• Published 9th Dec 2018
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New Neighton - FlyingSaucer



When the long dormant portal to a lost pony colony opens unexpectedly eighty-six years after vanishing without a trace, a small group of Lunar Guard is sent through on a mission to find answers.

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Chapter 6 - Cutieology

Watchful Eye sat near the river, staring at the worn ruins of what once must have been a majestic little bridge. It had collapsed in various places, most obviously at the midpoint of its span. Little pieces of pale grey stone lay everywhere along the nearby riverbank.

“This is where the captain said to meet him, right?” asked Sable Shield. The mare stood directly behind Watchful Eye, her eyes scanning the opposite bank of the river.

“Sure is,” said Star Duster, “I don’t think it’s been a full two hours yet though.”

Watchful Eye glanced to his left, checking his time piece. One hour, fifty-eight minutes.

“I don’t think I can put into words how hungry I am right now,” said Dawn Trotter, sitting down next to the sergeant.

Watch grinned, glancing over at the hungry stallion. “Dawn, when are you not hungry? If you weren’t so active you’d weigh more than Rapid.”

Star Duster snickered. “Give him time.”

“We’ll eat once we set camp anyway. Probably,” said Watch.

“Probably?” asked Dawn Trotter, his face deadly serious.

“There they are,” said Sable Shield pointing across the river.

Watch looked to where she was pointing. Sure enough, four bat ponies could be seen, their wings beating furiously, making their way across the river. One extremely large, and one extremely small silhouette left no doubt as to who they could be.

“No mistaking those two,” chuckled Watchful Eye, rising to all four hooves. He waited as Winter Sky’s team drew closer.

One by one, the other team landed, panting with exertion. When all four were down, Winter Sky looked them over, nodded, then approached Watchful Eye.

“Welcome back, sir,” said Watch, offering a salute.

“Funny,” Winter Sky paused, panting. “I was going to say the same to you.”

The captain paused again. “Well, minus the ‘sir’ part.”

“Aww, and here I thought I scored a battlefield commission.” Watch grinned, and his own team drew up beside him.

“A little late for that, sergeant,” said Rapid Advance, nodding to Watch. “This battle is long over I’m afraid.”

“And it’s probably a good thing we missed it,” said Star Duster

“I take it that means things were just as bleak in the town hall,” asked Winter Sky.

“Bleak is certainly a good way to describe it,” said Watch.

“The whole place is a disaster,” said Sable Shield, “but you won’t believe what we found!”

Winter Sky raised an eyebrow. “Do tell, private.”

“You just couldn’t wait, could you?” asked Watchful Eye, glaring at the mare.

“No,” she said, glaring back.

“Waiting isn’t really her thing,” whispered Star Duster, standing close beside Watchful Eye.

“We found the town’s seal or whatever. It’s like, half moonsilver. The biggest chunk you’ll ever see. Pretty sure we could buy our own airship with it.”

“WHAT?” shouted Distant Voice. He avoided Sable Shield’s glare and looked to Watch. “For real?”

“It’s true,” nodded Watch. “It’s an incredible thing to see. Even more incredible that it was just left there in the rubble to rot.”

“Whoever, or whatever, did this,” said Winter Sky, waving a hoof around him, “didn’t seem interested in taking anything. Just destroying everything.”

Watchful Eye took a deep breath, steadying himself. “Did your team find anypony, sir?”

Winter Sky paused, shaking his head. “No. That seems to be the only thing we can’t find.”

“We did find old blood, and evidence of a fight in the garrison. One that didn’t go well for us,” said Rapid Advance.

“Not well at all,” said Winter Sky, “and speaking of the garrison, its tower is where we are going to be setting camp tonight. Let’s start moving there while we still have time. You can fill me in on the way. The flight over though is, well, it’s a pain.”

Watchful Eye nodded. “Yeah, we saw. I think it will be easier if we just follow this ruined bridge across, we can just fly across the gaps. Then we just walk a little extra along the river.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Winter Sky, “I don’t fancy another flight like that.”

“Me either,” added Far Out.

The now reassembled Cookie Squad made its way across the bridge. After a few hops and fitful flights across missing sections, they found themselves firmly on the other side. With Winter Sky in the lead, they headed towards the garrison ruins.

Watchful Eye trotted up to the front, taking position beside the captain.

“So, what made you decide to set camp in the ruins of a building where we guardspony types got our rumps kicked?” asked Watchful Eye.

Winter Sky snorted. “It was Voice’s idea actually, and a good one. It’s relatively intact, at least compared to the other buildings around here. The tower offers a good vantage point to set a watch on. Good combination of shelter and cover. I’ll be sure not to set us next to any of the blood stains.”

“Blood stains?” asked Watch, shooting the captain a suspicious glare.

“No, sadly I am not joking. There was a battle. It’s pretty evident,” said the captain.

“Uhh, that doesn’t really sound like a place I want to sleep,” said Dawn Trotter, who was following a few ponylengths behind the pair. “It could be haunted or something.”

Sable Shield scoffed. “Please don’t tell me you believe in ghosts, Dawn.”

“Hey, you never know.”

“Plus,” continued Winter Sky, “there is a large, interesting map in the office of the garrison commander. You may want to have a look.”

“Oh, well now that does sound useful,” said Watch.

“What about your team, aside from that treasure Sable Shield was describing, did you find anything of note?”

“It’s more like a super treasure,” added Sable Shield.

“Actually, yeah. We found some kind of bird based messaging center. Lots of little cylinders scattered about that they used to send letters and such to the ponies out and about.”

“Well that makes sense,” nodded Winter Sky.

“We found one unsent message that mentioned the guard garrison, or at least some of them, had moved to a vineyard and were sheltering ponies inside. The message said they planned to seal the doors at some point. I figure it was the vineyard on your map, the one on the big hill.”

Winter Sky turned to look at the sergeant. “Now that is interesting. When we searched the CO’s office, we found the logs and other strongbox contents gone, and evidence somepony had fled with them out the window. We had no idea where they would have gone.”

“The vineyard seems like a good guess. It seems like thats where they were planning to make their stand.”

Winter Sky nodded again. “Pink Sun is what the big map called it. I suspect that’s where we are going to need to look next.”

“WAIT A SEC!” yelled Sable Shield.

Watch and the Captain both swung their heads around to face the mare.

“Do you seriously mean the vineyard here is Pink Sun?”

Winter Sky eyed the mare. “As best as we can tell, yes. The map seems to refer to it as the Pink Sun vineyard.”

Watch observed the exchange with curiosity. It was rare for Sable Shield to offer insight not directly related to hitting something.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” continued Sable.

“Why, what’s odd about that name?” asked Winter Sky

“Nopony here has heard of Pink Sun Vineyards?”

The rest of the squad was staring at Sable now, none showing any signs of comprehension.

“It’s only like, the most expensive booze in the history of Equestria. Rich ponies will pretty much fight each other for it. A bottle is worth more than I am.”

“Well, so what? I can think of lots of things worth more than you are,” said Star Duster, who was walking beside the mare.

Sable glared at the stallion. She trotted ahead of him, paused, then turned to face away from him. When he came even with her hind legs they shot out, sending him sprawling into the bushes a good distance away. No one seemed to notice.

“Ow.”

“Well, it does make sense,” added Rapid Advance, completely ignoring the exchange. “Anything produced by that vineyard is going to be rare, for obvious reasons.”

“True,” added Winter Sky, “I could see the surviving bottles that made it to Equestria being worth a pretty bit.”

“Understatement of forever,” said Sable Shield, trotting back into her original position.

“Private Sable Shield, please refrain from killing private Star Duster while he may still be of some use to us.”

“Is he ever of some use to us?” asked Sable.

Winter Sky turned again, glaring.

“Err, I mean yes sir!”

Watchful Eye couldn’t help but smile at the exchange. “Star’s gonna feel that one.”

“Psst, hey.” came the entirely-too-loudly whispered voice of Far Out.

Watchful Eye shook his head. He knew she wasn’t talking to him, but he could hear her perfectly well. So could everypony else. He turned his head around just enough to observe the exchange.

“Yeah?” answered Dawn Trotter, her intended target.

“Sarge said you guys found some kind of neato metal tubes?”

Without speaking, Dawn Trotter moved a hoof to the front of his barding. He withdrew and object from behind his Lunar Guard sigil. Even from this angle, Watchful Eye recognized it as one of the empty bronze cylinders from the town hall. Dawn offered it to the mare, who snapped it up in an instant.

“Ohh you’re the best!” she said, butting Dawn Trotter with her head.

He grinned. “I know, I really am.”

Watch rolled his eyes.

“You know, that reminds me,” said Winter Sky. “We found something else in the garrison. Some kind of strange little cases, with a peculiar mark on them. I am fairly sure they weren’t made by ponies.”

Watch blinked. “Not made by ponies? You found some alien stuff? And what kind of cases?”

“Hard to say. If we can pry one away from Far Out later you can have a look for yourself. Whatever was in them is long gone, they were all empty.”

Cookie made their way back along the river, and soon arrived at the ruined garrison. Following Winter Sky, the group entered the structure, heading for the tower.

Ascending the first set of stairs, Watchful Eye couldn’t help but notice the dark staining, and the strange burn marks that could be found everywhere. They passed an open doorway on the second level, which Winter Sky revealed was once the commander’s office, then ascended a second staircase. Following the captain up, Watchful Eye and the rest of Cookie Squad found themselves in what was now the top level of the tower.

Stepping over a small pile of stone debris, Watch moved to the side, assessing the space they had entered with the critical eye of a Lunar Guard sergeant. The room was large, the rounded exterior wall visible in all directions. It was filled with small, scattered piles of rubble and debris. Above, the stars were visible through large holes in one side of the ceiling, the other side looking mostly intact. To his right, a large chunk of the wall was completely missing, offering an unobstructed view of the area in the direction they had come from. Or rather, it would, if their night sight wasn’t suffering from the effects of another one of the mysterious alien statues. Overall, it did seem a pretty good position, it would just need some tidying up.

“Let’s get this cleared,” said Winter Sky, seemingly reading the sergeant’s mind. He cast his eyes about the room, motioning with his wings. “Fill in what gaps you can with loose stone, toss anything left over the side.” He nodded, seemingly satisfied, then moved towards one of the larger holes in the wall.

“Far Out, Voice,” said Watchful Eye, beginning to shift some of the smaller stones, “once this area with the slightly-less-destroyed walls is cleared, get everypony’s Nightflame stones and start setting up the kitchen.”

The two ponies offered a salute, then turned back to the pile of rubble along with the sergeant. Together, the bat ponies began the job of clearing the room of debris.

******

Winter Sky stood at his makeshift window, scanning the now visible horizon. The tower, though mostly a ruin, still offered plenty of height, and with it, one of the few unobstructed views above the trees that now covered the remains of the colony.

“Spot anything interesting?” asked Watchful Eye, trotting up to the Captain’s side.

“Trees, if those count.” said Winter Sky.

“Alien trees. Totally counts,” yelled Far Out, from clear across the room.

Winter Sky turned to face her, frowning. She was digging in a pile of stones with her forelegs like a dog, and wasn’t even looking in their direction.

Watchful Eye, who had been just about to answer the captain when he was abruptly cut off, just smiled and rolled his eyes.

“Other than alien trees.”

Winter Sky’s eyes turned skyward. “Sun will be up before too long. Still windy, though it seems to have died down a bit. I suspect it should be whatever passes for normal here by tomorrow evening.”

Watchful Eye could see the telltale pink and orange hues starting to rise above the distant treetops, looking very much the same as they would back home. So similar were they in fact, that If it weren’t for the strange trees, and the double moons, it could almost pass as view from the ruins in the heart of Equestria’s own Everfree forest.

“We’re nearly done clearing the place out. Far Out and Voice should have the Nightflame stones going in a few, which is good, because I’m starving.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t w-” a gasp and clatter of hooves cut the captain off, and both ponies turned to the source of the commotion.

Star Duster was backing away from a hole in the opposite wall awkwardly, one forehoof stretched towards the opening.

“Thingy! Face! Down there, check it out!”

The rest of the gathered bat ponies stopped what they were doing, making their way over the opening Star Duster was pointing at.

Watchful Eye, moving in behind Star Duster, who had returned to the window with the rest of the group, craned his neck to see what the stallion was pointing at.

“Right down there, at the edge where the tall grass starts turning into the big trees” Star said, waggling his forehoof for emphasis.

“Another one,” said Rapid Advance.

It didn’t take Watchful Eye long to find what Star Duster was pointing at. Sure enough, slightly obscured by a nearby tree, but a few hundred feet out from the base of their tower, was another one of the disturbing alien pillars.

“Greeeat,” added Distant Voice.

“Well,” said Watchful Eye, “we knew there had to be one around here. Good to know where it is at least.”

“Yes, most definitely,” added Winter Sky, moving up slowly behind the group, “and I suspect it won’t be the last one we encounter.”

“Well, it should be,” said Dawn Trotter, hurling a small stone from the opening with a huff. “Take that you stupid thing.”

The stone sailed through the air, hitting the ground a bit over half way to the artifact.

“Gonna need to throw harder than that, Dawn,” said Sable Shield.

“Way harder,” nodded Star Duster.

Watchful Eye observed the pair, who were standing together on the far side of the “window” the group shared, when something alarming caught his eye. Standing behind them was Rapid Advance, his eyes focused intently on the hurled stone, a manic grin on his face.

Watch turned to his right, prodding Winter Sky with a wing. “Pssst.”

The captain turned, eyebrow raised, as Watch motioned to Rapid Advance with his head. Catching sight of the manic looking corporal he blinked, pausing a moment.

“Rapid Advance, is there something you’d like to share with the class?”

The bulky form of the Corporal shifted, his head turning slowly to face the captain. The grin grew wider, and he nodded.

“Oh yes. I have an idea.”

“Uh oh,” said Distant Voice, his head popping up behind Rapid.

“Do tell,” said Watchful Eye.

“I plan to throw something harder. Way harder.” said Rapid, nodding to Star and Sable.

“Scratch that,” said Distant Voice, his wings suddenly spreading, “I’m liking this idea.”

Watchful Eye raised an eyebrow, “Care to elaborate?”

“Oh,” said Winter Sky.

Watch turned, brow still raised, to face the captain.

“OH,” Winter continued, looking between Rapid and Watch.

“Permission to go break things, sir?” asked Rapid.

Winter Sky nodded slowly. “Permission granted, corporal. Take some of your squadmates with you, should speed things along.”

“Huh?” said Star Duster and Sable Shield, in unison.

Watchful Eye frowned, looking to Winter Sky in confusion “Care to fill us in sir, clearly we missed something.”

“Something neat!” added Far Out, to no ones help whatsoever.

“Ah, yes, well,” said Winter Sky, “we happened to stumble on a small, mostly intact Star Thrower in a room downstairs. Rapid Advance got it working, and seems to have claimed it as his own. I believe he intends to turn it on that face-statue.”

“Oh cool!” said Dawn Trotter, his wings flapping subtly at his side.

Rapid Advance stepped back, taking up a position to address the rest of the squad. “Lets see, I will need some ponies that are good at breaking things.” He brought a forehoof to his muzzle, tapping it a few times in thought. “That is pretty much all of you.”

Far Out giggled, nodding quickly.

“Well then, you heard the corporal,” said Winter Sky, motioning to Rapid with a wing. “Everypony follow him to his new toy.”

“If it’s alright with you sir,” said Watchful Eye, “I’ll stay here and finish getting things set up for grub. Need to get the skillet going if we are going to to sleep before noon.”

“Very well Watch, good idea,” nodded the captain. “I’ll be staying up here too. Somepony needs to spot the fall of the Star Thrower bolts.”

“And have a really good seat for when things inevitably go off the rails?” grinned Watchful Eye.

“I’ve been with you bunch too long it seems,” said Winter, a ghost of a smile on his muzzle.

“Well then Corporal,” said the captain, nodding once more to Rapid Advance. “I trust you can manage this field trip. Just try not to knock down this ruin with us in it.”

“No promises, sir.” With that, Rapid turned. Bending his neck back to an almost painful extent, he managed to free a strap on one of his saddle bags, causing them to drop to the ground at his hooves. He stepped over them, looking back at Watchful Eye. “Watch, you know where everything is. The rest of you lot follow me, and do refrain from pulling any levers or lanyards I don’t tell you to.”

******

THWUNK

Watchful Eye’s ear turned to the sound of another Star Thrower bolt being loosed. He tried to ignore it. The hungry sergeant was sitting, his attention on the gathered group of Nightlfame stones Far Out and Voice had left for him. One by one, withdrew them from the protective pouches they resided in. He inspected each stone in turn, perfectly round, jet black spheres that bore a striking resemblance to huge black pearls, and once satisfied there was nothing amiss, he placed each into the matching base that came with every stone. The bases themselves were made of something like bronze, but dirtier, looking like squashed cubes with a round indent on the top into which the stone itself was set. They reminded him of some sort of puzzle game one would find in a schoolhouse for the very young. Having loaded all the stones into their bases, He went about arranging them in a rough circle, with one square in the middle.


“High, but close!” shouted Winter Sky, who still stood at his spot by the makeshift window, tail swaying slightly. “Bring the elevation down slightly.”

“Depressing the weapon, aye,’ came the response from Rapid Advance, somewhere down below. “Reload!”

Satisfied the Nightflame stones were all assembled correctly, Watchful Eye withdrew his canteen. He pulled the stopper with his teeth, then carefully, slowly, he tipped it over above the center stone. Nothing happened.

The sergeant stared at the collection of idle stones. He cocked his head, pouring the contents of his canteen on the remainder of the stones. Still, nothing happened. He sat there for a moment, confused, before dropping the canteen and bringing a hoof to his face in exasperation.

“Of course,” he said, shaking his head. He turned an eye on the captain, who had seen everything. “You could have said something before I went and unpacked all these. And poured all my water out.”

Winter Sky nodded, “I could have. I chose not to. I was curious how long it would take you.”

Watchful Eye glared. To any other pony in the Guard, Winter Sky’s expression would be one of cold, factual neutrality; The unmoved, sterile gaze of an unimpressed company commander. Watch, however, could discern the subtle grin on the captain’s muzzle, and the deep sense of amusement he was trying extremely hard to hide.

“Besides,” added Winter Sky “I have great faith in Cookie’s ability to break things. That pillar will be down shortly.”

“Well, it had better be,” said Watch, returning his attention to the circle of dormant Nightflame stones. He prodded one with a hoof. “I love these things. Well, when they work. I wish we got to use them more often.”

“Yes,” said Winter Sky, turning to face Watch and his stones, “magical artifacts are often like that. Hard to make, easy to break, and jealously guarded by ponies of the horned persuasion. I’m surprised they gave us twelve of the things, they usually hoard them for the Spectres.”

“Well, I’m glad they did.”

Winter Sky narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “That’s the real reason you offered to stay up here and cook, isn’t it? You just wanted to play with all the stones.”

Watchful Eye grinned. “I respectfully decline to answer the question.”

The captain snorted, turning back to his window.

THWUNK went the Starthrower again.

“Good shot!” yelled Winter Sky, his body tensing as he leaned precariously out for a better look. His tail swished quickly from side to side. “You’ve got the range, you just need to come left a bit! You should have it on the next shot!”

“Reload!” yelled Rapid Advance once more.

Watchful Eye’s attention was drawn away from his tragically still stones, and to the rapidly swishing tail of the captain. Somepony was having fun. He wondered if that tail would be moving so quickly with the rest of the squad around to see it. He doubted it.

“I didn’t know you liked artillery so much,” said Watchful Eye.

“I what?” said Winter Sky, turning once more to the sergeant.

Trying his hardest to suppress a smirk, Watch motioned with his head towards the captain’s rear.

Winter Sky blinked, craning his head around to catch sight of his own tail, whipping back and forth. He froze for a moment, turning back to Watchful Eye with a mortified expression.

“If you don’t tell them their sergeant stayed behind to play with their magic rocks,” grinned Watch, “I won’t tell them their captain wags his tail.”

Winter Sky nodded, clearing his throat. He turned hastily back towards his ragged window, his tufted ears falling slightly to his sides. “Just how did I end up with such a frustrating first sergeant?”

“You picked me, as I recall,” said Watch, smiling. He could tell the captain was embarrassed.

“Ah. I did, didn’t I?”

“And, you know,” continued Watchful Eye, “there’s nothing wrong with being a wagger.”

Winter Sky turned back to face Watch, his bemused, half lidded eyes saying more than any words could hope to manage.

The sergeant just grinned further. “No, really, I mean, Star Duster does it.”

“That does not make me feel any better.”

“Sable Shield, too.”

Winter Sky blinked. “Now I know you are pulling my tail.”

“No, really,” said Watch, “It’s super subtle, but it’s there. She only does it when Star is around, though.”

Winter cocked an eyebrow. “Well that seems… suspicious. Is there something between those two?”

Watch shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. I’m not one to judge. May just be he’s the only pony that can stand being around her anymore.”

“Well, I could see that being the case. She seems to be, uh,”

“A huge jerk of a pony?” finished Watch. “Yep. She didn’t used to be. Good Guard though.”

“Didn’t used to be?” asked Winter Sky.

“Yeah. She started out fine. Well, overconfident and a complete glory hound, but otherwise, a good pony. She wasn’t mean spirited. And she sure didn’t torment Distant Voice the way she does now.”

“So what happened?”

“I wish I knew. All I know is by the time we got back to Canterlot from that business with the Griffons, she was different.”

“Well,” said Winter sky, seeming to go over something in his head, “I wish I’d paid more attention to her, earlier on.”

“Well, you have an entire company to worry about, normally,” said Watch. “We’re just one squad out of ten. You can’t be expected to know every pony in the company personally. That’s my job.”

THWUNK

A loud pop came from Watch’s right. A large tongue of flame, black as a shadow at midnight, lept up from the gathered Nightflame stones. At the same moment he was hit with a sickening feeling, like a sudden buck to the gut, and the entire room seemed to pulse with magic.

Watchful Eye yelped, beating his wings and scooting away from the conflagration on his rump.

“Well, there’s your shadowfire,” said Winter Sky. Turning back to his window he leaned out once again. “Excellent shot Ra-, Distant Voice?”

“Yeah!” came the little stallion’s response, clearly yelled at the top of his lungs. “Rapid finally gave me a turn!”

“Well excellent work, all of you!” yelled Winter Sky, “it looks to be mortally wounded, but not yet dead! It still stands. Now that you have the range, perhaps you can do something about that? Lay it low!”

“Yes sir!” came the response, from several ponies.

“My turn!” yelled Star Duster.

Watchful Eye, having regained his composure, slunk back to his stones. The black flames calmed slowly, shrinking back down to their expected sizes. He removed his helmet, setting it to the side. He paused to shake out his mane, which was matted with sweat and clinging closely to his head and neck. Dropping low, he drew his face as close as he dared to the enchanted stones.

The little flames flickered and danced, moving like living shadows, making no noise, and casting no light. What they did however, was emit heat, and a fair amount at that. Watch could feel it on his muzzle and ears as he stared into the flickering shadowfire, his slit pupils growing wide as he observed the tiny spectacle.

“There, it seems I bought you a few more minutes,” said Winter Sky “perhaps you could use the time to try, ahem, cooking something?”

Watchful Eye blinked. “Oh. Yeah, good idea, that.”

He scooted over to the saddlebags left by Rapid Advance, and began to dig through them. Pulling out a large iron skillet, he then ducked his head into one of the bags, pulling it back out with a large pouch in his teeth. Tossing it to the side with the skillet, he continued to pull various cooking supplies from the corporal’s bags.

“You weren’t kidding about the kitchen,” said Winter Sky, walking over to the pile of supplies Watch was building. He prodded the skillet with a hoof, the clinking sound of his steel warshoe on the iron pan drawing the attention of one of the sergeant’s ears.

“Heh, sure ain’t,” said Watchful Eye, “Rapid carries a bunch of extra stuff for us. Having a huge, stupidly strong pony in one’s squad has its perks.”

He turned, tossing a small metal grate over the assemblage of burning Nightflame stones. The iron skillet followed quickly after. Grabbing the large bag next, he opened it, dumping some of its contents into the waiting skillet. Finally he grabbed the spare canteen from Rapid’s pile, pouring some of it in.

“Oatmeal?” asked Winter Sky.

“Oatmeal Surprise,” said Watch.

“Dare I ask what the surprise is?”

“The surprise is that we don’t usually know what the surprise is going to be.”

Watch stuck his head back into the saddlebags, pulling out several smaller bags. “Hmm, what shall it be?” He opened the first, shaking some of its contents into the skillet.

“Dried fruit?” asked Winter Sky.

“Ah, yes!” nodded Watch. He went for the second, shaking it in.

“That is, uh, I am pretty sure that is a chili pepper,” said the captain.

Watch blinked, bringing his face close to the concoction to inspect it. “Well, so it is. Surprise!”

Winter Sky stared blankly as the sergeant reached for the third bag. “I think I’ll be dining alone this evening.”

“Oh no way, you have to try some of this with us, it’s like a tradition. Seeing as you don’t have a big ole’ command tent to hide in on this little mission, or like a hundred other ponies distracting you. You get to learn the ways of the Cookie.”

Watch dumped in the next bag. It contained something resembling cinnamon. “Oh! Oh! Speaking of traditions...That gives me an idea!”

“I don’t particularly like the sound of that,” said Winter Sky.

“Oh no, this is a good one. Especially after what you said about Sable Shield. It’s the perfect way to get to know these particular ponies just a bit more personally.”

“Well, I’d like that,” said Winter Sky. “Just, uh, don’t actually tell them I said so.”

Watch grinned. “Of course not, sir. Trust me, this’ll be fun.”

******

“Rapid, I think thats the first time I have ever seen you high trot,” said Sable Shield, scooping a bit of the Oatmeal Surprise into her cup.

Having returned from their unscheduled artillery practice, the other ponies of Cookie Squad had seated themselves in a circle around the bubbling skillet. Each had removed their helmet, and most cradled a large metal cup between their hooves. Watchful Eye, who found himself seated in the midst of the circle, had observed with some satisfaction as each pony, save Far Out, had scooped up a cup full of his concoction.

“We needed an appropriately triumphant entrance to mark our victory,” said Rapid Advance.

“Isn’t that like, your third cup?” asked Star Duster. He was seated to Sable’s right, staring at her suspiciously.

“Shut up.”

“And sarge says I eat a lot,” added Dawn Trotter.

Star Duster snickered.

Sable eyed them both, the end of her muzzle firmly planted in her large metal cup, like some sort of metal feedbag.

Far Out, who was wearing an actual feedbag, and sitting across the skillet with Dawn and Rapid, attempted to say something. Only muffled sounds came out.

Watchful Eye rolled his eyes. “Far Out, take that thing off before you try to talk. Or at least finish chewing.”

Far Out blinked. She held one hoof up, motioning with it. She was clearly trying to chew, and quickly.

“And why are you wearing that thing in the first place, Private?” asked Winter Sky, who was the only pony not seated in the circle. He stood behind it a small distance, observing the group. “We aren’t marching anywhere.”

“She only really eats raw oats,” said Distant Voice

Far Out nodded.

“Yeah,” added Dawn Trotter, “As for the bag, I think she’s just lazy.”

The mauve maned mare started to nod, then stopped. She cocked her head as if thinking for a moment, then shrugged.

“Well hey, at least she’s honest,” said Star Duster.

“Nah, that’s not it,” said Sable Shield, narrowing her eyes at the other mare, “don’t let her fool you. She just wears that thing so she can eat and play with whatever she looted at the same time. I have to live with her, I know how she works.”

Far Out brought both her free hooves to her chest, then placed one leg over her face, like some kind of stage actress in the midst of a hammy death scene.

“Oh please, Far” continued Sable, “we both know you have no shame.”

Far Out just shook her head. She then turned, grabbing something from behind her. One of her saddle bags. Digging through it (and continuing to chew) for a few moments, she then emerged with an object in her hooves.

“Knew it,” said Sable Shield

The strange appearance of the object caught Watchful Eye’s attention.

“What the hay is that?” he asked.

Far Out tossed the object to the sergeant, which struck him in the chest and fell down between his hind hooves.

“Thanks,” he said, scooping up the strange object. Some kind of strange silvery box.

“That is one of those strange little cases I mentioned to you on the way in,” said Winter Sky, moving to stand behind Watch. “Thank you for sharing, Private.”

“She’s got like 5 of them,” said Distant Voice.

He was promptly struck on the head with a feedbag.

Sable Shield snickered.

Watch examined the item, then passed it to Rapid Advance. It began to make its way around the circle, each pony inspecting the strange artifact in turn. Dawn Trotter seemed particularly interested in it, closing and opening it repeatedly, and going on about the snake-like symbol on the front.

“It’s always space snakes with you, isn’t it Dawn?” asked Distant Voice

“STAR snakes! Come on, it can’t be a coincidence, Voice! First the baby one Far Out found, and now we find artifacts with their symbols on them!”

“I should never have lent you that book.”

Watch snorted. Those two could be at it for awhile.

Watchful Eye scooted back from the circle, rising to his hooves. He stepped back a bit, taking a position directly beside Winter Sky. The captain had also gone helmetless, and his matted, frizzy tangle of grey strands looked almost comical. Helmet mane spared no pony it seemed, regardless of rank.

Watch grinned, nodding to the officer at his side.

Winter Sky cocked his head, one ear falling flat to the side in momentary confusion. It then shot back up, and the captain nodded back.

Watch chuckled to himself, then cleared his throat.

“Fillies, colts, respected officers, and Star Duster too I guess, your attention please.”

The gathered bat ponies paused, their attention turning to Watchful Eye.

“This day is going to be a very special one for us.”

“Well yeah, we’re on an alien planet,” said Star Duster.

Watchful Eye glared. “Yes, well, Shut up.”

Everyone blinked.

“The real reason,” Watch continued, “that this day will be a special one, is that our dear company commander, for the very first time, shall be spending it amongst his very favoritest assortment of baked goods.”

“He means us, right?” asked Star Duster, slowly motioning to the group with a forehoof.

“You know Star,” said Sable Shield, “It’s getting harder to tell when you are just playing dumb to rile up the sarge, and when you are just dumb.”

Star Duster stuck his tongue out at the mare. “Well you should learn the difference, it could save your life.”

“I suspect he doesn’t know the difference himself, Sable” added Rapid Advance.

“AS I was saying,” said Watchful Eye, flaring his wings out to regain the group’s attention, “in honor of this special occasion, we are going to be indulging in one of our great traditions. A venerable tradition of the entire Royal Guard, even!”

A strange mix of groans and clapping hooves rose from the circle of bat ponies.

“Now now, I know some of us here have already endured this particular tradition,” said Watch, “but it’s been awhile since we’ve done it, and never with such an illustrious officer! That is right my friends, our own captain, Winter Sky, has agreed to join us!”

“I did?” blurted Winter Sky. All eyes turned to the captain.

Watchful Eye nodded. “Of course you did, just a little while ago!”

He turned back to face the rest of the group. “That’s right! Now, it is time for...”

The sergeant reared suddenly, spreading his wings to their full extent, “Cutieology!”

More groans. Some clearly less genuine than others.

Far Out clapped her hooves together. “Yay!”

Watch dropped back to all fours, running his eyes over the circle of ponies with his signature grin. He began to pace around the group.

“Well then, let us find our first vic, err, patient!.” He paused, pointing a hoof at the nearest pony, which happened to be Far Out.

“Saddle...Bridle...Blinders...” with each word, Watchful Eye moved his hoof, landing on a different pony in turn, “...Reins!” His hoof stopped, landing on Rapid Advance.

“Joy,” said Rapid.

“So,” began Watchful Eye, who moved to stand behind Rapid, “Corporal Rapid Advance. Cutie mark: A large red arrow, pointing forward. We know that it means he is a pony that is always pushing forward, always up front. It means he is a pony that you definitely want to be behind.”

“Or does it?” said the circle of ponies, in unison.

Watchful Eye nodded, a huge smile on his face. “Well then, tell me Cookie, what does it really mean?”

“Well, see” said Distant Voice, turning to face Rapid Directly, “the arrow always points forward, right?”

The bat ponies nodded.

“Well, that’s because Rapid is a big dumb horse that needs to be reminded which way is actually forwards, because he keeps forgetting.”

“Oh, you little bugel-sucking traitor,” grinned Rapid Advance.

A few giggles arose from the circle.

Distant Voice nodded, as if confirming some long held truth.

“The arrows are like, red, right?” said Far Out, who was seated on the other side of Rapid. She was leaning back, glaring suspiciously at his barding-covered flank.

Again, the bat ponies nodded.

“So they are red because its like, the BLOOD OF HIS ENEMIES! Get out of his way, or you are gettin’ SMASHED!”

Rapid Advance grinned. “Far Out, I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

Far Out nodded quickly.

“And like, they are arrows because, like arrows are sharp! And sharp things are good at stabbing, and stabbing is good at...more blood! Yeah!”

“Makes sense to me,” said Sable Shield.

“I vote we just declare Far Out the winner here and now,” said Rapid.

“No way,” said Watchful Eye sticking his tongue out at the corporal, “besides I think Distant Voice’s appraisal is the more accurate one. Anypony else? Something just a wee bit more insulting?”

When no one else answered, Watch turned to the captain, “Well sir, what do you think?”

Winter Sky blinked. “I, well, I think I am going to have to go with the blood option.”

Watchful Eye frowned. “Oh, well then. Blood it is. Rapid Advance, you may now choose the next contestant.”

“Very well then. You know what they say about turnabout, Watch?”

Watch narrowed his eyes. “Spoilsport.”

“We all know Watch’s mark,” said Rapid Advance, gesturing to the sergeant, “that big pink heart, with the big pink eye in the middle. It means that he cares, or so we are told. It means he is ever watching, ever vigilant.”

“Or does it?” Repeated the the circle of ponies.

“Tell me, friends, what does it really mean?”

“I think it means he’s full of himself,” said Dawn Trotter, pointing to the sergeant’s flank. “I mean his mark is a heart, with an eye on it! So his talent is loving something, and that something is an Eye. A Watchful Eye. I mean seriously, what kind of pony has themselves as a cutie mark?”

“Literally everypony, Dawn” said Sable Shield.

“Shh.”

“Well, that heart of his, it IS rather large isn’t it? Said Winter Sky. “Perhaps it IS full of something. Hot air, perhaps?”

The rest of the squad turned to face the captain with a measure of surprise.

“Ohh I like that one,” said Sable Shield.

“And Winter Sky joins the fray!” said Rapid Advance, his expression practically daring the sergeant to retort.

Watch just grinned. “The die is cast, Captain.”

“You guys are all wrong,” said Star Duster, causing the rest of the bat ponies to return their attention to the circle. “See, it’s all in the Eye. What is it sitting on top of? “

“A big pink heart?” asked Sable Shield.

“Exactly. The eye means he is looking, and the heart is what he is looking for! And what does a heart mean? Well I’ll tell you. It means love! So Watch is looking for love.”

“That doesn’t seem so bad,” said Far Out.

“Oh, it’s all in the details Far,” continued Star Duster. “See, his talent is looking for love, not finding it. I mean come on Watch, when’s the last time you went on a date? Hay, when’s the last time you even got l-OW!”

Star Duster, interrupted by a sudden blow to his side, turned to face Sable Shield. “What was that for? That hurt!”

Sable Shield just stared straight ahead, ignoring him.

Star Duster then returned his attention to Watchful Eye, who glared back, slowly pulling a forehoof across his neck in a throat-slitting gesture. Star Duster seemed pleased.

“Well I think it safe to say Star Duster wins that one,” said Rapid Advance,”and Watch, we do have that sunscreen you had us all pack. You said it was supposed to help prevent burns, so, perhaps you should dig some out.”

Star Duster snickered.

“I believe you get to select the next pony, Sergeant,” said Winter Sky.

“That I do,” said Watchful Eye, snapping back to his usual self. Star Duster’s time would come, Watch knew. But not yet.

“Sable Shield!” he said, whirling to point at the mare.

Sable’s eyes went wide, and she looked between Star Duster and Watchful Eye several times, quickly.

“I’m not with him!” she blurted, pointing at Star Duster.

“Coward,” said Star Duster.

Watchful Eye moved slowly around the circle, stalking towards Sable Shield in an almost predatory fashion. He took his place behind the mare.

“Private Sable Shield,” he said, gesturing to the mare, “cutie mark: A large black shield. It represents her abilities as a guardspony, she says. It means she’s a tough, stalwart defender of the realm.”

“Or does it?” said the group.

“Well, what’s that shield really mean?”

“Well this one is easy,” said Rapid Advance.

“Oh?” said Watchful Eye.

“Yes,” nodded Rapid. “A black shield, to go with that black, withered husk she calls a heart.”

“Hmmm, it does fit,” said Star Duster

“Watch it,” said Sable Shield, one ear turning towards Star Duster, “I know where you live.”

“I always thought the black represented the gaping void where her sense of humor used to be,” said Watchful Eye. “But the black heart thing, I can see it.”

“Yeah, me too.” said Dawn Trotter.

“I think it’s a bit of both,” added Distant Voice.

“I think her shield’s pretty,” said Far Out.

Watchful Eye turned to the mare, sighing. She wasn’t watching the rest of the group anymore, as the mare’s attention was now firmly on something she was pressing down in front of her. She seemed to be trying to roll or twist something, and it only took Watch a moment to recognize it as one of the bronze cylinders from the ruined town hall.

“Far Out, Cutieology still, remember?”

Far Out stared at the sergeant, thinking. “Oh. OH! Yes, sorry, just kidding!”

She looked to Sable Shield. “I think it’s pretty...stupid?”

Watch’s eyes lingered on Far Out for a moment, “You know what, I’ll take it. Anypony else?”

When no response came, Watch snorted. “Well that was disappointingly quick. Seems you got off easy, Sable. Choose your pony.”

“Star Duster,” said Sable Shield, without hesitation.

“Hey!” said Star Duster.

“Call me a coward will you?” said Sable.

Watch took a step to the side, coming to stand behind Star Duster. “Hello, Star.”

Star Duster craned his neck back, coming face to face with Watchful Eye. “Bring it, mom.”

“Private Star Duster,” began Watchful Eye, “cutie mark: A blue star, with a push broom leaning ag-”

“It’s a dust mop!” said Star Duster.

“...with a dust mop that looks suspiciously like a push broom leaning against the front of it. It means- well he says it means,” Watch paused a moment, looking down at Star Duster, then back to the rest of the group, “actually I have no idea what it means, and I don’t think Star does either. Somepony help me out here.”

The whole of Cookie Squad blinked as one.

“...or does it?” added a somewhat puzzled Far Out. The group seemed to think for a moment.

“His true talent is janitorial work,” Offered Rapid Advance.

“And he’s really good at it, so that’s what the star means,” added Distant Voice.

“Space. Janitor.” said Sable Shield, waving a hoof around as if she was trying to explain an advanced concept to a group of foals.

“You know, I’ve got nothing,” said Dawn Trotter, shrugging.

“Well that star of his, I think I get it,” said Watchful Eye. “It’s like one of the gold ones they give out to foals in school, when they try. Doesn’t matter if they pass or fail, they just get it for trying. That is the meaning of Star’s star. YOU TRIED!”

“I tried, and I succeeded,” said Star Duster, wagging his eyebrows.

“No, you just tried,” countered Watchful Eye, “if you had succeeded, you wouldn’t be a guardspony with a mop on his flank. Your cutie mark is an existential participation trophy.”

“HAHAHA,” Sable Shield burst into laughter beside Star, dropping her cup on the floor.

The blue maned stallion turned to her, scowling.

Watch’s ear swiveled quickly to his right, catching the faint hint of a snicker from Winter Sky.

Vengeance.

“I think we can safely call Star Duster for Watchful Eye,” said Winter Sky, who was still trying to disguise his smirk.

“Number one cutieologist, right here,” said Watchful Eye, striking a pose.

“Total set up,” said Star Duster.

“Nah, you deserved that,” said Dawn Trotter, “Choose the next pony!”

“Okay then,” said Star Duster, who now sported an alarmingly suspicious grin. “Winter Sky.”

All eyes snapped to the captain.

“It’s mutiny, then.”

“Of the best kind,” said Watchful Eye, trotting around the circle to take his place beside Winter sky.

“Captain Winter Sky,” started Watch, “cutie mark: A crescent moon, its horns facing upwards, a snowflake floating between them. It represents, we are told, the cool, collected nature of a good Lunar Guard officer, the Guard itself, and of course, our own beloved night.

“Or does it!” came the refrain. Then nothing.

Watchful Eye scanned the group suspiciously. “Anypony?”

More silence.

“I promise nopony will be getting hallway duty over this. Not even Private Star Duster.” offered Winter Sky.

“Well, uh,” said Distant Voice, all eyes turning to him, “it’s a snowflake and a moon right? So it means he’s cold. Cold and distant-”

“No relation,” grinned Dawn Trotter.

Voice snorted, tossing his empty cup at Dawn before continuing, “distant and pretty much no fun at all!

“I think that is a requirement for being an officer,” said Star Duster.

“Something you will never have to worry about private, I assure you,” said Winter Sky.

“You say that like its a bad thing.”

“Star,” said Far Out.

“Yea, Far?” asked Star Duster

Far Out, who, for some reason was now looking nearly straight up, quickly turned her attention to Star Duster. “Huh?”

“You said my name?” asked Star Duster, raising an eyebrow.

Far Out cocked her head, realization suddenly flooding her eyes. “OH! No, not Star, star. Little star, up there!”

She motioned towards the ceiling, or rather, one of the gaping holes in it through which the dawn sky could be seen. “That star, right there. It’s like, moving!”

Every pony present shifted position, attempting to get a look at what Far Out was talking about. Watchful Eye and Winter Sky came up behind the mare, their eyes following the line of her hoof.

“What the,” said Watchful Eye “it IS moving.”

“Pretty sure stars aren’t supposed to move,” said Dawn Trotter, who, along with Distant Voice, had appeared beside Watch.

“They definitely aren’t supposed to do that,” added Voice, who was now joined the others.

“Is it just me, or is it getting brighter as well?” asked Rapid Advance. The entirety of the squad had now moved to where they could clearly see the object.

“You know, I think you are right,” added Winter Sky, who had his head buried in one of the saddlebags he had placed on the ground near his hooves. He pulled out a fancy tube of wood and brass, and dropping to a sitting position, he took one side of it in his mouth and pulled, bringing what was now clearly a small telescope to its full length. He quickly put the small end to one eye, training the device on the mysterious star.

“See anything, sir?” asked Watch.

“Yes, its strange,” said Winter Sky, “I don’t think it was getting brighter, so much as it is getting closer. There also seems to be some kind of tail to it, like a shooting star or something, but I have never known them to endure like this.”

The ponies of Cookie Squad watched as the strange star drew nearer. It’s bewildering features slowly became clearer, even to the unaided eyes in the group. The tail, barely visible at all at first, now became plain to see- a strange, dimly glowing haze or smoke that trailed behind the brightest part of the phenomenon.

“Uh, ok it’s getting kind of close isn’t it?” Asked Sable Shield, the unease evident in her voice.

“It kind of looks like a little comet,” said Far Out.

“It seems to be growing dimmer now, yet closer? That doesn’t make much sense at all!” said Winter Sky, still tracking the ‘star’ with his spyglass.

“It looks like it’s going to pass close,” said Watchful Eye, “but it’s hard to say without knowing how big it is.”

The bright glow of the mystery object seemed to fade to nothing, but the strange, hazy tail still seemed to trail it, clearly revealing its presence.

Star Duster reared up, squinting his eyes as if trying to get a better look at the object. “What the hay is-”

BOOM BOOM

The sky seemed to split apart, and a pair of thunderous booms shook the air around the group. Star Duster, whinnying in surprise, tumbled over backwards, and ponies all around him dropped to the ground, eyes wide. The walls of the ruin shook, small bits of stone and worn masonry falling all about them.

“WHAT THE HAY IS THAT?” shouted Dawn Trotter, laying on his side, eyes wide and staring at the open ceiling.

“It sounded like the world’s fattest pegasus pulling off a sonic rainboom!” yelled Sable Shield, peeking out from beneath her forehooves.

“Look!” yelled Distant Voice, scrambling to his hooves and pointing towards the same gaping hole that had overlooked their artillery work earlier.

Watchful Eye struggled to his hooves, galloping to a spot from which he could see out the opening. Passing quickly through the dawn sky, silhouetted against the pale glow of the still hidden sun, was a dark shape, too distant to see clearly. It passed their position high and to the east, still trailing a wisp of quickly dissipating haze, heading towards mountain range in the distance.

“That would have to be the strangest meteor I’ve ever seen,” said Distant Voice, joining Watch near the opening. The others filed in behind him, and all eyes were fixed on the quickly moving shape in the sky. A light appeared suddenly on the front side of the distant object as it neared the mountain range, and it appeared to slow.

To Watch’s left, Winter Sky appeared, bringing out his spyglass again. The object in the distance, its strange trail now gone, was vanishing into the predawn darkness.

“It looks to be falling into that mountain range, between the peaks,” said the captain. “And by falling I mean very, very slowly. Whatever that light was, seemed to slow it down a great deal.”

Winter Sky lowered his spyglass. “Whatever it was, it ended up in those mountains by the look of it.”

“Mountains of Mystery indeed,” added Rapid Advance.

Cookie Squad stood motionless, staring together out the makeshift window, and towards the mountains in the distance. A few uneasy glances were exchanged, and silence fell upon them. The deep blue of the pre dawn sky was now giving way to the lighter blue of the dawn, and the very first hints of the sun itself could be seen peeking over the eastern treelines.

Suddenly, the captain slammed his spyglass closed. He turned to face the rest of Cookie.

“I am afraid we are going to have to cut our little tradition short this morning, everypony. Get those stones up and your gear back on, we are sleeping up today.”

The ponies groaned as one, ears pinned, and heads fell.

“Ughh, not that,” said Sable Shield, shambling off towards her saddlebags.

Watchful Eye sighed, but knew the captain was right. “Ok Cookie, you heard him, gather your junk and come circle the wagons. Dawn, you have the dawn watch.”

“EVERY TIME!” growled Dawn Trotter.

Watch nodded, “Shouldn’t have such a convenient name.”

Dawn Trotter slammed his helmet back on, and began refastening his saddlebags. “Yeah well, blame my parents. I swear they should have named me Lunch Trotter, or Vacation Trotter or something that would be actually convenient.”

“Private,” said Winter Sky, moving over to meet Dawn Trotter. He had already redonned his own helmet. “There is rather good position on the roof here, or rather, what is now the roof. Get up there, and you should have an excellent field of view with good cover from the remaining stonework. Just stay low.”

Dawn Trotter saluted the captain, then took wing, flying hesitantly up through the broken ceiling.

Watchful Eye watched him go, then returned to securing his own helmet and saddle bags. Content that he had everything back in its place, he began to move to each member of the squad, tying on cups, pulling straps, stuffing wayward Nightflame stones back into their pouches, and respective owner’s saddlebags.

Winter Sky watched the proceedings with seeming approval, and nodded to the sergeant.

Watchful Eye nodded back. “Okay everypony, on me. Rump to rump, right here.”

The rest of the squad, fully armored and wearing all their equipment, approached Watch, slowly backing themselves into a circle, each pony facing outwards.

“I hate sleeping on my hooves,” said Sable Shield, yawning.

“Can’t we at least take off the helmets this time?” asked Distant Voice.

Winter Sky paused, clearly mulling the suggestion.

“Very well,” said the captain, “helmets can come off if you feel the need, but only helmets. Keep them at your hooves, I want to be able to bolt in as short a time as possible.”

Distant Voice nodded, a relieved look on his face.

Watchful Eye took one last look around the rest of the circle, yawning himself. “Well, morning everypony.”

“Morning,” came the response.

He closed his eyes, lowered his head and tried to get some sleep.

Author's Note:

Special thanks to Jude and Unity for help with pre-reading!