The use of locations from The Ambassador's Son by Midnight Shadow is done with permission.
"You are no relative of mine, you fat little lying... liar! Don't even go there, you... you... human! I don't know what you've been telling my aunt, but there is no way that the proud Starshine family name would ever be sullied by having a filthy human as part of our lineage, you terrible little... Not-Pony!" Tiny flecks of froth had formed at the edges of Perspicacity's muzzle.
Wildfire stood silently, head down, studying every small detail of where his hoof wall met his coronary band. He understood his wife's frustration and anger, but... hooves. He had hooves. They were right there. Hooves. She didn't mean him. He couldn't help how he was born. She'd said he was a pony, completely. She didn't think of him that way at all.
"Oh, don't get your tail in a knot, Persy-Pants, I was on to this scoundrel the moment he came through the door. You always were such a high-strung filly." Aunt Aspherica had just set down a tray with a teapot and bowls and a stack of four-grain sweet buns on it. "Look what you've done to your poor stallion there; the simple little thing is terrified of your fussing and shouting."
That didn't help at all, Wildfire thought.
Perspicacity glanced over at Wildfire and instantly softened; she'd seen that body language on him before, she suddenly realized what she'd been saying. Perspicacity thought quickly and moved over to her husband. "Ralph, if you were even one tenth of the true-hearted, pure Equestrian that my husband Wildfire is, you'd... you'd... just explode from all the lies you tell. Twice. And then you'd explode again!"
OK, now that helped. Plus she sounded really cute. Wildfire lost interest in his hooves and looked up.
"Alright, everypony, let's just all settle down now, like good little colts and fillies and have some nice tea and buns. I think there's been enough yelling and hoof-stomping for one day. Sit, Persy. You too, little tight-flanks."
It took a moment before Wildfire realized that Perspicacity's aunt meant him. Little tight-flanks. That kind of helped too, though it was a little creepy coming from Per's Aunt Aspherica.
"Don't mind if I do, thank you, dear Aunt Apherica!" Ralph took the largest bun, and then another, piling them on a large cloth napkin he had laid out beside him on the couch. Apparently the whole couch was his now.
Perspicacity and Wildfire each took a bun and sat down on the floor; Aunt Aspherica took her preferred place in a large, overstuffed chair, one of two. The other, beside her, was conspicuously absent; it's position indicated that it was likely the chair that Perspicacity's grampa Star had sat in, right beside Aspherica.
"So, auntie, how'd you two lovebirds get together there, anyhoo?" Ralph was being strangely pleasant, disturbingly so. Then again, thought Perspicacity, even his 'nice' seemed vaguely sinister to her.
Aspherica didn't even blink at being called 'auntie' by the overstuffed pony on the overstuffed couch. "Well... it was after my husband Diopter joined the Great Herd... I was all alone, and I felt so very sad, you know." Aspherica took a sip of her tea. "Star was in town, trying to get a place to live; his joints, you know, all the cold up north during the winter season. We never have winter in Salt Lick, royal decree you know. Ta' keep the salt from cracking and condensation and what all. So it's all warm and nice here, really good for the bones you know."
Ralph had already wolfed down the big bun, and had the second hanging out of his mouth as he chewed. He seemed to be listening intently.
"Well, one thing led to another, and it just seemed reasonable for Star to move in here, with me. At my age, it's good to have somepony around, but one that won't get underfoot. A pony that knows how to enjoy the quiet times. At first, Star and I just shared the house, but as the years passed, well, we found we just plain were really good together."
Aspherica took another sip of tea, and a dainty nibble of her four-grain bun. "Then one day, Star just up and told me that he'd always liked me, he just didn't think it proper to go on about it, me being married to Diopter and all. I told him he was a darn fool, cause Diopter and I were old-fashioned sorts, and would have gladly had him join us in a proper pony family. I've never approved of this dern fool modern-shmodern 'couples' business. Ponies were meant to form group marriages, not this crazy newfangled one-on-one thing that's so popular today. It's the fault of all those sex-crazed shippin' novels, is what, and it's hard on the foals to have only two parents. How can only two parents possibly care for a foal, there ain't enough damn time!"
Perspicacity reflected on her own childhood. She'd grown up in a very traditional pony home, before all the modern changes; she remembered how her three dams and two sires had always had time for her. Any time of day or night, somepony was there for her. Why that had ever fallen out of favor, she would never understand. Deep down, she agreed with her aunt, at least on that matter.
"So's anyway, Star and I had a few great years before the Pale Mare called him away. Can't compete with the siren call of the Pale Mare, she's just too beautiful, just too beautiful..." The sad look on Aspherica's muzzle made Perspicacity feel ashamed for having ignored her aunt until now. The old mare could be awfully picky and downright rude at times, but it was clear she had a loving heart in there, one that could be broken by loss.
"Mmfff, ummf, That's..." Ralph finished off his second bun "Now that's a touching story there, auntie, isn't that a touching story, kids? Awww... well at least you had those precious years together, aunt Aspherica... ol' Star sounds like a stand-up kind'a pony to me. I really want to thank you for telling us about him, I really mean that. It got me right here." Ralph hit himself vaguely in the blubber that covered his barrel with a hoof, the result made him burp. "Oops! 'Scuse me there, everypony. Good buns, by the way, really tasty."
Perspicacity had taken just about enough of Mr. Ralph Vitoni. "I want you to leave." She stares levelly at the pudgy creature. "You've had your fun, and now it's time to go. This is my aunt, this is my family, and You. Will. Go. Now." The look on his wife's face was tight and angry, the fiercest expression Wildfire had ever seen.
"I admit I'm not the classiest pony around, Mrs. Perspicacity Starshine, but pardon my French here, but this house isn't yours, and you don't have any right to tell me to leave. The lovely and vivacious Aspherica and I still have some business to conclude, and I think you will find, Persy-Pants, that whether I stay or whether I go is up to her, and not you."
Wildfire had seen the look in Ralph's eyes before, but only on Earth, in human eyes. And in holograms of dangerous animals from before the Great Extinction.
Perspicacity looked to her aunt, helplessly.
"Mr. Vitoni and his friends have offered me quite a large number of bits, dear. You shouldn't be surprised; it isn't always easy getting by on savings alone. Plus I have quite a few grandfoals that quite enjoy the company of their favorite grandmare. Unlike some of my relations." Aspherica looked pointedly at Perspicacity with this; she could not help but look down at the floor.
"Listen, listen, everypony - there's no need for any of this. We're just one big happy family here, and we all know why we're here. The end of the manuscript. The legacy of good old Star Diagonal. There's no secrets here." Ralph was smiling broadly, and gesticulating with his forehooves as he sat. "Kids - Perspicacity, Wildfire - there's something you don't know about that manuscript, and everything going on around it, and it's time you understood. I'm willing to share that knowledge with you, heck, I'm willing to show it to you. Yes, me and my... associates... are willing to assure the security of your lovely aunt, but that's for her to decide, don't you think? In the mean time, let me treat you to a local tourist experience that surprisingly enough actually is part of this puzzle. I think, if you just see for yourself, you will have a new understanding, and we might all come to a reasonable compromise."
"What in Equestria are you talking about?" Perspicacity almost looked like she might cry; still, Wildfire noted, a touch of the earlier fierceness remained.
"I know you don't care for me, Pers, and I can see why, really I can. But this thing is bigger than who likes who, or who can stand who, or who thinks who is a big fat pig. I know what I must seem to be to you, and I understand. Really I do. But, like I say, there's more to this, and I'm willing to show it to you, while we give your kind aunt a chance to consider my offer." Ralph appeared positively disarmed; open and honest for once. "Whadda'ya say? It'll take all of an hour, and finally everything will make sense. I'll even pay; it's a public place, it's open, and the answer, at least part of the answer -not the rest of the manuscript or nothin- is there. Come on, let's give your aunt time to think, huh?"
Perspicacity felt completely lost. She certainly didn't like Mr. Vitoni, but on the other hoof, he'd never actually been anything but annoying. He was a newfoal, that much was obvious - no native pony was like Ralph - but so was her husband, and she adored him. Maybe there was more to this, and maybe if they just gave the frustrating, uncouth little stallion a chance, one chance, they might finally find out what was going on.
One chance, and only one. That was only fair. Besides, her brave firepony husband would be with her the entire time, and he was big and very strong. More than this, it was an open, public place that Ralph wanted to take them, and close by. Ralph had not once actually done anything the least bit as threatening as his demeanor seemed.
"Alright, let's see this... thing you want to show us, and then we'll see what is what. I'm giving you one chance, Mr. Vitoni, to prove to me that you are not... as much of a... troublemaker... as you, frankly, seem to be." Perspicacity gave the fat equine a cold stare.
"Pers, are you sure about this?" Wildfire felt uneasy about going anywhere with the unpleasant Mr. Ralph.
"As long as we're together, and it's an open, public place, I think we can handle ourselves." Perspicacity gave her husband a confident smile. "Let's find out what Mr. Vitoni is all about."
"Alright... love." Wildfire stood up and leaned over the little stallion. "We'll look at what you want to show us, but keep in mind that I won't stand for any trouble when it comes to my wife."
"Hey, hey, there, killer, it's not like that. This is just a friendly public outing, because there is a piece to this puzzle that won't make sense unless you see it for yourself. That big block of salt out there; pretty amazing isn't it? Impossible, you'd say, if you were born on Earth. Nothing like that could exist naturally, right?" Ralph was now up on his hooves, and heading for the door. "That's one big chunk of salt, just stuck there, in the middle of a vast, flat desert, with no ocean anywhere around, and no tidal pools, no nothing, right? Besides, how deep would an ocean have to be to make a crystal of salt the size of a mountain? Unnatural, correct?"
"What do oceans have to do with salt? I don't understand!" Perspicacity had turned to her husband, this was entirely bizarre. Maybe it was some 'newfoal' thing.
"It's... on Earth, salt came from the oceans, Pers." The expression on her face instantly told Wildfire that his explanation had not helped one bit. "I'll explain later."
The trip to the mountain was short, and Ralph paid for a carriage ride there. As they rode, Wildfire struck up a conversation with one of the draft-ponies; his name was Soda and he had been pulling tourists for the last ten years. He had originally been a miner, but ended up with a salt addiction problem; it was just better to pull a carriage than tempt himself working in the mountain itself. He was happier, he'd been salt-free for nine years, and he was proud of the muscles and endurance he'd developed. He'd even been seeing a nice colt, and they'd been making plans to settle down.
At the mountain, after exiting the carriage, and after Wildfire had said goodby to Soda, and thanked him for the ride, the trio entered the queue for the docent trip to the top of the Great Lick. Ralph was... being Ralph, going on about his own aunt Louise, back in Queens, who had lived in the big favela there, underneath the old, abandoned ruins of the Arcology there.
As they progressed up the salt mountain with eleven other ponies, their guide explained the history of Salt Lick City, how it had been settled, how the salt trade had begun, the old trade disputes with the griffon and dragon empires hundreds of years in the past, and even how five years ago an entire, lost community of newfoals had mysteriously been discovered living just behind a rise out in the desert, and how amazing it was that they had lived there, so close, imagining that they had been entirely alone the whole time. The tourists marveled and laughed and enjoyed the tour.
Wildfire and Perspicacity were far more concerned with whatever it was that Ralph wanted to show them, and how the ancient manuscript, and the story it contained, related to a giant mountain of salt all alone in the desert, near the borders between the Equestrian, Griffon and Dragon empires.
At the very top, which was fenced off to protect against anypony accidentally falling off the gargantuan mass of vast salt crystals, the wide expanse of the Southern Desert revealed itself. It was the kind of view reserved for pegasai and those that could afford airship rides, and it was very impressive indeed.
In one direction, a pony could see almost to the border of Neighvada, where both iron and jewels were mined, and further to the south was the Dragon lands, the peaks of the Diamond Expanse visible in the far haze. To the east were the Griffon lands, and to the west, somewhere, was the Western Sea, and beyond that, the Great Wilds. Far beyond all those places was the ever-expanding Exponential Lands, the still growing result of the Equestrian universe devouring and absorbing Wildfire's planet of birth. One day the cosmic digestion would end, and the Exponential Lands would just be... lands, only vast beyond all imagining. Out there now, somewhere, were the teeming billions of earth, all ponies now, forming communities and cities and new lives in a bright, new frontier.
Ralph indicated that they should hang back as the group was led by the docent down the other side of the salt mountain. The three huddled behind an outcropping of salt, a titanic, translucent cube that the sunlight filtered through in a whitish-yellow glow. It was cooler at the top of the mountain, thanks to a nice breeze; down below at the base it had been fairly warm indeed.
When he was sure they were very alone, Ralph walked out and away from their hiding spot, and over to the fence that surrounded the viewpoint at the top. "I know I need to prove myself to you, and I know you don't understand, and... what I'm staying is... you folks stay right where you are, and let ol' Ralphy here find what he's looking for, Capiche?"
The squat, fat pony made a careful inspection of the area, moving slowly from one section of fence to another, clearly looking for something in particular. Wildfire glanced at Perspicacity and waggled his ears; she shrugged back with her own. As they watched, Ralph finally seemed to find the right section of fence.
Ralph turned around and gave the fence an experimental buck. The fence was solid to his hooves, so he bucked harder. It still did not give. He seemed frustrated and started bucking the fence with an astonishing degree of vigor, considering how fat and out-of-shape he looked. The fence began to fail.
"What in Celestia's name are you doing?" Perspicacity stepped forward slightly, unable to believe that any pony would dare to disturb private property in this manner. It was just... unthinkable.
Wildfire ambled over. "What? Have you got something hidden on the other side? Is that it?" Of course that was it; it was the perfect place to hide something that nopony in Equestria would ever find. Ponies never did what Ralph was now doing; anything hidden, say, hanging on a rope over the other side, maybe off a hook just under the salt ledge, would never, ever be discovered. Who in Equestria would ever destroy a fence? Nopony. Nopony but a newfoal with a human mind. The gulf between himself and Ralph seemed even wider now. It felt a little strange, actually; for Wildfire, born a human being, a human mind was now truly... alien.
Who was he now? What was he now? Wildfire's answer came the instant he felt Perspicacity draw near and nuzzle him. He was Wildfire Starshine, a proud stallion of Equestria, just as he should be. His momentary crisis of identity dissolved, he studied Ralph's increasingly weak efforts to break the fence as the portly pony ran out of oats to burn.
The fence was mostly broken. They would have to replace it now in any case. Wildfire went over to help. "Alright, Ralph. Let me give it a shot." In one good, solid buck, Wild sent the section of fence spinning out into the void beyond the sharp, abrupt edge.
"Wow, hotshot, that was pretty impressive, I gotta say." Ralph was panting slightly and his muzzle dripped with sweat. "But hey, you just remember that ol' Ralph here got the job started, right?" Ralph gave Wildfire a weak grin.
Wildfire grinned back and turned around. He crept close to the edge and tried to peer over it; there must be a hook or a spike or something imbedded in the salt; probably flown up and installed by a pegasus, if what Ralph had been saying about having 'associates' was true. From such a hook could hang a bag, maybe one containing some artifact related to the manuscript or to the events within it.
In a single motion Ralph, no longer the least bit tired, bucked Wildfire in the flanks, and then expertly caught his hind legs just as he was about to tumble head-first over the deadly precipice. Ralph stood, back to the exposed cliff edge, his hind legs hooked around Wildfire's hocks, the only thing preventing the larger gray stallion from plummeting to his doom.
Wildfire stood on his front legs, balanced, staring down a thousand foot drop to sharp crystals below. His hindquarters were above his head, his hocks locked by the hind legs of the astonishingly strong little pony Ralph. He was definitely more than he seemed, and Wildfire realized that the fat, lazy appearance he offered belied a carefully masked strength and agility.
All it would take is for Ralph to let go with his hind legs, and there was nothing Wildfire could do to save himself. He was terrified; his breathing was shallow and his heart raced like a rabbit.
Wildfire briefly considered clutching Ralph's rear legs in return, but the motion might well just result in him falling while Ralph sat laughing. He didn't know what he could do, and it was impossible to see back there. It was all of his effort just to support himself on his forelegs; though they were the stronger pair of legs, they would tire soon.
"Alright campers! It's time for the Talk. I always love the Talk, it's where you shut up and listen, or you die - and you get to become a widow -" Ralph was staring, constantly, at Perspicacity "and best of all, we get things all settled and tied up in a bow."
Perspicacity considered what she could do. She could probably support her husband's weight with her magic, but not both his and Ralph's and if the portly pony decided to cling... and if they both fell... plus, if she lost line of sight over that cliff... no. She pondered yanking her husband back, on top of Ralph, but... Ralph was staring at her. He was waiting for any sign of her horn glowing. It was unthinkable, but so many unthinkable things had already happened - Ralph would kick her husband to his... death... if she tried anything. She could see it in his eyes, in the look, in the constant stare.
It was the most horrible animal eyes she had ever seen. She unconsciously took a single step back, in primal fear.
"I see your lady wife comprehends. She's a good catch, like I told you earlier, pony boy. Do you... comprehend, do you have some additional understanding there, 'ol Wildfire, 'ol pal?"
"Yes. You clearly are in charge right now." Wildfire didn't know what else to say.
"Well, yeah, that is true, pally, no doubt about that. But that wasn't exactly what I was hopin' you'd understand about this turn of events. I want you to take a real, good solid gawk straight down. I want you to take in what you see there, and explain to me what it tells you, with half your body hanging out over a... what is it, something like a thousand foot drop; I still can't convert that into Equestrian kilohoofs or whatever they use. Never really cared to learn, to tell you the truth."
Wildfire was trying very hard not to look down, he wished he felt confident enough to crane his neck so as to see Perspicacity, but he was terrified of making any motion that might shift the precarious balance between himself and the smaller pony that held his very life in his hooves.
"Well, Wildfire, buddy, for the trip to Jamaica and A BRAND NEW CAR, what is the lesson here?"
A small chunk of salt, knocked accidentally by Wildfire's left hoof as he tried, desperately, to remain balanced on the edge, fell over the cliff. It spun in the air, shrinking until Wildfire could no longer see it. Even his exceptional pony ears could not hear it hit anything.
Wildfire needed to come up with an answer that would satisfy the rotund little Ralph, and quickly. His forelegs were tiring, and his back was hurting terribly.