Upheaval: Breaking Point
Chapter 20: Special Operations
"We've just gotten reports that the wolven are already closing in on the city!"
"Preparations are still underway. Terrato's bloody hooves, we won't be ready on time!"
"The draft's turned out only half of expected numbers. We need those reinforcements soon!"
From his seat, Commander Dreadstep listened as his subordinates piled one problem after another, each one convinced that their problem was the worst of the lot, thus demanding immediate attention. He had his eyes closed and his forelegs crossed, but everypony in the room knew that he was listening to every detail. He had been beset with problems the moment he stepped foot into Bastion City. That wasn't even counting the problems he was already carrying with him.
The city had become complacent during the past few years. He should have recognized it when the number of enlistments began to dwindle, and when supply quotas missed an item or two. To his shame, he admitted that it had been possible for the city to be complacent because he was too. They had depended too much on FangBreaker and its centuries of impregnability, as if history could protect them instead of vigilance. They had underestimated Wolvengard, thinking that the wolven would be satisfied with raising an army once in a while to inflict casualties. Worst of all, they had underestimated the dissension within the Legion itself.
"Commander, what of this group of saboteurs mentioned in some of the reports?" Logistics Officer Frostmane asked. "In addition to somehow bringing down our gates from the inside, we've discovered that a lot of the supplies in FangBreaker had been ruined!"
Dreadstep nodded to acknowledge the question. "I've had Special Operations working on it since we started retreating," he answered. "Results should be forthcoming." He didn't add that the pony likely responsible for destroying the gates, Pyre Valor, was a member of Special Operations. There was no need to play up everypony's paranoia, and have them at each other's throats before the wolven even got there. He looked out the window of his office. It seems that Vanguard Clash had slipped in his vigilance as well. How else could he not have noticed his vice-captain's building betrayal?
'At a time when we were all slipping, disaster strikes,' Dreadstep thought. 'The Legion will be made to pay for this dishonor, especially me.' His eyes narrowed. There will be time for punishments once the crisis has passed. Right now, it was time to make up for the lack of vigilance, and they were starting with the ponies who dared to side against their kin.
The end of their first day as legionnaires brought both a sense of relief and accomplishment, as well a sense of apprehension for Twilight and her friends. They had done well, so far. Most of them anyway. Twilight had immediately returned to studying Pyre Valor's old spells. It was a little disheartening for her that she was improving by learning spells that had been discarded by another unicorn as basic material. Still, she had to start somewhere. She looked around to see how the others were doing.
Spike had spent the day roaming Bastion City while trying to keep from being caught underhoof. He happily told of how the city found a use for him wherever he went. It had started with the public baths, but he was just as welcome in the foundries, the kitchens, and the smithies. Twilight was surprised a bit, but she remembered that she was in the northernmost city in all of Equestria. Here, fire was a valuable commodity.
Rarity had gone to bed early, much to Twilight's concern. She wished that she hadn't used that Burning Hooves spell, and had stuck to a powered down telekinetic kick. Her attempt at pleasing Mage Captain Owlsight had made her friend look twice as bad. It wasn't even within Rarity's control that the tests went badly for her. The magical drift, as Princess Luna had called it, impeded their magical powers. It wasn't fair for Mage Captain Owlsight to judge Rarity's magical aptitude when her powers were hobbled like that.
Still, Owlsight's reasoning was sound, even with the magical drift factored in. They didn't have time to adjust to the drift properly with the wolven arriving soon. It was for the best after all that Rarity be transferred to a part of the Legion that didn't put her in direct combat.
Rarity wasn't the only one who went to bed early. Next to her, Pinkie Pie was snoring away. Applejack had told them of how training in barding had sapped even Pinkie's seemingly boundless energy. Twilight guessed that it wasn't just the weight that wore on Pinkie. Marching in orderly lines, moving, stopping, and turning when told to, and having orders barked at you were things far outside Pinkie's element.
As for Applejack, it appeared that she had the best day out of the lot of them. That wasn't much of a surprise either. She was used to manual labor so spending the entire day doing it was nothing new. The barding was an added weight, even for her, but she looked quite proud of the metal plated suit, and made no secret of wanting to try out the "fancier ones" she had seen the higher ranking officers wear. She had also made a friend among the recruits, a stallion named Twocolt.
Twilight had expected Rainbow Dash to do well as well. After all, Rainbow was just as athletic as Applejack, and even more enthusiastic. But Rainbow Dash had flown in earlier in an irritable mood, muttering something about making Scarlet regret underestimating her.
Fluttershy had come in last. Twilight had asked her how she had done, but didn't quite hear the reply. It wasn't just because of Fluttershy's soft voice either. As soon as the pegasus had opened her mouth, Twilight was assaulted by a frightful smell. When asked what she had been eating, Fluttershy answered with embarrassment that it must have been the drink that Doctor Redbrand had shared with her.
Then there were the ponies who were not around.
Twilight wondered if she should even be concerned with what Vanguard Clash and Scarlet Rabbit were up to. Now that she was part of the Legion, she had to consider them as higher ranked soldiers who had their own duties to attend to, and could not be bothered to constantly look after a bunch of recruits. She dearly wanted to consider them friends, life-long, reliable friends she would be writing friendship reports to Princess Celestia about if they were back in the Heartland. But part of her was afraid that they were simply doing what they had been ordered to do. That, when they were done with those orders, she would walk past Vanguard without him even looking at her.
The thought of that made Twilight shake her head, and concentrate on Pyre Valor's notes. She had things to do. Burning Hooves looked impressive, but the range was far too short. She didn't want a wolven to be just ten feet away from her before she could hit it with a spell. Her best option was Fireball, the most difficult spell in Pyre Valor's book. After that, she had to get plenty of rest. Training would begin early tomorrow.
Some time had gone by when the door to their room opened. It was Vanguard Clash, but he didn't take a step inside the room. Instead, he looked around, searching for somepony specific. "Applejack," he called out.
Applejack looked up. She had taken to spit shining her barding when she heard her name. "Need something, Vanguard?" she asked.
"Fancy a little evening stroll?" Vanguard asked. The question caught Twilight by surprise. She looked at Vanguard to try and gauge his intentions. It was so hard to tell with his barding in the way. She saw that Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Spike also looked shocked.
"Well, I was thinking that, after this, I should hit the-!" Applejack stopped when she caught the serious look in Vanguard's eyes. "Sure, why not?" she replied. "Lemme get my coat. Looks a mite cold out."
It was only after the two of them had left when somepony decided to speak.
"What was that all about?" Twilight asked.
Spike shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe Vanguard just wanted some company," he suggested.
"He sure was quick to pick Applejack in that case." Twilight remarked.
"Why not?" Spike answered. "You looked busy, Rainbow was sulking, and he probably won't have much to talk about with Fluttershy, or me for that matter."
"That's not the reason, silly!" Rainbow added. Her mood seemed to have lightened at the subject. "I know what's really going on!" She motioned for all of them to come closer.
Twilight closed the book for now and listened along with Fluttershy and Spike.
"Remember that last night we spent out there in the plain?" Rainbow began. "Well, I woke up after everypony had gone to sleep, and I saw those two being all cozy by the fire and chatting!"
Fluttershy's eyes widened. "Really?" she asked. "Does that mean-?"
"What were they talking about?" Twilight asked.
"I couldn't hear," Rainbow conceded. "But I saw him pat her on the shoulder. And, when she went to sleep, she had a smile on her face!"
Twilight snorted at the hinting. "Is that it?" she asked. "They could have just had a friendly chat."
"So why did he ask her out now?" Rainbow asked slyly.
"I'm sure there's a good explanation," Twilight insisted. "We're in the middle of a crisis. Vanguard Clash isn't so frivolous as to…well, do those things while he's busy with his duties."
"He's Special Operations," Rainbow said knowingly. "They do a lot of crazy stuff as part of their duties. That includes hanging around doing nothing, and probably includes asking mares out."
"Well, we'll just have to see then, won't we?" Twilight responded before returning to her studying.
"No need to be snappish," Spike said with a yawn. "I'm turning in. All of you should too. You're the ones with new, busy schedules."
The night air was even colder than Applejack expected. She was thankful now that Vanguard had insisted that they get these wolven-fur coats. It wasn't just the air that she got the chill from, however. Vanguard had motioned for her to follow, then walked ahead of her. She had felt it earlier, but it was clear now that this wasn't some casual walk.
Bastion City looked different at night, scarier and much more grim. The tall buildings rose ominously, blotting out sections of the night sky, and partly obscuring tonight's waxing gibbous moon.
"So what's this all about?" she finally asked.
"Work," Vanguard answered.
The two of them rounded several corners. Soon, Applejack realized that she was now lost. Before she could even think about her predicament, a group of ponies emerged from the shadows to surround her, each one of them garbed in mottled gray cloths. Applejack suppressed a gasp. She didn't see or hear them coming. She noticed Scarlet Rabbit hovering above them in a similar outfit. When she returned her gaze to Vanguard, he was also covering his barding in similar cloths.
"Alright, can somepony tell me what in tarnation is going on?" she asked. "I don't like being led around like this."
One of the ponies produced a sack, and placed in on the ground with a metallic clank. Vanguard pulled out a piece of barding from the sack, and handed it to her. "Congratulaions, Applejack," he said. "For tonight, you've just been promoted to Infantry Captain."
"Infantry Captain?" Applejack asked in surprise. "I just joined up today! And what in tarnation do you mean by 'for tonight'?"
"Talk less, and put it on," one of the other ponies growled.
Applejack glared at the pony in response, but she took the barding and began to put it on.
"We need your help for this mission, Applejack," Vanguard finally explained. "Do you see that tavern over there?" He pointed towards a nearby building with a pair of free-swinging doors for an entrance. The lights were still open. She could hear loud talking, and the occasional clink of glasses striking together. "All you have to do is to walk by the entrance, peer inside, then walk back here."
"I may be a legionnaire for only a day so far, Vanguard Clash, but I know when I'm walking into trouble," Applejack said. "I'd appreciate some honesty before I do anything."
One of the nearby ponies snorted, but Vanguard glared at them for silence. He held Applejack by the shoulders with both front hooves. "I'll honestly tell you three things," he began. "This is important, you will be in danger, and I will protect you."
Applejack was taken aback for a moment. Up close like this, she noticed just how disconcerting Vanguard's eyes were. They looked so fierce, as if they were constantly glaring ahead of them without him even trying. They also glowed slightly in this dark place. She remembered seeing the eyes of the wolven doing the exact same thing. "Gosh, there's no need to be so dramatic about it," she said with a grin. "Count me in!"
"I appreciate it," Vanguard said. He looked over to the other ponies. "All of us do."
"We'd also appreciate it if you told nopony about what we're about to do," one of them said.
"Let's do this," Applejack said. The barding they gave her chafed a little, but felt fine otherwise. 'Well, I was just thinking about how wearing these capri-things would feel,' she thought. The cloth around her legs felt a little awkward so she took note to watch her step so she didn't trip over it.
"Listen carefully now," Vanguard said. "This is what we need you to do…"
The Boozelicker did not enjoy a particularly stellar reputation among Bastion City's taverns. Located in the seedier portion of the city, and frequented only by ponies who didn't mind finding a winged insect or two in their drinks once in a while, it made only enough business to keep itself open. Its proprietor, an earth pony named Bottle Spin, didn't mind keeping it that way.
For tonight, the Boozelicker entertained an unusually large group of patrons. In addition to its usual customers, a group of five legionnaires huddled together by one side of the tavern, and a lone, miserable drunk was busy besotting himself in a corner. Bottle Spin was normally wary of legionnaires, but these ones looked too busy talking among themselves to bother anypony.
"We're going to have to act soon," Stoneshod said. Each word was agony to his bound up jaws. "The wolven will be here in a day or two."
"We're halfway through," Halftail replied. "We should be ready when the time comes."
The other ponies around them nodded, carefully sipping their drinks, and looking around. It was then that Stoneshod noticed somepony come by the entrance. "Hush!" he said. "Infantry captain coming inside."
They looked down, pretending to enjoy their drinks. Stoneshod eyed the pony by the doors. The Boozelicker was certainly no place for somepony of that rank unless…he caught a better view of the pony. Even at a distance, he recognized the orange coat and yellow mane. The barding covered her flanks, but he knew that there was a picture of three apples there. She peered into the tavern, giving him a clear view of her green eyes before leaving. "Impossible!" he growled. He stood up, and immediately went after her.
"Stoneshod, you idiot!" Halftail said. He also stood up, and followed, prompting the rest of their group to do the same.
Her heart pounding, Applejack walked towards the alley at a steady pace. She swallowed nervously as she realized that she was indeed being followed. At the corner of her eye, she noticed several ponies tailing her. It was then that she noticed how dark this part of the city was, and how alone she was in walking here. As she approached the alley, she dearly hoped that Vanguard Clash was ready and waiting. The ponies behind her didn't look like they were going to congratulate her for making Infantry Captain.
She rounded the corner, and walked into the alley, expecting Vanguard to be standing there. To her horror, it was empty. Panicked, she wondered if she had entered the wrong alley, or if this was some kind of set up.
"That's enough walking, chosen," she heard a familiar voice speak from behind her.
"Who's there?" Applejack asked. "What do you want?"
"Infantry Captain!" Stoneshod snarled. "It's a disgrace that they even allowed you to sign up. Now, they make you Infantry Captain in a day? I'm not standing for this!"
"Enough talking. Stoneshod," one of the ponies accompanying him said. "Let's just kill her, and get out of here before somepony sees us."
"Why'd ya'll want to kill me?" Applejack asked. "We're all legionnaires now!"
Stoneshod spat on the ground, and pulled a knife from his harness. "We've endured enough without having to watch chosen play at being legionnaires."
"If you kill me, ponies will notice I'm gone," Applejack said. "Ya'll be criminals!"
"I've done worse things for the Legion," Stoneshod said. "You won't be the first pony to pay for it!"
"Sounds like a confession," Vanguard said.
Stoneshod cried out, and dropped his knife. A bolt had just gone right through his right hoof. The shadows came alive as several ponies surrounded the group, each one aiming a crossbow at Stoneshod and his ponies. Scarlet Rabbit hovered above them. The bolt had come from his crossbow.
"Special Operations!" Halftail quailed. The name was followed by weapons being dropped to the ground. One pony tried to make a run for it. He took two steps, and found Vanguard's two bladed sword inches from his face.
Vanguard and his group quickly herded Stoneshod and his ponies to a corner and began binding them up. They pushed Stoneshod up the wall and began talking. When Applejack tried to move in closer to see what they were talking about, Scarlet Rabbit flew in front of her, blocking her path and vision.
"Woah there!" Scarlet said. "Rough night, eh? How about you take off that barding, and we head on back to our friends?"
"What are they talking about over there?" Applejack asked. She removed a piece of the barding, and handed it over to Scarlet.
"Special Operations stuff," Scarlet replied as he stuffed the barding into a sack. After he collected all the pieces, he gently pushed Applejack out of the alley, and the hovered by her side. "Thanks again for your help. It made things a lot easier for us!"
"If you're really grateful, how's about letting me in on what just happened?" Applejack asked. "Why all this hiding in the dark, and why do I need to be involved?"
"I suppose I could fill you in on some details. We've been watching Stoneshod since his tussle with you from before. We got a good feeling he was part of a more dangerous group, but we couldn't just walk in and arrest him in front of others. Ponies would start asking around about what he did, and we'd have to make stuff up. So we thought 'what if they went to a dark alley on their own and we just happened to be waiting for them?' That's when you volunteered."
"I didn't volunteer for anything!" Applejack protested.
"You voluntarily kicked his face," Scarlet insisted. "That made him hate your guts, which we found useful."
Applejack was still struggling with this logic when Scarlet went on. "Thanks to you, nopony suspects anything while we question them. If somepony still asks, we'll say they tried to kill you," he said. "Of course you'll say it's true if they ask you, since that was what they were about to do," he added slyly.
Applejack swallowed. That wasn't a suggestion. She recalled the bolt that had gone through Stoneshod's leg, and looked at hers. "Special Operations" was sounding more and more ominous. "What's this 'dangerous group' you were talking about?"
Scarlet was quiet for a time, as if considering if he should say anything. "You were there when we made that report to Commander Dreadstep so I'll tell you," he said. "Don't go blabbing it to everypony you meet though."
Scarlet eyed Applejack carefully until she nodded. Once she did, the grin went back on his face.
"Right, they're part of the traitors who helped the wolven take FangBreaker. Who knows what they've been up to in the city? We still have to check things out. You chosen have been really useful, though. We've been keeping an eye on reactions to you girls, and you've been turning out a lot of suspects!"
Applejack stared at Scarlet. The red pegasus was still grinning, and he talked so casually. But there was a glint in his eye that sent a chill down her spine. Something lurked under all those smiles and cheery banter. She wasn't sure if she wanted to meet that something.
"I hope you don't take it against us," Scarlet said.
"Take what against you?"
"That we're keeping an eye on you too."
Applejack stopped momentarily, prompting Scarlet to do the same. "Are you saying that you've been watching me?"
"Well, not me," Scarlet said. "I'm tasked to watch Rainbow He- I mean, Rainbow Dash. But, yeah, somepony's watching you to see if more of these traitors show up."
"What about Vanguard?" Applejack asked.
"The Captain? What about him?"
"Is he watching one of us too?"
"Well, which one?"
"Which one what?"
"Who's he watching? It's Twilight isn't it? He sure does spend a lot of time with Twilight."
Scarlet's smile split into a wide grin. "Wouldn't you like to know?" he asked teasingly.
Before Applejack could reply, they were already standing in front of the building they were staying.
"Let's keep this to ourselves, alright?" Scarlet asked with a wink.
Applejack could only nod before the two of them entered.