our time with pointless scandal.”

Celestia turned on her. “Lady Cerise makes important points, if out of turn. Do you have evidence for anything you’ve just shared with us? And more importantly, you claimed that the disaster wasn’t Blueblood’s fault. I assumed you must be a plant of his, taking the responsibility for his failures. But I see no connection.”

“He agreed to help a murderer,” Harlequin said, without thinking. “He’s an accomplice to the crime. He orchestrated it. Maybe he’s more guilty. I’m not here to defend him. But… the one who wanted those bugs dead isn’t Blueblood. It’s the leader of the surviving swarm, centered in that brothel. His name is Hydrus, and the ones who died were his… rivals.” She blinked, wiping away tears. Pharynx might’ve helped the invasion, but he also cared about his bugs in a way Hydrus never did. None of those bugs deserved to die.

“You are so close, Harlequin. You understand what it means to have a place in your own story. When Hydrus is gone, I will accept you. Be the queen they deserve.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she finished. “Not to… defend Blueblood. But to beg for help for the swarm. Bugs were starving, they didn’t have a choice. But the ones who brought them to Equestria are all dead now. They just want enough to eat, they just want to live. But if Hydrus gets his way, maybe they never will. He doesn’t care about his bugs, all he cares about is ruling the swarm. I can’t… I can’t stop him, but maybe you can.”

Finally she fell silent on the stand, slumping with the effort of what she’d just said. Incredibly stupid things. Thinking about it did not fill her with confidence about the reception she would receive. Maybe she should’ve written some noble speech, planning it for weeks. But she hadn’t known Hydrus was evil, and she still didn’t know how to read.

“These are all… interesting claims,” Celestia said. “Disturbing claims, given how many of them would be my personal responsibility. But now that you’ve had your say, the court demands to know how you know so much. Our own magical experts have told us nothing useful about changelings since the invasion, yet you are the… daughter of a railroader. By reputation, you should have nothing useful to say in this court. Why should we believe any of these things are true?”

“Well…” She rose to her hooves again, though her energy was almost gone. She’d given up so much magic, and it had been ages since she tasted more. Maybe now she never would. “Some of this you can verify for yourself. The brothel is… well known, and I don’t think it could be evacuated before you verify it’s there.” And I might’ve damned every bug in there to a pony sword because I came here for help.

“You can check on the prison yourself. Though… prepare to fight, like I said, since the bugs in there are feral. You’ll find the food at the bottom.”

“That’s all?” Celestia said. “Those things can be verified, certainly. While you spoke, I have already begun to mobilize the guard. Yet… that doesn’t explain why we should treat you like an authority. I demand to know how you know all this about our invaders. Why should we believe what you’ve said? It reflects terribly on Equestria, despite the anger changelings rightfully deserve.”

“Because…” It might take a fair bit of magic to copy a pony, but it took almost none to dismiss her illusion. She changed back in an abrupt flash, feeling her hooves settle on the wooden dais, now much closer to head level. Even though she’d grown quite a bit as a bug, she was still shorter than a pony. “Because I’m one of them. Because I’ve been part of it since the beginning.”

It was probably the single stupidest thing she could’ve done. Ponies rose from their seats, screamed, backed away in terror. House guards stepped forward towards the balcony, and the bailiffs that had been protecting her before now actually drew their swords, all aimed at her.

All pointless. She stood only twenty paces away from the most powerful being in Equestria, maybe the world. Princess Celestia loomed over her, and the mixture of confusing emotions faded to something cold. She was actively suppressing her feelings now, and Harlequin didn’t have a prayer of guessing them. “Do not harm her,” Celestia called, her voice booming over the court. “She’s mine.”

The sun princess didn’t seem terribly bothered about the panic as ponies ran from her court. To their credit, not all of them fled. Some only slid their seats back, using their house guards as shields. Others watched with curiosity more than fear. Harlequin dared a single glance towards Silver, hoping he’d been part of the act. He would already be under intense suspicion after this, but if he played it off right, maybe he could…

No luck. He sat perfectly calm in his booth, watching her. If the event was a little different, he probably would’ve been cheering her on. Too bad she couldn’t feel his confidence through the crowd.

“You infiltrated my court,” Celestia said, rising to stand at her throne. “I have no doubt you committed numberless crimes to reach the ground where you stand. You’re an invader, a trespasser.”

She nodded. There was no point trying to argue. A pony was dead because of her, and there were two ponies who weren’t ponies anymore. She’d probably broken lots of other complex pony laws too. “I deserve whatever punishment you have for me, Princess. But please—save the other bugs. They’re in terrible danger under Hydrus’s rule. Nopony can stop him but you.”

It was time to face judgement. That wouldn’t be so bad, if she could save some of her brothers and sisters in the swarm while she was at it.

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