Gathering Storm: Cold North, Cold Steel
To say that princess Luna wasn't happy would be a ridiculous understatement. As she continued to read a very long report from the Crystal Empire she looked more and more as if her world shattered completely and last bastions of hope fell. Between the ever increasing number of refugees from Zebrica bringing news about a gigantic army heading to the north coast and the growing unrest within the ranks of nobility who wanted the right to form their own armies and militias she wasn't getting much good news to brighten her days.
Luna sent a small prayer of thanks to the newfound griffon allies for the amount of information they brought her and marvelled at the endurance of Black Ops field agents. Not that Equestrian Intelligence Service members were any less skilled but just the devotion to duty of the griffons now under her command was astonishing.
The report ruining her day had come from the secret service members in the north and had included the testimony of Shining Armor's spies and few pony witnesses of the described events.
The minotaurs had always been a dangerous faction of Equus. With their innate strength outclassing both griffons and earthponies, their sturdiness gained through living in the harshest environment of the planet, and their natural magic resistance akin to earthponies it was only good luck they weren't exactly social species and thus the various tribes didn't look kindly on mutual cooperation. They weren't barbarians, as most of the uneducated thought, but the amount of threats from everywhere around, including themselves, had in past given them a very narrow-minded approach to the unknown. That didn't mean they were stupid, at least not all of them. The minotaurs who came south from the wastes had no trouble accustoming themselves to society thanks to their open and honest nature. The ones who stayed and fought for their lives in arctic blizzards... weren't so friendly.
In past month or so, somepony had managed to unite almost half of the clans and was on a good way to unite the entirety of northern tribes. Luna had to rely on spies and informants because, in the same way as Holy Light's army in Zebrica, no amount of magic allowed her see past the Crystal Empire with any clarity. Her previous attempts had only given her few images of minotaurs fighting and hunting.
Her most useful informant was one she would have never expected - a certain pegasus, a pirate one might say, who had, after recieving a decent sum of money, told her that there were various companies from Manehattan, Crystal Empire, and other big cities who were interested in paying in money, goods, or services for the raw resources the minotaurs laid their hands on. Thanks to caravan travel being very unreliable and slow in the arctic weather, the pirate's airship protection services bloomed due to being the only group with the technology to transport the resources quickly and safely. Said resources were mostly very precious crystals difficult and dangerous to mine to such extent that the Crystal Empire exported only a minor fraction of their gains. Whoever was leading the minotaurs must have had no respect for their lives to force them to work in such conditions.
According to the transport manifests and accounting ledgers the pirate had copied for her the minotaurs were hiring mercenaries and artisans, buying timber and steel, and still had enough trading potential to grow. It didn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that timber and steel meant housing and war machines produced by craftsmen and artisans who would also teach the minotaurs to do it themselves. The amount of hired mercenary companies was far too small to increase the threat so Luna had to guess they came north as trainers and strategy advisors.
In short, somepony had managed to raise a small nation under an iron rule into a slowly growing power by slave labour and no respect for life. How did that happen though? Such feat would require relocation of known minotaur settlements into mining areas and subjugation of more and more tribes which just wasn't feasible.
She needed more information. The threat was still fairly insignificant, at least compared to the army in Zebrica, but it could grow out of proportions very quickly. Looking at the clock in her office, Luna realized that Royal Guard morning training session would commence in few minutes and that she was way overdue for bed. Stretching her wings, she needed one last thing before she could afford the blissful embrace of sleep so she flew down to the training grounds.
Military bases all over Equestria were filling their training schedule with new recruits but if Canterlot was any indication the projected force, while not lacking in quality, would be... tiny.
Four groups of recruits, twenty to thirty recruits per group. Cromach, Rising Thunder, Choking Darkness, and Heavy Hoof were working hard to make the newbies into a presentable bunch and they were doing a great job considering the recruits were only three or four months old and before that most of them were just volunteers without previous combat experience. So, just over a hundred recruits, about the same amount of Nightguards, and some three hundred Royal Guards. In any normal situation she wouldn't be overly worried about Equestria's military strength but she knew that zebra forces were only a minor part of Holy Light's army. How would the soldiers deal with undead, hydras, tentacle abominations, and monstrosities invading their minds was anypony's guess. Actually, it was her responsibility. She had no doubts that when the time came to defend the Tree of Harmony Celestia would be there in the front lines whereas Luna would be sitting back and shielding the minds of her subjects from the horrors of Nightmare's influence.
"What do we owe this pleasure, your Highness?" asked Heavy Hoof after noticing his group weren't doing the exercises they should.
"Don't let us disturb you, sargeant," Luna didn't dwell on protocol behind closed doors but here, in the open, she was one of the royal rulers and had to behave as such, "We have official business with our bodyguard."
"Of course, princess," Heavy bowed, "Darky should be here any moment. Her recruits are doing their warm-up run around the castle."
"Indeed. Keep going then, sargeant. I will wait here."
What proved Heavy's professionalism was that he simply turned back to his group and started his session as if there wasn't the highest authority standing behind him and watching. The same couldn't be said about the recruits who either tried to outdo one another or were barely able to stand thanks to shaking legs.
Luna smiled as she turned away and walked to the returning group led by a red-maned thestral. She could sense the mood and the relief of the recruits washed over her like a warm wave. The slight stab of admiration was just the cherry on top ensuring Luna that, despite her age, the eyes of young stallions were still drawn to her behind. She had been getting worried that all the sitting inside and doing paperwork was making her pudgy. Not anymore.
"Miss Darkness," she nodded and so did Darky. Luna knew why Choking would never bow deeply before her and as such she didn't force it, "I am going to sleep but I need you to tell Solid Steel to come see me and bring one of his experienced spies capable of independent survival in arctic conditions. Nine o'clock in the evening would be a good time."
"Sure," Darky waved at her group, "Don't just stand there coughing, ya lazy buggers! Keep moving or ya'll get pneumonia. Today we'll be doing a little combat tournament and whoever wins gets a set of photos of me in the gym showers."
The feeling of confidence from the group hit Luna like a tsunami. Young stallions with hormones coming out of their ears, all of them. Oh, wrong! Few mares were also looking for a challenge now.
"HEY, HEAVY!" Darky yelled, "CARE TO JOIN?"
Blue mane shook as he nodded but didn't answer.
"GOOD! GET CROM AS WELL!"
Darky then turned back to her group and grinned at the larger part of mares who weren't really interested in the contest.
"Ladies, if any of you win... let's just say that Cromach lives temporarily at my place and I have a camera. As for Heavy, I think I can be pretty persuasive."
All ears in her group were now perked.
"I see you have heard about the new methods of motivation coming from the Crystal Empire," Luna snickered.
"Are ya kidding? I have multiple signed copies sent directly from the royal couple."
"I didn't know you were on such good terms with Shining Armor and Cadance."
"I swiped them from Heavy. Long story short, his changeling coltfriend is a really good friend of prince Shining so I pulled some strings."
"You have no morals whatsoever!"
"Oh, look at the time! We have to organize our little tournament. Have a good night, princess!" Darky rushed off to where the three recruit groups were looking for their practice weapons.
Luna shook her head but Choking's idea was good. Skill, motivation, and morale were all foundations of a good army. She just wished... she just wished Choking couldn't make even 'hello' sound so dirty. Walking over to the only group blissfully unaware of the perverted competition, Luna greeted Rising Thunder.
"You are doing a great job, sargeant."
"Thank you. Giving me a second chance means a lot to me."
"I was the one who called for your punishment. Thank my sister who stopped me. I will not forgive you but I understand why you did what you did. We all make mistakes in the heat of the moment."
"I... I talked to Heavy Hoof about what happened. I didn't have the chance to apologize to sargeant Light. My daughter liked him a lot as an instructor."
"Speaking of Rolling Thunder, how is she?"
"She's working for Fillydelphia police force. She comes home once a month for a weekend. Last time we went hiking on top of Canterlot mountain."
"Aren't you too old for that?"
"I'm forty-three, your Highness. I still have enough strength to teach all of them," he looks at his group and then at some of the dueling ponies participating in Choking's tournament, "a lesson."
"Well, why don't you join their little competition?" Luna smiled, "I heard there's a pretty tempting prize for the winner."
"I don't see why not," Rising shrugged and instructed his group.
He would, eventually, and Luna wound enjoy watching him find out but she was too tired.
A bulky, grey earthpony knocked on a large double door decorated with moon and stars. He was wearing a black eyepatch which was partially hidden under his mane of the same colour and aside from an aura of absolute confidence there wasn't much about him that would stick in memory.
His companion, a light blue unicorn mare with white mane was stomping her hooves nervously. The quiet tapping didn't seem to bother either of them. The cutie mark of the mare was a white cloud slowly dissipating into vapor symbolizing her ability to blend and remain unnoticed.
The earthpony bowed when princess Luna opened the door of her room but the unicorn almost jumped at the click of the handle.
"Good evening, your Highness. I heard you called for me," Solid Steel rose and looked at Luna.
"Yes, Solid, and I suppose this is your recommended subordinate."
"Morning Mist, your Highness, pleased to meet you!" the unicorn mare calmed down a little but there still was a hint of excitement in her voice.
"Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Morning Mist," Luna smiled and walked inside her office, gesturing the duo of secret service agents to follow her, "Now, let me make myself clear that you can refuse to accept this mission and I won't think any less of you."
"I live to serve, your Highness!" Morning Mist chanted the intelligence service motto.
"Good, my offer still stands though. Solid, the reason why I asked the combat branch of the intelligence agency for help instead of those serving under me is simple. I need an expert on gathering information, survival, and a potential assassin."
"All in one, your Highness!" Morning Mist saluted.
"Your goal will be to destabilize the northern minotaur union by eventually killing their leader or anypony who is behind their recent rise to power whether it be one central figure or a leading group. Before that happens, however, you will need to infiltrate the enemy ranks, observe the situation, and report to me," Luna pushed a binder across her workdesk towards Mist, "Everything we know is in here."
"That's not much," Mist whistled as she skimmed through the report summary, "Most of this is just accountancy data and shipment information. Also, Dark Prophet is an overly dramatic name, if I may say."
"Indeed. Your mission will start immediately and will stay in effect until fulfilled or until I myself tell you. You will accept no orders from any other authority aside from those necessary to fulfilling your goal."
"Any suggestion where I should start? My best bet would be going north, finding the biggest minotaur I can, punch him in the nuts, and make a name for myself. That should make the leader notice me."
"We have no idea where the Dark Prophet's base is," Luna shook her head, "While minotaurs respect strength I believe you should offer their leader your services. Work on your cover story while you go there."
Solid Steel softly hit Mist in the face with the binder.
"It says here they're hiring warfare professionals. Every secret service agent is extensively trained in military strategy. You could start with that and work your way up. There are mercenary companies in the Crystal Empire area who have recieved an offer but didn't bother replying. It should be easy to pose as a freelancer."
"Can I punch a minotaur in the face?" Mist smiled, "You know, future diplomatic relationships or something like that."
"Right now diplomacy is our last concern," Luna sighed, "I hate to say it but I do not care how you do it. Work for the leader, sleep with him if necessary, just get us all knowledge you can so we can get rid of that threat for now. You have complete freedom of action."
"I will station a communication agent in the Crystal Empire so you wouldn't have to go back to Canterlot and leave a trail," Solid laid the binder down on the table, "You'll have a set of nondescript mercenary equipment at your place in an hour along with some gold. You can request further equipment in your reports."
"Yes, sir!" Mist saluted and looked at Luna, "Anything else, your Highness?"
"Just be careful. We cannot afford to lose anypony right now. Dismissed."
*knock knock knock*
Back in Darky's apartment, Cromach was reading a small black book. Well, not exactly reading but skimming over random paragraphs and smiling to himself. The smile was part nostalgia, part despair, but also part new hope. He had to admit Heavy's advice had been sound and him moving to Darky's place had helped him get over the worst of his loss.
He was alone despite it being late evening as Darky was hunting for a voluntary blood donor tonight.
His small inward smile stayed as he closed the book and greeted the duo of black-jacketed griffons outside.
"Agent Cromach," was their statement rather than a question.
"Yes," Crom nodded, looking at a long package in one of the griffon's arms, "I guess that's all the Black Ops stuff I'm getting. Should I sign something or..?"
"No documents, no signatures, brother, only service," the griffons saluted as one, nodded, and left.
The package was fairly light for its size which was, as Cromach realized quickly, because it was mostly filled with paper to prevent it from damaging the contents.
There were only three things inside two of which made his heart heavy. They were a black, gold embroidered jacket fitting him perfectly, and a brown notepad which upon examination proved to be full of agent Vargaz's instructions and requests. He would have to talk to princess Luna about most of them because he sure has heck wasn't going to be a griffon spy. If the temporary Emperor wanted a link then a link he would have, one going both ways.
The last item...
Cromach didn't know if he actually wanted it now but... he had asked for it.
No, he needed it. He needed to touch the long, steel construction, he needed to hold it against his chest, and he needed the claws on its end to bury his face into. What he didn't need was to be heard so he grabbed the prosthesis, collapsed into bed, and put a pillow over his head.
The griffon arm prosthesis Blaze lost after the transformation wasn't the unicorn himself but it was the only thing Crom had left of him.