Pip was dreaming again.
It was a pleasant dream. He was back in Ponyville, sitting in the town square and staring up at the night sky. In his old dreams Luna would meet him here and they would fly off to engage in all sorts of adventures only possible within the dreamscape.
He gazed at the moon. He liked the moon. It was the light in the darkness that guided ponies when they were lost. And the stars… always there to lend what little light they could. Without them, the night would be nothing but a vast void of darkness. Together, the moon and stars kept the night safe and wondrous. They performed their tasks without demanding notice or attention. Their selfless endeavor encouraged Pip to strive to be a better pony.
Suddenly, the moon and the stars faded away as the rays of the morning sun were cast upon the sky. Pip sighed. The sun was wonderful and glorious in its own right, but there was something he appreciated about the subtleness of the night that the day could not rival.
Pip watched the sun climb high into the sky. He knew if he joined the Night Guard he would never be able to see Princess Luna in his dreams again… He would always be sleeping through the day… and so would she. For a brief moment he almost regretted his decision.
“Hm?” he whispered aloud. Was the sun bigger than he remembered?
Pip stared at the orb in the sky, shielding his eyes from the direct rays and squinting. It was larger! And… it was getting bigger with each passing moment. Pip looked around the dreamscape Ponyville. All the dream citizens were sleeping. Nopony was the wiser. What was going on?
Much to his horror, he realized the sun wasn’t getting bigger at all… It was getting closer! With each passing second the heat in his dream was intensifying, it was almost unbearable! Pip glanced around in a panic. All water had vaporized from the flash drought and now the roofs of the houses were catching fire.
The sun got ever closer, destroying everything in its path. Again, Pip tried to alter his dream, but nothing happened. The sun marched on, regardless of what he thought or did.
With the sun so close, and the heat so intense, the very fabric of the world began to melt and break apart. Everything was disintegrating into ash, burning to its very core.
Pip suddenly opened his eyes and realized he was now awake… safe in the barracks. It was mid-afternoon and he noticed the hot rays of the sun were pouring through the window and landing on his face. Perhaps that was why he was having so many nightmares…
He picked himself up and slowly walked over to a bed near the center of the room, away from the light. Everypony else was sleeping. He didn’t bother to wake them. He didn’t want to wake them. He wanted to get some more sleep before training tomorrow.
Climbing to the top bunk of his new bed, Pip wrapped the blankets around his body before falling asleep.
“-seven, eight, nine, ten-”
“S-six,” Snails gasped.
“Stop!” Thunder Clash commanded.
Everypony groaned in frustration. Physical exercise was starting to become a test of patience for most of the recruits. Each time they messed up it was because of one pony, and Snails knew they hated him for it.
“Your body is your most valuable tool on and off the field. You must hone it to its peak if you want to survive the Night Guard.” Thunder Clash was pacing through the air, barely flapping his wings but still managing to travel at a descent clip. “You must also be in sync with your fellow Night Guard soldiers! If one of them fails you may all fail! Do you understand me, maggots?”
“Sir, yes sir,” Pip replied in unison with the rest.
“That is why you all should be pushing each other to be the very best! If one of you,” he glared at Snails, “is clearly lacking, it only means more heartache for the group!”
Thunder Clash suddenly landed and stood in front of Snails. The tall unicorn stared at his own hooves. “Snails! Always stand at attention when a commanding officer comes to speak to you!”
“Y-yes sir,” Snails stammered as he snapped to attention and held his head up.
“Are you done, boy? Is this the best you got?”
Snails’ lip quavered for a brief second. “No sir!”
“What if you and your group were fighting off a swarm of changelings, boy? What if you saw one sneakin’ in but you couldn’t get your slow tongue to relay that information fast enough? What then? Your whole unit goes down because you stuttered? Is that what you want?”
“If you’re to be a part of the Night Guard you have to be dependable, boy! Are you dependable right now?”
“Then what are you stillin’ doin’ here?” Thunder Clash asked, leaning in closer to Snails and narrowing his eyes. “Why don’t you face up to reality and realize you might not have what it takes to make it? I’m sure nopony but Snips is going to try and stop you if you walked off this field right now. What does that say about you, boy? Do you think that’s a good thing?”
There was a tense silence among the group as they watched Snails being chastised.
Snails couldn’t bring himself to say anything.
Thunder Clash continued, “Well? What’s it going to be, boy? You going to do us all a favor and leave?”
“I…” Snails was choking up. “I… want to s-stay, sir…”
“It doesn’t sound like you want to stay!”
“I… I w-want to stay, sir!”
Thunder Clash was practically breathing on him he was so close. “Then why can’t you count in time with the rest, boy!? I’m not asking much! I’m not asking for you to think! I’m asking for you to count at a normal speed!”
“I’ll… I’ll do b-better, sir!” Ironically, his speech was becoming slower the more nervous and choked up he became. Thunder Clash looked as though he may have aneurysm at any second from pure frustration.
“Boy, I will have you counting at every second of every day! You will count your push-ups, you will count laps, you will count sheep, you will count the oats on your tray when you eat breakfast! Do you understand me!? You will be counting till you get it right!”
Snails could only nod.
An actual member of the Night Guard descended upon them as Thunder Clash caught his breath. The bat pony soldier turned to Thunder Clash and nodded his head respectfully.
“Sir. You wanted to know what Phantom Shade was here, sir.”
Thunder Clash turned to the soldier and nodded. “That’s right. Take me to him.” He quickly glanced to Pip and the recruits before leaving. “You all get a drink of water. We start again when I get back.” He opened his feathery wings and took to the sky, following the Night Guard soldier to speak with Phantom Shade.
The moment Thunder Clash was out of earshot, everypony breathed a sigh of relief. They had been working hard for hours now.
Rumble turned to Pip, Marble and Scootaloo, waving them over. Once they were close he huddled them in a circle and whispered, “The drill sergeant is right. Snips and Snails need to go.”
“They said they wanted to stay,” Marble commented.
Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, but you’ve seen them! They really are going to hold us back. It’s because of those two that the bat ponies think we’re all drooling morons!”
“It’s because of those two we’ve been doing nothing but push-ups all night,” Rumble added.
Marble shrugged. “You all could stand to do a few more push-ups.”
“I’m sorry we’re all not super-strong earth ponies,” Scootaloo replied, rolling her eyes.
Rumble turned to Pip. “Why don’t you try and convince them to go? You know it would be better if they did. Better for us and them.”
Pip was taken aback. “Me? Why should I do it?”
“They joined the Night Guard because of your speech. They followed you because they thought you were strong. You should be the one to tell them they aren’t good enough.”
Scootaloo nodded. Marble just shrugged. “I’m not doing it.”
“C’mon, Pip. Just tell it to them like it is,” Rumble pleaded.
With a sigh, Pip slowly nodded his head. He stepped away from the huddle of ponies and slowly trotted over to Snips and Snails. He had no idea what he was going to say… Pip hoped the words would just come to him in the moment.
Snips was patting Snails on the shoulder. “It’s okay, buddy. I’m sure you’ll get it right eventually.”
“I can’t do anything right,” Snails gave a heavy sigh. “Even my talkin' is wrong.”
When Pip approached they both lit up with joy.
“Pip!” Snips said with smile. “Pip, please help Snails! We don’t know what to do!”
Snails nodded, also smiling. “Yeah! You’re smart! You know what the d-drill instructor likes! Help me get better!”
“It’s because he’s doing it on his own,” Snips immediately interjected before Pip could say anything. “When we work together we make the perfect unicorn! On our own… not so much… Please think of something!”
“You guys work best together?” Pip asked.
“Yeah! We always have, always will!”
Snails vigorously nodded. “If anypony can help us it’s you, Pip! Please!”
They both looked to him with big eyes and frowns. Pip sighed. When they had all been foals, Snips and Snails had been among the ponies to bully or pick on him for his small size… Pip found it ironic that now they would turn to him asking for help. If Pip wanted, this would be the moment to get revenge. Telling them they weren’t fit for the training… tell them they were every bit as worthless as the drill instructor tried to joke they were… telling them they were far beyond help…
But… the stars and the moon didn’t choose who they guided through the darkness. They were there for everypony to see; their light indiscriminate and equal to all.
Besides, what would Luna think if he cast these two aside when they came asking for help? Pip could never live with himself seeing the disappointment on her face.
“You two… said you work best together?” Pip asked again for clarification.
“Y-yeah,” they both answered.
“All right. I have an idea. When we’re counting, Snips counts for the odd numbers and Snails counts for the even numbers. There are so many of us I don’t think Thunder Clash can hear each pony individually, but he can hear when somepony is out of sync. That’ll give Snails long enough time to prepare for the next number, and as long as you take turns the count should sound equal the entire way through.”
Snips and Snails nodded along with each and every word. Once Pip was done, Snails smiled and nodded. “That might w-work!”
“In the meantime… You might just want to practice counting, like Thunder Clash suggested. I doubt this plan would work if he singled you out.”
“I will! I promise you!”
Pip nodded and returned to the other Ponyville recruits. Rumble was waiting, rubbing at his one bruised eye. When Pip got close he smiled.
“Are they going to resign?”
“No. They’re going to try and continue.”
“Aw, man,” Scootaloo breathed in frustration.
Marble glanced at the two unicorns and then back to Pip. “You motivated them to keep going?”
Pip nervously laughed. “Something like that.”
“That was kind of you, but when they fail it will be that much harder.”
“Maybe they won’t.”
“But you know they will. Though… I suppose, for the time being, they feel as though they are accomplishing something. Perhaps, when they fail, it will not be a total loss and this training will have given them the much needed confidence they both lack.” Marble went back to her position in line and waited calmly.
Thunder Clash sailed back to the group and circled them overhead. “Recruits! Form up!” His voice was harsh, much harsher than usual.
Pip got back in line and waited with the rest. They watched as they drill instructor began pacing in front of them like he always did.
“Go on then! Push-ups! To thirty!”
All the recruits dropped to the ground and began their push-ups.
“One, two, three, four, five…” they spoke in unison. Pip glanced over and saw that Snips and Snails were doing exactly what he had suggested. It was working. Thunder Clash continued to pace through the air in front of them, listening for a voice that was out of sync with the rest. He heard no such voice.
“… twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two…”
Thunder Clash turned to the group and raised an eyebrow. He watched them closely as they began nearing the end.
“… twenty-nine, thirty.”
All the recruits jumped back up and went back to their ready positions. Thunder Clash was speechless for a moment. As were Rumble, Scootaloo and the bat ponies.
“Am I imagining things?” Thunder Clash asked the group. “Did you maggots actually count to thirty together? Praise be to Celestia! I’ve finally brought you lot up to speed with an average school-foal! This must be a miracle! You can be taught!”
Despite their shaky legs, all the recruits began exchanging happy glances.
“Now it’s time to do laps!” Thunder Clash suddenly announced. “And after that we’ll be doing sit-ups! I hope that wasn’t a one-time fluke or else side effects may include rock-hard abs!”
Pip and the others reluctantly began their running, but at least now they weren’t all angry with Snails.
“Grab, turn, release. In that order! Do it now. Grab, turn, release!”
Pip watched the other recruits with interest. Thunder Clash was instructing the basic and standard combat training techniques. He and the other advanced recruits had to wait until Thunder Clash was done with the rest.
The other recruits were separated out and given plenty of space to work. Thunder Clash was making them run through drills. They were shadowing fighting, going through the motions as though they were facing an opponent but nopony was actually there. They mock “grabbed”, turned, and then mock “released” their pretend opponent.
“Grab, turn, release!” Thunder Clash shouted again. His sight suddenly fixated on Rust Wing. “You’re doing it wrong, recruit! Turn half an inch further before releasing!”
Rust Wing sighed and pushed her short red mane out of her eyes. It was sticking to her face with sweat. “Half an inch… whatever,” she grumbled under her breath, loud enough for everypony to hear.
Thunder Clash landed on the ground before her. She jumped to attention. “What was that, girlie? Do you have a problem with how I’m conducting this training session?”
“Sir, no sir!” she replied.
“Well then… Don’t be getting snippy like you know what’s best! You never want to cut corners in training! Maybe you cut corners in the heat of combat, maybe you cut corners when the job needs to get done, but you never cut corners here!” Thunder Clash took to the sky. “Who here knows what muscle memory is?”
Mist, Equinox and Specter raised their hoof.
“That’s it!?” Thunder Clash balked. “Only three of you!? Oh boy… Listen here, recruits! The whole reason we do these drills is to build muscle memory! When you repeatedly preform these drills they will become etched into your brain! Soon, you won’t even need to think about them happening; they will just happen on their own and your body will move accordingly!”
Thunder Clash landed again and pointed to Scootlaoo. “You. The fast one. Come at me.”
Scootaloo looked around. She even glanced behind her. “Wait, me?”
“No. The flightless pegasus behind you. Of course you! Stop making a fool of yourself and run at me! Try to knock me down!”
“A-are you sure, sir?” Scootaloo nervously asked. “Aren’t you kinda… old?”
Rumble snorted back a laugh, Snips and Snails covered their mouth with their hooves, and all the bat ponies began snickering an odd ke ke ke.
Thunder Clash narrowed his eyes. “I might be old, but I’ve still got kick left in me. Tell ya what. If you managed to knock me down, I’ll excuse you from the obstacle course coming up. How does that sound? Incentive enough? Run at me, girlie.”
“Is that offer open to everypony, sir?” Screech suddenly asked, his red eyes alight with barely restrained joy.
“No,” Thunder Clash snapped. “This is a onetime offer for this demonstration only. Hurry it up, girlie! I thought you were the fast one!?”
Scootaloo nodded and took a few steps back. She kicked her feet against the dirt and lowered her head, preparing to launch at the scarred drill instructor. Hey tiny wings came to life, buzzing with the intensity needed to allow her to run at high speeds. Once she was ready she sped forward.
Practically flying across the ground, Scootaloo reached Thunder Clash within the second.
Like a perfectly executed dance move, he laid his hooves on her, turned his body slightly, steering her with the motion, and then released. It had all happened so fast that Pip had almost missed it when he blinked.
Thunder Clash let her go sailing straight into an armor rack. She collided with the heavy metal, tripped over the wood and unceremoniously tumbled across the ground. She got up to wobbly feet and another round of barely suppressed laughter came from the recruits. Thunder Clash had used the exact same motion he had been drilling into them in order to throw off Scootaloo’s momentum and protect himself.
“See that, maggots? If I had to think about what I was going to do, she would have overtaken me. She’s a speedy thing. You don’t want to be bogged down in your own thoughts in the middle of combat. You want everything to happen naturally. Your body should move with the fluidity of water and that only comes from muscle memory. Which is why you don’t want to cut corners! You don't want your body to do the wrong thing in the middle of combat! The basics could save your life one day! Remember that!”
“Sir, yes sir,” the recruits shouted in unison. Scootaloo eventually made it back to her place in line, her mane and feathers ruffled and out of place.
Thunder Clash turned to the advanced recruits and glared. “You four won’t be pretending. You’ll pair up and take turns trying to knock the other to the ground. Specter, you’re with Gloom. Pip, you’re with Equinox.”
They nodded and immediately took their places on the other side of the training field, away from the other recruits. Pip stood opposite Equinox and smiled. Her dark gray coat and light blue mane were smooth and shiny in the moonlight, despite the rigorous training.
“Which do you prefer?” Pip asked her.
“I will attempt to block your advances,” she stated very formally.
Pip nodded. “All right.” Once she was ready, Pip ran at her with the intent to knock her down. When he got closer he slowed and braced himself for the eventual throw. She easily steered him and released, sending him passed her.
“Don’t hesitate,” Equinox snapped.
Pip walked back over to his starting position. “This is drill training. I didn’t think it was necessary to actually knock you down. We’re supposed to get into the habit of blocking incoming advances.”
“Unlike you, I’ve already had these drills burned into my mind and muscles. I can take whatever you got.”
“All right. I won’t hold back then.”
Once she was ready, Pip rushed forward. He already knew what she was going to do… which gave him a slight advantage. When he got close, instead of just rushing into her, he dove for her legs. She was obviously unprepared for the maneuver, and once he was under her, he jumped up and slammed his body up against hers, all within a single motion.
Equinox opened her wings and used them to prevent herself from tumbling to the ground. “What are you doing?” she hissed. “That wasn’t a part of the drill!”
Pip raised an eyebrow and took his position back across from her. “I thought you had already learned the drill and now you wanted to try this for real.”
“I figured you were going to continue a forward dash assault, not… whatever that was.” She flapped her leathery wings and landed back in the starting position.
“Make up your mind,” Pip half-laughed. “Either I’ll keep doing the drill or I’m going to try and really knock you down. I don’t think the enemy will use the same move over and over again in real combat, do you?”
Equinox stared at him with her gold eyes. She contemplated his words for a moment before coming to some sort of internal decision. “Perhaps you should be the one to block the attacks. You’re the novice here. This lesson was more designed for you anyway.”
“All right. I’m ready when you are.”
She nodded and rushed toward him. Pip barely had time to get his bearings by the time she was close. He tried to use the move Thunder Clash had demonstrated, but she was too fast and too strong for him to effectively use it. She slammed into him and he landed back against the dirt, winded.
“Again,” she snapped.
Pip got to his feet and quickly got into position. When they were both ready, she rushed forward and… knocked him down again. Pip got back to his feet and brushed himself off, slightly discouraged.
“Again,” Equinox stated, jumping back to her starting position.
Pip nodded. He knew the only way he would develop any sort of muscle memory would be to keep at this. Even if it was painful. This time, however, when she came in she slowed and allowed him to do the drill like it was supposed to be done. He grabbed, turned and released, sidestepping the attack. She turned and nodded to him.
"That was perfect. Again.”
They both got back into position and, again, she came at him slow enough so that he could practice the correct motions. Pip was grateful she was willing to take it easy on him. He was still sore from all the strenuous exercise.
“When did you start your combat training?” Pip asked as she came at him again. Once he managed to sidestep the attack she turned to him with a disinterested expression.
“Since I could fly. Everypony in Hollow Shades learns how to fight. It's a part of the schooling.”
Pip and Equinox took their positions again. “Hollow Shades? Is that a town? Like Ponyville?”
“Shouldn't we focus on the training?” she said with a forced yawn. “You aren't even in the proper stance anymore.”
“O-oh, sorry,” Pip muttered, moving to get the proper footing before continuing.
“Ah, Captain Phantom Shade,” Thunder Clash announced aloud. “How long have you been stalking us this evening?”
Pip and Equinox stopped their drill and glanced around. Pip didn’t see him and Equinox had to actually point before he knew where to look. Phantom Shade was standing on the roof of the barracks, staring down at the recruits with his seemingly all-seeing eyes.
Thunder Clash landed and looked up at the bat pony commander. “Are you content to watch or are you here for another purpose?”
Phantom Shade unfurled his wings and glided down to the back field. He landed next to the drill sergeant and examined all the recruits. “I’m disappointed in you, Thunder Clash. I still count twelve recruits. I’ve given you a few nights. Why are there still this many?”
“Well, they could be masochists,” Thunder Clash sarcastically offered. “Or stupid. Or they're actually here to do hard work. All three are legitimate answers.”
Phantom Shade ignored most of Thunder Clash’s statements. His eyes lingered on Snips, Snails, and Scootaloo.
“What trial did you have for them at the first elimination?”
Thunder Clash waved his hoof toward the distant training field with the obstacle courses. “The standard. You know how my training works. First two months obstacle course, next few months are team obstacle courses and the last few months are all the interesting tests. You know the ones.”
“Then you should change it. This elimination should consist of monster trapping.”
“What?” Thunder Clash could barely stop himself from laughing. “These recruits are far, and I do mean far, from being able to handle live monsters. No. We’ll be doing the obstacle course like at benchmarks. I’ve already got their average times and told them they have to beat the eight minute mark.”
Phantom Shade turned to Thunder Clash with a piercing glare. “Are you questioning my decision?”
“Oh, I wasn’t questioning your decision. I was just flat mocking your decision. That’s a terrible idea. I doubt even one of the recruits would make it through the monster trapping test. Heck, I don’t know if you would have made it through that test at the two week mark!”
“This isn’t up for debate,” Phantom Shade stated in a heated tone. “My word is final. They will take part in the monster trapping. Those that fail will be removed from the training.”
Silence settled over the training area like a thick fog. Thunder Clash and Phantom Shade glared at each other for a long time before the pegasus finally replied, “Of course, captain. It’ll be as you say.”
“Good,” Phantom Shade muttered darkly. “I would expect nothing less.”