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Upheaval: Breaking Point
Chapter 21: Black Rose
It wasn't long before Stoneshod found himself inside a small, windowless room. The ponies who had dragged him here had shoved him unto a lone chair. It had only been a few minutes, but the bare walls of pitiless gray stone were already pressing down on him.
He was not tied up, but he was led through one corridor after another, and past multiple groups of guards. He had the feeling that his captors had taken a circuitous route to subtly remind him that there was no escaping this place.
The door swung open, and two ponies stepped in. Stoneshod easily recognized Captain Vanguard Clash, having encountered him plenty of times before. The other pony was not so familiar, a blue-eyed, dark blue unicorn mare with her deep purple mane in carefully arranged ringlets. The two of them glanced at each other and approached him from different sides. Stoneshod sneered at the sight of this. "What's going on?" he asked. "Are you going to play good captain, bad captain with me?"
"We would, Stoneshod," Vanguard replied, "but traitors like you don't deserve good captains."
"So you get two bad ones instead," the unicorn said in a surprisingly soft tone. She stood right next to Stoneshod and leaned on the table with her forelegs. "We'll give you this one chance to tell us what we want to know on your own volition. If you cooperate, then we'll lock you up for the rest of your worthless life. If not, we'll hang you like the miserable sack of wolven-bait you are."
"What if I don't?" Stoneshod asked.
"Then we'll use this," Vanguard answered. He pulled out a small syringe filled with glowing, green liquid from his harness. "The ophidites call it 'Selris Zain', 'Liar's Bane' to us. They originally made it, but the Legion has long since made use of it as well. If you won't tell us the truth, we'll use this to force it out of you."
"That stuff will slither through your brain and dig out the info we need," the unicorn said with a smile. "You can imagine how difficult it is to keep secrets from the ophidites."
"Unfortunately for you, our slithering friends down south don't care for the health of their prisoners once interrogation is over," Vanguard added. "Side-effects after this toxin wears off include partial permanent paralysis, loss of memory, seizures, migraines, uncontrollable muscle twitching..."
"Or, if you're weak, your brain just dribbles out of your ears," the unicorn finished. "Either way, we're going to get what we can out of you. It's your choice how it's going to come out."
Stoneshod snorted. Torture and the use of the enemy's vile tools? Nothing unexpected from Special Operations. "I'll talk," he said. "I'm not going to make it hard for myself."
The unicorn looked downcast. "Wise choice," she said. She put a hoof on top of Stoneshod's head and ruffled his mane. "For you anyway. I was hoping you'd make us melt parts of your brain, then hang you. Don't lie though. I'm pretty good at noticing lies and pretty bad at controlling myself when I notice them."
"Captain Nightcanter, work first," Vanguard said. When the unicorn stepped away from Stoneshod, he continued. "First question. How many of you were involved in the FangBreaker Fortress sabotage?"
"Eight cells with five ponies each," Stoneshod replied.
"Including yours, how many made it here?"
"Seven. One cell got trapped and killed."
"What about Bastion City?" Nightcanter asked. "How many ponies did you have here before you came along?"
Both captains' eyes narrowed in thought.
"What's the matter?" Stoneshod asked with a smirk. "Surprised by our numbers? You didn't think we were some small ragtag group now, did you?"
Nightcanter's horn glowed a deep blue. A bruising telekinetic grip held Stoneshod by his head. The magic slammed his face into the table three times before letting go. Blood streamed from his nostrils as he steadied himself. "You answer questions and nothing more, you filthy nag!" she hissed.
"Can you give us the names of these ponies?" Vanguard asked.
"I can't," Stoneshod said, wiping some of the blood from his nose on his hoof.
Vanguard grabbed Stoneshod by the mane and pressed the syringe against his neck without quite penetrating.
"Wait! Wait!" Stoneshod exclaimed. He winced and put a hoof to his mending jaw at his outburst. "I can't give you their names even if I want to! Individual cells don't know the members of other cells in case something like this happened!"
Vanguard let go, but he kept the syringe on hoof. "Then how do you work together?" he asked.
"We get our orders from drop zones," Stoneshod explained. "When cells meet, we put masks on. The meetings are always at night."
"You don't even know who in the hay you're working for!" Nightcanter hissed. "You'll betray Equestria at a stranger's whim?"
"I haven't betrayed Equestria!" Stoneshod snarled. His face twisted in pain and spit leaked out of his mouth with each word. "We're the ones who have to make the hard decisions while lackeys like you mindlessly plod on, scarfing down every pile of crap that the alicorns leave for you!"
Nightcanter slammed Stoneshod's face into the table three more times before Vanguard stopped her. "He won't be able to talk if his jaw falls off," he told her. To Stoneshod, he asked another question. "How do you identify each other in the dark then?" he asked. "How can you tell if a bunch of masked ponies are working with you or not?"
"We use an identifying phrase."
Stoneshod hesitated until he felt both captains fix hard stares on him. "Black Rose will bloom once again," he finally said.
For a fleeting moment, Stoneshod noticed a look of horror overcome Nightcanter. He found the sight worrisome. Here was a Special Operations Captain who had seen horrors on and off the battlefield, but the mention of a name scared her. Was he in over his head? Who was this Black Rose? Then, the moment was gone. The look of horror was replaced with anger.
"I'll tear your jaw off myself!" Nightcanter hissed. She leaned forward and grabbed a hold of Stoneshod's lower jaw. "A whining malcontent of a grunt like you has no right to invoke that name!"
"I don't even know who Black Rose is!" Stoneshod protested. "It's just the phrase we were told to use!"
Nightcanter shoved Stoneshod away before Vanguard needed to separate them. "What were your last orders?" she asked.
"We were going to complete a tunnel under the walls. That was our standing order the moment we arrived in Bastion City."
"Tell us where it is."
"I will. Give me a map, and I'll point it out. I've told you all I know."
Vanguard's eyes narrowed. "Not yet," he said. "What happened to Pyre Valor?"
When Stoneshod looked away, and stayed silent, Vanguard stepped closer. Stoneshod felt a chill when the other stallion's shadow fell across him. "White unicorn mare: long, wild and black mane, about as tall as I am, brown eyes, and a naturally fierce expression on her face," he said.
"I know who she is."
"Then answer my question."
"She was a newcomer," Stoneshod said. "She came to us at the very last moment. We thought we were done for, but she explained that she was joining up. 'To a degree' she said. She also said that she was going to blow up the gates to let the wolven in." Stoneshod paused in recollection. "She was also smoking and hot."
"I'm not interested in your juvenile attractions," Vanguard growled.
"No, foal!" Stoneshod replied. "I meant literally! She was literally smoking! There were these wisps of smoke rising out of her body that creeped us all out! She was also projecting enough heat to make us sweat even with the cold night air!" He clutched his jaw again.
Vanguard turned away. Even Stoneshod could tell that he was fuming over something. "I'll get a map," he finally said.
Vanguard Clash and Nightcanter left the interrogation room at the same time. They were certain that they had gotten everything they could from Stoneshod, but Nightcanter had suggested using the Liar's Bane anyway. Vanguard disagreed. It was more than apparent that Stoneshod was a bottom-rung grunt in the traitorous organization. They had gotten plenty of information regardless. It wouldn't be long until Special Operations gave them another mission.
"Tell me about this Black Rose," Vanguard said as they walked down a hall.
"Are you telling me you don't know the most infamous unicorn in Barrier Land history?" Nightcanter asked.
"I've encountered a few fleeting mentions of the name time and again. Pyre also mentioned her once. I'd like some clearer details."
"She's a legend," Nightcanter said. "Black Rose the Ascendant. Black Rose the Prince's Consort. Black Rose the Arcane Terror. She was a unicorn mage and a relentless commander. If you read enough stories, you'd think there was nothing she couldn't do. It's impossible to separate fact from myth."
"Interesting titles," Vanguard remarked. They turned at one corner, passing a pair of legionnaires escorting one of Stoneshod's cronies to a cell. "Why was she called "Ascendant"?"
"The stories have it that she was a few steps away from transforming into an alicorn," Nightcanter said. "She was the greatest magic user of her time. Likely the greatest of all time. She had discovered a way to stop aging. She had also accumulated so much power that she was feared as a monster in Equestria, Ursinium, Ophidus, and Wolvengard, giving her the title "Arcane Terror". Under her command, the Legion advanced to conquer a large number of territories from all sides."
"What about "The Prince's Consort"?"
"That's where the stories really vary. One way or another, Black Rose naturally caught Prince Terrato's attention. The romanticists insist that the two of them had a love affair. Some even go as far as to suggest that they had a foal that the prince spirited away to the Heartland. The pragmatists insist that he simply kept her in his favor because she was so reliable. Regardless, the great amount of time she spent with the prince gave her that title."
"She sounds more like a heroine made up to inspire fillies rather than an actual mare," Vanguard said. "What happened?"
"No happy ending for the fillies here," Nightcanter said darkly. "Black Rose strongly believed that the division was a hindrance to Equestria's rise in power. The popular theory is that she secretly developed a plan to assassinate Princess Celestia, making Prince Terrato the sole ruler of a united Equestria with dominion over Sun, Moon, and Earth. The prince found out and confronted her in her tower in the Western Barrier Land."
"That couldn't have ended well," Vanguard said.
"Apparently that theory is true, or it was pretty close. The prince laid waste to her tower and killed her," Nightcanter added. "That's where the historical account ends."
"Then this shouldn't be a problem. She's dead."
"You should brush up on your history, Vanguard," Nightcanter said with a snort. "You'd think it'd be that easy, but no. The Legion's dealt with three separate Black Rose rebellions since she died. Malcontents like Stoneshod like to throw the name around to gather like-minded ponies. I hope this time's just like one of those times, but..."
"These are different circumstances," Vanguard said. "The wolven attacking in force, chosen breaking through the barrier, Princess Luna showing up…I'm guessing this is the biggest Black Rose rebellion the Legion has had to deal with."
Nightcanter's eyes narrowed. "Right you are," she replied. "We've got our hooves full with the wolven. We don't need a unicorn sorceress who's been dead for seven hundred years to add to the mix."
"The Legion will overcome. We'll root these traitors out, drive back the wolven, and find places for the chosen."
"Sounds like a plan," Nightcanter said with a grin. They stood by the prison's exit. "Turning in for the night?"
"Yes," Vanguard answered. He looked at the sky. It was already very late. He was going to get two or three hours of rest at best.
"Your place is a long way off," Nightcanter said. She brushed against him deliberately. "My quarters are closer, and I've got an extra bunk."
"They assigned one legionnaire to a room with two bunks?" Vanguard asked.
"Fine, you nitpicker, it's just one bunk," Nightcanter said. "It's a really big one, though," she added.
"That's the eighth time, Vanguard Clash!" Nightcanter said. "I'm starting to think you prefer colts!"
"You should stop counting. You'll be annoyed less. And the choice isn't between you and colts."
"So is there somepony?"
"None of your business, Captain Nightcanter."
"Touchy. Fine, I'll go with my third choice then. See you tomorrow, Vanguard."
Vanguard waved a hoof and went on his way.
Deep within the Western Barrier Land was a small lake surrounded by steep, forbidding mountains. It was called "Heavenly Basin", and was inaccessible other than by flight, very powerful magic, or somehow traversing the underground rivers that fed it. At the center of that lake was a small island covered with the obsidian wreckage of what was the tower of the infamous Black Rose.
Rumors abounded throughout all of the Barrier Lands that the site still contained valuable treasures and powerful spell books, but nopony had ever managed to confirm them. The entire site also contained lingering traces of Black Rose's magic in the form of an unnatural aura that seemed to permeate everything in the basin. In the years immediately after Black Rose's demise, Legion-sent salvagers and independent adventurers alike braved the difficult journey to try their luck. Most came away with nothing, but the unnatural aura pervading the place haunted their nightmares for the rest of their lives. A few simply vanished. As centuries went by, and as its reputation continued to grow, nopony worked up the courage to venture into the ruins.
"Nopony", however, tended not to include Equestria's alicorn rulers. Prince Terrato descended from the skies, landing gently on the island. He eyed the place carefully, noting that almost nothing had changed since he had last visited this place centuries ago. Heavenly Basin seemed frozen in time to an observer. The crystalline waters of the lake were perfectly still, as was the air. The sky was permanently shrouded with dark clouds that never caused any precipitation to fall on the place. All around him, chunks of obsidian were strewn about: the remains of Black Rose's mighty tower. At the center of the wreckage was a pillar of white stone, driven into the ground like a gigantic spear.
Terrato walked over to the pillar and read the inscription near its base, the same inscription he had put there when he drove the thing down on Black Rose's head.
This is the end of Black Rose. The same hard and barren fate awaits all of Celestia's enemies.
With his magic, Terrato lifted the entire pillar, carefully pulling it out of the earth without ruining it or the hole it had created. After setting the pillar aside, he inspected the hole and found it empty. There were no bones or clothing. He scoured the spot with magic, looking for even the smallest trace of what used to be Black Rose. He came out with nothing. He sighed and replaced the pillar. Seven hundred years ago, he had made sure with his own eyes that she was dead. Though it pained him greatly, he had lifted this same pillar to check, forcing himself to look at her bloody, crushed remains, before leaving them to remain under the pillar forever. To find not even a trace, even though centuries had passed, did not bode well with the growing crisis in his realm.
Terrato closed his eyes for a moment, remembering that day he came to this place.
"Would you slay me, my prince? The one pony who holds you dearest without condition?"
Terrato had believed those words once. Seven hundred years ago felt like another lifetime. He was another pony back then and that pony, that foalish, brash soldier desperate for affection amidst the centuries of his duty, had found solace in Black Rose's seemingly unflinching devotion. She was such a beautiful unicorn mare, sleek and graceful, but strong and athletic. She had a silky smooth black coat, a crimson mane that nearly cascaded to the ground, and a tail to match. She had eyes of the softest gray that she could hold anypony's gaze with confidence. He had stupidly showered her with his favor and given her free reign over his realm.
When he discovered the dark side of that devotion he prized so much, the rage nearly threatened to drive him mad. Black Rose may have loved him, but she loved power more. She consumed ponies to fight off age and death. She had plans to infiltrate the Heartland and assassinate his sister. Worst of all, she proclaimed that she was doing it for him and a united Equestria. He had only one answer for that.
"Heed me well, beloved. When your younger sister returns from her imprisonment, Wolvengard will start its greatest attack. With her defender pressed on all sides, and the Elements of Harmony out of reach, Celestia will be at her weakest. When that time comes, Black Rose will bloom once again."
Those were her last words. It wasn't even a fight. Black Rose offered no resistance while he stripped her of every single one of her protective spells before dropping a pillar of rock on her head. She was smiling at that time, a serene smile that left him uneasy. It was as if he was still playing into her hooves, right up until the moment her body was crushed.
'The time is right, Black Rose,' Terrato thought as he inspected the rest of the ruins. Though nothing was physically different, there was a different charge in the lingering magical aura. A disturbance had occurred here recently, a disturbance that somepony took to great lengths to hide. 'Luna is back, Celestia has passed on the Elements of Harmony to her rebellious student and her friends, and the wolven are attacking. All that's left is…'
A fleeting shadow caught the corner of Terrato's eye. He looked behind him, but found nopony there. Still, he could have sworn that he saw somepony. He felt like he was being watched. With a snort of frustration, he flapped his wings, and made his way north.
Vanguard entered the building where his friends were staying, taking great pains to make sure that he didn't wake anypony up. They had more training ahead of them and they needed their rest. He removed his tramplers before he walked on the wooden floor, setting them aside by one corner of the room.
His eyes lingered on a nearby desk. Twilight Sparkle was slumped over it while dozing away. On the desk were Pyre Valor's still open book and a small puddle of melted wax. Shaking his head, he took a nearby blanket with his mouth, and gently draped it over her. To his chagrin, that movement was enough to cause her to stir. She opened her eyes weakly and turned to look at him.
"Fenrir's hide, Twilight Sparkle," Vanguard whispered. "Don't you know the meaning of restraint?"
Twilight Sparkle looked at the open book in front of her sleepily, and closed it. "I was waiting for you to come back," she said with a yawn. "When Applejack came back with Scarlet…" She didn't finish the sentence. She stood up groggily to head for an empty bed. She leaned over to one side, forcing Vanguard to hold her up lest she fall over.
"It's not like you'll never see me again," Vanguard said. He helped her onto a bed and draped a blanket over her. She closed her eyes and fell back to sleep.
Vanguard carefully removed the rest of his barding before lying down on the empty bed next to Scarlet's. After Stoneshod's interrogation, Bastion City felt a lot more hostile than it used to when he walked its streets as a colt. He wondered if there were bands of ponies out there this very moment: digging away at the defenses, ruining their supplies…
'And now this Black Rose business,' he thought. The Legion faced enemies outside and within, while the Heartland itself was becoming restless.
Where were all these things leading to?