The guards at the front gates of Celestia’s castle stepped aside to permit the two ponies entry. A strange pink bubble had been erected around the castle, and its leading edge was perfectly flush with the door, meaning that they had to step through it to get into the castle itself.
Raindrop shuddered, feeling the fur on her neck standing straight out as she stepped through. It was like stepping through a curtain of icy water, except it was completely dry.
Other than the weird sensation, nothing untoward happened.
“Is this some kind of shield?” Raindrop queried, peeking back at the pink barrier.
“I believe so,” Sentinel said, also peering behind himself. “The Captain of the Guard must be maintaining it.”
“I’ve never met the captain,” Raindrop admitted, shaking her head. “Or seen him, for that matter.”
“He’s an older unicorn. Sticks to himself a lot, and spends most of his time training the recruits. He doesn’t have a family as such,” Sentinel explained as they walked towards the Hall of Elements.
Raindrop wrinkled her nose slightly. “No family because of his job?”
Sentinel nodded mutely.
“So the captain is too busy to even have a social life?” Raindrop asked, blinking once.
Sentinel shook his head, and then cast a glance at her. “The Captain of the Guard is forbidden from engaging in romances. It was a measure put in place after the Canterlot attack by Queen Chrysalis.”
“That’s terrible,” Raindrop said with a shake of her head.
“It’s practical,” Sentinel counter, waving a hoof. “The Captain of the Guard should never be torn between duty and his personal life. It creates too many openings that can be exploited, and almost cost us Canterlot.”
“If I remember the stories correctly... It was that self-same bond that saved Canterlot,” Raindrop counter in response.
Sentinel gave a reasonable nod. “But it only fixed the flaw in the security that it created.”
“Semantics,” Raindrop said with a shrug.
“But I have a valid point.”
“I’ll concede that, but I just don’t feel like arguing.”
Sentinel paused at that, stopping, and then lifting a hoof to rest on her forehead. Raindrop furrowed her brows.
“Are you feeling sick?” Sentinel asked abruptly.
“...No?” Raindrop offered, confused.
Sentinel blinked once. “You don’t want to argue. That’s not normal.”
Raindrop rolled her eyes and pushed the guard over with a firm press of her hooves, sending him sprawling, before she continued towards the Hall of Elements.
Celestia looked up from the table holding the Elements of Harmony as Raindrop and Sentinel entered.
“Ah, Raindrop, Sentinel. It is good to see you well. We have much to talk about,” Celestia said tersely, looking back down at the elements, frowning deeply. Before Raindrop could say anything, Celestia added, “Sentinel sent word ahead already. I know about the changelings. I have suspected from the beginning.”
Sentinel looked to the right, refusing to look at Celestia. “Forgive me Princess Celestia, I failed you.”
Celestia looked up again, and then shook her head gently. “Don’t be daft, Sentinel. The queen had control of the elements for long enough to fool our magic. You sensed Raindrop’s changeling blood. You are not at fault.”
“But I still had a changeling, multiple changelings around me, and I never even knew...” Sentinel protested, shaking his head.
“And neither did I,” Celestia said sharply, her eyes narrowing. “Shame and embarrassment encourages you to do better, Sentinel. But right now, we need action, not self-pity. So shut up and stand at attention.”
Sentinel stiffened, and then saluted. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Thank you, Raindrop, for finding Wisp. I was... Surprised to find that she is a griffon. I think, with a little time, she will come to accept her responsibility as a bearer. I am going to be sending you after the next bearer,” Celestia explained, waving a hoof for punctuation. “But first, we must discuss other matters.”
“Like the changelings?” Raindrop asked.
“Like the changelings.” Celestia looked up at Raindrop, her eyes narrowing. “You had no idea they were here?”
“I was just as shocked as everyone else,” Raindrop admitted, shaking her head a moment. “But it all makes sense now... The dark guard that attacked me. Discord’s behavior. The griffons attacking the airship. And why that dark guard got away so easily.”
Celestia nodded at that, and then frowned. “I am more worried about this new queen’s motives. She has had long to plan, and I believe that she was present during the previous invasion. After I determined that your grandmother was Queen Chrysalis in pony form, I managed to piece together events after the failed invasion. We knew that the magical blast decimated much of the changeling population, but we also knew there were survivors. I think that Chrysalis destroyed what she believed to be the last of the changelings by her own hoof, for reasons her own.”
Raindrop nodded. “I managed to trick Queen Chitin into revealing some of her history to me.”
Celestia looked up, raising a brow at that, and then nodding faintly, “Please, do tell.”
Raindrop explained everything that Chitin had revealed to her. The love blast, how it damaged their senses and stopped them from sensing each other. How she had believed Chrysalis to have changed, and therefore hid from the rightful queen. How she had turned queen of her own brood of changelings. And Chrysalis destroying the changelings she lead.
Celestia listened intently, and then nodded. “It is as I suspected. But it does not reveal to us the motives of this new queen. It doesn’t give us clues as to her ultimate intent. I fear that what she had planned will be far more unpleasant than merely installing her own form of new government.”
Raindrop looked up at the princess, and then added, “She also spoke of that dragon, Spike. She said that he came to her and asked for a service.”
A soft sigh left the princess, and she lifted a hoof to rest on one of the Elements of harmony, closing her eyes and shaking her head sadly, whispering, “Oh Spike, you fool...”
“I think Chitin must be feeding from him. Won’t it make him sick like it did for Shine?” Raindrop queried, an ear perking.
“I... Cannot say for certain. It is possible that, given he is a dragon, the effects of the draining could be slowed or negated entirely. It is not a subject I am familiar with.”
“So... What now? Can you hunt the changelings down?”
Celestia paused at that, and then shook her head. “Not at present, no. I might be able to invent some new spell to negate the magic they are using to hide themselves from my guards, but I would require all of the Elements of Harmony for that. At present, we only have five.”
“Oh, you found the other?” Raindrop asked happily, grinning.
“My guards retrieved it from beyond the Gates of Tartarus, yes. Several of them fell during the mission though.” Celestia gave a sad shake of her head. “We still cannot find the Element of Magic. I have sent the Seeker Stone with Damascus, our best flier. But a grid search of all of Equestria will take far too long. We need the Elements of Harmony to protect Equestria. Without them, we are vulnerable.”
Raindrop looked right, to peer at Sentinel at the news that more of his comrades had fallen. The guard looked subdued, and stared at his forehooves.
“Do you have further need of me?” Raindrop asked, looking up to the princess.
Celestia nodded gently. “I wish you to seek the rest of the bearers of the elements. The elements need bearers to channel their powers. I feel we will require the elements before this matter is resolved. This is a task my guards alone cannot do.”
“Why not?” Raindrop queried, confused. “I’m just a storm chaser. What can I do that the guards can't?”
“It is not your abilities that allow you to do what they cannot, it is your shortcomings.”
“How utterly reassuring.” Raindrop shook her head for a moment. “But it still doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Necessity breeds perseverance. And it is friendship that acts as a catalyst for the power of the elements,” Celestia explained, punctuating the sentence with a motion of her hoof.
“So... You’re saying that, because I need the Elements of Harmony to fix myself, I’m much more likely to persevere in finding them?” Raindrop asked after a moment.
“Indeed,” Celestia affirmed.
“And I have to become friends with the bearers in order for all of this to work?” Raindrop asked with a heavy sigh.
Celestia frowned like that, and then picked up a seeker stone from the table, handing it to her. The orb swirled with an amber light.
“Do not view making friends with those whose help you require to be a chore,” Celestia warned as she dropped the orb into Raindrop’s hooves. “Otherwise, you have already failed.”
Raindrop walked slowly down the corridor towards the front doors of the castle, Sentinel in step beside her.
“So... Are you coming with me?” Raindrop asked of the guard, her tone hopeful.
“Celestia did not order me to accompany you,” Sentinel pointed out.
Raindrop’s expression fell, and she quickly made a mask of her expression. She didn’t want Sentinel to see that she was hurt by his reluctance. “Oh... Well. That’s fine, I guess.”
Sentinel snorted a moment, and then pushed her shoulder with a hoof. “Without standing orders, I am forced to enact my previous duties. And my previous duties were to defend you.”
A smile lifted Raindrop’s face at that, and then leaned sideways to kiss his cheek. “I’m glad you’re coming with.”
Sentinel gave a wan smile at the kiss on his cheek, his expression and manner rather melancholy.
“Raindrop...” he started, as they walked down the corridor.
“Yes?” Raindrop asked, her ears splaying back at the tone of his voice.
“You’re not just... You know, with me because Shine left you, are you?” Sentinel asked suddenly, his tone worried.
Raindrop stopped walking at that, and extended a wing to stop the guard, halting his own walking. Raindrop pulled him around to face her, looking into his eyes with her own narrowed.
The mare leaned in and kissed the guard full on the mouth, staring into his eyes with such an intense gaze that the guard had to avert his own under the embarrassment of her scrutiny.
Raindrop pulled back from the kiss, and then nudged him once with her nose, pulling him close and wrapping her hooves around him. “I’m in a bad place. I have something deep inside me that I can feel growing stronger. It wants to get out. It wants to make me a monster. And sometimes, I want to be that monster. It’s already destroyed a long-lasting relationship. And yes, this is all traumatic, and sometimes, I just wanna curl up on a cloud and cry forever. But what I feel for you is real. Maybe it’s amplified by all these troubles I’m going through, maybe it’s more intense because of them. But I know the underlying feelings are the same.”
Sentinel nodded at that, and then stared at her, blinking once. “Wow. You know, with that long, touchy-feely monologue, I could almost think you were a for-real female.”
Raindrop rolled her eyes, pushing him with her hooves. “I really do like you, you know. Well, at least, when I don’t want to kill you.”
The guard nodded at that, grinning at her, his head tilting to the side.
Raindrop turned to start walking again.
“IthinkIloveyou,” Sentinel blurted in a rush.
Raindrop froze, mid-step, blinking once, her ears slowly splaying backwards. A look of dismay came across her face. She stared back at him over her shoulder, disappointment written all over her face.
Sentinel winced backwards, feeling a strong urge to cover himself with his wings. “Did I... Did I say something wrong?”
Raindrop gave him a pained expression, and then whined softly, turning about and stepping over to him carefully.
Sentinel sensed her disapproval of his admittance, and shirked away from her slightly, looking at the floor to the right of himself, chagrined. “I’m sorry... I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Raindrop shook her head, pulling him into a hug, squeezing him tightly and forcing him to face her, gently rubbing her nose against his own. “I’m really glad you said that, Sentinel. But... I’m also sad.”
Sentinel looked up at her, not understanding. “This is another one of those female moments that are going to go right over my head, isn’t it?”
Raindrop nodded sadly.
“I like you Sentinel, I really do. But what you said... I know you want me to repeat it.” Raindrop shook her head sadly, averting her eyes.
“But you won’t?” Sentinel said, more of a statement than a question, the guard heaving a soft, disappointed sigh, pulling away from her.
“Sentinel, don’t be like that,” Raindrop said, moving up to press against his side, tentatively extending a wing to curl her pinions around his own in a show of intimacy. “It’s just... It’s too soon after Shine. I can’t be sure of my own heart. I’m not going to say that to you unless I absolutely mean it. Evergreen and Cee taught me that that is the one word that you never throw around lightly, lest it lose all its meaning.”
“I understand,” Sentinel said, his voice sounding slightly muffled past the sad lump in his throat.
“No, you don’t,” Raindrop said with a shake of her head, pulling him around to face her for a moment, and then kissing him again, tears sparkling in her eyes. “I really do like you, Sentinel. A whole lot. But I won’t use that word until I know I mean it. Otherwise, I cheapen it. As Cee told me, ‘You can wait a week to be sure, but regret lasts a lifetime’.”
Sentinel gave a short nod. “I understand.”
“Do you?” Raindrop asked urgently, wrapping her hooves around him and holding him close. “I don’t want to push you away. But I know if I don’t make you understand, you’ll think it’s because I don’t like you.”
“Well you don’t actually love me. Or you’d be able to say so,” Sentinel pointed out with a deep frown, his tone carrying a repressed note of hurt.
Raindrop sighed, shaking her head and loosening the hug, picking up one of Sentinel’s hooves and holding it in her own, staring into his eyes. “Just... Give me more time, okay?”
Sentinel nodded, pulling his hoof from her grasp and then turning away, murmuring, “You have a bearer to find.”
Ears splaying backwards, Raindrop lifted a hoof to try and comfort the guard, to reassure him that she wasn’t trying to hurt him, before she just dropped her hoof and nodded, turning away and walking alone towards the front doors of the castle.