Private Light Hooves was amused.
Now, to her credit, Private Clover Leaf was doing an exceptional job of guarding corridor J-12. She was stoic, steadfast, silent, and as serious as the job required. She was performing on a level that other guards didn’t even dream of, and that impressed Light.
But he could sense her irritation at being stuck where she was, doing what she was doing, and he had to try very hard not to laugh at her pent up energy.
It was mostly in the little things, things that would go unnoticed by an untrained eye. He caught a few times, in his peripheral vision, when her feathers flexed a centimeter or so before settling back where they should be. He heard her tendons tensing, aching for action, movement, or something. He heard her teeth grind a few times, especially when she would hear the voices of her fellow guards drifting down the hallway as they walked their patrols. He even thought, once, that he could smell her eagerness to move, but he soon found that was just somepony's lunch wafting by.
He was hardly surprised, then, when she visibly tensed as their replacements from the night guard finally arrived for their shift. They both felt a wave of irritation as the two unicorns casually strolled into view, chatting about who knew what.
“Halt and identify!” Clover shouted, as both of their spears dropped into a threatening stance.
“Woah, easy!” One guard replied. “It’s just us, Half Baked and Vanilla Swirl.”
“What’s the code word?” Clover challenged.
“Code word?” Half Baked replied. “What code w… what was the code word, do you remember?”
Light and Clover glared at the two as they muttered between each other. After a few moments, Vanilla brightened and turned to the two.
“Oh! It’s so dumb. ‘Sunshine ladybug.’”
“Very well.” Clover replied, as they withdrew the spears. “Carry on.”
“What burr got under her saddle?” Half Baked asked, as Light and Clover walked away.
“Nah, she’s just in that paranoid 40th Squad.” Vanilla replied. “They’re all uptight, just like that Sergeant of theirs.”
“What a way to live. Their problem, I guess. Now let’s resume, shall we? I was up five to two…”
They both maintained their composure until they reached the armory, but then Clover heaved a deep sigh as they removed their helms and replaced their spears.
“Uptight, are we?” she dejectedly said. “Paranoid? Since when did following the Regs mean you were paranoid?”
“We’re not, it’s just them. They don’t like that we do what we’re supposed to because it reminds them that they’re not doing it.”
“It’s still aggravating.” She replied, as she stretched her wings. “And I don’t know how you’ve managed to go so long guarding that corridor without going brain dead.”
“I think I already am. That’s why I’m perfect for it.”
Clover whapped him over the head with one wing, but then smiled at him.
“You are nothing of the sort.”
“Well, it would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?”
“It doesn’t explain anything.” She glared at him now. “But let’s get going. We’ve got that squad meeting to get to.”
“Have you served with the Corporal?” he asked, as they trotted out.
“For a bit, two rotations ago. She’s pretty nice, but a bit prideful and perhaps overconfident. I think you’ll like her well enough though. She sticks to the Regs like we do.”
“I’m actually impressed you held it together back in that hallway.”
“Oh, I have no idea how I held it!” she laughed, as she bumped him. “I thought for sure my brain was going to ooze out of my ears at some point!”
“You did well but I can see why you like perimeter patrol better.”
The two chatted as they made their way to Sergeant Pokey’s office. Pokey and Corporal Light Wing were already there when they arrived, but Light Wing broke off her conversation to salute the two as they entered.
“Private Clover, pleasure to be serving with you again.” She said, as the salute was returned. “And you must be Private Light Hooves.”
“Pleasure, Ma’am.” He replied, as they hoof-bumped.
“I think, Sarge, that we’re going to have to just call him Hooves. Who had the bright idea to put two Light ponies together?”
“The powers that be, I suppose.” Pokey chuckled. “You all right with that, Private?”
“I’ve been called worse.” He replied. “I’m fine with that.”
“I’m looking forward to serving with you, Private.” Wing continued. “I’ve heard your service has been outstanding but repetitive.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” He chuckled.
“All right, let’s get this out of the way.” Pokey stated, as he shut the door to his office. The other three stopped their conversations and focused on him as he walked back to his desk. “Hooves, Wing, you two think you can get along together?”
“I don’t see why we couldn’t.” Wing replied, as she gave Hooves a smile. “Anyone who likes Donut Joe’s maple bars is an instant friend of mine.”
“Ditto, sir.” Hooves added.
“Very good. Now, em-rad starts in a few hours, and I was given our assignment yesterday. I’ve met with you all individually, and I think that we have a chance of being successful. It’s going to take all four of us working together, though; and we’re going to need to be precise and quick.”
“We pulled the Black Sheep, didn’t we?” Clover asked. Pokey nodded.
“We’re the Black Sheep squad.” He confirmed.
No one replied to this, but the sidelong glances and shuffling of hooves spoke volumes.
“I know it’s not the greatest, but hear me out.” Pokey continued. “We can turn ourselves in now and not even try, that’s true. But in our conversations, all of you spoke to me about how the guard needs some kind of reform. Discipline is non-existent, and we’re a poor excuse of a military force.
“But look at this.” He had pulled a scroll from a nearby bookshelf, and he now unrolled it on his desk. It took up the whole surface of the desk, and the three subordinates looked eagerly at the drawing that was on it.
It was an old drawing, one in the style used by artists just after the Unification. Both Celestia and Luna were pictured in the slightly cartoonish and flowing style, their wings extended fully and their heads held high, but yet in the background. In the foreground stood three rows of guard ponies, twenty four across and dressed in the familiar armor that had perpetuated down to the present. Each guard held a spear, but half of them held the old legionnaire shields with a stylized version of Celestia’s sun boldly and proudly displayed on the front, while the other half held shields with Luna’s crescent moon. As he looked over it, Light Hooves felt a proud chill of awesomeness flow from his hooves to his mane, and a wide smile appeared on his muzzle.
“This is from our Legionnaire days, just after Unification.” Pokey went on. “As ponies began to work together, we became a mighty military force, one able to both tame the new land of Equestria and to protect it from outside threats. In time, these Legionnaires gained names that still haunt our enemies: Celestia’s Rage and Luna’s Wrath.”
Through the mystic chords of time, Light Hooves heard the distant din of battle begin to play in his ears. He could hear sword clashing against sword, shield smashing into shield. He heard armor clanking and flexing, heard the ground being churned and whipped like the foam of the sea from the prancing and dancing of steel hooves. Shouts of victory drifted in the air, and all three subordinates couldn’t help but smile deeply now.
“We were a nigh unbeatable force. It was said, in fearful and whispered tones, that Rage would break whole armies into pieces and that Wrath would grind them into dust. When we marched against our foes, most simply fled and those that did stand against us cowered in fear.”
“That is severely cool.” Wing remarked, as the echoes of distant hoofbeats, in perfect rhythm and cadence, thundered down ancient dusty roads.
“So, what happened to us then?” Clover asked. “We’re nothing like that now.”
Pokey nodded solemnly, and another scroll was unrolled on top of this first. This one depicted the all-too familiar story of Luna’s fall to Nightmare Moon.
“Nightmare Moon happened. We all know the story of her fall and the battle that took place between her and Celestia.” Pokey said.
"Luna, I will not fight you! You must lower the moon!” Celestia’s voice danced through the air. “It is your duty!”
“Luna?” came the ancient reply. “I am … Nightmare Moon! I have but one royal duty now: to destroy you!”
“What no pony realizes is what happened after that fateful encounter. The Elements of Harmony struck, and Luna was banished, yes; but then what of Celestia? If you were to ask, most would shrug and say she went back to her normal duties.”
And through the æther, four ponies heard something no pony had heard in a thousand years.
The sound of Celestia crying.
This was no mere sniffle of sadness, either. No, this was the wailing of an anguished soul, one who has experienced a loss far grander than most will ever experience in their lives. It was a howling, fevered, and totally destitute cry; one that could make even the heavens weep for sympathy for the tortured soul offering such laments. Even a thousand years later, four ponies fought back tears at the haunting sound of it.
“They would be wrong.” Pokey said; a slight hitch in his words. He regained his composure quickly however, and continued. “Celestia experienced something that fateful evening that no pony should ever be called to bear. She loved her sister, as truly and deeply as sisters can love one another. Their familial bonds were strong, and to have them severed so nearly killed our Princess.
“She went into mourning for a full six months. She hardly slept, she ate even less. She would attend to her duties and she did her best to do what Luna had done, but there are many personal writings from the time that speak of her sorrow, her despair, her utter loneliness despite being surrounded by others. She was a broken mare, in every emotional way possible, and many wondered if she would ever recover.
“But then the Age of Diplomacy opened.” Pokey continued. “Celestia turned her sorrow into repentance and action. She became fixated and determined on one goal: to bring about an Equestria that would not only accept Luna and her night, but love it as well. Gone would be the monsters and the fears of old: ponies would be able to freely walk, talk, and play in the shades of evening with glee and contentment.”
Again the voices began to carry from the past, but there were many this time, and it was hard to pick out a singular one. Snippets of conversations danced by, and the three subordinates caught them for a few moments before they flitted away:
“Celestia, the Griffon Empire accepts your proposal. With this treaty, we will open a new era in…”
“…ddle Arabia and Equestria hereby renounce all former animosity and do declare themselves to henceforth be friends and allies…”
“…have ratified this pact of non-aggression. Yakyakistan will remove…”
“With external threats placated by paper, the Legion’s focus turned inward.” Pokey continued over the mystic voices. “We spent many years driving the nightmares and the monsters from Equestria, corralling and herding them… well, like sheep if you will. Celestia refused to totally destroy them, however; and we could not drive them into the lands of our new allies, so it was agreed that they would be moved and held in the Everfree Forest. Small outposts stood at the boundary for some years after we had finally driven them all in, but they were slowly abandoned as their attempts at escape diminished.
“Then, as peace prevailed, the need for our services waned. With no enemies to fight and no threats to Equestria, we moved from Legion to Guard, and now we are little more than tin plated tour guides, and we stink even at that. Our heritage has been lost to the ages, and now we suffer for it.
“Now, I’m not saying we need to return to this.” He pulled the Nightmare Moon drawing away to reveal the first Legionnaire painting. “The Age of Diplomacy was revolutionary, in a great many good ways, and there is no need for Celestia’s Rage or Luna’s Wrath anymore. What I am saying is that our charge and purpose now is to protect the ponies of Equestria and their rulers, and we can’t do that unless we have some major reforms. There are still threats in our world, and evil has not been totally vanquished. I’m sure none of us want another fiasco like the Changeling incident, but we all know the only way to make any real, meaningful changes around here is to successfully pull off the Black Sheep. The audits will fly, procedures will be evaluated, and it will be the first step of many in our return to effectiveness.
“If you don’t agree with what I’m saying, then walk away now.” Pokey stated firmly, as he looked his subordinates in the eye. “Turn me in, even, and let me enjoy the dungeons during em-rads. But if there’s an ounce of truth to what I’m saying, then I think you’ll agree that we must try. I believe we can pull it off, and I think you all know it too. So what will it be?”
There was a moment hesitation as the three thought. It only took that moment, however, for a decision to be made.
“I’m in.” Clover simply stated.
“I’m willing to give it a shot too, sir.” Hooves added.
“Make it three, sir.” Wing added. “I’d love to pull a successful Black Sheep.”
“Thank you.” Pokey replied, his pride showing in his face. “Now, for the sixty-four thousand bit question: How do we foalnap Princess Celestia?”