• Published 23rd Sep 2021
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The Only Mark That Matters - CocktailOlive



The story of Radish Root, a pony with obscene cutie marks.

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110. The Taskforce

Radish Root stood nervously at the edge of a chasm deep in Canterlot’s mines, gripping a war hammer. He peeked down into the void, but couldn’t see its bottom. He looked up, and saw a ceiling of stalactites hanging precariously overhead. He checked to see if the mace strapped to his side was still there.

Barrel Roller had told the guards that the enemy in the cave might be crystalline in nature, so she assigned them blunt weapons for smashing instead of their standard spears and swords. They were given a day to train with them.

Each guard was also wearing helmets with safety visors, in case some of those smashed crystals flew into their faces. Radish’s breath was fogging up his visor.

Twilight and Cadance were deeper into the mine with a whole slew of experts, bent on determining what was going on down there. Radish was posted near the exit back to the surface.

“I’m sure those two can beat this thing,” Spats said. He stood by Radish, examining his war hammer.

“I should be by their side.”

“Why?”

“I’m their friend.”

“Come on, Radish. They’ll probably have an epic magic duel with the thing down there. Beam versus beam. Fireballs flying everywhere.”

“Guards are supposed to take fireballs for princesses.”

“Twilight eats fireballs for breakfast, Rad. I heard Tirek punched her through a mountain, and it only ticked her off.”

“She was magically boosted at the time. She’s vulnerable now. I just wish I knew what was taking so long.”

“You know Twilight. Probably lecturing the thing about how wonderful friendship is. Telling it all about her years in Ponyville. They’ll come out besties. Maybe sing a song. Then-”

A thunderous blast rocked the cavern. Radish and his fellow guards stumbled, clinging to their weapons for support. Stalactites broke from the ceiling and crashed around them. The scaffoldings anchored to the walls broke from their moorings and collapsed to the cave floor. A cloud of dust flooded the air.

“Everyone, report! Sound off!” called Jono, the zebra colonel in command of the taskforce.

The taskforce all reported in. Skittery, the pegasus guard, flew over to the colonel.

“Sir, the way further in has collapsed! The princesses are cut off down there without support!”

Radish galloped over to the collapsed passageway. A debris pile of rocks and crystal shards filled the tunnel. He reached for a huge crystal.

“Don’t!” called Boulder Dash, a mining expert. “It’s too unstable! That’ll bring down more!”

“Then what do we do?” cried Radish.

Colonel Jono took an elevated position.

“All right, listen up. Skittery, fly topside and report. No time for subtlety. We need the other big horns now.”

Sure, thought Radish. Let’s risk all four princesses in the same hole. Put Blueblood in charge of the kingdom.

“Shipshape, Shatterpoint, start scanning that mess. Boulder Dash, examine the cavern’s stability. The rest of you, stay alert. That Chrysalis afterimage might be through here any minute.

“Sir,” said Boulder Dash, tapping on a cave wall with his ear to the rock, “I’m detecting a vein of starcium in this wall. It’s… oh no. Sir, it goes deep in every direction.”

“And?”

“And it’s magic-unstable. The right spell… that is to say, the wrong spell, could detonate it. Worse than dynamite.”

“There’s no record of something like that down here,” the colonel said.

“I agree, sir. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t be occurring in a mountain like this one.”

“Could that afterimage thing have created it?” asked Radish.

“Possible, major,” said Lieutenant Shatterpoint, casting a wide scanning beam over the caves. “The spell Chrysalis used to dump Twilight Sparkle into these caves would have passed her through hundreds of meters of rock. If she added transmutative elements to the spell… sweet heavens. She used the magic in Twilight’s own body as a stir stick, spreading a transmutation spell as Twilight fell through the rock.”

Boulder Dash thought about it.

“If it started producing starcium during the wedding… based on the pattern… sir, this vein could go through the entire mountain, from the base to the peak. That means the entire city could be blown to dust.”

“And more!” called Lieutenant Shipshape. “The blast would flatten Ponyville at the very least, and the dust cloud would blanket the next ten towns over!”

“This must have been her backup plan,” the colonel mused. “If she couldn’t take Equestria for herself, she’d destroy it.”

“Well, well. The peons have two brain cells to rub together after all.”

The largest crystal in the jumbled pile glowed to life. The image of Cadance appeared on its facets, sneering. The colonel stepped up to it.

“Chrysalis's echo, I presume?”

“If you say so. She didn’t give me a name.”

“What do you want?”

“To torment Twilight and Cadance. That’s the only reason I exist. And now that I have them, I get to torture them for the rest of their lives… which won’t be very long.”

“And why’s that?” asked the colonel.

“The starcium is finally ready! All I need is the ignition- and that’s those two princesses. When they break, their despair will feed me enough power to detonate this mountain!”

“You’ll be destroyed too, then.”

“So what?”

“It sounds like Chrysalis has screwed you over, as well. Free the princesses. You’ll get to survive.”

“Even if surviving interested me, there’s no unblocking this cave now.”

Skittery returned.

“Sir, the exit’s collapsed. There’s no communication with the outside.”

“Oh well. Guess you’ll die, too,” the image said with a shrug. “Now, which one of you is named Radish?”

Radish looked at his colonel, who nodded. He stepped forward.

“I’m Radish.”

“I’ve got Twilight trapped in a nightmare. And she’s crying out your name. It’s pretty funny.”

“Let her go.”

“No.”

“I’ll take her place.”

“I don’t care about you. Her pain feeds me.”

“You were made by a monster who left you down here in the dark to get blown up. You don’t owe a thing to Chrysalis.”

“She gave me a purpose. Who else gets to go out fulfilling their purpose in life?”

“You don’t have to let others define your purpose. You can chart your own. I did.”

“Funny talk, coming from a soldier. How many orders have you obeyed today?”

“I chose this life. I chose to take orders all day so I could help those who matter to me. Tell me, if you could choose a life, what would it be?”

“You’re talking nonsense. Why would I choose anything other than torturing Twilight and Cadance? It feels perfect. Cadance is close to breaking now. I’m showing her an image of her husband, lying dead at her feet. You know what? I think I’ll show Twilight an image of you, Radish, lying dead at hers.”

“They won’t fall for this. They’re smarter than that. They’re smarter than you.”

“Oh, I can feel it. They’re losing hope by the second. They have so very little left. Think how amazing it will be once they give into despair.”

Radish leaned close. “Listen… we can help you. We can save you. You can join us aboveground.”

The afterimage narrowed her eyes. “Why? What’s up there?”

“The sun, for starters. Singing birds, a fresh breeze, music… stuff Chrysalis never wanted you to enjoy.”

“No. Now I’m showing each one a vision of the other, burning. They’re screaming.”

“Hey, look. You were down here alone for years, right? I know what it’s like to feel alone.”

“I don’t care.”

“I was alone a lot as a kid. Then I chose a job that would let me be alone. But I didn’t stay alone. It’s when you’re most alone that you’re in the best position to make a friend.”

“I don’t want friends.”

“I’ll be your friend. Your first friend. I’ll take you topside. I’ll show you the lake. We can catch a movie. You’d like movies. Some are scary.”


Behind the broken scaffolding, the rest of the taskforce met in a huddle.

“Sir,” said Boulder Dash, “the passage is clearable. A standard dig-and-support maneuver. But it’ll take time, and we can’t act with that thing in the way. We don’t know what it’s capable of.”

“Then Root had better move that thing,” said Colonel Jono.


“What’s a lake?” the image asked Radish.

“Oh, a lake? It’s like that pond down there, but bigger,” Radish replied, pointing to a watery crevasse a few meters to his left.

“What’s a pond? I can’t see down there.”

“Here, let me show you.”

Radish bent down to pick up the crystal. As he touched it, a green flame enveloped his hooves and spread across his body.

“Gotcha!” she laughed.

Radish’s sight went dark. He turned on the flashlight pinned to his chestplate, but the beam struck nothing.

“You’re right, Radish,” said the echo’s voice from the darkness. “I can make choices for myself. And now that you’ve made contact with me, I can choose to torture you. This is a big step for me. My first bit of free agency. The first victim I chose all by myself.”

“Listen, you don’t have to do this. We can be friends.”


“Sir, that thing has Root!” whispered a guard to the colonel.

They peeked from behind the scaffold. Radish and the crystal were wreathed in green flame. Radish was frozen with his hooves on the crystal.

“We’ve got these,” said Spats, hefting his war hammer. “Could we just smash her?”

“No,” said Noctiluca, a palace crystallographer. “She’d be in every shard of it. Anyone gets a shard on them- they get her on them, too. She could get into their minds, just like Root’s.”

“That may be a good thing, though,” said Static Snow, a palace mage. “Then her attention would be divided between multiple ponies. She’d be too distracted to notice anyone working on the tunnel.”

“Most likely she’d just ignore anyone else,” said Spats. “Rad’s the only one here who knows the princesses personally. The thing probably hates him because they like him.”


“Radish…” called Twilight, weakly.

Radish turned to see her on the ground, burned and bleeding. Her wings were plucked and broken. Her horn was snapped off at its base.

Radish galloped up to her. He held her.

“Help… me…” she gurgled.

“I know this isn’t real!” Radish called. “I know this isn’t her! Piece of advice- if you’re going to torment someone with illusions, don’t tell them you can do it beforehand!”

“That’s her, all right,” called the echo’s voice from the darkness. “She’s really hurt and dying on the ground behind all that rubble. I’m just letting you two see each other one last time before the end.”

“Hey, ‘real’ Twilight. Where did we meet?” asked Radish.

The broken Twilight looked up into Radish's eyes.

“By… Shining’s office. I was… so mean to you…," she whimpered.

Radish's heart dropped into his gut.

"Twilight?"

She went limp in his hooves. He hugged her. She was cold.


"The flames are growing!" said Noctiluca. "If that thing feeds on misery, Root's must be rising! He could detonate the mountain any second!"

Colonel Jono stood up from behind the scaffolding. The thing took no notice. He left the cover and walked over to Radish, still trapped in his trance.

“I want to talk to you, missy,” he said to the entity.

Nothing responded. The crystal in Radish's hooves was blank. Jono made a gesture to the rest of the taskforce. They knew what to do.

The taskforce sprang into action. A confluence of magical auras spread across the cavern. Hooves cleared away rubble. Scaffolding was cleared, rebuilt, and moved to support the ceiling.

The team burst into the lower chamber and found Twilight and Cadance on the ground, covered in small shards of crystals and surrounded by the same green flames. Pegasus wings blew the shards and their flames away.

“Wha… what happened?” moaned Twilight, waking up. Her face was wet with tears and her throat was dry. Cadance sat up beside her, shivering. Medics rushed to check both out.

“Twilight… I saw you dead,” said Cadance, shaking. “And Shining!”

The sisters-in-law hugged each other.

“Me too,” said Twilight. “I saw you, and Shining… and Radish, too.”

She looked at the taskforce.

“Wait, where is he?”

“The enemy got distracted by a new plaything,” said Jono. “Come on.”

The group returned to the upper cavern. The guards, using the same dig-and-support maneuver, started to work on clearing the passage back to the surface. Radish and the crystal were still bound and surrounded by the fire. Neither reacted to the ponies around them.

“Radish!” cried Twilight.

“It’s got his claws into him good,” said the colonel. “It seems more fixated on him than you two.”

“Why? What was he doing?” asked Cadance.

“Trying to befriend it, apparently.”

“What? Oh, Radish,” said Twilight, looking at his face. “Ready, Cadance?”

“Ready.”

They dipped their horns together, and an expanding wave of pink flooded the room. The crystal gripping Radish turned gray and crumbled into dust, while its emerald flames blew out. Radish shook his head, gasping for air. Twilight hugged him.

“What? Twilight? Cadance?” he said, holding his head. “Are you two… real?”

“We’re real, Radish,” said Cadance.

“Prove it.”

"Remember what you said on the bench?" asked Twilight, holding him tightly. "I'd come back in your hour of need. I'd never leave you hanging."

Radish rested his chin on her shoulder. Her scent was familiar. "Yeah. I was right."

“We underestimated this entity. If we had tried to do this alone, we’d be dead,” said Cadance.

“And Canterlot would have been blown sky-high,” said Spats.

“What?” said Twilight, turning to him.

“Chrysalis left another surprise down here. A massive vein of starcium,” said Boulder Dash.

“Starcium?” Twilight cried. “That could destroy Canterlot and the next ten towns!”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to dispose of it,” said Shipshape. “But you two were the detonators. It won’t blow today, at least.”

Skittery flew back to them.

“We’ve got the exit opened!”

“Right. We’re leaving,” Jono said. “I want everypony out of here. And I want everyone who was in here quarantined until they get cleared by Magical Decontamination. We don’t want any lingering curses following us home. Princesses and Root, you three go first since it actually touched you.”

“Good idea,” said Twilight. “And everypony… thank you.”

Twilight and Cadance bowed humbly to their escorts.


Dr. Gamma, the palace’s physician mage, cast a glowing cone of light over Radish. It tickled him all over. He tried to hold in the laugh. She looked in his eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. She sniffed his mane.

“No traces of spell residue. No dark magic detected. Some dandruff.”

Her aide wrote this down on a form on her clipboard. Dr. Gamma put her ear to Radish’s chest.

“No prophetic whispers emanating from his heart.”

Her aide checked a box on the form.

Dr. Gamma looked down. She cast another glowing cone. Radish held his breath.

“No venereal hexes.”

She moved him onto his side and held several color swatches next to his coat and mane. She had the aide read off their official color designations from his medical records while she compared them.

“No change in pigmentation.”

She looked over his cutie mark. She held an old photo of it next to it for comparison. Then, she compared color swatches to it, as well.

“Okay, we’ll start with Radish. The little one, I mean. First, his coat…”

Radish sighed while the doctor and her assistant checked every color his cutie mark featured, which, owing to Celestia being on it, was a lot of colors. His fake radish cutie marks had by now faded to nothing.

“No discrepancies in coloration. Though, the real Celestia’s tongue is a different shade of pink.”

“Oh?” asked Radish. “I’ve never compared them.”

“Major, I’m giving you a clean bill of magical health. If you turn evil and try to take over the palace, that’s on you.”

“Thanks. I won’t.”

“Go to the Recovery Room. Princesses Twilight Sparkle and Mi Amore Cadenza have also been cleared. They want to talk to you.”

“Okay.”

Radish left the Magical Decontamination office and entered the Recovery Room. Only Twilight and Cadance were inside, resting on large couches and reading magazines. They stood to meet him.

“Hi,” he said.

Twilight hugged him. “I am so, so sorry for dragging you into that nightmare. Figuratively and literally!”

“Guards protect princesses,” Radish said, patting her on her withers.

“But princesses should be less reckless,” replied Twilight.

“We took all the precautions we could have. And we had to get that thing out of the caverns one way or another,” Radish said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t, you know, redeem or befriend it.”

Twilight smiled.

“Sounds like we’re starting to rub off on you. Don’t worry, Radish. It wasn’t really alive. It was a shadow of a spell stuck in a loop. A mock intelligence running on hate and cruelty. It had no room for growth.”

“I wish I knew that before I touched it.”

“Radish,” said Cadance. “By touching that thing, you provided the distraction that saved everyone in the cave. It ignored the rest of the taskforce while it focused its hatred on you.”

“Can we tell everyone that was my plan from the beginning?”

The princesses laughed.

“Is there anything else I can do for you two?” Radish asked.

“Yes,” said Twilight. “You can hold still. Cadance?”

Cadance stepped in front of Radish, smiling down at him. She tossed her mane back and cleared her throat.

“Major Radish Root. You acted with bravery and selflessness, in heroic rescue of your princess. Thus, I bestow upon you this favor.”

She kissed his cheek.

“Aw, geez,” Radish said, touching his cheek and blushing. “I never see that coming.”

“That’s all four of us now, isn’t it?” Twilight teased.

“I should quit while I’m ahead,” Radish said.

“Don’t you dare,” said Cadance.


Barrel Roller stared at a pile of papers on her desk. A nougat bar landed in front of her. She looked up.

“You know these things are hard to find around here? I had to go to the snack bar in the bowling alley,” said Twilight, entering the office with Cadance.

Barrel Roller raised an eyebrow.

“He didn’t quite come out a princess. But he was instrumental in saving us down there.”

“But so were all the others,” said Cadance. “I’d like everypony who went down there with us to receive a commendation. They all acted heroically. They saved us, the palace, the city, and the next ten towns over.”

“I’ve been reading the reports. I’m glad you got that thing. It could take decades to get all the starcium out of this mountain. But it has quite a few uses, it turns out- medical, industrial, alchemical. Who knows? Maybe ol’ Chrissy did us a favor.”

“I’m glad some good came out of this, then,” Twilight said.

“Oh, and about Root… I know we had a laugh over this, but I’ve got to ask you- does he have some kind of… magical destiny thing? Should I be doing something different with him?”

Twilight and Cadance looked at each other.

“I just don’t know,” Twilight said. “Princess Celestia told him once that his marks are leading him on a unique path…”

“But isn’t that true of everypony?” asked Barrel Roller.

“I guess so. But the path you’ve got him on seems to work for everyone. I don’t think we should mess with it.”

“Frankly, I’m not sure what the paths are anymore. It’s hard to gauge a guard’s merits now with this ‘Friendship Paradigm' in place. Is it more laudable for him to toss someone in jail, or befriend them? Should he be better at throwing spears, or giving hugs? And with the number of times he’s been ordered around directly by princesses instead of me, frankly, he doesn’t seem like my guard sometimes.”

“I’m sorry,” said Twilight. “I didn’t know our actions out there were making things hard for the Royal Guard. But I’m still learning about Friendship, as well. We’re all having to learn about it together. But I promise it will be worth it.”

“Well, take your time,” shrugged Barrel Roller. “I’m not going anywhere.”


Spats exited the medical wing of the palace. Radish was waiting for him.

“Spats, how are you?”

“Fit as a fiddle and clean as a whistle. No mean old changeling echoes hiding in my colon. How are you? You gave us a scare, what with that malevolent essence devouring you in conflagration of green fire and all.”

“I’m fine, Spats. Clean bill of magical health.”

“Fantastic. Too bad we didn’t get to use the war hammers. They usually just gather dust.”

“Well, some day.”

“How are Purple and Pink?”

“They’re fine, too,” said Radish. “That thing really had it out for them.”

“And you. Once that thing knew you were buds with Twilight, it went full psycho on you. Ever regret becoming her pen pal?”

Radish touched his cheek, which had now felt the lips of four princesses. “Not one bit.”


Twilight helped Cadance pack her bags in her palace guest room, telekinetically folding her clothes into suitcases and piling them on a porter’s trolley.

“Thanks for coming and helping with this. That could have been a disaster,” Twilight said.

“Celestia chooses her staff well,” said Cadance. “I only hope I’m half as good at choosing mine.”

“Yes. I guess sometimes we forget that the ponies who work here every day are the cream of the crop. I won’t be forgetting that again. I should journal that, actually.”

“Twilight, could we talk about something?”

“What?”

Cadance magically closed and locked the door. She sat on the bed and motioned for her sister-in-law to sit with her.

“Twilight, when we used our spell against the entity, I was fueling it with my love for family. You, Shining, Celestia, Luna, Spike. But in that moment, I could feel the love you were focusing on, too.”

“I was focusing on my love for my family, too. But also my friends. They’ve always been a source of strength for me.”

“But the love you were feeling for one friend in particular was… noticeably more powerful. In fact, it was the strongest of all.”

“Cadance, please. It’s not like that.”

“Twilight, I could feel what it was like. So could the entity. It tried to break me with visions of Shining. It showed you a vision of Radish.”

“Then it was just misinterpreting my feelings. I've only ever felt that way for Flash, and the way I feel about Radish is totally different from that."

She wrapped herself in her wings and gave a nostalgic smile. "When I was with Flash, I wanted to kiss him- passionately. But it's not like that with Radish. We hug all the time, and I’ve never felt a desire to take it further than that. I’d be content to just hug him for hours. I could hug him all day, even. Maybe forever. Oh..."

Twilight looked into Cadance's eyes. "I guess I'm the one who was misinterpreting my feelings, huh?"

Cadance nodded, smiling. "There are many forms of love, Twilight. Your love for Flash was a fire sparked by a bolt of lightning. But your love for Radish is one of my favorites- a friendship that's grown so warm that it's reached its natural ignition point."

“It doesn’t matter. He’s with someone. I'm practically the reason they met."

"I know. I'm sorry. That's the hard part of my talent- sometimes two hearts that would fit well together just aren't in sync at the same time. But you must know how he feels about you, don't you?"

"Yes. It's a powerful love, too. But it’s platonic. Protective. Brotherly, even.”

“And that’s not something to be taken lightly, Twilight. You’re lucky- I didn’t get to grow up with a brother, and now you have three.”

Twilight hugged her. "You always know how to make me feel better. Thanks. I promise I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will.”

“Hmm. Brother Radish. That means I’ll soon have a Sister Light, I guess. Yikes.”

“What do you mean?”

“You couldn’t feel it?”


“Hey, Spats, could you help me with something outside the palace today?” Radish asked as they walked back to the guard barracks.

“What’s up?”

“Can you help me pick out a ring?”

Spats stopped walking. He threw his hooves around Radish and hugged him tightly.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

“Geez, Spats.”

“I promise you, I’ll make you happy.”

“Okay, Spats.”

“We’ll get her the classiest ring your meager budget can afford.”

“I’ve been saving up.”

“I know, pal. I know.”

“Actually, I just realized. Rarity digs up her own gems for free. Maybe I should talk to her first.”

Spats looked hurt.

“Rad, Rarity is… nice. But she can’t do for you what I can. Have you seen her fall line? I think she might be going colorblind. I don’t mean that as an insult, just as a concern. Also, kind of as an insult.”

“You two have never met, have you? I think you might hit it off.”

“We have and we did not.”

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