Growing Thorns

by Visiden Visidane

First published

Black Rose assembles her special tasks group.

Black Rose's elite agents serve her in various ways. To accomplish her tasks, their talents must be both great and diverse, requiring individuals from the far-flung corners of Equestria. To gather them is a difficult task in and of itself, a task that two siblings must deal with if Black Rose's plans could even have a chance to succeed.

Growing Thorns

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Growing Thorns

It was a wordless, nameless song that flowed around Blue Moon as he followed a bloody trail across the jungle; a soft, ethereal voice singing some impromptu little thing. It would have been soothing enough to fall asleep to despite the muggy air, the persistent insect biting, and the mud. The dying screams and hisses that punctuated the melody only left him particularly alert.

Both the blood and the song led to the same place; a small clearing close to the borders between Equestria and Ophidus. Blue Moon made sure that his protective spells were up and ready. Weeks in the Western Barrier Land had left him used to dealing with brutish ursans. In Ophidus, where dispelling spells were more frequent, he had to be on point with his magic.

No ophidite threat faced him when he reached the clearing, however. Only more blood. Crimson liquid spattered across the trees and bushes. It mixed with the damp soil, turning into a disgusting, nearly black morass. The stink drew clouds of flies, making Blue Moon all the more glad for taking the time to learn a vermin repellent field. Dead ophidites littered the clearing in a scene of carnage that would sicken even a hardened legionnaire. A huge constrictor warrior, its dark green scales streaked with blood, splayed across a vine-covered stump. Its massive jaws were wide open in an unfinished scream. Its eyes were missing and the blood from the sockets suggested that they had exploded. A couple of vipren lay nearby, both headless, but easily distinguishable with their lithe frames and brown scales. Bits of their skulls had mixed with the crimson mud, resembling shards of porcelain.

The source of the song stood at the center of this blood-soaked mess; a dark red mare with white splot— Blue Moon squinted. No, an ivory white mare, dripping with the mess she had likely caused. Her mane, only a slight shade darker than her coat, cascaded down the sides of her neck like spilled milk, with a few wavy curls touching her eyelashes. She wore an elegant black gown, more befitting the main performance at the Great Delve Concert Hall than engaging a group of ophidites in a jungle ambush. The outfit was ruined, soaked to the point that it clung to her like a loose second hide. She didn’t seem to mind.

The visual description all fit, but it was the sound of her voice that confirmed it. This was his mark. He would only be too glad to get her out of this fetid mess and back to the Delve. A bath would be in order, though. Several baths.

The mare stopped singing when Blue Moon pressed into the clearing. She looked at him, light pink eyes emotionless, her lips in a straight line. “I was not expecting a live audience at this point,” she said. “I apologize for the drop in quality. I’m a little stressed at the moment.”

“The song was beautiful,” Blue Moon replied.

The mare dipped her head slightly. “Thank you. It’s hard to project when they scream so loudly.”

Blue Moon looked around him again. A cobrahn lay by the far end of the clearing, split in two from the waist up. Both its legs and arms had been torn off. The shards of its ceremonial dagger littered its surroundings. The upper half of another constrictor lay next to it. “You must be Rhapsody,” he said. “I was looking for you.”

“Apologies, but I make it a point not to sign autographs during a mission, and I am still on a mission.”

Blue Moon raised an eyebrow. He had checked the latest records. There was no mission assigned to the company Rhapsody was attached to. This was more evident by the fact that the company wasn't here. What was she talking about? “I’m not here for an autograph," he said. "My name is Blue Moon, and I am here on behalf of the High Commander. A special tasks group has been formed, and you are invited to join."

“A summons from mighty Black Rose herself,” Rhapsody said. “I’m flattered, but I will not go just yet.”

Blue Moon gestured to the many corpses around them. Perhaps this was just some sort of revenge. The lack of discipline was a bit worrisome, but manageable, especially seeing the sort of potential she had. “It seems to me that you've done quite enough.”

“No.” Rhapsody looked south. “These are extra troops for another group of ophidites. I stopped them before they could help my friend’s targets. Now, I have to check on her.”

“Your friend?” Blue Moon asked. “There are no missions assigned to this area.”

“There aren't…” Rhapsody let out a sigh. “She’s done several of these already. This time, she had that strange look. I’m worried that she’s not planning on surviving this one, that’s why I followed.” She looked at Blue Moon, those expressionless eyes suddenly liquid with pleading. “Black Rose would not send a lone agent if he held no great power. Please, help me save my friend, and I will join this group.”

Blue Moon let out a small sigh, and rubbed his shoulders. “Alright,” he said. “Who is this pony we’re saving, and where is she?”

“Her name is Sablesteel. She should be farther south, intercepting a secret caravan carrying an important ophidite emissary.”

Sablesteel. The name didn't ring a bell. Some lone mare thought she could take on a heavily armed ophidite caravan? What was it with these southern legionnaires? Did the jungle breed this sort of indiscipline? He moved closer to Rhapsody to offer support when she started to sway slightly. Dealing with a lot of enemies alone couldn't be easy, even for somepony with her unique gift. No wonder she was pleading. “Let’s go,” he said.

For a moment, a small smile of relief crossed Rhapsody’s face.

Finding a lone legionnaire in Ophidus’s wretched jungle was a task for a squad of trackers, or a particularly gifted unicorn mage. Blue Moon was fortunate enough to be the latter. He was even more fortunate that Rhapsody did have an important token from this Sablesteel, allowing him a great deal of precision with his divinations, certainly more than what the Legion could afford to give him for tracking Rhapsody down. With a specific enough location, it was a simple enough task to teleport himself and Rhapsody to this ambush site.

As the flash of light receded, it appeared as if they hadn't even moved from the previous location. They were still in a jungle, and there were still dead ophidites around. A moment passed before the details became clearer. These weren't the horribly mutilated corpses from earlier. A couple of constrictor guards lay on top of each other, seemingly asleep except for the lack of breathing. Their enormous halberds, still clean, lay neatly nearby.

Blue Moon perked his ears, catching the distant hum of a spell being cast, the loud hissing of angry ophidites, arrows whizzing through the air. Unlike the first scene he came upon, this fight wasn't over.

“Sable…” Rhapsody murmured. “This is not good. She cannot sustain this attack after the ambush has faded.”

“Ambushers generally flee when their marks begin to rally,” Blue Moon said as he broke into a trot. “Is your friend’s pride too big for her senses, or is she trying to die?”

“Both,” Rhapsody said. She cleared her throat afterward, and began to softly practice some notes. Blue Moon recognized the tremble in her legs, and the slightly unfocused gaze. He also noted the scarlet motes of light dancing around her throat. Some of that blood soaking her may actually be hers. This mare would not be so desperate for help if she was still capable of fighting at her best.

Ahead, past several more dead ophidites and a couple of overturned wagons, they finally came upon the battle.

A cobrahn spellcaster stood at the center of a protective ring of its guards. Its ceremonial knife crackled with lightning as a bolt flew upwards. Among the guards, the two surviving vipren fired serrated, likely-poisoned, arrows from their long bows while three constrictors held out their massive shields with their halberds sticking out to discourage sudden charges, creating an enormous wall of steel, scales, and muscle, around the cobrahn.

Against this formidable formation, a giant wasp flew around in circles, stubbornly trying to find some opening to exploit. Blue Moon squinted. The borders of the Southern Barrier Land and most of Ophidus were a jungle of some of the most bizarre flora and fauna to ever exist in this world: bloodthorns, great bushes that tempted victims with seemingly succulent berries before enveloping and sucking them dry through long vines covered in hollow thorns, swarms of sunflies that left nothing but a smoking husk of victims…a giant wasp wouldn't be so strange. Yet, a giant wasp would have been no match for the arrows, blades, and spells, of a heavily-guarded ophidite escort.

From the way Rhapsody looked on with concern, this attacker had to be Sablesteel. Blue Moon just had to assume that there was a pegasus under that strange outfit. There was no more time for bewilderment though. Now, while the ophidites hadn't noticed them, he could launch his own surprise attack. Rhapsody let out a long, sonorous note, and he cast his first spells.

It wasn't much of a battle after that. The formation, already panicked by all the damage that the flying ambusher had managed to inflict on their caravan, faltered at the first sound of Rhapsody’s voice. Blue Moon only needed two of his arcane orbs here. He locked the cobrahn down, snuffing out the lightning bolt it was about to cast again, tearing away its magical shields before it even realized that it was under attack, and surrounding it with a reversed spell shield. His arcane orbs cut through one of the constrictor guards, slicing it into smoking chunks with beams of blue light.

A horrified hiss and a wet explosion followed as fresh blood rained down on Rhapsody. A headless constrictor collapsed a few feet from her, its halberd and shield clattering to the ground. The opening was all Sablesteel needed to dive right in. A few more vipren arrows whizzed past her before she was among them, blades out. The cobrahn’s neck split open, one vipren lost a hand, and the other vipren stared dumbfoundedly at some kind of long, coiling device attached to Sablesteel’s tail buried in its chest. The sole surviving constrictor stared blankly for a while before promptly dropping dead, a pair of darts lodged behind its neck.

While Rhapsody was quick to gallop over to Sablesteel’s side, Blue Moon took a more cautious walk. That was fast. He saw the tail stinger strike, he saw the wing slash that opened the cobrahn’s neck, and the foreleg cut that took off the hand. He didn't see when those darts flew.

Sablesteel finally removed the mask, revealing a long, wavy, gray mane and a green coat. Her eyes, one blue and one green, were fixed intensely on Blue Moon. She was breathing hard when she opened a small compartment in her foreleg devices. A small syringe fell out, which she quickly jabbed into a vein. “Rhapsody,” she said between pants. “You promised not to follow me.”

“I broke my word,” Rhapsody said. “I’ll break it as many times I need to keep you alive since I can’t keep you safe.”

Sablesteel snorted, but her lips clearly twitched with something other than derision. "You stink," she said. "Can't you kill more cleanly?"

Rhapsody squeezed a matted clump of her mane in one hoof, wringing a few drops of blood. "That will be your job in our new group, it seems," she said with a smile.

"I figured that the High Commander's brother wasn't 'just passing by'," Sablesteel said.

"You know who I am," Blue Moon said.

"Legionnaire Blue Moon: brother to High Commander Black Rose, Hero of Sharpstone Bridge, Hero of Bearclaw Plateau." Sablesteel snorted again. "It's not hard to recognize a unicorn mage who's made a reputation of blasting apart the most magic resistant enemies known to Equestria."

"I'm afraid I can't say the same of you," Blue Moon said. "My dossier is for Rhapsody only, but I do recognize that outfit. I think that it's only prudent that I also extend my invitation to one of the Blackmoon Blades."

"The Blackmoon Blades are dead," Sablesteel said. She glanced at Rhapsody. "If she's going, I'll go as well."

"It's settled then."

The tower of Black Rose presented an imposing sight to those privileged enough to see it. Like a black needle rising from the lake, it was the sole constructed object in a patch of unspoiled wilderness. Here, the Legion’s High Commander, the only pony ever to have that rank, plotted and resided. It was impossible to approach by land, surrounded as it was with mountains and the lake fed by an underground river. Its jagged, mountainous barrier was so high that the air was too thin for most flyers to attempt to cross it that way either. As for magical transportation, powerful enchantments around the tower "hijacked" incoming teleportation spells, turning them into nasty surprises such as partial teleportation or a quick trip to the inside of Mount Dragonthroat.

Blue Moon and his two new recruits passed through this formidable defense with ease. Black Rose always insisted that this should be her brother's home as well, but Blue Moon always did prefer his quarters in Clawcrush Fortress farther west. The eerie stillness around this place didn't suit him, and he certainly didn't want to be around whenever the prince came in for a visit. Still, he was familiar enough with the place to know that the figure perched on one of the tower's alcoves was an unusual sight. He stopped for a moment before entering, squinting at the sight. His sudden alertness was enough for Sablesteel and Rhapsody to tense up as well.

The figure turned out to be a woodland brown pegasus stallion, with a long, unkempt green mane strongly reminiscent of the long, thin, leaves of an unruly weed. When he stared back, Blue Moon nearly gasped. The pegasus's eyes looked like golden, inscribed discs. Obviously magical. The enormous bow he had around his shoulders also radiated power. After a moment, the pegasus stood up straight on his perch, and gave a salute.

"Who is that?" Rhapsody whispered. "Local watchpony?"

"No," Blue Moon replied. "I suspect I will find out soon."

The lowest floors of Black Rose's tower were designed to accommodate the rare guest. As such, they still closely resembled the typical Western Barrier Land fortress; polished granite walls and floor, carved pine furnishings, a large roaring hearth at the center of it all.

"Oho, the wandering brother returns!"

Blue Moon recognized neither the baritone voice that greeted him nor the heavy, thumping hoof-steps that approached. Another stranger had been standing close to the hearth, and was now approaching him. It was an earth pony stallion. A massive earth pony at that, only a head shorter than the prince himself, with the musculature to match. Two features arrested his attention, though. This stallion was utterly bald from the base of the neck up. Not just the mane, but every inch of fur was gone, even the eyebrows. The neck and face were covered in garish gray and brown paints, done in a mottled and swirling pattern. The surviving hair on his body showed that he had a light gray coat and a tail of dark blue. Then, there was the sword. A gigantic, straight-edged, stone sword, over-sized even for one so large, was strapped to this stallion's back. The weight alone would probably crush two seasoned legionnaires, but this one looked like he was carrying a toy. "Frenzy Heart," Blue Moon said. He had seen the dossier. Black Rose was mad for even considering it, but to actually do it...

"I am," Frenzy Heart replied. He saluted, his mouth split in a wide grin. It felt like a mockery coming from him, but his blue eyes showed a glint of sincerity. "I served as clean up at Sharpstone Bridge, Legionnaire Blue Moon. I'm a big admirer of your work."

"I'm afraid I can't say the same for you, Frenzy Heart," Blue Moon replied. "But if my sister has brought you here, we'll just have to see where we'll go from here, won't we?"

"Hah!" Frenzy Heat said, his grin growing wider. "I'll look forward to it! It's going to be a slaughter! If you don't mind, I'll just stay here. The rest of this island makes my nose itch."

"Suit yourself," Blue Moon replied. A faint rustling sound on the floor followed Frenzy Heart as he went. Bits of loose dirt, and even small pebbles, were swirling around his hooves. Rhapsody took the time to bow slightly to Frenzy Heart while Sablesteel didn't even look.

Black Rose's office lay at the middle of the tower, where the worked granite gave way to her favorite building material: obsidian. The glossy black finish made it as if they were all engulfed in perpetual shadow. Even without looking back this time, Blue Moon felt the unease coming from Sablesteel and Rhapsody. Even the bizarre Frenzy Heart did not like this place.

"Welcome back, Blue Moon," another stallion said.

Blue Moon held back a sigh. Here was a stallion who wasn't put off by the eerie atmosphere Black Rose preferred. "I had expected you to be back at the Delve, Lion Court," he said.

"I will be soon enough, but the family business can wait a little while longer," Lion Court replied. He was wearing the red, formal suit of his family, white ruffles and all. His long, namesake mane was, as usual, carefully swept in place. Lion Court always looked ready for a ball, even if he was off to murder somepony. The three swords strapped to his belt were an all too clear reminder of that. That he might treat both occasions as exactly the same was bothersome. "I heard that you were bringing the famed singer, Rhapsody, here. I had to stay to see for myself." He shifted his gaze from Blue Moon to Rhapsody. "Dear lady, the Great Delve Concert Hall is in desperate need of you. That you only gave one performance is torture to the citizenry that would make Emperor Sesyth himself blush." He was about to reach for a hoof to kiss, but Sablesteel was already between them, a short blade extending from her foreleg.

"That's very flattering, sir," Rhapsody said with a small bow. "But I am a legionnaire, and I was stationed away from the Delve."

"Such a pity," Lion Court said. "But things ought to change. Now, you will be a special agent of the High Commander herself. That comes with a greater amount of freedom and opportunity."

"This team is not being created for your convenience, Lion Court," Blue Moon replied. "You have business back in the Delve. Attend to it so we can get to some real work."

Lion Court merely smiled,and saluted, before moving on.

"He seems charming," Rhapsody said.

"He sounds like a pervert," Sablesteel said with a snort.

"Oh..." Rhapsody's shoulders quivered slightly as she hid her mouth with a hoof. "Your type then."

Sablesteel had no time to retaliate, however. They had reached the oak door to Black Rose's office. Blue Moon went ahead, well aware that his two new recruits had come to a dead stop as the reality of meeting the High Commander face to face set in. He opened the heavy door with his magic, hoping that he wasn't going to find the prince in there.

Fortunately enough, only Black Rose currently occupied her office. She sat behind an ornately carved, polished oak desk. The sides were studded with various gems and the whole thing trimmed with gold. Blue Moon thought it was on the gaudy side. The prince thought it looked hideous. It was, however, a gift from the Delve nobles, including the ones connected with the Underbelly gangs. The thought alone apparently amused Black Rose enough to use it.

Magic lit the office with pale white light. Past the lowest floors, Black Rose dispensed with the need for fire, or even visible sources of light. Shelves filled with books lined the walls: strategies, history, arcane lore...Black Rose had an interest in any avenue for defeating Equestria's foes. This room was only a small portion of her library. Behind her was a door, always locked magically, that teleported to the higher parts of the tower, where no stairs connected to. There lay the rest of her collection with her bedroom at the top.

Black Rose rolled up what appeared to be a map she was studying, and smiled as her gaze landed on her brother.

"Welcome back, Blue Moon, by the look of things, you were successful. Surprisingly so, in fact. I recall only giving you one dossier."

Blue Moon gestured to his left. "This is Rhapsody, High Commander," he said. "As the dossier said, she does possess unique powers connected to her voice."

"Indeed," Black Rose replied. "Mishaps while exploring Old Kingdom ruins seldom have survivors, Miss Rhapsody, let alone benefits."

"Warsinger has made life...complicated," Rhapsody said. She glanced downwards, whether it was out of nervousness or shame, Blue Moon wasn't sure. "I can only be glad that it can be used to serve the Legion."

"I like that attitude," Black Rose said. "The source is irrelevant, all will be used for Equestria's advantage." She turned her gaze towards Sablesteel. "And this one..."

"This is Sablesteel," Blue Moon said. "Heiress to the skills of the Blackmoon Blades." He refused to say "The last Blackmoon Blade." The first exchange he had with Sablesteel was all the warning he needed about her feelings on the matter.

"I think I would have noticed if there was somepony wielding the skills of the Blackmoon Blades in the Legion," Black Rose said. She leaned forward from her desk. "Unless you have not been serving the Legion with those skills. That would be a pity."

"The Legion highly distrusts any affiliation with the Blackmoon Blades, High Commander," Sablesteel replied. "If it got out that I was remotely connected to them, I would have spent my life under constant guard. If not killed."

"True," Black Rose said. "The Blades of Nightmare did a spectacular job erasing any goodwill Equestria had for Princess Luna's followers."

Blue Moon had read those reports. The Blades of Nightmare was a splinter group that arose from the Blades when news of the Lunar Rebellion broke out early into the division's history. They believed that their moon princess intended to kill everything in this world, and had decided to help her along as best they could. The Legion, working with some Blackmoon Blades, caught them preparing to gas a small town, and executed them to the last pony.

Unfortunately, the Legion, indeed most of the Barrier Lands, wasn't interested in distinguishing between Blackmoon Blade and Blade of Nightmare. A few old members of the Moonlight Rondo and the Night Parade even got caught in the mess. Later on, the Rondo itself was destroyed in the Moaning Top Incident. The prince's foul mood over his sister's banishment ensured that he didn't care how the memory of these groups were buried just as long as they were.

"I don't care about all the politics behind it," Sablesteel said. Unlike Rhapsody, she stared Black Rose straight in the eye. "I just want to make something of these things I've dedicated most of my life to. Give me that, High Commander, and I will serve."

"Done," Black Rose said. "The two of you will wait in my island until I have everything prepared. You have quarters prepared for you here."

The two mares with Blue Moon saluted and left, but Blue Moon himself remained.

"Something else, little brother?" Black Rose asked.

"Frenzy Heart," Blue Moon said flatly.

"I see he's introduced himself. I told you I was considering him."

Blue Moon placed his front hooves on the desk."I didn't realize that 'considering' and 'going to get him right away' were one and the same. No wonder I was getting those hostile looks from the True Earth Ponies when we stopped by the Delve!"

Black Rose shrugged. "I did expect them to get upset over the decision."

"Signing up their anathema would do that," Blue Moon said. "Is he really worth antagonizing them this much?"

"Come now, little brother," Black Rose said. "We're unicorns. We antagonize them by simply being alive." The smile disappeared. "I don't mind if they plot an ambush or two. It will keep my thorns sharp. But, if their nuisance starts to outweigh their value, I will take steps. I'm sure Frenzy Heart will be all too happy to turn that giant sword of his on his 'fellows'."

Blue Moon snorted. " that what you'll call us?"

Black Rose's smile returned. "Yes. Do you like it? I think it's nice and thematic."

"It will do, I suppose," Blue Moon said. "Now, about that pegasus outside the tower..."

"His name is Longstride."

"Longstride?" Blue Moon's eyes widened. "You mean—?"

Black Rose nodded. "It took them two hundred years, and three successions, but they produced. Willow Whip assures me that he's their most successful Longstride ever."

"He's alive," Blue Moon said dryly. "That's a given. I hope he's worth all that time and effort."

"You should see him shoot," Black Rose said. "During the demonstration, Willow Whip made him hunt flies."

"So what happens to the Longstride Project then?" Blue Moon asked. "Can they duplicate their results?"

Black Rose shook her head. "Perhaps," she said. "If we gave them another two hundred or so years. I doubt they'll last that long. Willow Whip is not long for this world, and they have no clear successor. There will be a lot of fighting in terms of leadership and their direction. The local populace is also clearly tiring of them. Well, at least they succeeded once."

"What a strange group this will be," Blue Moon said. He saluted, and prepared to leave the office.

"Oh, and Blue Moon?"


Black Rose's smile widened. "May I remind you that we ended up with a male Longstride."

Blue Moon sighed. "Yes, I know. A hundred thousand bits. I'll have it ready."

"Or you could—"

"I am not attending the next Delve Gala in a dress. I should go, High Commander."

Blue Moon closed the door behind him, his mind already on the these ponies he was going to lead: an earth pony too extreme for a group of extremists, the sole survivor of a dying organization's mad methods, a singer bonded to an Old Kingdom artifact, and the self-destructive heiress to a group of fanatical killers. Of all of them, Lion Court seemed most normal, and Blue Moon trusted him least of all.

"Strange group indeed..."