Upheaval: Breaking Point
Chapter 3: Heaven, Moon and Earth
The sight of the sun slowly rising above the horizon did little to lift Twilight's spirits as she trudged on across the rocky plain behind the other ponies. After the fight last night, they had returned to their camp and slept. At least, she had tried to. She had been exhausted when they came back, but, try as she might, she couldn't fall asleep. The smell of blood and burned flesh lingered in her nostrils. Not only that, she felt sweaty and covered in sooth. The sight of Cold Hoof stabbing himself while looking at her in contempt wouldn't go away. She ended up simply lying on the ground for a few hours.
And a few hours was all she'd been given. The squad had been up and moving before dawn. None of them had said a word. Vanguard had ordered Scarlet Rabbit to scout ahead, removing the slightest chance of anypony trying to strike up a conversation. Twilight found herself placed between Pyre Valor, who walked behind Vanguard, and Blademane, who brought up the rear. She didn't dare say anything. Pyre Valor still looked ready to pounce on anything she might say. She flinched when somepony nudged her rear.
"Move, chosen," Blademane said. "We should be at the fort by noon unless you delay us."
"I'm sorry," Twilight replied. "But we have been walking for some time now, and we didn't even have breakfast." Her stomach rumbled and she looked away in embarrassment.
"What's the matter, chosen?" Pyre Valor asked. "Are you scheduled for a cake sampling party by this hour? Do you miss the smell of milk tea in the morning?"
"I don't do those things!" Twilight snapped.
"Pyre, take the lead," Vanguard said before Pyre Valor could reply. With a backwards glance at Twilight, she switched places with Vanguard, who slowed his pace to walk next to Twilight. Despite being completely covered in barding, he didn't even seem to be exerting himself. "Here," he said, pulling out a small pouch from his harness. He handed it to Twilight.
Twilight opened the pouch to find a yellowish, grain-like substance inside. "What's this?" she asked.
"Concentrated feed," Vanguard replied. "You get grouchy when you starve. Next thing I know, you and Pyre Valor will be throwing spells around. That should help."
Twilight poured a small amount into her mouth, and started chewing. Almost immediately, she grimaced. The stuff was coarse and dry. It felt like she was chewing a mouthful of sand. "It tastes like cardboard!" she exclaimed.
"Kitchen Division's getting better then," Vanguard replied. "It used to taste like burned cardboard."
Twilight forced herself to swallow without any more complaints. She just realized that this feed was probably Vanguard's only meal, and he had given it to her. Despite the small amount that she had taken, her belly stopped rumbling. Vanguard's dry humor was also better for her mood than Pyre Valor's scathing remarks. By the horizon, she saw the fortress they had been talking about. It was a massive, walled structure atop a steep hill. They were still far away from it, but the sight of a destination, indeed any landmark, in this barren place let her focus on something besides her being lost in some strange land.
"So…could you tell me about this "chosen" thing?" she asked Vanguard quietly, making sure nopony else heard. Pyre Valor had walked far ahead, perhaps just to avoid her. "Maybe I'd be less provoked if I knew why she hates me so much."
"Not you," Vanguard replied, matching her tone. "I don't really think it's hate either. Pyre needs somepony to blame. You're just a convenient target."
"But what do you mean by "chosen"?" Twilight insisted. "Chosen by who? And why?"
"We call ponies who live within the limits of the Heartland 'chosen'," Vanguard answered. "Princess Celestia chose you. To be exact, she chose your ancestors. They were to be the pony inhabitants of her realm. That symbol on your flank marks you as a chosen."
"My cutie mark? That's not what it means! It's supposed to symbolize my special talent, the skill that makes me unique!"
"Really? Then what is your special skill which makes you so unique, Twilight Sparkle?"
"Well, my special talent is magic," Twilight said. She wanted to add that she was Princess Celestia's protégé and she also represented the Element of Magic among the Elements of Harmony, but she didn't want to annoy Vanguard with boasting. Besides, all those titles amounted to nothing out here.
"So, among millions of ponies, and throughout all the generations for hundreds of years, you can honestly say that you are the only pony ever with the talent for magic?"
"W-well…" Twilight was silent for a while. To say yes was simply too proud to be right.
"Your 'cutie mark' is a symbol of your place," Vanguard continued. "It may symbolize where you specialize, but that's so you know where you stand in Princess Celestia's realm. I'm guessing that it makes for good bookkeeping on her part to have all you chosen ponies labeled."
"You're wrong, and that doesn't explain why you hate us," Twilight retorted.
"I don't for one thing," Vanguard answered. "Suffice it to say for now that you chosen are a privileged lot, and those privileges that you take for as 'normal' do not apply for the ponies that must live out here."
"Why won't you just give a straight answer?" Twilight grumbled. "Every time you explain something, you just throw in more questions!"
"It's not my place," Vanguard replied. "Once you meet his highness, you can throw all your questions at him."
"He's not going to hate me too, is he?" Twilight asked.
"Our prince has no time for sharing in the petty hatreds of his ponies," Vanguard replied. "He'll do what needs to be done, and that's it."
The two of them fell silent for some time. The only sounds came from their hoofsteps, the bits of loose stones rolling beneath their hooves, and the slight wind whistling through their ears. As they approached the fort, the landscape slowly changed. The plain was grassier, the trees more plentiful.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, Vanguard spoke once again. "You fought well last night."
"No, I didn't," Twilight retorted. "I heard Pyre Valor tell you last night. I was a useless burden. I couldn't lift one of them without tiring myself out."
Vanguard shook his head. "I didn't mean against the wolven. You stood up to four armed ponies. I can respect that."
"You would have killed him anyway. I didn't do anything in the end." Twilight kicked away a pebble in her path.
"Whether you succeeded or not isn't what I respect. It's the trying," Vanguard replied. "Don't put yourself down. Pyre said what she said because she expected you to fight as she did. She made an incorrect expectation, and was naturally disappointed."
"I still don't understand why I got tired so quickly," Twilight said. She was glad to move on to something else. "I can lift heavier things without that much effort."
Vanguard fell silent for a while. "You're out of your element," he eventually said. "You're a chosen and you've spent your entire life using your magic in Princess Celestia's realm. I'm guessing that, outside her realm, your magic is weakened."
Before Twilight could reply, she saw Vanguard look skyward. She followed his gaze, and then spotted a distant, flying figure closing in on them. Only seconds later, Scarlet Rabbit was hovering in front of Vanguard.
"All's clear up ahead, Captain," Scarlet Rabbit said.
"You took your time, Scarlet," Vanguard replied.
"I flew into one of the aerial patrols so I chatted them up. I just found out something interesting!"
"What is it?"
"The prince is already on his way to the fort! Everypony thinks it's a surprise inspection or something!"
"Well, isn't that an interesting coincidence," Vanguard said. "We find something that needs his attention, and he's already there."
"Do you think he knows about me?" Twilight asked.
"Maybe. How important are you in the Heartland? Are you the ruler of some province?"
"W-well…" Twilight stammered a little. "I am Princess Celestia's protégé."
Scarlet Rabbit let out a whistle. "Wow," he said. "The princess's most trusted student has betrayed her. What a shocking turn of events!"
"I did no such thing!" Twilight protested. "I would never, ever betray Princess Celestia in any way!" She looked at both Vanguard Clash and Scarlet Rabbit, daring them to say otherwise.
"Well some betraying obviously happened," Scarlet Rabbit said with a shrug. "I mean, you're standing here, right?"
"Regardless, that would explain how his highness knows," Vanguard interrupted. "I would guess that 'protégé' is important enough for the princess to search for you. She's probably already told her brother, and he's already tracked you down."
Twilight smiled, and sighed of relief. Princess Celestia was already looking for her. It would only be a matter of time before she was back in Ponyville with all her friends. She was especially worried about Spike, who had seen her vanished into thin air.
Hours later, Twilight was passing through the enormous gates of the fort, which much bigger than she had imagined. It was encircled by three tiers of walls, the first one rising well over thirty feet. They were constructed with gray stone and looked as smooth as the surface of an egg. Heavily-barded guards lined the gates of each wall. They stood so still, and were covered so completely in barding, that she first thought that they were metal statues until she saw their mouths and noses. They presented a sharp contrast to the bustle of activity all around them. Ponies were rushing about the place, some dragging carts behind them, while others carried loads on their backs.
"Welcome to FangBreaker Fortress," Vanguard said.
"Why is everypony in such a hurry?" Twilight asked. "Is this normal?"
Vanguard nodded. "Prince Terrato is arriving on short notice. That might mean a lot of things."
"Like Fenrir showing up for an all-out wolven attack!" Scarlet Rabbit piped in. "Wouldn't that be exciting?"
"Fenrir?" Twilight asked.
Vanguard looked sternly at Scarlet Rabbit before answering. "That's unlikely," he replied. "This is either an inspection, or about you."
"Who's Fenrir?" Twilight insisted.
"The King of Wolvengard," Vanguard relented. "One of Equestria's prime enemies."
"Captain." Pyre Valor approached them as they walked past the third gate. "I'll take the plans, and report our success." Vanguard nodded, and Pyre Valor went on her way, Blademane wordlessly following her.
"I'm off to get a drink. See you at Storm Brew's later, Captain?" Scarlet Rabbit asked.
"Not today, Scarlet," Vanguard replied. "I'm taking Twilight Sparkle to a guest room so she can rest until his highness arrives. Then I'm off to my quarters." When the pegasus flew off, he turned his attention to Twilight. "Follow me," he told her.
The two of them walked through the halls of the fortress. As Twilight looked around, she edged a little closer towards Vanguard. The fortress was nothing like the Royal Palace. Despite the high ceilings, the fortress felt like a tomb. Everything was gray stone and wood. Decorations were scarce, limited to weapons hung on the walls or the flag of Equestria.
The flag caught her attention. She recognized the figures of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, but, rather than form the two halves of a circle, they formed only two-thirds. A third alicorn, a gray one, completed the pattern.
Twilight was quick to note that none of the ponies she had encountered had any cutie marks, and some of the looked quite old indeed. Once she started paying attention to them, she noticed that they, in turn, stared at her flank. Shuddering as she caught more and more attention, she tapped Vanguard's shoulders with a foreleg to catch his attention.
"What is it?"
"I want to thank you."
"For not agreeing to kill me, for starters. For trying to be helpful, and for trying to cheer me up this morning."
To Twilight's surprise, Vanguard stopped, and turned towards her. She couldn't quite see his eyes under the barding, but she could feel that he was staring at her more intensely than usual. Distracted, she nearly stumbled into him.
"Do you mean that?" he asked.
"W-Why yes I do," Twilight answered. She steeled herself, matching his gaze with her own. "I mean every word."
Vanguard fiddled a bit with his harness, then pulled something out. He handed what appeared to be a coin to Twilight, who inspected it. "If you're truly grateful, then take this," he said.
The coin made of silver. Embossed on its face was a hoof descending from a cloud. A wolf, a bear, and a snake were crushed beneath it. Even in defeath, the wolf and the snake had bitten the fetlock of the victorious pony. A swipe from the bear had cracked the hoof. On the other side were the words "Nopony else needs to suffer" were engraved. Twilight looked back up to Vanguard. "It's beautiful, if a little morbid. What does it mean?"
"It doesn't matter," Vanguard said. "Keep it. Don't show or even mention it to anyone."
He looked so serious that Twilight just nodded. She took the coin and placed it in her bag, between the pages of the book she had brought along.
"Thank you," Vanguard said softly. He led her to one of the doors in the hall, and opened it. Inside was a small room bare of anything save for a single bed, a dresser, a chair, and a desk. "You can stay here and rest up. His highness will summon you once he's ready."
Twilight nodded again, and entered the room. She collapsed on the bed. Her legs ached and she still had hours to stand when the prince arrived. That reminded her, she was filthy, and she was about to meet a prince. She turned around to ask Vanguard where she could wash up, but he had already left. She didn't risk going out there alone. If even a few ponies in the fort were as willing to kill her as Pyre Valor and Scarlet Rabbit were, going out alone wouldn't be safe. She settled in, cleaned up as best she could with a rag she found in the dresser, and waited for Vanguard to come back for her.
An hour passed before Twilight heard a knock on the door. She opened it, expecting Vanguard, and was mildly disappointed when she found a pair of guards instead. Their full barding made it appear as if a pair of pony-shaped statues had come to fetch her.
"Miss Twilight Sparkle, his highness, Prince Terrato of Equestria has requested for your presence," the guard to her left said, his voice, muffled and metallic. She nodded, and followed them. They walked ahead of her, one at each side. They didn't speak again, leaving only the jingle of metal plates and their heavy hoofsteps to fill the hallway.
A few minutes later, Twilight looked up at a pair of enormous double doors, each one more than five times her height. They opened into a massive chamber before her, which looked similar to Princess Celestia's throne room, only devoid of any decoration. Guards lined the sides of the room, and a red carpet extended from the doors to the throne. The carpet drew her gaze up to the pony standing at top of the stairs.
He was a gray alicorn, much larger than Princess Celestia herself. It wasn't only height. He was heavily muscled, with powerful wings and a strong neck. His mane was a stream of deep red fire that blazed across the back of his neck. His tail was of a similar color and form. Unlike Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, who wore bejeweled torcs around their necks, he wore a thick chest plate of unadorned, dark gray metal. His neck and legs were similarly covered, although he wore no facial covering, or any sort of crown.
Immediately, Twilight felt her knees grow weak. She knelt on instinct. Any doubt of Prince Terrato being actually related to Princess Celestia was gone.
"I am Terrato, the ruler of this realm you're in, chosen," Terrato said. He looked at her with eyes of a dark, almost black shade of gray, and he spoke with a deep and powerful voice that resounded across the chamber like a distant earthquake. "Tell me your name."
"T-Twilight Sparkle, your highness," Twilight replied.
"Something interesting happened to me this morning, Twilight Sparkle. Would you care to hear about it?"
"As you wish, your highness."
Twilight looked up to find that Prince Terrato was descending the stairs. As he moved closer, she saw that his horn did not taper into a fine point, but into a blunt edge, as if the tip had broken off. When he stretched his wings, she noticed that his left wing was also about a couple of inches shorter than his right. The tip of the wing ended in a rough edge.
"This morning, my eldest and dearest sister, Celestia, decided to contact me," Terrato began. "A noteworthy event indeed. She's hardly ever contacted me in the last few centuries. Why, for all her avoidance, I'd say that it's almost as if she doesn't give a crap about this place."
One of the nearby guards stifled a snort. Twilight swallowed a protest, and kept on her knees as Terrato continued. Surprisingly, he didn't sound angry. Indeed, he sounded amused.
"A hysterical little dragon came to her screaming about how somepony called "Twilight Sparkle" disappeared in a flash of magic. Coincidentally, she felt that someone had just broken through her barrier. A bit of logic later, she decided to task me with finding her missing protégé, who had accidentally teleported herself a few thousand miles off target and ended up in my realm." Terrato stopped directly in front of Twilight, and gestured for her to rise. "You're fortunate that you happen to be particularly important to Celestia. Otherwise, I am obligated to execute you, or keep you here forever. Since she insisted, I'm going to send you home."
"Thank you very much, your highness," Twilight murmured. Kill her? For just stumbling into this place? All the questions she had been asking silently since she came to this place started came rushing back.
"You look like you have a bunch of questions to ask, Twilight Sparkle," Terrato remarked. "Or is that constipation? I haven't interacted with you chosen ponies for a long time. If it's questions, go ahead and ask. Otherwise, the fort's medics might have something for you."
"Your highness, I would like to know why you must keep this place a secret. Why are there "chosen" ponies who must not know anything about you or what you do?"
"That's quite a thirst for knowledge you've got." Terrato said with a chuckle. "No wonder you take to Celestia's teaching with ease!" He was silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was level again. "To explain, I'll have to start at the beginning. You see, Celestia, Luna, and I ruled Equestria in hopes of creating an ideal kingdom of peace and harmony for all ponies," he began. "Even at the very start, however, the three of us realized that such an ideal would remain just that. Equestria was surrounded by other realms: Fenrir's Wolvengard to the north, Arugek's Ursinium to the west, and Sesyth's Ophidus to the south. Each of them wanted a piece of our realm and was more than happy to send armies to invade."
Terrato's voice darkened as he continued.
"Equestria became an embattled realm. While Celestia and Luna governed, I led the ponies who rose to defend their homes against these invaders. We succeeded in protecting Equestria thanks to everypony's courage. That, and our neighbors were just as happy attacking each other. Time and again, we repulsed waves of invaders. Celestia, however, wasn't happy with mere victory in battle. The presence of war ruined Equestria for her. Fear and hatred of our enemies was understandably commonplace, as was the desire to learn more about fighting and killing. This was not the Equestria she hoped to rule. She brought this up with me and Luna, and we agreed on her plan."
Terrato paced the hall as he talked. Twilight couldn't tell if the memory of his past angered or saddened him, but he looked quite grim as he spoke.
"Celestia took the ponies who were the least influenced by war and gathered them at the center of Equestria. There, she raised a barrier, separating them from the rest of the world. The vast place enclosed by the barrier became known as the Heartland. While Luna ruled by her side, Celestia entrusted me with the task of defending the surrounding lands. I, with the ponies who were not chosen, were to keep Wolvengard, Ursinium and Ophidus from breaking through. It was a task I willingly accepted. Here we are now, centuries later, and our duty continues. Do you understand now, Twilight Sparkle?"
Twilight's eyebrows furrowed. She did understand, but the implications were horrible. "Princess Celestia kept all this a secret to keep the influence of war away from the realm she wanted to rule," she gasped. "I can't believe this! All this time we've been living happy and peaceful lives while others did the fighting! And they do so without being recognized!"
"That's the gist of it," Terrato said with a smile.
"This…this is wrong! This can't continue!"
Terrato raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's a reaction I didn't expect. Now, I have a question too. How did you get here?"
Twilight told the prince her story. At the mention of the skeleton and the gem she found, his eyes narrowed.
"Do you still have that gem?" Terrato asked.
"Yes, your highness." Twilight reached into her bag and pulled out the stone. To her surprise, the sphere was now dull gray, and cold.
"Looks like a mana battery," Terrato said. "A big one too. No wonder you botched your teleportation. A unicorn could use something that big to blow up a quarter of this fortress."
"I've never heard of such a thing before," Twilight said.
"It's a tool for war," Prince Terrato explained. "Much too dangerous for everyday use. You could have blown yourself up if it wasn't for your high level of magic. I'm going to have to talk to Celestia about this. As for you, it's time to go home."
"Your highness," Twilight spoke up, "why would you to share all that information with me?"
"Well, you don't look like a blabbermouth. But that's not important. It's alright since you're going to subject yourself to a memory lock spell." He said with a laugh. "You won't remember a thing by the time you get back to the Heartland!"
"But...but what was the point of telling me if I'm just going to forget?"
"It felt good to tell a chosen pony my story. Therapeutic, you might say. However, it's either that, I kill you, or you stay here forever. Celestia will not allow any information about the Barrier Lands leak into her realm. It's only because you're her precious protégé that she's risking this at all."
"Well, what if I?"
"What if you?"
She sighed. "Very well, your highness."
Smiling, Prince Terrato lowered his head, and touched Twilight his horn. The world disappeared with a blinding flash.
Blinking groggily, Twilight found herself sitting in the middle of her living room, surrounded by scattered books and papers.
That was Spike. Twilight looked around, and found him huddled by the corner of the room.
"Twilight! It's really you!" Spike rushed forward, tackling Twilight with a fierce hug. Tears ran down his cheeks as he sobbed. "I was so worried! I thought you were gone for good! I…It's so great to have you back! What happened? Where were you?"
Twilight hugged Spike in return. "I…I don't remember," she answered. She remembered casting a spell by a cave and…nothing.
"You've been gone since yesterday noon." Spike wiped away his tears, and looked at Twilight. "Are you alright? Are you hurt? What happened to your eye?"
"No," Twilight answered. Her eye felt swollen and painful, but she was otherwise fine. She looked outside and saw the stars out. She had been gone for a day, a day she had no memory of. She took off the bag she had on, and shook out its contents to see if she could find a clue. A few books tumbled out, but what caught her attention was the metallic ping of something striking the floor. She picked the object up and inspected it.
It was a small, silver coin.