• Published 14th Feb 2020
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Imperial Revision - The Sound of Loneliness

What would you do if you already had everything? Or everything you wanted. Her Majesty Nightmare Moon has recently discovered there is more to life than war, intrigues and edicts. Luna is trying to be helpful. She has no choice.

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Shadows On The Castle Walls

Thorax dropped the last stone on the grave, his expression sad, but determined. Shadow stood at his side, impassive, as always. He blew a melancholy sigh, looking at his half-sister’s face.
“Would you like to start?” Thorax offered Shadow the book that Philomena had brought them.

“Cree!” the bird sounded encouragingly from the tree that stretched its branches over their heads.

“She is still our mother, Shadow. No matter what she did,” Thorax patiently reminded. Shadow didn’t react, not even bothering to look at him.
“Well… alright. I’ll start.” Thorax opened the book and quickly found the marked page.

He glanced at Shadow again, this time to discover her bowing her head ever so slightly. This was enough for Thorax, he barely avoided smiling at it, despite the circumstance.
The changeling had been surprised when instead of instructions, the Empress sent them a songbook of all things, but Sir Spike had explained the concept. Ponies had a wonderful tradition for funerals.
They said goodbye just like they did everything—they sang. Although they didn’t sing quite as often now, this was one of the times when they still did. Whenever somepony died, all friends and relatives would come together and sing the favorite song of the deceased. This was a way for them to commemorate their friends and to better cement the memory of them for the years to come. A happy memory was better than a sad one.

No one could tell what songs their mother had enjoyed, or if she liked any at all, so they had to choose themselves. Shadow resisted at first, but such was the Empress’ will, so she promised to sing.
Their mother may not have been a good person, but they could at least bury her like one. Thorax took good care to find an appropriate song. The label said it was an ancient thestral song they used to sing to honor Princess Luna even as she was on the moon. It was beautiful and Shadow liked it too.

Follow, follow the stars
Follow the path their light heeds
Lead us to Her paradise.

Sight, the sight of the light
There are no intentions
A dream with no care

Tomorrow is safe and warm night for everypony,
Same warm moon; safety of the stars

So follow, follow the stars,
The way of the Moon,
The direction of our Mother
The bright, light of the moon,

We shall cherish this blessing.
We shall cherish this night.
Tomorrow is the same night for everyone,
Same old moon; same old stars

All we beg for is that you
Remove her evil curse

When you feel a horrible moment,
Adding to the chain
Take a flight under the silver stars
And ask for the forgiveness of thine sins

Many moons have risen and fallen long, long before your came
So tell us which way our Mother is pointing,
And what does your blessing say?
So follow, follow the stars,

And which way our Mother points
When your time has come.

Suddenly, Thorax understood why this was so important. The changeling could feel it. The last time Thorax remembered feeling like this was right before Princess Cadence’s wedding. He was at the spearhead unit and was tasked with subduing the Royal Guard and the citizenry… he’d done neither, of course, it was nothing at all like Pharynx had said it would be, it was… wrong!
But there still was something about it that he liked - the sense of community. Right before they were rushed in on the Canterlot streets, things changed drastically for him. His entire life other changelings had laughed and picked on him for being "softshelled," but then it all suddenly stopped. They all still saw him as weak and cowardly, no doubt about that, but they were training together for the mission. They were doing something together and it counted. He was no longer Thorax the Weakling, he was Private Thorax of the 1st Infiltration Regiment.
Now it was the feeling of guilt for leaving them that he felt, even if it was the right thing to do.

Again, Thorax looked quietly down at Shadow beside him. She was impassive, as always, but she felt different now. Thorax wondered if he should even try. Shadow always preferred to keep her distance. Well… only one way to find out.

The changeling lifted his foreleg and lead it around her, then gently nuzzled at her. Shadow didn’t recoil, didn’t push him off, didn’t even flinch.
It was exactly what she needed. She even began to lean into him a little. Thorax felt himself smiling, despite the morbid occasion.

“Cree!” Philomena screeched encouragingly from her tree. The bird lightly lifted off and glided over a few dozen meters before landing on a bush further down the forest line, the innate light of her feathers making it easy to see her in the dark. Thorax knew the sign—the phoenix wanted them to follow her.

“How did she even find us?” Thorax pondered aloud, letting go of Shadow. His sibling simply shrugged and went after the bird without him or the fresh grave another look.

“It is obvious,” Shadow suddenly responded to him.

“Uuuh… Is it?”

“This is Princess Celestia’s pet phoenix, Thorax. Princess Celestia served, until recently, Her Majesty. Who else do you think could send her?”

“O-oh!” It made sense.
“The Empress sure knows very... elegant ways to keep track of everything. But… haven’t you said that Philomena didn’t come back to Her Highness after she returned? Doesn’t this technically mean that she is now Miss Fluttershy’s phoenix and doesn’t take Her Majesty’s orders? Since, you know, she lives in Miss’ cottage?”

Shadow didn’t answer him, instead opting for a quiet, recurrent sound Thorax hadn’t heard her making before. Did she just… laugh?
Now he felt like he was missing something again.

Philomena continued to quietly lead them along the tree line, then suddenly made a sharp turn and darted into the woods. Thorax stared at the spot where the phoenix had just disappeared in confusion, but snapped out of it as Shadow followed without hesitation.

“Where exactly is she leading us?” Thorax asked.

“I don’t know,” Shadow answered simply.

“Why are we following her? Maybe she just went to… do birdy things?”
Shadow laughed again, pointing out him being stupid once more. Well… Thorax was glad she enjoyed it, at least.

“This is a phoenix, Thorax,” Shadow said. “She can’t talk, but she is still as smart as any pony. If Philomena wants us to follow her somewhere, it is Her Majesty’s will.”
The way Shadow said the last bit made Thorax suddenly shudder.
He hated it when she talked like one of those thestrals he’d seen on the streets the other night. It was a little too similar to what he remembered about other changelings and their talk about Chrysalis. Before the war, that is.

“Are you sure she is Her Majesty’s friend, Shadow? I mean, did you see them together or-”
Shadow suddenly turned on her heels and marched right back at him. Thorax instinctively recoiled.

“Her Majesty revealed exactly as much as we need to know! Do not question her!” Shadow hammered right into his face, emphasizing each word with a thrust of her hoof into his chest.
Finishing her burst, she turned around again and continued following the faint glow ahead.
Sheesh… That happened. Okay, mental note: never do... that again in front of Shadow.

Philomena led both changelings deeper into the forest, waiting for them to catch up along the way. Thorax wanted to fly instead, but the bird immediately stopped and landed on the ground, giving him a stern look.
Walking it is.

The forest didn't seem quite okay either. Once Thorax had overheard Sir Spike talking with Miss Fluttershy regarding the poor health of the trees, so this wasn't quite surprising, but it still made an impression. Dead, twisted husks of trees and bushes, the reddish color of the soil, the forest clearly needed help.
It wasn't just forest too, ponies at the market stalls complained about poor harvest this season.

The phoenix continued leading them through the forest, in silence, Thorax would loved to talk, but he knew Shadow enough already to know that she was already in her “mission mode.”
Soon, Philomena suddenly stopped flying away and came to wait for them on the edge of a clearing.

“Whoa!” Thorax breathed out. The word “clearing” barely held enough significance. The view felt more like a sight from an epic he saw in Princess Twilight’s library!
The ruined castle, hidden mysteriously behind a thin veil of mist and separated with a great chasm with only a single bridge over it. The changeling’s imagination immediately soared. Who lived here? Why was it abandoned? When?

Thorax turned to ask if Shadow knew but found her staring, unblinking, at something across the chasm. Blinking his eyes, Thorax turned back to trace her look. Oh! There was a pony there!
Someone, wearing a long cloak, was moving from the bridge and to the ruined entrance!

“Who’s that?” Thorax quietly asked, not wishing for the echo in the chasm to carry his voice.

Shadow waited before answering, carefully studying the posture and movement of the tiny figure before it disappeared inside, not before taking a careful look behind her.

“Miss Rarity,” Shadow finally answered, Thorax, could even hear, surprise in her voice.

“Eh… Her Majesty’s advisor?” Shadow nodded, “Isn’t she supposed to be in Canterlot, ready to assist the Empress?”

“Yes… she is.” Shadow darted to the bridge and crossed it in a few large leaps. Leaving Thorax to stand there, with his mouth silly open with his the next question stuck in his throat. He forgot how quickly she could move when she wanted. The changeling looked at Philomena, catching her approving look.

“...Okay, spying after Miss Rarity it is then.”

Shadow had to slow down to ensure her hoofsteps wouldn’t uncover her approach. Stealth was of paramount importance—Miss Rarity wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t the case. No one ever came to the ruins, a perfectly discreet location in the middle of the Everfree Forest, yet here was Miss Rarity herself, disregarding her usually fashionable attires for a dull cloak.
This was important.

Shadow traced the pony’s steps all the way to the doorway. A quick look inside revealed an empty hall, one in very bad condition, at that. The hall was filled with all sorts of rubble and the once-majestic colonnade was partially ruined, the roof featuring a jagged-edged gap.
Shadow heard hasty hoofsteps behind her. Good, Thorax, had finally caught up.

Shadow swiftly cantered into the room, examining it for clues. She spotted an alarmingly large spat of dried blood on the floor and some once-soaked bandages, but no trace of her target. There must be another way.

The changeling stretched her neck high into the air, making a series of short sniffs and catching the faint scent of a familiar perfume. Letting her muzzle guide her, Shadow slowly trotted over to one of the side passages.

“Shadow!” Thorax whispered, trying to be quiet with his steps. “Shadow, someone is following us! Looks like we aren’t the only ones who followed Miss Rarity here.”

“What do you mean?” Shadow mumbled, focusing on the scent.
“I saw someone flying in just as we entered.”
Shadow stopped suddenly, gritting her teeth and spinning sharply on her heel. Thorax hastily flattened himself against the wall to let her through.
Shadow heard the unmistakable clink of hoof shoes on stone even before she saw the source.
White coat, irritated frown and sharp look in the eyes - Her Majesty’s sister. For the moment she was only studying the hall, but an alicorn couldn’t be underestimated. It wouldn’t be long until she tracked down them and, eventually, Miss Rarity. Unacceptable.

Shadow patted Thorax on the shoulder to get his attention and began trotting quickly through the ruined corridor again.

“Thorax, there’s a mission for you,” she whispered. Thorax missed a step and nearly fell, Shadow stopped for a second to wait for him.

“For me?” he asked, giving her a bewildered stare.

“Yes, for you,” she hastily confirmed, continuing on her way. “I need your help in distracting Her Majesty’s sister. Her being here isn’t a good sign.”

“Didn’t she tell us to stay away from her sister? You heard her, didn’t you?”

Shadow bit her lip.

“Her Majesty doesn’t know about any of this.” Noticing her brother’s dumbfounded look, she quickly elaborated, trying to hold him from falling into an untimely stupor, “She wouldn’t let her sister close to Miss Rarity, not alone and not in the wilderness. Miss Rarity is here on her own consent.”

“She… can do that?”

“No… no, she can’t.” This indeed was highly suspicious, but Shadow proceeded to force all unnecessary thoughts out of her head, this was not the time, “Shapeshift into Miss Rarity and lead her away. You know how Miss looks.” Thorax nodded.

“Yes, I saw the pictures in the Princess’ Castle.”

“Good, don’t get caught. Return to the Castle once you lose her in the Forest.”

Thorax sighed deeply, but did as he was told. Shadow paused to quickly examine the illusion and straighten up a few mishaps—her brother wasn’t trained, after all.
Giving him one last nod and a pat on the shoulder, Shadow continued forward, leaving Thorax to wait for his objective to find him.
Shadow sincerely hoped she didn’t just sign Thorax’s death warrant, but couldn’t tolerate emotion right now. She had a mission too.

The scent of perfume led her through winding corridors—some open, some occasionally blocked by rubble, till it finally came to an abrupt stop in one of the hallways. The walls around had no doors, so either Miss Rarity had decided to take more precaution, or this place had a hidden passage. Shadow quickened to examine the surrounding walls and floor. After what seemed hundreds of years, the walls were damaged enough to reveal previously invisible gaps, allowing the passage to be easily found if one knew where to look.

Next, Shadow proceeded to try the most obvious way—pressing the stones to find a button and open it. Amazingly enough, it worked. It seemed this Castle didn’t have the most advanced security measures.

With a remarkably quiet scratch of stone, the wall lowered itself down, allowing Shadow to pass.
Behind the wall there was a stairway descending into some sort of catacombs; looked reasonable, even the palace had these, despite being built much more recently.

With a move similar to Miss Rarity’s, Shadow checked to see if anyone was following her, then ventured forth, descending into the darkness. Good thing it had never bothered her anyway.
The wall slid back in place behind her… good.

The stairs proved to be rather short, quickly concluding with what looked like a supplies storage room. There was another way further on, but Miss Rarity did not take it.
She was quietly standing in the center of the hall with a tiny spark on her horn, amongst the dirt and rubble. She wouldn’t normally be seen close to such a place. Miss Rarity was waiting for someone.
Shadow elected to press her body to the wall, reducing the chance of getting spotted if the light did somehow reach her. The natural dark carapace Shadow wore should prove more than capable of hiding her in the darkness still lingering on the stairway.

Minutes stretched on, visibly unnerving the cloaked pony. Miss Rarity began slowly pulling through the hairs of her mane, an almost unconscious motion.

“Oh, finally, there you are!” she suddenly whispered towards the other exit out of the room, her voice expressing sizable relief.

“You have been followed!” The second figure emerged from the shadow of the passageway, carrying a torch.

“The agreement was for you to come alone! Or maybe this is another one of your Mistress’ schemes to find out her enemies?” Shadow shivered, this was no pony, the voice didn’t match. Ponies also rarely harborded this much bile, even for the Empress, but it was familiar... a hippogriff.

“I did no such thing!” Rarity’s response sounded almost… forced? “It is very hard to sneak out of the palace without anyone noticing! The very stones have eyes there!”

“Don’t waste my time with your excuses! I only came because you promised benefits for my Queen. Speak your proposal, slave.” Shadow could almost feel Rarity’s frown, even through her hood.

“This isn’t just about benefits! This is about a mortal threat! A threat to everycreature, including your Queen! The only reason I would touch a venomous snake like you is because I have no other choice! If we knew what kind of ruffians you all prove to be--”

What then?” the hippogriff chuckled. “Let the Storm King have you all as slaves?” He spat on the floor, “As if there was much difference for you, anyway. Thanks for ridding us of him, though. Now we can give you and your Empress a taste of what he got every time he tried to stick his nose on our mountain.
But I digress, a slave can choose her master, I suppose. You have this much freedom.”

Rarity took a step forward, as if intending to give the dirtbag what he deserved, but… that wouldn’t be Rarity Shadow knew. She paused and gave an audibly exasperated sigh.

“Look, this isn’t the time. I. Need. Help. And trust me, it is within your best interests to provide it!” The hippogriff proceeded to chuckle again, seeming to barely holding back from laughing aloud.

“Trust you? A willing servant of Nightmare Moon? The oppressive tyrant famous for being deceptive? Do you think us all daft?” Letting out a snarl, Rarity reached under her cloak and pulled out her ring of keys. Snatching a single key, Rarity sent it flying across the room,
“What’s this?” the hippogriff asked, catching it. “Is this a key to your heart, classy girl? I’ll pass.”

“The armory key,” Rarity hissed through clenched teeth.

“Oh, planning assassination, are we? You took much from your new owner, pet.”

“I need your muscle,” Rarity continued, ignoring the insult. “I need you to break into the palace catacombs through the specific door at the specific time.”

“You overestimate my humble abilities, my lady,” the hippogriff bowed mockingly.

“Don’t play dumb with me!” Rarity snapped again. “I know your Queen didn’t leave you here alone.
I will let you in at sunset through the caves under the Canterlot. There will be no Guards to give you trouble.”

Shadow couldn’t believe what she was hearing. A part of her wanted to jump out of her cover, run straight to Rarity and ask her a single question, the only question that mattered to her now - "Why?"

The designer mare was with the Empress longer than anypony else. Rarity was her very first subject. Rarity gave up everything for her. Her good name, her reputation, her dreams, even put on the line her friends, solely for Her Majesty and Luna. And now she was plotting to betray her?

This… this didn’t make sense! Shadow knew the Empress wasn’t good with handling ponies, that’s what Princess Twilight was for, but she took good care of her loyal subjects! She ensured they were never left wanting!
By the stars, this was a sacrilege.
Shadow’s hooves began slowly reaching for the dagger affixed on her waist, her confusion quickly replaced by anger.
Restraint. Her Majesty would want to know first. Shadow shouldn’t have let her feelings to cover her judgment. Her mission was only to inform, not think.

“What do you even want us to do?” Evidently, Shadow had missed a few lines, for the hippogriff’s tone was no longer mocking. “I need to know what kind of objective to set up.”

“I… can’t tell you.”

“So, let me get this straight—you want us to break into your palace, walk into the armory with this key, get to some door you are going to leave open, and you aren’t even going to tell me what your plan is?”

“I know how it sounds… but I, really, can’t tell you. This is dangerous.”

“Treason always is,” hippogriff commented dryly.

“It’s for your own good,” Rarity said flatly.

“Riiight... Look, in that case, I will just take my leave, I’ve got better things to do.” The hippogriff turned carelessly, trotting back the way he came from.

“Wait!” Rarity whispered loudly. “I… I have insurance!”


“There is a pony… She lives on the edge of this very forest in a lonely cottage, you can’t miss it. Her name is Fluttershy.”

“I know of her. What do you suggest, exactly?” Rarity paused for a long time.

“...Take her as your insurance,” Rarity’s forced words came. “If your… people get hurt, you can… hurt one of mine.” Rarity’s head fell to the ground in utter shame.

“You must need my help really badly, don't you?”

“You don’t have a single idea.”

Shadow had had enough, she couldn’t hear this any longer. This was already more than enough for a report, and much more than she wanted to know. Shadow was just forced to watch one of the best ponies she’d knew to sank down to the very bottom. The pony who always helped everyone she could at the palace, the pony who was willing to do anything for others, the pony who was planning to murder someone Shadow cared about.

She stumbled up the stairs, mindlessly hitting the button for the wall to slide out of her way again. Shadow couldn’t bring herself to think about how she’s going to tell this to Her Majesty. Perhaps Philomena would carry another letter for her.

“There you are!” Shadow was roughly flung off her hooves and dragged across the floor to the other side of the corridor. Her instincts kicked in immediately afterwards, but it was too late. She was careless enough to get caught. There was no breaking free now, only one way remained.
Shadow reached for her dagger and with a lightning-quick swing sent it flying into her latest enemy.
The smug smile on her captor’s face only became wider as the dagger harmlessly stopped just before her.
“Cute toy!” she exclaimed, suspending Shadow in the air,
“I think I’ll take your offering!” Shadow felt her limbs being bound together with a bright gold, summoned string. Her scabbard was pulled off her body and her weapon harmlessly levitated back to it.
“Don’t you worry, my beloved subject. I won’t harm you! In fact, we are going to be best of friends before you know it! Let us just get you somewhere… safe.

Author's Note:

The song is the courtesy of MlpHero, well, most of it. If you are a fan of Sabaton and/or changelings, get a read on that blog of his.

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