The use of locations from The Ambassador's Son by Midnight Shadow is done with permission.
That he and his wife would end up searching through the hoard of a dragon family was not something Wildfire had ever imagined happening.
Technically, they were now a bunch of growls and rasps that translated to 'Darkness Beyond Twilight', or Dragon Slaves - a temporary condition imposed on them to permit entry into the hoard. It was a formality, really, the days of dragons taking servants by force having been disestablished centuries ago. Even so, the issue of propriety was of some matter to the elder Leatherback, as he explained, "It is quite improper - culturally - for you to rifle through my belongings otherwise."
So, in addition to spending three days searching through a dragon hoard, Wildfire and Perspicacity were now technically slaves serving a dark and foreboding draconic master.
Currently 'master' was serving chilled cider and some really wonderful cinnamon rolls that he had just finished baking as a treat for his busy hoard searchers, his son included. Chip had taken on the roll of 'Overseer', making sure the slaves did their appointed jobs, but he had been working hardest of all. He seemed both fascinated to explore the astonishing collection and to please his father; the days had been jovial and rather fun overall.
Between seeing incredible marvels, enjoying delicious treats, and hearing the life stories of every... being... in turn, the draconic enslavement felt more like volunteer work sorting artifacts for the museum in Canterlot, or so Perspicacity had offered.
Over the last three days, Pers and Wild had come to find the dragon father and son to be quite pleasant hosts. The elder Leatherback had been an ambassador to the dragon empire for over 900 years, he and Celestia had enjoyed a very strange relationship. He had spent time in Canterlot, he had attended classes there, and taught others, and he had been a part of the creation of the Pact itself. Sharptooth Leatherback was a very old dragon; he had seen much, done much - not all of it safe to speak about, at least not without a Royal Clearance from Celestia herself - and despite all of that claimed to be more content now than ever before in his life.
This claim became easy to believe when Wild and Pers saw the look on his face as his son approved of his cinnamon buns. "These are AWESOME, dad! Really spicy and sweet!"
In all of his days playing 18th edition Dungeons and Dragons on the hypernet, Wildfire had never imagined seeing such a smile of paternal love on the face of a great green dragon. The Monster Manual was in desperate need of revising; pity it had ceased to exist along with the planet that had spawned it.
There were two reasons for their careful search of Sharptooth's hoard in the halls below the house inside the mountain; one was that it was reasonable to begin with the closest dragon hoard; Mr. Leatherback's was right downstairs.
The other reason was even better though; Sharptooth was one of the few dragons that had ever had a consistent contact with princess Celestia, and arguably the only one to have a truly cordial relationship with her. More than this, his time in Canterlot itself, when he was much younger, reasonably suggested that if the lost pages were to be in any hoard, they would most likely be in his; he was, after all, there at both the right time and place.
"For a young dragon, the collection of a hoard is not what it is for an adult, little slaves," Sharptooth seemed to be enjoying the little tradition, but it never felt onerous or in ill humor. "In that era, I was happy to find anything to add to my meager collection. My hoard in Canterlot was kept in a walk-in closet within my quarters in the palace; mostly it was silly illustrated stories and the odd bit of shiny I was given." Sharptooth seemed lost in memories for the moment. "I'd ask for the most bizarre things for my services at the time; a shiny helmet from one of Celestia's guards, a bit of flank armor - once I asked for a hoof bangle. I was young, and bits were easy to come by; I saw my hoard not in terms of wealth but as a work of art, a sculpture, really. Ah, those were such curious days."
Still licking his muzzle - the cinnamon buns truly had been exceptional, Sharptooth was a very talented baker - Wildfire was digging through a stack of books. Any books or documents were considered a prime target of the search; the natural biome of the wild page must surely be the ecology of literature. The hope was that the missing pages could be found crammed inside some old volume, or tucked within an ancient tome.
Sharptooth's hoard held the most bizarre collection of items. There were the usual piles of treasure; traditional and golden-silvery. Gems and cups and necklaces and coins. These were boring, and not merely because there was no hope of finding the manuscript pages within them. Wildfire had to admit, despite his earthly years of looting virtual dungeons, that if you've seen one pile of golden coins, you have absolutely seen them all.
The fascinating items were the oddities; a rubber-like ball, painted with a star at one end and a stripe about the equator. Did Sharptooth once play games with it? It was difficult to imagine the same creature that had lifted both Starshines like dolls having once played with a rubber ball.
There were stacks of ancient board games, unrecognizable to Wildfire, the products of another culture in an alien world. The chest full of dresses for fillies had no explanation; Wildfire decided to not press for an answer, and moved on. A crate filled with strange wooden carvings turned out to be a gift from the Zebrosian Supreme Griot; Sharptooth wasn't sure any longer what he had done to earn it.
In one silk-lined box, Wildfire found what looked like nothing less than Celestia's crown.
"Oh..." Sharptooth chuckled, "that... no, no, I can't tell you the story behind that. But I will say that if Celestia ever should lose her current one, she might be surprised to find out who ended up with the original." The sly smile on the dragon's long snout both delighted, and chilled, Wildfire.
Perspicacity was trying to get at a large crate; she needed help to lift the heavy chunks of metal that crowned it.
Sharptooth ambled over to help, and a look of delight lit his features. "Oh, this is my old armor set. CHIP! Come here, you have to see this!"
Chiphoof Leatherback tromped over excitedly; he seemed to be enjoying the treasure search as much as the Starshines. "These were yours?"
"Yes, son. This..." Sharptooth held up a large piece shaped like a manta-ray with a spike in the back "... was my flank armor. It's like yours, only a bit larger of course. See this?" Chip leaned in to see where his father was pointing; the armor had a deep scratch in it, three deep scratches actually, that carved diagonally across the left side of the metal. "This is where Rubytongue of the Emerald Clan tried to take my flank for a trophy. Good armor is always the best ally, son."
Chip, as well as Wildfire and Perspicacity studied the deep gashes in the hard metal. "That must have been quite a battle, Mr. Leatherback!" Wildfire observed.
"No, not really. Ruby was upset because I wouldn't take her to the... well. Nevermind. All in the past now." Wildfire had never seen a dragon wistful before either. It was clear that the eighteenth edition was wrong about dragons in almost every way.
"Mr. Leatherback?" The Starshines were supposed to call him 'master', but that had quickly fallen by the wayside in the ensuing search; the general camaraderie and good spirits just didn't allow it. "Do all dragons have hoards like this?" Wildfire figured that if there was ever going to be an Equestrian edition of D&D, he would probably have to write it, and there was no better place for research than right here, and right now.
"Not like this one, I think. But all dragons will, eventually, accumulate a hoard. It is a drive, a compulsion, if you will, but it is more than that. It is also a tradition, and a matter of culture... and of the spirit, too."
This was interesting. "Is keeping a hoard... a... um..." There was no Equestrian word for 'religious'. There were no Equestrian religions. The only deities sat in Canterlot; a meeting could be petitioned with three weeks notice, provided the Royal calender was free, of course. Wildfire struggled to find an equivalent term. "...a... philosophical practice, in some way?" That would have to do. It got the idea across.
"Yes! Very astute, Mr. Starshi.... my slave." Sharptooth winked at the gray stallion. "For dragons, a hoard represents more than just a pile of shiny things, or even a collection of valued treasures. For some, the wilder sort, a hoard can be a bed, and of course gemstones can be a larder. But for the cultured dragons of the empire, a hoard is status, and position, and also both a tool and a weapon. What is kept can be brought forth to either elevate or embarrass. But there is more that even that."
Sharptooth thought for a bit, his golden eyes staring off into some unfathomable gulf of time. "A dragon's hoard is, in some way that is difficult to express in the language of ponies, their... soul. Not in the sense that Celestia would use the term, but... rather, a hoard is a true expression of a dragon's nature. Of the sort of dragon they are. One glance at another dragon's hoard can tell everything about them. It is autobiography and personality laid bare. This is why cultured dragons keep their hoards hidden, and unseen, behind locked doors."
Wildfire looked out over the piles and stacks of Sharptooth Leatherback's hoard. It was not the hoard of any dragon he had read about. The gold and gems were clearly secondary to items of sentiment and knowledge, and racks of draconic weaponry played second to shelves of books and curiosities from strange and distant lands.
If this was the dragon soul of Sharptooth it made him out to be not a ferocious and mindless predator but a gentledragon of refined tastes and endless curiosity. There was fierceness here - the scarred battle armor had show that clearly enough - but it was tempered with intelligence and not a little heart; also there was more than a touch of whimsy.
It must be a strange thing, Wildfire thought, to be caught between such two different worlds; the rough and dangerous scheming of dragons and the gentle and trusting world of the ponies. Then it hit him; his own circumstances were in some ways similar, being a newfoal.
He dared not ask, but it seemed reasonable that Sharptooth had probably had some difficulty playing ambassador; and he had probably paid some terrible prices for it. Yet through it all, the elder Leatherback was, if anything, charming. Then again, that would be a basic requirement of his position... but even so, Wildfire did not feel that Sharptooth was in any way ingenuine. Their host - master, if they must - was a terrifyingly congenial creature.
There was always that, of course, in the back of his pony mind. Dragon. It must be instinctual; Wildfire could find no other explanation for his irrational unease.
It was under the ancient, scarred draconic armor, inside the crate below, that Perspicacity found the pile of papers and scrolls; an hour of sorting had finally revealed what she and Wildfire both sought, and dreaded; the last two pages of Willelmus Learmount's manuscript. There was no doubt, she recognized them instantly. They had been tossed almost casually, between ancient treaty documents and what appeared to be tax forms.
Of course the pages would be here, in Sharptooth's keeping. He uniquely had access to Canterlot, to Celestia, to her life and those within it at the very time that Learmount lived. He was just beginning his hoard, and collected whatever he could get. He was an ambassador, caught between worlds, and desperate to keep the peace however he could.
And above all else, there was never a dragon hoard where every item had been cataloged and documented, for possession was often enough. Sharptooth had said so himself.
It had taken them three days of work, but the last of the Eslaforde Manuscript had been found.
Unbound from the title of being dragon slaves, the Starshines were now guests, and Wildfire was hard at work translating the remaining two pages of the manuscript. There was surprisingly little actual text on the remaining pages; various drawings, crude but heartfelt, covered much of the vellum. Wildfire remembered his own first weeks as a pony; he had been happy to find a new talent for sketching - perhaps old Willelmus had gone through something similar at some point.
While Wildfire worked, Perspicacity found herself in the kitchen, learning how to make Hay Almondine with Butter Sauce and Chives. Mr. Leatherback was an expert chef, and apparently knew how to make recipes for just about every sapient species in Equestria.
"What diamond dogs eat can't properly be called cooking, as such, it's more of a matter of 'savaging with style'. Now Griffons are quite artistic with their presentations, as I am sure you discovered on the hill..."
"Actually, they just kind of ate roasted rabbit. That's all they ate. We were served a very nice dish, involving cactus, which was new for both Wild and me, but the griffons... they surely do like their rabbit, I guess." Perspicacity shrugged with her ears. It was a strange world for her now; talking about devouring animal flesh as if it were a normal, everyday thing.
"Well, I can assure you that among the griffon court, the presentation of a fresh kill, especially a large beast, is a matter of pomp and ceremony - not to mention a great deal of culinary artistry. They hunt sometimes, you may know, in the Everfree, for truly exotic meats; I have seen braised Eye-Tyrant and sweet Gelatinous Cube on the same table, and at the Feast of Razor Feather, nothing less than a Cacodem..."
"Dad! Dad! Dad!" Chip was stomping about the kitchen, excited. "There's some ponies at the door! Here! At OUR door!"
Sharptooth frowned. Visitors were not a common occurrence at Leatherback Peak, and considering the current circumstances, it was unlikely this was a repeat visit from the Fraternity of the Joyous Friends of Princess Celestia.
"Chip. See that Wildfire knows to remain out of sight. Take Perspicacity to join him, then return. We're just dragons here, understand?"
"Got it, dad." Chip bade Perspicacity to follow him and they headed to his room, where Wildfire was working on the remaining pages.
"COMING!" Sharptooth roared. He made certain to include a little draconic intimidation into his tone.
Grasping the great front door to the cave-home in his claw, and opened it to find a neatly constructed scroll case laying on the stone outside. Beyond the lip of rock, Celestia's sun was setting, the fading light shining on the other peaks that surrounded Tacksworn.
Sharptooth lifted the case with a claw and extended his long neck, searching for the ponies that Chiphoof had mentioned. Within the cave, there was no sign of any equine presence. Sharptooth stepped forward to the wide cave entrance and searched the path and the side of the peak. If the ponies had not been pegasai and simply flown off, they must be around the back of the spire, following the curving path.
The old dragon waited, patiently, for any sign of ponies. He could smell that equines had been at his gate, he seemed to sense at least two distinct individuals, possibly three. The wait continued.
Sniffing, Sharptooth did not smell the particular scent of pegasai. Each of the three breeds of pony had a unique scent; earth pony musk was tinged with the spice of soil and sun, of toil, certainly, but also of green growing things and river stones. Unicorns smelled of magic, shampoo, dusty books and freshly cleaned linen. But pegasai smelled of rain and ozone, of damp feathers and hereditary privilege.
Alicorns, reminisced Sharptooth, had no smell. It was as if they weren't even there. It was a fact that Celestia once used to great effect during his days at Canterlot; nothing can sneak up on a dragon with a working nose, nothing except an alicorn with a surprisingly twisted sense of humor.
"Dad?" Chip was creeping up slowly behind him, aware that his father was on the hunt, and not wishing to alert any potential prey. "It's been an hour."
Had it been that long? Time is almost trivial to a dragon. It passes like thoughts do, like clouds in an endless sky.
No ponies were on the spiraling road that wrapped around the rocky spire. At least on the side Sharptooth could see. He briefly wondered what he would find if he spread his wings and circled his mountain - three overly clever ponies hiding on the far side, aware they were being stalked?
It didn't matter. They would be back. They had left a proposition; they wanted something, possibly the Starshines, but more likely the manuscript, and even if they did not want to be questioned now, they would be back. Long years had taught this to Sharptooth; things always return in time, in one form or another.
"I GUESS THERE'S NOPONY OUT HERE! WE'D BETTER GO BACK INSIDE NOW! IT'S NOT LIKE I INTEND TO SIT HERE ON THE LEDGE, CAREFULLY SEARCHING THE PATH ALL NIGHT LONG AND INTO THE NEXT DAY, AND POSSIBLY THE DAY AFTER. NO. I WOULD NEVER DO THAT." Sharptooth chortled softly, deep in the back of his long, sinuous throat. That ought to give the little scoundrels pause.
And they were clearly scoundrels, these mystery ponies. Sharptooth knew a scoundrel; he had dealt with many. These were the first true miscreants from pony kind, but as the Starshines had made the point; he was not dealing with true ponies here, but humans in pony guise.
Once again, behind bolted door, Wildfire and Perspicacity and Chip waited for Sharptooth to read the scroll within the case. The scroll case itself was quite nice; a cylinder covered in purple velvet with a fine kelp-leather strap.
TO: The Honorable Ambassador Sharptooth Longclaw Leatherback of the Diamond Expanse Dragon Clan
It has come to the attention of my associates and I that you must now be aware of the true importance of the manuscript detailing the life and times of Willelmus Learmount, a former native of Earth. We are an organization dedicated to the open and honest revelation of historical fact, opposing the politically expedient censorship of information.
We wish to bring to your attention that the manuscript of Willelmus Learmount was written on nothing less than the massacred corpses of innocent baby dragons, brutally torn from their mother's clutches, and rendered horrifically into objects of commerce, for base, personal gain.
You need to know that princess Celestia, ruler of Equestria and of all ponykind, and through her power all other creatures too, whether they admit it or not, was fully aware of this fact eight hundred years ago, but chose to hide this horror in order to ensure the success of her plans for the domination of both the griffon and dragon empires through her "Pact of Peace".
We know that Celestia valued the scribbles of a mere pony over the nightmarish horror of the pages they were written on, and that for centuries she has not considered the matter worth mentioning to you, ambassador. She has never made an apology, obviously, and it is doubtful that she would be concerned enough to even consider it important.
Her ponies are complicit in this great coverup, because they directly benefit from the concessions she stole from the dragon and griffon empires with her binding, imprisoning Pact, a peace based on deceit and lies, and on personal gain and benefit for her own species at the expense of others.
We also would ask you to look upon anything that might be provided you as 'translation' by the pony called Wildfire Starshine with the deepest suspicion and distrust; he and his companion are secretly agents of the Equestrian Crown, sent specifically to defuse any complications from the discovery of the manuscript, and to obfuscate the true words of Willelmus Learmount, which only we can provide a truly accurate translation of.
You are being made a pawn of Celestia, and your people have become her bitches to use as she sees fit, bound and gagged not by chains or ropes - though that is not out of the question - but by an arbitrary legal instrument that keeps dragons in their proper place: underneath her hooves.
What you do with this information is, of course, your own business, and we would never wish to influence you in any way. However, may we say that the truth we provide here now would rationally be best served by the widest possible dissemination, in your own, proper, draconic voice, of course, that the cause of dragons be championed against the wheedling interests of Celestia's scheming land of delicious morsels.
The Secret Society For Historical Truth
When he had finished reading the letter out loud, Sharptooth stared at the scroll for some time. Wildfire and Perspicacity glanced at each other nervously, worried that the baseless accusations in the document might engender distrust between the great dragon and themselves. Chip waited on his father's reaction, unsure what to make of the strange letter.
"They're frightened." Sharptooth rolled up the scroll slowly in his great claws. "And frightened creatures can be dangerous."
"Dad?" Chiphoof was uncertain what his father meant. Surely mere ponies were no match for dragons.
"To send me this letter tells me that they know nothing of me, or my connection to the crown. They certainly know that you are here." Sharptooth glanced at Wildfire and Perspicacity. "My concern is what these little troublemakers may decide to place on the doorsteps of other dragons nearby. If they are not simply slain for the impropriety, of course, which is a hopeful possibility." The old dragon smiled at his joke; from their reaction, the Starshine's did not seem to appreciate the half-jest.
"I made an error." Sharptooth placed the scroll inside its case. "I should have flown out and taken those creatures, rather than playing with them. I have not had to deal with their sort in a very long time." Sharptooth looked up from the object he held in his claws. "Chip!"
"Get your wings on, young dragon, we have an evening hunt to share. I will start now, join me when you can. Let us see if we can find these three human-minded ponies before they escape." Sharptooth made his way back to the door. "Oh - Perspicacity; see if you can finish the recipe without me, I think you should be able to handle it on your own."
The great door was opened, and Sharptooth stepped outside. His shining wings began to spread even as he rushed at the stone ledge beyond the entrance to the cave; he was briefly silhouetted against the falling sun, a shadow of wonder and terror, soaring out into the sundown.
"Right behind you, dad!" Chiphoof was already slinging his magimechanical pack onto his shoulders, and tightening the billet strap. When he was sure they device was properly adjusted and buckled, he sat and used his foreknees to put his goggles on. In a flash he was out the door and extending his shimmering wings.
"I guess I'll close the door then." Wildfire trotted over to the immense wooden portal. He began pressing with his entire weight; ever so slowly the huge door began to swing shut. "A little help?"
Perspicacity joined her husband, and together they closed the great door to the house, marveling at just how heavy it was, and how easily the diminutive Chip had moved it. "I guess he really is a dragon." Wildfire was getting used to strange now, and even beginning to enjoy it.
"You know, Wildfire, I've lived my entire life in Equestria, and I've not seen as many new things as I have on this journey with you." Perspicacity nuzzled her husband now that the door was shut. "I guess you've brought adventure into my life, my talented and courageous stallion."
The kiss was warm and gentle. "I should tend to our meal, and you need to get that translation done!" Pers headed out to finish her pony recipe, made in the kitchen of a dragon, inside a home built into the side of a nearly vertical mountain of stone.
Wildfire turned to head up to Chip's room. This was better, he suddenly realized. This was better than Dungeons and Dragons.