The walk back was slow. Everypony was fatigued. Pip hadn’t slept since the train ride, and even then, it had been poor sleep at best. Additionally, although the sun wasn’t directly cast upon them, it was still hot. Pip found himself panting and sweating more than he had in a long time.
Equinox had the worst of it. She was obviously not accustomed to such weather. She fell behind, even further than Snips and Snails, and occasionally they all needed to stop and allow her to catch up. Pip knew they needed to press on. They had to make it back to the train before the end of the coming night and, at their current pace, they would only just barely make it.
“Gah… We should have asked that Quetzalcoatl to fly us back,” Rumble loudly groaned.
Scootaloo nodded. “Yeah. We definitely should have done that. Maybe we can turn around and still ask him?”
“Didn’t Princess Luna warn us about going into the ruins at night?” Snails asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Snips muttered. “That’s why the bat ponies couldn’t come… What do you think would have happened if we had entered the ruins at night?”
All the recruits looked over their shoulder and down the ravine. Pip hadn’t given that question much thought, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sate his curiosity. Walking back at this point was out of the question. Even if the Quetzalcoatl agreed to fly them, they would never make it in time.
“Let’s keep going guys,” Pip tried to encourage them. “We’re almost there.”
“I don’t think you can accurately gauge distance,” Marble stated.
“My cutie mark isn’t a measuring stick, that’s for sure.”
She snorted. “You get feisty when you’re tired.”
“Sorry,” Pip muttered. “I just don’t want to fail this. I feel like I just barely passed Luna’s last assignment…”
The recruits continued forward, regardless of their exhaustion. It wasn’t long until the sun set and the moon began to rise into the sky. Pip felt better then. The dropping temperature was pleasant and the familiarity with his surroundings a comfort. Equinox also seemed better. She managed to fly up to the group and trot along without falling behind.
Invigorated by his second wind, Pip picked up the pace.
A small stone had fallen from above and bounced off the rocks of the ravine floor. Pip glanced upward and froze. The other recruits glanced upward as well.
Pip had never met any bat ponies outside of his Night Guard training… seeing so many of them on the edge of the ravine worried him. By his count, there were at least twenty. He hesitantly took a step forward.
“Who goes there?” he asked, trying to imitate what he thought a royal guard would ask in this situation.
“Aren’t ya a little out yer jurisdiction, guard?” one of the bat ponies in the group asked. He flew off the edge of the ravine and down to the ground. The other bat ponies waited, their gold, red and gray eyes watching the situation intently. At their angle, their eyes gleamed like that of a cat’s.
The bat pony in front of Pip had a black coat, dark blue mane, and gold eyes. His cutie mark was three purple drops of liquid and he wore minimal leather armor to protect only his most vital spots. His coat was scarred, especially around the neck, and at his back was a bow and quiver. Pip suspected they all had bows and quivers.
“These are still lands inside the borders Equestria,” Pip stated.
“Aye, but far from where the Night Guard keeps its company,” the bat pony replied with a half-smile.
“I didn’t know they started accepting day-ponies,” one of the random other bat ponies above called down. “Have you ever seen that before, Hemlock?”
The bat pony in front of Pip, Hemlock, shook his head. “Nope. Not till now. I suppose it was inevitable. The princess is a day-pony at heart, after all.”
Equinox flew forward and stood next to Pip. “What’re you doing here?” she demanded. “Prowling the night and looking for stray ponies?”
The bat ponies up above began snickering. Pip didn’t like the look of this. He covertly glanced back at the other recruits. They were clearly tired. And the bat ponies were not. If the six bat pony recruits Pip had interacted with were telling as to how all bat ponies lived, then these bat ponies would be at least familiar with combat and strife. The situation only got worse when Pip realized they had the advantage of, not only numbers, but the terrain as well. The bat ponies could rain down arrows into the ravine, and only Rumble and Equinox could fly…
“Oh? They do still let bat ponies into the guard,” Hemlock laughed. He leaned in closer to Equinox and smiled. “Why don’t ya ditch these foals and join us, sweetie?”
She rolled her eyes. “You lot look like a gaggle of mange-ridden outcasts. I think I would, literally, rather run with foals.”
Hemlock took a step back and chuckled darkly. “I was trying to spare ya the fate of your companions, but I guess we’ll have to take yer expensive lookin’ armor and weapons as well.”
The bat ponies and recruits all tensed, moments away from attacking.
“Wait!” Pip blurted out, suddenly struck with an idea. “Equinox, just give them the gemstone. I think that should be enough to buy us safe passage.”
“What?” Equinox gasped, giving him an incredulous look. He stared at her for half a second, just long enough for her to catch onto his impromptu plan. “I mean, er, are you sure?”
Hemlock suspiciously glanced between them. “Enough of this. There is no buying safe passage. Give me everything ya got, or-”
Equinox removed the Fragment of the First Day from the black velvet pouch. The stone’s brilliant light flooded the area, forcing Pip to blink a few times in order to recover. Hemlock and the other bat ponies immediately cried out in shock and pain, their sensitive eyes suddenly blinded.
“Equinox, take care of this!” Pip said, pointing to the bat ponies on the ridge above them.
She nodded and flew up, the Fragment of the First Day within her hooves. The band of bat ponies dispersed, fleeing in multiple directions. Most ran, but some took to the skies, wobbling about and flying higher and higher into the sky, some even running into each other.
Before Hemlock could fly away, Pip rushed him. With his opponent blinded, it was easy for Pip to outmaneuver him. He bashed Hemlock across the muzzle using the side of his claws and then quickly knocked him to the ground. Once he was down, Pip pinned him.
Equinox landed back in the ravine and tucked the Fragment of the First Day back into its velvet pouch. The light was contained, though Pip didn’t know how. It was a simple velvet bag... wasn’t it? The light was so radiant, it was hard to imagine it could be contained by anything.
Equinox trotted, along with the other recruits, over to Pip and the bandit. The moment Hemlock regained his sight, he glared at them. His nose was bloody and he squinted through one eye that was now swollen.
Marble shrugged. “He’s just a brigand.”
“Eh, let’s just rough him up a little and be on our way,” Scootaloo casually remarked. “It’s not like we have anything to secure him with. Unless you want to use our armor straps.”
“Our armor straps…. That’s a good idea,” Pip said, mulling it over.
Equinox raised an eyebrow. “You honestly want to bring this thug in?”
“Well, isn't that part of the Night Guard’s duties? Aside from protecting Princess Luna, I mean. Helping other ponies? He was going to try and rob us. He should be brought before Captain Phantom Shade. If we let him go, he’ll just go back to doing what he had been doing in the first place. Mugging ponies.”
“We let, like, twenty other bat ponies get away,” Scootaloo shrugged. “We going to hunt them all down too?”
“Well, we can’t fly… So we’ll just have to be satisfied with one bandit off the roads for now.”
Rumble nodded. “Yeah. You got a point.” He removed the strap securing the heavy armor in place and tossed it to Pip. Without the strap, the armor was more of a hazard than a boon, but they didn't have many other options. Snips and Snails also removed their straps. Before Pip did anything, Hemlock snorted in disgust.
“Hey, why don’t we make a bargain? I got bits. Lots of gold bits. How about I give’em to ya, and ya let me go. Deal?”
“We already got the straps ready,” Scootaloo quickly replied. “No turning back now. We’re kinda on a tight time-table. Rumble, think you can manage to drag this guy along?”
Rumble nodded. “Yes, ma’am!”
One strap for the torso, securing the forelegs and wings, another strap to haul him, and the last strap for the mouth. It was difficult securing the mouth when Hemlock tried to bite them. Equinox was eventually forced to use the Fragment of the First Day one again. Rumble happily hauled the bound bat pony, but the extra weight and time needed to deal with the bandits only made Pip anxious.
They continued forward until they arrived at the smooth stone they had rested on the night prior. Specter, Gloom and Mist were waiting for them. Mist immediately perked up and waved to the group. Her cheeks were stuffed full of night strawberries.
Specter flew over and examined the body of the bandit before turning to Pip. “What is this?”
“He tried to rob us,” Pip shrugged. “But we have more pressing matters. We all need to be flown up out of the ravine. The way here is blocked from the rockslide, and we can’t handle the cragadiles. Too many of us have problems with our armor.”
Specter turned back to Gloom. “His wing got worse through the day,” he whispered to Pip. “He isn’t flying.”
“Carry him up too, then.”
One by one, Specter, Mist, Equinox and Rumble flew all the grounded ponies to the top of the ravine. Once Pip was up, he took a moment to look around. It was nothing more than a vast wasteland of hills and weeds. The crack that was the top of the ravine looked slight, but Pip knew if they followed it, they would eventually reach the old trail back to the train tracks.
The ups and downs of the hills made the trek above the ravine longer. And more tiring. Pip felt his stomach and chest aching with the need to sleep. Nopony spoke. They were all too busy funneling the last of their strength into the walking process. Pip’s heart sank when he saw the moon nearing its final descent. We’re simply taking too long…
Pip glanced back to Equinox, Specter, Mist and Gloom. He motioned for them to get close. “Guys, we’re not going to make it at this rate.”
“Oh, really?” Specter sarcastically quipped. “You mean our unicorns aren’t adept at manipulating time?”
“I want you four to go back to the train. Specter and Mist can carry Gloom. You guys have had a chance to rest. I’ll send Rumble with you so he can carry the bandit. He’s a strong flier. Equinox, do you think you can make it?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Pip sighed. “They said this was a team challenge. We’ll all pass if you guys go… and if the rest of us are caught out in the sun, it won’t matter.”
Specter and Gloom stared at Pip for a long moment before agreeing. The bat ponies left as a group, including the bandit, Equinox flying point. Pip knew he was stretching his luck with this… he could see Phantom Shade being angry with the “loophole” that Pip was trying to use, but there was no other way. If they wanted to technically succeed, this was how to do it.
As the night slowly began to wane, Pip felt his eyelids becoming heavy and his body barely responding to his demands. He desperately wanted to sleep. It was all he could think about by the time they reach the faded path. Half way from the ravine to the train, the sun rose. With a heavy sigh, Pip hung his head and continued forth.
Bathed in the light of the early morning, Pip and the other recruits made it back to the train. There were no bat ponies waiting for them outside, of course, but at least the train was still there. Pip and others dragged themselves into the passenger car and practically collapsed. Once the door was shut, and the light blocked, Phantom Shade entered their car. The train started shortly afterward.
“You’ve taken your sweet time, recruits.”
“But we’re reporting for duty!” Snails happily offered.
Phantom Shade ignored him. “Your assignment has been determined to be a success. The brigand you captured will be brought before the princesses. Now, get to your bunks. You’ve delayed us enough as it is.” The bat pony captain left them after his statement. Pip didn’t care. All he cared about was that he had passed. Slowly, mustering the last of his energy, Pip crawled into his bunk. It was time to sleep…
“Boy, how is it you’re still twice as wide as you are tall?”
“I-I don’t know, sir,” Snips breathed between push-ups. “I’ve always been this way.”
“And you,” Thunder Clash said, turning to the Snails. “Are you sure your father wasn’t a broom? How is it that everypony else looks like they’re puttin’ on muscle and you two still look nearly the same?”
Snails grunted with each push-up. “I dunno, sir!”
“Tomorrow night you’ll have to complete the obstacle course in less than two minutes. After that it will become a part of your nightly exercises. We will start with the course, which will you always be expected to complete in two minutes, do your exercises, and then do it again before the end of the night. Do you understand me, recruits?”
“Sir, yes sir,” everypony replied.
Thunder Clash flew over to Mist and rubbed his muzzle for moment. She noticed his stare and, despite breathing hard from the work, muttered, “Am I broom-like, sir?”
“You’re middling, recruit. Nothing too good, nothing too bad. Don’t become complacent just because I don’t focus my attention on you, understand girlie? Maintaining your physique is now a life style. You can’t slack once you’ve become a member of the Night Guard. Your life depends on it.”
“Sir, yes sir,” she muttered between breaths.
“All right, enough of this,” Thunder Clash shouted. All the recruits stopped, but Rumble was the one to sigh a long sigh of relief. Thunder Clash narrowed his eyes. “Son, it only goes uphill from here. Like all proper training programs, we steadily up the intensity.”
“I didn’t complain, sir,” Rumble huffed, standing up. “I’m ready for more!”
Scootaloo snorted back a laugh as she stood. “Uh-huh,” she said under her breath. “Why don’t you do another fifty more?”
Rumble turned to face her, a half-smile on his face. “I can do it.”
“Sure ya can.”
“You wanna watch me when we get back to the barracks?”
“I bet I could do more.”
Thunder Clash watched them whisper to each other and rolled his eyes. “You all are dismissed!”
All the recruits began heading back to the barracks, Rumble and Scootaloo ahead of the pack, eager to demonstrate which of them was the better at mundane exercise. Pip took this moment to trot over to the bat ponies. The last few days had gone by in a haze for him, the lack of sleep had taken its toll, but now he wanted to thank them. Their efforts in their group assignment had been invaluable.
“Guys!” he called out. “Wait up!”
All four of the bat ponies turned and watched him approach. Pip looked between them and nodded.
“Hey, I just wanted to thank you guys for helping during the assignment.”
Mist vigorously nodded. “No problem!”
“I told you I would help you,” Equinox shrugged. “I didn’t think my help would come as a surprise after that.”
Specter shrugged. “I guess we did okay as a team.”
Pip turned his attention to Gloom. “How's your wing? Has it gotten better?”
“Heh. The medics said it had gotten mildly infected,” Gloom admitted. “But they had zebra medicine to help. I can fly, just not very well.”
“Do you think you can make it through the obstacle course tomorrow night?”
Gloom shook his head. “I doubt it. I already got my stuff packed. It was a good run, but like everything else in my life, I guess it’s going to quickly come crashing down.” With a swish of his tail, Gloom quickly turned and began making his way back to the barracks.
“Is Gloom going to make a full recovery?” Pip asked Equinox.
She shrugged. “I dunno. Specter?”
Specter was busy rubbing at something on his black coat, barely paying attention to what was going on. “Huh? What now?”
“Gloom isn’t going to pass the obstacle course tomorrow. Do you even care? Do you even know if his wing is going to recover?”
“He said it'll be fine eventually,” Specter said with shrug. “Can't fly too good right now, though.”
“Why don’t you guys just help this one time?” Pip suggested. “Equinox, you’re already so good at the obstacle course, why not aid him to the end until his wing is better? You know he can finish it normally otherwise.”
Equinox snorted. “Bat ponies don’t usually help and help alike. It’s just seen as weak… Even my mother said as much. The only way to help is to give your blood, your vitality... And we all saw what that got us.” She looked away, bothered by some deeper internal conflict.
“Look,” Pip began, “I help Scootaloo. Snips and Snails help each other. Gloom actually helped Marble when we were fighting those cragadiles! There’s no reason you guys have to be the way you are. You aren’t in the Badlands or Hollow Shades anymore. You’re in training to become one of the Night Guard. We don’t have to fight each other.”
“Fine,” Equinox snapped. “I'll speak to him about it. Don't go around telling everypony, though. And I still don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with us all passing. You make it seem like your own ability to pass is somehow determined by us passing.”
“I…” Pip didn’t really have a good explanation for it. He just… didn’t want them to fail. He didn’t want anypony to fail.
Equinox and Mist both turned back to the barracks. Specter hung back and, once the other two were out of hearing distance, turned to Pip. “Hey, you’re a weird day-pony, but nowhere near as bad as my brother always made day-ponies out to be.”
Pip awkwardly nodded. “Okay…” He didn’t want to spurn Specter’s attempt to communicate with him, but at the same time, he didn’t know what he would say. Words…
“If we all, ya know, pass this next set of tests… We should get together and play a few rounds of pirate’s dice.” Specter deviously smiled. “Maybe with some bits involved.”
“I’ve never even heard of pirate’s dice before.”
“Oh, then we definitely need to play with bits,” Specter said with snicker. “I won’t be too hard on you the first few rounds, I swear.”
“I’ll try,” Pip said.
“That’s the spirit!” Specter punched Pip on the shoulder and flew silently back to the barracks. I'm going to be a broke pony.
Another night, another obstacle course challenge.
Pip was ready this time, however. He knew what he needed to do, and exactly how he was going to do it. Scootaloo was next to him, eyeing the course with fierce determination. Marble was… mildly interested, at best. Pip suspected that, if he could read her thoughts, she would somehow be thinking of Sebastian. Her creepy obsession with the war hammer was beginning to worry Pip. Then again, he had heard of worse things to become obsessed with…
Thunder Clash was pacing the sky above them. Phantom Shade was with him. It was going to be one of the careful scrutiny nights. It didn’t matter. Pip was ready. He could feel it in his bones. Tonight was a good night to do things.
“All right, maggots. You know the drill. Run to the end in less than two minutes. Fail to do so and you’ll be removed. Let’s get this over with.” He flew down and motioned to the course. “Begin!”
Pip, Scootaloo and Marble ran for the course. First the tunnel.
Scootaloo grabbed onto Pip and he trudged through the muddy water without skipping a beat. When they got out, they ran for the hurdles and small walls. Marble was slightly ahead of them, but only slightly.
Next the tires… They jumped though them with ease, Pip grabbing one tire as he went, Scootaloo grabbing another. They threw them into the sea of thorns and jumped across. This time, unlike all the others, Pip made it across without injury. Although it was a small victory, Pip felt like shouting with glee. The briar patch had been the worst part of the entire course…
The zip line came after. Marble got onto a rope first, Pip got on to another rope second, and Scootaloo zipped them across like they were being propelled by a Sonic Rainboom itself. Landing on the other side, they jumped onto the rope wall and began climbing. Scootaloo got up first, then Pip, then Marble. They dropped the last half of the wall and then made an all-out charge for end.
Complete! They had done it!
Panting, but not out of breath or severely injured, Pip took his place at the end line. Marble and Scootaloo were next to him.
Thunder Clash gave them a slow clop. “Wow. You foals have finally graduated into real mares and stallions. Congratulations.”
Phantom Shade nodded to them. “It’s taken you long enough, but I suppose late is better than never.”
As Pip was taking in his victory, he glanced around, his mind racing with all kinds of information. Specter was the only other pony here. No Gloom, Equinox, Mist, Snips, Snails or Rumble… When Pip turned back he stared at Phantom Shade. The bat pony captain… Pip hadn’t forgotten his need to get a night off to investigate in Canterlot, but it suddenly struck him that perhaps he should approach Phantom Shade with his worries, considering how close Phantom Shade was to Luna herself.
“Where are the other recruits?” Thunder Clash asked, glaring at the courses. “They don’t have much time left…”
Phantom Shade stared at the bat pony course, his gold eyes squinting as though he were watching something everypony else wasn’t. Pip shifted his weight nervously. He hated this feeling of waiting. It ate at his very soul.
“There we go,” Thunder Clash said with a hint of relief.
Mist flew out of the obstacle course, followed by Gloom and Equinox.
“Cuttin’ it close,” Thunder Clash yelled to them.
“Too close,” Phantom Shade remarked.
“And there’s Rumble. That fool of pegasus finally got his oversized wings to work for him.”
Pip turned and smiled. Rumble flew over to the line and suddenly hung his head. “I’m so sorry, sir!” he said between gasps. “So… sorry…”
“Of all the-” Thunder Clash stopped himself short and face-hoofed. “The one time you actually make it and this is how you come out? Stand proud, boy! What’s wrong with you?”
Rumble smiled and held his head up. “R-really?”
“Don’t push my buttons, boy!” Thunder Clash suddenly barked. “I’m not going to sit here and butter you up all night!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
Phantom Shade turned to the drill instructor and motioned to the obstacle course. “That’s time. The wonder twins have tried my patience for the last time. Give them the news when they finally make it out.”
Pip turned to look at the unicorn course. Phantom Shade was right. Snips and Snails were nowhere to be seen. Scootaloo frowned. “Wow,” she muttered to Pip. “I kinda thought they would be here till the end. Like a terrible mold you can never get rid of, no matter how well you clean your bathroom, ya know what I mean?”
Marble shrugged. “Is this the moment that I say I called it? Because I did.”
Rumble nudged Scootaloo and Pip. “I totally made it, you guys!”
His focus still on the unicorn course, Pip continued to stare. Snips and Snails had gotten much better since the first days of the training. They were leagues above themselves in terms of growth. He was sad to know they would be going.
“I’m off,” Phantom Shade said to Thunder Clash.
Pip turned back to them. If he was going to talk to talk to Thunder Clash and Phantom Shade, he knew he should do it now, while they were still here...