Frozen Heart: Total Failure
The breath leaving the light blue unicorn's mouth crystallized in the air and her mane was almost invisible against the white blankets of snow covering the ground. Despite all that, Morning Mist trodded onwards to her destination while following a small caravan transporting blacksmithing equipment from the Crystal Empire. It was surprising to her how close to the Crystal Empire was one of the enemy drop-off points supposed to be. It was as if there had been some unofficial trade between the minotaurs and the crystal ponies before Dark Prophet arrived. Trusting her sense of 'some ponies being utter bastards' Mist came to the conclusion that some Equestrian companies had been using minotaurs as a source of cheap labour before.
She was travelling, as Solid Steel had suggested, disguised as a mercenary looking for a job as a combat tactician specializing in sieges. Not that she knew much past the standard secret service training but she'd spent the entire day's worth ride from Canterlot to the Empire by reading up on the subject. After all, minotaurs weren't THAT smart and throwing around few slang expressions could earn her a better first impression. That was just the plan though and she knew no plan had ever survived first contact so she'd just have to improvise. As a member of the combat branch of the intelligence service she was used to that.
She had talked to few of the mercnaries also travelling with the caravan but there was very little to find out from them. For them this was simply an opportunity to get some gold for subjugating the minotaur tribes that had not yet joined Dark Prophet's campaign. Apparently, no visitors were aware of the ultimate goal of invading the rest of Equestria. Considering how low-grade most of the mercenary companies around were Mist didn't think they'd care. That was an another strange thing, the Prophet seemed more concerned about the quantity of soldiers than quality which was why she had to keep reminding herself that this place was a hotspot of dark magic, not just some short-sighted wannabe monarch's kingdom.
Shadows appeared out of the soft snowstorm all around and without a sound the caravan in front of her stopped. A hand grabbed Mist's mane and tugged at it firmly but not too hard. She turned around and saw a deep-purple minotaur twice as tall as her looking at her sternly and putting one of his fingers to his mouth. The first thing she noticed was that the minotaur wasn't wearing pelts or cloth tatters as most ponies believed the state of affairs here in the north was. He was wearing a perfectly fitting suit of grey plate mail and a cape. Mist tried to swat his hand away with magic but her effort failed. It wasn't that the minotaur was too strong for her telekinesis, she just couldn't get a grasp on him whatsoever. The minotaur let go of her mane, pointed at the caravan, and shoved her forward.
The caravan turned sharply to the left and left the road. With the falling snow dampening all sounds Mist wasn't sure whether things were going the way they should or that some tribe of minotaurs opposing the Prophet got hold of them and wanted to cut one of his supply routes off. The minotaur guarding her and the back of the caravan was calm and collected so Mist just followed and watched things unfurl. Even if the minotaur was protected against her telekinesis somehow there were ways to deal with magic reistance of a subject. While princess Luna was said to be able to directly overcome the ability with her raw power, any smart spellcaster would realize that the simplest way was not to attack the subject directly. With that in mind, a small dagger levitated out of one of her boots without her seemingly noticing and followed the minotaur at neck height. A very important thing that unicorns in the secret service learned was to hide the aura following the use of their magic.
The one and only reason for Mist not to sit inside one of the caravan wagons was to be able to run away if something of exactly this sort happened. That, and to keep watch on the surroundings which she wouldn't be able to do from the inside. The approach of the minotaurs had caught her off guard though and she wasn't happy about that. She had underestimated the enemy and now she wasn't in a comfortable position. With no commotion coming from the caravan, it looked like this was a normal thing though. Should she take it quietly? Probably, causing trouble would bring everypony's attention to her. On the other hoof...
She pretended to stumble in the snow and took several quick steps forward. Before the minotaur could close the distance she kicked up a cloud of snow with her hind legs. Temporarily blinded, the minotaur jumped backwards to buy himself some time but Mist was faster and ran behind him. No matter the plate armor, there were weak spots she could abuse. She kicked the minotaur into the back of his knees with her front legs and as he lost his balance and fell into the snow her dagger slid to his neck. She wasn't going to kill him, she just wanted to show off a little to possibly get a higher mark than the other sheep-like mercs who mindlessly obeyed the minotaurs. With a victorious grin-
-she collapsed right on top of the minotaur.
"You're getting old, Darkhorn," a white-cloaked minotaur helped the purple one back up.
"Unicorns are always unpredictable. That's why we take precautions," Darkhorn slapped the other minotaur's shoulder heartily, "I'll take care of this, you keep watching our tail."
"Yes, sir!" the second minotaur nodded, waited a while, and became invisible in the falling snow again.
Darkhorn picked the unconscious mare up and followed the caravan. It didn't take long and shadows became visible nearby which gradually turned into mountains. Herding the caravan into a small valley, the eight minotaurs made sure the next shipment for their Dark Prophet arrived safely.
Morning Mist woke up on solid ground with an unsurprising headache. Forcing her shaking limbs into submission, she stood up and her jaw dropped. Everypony knew that minotaurs lived in small villages on the open plains, hunting for pelts and gathering flora that survived arctic conditions. The luckier tribes managing to find their way a little more south even herded cows for leather and meat to trade with griffons. She'd never before hear of minotaurs living in a city cut inside of a mountain. Well, city was a slightly generous expression but the marks were there. The masonry was crude and more focused on building a livable place rather than concerned with its looks but here, in a large ravine presumably splitting the mountain in half, it could definitely be seen that the northern tribes managed to outgrow the village stage.
She was in the middle-ish point of the place, seeing the bottom of the ravine covered in some crystalline substance and various minotaurs milling around down there. The top of the ruptured mountain was far too high to be visible but since no snow was falling down here Mist had to surmise this entire colony was inside of the mountain. With small houses cut into the sides of the ravine and long rope bridges crossing it at various heights like a spider's web she realized she had no idea where the other mercenaries were or what she was supposed to do in a large place like this. All doubts aside, she was in and that's what she needed. The city was quiet, or at least spread out enough for everypony to have their peace so aside from some mining noises there was nothing.
The minotaurs wouldn't have brought her here needlessly and upon examining her side of the ravine there was only one 'house' nearby. The door was just a set of planks hammered to each other and the smaller holes serving as windows were covered by thick cloth. Glass must have been too difficult to ship here and completely unnecessary given the noiselessness of this place. Somepony was talking inside the house so she did what anypony in her position would - hid behind the wall and put an ear to the door.
"Will it be enough?" she recognized the deep, booming voice of the minotaur who had guarded her.
"In theory, yes," the second male voice sounded normal. At least she wouldn't have thought anything to be strange about it if she heard it in any Canterlot cafe, "To be on the safe side we should make at least few dozen more. Numbers are not our advantage so we need to get as many well-equipped soldiers as we can."
"Our mining efforts are going well but the material causes trouble even to the braves of our kind. The ponies who we're hiring can't even go close without collapsing."
"You minotaurs are admirable beings. I trust you not to become lazy so whenever somepony feels they need to rest just let them. As I said, we have most of what we need for the assault."
"Don't worry, sir. We won't fail you."
"And I hope I do not fail you, Darkhorn. If this works your kind might regain their place as more than just savages. Sorry."
"No offense taken, I know how you ponies percieve us. One last thing, sir. I brought a unicorn to see you. She was the only one in a while who had the courage or stupidity to keep a firm grasp on the situation."
"A pony having a firm grasp?" the voice chuckled, "I wonder..."
After a moment of silence the door opened, leaving Morning Mist's ear pressed not against wood but almost against a second pony's neck.
"A troublemaker, eh?" the pony said, obviously amused as Mist jumped backwards and assumed a fight or flight pose. He examined her slowly, "Hmmmm."
The pony was a unicorn, male, and slightly taller than her. That was all she could say about him because every part of his body was covered by purple and dark blue clothing. The style looked saddle arabian as far as Mist could tell with the exception of cloth covering his entire muzzle and a standard horn warmer anypony could buy in any city in Equestria. Her spy sense was screaming at her to just pretend to trip, tear away any piece of cloth to find out at least something about the unicorn, and, if necessary, run but she kept her calm. As things were she knew nothing.
"Name?" the unicorn asked sternly.
"Evening Gloom," said Morning Mist openly, "I served in the Arctic Wolves mercenary company."
"Ah," Darkhorn interrupted, "I remember them protecting the first trade caravans heading south. They made a lot of money catching on the northern business first."
Mist looked surprisedly at Darkhorn. Was everything she knew about minotaurs wrong?
"Yeah," she recovered, "the boss retired and left us hanging so I wanted to join as a freelancer."
"Sir?" Darkhorn ignored her remark and looked at the unicorn.
Mist couldn't see anything under the unicorn's cowl but he was staring at her intently, that much she knew.
"I have my hooves full with running all this so I could use a little help. Darkhorn here commands the minotaurs who decided to join us but I need somepony to keep an eye on the mercenaries."
"Running all this?" Mist couldn't believe her luck.
"The Dark Prophet will lead us to a brighter tomorrow," Darkhorn stomped the rocky floor.
"Unless I mess up and we all die," the unicorn added, "Welcome, Evening Gloom, to my service."
Walking back inside the house and returning with a necklace which was simply a red crystal on a steel chain, the Dark Prophet gave her the same thing she saw on Darkhorn's neck.
"I won't fail you, sir," she saluted.
"Not more than once," the Prophet said darkly, "Now go ask around where the mercenaries' section of the mine is and get a place for yourself. There is enough empty livable caves for three times the amount of forces here. Darkhorn will find you later and instruct you."
Mist nodded and picked a random direction to go. She couldn't believe her luck. She was inside, the Prophet himself was close to her, and she would have a private place where she could think and prepare her plan. Plus, with some persuading she could easily manipulate the Prophet to allow her to escort the recruiting caravan back to the Crystal Empire and drop off her report to princess Luna. Granted, the Prophet was a unicorn and as such probably capable of unknown magic but she could protect herself from, or at least detect, scrying spells and nothing was present here.
This was going to be easy.
"You don't seem happy, sir," Darkhorn commented as Mist cleared most of the path leading to the more inhabited part of the city.
"She is a member of the Equestrian Intelligence Service or at least she used to be. I have no doubt that our steps will be closely monitored."
"How do you know?"
"I have met her before. Thankfully, she did not recognize me."
"Then why let her in? It's not as if she could run away."
"Solid Steel's underlings are very resourceful. I believe we can use her to our advantage in more ways then one."
"I disagree, sir."
"Darkhorn, if she reports to Luna that your kind is capable of living up here and bringing the resources nopony dares to mine in the Crystal Empire than you are sitting on years of golden future for your foals. Celestia or Cadance could build a trade agreement with you based on that."
"Same thing. The first few ponies I hired with what little gold your village had were traders who taught your villagers how to conduct proper business without being screwed hard. You can pass that knowledge further and rebuild from scratch when this is over."
"Have faith in us, sir."
"I do. I am just afraid most of you will die if even the smallest thing goes wrong."
"We are ready to lay our lives for the future."
"You shame me with your trust, Darkhorn."
"I am a good judge of character," the minotaur said simply and the Prophet sighed.
"Well, first things first. We must force the few remaining tribes to join. How should we go about it?"
"You could always do what you did in my village - kick the leader's balls and assume his position as the strongest. It should work with the more tradition-bound tribes. The rest will need to be taken by force."
"Can the force we have here do it?"
"Easily. The problem is finding them because not even I know the locations of all the neutral tribes. Can't we just leave them alone? There can't be more than a thousand minotaurs remaining out there," Darkhorn pointed to where the mountain cavern exit was.
"With the materials we mine here a thousand minotaurs could take Canterlot easily. Discounting the princess' interference. We are going to need everypony we can get even if they have to pay with their blood."
"Sacrifices must be made, sir."
"It is not our choice though to force it on others. However, we need to march to Equestria eventually."
"Where and when?"
"Now, that is something we need our little spy to arrange for us," the Prophet looked around his house, "Go deal with the tribes, Darkhorn, and bring me some paper and pencils. I need to rest if I have to make the new crystals grow faster. Don't forget to talk to Evening Gloom."
"As you wish, sir."
When Darkhorn left the Prophet mumbled to himself.
"Just to be safe, Shining Armor's forces must not leave the Crystal Empire. Unless Luna became terminally stupid in past months she is going to engage Holy Light either when his troops dock in Equestria or she is going to force the Bearers to fight at the Tree of Harmony where they would be the strongest. We would prefer the second option. That is just a guess though... I need some real information."