Frozen Heart: Preparations
Princess Luna raised an eyebrow when a clerk brought her an unmarked letter on which she felt the protection of various spells. Magic discouraging everypony from reading the letter, magic instilling fear and doubt to those thinking about reading it, or even the touch of destruction magic aimed at the letter didn't bother the princess and with a flick of her horn she dispelled all those effects. Inside there was a rather large sheet of paper, unsigned but covered in writing.
Luna smiled. Four days after she'd left Canterlot and Morning Mist was already sending her a report. She read through the estimates of combat threat and some notes on probable minotaur trading partners and came to Mist's personal assessment of the situation.
First things first, the Dark Prophet is a unicorn. The minotaurs seem to revere him as a bringer of a new age of prosperity. This semi-religion formed around him in past months after he'd appeared for the first time in one of the villages in the southern part of the frozen lands. He doesn't seem to be holding anypony hostage using magic so all I can say is that he's promising the minos something they couldn't achieve on their own. Unfortunately, I can't tell you how he looks or anything about his cutie mark. He always wears clothes and never uses his magic in public so even the colour of his magic aura is unknown to me. I will continue to observe him which is easy because I'm now his right hoof alongside a minotaur named Darkhorn.
According to the few minotaurs willing to talk to me the Prophet appeared about two months ago at Darkhorn's village. None of the minotaurs who met him at the time told me anything so I guess the Prophet told them to keep everything about his looks secret. What he did there, on the other hoof, is a well-known matter. The minotaurs allowed him to rest up, thinking he might have been sent by one of the mining companies hiring minotaurs at low prices(included in the list). He turned out not to be and he challenged Darkhorn to a duel for village leadership. The thing is, minotaurs frown on magic users outside of their shamans who are just glorified alchemists. From what I've heard the Prophet didn't use magic to defeat Darkhorn so he gained the chieftain status in accordance with the rules.
Declining the calls for Darkhorn's death as an inferior leader, the Prophet used the ex-chieftain as a source of knowledge about things in the north. Several weeks later he was travelling around with a small group of warriors and conquering other villages. Where the minotaurs submitted after the traditional duel he sworn them to his service and took some strong members to follow him in his travelling group. The villages that resisted fell. I don't have much information but a tribe of rather nasty headhunters living in a hidden village near the polar cap got wiped out completely by a blizzard. The only thing I got out of one of my sources was that the blizzard pulverized buildings and minotaurs alike into an unrecognizable mess.
After uniting most of the northern tribes in this way the Prophet moved Darkhorn's village into a partially hollow mountain and forced his new subjects to mine crystals for him instead of the pony companies. The negotiators sent to him to muscle him into honoring the previous trade agreements failed and the minotaurs follow without questions. Some say the life in the mountain is better than on the plains because they have the freedom to go out as they see fit and engage in hunting and all the tribal activities they used to do before moving. To this mountain he moved almost all the tribal population of the north and transformed the place into a large city. As far as I know there's only one entry point inside the mountain so collapsing it could end the entire threat in case the Prophet's unseen magic is just a hoax.
Speaking of magic, I can't use mine inside the mountain. The minotaurs say it's because of some new sort of crystal being mined that they somehow use to enhance their armors to nullify any magic used near them. I can't tell you about its properties, look, or growing patterns because only minotaurs are allowed to go into the mining area. It's not the only thing they mine though. The standard underground resources list is included as well. As far as I know, all the trade money goes into hiring mercenary companies and specialists at teaching minotaurs about various subjects, mostly economics, world-lore, and warfare. My guess is that spending money on not war-related subjects reinforces the minotaurs' belief about the Prophet leading them to a better future rather than using them just as an extremely potent fighting force.
For now I will try to earn the Prophet's trust and find out more about him. As for the mission objective, the Prophet is single-hoofedly running the northern uprising so his assassination is a possibility.
Luna had always suspected that minotaurs had the potential to become a force to be reckoned with but unfortunately the circumstances of these days were the worst possible for diplomacy. On the other hoof, freeing them from the Nightmare's influence could earn her few points towards future endeavor. Well, none of that would matter if Holy Light succeeded in reaching the Tree of Harmony, his suspected goal. What Luna was lacking the most was information, both on Holy's goals and the Prophet's.
With that in mind she wrote a single word on a letter that would be dropped off in the Crystal Empire.
Heavy Hoof was exhausted. He wouldn't ever let it show but in addition to his recruit lessons he'd decided to add something more to his regime and it was driving him to the ground. As soon as the morning training sessions ended he had a quick rest, something light to eat, and headed back to the castle gardens to continue his own training.
He'd asked commander Shadowstep for help because her unit of changelings were steeled by old wars and experienced with just about anything that could happen in combat. Shadowstep had agreed when Tio Cross insisted and them going temporary AWOL went completely unnoticed by queen Chrysalis, at least that's what Heavy hoped. Cross and Shadowstep didn't really care because their loyalty lay mostly to each other rather than the changeling queen who carried very little authority to them.
So, with Shadowstep agreeing to allow Cross help with Heavy's training the only remaining members of her unit - Starlight and private Expendable - were taking care of the weekly reports from observing the life of the Element bearers. Heavy was grateful for the opportunity and took the training seriously but...
"We can have a short break if you need it," said a tall, purple-maned thestral with grey coat and yellow eyes standing calmly above the blue and white heap collapsed on the ground and breathing raggedly. The thestral looked fairly young considering he had over four hundred years of experience serving in the changeling military. Horatio Carmac Refrigerator Cross had trouble remembering parts of his name and preferred his batpony form to his 'changeling' one. Now, he was looking worriedly at Heavy Hoof and thinking he might have overdone it this time.
As Heavy's eyes rolled back from the back of his head and his hearing returned he, on about third attempt, managed to stand up.
"That..." Heavy spat a bit of blood out, "that... was cheating."
Cross just raised an eyebrow.
"An infantrypony buying time for the spellcaster in the back to blast your fine and toned rump so hard you don't get back up? That's the most basic of combat tactics, Heavy."
Heavy shook his head and got surrounded by purple aura as his front legs failed to hold him up.
"Yeeees," he admitted hesitantly. He didn't mind Shadowstep holding him up with her magic because, if he had to be honest, most of their sessions ended like that, "but when the spellcaster is an almost immortal changeling queen from times shortly after Luna's imprisonment and the other enemy is an ultimate warrior created from the essence of the most powerful creatures living on Equus a simple earthpony like me could use a small break."
"Don't grumble," Cross smiled, "it's a good excuse for a shower together. Besides, I doubt that in a real fight the enemy would care in the slightest."
Heavy sighed. He'd been training since the return from the Griffon Empire and it was paying off. One on one he could hold his own against Cross and, if the changeling wasn't using his vast magic/love reserves to make his armor impenetrable by normal weapons, he could win. In that, Heavy had no doubt that with a teacher blessed with so much experience he could fight against anypony. Unfortunately, war wasn't decided by solo action. As good as Heavy could get he wasn't a changeling and as such he couldn't go on fighting as long as the unnatural love energy reserves lasted. The problem was stamina and magic. Heavy had plenty of the first but what use would fighting off ten or twenty enemies be when hundred more took their place.
Every time princess Luna briefed him about some report from Zebrica he felt disheartened and small. Alicorns like Luna or Celestia could wipe entire armies out by themselves unless they were protected by a similar power. All that said, he couldn't deny growing in ways he'd never expected.
"Tio... you do realize that every practice will end in the same way no matter what I do, do you? I can't do much more than I'm already doing."
"Don't underestimate my sargeant," Shadowstep, a changeling queen very similar to queen Chrysalis but bulkier, without a crown ornament on her head, and in purple colours rather than green, commented, "he believes in you and, after seeing how you progress, so do I."
"I just think you enjoy setting me on fire, commander."
"True," Shadowstep grinned, "but I also heal you back up."
"Just so you could electrocute me next time," Heavy objected.
"Indeed," Shadowstep's smile grew wider, "and yet, you get up faster every time and we don't even have to carry you to the infirmary anymore. That means your earthpony body is getting used to quite high amounts of magic."
Suddenly, Heavy understood. Pegasi magic changed them, allowed them to control weather, fly, and made their bones lighter but more brittle to take less damage when falling. That's why pegasi had never been the best frontline warriors. Unicorn magic transformed part of their body to serve as a focus for their will, allowing them to change world as they saw fit as long as the magic in their bodies lasted. Earthponies became tough, adaptable, and strong. The adaptability was what served as a magic resistance, the ability to absorb magic thrown their way and either use it to replenish theirs or just harmlessly expel it out of their bodies later.
It had been right before his eyes all the time and he'd never bothered to explore the possibility. He'd thought Blazing Light's magic stealing and immunity was just a part of his unicorn magic but that wasn't true. His mother had been an earthpony which must have allowed his unicorn ability to steal magic to grow. Heavy knew it would be impossible to reach that level of anti-mage capability but now he knew he could improve even more.
"Thanks, guys," Heavy smiled and moved his legs. As soon as he did Shadowstep's levitation stopped and he had to take his steps for himself again, "I hope it'll be enough to make the difference when the time comes."
Cross wrapped his wing around Heavy and kissed him, earning a half-amused, half-jealous look from Shadowstep.
"You never know. As they say, hope dies last."
Changelings generally weren't too liked among normal ponies but the few dreamlings who kept to themselves and their only friends reached slightly higher status. Three was one of the last ones to stay single and devoted to her duty as the dreamling ambassador at princess Celestia's court. It wasn't a bad job and despite her being fairly low on the old love gain she, as a dreamling, had no trouble surviving by feeding on fear. It wasn't as tasty as love, it wasn't as nutritious as love, but it kept her going day after day as long as she sold her body in some bar somewhere for a quick refill from time to time. These days, with the changeling peace treaty in effect, most ponies looking for one-night stand would opt for a changeling who gladly agreed.
Dreamlings, unfortunately, were limited to only one disguise and she didn't even have that so most of her 'partners' were those weird enough to enjoy the touch of chitinous armor during the night. Three didn't mind her being the only remaining dreamling without a disguised form. She served queen Guiding Light with her whole being and that was the only important thing. As much as other dreamlings tried to forget about the old days in their native dimension where Nightmare successfully managed to destroy all life and fit in, she did her best to remember and punish all those who would threaten this new world by such tragedy. For now it meant cooperating with princess Celestia but Three was flexible. Her queen, her brothers and sisters, and all those powerless to defend themselves deserved a life without the horrors her hive had seen before using the dimension jumping spell to end up here in this version of Equus.
Right now it looked as if the massacre was going to repeat itself. The dreamlings would fight and fall for a world where they had nothing left. The news of their father's death had hit the dreamlings hard and queen Guiding had completely broken contact with the world outside of the small hive in Pine Hills. Three's idea for the best course of action was to persuade the queen to use the jumping spell again and save the ten dreamlings remaining from her hive. After all, why should they fight for a place that had turned its back on their father and caused his death. A place that... accepted them and gave them a chance for independence.
"Well, that was a pointless line of thought," Three mumbled to herself, sitting in Sole Regret and sipping her drink. She liked the mercenary bar because most patrons told stories about different parts of the world and Three had the chance to gather some information for her queen from those. She also loved the wine the bartender was selling. From what she'd heard her father also liked the place which only sweetened the deal.
Staring into a glass she slowly realized the sound of the story she'd been listening to died away mid-word. Come to think of it, all sounds did. Glancing to the sides, her excellent vision showed her that nopony around was moving. The bartender was stuck with his hoof holding a cloth inside a dirty beer glass. The young colts sitting around listening to experienced mercenaries had their excited expression frozen on their faces.
With the temperuature taking a dive and the coats of ponies around taking on a crystalline sheen, Three quickly assumed she was the only one able to move. The door opened and she turned her head in its direction, pretending to freeze as well. A unicorn wearing a purple cloak hiding all his features aside from the tip of his horn walked inside, looked around, and aimed straight towards Three.
She sniffed the air and tilted her head. Contrary to the entire situation she didn't feel threatened but that didn't stop her from hardening her armor and causing sharp blades to appear on the back of her legs.
The unicorn took his cowl off and unwrapped a bandana from his muzzle. Three froze on the spot. Her legs shook, she breathed quickly, and her vision became blurry.
"I need information," the unicorn revealed a mouthful of sharp teeth.
A moment later she reevaluated her loyalty to princess Celestia and came to a new result.