• 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 7: Liberation

Harlequin could hear the shouting as she emerged, though it was faint and filtered through many confused voices. She partially wanted to go after the one she’d just stolen her name from, try to learn more—but the screams were more important.

“You don’t understand, I’m not one of them! It’s me, Codex!” She didn’t know the name, but she recognized the voice. A voice that now reverberated in the changeling way, and was markedly higher-pitched than a pony male.

Some part of her wanted to be as far away from that voice as she possibly could. But another part—maybe the stronger part—knew that running away wouldn’t make her feel less guilty about it. That pony had given her something, whether or not the process had been willing.

Harlequin took a few steps over to the highest bit of the vaulted ceiling, where a balcony looked down on the building below. Then she jumped. It didn’t take much, just a little buzzing from her wings, and she was down on the first level. It seemed the ponies had probably built it with that in mind, because a few parts of the balcony had convenient steps, letting her leap in less than a second and land on the floor below.

She followed the voice, but didn’t have far to go. She wouldn’t have been able to hear him if he’d been on the other side of the building.

There, surrounded by a crowd of absolutely terrified-looking ponies, was a single drone. He had no weapons, no armor, and no clothing at all, and indeed his shell had the matte look of a molt that hadn’t finished drying yet. Idiot. You’re supposed to stay where it’s safe until after you dry. What if one of those ponies tries to hurt you now? You don’t even have a proper shell.

And from the look of things, that probably wouldn’t take too much longer. “It’s me, don’t you understand? I can prove it! Ask me anything? About the study of supernatural beasts, perhaps? I could give a lecture about the invaders, or—”

“You are an invader,” growled a voice. She wore one of the fancy robes that seemed common in here—the ones that Harlequin suspected had never left the building from the beginning. “You aren’t even bothering to impersonate Professor Codex. If you’re going to try and pretend you didn’t drag him away to eat him, you could at least put on a better show than this.”

“But now we’ll know you’re a fraud,” somepony else said. “You murdered him, and now you’re trying to impersonate him. You think his family would be fooled?”

“Celestia’s going to make you all pay for this.”

It was the second time Harlequin had heard something like that, and it didn’t make any more sense now. The Queen promised she would take care of the pony princesses, and she has. They’re getting excited over nothing.

But if she didn’t do something, it looked like these fancy ponies were about to get violent. Harlequin stood as tall as she could, drew her glowing sword from its sheath, and marched right over to the crowd like she was about to start swinging.

The ponies didn’t know the sword wanted to hurt her. They couldn’t know that if they took it, it would probably cut her in half. As she approached, a few in the back of the crowd noticed her and scattered like they’d blown away in the wind. Those on the other side started backing away, searching for an escape route.

“It’s me!” Codex had his back to her, so he alone didn’t notice. “I can prove it however you want! They transformed me, Underscore! You have to believe me! They transformed me, but I escaped and I’m trying to help! I’m sure if we can get into the forbidden section, we’ll be able to find a treatment! There has to be something…”

But the ponies around him didn’t seem to be listening anymore. All their eyes were for Harlequin. “And here they are to protect you,” said the first speaker, bitter. “Saw we weren’t fooled, and came to your rescue. Don’t worry, Codex. We’ll make sure his family knows what you did. You’ll never impersonate him again without them knowing, even if you do remember to transform for it next time.”

The crowd began to disperse—probably something Hydrus wouldn’t have allowed. Again, she could feel the sense of general rebellion rising in these ponies. She probably should’ve done something to make that go away. But she couldn’t think of what, and after a few seconds she just put the sword away again.

Once its glowing light wasn’t on her coat anymore, she felt a little better. “Codex,” she said. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

He spun around, eyes desperate and afraid. His emotions were pale reflections of what they’d once been, though. Nothing edible anymore. He was part of the Swarm. “You’re here to drag me away? Here to put me back in a cage?”

“You weren’t in a cage,” Harlequin said, her voice flat. “You were in a cocoon because you weren’t finished changing. You’re still not finished.” She stuck out one leg in front of him, so he could see. “See how shiny I am? You’re supposed to dry before you molt. If you move around too much, you’ll dry funny and it’ll hurt until you molt again.”

Codex slumped down onto his haunches, eyes following the retreating robes of his pony friends. Harlequin knew this emotion only too well, because she’d felt it from the child of the pony she killed. Despair. “You harvested me,” he said. “That’s all I was to you, food. And now I’m this… discarded husk. There are voices—like hundreds of ponies I can’t see, watching me. But whenever I turn my head, there’s nopony there.”

“That’s the Swarm.” Harlequin advanced on him, eyes glancing nervously up and down the hallway. What if those ponies had gone away to get help? They were an awful long way from the entrance and the guards. “You’re hearing everyone. If you ask them a question, they’ll answer. It’s how we do… everything. How we learn, how we know what to do, how we…” But she trailed off, because at that moment Harlequin realized she was lying. It had been how she learned, and how she got her instructions. But that was before she’d earned her name.

Now most of the time the swarm wasn’t able to tell her the things she wanted to know. And instead of just feeling where she was wanted, she got vocal instructions from Hydrus. She didn’t want this new changeling to learn the wrong thing, so she just stopped, frowning.

“What happens to me now?” Codex asked, either not noticing or not caring about her confusion. “You did this—it’s your responsibility. If you’re going to kill me, there’s your sword.” He stuck out his head, holding his neck right in front of her. “To my family and friends I’ve already dead. Might as well make it official then, go on. Do it.”

Harlequin stared at the changeling, trying to figure out why he was acting so strange. “You have us now,” she said, honestly. “The swarm has enough food to last a thousand years, that’s what the queen said. We only have Canterlot now, but soon all Equestria will follow. You won’t go hungry, don’t worry.”

He looked up, glaring at her with a nervous anticipation that seemed to be rapidly transforming into frustration. If he expected her to kill him, he was going to be disappointed. Drones didn’t attack each other like that.

“I don’t want anything to do with you!” he was screaming, voice desperate and afraid. “You’re monsters who destroyed my home! Even if you were going to shower me with gold, I wouldn’t take it. If your queen walked right up and offered me that tenure I’ve always been striving for, I’d tell her to eat a roadapple!”

“I wouldn’t.” Harlequin shuddered visibly at such disrespectful use of the Queen’s office. The thought made her physically sick, but didn’t seem to affect this new drone even a little bit. If anything, he only grew more emboldened by her reaction. He just doesn’t understand. “She’s our protector, yours too… did you see the way those ponies treated you? Everything in the world hates us because we don’t live like they do. If it wasn’t for the Queen, we would have all starved a long time ago.”

Codex froze, the anger in his eyes cooling slightly. “I feel… I feel it. The hatred, the anger, suspicion, fear… it’s everywhere. A sea of rotting fish and burning oil.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “You sense it. We’re surrounded by ponies right now.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Maybe you should go on hating outside, where they won’t attack you? Unless you really do want to die. Ponies are a lot stronger than we are.”

Despite his shouting, despite his blazen declarations that he wanted nothing to do with them, Codex followed timidly behind her as she slipped through the crowd. Once they were moving again and looked like they belonged, the ponies largely gave them their space. They were dangerous, and trying to stop them might have terrible consequences. It was a good thing no one tried.

They made it outside without any more violence, which was good since Harlequin had hated it last time.

That was about the time she saw the explosion. She turned to stare with all the others, momentarily swallowed in the will of the swarm as its attention was turned on the lower city. She was no queen who could see through her sisters’ eyes, but she could feel, feel the fear and rage as a group of ponies broke through a barricade and raced up towards the upper city. They’ll pass this way.

“Stop them!” Hydrus was there, emerging from a nearby building and shaking his head free of the fancy jewelry he’d been collecting from inside. It clattered on the ground forgotten as drones began to assemble. “The Queen senses danger from those who come—they must not reach the palace!”

Harlequin lifted into the air a few meters, gazing down the road in search of the ones in question. She saw six ponies of mixed species emerge from around the corner, a unicorn in the lead.

A drone leapt out at the pony, oblivious to the danger that Harlequin now felt as surely as she knew that darkness was safe and cold was bad. The changeling transformed to charred ash a second later, and the unicorn kept going without even slowing down.

But drones didn’t know, and they didn’t care. The streets became clogged with them, struggling desperately to bring the unicorn and her companions down.

“It’s happening,” Codex said from beside her, his voice distant. “This is the beginning of the end for you, changeling. Your queen shouldn’t have come up against the power of all Equestria. Our princess raises the sun.”

Harlequin landed on the pavement beside him, letting the flow of soldiers sweep around her. Hydrus commanded they all join the fight, but she ignored the order. Her old self would’ve fought and died without thinking, but now… now she couldn’t make her hooves move.

Codex was still talking. “They were too late. Too late for me, and those others. After an invasion… after ponies died… they’ll never believe I’m not one of you. I’m dead. All those years of research and study, everything I ever learned… it will be like they never happened.”

“You want to live?” Harlequin asked, finally turning to face him. This strange changeling who wasn’t quite a changeling yet—Codex, his words had awakened something in her. Though he was only saying what all the other ponies had, somehow she knew it was true. They had taken too much, too fast, and soon they would pay for it.

Codex’s eyes hardened as the battle got closer. Eventually, he nodded. “I didn’t finish my book. I didn’t even get to defend my dissertation. If you’d waited until next year, I would’ve been a doctor.”

Harlequin shoved him roughly, taking them both stumbling into a nearby alley. The drone had no strength to protest, and with such a weak shell the gesture had probably hurt him. He grunted in pain, but couldn’t resist her.

And so they were both well out of the way when the attack rolled past them.

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