• 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 8: Charity

The fight didn’t seem to be going well. Harlequin kept her distance from the opening to the alley, watching as a veritable storm of ponies went by. They fought so quickly that she barely got a good look at them, but she could see well enough to be afraid.

How are they winning so easily? She crouched low, watching as a dozen different drones surrounded their little group, attacking all at once. The ponies responded with equal synchronicity, with the horned one and an unhorned one blasting away half of them with magic Harlequin couldn’t even understand.

She felt Codex crowd close to her left side, watching from the shadows as she did. “You didn’t have to fight me, I would’ve seen the need. They don’t recognize me.” He retreated into the gloom as the ponies went past, trailed by a thickening group of changelings following them towards the palace.

But whatever they were going to do, Harlequin wouldn’t be stopping it. If all those changelings working together hadn’t been able to stop them, then what good would one more have done? Hydrus is going to be furious with me. I’ll be just like Thorax, small and forgotten.

But if she was alive, would it matter?

“Maybe I could wear a mask…” Codex muttered. “A mask, a cloak, maybe a set of boots… and no one would be able to tell I was a monster.”

“Your voice,” Harlequin pointed out. “Not ‘monster’. You’re a changeling. You should see the land we come from if you think we’re monsters.” But even as she said it, Codex’s words were giving her an idea. If ponies were about to retake their city, maybe not looking like a changeling would be a good idea.

She’d only learned five minutes ago, but maybe…

“That’s too complicated,” she said. “Ponies could just take your clothes away and they would know what you are.”

“Yeah.” He slumped onto the ground, apparently not caring about the slime there. “It might have worked before, but not after this invasion. Ponies will be suspecting a changeling anytime something goes wrong for years after this.”

“But you could hide,” Harlequin went on. “Like this.” She wasn’t sure she was going to be able to do it, however confident she might’ve sounded. But then she closed her eyes, imagined the pony she’d been before… and suddenly she was. She felt taller, her hooves settling on the ground without the uneven ridges of their holes. Her wings rippled in the wind, covered in real feathers.

“See? You don’t need clothes. Just do what I did.”

“Do what you did…” Codex repeated, his voice scornful. “You’re one of them, uh…” He frowned. “H, right? That’s all I… who are you?”

“Harlequin.” She said it without hesitation, without feeling like she needed Hydrus’s approval. Not that he’ll give it about anything after what just happened. Even if he hadn’t seen her flee, he would know she knew it was time to fight, and hadn’t been there. If she was lucky he would just assume she’d died.

“Harlequin,” he repeated. “You’re a changeling. You’ve been raised to this your whole life. Even accepting that I’m physically indistinguishable from one of your kind, that doesn’t assume the associated suite of mental capacities to make use of those abilities.”

She tilted her head to one side, trying in vain to understand what he’d just said. But the Swarm wasn’t helpful—not when so much of its attention was focused on fighting. There were more little rebellions now, breaking out all over the city. She could hear a struggle from inside the big building. What few guards had stayed inside would probably not be enough to fight the incredible number of upset ponies trapped there.

Codex’s prediction was coming true. “I dunno what that means, but I learned today. I think… the Swarm taught me. They knew, so when I wanted to copy, I copied.” She started backing away from the alley entrance—by the sound of it, there would soon be a lot more ponies on the street. The injured and beaten drones the first pony attack had left behind would not be enough.

It took a little of her concentration to stay transformed, but less than she’d expected. It was hard to explain, but it also seemed like she was going through her magic just a tiny bit faster. The feast she’d gotten from Codex wouldn’t last quite so long if she spent it looking this way.

“Right, right. Your… collective intelligence. I suppose I would have access to it, given the circumstances. I’m not sure I like the idea of my mind being subsumed into the intelligence of others I haven’t met. Even individually stupid, there are so many of you. Err… forget I said that last part. I don’t mean to be inflammatory.”

Codex closed his eyes, then there was a brief flash. There were now two gray pegasus ponies standing in the alley, identical copies of each other. Codex blinked, held out one hoof, and spoke in her voice.

Well, not her voice exactly. Harlequin hadn’t ever learned the name of the pony it belonged to, strictly speaking. But maybe that didn’t matter. “That wasn’t that different from a number of other complex transfiguration spells. It’s really just that this body is uniquely… and I sound like a mare.”

“You look like one too,” Harlequin muttered, yanking on his hoof and dragging him deeper into the gloom. “You can find a stallion to copy later, come on.”

“Come on… where?” he asked, curious. “I don’t mean to make suggestions against my own country, but shouldn’t you be joining the others at the palace. Surely if there’s any chance for you to carry the day, it will happen there.”

“I’m not a very good fighter,” she said, honestly. “And when I see other drones fighting, mostly I watch them die. Our queen cares about the swarm as a whole. She doesn’t… seem to see us much.”

She lowered her voice to a whisper, but at least now she didn’t have to drag her companion along beside her. She didn’t know where she was going exactly, but there was the slope between different levels of the city. So long as she was walking down, she would eventually find a stairwell, or somewhere they could glide from.

“When I went looking for a name, I met a pony who told me that you get your names when you’re born. Is that true?”

“Yeah.” Codex didn’t even hesitate. So it was probably true. “Your parents have to put something on the birth certificate. More often than not it seems to turn into a game of outdoing the last generation for pressuring their foals into a life-path they probably don’t even want. But that’s linguistic determinism for you.”

The alley opened into a street filled with broken carts and overturned wagons. Harlequin hadn’t been fighting here, but she’d heard some of the loudest violence coming from this part. There were plenty of mysterious brown or green stains in the pavement that suggested her ears had been right.

The path made a straight shot through most of Canterlot if she remembered, all the way to the train station. We can go that far, then fly into the wilderness.

If things went well, they could say they’d been hurt in the attack and crawled somewhere to hide. If they didn’t… well, then Harlequin wouldn’t be in town, and neither would this pony. Even if she didn’t understand most of what he said, she did understand that his death would be her fault.

“What really interests me is how your species has survived this long,” he muttered. “You were so scarce for so long that you were only a footnote in most mythical creatures manuals. There are probably fewer books about you in Canterlot’s library than I have hooves, all Starswirl era or older. You’re basically extinct.”

“We… were,” she muttered. “Almost extinct. I think. I wasn’t alive before… the first thing I remember is… the Queen’s voice. Promising us that there would be enough food for everyone soon. That she was taking us to a perfect place to live. After a little fighting, we’d be able to make it our home.”

Codex’s hoofsteps slowed beside her. He seemed to be having trouble with the wings, leaving them out at odd angles and twitching them seemingly at random. But the change was still convincing enough, even if it would probably make him look sick or in pain. But now he watched Harlequin with sympathy. “You were created for this war?”

“I… guess so.” At least he wasn’t using words that she’d never heard before. “Everyone has a purpose, don’t they? We’re made for something. The ones above me were made to lead. The Queen was made so she could keep us all fed and happy. Even you ponies are like that. Your marks—” She glanced slightly to the side. “They’re what you are, right?”

“Not… quite.” He shook his head, in a way that no pegasus mare ought to. The mane went crazy, making him look even sicker than before. But Harlequin hardly noticed that, there were more pressing concerns.

Concerns like the slow rumble coming from up the hill, like a geyser about to erupt. Something was happening in that palace, something they would not want to be caught in when it happened.

Harlequin wasn’t listening to his explanation anymore. However much she wondered about cutie marks, she wanted to stay alive more. She hovered in the air, finding the pegasus wings clumsy but good enough. “We should fly, Codex. Can you feel it? Something bad.”

“Perfect,” he answered. His wings held suddenly stiff, as far out as they would go. “I… have no idea how to fly.”

“Listen!” She zoomed right up to him, yanking on one hoof. “It’s the same as changing! Listen to the others! Everyone knows how to fly, that’s part of being a changeling. One of the first things you get after your first molt, once your legs work.”

For you!” he called, voice high and frightened. But he tried anyway, flapping desperately. Nothing much happened—he was out of sync, and obviously not pushing correctly. There was a technique about flight, and obviously Codex wasn’t learning it from the Swarm.

You can’t stay here! She could feel a spell approaching now, somewhere far away. Like a storm she could see building on the horizon, but she didn’t have to be looking to feel it. The Swarm knows. Would it be like the death-thing, that burned every drone who touched it?

I’m not ready. Maybe she should’ve been like the others, never thinking, never knowing how much danger they were in or how quickly they might die. But even if she wanted to go back to that, Harlequin couldn’t. She wanted to live! She’d already run away from one battle, she could run from another.

She tugged on Codex’s leg one last time, trying to yank him up into the air with her. But no success—the pony only squealed in pain, shoving her away. “It isn’t working! They aren’t telling me things anymore! I think they’re—”

Then she saw it. A wave of magic had taken physical form, bright and glowing and expanding outward from the palace. She cried out in desperation to the Swarm to know what it was, but got no answer.

Harlequin didn’t keep tugging, or keep asking. She let go, tucked her head, and flapped her wings with all her might, angling down for the lower city.

The wave of magic was a terrible hurricane, and she could sense the pain from those it overtook. There was a brief flash of pain, then their voices vanished from the Swarm. Already it was half the size she’d known, and getting smaller. Are they really killing all of us? It didn’t look like the death-thing, and it didn’t burn the air.

But it was coming after her.

Harlequin left Codex behind to be swallowed by the magic, even as the floor dropped out from under her.

That was it—hundreds of feet of open air, then the lower city. Harlequin dove away from the barrier with all her might, straight down the mountainous slope. It was her only hope.

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