The use of locations from The Ambassador's Son by Midnight Shadow is done with permission.
"Ralph! Please!" Perspicacity was trying to be as calm as she could under the circumstances. "Let me use my magic - just to strengthen Wild's knees! He can't stand that way all day, on only two legs! I'll only create a field to hold his knees and..."
"Nothin' doin' sister!" Ralph maintained his cold stare, square on Perspicacity's horn, searching for even a hint of glow. "I'm standing on my forelegs and look at me! If your brave-ass Firepony can't keep up with a fat, slovenly little pig like me, then he deserves to take a dive!" Ralph may have looked blubbery, but he was clearly all muscle under that fat, and his mocking tone let Perspicacity know what he thought of her opinions.
"Now, Wild, my best bud, you blew your first answer, you have two chances remaining." Somehow the tiny Ralph was maintaining the awkward position of holding Wildfire by the hocks, just over the edge of the terrifying salt cliff, and the pudgy pony was not even breaking a sweat. Wildfire on the other hand was beginning to shake slightly from the strain of standing on his forelegs, with his own tail dangling down to his withers. "So, Wildfire, the precious little pony, what am I trying to show you here, what is the special lesson?"
So far, Wildfire had replied that Ralph was clearly in charge. That was the wrong answer, or rather, it was not the answer that Ralph was seeking. There was no doubt that Ralph was in charge; if he let go, Wildfire would join the Great Herd in a rather spectacular splat, far, far below on the jagged edges of gargantuan, broken crystals of salt.
"Well? How about an answer, there, pally?" Wildfire felt like his foreknees could buckle at any moment.
"I'm thinking!" Wildfire gasped.
"I got all day, Wild my boy, but you, I'm thinking, not so much." Ralph sounded smug. Even standing balanced in such a difficult position, he still managed to sound smug.
"You..." It was really hard to stand this way, and the view, straight down, was not helping. "You... are better than me in every way! I should have treated you with more respect! I'm sorry and I sincerely apologize!" Wildfire was trying to think of anything that might appease such a cruel and violent human mind in a pony body. But he realized he was having a hard time trying to figure out what he was supposed to say. He really was a pony now; the way Ralph thought, what he wanted, was just impossible to even guess.
"BZZZT! Wrong again. Man, are you doing badly today." Ralph shifted his weight slightly, to maintain balance. Perspicacity finally saw a bead of sweat run down the plump stallion's muzzle; the strain of standing like that was finally beginning to show. "Listen, because you are my favorite little pony in the whole world, I've decided to give you a hint. So pay attention, alright?"
"Alright." Wildfire grunted the response; his legs were starting to shake slightly, sweat was dripping into his eyes and making them sting.
"Here we are, you hanging over a cliff, me just barely keeping you from falling to your doom. I'm such a nice guy to do that, no need to thank me. But... and this is the big hint to the big lesson here: at any moment I could easily send you tumbling. I wouldn't even lose a night's sleep over it. How about you?" Ralph swallowed, the struggle to keep the larger stallion from falling was definitely getting to him. "Think about what if our positions were reversed; that would never happen, I'm smarter than you. But - if it did happen, which it wouldn't, what is the special lesson for today? Last, chance bucko."
"You can kill me at any time, but I can't kill you!" Wildfire spat the words with what little remained of his strength.
"Hey! Pers!" Ralph shouted at the white unicorn "Little help here?"
Perspicacity did not hesitate, in an instant her horn was glowing and wrapped in her magic, Wildfire was pulled away from the edge of the cliff and onto the flat surface of the lookout point. She dragged her husband across the salt surface all the way to the salt wall behind before she finally released her telekinetic grip and ran to him.
Wildfire gasped, his breathing ragged and fast. His forelegs hurt more than they ever had in his entire life, his foreknees throbbed as if they were on fire. He couldn't help himself, and began to softly cry; he had dashed through burning, collapsing barns in his work as a Firepony, but he had never been so terrified as he had been just a few seconds ago.
Perspicacity licked and kissed her husbands eyes, and held him tight with her forelegs. He had been so brave, and she was so proud of him, but above all, she was just glad that he was still alive.
"So, kids, quite an adventure today, huh?" Ralph stood over them, as if nothing at all had happened. The only sign that anything had occurred was the beads of sweat on his nose, cheeks and poll.
Perspicacity stared up at him with angry eyes and her horn began to glow fiercely; she wanted to... to... hold Ralph down, to press him into the wall of salt so she could... yell and scream and...
"Ah, ah, ah! I wouldn't do that, Persy-pants." Ralph waved a hoof slowly back and forth. Something in his cold eyes made Perspicacity dim her horn. "That's better. You're the smart one, aren't ya? I have associates, just like me. If anything untoward were to happen, anything I didn't like, you know I'd have to tell them, and I assure you, they are not as nice and friendly as I am."
Ralph sat down on the salt floor. "Your boy got it right, Persy-pants; unlike you ponies, I and my associates don't have that little governor, that little limiter you freaks have inside your heads. We may look like you barnyard rejects, but inside, I'm all man, baby, and by that, I mean I'm as human as the day I was born, which was on Earth, by the way, a wonderful planet that YOU FUCKERS COMPLETELY DESTROYED!"
Ralph was breathing hard now, and his eyes were no longer cold, but hot, burning with anger. Perspicacity was terrified by what she saw in those alien, predatory, enraged eyes. It took a few moments for Ralph to regain his calm demeanor.
"I told you I would tell you what was what, and ol' Ralphy always keeps his promises. I don't think it would take much of that pudding inside your pony skull to figure out that me, and those like me are, not exactly on the best of terms with your precious little pony-poop princess. The one that murdered my planet, the little bitch."
Perspicacity shuddered at his words; the very idea of speaking of Celestia that way genuinely shocked her.
"We, meaning me and my associates, need the end of the Eslaforde Manuscript, and nothing, and I do mean no pony, like you, or your husband, or your sweet little auntie, is going to get in our way. Wild's little lesson today should make that really clear to you both; if so, gold stars all around." Ralph rubbed his left foreleg with his right hoof. "Damn, I think I may've strained something back there."
"You can have the manuscript! Just leave us all alone!" Perspicacity helped Wildfire to sit up. "Just leave us all alone!"
Ralph chuckled. "Your little metal box? Already seen the manuscript. It was interesting to see the real thing, all baby dragon skin and hide. Quite a museum piece, there. But we don't need what you got." The doubt on Perspicacity's face made Ralph laugh again. "What? You don't think an eight-hundred year old manuscript wouldn't have been copied a few times over the centuries? How do you think we even know about ol' Willelmus and his unfortunate encounter with that bitch Celestia in the first place? From the report I told you about that was found on Earth? That only told us how she killed the old boy - what we need is in the missing part of the Eslaforde Manuscript, the complete end of the story."
"Princess Celestia would never have killed that man! That's a lie, like everything you say!" Perspicacity was in tears now herself; the full impact of what had nearly happened to Wildfire was finally hitting her.
"Oh, it's true all right. They found the body of Willelmus Learmount, Pers - and get this, it was buried in a lead coffin, because they found that his remains burned their skin. When they dug the old pony-fucker up, his bones were still dangerous, you know why? I'll tell you why. They were practically burning with thaumatic radiation. Nearly took the skin off the team that found his corpse. Of course, lead doesn't stop magic, nothing does. His grave was considered haunted; that's what made it possible to find it - all the stories of weird things happening around where he was buried." Ralph licked his dry lips and quickly glanced around.
"Here's the deal, now that you know the score." Ralph cocked an ear at the path leading up to the lookout. "You keep out of this from now on, go home and make your little telescopes - not that there's anything up there to see, your bitch Celestia took the entire galaxy away from us too - and live your little, petty lives. And don't even think of going to Celestia herself, because we have Frontsmen right up close in her court, and we'll know, and then you'll get a little visit, and your auntie will get a little visit, and so will everypony either of you know, and in the end, well, there won't be anypony sayin' nothing to nopony else ever again, capiche?"
"All we wanted was to hear the end of the story! Why is it so important?" Perspicacity couldn't help herself; even now the drive to know what had come next nagged at her.
"Jesus!" Ralph was taken aback. "I can't believe you; you got some solid iron eggs in your crack, I have got to say. The end of the story is 'They all lived happily ever after' - except for ol' Willelmus, of course, he got snuffed. And as for why it's so important, I mean, cinnamon swirls and sugar drops, Persy-Pants! What? Like I'd just up and tell you something like that?" Ralph tapped his head with his hoof. "HEL-LO! Human mind here! Not a pony upstairs? Remember? Same reason you can't do shit to me, even though you've got that horn of yours and all your precious little unicorn magic at your disposal. Now just run on home and don't bother me anymore, alright? It ain't worth it, Pers, really it isn't. Live your pony life while you can; I learned ten years ago that you never know when your world can just suddenly end for no damn reason. Go home, and be good little ponies."
Ralph stood up and began to walk away. He stopped and looked back, briefly. "You've been fun, kids, really. Thanks for the laughs. I'll tell Aunt Aspherica that you had to head home because of a big telescope order, OK? You're sweet kids. Take care."
And with that, Ralph Vitoni the definitely-not-a-pony adjusted his stained saddlebags with a shake of his blubbery body, and ambled on down the mountain of salt.
Perspicacity and Wildfire watched Ralph go.
Inside himself, Wildfire wanted to get up and run and tackle Ralph, and hold him down and... and... No! He wanted to run up and buck that fat pile of humanish dung right square in the muzzle and... then, when he was down on the ground, reeling from the soreness, Wild would just... tell him how bucking mean he... was....
Wildfire slumped, and began stomping at the ground in impotent rage. He didn't have it. He just didn't have that old... killer instinct, that apex predator, meat-eating, primal ape viciousness anymore. He could be angry. He could even hate, at least he thought he could hate. If he really tried, he was sure he could hate, couldn't he? He had to be able to hate to be capable of...
But he wasn't. Ralph's lesson was true. Ralph could kill him. Ralph could kill Perspicacity, and aunt Aspherica, and anypony he wanted to. He wouldn't feel bad about it. Ralph... could murder an innocent pony, because it suited his purpose, or for revenge, or for any reason at all.
And neither Wildfire nor Perspicacity, nor any other Equestrian could. Inside himself, Wildfire knew he couldn't even bring himself to permanently cripple Ralph. The very idea made him feel sick.
They were ponies. Kind, gentle, loving ponies, and there were wolves, dressed in pony skin, stalking among them.
"Pers... what do we do? What can we do?" Wildfire couldn't stop the tears running down his frustrated, frightened muzzle. "Oh, sweet Celestia, I am so ashamed, Pers, I am not that, I am not like Ralph, and I never was like Ralph, not even before, but I am absolutely not like that now, oh Pers, Perspicacity..."
"Shhh.... Shhh... it's all right, it's all right. We're safe, and you're safe and..." Perspicacity lifted up Wildfire's head and brought him muzzle to muzzle with her. "I know you, Wildfire. I know who you are. You don't need to ever, ever doubt yourself again. I've seen what a human is like, and you are NOT one of those. I don't think you could EVER have been one of those. So you remember that, alright? Don't ever even imagine you are the least bit... human... ever, ever again." Perspicacity stared with compassion and absolute resolve deep into Wildfire's eyes.
Wildfire sniffed and tried to smile. "Yes, my love. I promise."
"Alright now. Where do we go from here, then?" Perspicacity let the rhetorical question sit for a moment, while she thought. "We need to leave, that's first. There's going to be another docent tour, and I don't think it would be good to be found here, and have a lot of questions asked of us. Agreed?"
"T-That sounds smart to me. Where do we go?" The sound of an approaching group dimly sounded, below the lookout point.
"Down, the other way, just like Ralph. We'll decide more as we go." Perspicacity and Wildfire stood up, Wildfire still shaken from his experience, and left as quietly and quickly as their hooves could take them.
On the way down the other side of the Great Salt Lick, Perspicacity scanned for any sign of Ralph. He wasn't visible, but it was a sure bet where he was headed; straight to her aunt's, to complete whatever deal had been on the table down there.
"He's going to head for my aunt Aspherica's house, we know that." Perspicacity wanted to run, but Wildfire was still wobbly in the knees, and, thinking about it more clearly, perhaps bolting down a winding path on a gargantuan block of salt crystal was not the smartest idea. "My worry is what will he do if she doesn't agree to whatever deal he's offered her? That... monster... is capable of anything. We need to follow him and try to... do something, anything to protect my aunt."
"I wish there were Merc police, dammit." Wildfire was trying to keep up with his wife.
"Merg Poleese? What are Merg Poleese?" Perspicacity waited for Wild to catch up; she had been hurrying a bit much.
"Merc Police. Mercenary Police. They're... kind of like Celestia's royal guards, only they actually can do stuff besides keeping the looky-loos from bothering her. They solve crimes and arrest... they used to have them all over the Earth. You could pay them to protect you or to enforce the law, if you had the credits. Sometimes they'd even do it anyway, if the order came from the corporate government...." Wildfire was losing her. "They were big and tough and would take care of ponies like Ralph and protect ponies like us!"
"Then I too, wish for 'Merc Police'. But you know there are no such things in Equestria." Perspicacity sidled close to Wild as they descended the mountain. "I wish we could just go straight to the Princesses and tell them all about this. But if Ralph was telling the truth..." Wildfire could see his wife shudder. "Also, let's face it; Ralph exists. If he can run free like that, and do things like he just did, then it must be true that Celestia cannot know everything. That means that she can't find all of the bad ponies like Ralph, and that means that his threat if we tell her is real."
Wildfire swallowed as they walked. "Later, if we tell on Ralph to Celestia, we would get a visit... Pers, you understand what he meant by that, right?"
"I've just seen what he is capable of, love. And I feel scarred by it. I feel injured from just having had to see it. And I am angry about that. Nopony should have to see the stallion they love dangled over a... a..." Perspicacity became silent for a long while. Her eyes shone with wetness.
Wildfire felt terrible sorrow at the knowledge that his wife, his beautiful, wonderful Perspicacity, had been touched by Earthly cruelty. Such a thing... she would never be quite as perfectly innocent again, and that broke his pony heart.
At the base of the vast mountain of salt, Wildfire hailed a carriage, though he had no interest in chatting, as he had before, with the draft ponies pulling it.
As they sat in the back of the carriage, Wildfire thought about what had actually been said, up on the mountain. Ralph had revealed more than he had intended. Wildfire tried to remember what Ralph had said.
"Pers! I think we know a lot more now. I think Ralph let some things slip, that he may not have wanted to."
"Like what, Wildfire? What kind of things?"
"Remember, when he mentioned how he had his 'associates' or whatever in the court of Celestia? What did he call them?" Wildfire had huddled close to Perspicacity, and they were speaking in soft tones with each other.
"Um... let's see... front... men. Frontsmen. That was it. Frontsmen. Or foremen, like foreleg. One of the two. Does that mean anything?" Perspicacity hoped she had recalled the foreign word correctly.
"Frontsmen! That was what the HLF used to call their basic goons, Pers. The Human Liberation Front had a cadre of Frontsmen.... who were the front line against Equestria, see? If Ralph said 'Frontsmen', then that means that..." Wildfire looked stunned. "Pers... Ralph isn't some crazy PER pony. He's a former human from the Human Liberation Front! The HLF! But... how? How could that even be? They were fanatical crazy about staying human, and protecting humanity from ponies and ponification!"
"How fanatical, Wildfire? How crazy?" Perspicacity was quickly adding up everything she had learned so far. "You told me that the PER, the Ponification for Earth's Re... something..."
"Rebirth. Ponification for Earth's Rebirth"
"Yes, that group. You said that they had been altered, so that their brains would stay human, but that this didn't work entirely, right? That they ended up with some twisted notion of serving the princesses with their power of human violence." Perspicacity felt like she was onto something important.
"Yes. Genegineering. They were genetically altered, only the procedure wasn't perfect, apparently."
"What if the other group, the H-L-F, what if they got some of that genii-gen-jeering magic themselves, and reworked the spell. What if they managed to succeed where the PER failed?"
Wildfire considered the notion, while looking around to see how close they were to Nacle street. "No, no, the HLF were totally fanatical about staying human! They'd never willingly be ponified, not even to infiltrate the court and assassinate the princesses. At least, I don't think they would."
"But didn't you tell me that the PER would just enter buildings and hose humans down with ponification serum? What would happen if that had happened to a member of the HLF?"
"Well, Pers, I guess they would just wake up a pony, and realize how silly they had been, and just leave all of that HLF stuff behind. They'd probably try to contact Celestia and tell her everything they knew in order to stop the... oh." Suddenly it made sense. Wildfire could see it clearly now. "Pers! You're a genius! The HLF would want to alter their own agents precisely because they might be forcibly ponified! And they'd want to do it right, so that the same mistake that created the PER wouldn't happen to them!"
"And any human that ended up that way would be bitter and angry, rather than happy and glad about their transformation! They'd end up a..."
Perspicacity and Wildfire smiled at each other as they spoke in unison. "...a pony like Ralph!"
That had to be the answer. Ralph was a former member of the Human Liberation Front, and he wasn't happy about being a pony, and he, and others like him, were waging a war of vengeance for the loss of their entire planet and their entire species.
"Wow... I mean, wow, Perspicacity. This is big. And scary, and dangerous, and not just to us! This could be a problem for the crown itself. Those HLF types, they were not nice at all. Compared to them, the PER were as cuddly as bunnies. Pers, the HLF killed newfoals for sport. They killed native Equestrians on sight." Wildfire shuddered. He just realized that he, a pony, had been assaulted by the most pony-hating type of human there ever was. Here in Equestria.
"Wildfire. We have a duty to the crown. It is more important than our lives, or the lives of those we love. If the monsters you call H-L-F are here in our world, then we must tell the princesses immediately, whatever the risk. We may be the only ponies in all of Equestria to have figured this out." Perspicacity sat rigid, a tear trickled down her cheek, but she was resolute. "My... aunt....Aspherica... tell our draftponies to take us to the train, instead. We need to go to Canterlot, right now."
"Wait, Pers." Wildfire had noticed that they had just turned onto Nacle street. "We're nearly at your aunt's house. We can take her with us. If she's with us, nopony can hurt her, we can protect her. And once we get to Canterlot, maybe we can beg the princesses for protection! That way your aunt will be completely safe. The princesses may not be able to know everything, but they can DO anything. Their protection would be absolute, wouldn't it?"
Perspicacity brightened immediately. She kissed Wildfire with passion. "You're the genius, Wild! You're absolutely right! We'll just take Aspherica with us to Canterlot to meet the princesses! She can even help by telling what she saw and heard about Ralph! And she'll be safer with us, than out here, all alone!"
Wildfire beamed. Perspicacity thought about how, in this way, she might be able to make up for not having shown her aunt any support in the past, especially after Star Diagonal had died. Maybe she hadn't been very good family back then, but in the here and the now, she could show love to her aunt by protecting her from these evil not-ponies.
The carriage rounded the last bend, and pulled up in front of the sprawling house that belonged to Aspherica Starshine. Wildfire asked the draftponies to wait; and explained that they needed to collect another passenger, and then go to the train station. He begged their patience, while this was done; it might be a little while; then he offered them a bonus for waiting. They happily agreed.
The door was closed and everything looked normal. Perspicacity and Wildfire approached the house warily; they knew what Ralph was, now, and they wanted to be prepared. They might not be able to do... what Ralph could do... but they were far from helpless. Not being able to kill was not the same thing as not being able to defend themselves, and since they intended to go straight to the princesses, they weren't worried about long term retribution anymore. The princesses would protect them, of that they had no doubt.
Perspicacity's horn began to glow; she was ready to grab a certain fat pony in her telekinetic grip at a moment's notice.
Wildfire gave his forehooves a quick stomp; he was ready and willing to buck that little son-of-a-human right in the face if he had to, and he felt like he'd be able to sleep peacefully enough even after that. Maybe because of that.
Perspicacity shifted her magical focus to the door, and opened it without knocking. This was not a time for courtesy. This was a time for surprise and action!
The door opened to a quiet house. There was no sign of Ralph so far.
Wildfire entered first, with Perspicacity right behind him, ready to act at any provocation. Her horn glowed with a fierce silvery light.
Nothing in the entrance hall. They moved on to the kitchen. They both startled as the whistle on the teakettle began to shrill; there was one invention common to both the human and pony worlds. Ignoring the kettle, Wildfire signaled with his ears, and face, as best he could, for Perspicacity to stay. She seemed to get the idea, and hung back in a ready stance, her horn glowing brightly.
Wildfire carefully, quietly entered the main room, with its two overstuffed chairs and the big overstuffed couch where Ralph had eaten sweet buns.
The room was quiet, and appeared empty. Wildfire carefully circled the big couch, from a distance; Ralph might be anywhere, even hiding down close to the floor.
Wildfire's hoof slipped suddenly on the tile floor.
That was when he realized he had slipped on a slick of equine blood.