• 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 46: Punishment

Princess Celestia loomed over her, horn glowing with magical might. This might be Harlequin’s last few seconds of life—that magic could burn her to nothing just like the city shield had done so many times. But that terrible spell never came.

“What is your name, changeling? I know you must have one, if you were clever enough to reach me.”

“Harlequin,” she answered. Stole that too.

“Harlequin…” the princess repeated, ignoring the protests of the various nobles scattered around the room. “This solution of yours is… almost pony. You might very well be the most civilized changeling I have ever encountered. But… your fate is secondary. Bailiff, escort this changeling to a castle holding cell. She’s been polite thus far, I’m sure she’ll continue to be.” She straightened. “Court is adjourned. My sister and I must… deal with this threat to Canterlot. It’s… probably too late to keep this information private, but please don’t cause a panic.”

She vanished in a flash of bright light. Sure enough, ponies began to disperse, getting as much distance between themselves and the changeling as they could. Harlequin backed down the stand, wings flat to her back so they’d know she wasn’t going to run. “I’m not going to fight,” she said flatly. “Or run. Just… tell me where to go.”

They did, leading her from the hall. She passed through a torrent of emotions in the hall as they led her toward a door near the back, four stern looking unicorns in armor. This was what she’d expected—but her own future didn’t matter.

They opened an old metal door, then proceeded down a dark stone hallway. The ramp took her below the castle, in the same stone labyrinths where she had spent so much time a prisoner. At least the pressure of emotions on her mind wasn’t confusing her anymore. She could think.

“Almost done, Harlequin. The bishops of greed are burned. The knights of knowledge are severed. The queen of scorn has abandoned her children. All that’s left is the king of conquest. He would not bow. He wouldn’t accept your place in the story. But you will. You understand the value of being part of something greater than yourself.”

It was more than the voice had told her in a long time. It seemed almost conversational. I don’t understand, she thought back, hoping it would hear. She didn’t want to give these ponies any excuse to kill her before she could face judgement from the Alicorns.

She got no response, and so her mind began to wander again. The space around them didn’t look like it was going to lead to the dungeon she knew well. The torch brackets here were long empty, and there was thick dust on the floor.

That was when she realized, and her whole body tensed. They’d gone some distance from the pony court now, so she couldn’t feel them at all. She should’ve felt the hatred of these ponies, or their indignance, or just their commitment to duty.

Their feelings had been so confounded with those other ponies before, but now—they were flat. Hydrus. He replaced the bailiffs.

She barely skipped a beat, walking along as though she hadn’t noticed anything. But it was pointless. Her spike of shock and surprise was too obvious.

The guards walked two ahead, two behind, weapons always at the ready. Now one of the ones behind her finally spoke. “Do you know why Queen Chrysalis always ate her inferiors?”

The question was so matter-of-fact that she almost didn’t realize what she was hearing. The guardspony who spoke it sounded so casual, and so familiar. She knew that tone.

“Ponies crave domination and control. They’re eager to give their freedom away and have powerful rulers make them safe. They’re quick to forget what their impotence earned them.” They reached the end of the path, and a heavy iron hatch in the floor, recently pried free. Through the opening was darkness, and a terrible stench of decay.

Something flashed, and suddenly Hydrus was there, still wielding the spear in his magic. The rest of the uniform was gone. “We’re the inverse of ponies, I think. Every bug wants to be their own queen, they can’t help it. In the end, they always betray the ones who know better. That’s why I was content to be a in the background. While other bugs tore each other down to excel, none fought with me. I hoarded something much more valuable than glory: talent.”

He advanced on her, spinning his spear through the air. Harlequin retreated by reflex, towards the opening in the floor. There were no other exits, no windows. They were so deep underground that nopony would hear her scream. And if she tried to teleport past them, that spear would be in her neck before she finished the spell.

“I misjudged you. When I first saw little H, I thought she was something unique. A creature with some real loyalty. I took a gamble on her, and I thought it had paid off.” Then he moved.

His body blurred impossibly fast as he spent some of his vast wealth of glamour. He smacked the butt of his spear into her right foreleg with the force of a rock-crusher, shattering the exoskeleton. She screamed as the blow broke her, dropping to the ground. Thick blue slime oozed from the wound, momentarily stunning her.

“Turns out, you were a changeling after all. Maybe the truest bug of all. You didn’t just betray me. You betrayed all of us.”

“You…” She could barely form the words. She couldn’t concentrate on anything, her whole body fuzzed. He’s going to get away. The princess is going to attack a colony without a tyrant. It was all for nothing. “You stayed. Didn’t… take your hoard somewhere else?”

He chuckled. “I moved my hoard a long time ago.” He stopped just beside her, then smacked her again with the spear, shattering more of her chitin along her back. She screamed, body spasming in pain… but there was nowhere to go. No one to hear.

“You’re so young, Harlequin, you can’t see time the way I do. Drones live in the moment, and you’re… still stuck thinking that way.” He rose, tapping the side of his head with a hoof. “Think! The ponies aren’t stupid, they were going to realize how to feed us sooner or later. Realize we were missing. I’ve been laying up in store against that day, investing in talent as I never could before. Thousands of harvests, and ponies who see our powers as something to be envied. That was the last piece of the puzzle, Harlequin. We don’t need a queen to build the swarm, when we have so many ponies all around us.”

He dropped down beside her, his voice a whisper. “I was going to make you part of it, Harlequin. For a time, I thought you were my most faithful servant.” He shook his head. “But you’re a slave to something you don’t even understand.” He rose, circling past her to where the open shaft must be.

The place they were going to dump her body, obviously. It smelled like she wouldn’t be the first one. Or… no, that smell wasn’t just rotting bodies. It was the changeling prison, with festering pony food, dead bugs, and living creatures that weren’t quite bugs anymore.

“Y-you.. You know?” she whispered. But even as she said it, it felt wrong. She hadn’t fought him because the voice told her to. She fought because what he did was wrong. The bugs in the swarm with no names deserved their own chance to live. They deserved a leader who wouldn’t murder them to cement his own power. “The voice, the… Storyteller.”

He laughed, voice bitter and angry. “The Unturning,” he corrected. “A master crueler than Queen Chrysalis ever was.”

“W-who…” she stammered. “Who is she? What is she?”

For a second, it seemed like Hydrus was just going to stab her with the spear for her inopportune question. But he’d already shared so much information with the bug who was about to die. He almost seemed like he couldn’t help it. “The Lorekeepers are gone,” he said flatly. “With the mind gone, I lost that wisdom. But I remember one thing. She is our oldest sworn enemy. We gave up our… everything, to fight her. And yet she has made you a tool to destroy us. Our oldest adversary almost won.”

“Untrue. I have never meant to destroy you. Your actions will purify the Swarm’s ancient taint. You’ve learned so much from your time with ponies, Harlequin. Love as they love. Accept your place.”

He swung again, another terrible blow. She was bleeding from so many places now that she could hardly keep track. Every movement was another spear of agony through her body, making it hard to concentrate.

If only she’d had a weapon, she could’ve… well, not fought Hydrus, but at least killed one of his guards before she died. That might not sting so much.

“Your loyalty to another master has bought you more than just death. I could kill you here in the dark, and nopony would ever find you… but the punishment for treason is worse than simple death. It needs to be a death that bugs will tell stories about. Bugs in my swarm.”

She tensed, expecting him to swing again. She’d be beaten to death in a hallway, bleeding out onto the stone… but no.

Instead of swinging at her, Hydrus braced his spear up against her, and pushed. The other “guards” helped as well, shoving her roughly towards the opening.

Then she heard it. A hissing, animal roar. Her eyes widened as she recognized it—feral bugs. The last survivors of the changeling prison.

“I didn’t hurt your wings,” Hydrus said. “But I’ve never known a bug who could fight the instinct to use them. If you want one last mercy, hold still long enough to hit the ground and die. It’ll be easier than what they do to a broken bug like you.”

Then they shoved, and Harlequin tumbled over the edge.

Hydrus was wrong about her, though. She was plenty strong enough not to use her wings. She just didn’t want to. I want to live.

She buzzed her wings—not enough to fly back up, her body was too broken for that. The very act of falling filled her with pain, showering blood through the air behind her. Like chumming the water for a shark.

“I have a place in the story waiting for you, Harlequin. I require a queen who will abandon all the old feuds. I think that’s you.”

She landed with a harsh thump, bumping and rolling along rough stone. It felt familiar under her body as she spun, legs turning over each other and wounds getting worse. Finally she fell still, a moaning heap on the floor.

She hadn’t dared heal herself with Hydrus there, knowing full well that he’d keep breaking her until she had no magic left to spend. She stopped holding back, and all the magic she’d been hoarding exploded through her.

Her broken shell began to glow, as the vast fortune of love she’d gathered repaired the damage Hydrus’s blows had caused. With magic like this, she didn’t have to wait for her next molting.

She screamed with pain as the magic burned through her, and an incredible wealth of glamour was erased. But that didn’t matter—nothing mattered, because she was alive.

Harlequin stood, her legs shaking as she found her footing.

Somewhere far above, in an opening without even a glow from a pony’s horn, she heard Hydrus laugh.

Then she learned why. From all around the cavern, down a dozen different unseen passages, the degenerate things that had once been bugs all roared with hunger. Their voices had nothing of intelligence left in them anymore, only bestial need.

They would’ve noticed her blood eventually, but her magic was like a beacon. Every monster in the Canterlot Caverns was coming for her.

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