Play Stupid Games, Win Stupid Prizes

by totallynotabrony

First published

It's time for the annual Royal Guard training exercise. A ragtag crew playing bad guys has to go up against the entire rest of the Guard.

It's time for the annual Royal Guard training exercise. Corporal Melon Rind finds himself in the uncomfortable position of playing the part of bad guy in the war games, aided by a ragtag squad and a lunatic boss.

It goes about as well as expected.

Editing: jarrad96
Prereading/Art: arcanelexicon
Cover art: Bird Teeth Creatives

Chapter 1

View Online

The visitor stepped off the boat. “Welcome, sir,” said Corporal Melon Rind, saluting.

Captain Purifying Light wore the Solar Guard dress uniform, including the charmed tail band that made him appear to be just as impeccably white-coated and blue-maned as the rest of the Solar Guards. He did not seem at all impressed by the tiny island town of Wash Margin or the burly earth pony in front of him.

Melon belatedly realized that he should have dressed up for the occasion of a visiting Very Important Pony. His battered purple Lunar Guard armor didn’t exactly cut a striking figure. He’d also habitually skipped the tail band that would have given him a batlike appearance. It was uncomfortable.

“Where’s your Lieutenant?” Captain Light asked.

“She’s busy, sir. She sent me to escort you back to the compound.” Melon gestured towards the lighthouse at the other end of the island. The Captain made a subtle noise of disdain, but followed him without another word.

Wash Margin had been Melon’s post for more than three years. He knew it like the back of his hoof, and disliked every inch. It was literally the worst place in Equestria for a guard to be stationed. Too isolated and sparsely populated to have more than one guard unit, a small cadre of only Lunar Guards held the place down. To be perfectly honest, it didn’t even take that much. Crimes happened perhaps once per year.

“What’s so important that she couldn’t be here herself?” the Captain asked.

It took Melon a moment to mentally connect the comment to the conversation from earlier. “Lieutenant Mirror is busy fighting a sea monster.”

Light snorted. “Don’t mess with me.”

Melon turned his head, catching the glare the Captain was giving him. “That’s what she told us, sir.”

They walked the rest of the way to the Guard compound in silence, drawing closer to the lighthouse. Upon arrival, they found Lieutenant Cracked Mirror hauling herself up over the rocks that lined the shore, armor wet and bits of kelp covering her wings. Despite her otherwise unkempt appearance, she wore her tail band and was fully outfitted as a bat pony. She was the only one at the backwater station who actually did.

Mirror paused to light a smoke. Instead of a cigarette, she used her gold lighter to set afire a piece of limp string and put it in her mouth. Noticing Captain Light, she turned and saluted. “How’s it going, sir? Are you here to collect bits to help fund Princess Luna’s castle?”

“What are you talking about?” asked Light.

“Think about it. Princess Celestia has hers, Princess Cadance has hers, and Princess Twilight, who was Princess for less than a year, got one too.”

“I’m here about the exercise,” said Light, sounding like he was straining to be civil.

“Oh. Well in that case, sir, you arrived earlier than expected. Nice to meet you.”

The Captain looked her up and down. Her mane was bedraggled. If it had been brushed as per regulation, it certainly didn’t show it. “What’s this about a sea monster?” he asked.

“It was threatening the locals,” Mirror explained, gesturing over her shoulder.

Light walked to the edge of the rocks and looked down. “That looks like a pile of seaweed.”

“Yes it does, sir.”

“If you're quite finished, I'd like to get down to business.”

“My office is inside, sir. Corporal Rind can escort you there and Sergeant Fit can meet with you about your visit to Wash Margin. I'll be along in a few minutes.”

“When I arrived here, I expected to be meeting with the leader, not the subordinates,” Light protested.

“I would trust any of my ponies to act in my stead, sir. If you'd prefer, and you don't mind the smell of seaweed, I can come with you right now.”

“No, get cleaned up,” the Captain muttered. He followed Melon into the office.

The building was clean, but had been weatherbeaten for decades. The floors creaked as Melon led the Captain inside. A note on the message board read “Lt. vs Sea Monsters.” According to the tally, Mirror was winning five to three.

Sergeant Cross Fit waited for them in the conference room. He was a lean, muscular unicorn who wore white-framed sunglasses with his uniform.

“Take those off,” Captain Light promptly ordered.

“Yes sir.” Fit took them off.

The Sergeant was already off to a bad start, Melon noted. Par for the course, it seemed, with Captain Light. Who would be next?

“Hey, how did the fight go?” shouted a female voice. An orange pegasus burst into the room. “I had twenty on-” She pulled up short, seeing the Captain. “Uh, sir. I’m Private Scootaloo.”

“Private, we’re having a meeting in here,” said Fit.

Seeing an opportunity, Melon said, “Sergeant, I’ll leave you alone with the Captain,” and quickly departed the room with Scootaloo.

Fit was actually a nice guy and didn’t deserve to be thrown to the wolves all by himself, but he was Sergeant - it was his job.

“What’s with the brass?” said Scootaloo in the hallway.

“Captain Purifying Light, Solar Guard,” Melon explained. “He’s here for the thing.”

“What thing?”

Melon shrugged. “Some exercise or something. If it’s important, I’m sure we’ll hear about it.”

A pair of unicorn mares walked up. Chalice was royal purple with a teal and yellow mane styled outside regulations. Glisten Dewdrop cut a thinner figure, with a grey-blue coat and a white mane slicked by water.

“Who’s that?” Chalice asked.

“Are we getting some sort of special mission?” added Dew.

Melon explained, adding, “He’s already pissed off, so don’t even open your mouth around him, Chalice.” It was a joke. Mostly.

Everypony at Wash Margin had been sent there for one reason or another. They had all screwed up. Chalice had mouthed off a few too many times during boot camp. Dew had ruined boot graduation by trying to conjure shade clouds on a hot day and created a thunderstorm by accident. Scootaloo had nearly burned down a building while washing dishes.

Mirror arrived outside the conference room, cleaned up but still wearing the same dented and scratched armor as everypony else. Hers was only distinguished by the gold rank in faded paint.

“The meeting’s started, ma’am,” said Melon.

“Did Captain Light seem gay to you?” Mirror asked.

The question might have sounded strange to Melon, but little about Mirror truly surprised him after he had been around her for a few years. “No, ma'am.”

“Darn, I was hoping a studmuffin like Fit would soften him up.” Mirror paused to update the score on the sea monster tracker and then went into the meeting. The door didn’t quite close behind her.

As random as Mirror may have been, she never did anything by accident. The four Guards in the hall crowded closer to the door.

“So Wash Margin’s crime rate is very low,” Fit finished saying.

“It could be even lower with an increased budget,” added Mirror as she entered. “A few more bits would give us some breathing room in the monthly budget - which hasn't even gone up to compensate for inflation in the last ten years despite our repeated requests.”

“We aren’t here to talk about your budget,” said Light. “This is about the annual Joint Academic Guard Exercise.”

Mirror nodded. “Ah yes, the Jaggy, the age-old tradition of the Guard Games.”

JAGE training is no game,” Light corrected. “In an effort to make this training exercise as realistic as possible, we will be utilizing unscripted adversaries. Your unit has been selected to fulfil the role of Red Team.”

Mirror’s squee was so loud they probably could have heard her with the door closed. “Thank you, sir! I’ve always dreamed of-”

“You’re needed in Canterlot to liaise with the exercise planners,” Light interrupted. “Select a team from the rest of your ponies to participate in the event.”

“Sir, if I’m going to Canterlot, a team is going to the exercise, and we still have to cover normal duties here, that will stretch things pretty thin.”

“Well then, you’d better not screw it up in front of the entire Lunar and Solar Guards. Remember that this is an exercise. It’s designed to test you.”

“We won’t let you down, sir. My ponies are the best.”

It was just about that time that the four at the door lost their balance and fell into the room.

“Just look,” said Mirror, continuing smoothly, “even now, they’re taking the initiative to listen and be as well informed about the situation as possible.”

Melon scrambled up, followed by the other three. He felt like he should say something equally as witty, but didn’t manage.

Light snorted, disgusted, but didn’t speak. Apparently he couldn’t come up with anything, either.

There was little else that needed to be said, anyway. Light dropped an envelope of paperwork on the table and departed.

When he was gone, the team gathered around and Mirror opened the envelope. It was operational orders to the Wash Margin Lunar Guard station printed on official stationery. In sterile, administrative terms, the senior officer was instructed to join the planning unit in Canterlot and a select a contingent of guards to act as a Red Force.

“What will we be doing as reds?” Scootaloo asked.

“The exercise lasts a week, six days of operations and a final day for debriefing and lessons learned. We’ll be playing as the bad guys, so everypony else can learn what it’s like to fight against an enemy,” said Mirror. “Of course, since there’s only so many of us, it’s not going to be all-out fighting. We’re going to have to adopt guerilla tactics.”

“Who is doing what?” asked Fit.

“Well Sergeant, I know how much you like your gains and how you can’t get your pump on while you’re on the road. Are you good to stay here?”

Fit nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Mirror turned to Melon. “Which means you, Corporal Rind, are the leader of the away team.”

Melon was the next highest-ranked, so it made sense, but it still caught him by surprise. How was he supposed to lead three Privates into mock combat against the entire Equestrian military?

He managed, “Yes, ma’am.”

Chapter 2

View Online

The Wash Margin Guard Station was so backwoods and so devoid of events that Melon had never had occasion to wear his dress uniform, nor seen anypony else do so. That is, until Mirror put hers on in preparation to leave for Canterlot.

There was not a single medal on her blouse. She had to have at least a few, of course. Active duty, long service, or some other such freebie. Melon wondered why she didn’t wear them.

The uniform was sharp, though. Mirror adjusted her tie and polished the buttons with her sleeve as the two of them waited for the ferry to the mainland. She’d asked Melon to walk with her down to the docks.

“You’re due for a Sergeant nomination, right?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How do you like your chances?”

“I’ve been stuck at Wash Margin for three years, so I’ve got very little to show on my performance record.”

Mirror nodded. “Well, for the mission at hoof, I’d like you to consider yourself an acting Sergeant. In your mind.”

“So I’m just supposed to think I am and not tell anypony else?”

“Right. Just do that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What are you going to do with your little band of merry mares?”

“For the exercise? Honestly, ma’am, I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“There’s a first time for everything. This is my first time taking down the whole Guard from the inside.”



Melon was fairly sure she was joking. He asked, “What do you recommend I do?”

“Classic asymmetric tactics. Don’t take direct action, blend into the population, make the adversary think you’re as dangerous as possible.”

Melon nodded. Coming up with a plan to conduct mock attacks on other units participating in the exercise was difficult enough. Figuring out how to lead a group in doing so, and getting them to accept his authority, seemed harder.

“I think this is a trap,” said Mirror. “This feels like a trap.”


“You know how the Wash Margin station’s been neglected by headquarters and everypony else. For politics or some other reason, it hasn’t been closed already. But I think this exercise is an excuse to make that happen.”

“Ma’ that a bad thing?”

Mirror glanced at him and then at the buildings that lined the small island’s meager waterfront. “Admittedly, it’s a personal crusade to keep Wash Margin going.”

Her slit pupils went back to him. “Even still, it’s on your honor as a Guard to do your best. I expect a strong showing at the exercise.”

“Mixed messages, ma’am.”

Mirror nodded.

The ferry arrived. Mirror put a piece of string in her mouth and lit it. She walked up the gangplank to the ferry, but paused. She tossed Melon her lighter. “Here. Might come in handy.”

And then she was gone.

Pleasantly surprised, Melon looked at the lighter. The golden finish was heavily scuffed from long use. He opened the lid, seeing the insides were caked with soot. He’d never held it before, but had seen Mirror use it enough, either lighting something or just idly snapping the cover.

Melon tried it out, giving his hoof a flick. The lighter went flying, right into the water.

He plunged in after it.

Returning to the station a short time later, Melon tried to avoid his fellow guards’ notice, but met Chalice and Dew coming out of the barracks.

“Why are you all wet?” Chalice asked.

“Long story,” Melon said. It wasn’t really, but still brushed her off. He continued for the shower, but turned back. “Meeting in the conference room in fifteen minutes. Find Scootaloo.” The order given, he went to clean himself up. Following the shower and drying, he paused at the mirror, staring at his reflection.

Melon was supposed to be in charge. Corporal - acting Sergeant - Melon Rind, Lunar Guard. A fancy title. He didn’t feel it.

How did Mirror feel? Was she nervous and hesitant? Did she bury it with her antics? Melon didn’t think he could pull off a perfect emulation of her, and anyway, the rest would be confused if he tried.

He put on his armor. That felt right, at least. The uniform helped remind him of his purpose. Melon frowned. But that didn’t change the fact that he was about to embark on something he’d never done before.

The three mares were waiting in the conference room when Melon arrived. Dew was animatedly explaining something magical to Scootaloo, whose eyes were glazed. Chalice was skimming through a pocket reference book.

Melon closed the door. None of them looked at him. He cleared his throat. That did the trick, but now they were staring, waiting for him to say something.

“So, the Lieutenant gave us our mission,” he said.

“Um, what is it exactly?” asked Scootaloo. “All I know is that we’re the red team and we’re supposed to fake-attack the other guys.”

“That’s it,” said Melon.

“That’s it?” said Chalice. “What are we supposed to do? Where do we begin?”

The three of them were back to staring at him. “We’ll play it by ear,” Melon said, more cooly than he felt. That wasn’t an answer, but none of them called him on it.

“Look,” he said, trying a different tactic, “This is new and different for all of us, but we’re all in this together. I think we should go to Canterlot. That’s where the main body of the forces are gathering.”

Dew asked, “Where are we staying?”

“Who’s paying for it?” added Chalice. “Aren’t we already scraping by on the budget we have?”

“We’ll play it by ear,” Melon repeated. “Get packed up. Travel light. We’re supposed to be covert, so no uniforms.”

That last order seemed to put the others in good spirits, at least.

The group of them headed back to the barracks to collect their kit. Melon hastily threw together his bag and then went looking for Sergeant Fit.

Fit was in the gym. Melon went over to him. “I could use some help, Sergeant. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Fit paused in his reps. “The Lieutenant wants you to lead the red team. Can you imagine what she would do?”

Melon shrugged. “I suppose I can guess.”

“Okay. Now take that down a couple of notches.”

Melon nodded. “I see what you’re saying. I’m just a little unsure where to start.”

“It’s my job to help you out,” said Fit. He slid back into the weight machine. “But at some point, I can’t keep holding your hoof. It’s your turn to make decisions.”

He was right, of course, though Melon was just hoping for a few ideas.

He said goodbye to Fit and left. The three mares were outside, having packed their bags. It was still strange to think of himself in charge of them. Melon paused for a moment, staring at the - at his Privates.

Before it got too uncomfortable, he shook his head. “Come on. Let’s find a ride.”

Chapter 3

View Online

Melon didn’t remember the last time he had been on the mainland. Was it...about a year ago?
That sounded right, the last time he had decided to take leave. The old fishing boat that had
given them a free ride pulled up to the docks in Horseshoe Bay and the four of them got off.

“Where are we going, Corporal?” Dew asked.

“Maybe it’s not a good idea to use titles,” said Melon. “Especially if we’re undercover.”

He added, “Real titles, that is.” It wouldn’t do to let the guards get too complacent, he

“So what are we supposed to call you?” Chalice asked.

“How about...boss?”

“I’m not feeling it,” said Scootaloo. “You’re more like a middle manager. At any rate, ponies
would still wonder who we were.”

“We should have a cover story!” Dew proposed.

“Not a bad idea,” Melon acknowledged. “But who should we be?”

It quickly devolved into an argument among the mares between their personal interests.
Melon stepped in. “We’ll play it by ear, okay?”

“Telegram,” said a mailpony.

The four of them turned. “To who?” Melon asked.

The mailpony read the envelope. “From: Fractured Looking-Glass. To: Large-framed stallion
at odds with three mares, arriving from Wash Margin.”

“I suppose that’s us,” Melon acknowledged. He took the envelope. He recognized Mirror’s
writing on the address.

The mailpony tipped his hat and went on his way. Melon opened the envelope to read the
letter. He frowned at it. It was a rough map of Horseshoe Bay, with the Solar Guard station

“What’s it say?” prompted Scootaloo.

Should he tell them? Would they think that Lieutenant Mirror was still calling the shots over
his head?

It’s only intelligence, Melon decided. She’s just informing, not ordering. He was also
glad to realize this. Nopony wanted to be micromanaged.

Melon spread the paper out for the others to look at. “This is everything we need to know
about the scenario. We are part of the ‘Can’t Remember Faction,’ attempting to incite chaos
across Equestria. As such, we are to do whatever we deem necessary, with the exception of
breaking laws, injury, or property damage. Civilians are also off limits.”

“‘Can’t Remember?’” Chalice asked.

“The Lieutenant left a note that it was a working title, but nopony had anything better so it
became official. We’re trying to be politically correct and be unique enough so as to not
resemble any existing group.”

“Where do we begin?” asked Scootaloo.

“We’ve got a little gift to help us get started.” Melon showed them the intelligence.

The Solar Guard station was in town, near the courthouse. It looked like there would probably
be ponies around. Waiting until after dark might help with that.

“What should we do?” asked Dew. “We can’t hurt anypony or break anything. What does that

“Noise, some spectacle that gets their heartrate up,” Melon decided. “Maybe leaving a signed
note from the Can’t Remember Faction.”

“What if we get caught?” asked Chalice.

There was a silence as they all thought about it.

“We’ll play that by ear,” said Melon.

They headed across town. The Guard station was quite a bit nicer than their own. Maybe that
made it easier to pretend they were trashing someone else’s stuff.

The place looked well fortified, with a guard at the front gate and a smaller, locked back gate.
The rest of the security was a solid wall.

“How are we getting in?” Chalice asked when they were down the block after finishing their

“Did anypony see anti-pegasus security?” said Scootaloo. “‘Cause if not, it should be pretty

“Either way,” Melon said, “We should do it after dark.”

“Only natural for the Lunar Guard.” Dew grinned.

The old “we own the night” cheer from boot camp resurfaced in Melon’s mind. Was that the
last time he’d felt truly part of a team?

He was pulled out of his reverie by the Privates gathering around a flyer stapled to a pole.

“It’s a magic show!” said Dew.

“I’ve heard of her,” said Scootaloo. “Trixie.”

Melon’s ears perked up. “Really, she’s here? She used to be a Guard herself, you know.”

“Maybe we can get good tickets for the show,” said Dew.

“Maybe we can get a little help with our mission,” said Melon.

That got them all thinking. Having a magician on their side could certainly sway the odds.

They found the show downtown. Melon told the others to wait and went to see if he could
find Trixie. Going around back of the building, he spotted a wagon that was clearly hers. He
caught her coming out.

Trixie stopped short in surprise. “Melon, you’re about the last pony anypony could have
expected. What are you doing here?”

“It’s time for the annual Joint Academic Guard Exercise. Wash Margin got picked to be red
team. We’re going to hit the Solar Guard post here in town and just happened to see your

They traded hoof bumps. “Sounds interesting,” said Trixie. Melon thought he detected a note
of envy in her voice. “Not that Trix-I miss the Guard, but that’s one thing I might have

Melon grinned. “Not that I miss you being my squad leader, but I was hoping I could talk to
you about that.”

Trixie glanced at the stage door. “Later. It’s almost time to go on.” She shoved a hoof into a
hidden pocket of her cape. “Do you need a ticket?”

“Four, actually.”

Trixie shook her head. “Four?”

“We’ll buy you dinner later and talk about the plan.”

Trixie grinned and gave him the tickets. “Then the Great and Powerful Trixie would be more
than happy to assist.”

Trixie’s show was something to see. Melon knew she was good, he’d seen her work before,
but performing her whole show in a proper venue was clearly where she was meant to be.

And if that didn’t convince the Privates that she was somepony that could help, nothing

Melon knew Dew well enough to keep an eye on her afterwards. She might try to replicate
something and accidentally conjure up a tornado.

They met Trixie at a nearby restaurant after the show. She sat with Melon on one side of the
booth, across from the others.

“So, you’re reformed and everything now?” said Scootaloo. “Because I remember when you
took all of Ponyville hostage under a giant dome.”

“Well, why else would the Great and Powerful Trixie have ended up doing her service at Wash
Margin?” said Trixie.

“So you knew each other?” said Chalice, nodded to Trixie and Melon.

“We were partners for a little over three years,” said Melon.

“Feels like just yesterday,” said Trixie.

“Well, you haven’t been out very long,” Melon reminded her. “I bet you could still recite the
contents of the evidence locker from memory.”

“Because it hasn’t changed in a couple years?” Trixie raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, bad example.”

“Almost as bad as the example Sergeant Hasta tried to set by cleaning up the beach and then
getting attacked by sea monsters.”

“Well, to be fair, that was how we busted the careless dumpers whose chemicals were turning
clumps of seaweed sentient.”

Scootaloo’s eyes widened. “Wait, that’s where the sea monsters came from?”

“Yeah, Trixie and I have seen a lot together,” said Melon. He grinned. “I even taught her to
speak in the first person.”

“Can’t say I miss being stuck on a rock, though,” said Trixie. “There’s a reason I got out.
Sounds like all of you could use some help with this exercise, though.”

“We’re trying to come up with a cover to covertly poke around Guard units,” said Melon. “And
maybe some tricks to help with the mock attacks.”

“Well, I can’t help you with tricks, but illusions are what Trixie does best.” She smiled
briefly. “Now, the four of you look like you could be some sort of exploratory team. Maybe

“Hey, yeah,” said Scootaloo. “Nopony would care if we dug a few holes.”

“Or asked a few questions,” Chalice added.

“Some kind of grad student leading three undergrads on a summer exploration trip,” finished

“We don’t know anything about archeology,” said Melon.

“So what are the odds you’ll run into somepony who does?” said Trixie. “Especially around
Guard posts.”

An acceptable level of risk in wartime, Melon thought. He nodded. “Sounds good. We’ll still
need to come up with a plan of attack, though.”

Trixie smiled. “Don’t worry about a thing. The Great and Powerful Trixie has something for
that, too.”

After dinner she invited them back to her wagon. She wasn’t exaggerating in the slightest.

Art by arcanelexicon

Chapter 4

View Online

The fireworks Trixie had given them would certainly get somepony’s attention. The art supplies she'd also thrown in the box might help. Melon considered how to best use them as he and the Privates stealthily approached the Horseshoe Bay Solar Guard station right after sunset.

Of course, stealth was relative as they walked down the well-lit paved street. The four of them were still trying to work out the best way to “attack” the Guard station.

The plan they’d come up with so far boiled down to setting off fireworks nearby and when the Guards were distracted, Scootaloo would fly a note into their compound that read something along the lines of “if this were a bomb, you’d be dead.”

“I don’t see why we can’t just fold it up into a paper airplane and throw it over the wall,” said Chalice. “It would be a much lower risk.”

“We have to make an impression,” said Scootaloo. “We want to make them think we’re so good that we were able to infiltrate their base.”

Both were valid points. Making their name early in the game could make their tiny Can’t Remember Faction seem much more threatening than just four ponies. But getting caught so early in the game would ruin everything.

After considering it, Melon made his decision. “Dew, Chalice, go with Scoots and get into position. I’m going to set off the fireworks a few blocks away and then hurry to you. If there’s a problem, we’ll get her out.”

That seemed to tread the middle ground well enough and the four of them parted, going their assigned directions.

Melon arrived behind the building that was across from the station’s front gate. He laid out a bundle of small firecrackers connected to a single fuse, a sparking pinwheel, and a rocket. Hopefully, the combination would get and keep the Solar Guards’ attention.

Flicking open Lieutenant Mirror’s lighter, he sparked the fuses - and the plan.

Once the fireworks were lit, Melon turned and sprinted down the block, making the corner and keeping buildings between him and the station. Behind him, he heard the rocket scream into the air and explode.

Melon arrived, breathing hard, just as Scootaloo reappeared over the wall. The four of them got moving, glancing back to check for pursuit. There was none, and they slowed down two blocks later.

“How did it go?” Melon glanced at Scootaloo.

“I put it under a rock. It should be pretty obvious, though I don’t know if they’ll notice immediately.” She shrugged. “I figure they’ll definitely notice when the sun comes up. If it takes them that long, it’ll make us seem even more stealthy.”

“Ninja archeologists,” Dew laughed.

Melon smiled to himself. They couldn’t afford to let down their guard, of course, but he would enjoy the pleasant afterglow of a successful mission while it lasted.

While they weren’t being chased, it didn’t seem wise to hang around such a small town for too long after attacking. All of them were in good spirits, and decided to push on west.

A mailpony was standing at the side of the road as they approached the edge of town. He checked his watch and tucked it back in his vest pocket, turning towards them. “Telegram from a Ms. Fractured Looking-Glass.”

Melon accepted it. The mailpony tipped his hat and walked away.

“How did Lieutenant Mirror know which road we were taking out of town? Are we being followed?” muttered Scootaloo.

“Maybe she just took a good guess about where we would be,” offered Dew.

“Or she sent a telegram for each road to make sure,” suggested Chalice.

Either wouldn’t surprise Melon. He opened the envelope.

“What’s it say?” asked Scootaloo.

“It’s more intel,” said Melon. “We have three new targets.”

He read them off. “Dodge Junction, Ponyville, and Los Pegasus.”

“I’m from Ponyville,” said Scootaloo. “We could hole up there and make it a base.”

“I’m from Baltimare. It’s a lot closer to where we are now,” said Dew. “We could stay with my folks.”

It was an appealing idea, having somewhere to stay. Especially since it was now night. And, if Melon remembered correctly, their closest target of Dodge Junction was on the other side of the Hayseed Swamps.

“We weren’t told to go to Baltimare,” said Melon.

“Is that envelope full of orders?” asked Chalice. “Or just ideas?”

She had a point, though Lieutenant Mirror wouldn’t have sent the targets if she didn’t think they were important. But there was surely a Guard station in Baltimare where they could stage a mock attack.

Walking to Baltimare would take the rest of the night. Walking to Dodge Junction would also take the rest of the night, but they would be going through the wet, muddy swamps where who knew what creatures lurked.

Either way, once they arrived, they would be short on sleep. For Baltimare, they could crash at Dew’s place and then go searching for the local Guard station. On the other hoof, they already had quality information on the one-building, minimum-security station at Dodge Junction and going west instead of north would get them closer to their other objectives at least a day faster.

“We’re going to Dodge Junction,” Melon decided.

The three mares groaned. “Come on!” said Chalice.

“Tonight’s going to suck,” Melon acknowledged. “But if we keep up a good pace, we can hit the station in Dodge Junction before first light and escape. We’ll find a place to rest and then we can do Ponyville the next day. Remember that we’re on a time limit for this exercise.”

He felt that he shouldn’t have to explain himself, but his reasoning seemed to quiet the mood.

“If we could get some light, Chalice, Dew,” said Melon.

“We’ll have to trade off,” said Dew. “You know I usually get condensation all over me when I use magic for a long time.”

“We’re going through Hayseed Swamp,” said Melon. “You’re going to get wet either way.”

That got him another round of groans.

Chapter 5

View Online

The four of them lay on their bellies on a low hill outside of Dodge Junction. Melon blinked
hard, trying to stay awake. He cleared his throat. Judging by at least one soft “wha?” he’d
startled somepony else out of a doze.

Honestly, he couldn’t blame them. Walking all night followed by lying down would do that to a
pony. But they had to concentrate. There was a narrow window left before dawn if they
wanted to pull off this attack.

There were a scant few lights in the town. They’d located the Solar Guard outpost based on
the intel Mirror had sent them. Melon thought he might have detected movement once or
twice, but it seemed that there wasn’t an alert.

“Are we ready?” he asked softly.

“I just want to get this done with so I can sleep,” Chalice replied.

“And get clean,” added Dew.

There was a moment of silence. Melon said, “Scoots?”

“I’m awake.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

Melon pushed himself up. The semi-desert was a strange thing to find right at the edge of a
swamp, but that was the reality of Equestria’s biomes. Judging by the farms Melon had seen,
including a cherry orchard, the townsponies seemed to use the nearby source of water for

Hayseed Swamp sure had plenty of water. It was almost a blessing that it had been so wet,
otherwise the four of them would be even muddier. Melon could feel the dried mud cracking
off his body as he moved. He tried to shake more of it off.

There weren't any carriages or trains that ran from Horseshoe Bay to Dodge Junction that late
at night. Such a trip would have also cut into their funds, which Melon was already worried
about and it hadn’t even been two full days yet.

They’d gotten through the swamp at a good pace, though to be perfectly frank, it had been a
risky move. There probably wasn’t anything in there that ate ponies, and the four of them had
been trained to fight, but they’d stayed careful. They’d even managed to keep dry the
fireworks Trixie had given them.

But this early morning, they were going for a more subtle approach. The weather was warm,
and as they approached the back of the Guard building, Melon spotted a window that was
open a crack.

They’d already written the note. Unfortunately, all they had was a napkin from the restaurant
Trixie had taken them to in Horseshoe Bay, but it was the message that was important.
You’ve been attacked by the Can’t Remember Faction in the middle of the night. Gotcha!

Melon had almost smirked, reading it, but restrained himself. The others hadn’t held back,
and he’d let them have their fun.

Crouching beside the building, Melon heard a few snores through the open window.

Dew had the smallest head and was colored the dullest, so she’d been designated looker.
Slowly, she eased up over the sill, peeping into the room. She made the signal with her hoof
for “clear.”

Melon passed her the note, and she slipped it inside with her magic. The four of them eased
away into the predawn darkness.

“That’ll give them a surprise,” chuckled Dew quietly. “I left it on somepony’s bedside table.”

“Nice,” said Scootaloo, giving her a hoof bump.

“The train station’s over here,” said Melon, leading them to the other end of town where the
traintracks crossed. Their timing had worked out impeccably and a train pointed north was
being coaled up at that very moment.

“Are there any passenger cars?” said Scootaloo. “This looks like just a freight train.”

“Do you think we could talk to the drivers?” said Dew. “If we tell them who we are, maybe
they’ll let us ride.”

“Are they going to believe us?” said Melon. He gestured at the four of them, covered in mud.
“Also, I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell anypony what we’re doing. Once we start doing more
attacks, they’ll be looking for us. And engineers and conductors travel to all parts of
Equestria. They could tell somepony.”

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” said Dew. “We’ve got to sleep some time, and it wouldn’t
be good for us to stay here, in this tiny town, with guards that will be looking for us come

“We could do it hobo style,” suggested Scootaloo.

“You mean stowing away on the train?” said Chalice.

“Ordinarily, I’d call that illegal,” said Melon. He paused. “But since they let Guards travel for
free on official business, and we are on orders. Plus, I don’t remember anything in the
regs about that only applying to passenger trains.” He glanced at his squad, and saw them all
adorned with wicked little smiles.

The four of them infiltrated the rail yard. There was no security, what with Dodge Junction
being as small as it was. The first boxcar they came to was locked, as was the second.
Melon felt panic rising up in his chest; their plan was falling apart.

He saw the silhouette of the firepony pulling the coal chute back from the engine. It would be
leaving soon. The four of them frantically checked boxcars down the line, but none were

Attempting to get a different perspective, Scootaloo flew up a few feet. “Hey! This car’s got a
roof vent!”

“Can we get up there?” Melon asked.

“Can we get out once we’re in?” added Chalice. “Locked doors, remember.”

“Um.” Scootaloo flew closer, looking at the vent. “I don’t know.”

“Catch!” Melon threw her Lieutenant Mirror’s lighter. Scootaloo grabbed it expertly, just as
the train’s bell began to ring.

From the top of the boxcar, they saw a flicker of flame. “Yeah! It’s mostly filled with bags of
some kind. You should be able to stand on them to climb out.”

Melon gestured Dew and Chalice to climb the ladder. The engine’s whistle blew twice and it
began to move, taking the slack out of the string of cars. Melon heard the bangs of the
couplers traveling down the length of the train.

Chalice got up just as the car began to move and nearly fell. Melon trotted alongside,
watching her climb and silently urging her to move faster. He’d broken into a canter before
there was enough ladder clear for him to grab.

He made it to the top as the train began to accelerate out of town. The vent was obvious and
he squeezed through, dropping down inside.

In the light from Chalice’s horn, he saw the car was about half full of burlap bags stamped

Scootaloo gave him back the lighter and looked around. “Hey, a soft place to rest and

As if on cue, Melon’s stomach growled. He fought the feeling down. “We can’t do that.”

“Are we supposed to starve to death?” asked Chalice. “I’m sure whoever owns this would
understand, or maybe not even miss it.”

“I could maybe stitch the bag back closed afterwards,” said Dew.

“We’re already bending the rules,” Melon pointed out. He looked at Scootaloo. “You’re from
Ponyville, right? How far is it?”

“Well, only a few hours,” said Scootaloo. “I guess I can wait.”

Chalice put out her light and the four of them lapsed into darkness. Melon put his head down.
The burlap sacks were no bed, but he was so tired that he felt like he could sleep anywhere.

But… His head came up. “We should set a watch.”

“Huh?” one of the others said.

“If we all fall asleep, we might miss arriving in Ponyville. We might end up somewhere else, or
maybe even arrested if we’re found.”

The others made various noises of reluctance. Melon would have to pick somepony to stand
watch first. He glumly realized that the decent thing to do was to do it himself.

“I’ve got it first,” he said. “Get some sleep.”

Melon blinked hard. He couldn’t lay on his back in a semi-comfortable position and stay
awake. He reared up, sticking his face out the roof vent.

The awkward position of standing upright with the wind in his face would probably keep him
awake. He didn’t know if he could stand that way for the couple of hours it would take to get
to Ponyville, or, as he blinked again, if it would even keep him awake that long.

The wind, with a little bit of smoke from the engine, stung his eyes and he closed them.
No! Blinking again, he turned around, facing the back of the train. That helped, but now
he had nothing irritating his face and his eyes grew heavy again. He reluctantly turned around
once more.

Time passed and he caught himself nodding. He shook his head. He wasn’t sure how long
he’d stood there. His legs were tired and he dropped down to all fours to stretch before
standing up again.

The sun was starting to come up on the horizon and Melon stared as the purple changed to
pink and went on to orange.

He wished he had somepony to talk to, but having somepony else awake would defeat the
purpose. He tried to think about their future strategy for something to do, but it was hard to

It would take time for word of the attacks in Horseshoe Bay and Dodge Junction to reach
Ponyville. In fact, if they kept up their furious pace, they could stay ahead of the news and
retain their advantage of surprise.

The napkin from the restaurant could indicate that the same attackers had done both jobs in
Horseshoe Bay and Dodge Junction. Melon couldn’t manage to muddle through whether that
was good or bad, if it sent a message or made the others realize that there was only one small
red team.

Melon’s nose bonked into the metal of the roof. He jerked back up, seeing that the sun was
peeking over the horizon. He glanced around. They were still in the country.

He decided to wake up Scootaloo. She was slow to rise, but a gentle prod from his hoof got
her moving. The rising sun coming through the roof vent helped.

When she was situated, Melon lay down and closed his eyes.

Her hoof nudged him. “We’re here.”

“This had better not be a joke.”

“It’s not. You were out for maybe an hour.”

It sure hadn’t felt that long. Melon roused himself as Scootaloo nudged the other two awake.
The train began to slow down.

There wasn’t room for the four of them to all have their heads out the vent. Melon asked for a

“We’re coming into the south end of town,” said Scootaloo. “We should probably get off
before the train gets to the station. So that would be about now.”

She climbed out and Melon twirled his hoof in a circle for the order to move. He gave Chalice
and Dew a boost and then pulled himself out. Scootaloo was already flying alongside the
train, which was going faster than Melon had thought from inside the car.

“The grass is tall here,” Scootaloo encouraged. “I can maybe give Chalice and Dew a lift.
Sorry boss, but you’re on your own.”

If that’s how it had to be. Melon steeled himself, climbed down the ladder, and tried to land as
gently as possible, rolling to a stop.

He made it in one piece. Sitting up, he found Chalice and Dew safe and sound. Scootaloo
was nearby, eating an apple half the size of her head. Melon realized they’d come to rest in an

He gave her a look, eyeing the apple.

“Nah, it’s cool,” she said, gesturing to the trees around them. “I know the owner. Try them

Melon’s stomach growled again. He lined up on a tree and gave it a kick. Half a bushel rained
down on them.

“Jeeze, I could have pulled some down!” protested Chalice. “Or maybe Scoots could have
gotten some for us.”

“Sorry,” said Melon. “I was the wrong kind of fruit farmer. I’m also running on an hour of

“Same here,” Dew reminded him.

Melon wished he hadn’t complained. Not only did it give subordinates room to complain too,
but it could make them think he couldn’t handle things. He wasn’t too perturbed, however.
They now had all the apples they could eat, and all of them were delicious.

They followed Scootaloo towards where she said her friends lived. The nap Melon had gotten
didn’t refresh him, but he seemed to be able to think again. They’d have to see what kind of
support the locals were willing to give him and the Privates, and also to swear them to
secrecy. After that, they could plan their attack on the Ponyville target and then start working
on the trip to Los Pegasus. At the moment, surprise was still on their side and they were
about to get some help.

The suck of the previous day was already fading. Melon’s gamble had paid off and they were
in a good position.

He frowned. Did the others recognize that? Or did they just think of him a slave driver, and
would until there were results they could share? He knew he’d been hard on them. Did they
understand why?

Suddenly, he wasn’t so sure of himself.

Chapter 6

View Online

The intel said that the blue force had set up a field office in the Ponyville town hall. As Ponyville was home to the Elements of Harmony, having a Guard unit permanently stationed there would probably be redundant.

There would be no fortified defenses or many personnel to deal with, but accessing a public building like the town hall with so many civilians around would be a challenge enough.

Fortunately, they had the luxury of planning. Scootaloo’s friend Apple Bloom let them stay in her family’s barn and eat all the apples they wanted. Rest was they all really wanted.

That evening, after cleaning up and having a good nap, the four of them set off for downtown Ponyville, such as it was in the small town. They had a meeting with another of Scootaloo’s friends, Sweetie Belle.

It was clearly a clothing store they walked into, but considerably fancier than any Melon had ever patronized.

“So we’ll need some disguises,” said Scootaloo. “Something basic, that’s why I came to you and not your sister.”

“No problem. So who are you trying to disguise as?” Sweetie asked.


“Sweater vests it is, then.”

“Really?” said Scootaloo. “Isn’t there something else?”

“You know what archaeologists wear?” Sweetie challenged. “Sweater vests.”

So that’s what they wore.

“But even if we got you a hat and some fake glasses, ponies will still probably recognize you,” said Sweetie to Scootaloo.

Melon frowned. It would help to have her around, since she knew the town, but he decided that stealth was more important. “You can stay at the orchard while we do this.”

“I’ll come visit you,” said Sweetie. “It’ll be just like old times.”

They left Scootaloo with her and the other three headed for town hall. They’d timed it right and it was just a few minutes before closing when they arrived.

It wasn’t difficult to find the office reserved by the Guards. Both Lunar and Solar were present, most of them officers. They looked bored. A few documents were taped to the walls. Melon would have liked to take a closer look, but he reasoned that anything important wouldn’t be in plain view.

“Yoo hoo!” called a mare from the nearby help desk. “Can I assist you?”

“Oh, we were looking for a few things,” said Melon. “Do you happen to have any archaeological records?”

“They’d be in the archive room,” the receptionist replied. “We’re closing in ten minutes, though, so please be quick.”

He’d said archaeological records because it had been the first thing to come to mind. After that, though, they couldn’t just turn around and leave.

Once they were back in the records room, among the quiet stacks of files, Melon asked, “Ideas?”

“The guards’ll probably be in that room whenever the town hall is open,” said Dew. “We’re going to have to either distract them or figure out something on a timer.”

Chalice put a hoof to her chin. “This place is full of records. I wonder if they would have blueprints of the town hall?”

With the three of them searching, they were able to find the plans with a few minutes to spare. Chalice scanned the document. “Okay, we’re here,” she said, tapping the paper. “The guard room is here.”

They looked at it for a few more seconds, but the receptionist called, “We’re ready to close!”

“We’ll figure something out,” said Melon. They put the blueprints away and left the building.

Rejoining Scootaloo back at the orchard, they planned their next move.

“It’ll be hard to distract them when they’re in that small room,” said Chalice, drawing a rough sketch of the layout. “We need to either get them out or find another way. That thing Dew said about timing gave me an idea.”

She made a few more marks on her sketch. “These are air vents, and one of them runs from the record room to the office. All the air vents run to this one service room, probably where the air conditioner is. If we shut off the air and put the note inside the vent, when the air was turned back on, the note would blow out. It would take a little while for anypony to notice the air conditioning had stopped, so we could make a getaway.”

There were nods around the room. Melon found his own head nodding. Chalice seemed confident in her memory of the blueprints.

Scootaloo raised a hoof. “But that involves opening things, like the vent and the service room door. What if they’re locked?”

Melon looked around. “Good point. Do we have any backup plans?”

“I could maybe put something together if I saw the blueprints again,” Chalice offered. “There’s no way of knowing if there is another way, though.”

“We’ll play it by ear,” Melon said, for the first time in what felt like a long time. He apparently had gotten better at making plans since the last time he’d said it. Ironic now that it was the plan.

“We could at least make the best of what we have,” said Scootaloo. “Practice.”

They had nothing better to do in order to prepare. Laying out straw bales as notional walls, they built a rough approximation of the section of town hall floor plan where they would operate.

Chalice, knowing the most about archaeology, would tie up the attention of as many ponies as possible for as long as she had to. Melon had some experience with refrigeration from the fruit business and would go to the service room to shut off the air conditioning. Dew would go to the records room and insert the note into the vent once the air stopped. When she and Melon rejoined Chalice, the three of them would exit the building.

They walked through their roles and speculated about potential problems they could encounter. If nothing went wrong, they could have the job done in under a minute.

Implementing the plan, on the other hoof, was a whole other challenge.

They showed up at town hall the next morning, a few minutes before it opened. A couple of the guards also stood outside, waiting for the town staff to come along. One of them, a Solar Guard Colonel whose nametag read Desk Jockey, kept impatiently checking his watch. He didn’t look like somepony who was used to waiting on civilians. Melon hid a smile.

When the doors opened, the group of them went inside. Dew asked for the records room. Melon asked for the restroom. Chalice went to the front desk.

Melon headed down the hall where he had been pointed, but doubled back to head for the service room. The door wasn’t locked and he slipped inside.

There was a convenient panel on the air conditioning unit labeled on and off. It was currently turned off.

Melon shrugged and turned around. Surely the unit would be activated sometime that day. He slipped back out the door and headed back for the front room.

Chalice was on the floor, scooping up a pile of papers that had gone everywhere. She was apologizing profusely, and seemed to be blocking the path of a stallion in coveralls.

Dew appeared. She and Melon traded glances and started helping Chalice clean up. The stallion in coveralls edged around Chalice and headed down the hall Melon had just vacated.

Is he the maintenance guy? Is he going to turn on the A/C?

Perhaps thirty seconds passed as the three of them finished restacking the papers and Chalice put them on the secretary’s desk, still apologizing.

Then, there was an angry roar from down the hall.

Colonel Jockey stormed into the front room, waving the Can’t Remember Faction note. “Who did this!?”

“What’s that?” the secretary asked.

He shook the note at her. “The enemy has been here!”

“Enemy?!” gasped Dew theatrically.

“Must have planted it in the middle of the night,” grumbled Jockey, seemingly to himself. He wheeled on the secretary. “Some security you have here! We’ve just gone and lost the war games.”

“What’s going on?” Chalice pressed.

Jockey glanced at her. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it. State secrets.” He glared at the secretary again. “All you needed to do was have somepony guard the place at night. I can’t even get a decent night’s sleep on the beds at the hotel, and now this happens.”

“You never said that we needed extra guards,” the secretary finally replied. “Was anything stolen? Leaving a note hardly seems a crime.”

Jockey growled again and stalked away.

“What’s his problem?” Melon asked, genuinely wondering.

The receptionist shook her head. “I have no idea. Now, did you find everything you needed?”

They left the town hall with a few copies of a few documents, just to make their visit seem more legitimate. The three of them carried the good news back to Scootaloo.

“Awesome!” she said. “Wish I could have been there. But it’s all good, Apple Bloom made some pie to celebrate.”

That, Melon thought, was indeed good.

Chapter 7

View Online

The train to Los Pegasus left that evening. It would be late evening when they arrived, but scouting the Guard station there was probably best done in the dark anyway. It wasn’t like any of them were sticking to a sleep schedule.

Train tickets were a hit to the budget, but Melon reasoned that it was acceptable considering the money they’d saved in transit and lodging so far.

It also gave them an opportunity to rest up. That seemed especially important, because the Los Pegasus Joint Guard station looked like it was going to be their toughest challenge yet. The intel specified tall walls, barred windows, and heavy patrols of both ground and air.

They arrived in the early afternoon and first priority was getting eyes on the place. The compound was located on a heavily-trafficked street corner. Lots of eyes around. And being Los Pegasus, that crowd would likely not taper off much as the hours got later. The other corner of the building opened to alleys, but there was always at least one guard watching from atop the wall. At least one pegasus was also aloft, keeping an eye on things.

“Wow, all this for us?” Dew murmured.

“They’re definitely taking the exercise seriously,” Melon said. Though, the guards seemed almost bored of routine. Were they always this attentive and well practiced, exercise or not?

A loud crash made them all jump. A wagon had upset its load of boxes across the street. One guard ventured over to see if assistance was needed. The others didn’t seem to respond.

“They must be used to loud noises,” said Chalice. “Makes sense, considering this is Los Pegasus. That also means they’re probably used to fireworks.”

“I don’t see any obvious way in,” said Scootaloo.

“Let’s make another round,” Melon suggested. “Maybe there’s something we missed.”

They walked down the block again, closer this time. They were all doing their best not to appear suspicious, but apparently they weren’t trying hard enough. As they passed the front gate, a Lunar Guard Corporal stepped forward. “You folks look lost.”

“We’re in town for an archaeology convention,” said Dew. That was a better response than Melon could come up with, so he let her run with it.

The guard glanced at their sweater vests. “I would have expected you to be more like Daring Do.”

“Common misconception,” said Chalice. “Daring Do isn’t real.”

Scootaloo started to say something, but Melon cut in. “You’re right, sir, we are lost.”

The guard pointed. “Most of the convention centers are a few blocks that way.”

They thanked him. As they went in the direction he had pointed, Melon didn’t see the guard turning around to go back to his post. Was he staring after them? Melon knew it would make him look suspicious if he looked back to check.

The stallion, a Lunar Guard Corporal just like himself, had been attentive. He had somehow figured out there was something strange about the four of them. Had he noticed them walking by more than once? After their conversation, he would certainly remember them. That would make their job much harder.

“We still have some time,” said Chalice. “If we can’t come up with a plan, we should go to city hall and see if we can get blueprints. That worked last time.”

With no other ideas, they found the Los Pegasus city building and made their way to the records department, only to be greeted with some unfortunate news.

“I can’t show that to you,” said the stallion behind the counter. “Records regarding Guard station construction have always been sealed away from the general public by order of the Princesses.”

Melon didn’t know that. Not that he’d ever tried to look up the plans for the Wash Margin station. If blueprints for it even existed.

Could they get the blueprints of the Los Pegasus station if they showed the records pony their identification? Could they tell him it was some secret business and ask him to keep quiet? Could they study the plans, come up with a solution, and stage their mock attack on the station yet that night?

He started to reach for his ID card, but the records pony said, “And anyway, it requires permission from the local Guard Commander. It’s his jurisdiction.”

They left the building with nothing to show. There were a few hours of daylight left that they could use to scrape together a plan. Melon said, “Any ideas?”

“I didn’t see any access points to get through the walls,” said Chalice. “And the gates were all redundantly guarded. I said before that I don’t think fireworks will be a distraction to these guys.”

“We have to think of something,” said Melon. “This is a target.”

“It looked like there were all kinds of guards around,” said Scootaloo. “I can’t even take a look from the air, because I saw they had guys on the roof and also flying around. As serious as they are, I would bet they also probably have an anti-pegasus field set up.”

“The Lieutenant gave us this target,” Melon said.

“I’m sure she’ll understand if we can’t do it,” said Dew. “She wouldn’t want us to get captured.”

“What about trying to bluff our way in as celebrities?” said Melon. “Everything in Los Pegasus is a show. There have to be tons of famous ponies around.”

“But we’d need to be celebrities that they’d heard of to make it effective,” Chalice pointed out. “And I don’t think any of us looks enough like any celebrity to pull it off.”

“Plus, that guy we talked to earlier probably still remembers us,” Dew pointed out.

“And it still probably won’t work,” added Scootaloo. “Security around here is nuts.”

“What about bluffing our way into good graces with real celebrities and then tagging along with them through the gate?”

“Boss, that’s pretty creative but even less practical than the last idea,” Dew said.

“We’ve got to find a way,” said Melon. “There’s always a way.”

“Yeah, and sometimes that way is suicide,” said Chalice.

This wasn’t like a midnight trek across Hayseed Swamp that he could order them to endure. There was a difference between an unpleasant task and impossible one.

Melon sighed. Ambition alone wouldn’t carry the day. He needed to have enough faith in his ponies’ abilities that when they told him they couldn’t do something, he should believe them.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter 8

View Online

There wasn't a train back to Ponyville until later that night. With nothing else to do, a little daylight left, and having planned to spend the night awake anyway, they decided to walk back to Ponyville.

Melon might have sprung for train tickets had their mock attack been successful and they needed to leave town quickly. The others grumbled about the hike, but took it a lot better than when they'd trekked through the swamp.

Passing the station on their way out of town, Melon waved to the Lunar Guard Corporal at the front gate. He couldn’t be sure it was the same pony, what with the disguising tail band in place, but the body language looked similar. It was partially to maintain his dumb tourist cover, but also, he thought, to salute a professional at his job. Melon wasn’t sure if he could maintain such a rigid adherence to rules and procedures. He was glad somepony could, though. If the red team couldn’t get in, then the other Corporal was doing his job.

The four of them left the city, walking along the railroad tracks to make the navigation easier. The moon was out and the terrain was fairly flat.

As the only pegasus in the group, Scootaloo probably felt that the others were holding her back. For something to do, she stayed aloft, having a look around.

They'd traveled for maybe an hour out of Los Pegasus, when Scootaloo spotted something from altitude. She came down to rejoin the group. “I saw a fire off to the north. Maybe somepony is camping.”

“Along the tracks?” Melon asked.

“Closer to the forest.”

It couldn't hurt to know who might be out there. “Take a look.”

Pleased to be doing something, Scootaloo took off again. She returned in a few minutes, excitement in her eyes. “It's Guards.”

That brought the whole troop to a halt. “How many?” asked Melon. “What are they doing?”

“Maybe a dozen. It looked like they were setting up tents and getting ready for bed,” Scootaloo reported.


“Maybe they'll have somepony on watch. It's just a campsite, so no physical security.”

Melon looked at Dew and Chalice. Both of them were attentive and ready.

He nodded. “Let's go.”

Scootaloo guided them towards where she had spotted the camp. On her recommendation, they swung into the fringes of the forest to conceal their approach.

“The Everfree Forest is pretty large,” she said. “It goes all the way up to Ponyville. On the outskirts we should be fine, but you don't really want to go much deeper.”

Melon figured Scootaloo would probably have the local knowledge. Dew asked, “What's up with it?”

“The weather does funny things,” Scootaloo explained. “Lots of hungry creatures live there. It just isn't a place that plays by the rules.”

Their voices dropped to whispers as they approached the camp. Through the trees, the coals of a dying campfire provided minimal light, highlighting a few tents and a guard or two still standing around. After taking a moment to get a feel for the layout of the camp, the four of them withdrew to discuss a plan.

“If we give them some time, they’ll go to bed and leave only one or two still awake,” said Scootaloo.

“If any of you are feeling sneaky, maybe we could foalnap them,” Melon suggested, half-joking.

“But transporting prisoners would slow us down,” Chalice pointed out. “Plus, if we didn’t do it perfectly, it would wake up all the rest.”

“We could use a distraction,” said Scootaloo. “And maybe some concealment. The campsite may be beside the forest, but it’s still out in the open.”

“I’ve got it!” said Dew. “This forest is supposed to have wild weather, right? Why don’t I whip up a thunderstorm?”

“And then what?” said Chalice. “Are you just going to walk right in?”

“If I can make it rain heavily enough, then yeah, why not?” Dew grinned.

She lit up her horn. Clouds started to gather over the trees. Within a minute, there was a soft rumble of thunder. The guard on watch heard it and glanced up nervously.

Dew took off her sweater vest as it began to sprinkle. She grabbed a grease pencil from the art supplies Trixie had given them and stepped to the edge of the trees.

Taking a deep breath, she fed more power into the storm and the rain started coming down in buckets - but only around her. The near-solid column of water completely obscured her from view. The storm - with Dew inside - then moved out of the forest and towards the camp

The guard hunkered down as the rain came in. He must have been curious about the unusual weather, but too miserable to actually investigate.

Dew passed through the camp. The guards in their tents probably would not come out with the heavy rain drumming on the canvas.

After a moment, she pulled back, maintaining the cloaking storm all the way back into the forest. Once back into concealment, she let the rain dissipate, which it did slowly, tapering off until it stopped.

Dew was soaking wet and looked exhausted. She managed to smile, though. “On the side of a tent I wrote, ‘Love, the Can’t Remember Faction,’ and drew a little heart. I can’t imagine their faces when they see it.”

Melon suppressed a snort. Scootaloo had to stuff a hoof in her mouth to keep from laughing. This close to the forest, surely the guard on watch would hear them.

Dew swayed a little on her hooves after expending so much energy, but she was in good spirits and said she would be able to make it to Ponyville.

The four of them stealthily left the area, heading north again.

The mock attack on the camp wasn’t what they had gone to Los Pegasus for, but it was better than nothing. Melon was already thinking ahead, plotting where they would strike next.

Chapter 9

View Online

They returned to Ponyville with a hearty breakfast at Scootaloo’s friend’s place in mind, but instead received a slice of humble pie. Apple Bloom informed them that wanted posters with their pictures had gone up around town.

“They said it was for a Guard trainin’ exercise, but to be on the lookout for you,” Apple Bloom told them.

“How could they have known it was us?” Dew asked.

“Somepony in Canterlot must know who we are,” said Chalice. “Lieutenant Mirror didn’t use our names on the letters she sent, so even if they were intercepted they couldn’t identify us.”

“Could it be somepony she’s working with in the exercise planning group?” Melon speculated. “They’re supposed to be uninvolved and neutral, the game masters, but who else could have come up with our names?”

“We also haven’t received any more mail from her,” said Scootaloo. “Maybe she’s figured it out, too.”

“How could we get a message to her?” Melon asked the group.

“Can I help?” offered Apple Bloom.

“That might be breaking a rule, having civilians do our work for us,” said Melon. “Not that we haven’t gotten your support - thanks for that, by the way - but actually doing our bidding definitely isn’t allowed. Especially now that they’ve got their eyes on us.”

“We could go to Canterlot,” said Scootaloo. “They’d never suspect us to be right under their noses.”

“There are also a lot more guards and they’ll probably be more prepared,” Chalice pointed out.

“But they’d never suspect it.” Scootaloo grinned. “Heck, maybe we can be literally under their noses and stay in the caves under the castle.”

“Canterlot would also give us a chance to pull off one last big job before the end of the exercise,” said Melon.

“Speaking of that, we should do another one as we go through Ponyville,” said Dew.

“I remember that Colonel saying he was staying in the hotel,” said Melon. “We could leave a ‘letter bomb’ for him.”

“He almost burst a vein last time,” chuckled Scootaloo. She frowned. “He was really angry. You think he went out of his way to figure us out and put up posters?”

It was a possibility. “We’ll play it by ear and be more careful,” said Melon.

After breakfast and a nap, the four of them thanked Apple Bloom for the hospitality and set out for Ponyville. It was after lunchtime but not yet quitting time, so the risk of running into the guards anywhere but the town hall seemed remote.

They stopped by the hotel and left a cheeky note for Colonel Desk Jockey. On the way out of town, they passed within a block of the town hall. Even at that distance, and with the crude nature of the hastily-drawn posters, it was easy to tell who was who. Surprisingly, there was a fifth one that listed Sergeant Cross Fit.

“I didn’t think I looked that fat,” observed Melon.

“They got my mane color wrong,” Chalice deadpanned.

“My nose doesn’t really look like that?” Dew worried.

“I wonder what it’s all supposed to mean,” said Scootaloo as they followed the road north out of town. “The extra poster for Fit.”

“It means they don’t know it’s only us,” said Chalice. “Maybe they know Wash Margin supplied the red team, but not who’s on it.”

It was an interesting observation, but not a particularly helpful one. The blue team, in Ponyville at least, now had their names and pictures. There was no telling who else had that information. Now, even showing their faces could put them at serious risk.

“Something I was wondering,” said Dew. “How did they get that?”

“If we were real-life bad guys, they wouldn’t just have our names and pictures on file,” said Melon. “They’d have to take the time to figure that out. And I can’t think of any evidence we’ve left behind that could have identified us so quickly.”

“They can’t have identified us,” said Chalice. “If they had, they’d know Sergeant Fit isn’t with us. Somepony went outside the exercise to look up the station that supplied the red team and get the records of everypony who works there.”

“And they know Lieutenant Mirror isn’t with us because she’s with the exercise planners,” said Melon. “So if I had to take a guess, Colonel Jockey probably went to one of the other planners and asked, or demanded, to know who he was up against.”

“Well, at least we know one thing,” said Dew. “If they’re breaking the rules but still haven’t beat us, we must be doing something right.”

That was good for the mood of the team. Almost good enough to forget the long walk to Canterlot that lay ahead.

The afternoon sun progressed into evening, and they entered Canterlot shortly after dusk so the darkness would help them stay incognito.

After the walk, they were all hungry. A grimy diner at the edge of town seemed like the best bet. It was not well traveled, and not near a guard station.

The downside of their choice was that the place tended to attract the kind of clientele who the guards might very well be interested in. If it came to that, Melon had been in fights before, and the three others had at least gone through training. Fortunately, nopony disturbed them while they talked quietly over a quick meal of greasy food.

“So we’re still headed for the caves?” Scootaloo asked.

“Right. The story is, we’re on a big archaeological dig, if anypony asks,” Chalice reminded her.

“What if they ask what we’re looking for?” Dew said.

The four of them fell silent for a moment.

“Maybe…” Chalice frowned and looked up. “I remember something about the lost treasure of Pants Fightswell. He was credited with creating the first complete map of Equestria. He's rumored to have killed seven dragons. He helped build the original castle in the Everfree Forest.”

That guy?” said Scootaloo.

Chalice nodded. “In more than a decade of traveling Equestria, it’s only natural to assume he amassed a number of interesting and valuable things, from killing dragons and taking their hoards if nothing else. So when the royal family moved to the new castle in Canterlot, it’s only logical that their, and of course his, material wealth was moved with them. However, the Canterlot castle is bigger and at that point Pants had died of old age, so the new castle didn’t go up nearly as quickly as the old one. They stored the stuff in the mountain caves under the castle in the meantime, and rumors are that most of it is still there.”

“Any truth to the rumors?” Melon asked.

“If those things haven’t been found by now, I’m guessing no.” Chalice shrugged.

“It still sounds like a good story,” said Dew. “‘The treasure of Pants Fightswell.’”

“If you believe that, then I’ve got some nice oceanfront property to sell you in Appleoosa,” said a patron from another table, a rather scruffy pegasus stallion wearing a tricorn hat.

“Sir, we are professional archaeologists,” said Scootaloo, puffing herself up. “We believe in everything until we prove unable to find it.”

Melon choked down a laugh, instead adding, “And how.”

The heckler turned away. The four of them paid their bill and left the diner.

It wasn’t hard to find the caves under the castle. The hard part was trying to find a good place to sleep. Rocks weren’t known for their forgiving nature.

With Dew and Chalice lighting the way, the group ventured inside. The caves weren’t heavily traveled. Most Canterlot residents saw them as the damp, dank, dirty passages they were and avoided them.

They went far enough in to hide themselves from the entrance. They could plan their next mock attack in the morning. That is, if any of them managed to sleep a wink that night on the cold, uneven rocks.

Chapter 10

View Online

Melon was sore when he woke up. The cave was pitch dark, though, so he couldn't tell what time it might be.

As he roused himself, he noticed a faint glow in the direction he thought was the entrance. Perhaps that was the sun and it was morning. Melon had always been an early riser.

It was dead quiet in the cave and his movement woke the others. Chalice got her horn light going and yawned. “Did anypony else sleep horribly?”

There were a few mutters in the affirmative. It was a good thing that being in the Guard had broken them of any beautification habits, because there certainly weren’t facilities in the cave to make that easier. A neat appearance was a secondary effect of the enchanted tail bands that provided their official appearance.

The four of them found their way out of the cave. A mailpony was waiting there. Melon gave him a look. Did he have another communication from Lieutenant Mirror?

Yes he did. “I believe this is for you.” The mailpony gave him a letter. It was addressed to Group of up to five who are expecting the mailpony to have a letter for them.

Up to five? Melon opened the letter and learned what he had suspected, that Mirror knew about the wanted posters in Ponyville. However, she noted that after the letter delivered to his hotel room, Colonel Desk Jockey had become so frustrated that he’d returned to Canterlot.

That could be bad news, but Mirror followed up with congratulations on their successful attacks in Horseshoe Bay, Dodge Junction, Canterlot, and the two attacks in Ponyville. She also praised the time bombs they had left in Baltimare, Appleoosa, and Los Pegasus.

“We never did an attack in Canterlot,” said Scootaloo. “And what’s this about time bombs?”

“Of course we didn’t,” Melon realized. “She must think somepony is reading the mail and is putting out bogus information. Not only to warn us, but to make whoever is reading it think that we’ve done more than we actually have.”

“Wait, if we never did an attack in Canterlot, then the blue team would know that was untrue,” said Chalice.

That was a good point. Melon considered it. “So does she actually want them to know this is bogus?”

“Unless…she did that one,” said Dew.

“If they’re paying enough attention to her to be reading her mail, how could she have slipped away long enough to do something like that, in what is probably the heaviest-defended Guard station in the country?” asked Scootaloo.

“It’s the Lieutenant we’re talking about,” Melon replied.

They all nodded in agreement. Dew said, “But if they’re reading her mail, why haven’t they seen that she’s helping us and busted her for breaking the rules?”

“That would be admitting that they were breaking the rules by reading her mail,” Chalice pointed out.

Melon looked at the rest of the papers that had come out of the envelope. There were a few drawings of what appeared to be the whole castle. Difficult to fit on just a couple of pages, but better than nothing. “This could be useful.”

“I wish we could get more information on the Guard HQ,” said Chalice. “We already know that we can’t get that from the local records office.”

“What about the rest of it?” said Melon. He made sure the others could see the drawing. “Any ideas?”

“We could try exploring the caves,” said Scootaloo.

“Or raiding the guards who are inside the castle itself instead of the HQ,” added Dew.

“If the city hall won’t give out Guard station information, I kind of doubt they would let us have anything for the castle,” said Melon. “I heard it was fortified after the Changeling attack.”

“We could still try, just in case,” Chalice pressed.

Melon nodded. “Or we could look for information about the caves and surrounding area. Maybe the local library.”

He shuffled the papers again, finding a note he hadn’t seen yet. It was Mirror’s writing. Tonight, come to the restaurant across from the smoke shop, 6pm.

“What’s that supposed to mean? What smoke shop?” said Scootaloo.

“Why would she put a plan like this in a letter that could be intercepted?” asked Dew.

“It must be code or something,” said Chalice. “But what does it mean?”

Melon frowned. “Well, I suppose we have until six to figure it out.”

“I don’t know if that’ll be enough time,” said Dew. “I mean, I hope it will, but that’s a lot of ground to cover for an unknown puzzle and trying to pull together a plan for one final attack.”

“Good point. Scoots, Dew, you go to the library and see what you can find. Chalice and I will go to City Hall. We’ll either rejoin you at the library or we’ll meet back up at the cave at five o’clock. Stay alert. If you see guards, get clear. We don’t know if they’ve passed our pictures around.”

“What if they’re undercover like us?” asked Chalice. “We won’t see them coming.”

“Well...then they’ll only get two of the four.” Melon looked at the rest of them. Could he and Chalice carry out a mission by themselves? Could Scoots and Dew? Yes, he decided. They were better as a group, but each individual contributed. They all knew what they were trying to achieve and were working towards the same goals.

What would Mirror say? “I trust you all to carry on if we get separated.”

Splitting into two groups, they went their separate ways.

Chapter 11

View Online

Melon kept his eyes sharp, but his thoughts turned to Mirror’s note about the restaurant across from a smoke shop. Maybe city hall would have a list of tobacconists or something.

“We should look up what we can about Pants Fightswell,” said Chalice. “Couldn’t hurt to have more background information.”

“Agreed, but mission first,” Melon said. Chalice nodded.

They turned the corner onto the block where Canterlot City Hall was located. So far, so good. The two of them did one last careful sweep and went up the front steps.

An important government building serving one of the larger cities in Equestria had a rather large lobby. The two of them crossed it to the information desk.

“We’re from the archeology department at Appleoosa Community College,” said Melon. “We’re here on a research trip and were hoping you could help us with some records.”

The secretary looked occupied. “Mhm,” she muttered, not looking up. “Probably in the archives.”

“Where’s that?”

Chalice elbowed Melon. He glanced at her and she jerked her head urgently towards the opposite wall. Melon looked. The wanted posters were hung on either side of the front door, hidden from view when the two of them came in.

Melon turned back to the receptionist, who had raised her head and was staring at him. He saw her glance behind him, and then back to him. Then, she hit a conspicuous button labeled “security.”

“The, uh, archives, huh?” said Melon, feigning casual. “Thanks.”

They turned away from the desk. Chalice whispered, “Which way?”

“Back,” said Melon. “It’s a government building, so there has to be a fire escape.”

They headed for the nearest hallway, walking quickly while attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible. Their caution paid off as two Solar Guards hurried past them in the opposite direction. Melon picked up the pace.

They passed rows of offices and rooms. The building was bigger than it had seemed from the outside. The found an exit before being caught, however, and slipped out.

The back exit led to an alley. There was nopony in sight, but the narrow street was hemmed in on all sides by walls. There would be no escape if they were found again. Melon broke into a run. He gauged the sound of Chalice’s hooves behind him, trying not to leave her behind.

The two of them had barely traveled a block before somepony behind them shouted, “There they are!”

Without looking back, Melon took the next corner. Up ahead, the alley seemed to open on one side into a small, grassy courtyard. The alley continued down the other.

“Idea,” he panted. “Risky.”

“No choice,” Chalice replied.

He made the next block and cut sharply around the corner into the grass. If the guards ran by without looking, the two of them would be missed just as they had missed the posters.

But to ensure that, Melon took out a firecracker and the lighter. “You light it, I’ll toss it.”

Chalice nodded and took the lighter. Melon held the firecracker and she lit the fuse. He cocked his foreleg back and threw the firecracker in a long arc over the rooftops in the direction they wanted to decoy their pursuit.

It worked. The two guards ran on by, pursuing the bang of the firecracker, but pulled up short at the next corner. Melon belatedly realized that it was stacked with a pile of junk. Not impassable, but difficult.

“Did they really go through there?” he heard one guard ask.

“Idea,” Chalice whispered. “Risky.”

Melon nodded.

She crept across the grass towards the guards, her hooves muffled by the soft ground. Melon followed at her shoulder.

They’d gotten to within reach of the two guards, who were either about to scale the junk pile or turn around and give up, when Chalice said, “Stab stab, you’re dead.”

“What!?” The two of them whirled around, but then pulled up short. “They got us, Derby,” one muttered.

“Well, it was a pretty ballsy move, just walking past the wanted posters like that,” said the other.

It hadn’t been intentional of course, but Melon wasn’t about to refuse praise. “Thanks. You’re the closest we’ve ever been to the blue team.”

“Did you hear that, Trilby? We’re going to have a story to tell back at the barracks.” Derby gave Melon and Chalice a grin. “You guys have been like ghosts. Just being able to say we saw you makes us look good.”

“Hey, were you around when we did the job in Canterlot earlier this week?” Chalice suddenly asked.

“Now that was impressive,” said Trilby. “How in the world did you get that paper airplane through Captain Light’s window? You had to have been infiltrated the castle, right?”

“Maybe we can talk about it if we see you after the exercise is over,” said Melon.

The four of them traded hoofshakes and parted ways.

“I can’t believe that worked,” said Chalice, a block away.

“Me neither. That went better than expected.”

“Not really. We didn’t get what we came for,” Chalice pointed out.

“Let’s see what the others have been up to.”

They met Scoots and Dew at the library, where they had been collecting books. One of the texts contained a detailed map of the cave system. Another was an autobiography of Pants Fightswell, which turned out to be next to useless because it was written in Old Equestrian.

Melon and Chalice recounted their story. Scoots and Dew regretted they had missed it. Melon thought that their tone would have changed had they been caught.

“Good thing you had the lighter,” said Dew.

Melon cocked his head. “Hang on.” He took the lighter out and gave it a careful examination. On the bottom was a faint engraving that read Polish and Chrome - Canterlot, Equestria.

“Somepony find a city business directory,” he said.

Dew found one and they looked it up. Polish and Chrome was a smoke shop.

Chapter 12

View Online

It wouldn’t do to show up to the restaurant too early. If nothing else, it would make them a target. Instead, the four of them headed back to the cave to digest some of the library books. Along the way, they found a dumpster behind a furniture shop and helped themselves to empty cardboard boxes for makeshift bedding.

That evening, they headed for the address they’d gotten for the smoke shop. It was closed when they arrived, but it was clearly the place. There was a whole rack of lighters in the window.

Across the street was a restaurant, so, according to Mirror’s note, it must be the place. It looked fancier than a covert meeting really merited, but Melon hadn’t been the one to select it. He decided to ask for five seats.

The waitress came over after they were seated. “Welcome to Le Très Cher. Would you like to hear our specials tonight?”

A place with specials. This might be too fancy for their rapidly shrinking budget. They declined, and ordered water, wanting to wait until Mirror showed up.

Melon looked around. There was an impressive crowd in attendance. He was mildly surprised they’d gotten seated at all. All of the other patrons seemed to be dressed in more than sweater vests.

The waitress came back with their drinks and also something else. “There’s a note for you.” Melon took the paper she gave him and read it.

Nice work today. As for your next objective, you should kidnap the princesses. It would be totally hilarious. Even more so if you did it wearing those sweater vests.

Have a nice dinner. It’s on me.

“Does she seriously expect us to kidnap the princesses?” hissed Chalice at a whisper.

“I mean, maybe they’ll go along with it,” Scootaloo replied. “They seemed cool when I met them.”

“Wait, you’ve met the princesses?” said Dew.

“Yeah, I hung out with the Elements of Harmony ponies a lot when I was a kid.”

Chalice looked around. “I wonder what’s with the note? She apparently knows we’re here, so I wonder why she isn’t meeting us face to face.”

“Maybe she’s in disguise because she didn’t want the blue team to know she was coming here,” said Melon. He, too, looked around. If Mirror had taken off her tail band, then he wouldn’t recognize her. Obviously she was a pegasus, but outside of that, he had no idea. The restaurant was crowded, and that made it more difficult. He saw a few pegasus mares around, the waitress included, but none seemed to be a likely candidate. He didn’t see anypony obviously looking their way. He didn’t see any single mares there by themselves. Would Mirror have gone to the trouble of getting a date for the evening just to help her disguise? Was she even in the room?

The waitress came to take their order. The promise of a free meal was most welcome. When she was gone again, Melon raised his glass. “We should toast.”

“To what?” Scootaloo asked.

Melon had thought as far as the act, but not the followup. “To camaraderie,” he decided.

“Kind of cheesy, boss, but it has been a pretty good operation so far,” said Chalice.

“Hear, hear,” added Dew. The four of them clinked glasses. Melon kept his up a moment longer, taking a look around the room. He still couldn’t pick out if Mirror was watching, but he hoped she was. She was as much a part of the group as any of them.

The food arrived and they dug in. Conversation had stopped, and Melon had time to think.

The next day was the final day they were allowed to run operations. The last day of the week was for wrapping up the exercise. Melon presumed the blue and red forces would come together and discuss what had been learned, so the Guard as a whole could improve. By this time tomorrow, they would either be victorious or in captivity.

He had been keeping one eye on the door. Two fit-looking unicorn stallions with short haircuts came in. Melon nudged Dew, who was sitting closest. She followed his gaze, and nudged Chalice, who nudged Scootaloo.

They may have been out of their armor, but the way they were looking around, the two new arrivals had to be Guard ponies.

“Are those guys here for us?” said Dew.

“How did they find us?” asked Scootaloo.

“I wonder if they’ve been checking every smoke shop and only just now got here,” suggested Chalice.

However they had come to be in the same restaurant left Melon’s mind as the younger of the two locked eyes with him. He tapped his partner on the shoulder and both of them made a beeline for the table. Melon wiped his mouth and got up. The Privates followed his lead.

“You think you’re clever?” spat the older stallion. A mild shock passed over Melon. Based on the voice, it was Colonel Desk Jockey.

“It’s over,” said the other. Melon realized it was Captain Purifying Light.

“You’re outnumbered, gentlecolts,” Melon reminded them.

“And nopony wants to do anything hasty in this crowded restaurant,” added Dew.

“You think you can just make it up as you go along?” said Jockey.

Melon nodded. “Yes sir, that’s what we were told to do.”

“That maniac you call a commanding officer is torpedoing your career and hers,” Light said.

“Did you like the paper airplane, sir?” said Chalice. Jockey and Light glared at her. Melon also shot her a quick look to convey that she wasn’t helping.

“This ends here,” growled Jockey. “I’m giving you an order to stand down.”

“Um,” said the waitress. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I understand that somepony is having an anniversary?”

“What are you talking about?” Jockey snapped.

“Well, this his-and-his romantic celebration cake was sent by another customer for the two of you. Um, not that I’m judging or anything.” She showed him a pink, heart-shaped cake with two stallions kissing drawn in the frosting.

Melon and the others didn’t wait to hear the aftermath. They were out the door in record time. There was a taxi waiting outside and they piled in. Melon told the taxi pony to hurry.

Chapter 13

View Online

Melon woke up the next morning already nervous. They’d made a clean escape from the restaurant, but now that he had a better idea of the challenges they faced, the anxiety started to ramp up.

After returning to the cave the previous night, they’d gone over all the information they had. It seemed possible to get from the caves into the castle, though they didn’t know what would be waiting for them when they got to that point.

But it was time to find out. The four of them made ready to head deeper into the cave.

They’d gone over the pile of research materials copied from library books and memorized as much as possible. Melon thought that they would probably not be coming back this way, not if their plan worked. It also wouldn’t do for somepony to stumble on it and either come after them or attempt to break into the castle themselves.

To that end, he gave Dew the lighter. “Destroy this stuff.”

She flicked it, the flame dancing in her eyes in the dark cave. “You’re going to trust me with this?”

Mirror had trusted Melon with it. He said, “If anything, you’re the one who’d be safest. You could put a fire out by summoning a cloud or something.” He laughed. “And you don’t immediately take ‘destroy this stuff’ as a challenge.”

Dew laughed, too. “Yeah, the humidity is pretty high in here.” She raised her head, as if testing the air. “As a matter of fact, I might have to pull moisture out of some of these papers just to get them to burn. A few of them have been lying on the cave floor all night.”

Melon watched her work. None of the Privates had skills that directly applied to being a guard, but all of them had brought something valuable to the job. They’d all done their part to make the red team what it was.

What did he provide? He wasn’t sure. He felt like it was something, but struggled to actually define it. Leadership? How was he supposed to describe that?

Melon put that out of his mind, refocusing on the job at hoof. He looked down the cave into the darkness. Going into the castle to kidnap the princesses gave him the sense that they were on a suicide mission, but he shook that thought away. This was their most difficult challenge so far, and defeatism before they’d even started would get them nowhere.

Dew finished up and gave him back the lighter. The ashes of burned papers had turned into mush under the small portable raincloud she had summoned.

Melon looked to the others to see that they were ready. They nodded. Good. He walked forward.

It was slow going. Alternating unicorn horn lights and making sure nopony twisted an ankle kept the pace cautious, to say the least. But that was probably a good thing, what with the plunging drops and sharp crystals that dotted the cave.

They navigated with a library book. Taking it along into the cave was probably not what the librarians had intended, but they couldn’t find their way without it.

The cave mostly trended upwards, heading towards the top of the mountain where the castle was built. The slope kept it mostly dry, but made the terrain rougher. A couple of times, they had crossed narrow, fragile arches of stone that Melon nearly deemed too risky. He weighed the most, but it was also his responsibility as commander to make that call.

So close to the goal, though, the three Privates were beginning to pick up the pace. Despite his reservations and plans, Melon felt their excitement. They hadn’t been caught yet, and even if they were today, the four of them had held off the entire Guard for almost a week. In their own minds, they were already successful. One more big job would be icing on the cake.

“We’re getting close,” Chalice reported, studying the book. She kept her voice down. It was a subtle reminder to the rest to watch where they were putting their hooves.

The four of them rounded the final bend and found a standard door-sized hole cut into the solid rock. Drawing closer, there were hinges on one side and a latch on the other. The iron door itself was set to the side, leaning against the wall. The hinges were slagged, as if cut with a torch.

“Well, I guess that’s better than if we’d gotten all the way here and it was locked,” Dew optimistically pointed out.

“But who did this?” Melon said. He touched it. The metal was still warm.

Moving even more carefully now, they advanced through the door. Beyond was a passageway that gradually changed from chiseled rock into stone and mortar. This was the castle.

They went up a set of stairs, moving in a combat formation. Melon hadn’t even needed to order it. It helped that all of them heard voices from further down the passage.

Four ponies were arguing in heated voices at the next hallway intersection.

“We’re not done here.”

“You said there was treasure!”

“It’s got to be here somewhere! Those ponies seemed pretty sure about Pants Fightswell.”

“We’re already in the castle. Either we passed it while trying to find our way through the caves, or it’s being watched by dozens of guards.”

Could it be…? The four guards approached the corner. A pegasus stallion wearing a tricorn hat seemed to be the leader. Melon vaguely remembered him from the diner two days before. He and his cohorts were clearly up to no good, but the fact that they’d broken into the castle sealed the deal. They needed to be arrested.

Melon felt a pang of regret, but didn’t hesitate. The red team wouldn’t get to finish their mission. Disappointing, but they were still guards; real world crime had to come first.

He gestured for the Privates to back him. He saw the crestfallen looks in their eyes, but all of them acknowledged the sign. Melon stepped into view, the others fanning out to his sides. “Are you folks lost?”

The leader’s head came around. “Well now, if it isn’t our little band of fancy archeologists.”

“Who are you?” Melon asked.

“The name’s Rum, though I don’t expect that means much in Canterlot.”

“Actually, it does.” In coastal places like Wash Margin, the wanted criminal notices were a little more nautical. Rum was well known, having raided boats and ponies all up and down the coast before disappearing recently. Apparently he’d moved inland. “You’re a pirate.”

That seemed to amuse Rum. “I guess you have heard of me. My fame aside, I couldn’t be so successful without help. And we were just thinking you ponies might be able to assist us.”

“Get them to lead us to the treasure so we can get out of here,” one of the underlings muttered. “The guards could be here any minute.”

Opportunities like this didn’t come along very often, and it almost made up for the sting of having to abandon the red mission. Melon smirked. “They’re already here. I’m Corporal Melon Rind, Lunar Guard, and you’re all under arrest.”

“Well, isn’t that just-” Rum had raised a hoof to the back of his head as if embarrassed, but he flicked it forward, revealing a knife pulled from beneath his hat.

Chalice was closest and slammed the library book shut on the knife with magic. She then whacked Rum across the face with the book so hard he spun in a half circle before going down.

Scootaloo zoomed into the fight, hammering an opponent of her own with pure speed. Beside him, Melon felt a crackle of electricity and the furthest pirate got a facefull of thunderbolt. Apparently Dew had conjured a lightning cloud right there inside the hallway.

The final pirate charged at Melon, crossing the distance. He was a big earth pony. That was fine, so was Melon.

He bent his knees and leaned into the clinch. The attacker’s momentum carried the two of them across the floor, but Melon eventually got enough traction under his skidding hooves to bring the charge to a halt. Then he pushed back.

“Yeah, get him, boss!” cheered Scootaloo. Both Melon and his opponent went up on their hind legs, but Melon climbed faster and rolled the other stallion over. He hit him in the muzzle, just a bop to stun, but the pirate didn’t pull his return punch straight into Melon’s snout.

Melon’s eyes watered and he was sure he was going to have a nosebleed. He traded a few more punches and dodges with the other stallion. He managed to stay on top and didn’t absorb any more significant hits.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see three sets of hooves standing around and watching the fight. “He’s trying to find a rock,” Chalice commented.

Melon saw the pirate fumbling for a nearby stone and swept his hoof away. He continued his motion, throwing an elbow to the chin and using the movement to scoot up further onto his opponent’s barrel. From his higher perch, he brought his weight down behind the next punch and knocked the pirate out cold.

He sagged and took a deep breath, finding his legs beneath him and getting up.

“Well, that’s one for Corporal Rind,” Dew quipped. “We should start a tracker.”

“Not sure I want to do that again,” said Melon. He touched his nose, finding a single drop of blood. “We should go find somepony to turn over custody.”

All of them got quiet. It wasn’t a bad ending to their term as red team, though they wouldn’t be getting the ending they wanted or expected.


“What is the meaning of this?” asked a voice. It was female, and despite the question and the authority in the tone, carried no hint of accusation or hostility.

Melon looked down the hallway and immediately forgot his throbbing nose. It was Princess Celestia.

He and the Privates automatically bowed to her. As Melon dropped his gaze, he wondered how it must look, four limp criminals and four rag-tag faux-archeologists in dirty sweater vests. Fortunately, Scootaloo jumped in. “Sorry for the unexpected visit, Princess. We’re here for the big Guard exercise and accidentally ran into some actual bad guys. This is the pirate Rum and his crew.”

“So I see, Scootaloo,” Celestia replied.

The pirate Melon had fought moaned. The others were similarly coming around.

“Sorry about the mess, Princess,” Melon said. “I’m Corporal Rind. I’m responsible here.”

“Are you hurt?” she asked.

“I’m fine…” Melon wiped his nose.

Celestia lit her horn. Melon felt a zip of magic in his nostrils and the pain went away.

He lowered his head again. “Thank you, Princess.”

Celestia reached out to the four pirates, checking to ensure no permanent damage. “Now, could you explain how you came to be here?”

“Well, funny story,” said Scootaloo. “The red team actually came to the castle to kidnap you.”

Celestia laughed. “That sounds like an incredibly daring raid.”

“This had to come first,” said Melon, gesturing to the detainees.

Celestia’s eyes twinkled. “You can still have a go at my sister.”

Melon blinked. “Uh…”

“She might be a bit grumpy from being woken so early, but I’m sure she’ll humor you. You are Lunar Guards after all.” Celestia smiled. “I’ll stay here and see to these pirates.”

They still had a chance! The exercise would still end on the red team’s terms.

Melon had never met Princess Celestia before today, but her legendary personality had turned out to be even larger in real life. Before he and his team went upstairs to find Princess Luna, he had one last thing to say.

“In that case, Princess, I hereby deputize you into the Lunar Guard for the duty of retaining custody of these suspects.”

Celestia smiled. “I accept the assignment. Good luck to you all.”

The four of them headed upstairs, entering the main castle.

“I can’t believe you did that, boss!” said Dew.

For Melon’s part, he barely believed it either. The day had turned out to be even wilder than how he’d pictured it.

The four of them made their way through the castle, checking every corner for guards and navigating by Scootaloo’s vague knowledge and Lieutenant Mirror’s vague notes. They had to backtrack a few times and narrowly avoided a few patrols.

The guards in the castle didn't seem to be on high alert, perhaps because they didn’t think anypony could actually get in. Well, that was one lesson this exercise had taught the Guards as a whole: a small, motivated group could prove nearly impossible to pin down.

They reached the corner to the final corridor that led to Princess Luna’s bedroom. Melon stopped them there and whispered, “There’s probably guards right outside the door.”

“What’s the plan?” said Dew.

Scootaloo shrugged. “Play it by ear?”

They stepped around the corner, facing two Lunar Guards that flanked the bedroom door. “I can’t believe you got us lost again!” said Chalice, holding the book and loose papers out in front of her.

“It isn’t like this place is exactly easy to navigate,” Melon provided.

“Will there be lunch soon?” Dew asked.

“Who cares about the food? I need to file my permit to open a new haberdashery,” Scootaloo retorted.

“Hold on, this is a restricted area,” said one of the guards.

“Oh great, and now we’ve gone and crossed the Royal Guard,” said Melon. “Not that any of them gave us directions on the way up here.”

“Yeah, what’s the deal with that? Is that what my taxes are paying for?” Chalice asked the guards.

“All of you need to leave. You aren’t supposed to be here,” said the other guard.

“Oh, and what are you going to do to make us?” said Scootaloo.

“Right,” said Melon. “Because what if we weren’t really lost civilians but actually the deadly Can’t Remember Faction and slit your throats thirty seconds ago while you were arguing with us?”

There was a beat of silence, as all of them processed it.

“Because that’s what happened,” Dew helpfully filled in.

“Buck me,” muttered one of the guards.

“We’ll be kidnapping the Princess now,” said Chalice.

“Can they do that?” one guard asked the other.

He shrugged. “If they’re the ones willing to wake her up.”

That was a concern. Melon only just now realized that Princess Luna, technically the highest authority of the Lunar Guard, probably intimidated him more than Celestia.

Fortunately, he had Scootaloo for that, who was more than happy to go bounce on her bed like a filly.

Princess Luna was not a light sleeper, it seemed. She had time to yawn and sit up before opening her eyes to find the uninvited guests. She looked at Scootaloo standing on the bed and then at the other three nearby.

“To what is the pleasure owed?” Luna said, tone neutral but with a nettle undertone.

“Princess, I’m Corporal Rind, Lunar Guard. My squad and I are the red team for the annual Guard exercise. We’ve successfully broken into the castle and made it to your bedroom, intending to kidnap you.”

“Sorry!” called one of the guards from the door.

Luna glanced in his direction and then back to Melon, a contemplative look appearing on her face. “Lunar Guard, you say?”

“Yes, Princess.” Melon hesitated. “For what it’s worth, your sister suggested this.”

“Oh really?” A mischievous smile suddenly appeared on Luna’s face. “In that case, kidnappers be warned, you misjudged your mark.”

She closed her eyes and cast a powerful spell. Outside, the sun was abruptly replaced in the sky by the moon. Luna opened her eyes again, revealing slitted pupils.

The entire blue team, alerted by the change in heavenly bodies, rushed to Luna’s bedroom. As they expected, the red team was there. Completely unexpected, though, was Nightmare Moon.

It took awhile for the Royal Guard to control their collective racing hearts after Princess Luna’s practical joke.

At least it was more amusing than being swarmed by guards. It was time to call it quits anyway. The red team had made their point.

The blue team was rather enthusiastic about finally catching the notorious Can’t Remember Faction. So much so that after arresting them, they were taken to the dungeon in the basement of the castle and locked up.

“A little much, don’t you think?” Melon said to the guard who had just finished locking the cell door.

She shrugged. “Orders from Captain Light.”

“Ah.” Melon glanced over his shoulder at the Privates, concealing his growing concern. Especially when Light walked into the room.

He looked at them with satisfaction, as one might after finally finishing a particularly frustrating task. That expression was instantly replaced with real frustration as Lieutenant Mirror entered the room.

“Good show, everypony,” she said. “I’m sure we’ve all learned valuable lessons that will help strengthen the Guard and improve training, especially if the red team here gets cleaned up and starts working on their debrief.” She gestured at the guard with the keys.

“I’m having them held here until an inquiry can be launched about some of their more questionable activities,” said Light, barely tactful.

“Yes sir, I know how much you love rules,” said Mirror. “And the exercise instructions include giving the red team time to prepare a presentation on their side of the story so that the debrief tomorrow can be as educational as possible.”

“Well then, I’ll leave you to discuss,” said Light. He gestured to the guards under his command.

Mirror raised her eyebrows as they advanced on her, but voluntarily walked into the cell adjoining the others. After it was locked, the other guards departed, leaving the red team alone together.

Mirror took out a piece of string and put it in her mouth. Melon stuck the lighter through the bars and lit it for her. Mirror nodded to him and took the lighter as he offered it. She stuck it in her pocket and put on a contemplative look as she took the first drag on her smoke.

After a moment, she said, “I’m going to rip his guts out through his asshole.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Melon.

Chapter 14

View Online

Fortunately, the red team didn’t have to spend all night in cells. Mostly because they broke themselves out. With a combination of Chalice’s knowhow and Dew’s weather magic, they engineered a solution. After repeatedly dripping water inside the cell door hinges and then freezing it, the expansion of ice drove the pins out.

After that, Mirror walked them to the barracks and checked in. The desk clerk didn’t appear to know who they were, so there was no problem booking bunks for the night and requisitioning clean uniforms.

Melon wasn’t sure the last time he had taken a shower, and knew that he needed it. Getting a chance to sleep in a bed was even better.

The next morning, they reported to a large, fancy conference center in the castle. There were a few tables in the center of the floor and raised seating at the front and on the sides.

Mirror looked around. “I think this is a court. It feels like a court.” Melon couldn’t disagree.

There was a small card identifying the red team table, and the five of them sat down. Other Guards began to filter in, taking their seats elsewhere. Just before the debrief was to begin, Colonel Jockey and Captain Light entered, sitting in the front. They didn’t look pleased.

A clerk cleared his throat. “Welcome to the Joint Academic Guard Exercise debrief. We will now review the record of events.” He gestured to two podiums at the front of the room.

A recorder with a typewriter sat off to the side, transcripting everything.

Captain Light stepped up to his podium. Lieutenant Mirror gave Melon a nod and confident grin. He got up and approached the other podium. Light locked eyes with him.

“Name and position for the record,” said the recorder.

“Captain Purifying Light, Royal Guard senior training coordinator, stationed in Canterlot.”

“Corporal Melon Rind. Uh, guard from Wash Margin.”

Melon thought he heard a few quiet snickers. He wondered if the recorder noted them.

Light picked up his notes. “We’ll start with a rundown of activities. On the morning of the second day, a note placed under a rock was discovered at the Horseshoe Bay station. It read ‘If this were a bomb, you’d be dead.’ It lacked any attribution and was very concerning to the guards there.”

“We hadn’t yet established a standard operating procedure,” Melon replied. “Other notes were properly signed.”

Light went back to his notes. “Near-simultaneously, another paper was discovered inside the barracks at Dodge Junction. It read, ‘You’ve been attacked by the Can’t Remember Faction in the middle of the night. Gotcha!’ Rather unprofessional.”

“Well, after being concerning to the guards in Horseshoe Bay, we thought we’d add a bit of levity,” Melon replied.

“I don’t believe you,” Light said flatly. “There’s no way the group that went to Dodge Junction could have learned what the group in Horseshoe Bay wrote.”

“There weren’t two groups, sir. The three ponies of my team and I placed the note by going over the wall at Horseshoe Bay on the first night while the guards were distracted by fireworks. Early the next morning, we slipped another note into the station at Dodge Junction through an open window. We did Horseshoe Bay after dark, so maybe the guards there didn’t find the note until the sun came up. After that, we hiked all night through Hayseed Swamp and did Dodge Junction just before the sun rose.”

Light didn’t look pleased, but since that was his default expression Melon couldn’t tell if his story had satisfied the Captain or not.

Light went on. “On the third day, the temporary field observation post in Ponyville received a note through the ventilation system. That post was not an active facility blue team open for attack.”

“We were not informed of that, sir.”

“You should have sought out the rules. It’s your responsibility.”

“Well, it wasn’t in the guidelines you gave to the red team, Captain Light,” said Mirror.

The recorder asked for her name and position. “Lieutenant Cracked Mirror, Wash Margin commanding officer and red team liaison to exercise planning.”

Light had taken on a sour look. “So Corporal, how did you get the note into the ventilation system? Did you break into the town hall at night?”

“No sir, we rehearsed it the night before and then quickly slipped it in that morning, right after the town hall opened. When the air conditioning came on, the note blew out. It was a rather cunning plan by Private Chalice.”

Light looked at the next item on his list. “The next morning, a message was found written on the side of a tent of a guard encampment southwest of Ponyville.”

“After doing the town hall, we went to Los Pegasus, but couldn’t find a way to attack. The security was good.” Out of the corner of his eye, Melon saw a stallion in the crowd pump his hoof. “That night, we randomly encountered the camp. Private Glisten Dewdrop conjured a storm for cover and walked right in. I expect the guards there found the message the next morning.”

“The message was, ‘Love, the Can’t Remember Faction.’” Light stared at him.

“Is it wrong to love our fellow ponies, sir?”

Mirror made a small noise that sounded like she had subtly choked on a laugh.

Light was not amused. “It’s wrong to return to Ponyville and send a note to the Colonel in charge of the observation post. As I said before, that was a non-playing facility.”

“If they weren’t playing, why did they have wanted posters up for us?” Melon asked. “They even had a poster for a Wash Margin guard who wasn’t part of the red team. Somepony found out which station had supplied the red team. Kind of unrealistic if we’re supposed to be unknown bad guys.”

“I am not privy to details from individual stations,” Light replied, enunciating carefully.

“Well then, sir, we’re supposed to be learning here. We could find out,” said Mirror.

“Perhaps if we have time later,” said Light. “The next attack came in the form of a paper airplane through the window of the Guard headquarters in Canterlot.”

“I wasn’t there for that one,” said Melon. “So I’m not privy to details.” Before Light could break in, Melon went on. “I was downtown. I’d gone to the city hall to research the castle.”

“Where you ambushed two guards on duty,” said Light.

Melon saw a guard in the crowd grin and nudge the pony sitting next to him. Melon nodded. “Yes, sir. Plus two more later that evening, at a restaurant.”

Light was quietly steaming now. “Which brings us to the final act, kidnapping an uninvolved civilian like Princess Luna in her own bedroom and scaring half to death the entire population of Equestria by lowering the sun in the middle of the day. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Melon had gotten comfortable at the podium, but now tensed. He began carefully “Well sir...the plan we attempted didn’t quite work. On the way into the castle, we encountered real criminals, a pirate named Rum and his gang, and we arrested them after a fight. Princess Celestia arrived and agreed to take the prisoners off our hooves.”

Mirror broke in. “I’d like the record to show that Corporal Rind took the initiative to deputize Princess Celestia into the Lunar Guard so that proper custody over the prisoners was maintained at all times.”

Chuckles all around the room. While he had momentum, Melon added, “It was Princess Celestia’s idea for us to continue the mission.”

He hated to throw her under the cart like that, but what kind of backlash was anypony going to give the Princess? “Being that one of our country’s highest leaders was giving orders to the country’s guard, that hardly made her and her sister uninvolved civilians. So, using Private Scootaloo’s excellent knowledge of the castle, we navigated to Princess Luna’s bedroom. After that, on Princess Luna’s own prerogative, she took the form of Nightmare Moon and lowered the sun.”

“I think we’ve heard about enough,” said Colonel Jockey, speaking for the first time. “I want the entire red team confined for their recklessness and disregard of rules.”

There were surprised murmurs around the room, but Melon barely heard them. Sure, he’d done some wrong, but it hadn’t been that bad, especially with bending the story here and there to his favor.

Actually, the important thing about that was he’d done some wrong. Melon swallowed hard. “Sir, I was in charge. Leave the others out of this.”

“Actually, sir, I was in charge,” Mirror said, louder. “Corporal Rind, would you have kidnapped the princess if I hadn’t ordered you to?”

He went with the truth. “No, ma’am.”

“I have no problem locking up your crazy ass, too,” said Jockey. “Without you squatting at Wash Margin in that hole you call a station, it can finally be closed.”

Mirror countered, “Has it really been decided to close Wash Margin or are you just saying that in front of everypony so it becomes the defacto truth even if it isn’t really? Sir.”

Melon cut his eyes side to side. Was this really happening? A shouting match in public, with dozens of guards looking on?

Light was apparently also aware. “We can formalize the verbiage later. Right now, this debrief is over.”

Mirror shook her head. “Not until we talk about the meddling in the supposedly neutral exercise planning group, both mine and yours.”

“Did you just admit guilt to breaking the rules?” Light said. “That’s insubordination!”

“I did it so I could properly address your infractions. I may be guilty of a lot of things including insubordination, jaywalking, and arson, but I am not a hypocrite."

Light shook his head. “Are you literally insane?”

“Though this be madness, there is method in it.” Mirror grinned.

Light opened his mouth, but Colonel Jockey pushed him aside. Before he could speak - scream, probably - the door opened and Princess Celestia poked her head in. Utter silence greeted her.

“All of you are being rather more deafening than expected,” she said. “Could you perhaps hold off until after breakfast?”

“I’m finished, Princess,” said a voice. “I’ll handle it.” General Shining Armor, the highest Guard in Equestria, stepped into the room. He closed the door and looked around. “I heard there was some controversy within the exercise this year.”

Everypony started talking at once, which Shining Armor silenced with a glare. “Do I have to interview each one of you individually in my office?”

Yes, as it turned out.

Chapter 15

View Online

A line of chairs had been brought in for the crowd of ponies waiting to enter General Shining Armor’s office to be interviewed - or perhaps interrogated - about their role in the exercise. It was going to take all day and require considerable skill to sort out. The General didn’t do things halfway.

Melon sat beside Mirror. She had a couple of folders in her hooves. The two of them were roughly in the middle of the line. It would be a while before either was called.

“How do you think this is going to go?” she asked.

Melon shook his head. “I don’t know, ma’am. I don’t think I did anything that would lead to jail time. probably deserve some kind of disciplinary action. We didn’t exactly stick to the rules. But other circumstances might mitigate that. Maybe. I’m still the one most directly responsible.”

“I think you’ll be fine,” Mirror assured him. “They’d have to explain why the stallion who was smarter than the whole guard was getting busted.”

What about her? Mirror had been obviously insubordinate. Knowing her, she would probably answer his question if he asked, but should he? He debated it for a moment, but then lost his chance as Mirror said, “And no matter what I’m up against, I’ll take a few with me.”

She showed him the contents of one of the folders. In the brief look that he got, Melon saw that one piece of paper was titled Taking Kickbacks. Among the names listed were Colonel Jockey and Captain Light.

Mirror closed the folder. “Just a little personal project.”

That was the same thing she had said about saving Wash Margin. Melon wondered about her motives. Based on what he had seen, he had no idea what her ultimate, overarching plan was.

“Ma’am...what did we do?”

She turned to face him and raised her eyebrows.

Melon went on. “I mean, we broke all kinds of rules during the exercise. You put me in charge of the squad, but what kind of example was I setting?” He paused, but then spoke his mind. “What kind of example were you setting?”

“Not the best one,” Mirror admitted. “My behavior aside, however, I didn’t force you to do anything that you did.”

Melon looked at his hooves. “I tried to do what I thought you would have done. I wish I would have remembered sooner that I’m not you.”

Mirror agreed. “You remember the objectives I sent you? I was telling you what I wanted, not how to do it.”

“Yeah. I realized that, eventually. But I’m thinking about the half truths and mixed messages I told to the others in the meantime. What do they think of me?”

“It’s good that you’re thinking about the next link in the chain,” said Mirror. “If you take care of your ponies, they’ll take care of you, no matter what they think about you.”

Melon looked at her. “Is that your entire philosophy, ma’am?”

“Would you be here right now if you only liked me for vanquishing sea monsters?”

Melon considered it. “No ma’am, I guess not.”

“You did a good job,” she said. “But I had every confidence that you would. I put you in for Sergeant. Princess Luna signed the authorization paperwork two days ago.”

“Thank you, ma’am!” That would explain how she knew him when they kidnapped her, Melon thought.

“They’re who you should be thanking.”

Melon turned.

“Here we are,” said Dew.

Chalice eyed the line of ponies waiting for the General. “I’m glad we didn’t get called for this.”

“No kidding,” added Scootaloo.

Trixie looked around. “This is the first time Trixie has been in the castle since making the choice between jail or joining the guard.”

“What are you all doing here?” Melon asked.

“Lieutenant Mirror said there would be a surprise,” said Scootaloo. “Trixie told us about it on the way over.”

“It was only a slight modification to my schedule to be here,” said Trixie. “Sergeant is a big deal, a real leadership position.”

That was higher than Trixie had risen. Then again, she hadn’t cared about the job. But she cared about his job.

Mirror raised a hoof. “Acting with the authority of Luna, Princess of Equestria, I hereby promote Corporal Melon Rind, Lunar Guard, to Sergeant, effective immediately.”

The others politely but quietly applauded. A couple of bystanders waiting to be called for interview did too.

Trixie took out a pair of Sergeant’s chevrons and replaced Melon’s rank. She had given him his Corporal insignia, too.

“Thank you all,” said Melon. “I...couldn’t have done it without you.”

And that, he realized, might be the truest thing he had ever said.

The others finished congratulating him. Melon glanced at Mirror and then said to the others, “Go take some time to yourselves. You’ve earned it.”

The Privates were agreeable and said goodbye. Trixie gave him a smile and went with them.

The General’s aide opened the office door. “Next!”