Twilight walked beside Celestia, both following Novel. They stepped out into a courtyard to one side of the castle. She recognized where they were. This area of the castle grounds was devoted to the Royal Guards. She knew everything here because Shining Armor had once given her a short tour. The large, open grounds they were now passing through was where they did their training exercises and drills, and the various buildings around the edges were where they worked, ate and slept. The buildings were all very utilitarian; they looked like nothing more than giant off-white bricks with doors in them, a sharp contrast to the magnificence of Canterlot Castle. Novel was leading them towards a building to one side that she recognized as where the Guard took care of various administrative duties.
This could only mean that the changeling Novel spoke of was a part of the Royal Guard. She glanced at Princess Celestia. Her mentor had that stone faced, neutral expression she used when dealing with noble ponies, but Twilight had been around her long enough to pick up on a number of subtle cues as to her mood. The way she kept her head perfectly still as she walked, the way her hooves connected with the ground just a tad harder than they normally would. She could tell that Celestia was not very happy right now, and she thought she could guess why. A changeling in the Royal Guard? That was an entirely different matter than a changeling as a civilian like Novel! She wondered how her brother would react if he were to find out...
They crossed the open grounds in an uneasy silence, the sun slowly beginning to dip back down towards the horizon. There was a group of guards doing drills at the other end of the field, but they paid them no mind. The few solitary guards that they came across stood straight and saluted to Celestia as they passed. When they finally reached the building, Novel opened the door and walked inside.
“Hey, you're not authorized to be here!” shouted a voice from inside.
Celestia stepped inside next. “It’s alright, Sergeant Crimson Lance. He is here under my orders.”
Twilight stepped through the door just in time to see a unicorn stallion in guard armor fall out of his seat in an attempt to come to attention and salute at the same time. He was seated behind a desk next to a hallway leading further in, no doubt in order to keep track of the coming and going of ponies from the building. She noticed that Novel had fallen to the floor off to the side of the door, eyes bugging out of his head. Was he really so frazzled that a guard yelling at him startled him off his hooves?
Celestia smiled slightly, the first hint of expression Twilight had seen from her since they had entered this section of the castle grounds. “Please, be at ease, Crimson Lance. We’re merely here to see somepony.”
“O-of course, Princess.” He picked himself back up and sat in his chair again, blushing slightly in embarrassment. “Is there anything I can do to assist you?”
“No thank you, Sergent, this is a rather private matter.” She turned to Novel. “Novel, if you would please continue?”
He looked up to Celestia and nodded silently before getting back to his hooves and moving down the hallway. As Celestia passed by Crimson’s desk, she stopped and looked at him again. “Oh, and Crimson? Please don’t inform anypony else in the building about us. We’re here for a bit of a... surprise visit, you might say.”
Crimson looked confused but nodded. “Of course, Princess. Whatever you say.”
The trio continued down a hallway a short ways until Novel stopped in front of a door. It had a placard on it that read ‘Lieutenant Steel Wing’. Twilight stared at the name on the door for a few seconds, wondering why it sounded familiar to her. Then it hit her; her brother had mentioned that name before! They had gone through boot camp together, and had even been partners on a few missions back before Shining became captain. From the way her brother had talked about him, they seemed pretty friendly. Had Shining been friends with a changeling all these years?
Novel looked up at Celestia expectantly, but she just returned a blank stare. He turned towards the door and, reluctantly, knocked.
There were some shuffling noises from the other side before a voice said “Come in.”
Novel opened the door and they all entered one by one. “Novel? What are you— Princess Celestia!”
Twilight entered the room just in time to see a pegasus stallion in guard armor flawlessly leap out of his seat to come to attention and salute. It was a small, simple office, little more than a desk, a chair and a bookshelf. In fact, with three ponies and a princess, Twilight was feeling more than a little crammed in.
“At ease, Lieutenant Steel Wing. I’m afraid that we have much to discuss.” Celestia turned her head towards the entrance, and with a golden glow, the door closed and the lock clicked into place.
Steel Wing returned to his seat. He glanced at the door but didn’t give any other reaction. “I take it that this is a serious matter then?”
“Yes, I should say so. It is a subject that is on many ponies' minds these days. Lieutenant, I wish to talk to you about changelings.”
Twilight watched him for any kind of reaction, but again he gave none. “Of course, Princess. I am all ears.”
Celestia sat down on the ground and looked to Novel and Twilight. “I understand that you already know Novel Tale. He has recently become good friends with my student, Twilight, and told her a number of interesting things about changelings, information which she has passed along to me.” She turned back to Steel. “I wish to know more, and Novel suggested that I come see you.”
Steel Wing kept that signature Royal Guard stone faced expression up during Celestia’s explanation. As she finished, he turned to look at Novel, who looked down to the floor in shame. Twilight could only guess that he was still uncomfortable about ratting out other changelings. She put a hoof about him to try and reassure him.
Steel closed his eyes and sighed. “I knew something like this was going to happen. It was only a matter of time since Chrysalis revealed herself.”
“So what Novel has told me is true then?”
“I’m afraid so, your highness.” And with a burst of green fire, he shifted to changeling form. He was noticeably larger and more sturdily built than Nurex was, with eyes and carapace plate a deep red color. With his size and his red coloration, he put Twilight in mind of a changeling version of Big Mac.
Celestia stared at him for a few moments before speaking. “Specifically, I am here because Novel tells me that there are other changelings living in Canterlot, and that you know who all of them are.”
“That is correct. I do not currently have that information on hoof, but if you wish it, I can have it to you by tomorrow.”
“Why do you have information on all the other changelings in Canterlot?” Twilight asked.
“All major population centers have a changeling selected to keep track of other changelings in the area,” he explained. “It helps ensure that we don’t stumble over each other in the course of feeding.”
“Hmm... I am glad that you are being so cooperative with us, Lieutenant,” Celestia said.
“Of course, your higness. Now that we are discovered, cooperation is surely our best choice of action.”
“I see,” was her only response.
The room was quiet for a few moments before Steel spoke again. “Princess? If I may ask... what do you intend to do now?”
Celestia closed her eyes in thought. “Honestly, I am not sure.” She opened her eyes and looked to Steel as though appraising him. “This situation is much more complicated than I had first thought...”
Twilight put a hoof on her mentor’s shoulder to get her attention. “Princess, I know it seems bad that even the Royal Guard has been infiltrated, but I think—”
“Infiltrated?” Steel said the word as though it were a personal insult to him. Twilight put a hoof to her mouth, suddenly regretting her choice of words. “Is that what you believe?” He stood up from his seat. “Princess Celestia, I may be using my position here to aid me in keeping track of other changelings in Canterlot, but I did not infiltrate your Royal Guard!” Twilight reeled back slightly at the fire in his voice. Even Novel seemed shocked at his reaction. “Those vows I took when I joined the Guard were made in earnest! My top priority here is the same as anypony else in the Royal Guard, ensuring the safety of Equestria and its citizens!”
He sat down on the floor, not bothering to get back in his seat. “Changelings need ponies. We cannot survive without you. It is thus in our best interest to help and protect ponies however we can. All hives know this, though few believe in it as strongly as mine. I cannot imagine what could have caused Chrysalis to forget such a vital truth and act the way she did.”
Celestia gave him a critical look. “And if your queen were to give you an order that would result in harm to my little ponies? What would you do then?”
Steel reared up and slammed his forehooves on his desk. “My queen would never give such an order! She values the well-being of ponykind even more than I do!”
Celestia stood up to her full height and glared at Steel. “That does not answer my question, Lieutenant.” Rarely had Twilight ever seen her mentor this intense. Celestia took a few steps towards Steel Wing until she was nearly nose to nose with him. “What. Would. You. Do?”
Steel faltered, averted his gaze, and returned to the floor. “I... I honestly cannot say for sure. It is extremely difficult for a changeling to disobey a direct command from their queen.” He turned to look Celestia in the face. “But Princess Celestia, you must believe me, it is my greatest wish that I never find myself having to choose between my hive and Equestria!”
Celestia returned to her seat on the floor and looked thoughtfully at Steel Wing. Twilight wanted to say something, anything to break the silence that had descended upon the room, but she couldn’t think what she could possibly say to help him. She glanced to her side at Novel, who was chewing his lip and looking back and forth between Steel and Celestia. She could only imagine how nerve racking this must be for him. Steel’s fate hung in the balance, and all because he had brought Celestia here.
Finally, Celestia brought a hoof up to rub her forehead, closed her eyes, and gave an exasperated sigh. “I never imagined that I would find myself in a situation like this...”
“You... you believe me then?” Steel asked hopefully.
“Yes, I do. I’ve been around long enough to be able to tell when a pony is being sincere, and it is apparently not so different with changelings,” Celestia said. Twilight heard Novel give a nearly imperceptible sigh of relief.
“So I can stay here in the Guard?” he asked. Twilight could have sworn that his eyes literally lit up slightly.
“That, I am not yet sure about.” She looked at him for another few moments, hoof on her chin as she thought. “I think that that particular decision is going to have to be made by somepony else.”
“Yes. Specifically, your commanding officer.”
“Captain Shining Armor!?”
“My brother?!” Twilight exclaimed.
“Yes, Captain Shining Armor.” Celestia smiled slightly. “You do know each other fairly well, don’t you? You both went to boot camp together, if I recall correctly.”
Steel was at a loss for words, but Twilight had some concerns of her own. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, Princess? Shiny has been kind of... jumpy ever since the attack on Canterlot.”
Celestia looked to her student. “I do want to keep the existence of changelings in Canterlot mostly a secret, for fear of causing a panic. But if we truly are going to have peace, then a few, key ponies are going to have to know about them, one of which is your brother. I know that he likely won’t react well to this particular revelation, but I’m afraid that it is going to have to happen.”
Celestia stood up. “Lieutenant Steel Wing, if you would accompany us.” It was clear from her tone of voice that it was less a request and more a command. She opened the door and trotted outside. Steel Wing shifted back to his pony form and fell into step behind her, and Twilight and Novel took the rear.
Celestia made her way back to the room where they had entered. “Sergeant Crimson, is Captain Shining Armor in his office right now?”
This time Crimson calmly got out of his seat to stand at attention. “No, Princess. He had to step out to attend to inspections.”
“I see. When he returns, please let him know that I wish to see him in my office.”
Crimson bowed his head. “Of course, Princess.”
Twilight, Novel, Steel, and Celestia were all waiting in Celestia’s office. Celestia was looking through some paperwork, leaving the other three with nothing to do. Novel and Steel seemed to be handling the idleness well enough, but Twilight’s curiosity was getting the best of her.
“Princess Celestia, do you have some parchment and a quill I can use?” Twilight asked.
Celestia smiled at her student. “Of course, Twilight. Second drawer on the right,” she said, gesturing to one of the drawers on her desk.
Twilight opened it up with her magic and sure enough, there was plenty of blank parchments and some spare quills. She picked some up with her magic and went over to Steel Wing. “Steel, do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
He looked at her curiously. “Questions? What for?”
“I’m writing a book about changelings, and I’d love to learn more about what your hive is like.”
“A book about changelings?” It was clear from his tone of voice that he didn’t approve of the idea. “That we have been discovered period is bad enough! Now you wish to let ponies know everything else about us as well?”
Twilight’s ears folded back and she lowered her head. “Well, I-I just...”
Novel leaped to her defense. “We’ve already run this past my hive’s queen, Queen Polistae. She personally gave it the go ahead and said that she’d be convincing the other queens that this is a good idea. She thinks we should do it because if ponies know more about us, they’ll be less afraid of us.”
“Hmmm... I suppose that there is some merit to that line of reasoning...” He looked back to Twilight. “Very well, you may ask your questions.”
Twilight immediately perked up and shot an appreciative smile at Novel, then turned back to Steel. “Thank you so much for agreeing! I promise, this is going to go a long way towards helping changelings, and the more information I can get the better everything is going to go!” She readied her quill and parchment. “First of all, do you have a changeling name I should call you?”
“My changeling name is Avitus, but I prefer Steel Wing.”
“Really? Novel prefers his changeling name when in changeling form...”
Novel rubbed the back of his head. “That’s really more of a personal thing for me...”
“Okay then.” Twilight noted this down on her paper then looked up at Steel. “Now, lets get into the real important stuff! What would you say is the defining characteristics of changelings from your hive?”
“Duty,” he said without having to think for even a moment. “We all have a very strong sense of duty. Whatever it is we are tasked to do, we will ensure it is done, even if at personal cost to ourselves. The only thing that can override our sense of duty is our urge to maintain our secrecy. We’re also larger and physically stronger than most changelings. Finally, as I mentioned before, we also strongly believe in our need for ponies to flourish. Most hives only take this to mean that they shouldn’t do anything to directly harm ponies, but we take it further than that. We do our best to actively protect ponies.”
“So there aren’t any hives out there that do anything to harm ponies?” Twilight asked. She noticed out of the corner of her eye that Celestia suddenly seemed to be paying more attention to their conversation than the papers she was looking at.
Steel gave a disgusted look and turned away. “I am ashamed to say that there are a few hives out there that, due to the emotions that they prefer to gather, cause more harm than anything else.” He turned back to look Twilight in the eyes. “I assure you that they are the vast minority, however.”
“Okay...” Twilight finished writing and switched to a fresh sheet of paper. She glanced back to Celestia to see that she had returned her attention to her own papers. “So, given all of that, what roles do you tend to take in pony society?”
“Guards, like me. Also police, firefighters, anything that allows us to help protect ponies. It also ties into our prefered emotions. We feed off of the appreciation of ponies we protect, as well as the camaraderie you typically find between ponies in those types of roles.”
Twilight wrote his down then idly tapped her quill against her horn as she looked at what she had written. “Those are pretty dangerous jobs. Wouldn’t one of you have gotten... well, have gotten killed in action at some point?” She took her eyes from her paper and turned to Steel. “And then I’m pretty sure that your disguise would break, and the existence of changelings would have been discovered, right?”
Steel smirked. “That would be the case, if we left bodies behind when we died.”
Twilight gave him a confused look.
“It’s the green fire that creates and breaks down our disguises,” he explained. “When a changeling dies, it not only breaks down our disguise, but consumes the rest of us as well. Nothing is left behind. Our final means of maintaining our secrecy.”
Twilight thought on that. That actually answered something that had been bothering her ever since Celestia told them how she discovered changelings. If changelings had really been around since before Discord, then surely the remains of one of them would have been discovered at some point, either fresh or fossilized. But if they didn’t leave remains...
“But wait,” Twilight said, “wouldn’t ponies get suspicious of other ponies mysteriously disappearing like that? Especially if they actually saw you self immolating!”
“It has led to a number of unsolved disappearances and a myth or two, yes,” Steel admitted. “But nothing that could be traced back to our existence.”
Twilight looked down and put a hoof to her chin. Now that she thought about it, she could swear that she had read something about disappearing police and firefighters. What had that book been called? Equestrian Unsolved Mysteries? And... her eyes widened. Could this be the source of that crazy myth about spontaneous pony combustion?
Before she could ask him anything else on the subject, they were interrupted by a knock on the door and a voice that Twilight would recognize anywhere.
“Princess Celestia? It’s Shining Armor. You wanted to see me?”
Celestia put down her papers and, with a glow of her horn, unlocked the door. “Please come in, Captain.”
The door opened and Shining Armor stepped through. “Princess, what is it that— Twily!”
“Shining!” Twilight quickly deposited her notes and quill on the ground and ran up to embraced her brother in a hug.
“The best little sister ever is back in Canterlot and nopony thought to tell me?” Shining said as he returned the hug. “What are you doing here, though?”
Twilight returned to the floor and her ears drooped down as she considered what was about to happen. “Well...” She turned back to look at Steel and Novel.
Shining followed her gaze. “Steel Wing? Why are you here? And...” He looked at Novel for a moment then pointed a hoof in his direction. “Who are you?”
At this point, Celestia took over. “This is Novel Tale, an author here in Canterlot. Your sister has recently become friends with him, and he is largely responsible for why we are all here today.”
Shining raised an eyebrow at Novel before turning back to Celestia. “Okay... and just why are we all here today?”
Celestia turned to look at Steel. “We’re here today because Lieutenant Steel Wing has something very important to tell you.”
Steel reluctantly got up from where he sat and made his way to stand in front of Shining. “Captain Shining Armor, this is a... secret I’ve been hiding from you since we first met...” He began fidgeting slightly and looking anywhere but at Shining. “Uh... oh, there has to be some easy way to say this...”
Twilight looked at Steel in disbelief. This was entirely different from the confidence he had shown when talking to Celestia! He had seemed to be perfectly calm while they waited for Shining, but she realized that that must have been the Royal Guard training masking how worried he was about the outcome of this.
Shining wasn’t very impressed. “Come on, Steel, this isn’t like you. Just spit it out already.”
Steel looked at Shining. “But I can’t think of any way to tell you that would... Gah!” He slammed a hoof on the ground in frustration. “Horsefeathers, I’ll just show you!” Right in front of Shining, he shifted into changeling form.
He was immediately blasted across the room by a bolt of magic, slamming into a bookshelf. He fell to the ground, a small pile of books landing on top of him.
“Captain Shining Armor!” “Shining!” Celestia and Twilight simultaneously exclaimed.
While Twilight ran to go check on Steel, Celestia stood up and walked around her desk towards Shining, clearly disappointed with how things had turned out. “I had hoped that the Lieutenant would show a little more tact with his explanation...” As she spoke, her horn lit up and a similar golden glow appeared around Shining’s horn.
Shining began struggling against the magic holding his horn in place. “Princess, why are you holding me back!? Let me go! He’s a changeling! He—”
“Yes, Captain, he is a changeling," Celestia said in a perfectly calm voice. "He is also Steel Wing. And he is not the enemy. He’s not the only one either; Novel is also a changeling.” Shining whipped his head around, as best he could with his horn locked in place, to glare at Novel, who shrank down to the floor trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.
Celestia turned Shining’s head to look back at her and gave him a stern glare before continuing. “Your sister is aware of what he really is and has still become friends with him. Twilight has learned that Chrysalis and her army were only one changeling hive of many. The rest of their kind are appalled at what she did and simply wish to remain at peace with us.”
While Celestia was talking down Shining, Twilight was frantically using her magic to remove books from the pile that covered Steel. “Steel, are you okay? Say something!”
A few books shifted and Steel’s head slowly rose up from the pile of books, looking a bit woozy. “I’m fine.” He shook his head to clear his mind. “Just a bit shaken up. It takes more than that to incapacitate a member of the Royal Guard.”
“I’m so sorry Shining did that! He’s just been really on edge lately, and—”
“Please, Twilight! It’s alright. I was honestly expecting something like this to happen.” He began to get up, but stumbled and fell back down.
“Steel! Are you—”
“Twilight! I told you, I'm fine. I... just need a few moments is all.” He looked towards Celestia and Shining Armor. “Don’t worry about me, you should go and try to assist Princess Celestia in calming down Captain Armor.”
Twilight turned her attention back to Shining just in time to hear him exclaim “They want peace with us!?” in disbelief.
“It’s true, Shining!” Twilight said as she rejoined them. “I visited Novel’s hive, I even talked to his queen face to face! They just want to continue living amongst us peacefully like they always have!”
Steel picked that time to rejoin them. He sat down before Shining and bowed his head. “Captain.”
Shining glared at Steel in anger. “So... you really expect me to believe that you’re Steel Wing, huh?”
“That is correct, Captain.”
“Then how’d we first meet?”
Steel looked straight at Shining. “Second week of boot camp, we were both on ditch digging duty and struck up a rapport while we worked.”
Shining looked at Steel thoughtfully before dismissively waving a hoof in the air. “That was too easy, anypony could have learned that with a little digging...” He glared at Steel for a few moments. “Alright then, what happened on that scouting mission? If you’re really Steel Wing, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!”
“How could I ever forget...” Steel looked down to the ground. “Two years after we joined the Royal Guard, we were assigned as partners for a scouting mission in the Badlands south of Dodge Junction. We came across an old, abandoned mine that wasn't on any of our maps. I thought we should just mark it and be on our way, but you insisted that we check it out for possible signs of Diamond Dog activity.” He looked back up at Shining. “We had just gone far enough in that you had to start providing light for us magically when the ground suddenly gave out beneath our hooves. You were knocked out cold, and I was only barely able to fly you out of the pit we had we had fallen into.”
As Steel spoke, Shining’s face went from anger to shocked disbelief and, finally, numb acceptance. “Oh sweet Celestia, it really is you...” he said quietly, apparently having forgotten who he was in the room with. Celestia, not the slightest bit phased by his choice of words, released her magical hold on Shining’s horn, and he fell to his haunches on the ground. “We never included that incident in the report we filed when we got back,” Shining continued. “Steel and I were the only ones who knew about it...”
“Truthfully, Captain, were I not a changeling it is likely that neither of us would have come out of that situation as well as we did. My disguise shattered after the first few bumps on the way down, and if I had skin and bones like a normal pony instead of my changeling carapace, I doubt I would have been in any shape to carry us out.”
Shining just sat there silently, staring ahead at nothing in particular. Twilight, starting to get worried, put a hoof on his shoulder. “Shining?”
“What?” His head jerked towards Twilight. “Oh. I’m sorry, Twilight, this is just... a bit much for me to take in all at once.”
“So... will I be allowed to remain within the Guard, Captain?” Steel asked.
“I... I don’t know.” Shining stood up and began turning towards the door. “I think I need some time by myself time to think about this.”
“If I may, Shining, I would suggest that instead of thinking about this by yourself, you think about this with your wife,” Celestia suggested with a smile. "Although I would ask that you please keep this a secret from everypony else."
A hint of a smile appeared on Shining’s face. “Yeah... yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Cadance will help me figure this out. Thank you, Princess.”
Shining made his way towards the door. Twilight was about to say something else to him, but Celestia put a hoof around her neck and shook her head.
Shining left and closed the door behind him. Celestia turned to look at Steel, a slightly sad look on her face. “Lieutenant Steel Wing, I’m afraid that, until Captain Shining Armor can come to a decision on this, I am going to have to have you temporarily suspended from active duty.”
Steel looked down to the ground, clearly crestfallen. “I-I see. Of course, Princess.”
Celestia smiled reassuringly. “Fear not, I am confident that Princess Cadance will help Captain Shining Armor come to the right decision on this matter.”
Twilight put a hoof on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry things turned out like this, Steel.”
Steel only glanced up at Twilight for a moment before returning his gaze to the ground.
Celestia sighed. “I’m afraid that Shining Armor’s response would be typical of most ponies, were they to meet a changeling. Any true peace, and perhaps someday open integration, between changelings and ponies is bound to be a long, drawn out affair.” She looked to Twilight and smiled. “However, I think that this book you have planned is an excellent first step. Twilight, I want you to know that you will have my full support in this endeavor.”
Twilight embraced her mentor in a hug, an action that Celestia gladly reciprocated. “Thanks, Princess Celestia. I knew I could count on your support.” She returned to her hooves and gave one last worried look at Steel before turning back to Celestia. “I guess I should head back to Ponyville and get started on that then.” She turned to look at Novel. “Novel?”
Novel also looked down to the ground now and began rubbing one of his forelegs. “Uh, actually, I’ve... decided that I want to at least try to settle back in here in Canterlot. It’s just... well, I’ve lived here for so long...”
She walked up and gave Novel a quick hug which he returned after only a moments hesitation. “It’s okay, Novel, I understand.” She returned to the floor. “Though I was hoping that you would be there to help me with the book. I’ll be sure to come visit you, alright?”
“Yeah, alright. I’ll... be looking forward to it! And I’ll try to come visit you sometime, too!”
Twilight smiled. “Sounds good to me! I'll be sure to keep you both up to date on how things are going!”