The use of locations from The Ambassador's Son by Midnight Shadow is done with permission.
They did not wake until late in the day, well past noon. A knock on the door frightened them, but it was the maid, come to change the towels and make the room. They asked her to come back in an hour, for they needed time to gather their things and prepare to leave.
"I figure we can catch the 4:00, if we go now, and eat on the train." Wildfire laid out a few bits for the maid on the pillow; tipping was always a good idea. "We should be in Canterlot by the day after tomorrow."
"Marketplace. Dog-creatures..." Perspicacity seemed lost in thought, half-laying on the bed. "Early Equestrian history. Mrs. Ephemeris always told me I'd need that stuff someday. I wish I'd believed her then. Marketplace.... Marketplace..."
"Pers? Come on, I think we're all packed up, but I need your help to levitate the Luggage out the door. It's kind of big, and, well, while I could buck the thing through there, It would be better for everypony if we had a unicorn's magic here." Wildfire came over to his wife and gave her a kiss on the nose. She started, as if in a dream.
"Wild! Excellent. We need to pack... Oh.." Perspicacity saw the Luggage nicely closed and ready for travel. "Don't just wait there, Wildfire, we need to get the luggage out the door!"
Wildfire shook his head slightly as his wife's horn glowed. The great steamer trunk rotated and slid through the opened door, then righted itself on its wheels on the other side. Wildfire trotted on out of the room and began to harness himself to the over-sized traveling kit.
Perspicacity hopped onto the Luggage, and lay down on it, once again the queen of steamer-trunks. "To the trainstation, Wildfire, we need to buy tickets to the Southern Border, somewhere near the Diamond Expanse. There's a town there. Tiny town. But once... once.... I'll remember once I see the train route."
This was all news to Wildfire. "Perspicacity! Now hold on a minute! I thought our plan was to high-tail it straight to the princesses and tell them all about the existence of the HLF here in Equestria, and to beg their protection! That's the plan, remember the plan? I do, it was a good plan!"
"Train station, now." Wildfire began plodding without even thinking. Perspicacity had him well trained, for a stallion. And after only ten years, too.
"Pers, I'm serious here. We need to tell the princesses, that's our first priority, our duty to the crown, right? That's what you said!" Wildfire had a strange feeling looking back over his flank at his wife, perched up on the huge Luggage. There was something familiar...
"Wildfire - that page last night gave us the clue we needed. Willelmus talked about having gone to a marketplace, some time after he was remade by Celestia as a pony. There he bought the original blank manuscript from a dog-creature. That could only be a Diamond Dog. You haven't seen one, but they're a bipedal race, for the most part, and they're... well they're a little like Ralph, actually. They covet gemstones, they're greedy, and they don't exactly understand right from wrong. They're also not from Equestria originally. Come to think of it, they ARE Ralph." Perspicacity laughed at her jest.
"What do you mean they're not from Equestria?" This was new. Wildfire didn't know what to make of this.
"Earth hasn't been the only world that has briefly touched Equestria, dear." Perspicacity really did seem like she was feeling superior up on the Luggage like that. "Occasionally other worlds have grazed us, and sometimes we've gotten immigrants who managed to survive. How do you think Celestia even knew to look for your Earth? It's big out there, or so my old magic teacher used to say."
It made sense. It was kind of weird to think that Earth and its universe would have been the only alien cosmos that Equestria ever bumped into. There were probably as many universes as there were stars, maybe more. Wildfire shuddered at the vastness of it all. Poor old Stephen would have loved learning all of this, Wildfire thought, if he hadn't died trying to fight Equestra.
"Pers, what does any of this have to do with..."
"Wild! It's all in that page, from last night! Willelmus must have bought his manuscript from Diamond Dogs. The first sign of the dogs ever existing happened about 900 years ago, during... what was it called... the Rainbow Nights. There was this period where the entire sky had rings in it, multicolored rings. It wasn't Celestia; it was the bruises made by other universes bumping into Equestria. Supposedly, Celestia had her hooves full dealing with it all." Perspicacity struggled to remember the ancient history. It hadn't mattered to her in her fillyhood. Now it was suddenly very important.
"That was when the Diamond Dogs first showed up. The story is that they came from somewhere else, some other world. But their world was normal, like Equestria, so they could live here. Not like Earth's universe. Zero-magic is just unheard of. It wasn't considered even possible. Nothing could live in a zero-magic universe, or so the unicorn mages thought. Life was magic." Perspicacity sighed. "At least, it normally is."
"Anyway, the Diamond Dogs caused a lot of trouble back then, because they weren't... polite. Their customs and notions of right and wrong are just, well, they're not Equestrian. They were known for being disreputable traders and even thieves. They did... the crime you spoke of. And back then, Celestia's guards had to act like your... Merc Police. Eventually the Diamond Dogs were more or less chased away. It's said they still live in little colonies out in desert lands."
Wildfire turned the corner to the main street, which led directly to the train station. They had to go there in any case, whatever their destination. "Fine Pers, Diamond Dogs, whatever. We still need to get to the princesses, remember?"
"There's another page out there! Or two! Maybe even three! It's right there, don't you see!?"
Wildfire stopped in the middle of the street. Perspicacity was almost hysterical. This was not merely new, it was scary. She'd always been obsessive, most times this was not a problem. Sometimes it was even good; her eye for detail and her obsessive nature made sure every telescope or pair of glasses or spyglass or any other thing she created was nothing less than a masterpiece.
And she was exacting in remembering dates and times and things that needed to get done. She was Wildfire's backup memory and day calender. He relied on her because he often couldn't keep track of his own tail, much less who's birthday it was or whether the appointment was at two o'clock or thirteen o'clock.
But this was new. There was a coldness now, a strange, eerie quality to her current obsession. It didn't feel entirely Equestrian to Wildfire. He began to worry about just how much damage her exposure to Ralph's mindset had caused. It wasn't so terrible for him; he had grown up around humans. But Perspicacity... she had no natural defenses born of years of having to deal with a place like Earth.
"Pers." Wildfire tried to be as calm as possible, as gentle as possible. "Don't you think our duty to the crown is more important than whether or not we hear the end of the story?"
"The end of the story IS our duty! We have to find those pages before anypony else does! It's the only way to save Celestia! It's the only way to save Equestria! Don't you understand?" Perspicacity was shouting now. Maybe the loss of her aunt had hurt her even more than Wildfire had imagined.
"Perspicacity.... No! I don't see!" Wildfire began to unbuckle himself from the harness that allowed him to pull the heavy luggage with his wife on top.
"DRAGON SKIN!" Perspicacity's shout made other ponies on the street turn to stare. She slammed her body low to the Luggage and gave out a slight whimper of embarrassment.
Wildfire came around the side of the luggage and rested his head on the top, close to where Perspicacity had laid hers, as if she were trying to melt into it and vanish. "Alright, what am I missing here?"
"Ralph mentioned it, when he talked about having looked at our manuscript, but I didn't believe him. But the new page confirms it. That manuscript is made out of dragon. The binding is dragon hide, with the scales scraped off. The pages are dragon vellum, they're made from unborn dragon, Wild, from dragon still in the egg." Perspicacity looked like she was telling him something beyond horrible.
"I don't understand. I'm sorry, but... I wasn't born in Equestria, and I don't know the stuff you know. What's the deal here?" Wildfire felt stupid, even though he honestly couldn't help not knowing any of what his wife was talking about.
Perspicacity was somehow shocked. "Wild... it's bad enough that the manuscript is made out of... skin. From a formerly living creature. But this manuscript is made out of the skin of a dragon. Dragons are intelligent, Wild, they are... sapient. They have a culture, and traditions and their own magic and arts and even their own government. They're like griffons, Wildfire. They're equals, they're... I don't know how else to explain this to you. They're no different than ponies, except that they have wings and claws." Perspicacity tried to explain the obvious, but... it was too obvious. How could her husband not get this?
"Wildfire; if it is horrible to... kill... an innocent creature just to get some skin to make a book, it's even more horrible to kill a sapient equal. That book might as well have been made of pony skin. Only this is worse, far worse." Perspicacity looked frightened.
"Why is it worse?" Wildfire was feeling a little lost. Hopefully this would all make sense soon.
"Equestria isn't just ponies, Wild. Other nations live here too. Celestia may control the day and Luna the night, they may be the ultimate power in our universe, but that doesn't mean that all creatures instinctively bow to the princesses. The dragon and griffon empires may know they can never lay a claw on the princesses, but they don't have to. She loves us, Wild, she loves her ponies, us, and through us the other nations have a say in the running of the universe." Perspicacity looked around; fortunately Wild had half-parked them near the side of the street.
"The other nations can make demands of living goddesses because they are a potential threat to... us. To the mortal creatures that Celestia and Luna care about. OK, I get that, but why is the manuscript being made out of dragon skin such a big deal? That was 800 years ago!" Surely that long ago was no big deal, Wildfire thought. How could it be? Who'd even remember?
"Wildfire. Dragons are ancient. They can live over a thousand years. It's actually been said that they may have existed during the time of Discord, and maybe even before. There are dragons alive, right now, that probably lost relatives to make the book in our luggage!" Perspicacity was speaking in a controlled whisper. This was not something to say out loud.
"The only thing between peaceful co-existence and all-out war with the other empires is a pact that was made centuries ago. About 800 years, actually, about the time of Willelmus. He lived during the time when the peace we enjoy now was forged. There are stories that griffons - and dragons too - once ate ponies. They are meat-eaters, at least griffons are, and dragons can be if they want. The peace is based on neither side harming the other, ever. And ponies are supposed to be the example for all of this!" Perspicacity was so close to Wild's muzzle now that he could feel the warmth from her nostrils.
"If it were found out that Celestia allowed a pony - even a newfoal pony - to keep a book made out of unborn dragon, and that she permitted this right at the time that the whole peace pact was being created... and there are dragons alive right now who probably watched as their brothers and sisters were carved up to make that same book... do I have to spell it out for you?" Perspicacity's eyes were very frightened.
"I... see." And finally, Wildfire did see. Ralph and his associates were after the manuscript. The whole manuscript. They already felt confident they could get the bulk of it; as far as they were concerned, Pers and he were just a convenient storage system that could be counted on to protect the manuscript for them. They'd just come and collect it whenever it was needed. That's why Ralph had spared them, and why he wanted them to go home. So then the manuscript would be in a convenient location for later retrieval.
All while the HLF went and collected the missing pages. Pages that already damned Celestia in the eyes of the dragon empire. Who knows what other dangers to the peace lay in the remaining pages? That would truly be revenge for the loss of Earth and Humanity; the total destruction of the peace that permitted ponies and dragons and griffons and who knew what else to live together.
The carnage would be unimaginable. World war Equestria. The princesses could never be hurt, they were deities. But their world, their ponies, their Equestria could be drowned in blood, and they would be all but helpless to stop it. doubtless they could kill any problematic being within their universe with nothing more than a thought. Probably they could fold the very mountains over and crush any recalcitrant civilization with but a whim.
But they wouldn't. They couldn't, because the result would be exactly the same: mass slaughter and the destruction of all they held dear.
And if they just took control of the minds of every creature, and erased their anger and their memories and their selves and remade them to fit some goal or plan of peace, how would that be different from just destroying everything and starting from scratch?
It suddenly hit Wildfire that being able to do anything didn't matter if what you had already made, and wanted to keep, was being held for ransom. For the princesses, it must be like playing a simulation game; sure, they could just exit the current game and restart a new game, but everything they had spent a thousand years making would be forever lost.
On earth, Wild had lost a save for a sim game that he had played for almost a year. The file was unrecoverable. All of his custom buildings, all the lands, all the effort, his favorite sim families, all the modifications to the graphics... all were just... gone. He had actually cried. He had cried at that loss. It was a lot of stuff. That must be what it was like to be a deity, like Celestia.
Ralph and his associates had come up with a truly incredible, truly painful revenge. In a way, Wildfire was almost in a sort of sickened awe; the HLF had found a way to deeply hurt a god! Two gods. Two goddesses.
And they didn't care if the entirety of Equestria was destroyed. Indeed, that was likely the plan. To force Celestia and Luna to lose all of their thousand-year progress and have to start over. From scratch. Or as nearly as possible.
"We have to get those pages, before anypony - or especially dragon, or anything else - finds them first!" Wildfire finally understood completely.
"And..." Her voice was only a whisper as Wildfire harnessed himself up again. "...I have to hear the end of my story."
The main street was not overly crowded; the desert town had a strong tourist industry, but at this time in the afternoon, there was not much traffic. They made good time to the stationhouse, and shortly had tickets for the far Southern Desert.
A look at the map that covered the inside wall of the station allowed Perspicacity to find her destination. At the very border between pony-Equestria and the lands that the dragon empire held, was a small town called Tacksworn. Tacksworn was the result of a very ancient pioneer exploration, to find the very edge of Equestria itself. Back then, the ponies had no idea that Equestria was a paraboloid cosmos curving in a higher space, Equestria set at the vertex, just above the focus. Now, the Exponential Lands extended the paraboloid perhaps to infinity.
It was at Tacksworn that the pioneers had stopped, their equipment wrecked, their teams exhausted, and thus a town was born. It was here that the Marketplace Of The Three Nations had once stood, the very same marketplace described by Willelmus in his manuscript, the market that was the very foundation of the current Equestrian Peace.
For it was there, eventually, that the great pact was signed, and the three nations of dragon, griffon and pony found common cause. The success of the market showed that the three species had more to gain from cooperation than from mastication; ponies might taste good, but the things they could make and build and do, and what they represented in terms of culture and long term survival, were far more important.
800 years later, Tacksworn was a small, insignificant community at the farthest reaches of pony-held Equestria. If there was any monument to what had once happened there, it would likely be some sand-buried plaque, covered by time, and forgotten by most. The original Marketplace did not even remain for long, but moved on as well; Tacksworn was a town forgotten by time, but once the most crucial spot in the history of the Peace Of Equestria.
If the remainder of the manuscript was anywhere, it was almost certainly at the place where the pages had originally been cut out; and considering their content, considering what they almost certainly must say, that place was Tacksworn.
Wildfire tried to imagine what Celestia would have been like, finding out that her prize pony's private journal, which she had asked him to write, had been written on dragon flesh. The little Willelmus-pony couldn't have understood. Yet there, for however long it had taken him to write his book, he was carrying an artifact that could destroy the peace of the world, and she would inevitably be blamed for it.
The damning pages would be removed, and quickly. But why were they not destroyed? Why was not the entire manuscript destroyed? That would have been simpler. Maybe Celestia hadn't found out, or maybe she had relied on somepony that had not carried out her wishes to the letter?
Whatever the case, the situation was politically delicate. The dragons would likely be very, very upset.
And on the way to the station, Perspicacity had said something else to Wildfire: Dragons never forget, and they never forgive.
The dragon-leather pointed them south, so south they went, following the lead the manuscript itself provided. South, to where it all began. South to the very place where Celestia passed through a tiny pinprick in reality and first entered the world of Men, and brought back the soul of one, and gave him a freshly minted body.
As they boarded the train, as they saw to their luggage and went to their seats, Perspicacity and Wildfire searched constantly for any sign of Ralph. It was ridiculous; he would have taken the earlier train, or even the train from the day before - but both of the Starshines were on edge, and it was on a train that they had first met Not-Pony Ralph.
Wildfire settled into his bench, his forelegs hanging over the end of the padding, his hindquarters once again pressed close to Perspicacity. She liked to sit by the window, and look out at the passing scenery. This was fine with Wildfire, because he still felt nervous, and from his position next to the aisle, he could scan both fore and aft of the car they sat in, just in case. Just in case of Ralph.
A freshly minted body. The thought intrigued him. Willelmus Learmount of Eslaforde was the very first ponified human. But he wasn't Converted. There was no nanotech involved, and his own DNA hadn't been rewritten. His mind had been somehow given... magic, Wildfire supposed, given... eternality, for lack of a better word, and taken back to Equestria as a disembodied thing.
Celestia had created a body from scratch, using her supreme powers. But even if she could create pony bodies with her power, Willelmus had indicated that he felt that her efforts had taken time and not been easy. Why? Maybe... maybe there was a fundamental incompatibility between her capture of a human mind and the pony brain. This was before the human genome had been completely mapped and understood. She might have had to do a best-fit to make things work.
Maybe Willelmus was a little like the HLF ponies, a little more human than he should be. Maybe that is why he wasn't immediately repelled by the very scent of a book made of dead flesh. That was quite a thought. Maybe Willelmus was a bit human and a bit pony. Not quite right. It was Celestia's first attempt, after all.
A deity can do anything, but she can't know everything. That was what Pers had said the unicorns debated in their hallowed halls of magic. They had both seen it to be true; Ralph and his associates were loose and undiscovered.
"What are you doing, love?" Wildfire had just noticed that Perspicacity was busy with several sheets of paper and a quill pen. They were caught in her magic, and hovered in front of her. The quill scratched rapidly on the paper.
"I'm... giving us a little insurance." Perspicacity paused while she considered the spelling of a word. "I'm writing a letter to the princess, Celestia, specifically; this is her problem, Luna wasn't even around at the time. Don't want to cause trouble between the two by accident or anything." The quill scribbled for a bit then paused again.
"I'm telling Celestia about what we found out, about the HLF being in Equestria, and I'm alluding to the Big Issue at stake. I'm sure she'll know what 'Eslaforde Manuscript' means, and those words probably won't mean anything to anypony beyond her. Or the HLF, I suppose, if the letter is intercepted. I hadn't thought about that possibility. Humph."
Wildfire rubbed his tale across Perspicacity's rump. In the moment, he could not help but to reflect on how fun and nice that was; having a tail was wonderful. He could caress his wife with his tail. Wildfire loved moments of realization like that, but had a mixed feeling about them overall. On one hoof, feeling joy and awe at simple things was great fun. On the other hoof, the only reason he could feel that way was because he had experienced another life, a non-Equestrian life, to compare things too. His moments of joy also underscored his difference.
But that was alright now. The experience on the cliff, and Perspicacity's words to him had answered once and forever any questions that remained about his identity and existence. He had even promised Pers that he would never doubt himself again. Maybe he had memories of the human world to compare to, but that was fine. It didn't make him any less Equestrian for it. Instead, his moments of simple joy should just be that; simple joy. It was a nice compensation for his lost pony years before Conversion. His recompense was the ability to really, really appreciate things other ponies took for granted, like having a tail.
"Pers, is there any way to make sure that Celestia alone sees the letter, to prevent it from being taken by some HLF Frontsman in her court, disguised as a pony?"
Perspicacity thought for a moment. "I have it!" She began scribbling on the front of the envelope that would carry her letter. "Last Minute Orgy Changes, Celestia's Eyes Only!" Perspicacity laughed then grinned at her husband. "You would NOT believe some of the rumors you can hear at magic school in Canterlot. I don't know if they are true, but even if they are not, this is not something anypony would dare to open. The loss of a letter like this, were it real, would be noticed, and whoever took it would be found. Nopony would even think of messing with it, not even the HLF. It will go straight to Celestia without fail."
Wildfire was stunned, both at the idea of the princess... and of his wife's daring solution. "Do... you think the rumors... are true?" That would certainly be a revelation about Equestria!
"Why, do you think I should include a request for an invitation?" Perspicacity looked at him with a detached, utterly serious air.
"G-guh.... wha?" Wild stammered.
Perspicacity's loud laughter at her husband's reaction filled the train car.