Frozen Heart: Traitors
Void was sitting on a throne in the middle of a temple made of obsidian. Blue lights floated through the entirety of his home and periodically the old ones disappeared and new ones flickered to life. The temple didn't have walls, instead it was simply a tiled, ornate floor and a roof with pillars holding it on the sides. From his throne Void could see into the desert of silvery sand reaching far and wide away from the building. The underworld and Scream's mountain were the only places where he could be himself these days. His power was reaching unprecedented levels and he himself wasn't sure why. It wasn't as if he wanted it. Void was more than happy with just watching and occasionally visiting the real world, at least whenever Scream wasn't bugging him about something. Her constant efforts to keep both of them more involved with mortals were keeping him in touch although the two of them travelling to the Griffon Empire as a pair of unicorns and pretending to look for a suitable set of furniture for their nonexistent house may have been a little too much. Still, Void was grateful to her for trying.
Unlike him, the alicorn of Lust was way more tied to the ponies living in the real world and would fade away without them for far too long for Void to handle. Death was omnipresent and granted him the resilience unknown to anypony else other than the alicorns of Life, Magic, and Time. Even if Nightmare succeeded in its attempt to create a new, clean slate it wouldn't affect him too much. Scream, though, would have no chance of surviving without emotions to feed her aspect. That's why, despite risking the possibility of his future engagement, he decided he had to take one final step. That, and the vision of Holy Light's forces getting ready to cross the ocean to Equestria. Almost a million soldiers under his command would trash what little forces Luna and Celestia had managed to get up till now. At this rate, Holy Light would win even without magic or the possibility of Nightmare summoning things from the depths of Equus. Unlike Luna, Void had a pretty clear line of sight at Holy's army as death was a daily occurence wherever they marched.
What he was more concerned about was the northern force getting ready to invade. While the numbers weren't anywhere close to Holy Light's army the inability of Void, Scream, or anypony to see what was going on there made the alicorn of Death interested and worried. All he knew was that one of the gateways of Nightmare's power was there and that meant trouble. Void stepped down from his throne, spread his wings which dwarfed anypony else's and in some respects reached into infinity, and focused. Instead of the blackfire alicorn a black unicorn appeared, ready to once again step out into the real world. The unicorn dispersed into black mist and the temple was once again empty aside from the blue souls coming to terms with their departure.
Void's sealed form reformed on the edge of the barrier preventing him from going further and he was quickly blinded by snow falling everywhere around him, not that he needed eyes to find his way around. The Nightmare's presence was extremely strong and would easily lead him through the northern wastes.
"I guess I will be walking the rest of the way then," his just shrugged and plodded through the blizzard towards the minotaur mountain city.
Heavy Hoof looked at a letter on his desk. It was different from any other that found its way into his small office in the Canterlot castle in the respect that there was no return address, no seal or signature, and nothing explaining the reason for it to be on the desk of a simple drill sargeant. Granted, Heavy's status as princess Luna's occasional agent could put him on somepony's list of targets to be eliminated but the letter was too thin to be a bomb and his office was protected from magical 'gifts' of that sort.
So... poison? Possibly something completely harmless?
With a careful stroke of a letter knife in his mouth, Heavy rolled his eyes at the paranoia and opened it. Inside there was a simple note saying:
I need your help. My messenger will wait for you every day from dusk until midnight for the entirety of next week on the roof of Sole Regret. I know you know the place. If you choose to ignore this letter then I wish you the best of luck in the future.
A polite threat or possibly just an innocent request? Definitely not innocent if the sender was going through the trouble of setting the meeting up in such complicated fashion. Well, if said 'messenger' part was true then Heavy would have a very easy time preparing a trap to catch him.
On the other hoof, why would somepony want him? That was the important question. Heavy had no legal power over any important stuff in Canterlot. He wasn't... useful in any way a criminal would want to use him, not to mention he would fight till death before he became somepony's lawless puppet. No, whoever had sent this knew exactly what made Heavy different from anypony else in the castle. The earthpony didn't know what it was but as a cold smile grew on his face he was determined to find out.
The timeframe gave him enough comfort to have a shower at the castle gym where he greeted Royal Guards unwinding after a long day and Nightguards getting ready to take care of Luna's nighttime dominion. Heavy believed that being in the best shape possible was important at any point in time and relaxation was part of it. That's why as warm water made his fur hug his body he let everything go and focused only on the pleasant moment. Things like these took a self-control of steel and, as most ponies around him found out fast enough, he had it. Unfortunately, he couldn't stave off the strange request forever and in about half an hour he was trotting to Sole Regret.
The mercenary bar was filled to the brim at this time of evening and while it was easy to notice Heavy in a crowd thanks to his snow-white coat and blue mane which made others mistake him for prince Shining Armor from time to time the ponies in Sole Regret were experts at not noticing things that didn't concern them.
"Evening, Singer," Heavy greeted the bartender, "Mind if I take a look around the roof?"
"No problem, just don't make a mess. There's a scaffolding covering the entire back part of the building because of renovations. Guard business, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Possibly," Heavy's expression darkened, "If I don't come back within twenty minutes call for the nearest patrol and send them up."
"That bad? I can give you a backup if need be. Most of the guys here owe me a favor and wouldn't mind getting into a little scrap."
"That won't be necessary. Somepony just asked specifically for me and I want to know why."
"Well," Singer explored a keyring hanging on a wall nearby and gave Heavy an unremarkably normal key, "I'll be counting minutes. Hope nothing bad happens to you. Speaking of which, some of the young colts coming here from time to time asked for you. They like it when you talk about your time in Ponyville with the bugponies. It helps teach them not to be scared of them."
"I'm surprised you are so accepting of them. Sole Regret was one of the hotspots of resistance during queen Chrysalis' invasion."
"The way I see it, we broke their skulls, or exoskeletons, and they broke some of ours. Their queen doesn't want to roll us all into cocoons anymore and, honestly, changelings looking for a quick snack are the best companions for mercs who don't have time for family or a relationship."
"I wish everypony had the same insight, Singer. Even now things aren't so civilized everywhere."
"It always takes time. A century ago we would have hanged your griffon friend and probably stoned the batpony he lives with were thestrals not protected by a royal decree. Things change, slowly but they do."
Heavy looked at the clock hanging on the wall and, the roof key in his mouth, nodded at Singer as he walked up the stairs. The bulding wasn't too tall by Canterlot standards but it was more than just the bar. As Heavy passed the apartments and offices he was thinking about him being somepony's target over and over. When the roof door clicked before him he put the key to his saddlebag and unsheathed his metal staff, ready to defend himself.
The wind was rushing above Canterlot but with winter fading the night sky was clear and Heavy could easily see the flat roof around him. Near the scaffolding on the back of the building there was a very tall shadow which might have been just a stack of equipment or...
...somepony quickly walking on their hind legs towards him.
Heavy stood up himself and twirled his staff. Even while standing upright Heavy's head was at about shoulder height of the second figure. He couldn't help noticing the figure was obviously much more used to walking in such abnormal fashion, leading him to a conclusion which was proven right when it withdrew its hood.
It was a minotaur, tall, purple-coated, and armed a shield on his back and a one-handed mace on his belt. In his right arm he was carrying a satchel which he carefully put down on the roof. He had to know who Heavy was and how he looked otherwise he would have given whatever he was giving to him to anypony. Not breaking eye contact, Heavy put his staff back on his back and picked the satchel up.
He bit his lip when he opened it. Inside there were two black notebooks, a black crystal, and a second note. He looked at the minotaur.
"What if I refuse?"
"Then my lord only asks you not to talk about this and I am to take everything in the bag back. He also told me to tell you this: I know you will not betray me again."
Heavy read the note in the dim light coming from downstairs. He took a deep breath. His next choice could make him several very powerful enemies but... there was one thing he'd regretted for a long time.
He had a debt to pay.
"I'm in. Tell him I'll talk to Shadowstep and Tio as soon as possible."
This bar in Stalliongrad was the offical unofficial center of its black market. Potential buyers and sellers could meet here and there were enough experts on certain facets of law concerning various parts of the country living on the upper floors who were happy to make sure no client would be cheated. After all, good reputation meant so much more than contracts in a place where law wasn't allowed to go.
Burning Brand, a bartender and a pony knowing almost everypony in Stalliongrad, knew trouble when he saw it and the two dreamlings walking through the door with determined expressions felt like it immediately. It possibly had something to do with one of them having been in the bar before, the female one walking like a panther stalking her prey. The second one, less predatory although arguably even more dangerous, drew gazes and surprised gasps from other guests who happened to look her way. Brand had seen pictures of queen Chrysalis in the newspapers and as such was able to guess that the entering 'pony' was the dreamling queen herself. She wasn't menacing in size and looked slightly uncomfortable in the crowd but her dark-blue belly armor with glowing orange veins coursing through it made Brand shiver.
His suspicion proved correct when the duo walked over to a tall, blonde-maned pegasus with coat so brilliantly white it seemed to shine in the dark atmosphere of the estabilishment. The pegasus had only one wing but, as Brand knew, it didn't stop him from soaring.
The blue-eyed pegasus looked up from his drink, his jaw dropped, and his nervous twitch toppled the glass in his hooves. Brand got ready to call for Brick the bouncer and several other well-armed 'friends' because he knew that captain Icy Gaze was a magnet for trouble.
"W-w-w-what can the boss... I mean I do for you?" Icy Gaze's trembling made his wooden chair quickly tap against the floor.
"Greeeeeeeat save, Five," the non-queen dreamling snickered, "You're a terrible body double and Icy Gaze should fire you. Where is he?"
"He-he-he's n-n-not here-"
"Where is he, Five?" the queen asked softly and Five looked around, his teeth chattering.
"My queen," Five pleaded, shooting out words with machine gun speed, "If I tell you then he'll kick me out. I've led Three to him once already and he was mad at me. I'll have to go back to the Crystal Empire and I won't be able to send you the letters about the world. Don't get me wrong, I like princess of food but-"
"Stop rambling," the normal dreamling slammed the table hard enough to get Five's attention but nopony else's, "drop the disguise, and get going!"
"Yes, Three," green glimmer passed through the white pegasus' coat and a much smaller creature, similar to the huntery dreamling known as Three appeared instead. Five hanged his head and started walking to a corner of the bar where a hooded pony sighed heavily and shook his head.
Icy Gaze, this time the real one, facehoofed when Three, somepony who he'd hoped never to see again, Five, his apparently extremely incompetent dreamling body double, and a dreamling he suspected to be queen Guiding Light approached him. He knew changelings and dreamlings could sense one another even when disguised and considering there was about ten dreamlings left in the world their queen would see through Five's disguise easily but that still didn't change the fact that he was in mortal danger. He was in no position to fight. His past experience with Three taught him that she could single-hoofedly break the skulls of everypony currently inside the bar. Icy had never met queen Guiding but he'd heard rumours.
"You know, Five," Icy rolled his eyes theatrically, "If you keep doing that I will have to load you into a cannon and fire you into the sun one day."
Five slinked back as if Icy had punched him.
"Sorry, cap," Five reached into a bag on his back, pulled out a discoloured wooly red cap, and drew it over his ears, "It's just-"
"I would prefer you didn't do that," Guiding Light smiled, "Although he might make a better cannonball than a bodyguard. Now, let's get straight to business, mister pirate."
"I am just an honorable businesspony," Icy locked stares with Three who snarled at him. He just smiled smugly.
"Five's letters say something else," Guiding commented dryly and as Icy grit his teeth, looking at Five, Three unpleasantly smiled back.
"You will be helping Fail with his makeup for a MONTH!" Icy whispered angrily to Five.
"Cool!" Five lightened up and Icy had to facehoof again at the image of his pilot looking like a kabuki hooker after the dreamling's curious attempts.
Burning Brand decided to help his if not friend then at least a very good customer.
"Would you like a drink, sir, for you and your company?" he asked Icy the usual cryptic question.
"No, thanks. We're doing business and need to stay sober," was Icy's answer meaning that while things were civil now that could change very quickly.
Brand nodded and returned back behind the counter. Several unnoticeable gestures later there was a group of ponies ready to rush to Icy Gaze's side to help.
"Enough with this nonsense, pirate," Three walked behind Icy's chair and growled into his ear, "You either do what we say or your career is over."
"Oh really?" Icy booped Three's muzzle with his hoof, "I wonder how ponies would look at the dreamling queen and her lapdog causing a lot of trouble in one of the big cities in Equestria, possibly murdering an innocent airship captain. That might cause some image problems... torches and pitchforks image problems."
Three slapped Icy's hoof away from her muzzle.
"Really? I've heard about your cozy village of Pine Hills where ponies actually like you. How would they look at the incident? They might just get worried about their safety and get your little hive evicted. I believe the Everfree forest is quite inhabitable this time of year. Few hydras should't be too much trouble for a cute little warrior like you," Icy's hoof scratched Three behind her ear.
Icy knew he was dancing on thin ice but what he said was technically true. According to Five's stories the dreamlings were officially in a worse spot than the changelings. The murdering force of Nightmare Moon from a different dimension was under heavy oversight of both royal sisters and they couldn't afford trouble like this. On top of that, it looked like Guiding Light wasn't too bothered by his cheekiness and he jumped at the opportunity to make Three boil inside. He just had to suppress every bit of self-preservation instinct that kept yelling at him that Three could dismember him, disembowel him, and disassemble him faster than his head would stop breathing.
Guiding's chuckle strangely resonated within his skull and he had to shake off his sudden dizziness.
"My queen," Five whimpered.
"Be quiet," Guiding didn't look away from Icy who realized his body wasn't listening to him, "Now, captain... I need something you stole from Canterlot castle vault. Two somethings to be precise. A pair of swords that should rightfully belong to my father as the only unicorn capable of using them effectively."
"Why... don't... they... work?" Icy groaned.
"Let me explain, just so you don't see me as an enemy," Guiding said seriously, "The Blades of Balance completely protect their wielder from magic and, to a small extent, divine power. The branches of changelings have never relied on magic to subdue their prey though. Pheromones, hypnotic voice, pitch you ponies can't hear but accept straight to your heads... magic is just the tip of the iceberg, as they say."
Icy was horrified but everything in his body was telling him things were absolutely fine. His breathing was relaxed and he was smiling and nodding happily. He barely felt Three's hooves take his cloak off and subsequently two sheaths on his sides containing two greatswords. The blades capable of completely nullifying princess Luna's magic were powerless against Guiding Light's mind control. There was nothing unnatural involved in Icy's body's reaction.
"Excellent," Guiding levitated the sheaths and put them on, groaning, "Stopping my own flow of magic, painful. Now I understand the warning that wielding the two kills the really powerful unicorns outright. Thank you for your cooperation, mister pirate, these will find their way into much better hooves than yours. Take care of yourself and of Five, one my precious brothers."
Followed by Three, Guiding Light left with a pair of most treasured artefacts in Equestria in her possession.
"Are you okay?" Five looked apologetically at Icy who was slowly regaining control of his limbs.
Icy was nothing if not cool-headed. As much as he wanted to punch the dreamling, to yell at him, he couldn't when he saw his devastated face.
"You'll have to choose where your loyalties lie, Five," Icy groaned.
"Hey, you said loyalties. That means more than one so it's you, my queen, and-"
"Shut up," Icy couldn't help smiling bitterly. He knew Five would protect him in any situation barring few exceptions. After all, it was the leader's fault if he couldn't find use for his assets, "and get back to your table. Who knows? There might be somepony tonight who actually wants to do business and not just mindrape me."