• 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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117. The Mission

Admiral Sunset Rider set a file folder on Radish’s coffee table and opened it. On top of the stack of documents was a large aerial photograph of a grouping of wooden buildings. They looked old and weathered.

“This is Fort Curly,” he said. “It’s an old fortification in Equestria’s northeastern reaches. It was originally built to guard our side of The Great Grey Area.”

“You mean, ‘No Creature’s Land’?”

The admiral pushed the photo aside to show a map of the area. It was a stretch of land with forests to the north, a coastline to the west, mountains to the east, and canyons to the south.

“That’s right. A territory claimed by four competing interests. It’s right where Equestria and the griffon kingdom butt up against each other, but the actual border between kingdoms remained fuzzy for a long time.”

“Because the other two of those interests were a bugbear colony in the forests, and dragons napping in those mountains. Not exactly an inviting place.”

“Yes. When the griffons unified under King Grover, he and Celestia sat down and agreed on definite borders. They ended up drawing a big circle around the whole area, declaring it under no one's rule.”

“Thus, ‘The Great Grey Area’,” said Radish.

“Fort Curly was built on our side of the area to keep an eye on the whole mess. But times change, and so do priorities. The fort eventually fell into disuse.”

“What does this have to do with me, sir?”

“I hear you’re good at fortifying buildings. Finding weaknesses that others overlook.”

Radish felt a giddiness at the top of his chest. “You’ve heard that about me, sir?”

“I did. So I cut a deal with the judge. I asked to take charge of your community service. I told him I want you to assist in the refurbishment of Fort Curly, so it can be reopened as a Plains Ranger facility.”

“Whoa. That sounds exciting.”

“It does, doesn’t it? That’s what makes it such a good cover story.”

“Uh, cover story, sir?”

“Root, I don’t need your remodeling skills. I need you for a Ranger mission in that area. It’s dangerous and top secret. I hear you have some experience with missions like that.”

“Uh… what makes you think I have experience in dangerous top secret missions?”

He pushed the map aside. Under it were more photographs. One of them depicted Radish, standing on a hill outside Ponyville, surrounded by the bat ponies, carrying a long spear slung on his back. Another showed Radish and Scorpan being rescued by the Wonderbolts, on a cliff just above the wreckage of a crashed sky skiff.

“These are you, aren’t they?”

“How did you-”

“Rangers tend to investigate things like airships falling out the sky, major. And a good Ranger records everything.”

“Are you the Royal Spymaster?”

Sunset Rider guffawed. “There is no Royal Spymaster, Root. That’s why individual ponies have to pull together and help out where we can.”

“Then, what do you really need my help with?”

He pushed the photos aside to reveal a personnel file of a Ranger- a muscular blue-gray pegasus with a tall cumulonimbus cloud cutie mark.

“Did you ever know a Ranger named Storm Cell?”

Radish stared at the file. “Storm Cell… yes, I knew him. Not for very long, though. He graduated from the Academy soon after I entered it.”

“After graduation, he was stationed on the Equestrian side of The Great Grey Area. He set up on the coastline, actually.”

“He had a posting on a beach?”

“He did. Until he went missing.”

“Missing!?”

“His status report was double overdue, so we sent a pony to his camp to check on him. He wasn’t there. It looked like he had been gone for a while, in fact, but like all good Rangers, he left records.”

He pushed Storm Cell’s file aside to reveal a stack of photostatic copies of a field journal.

“We found his notebook hidden in a secret compartment behind his relaxation cabana.”

“He had a relaxation cabana?”

“Apparently he did a lot of entertaining there. Go on, read his words.”

Radish picked up the journal pages. Storm Cell’s writing was large and neat.



Noticed smoke coming from GGA. Dragon unlikely- color and density consistent with wood cooking fires (Appendix A). Assume campers. Will investigate.

Spotted village in GGA. Not on any records. Must have been rapidly constructed. Looks ramshackle, but complete (Photos 1-8). Inhabitants are ponies of all three tribes. Will keep distance and observe.

Observed an oddity. Every pony seen in the village so far has the same cutie mark- an equal sign (Photos 9-16). Could be a new strain of cutie pox. That would make this a plague village.


Radish slumped back onto his couch. “The equal mark town. He actually found it!”

“You’ve heard of it?”

“It’s been a rumor that’s been going around the palace. Fellow guards, castle staff, and even some tourists have told me about it. Everypony wants to let Radish Root know he can trade in his cutie marks for equal signs. None of them could actually say where it was, though.” Radish looked into Sunset Rider’s eyes.

“I guess you know all about my marks, sir?”

“The story was relayed to me when you applied to Ranger Academy. But it was never a problem. Lots of ponies join the Rangers looking to get away from their past, make a clean break, and reinvent themselves. All that matters is if they can handle the job.”

Radish looked back at the page. “It didn’t even occur to me that it could be cutie pox.”

“Well, keep reading.”


It’s not cutie pox. I scoped out the village for a day. A pony was taken into a cave with their standard cutie marks, and came out with an equal sign. Whatever changes cutie marks is in that cave. Need to investigate.


“That’s the last entry.” noted Admiral Rider.

“And you suspect foul play from these villagers, sir?”

“They’ve built a secret settlement outside of any law’s jurisdiction. They have an unknown means of altering a fundamental part of a pony’s being, which they keep hidden. And the first authority figure to investigate them disappeared. This is no quaint hamlet. Something nefarious is going on there.”

“How do you think they’re changing cutie marks?”

“Our analysts are split on that. Some think there’s some kind of cutie-mark eating monster in that cave, and these villagers sacrifice their marks to it to keep it appeased.”

“Yikes.”

“Or it could be done deliberately through some ritual or artifact. Perhaps they're gathering cutie mark magic for some purpose.”

“The only other artifacts I’ve heard of that can change cutie marks are the Elements of Harmony.”

“Worrying, isn’t it? Your orders- your real community service- is to infiltrate this village, find out what happened to Storm Cell, determine if there are any threats to Equestria’s security, and deal with it accordingly.”

“Sir, with all due respect…”

“Thank you.”

“...this isn’t a job for a Ranger. No Creature’s Land is outside Plain Rangers jurisdiction. The princesses should be informed.”

“The big horns have a chain of command for a reason, Root. They don’t need to know every little thing the ponies under their command are doing. Imagine what Celestia would do if we told her about this.”

Radish thought about it.

“She’d probably send in AG1. She might even travel there to speak with the villagers herself.”

“Now imagine if whatever’s in that cave stole Twilight Sparkle’s cutie mark. Or Celestia’s! No more Elements of Harmony. No more sunrises.”

“They could go in with guard backup, though.”

“A legion of pony guards making an incursion in the neutral zone would spook the griffons. It could cause an international incident.”

‘I see.”

“But your cutie mark gives you the perfect cover for approaching the town alone. In fact, I think you’re the one pony in Equestria who they won’t be suspicious of.”

Radish looked aside. “They won’t question that I came looking to change my mark, is that it?”

“You can get in and earn these villagers’ trust. Then you can get answers, get Storm Cell, and get out.”

“Will Captain Roller know I’m doing this?”

“No. She’s a bit too by-the-book for this. Do you know why the Plains Rangers adopted a tradition of bending the rules?”

“Because we- because they- operate solo in remote areas where flexibility and adaptation are key.”

“Exactly. Rangers are more likely than anypony to encounter the unknown, and things like rules and laws always break down in the face of the unknown.” He leaned towards Radish. “Root… you were an unknown that the laws failed, too.”

“Then, you want to fight fire with fire?”

“More like prevent a fire, with a controlled burn.”

Radish looked down at the collection of documents. He looked up at his display case of his medals that he had hung over his desk. He stared at a photo of Light Fantastic he kept on a side table.

“You can count on me, sir. I’ll bring Storm Cell back safe and sound, on my honor.”

“Good. The judge thinks you’ll be working fifty hours of community service at Fort Curly. At eight hours a day, that’s a little over six days before anyone questions your absence.”

“It won’t take me that long.”

Sunset Rider pulled one last item from the folder- a train ticket. “This train will get you as close to The Great Grey Area as possible. You’ll have to hike the rest of the way. Remember, to these villagers, you’re not a Ranger or a guard- you’re just a wayward wanderer looking to find himself.” The admiral stood up and gathered the documents. “And, of course, I was never here.”

“I understand, sir.”

Sunset Rider went to the door, paused, and looked back.

“By the way, how is Celestia doing these days? I worry about her.”

“I worry about her, too, sir. That's why I'm going to keep this fire far away from her.”


Radish paced Canterlot’s train platform in the dawn’s soft light, going over his plans in his head. He chewed the inside of his cheek.

“Radish?”

He turned and looked. Twilight was approaching him.

“Twilight? What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see you off on your big project! And give you this.”

She pulled a book out of her bag and passed it to Radish. It was a spy novel from a series Radish hadn’t heard of.

“Just a little something for the long train ride to Fort Curly.”

“Thanks, Twilight.”

“I think it’s great that you’re being asked to improve Equestria’s defenses. I’m glad you’re getting the recognition for your skills that you deserve.”

“Well, if you won’t let me fortify your castle, I’ll just have to fortify every other building in the kingdom instead.”

Twilight looked down and smiled. “Radish… it’s really embarrassing when you make these grand declarations about protecting me.”

“Sorry.”

The train rumbled into the station. Its doors squeaked open, and a few ponies disembarked.

“Well, that’s me,” said Radish, putting the book in his bag.

“Good luck! I want to hear all about it when you get back.”

“You bet, Twilight. Could you do me a favor, though?”

“What?”

“Tell Spike not to smoke me any letters for the next week. I need to focus on the job.”

“Okay.”

Radish stood just inside the train car. The whistle blew. He and Twilight stared at each other for a beat.

“I’ll see you soon, Radish.”

“I’ll see you later, Twilight.”

The door closed, and the train rumbled away.


Radish crouched in shadow between a boulder and a juniper tree, binoculars in hoof, staring down at a valley before him. It had taken most of the day for his train to reach the end of the line, and the rest of that day to find Storm Cell’s camp.

Storm Cell’s camp had been more like a custom-built beach house. It had a wide deck perched over the dunes of an expansive coastline. Radish had explored the home, trying to learn what he could about Storm Cell, before making use of the pantry and bed that night. The trek to the Equestrian border of the Great Grey Area took all morning.

There were a scant few dilapidated signs demarcating the border, which also gave warning of the dragons and bugbears beyond it. He took a deep breath and stepped beyond the signs.

The journey through No Creature’s Land had taken him the rest of the afternoon. Now, he finally had the equal mark town in his sights.

I hadn’t realized- the town is actually shaped like an equal mark. Is it a warning, a welcome, or a way of life?

He could make out some villagers going about their daily routines, but couldn’t see their cutie marks.

Radish began a cautious hike into the valley. As he neared the outskirts, some of the ponies spotted him coming. One ran off into the town, and returned accompanied by a light purple unicorn mare. She approached Radish with a look of curiosity. Her cutie mark was indeed an equal sign. All of theirs were.

Radish cleared his throat.

“Hello. I’m-”

“Hi there, friend!” the mare said, waving broadly and smiling brightly. “Welcome! Welcome home.”

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