Screech rushed forward like a rabid dog let loose from its chain. Pip braced just in time to avoid being thrown on his back. Despite the fact that Screech was bone thin, he was surprisingly strong and, when they clashed, Pip struggled to stay on his feet.
Pip shoved the bat pony away and took up a defensive stance. He decided he would try to observe first. Screech, blindingly fast, kept their distance close and clashed with Pip again.
Screech smashed his skull against Pip’s in the exact same spot. Blood ran from Pip’s nose and his eyes began to water. His vision suddenly blurred and he felt himself slack for just a moment.
A moment was all Screech needed.
Screech turned, bucked, and sent Pip flying. The taste of dirt and blood in Pip’s mouth was a new experience for him. The books he read regarding combat never mentioned how to deal with the weakness of one’s own body while in the middle of a brawl. Pip intuitively knew Screech was going to attack the moment he let up, but Pip’s body couldn’t keep up with his thoughts. His body was tired and strained. Did he even have a chance of winning in this condition?
As Pip struggled to stand, Screech came up and kicked him across the face, further exacerbating Pip’s already debilitating headache. Screech grabbed Pip and threw him across the sparring circle. Pip hit the dirt hard and became winded. Why hadn’t Screech thrown him in the other direction? He would have won then…
Screech came running and Pip had to dig deep within himself in order to jump up. He clashed with Screech and held his own for the few seconds they grappled. Screech let go, took a step back, and then slammed Pip hard with the bulk of his boney body.
For a third time Screech smashed his head into Pip’s and Pip felt his vision go black from sheer agony. Screech was attacking him in the same spot over and over again. He didn’t want to knock Pip out of the sparring ring… he wanted to knock Pip out cold.
Screech let him go and backed away, cackling the entire way. In a harsh whisper he asked, “What’s wrong, earth pony? I thought you were supposed to be strong. You’re nothing. This is your destiny? Don’t make me laugh.”
He kicked Pip again, knocking him back into the center of the sparring ring. Pip slowly picked himself up. Screech wasn’t going to end this without humiliating him first; that much was clear to Pip now. Screech was arrogant, bloodthirsty, ruthless and overconfident… He thought he had already won and now he was just toying with his “victim”.
Pip intentionally wobbled on his legs and took deep breaths. Screech smiled and prepared to launch into another attack. Backing up to the edge of the circle, Pip feigned dizziness and closed his eyes.
Screech, too ruthless not to take advantage of Pip’s supposed weakness, rushed forward. Just as Screech was going to slam into him, Pip opened his eyes, quickly turned, and kicked Screech to the side, sending him out of the sparring circle.
Pip had only hit the other pony once, but it was the only hit that truly mattered.
His sudden victory left the other recruits speechless. Pip had been thoroughly losing up until that moment. He understood why it might be shocking; nopony would know the victor if they guessed based on their appearance. Pip was bloodied and bruised and Screech had nothing but a scratch on him.
Screech easily jumped up and angrily launched himself at Pip, his fangs bared. Thunder Clash jumped between them and grabbed Screech, slamming him back to the ground like only an expert combatant could.
“You’ve lost, recruit!” Thunder Clash growled. “And when you lose you will return to your ranks! Do I make myself clear!?”
“Sir… yes sir,” Screech muttered hatefully. He shot Pip a glare with his blood red eyes.
“Then move it!”
Screech backed up and rejoined the other bat ponies on the outskirts of the sparring ring. Some of them snickered at his loss and he immediately hissed in their direction. The bat ponies once again became silent.
Once everypony was settled, Thunder Clash turned to Pip and nodded. “Good show, boy. A perfect example of tenacity.” He turned to Screech, “And how overconfidence can come back to bite you on the flank.”
He then turned to the rest of the recruits. “Never give up. The moment you do is the true moment you’ve lost, not the moment your opponent delivers the final blow. Do you understand me, maggots? I hope you all remember this match.”
Everypony nodded. Pip slowly limped over to his place in line. Snips, Snails and Rumble all gave him silent praise and head nods.
“Rest up,” Thunder Clash instructed Pip. “You’ll keep going till you lose. And that goes for all of you. Up next is Scootaloo and… Equinox. Show me what you’ve got so I can gauge your rough natural skill.”
Scootaloo was still winded from her demonstration. Her legs were shaking with each step and her tiny wings were so tired that they wouldn’t even remain folded at her side; they were limp and unfurled. Equinox, on the other hoof, looked perfectly fine. Better than fine, actually. She looked like she wasn’t even suffering from yesterday’s long hours of exercise.
Equinox and Scootaloo stood face to face in the center of the ring.
“On the count of three. One… Two… Three! Fight!”
And then it was over.
It had taken Thunder Clash longer to count down then it had taken Equinox to slam Scootaloo from the sparring ring. The pegasus had actually been so rocked by the sudden attack that she was still confused by the time she stood back up.
“Match goes to Equinox,” Thunder Clash stated. “Good job. Step back in line. One of you come over here and help Scootaloo find the line. Up next… Snails and Gloom.”
Pip watched Snails walked out into the sparring ring with an obvious aura of cowardice while Rumble helped Scootaloo back into line. It was then that Pip realized he was seeing double. His head felt like it was going to explode at any second.
“Unsurprisingly, the match goes to Gloom.”
Had he missed the match? Squinting through his pain, Pip tried to focus on the sparring but found it difficult. At one moment he felt as though he might faint.
“Rumble, you’re up against Specter.”
Pip raised his hoof.
“What is it, boy?” Thunder Clash asked. All the recruits turned to stare at him. Pip took a deep breath before speaking.
“May I get a drink of water, sir?”
“Don’t lollygag about it. There’s a well by the barracks.”
Pip nodded and trotted away from the back field and all the way around the side of the barracks. It was the dead of night, the darkness all around him, and he had to tread carefully in order not to run into anything.
Every little sound was like an unrelenting drum in Pip’s head. Even his own heartbeat was causing him a steady stream of pain. The well wasn’t far and there was already water drawn when he got there. He slowly began drinking, trying to clear his head and rest his body. The cool water eased some of his tensions and soon the noises all around him weren’t so unbearable.
“-which is why the captain is worried.”
“Do you think it’s actually possible?”
Pip’s ears twitched. He could hear two ponies whispering to each other but it was too dark to see who or where they were. He glanced around. His hearing wasn’t anything supernatural… whoever was talking had to be close.
“I think it is possible… And the captain seems to believe it’s true.”
“But… Thunder Clash? He’s dedicated his life to serving Celestia and Equestria…”
“Exactly. He might have already turned.”
“So, the captain wants me to keep an eye on him?”
“Should be easy. He can’t see through the darkness.”
Pip squinted, but all he could see were silhouettes. “Is anypony there?” he asked aloud.
He heard a quick rustling of leaves and then nothing.
“Hello?” Pip asked again.
Had the voices been brought on by his terrible headache? No, he was sure he heard something… Who were those ponies?
Pip splashed himself with the water and woozily trotted back out to the sparring rings. When he finally got close enough he spotted Marble in the ring with Rust Wing.
Marble bucked with the same ferocity she had used on the training dummies but Rust Wing quickly stepped aside.
The Marble’s powerful kicks half-whistled through the air. Rust Wing kept her distance as Marble rushed in for another attack.
Pip took his place with the other recruits. He was feeling a little better now that he had the water in his system. He briefly contemplated telling Thunder Clash about the two ponies he had overheard but then he thought better of it. Perhaps he would mention something after tonight’s training.
Rust Wing jumped back and suddenly stutter-stepped on a patch of loose dirt. Marble saw her chance and seized it.
Her tree-shattering kick hit Rust Wing square in the side, sending her from the sparring ring and sliding a few feet across the dirt. She looked like she were in a great deal of pain, but she managed to stand up afterward and hobble back into line, holding her side the entire way.
“Marble takes the match,” Thunder Clash said with a hint of mirth in his voice. “If I had been a gambling pony I would have lost two of my bets this evening.”
Pip turned to the other Ponyville recruits. Rumble had a black eye and Snips and Snails both looked like they had been run over by a lawnmower. He suspected that none of them had won their matches.
“Pipsqueak! Get in there! You and Mist both won your matches!”
Exhausted, and still feeling the sting of the last fight, Pip stepped out into the sparring circle. Mist, the bat pony with the dark brown coat and white mane, trotted out into the ring, her wings fluttering just enough to allow her to practically glide along the ground. She had a cute smile upon her face, as though she were about to engage in a pleasant activity; like a picnic or beach run.
“Hit him in the head,” Screech darkly suggested, shooting Pip another glare. “It’s his weak spot.”
Pip walked up to Mist in the center of the ring and held out his hoof. “Good luck,” he said.
Mist replied in an overly cheerful voice, “You too!” She went out to touch his hoof with her own, when her entire demeanor suddenly changed. Her eyes went wide and her slit-pupils constricted into fine lines. “Y-you’re… b-bleeding.”
Pip reached up to his nose and felt the hot stickiness of his own blood. He thought he had washed this away at the well, but then he realized the bleeding just hadn’t stopped yet. Screech had really done a number on him…
“S-sir,” Mist turned to Thunder Clash, her legs shaking and her sing-song voice now quavering. “Sir, he’s b-bleeding.”
Thunder Clash frowned. “Of course he is, girlie. He just had his world rocked by a more experienced combatant. I’m surprised he doesn’t have multiple broken bones. What’s your point?”
“Sh-shouldn’t he, um… clean it up f-first?”
“What is this, ridiculous request night? First we have two ponies that want to demonstrate their special talents together and now we have a pony who doesn’t want to see any blood? I hate to break this to you, but when you enter real combat there’s going to be a lot of blood. A lot. Your blood, the opponent’s blood, some random monster’s blood… There’ll be enough blood to fill a Celestia-forsaken regulation sized swimming pool! Do you understand me, girlie?”
Mist slowly nodded and turned back to Pip. She kept her gaze downward, avoiding staring at him at all costs. Pip raised an eyebrow. He had been bleeding when he fought Screech… this couldn’t be a bat pony thing. What was she so worried about?
“On the count of three then. One… Two… Three! Fight!”
Pip’s body was too stiff and sore for him to move quickly. Instead he decided to take up a defensive stance and wait for her to come to him. Ironically, she did the same. Mist backed away and stared at him intensity, her legs still shaking. Pip and Mist circled the ring twice before Thunder Clash let out a loud groan.
“I have never needed to impose a time limit before, but so help me I will.”
Mist closed her eyes tightly and suddenly charged forward. Pip didn’t have the strength to move in time. Instead, he took the brunt of her charge and leaned into her. They were at a stalemate, just pushing against each other in an attempt to move the other in the opposite direction.
Soon, Pip’s position began to give. She was pushing him back, straight for the sparring ring line. Pip was leaning against her heavily; in part because he was pushing so hard and in part because he was so very, very tired. When he glanced down he saw her eyes were still tightly closed. Her whole plan was to simply push him from the ring, banking on her strength overpowering his.
At this moment, she was definitely stronger. Inch by inch Pip was getting closer to the edge. His breathing was labored. All he was doing was attempting to push her back and already he was at his breaking point. If he was going to attempt to win he had to think of something… something he could do with barely any energy left in him…
Suddenly, Pip stopped pushing against her and fell back onto his back. In one quick motion he planted his back legs on her stomach and used her forward momentum to kick her up and over his own body and out of the ring. She hit the dirt with a hard slam, but otherwise she was perfectly okay.
Pip let out a loud sigh. Again, he won, but his opponent walked away in a much better condition. At this rate he would be dead by the end of the evening.
“Pipsqueak wins again?” Thunder Clash snorted. “That makes three bets I would have lost… Mist! What kind of strategy was rushing forward with your eyes closed? That’s the fastest way to an unmarked grave if I ever saw one! You aren’t training to be a member of the vanguard; you’re training to be an elite warrior! Start acting like it for Celestia’s sake!”
Mist quickly picked herself off the ground and brushed herself off. She hastily nodded and trotted back to her spot in line, the entire time avoiding eye contact with everypony.
Pip had yet to pick himself off the ground. His body refused to move and his headache was now worse than ever.
“Get up, boy,” Thunder Clash commanded. “You’ll have time to rest when you’re dead.”
Now in a pool of his own sweat, Pip very slowly forced himself to get to his feet. He staggered back into line and Marble stepped a little closer in order to give him something to lean on. He gave her an appreciative nod.
It didn’t last long, however, as Thunder Clash motioned for her to get into the ring. “You and Gloom! Let’s go!”
Marble walked out and faced down the bat pony with the black coat and dark green mane. The two of them stared each other down and Pip could see from the sidelines they were whispering things to each other.
“One… Two… Three! Fight!”
Marble wasted no time. She immediately bucked, attempting to end the fight.
Gloom had moved out of the way and back up. Marble chased after him and tried again.
Gloom was at the edge now, only inches from being out of the ring. Marble reared back and-
An ear-shattering cry flooded the area. Pip covered his ears with his hooves and took a few steps back. It was coming from Gloom! He was shrieking at such a high pitch it was almost unbearable. Even Marble had to stop and cover her ears. Everypony had to cover their ears!
Now the tables had turned and Gloom rushed forward. He grabbed Marble and threw her down to the ground outside the ring. She was slammed on her back and rolled over in agony. Gloom smiled to Thunder Clash.
“Gloom wins,” he announced for himself.
Thunder Clash was rubbing at his ears. “And everypony lost a little bit more of their hearing this night,” he muttered as he flew over to Marble. “You okay, girlie?”
Marble nodded. She got up, brushed herself off and limped back into line, never bothering to utter a single word.
“All right, recruits. I’ve seen enough. I’m breaking you all into three groups depending on your raw talent and prior training.” Thunder Clash motioned for Specter, Gloom and Equinox to step forward. “The first group is going to be the ones that start with the more advanced training.” Thunder Clash turned to Pip and motioned him forward.
Pip stared at Thunder Clash in bewilderment. “Me, sir? I… I know I won those two matches, but… I don’t feel like I should going into advanced training… I barely know the basics, sir.”
“You only get better if you challenge yourself, son. You’ve convinced me you have the fire in your belly. Don’t disappoint me by turning your back now.”
Pip pathetically limped out to join the bat ponies. Specter and Equinox gave him questioning glances and Gloom completely ignored him. He was the most miserable looking of the lot. And he felt like it too.
“Marble, Mist, Rust Wing, Rumble and Screech will be in the standard training, while Snips, Snails and Scootaloo will be in the basic training.”
Snips, Snails and Scootaloo all nodded as though that were the most appropriate decision.
Thunder Clash continued, “For the next two weeks we will rotate. First day we’ll do physical exercises, second day combat training, third day physical exercises, fourth day combat training and so on. At the end of the two weeks we’ll have the obstacle course again. If you can’t achieve a score of eight minutes or less by then you’ll be removed from the Night Guard. Every two weeks that time will be reduced down until it is eventually two minutes, so don’t go thinkin’ that eight minutes is perfectly acceptable. Because it isn’t. Do I make myself clear?”
All the recruits nodded.
“Additionally, on nights that we have combat training you’ll be let out a few hours early. This time is for resting. I suggest you use it for such. ‘I’m tired’ is not an acceptable excuse for any activities we have in the future. If you need medical treatment,” he glanced over at Pip, “this is the time to receive it. Are there any questions?”
Snips raised a hoof.
Thunder Clash sighed before pointing to him.
“How do you train us and all the other ponies for the other guards at the same time?”
“It’s called discipline. Unlike you ninnies, I sleep exactly four hours and fifty-three minutes from late afternoon to early evening and regulate my diet to grass-vitamin-bars and oats. I train new recruits from early evening to late afternoon and then I do it all over again. Any other relevant questions?”
Everypony was silent.
“Then you’re all dismissed!”
All six of the bat ponies immediately flew off, some giving the Ponyville recruits dirty looks. Pip was too tired to feel slighted. While the other recruits slowly trotted off to barracks, Pip stayed behind to speak with Thunder Clash.
The drill sergeant gave him the once over and raised an eyebrow. “You here to quit on me, boy?”
“Sir, no sir,” Pip breathed.
“Good. What is it?”
“Two things, sir… The first thing is… Why do the bat ponies and all the other ponies have separate barracks? Wouldn’t it foster comradery to have us all together? I feel like me and the other non-bat pony recruits are constantly at odds with them… I know next to nothing about bat ponies… I have no idea why they dislike us.”
Thunder Clash shook his head. “That question is above my pay grade, son.”
“Well… can’t you suggest that to somepony? Maybe to Phantom Shade? If we’re all going to members of the Night Guard someday I would rather feel like they had my back as opposed to being at my back.”
Thunder Clash narrowed his eyes. “Listen here, boy. Do not. Rock. The boat. You eager ponies are all the same. You think you can come in here and change the system and everything will be friendship and rainbows. These standards and procedures have worked for decades. We’re here to shape you into warriors, not play out a hero fantasy. Understand? You’ll soon develop comradery once you all have faced your first test together.”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Thunder Clash said with a knowing smile.
Pip nodded. Before he left he remembered the second thing he wanted to talk to Thunder Clash about. “Um, sir? When I went to get a drink of water… I think I overheard two ponies talking.”
“You think or you did hear two ponies?” Thunder Clash asked in annoyance. “Don’t be wishy-washy, boy. Say things like they are.”
“R-right. I did hear two ponies. They were talking about you. One of them said they were going to watching you. They suspected you had been turned, whatever that means.”
Thunder Clash stared at Pip for a long moment. “Is that all you heard?”
“Sir, yes sir.”
“Well… Now that I think about it they mentioned a captain a few times, but I never heard a name.”
Thunder Clash nodded. “Good of you to bring this to my attention.”
“Sir, yes sir.”
“Get some medical treatment. That’s an order. You’re still bleeding from the nose.”
Pip reached up and touched his muzzle. He was still bleeding from the nose. “Sir, yes sir.”
“Now get out of my sight. I still have work to do.”