• 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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18. The Outing

As Radish entered Selenic Spire to begin his shift, the duty officer waved him over.

“Root, Princess Luna has a special assignment for you. She wants to meet you in her office this time.”

“She has an office?”

“Uh huh. It’s on this floor, actually.”

“Oh, she commutes to work.”

Radish entered Luna’s office. It was large, with wall-to-ceiling shelves full of scrolls and books. It was also dim, lit by a few candelabras which burned with blue flames. They flickered despite the absence of any drafts.

Luna was working a pencil and compass over a map on a large oak desk.

“Lieutenant Root,” she said, setting down her instruments. “Our recuperation is nearing its end. Our public debut is fast approaching.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“But we have unfinished business from a thousand years ago. Have you heard tell of the bat ponies?”

“Bat ponies? No, ma’am, I haven’t.”

“They were creations of Nightmare Moon. A variant race of pegasi born out of dark magic. We, uh, she, engineered four of them as her most trusted minions.”

“That’s… wow. What happened to them?”

“That is for you, Twilight Sparkle, and her friends to determine.”

“Ma’am?”

“Our dear sister has informed us that missions of this nature are handled by those six villagers nowadays, as opposed to a well-trained unit of seasoned professionals. We informed her that this is our mission, and we will have it undertaken by our own Champion. Thus, a compromise- a joint mission.”

“You think of me as your Champion?”

“Has the usage of the word changed? We simply mean that you are the one we trust most with the completion of our most important tasks.”

“I… thank you, princess!”

“You seven will be journeying to the last known location of the bat ponies. If they still exist, you are to make contact with them and bring them to us.”

“Last known, as in a thousand years ago?”

She held up the map.

“Indeed. The Mountains of Difficult Terrain. You have traversed mountains, have you not?”

“All the time in the Rangers.”

“Good. You will go to Glad’s Glades. From there you will follow this map and lead those six to our… to Nightmare Moon’s secret dark science laboratory.

“You... uh, Nightmare Moon had a secret dark science laboratory?”

“Yes. How shameful of her, no?”

“And you think there are bat ponies there now?”

“We suspect so. We detected nightmares from villagers in that region- silent swooping shadows with bat-like wings."

"Then the original four, uh... begat... a whole race of bat ponies that lasted to this day?"

"We certainly hope not! They were siblings! No, Nightmare Moon endowed them with longevity like her own- she had designs on a reign lasting millions of years.”

“Millions!”

“If they are indeed still alive, we must have them brought here. We will debut them to the world alongside us.”

“Will they be easy to convince?”

“They will be, because you will have this.”

She magically floated a small silver pendant in front of him. Embedded in its center was a blood-red crystal shaped like a crescent.

“Nightmare Moon had plans to choose subordinates- ponies who could keep the rank and file in line whilst she focused on larger designs. She forged this as a symbol of her rule-by-proxy. The bat ponies will recognize the one who wears it as Nightmare Moon’s envoy. Her favored own.”

She floated it around Radish’s neck. He looked down at it.

Favored own. I’ve never been a favored anything before.

“Thank you, your highness.”

“Thanks are not needed.”


The Royal Quartermaster was a thick, burnt-orange bull named Chandler. The older guards called him "Chuck", for reasons unknown to Radish. He operated out of a large workshop in a dome-shaped building near the rear of the palace campus, where numerous assistants, apprentices, and smiths produced and improved Guard armor and weaponry.

Radish stood in front of Chuck’s counter as he checked over Radish’s requisition list for the fourth time.

“It looks like we’ve got everything. What about equipment for the other six?”

“I was told they’d be responsible for their own.”

“Yeah? Listen,” he said, leaning over his counter, “whenever you involve civilians on a mission, you’re guaranteed to be the one carrying their weight. Sometimes literally.”

“I’m prepared to manage them. I’ve worked out tasks that best suit their talents, and I’ve written their instructions down for them in detail. Besides, they’ve been on mountain missions before. They got rid of that dragon.”

“I hear they just sing and dance and eat cake, and let their magic gems do all the work.”

“I’ve heard that, too.”

“Speaking of which,” he said, bringing up a long wooden box from under the counter, “Princess Luna sent word that you are to be outfitted with the palace’s most powerful magical weapons, armor, and artifacts on this mission.”

“Oh?”

“But Princess Celestia vetoed that.”

“Oh.”

“So, Captain Armor requisitioned you this as a compromise.”

“Oh?”

He opened the box. Inside was a collapsible short spear, the same kind as the one Radish used every day.

“Is it, uh, magic?”

“No, just a newer model. Ten percent less prone to accidental collapsing!”

“Could I have a sword, too?”

“What for?”

“The other ninety percent.”

“Can’t do it. You aren’t cleared for swords yet.”

Radish looked around the depot. He saw the garden supply section in the corner.

“What about a machete? You don’t need clearance for that.”

“Fine, I guess. You want some hedge clippers to go with it?”

With the machete in his pack, Radish exited the depot carrying the new spear in hoof. He flicked it out, extending it to its full length. He examined the shaft, and something caught his eye.

His rank, name, and guard number were engraved on the side. He turned it over, and there was another engraving on the opposite side, a motto in Middle Ponish he couldn’t translate. It wasn’t the Royal Guard’s normal motto, which translated to “Back, I Say!

“Root, you almost ready?” asked Shining Armor, walking up to him.

“Yes, sir. Just familiarizing myself with the new equipment.”

“Pretty nice, huh? We’re rolling those babies out next week. I hope you don’t need to use it.”

“Me too, sir."

“See this?” he said, pointing to the engraved motto, “know what that means?”

“No, sir.”

“Something my old hoofball coach used to say. ‘Don’t screw this up’.”

“I won’t, sir.”

“Look, Root. You’re about to head out on a pretty dangerous mission. In a pretty dangerous area. With my sister.”

“I’ll protect her to my last breath, sir.”

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow.

“That’s… that’s fine, lieutenant. Just fine.”


Radish stepped off the train onto the depot platform for Glad’s Glades. He had read all the palace’s available information on it, which wasn’t much. It was a small town, nestled in the foothills of the Mountains of Difficult Terrain. It had been founded by burros, and it was home to an aloe lotion company.

He took a moment to reorganize his gear. He sheathed the machete to his side and attached his spear to the snap-clasp on his back. Luna had advised Radish not to wear his armor on this mission, as the bat ponies might mistake him for an agent sent by Celestia, Nightmare Moon's hated enemy. Radish was actually relieved at this- even the palace's lightest armor wasn't intended for extended hikes through the wilderness. Radish came dressed in a rugged mountaineering outfit, similar to (but much more high-quality than) his Plains Rangers uniform.

He entered the depot. He looked through a rack of local broadsheets for anything that might point to bat pony sightings. There was nothing. He considered asking the locals, but decided he’d rather keep his mission as low-profile as possible.

Then he heard an ear-splitting voice.

“HEY, RAINBOW DASH! CHECK IT OUT! THERE’S A BUG INSIDE THIS LOLLIPOP!”

“Pinkie Pie! Get that out of my face!”

“Would y’all cut it out? Folks are starin’!”

“Oh, that’s my fault, darling. This new chapeau may have been a bit much for so rustic an environs.”

“Look, they sell jumping beans! I’ve never taken care of a bean before! Can we get some?”

“Would you five quit it? The train just rolled in! He could be rounding the corner any second now!”

Radish took a deep breath and rounded the corner. He saw a group of mares milling about the depot’s gift shop.

It was them. The six heroines of Equestria. The Elements of Harmony.

He had read the dossiers Shining Armor kept on them, and Twilight’s letters had described their idiosyncrasies time and time again. He felt like he already knew them: Pinkamena Diane Pie. Jacqueline Smith-Apple. Rarity Hildebrand. Fluttershy Oathbreaker. Rainsong Beauregard Dashitall. Twilight was with them too, and she saw him and excitedly waved him over.

“Radish! Good to see you! Girls, I want you to meet Radish Root. He’s going to be our mountaineering guide, our liaison with Princess Luna, and he’s my pen pal from Canterlot!”

They stared.

“Good morning. It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” said Radish, bowing. “Twilight speaks highly of each one of you.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “Nice to meet you.”

“Mighty fine makin’ your, er, acquaintance,” said Applejack, uneasily. Her eyes drifted down to his sides.

“So,” said Radish, “Princess Luna’s map points us to a cave system under a nearby peak. But she never mapped the caves, and nopony has found them since Nightmare Moon used them. We have to rediscover the entrance. We only have a few landmarks to guide us, most of which have probably changed in the intervening centuries.”

They stared at him.

“But Princess Luna has filled me in on Nightmare Moon’s MO. You six have actually encountered her. I think if we put our heads together with what we know about Nightmare Moon, we can at least identify or eliminate stretches of landscape which would or would not have suited her a millennium ago.”

They continued to stare.

“For example, I believe she’d shun the sun as much as possible. The sun has always been raised from the east and set in the west- so I think she’d avoid hillsides that face those directions. And at this latitude, a north-facing entrance would get the least sunlight, and better still if it was nestled in a valley. But Nightmare Moon was vain, so she’d want her lair entrance to be as high off the ground as possible. I think she’d go for bare rock over pleasant vegetation and cute woodland animals. It’s all about optimizing our search using these guidelines.”

The group of them was now leaning sideways, eyes on his flanks.

“In any case, our best bet would be to catch sight of bat ponies. But Luna says they blend into the night sky and can fly silently, so that may be a long shot. We may have to resort to drawing their attention.”

They continued to stare. Radish sighed, and put his hoof on his trousers.

“If I just showed them, could we get a move on?” he snapped.

“Oh, no!” said Rainbow Dash. “I wasn’t even thinking about your cutie marks!”

“No siree!” said Applejack.

“Not in the least!” said Rarity.

“I wasn’t staring!” said Fluttershy.

“Yeah, show us!” giggled Pinkie Pie.

“Girls, I can’t believe you,” said Twilight, taking position by Radish’s side. “What was the one thing I asked from you on this trip?”

“Don’t be awkward about Radish’s cutie marks,” the other five said in unison.

“And what’s the first thing you did!?”

“Be awkward about Radish’s cutie marks,” they said.

“And what do you say?”

“Sorry, Radish,” they said.

“It’s fine. I’m used to it,” said Radish. “But we have a lot of ground to cover. If you’re ready, our first search site is an hour away.”

He trotted ahead. Twilight kept pace with him, while the others followed behind.

“I am so, so sorry about them,” Twilight said.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s good to see you. How’s Ponyville been?”

“Great! I never imagined such a small town could keep me so busy! And I’m learning so much about friendship, too. How’s palace life?”

“Peaceful, thank goodness. But it’s good to get out.”

“How’s Shining? I haven’t seen him much since I moved.”

“He’s concerned for your safety. Are you sure you don’t want more guards here?”

“We’ve come to make friends with the bat ponies, not surround them with troops.”

“There are other dangers out here. This mountain range is tailypo habitat.”

“I've read up on this area. I’ve also been practicing defensive spells."

"Okay, but if anything attacks us, I want you to get behind me."

Twilight laughed. “Okay, Mister Big Strong Guard.”

Lieutenant Big Strong Guard.”

“How’s Princess Luna? I haven’t spoken to her since, well... Nightmare Moon.”

“She’s doing well. I really want this mission to go well for her sake.”

“It will. We’ve never let a princess down before.”

They took a hiking path out of town into the mountains, and soon abandoned the path to rove over less inviting terrain. After an hour of walking, Radish led them up a rocky slope. They reached a large depression nestled between several hills.

“Okay, this is our first search site,” said Radish, retrieving papers from his bag. “I’ve outlined a list of tasks each of you can perform to narrow down our search.”

“Tasks? You sound just like Twilight,” moaned Rainbow Dash.

“Good. You, Miss Dash, will search this area aerially using this grid pattern. Make sure you examine every cliff face from all angles.”

“Seriously? I thought we were looking for mad science monsters. Nopony said anything about grid patterns.”

“Yeah, Radish,” said Twilight, “you can’t expect such an undisciplined flier to handle a simple grid pattern. It’s not like the Wonderbolts ever employ them in their search-and-rescues.”

“Fine,” Rainbow Dash sighed. “Way to make it personal.”

She took a map from Radish and flew off.

“Miss Rarity,” said Radish.

“Uh, yes?”

“Your specialty is gem-finding. I need you to scan this area for gems that feel out-of-place. I think a dark science laboratory would use a lot of unusual, even magically-mutated gems in its equipment.”

“Ooh! Unique gems? Finally, this mission is getting interesting.”

She trotted off with her horn glowing, looking about the landscape excitedly.

“Miss Fluttershy?”

“Yes?” asked Fluttershy, hiding half her face under her mane.

“The bat ponies probably have left an impression on local wildlife. You talk to the critters, and see what they know.”

“Oh. I can do that!”

She caught sight of a chipmunk and flew after it, introducing herself.

“Miss Pie-”

“Here!” shouted Pinkie Pie, jumping in front of Radish.

“Miss Pie, you-”

“You want me to apply my rock farming background to examine the locality for irregularities in geology?”

“Yes.”

“On it!” She bounced away, then sniffed along the ground like a dog.

“Twilight?”

“Scan for dark magic residue?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve got just the spell. I can’t wait to finally try it out!”

“Be careful. Nightmare Moon’s magic ability was off the charts. She may have booby-trapped the area against your exact kinds of spells. If you feel pushback, disengage immediately.”

“Booby-traps? May have? Luna doesn’t remember?”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Huh. Thanks for the warning.”

She walked off, carefully projecting a red cone of light across the ground in front of her.

“You got a task for me, Radish?” asked Applejack, walking up.

“Multiple. First of all, cat herding.”

“You mean, keepin’ all these fillies focused on their tasks? What makes you think they need it?”

Radish pointed at Rarity, who had dug up a ruby, and was polishing it and holding it against her chest, imagining how it would look like as a broach. He pointed to Fluttershy, who was brushing a skunk’s tail and giving it encouraging words about its scent. He pointed to Pinkie Pie, who had stumbled upon some brightly-colored mushrooms and was bending down to poke at them.

“Aw, that’s all just part of the process,” reassured Applejack. “What else?”

“Site security.”

“Oh, really? A royal guard needs my help keepin' everyone safe?” she asked, playfully nudging his shoulder. “You really think I’m as tough as all that?”

“I don't know what we'll find out here. There could be... something like that!”

A dark wisp of purple energy erupted from the ground and seized Twilight by the tail. She clutched onto a rock as it tried to drag her under the soil.

“Land’s sakes!” shouted Applejack. She leapt over to Twilight and grabbed her, trying to pull her from the thing’s clutches. Radish ran behind her, pulled his machete from his side, and sliced her tail cleanly. She was flung over Applejack, who caught her. The mares tumbled over each other as the wisp vanished back into the ground.

Twilight sat up. “Okay. So there was some pushback.”

“Are you okay, Twilight?” asked Applejack, helping her to her hooves.

“Yeah, thanks. But this whole mountain range is rigged against magic like that. Nightmare Moon really did not want her lab to be found.”

“Guess I should stick close by. You’ve only got so much tail left,” said Applejack.

She looked at the cleanly-cut edge of her tail.

“Thank you, Radish.”

“No problem.”

“Hey, found something!” called Rainbow Dash. “It’s just off the grid.”

She led the others to a rock outcropping. Hidden in its underside was the outline of a door cut into the mountainside.

“Okay, this looks promising. Thank you, Miss Dash,” said Radish, approaching it. “I think if we-”

“Wait!” called Pinkie Pie, flailing her hooves.

She pointed to a circular indention in the ground in front of the door. She pulled out one of the brightly-colored mushrooms and threw it into the center. The sand rumbled, then sucked in the mushroom. After a beat, the sand pit spit shreds of the mushroom into the air like confetti.

“It’s sawtooth quicksand. Chews you up and spits you out,” Pinkie Pie explained.

“Okay. Avoiding that. Thanks, Miss Pie,” said Radish, adding to the map.

“No problemo!”

“Anypony see a way to open the door?” asked Twilight.

Fluttershy stepped forward, with the skunk on her head.

“Wilfred here says he’s seen creatures going in there. They put something on the wall, and it opens.”

They looked closer at the wall, and there was indeed a small hollow for an object. Radish held his pendant up to the hole, but it didn’t seem like a fit.

“Ah, I’ve just the thing,” said Rarity, pulling out the ruby she found. “I believe one of them dropped this quite a long time ago. It has a rather vintage cut.”

She clicked it into the hollow. The door shuddered and slid into the ground, revealing darkness. Twilight projected a light from her horn into it. The passage led down a flight of curving stone steps.

“Okay,” she said, “not foreboding at all.”

“Let’s set up a marching order,” said Radish, pinning a flashlight to his breast pocket. “I’ll take lead, but I’ll need Twilight-”

“Ugh, you’re micromanaging how we walk now?” groaned Rainbow Dash.

Radish looked at the girls, then down at the lists of tasks he drew up for them, then at the girls again. He stuffed the paper in his pocket.

“Okay,” he said, stepping aside, “how would you like to proceed?”

“Just follow my lead,” she said, and flew into the darkness. She then poked her head back out. “Come on in! You’ve got to see this!”

The other six carefully sidestepped the sawtooth quicksand and entered the door.

They were at the top of a staircase jutting out from a curving wall, leading down into a massive hollow in the mountain. They took the stairs down to the floor of the room. Twilight cast her magic on wall sconces, and they illuminated the room with a soft blue glow.

Multiple tables and workbenches were set up throughout the room. On them were arcane devices, alchemical equipment, and the long-forgotten leftovers of magical experiments, all covered in eons of dust. Across the floor was a mosaic of a massive crescent moon symbol encircling the silhouette of a dark horned mare. This was the indeed the former laboratory of Nightmare Moon.

Radish was afraid to speak, lest he wake up some half-finished nightmare creature.

“Whoa-ho! Look at this place! It’s spooky central!” Pinkie Pie yelled out. Radish cringed, then listened. Nothing in the room reacted.

“Okay,” he said, pulling out the map and making additions to it. “If bat ponies are still using this place as a home, we’ll find evidence somewhere. If they’re out hunting, we wait for them to come home. They’ll be more amenable to conversation if they have full stomachs.”

“Hunting?” asked Rarity, “Hunting for what?”

“Insects, mostly, according to Luna. Though she did stress their diet may have shifted over a thousand years.”

“Shifted to what, exactly?”

“Just try not to look too delicious, okay?”

“Well, that will be a strain, but all right, dear,” she said with a wink.

Radish looked around. Nothing in the room seemed to have been touched for a thousand years. He examined the dust on the ground. There were hoofprints- recent, but unlike any Radish knew.

Applejack walked up next to him. “Those ain’t normal hoofprints. Think that’s them bat ponies?”

“Princess Luna said their hooves were adapted for hanging upside-down, like real bats.”

He looked at the ceiling. It was flat and smooth. He looked at where the tracks were heading- a door on the far side of the room.

“But these tracks just go straight through the room. I think they revere Nightmare Moon so much, they’re afraid to touch her stuff.”

“Heck, I’m afraid to touch this stuff,” said Twilight, staring at a table with multiple metal pieces strewn on it. “I only know what some of these things are, and let me tell you, they are crazy dangerous when active. Some of these seem to work on properties of magic that are theoretical even today. Nightmare Moon was eons ahead of her time.”

“Gee, Twilight, sounds like you wish you were her student,” mocked Rainbow Dash.

“All I’m saying is, we’re lucky Princess Celestia defeated her before she could finish any of this stuff.”

“But does that mean Princess Luna can finish this stuff?” asked Fluttershy worriedly.

“No,” Radish quickly answered. “They’re two separate ponies, with completely different minds. Luna could never carry on Nightmare Moon’s work.”

Behind his back, Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. Pinkie Pie frowned nervously, and Rarity gave Twilight a disapproving glance. Twilight didn’t see it.

Radish noticed Fluttershy sniffing the air. “You smell something?”

She nodded.

“What?” asked Twilight.

“Bat dander,” answered Fluttershy, shivering. “Not normal bats, either.”

“Okay. We’re on the right track. Let’s explore- but we’ll do it systematically, and quietly.”

They took a corridor out of the room. Twilight lit more wall sconces as they explored. They passed many doors, most of which were locked tight and unopenable even to magic. They found empty rooms. They found rooms containing more odd, unidentifiable devices. Radish made notes and mapped the lair as they went.

Pinkie Pie opened a dark mahogany door. “Whoa, check this out!” she called.

She had found a large, luxurious bedroom.

“Nightmare Moon’s bedroom!” she said gleefully. “Think she wore jammies to bed?”

Radish shook the image of Nightmare Moon in pajamas out of his mind. He heard Rarity gasp, and turned to see her standing further down the hall, staring stone-still into a room she had opened. The others gathered around to see what she had found. The room was dark red, and it contained nothing but a single black diamond, hovering silently in the center.

“Nopony touch that,” whispered Rarity. “In fact, stop looking at it. It’s, uh, not what it seems.”

She closed the door and walked on. The others followed.

As they explored, Pinkie Pie hummed to herself. The hum became a whistle, and the whistle became a song.

“Oh, Nightmare Moon, Nightmare Moon
Where do you keep your living room?
Your kitchenette with your nightmare spoon?
Is that a closet with a nightmare broom?”

Radish looked at Twilight with pleading eyes.

“I know,” she whispered. “If it comes to it, just sing along.”

“Oh, Nightmare Moon, Nightmare Moon
Will these hallways become our tomb?
Will we meet a nightmare doom?”

“I hope that we get done here soon,” sighed Radish.

Pinkie Pie gave him a wide grin.

They opened a door to a study lined with bookshelves full of thick grimoires. Twilight's eyes went wide.

“Look!” she gasped, running inside. “The Book of Neighbon! Dewormis Mysteriis! The Ponkotic Manuscripts! These are some of the rarest dark magic tomes in the world! They're all banned from Celestia's school!”

She ran up to a spell book left open on a book stand. She used magic to readjust it to her height, and leafed through it.

"Oh my stars! This is Nightmare Moon's personal spell journal! There are spells for attack, domination, biotransmutation-"

“Sounds like something best left alone, right Twilight?” said Radish, pointedly.

“Uh… right," she said, giving a lingering look at a page before closing the book.

They continued down the hallway until it terminated at a door, which opened to a cavernously large, empty room. The stone floor was marked with thick painted lines which led to and up along the far wall. Unlike the other walls, which were magic-hewn rock, this wall was a flat metal panel.

Radish walked up to it. “Now, what’s with this? Is it a big door?”

“Uh, big doors usually mean big things going through them,” warned Rainbow Dash.

“It can’t be,” said Radish. “From my mapping, this should be the side of the mountain. If this is a door, it opens up to the outside.”

“Over here, Radish,” said Twilight.

She had found a control panel on a near wall.

“Good lookin’ out, Twi,” said Radish, walking up to it. He held up a hoof, and she bumped it with her own. Rarity noticed this and smiled.

“Okay, ponies. Get ready, we’re going to open it,” said Twilight.

She pulled down a large switch, and a red light on the panel lit up. The room shuddered. The metal wall creaked and opened away from them, hinged along its bottom. It stopped flat, revealing a panoramic view of the mountains outside. A whoosh of fresh air filled the room.

“Whoa, this room is a balcony!” said Pinkie Pie. “What a view!”

“No, this room is a hangar and a runway!” said Rainbow Dash. “Nightmare Moon thought of everything for these bat ponies! This is how they were gonna scramble out of the mountain and attack… oh.”

They looked out at the vista. Far in the distance, barely cresting over the horizon, were the lights of Canterlot.

Rarity sat and gazed at it.

“So many times I’ve looked upon Canterlot from Ponyville. It’s been my goal. But Nightmare Moon… she was gazing at it too. It was her target!”

Radish stepped out onto the door, which now was a landing platform. He looked around the landscape. The sun was setting.

“Okay. We should stop for the night. I’ll take first watch,” Radish said.

“First what now?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“You know, sleep in shifts?”

The girls looked at each other, confused.

“So one can be lookout while the others can get sleep?”

“Uh, that’s not really how we do things,” said Rainbow Dash.

“How do you do things?”

“I say we stay up all night and tell spooky stories! This place is perfect for it!” laughed Pinkie Pie.

Rarity looked back at the door they came in from.

“Say, uh, Pinkie,” she said, “where better to host this slumber party than back in Nightmare Moon’s bedroom?”

“Ooh, perfect!” Pinkie Pie said.

Rarity leaned over to Radish. “Oh, but… uh, Radish dear? Would you be so gallant as to guard us girls from this vantage?”

“Sure.”

“And Twilight, could you keep our lieutenant company? Nopony should be out here alone.”

“But why-”

“Thank you, dear!”

She trotted past Radish, winking at him. He knew why. She trotted past Twilight, straightened some hairs in her mane, and winked at her. She didn’t know why.

Rarity ushered the rest out into the hallway. She closed the door to a crack and peeked back through.

“Rarity, quit playin' matchmaker. We got a job to do here,” admonished Applejack.

“Well, he can’t keep mooning over Celestia for the restia… uh, the rest of his life. And this affinity he has for Luna will do him no good, either.”

“Dude’s a princess-chaser, no doubt about it,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Indeed, and Twilight is probably the closest he’ll ever get. And as for her, when was the last time you’ve even seen her speak to a stallion?”

“Do we even know if Twilight goes for fellers?” asked Applejack.

“No…” said Rarity, pondering it.

“Don’tcha you think Twilight’s type would be more of a, you know…”

“Library-dwelling egghead?” finished Rainbow Dash.

“Well, perhaps. Do we know any?” asked Rarity.

The other four looked between themselves. They shrugged.

“Then let’s continue to our slumber party, and whatever will be, will be.”

Radish unfurled his bedroll and laid on his stomach, looking out at the view. Twilight set up hers next to him. Radish pulled out a notebook and started writing.

“What are you writing?”

“Notes on everything we’ve seen so far. Just getting ahead on my official report.”

“Official report?”

“Celestia doesn’t ask for them when you six do things like this?”

“Well, I send her a weekly letter on what I learn about friendship.”

Radish gave her a glance. “That’s pretty much what you write me.”

“Yes, but sometimes writing about something twice lets me take a deeper look at it. I call it my ‘Second Look at Friendship’.”

Twilight looked at the door mechanism.

“How long was Luna Nightmare Moon?” she asked. “The book I read made it sound like her turn and banishment happened in one night. This lair must have taken a while to set up.”

“I get the sense she turned back and forth between Luna and Nightmare Moon several times over a long period. Maybe neither was fully aware of the other.”

“Like that novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jackal and Mr. Clydesdale? Poor Luna.”

“I’m hoping this mission gives Luna some closure on the whole Nightmare Moon thing.”

“That’s really nice.”

“Luna’s really nice.”

“Oh? Shining says everypony in the palace is afraid of her. I’m glad she has a friend.”

“I’m… I just work for her,” said Radish.

“You don’t think she considers you a friend?”

“No. But I am her Champion.”

“She said that? Wow, that’s terrific.”

“Yeah.”

“We won’t let her down, Radish.”

“Thanks.”

Radish rested his head on his crossed hooves and looked at the sky. Some stars were now visible, twinkling in the expanse.

“Nice night.”

“It is,” Twilight said. Then she yawned.

“It’s been a long day," said Radish. "Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll holler if anything comes in.”

“No, I’m fine.”

Radish pulled out a bag from his pocket.

“Want a jalapeño chew?”

She gingerly took one and sniffed it.

“This smells awful.”

“They help me focus.”

She chewed it. She spat it out.

“Ugh. Sorry, but I can’t.”

“It’s okay.”

“Here, try this instead.”

She pulled out two yellow stick candies and gave him one. He sucked the end of his.

“What is this? It’s like a bunch of flavors all whipped together.”

“A candymaker in Ponyville makes them special. She calls it her ‘Celestial Blend’. She’s offering a prize to whoever can identify every flavor. They all supposedly have some relationship to Celestia.”

“And you haven’t cracked it yet? No one knows Celestia better than you.”

“I’m close, but she says I’m missing three. What are you tasting?”

“Well, sunflower. Obvious.”

“Yeah.”

“Watermelon. Pineapple. Tomato.”

“Uh huh. Summer fruits.”

“A fancy tea. I can’t help there.”

“It's hibiscus chamomile. Her favorite.”

“I don’t know about this sharp taste.”

“Starfruit.”

“Never had it. Oh, Balencian orange.”

“Balencian orange? Really?”

“Yeah. From Courtyard A.”

“Ooh. I never went in there. I didn’t get along with the royal gardeners back then. I uh, may have given them some unsolicited advice about proper planting regimes.”

Twilight pulled out a scroll and wrote it down.

“Anything else?”

“This smokiness…”

“Yeah, I think there’s a smoke infusion, representing how she gets Spike’s letters by smoke.”

“Oh. That’s abstract. Wait, there’s an aftertaste. Oh, it’s…”

Radish bristled and scowled.

“What?”

“It’s radish seed.”

Twilight gasped. She took the candy out of her mouth and looked at it.

“Really? You don’t think that’s a reference to...”

“Uh huh.”

“Oh my.”

“What’s this candymaker’s name?”

“Bon Bon.”

“Could you tell Bon Bon off for me?”

“I will. Nopony makes mocking my friends into a game.”

“I say we beat her at her game, shut the whole thing down for good.”

“Do you taste anything else?”

“That’s all I can figure. Sorry.”

“Well, now I’m one away. I’ll share the prize with you if I win.”

“What the prize?”

“A big block of salt.”

“That sounds nice. Thanks.”

Radish looked up at the moon. It looked bigger, somehow. He could see the craters and seas across its surface. It glowed with a bright halo.

Could Luna be holding the moon closer to this place, for us? For me?

He smiled. He pulled out his binoculars and gazed at the moon. It was peaceful, elegant, and beautiful.

Just like Luna.

He focused on the horizon and tried to glass Canterlot. The lights of the city shined bright on the mountain like a lantern in the dark.

“Those look so bulky,” said Twilight. “Why not use a royal spyglass?”

“Oh, those are awful. They’re flimsy, they creak when you adjust them, and they have half the magnification. These are Ranger-issue. They're waterproof, scratch-resistant, and can spot a sparrow’s field marks across town.”

“Really? Why would Shining assign guards inferior equipment?”

“I’ve learned not to raise a stink about things.”

“You should never be afraid to voice your concerns.”

“You’ve never had a boss before, huh?”

“Yes I have! Princess Celestia! She’s the biggest boss there is!”

“Okay. You’re right.”

“Besides, I’ve had job jobs before, Radish. I worked at an ice cream store in Canterlot one summer. The Big Ripple.”

“Really? That’s a nice place.”

Radish fondly recalled how their old-fashioned pinstripe uniforms fit the girls who worked there. They even had cute little hats. Radish put it out of his mind.

“And I had a boss, who thought very highly of me, even though I was constantly pointing out his errors.”

“You’re right. I should point out your brother’s errors more.”

“Could I have a look through those?”

“Sure.”

He gave her his binoculars. She adjusted the knobs.

“Wow, these are good!”

“Right?”

“I can see vultures in the sky!”

“At night?”

“And they’re pulling loops in the air!”

“Vultures are looping? Uh…”


“Whoo hoo! I’m jumping on Nightmare Moon’s bed!” laughed Pinkie Pie.

“Careful there! This room could be booby-trapped,” warned Applejack.

“Nah, nopony would booby-trap the place where they’re groggiest. Imagine getting up on the wrong side of the bed and falling into a spike pit.”

Rarity rifled through Nightmare Moon’s nightstands. She pulled out a small atomizer.

“Heavens! Nightmare Moon’s perfume!”

She spritzed her wrist and sniffed it.

“Hmm… cedarwood, rose… and cocoa? Nightmare Moon, you randy old dog, you! I’m keeping this!”

Pinkie Pie stopped jumping on the bed. She looked down at it.

“So, who do you think Nightmare Moon was putting perfume on in the bedroom for?” she asked.

“Hmm,” said Rainbow Dash, “probably some other villain. To start a whole villainous dynasty.”

“What, you think Nightmare Moon wanted some feller to put her in the family way?” scoffed Applejack.

“Maybe she was waiting for Princess Celestia to get a boyfriend so she could steal him!” suggested Fluttershy.

“Well, that would have been a long wait,” said Rainbow Dash. “The Princess isn’t really the dating type. Just ask Radish.”

“Hmm, do y’all hear somethin’?” asked Applejack. She followed a noise to a panel on the wall. She slid it open, revealing a bank of flared, capped tubes. Each was labeled with the name of a different room.

“Voice pipes!” said Rarity, “So she could bark orders to the rest of the base! Hmm, I wonder if…”

She popped open the cover of the tube marked, “HANGAR”.

“It’s been a long day. Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll holler if anything comes in,” said Radish's voice, coming from the hangar.

“It is them!” said Rarity excitedly.

“Uh, we’re going to listen in on them?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“We are not voyeurs, Rainbow Dash,” said Rarity. “This is simply to hear if there’s any danger coming.”

“Then let me talk to them,” said Applejack, leaning up to the tube.

“Don’t you dare!” hissed Rarity, shoving her away.

“I don’t know about this sharp taste.”

“Starfruit.”

“Ah, they’re sharing food! How romantic!” giggled Rarity.

“What if they start to, you know…?” said Pinkie Pie.

“Then we will give them their privacy. But for now, shush!”

“Those look so bulky.”

“Uh, what does?” said Rainbow Dash.

“Maybe we should close this thing now?” said Fluttershy.

“Hush! I’m missing it!” said Rarity.

“…inferior equipment?”

“Wait, wait?” asked Rarity. “What did she say?”

“You’ve never had a boss before, huh?”

“No, don’t bring that up!” whined Rarity. “You’re losing her, Radish!”

“I worked at an ice cream store in Canterlot one summer. The Big Ripple.”

“Really? That’s a nice place.”

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “Not really. They’re overpriced and snooty as all-get-out.”

“Could I have a look through those?”

“Oh, his binoculars! Now’s his chance to show Twilight how they work while cradling her from behind,” Rarity said, excitedly trotting in place.

“Ugh, where do you get this stuff?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“And they’re pulling loops in the air!”

“Vultures are looping? Uh…”

“And they’re coming toward us. Wow, they’re fast!”

“Let me see.”

There was a pause.

“Twilight, get ready!”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s them! Four bat ponies inbound!”

The five startled back.

“Oh dear,” said Rarity.


Radish and Twilight stood together in the center of the hangar. Radish felt the spear on his back, the machete on his side, and the pendant on his neck.

“I wish we didn’t split up,” said Radish.

“No, it’s best not to overwhelm them. We’re here to talk,” said Twilight.

A quartet of large grey ponies- three stallions and a mare- landed on the metal platform with a thud. True to Luna’s words, they had bat wings. They also had tufted, lanceolate ears, and their manes and tails were dark purple. They were unclothed, and had cutie marks depicting the moon in various phases. They slowly stalked their way toward Radish and Twilight.

Radish held out his pendant and stood tall.

“Hello. My name is Radish Root, and-”

“Twilight! Radish!” shouted Rainbow Dash. She and the rest galloped into the hangar. Radish waved at them to stay back, but they reached him and Twilight nonetheless.

“Whoa! Look at them!” said Pinkie Pie.

The bat ponies took to the air.

“Wait!” called Radish. “I am a special envoy of-”

The bat ponies let out a piercing screech. Radish and the girls held their ears in pain, buckling to the floor. Suddenly, the spot of the floor they stood on wobbled, then snapped open. They fell screaming down a long dark shaft.

They landed painfully in a heap onto the sandy floor of a wide circular room. The ceiling above them snapped closed.

They all groaned and climbed to their feet. Twilight cast a spell that enveloped the group with light. Nothing happened.

“Guess teleporting back up there was too much to hope for,” she said.

She aimed her horn at the trap door they fell through and fired off a blast of energy. It rebounded off the ceiling. She dodged it as it blasted a crater at her feet.

“Okay, that didn’t work either.”

Radish knocked on the walls. They were solid steel. He craned his neck upward. The walls were ten meters tall, and topped with a cage of thick metal bars reaching up to the ceiling and tapering to the hole they just fell through. Beyond the bars were rows of stadium seats.

Fluttershy tried to pull on the bars. They didn’t give.

“Stuck in a cage. Luna’s gonna kill me,” Radish grumbled.

“Yeah? Maybe that was her plan,” muttered Rainbow Dash.

“You say something?” he snapped.

“I’m just saying, she was Nightmare Moon. Maybe she planned this whole thing just to get us back for whupping her tail.”

Radish shoved past the others and stomped up to Rainbow Dash.

“Luna ain’t Nightmare Moon! Y’all should know that, seeing as how you blasted one into the other!”

“Well, maybe it didn’t take.”

Radish seethed.

“She didn’t even want you six here! As far as she’s concerned, she’s doing Celestia a favor by letting you tag along with me!”

“You’d still be outside playing with your grid patterns without us!” shouted Rainbow Dash, getting in Radish’s face.

“Fat of lot of good it does being in this hole!”

“You guys! Stop it!” said Twilight.

They both turned to glare at her.

“We’ll get out of here by cooperating, not by fighting!”

“Fi… oh. Fighting,” said Radish. He looked up at the cage surrounding them.

“What?” Twilight asked.

“This must be Nightmare Moon’s fight pit,” Radish said, kicking at the sandy floor.

“Fight pit?” gulped Fluttershy. “Is that what it sounds like?”

“She was going to find all the toughest creatures in the world and make them fight for her amusement. The winners would have been accepted into her army.”

“And this is the princess you want to impress?” sneered Rainbow Dash.

“No, Luna is the princess I swore my duty to, and I don’t need some magic necklace hanging around my neck to remind me of what loyalty means!”

“Oh yeah? Then what’s this?” demanded Rainbow Dash, yanking out the moon pendant from around his neck and holding it up to his face. “Your sweetheart locket? What, do you have a lock of her hair in there or something? Or maybe a picture of her making a kissy face?”

“Don’t you touch that!” yelled Radish, snatching it and shoving her back.

A red light illuminated the space. On a wall beyond the cage, a panel had lit up with the words, “FIRST STRIKE: RADISH ROOT”.

They all stared.

“What does that mean?” asked Fluttershy.

“The arena… it’s active. It thinks we’re combatants,” said Twilight.

“The arena thinks? On its own?” asked Applejack worriedly.

Radish sighed.

“This pit will only open if there’s a victor,” he said.

“A victor? Surely you don’t mean we have to brawl with each other?” scoffed Rarity.

“To the death,” he said.

“Oh, I think not, Radish,” Rarity said firmly.

“Wait, we can use that to get out of here!” said Twilight.

“How?” asked Radish.

“I can cast a spell to stop everyone’s hearts!”

The others stared at her.

“For just a second! It would be just long enough to make the arena think you’re dead and trick the door open!”

"Twilight... jus' what are you doin' knowin' a heart-stopping spell?" asked Applejack, raising an eyebrow.

"I saw it in Nightmare Moon's spell journal earlier! It looked surprisingly simple. I think I can modify-"

“No!” shouted everyone else.

“Well, fine! How do you want to get out of here?”

“I can let you out!” called Pinkie Pie’s voice over loudspeakers.

They all looked up. Pinkie Pie was in a glass-windowed control room above the rows of seats.

Radish stammered. “How did you get up there!?”

She looked around herself.

“I don’t know!”

“Pinkie Pie! Is there a switch to let us out?” called Twilight.

Pinkie Pie gazed at a large control panel in front of her. There were dozens of switches, knobs, and blinking buttons.

“Uh, probably?”

“Okay,” called Radish. “First, check to see if there are there any-”

“I’ll try them all!”

“NO!” everypony else yelled.

Six doors slid open in the walls around them. Radish held his breath. Nothing happened.

“Okay, there may be a way-”

The wall panel displayed the words “SUDDEN DEATH”. A massive black wolf- big as a covered wagon- charged out of one of the openings. Its eyes glowed with indigo light. It barreled right at the ponies, snarling.

“Sorry!” yelled Pinkie Pie.

The ponies scattered as it leapt at them. Applejack kicked its knee. There was a loud metallic clank, and she cried out.

“Ow! It’s metal!”

It turned to her, growling and snapping. She dodged its bite and fled. It chased her. As she reached the wall, she vaulted off of it and landed on its back. She got her lasso around its neck and held on for dear life.

Twilight put her aura around its feet. The feet ran through the aura as if it wasn’t there. The wolf charged at her. She conjured up a brick wall right in front of it. It ran right through it. She gasped and startled back.

Rainbow Dash swooped and snatched Twilight up as the thing pounced at her position. Applejack was thrown off and landed on her side.

“Wait!” called Fluttershy to the wolf. “Stop! We’re not here to fight you!”

The wolf looked at her. It leapt to bite at her. She squeaked and flew back. It turned to set its sights on Rarity.

“Oh, dear.”

She put her aura on the sandy floor, and whipped up the sand in its face. She ran.

Radish banged his spear on the metal walls.

“Hey! Here!”

It ignored him. He galloped after it. Rainbow Dash blasted past him and snatched up Rarity. Radish looked up, and saw everypony was clinging to or hovering near the ceiling of the cage. Everypony but him.

“Radish!” cried Twilight. She threw her aura on him and yanked him skyward. The thing pounced for him and snapped its jaws at him. He curled himself around his spear.

It's mouth bit down, held open by the spear. The wolf landed with him in its maw. The spear bowed. It shook its head furiously, tossing Radish about inside its mouth. Radish fumbled for his machete and hacked away at the inside of the mouth, only to have it clang off every surface.

What is this thing? How can a whole creature be metal inside and out?

Twilight’s aura found him again and pulled him out of the mouth to join the others. He hooked his hooves around the ceiling bars.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“How do we stop that thing?” asked Applejack.

“I don’t think it’s alive,” said Radish. “It’s some kind of machine.”

“Machines have off switches! Pinkie Pie! Keep hitting buttons!” called Rainbow Dash.

Pinkie Pie slapped her hooves across the control panel. Nozzles protruded from the walls and blasted jets of searing hot flames. Whirring circular saw blades jutted out of the floor. Darts shot across the arena. Dramatic opera music blared.

The wolf stuck its mouth over a sawblade and used it to dislodge the spear. It spit out the pieces. Then, it clamped down the blade, ripped it from the floor, held it to a flame jet to heat it until it was glowing red, then hurled it at the ponies. They dodged it, barely.

“PINKIE PIE! STOP HITTING BUTTONS!” howled Rarity.

“Rarity!” yelled Radish. “Scan the thing for gems!”

Rarity aimed her horn at it, and a glowing light was cast from the wolf. Its torso turned transparent, and a black sphere could be seen inside, wired to other pieces of its mechanical anatomy. It was pulsing rapidly.

“What is that?” asked Radish.

“It’s a dire pearl! Magically mutated, just as you said,” Rarity announced. “The power it contains is immense!”

"What, that's like, its heart?" asked Rainbow Dash.

“Wait,” said Radish. “Twilight! The heart-stopping spell!”

Twilight looked down at the wolf.

“That… could work! Okay, if we-”

Fluttershy yelped. The wolf had dug its claws into the walls and was climbing toward them.

“Move!”

They clambered across the cage away from the beast.

“Guys!” yelled Pinkie Pie. “There’s a button to electrify the bars! I can pump it up to maximum jiggo-watts!”

“Okay!” called Radish. “On three, we let go, and you shock it! Then, Twilight uses the heart-stop spell while it’s staggered!”

“Got it!” everypony called.

“One… two… HOLY-”

The beast leapt off the wall, snapping at the six. Radish and the girls let go and fell. The beast snapped its jaws onto the ceiling bars. Pinkie Pie slammed a button, and arcs of lightning crackled across the entire cage. The metal wolf twitched, unable to let go of the bars.

As the group fell, Twilight cast a spell to conjure a pile of pillows upon the floor. The ponies landed on them, sending feathers everywhere. The beast sparked and smoked overhead. The current stopped, and it fell off. The group narrowly leapt out of its way as it slammed into the ground. The metal plates comprising its skin were warped and curled. It continued to twitch.

Twilight raised her horn high, preparing her spell.

“I’m powering this up as high as I can! Everypony get clear!”

Her horn glowed bright as a floodlight. Black sparks poured out of it and wisps of purple flares encircled it. She staggered under the weight of her own power. The others backed away from her.

The beast’s eyes opened. It shakingly climbed to its feet and lumbered toward them.

“I need more time!” Twilight yelped.

Radish ran forward with his machete in his mouth. He dodged to the side as the beast snapped at him, and jammed the machete into an exposed section of its hip with all his strength. The beast twisted its body to swipe at him, and the entire rear half of its body buckled and fell apart into a mess of mechanical components.

Radish ran. The beast used its remaining two legs to leap snarling at him. Its jaws clamped onto his trousers. It yanked him off the ground and shook him like a chew toy. The material ripped apart and he went skidding into the dirt. The wolf loomed over him.

“Now!” Radish howled, skittering back.

Twilight shot off her spell. It sailed through the air as a crackling black sphere. The wolf saw it coming. It seized Radish by the scruff of his neck in its mouth and held him up in in the spell’s path as its shield.

The last thing Radish heard before the spell hit him was Twilight screaming.

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