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Upheaval: Breaking Point
Chapter 15: Loyalties
The trek to Bastion City quickly proved to be a difficult one for FangBreaker's survivors. Many of the injured had to be carried or put on the few wagons that they had managed to save from the fortress. The worst had already been flown ahead, leaving the unicorns and earth ponies to move as best as they could across the plain.
The morning cold eased slightly when the overcast sky let a few of the noon sun's rays reach the ponies. It was a small comfort, however. Commander Dreadstep urged his troops to go at a brisk pace to make as good a time as possible. There were defenses to be prepared. Bastion City had to be ready before the wolven even so much as approached it.
Despite the pace, they weathered the journey well. A trip from Bastion City to FangBreaker was practically part of basic training. It was the first thing most of them had ever done in order to join the Legion. They had moved on to the road that connected FangBreaker to Bastion City, which served to ease their journey somewhat. Despite fatigue, the weight of their failure, and short rations, they were making good time.
Not everypony who was traveling with the survivors endured the trip with ease, however. Vanguard Clash watched as Twilight and her friends traveled through rough terrain. They held themselves up well, but the pace and lack of rest was obviously making things difficult. Twilight, in particular, winced with each step of her right foreleg. As the day wore on, even Applejack, the hardiest among them, was showing signs of fatigue.
Rarity trailed behind her friends, panting in exertion while sweat dripped from her face. "Surely, a little rest won't bother anypony?" she muttered. She was about to kneel down for a break when Vanguard walked up from behind her.
"Keep moving," Vanguard said.
"We have been traveling all morning!" Rarity said. "All you gave us for breakfast was a couple of mouthfuls of that disgusting sand you call 'feed' and a small cup of water. It's unreasonable to ask us to keep going like this!"
"Being reasonable has to step aside for necessity, Miss Rarity," Vanguard answered. He bumped against her slightly, urging her to keep moving forward.
"Can I at least ride on those wagons for a short while to rest?" Rarity looked longingly towards one of the wagons. Spike had been allowed to ride on them. Vanguard had reasoned that the dragon shouldn't tax his friends' strained strength by riding on them and his stubby legs would only cause him to fall far behind.
"Your rest will demand payment from the ponies pulling those wagons," Vanguard said. "Not a good way to endear yourself to them. Let me ask you, have you noticed any sidelong glances being tossed your way?"
Rarity looked around her. "Well, now that you've mentioned it, I do feel like I'm being watched."
"That's because you are." Vanguard pulled Rarity to her hooves. "You've been under scrutiny the moment ponies noticed those diamonds on your flank."
"And what does that have anything to do with resting a bit?" Rarity asked as she dusted herself.
"The common perception out here is that you chosen are weak and spoiled," Vanguard said. "If you do things that confirm those perceptions, you will find yourself surrounded by enemies before we can even make it to Bastion City."
Rarity swallowed and quickened her pace to catch up.
Vanguard's tone softened when he spoke again. "Even if your legs feel like falling apart, you have to keep going for now. Respect can be earned, but it will be earned in time, and with effort." He walked ahead of Rarity after that and settled into keeping pace with Twilight. "How's your shoulder?" he asked.
"Painful," Twilight replied, "but I'll be fine. How are your burns?"
"Annoyingly itchy," Vanguard said with wry smile. "But I'll live."
Twilight also smiled. Whether it was out of relief or amusement, Vanguard wasn't sure. They walked quietly for a while before she decided to speak again. "So about your father…" she said.
"What about him?" Vanguard asked. His father had found him earlier that morning. There was no burst of emotion from Sharpfangs like Scarlet Rabbit had shown, only a brief hug and a "glad you're back, son". He had also provided Vanguard with enough concentrated feed for several ponies, much to Twilight's horror and her friends' curiosity.
"Share it with your new-found friends," Sharpfangs had said. "You should see your mother, boy, she'll be glad to see you're alive."
'I'll think about how glad she is while she's kicking my flank for making her think I was dead,' Vanguard thought.
"I've never seen a pony like him before," Twilight continued.
"The fangs are disconcerting I take it?"
"Well, there's that."
"He's a quarter wolven," Vanguard said. "Well, approximately anyway. Bloodlines don't lend themselves to neat fractions. And, yes, that would make me around an eighth of a wolven."
Vanguard noticed Twilight watching him curiously. His remark about his heritage had been casual, as if he was talking about his favorite food. "How did that happen?" she asked. She immediately backtracked once the question left her mouth. "If-if it's alright for you to tell me, that is."
"It's not some painful family secret and you won't be the first I tell it to," Vanguard replied. He paused for a moment, remembering the first time he told this story. From being a controversy, his wolven blood was now nothing more than a curiosity within the Legion. With the wolven however…he put the thought out of his mind. The wolven were deluded and this "breaker" myth their crone was trying to push on him meant nothing. "It started with my great grandmother. Her patrol was ambushed by wolven one day and she was captured. Unfortunately, that band of wolven raiders was led by a particularly perverted wolven." His expression darkened slightly. "When a Special Operations squad finally rescued her, her wings had been gnawed off and that was only one of the monstrosities that this wolven inflicted on her."
"What a monster…" Twilight whispered in disgust. "…even among wolven."
"Perhaps," Vanguard said. "Although, I recall that one of the original reasons for the wolven attacking is that King Fenrir wants to take Princess Luna for his bride. Perhaps this one wasn't so particular after all."
"Princess Luna?" Twilight asked. "Wait, how did you know about that?"
"We have books here, Twilight Sparkle, and I read," Vanguard replied. "Naturally, my grandfather horrified everypony that saw him. My great grandmother kept him, though. 'Pony blood is stronger that wolven blood.' she said. She meant it too. She raised him by herself, I'm told."
"And he proved her right, right?" Twilight asked. She had brightened at the mention of books. She even looked a little giddy and moved with a bit more spring in her step. Vanguard hid a smile. He had anticipated that she was the sort who loved books.
"He did his best to prove her completely wrong," Vanguard replied. "He ended up a criminal, eventually got caught, and hung. Not before he repeated his father's despicable deed. Not surprisingly, there was a large outcry for my father to just be killed the moment he was born."
Twilight remained quiet and listened intently. Despite the fate of Vanguard's grandfather, she still looked hopeful.
"He would have been too, until the matter somehow reached Prince Terrato's ears," Vanguard said. His voice took on a slightly reverent tone. "He forbade them from taking his life. 'This pony will be condemned only by his own actions and nopony elses' he had said. My father got his chance. He was a decent enough pony to earn his life and, strangely enough, the affections of a young, up and coming flight captain. So there you go. That's 'how it happened.'"
They were quiet again. A burst of raucous laughter and high-pitched giggling caused both of them to look ahead. Scarlet Rabbit was flying low and chatting up Pinkie Pie. The two were sharing jokes, unmindful of the ponies around them.
"It must have been hard on you," Twilight said.
Vanguard snorted. "Hardly, my father's done all the work. He's the one who was nearly killed for being born. All I have to put up with is the occasional 'dog' comment."
"The way you talk about him, you must really admire Prince Terrato." Twilight said. It was easy to notice her attempt to change the subject.
"He's our prince," Vanguard replied. "By his words, I'm alive and, by his leadership, the Barrier Lands still stand."
"Have you ever met him?"
"No, and I don't need to. Serving under him is enough for me. What about you?"
"Me?" Twilight shrugged. "I haven't really gotten to know Prince Terrato to have much of an opinion."
"I mean your opinion about his sister. You're Princess Celestia's student. You must know her better than anypony."
"Was," Twilight answered in a low tone.
"I apologize if I'm poking at still fresh wounds," Vanguard said.
"It's fine. And I do admire her. She's kind, patient and wise…the perfect teacher and princess."
Vanguard raised an eyebrow. "I'm a little surprised."
"Why's that?" Twilight asked.
"You sing her praises even though she banished you here."
A frown creased Twilight's brow. "She banished me because she believed that it was for the good of Equestria. She's always thinking of what's best for Equestria even if…even if I don't agree with her." Before Vanguard could respond, Twilight went on. "I know what a lot of ponies in the Legion think. They think she's an evil nag who doesn't care about them. That's not true!"
"You don't have to convince me," Vanguard said.
Twilight's eyes narrowed. "What do you think of Princess Celestia then?"
"I think nothing of her. She's the prince's sister who hasn't done anything to make me care one way or another."
"You don't care that she divided Equestria into the Heartland and the Barrier Lands?"
"I defend my home as best I can with what I have because I live here, not because there are ponies a thousand miles away are depending on me. Besides, Prince Terrato has worked with this division for centuries. It's never bothered him, so why should I be bothered?"
"I think you should care," Twilight said. "Because those ponies a thousand miles away would if they knew what was going on here."
"Are you going to start preaching about 'the truth'?" Vanguard asked. "Pyre Valor did that often. She went about it the loudest just before she hit me with a fireball and betrayed the Legion."
"I'm sorry," Twilight said. Her face told him that she hadn't expected the conversation to swing towards his traitorous friend. "What she did was wrong. But if she intended-!"
"She's a traitor," Vanguard growled. "I don't care what she intended. Her actions condemn her. Hundreds of good ponies are dead and the north is in danger. All of it because of her loyalty to 'the truth'. By the prince's law, I will kill her the next time we meet."
"But she was your friend!"
"And she betrayed that friendship too. Pyre has chosen her side and I've chosen mine."
Twilight fell silent. She looked above her and Vanguard did the same. It was already afternoon and it was starting to get cold again. As hard as she tried to look fine, Twilight was clearly struggling with her shoulder. The long exertion was gradually making things worse. Even the soldiers looked tired. Behind her, Rarity looked like she was about to fall face-first onto the ground. Applejack and Fluttershy walked next to her in concern, but they were beginning to struggle as well. Rainbow Dash flew just a little ahead of her, now involved in a loud conversation with Pinkie and Scarlet.
"Twilight," Vanguard spoke again. Some of the edge had gone from his voice.
"What is it?"
"Do you still consider yourself loyal to Princess Celestia?"
"Yet, you believe that the ponies of the Heartland should know the truth of this place?"
"Yes, I do."
"But that goes against your mentor's wishes."
Twilight focused her gaze on the ground in deep thought. "Sometimes...sometimes loyalty to a pony doesn't mean agreeing with that pony in all things," she said. She laughed wryly. "Listen to me. That sounds like something I should be asking Spike to write down so I can send it to Princess Celestia."
Vanguard let himself smile as well. "You make a good point, though," he said. "I just hope that my loyalty isn't put to the test in the same way yours was."
Twilight nodded and their conversation switched to less heavy matters. Talking seemed to help her ignore the pain of her injury and let the day wear on faster. It wouldn't be long now until they reached Bastion City.
Located at what would be considered the center of the Barrier Lands, ignoring the Heartland, the Gray Sentinel stood watch over Equestria. Atop the Alicorn's Perch, the tallest peak in all of the Barrier Lands, the massive fortress served as Prince Terrato's home. From this place, he directed the Equestrian Legion whenever he wasn't out among them. From the blade-like spires to the individual rooms, no mortal pony was involved in the construction of this place, only Terrato's mastery over stone and metal. No mortal pony lived in the Gray Sentinel either. Silent, pony-shaped guardians of iron and stone performed all the necessary maintenance. He refused to make use of the Legion's resources for housekeeping.
The Gray Sentinel's size had nothing to do with Terrato's sense of extravagance. Should the Legion be faced with the most desperate of situations, he planned to gather as many as possible into the fortress in a final stand until Equestria's enemies bled to death trying to destroy them, a time that he believed would never come.
It was also a time that now played out at the very edges of his mind. He consulted the map of Equestria laid out before him. The wolven had broken through his northern front and were bearing down the ponies who lived in his realm. Reinforcements from the western and southern fronts were still on the way. All of this happened merely a day after he left FangBreaker and returned to this place.
"You are my defender."
Terrato's eyes narrowed as he stared at the map. Celestia was asking him to work miracles. Part of him felt flattered, even excited, at the chance to assure his sister that Equestria was safe while he stood watch. Most of him, however, could only brood over the unnecessary cost of Celestia's so-called faith in him. He was deluding himself if he believed that this situation was a mark of her faith. In truth, this situation was proof of how much his dearest sister wanted nothing to do with him.
To complicate matters, he now had to play foal-sitter for Twilight Sparkle and her merry band of rebels. If they were still alive. 'I told you that it was going to bite your flank, Celestia,' he thought. 'Now I have to worry about whether it's going to take a chunk off.'
"You cannot hide out here forever, big brother. The changes will force you to act."
Then, there was Luna.
Terrato was no longer sure what to make of his younger sister. He had suspected that she was trying to get him on her side in another attempt at taking over their eldest sister's rule and that she still stank of Nightmare Moon's influence. But, earlier, she was the one who showed concern over his realm. The look on her face made him think that she was even willing to come over to the Barrier Lands and take up post.
That was something he couldn't allow. He still remembered that moment even if more than a thousand years had passed. He had just come back from his greatest victory over Fenrir. There was wolven blood still spattered over his hide and hooves. His horn had been broken and was still smeared with bits of Fenrir's eyeball. He had triumphantly flown back to his sisters with a glorious tale of what he did to those who wanted to harm them. Luna was happy that her "suitor" had been punished and the sight of her joy warmed his heart. But one look from Celestia destroyed that moment. Their eldest sister had given him a withering, disapproving stare that told him to stop. He knew that, from then on, Luna was off-limits. His relationship with his younger sister cooled and the barrier came to be in that same year.
Something went through Celestia's barrier again. Annoyance quickly marred Terrato's face. Just how often was that barrier going to be breached? He recognized the presence of the one who breached it too. 'As if on cue,' he thought.
Sure enough, magic began to gather in the room. Luna materialized across the table from him. "What did I tell you about coming here?" Terrato asked. He let some of his annoyance tinge his words.
"Our sister doesn't need my support right now, big brother," Luna answered. "You do."
"Am I a crippled old stallion so that my filly of a sister has to help me?"
"You need help and our sister won't aid you. Let me."
Terrato rounded the table and stared his younger sister in the eye so that his face was but an inch from hers. He saw her quiver slightly, but she did not back away. "I will break your wings and kick you back to the Heartland if you won't go on your own," he growled.
Luna held his gaze steadily, a move that surprised him. Was this even the same filly who ran crying under him when she first heard what Fenrir intended? "If you want a fight, big brother, look to the north. I'm not blind. There are three chairs in this meeting hall you designed. You've always meant for the three of us to lead a united Equestria together. We can start here!"
Terrato snorted and turned away from Luna. She was right. This room was designed as a meeting room that could accommodate him and his sisters. It was an idiotic pipe dream that he kept for some reason. Luna saw that with a glance. "Do what you want," he said. "Go north. Find Twilight Sparkle if you want to make yourself useful."
"Does that mean you'll let me stay and help?"
"Stay out of the fighting and concern yourself with Celestia's batch of rebels. If I find out that you've been fighting, you're going back to the Heartland with hoof-prints on your face."
Terrato exhaled loudly. 'Well, I'm not getting Celestia's approval either way,' he thought. He froze when he felt a pair of legs embrace him from the side.
"Thank you," Luna whispered. "For trusting me this much, at least."
A familiar warm feeling enveloped Terrato for a moment. His own forelegs seemed to move on their own to hug back, but he quickly stopped himself and pushed her away. "Get going before I regain my sanity," he said. She smiled in return, then cast her spell. In a flash of dark blue, she was gone. 'I'm sorry, Celestia,' he thought. 'But I have to build miracles out of something.'