• 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 9: Hero

It looked like Harlequin was going to escape the blast, though she could only glance panicked over her shoulder once as she shot straight down. With every flap of her wings the wave of magic got more tenuous, and street level below rose to meet her.

But even then, she wasn’t fast enough. She felt the wave of magic catch her in the air, or what little was left of it. She couldn’t have said what happened to those changelings that were caught in the blast, like the one she’d left behind.

The magic washed over her, leaving Harlequin hovering in the air. What did it…

Then she realized what had happened. She hadn’t been burned to ash, she hadn’t even been forcibly changed back into a changeling. It was what she’d already noticed: the voices of the others in her head were suddenly gone.

Harlequin fluttered down onto the sidewalk of the lower city, packed in among structures so close together that it looked like the city might overflow. Instead of the wide beautiful streets, these were small, stained, and barley wide enough for a single cart to move in one direction.

The streets were empty around her—Harlequin couldn’t see a single changeling guard patrolling them, only the occasional broken window or crushed light fixture to show where the battle for the city had taken place.

“Hello?” Harlequin sat down on her haunches, eyes desperate. “Where is everyone?”

There was no response. For a few moments she sat in silence there on the sidewalk, confused and afraid. Even while she’d been actively breaking the instructions Hydrus had given her, Harlequin had felt like the Swarm was only a hoof’s reach away. They had been there from the beginning, the collective wisdom to understand a pony-made world that made no sense to her.

Now as she looked around her, she found objects without names, structures that didn’t make sense, and a profound silence that seemed to penetrate the stone. Despite her wings and pretend pony body, Harlequin felt then as she had never felt before: she didn’t belong.

But then she heard screaming. It sounded pony more than changeling, coming from just down the road. Wasn’t there some kind of fight going on here? She couldn’t remember, and now that her connection had been severed, she couldn’t rely on other drones to remember for her.

Harlequin started running anyway. Just then she didn’t much care if there was a jail cart waiting at the end of the road, so long as she would be with someone when they locked her up.

The lower city was built too tight to get a good view of something even a few streets over, so she couldn’t see what was making all the noise. Not until she finally rounded the end of the street, and could look down into the city below.

There Harlequin could see the marshaled strength of thousands of changeling drones, perhaps the majority that had survived the siege. Compared to the school where they were keeping captives in the upper city, this place looked truly terrifying: an entire street and all the buildings along it had been walled off, with ponies packed in so tight that there wasn’t even room to walk in places.

Or at least they had been. Their guards, all the drones that had surrounded this place and probably been feeding on it too, looked like they were going to war again. With everything.

There was no sign of the careful discipline, the coordinated ranks of attacks that poured down into the city and broke the spell. Instead, the drones looked to be attacking everything and everyone within reach. A group charged straight up against a confining fence, tearing at the foundation until the whole thing came down on them. A few feeble voices from inside sounded like the equivalent of Hydrus for these drones, ordering them to be calm and to work together.

But the drones didn’t listen, and Harlequin shuddered and looked away as several of them were torn apart. But for every changeling with a name and desires, there were hundreds of changelings attacking each other.

Worst of all were the ponies, though. The camp scattered in all directions as their guards transformed from calm and disciplined to a dense cloud of monsters, screaming in terror as they fled. It was the running that was probably their mistake.

Harlequin knew how those drones felt—they were desperate, afraid, confused, and angry. They had been promised somewhere comfortable and safe, but what they got instead was isolation and confusion. We shouldn’t be alone. We’re not built for it.

And the ponies running right past them, they were something familiar. Food-thing, prey. A reminder of what they were supposed to be.

Maybe enough food will make me feel normal again. Harlequin dismissed the thought as quickly as it came, shaking her head to try and clear it. But it didn’t clear—there was no confidence of the Swarm in the back of her mind. She couldn’t be sure about anything in her world.

Then a tiny group of ponies came running past. Their eyes seemed to glaze over her without even looking, all their attention focused behind them, at the ones chasing them.

There were a dozen drones charging up the hill, not so much a formation as a pack, teeth gnashing in mad fury. “Stop!” Harlequin called, trying to use the same voice Hydrus did when he gave instructions. But the drones seemed to sense her lack of authority, because they didn’t even slow down. Rather, a few of them seemed to be looking at her.

“Come on!” One of the slowest ponies in the group, an earth pony stallion, gripped onto one of her legs with an irresistible force. He tugged so hard that she was torn right off her hooves and into a glide behind him. “You want to get eaten too?”

Harlequin felt a sudden swell of love in her chest. It was far fainter than feeding on Codex had given her, but that didn’t matter. She’d gathered it all on her own.

Ponies really are food-things. This one wants me to be safe even though he hasn’t even met me. After a few moments of struggling, she got her wings under her, and was soon flying alongside the group of ponies. She couldn’t pass them, though she suspected a skilled pegasus could’ve done so easily. “Where are we going?”

“Up!” somepony called from the front of the group. “I didn’t see any of them anywhere near the gondolas, we can go up there! Those changelings really hated what’s going on up near the castle, so that’s where we should be.”

They weren’t going to make it. The drones following them were faster on their hooves, and they hadn’t been half-starved in some awful camp. One of them got close enough that he snapped at the earth pony, jaws sliding harmlessly off magically protected flesh.

“We won’t last!” Harlequin called, finding her voice came out far less confidently than she imagined. “They’re moving too fast!”

Then they rounded a bend, and the group nearly smacked into each other. The alley hadn’t led to the stairs up to the gondola, but to a dead end.

The ponies with wings lifted up into the air, trying to tug their friends up with them—without success.

“Go!” said the pink unicorn at the front of the group. “Save yourselves!”

Harlequin landed at the front, facing away from the trapped ponies. The earth pony who had saved her stopped too, looking sidelong at her and finally noticing her belt. “You… is that a sword?”

She couldn’t lift it in her magic, not with wings. But maybe that didn’t matter. These drones were being driven by instinct, and she had something with some powerful ways of influencing instincts.

Harlequin drew the sword with a single sweep, and immediately it started glowing. She felt sickness ripple through her body, and for a moment she wasn’t sure if she was going to lose her transformation and be revealed to these ponies for what she was.

But then she felt their admiration, and the surge of desperate, terrified hope. Though she couldn’t sense any other minds, couldn’t share their knowledge or their support, this tiny group could still be her anchor.

Harlequin stopped feeling sick as she advanced on the oncoming drones, waving the sword around wildly. She didn’t really know how to fight with it, and now she couldn’t rely on the others to know. But that didn’t matter. She didn’t want to fight them.

And she didn’t have to. The other changelings skidded to a stop, all staring up at the glowing edge of the sword. They squeaked to one another in things that weren’t quite words, but that Harlequin could understand.

“Not safe”

“Hard”

“Other way”

“Yes!” Harlequin instructed, relief flooding her. I couldn’t hurt them. It’s not their fault they’re afraid. “Go away!”

They did, turning and scattering out into the city in all directions. There were plenty of other places to hide, plenty of safer targets. They left.

Harlequin felt it before she saw it—like rays of sunlight flowing down on her in all directions. The ponies—seven in all—were cheering. Their love and appreciation washed over her like a wave. She almost lost her shape for the second time in the sudden overflow of food, so much she couldn’t even hold it all.

Why had this sword made her sick again? Harlequin stared up at the blade for a few more seconds, but she couldn’t even see the glow anymore through the sunlight. She sheathed it anyway, mostly so she didn’t have something in her mouth.

“Woah. You must be with the guard or something. Are you undercover?”

“Did you see the way she swung that sword?”

Like a wet grub? But she didn’t care. She could accept their praise all day long. I wish you could’ve flown with me, Codex. I hope you made it up there.

“I’m nobody’s guard,” she said, when they were done. She didn’t quite know what undercover meant, but she could guess based on the context. “I just, uh… found this sword when I escaped!”

“Well, you should join,” the earth pony said. “I’m Apple Cinnamon. What’s your name?”

“Harlequin,” she said, not even hesitating. Why should she—not even Hydrus knew she’d stolen the name.

The earth pony took one look at her scarf, then nodded. “Well, Harlequin… everypony… we probably shouldn’t stay down here. There were a lot of changelings. You think we could get the gondolas working again?”

“I could,” said the pink unicorn, sliding out from behind the others and pointing with her horn. “I’ve seen how they do it. It’s just about getting the levers right.”

“We should be safer once we’re off the ground,” Cinnamon said. “I saw them fly during the invasion, but these seem… different, somehow.”

“The princess cast a spell on them,” somepony else said from the back of the crowd. “I saw it. They were fine one minute, then they started attacking each other.”

Their group hurried from the alley, searching for another route up to the gondola station. Harlequin kept her sword ready to draw, though they didn’t need it again. Something seemed to have drawn most of the changelings’ attention, something that was moving up from the bottom of the city. She couldn’t reach out to them to feel what it might be.

It’s not coming back, she realized with horror, as they reached the edge of the building. Lots of sturdy wood, with broken glass windows and overturned queue lines.

Harlequin guessed the wooden box everyone was climbing into was the “gondola” they kept talking about, with its clear windows and little benches inside. But instead of having wheels, this cart seemed to go straight up into the sky, riding along thin wires up the side of the city. Do I really want to go back up there?

She stood back as the unicorn started fiddling with the switches and levers, and a series of blue crystals started to glow. I probably shouldn’t go back up there. If I run away now, I could escape. Fly away from Canterlot.

Ten minutes ago she never would’ve imagined it. But she was already torn away from the Swarm. Their voices were quiet. Their queen had failed them.

This isn’t a test. All the things the Queen would do, she wouldn’t hurt us this way. The ponies won.

But there are still thousands of drones up there. What if they make it to the top and get eaten?

“Are you coming, Harlequin?” Cinnamon asked, poking his head out the sliding door. The car was already moving, though slowly. She would have to trot to catch up before the platform ran out. “Come on!”

Harlequin ran, leaping over the slight gap as the car cleared the end of the platform.

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