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Upheaval: Breaking Point
Chapter 35: Ambush
It was already late in the night by the time Vanguard noticed some movement from his hiding place. Even the more populated areas of Bastion City's southern section had gone quiet. More-so the abandoned warehouse he was watching. All around him were crates full of construction equipment as well as piles of bricks and plywood. Next to him were Nightcanter and the earth ponies in her squad. Scarlet Rabbit and the other pegasi involved in the mission lurked the shadowy beams that supported the roof of the large building. He looked over to the other side of the meeting spot where Blaze Trotter and the rest of his squad waited. In addition to Blaze Trotter and Nightcanter's squads, fifth and sixth squad respectively, they were also working with eighth squad under Captain Hoofbreak who was hiding right next to Blaze Trotter. With three and a half Special Operations squads, they had numbers and surprise on their side.
The warehouse was dark and shadowy with only a few thinly distributed lanterns from the streets to provide light. The time should be about right, but Vanguard didn't see anypony from the Black Rose rebels. From the way Nightcanter shifted next to him, he could tell that she was also perturbed by the lack of attendees for the secret meeting. She glared at Blaze Trotter's direction, who was the one who had come upon this information. Vanguard himself felt some disappointment, but part of him was suspicious of the whole scenario. Three cells did seem too good a catch to be true.
Just as Vanguard was about ready to consider the mission a failure, a group of five ponies entered the warehouse. 'Well, that's one cell,' he thought. He was close enough to listen in on the rebels' conversation.
"This is crazy," one of the ponies said. "Three cells meeting in one place is a recipe for disaster with the Legion cracking down hard on us all."
"We don't disobey dead-drop orders," another pony with a husky voice replied.
"I'll bet that those ponies still hanging inside the dungeons did exactly that," was the reply. "Four cells have been caught and executed since we started operations here."
"Quiet!" the other pony whispered harshly. "Somepony's coming!"
Vanguard watched as a second group of ponies showed up. Just as Stoneshod had mentioned from before, individual cells kept their identities hidden from the others. The two cells that Special Operations had successfully captured had little information to share because of this partitioning. He had considered the implications of such an organization. These Black Rose rebels were being led by somepony capable of moving multiple isolated groups in concert, something that would take a great deal of tactical mastery and an incredibly efficient method of communication. If what he had heard from Commander Dreadstep was true, this pony was none other than Black Rose herself.
"Why is there only one cell here?" one of the new arrivals asked. "Where's the rest?"
"We just arrived here ourselves. What did you receive in your dead-drop orders?"
"Just this location and a mention of an important meeting. Same as you?"
Vanguard frowned at this. Even these ponies had no idea why they were here. Unless Special Operations captured whoever had set this meeting up, they would be hard-pressed to pump any useful information out of these ponies.
The third cell finally showed up. Like the first two, they didn't know what the meeting was for either. Vanguard tensed. That meant that their leader or at least a pony high up in their hierarchy was going to show up to explain.
"Thank you for coming."
The voice startled Vanguard, forcing him to grit his teeth and look around. There was a pony now standing in the middle of the three cells. From the voice, he guessed that it was a mare. But how did she get there? Teleportation? He hadn't seen any telltale flash of magic. He listened carefully. This could very well be the leader of the Black Rose Rebellion.
"You have all been doing well despite the Legion's attempts at rooting you out," the leader continued. "Thanks to your efforts, the movement is at the precipice of getting to Princess Celestia."
Some of the rebels spoke among themselves. Vanguard noticed the pleased tone that they took.
"The next part of the movement's plan is about to commence and it will require a great deal of magic. In short, we will need mana batteries."
"We lost several in FangBreaker Fortress," one of the rebels said. "But I know that Bastion City has a few in stock for emergencies. How much do we need?"
"A fifty carat one will suffice."
The gathered cells argued among themselves. Even Vanguard raised an eyebrow. Mana batteries were naturally formed in areas where great battles of magical power took place. From what Pyre Valor had told him, it took great amounts of discharged magical power and the blood of magically gifted creatures soaking into the soil to form them. They were more common to the south where battles between unicorn magi and ophidite shamans were vicious and deadly, but even here and to the west, they could be found. A mana battery of that size...no, even a mana battery half that size was extremely rare.
"We could scour the entire north and not find one that's even near that size!" one of the rebels said.
"You're asking for the impossible!" another one added.
The leader threw back her hood, revealing a black coat, a long, flowing, crimson mane and an already glowing horn. "Have faith," she said with an assuring smile. "All we need are fifteen volunteers to give their lives for the cause. You should be honored."
The floor just beneath the rebels burst with brilliant white light, revealing a circle of strange markings that surrounded them. Before they could react, arcs of black electricity erupted from the leader's horn and surrounded each of them. They cried out and stumbled back. The leader's magic lifted each of them into the air. Several masks dropped to the ground, revealing a lot of horns and a few faces. Vanguard grit his teeth as he recognized some of them. Some of these traitors were legionnaires that he knew! "Let's go!" Vanguard whispered harshly to Nightcanter. Both of them burst from their hiding places with blades out and a spell ready to fire. Nightcanter's squad was right behind them.
Before they could close in, however, the helpless ponies cried out in pain and terror. Their eyes glowed and what appeared to be luminous, white smoke escaped from their mouths. The smoke coalesced just by the leader's horn's tip, forming a large sphere that glowed a soft blue light. As the spell dissipated, fifteen dead bodies dropped to the ground.
"Hold it right there!" Nightcanter exclaimed. "We're taking you in, Black Rose!" Though there was no confirmation, but it was easy for her to associate this powerful, murderous unicorn with the name. Vanguard could only agree.
Black Rose smiled as three squads of Special Operations ponies surrounded her. "I must say I'm impressed. I only allowed a single small clue to escape about this meeting, but Special Operations latched on to it as if I had been sending out singing telegrams," she said.
"Oh, shut up!" Scarlet yelled. He aimed his crossbow at Black Rose's head and fired.
The bolt whizzed unerringly towards its target, then winked out of existence. Vanguard barely had time to be puzzled when he heard a sharp cry from Scarlet. He looked up to see the red pegasus struggling to stay aloft and wincing in pain. The shaft of a crossbow bolt was buried in his flank.
"I'm so sorry," Black Rose said. "I hope it's not too deep."
Vanguard refocused on Black Rose, expecting to see a mocking smile or a cruel sneer on her face. The sincerity in both her tone and expression took him aback. The dissonance between the serene look on her face and the sight of the dead bodies all around her left him hesitant of what to do next or if he even had a chance in this situation. The others inched closer, drawing their circle tighter around Black Rose.
"Please reconsider any more hostilities," Black Rose told them. "You are a squad and a half more than I expected, but you are confronting me in a place I set up and at a time of my choosing. If I feel even the slightest bit threatened, I have a hundred escape routes ready and that's because I am inclined to be merciful to such brave ponies of the Legion. You may attack and I will simply escape or you can settle down for a talk and end this night on a more productive note. What do you say?"
Vanguard looked to Nightcanter, then to Blaze Trotter and Hoofbreak. They nodded at him as a decision silently formed among them. They were in over their heads. It took Black Rose a single spell to kill fifteen ponies. Though she was unarmored, she was likely surrounded by several powerful defensive spells. Scarlet had just paid the price for attacking recklessly. With a brief signal from their captains, the rest of the ambush backed up and lowered their weapons.
"Thank you," Black Rose said. "As a reward for this small kindness, I am willing to answer some of your questions to a degree before we part ways."
"You killed them," Nightcanter said. "These ponies were on your side and you killed them because you needed a mana battery?"
"Oh, that's where you're wrong," Black Rose replied. "I appreciate you bringing me to an important point I need to make. I didn't start this 'Black Rose Rebellion' and I certainly found it offensive that they went about using my name. All I did was chance upon a group of ponies planning to betray the Legion, then decided to put their foalish cause to good use."
"That doesn't explain why you killed them," Nightcanter insisted.
"Unfortunately, they were getting a little out of hoof and needed some trimming. I also wasn't lying when I said I needed a mana battery. You should be glad that I made your job a little easier. Please take this as a sign that I still have, not just the Legion's, but Equestria's best interests in mind."
"You've allowed the wolven to break past our defenses and you've caused chaos by letting these rebels run about," Vanguard said. "How can you say that you are on the Legion's side?"
"We all have our parts to play, breaker," Black Rose said with a sly smile. "You already know a thing or two about going against something out of loyalty to it and your part is far from done."
Before Vanguard could say anything else, Black Rose glanced towards a nearby window. "My, it's certainly quite late. I must take my leave now."
"Wait!" Nightcanter called out.
"Tell my beloved that he only has to wait for a little while longer," Black Rose said. "Oh, and tell him not to worry, I'll return your fellows eventually." Black arcs of electricity crackled around her horn, then exploded, filling the entire warehouse with powerful magic. Vanguard tried to jump aside, but a bolt of lightning struck him on the chest, flinging him across the warehouse and knocking him into several crates. Several crashes followed his. He struggled to stand up and choked as clouds of dust flew up all around him. He could hear a few ponies swearing and groaning of pain.
"Celestia drill my backside!" Nightcanter hissed from nearby. "She played us for foals!"
Vanguard got to his hooves and looked around. Scarlet was still injured and the blast would have made it worse. "Why did she attack us?" he asked. "If she wanted to escape, she could have done so easily."
"I don't know," Nightcanter answered. "Showing off? She didn't need to prove that she had us outclassed. Just refining a mana battery from unwilling sacrifices did it for me."
"We'll see," Vanguard grunted. "Is everypony alright?" he called out.
"I'm fine!" Scarlet answered. "My flank's still bleeding, but I'm fine!"
The rest of Nightcanter's squad sounded off as well. Frowning, she called out. "Blaze Trotter! Hoofbreak! What's wrong?"
There was no reply. The dust cloud settled down, giving them a better view. Scarlet and the rest of Nightcanter's squad ran up to them. Nightcanter couldn't see a single pony from the fifth and eighth squads. "There's your answer," she said.
Vanguard continued to look around to check for any signs of his missing comrades. When he didn't find any, he cursed under his breath.
"We just lost two squads," Nightcanter said. "I hope you're about to get yours back up to full strength soon, Vanguard. We'll need it."
Vanguard looked at the dead ponies. Nightcanter was right. He also realized that the Legion needed a unicorn mage capable of matching Black Rose or she would continue to do as she pleased. His thoughts went towards a particular pony once again. He shook his head. "No," he whispered firmly to himself.
It was close to midnight by the time Rainbow Dash made it back to the quarters she shared with her friends. The streets were empty and the only light came from street lamps. A few of her flight mates had invited her over to share a few drinks with them after training and she had obliged. Still following Scarlet Rabbit's advice, she had kept the boozing to a few glasses knowing that showing up drunk for work would result in a whipping. All she had to do was remember Twilight being lashed to motivate her to stay sober. Still, even a few glasses could be made to last an entire evening with the right ponies around.
At first, Rainbow Dash felt a little annoyed that most of her flight mates called her names like "kid", "newbie" and "wet-wing", but it did have some upside to it. They were happy to show her around and tell her how the flight did things. They were also inclined to be a little lenient at times.
Outside duty hours, however, Flight Dreadwing knew how to loosen up. Ever since the last raid, she found herself invited often to a little drink after duty. "You showed potential during the first rush, Rainbow Dash, but the last raid was where we could say you were really blooded!" Spring Breeze, one of the senior pegasi, had said. It was a good feeling, being praised and accepted for excelling at something. When she had boasted that she was going to get a Dreadwing insignia soon, they had laughed heartily and clapped her on the back.
It wasn't all just boasting and praise. In Storm Brew's pub, she was treated to not just the occasional free drink, but also stories of past battles and incidents. She listened eagerly. She didn't care much one way or another about killing. She had realized that it simply didn't trigger any emotion so, taking Scarlet's advice, she stopped caring about it. The thrill of battle however, of flying through desperate, nigh-impossible odds, of dodging death by the skin of your teeth, that made her feel...and it felt good. Even just hearing of past battles got her pumped.
As she was flying home, Rainbow realized that she may have enjoyed the stories too much. It was late by the time she realized that she needed some sleep. As she winged her way lazily towards the quarters she shared with the others, she was surprised to find a pony standing just in front of the entrance.
"'bout time you showed up!" Applejack said.
Rainbow Dash landed hesitantly in front of her friend. She didn't like the tone Applejack used, but she didn't want to start anything. "Sorry," she said sheepishly. "Me and some of my flight mates went out for a little drink and I sort of didn't notice the time."
Applejack took a sniff of the air around Rainbow and wrinkled her nose. "You sure it was little?" she asked. "That's a powerful smell for 'little'. You should be careful with that new drinking habit of yours."
Rainbow's lips twitched a bit as she looked at Applejack. A second of trying to hold it in later, she burst out laughing.
"What is so darn funny?" Applejack asked. "I'm trying to be serious here!"
"I can't help it!" Rainbow said. "I'm being lectured about drinking by a pony named after a drink!" Still snickering, she tried to sidle past Applejack and go through the door.
"Not so fast!" Applejack planted herself in front of the door. "I'm not done yet."
Irritation crept across both Rainbow's face and the tone of her voice. "What do you want from me, Applejack? I was in a good mood and you're ruining it."
"I want to talk about you avoiding us. Don't say you're not. You're always in a hurry to leave in the morning and you're always the last to arrive in the evening. What's going on, RD?"
"I don't know how you ponies over at Infantry do things, but my flight starts its day early and ends it late. And if I want to go out with my flight mates to relax, that's my business!"
"And what about those things you told us a few days ago? About feeling sorry for monsters and enjoying fighting?"
"There is nothing to talk about, Applejack. I'm in the right here. Sooner or later, you, Twilight and the others are all going to come around and stop feeling sorry over a bunch of monsters."
Applejack stared incredulously at Rainbow Dash. "Now see here, Rainbow Dash, that's the sort of thinking that's got all of us worried," she said. "It's one thing to have to fight and another to enjoy it! Fluttershy says you've been acting weird since you've been hanging out with Scarlet."
"I have not been acting weird," Rainbow said through grit teeth. "It's all of you that have been acting weird! At least Twilight is starting to get it, but you, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie and Rarity aren't!" Rainbow stepped back and gestured towards her surroundings. "Look around you, Applejack. We're not on some vacation. This is our new home! Like it or not, we're stuck here forever! You can't afford to keep acting like a…" She hesitated briefly before hardening her expression and continuing. "…like a spoiled, candy-hoofed chosen!"
Applejack stared at Rainbow quietly, stunned by the angry lashing from her friend. "Your flank has a cutie mark just like the rest of us, Rainbow," she said in a low tone. "Toughening up because of this place is all well and good, but that doesn't mean you should forget the things we learned in the Heartland. Sticking by your friends for one thing! Have you forgotten why we all came here in the first place?"
Rainbow flapped her wings and hovered just above Applejack. "I may still look the part, but I'm done being a chosen. Scarlet's right, you have to be crazy if you can't take joy in something you'll be doing for the rest of your life. If you can't deal with that, Applejack, you can run over to Prince Terrato and beg him to take you somewhere safe." Her lips curled into a sneer. "Like a wuss."
Applejack jumped Rainbow, grabbing a hold of her neck before she could fly away and dragging her down to the ground. Rainbow struck the stone pavement first, her breath whooshing out of her lungs from the impact. She recovered quickly and smashed a hoof to the side of Applejack's head.
Both enraged, the two hurled themselves at each other. Applejack remained on top of Rainbow, pinning the pegasus's wings with her hindlegs. She answered Rainbow's hoof to the side of her head with a hoof to the face. Rainbow's vision burst with colors at the blow before darkening. The back of her head struck the pavement and blood burst from her nose. Had Applejack always hit this hard or was it all the practice with those heavy tramplers?
Her nose bleeding, Rainbow clamped her teeth down on Applejack's right foreleg and tried to shake the earth pony off. They went at it for some time with Rainbow trying to shake Applejack off so she could gain some altitude and attacking from the bottom while Applejack desperately trying to stay on and raining blows from above.
"That's enough you two!"
Twilight's voice broke through the haze of violence around the two. A nimbus of purple magic surrounded and separated them.
"What in Equestria are you two doing?" Twilight asked angrily. Rainbow wondered if she was angry because she saw her friends fighting or if she was angry because they disturbed her studies. The others were there as well, rubbing their eyes to clear them of sleep and wondering what the commotion was about. Rarity looked on with concern and disapproval. Pinkie Pie was confused while Fluttershy was completely horrified.
Applejack ignored the others for a while. "You've gone into a very dark place, Rainbow," she said. She wiped the blood from a cut on her lip and nursed the bite mark on her foreleg. "Sooner or later, you're going to pay for it. All of us probably will."
"Look who's talking!" Rainbow said as she wiped the blood from her nose. "You're the one who jumped me. For all your talk about lessons we've learned in the Heartland, you're the one who resorted to violence first. You're adapting too, Applejack. Stop pretending."
With a look of satisfaction, Rainbow went inside, shrugging off any attempt by Fluttershy to see to her injuries. She heard Applejack strike the pavement hard with a hoof, but, right now, she wouldn't care if the earth pony jumped off the walls and into a wolven's gullet. She flung her coat on the floor and jumped into bed, pulling the blanket over her roughly and sleeping with her back turned on the rest of the room.