Tumble-Bumble Down The Hill
The use of locations from The Ambassador's Son by Midnight Shadow is done with permission.
Additional material provided by Midnight Shadow.
Perspicacity held the milk over the saucepan and carefully poured it in, she did everything carefully, fine control was the pride of her telekinetics after all. The recipe was not difficult, as such, just unfamiliar; she'd never tried a dish with almonds in it before, there just wasn't much call for almonds out in Greater Fetlock, and even less call for them in the Lesser Fetlock.
This wasn't to say that she had not enjoyed fine dining in her life; as a filly she had been noticed for her unicorn talents, and so had warranted time in the Canterlot School Of Magic And Thaumaturgical Studies. She had enjoyed two full years there, her time in Canterlot was one of her happiest memories.
She had lived on campus in the spacious dorms, located in a tower with a dizzying view of the valley and tiny Ponyville below; she had enjoyed the restaurants and shops of Canterlot and visited both museums and galleries. She had seen Celestia raise the sun, and also set it in order to raise the moon and usher in the night; the latter event was a more intimate affair for those few who attended. Princess Luna's return was before her time in Canterlot.
In all of that time she had not seen a single dragon, though she had read about them, nor a griffon; in the past four days, going on five, she had lived in the homes of both. Now she was cooking Hay Almondine in a dragon's exceptionally well-appointed kitchen. It had been an extraordinary week.
A week. It had been about a week since they had left Salt Lick City. Perspicacity had posted a letter to Celestia, cleverly addressed so as to avoid any interception by members of the HLF hidden amongst her court and staff. As she added a small amount of sugar to the milk, she worked out the timing; it had taken them about two days on the train to get to Tacksworn from Salt Lick, and three days from Fetlock to Salt Lick City. She knew it was a three day train trip to Canterlot from Fetlock, so... about eight days on the train from Tacksworn to Canterlot... actually less, there must be another route than just through Salt Lick City, so... five days, perhaps.
But the Pegasus Express could make that kind of distance in a day, less if they had good and rested mail fliers at each station. Celestia must have gotten her letter several days ago, at the very least. A letter entitled 'Last Minute Orgy Changes' would not be left sitting around. Either it would be read immediately in anger, or read... immediately in... interest... but either way, it would be read.
Celestia should know. She should be informed that both they and the Eslaforde Manuscript were in Tacksworn. It must matter to her; she above all must consider the matter important. Even if she somehow had no idea that the manuscript was made of dragon leather, the sheer oddness of it being taken to the place where it had come from, all described in a hinting letter sealed in such a provocative envelope... why wasn't she here? She should be here, right now, trying to find out what was going on.
Or at the very least, some of her guard or agents should be here, in Tacksworn. They should have been here days ago. It didn't make sense. Unless her letter had been intercepted somehow, even so. If that was the case, then the vipers in Celestia's court were closer to her than she dared thinking about.
"Wild? Wildfire?" Perspicacity called up the stairs that led to Chiphoof's room. "WILD?"
The sound of hooves on wood upstairs was followed by her husband's voice. "Perspicacity? Do you need me?"
"Wild, remember that letter I sent Celestia, as insurance?" She had stepped away from the large pan briefly, to call up the stairs more easily.
"Yeah... something come of that?" Wildfire was probably right at the top of the stairs.
"No! That's the point! It's been about a week." Perspicacity went back to the pan, just in time; the mixture needed stirring.
"What was supposed to happen, Pers?" Why couldn't that foal stallion just come down and talk to her? She was in the middle of making dinner, after all!
The almonds were next; they had already been nicely fried and set aside, Perspicacity found herself juggling two things at the same time, tricky, but just within her abilities. Her split attention kept the pan stirring, while she concentrated on lifting the dish with the almonds. Sometimes she wondered why she had gotten the scholarship to Canterlot; her abilities were not really very special.
"I assumed that Celestia would come rushing here and start searching for us, for the manuscript. I figured she would be concerned about the whole thing!" Pers had needed to put the almonds back down to shout; trying to talk, and levitate two separate things at the same time was pushing it for her. When she made telescopes, she was always quiet and deep in concentration.
"Hang on, I'm coming down!" About muffin time, Perspicacity grumbled. The almonds slid in, carefully she lowered the dish that had held them to the counter and collapsed that field. With her concentration focused on just the spoon, she relaxed; the last thing she wanted to do was break any dishes in a dragon's kitchen.
The hay was probably about toasted now. That, apparently, was the secret of the dish; the toasted hay contrasted with the almondine sauce to create a savory delight. Or at least that was how Mr. Leatherback had described it.
"Wild? Could you get the hay out of the stove? There are mouthguards on the wall next to the stove. I have to keep this stirring." It felt good to just focus on one levitation at a time. It was almost hypnotic.
She heard the sound of the mouthguard being taken, hooves behind her, and the oven being opened. The tray with the fescue and brome mix was slid out, and the smell of toasted hay filled her delighted nostrils. Maybe this was going to turn out to be a special dish.
The tray was slid onto the counter next to her, she nodded and smiled. "Thank you! I love you!"
"I love you too, sweetheart." The voice was raspy and had a strange, humanic accent.
Perspicacity spun around, the wooden spoon falling into the almondine sauce as her telekinetic field abruptly collapsed.
Wildfire was being held down by two large stallions, one had a foreleg crammed into her husband's jaw to render him silent. In front of her, wiping his muzzle was a small, fat, brown-maned stallion with an oven mouthguard at his feet, wearing dirty, stained saddlebags.
"Miss me?" Ralph smiled broadly. "Honeybuns?"
Chiphoof adjusted the tautness of his right dactylopatagium medius; the shimmering span of gossamer membrane flattened and caught the wind allowing him to bank more gracefully. He and his father were soaring around their spire scanning the inset, carved path as it curved down to the desert below. They had circumnavigated Leatherback Peak twice now, and this was their third rotation, Chip was starting to get slightly dizzy.
Chip controlled his wings by a combination of how he moved his center of weight and how he angled his neck; the magimechanical backpack read both and changed its function based on the input. Near where his withers began, a part of the device measured the angle and bend of his neck, implying from that the position of his head, inside the pack accelerometers, gyros and balances all interpreted the motions of his body according to a set of rules.
It had taken time for him to become proficient at using his wings, but because of the way they worked with him, when he was flying, the magimechanical appendages almost seemed like a living extension of his body. They worked together, Chip and the device, as one being, flapping and gliding through the evening air.
"Dad!" Chip shouted over the wind. Then he remembered and roared, as a dragon should. "DAD!"
"I'M NOT SEEING ANYTHING. WE SHOULD HAVE FOUND THEM BY NOW." The sun was down now, Luna's moon was rising even as they flew; somewhere in Canterlot a petite crowd was oohing and ahhing at the evening princess's wonders. To those in the know, it was considered the more elegant performance, one the Canterlot elite preferred to the morning show that brought in the commoners.
Sharptooth offered no answer to his son's question; he just continued searching.
"IF IT WASN'T PEGASAI, THEN WHERE DID THEY GO?" It was a valid question, Chip thought. It wasn't like they could just teleport.
Oh, wait, if they had a unicorn, or if they were all unicorns, and if they were sufficiently skilled, they could teleport. Potentially. It wasn't actually all that commonplace. In fact, it took years of training or natural talent to teleport. Or both. If it were otherwise, who'd need Pegasus Express?
No, it wasn't likely these newfoals would be doing any teleportation even if they were all unicorns. So, once again, where were they, whatever breed they were?
His dad was being very quiet. This wasn't working. Couldn't he see that?
"DAAAAD! THOSE PONIES AREN'T HERE! SO WHERE ARE THEY?" What Chip really wanted to say was that he was hungry and he was bored with flying around in circles and finding nothing. Young dragons had needs. They needed dinner.
"SON! I'VE BEEN A FOOL! BACK TO THE HOUSE, NOW!"
Finally, thought Chiphoof Leatherback. The old dragon remembered dinner. About time!
Wildfire was retching and coughing. The retching was unproductive; nothing was coming up anymore, it was the coughing that worried him. There was blood in it, and that was almost certainly due to something involving the broken ribs on his right side.
Perspicacity wanted to help, but the garrote around her long, beautiful neck made sure that she did not dare to use her horn. Wildfire had been briefly fascinated, in a detached, not-entirely-all-there sort of way, at how simple it was to use a garrote with hooves; the pain had made him internally laugh at the idea that the garrote was the perfect weapon of murder for the equine psychopath.
Only it wasn't as simple as that. Ralph wasn't just a psychopath, he couldn't be dismissed as easily as that, and he was far more dangerous than that. Ralph and his cohorts were desperately angry men, in pony bodies, and they sought vengeance for the loss of an entire world, an entire way of life, and the loss of their own human bodies. They had spent a decade coming up with a reasoned plan for their vengeance, and above all else they believed they were utterly in the right.
"This is all very simple, Pers. It really is. You give us the manuscript, and we let you and Wild live your little pony lives. You didn't go home like I asked you. That wasn't very nice. I let you two go, I didn't injure either of you, and all you had to do was go home. But no, you came here, the one place other than Canterlot that you shouldn't have gone to. Now, I didn't tell you not to go here, and I take some responsibility for that, and I'm sorry. But you didn't go home, and now you have to take responsibility for that, right Jake?" Ralph looked over at the bright pink unicorn that had just kicked Wildfire in his Apples, causing all of the retching and coughing.
"I'd have to agree, Mr. Vitoni. Definitely a failure of personal responsibility." Jake gave Wildfire another Cider-Maker; Perspicacity had never seen her stallion cry like that before, like a little foal.
"Now Persy-Pants - Jesus, I love that name - Persy-Pants, you maybe want to have foals someday, am I right? Well, unless you tell me where the manuscript is, I'm not hearing the clippy-clop of little hooves anytime ever, at least not from Glue-Factory over here, so whaddaya say, huh? Or maybe I need to pull my own hooves together like this..." the garrote made a tiny, calculated necklace of red well up through Perspicacity's throat before it released "...and then what is left of your hubby might be willing to tell us." Ralph's eyes were cold and clear and smart and devoid of any pity at all.
"I told you! We don't have it now! The dragons have it! It belonged to him, it was made from his brothers and sisters! We had to give it to him!" Perspicacity was babbling now, she had already explained this, why wouldn't they accept the truth? "Sharptooth has it! All there is now is the two new pages! You have those! I can't give you what I don't have! I've been telli...."
Ralph rolled his eyes in exasperation. "You're not getting this, shhhh, shhhh, shhhhhhh.... now you know we ain't getting nothing from any dragons. You know that don't you? Dragons, right? So we have to get what we want from you, and there isn't much time, so where did mister dragon put the manuscript he took from you? Just tell us, and we're out of here, poof! Like magic!"
Jake the pink unicorn laughed softly as he watched Wildfire, who was scrabbling in a circle like a crying, pony-shaped crab. "Exactamundo, Mr. Vitoni. Poof."
Bobby, the other unicorn, had been holding Wildfire down, now he didn't need to. He was the quiet sort, and just stood watching. He was large and strong, and had not said a word since the three had somehow appeared inside the home.
"He... he has... nghh ahh ngahh hahhhh a vault. A hoard. Aaaa... hng hng hng... hng hnggg..." Wildfire was whimpering now, but at least he had stopped coughing, and that was something. The wood floor was speckled with tiny red splots and vomit.
"See? Now we're getting somewhere." Ralph smiled sweetly at the sobbing Wildfire. "I'm certain that it took a lot of courage for you to tell me that, what with the alternative to Jake and Bobby being a dragon and all. I think we're all agreed that dragons are pretty scary, I don't mind admitting that, do you Jake?"
"No sir, Mr. Vitoni. The dragon is a veritable symbol of awe and terror in many cultures." The shocking pink unicorn sniffed slightly. "I don't think any intelligent man would fail to be impressed by one."
"Jake here is a bit of a student of anthropology, Mr. and Mrs. Starshine. I think you should know that, being that there isn't much call for a degree in such matters any longer, which is WHY HE HASN'T ANY PROBLEM WITH JUST KILLING YOU HERE AND NOW." Ralph had not raised his voice until this moment.
"I would strongly encourage you to listen to Mr. Vitoni, it truly would be the most perspicacious thing for you to do." Jake considered giving Wildfire another Applesauce Delight, but after a practice swing with a hoof, decided to wait for now.
"I will take you!" Perspicacity was beyond fear now, she just wanted to save her husband. She would offer herself to Sharptooth for the betrayal, even if he ate her, at least Wildfire might go free. "Please... Mr. Vitoni, let me show you his hoard. I may even... know how to open it." She was beyond sobbing now. She just felt nothing inside, nothing except the wish to protect Wildfire.
"Finally. Thank you very much Mrs. Starshine." Ralph glanced up at the two unicorn stallions, one pink, one yellow "Jake, Bobby, look after Mr. Starshine here; keep him quiet, but try to ease his suffering if you can - see if the dragon has ice or something in there, or get him a bowl of water or whatever. We've made our point, there's no reason not to be nice now."
"Yes sir, Mr. Vitoni." Bobby hovered over the shaking, sobbing stallion on the floor, while Jake went to the kitchen to look for anything that might help the poor creature.
"Alright, Mrs. Starshine, if you would be so kind... but be careful; just because I'm letting you out of my... embrace... doesn't mean it would be smart to try anything with that horn of yours. I have two unicorns to your one, and they have your husband, capiche?" Ralph let Perspicacity out of the wire necklace; already the light blood had dried on her coat.
"I understand." It was all she could say, and it was hard enough to mouth even those words.
The steps down to the halls that held Sharptooth's hoard were not built for ponies, it took some careful stepping to use the oversized staircase. The stairs led down beyond the great metal-clad door, she had no idea where they went, other than deep into shadow.
Perspicacity nodded at the large entrance, and stepped forward to attempt to manipulate the locks. She did not have the requisite keys, but it was her thought that perhaps she could use her telekinesis to pick them; fine control was her one specialty, and even if her efforts were hopeless, it bought more time for the two dragons to return from their flight.
She lowered her head to attempt the first lock when Ralph interrupted her. "Ah-ah-ah! Now there wouldn't be any traps or anything here, any alarms, any secret magical things? Just a reminder that your husband is upstairs getting the best medical comfort and care my men can provide; that could change to surgery at a moment's notice."
"I am trying to open the lock. Nothing more." Her words were flat. Perspicacity's neck hurt where the garrote had cut her, and her jaw still ached from when she had been bucked into the stove. The bleeding had stopped on her torn cheek, but it still stung agonizingly.
A sudden urge rose in her, the desire to turn and hurt Ralph. She no longer saw him as another pony, he was not one of the herd, he was a beast, a creature, like something from the Everfree. In her heart she knew she could hurt him. She knew she could kill him. He was not an Equestrian, and she could tell that there was nothing stopping any action she might choose to take.
Except fear for her husband's life. She might get Ralph, but she wouldn't even know how to deal with two unicorns. And if they could teleport - something far beyond her meager abilities - as had been hinted, then the situation was hopeless. Even if she could convince herself that they, too, were not ponies, she could not hope to win against them, and beyond that, they had the life of her Wildfire in their hooves.
Perspicacity lowered her head and began to focus her thaumatic field into the lowest lock. She began probing the interior with her magic, trying to sense the shape and contours of whatever was in there. Her field shifted and squirmed blindly in the introitus; this was one of the most difficult things to do for a unicorn. While there was feedback from the thaumatic field, most unicorns simply learned to use theirs by sight. Encompass a spoon, for instance, or wrap the field around a cup.
To reach blindly with the field however was an entire realm of magical study unto itself; Thaumatic Projective Sensing, and it was another expertise that Perspicacity entirely lacked. But she had to try. She had to try for Wildfire.
The tingle, it was like a vibration, but also a little like being poked by the thorn of a rose. She had backed into a rose bush once, as a filly, and remembered getting a small wound in her flank. Her mother had licked it and made it feel better. There was something in the lock like that, only it wasn't material.
There was some kind of enchantment here. It made too much sense; this was a dragon with connections to Canterlot, and wealth to spend on experts in thaumatic locksmithing. While the average pony had no more use for a lock than a fish could use a plow, the court had secrets, and secrets needed locks. It was said that under the palace of Canterlot, in the depths of the halls of the Royal Corps Of Unicorns, were secret, locked rooms, filled with mysteries and hazards from the Discordian Era, and even some whispered, before.
It had to be something like that. This was a problem. "Mr. Vitoni... I think there... are traps. Alarms or even something dangerous, I don't know. But I can sense something..."
Ralph was now breathing down her neck, right on her wounds, close to her. "I am not a fan of delays, Mrs. Starshine. Or deception." The words were so very quiet, so very restrained.
"I... I am telling you Celestia's own truth here. I feel something... dangerous... inside the lock. I don't know what it is or anything about it, but it's magic, and it can't be good." Perspicacity found herself breathing in little gulps, she was afraid of Ralph, and she had faced too much tonight already.
"Out of the way." Ralph pushed her aside and examined the lock carefully himself. He lowered his head and closed in, his eye just fractions of a hoof from the aperture.
"The idiot. The scaly bastard is an idiot. I can see through the hole. Line of frikkin sight teleport." Ralph stepped back and turned to Perspicacity. "Run upstairs and tell my associates to join me. You can stay up there with your husband; my use for you both is over for now. Go. Go on." Ralph waved a hoof.
Perspicacity needed no further encouragement. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she dared, until she reached the top.
She explained to the surprised unicorns everything that Ralph had told her, then she went directly to Wildfire.
He was on his side, with something made of cloth between his legs. He was no longer weeping or shaking, but the look in his eyes bespoke great pain and grief. As she approached, she saw a tear trickle down his cheek and land on the wooden floor, next to a tiny brown spatter.
"Oh, Wildfire, my precious stallion, oh Celestia... I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry for what they did to you." She gently began licking at his tears, which began to increase in number. His eyes squeezed shut with emotion.
"Pers, oh... my... Pers. Pers.." Wildfire just kept repeating her name, between ragged breaths, wincing in pain.
Perspicacity wished she had taken her studies as a filly more seriously. She'd actually had a basic thaumatic medicine course, and she couldn't remember a lick of it. It had been taught by a professional medical unicorn, one of the medics from the clinic in Canterlot, and she hadn't paid attention. She wanted to make telescopes, even then. To carry on the family tradition, because of her grandstallion Star Diagonal. Learning to heal wounds and set bones - she couldn't imagine that being relevant to her life at the time.
Now her husband had broken ribs and who knew what else wrong, and there was nothing she could do. She couldn't recall even the most basic healing cantrip.
"I'm sorry, Wild... I'm a terrible mare, and an awful unicorn - I should know how to help you, how to heal you, something, even a little, but I don't and I'm sorry. I'm just so sorry." Perspicacity was crying now too, because she just couldn't be brave anymore, seeing her Wildfire looking like that.
"Pers... Perspicacity..." Wild grimaced every time he took a breath. "I love you. I... I love you Perspicacity. Just stay with me. Just be here. I'm... I'm afraid you won't... you won't..."
"What, Wildfire, what are you afraid of?" Perspicacity kissed him on the muzzle, on the nose, on his eyes.
"I don't know how bad they hurt me... down there. I may not be... much use to you..." Wildfire began crying again.
"Oh, you silly, silly pony. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter one bit. You are who I love. You just let all of that nonsense go. You're my pony, the one that I love, and you just let that foalishness go." Her words were backed up with the most tender kiss her damaged jaw and cheek would allow.
Just then the front door burst open, slamming against the wall with such force that Pers and Wild felt it through the wooden floor.
A glance from draconic eyes told Sharptooth and Chip everything they needed to know. "WHERE?" demanded a blood curdling roar.
"They... your hoard! Hurry!" Perspicacity pointed with her hoof.
A twin scaled wind of fury swept past the two ponies as the two dragons, father and son, rocketed down the stairs. Their passing was the chariot of the Pale Mare Herself, their roaring like lightning splitting the air itself.
Perspicacity huddled close to her husband, cradling him as best she could without moving him, kissing and licking whatever she could reach to comfort him, as the very mountain began to shake and howls and shrieks of horror and pain tore holes in the background of constant terrifying roars.
Ralph Vitoni, barely a pony, had chosen a particularly poor night, and a particularly poor location, for burglary - and was only now discovering, much to his regret, that he was merely a foal when it came to the study and practice of vengeance.
The fat pony was scrambling, literally tumbling down the stairs, down those terrible draconic stone steps, into the bowels of the mountain, fleeing the crimson horror that had filled his eyes and his mind. The darkness surrounded him, even as his pony eyes struggled to adjust.
As he tumbled over the sharp cliff of yet another step, he felt something swish past him in the shadows, most likely it was Jake or possibly Bobby, fleeing for their lives as he, himself was.
Finally, Ralph found the bottom, a wide chamber whose walls were lost in black nightmares and dimly felt fear. Ralph panted, his terror overcoming him. In the dim light he saw a familiar shape, a shape that was comforting to him in his moment of fear; a pony, just a simple pony. The dragon must have a servant or something down here, some slave or worker...
It was just an earth pony; Ralph could but barely make out a tan coat and what looked to be, in the gloom an amber mane.
“Oh... man, am I glad to see you,” Ralph gasped between ragged breaths. “There’s an insane bastard of a dragon up there! You gotta help me! Together we can escape we can...”
Ralph was breathing hard, sweat dripping from his flanks. Earth ponies, all ponies, were stupid. He was home free, with this simpleton's help he'd get away with his hide intact.
"It's not the dragon up there you need to worry about," said the pony.
Ralph, still huffing and puffing, grit his teeth, "Right now, sonny, if I ain't gotta worry about that fat bastard of a dragon up there, then you'd better worry about this pony down here."
"That 'fat bastard' of a dragon is my father," said the pony, taking a single step forward. As the tan pony drew closer, Ralph saw the barding, the spikes, and the expression. Ralph knew, deep in his gut, when a deal was going bad. Right now, something was really wrong with this one. Something told him this was no Equestrian, to be cowed by a meagre show of force, this was... something else.
"My name is Chiphoof Irontail Leatherback of the Diamond Expanse Dragon Clan, and you are not welcome in my home."
And then, as the final horror,