Phantom Shade flew off into the night as stealthy as he arrived. Pip watched him go till he could see him no longer.
“What is the monster trapping test?” Rumble asked, drawing Pip’s attention. “Is it really as hard as you said?”
Thunder Clash snorted in annoyance. “Don’t worry your silly little heads about it. It’s not going to happen. Princess Luna would never sign off on such a drastic change to the training, especially nothing as dangerous as monster trapping.”
“But, what is it?” Snips asked. All of the recruits were staring silently. Even Pip was curious as to what made monster trapping so very hazardous.
Thunder Clash glanced between them and sighed. “Typically, we would let loose King Basilisks within the forest below Canterlot. The recruits would then gather them back up. Monster trapping is just a test to see how well you can catch a monster. The King Basilisks made the task dangerous.”
“King Basilisks?” Specter and Equinox asked in disbelief.
“That’s right. There is an area for them in the Hayseed Swamps. Princess Celestia and Luna have contained them there for generations.”
“What are they?” Snails asked.
Thunder Clash shook his head. “They’re distant cousins to the dragons. Six legs, scales of steel, eyes that glow in the dark, the size of a building, immune to magical effects… Meeting their gaze turns you to stone.”
“Like a cockatrice?” Snips and Snails asked with an excited smile.
“It isn’t a game!” Thunder Clash grunted. “They’re deadly! The cockatrice is nothing compared to their might! There’s a reason the princesses have prevented them from leaving the swamps!”
Snips and Snails slumped back in their place.
The rest of the recruits nodded. Pip couldn’t believe that Phantom Shade would want them to fight such a dangerous creature. He was surprised anypony had fought such a dangerous monster. The fact that the Night Guard was expected to deal with such monsters was a testament to their strength.
“But how-” Rumble began.
“Enough!” Thunder Clash cut him off. “No more talk of it! Return to your drills! I’ll be speaking with Princess Luna before the end of the evening.”
Pip’s chest tightened at the thought of somepony just going to speak with Luna. He almost asked Thunder Clash if he could go with him… but he knew that would be improper. There was a small piece of him that wished Luna would just come out one night to observe the training… just so he would have an excuse to speak with her…
Equinox waved her hoof through the air to get his attention. “We need to focus,” she told him. “Come on.”
He nodded and returned to his drills.
“That’s it for the evening!” Thunder Clash announced. “Now get back to the barracks! I have a certain Princess to see.” He flew off the moment he finished speaking.
Pip looked to the sky. There was still plenty of time in the night. He contemplated resting but, at the same time, he had a short amount of time to prepare for monster trapping… Hopefully Thunder Clash speaks with Luna and that all turns out to be a terrible misunderstanding. He practically lost a fight to Screech. What chance did he have against a monster of the Hayseed Swamps?
Marble trotted up to him and looked into his eyes. As though she knew what he was worried about, she stepped closer and whispered, “We cannot fight King Basilisks. We stand no chance.”
“I know,” Pip whispered under his breath. “I guess you were right about us being targeted…”
Rumble, Scootaloo, Snips and Snails eventually trotted over as well. They were tired, even from the shadow drills they had been performing.
“Pip, what're we going to do?” Rumble asked.
Pip was taken aback. “M-me? I don’t know what we’re going to do… Follow the drills, I guess. Learn what we can before the test.”
“We can’t learn what we need to learn in that short amount of time!” Scootaloo hissed. “It’s not fair that Phantom Shade would make us do that! We should complain to somepony or something!”
“Well, Princess Luna will put a stop to it,” Rumble nervously chuckled. “Right? She wouldn’t sign off on us doing monster trapping? She knows better. Right, Pip?”
They all turned to him. Pip hesitantly nodded. The Luna he knew would never needlessly put ponies in danger. They most likely had nothing to worry about. “I’m sure she’ll put a stop to this.”
“And if she doesn’t?” Marble asked. “What do we do then?”
“I… I don’t know. I don’t have any plan or idea for this.”
Marble narrowed her eyes. “The most dangerous aspect of the King Basilisk is its eyes. They glow in the dark, drawing ponies to look at them when they’re lost in the swamp late at night. Like moths to a flame… they are doomed long before they even know they are facing a monster.”
Rumble stared at Marble with a frown. “Are you trying to freak us out? Why would you tell us that!?”
“Bat ponies, though… they see in the darkness. They know the monster long before its gaze is set. Not only that, but they can fly with their eyes closed, relying on their hearing to guide them.”
“Yeah, thanks again, Marble. I’m sure I speak for everypony when I say it’s good to know we suck compared to the bat ponies.”
Marble sighed. “What I’m trying to say is… We don’t stand a chance unless we get the bat ponies on our side. We’ll need somepony to see in the darkness. Somepony to let us know where the King Basilisks are hiding.”
“The bat ponies hate us, and I highly doubt they’re going to get any friendlier!” Scootaloo said, glancing over her shoulder and staring at the other recruits. The bat ponies were also huddled together, whispering amongst themselves. Pip wondered what they were discussing…
“If we want a fighting chance at all, at least one of them will need to help us.”
“Well, you heard the mare,” Rumble said to Pip with a forced smile.
“Me? Again?” Pip asked. “Why is it always me? Surely you would be a better choice!”
“What makes you think that?”
“Well… you can fly! They can fly! You already have something to talk about!”
Rumble flapped his powerful wings and slowly nodded. “I guess I do fly…”
Marble shook her head. “Bat ponies respect strength. Pip, you’ve already proven yourself to be tenacious. I think your olive branch would be well received.”
Pip nervously laughed and glanced back over his shoulders. The bat ponies were staring at them… But who would he approach? Screech was out of the question… and the other five he knew next to nothing about. Maybe I should just approach them as a group… maybe they’ll want to make friends with us as well…
Taking a deep breath, Pip left the Ponyville recruits and slowly trotted up to the group of bat ponies. The bat ponies were whispering to each other but stopped once Pip got close. They eyed him suspiciously and said nothing.
“Um,” Pip awkwardly started. The words just weren’t coming to him. “Well…”
Mist flapped her wings and nervously moved a few feet away. “You aren’t bleeding anymore, right?”
“No, not bleeding. The medics took care of that a few days back.”
She immediately relaxed and landed back with the group of bat ponies. Screech didn’t care if Pip were bleeding or not. He glared and bared his fangs.
“Get out of here, earth pony. We’ve nothing to say to you.”
“I, um, came over here to… see if you guys wanted to work together… in the future.” Pip tried to pick his words carefully. He ignored Screech’s dismissive attitude. He knew Screech wouldn’t be helpful. This message was for the others. Perhaps one of them would take it to heart.
“You want us to help you,” Specter stated in low voice, almost a whisper. Sometimes Pip forgot he was standing there. He was so very silent.
“I figured we could help each other.”
“What could you possibly do to help us?”
Pip struggled to think of anything. What did bat ponies even want? “I’m willing to hear suggestions.”
“I told you this would happen!” Screech hissed, lowing himself into a fighting stance. “These ponies just want to use us! They’re just like all the others! All they care about is themselves!”
Gloom, the tallest bat pony among them, nodded. “I heard what they were whispering about,” he offered to the conversation, his large ears twitching. “They’re concerned about the King Basilisk. They just want us to help them see through the darkness. They want us to be their eyes.”
The group of bat ponies suddenly turned to Pip with glares. He held his ground, but he felt as though he were taking several steps back in terms of this relationship. He decided the best policy was an honest policy. “Look… We can’t see in the dark. We’ll be lost if we don’t have somepony to guide. We need your help.”
“Forget it,” Specter immediately replied. “We refuse to help.”
Pip looked into the face of each bat pony. Screech, Rust Wing and Gloom were equally as determined to send Pip away. Equinox was unreadable and Mist couldn’t stand to meet his gaze. “I don’t understand,” Pip said. “Why can’t we work together?”
Without warning, Screech lunged at Pip. The bat pony collided with him, sending them both tumbling to the ground. "Liars!" he hissed. "I'll bring you down before I help you! Mark my words!" Within a matter of seconds, the bat ponies had pulled Screech off and the Ponyville recruits had come to Pip's aid. Rumble jumped out ahead of him and was staring down the others.
“What was that for!? What are you, a bunch of lunatics!? We’re all on the same side here!”
“Leave us alone,” Specter commanded, taking to the sky with the other bat ponies. “You don’t bother us. We won’t bother you.” Gloom and Rust Wing had to pull Screech along, but eventually his need to assault Pip passed.
“We should report him!” Scootaloo said through clenched teeth. “That pony is crazy!”
“No,” Pip shook his head, getting to his feet. “Just leave him. I’m fine.”
Marble looked Pip over. “You’re dirty.”
“Sorry he attacked you. I guess we need to bank on Luna denying Phantom Shade’s unreasonable demands.”
“What did Princess Luna say?”
Thunder Clash descended onto the training field with a hard scowl. “What have I told you about addressing commanding officers?” he snapped.
Snips hung his head. “Sir, sorry sir!”
“Hmpf. Let’s get started for tonight. Fifty sit-ups. Begin.”
Rumble raised his hoof. Thunder Clash glared at him.
“What is it, boy?”
“What did Princess Luna say, sir?”
All of the recruits were silent and staring. Thunder Clash hesitated. He knew they would never be satisfied until he gave them an answer.
With a long sigh he replied, “The monster trapping… was Princess Luna’s idea.”
Pip was momentarily dumbstruck. No… It couldn’t be… Luna would never suggest that! She would never have barely trained ponies fighting King Basilisks!
“She told me spoke with Phantom Shade about the assignment. That he had all the details and would be taking care of it according to her requirements. She assured me it was her wishes you engage in the monster trapping.”
No! That wasn’t like Luna at all!
“But, how’re we going to face a King Basilisk?” Rumble asked, his voice one of despair.
Thunder Clash snorted. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and they won’t bring out the King Basilisks for you. Luna didn’t tell me the details. She only told me Phantom Shade knew what to do.”
“But if they do?”
“Enough!” Thunder Clash snapped. “Everypony to their sit-ups! We’ve no time to second guess everything from the top! I’m sure whatever awaits you is within your capability! Princess Luna has never steered us wrong before!”
“Except when she became Nightmare Moon,” Snips muttered under his breath.
Everypony was dead silent after his comment.
Pip was torn. Should he trust that Luna and Phantom Shade had his best interests at heart, or should he doubt and call into question their decisions? He wanted to trust Luna so badly… but at the same time… he knew what struggles she had to go through on a daily basis. He knew she was chased by an unshakeable darkness.
When nopony moved to the sit-ups, Thunder Clash landed and stood before them. “Listen up. Everypony is afraid of conflict and battle. Everypony is afraid of failing. Of dying. The coward is the one who lets his fear control him. A real warrior controls his fear and pushes forward regardless.”
“A fool rushes in when he knows he’ll lose,” Equinox added. “Maybe we just don’t want to be fools.”
“Nopony is keeping you here, recruit. You can leave at any time. If the thought of facing a King Basilisk is too much, perhaps it would be best if you left now.” All the recruits began to nervously glance among themselves. Pip took a deep breath. He knew he couldn’t leave. He wasn’t going to be chased away by the mere thought of danger. They would have to remove his corpse from the jaws of the King Basilisk before he was ready to go home.
“I can tell you this,” Thunder Clash added, “I will do everything in my power to help you make it through the conflict. It’s my duty to prepare you for your job as a soldier. Whatever weakness the King Basilisks have will be thoroughly etched into your minds by the time of the test.”
“Are there any weaknesses?” Marble asked.
That was discouraging.
Thunder Clash continued, “But I know some good techniques that can change the tide of battle in your favor. You’ll know them all by then.”
Despite Thunder Clash's offer, nopony left the field. Even Snips and Snails decided to stay, though Pip was sure they were glancing in his direction. Pip suspected that if he had left they would have followed.
“Well, if nopony is leaving… Get to the sit-ups, maggots!”
They all fell to their backs and began the rigorous training the night had in store for them.
“Grab, turn, release!” Thunder Clash continued to chant. “Grab, turn, release!”
While most of the recruits were practicing their motions on their own, Pip continued to practice with Equinox. Although they didn’t speak much, he knew she was trying to help him. She was much too forgiving and accommodating in moments that she didn’t need to be. Pip didn’t mind. He did everything in his power not to anger her in an attempt to bridge this gap between them before the test.
“King Basilisks are slow on their feet! Maneuvering behind them is the only way to survive!”
Occasionally, while counting or chanting the moves they should be practicing, Thunder Clash would randomly spout information about King Basilisks. Pip found it useful but it would all mean nothing if he couldn’t find his way through the dark.
“King Basilisks chase wounded pray! Like bat ponies, they can smell blood!”
Pip was absent-mindedly going through his drills, trying hard to store all the information he could while thinking about this dilemma. The thought of a King Basilisk chasing after him while injured was a terrifying one… but that may be the only way to lure it to a cage…
“Hey!” Equinox called his attention. “You need to focus!”
“S-sorry. Just trying to think of ways to herd a-”
“I know what you were thinking. I just want you to focus. You need to get these drills right.”
“These drills won’t matter if I fail that test,” Pip stated earnestly.
Equinox dropped her fighting stance and stared at him in curiosity. “This… means a lot to you? The Night Guard?”
Pip nodded. “It means everything to me. This is all I’ve wanted since I was a foal.”
“Why?” she asked in a strained voice. “Why not join the Sun Guard or the Friendship Guard? You just don’t trust bat ponies doing the job? Is that it? Too frightened of us?”
“W-what?” Pip stammered. “N-no! Nothing like that! I just want to protect Princess Luna! I swear!”
Equinox stared at him a long time, deciding whether or not to believe him. Specter and Gloom suddenly turned their way.
“Equinox!” Gloom called out. “Don’t bother talking to him! Just do your drills!”
She turned away. “They're right. We’ve drills to do.”
“I want us all to join the Night Guard,” Pip told her as she walked back to her starting position. Even though she didn’t bother to acknowledge him, Pip continued talking regardless. “I just want Luna to be safe. We can do that together.”
She didn’t bother responding and they returned to their drills.
“Dismissed!” Thunder Clash announced. “And just in case any of you know how to read, I’ve placed a book containing the ecology of magical creatures in the barracks. Furthermore, if you dullards don’t know how to use an table of contents, the chapter on King Basilisks starts on page one hundred and thirty-three.”
Pip stopped his combat training and watched Equinox, Gloom and Specter fly off to the barracks. Now incredibly thirsty, Pip began his trot to the well. The thought of soothing water clouded all his thoughts. He never even saw the pony that grabbed him from behind.
“Eh!” he gasped as he was pulled backward.
Pip was pulled behind a tree and shoved into its hollow trunk. Much to his surprise and shock, Mist was the one shoving him around. She squeezed into the trunk with him and pulled down a branch to cover the hole, hiding them both from the outside world. Pip hadn’t even known this tree was hollow.
“Mist?” he asked in confusion. “What’s going on?”
“Shh, shh, shh!” she whispered in her normal sing-song voice. Pip opened his mouth to whisper a question but she practically shoved a hoof in his mouth to silence him. “I wanted to talk to you but I don’t want the others to see us!”
Pip attempted to nod but it was extremely cramped inside the trunk of the tree. He and Mist were both standing on their hind legs, but even then there was barely any room between them.
“I was talking to my sister and we think that you other ponies and us bat ponies should be working together. She says that King Basilisks are also attracted to magic use… So if your two unicorn buddies help us, we’ll all have a better chance of surviving!”
Pip awkwardly tried to agree with her, but she still had her hoof over his mouth and she was now snickering as though they weren’t both uncomfortably stuck inside a tree. Once she noticed he was trying to talk, Mist removed her hoof and motioned for him to keep his voice down. It was dark, but the moon was bright enough outside that the ambient light was enough to make out vague outlines, even within the truck of the hollow tree.
“Equinox! You know Equinox! Don’t tell me you forgot her name already…”
“Er, no… I just didn’t know you were related. I, uh, would love for us all to work together.”
“Good. Then she and I will help you guys see in the dark and you’ll get your unicorn friends to act as bait for us, deal?”
“Sure. It’s as good a plan as any. The… the other bat ponies won’t mind that you’re helping us?”
“I’m really good at finding hiding places,” she motioned to the tree around them, smiling a cute smile and rubbing the wood as though it were a cherished object. “We’ll sneak away from them long before they can say anything. And it’s all their fault anyway! They refuse to listen! They just think all the day-dwelling ponies are the same! You guys aren't like the ponies of the past!”
Pip was surprised. Hate them? “We don’t hate you… I barely know anything about you.”
“Oh, I know you don’t,” she snickered a quiet ke ke ke.
“Yeah! You can see it in your eyes.” She leaned closer to him and stared. Even in the dark, Pip could tell her eyes were a shade of amber, but her… proximity… was now somewhat unnerving. Did Mist not understand the concept of personal space?
“Thanks?” he stated, his back now completely pressed up against the trunk of the tree. “Um… But what if there's blood involved?”
“B-blood?” she gasped, nearly jumping out of the hollow tree trunk. “What blood!?”
“Er, I meant… when we’re out there facing the King Basilisk… What if there’s blood then? Will you be… okay?”
Mist shakily tried to calm herself. She took deep breaths. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to… It doesn’t matter. Equinox will be there. She knows what to do. If there’s too much blood…” As she spoke she began sucking down deeper and deeper breaths. “If there’s too much blood… I’ll… I’ll…”
“Are you… afraid of blood?” Pip asked in disbelief.
Mist’s eyes became big and glassy with water. “Don’t tell the others,” she whispered. “I don’t want anypony to know… Promise me!”
Pip quickly nodded. “I promise.” Though they might already suspect...
“You better not tell anypony,” she stated, her voice quavering.
“I would never betray your confidence,” Pip earnestly replied. “But I don’t understand why you’re so embarrassed. I’m sure lots of ponies are afraid of the sight of blood.”
“But I’m a bat pony! It’s… embarrassing. It’s like an earth pony being afraid of oats! When I was younger… the other foals would bully me all the time…” Her song-like voice fluctuated with her emotions.
“Wait,” Pip suddenly connected the dots. “Are you saying…?”
She looked up at him with a frown. Pip hadn’t fully comprehended bat ponies drank blood until this very moment. That fact made their proximity even more unnerving. She didn’t look threatening, but Screech’s powerful bite suddenly took a turn for the sinister…
“Do you drink blood?” he asked, his curiosity overriding his fear of the answer.
“I eat fruit,” Mist replied, her eyes downcast. “I’m a fruitarian. Just the thought of drinking b-b-blood makes me want to-” she suddenly gagged. Pip held up his hooves and tried to calm her.
“It’s okay! You don’t need to think about it! I don’t want to hear about it, to be frank…”
She nodded and soon her normal care-free smile returned to her face. “Thank you! You’re so much nicer than the rest! Gloom and Screech ridicule constantly…”
Pip nervously shifted his weight from one hoof to the other. “Don’t mention it but… I should be getting back to the barracks.”
“Oh! Right!” Mist easily slipped from the tree and allowed him to exit. Pip jumped out and took a deep breath. She titled her head and waved to him. “Until next time, Squeaks!” She flapped her wings and took off into the night, humming to herself like nothing had ever happened. Pip brushed himself off.
The night of the test came too quickly.
Pip had read and learned everything he could about King Basilisks in the short amount of time he was allotted, but he didn’t think it was nearly enough. When he woke, his legs were weak and his heart already beating quickly. It wasn’t the thought of death that shook him… it was the thought of failing. He knew, in his heart of hearts, wanted this more than anything.
The other recruits looked about the same. They were white in the face and quiet the entire time they made their bed and ate their breakfast. Marble even folded and re-folded her blankets several times more than usual. Pip turned to watch the moon come up into the sky. He hoped Luna knew what she was doing.
When they walked outside, it felt like a death march. Nopony wanted to go, but nopony wanted to be the one that stayed behind. For a moment, Pip felt like a lemming.
Thunder Clash met them on the field and pointed them toward the forest in the valley below Canterlot. “Match, recruits.” It was the only command he gave.
They marched along the road, their steps in sync but heads hung low. Pip glanced up at the castle when it came into view. It was far above them, maybe fifty stories, but he liked to imagine Luna was there. And seeing it made her feel close.
They reached the edge of the forest faster than Pip expected. Or perhaps he couldn’t accurately judge time anymore. His mind was steeled to victory, no matter what sacrifice he had to make, but he honestly worried it would require just that.
“Whatever happens,” Thunder Clash began, “I just want you recruits to know I’ve been impressed by your determination.” It sounded like a last goodbye.
Waiting at the edge of the forest was Phantom Shade and ten of the Night Guard soldiers. They looked disinterested when Pip and the others arrived. Were they really so desensitized to monsters that King Basilisks didn’t bother them?
Phantom Shade turned to the recruits and looked them over, surprise written across his face. “Twelve still?” He turned to Thunder Clash. “Still?”
Thunder Clash nodded. “I tried to give them the out. They stayed regardless.”
Phantom Shade moved closer to the group and glared. “You’re all prepared to take the monster trapping test?”
All the recruits solemnly nodded.
“Tsk,” Phantom Shade growled. “Did Thunder Clash not inform you of the previous monster trappings? Well? Did he or didn’t he?”
“He did, sir,” Scootloo replied indignantly. “We know what we need to do.”
“And none of you resigned? The thought of fighting King Basilisks not enough to deter you?”
The Night Guard soldiers exchanged confused glances. Pip raised an eyebrow.
The other recruits shook their heads. Phantom Shade, for the first time since Pip had known him, seemed mildly impressed.
“Pick yourselves up,” he commanded. “You’ve no King Basilisks waiting for you tonight.”
“W-what?” Scootaloo and Rumble asked at the same time.
“Princess Luna wants another type of monster captured. In order to pass tonight’s test you must find a Star Spider and bring it back alive.”
Thunder Clash snorted back a laugh. “Are you serious? That’s it? A Star Spider?”
All the recruits were holding their breath. Was this a joke?
“I’m very serious,” Phantom Shade replied. “Each recruit must bring a Star Spider back by morning.”
“You let all these recruits think you were going to make them fight King Basilisks?” Thunder Clash was now angry. “But you knew all along they were going to capture Star Spiders?”
Phantom Shade smiled. “Of course.”
Pip was in a state of disbelief. Phantom Shade had intentionally tried to frighten them into quitting! He had used Luna’s assignment to intimidate the recruits by making them believe they would face something far greater than they were capable of handling!
“Don’t think you’re out of the woods yet,” Phantom Shade continued. “Though Star Spiders are typically harmless, they are very attuned to dark magic. They shift forms when it’s near and become… larger. Princess Luna wants to see the condition of the Star Spiders near Canterlot and thought this might be a perfect opportunity to watch her new recruits in action.”
“Princess Luna is here?” Pip gasped aloud before he had a chance to think about what he was even saying.
Phantom Shade raised an eyebrow. “She’ll be watching your progress from the sky tonight. Pray you do not fail in front of her.”