Pip coughed and wheezed as he continued his run around the track. His eyes were burning; a side effect of the Tatzlwurm poisoning that was in the air. Enough Tatzlwurm poison would cause a pony to become gravely ill, but tiny amounts mixed with other components made it a semi-irritating mist. According to Ghast, if they were exposed to it long enough, they would eventually build up immunity, but Pip was very skeptical.
Every night they had to endure the sting of the poison while they went through their training. The exercise was the worst part. Breathing deeply resulted in Pip’s lungs aching, and he coughed nonstop, hindering his ability to perform. However, the pain wasn’t unbearable, but it was still strenuous.
“Once you’re done, begin your combat maneuvers,” Ghast said, watching them form the sky.
Pip ran over to his designated area and equipped his claws. Phantom Shade’s training program included different dummy posts for the recruits to fight. Pip and Scootaloo had to attack a dummy that was covered in the hide of some spiky monster. Pip wasn’t sure what the monster had been when it was alive, but, given the scales, he suspected it had been some sort of lizard or dragon.
The scales were sharp and jagged. Mixed with the spines, it was a hazardous ball of pain for anypony trying to touch it, much like a cactus. There was a single hole in the hide, however. The point of the combat dummy was to attack the tiny space without accidentally striking the rest of the hide. Pip had accidentally hit the hide a few times, and while his claws protected his hooves, he would sometimes clip his legs, resulting in a minor injury.
The spikes weren’t too large, so all injuries were kept to a minimum, but Scootaloo was starting to develop scars from the amount of times she cut herself, albeit tiny scars.
Pip attacked the dummy, still coughing from the poison. He struck at the hole and smiled. Scootaloo, working on the other side of the dummy, was running back and forth, attacking the dummy twice as often as Pip was, though her hit percentage was less.
While everypony went to their own dummy, Ghast called up Scootaloo. Every night he would spar with each of them one on one, though he didn’t really hold back. He told them it was to practice their combat with a competent opponent, but the weaker of the recruits just got themselves hurt.
Scootaloo removed her claws and wore normal hoof guards while Ghast used a practice halberd. She rushed up to him, but her wounded flank came back to haunt her in terms of speed. She was slower than normal and Ghast easily hit her aside with the full force of his practice halberd. Scootaloo was slammed to the ground. Afterward, she could barely move one of her forelegs.
“Get up,” commanded Ghast. “Again.”
Pip knew Scootaloo wasn’t anywhere near Ghast’s level, but she didn’t quit. She got back up, her flank injured and her foreleg stiff, and charged again. She was much too slow and Ghast used the hook of the halberd to trip her up and send her back to the ground.
With a heavy sigh, Pip looked away. It had been like this every night since Thunder Clash left. Pip hadn’t realized how much he was going to miss the old soldier but… the pegasus had always had a thing or two to tell them when they were training. But Ghast… Ghast didn’t have much to say at all.
“Why don’t I take tonight’s training?” Equinox interjected after Scootaloo was thrown to the ground for yet another time. Equinox was the only pony among them that really succeeded at the sparring with Ghast.
“All of you will need to be prepared for the harshness of battle,” Ghast calmly replied. “Some need to learn it more than others.”
“She’s not ready for this level of training.”
“She should be.”
The training field was tense and Pip turned to Scootaloo. Her eyes were downcast and she refused to meet anypony’s gaze. The bat pony commander motioned for her to get up and go again. Perhaps she was just stubborn, or maybe she didn’t know better, but Scootaloo got up and took a deep breath. She charged again, but the result was same, only this time she had a bloody nose to go with her wealth of injuries.
Pip looked away and continued with his own training. Each night it was like this, but he assumed this would eventually get them better, even if he preferred Thunder Clash to Ghast. It was a shame, Pip couldn't even talk to the drill sergeant anymore, as he had been moved from the infirmary to Canterlot in order to have his injury looked at. I just need to stay focused.
It was difficult to cut time away from sleep when he was being pushed so hard, but Pip refused to find an excuse. Although, he didn’t always get an hour of reading… some nights he fell asleep on the book, waking up in a sea of papers and notes. Other nights he had been so sore that he could barely turn the pages.
“Pip, you going to play games with us tonight?” Rumble asked as he turned to go into the bat pony barracks.
Pip shook his head. “No, thanks though.” The other recruits spent their time unwinding, which was probably healthier, but he just could afford to slack off now.
Rumble shrugged and trotted off to have some fun. Marble took her place on her bunk sighed. “Are you going to stay here during the Summer Sun Celebration as well?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Pip replied, trying to read while he spoke to Marble.
“You need to relax, Pip. You seem stressed.”
“I’ll be fine,” Pip said, dismissively waving away her concerns. “I’ve seen the sun rise a millions times.”
“You said you wanted to bring the bat ponies, remember? Are you not going to take them?”
Pip looked up from the book and frowned. He did want to take them. If they saw how wonderful and fun it was, surely they would feel like the day-ponies weren’t so bad. “Yeah… I guess I did say that. Fine… Fine, I’ll go.”
“You should remind them. Almost all of the Night Guard bat ponies have the evening off so they can go visit Hollow Shades.”
“When is it again?” Pip asked, turning his attention back to the book. He had time. He would talk to them about it later.
“Oh, okay.” He began reading when his mind suddenly put everything together. “Wait, what?”
“The Summer Sun Celebration. It’s next week.”
“Already!?” Pip could hardly believe how quickly time had flown by. The rigid monotony of Ghast's training had worn away his ability to distinguish one day from the next. What was he doing!? He was wasting time! He needed to get his stuff together! “Oh, geez…” He brought the book up to his face and tried to force himself to read faster. Pieces of paper fell out and landed on his bed, but he couldn’t look away for fear of losing time.
Marble laughed to herself as she cleaned Sebastian. “Aren’t you overreacting? You look like a complete mess over there.”
“You don’t understand, Marble! Something is going to happen! Don’t you see all the signs? Giant Star Spiders? Nightmares? Princess Twilight Sparkle and her entire council leaving for something mysterious?”
“Princess Twilight Sparkle had this trip planed for months,” Marble causally remarked. “She’s the Princess of Friendship, Pip. She’s practically a diplomat. They need her to-”
“But she’s gone during the Summer Sun Celebration?” he interrupted. “It’s suspicious!”
“If you want to see a conspiracy, you’re going to see a conspiracy everywhere.”
Pip put the book down glared. “And if you don’t want anything to be wrong, you aren’t going to see anything wrong.”
Marble shrugged. “All right, keep with your investigation. I just don’t want you to get disheartened if it all turns out to be harmless coincidence.” She turned her attention back to her weapon.
With a heavy breath, Pip got off his bunk and wandered over to the bat pony barracks. He opened the door into the darker room and trotted in. The other recruits were busy playing dice, laughing and playfully throwing things at one another when they lost.
Gloom’s ears twitched and he looked up at Pip. “You finally going to join us?”
“Er, no, I was just coming in here to remind you guys about the Summer Sun Celebration. I was still hoping you all would go and see how amazing it is.”
Mist suddenly smiled and nodded. “Yes! I’ll definitely go!”
“Well, if Mist is going, I’m going,” Equinox stated.
Rumble nodded. “Who doesn’t go to the Summer Sun Celebration? It’s the biggest bash of the year! I always go!”
“Me too,” Scootaloo interjected. “Plus, Sweetie Belle is going to be singing in a concert this year. I’m not going to miss that!”
Specter perked up. “Well, it’s not like I have family in Hollow Shades. I’m going too.”
Everypony turned to Gloom. He frowned. “I don’t want to go. It’s a celebration of the sun. That sounds like a terrible idea.”
“You don’t have to stay for the sunrise you wuss,” Scootaloo jabbed. “You can leave before.”
Specter snickered. “You just got called a wuss by a day-pony! You gonna let that stand?”
Gloom rolled his eyes. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll go. Not like I have any family to visit either. But if it’s boring, I’m leaving immediately.”
“Great,” Pip said. “We’ll go together. It’ll be fun.”
“I’m not going to hold my breath,” Gloom sarcastically commented.
Pip ignored him and quickly turned back to return to his book. Mist quickly flew up out of her chair at the table.
“Do we need to bring anything special?” she asked in her sing-song voice.
“Er, no,” Pip replied over his shoulder. “They have food and stuff at the celebration. All you have to do is show up.”
“Oh, okay.” She waved to Pip and he waved back, happy she was so excited about going. “See you there,” she called out as he exited.
“All right,” he replied.
“WELCOME TO THE SUMMER SUN CELEBRAAATIIIOOON!” an announcer boomed over the speaker system, loud enough to reach Pip’s ears up above Canterlot in a sky chariot. He glanced down at the giant crowds gathered in the city. There were spot lights, streamers, confetti, and balloons swirling through the night air, swaying with the breeze like they were dancing to the steady beat of music in the background.
There were hundreds of ponies – thousands of ponies – all dancing and partying in huge groups. Pip couldn’t believe how packed the streets of the city were… it was even hard to find a location for the chariot to land. Once they finally touched down, Pip jumped out with the other recruits and stood in awe.
Cups of confetti and glitter were heaped over them. Pip laughed at how much he sparkled when lights passed over but he took the time to clean off the satchel around his neck. He had brought the book along with him so that he could read at every possible moment. Gloom loudly groaned. “I already hate this place.”
Mist happily watched herself glitter in the artificial light and Rumble laughed at Gloom’s disgruntlement. “Lighten up!” Rumble said, patting the bat pony on the shoulder. “It’s fun!”
Equinox glanced around and squinted. The ponies that were throwing glitter and confetti looked tipsy and they randomly threw another cup worth of confetti all over them. “Woo!” the ponies shouted. “Summer Sun Celebration!”
“Thanks,” Pip muttered, amazed the ponies could be this far gone when the celebration had just begun not but hours ago.
Scootaloo began pushing all the recruits forward, right toward the crowds. “C’mon, you guys! We need to go! We don’t want to miss out on Sweetie Belle’s concert! Go, go, go!”
The moment they began pushing through the crowds, ponies gave them odd looks. More than once, a pony stopped and pointed at the bat ponies, muttering things that Pip couldn’t hear due to the music. Pip looked around. Were Specter, Mist, Gloom and Equinox the only bat ponies here?
“Marble, why-” Pip stopped himself. Marble hadn’t come with them. He frowned.
“What?” Equinox asked. “Did you just call me Marble?”
“Er, no… I wanted to ask her why the Night Guard wasn’t here. She usually knows those kinds of things.”
“Some of the Night Guard are here, but this is a celebration of the sun. Instead of switching guards during the middle of celebration, they just assign some of the Sun Guard to pull duty during the evening. Plus, it’s a semi-official vacation time for most of the bat ponies. We don’t celebrate the rising of the sun, but every bat pony foal knows this is the time of year when they can see their Night Guard family members again.”
Pip nodded. It was a shame that more bat ponies weren’t around… would make this a lot less awkward.
“We should get some food!” Mist blurted out, pointing to rows and rows of food stands that lined the nearby streets.
A mare and her foal suddenly gasped after Mist’s declaration. The mare grabbed her child and fled through the crowd. The other ponies nearby stared at her with wide eyes and frowns.
Mist nervously laughed. “Fruit! We should get some fruit!”
The crowd of ponies slowly nodded and turned back to their partying. One stallion even handed another two bits. “I told you they eat fruit!” the winning stallion said with playful smile.
“We don’t have forever!” Scootaloo said. “Let’s hurry if we’re going to do this!”
They walked over to a nearby stall. Much to Pip’s delight, it was an apple stall from Sweet Apple Acres. Big Mac was behind the stand, nodding to all those that went by. Mist flew over and licked her lips at the sight of the red fruit.
“Hello, Big Mac. Doin’ well?” Pip nodded to him.
Big Mac nodded back, “Eeyup.”
“Can we get some apples?”
Pip reached for his satchel to remove some bits. Since he hadn’t been playing pirate’s dice lately, he actually had money to spend. He removed the few bits he needed and placed them on the stand. Big Mac removed a small basket of apples and gave it to Mist.
“Thank you,” Pip said to the laconic stallion.
Mist quickly began biting into an apple, happily humming to herself as she did so. Equinox and Specter also grabbed an apple, but Gloom turned away from them with a snort. Scootaloo pointed to the crowd.
“We need to get through this! We’re going to be late for the start!”
The ponies that could fly took to the sky, which was much clearer than the streets, leaving Pip to follow Scootaloo through the sea of ponies. Mist hung close, flapping along and grabbing another apple.
“These are so good!” she praised, licking at her hoof when she was done.
“You should try the zap apples,” Pip commented. “Especially if you like these. There’s nothing like them.”
“Zap apples? I’ve never even heard of them…”
“I think they’re unique to Ponyville.”
Mist happily clopped her hooves together. “Will you take me there to try them one night?”
Pip looked up and nodded to her. “Yeah. Of course.”
Although the crowd was thick, it wasn’t long until they reached the gated off area of the stage. There was room for a close audience and near audience, but since the stage was outside, Pip was sure everypony would be able to hear the performance, even if they couldn’t stand right next to it. Scootaloo raced up to the gate and was stopped by a large diamond dog.
“We’re full up,” the diamond dog grunted. “You’ll have to stay out.”
“Hey!” Scootaloo barked. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Sweetie Belle’s best friend, Scootaloo! I always have a place to sit in her concerts! Check your list, buddy!”
The bulky diamond dog had to turn and scratch his head. He began slowly reading through the list of approved ponies when another bouncer flew over to him.
“Are these guys giving you trouble?”
Pip looked up and was taken aback. “Screech?”
The rest of the recruits turned their attention to Screech and were almost as surprised as Pip. The bat pony was thin for a bouncer, but his red eyes and bloody fang cutie mark did make him look frightening. When a mare tried to walk through into the concert, Screech hissed at her, causing her to back away trembling.
“What’re you doing here?” Scootaloo asked.
“I work here,” Screech immediately responded. “What’re you guys doing here?” The diamond dog tapped Screech on the shoulder and pointed to a name on the list. Screech looked it over and nodded. “Ah, so you’re buddy-buddy with the lead singer, eh? Get in then. She has a small box reserved for her friends.”
“Now that’s more like it,” Scootaloo said, holding her head high and trotting into the concert area.
The other recruits followed but Screech stopped Pip halfway through. Mist and Rumble turned back to him, but Pip waved them forward. He doubted Screech wanted to fight and he actually wanted to speak with the bat pony.
“Hey,” Screech began. “I need to get something off my chest.”
“Okay,” Pip replied.
Screech landed in front of Pip and stared at him for a moment. The diamond dog continued to watch the gate, enforcing the rules while the bat pony was busy. “You day-ponies have it good,” Screech suddenly stated.
Pip nodded. “Yeah. I guess we do.”
Screech was silent for another moment. “I thought… everypony was secretly like me, ya know? And I thought I was tough-stuff every time I got into a fight. And... I never told Thunder Clash but, my special talent-”
“Gloom told me,” Pip said.
“Good,” Screech immediately spat. “I don’t feel like makin’ it public. All I’m tryin’ to say is… When I would bite others while fighting, all I would get was memories of more fighting. When I bite others, like the day-pony merchants, they were always scared, so their memories were always... painful. So it was just memories of fighting and feeling life or being beaten, and knowing pain. That's all I could remember, because those thoughts filled my head. I’d get confused, but I thought it proved I was right. Everypony was secretly like me.”
Pip was taken aback. He didn’t think Screech was capable of being to… articulate.
“Your blood was delicious,” Screech emphasized the word and Pip nervously took a step back with a forced laugh. “Apparently, you lived a stress-free life in a happy-go-lucky town and realized your goals at a young age. Your memories were free of strife and hunger, and for a while afterward, I was jealous. But then I realized most of you day-ponies have a happy-go-lucky life... at least the ones in your hometown.”
“That’s true,” Pip replied, regaining his composure. “Ponies in Ponyville are very accepting. We have the Princess of Friendship there after all and-”
“I get it, I get it,” Screech said, cutting him off. “That’s why I figured I would weasel in on all your bliss and take some for myself. I want some of it. I’ve always wanted everything I never had. Stability, comfort, the best things… If working in your day-pony society will get me that… Well, Rust Wing and I have been doin’ this for the last few months. It’s been better for us.”
“You and Rust Wing? Where is she?”
“She works the back, keeping the ponies from sneakin’ in. She’s got a good nose for that, ya know?”
Pip smiled. “Well, I’m glad we can be friends.”
Screech snorted out a single laugh. “Friends? Don’t make me laugh. We’re not friends. You’re some privileged day-pony I still don’t much care for. All I was trying to say was thank you for the realization. And… I apologize,” he said the word with some difficulty, “for what happened. I hate having all these weird thoughts in my head.”
“Fair enough,” Pip reluctantly stated, subconsciously rubbing at his shoulder. Pip couldn’t find the words to apologize to Screech. He wanted to be the better pony, to always have the wise solution to things, but he wasn’t there, apparently. Pip had always been afraid of giving into anger and hate… He knew what it had done to Luna. He didn’t want that for himself… He was supposed to be better than that for himself and Luna.
The shrieking of the crowds told Pip the concert was about to start. Screech stepped out of the way and waved him forward. “Get out of here,” he curtly stated. Although Screech was honestly trying, Pip could still hear the hint of anger in his voice. He hoped the bat pony would be okay. He was grateful that Sweetie Belle had been willing to hire him and Rust Wing. That fact made Pip think that maybe Equinox was wrong about that curse. Maybe it wasn’t a curse at all.
The concert was blasting by the time Pip made it to the group. Sweetie Belle was up on stage, dressed in an extravagant silver gown that, no doubt, had been sewn together by Rarity herself.
Pip joined the other recruits in a special box area that was near the stage. The box had nice seating, a small bar for drinks and a table full of hors d'oeuvres. With the music going, Pip took a seat and pulled out the book. He would read it while listening to the music.
He looked up and spotted Mist flying above his table. He smiled. “Mist.”
“Did you want to dance?”
Pip pulled the book closer and nervously laughed. “W-well, not right now. Thank you, though.”
Mist nodded for an extended amount of time. She dismissively waved her hoof. “Yeah, who can dance with their muscles still aching from training? Pfft. Not me. Definitely not me. Oh! I know! Drinking things! That’s something!” She turned to the bar area with a renewed smile and cheerful laugh. She flew off, swaying in time with the music.
Pip tried to stop her, but he was too late. She was already ordering. When Pip brought his attention back to his table he jumped. Specter was sitting next to him.
“You’re so boring,” Specter said with a sigh.
“Me?” Pip defensively asked. “You’re the guy who didn’t talk for the first few months of training!”
Specter laughed. “Hey, if I had known how similar Scoots was to my brother I would have come around a lot sooner.”
Pip frowned. “Well, I’m sorry I’m boring, but I’m trying to solve an important mystery.”
“Does solving the mystery require you to wear a chastity belt?”
Pip flushed with embarrassment. Before he could say anything more, Mist returned to the table with two drinks. “Look! They had orange juice! I like orange juice! Everypony likes orange juice!” She placed one in front of Pip and then sat down at the table. She stuck her tongue out at Specter. “None for you!”
Specter sighed and flapped off. He took a seat at the corner table, all by himself. Everypony else was dancing.
“Aren’t you going to try it?” Mist asked, pointing to the cup.
“Yeah,” Pip said, sipping the orange juice through the provided straw. It was freshly squeezed. When he was done, he turned to Mist. “Hey, I’m sorry I’ve been so distant lately… I’ve just been busy trying to read through this book.”
“Is it important to you?” she asked, glancing at it.
“Yeah. I need to know something. I need to know for sure whether Luna is the only pony who can control dreams.”
“If it means a lot to you, I’ll help.” She moved over and opened the book so that it was between them. She continued to slurp her orange juice, glancing at the pages.
“Thank you,” Pip breathed. “That means a lot.” Although Pip hadn’t been focused on it before, now that Specter brought it to his attention, Mist had been trying to spend more time with him lately. Most of his life he had been singularly dedicated to one thing… and Pip wasn’t a very good multitasker. I can’t even read a book properly on my free time, he thought. Making new friends and forging relationships just hadn’t been a priority.
And a small part of him always imagined that the only friend and relationship he needed was with Luna… but that was ridiculous. It was a foal’s fantasy. His relationship with her had always been one of a platonic nature. Plus, Luna would live a long time, and he wouldn’t, further distancing them. But… he could wait until after all this mess to think about these things. Now wasn't the time.
“Mist, thank you for the orange juice,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
“Mmhmm,” she replied, her focus on the book.
“I hope you’re enjoying the Summer Sun Celebration.” Pip took a sip of his orange juice.
Mist pushed the book back. “I found it.”
Pip nearly spit his juice all over the pages and papers of the book. “W-what?” he choked.
“Right here. See? This paper. It talks about Luna and her father. Read it.”
Pushing his drink aside, Pip stared down at the paper. It was an old piece of paper, the contents faded, with a translation attached, though it wasn't written by Twilight Sparkle… it looked like a completely separate pony had translated the page years ago. The translated papers themselves were yellow with age. It read:
(NOTES COMPOSED BY STARSWIRL THE BEARDED)
It is fortunate that Luna enjoys rising the moon. She seems to have the ability to stalk the dreams of others. It is a powerful and useful ability, unique to her and her father. It is a shame Celestia does not share in this gift. Instead of getting both abilities, Celestia instead took after her mother.
Pip stared at the paper in amazement. This… was exactly what he had been looking for. “Mist! You did it!” he exclaimed.
Mist smiled. “Yay!” She then looked around in confusion. “Is this some sort of day-pony game? Taking turns looking through a book?”
“No,” Pip said, getting up from the table and shoving the book and the note back into the satchel. “No, it’s not like that all… This means that Princess Luna was the one altering our dreams. It means she’s in trouble! And-” Pip looked around the celebration, “-and tomorrow is the day of the summer solstice…”
Mist lifted an eyebrow. “Princess Luna is in trouble? Are you sure?”
“She has to be! I have to go see her, Mist! I have to go see her right now! Nopony can deny something is wrong now! They’ll have to see!”
“Isn’t she in her castle?”
“I guess so?” Pip said. This was the Summer Sun Celebration… the princesses could be walking around, but the castle was the first place he was going to start. He turned to the other recruits. He wished Thunder Clash was here. Pip knew he would help. And Marble… he wished she were here too. What if Nightmare Moon was back? What if Celestia had been taken over by the Nightmare Forces and was holding Luna prisoner!? He needed all the help he could get!
Pip galloped over to the other recruits. They were all here. All expect Gloom. “Guys,” he said, pulling them away from the stage. “I have proof! Luna is sending us a message in our dreams! Those nightmares, remember? I need to go see her!”
Scootaloo, Rumble and Equinox looked confused. Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you go to the castle then? I’m sure she’s there.”
“You won’t come with me?”
Equinox stepped forward. “I’ll go.”
Mist nodded. “Me too!”
Rumble and Scootaloo shrugged. “Give me a couple minutes until Sweetie Belle is done and then we can go.”
“But-” Pip could barely contain his frustration. “You just catch up with us.” He didn’t want to wait around for people to gather. He had his evidence! It had taken him forever to get it! Now wasn’t the time for more waiting!
Pip turned and began galloping out of the concert area. Equinox and Mist followed after. Specter saw them on their way out and also decided to fly along with them.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I need to see Luna,” Pip told the bat pony.
Specter nodded. “Trying to prove me wrong about being boring, are you?”
Pip laughed, but he pressed forward. When he reached the crowd of ponies he began pushing his way through them. “Excuse me!” he shouted, nudging ponies to the side. “I need to get through!” He knew he had to get there quick, but he wished he had taken his armor and weapons with him…
The wall around the castle was packed with ponies, but he managed to make his way there. At the gate were two guards, and in the gardens of the castle were high-scale parties with only the most socially elite present. Pip stopped at the guards and looked from one to the other. They were in the Sun Guard, both of them earth ponies.
“I need to see Princess Luna,” Pip firmly stated.
“Sorry,” the guard said. “But nopony can see the princesses right now. They aren’t feeling well. They’re going to rest until it’s time to raise the sun.”
Pip grit his teeth. If that wasn’t proof enough, he didn’t know what was. “Luna is in trouble,” he said. “And I need to see her. With or without your permission.”