“This is where the new recruits for the Night Guard sleep.”
Pipsqueak walked into the barracks with only a small bag of his belongings. The guard that showed him in was just barely containing his laughter. Pipsqueak ignored it. He knew what the guard was laughing about, but it wasn’t worth arguing. If nopony believed him, then nopony believed him. He didn’t come here to brag about his time with Princess Luna. He came to help her.
The barracks before him were separated into two large rooms. The room he was standing in was filled with bunk beds. He turned toward the door leading to the second room. “What’s in there?” Pipsqueak asked the giggling guard.
“That? Oh, the bat ponies sleep in there. Don’t worry. You’ll be meeting them once your training begins.”
“There are bat pony recruits?”
“That’s right,” the guard nodded. “They’re usually the only ones that sign up. Not many other ponies complete the training.”
Pipsqueak walked over to a far bunk bed and threw his belongings up on the top bunk. He liked sleeping higher up. He was closer to the moon then. “When does our training begin?” he asked the guard.
“Your training starts tomorrow.” With that, the guard left.
Now all alone, Pipsqueak slowly paced back and forth trying to think of what to do in order to pass the time. It was late afternoon. He had hours left in the day. If this were one of his dreams… he would be riding the high seas with Luna, or flying through a canyon of gems, avoiding the quarray eels that would jut out to grab them. It would be one amazing adventure after the next…
The door to the barracks suddenly opened and Pipsqueak turned to see who was entering. Much to his surprise, Scootaloo, Rumble, Snips, Snails and Marble Pie all came walking in. “Um, can I help you?” he asked.
“We joined the Night Guard as well,” Rumble informed him sheepishly. “There was no way I was being outdone by an earth pony from my hometown!”
“And our theory for success has always been to just to stay close to the strongest ponies. It’s worked for us so far,” Snails announced, motioning to himself and Snips. “If you think you’re strong enough to get through the Night Guard, you must be one of the strongest around!”
Marble Pie rolled her eyes. “Well, I joined the royal guards with the intention of sign up to the Night Guard long before you gave your little speech. I’m not with these guys.” She walked over to a random bunk bed and took the bottom bed.
Snips waddled over and smiled to Pipsqueak. “I’m so glad you and Snails had a worse name than mine. Now the drill sergeant will forget all about how terrible mine is.”
“No problem,” Pipsqueak awkwardly stated. “I’m glad I could help.”
Snails also walked over. He nervously glanced around before leaning in closer to Pipsqueak. He whispered, “Hey, I hate my name too. Snailsquirm is kinda weird. That’s why I shortened it to Snails. You could do it too. Pip isn’t so bad.”
Pipsqueak was about to reject the advice, but then he thought about it. He was much taller than most of the ponies around him. Pipsqueak was an ironic name for a stallion like him. Maybe Snails was right. “Pip does have a nice ring to it.”
“Yeah! You should do it! Take this time to reinvent yourself! You’re a member of the Night Guard now!”
“Well, we’re in training. We aren’t a part of the Night Guard yet.”
Pipsqueak nodded. Snails was right. He should reinvent himself. From now, he would be known as Pip! “Thanks, Snails. I appreciate it.”
Once Snails had wandered away, Scootaloo walked up to him and smiled. While everypony else was picking which bed was going to be theirs, she turned to Pip and muttered, “Hey, I believe you about Princess Luna. She came to me in one of my dreams too.”
Pip nodded. “She comes into all our dreams. That’s what she does as the Princess of the Night.”
“I… I don’t remember seeing her after the one camping trip I was on…”
“She tries to hide her interference,” Pip informed her. He knew. Luna had explained it all in great detail. “Princess Luna wants to help ponies solve their own problems, not just do it for them. That’s why she hides her presence.”
“Maybe that’s why you haven’t seen her in a long time,” Scootaloo commented.
“No… No, our time together was different. She wasn’t helping me. I was helping her. She would come and visit me and we would have adventures so that she had something fun to look forward to every night. So that she knew she was appreciated.”
Scootaloo shrugged and began slowly walking over to one of the bunk beds. “Maybe she just doesn’t need any more help.”
Pip opened his mouth to respond, but then he quickly closed it. He hadn’t thought of that. But… Luna didn’t say she ever wanted to stop. She said it was a way of relaxation. Ponies don’t normally reach a point where they never need to relax again… Something else had to be going on.
When he glanced around he noticed that, despite having thirty or more bunk beds in the room, Snips and Snails had picked the top and bottom respectively of the same bunk. Everypony else had picked a bed several beds away from each other. As Pip walked to the back of the room he turned and saw Marble Pie carefully unfolding and then re-folding the blankets on her bed.
“You said you came here hoping to join the Night Guard?”
Everypony else turned to listen in on the conversation. Marble Pie sighed and continued to fold and re-fold the blankets while she spoke. “That’s right.”
“Why? Did Luna visit you in your dreams as well?”
“No. Princess Luna never visited me in my dreams. It has nothing to do with the princess, actually. I just couldn’t stand working on the rock farm any longer. Maud, my sister, was already set to inherit everything and the day I shattered my father’s prized boulder in frustration was the day I realized I could put my special talent to real use.” Marble Pie glanced back at her flank and her shattered boulder cutie mark. “I have one powerful kick, and I found I like… destroying things.”
“That’s pretty awesome,” Rumble commented from the other side of the room. “I would kill to have a kick that could shatter boulders! Earth ponies are so cool sometimes!”
Marble Pie shrugged. “I know I could have signed up for something easier, but I don’t think any of you have a sister who’s known throughout the land as a warrior for the Princess of Friendship.”
Scootaloo suddenly ducked down by her bed, her eyes downcast. Rumble flew up near the roof, barely containing his enthusiasm for the conversation. “Oh, I know about having an amazing older sibling! My brother, Thunderlane… he would always rub his speed in my face! I had to train forever to just catch up and he teased me every step of the way! If Pip joined the Night Guard and I didn’t even try… Thunderlane would never let me hear the end of it! That’s why I had to sign up!”
“You shouldn’t have,” Marble Pie immediately commented in a disinterested tone. “They’re going to try and send us home. They’re going to be tough on us. You might not have the fortitude to make it.”
Scootaloo jumped up onto the top bunk with her wings beating as fast as a hummingbird’s. “What do you mean they’re going to try and send us home!? That’s not fair!”
“I mean,” Marble Pie finally finished making her bed, “they normally only take bat ponies for a reason. Even the captain of the Night Guard is a bat pony. We’ll be… targeted, that’s for sure.” Now that the bed was made to perfection, she carefully pulled back the blanket and slipped in. She tucked the blanket around her, avoiding as many wrinkles as possible.
“Are you going to bed now, Marble Pie?” Pip asked. “It’s the middle of the day.”
“Call me Marble,” she stated. “And yes. Good night.”
Pip didn’t sleep during the day. If he did, he would miss out on a chance of seeing Luna… and he didn’t want that. He would wait until the nightfall before sleeping and then he would be ready to start his training in the morning.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
Pip jolted out of his bed, startled. Where was all that noise coming from!? It felt like he had only been asleep for a couple of minutes. Pip glanced outside and saw the moon rising. He had only been sleeping for a few minutes!
“Wake up, maggots! Time to start your training!”
Marble rolled out of her bed, refreshed. She was the only pony among the new recruits that had gotten any sleep at all. She straightened her long dark gray mane before folding and re-folding the blankets on her bed.
Pip shook off his fatigue, quickly made his bed, and ran to the door. The drill instructor, Thunder Clash, was already there. He was a dark orange pegasus with a short gold mane and tail. Almost every inch of his body had some sort of scar or marring. With his armor on, Pip couldn’t see Thunder Clash’s cutie mark, but Pip assumed it had something to do with thunder. His booming voice was enough evidence for Pip to make that assumption.
Rumble and Scootlaoo were the first to join Pip. Snips and Snails lagged behind as they were having difficulties just waking up. When they finally got their act together they got in line. Although Marble had been the first to wake, she was the last in line… but at least her bed looked amazing.
“That was pathetic,” Thunder Clash snorted. “I’ve seen corpses rise from their slumber faster than you lot!”
“R-really?” Snips and Snails both gasped, their faces alight with fascination.
Thunder Clash face-hoofed in sheer disbelief. “This is going to be a very long year,” he groaned under his breath. “Okay, listen up. Tonight is benchmark night! I hope you all like physical activity because you’re going to be doing a lot of it. Now get out there!”
Pip and the others ran out of the barracks and into the moon-washed training fields. Four obstacle courses had been set up and arranged side by side. Thunder Clash flew over to the starting line and motioned them all to follow. It was hard to see in the dark of the night but the drill instructor’s orange coat made him somewhat easy to spot.
When they made it to the starting line, Pip immediately noticed that there were bat ponies already waiting there. He glanced over at them and nodded. Not a single one acknowledged him. Pip continued to stare.
They all had black, leathery bat wings, tufts of fur on their ears, and slit-pupil eyes. Pip had seen bat ponies only occasionally in his life, and even then, it was mostly on Nightmare Night.
“Stand at attention!” Thunder Clash snapped, drawing Pip’s attention away from the group of bat ponies. Pip immediately stood tall and held himself with confidence. He could complete an obstacle course. He was ready for this.
Suddenly, a bat pony, clad in black and purple armor, landed before them. The bat pony was tall and regal, holding himself with purpose. His coat was dark gray, his mane black, and his slit-pupil eyes a bright gold. He spread his black leathery wings and then slowly folded them to his side.
“This is the captain of the Night Guard, Phantom Shade,” the drill instructor informed them. “He will be observing your benchmarks tonight and will occasionally check in with your training along the way. If, through some fluke, you are chosen for the Night Guard, Phantom Shade will be your commanding officer. Do you maggots understand?”
“Sir, yes sir!” Pip said in unison with the others.
Phantom Shade slowly gazed over the group with his haunting golden eyes. He stared at them as though seeing right through to their core. Everypony remained quiet as he slowly walked over to the line of ponies and began making his way through them. Phantom Shade stopped at Marble and narrowed his eyes. He leaned in close and deeply inhaled.
“This one is much older than the rest,” Phantom Shade stated in a slow, dark tone. His voice reminded Pip of his childhood nightmares. Marble shuddered at the sight of his fanged teeth so close.
“Earth ponies stay in their prime much longer than others,” the drill instructor replied confidently. “She still has decades of service left in her.”
“Hm.” Phantom Shade stepped away from the line. “These recruits need further culling, Thunder Clash. I think your standards are slipping.”
“I can’t stop them from signing up for the Night Guard. They’re young. They think they’re invincible. Give’em a few nights. Most of’em will be gone by then.”
“Get on with it then,” Phantom Shade commanded. “We’ll see how well they perform.”
Thunder Clash flew over to the line and nodded. “All right! Tonight you need to run through an obstacle course! The obstacle courses behind me are broken up depending on your breed. Pegasus ponies to the first obstacle course, earth ponies to the next, unicorn ponies to the third and bat ponies to the forth. Normally, you need to be able to run this obstacle course in two minutes flat. However, tonight you will have no time limit. All you have to do is simply make it to the end.”
All of the recruits exchanged confused looks with one another. Even the bat ponies seemed out of sorts. Thunder Clash continued.
“If you can’t make to the end of the obstacle course, you will be immediately reassigned to another guard company, do I make myself clear? You can take as long as you need, but if you give up, skip any obstacle, become stuck, collapse, or need me to carry you out, you will fail. No exceptions. Now, everypony line up in front of their respective obstacle course.”
“Um,” Scootaloo nervously raised a hoof.
“No questions!” Thunder Clash snapped. “It’s an obstacle course, for Celestia’s sake. It’s not that complicated! Even small animals can run through obstacles courses! Are you trying to say you’re dumber than small animals? Is that what you’re saying, recruit!?” He was glaring at Scootaloo now. She remained quiet and was clearly wrecked by indecision. After a few moments she hung her head and took her place in front of the pegasus obstacle course.
Pip stepped up to the earth pony obstacle course and nodded to Marble, the only other recruit with him. As he glanced around he realized that there were two ponies per obstacle course except for the bat ponies. They had six. Only twelve recruits for the Night Guard? Pip thought. I thought there would be more. No matter. I’ll have to make extra sure that I don’t fail. Luna needs as much support as she can get.
“Go!” Thunder Clash shouted.
Startled by the sudden command, Pip haphazardly rushed forward. The first part of the course was a tunnel and he quickly leapt inside.
Pip was now neck-deep in muddy water. He trudged through the thick goo, determined to try and complete the obstacle course in less than two minutes. Marble was trudging through the water as well, but it was much too dark to see her. Pip could only hear the splash of water as she struggled forward.
Once he completed the tunnel he stepped out into a long straight of physical obstacles. Walls to climb, tires to jump though, hurdles to leap across… and he could barely see any of it. Pip ran forward and nearly tripped over the first hurdle. It had been small and low to the ground. He suspected he could have stepped over it but, because of the low-light, he didn’t even realize it was there until it was too late.
“It’s too dark to see!” Pip heard Snips yell from the obstacle course over.
Pip tried to glance over to the unicorn track, but it was then the he noticed the walls between the courses. He couldn’t see the other recruits, but he could hear them if they were yelling.
“I can’t see anything either!” Snails complained.
Thunder Clash laughed from overhead. He was flying along, watching them all go through their course. “Do you maggots seriously have the stupidity to complain about the dark? What time of day do you think the Night Guard does their work? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not in the light of the mid-summer sun, sweethearts! Another complaint about the dark and I’ll carry you out right now!”
Pip leapt onto a wall in order to climb it, but he felt himself struggling. It was so difficult! Slowly he pulled himself over, but he unceremoniously fell to the ground on the other side. Pip got to his feet and took a couple deep breaths. He had climbed walls before! Why was this so much harder?
He glanced as his mud-covered and water-soaked hide. He must weigh nearly twice as much now. But, that was the point, wasn’t it? The muddy water at the start of the course had been to weigh them down.
Undeterred, Pip shot forward. He needed to make up for lost time. He jumped through the tires, but the moment he reached the other side he stumbled through a briar patch. “Eh!” Pip gasped in pain, jumping back to the tires. Thorns were now lodged into his leg, one even dug into his hoof.
Pip took a moment to pull the thorns from his leg before taking a step back. The rest of the course couldn’t be covered in thorny plants, right? It was too dark to actually see, but nopony would be that sadistic. He could jump over… in theory. Giving himself enough room to get a running start, Pip dashed forward and jumped off the last tire.
“Ah!” he cried out when all four legs slammed down into an ocean of flesh-cutting thorns. Slowly, painfully, Pip lifted one leg after the other and attempted to keep going.
“What’s wrong, dream-boy?” Thunder Clash yelled down to him between laughs. “Do you want to quit yet? Are you ready to go home and just dream of becoming a member of the Night Guard?”
Pip didn’t validate his taunts with a response. He pressed forward and grit his teeth with each step he took. It could have been bearable if it weren’t for the thorns in his hooves. Searing pain shot from his hooves all the way up to his spine. Each. And. Every. Step.
“AHHH!” Snips and Snails’ screams pierced the night. They must have just discovered the briar patch. Pip briefly wondered if the Pegasi had to deal with something similar to this…
The instant Pip discovered the end of the briar patch he let out an audible sigh of relief. He had to stop again in order to pull the thorns from his hooves, but once that was done he continued forward. Thorns were still in his legs, but they didn’t bother him nearly as much. He could live with those for just a bit longer.
Taking deep breaths, Pip began running at full tilt. It wasn’t until he slammed face fist into a pole that he realized something was there. Dazed, and now suffering from an agonizing headache, Pip squinted through the darkness and realized this was a pole with a hanging rope. Did he have to swing with it? Was there something in front of him?
He leaned forward and squinted even harder. There was a pit here… a pit with water. Pip listened hard. Animals were in the pit. Water dwelling animals. I don’t know what they put in this pit… but it can’t be good. I can’t afford to fall.
Grabbing the rope with his mouth, Pip gave it a good tug before backing up and jumping. The rope easily supported his weight, which was good, because he realized just then this wasn’t a swinging rope, it was a zip line rope. Pip zipped through the air, wind whipping passed him, until he reached the other side. Despite the extra weight from the mud and water, he never once lost his grip. I made it!
Struggling forward, Pip began running. He knew he might crash into something again, but he couldn’t afford to walk. Within a few short seconds he caught himself in a net of ropes. Confused, Pip realized it was tall wall that he had to climb over. He looked up to the sky and saw it had to be three stories high, at least.
Taking a deep breath, Pip started up the rope wall. One hoof and then the next. He had to climb all the way up and then all the way down. The extra weight really hurt him here. His legs were on fire by the time he reached the top. Pip pushed that from his mind. He couldn’t focus on that… not if he was going to finish this course. On the way down he used his mouth to help him maintain his balance. He was going to make it no matter what.
When he touched the ground he smiled. Letting go of the rope, he took off running and… he made it! He exited the obstacle course and came out on the other side! The drill instructor and Phantom Shade were both waiting there, along with Scootaloo and three of the bat ponies.
Pip quickly got into line next to Scootaloo and held his head high.
Thunder Clash snorted in laugher. “Are you proud of yourself, boy? By my calculations that took you ten minutes to complete! Five times longer than what you’re expected to do!”
Pip’s heart sank. He was in there for ten minutes!? Then again, it had felt like two hours had gone by when he was slowly stepping through the briar patch…
“Sir, sorry sir,” Pip said in a pained voice. “I’ll do better next time.”
“You better. If you ever fall below this benchmark you’re out.” Thunder Clash looked around, obviously waiting for the other recruits to finish. Much to Pip’s surprise, the last three bat ponies exited their obstacle course with small cuts and bruises across their bodies. Pip hadn’t expected any of them to take longer than ten minutes.
Not long after the bat ponies exited, Rumble exited his course in the same battered condition. He landed next to Scootaloo and puffed out his chest. “Sir, I’m back, sir!”
“Twelve minutes, recruit,” Thunder Clash snorted. “Don’t look so smug.”
Rumble immediately deflated.
Seconds later, Marble jumped out of the earth pony course. She didn’t look as beat up as all the other ponies, but she hadn’t been very fast either. Now the only ponies that were left were Snips and Snails…
Phantom Shade shook his head. “I doubt they have the physical prowess to finish the course. Call it. Remove them from the training.”
Thunder Clash shrugged. “I normally give the new recruits fifteen minutes before rushing in to save them. Besides,” he commented in a joking tone, “If worse comes to worst, the tall one can sustain himself on the fat of the other one.”
Phantom Shade was not amused.
Then, to the shock of everypony involved, Snips and Snails burst out of their obstacle course. Both were covered in thorns and one of them had bite marks on their flank, but otherwise they intact and whole. With wobbly legs they stepped forward and took their place in line. Phantom Shade glared at them in disgust.
Thunder Clash stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Well, that was marginally better than what I thought was going to happen, but I assure you it only gets worse from here. Out of the ponies before me, three of you finished the obstacle course in less than two minutes. Those ponies would be Equinox, Specter, and Scootaloo.”
A male bat pony and a female bat pony both held their heads high. Scootaloo, on the other hoof, hung her head in shame. Thunder Clash turned to glare at her.
“And the only reason the pegasus finished so quickly was because she ran along on the ground. Why do you think we separate the breeds, girlie? It isn’t for our amusement, I assure you! Since you failed to complete even one of the obstacles, I’m afraid I’m going to have to remove you from the Night Guard. Permanently.”
“What?” Rumble interjected. “That’s not fair!”
“Silence,” Phantom Shade growled. Everypony stiffened after he spoke. “We made it perfectly clear before you started: if you couldn’t finish you were to be removed. How then, is it not fair? She knew the rules and she intentionally defied them.”
Thunder Clash and Phantom Shade turned to Scootaloo with judgmental stares. She steeled herself to their disappointment and took a deep breath. “Sir, I can’t fly, sir!” She had spoken loud enough that there could be no confusion as to what she had said.
Pip could hear snickering from the bat ponies, but he ignored them. He had known of Scootaloo’s problem his entire life. Everypony in Ponyville knew it. It was nothing to be ashamed of. But she should have tried harder to tell Thunder Clash before this point…
Phantom Shade turned to Thunder Clash with a scowl. “You allowed a flightless pegasus to sign up for the Night Guard?”
“I didn’t know,” Thunder Clash replied.
“Clearly some standards have slipped. We can’t have this.”
“H-hey!” Scootaloo shouted, drawing their attention. “You let earth ponies try out! Just because I can’t fly doesn’t mean I’m w-worthless!”
"You will not speak unless spoken to!" Thunder Clash immediately barked. Scootaloo nodded and muttered an apology. Once she was quiet, Thunder Clash turned back to Phantom Shade. “The girl’s got a point though. If we treat her as an earth pony there should be no problem.”
“Feh. You’re too soft on them,” Phantom Shade angrily stated as he turned away. “If these ponies are the only ones that are competing I’ll just take this moment to congratulate Equinox and Specter on their admittance into the Night Guard right now. Clearly no other ponies are up to snuff.”
The two bat ponies that had completed their course on time smiled to each other. Pip, again, ignored them. He wasn’t here to compete with the other ponies… he was here to help Luna.
“All right, maggots. Drop to the ground and give me push-ups. What? You thought the obstacle course was the only training for tonight? Well you thought wrong. You’ll all count in unison. One slip up and we’ll start over.”
Snails put his hoof in the air. Thunder Clash pointed to him.
“How many push-ups are we supposed to do, sir?”
Everypony looked up at Thunder Clash in dismay. One hundred push-ups! After running that obstacle course? Pip glanced down at his muddy, bloody and thorn-ridden legs. He only hoped they would hold together long enough to make it through the night.
Together, everypony dropped to the ground and began the long haul of push-ups. “One,” they said in unison. “Two, three…”