• 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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27. The Threat, Part 3

Vesper's assertion that they could reach the island was almost correct- the bat ponies succumbed to exhaustion just short of its coastline. They, with Radish, fell out of the sky and hit the skin of the pudding sea at an angle. They bounced to shore like stones and skidded into the beach.

Radish coughed up part of a seashell. "Is everyone okay?"

"Yes, just sticky," said Echo.

"Where's the spear?"

"Here, brother," said Nocturn, passing Radish the spear. "It is also sticky."

Radish blinked the sand out of his eyes, then gazed up at the sky. It was purple with swirls of gold. The moon was slowly rotating counterclockwise. "Wait, is it night already?"

"Not quite, it's-"

The night disappeared as the sun shot up. A red ringed planet loomed massive in the daytime sky. V-shaped flocks of toasters were flying overhead.

"Another of Discord's sudden, short-lived nights," said Murk.

"Okay. Let's go."

Radish tucked the spear under his armor's straps, then trudged off the beach. The bat ponies trudged after him. They reached a boardwalk, and followed it down the coast.

Radish didn't know what the Wagoner's private island was supposed to look like on a normal day- he had imagined massive swimming pools, manicured lawns, and badminton courts. He found swimming pools that were purple and bubbling, lawns that were shaggy and translucent, and ostriches using the badminton courts. Radish avoided eye contact with them as he passed.

He stopped in front of a large piece of metal sticking through the boardwalk. He made a sound of disgust when he realized what it was supposed to be.

"What is it?" asked Echo.

"It's a fork in the path."

The bat ponies tilted their heads. A giant sterling silver fork was sticking by its tines into the boards.

Vesper patted Radish on the back. "Do not despair, Radish. We will defeat Discord, and all his execrable visual gags."

"Yeah."

Beyond the fork, the walkway branched. One path led to the back of a massive manor, while the other continued along the shore to a multileveled marina, with docks for boats and mooring towers for airships above them. The docks had numerous yachts, schooners, and cutters all mired in the chocolate pudding sea. The airship moorings had a single zeppelin anchored- a massive air cruise liner. They headed down the path to the docks.

"Were you guys around for Discord the first time?" Radish asked.

"We did not encounter him face-to-face," said Nocturn. "Nightmare Moon clashed with him on a few occasions, but she ordered us to stay out of it each time."

"How long did this go on for?"

"Luna turned into Nightmare Moon and back regularly over the course of three years," said Echo. "Discord first appeared early in the second year, and was defeated toward the end of the third."

"His reign was as chaotic as his shape," said Murk. "He would take over a part of Equestria, then grow bored and unexpectedly abandon it. Sometimes he would disappear for months with no explanation. Sometimes upstart heroes would step forth to oppose him with new spells or weapons. It did not go well for them."

"But that's what I'm doing."

"We are sure it will go well for you," Murk said encouragingly.

"It was Nightmare Moon who first learned of the Elements of Harmony," recounted Vesper. "But she was unable to access them. She anonymously leaked their whereabouts to Celestia, allowing the royal sisters to finally defeat Discord."

"Nightmare Moon led Celestia to the Elements, even knowing they could be used against her?"

"It was a calculated risk. Discord needed to be dealt with swiftly. Celestia's defeat required undivided focus."

"Huh."

"However, the newly-freed citizens of Equestria overwhelmingly credited Celestia with the victory, treating Luna as no more than a mere sidekick," said Nocturn. "That insult enraged the Nightmare Moon personality within Luna, making her grow too powerful to hide any longer. She overtook Luna, eclipsed the sun, and directly challenged Celestia. The rest you know."

"Hmm. If this has all happened before, what's to stop it from happening again?"

"That... is a good question," said Echo.

They passed a grove of trees, where a stallion in sporty day wear was lounging in a hammock, sipping a drink. He tipped down his sunglasses to get a look at them.

"Hey there, folks. You lost?"

"Forgive the unannounced visit, sir. I'm Lieutenant Root of the Royal Guard. My team and I crash-landed here."

"Anchor Point," the stallion said, pointing to himself. "I'm the fleet manager for this island."

"Excellent. We're on a critical mission for the princesses. We need to borrow transportation back to Canterlot."

"Sorry, friend. The seas are in no condition for sailing today. And there's no pegasi chauffeurs to fly you out- the help all took the day off."

"Then I'll need an airship."

"Ah, none of the family's airships are available right now. They're acting... funny."

"What about that?" asked Radish, pointing to the cruise liner.

"Oh, that's not one of ours. That's a party ship! It just showed up, and everyone on the island suddenly had one of these flyers appear in their hooves."

He held up a gilded scroll. Radish leaned close to read it.

HOP ABOARD THE CHAOS PARTY CRUISE!
NON-STOP FUN ALL THE WAY TO THE TO THE CAPITAL
SHUFFLEBOARD! CORNHOLE! WET T-SHIRT CONTEST!
THEN!
WITNESS A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME SPECIAL EVENT!
FREE ADMISSION, NO REFUNDS
MUST BE 18 OR OLDER OR YOUNGER

Radish chewed the inside of his cheek.

"So the ship just showed up? Like it was expecting me?"

"Apparently it's been stopping at all the private islands is this area. Everyone who's anyone is going."

"Going to the capital... which is where I need to go," said Radish.

"Have fun."

"Sir, there's nothing fun about this. That ship was created by Discord, an ancient chaos monster who's corrupting reality as we know it."

"Ah, that explains everything. I mean, take a look at this."

He held up his drink for Radish to see. Radish cocked an eyebrow.

"Uh, what is it?"

"This is supposed to be half iced tea and half lemonade. But instead, it's half lemonade and half iced tea!"

"That's, uh, weird, all right."

"I suppose I could drink it backwards..."

"Why aren't you boarding the ship with everyone else?"

"I'd love to, but this hammock is actually a giant spider web. I can't get up."

"Would you like me to cut you loose?"

"Oh, don't bother. I'm not so sure I'm actually real."

"...what?"

"Enjoy the cruise!"

Anchor Point got comfortable and sipped his drink. Radish and the bat ponies backed away slowly, then made their way to the docks. The ship's horn blew twice.

Radish and his brethren climbed a platform up to a gangplank. An earth pony in a white nautical uniform was standing aside it, grinning widely.

"Hello, there! Five more to board?"

"Yes."

"Tickets?"

"I thought there was no admission."

"That's correct! Come right aboard!"

"Oh? Thank you. Are you... okay?"

"I'm feelin' fine! Everything's shipshape! Especially the ship!"

"Are you... real?"

"Yes, sir! Real excited about getting underway! Oh- but you've got to check that weapon," he said, pointing to the spear.

Radish held it in his hooves. "I did check it. I think it could work."

"Perfect! Enjoy the amenities and accommodations!"

"Steward! You're not letting that pony onto the ship, are you?" called a snooty voice from the deck. "He's positively filthy. His costume is in shambles, and that hideous spear of his is going to scuff the floor!"

Radish squinted to see who was speaking. It was a tall, violet unicorn stallion in a tuxedo. He gazed down at Radish with distain. Radish gazed up at him with more distain.

"Sir, I am a royal guard on a mission for the princesses. Unless you're a princess, you don't have the authority to keep me from coming aboard."

"Do you have any idea who you're talking to?"

"Not a princess, from the looks of it."

"Don't they teach you grunts anything? Surely even a spearhorse must realize when he is speaking to a key member of Equestrian society!"

"Forgive my ignorance, sir! I didn't expect to find a key member of Equestrian society taking a pleasure cruise during the end of the world."

"Oh, the world is always ending for you guards. Steward, do your job and cast us off."

"Okey dokey!" said the steward, still grinning. He looked at Radish. "Sorry, sir."

"Now, look here! We are getting on this ship, and-"

"Enough!" called the unicorn. "Your captain will be hearing about this. Within the week, you won't be able to get a job as a crossing guard."

"Brother, shall I throw him into the harbor?" asked Vesper.

The unicorn looked at her and made a small gasp. He walked down the gangplank, shoved past Radish, and approached Vesper, smiling.

"Well, well, well! What have we here? Hello, miss."

"Hello," she said.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Princely Sum." he said, proudly pointing to his chest.

"I am Vesper."

"What a lovely name!"

"Thank you. Nightmare Moon gave it to me."

"How interesting! Are you coming aboard? I'd love to hear all about it."

"May my brothers come, too?"

"Hmm? Oh, but of course. Now, watch your step on the gangway..."

He led Vesper by the hoof up to the deck. The steward, still grinning widely, motioned for Radish and the bat stallions to follow.

The cruise airship was a massive teardrop-shaped zeppelin suspended from a lozenge-shaped gas envelope. Its main deck, open to the air, was crowded full of reveling ponies. As Anchor Point had said, the guests looked like they had been going about their business on several islands, then dropped what they were doing to board. Many carried elaborate tropical drinks in their hooves, wings, or auras. Most were wearing flower leis. The sounds of steel drums and vuvuzelas filled the air.

Radish pushed through the crowds, staying on Princely Sum's heels. Suddenly, he felt the spear being tugged off his back. He turned to see two ponies in grass skirts setting it up as a limbo bar. There was already a line of ponies ready to limbo under it.

"Hey! Give that back!" he snarled, snatching it. The limbo crowd booed him.

He looked around and saw that he had lost track of Princely Sum and Vesper in the crowd. He had lost track of all the bat ponies. He sighed, shoved forward, and found himself trapped between a conga line and a shuffleboard tournament.

Only Discord could make a party this irritating.


Princely Sum guided Vesper to the bow of the ship. They gazed out at the skies before them.

"Quite the view, eh?" he asked. "You can see clear to Manehattan from up here. Ever been?"

"Once."

"I keep an apartment there. Well, an apartment and a mansion."

The ship's horn blasted, and Vesper held her ears.

"Did that frighten you, Miss Vesper?"

"I have very sensitive hearing."

"Oh, then these crowds must be torture for you! Would you like to retreat to my cabin, where it is quieter?"

"Will your bodyguards allow it?"

"To whom do you refer?"

"The zebra mare at the starboard rail. The pronghorn doe by the bulkhead. The pegasus mare on the deck above. They have all been watching us intently, scanning the crowd, and maintaining strategic positions surrounding us. Unless they are your enemies, they are your protectors."

"How perceptive of you. Yes, they work for me. An important pony like myself must travel with protection. You know, I'm always looking to hire more."

"I have experience in this field."

"We could conduct an interview during the flight."

"I would like that."

"Vesper!" yelled Radish from behind them.

They turned to seem him clinging to the spear. A flower lei had been draped over his neck, and a wet T-shirt was now wrapped around the spear. Vesper saw Princely's bodyguards now on the move, stalking their way toward him.

"Excuse me, we're having a conversation here," said Princely Sum.

"My brother is being protective," said Vesper. "Please excuse us."

She took Radish a few steps away.

"Vesper, you're not-"

"Radish, there is more going on here than we know. I believe this Princely Sum may be involved with Discord in some way."

"All the more reason I don't want you alone with him."

"I was not born yesterday. I was born a thousand years before you."

Radish sighed. "Sometimes I forget that."

"Do you trust me?"

"Yes. Just... be careful."

She patted Radish on the head. "Don't wait up."


The cruise liner cast off, propelling itself through the skies by six massive articulated fins. Radish explored the decks. He found the ship's buffet restaurant. Murk was seated in front of four plates piled high with food. Radish sat down at his table.

"Murk, I don't think we should eat this food. Discord created it."

"It has had no effect on these other ponies. I believe it is safe."

"What is that?" Radish asked, pointing a slice of something on one of Murk's plates.

"Cinnamon Pickle pie."

"What the fuck?"

"You should try it."

"No. Have you seen your brothers?"

"Check the bathrooms. Echo gets airsick."

"Airsick? He's a bat pony."

"Airship flight is different. You bob unnaturally through the air as you go. Up and down. To and fro. Rolling, pitching, yawing..."

"Stop."


Radish explored more of the ship, finding pools, theaters, and exercise rooms. He entered a large lounge bar and took a booth. He pulled out the book Luna gave him and started to read. After a while, a waiter placed a cloudy drink in a coupe glass down in front of him.

"I didn't order anything."

"Compliments of the lady in red," the waiter said, nodding back over his shoulder.

"Lady in red?"

Radish looked to where the waiter was indicating. Seated at the bar was a crimson earth mare. She had a long scarlet mane which draped down over the left half of her face. Her uncovered eye was dark green with long, black lashes. Her cutie mark was a thorny yellow rose. She slipped off her stool and approached Radish, her scarlet tail swaying high as she walked. His heartbeat quickened as she neared.

"Hello, soldier. Come here often?" she asked, brushing her hair over her ear.

Her voice was smoky like quality scotch, her smile was decadent like fine champagne, and the look in her eyes was dangerous as bathtub gin.

"Hello, miss," Radish said slowly.

She can't be real. She must be another creation of Discord. I bet he based her look on some classic movie starlet.

"I'm Fetching Steps," she said, leaning in close to Radish and holding out a hoof.

"Lieutenant Root," Radish said, shaking her hoof and quickly disengaging.

"I like your spear, Lieutenant Root," she said, gazing up at it appreciatively.

"Thanks. I'm bringing it to my boss."

"Oh, really? Your boss has exquisite taste."

That's what she's after. She'll try to grab it as soon as I let my guard down.

She looked down at Radish's book.

"Oh, Daddy Long-Shanks? That's a classic," she said, sliding into the booth opposite him.

"You've read it?"

She leaned on the table with her chin on her hooves. "Mmm-hmm. But the protagonist is a bit too much of a starry-eyed optimist for my tastes."

"You prefer someone a bit more world-weary?"

She chuckled warmly. "I've been around this big blue marble of ours a few times. It's a wearying world, for those of us who don't live in a palace."

"Is that why you're taking a pleasure cruise?"

"No, I'm here to work."

"What line of work are you in, Miss Steps?"

"I'm an aide to a very powerful individual."

I bet you are.

She dipped her head toward the drink in front of Radish. "Go ahead. Enjoy. Everything on this ship is top-shelf."

"I'm sorry. I can't drink when I'm on duty. And no one should drink when they're carrying a weapon."

"Ah, how upstanding of you. May I, then?"

"Go right ahead."

She knocked back the drink in one swallow, then leaned back in her seat. "Mmm. Got any plans after we reach the capital?"

"I'll be reporting back to the palace."

"But the palace is in Canterlot."

"Yes? Canterlot is the capital."

"Ah, but this ship isn't going to that capital. We're going to Ponyville- the 'Chaos Capital of the World'. Or it will be, when Discord gets through with it."

Radish scowled. "That's not going to happen. Where did you hear that?"

"From the very powerful individual that I aid."

"Does this individual have a name?"

She grinned. "Sorry, one drink isn't enough to make me spill all my secrets."

She stood up and leaned over Radish. "But if you'd like to know more, I'll be in Suite 202."

"I'm not-"

She turned and walked away, disappearing into the crowd. Radish grumbled. He saw Nocturn entering the room, and waved him over.

"Hello, brother," said Nocturn.

"Hey. Did you see that girl who was just here?"

"No. Why?"

"Never mind. What have you been up to?"

"Examining the ship. It is far faster than it should be for its size and configuration."

"You know a lot about airships?"

"I like to watch the uptown docks before sleeping. It brings peace of mind."

"I should try that sometime."

"Do you lack peace of mind, brother?"

"I'm not sure. What's it feel like?"

An older pegasus mare walked up to their table. "Say! That's a nice spear! Is that your tribute?"

"Tribute, ma'am?" Radish asked. "Tribute for what?"

"For Discord, of course! Everypony who's anypony is bringing him tribute."

"Oh, they are, are they? Does that include you?"

"Naturally! Look at this." She showed Radish an antique spyglass. "This has been in my family for ages. They say Discord enjoys pranks, so I had it converted into one of those joke telescopes that gives you a black eye!"

Radish grimaced. "Is that a Ferrum Flats spyglass?"

"You know your history! Yes, this is one of his originals. Worth a fortune."

"And you turned it into a gag gift for Discord?"

"Maybe he'll use it to prank Celestia herself!"

"Uh huh."

She spotted a group of her friends at a table, and trotted off to sit with them. Radish leaned over to Nocturn.

"Nocturn, have other ponies been acting happy about Discord taking over?"

"Yes. Everyone at that table has spoken of the idea with great anticipation."

"How is Discord controlling them? Were the invitations hexed? Is it the food? Could he be here?"

"It is simpler than that. I believe they are of sound mind. They are simply on Discord's side."

"That's impossible. Why would a pony side with Discord?"

"In the old days, a delegation of ponies from Equestria's upper echelons approached Nightmare Moon, pledging their loyalty in exchange for high-ranking positions in her regime."

"What!? There were ponies who knew about Nightmare Moon, but instead of reporting her to Celestia, they joined up with her?"

"Yes. They believed Nightmare Moon's reign was an opportunity to gain power they could never attain by legitimate means."

"That's insane. What happened to them?"

"Nightmare Moon recognized that ponies who would readily turn on Celestia, would readily turn on anyone. She made use of their resources to build her bases, then demanded they earn their prestige in her fight pit."

"How did that turn out?"

"Messily."

"Yikes. But how could these ponies think they'd benefit from Discord's reign?"

"That group is going to another room to discuss that very topic now. Oh- but one just mentioned they'll use a soundproofing spell. I won't be able to listen in."

"Then I need to get into that meeting."

Radish studied the group. There were eight ponies of varying ages, both mares and stallions, from all three tribes. Radish didn't recognize any of them. As they stood up and made their way out, one of them- an older earth stallion- beckoned to someone in the crowds. Fetching Steps joined up with him, and they left the room. Right before they were all out, she turned and gave Radish a wink.

"I really need to get into that meeting. Could you guard the spear?"

"I am honored you trust me with it. But... is that the girl you asked about?"

"Yes."

"Be wary, brother. Nightmare Moon warned us about mares like that."

"Yeah. My Ma did, too. Time to disappoint them."


Princely Sum led Vesper into his suite. He motioned her to join him on the sofa, and passed her a glass of wine.

"So, Miss Vesper, let's start by getting a sense of your work experience."

"I was an enforcer for Nightmare Moon. Then I held no position for a millennium. Now I am a nighttime guard for Princess Luna at the royal palace."

"And how do you explain that gap in your employment history?"

"My boss was in the moon."

"Ah, well, it happens. So, where do you see yourself in five years?"

"In a world not controlled by Discord." She leaned close to him. "Now, how can your organization help me achieve my goal?"

"I'm afraid I don't catch your drift."

"I know who you are."

He leaned away, frowning. "Drat. How?"

"I recognize you from the Gala."

"Ah."

"Why are you here?"

"A much more interesting question is, why are Radish Root and the bat ponies here?"

"I believe we have the same purpose."

He leaned toward her. "The we should put our heads together."

She leaned in close to him. "Yes. We should."


Radish tailed the group from the lounge to the First Class cabins. They entered a room together- Suite 202. Radish stalked up to the rear of the group just as the last of them were passing through the door. A pony at the end noticed Radish and scowled.

"This is a private meeting."

Radish took to his hind legs. He imitated Discord's tone and speaking mannerisms as best he could remember from his messages.

"Come now! You didn't think you could keep anything private from little ol' me, did you?" he asked with exaggerated gestures. "After all, I'm a major investor in this endeavor. The only investor."

A few of the ponies' eyes went wide. Fetching Steps raised an eyebrow.

"Discord?" a pony asked uneasily. "Is that you?"

"In the flesh! Well, in this pony's flesh. Kind of a tight fit around the crotch, though."

"Why are you, uh, in, a royal guard?"

"Well, why shouldn't I make use of one of Celestia's grunts? It's not like they get a whole lot else to do!"

"If you're really Discord, prove it," said a pegasus stallion.

"Oh, a skeptic? I'm wounded! But perhaps this might allay your apprehensions. Peep the makeover I gave this guy's tushie."

Radish peeled back his armor and showed off his cutie mark. There were several gasps from the group. The older pegasus mare nearly fainted. Fetching Steps looked surprised.

"You turned his cutie mark into... porn? Of him and Celestia?" a unicorn stallion asked, eyes fixed on it.

"Don't worry, all characters depicted are over eighteen," Radish said, shrugging.

"How did you do that?" asked an earth stallion. "Cutie marks are supposed to be impossible to change, even by magic!"

"With pony magic, maybe," Radish scoffed. "I'm a whole 'nother level, baby."

Does Discord say 'baby'? Oh well, I'm committed to it now.

"Come in! Come in! We were just about to discuss your imminent reign!" said the unicorn. He ushered the group into the room, locked the door, pulled a shade over the porthole, and cast a soundproofing spell over the room. He walked up to Radish excitedly and bowed his head.

"Mighty and Chaotic Discord, we have been anticipating your return since we learned the Elements of Harmony were used by new wielders. We are looking forward to the new era you are about to usher in."

"Ooh! A fan club? What fun! But why? What's in it for you?"

"It's the laws, Discord. We're sick of them."

"What laws would those be? Is this about taxes? Tariffs? Loitering?"

"All of them! This modern world buries ponies in rules, regulations, ordinances, and statutes! And there are more each year!"

"And not just legislation, but all of society's unwritten rules, too!" said an earth mare. "Codes of conduct, social mores, protocol and etiquette! They're a million invisible chains!"

"And then there's the laws of reality," said the older pegasus mare. "Physical laws, like gravity and entropy. Even magic has laws you have to follow. It's inescapable!"

"We've come together because we all agree that we've lived under the oppression of order for far too long," said the unicorn. "Nopony can reach their full potential in this world so long as a single law exists. But you, Discord, you break all the laws, as easily as you breathe! In your world of chaos, there will be no can't, no don't, and no no!"

"Well!" said Radish. "I can see you've all thought his through. But why should I care about any of you? Why shouldn't I just turn half of you into hamsters, turn half of you into snakes, and lock the door on my way out?"

The gathered ponies shifted uncomfortably, not anticipating this question. Fetching Steps frowned. The unicorn stallion smiled.

"Because we're your insurance! We've been studying chaos theory, petrification magic, and social disunity. If Celestia's girls re-petrify you, we alone will have the knowhow to free you! You'll never need to fear defeat with us around!"

Radish got in his face. "And what makes you think I fear defeat?"

The unicorn leaned closer and smiled. "Well, you've already been defeated once, haven't you? A thousand years in the statue garden." he said, smugly.

This guy is snarking Discord. I should pretend to be impressed. That's what a movie villain would do.

Radish pressed his forehead to the unicorn's. "Ooh, I like your spunk. What's your name?"

"Front Burner, Great Discord."

Never heard of him.

"Never heard of you."

Front Burner frowned. An earth mare stepped forward.

"Lord Discord, we are bringing gifts- tribute- to honor you. And we will continue to honor you under your rule for as long as you, uh, let us live."

Radish whipped around. "Oh, presents? Well, why didn't you say so! What'ja get me?"

She held up a film reel in her hooves. "Supreme Discord, I commissioned the world's most chaotic film. The plot makes no sense, the dialogue is confusing, and none of the actors' sight lines match up. Watching it is a dizzying, disturbing experience."

I think I saw that last summer, thought Radish.

"Sounds like a four-quadrant hit! Let's get working on the sequel immediately!"

"Yes, sir!"

A pegasus stallion held up a small book. "You'll love this. Ever since Celestia began her rule, my family has been keeping a log of every single mistake she's ever made. I've had it edited into a concise, humorous booklet that you can use to taunt her as you take over her kingdom."

Radish strained to conceal his fury. He used it to fuel his overacting. "That's hilarious! What's your name, sport?"

Does Discord call people 'sport'? Fuck it.

"High Marks, O Great Discord."

"Of the Manehattan Marks?"

"Uh, of the Cartolina Marks..."

Radish turned his expression foul. "Are you saying I'm wrong about something?" he growled.

"What? Oh, no, Great Discord. Never."

"Oh, don't worry," Radish said, squishing the pegasus's cheeks, "I'll just smoosh the two places together, so we can both be right!"

"But... uh... okay."

"But Mighty Discord! I own the train line between them! I'll be ruined!" said a pegasus stallion.

"Oh, just overcharge for soda. You'll be fine," Radish said dismissively. The stallion looked down, as if considering this business plan.

Front Burner held up a thick document. "Lord Discord, I had my lawyers draft this- a formal declaration of unconditional surrender, to be signed by Celestia. It's watertight. Once she signs this, Equestria will be irrefutably, irrevocably, yours, in perpetuity throughout the universe. Your takeover will be nice and legal- which means the Elements of Harmony will be criminals if they make a move against you!"

Radish had to restrain himself from cramming it down his throat.

"And you're sure you got all the fine print right? I wouldn't want that Twilight Sparkle finding a loophole."

"But of course. And don't worry about Twilight Sparkle- I've had her investigated, analyzed, and evaluated. She's hardly the genius she's reputed to be."

"Oh? Is that so?"

"Quite so. She's a neurotic, naïve nerd who relies on her friends' help for everything. Her spellcasting is blundering at best. Did you know she once botched a spell and caused bugs to eat her town?" Front Burner chortled. "That girl couldn't find a hole in her ass, much less in my treaty."

Radish narrowed his eyes. "Better go sit down and read over it again, just to be sure."

Front Burner narrowed his. "If that's your wish, Great Discord."

"Twice."

Radish turned to Fetching Steps. "And you, dear! What do you have in store for me?"

She opened her mouth to speak, but the earth stallion stepped in front of her. "Mighty Discord, she's just my assistant. I, however, have brought you this."

He held up a wooden stamp. It had a flat rectangular base and a round handle. Radish narrowed his eyes at it.

"What do you expect me to do with that, check out a library book?"

"This is the Ordinance of Old Bastion, Mighty Discord! Old Bastion was the original earth pony king. He grew the world's first tree, raising it up from the primordial chaos. He carved this from its wood. That gives it a special power- any creature stamped with it becomes completely orderly- incapable of violence, mischief, or even raising their voice."

Radish looked closer at it. "That's... interesting."

"Indeed. I believe this is the one of the few artifacts in the world that can control you, my great lord Discord. That is why I am bringing it to you. You may dispose of it personally."

"Well, isn't that special. But how do you know it even works?"

"I've tested it on my assistant here," he said, pointing at Fetching Steps.

Radish met her eyes. They were trying to convey something to Radish, but he wasn't sure what.

"Oh, your own employee doesn't raise her voice at you? Gee, that must be magic."

"No, it really works! You'll see! Use it on Celestia! Or on Twilight Sparkle!"

"What's your name?" demanded Radish, struggling to keep cool.

"Vested Interest, your mightyness."

Radish reached for the stamp. "Well, Vested Interest. Your tribute is accepted. I'll just hold onto that..."

Vested Interest pulled it away. "Oh, but I wished to deliver it to you- the real you- in person."

"Now, now. It's all the same. No need to stand on ceremony."

"In that case, Discord, would you like to hear some of Celestia's mistakes right now?" asked High Marks, leafing through his booklet.

"Not now, vassal."

"Look," he said, reading from its pages, "sixty years ago, she expanded the approved list of Canterlot park gazebo paints. Since then, gazebos have been painted all kinds of hideous colors. Our parks are an embarrassment."

"I said, not now," said Radish, annoyed. He turned to Vested Interest. "And I told you to give me the stamp."

"And look, here's a recent one," said High Marks. "She hired Radish Root to her Royal Guard, a boy whose cutie marks actually show him... having... sex with her..."

The gathered ponies looked angrily at Radish. Fetching Steps took a few worried steps back.

"I should have known," said Front Burner. "Discord would never call someone 'sport'."

Radish was seized from behind by several of the ponies. They shoved him to the carpet.

"You wanted to know if this works?" sneered Vested Interest, looking at the stamp. "Let's see what it does to you."

Radish struggled. Vested Interest moved in and raised the stamp above his head.

The room went pitch-black.

Radish heard shouts, struggling, and blows landing all around him, then felt the ponies holding him down get knocked away. The door opened, and a single figure galloped into the slice of light from the hall. Radish found the light switch and flicked it. All the other ponies lay sprawled out on the floor, groaning. He rushed to check over Vested Interest. The Ordinance of Old Bastion was gone. Radish took account of the ponies on the floor. Fetching Steps was the only one missing.

Radish gave chase.

"Guys! If you can hear me, get to my position!" he hollered while galloping down the hall. He rounded the corner, and saw Fetching Steps running and weaving through ponies walking the hall. She leapt over a room service cart and kicked it back, sending a hail of dirty dishes in her wake. Radish ran through them. She swung through a luggage trolley, toppling it over in Radish's path. Radish leapt onto a suitcase, which sprung open and flung him toward her.

Echo came staggering out of a side door, looking sick. Fetching Steps dodged him, and Radish collided with him, sending both stallions tumbling to the floor. Fetching Steps ran into an open elevator and pulled its lever. She blew a kiss to Radish as the doors slid shut.

Radish helped Echo to his feet. "Where've you been?"

He pointed to the door he came from, a bathroom. "Airsick."

"Brothers? What is happening?" called Vesper. She, Murk, and Nocturn ran up to them.

Radish looked at the elevator's floor indicator. It was heading down.

"The girl in that elevator has an artifact that can control Discord. We need to find her and get it."

"She did not ride it down," said Echo, groggily. "I heard her open a hatch in the roof of the car, then climb up to the main deck."

"Damn, she's squirrely."

"Who is she?" asked Murk.

"A red earth mare with a yellow rose cutie mark. I think she's on Discord's side."

"I told you to be wary," said Nocturn, giving Radish back the spear.

They rushed up a stairwell to the main deck, then fanned out to search. The deck was even more crowded now. Radish saw the steward from before, standing along a wall, still grinning.

"Hello, sir!" the steward said. "How are you enjoying the cruise?"

"Did you see a red earth mare come by here?" asked Radish.

"Did she have a knockout smile and a set of hips that could stop a clock?"

"Yes."

"Sorry, haven't seen her."

Radish grunted in frustration and moved on.

He scanned the crowds around him, then looked up at the higher decks. Some movement on the ship's rigging caught his eye. Fetching Steps was climbing the ropes securing the ship's main section to its gas envelope. She looked down, waved cheerfully at Radish, then continued up.

"Guys! If you can hear me, she's on the rigging!" called Radish.

No good. These crowds are so loud, I can't even hear myself.

Radish pushed through the crowds to the side of the ship. He found an attachment point for more rigging.

She's not climbing up there to get away from me. She's up to something, and the only reason a pony would only go up there would be to do maintenance... or sabotage. I doubt she's doing maintenance.

Radish put his hooves on the ropes, grit his teeth, and started to climb. The wind whipped at him and made a loud whistle through his armor.

Okay, you've done this a hundred times in training. Just focus on the rope. Don't look down. Don't get distracted by... oh no.

Radish looked out across the landscape. Canterlot was quickly approaching. Its mountain was twisted into a curlicue, the waterfalls were pink and flowing backwards, and the palace was mirrored above itself. Radish took a breath, closed his eyes, and climbed on.

He bumped his head on something hard. He had reached the ship's envelope, a series of massive gasbags covered with scalloped aluminum plates. He looked up to see Fetching Steps standing on the catwalk encircling it, smiling down at him.

"Hey, soldier," she said, "let me give you some help with that."

She spun around and whipped her tail at Radish. He ducked, and her tail wrapped around the spear and yanked it off Radish's back.

She held it and smiled. "Thanks. Try to land in the pool."

"What?"

She swung the spear at the ropes holding Radish. Radish blocked it with his left boot.

There was a clang louder than the wind and a blinding flash where the spearhead hit his boot's armor plates. Radish cried out in pain. His boot turned brown and cracked, then broke into flakes which scattered into the wind. Fetching Steps looked at the spear with surprise. She held it close, closed her eyes, and gasped. She ran off, climbing away out of sight.

Radish pulled himself onto the catwalk and looked at his hoof. The power of the spear had disintegrated his boot, sheared off the fur underneath it, and bruised the skin underneath the fur. He shook it, wincing.

He pressed on, finding a ladder to the top of the envelope. He climbed it. He found Fetching Steps standing with her back to him, holding the spear and gazing out at the horizon. He cautiously approached her.

"Give me the spear, and give me the stamp," Radish called over the wind.

She turned. "What for? To stop Discord? We both know that Twilight Sparkle and her friends are going to stop Discord. They're the chosen ones. It's what they do. And that's the problem."

She tapped the aluminum plating she was standing on with the butt of the spear.

"This whole ship was created by Discord. That means once he's defeated, it'll vanish. Everyone on it who can't fly will fall to their deaths."

Radish stopped his approach. He looked down. He shook his head and continued walking.

"The Element of Harmony jewels are magic," he said. "They're powered by things like laughter, generosity, and kindness. They're not going to make ponies plunge to their deaths. They'll probably put everyone safely on the ground."

"What if they don't? Can you take that risk? Would Twilight? What if she refuses to fight Discord because of that risk? This isn't a pleasure cruise, it's a ship of hostages."

"What are you doing up here?"

"I tried to land the ship from the helm. But there isn't one. No one's in control of this thing. So I'm landing it the hard way."

She hefted the spear in her hooves. "I knew this had to be magic when I saw you guarding it. But an entire growing season's worth of power? That's really something. I don't know if it can hurt Discord, but it can pierce this gasbag just fine. Once we're in position, I'm going to scuttle this ship into Ponyville Lake. An emergency water landing."

Radish walked closer. "Ponies could still get hurt, or killed, in an emergency water landing."

"But a lot more will survive than if the ship just disappears under their feet."

"Twilight Sparkle is going to save everyone- on the land, in the air, everywhere."

"If you really believe that, why do you want the spear at all?"

"I'm doing my duty."

"And I'm doing mine."

She looked out across the landscape. Ponyville Lake was just ahead. She raised the spear, aiming it straight down. Radish tackled her.

The two went tumbling across the metal plating. They fought to wrest the spear from one another. Fetching Steps socked Radish in the gut where he was unarmored. Radish headbutted her with his helmet. She bit his ear.

He gripped her head with his forehooves, grabbed the spear with his tail, and flipped her down on her back in front of him. He saw something round tucked inside her mane. He pulled it out and stamped it into her forehead.

She looked at him, confused. He looked at what he was holding. It wasn't the Ordinance of Old Bastion, it was the chaos flower bulb.

"You looted this from me!?" he growled.

She smiled. "You're just now realizing that?"

"Where's the stamp?"

"I thought you took that."

"Why did you take this?"

"Why did you have it?"

"I'm not telling y-"

She punched his neck. Radish gagged and dropped the bulb. She caught it with her teeth. Radish clamped down on the other side of it with his own teeth. The two fought over it like dogs, each trying to pull it from the other's mouth without damaging it.

Fetching Steps looked into Radish's eyes and grinned. She curled her lips around the bulb and kissed his. The shock made him lose a few millimeters worth of purchase on the bulb, and he could feel it slipping out of his teeth. His only options now were to let it go, or risk biting into it.

He chose to bite right through it.

Fetching Steps went flying back with three-fourths of the chaos bulb in her teeth. She landed on her rump, and her piece of the bulb bounced out of her mouth and landed behind her. It rolled away and slid off the envelope, falling out of sight. Radish spit his own fourth into his hoof, then secured it in his armor's pocket.

He took the spear from his tail and pointed it at her. "Now, we're going back down to the ship, and you're going to tell me who you are and who you're working for."

Fetching Steps looked out at the lands around them. Ponyville was now in sight. She frowned.

"You made me miss our window. There's no way to safely land this ship now." She looked at him with cold fury in her eyes. "You've killed us. Or worse, you've made us Discord's bargaining chip!"

Radish gazed at Ponyville. It had gotten worse since he last saw it. The ground was mostly tall checkered lumps, most of the homes were airborne, and the local weather was all desserts.

"No one's dead yet. But if you wanted to bring the ship down safely, you could have just asked for my help."

"Why? How would you do it?"

"I'd get my best ponies working on it," Radish, said, pointing above her.

The four bat ponies dropped out of the sky, surrounding Radish and Fetching Steps.

"And here they are," said Radish.

Echo held up three-fourths of the chaos bulb. "We saw this fall from above."

"Thanks," said Radish, putting it in his bag.

"This is the one you were chasing?" asked Murk. She flashed a smile at him. His eyes went wide.

"Guys, we need to land this ship before it reaches Ponyville," said Radish. "Any ideas?"

"There are emergency vents on the side of this envelope," said Nocturn. "We can open them from a control station in its stern. The ship can be brought down quickly, but safely."

Radish looked at Fetching Steps. "See what asking gets you?"

She rolled her eyes. "Gee, I've sure learned my lesson. I'll put it in a letter to Celestia."

Radish, the bat ponies, and Fetching Steps found a hatch at the stern of the envelope and slid it open. It led to a long service corridor, lit dimly by red lights. They moved inside and started down its length.

"You sure you know how to do this?" Radish asked Nocturn.

"Yes. This system is standard across many ship classes. All we have to do is turn some valves."

"Why would Discord put emergency safety equipment on a ship of his own making?" asked Fetching Steps.

"I believe he was lazy. He cobbled this ship together from multiple designs. All their components ended up in the final mix."

"A bridge didn't get cobbled in," said Fetching Steps. "I went to a room labeled 'Bridge', but there was nothing inside but four elderly ponies playing bridge."

"Discord likely couldn't pass up the pun," said Nocturn. "But there is nothing comedic about a gas venting system."

"Well, not twice in one day," said Radish.

"What if Discord is watching us now?" asked Fetching Steps. "He could just pop in and stop us."

"Nightmare Moon said he was a being of limited attention," said Vesper. "The Element-bearers are probably providing ample distraction."

"Yeah, if there's one thing those girls can do, it's draw attention to themselves," said Fetching Steps, dryly.

"Know a lot about them, huh?" asked Radish. "Why is that?"

"Equestria's favorite daughters? Who doesn't?"

"Stop. We are not alone," said Echo, pointing ahead.

Standing further down the duct was the steward. He was grinning.

"Hey there, folks! This is a restricted area. But the water slide's open, if you're looking for something to do."

"Get out of our way," Radish said plainly.

"Can't do it. Could I offer you a complimentary drink ticket instead?"

Radish stepped forward. "Look pal, it's been a long couple of days. And you're-"

The steward swooped forward and punched Radish in the face, sending him flying backwards into his brethren.

The steward grinned. "How about a show? There's a magic act starting soon. Big hit with the kiddies."

Fetching Steps leapt to kick him, and he seized her legs and hurled her into the wall.

"Or, just soak up some rays in our meditation solarium," he said, looming over her with his hoof raised.

Murk charged. The steward ducked his punch, then bucked him. He hit the ceiling and then the floor.

"Brother Radish," said Echo, "I believe he is a construct of Discord's making."

"So he's not real real?"

"No. He is not."

"Now, now. I've worked hard to make this cruise fun for everyone. Just because I'm not real, doesn't mean you can't enjoy the vacation of a lifetime. Why not visit Shoals, our hybrid restaurant/aquarium? Enjoy world-class dining while watching the jellyfish."

Radish unsheathed the spear and assumed the royal two-legged fighting stance. "I've got your dinner right here, buddy."

Fetching Steps snorted. "Work on the banter, lieutenant."

The steward rushed at Radish. Radish thrust the spear. The steward dodged it. Radish anticipated this and swung it sideways, then pinned the steward to the wall.

"Go! Land the ship!" he yelled. The other five ran past him.

The steward headbutted Radish and rammed him into the opposite wall. He grinned. He pushed the spear's haft into Radish's neck, lifting him into the air and crushing his windpipe. As Radish struggled for air, the steward grinned.

"We'll soon be arriving at our destination. And I can't have some steerage-class party-pooper scuttling the mighty Discord's big day."

"So this was about hostages?" Radish asked, gritting his teeth and gasping for air.

"No, not all of it. The big crowd down below gets to be the audience for his grand victory. Some of the more savvy passengers have chosen to be his allies. But there's a select few ponies onboard who will make five-star hostages." The steward leaned into Radish's face. "Like you, Radish Root."

Radish's heart lurched. "What?"

"He's going to love you, lieutenant. Twilight's pen pal. Luna's champion. Celestia's soulmate, perhaps? The kingdom's finest bargaining chip, and he strolled right onto my ship."

Radish shoved off the wall and pinned him down. "I'll die before I let myself be used against any of them."

"You'll die when Discord wills it. Same goes for the cherry tart and the himbo."

"Who's the- gaaack!"

The steward wrapped his legs around Radish's ribs and squeezed. His grip was like a vise. Radish kicked his legs in desperation.

"Excuse me, steward? I have a complaint about how things are run around here," said a snooty voice off to the side. Radish and the steward turned to seen Princely Sum approaching.

The steward threw Radish off and approached Princely Sum. "Sorry, sir. This is a restricted area. But the water slide's open, if you're looking for something to do."

Radish shakingly climbed to his feet. "Run... get out of here..."

"Oh, it's you," said Princely Sum. "My, you're a mess."

The steward threw a hoof at Princely Sum. Princely Sum caught it in his aura. The steward pressed through the aura, seized Princely Sum by the throat, and throttled him to the floor.

"This is... no way... to treat a VIP," gasped Princely Sum. "Whenever... you're... ready... lieutenant..."

Radish planted his hooves and thrust the spear at the steward. The steward let go of Princely to grab the spear, stopping it inches from his chest. Radish pushed with all his might. Princely Sum shoved the steward from behind. Working together, the two stallions pressed the steward into the spear's point.

He popped like a balloon, sending a burst of confetti in all directions. Radish coughed some out.

Princely Sum looked at the confetti at his feet. "Well, I think he-"

"Don't."

"-got the point."

"Ugh."

"Exquisite wordplay, Princely," said Vesper. She and the bat ponies returned from further down the corridor.

"Guys, are we all set?" asked Radish.

"The valves are released," said Nocturn. "We should begin our descent..."

The ship lurched. Radish felt it descending.

"...right now."

"Where's Fetching Steps?"

The bat ponies looked around.

"Uh... we though she was here with you," said Vesper.

Radish checked his bag. The bigger piece of the chaos bulb was gone. "Damn that cherry tart. How does she do that?"

"She is squirrely indeed," said Murk.

"Okay, buddy," said Radish, turning to face Princely Sum. "You're going to tell me... what the?"

Princely Sum was gone.

"He is squirrely too, it seems," said Vesper.


Radish and the bat ponies emerged from the maintenance tube. The zeppelin had landed on the fields outside Ponyville, and the ship's gas envelope had set down in front of it. Evacuation sirens were blaring from the ship, and ponies were disembarking on emergency slides which had deployed down to the grass.

Radish and company climbed down onto the ground.

"Okay. Everyone's getting off the ship. Only one thing left to do." He turned towards Ponyville. "I know we're all exhausted. But we've never been closer to our goal."

"Are we going into Ponyville to slay Discord?" asked Vesper.

"Luna wanted us to bring her the spear, and that's what I'm going to do. But Ponyville is on the way, so we can at least assess the situation there. And if the opportunity presents itself to end all this... well, we'll see."

They crested a ridge overlooking Ponyville.

"Brother, look!" said Echo, pointing toward the center of town.

On the top of a purple checkerboard hill stood a tall horned throne. On the throne, a twisted medley of a monster lounged languidly. Radish had gotten his eyes on Discord at last.

"Sonofabitch is even uglier in person."

In front of the throne was a group of six figures.

"It is them," said Vesper. "The girls are confronting Discord. They have their Elements."

"What should we do?" asked Murk.

Radish squinted at Twilight and her friends. He couldn't make out their faces, but their posture and formation told Radish all he needed to know.

"Hold tight, guys. Discord wanted an audience, so let's give him one. We're going to watch him lose."

"How can you be so sure the girls will win?" asked Nocturn.

Radish sat down. He smiled.

"Hey, they're the chosen ones, after all."

Colorful glows emanated from the girls. They floated into the air, and a prismatic shockwave burst from them across the land. A massive rainbow erupted from the girls, arced through the sky, and slammed into Discord. His howl of terror echoed over the plains.

The world filled with white light. Radish shut his eyes as the light and a blast of wind whooshed through him.

He opened his eyes. The landscape was back to normal. The skies were back to normal. Reality was real again.

Radish looked back. The zeppelin was gone. Every passenger was standing safely on the ground, looking around in confusion.

Radish looked ahead. Discord was a stone statue, gnarled into a painful-looking pose.

Radish breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Twi. Thanks, girls," he said softly.

The cruise passengers gathered behind them, chattering about what they were seeing. Front Burner stood up on a boulder and addressed the crowd. "Listen, everyone! The party doesn't have to end! There's still time to save Discord!"

"Save Discord? What are you talking about?" asked a passenger.

"We can still reverse his petrification before it sets in! Everyone, go down into Ponyville and cause as much chaos as you can! Overturn carts! Smash windows! Set fires! Attack ponies! I can channel the disorder and confusion into a beam of pure chaos, and free him all over again!"

Most of the group looked skeptical. Some were turning to look at Ponyville, thinking on his words. Some were discussing the idea amongst themselves.

Radish clambered to his feet and stalked through the crowd toward Front Burner.

"Imagine it!" called Front Burner. "A world without rules! Without responsibilities! Eternal freedom from logic, order, and consequences! It's within our grasp, but I need your chaos to make it happen!"

The ponies in the crowd muttered more positively about the proposition. More and more seemed to be considering it. Radish's vision narrowed as he approached Front Burner. The spear was feeling much heavier in his hooves now.

Then, everyone became aware of a high-pitched whistle in the air. It was getting louder. It was getting closer. A tiny spot of a shadow swooped across the ground, growing wider.


Twilight and her friends gathered around the statue of Discord.

"So, uh, what do we do with this thing?" asked Rainbow Dash.

"Coat rack?" suggested Pinkie Pie.

"Now, Pinkie Pie, that's mean," said Fluttershy.

"You're right. Hat rack?"

"I say, does anypony else hear that?" asked Rarity, putting a hoof to her ear.

She and the other five squinted into the sky. They gasped.

"Incoming!" bellowed Rainbow Dash. The girls scattered.

A banana cream pie two meters in diameter came hurtling out of the sky. It smacked into the statue, knocking it flat on its back in an explosion of whipped cream.

Twilight and her friends gasped.


The crowd on the hill gasped.

"That's who you want to free? That's the one you want us all to throw in with?" Princely Sum scoffed, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "What kind of world conqueror gets pied in the face? It's an embarrassment, is what it is."

He turned and walked away, chortling. Others in the crowd grumbled in agreement, and followed him. More followed them. Front Burner watched them go. He turned to give another look at Discord, then sighed, shook his head, and followed them off.


"Lands sakes, where did that come from?" asked Applejack, looking into the sky.

Fluttershy approached the statue. "Pinkie Pie... did you do that? Somehow?"

Pinkie Pie scooped a bit of pie goo into her mouth. She gasped with excitement, and swallowed it down.

"I wish I could take credit for this! This is a banana cream pie! Their heterogenous filling makes them impossible to throw with any accuracy, and believe me, I've tried! Whoever did this must have access to space-age pie-targeting technology!" She wiped a tear from her eye. "A true pie-throwing mad genius. I only hope I can meet them someday."

Twilight looked across the horizon. She thought she caught a fleeting glimpse of a figure on a distant hill, ducking out of sight.


Radish knelt before Princess Luna with the spear and one-fourth of the chaos bulb laid out on the floor in front of him.

"...then we took the train back here. Twilight and her friends never knew we were in town."

"Excellent work, my Champion," said Luna. "Congratulations on a successful mission."

"But the spear... it doesn't have the power we hoped it would."

"Thy mission was to retrieve it. And so thou has. We did not make demands on what condition thou must find it in." She lifted the spear in her aura and turned it over. "It is such a beautiful piece. We will present it to Celestia for Hearth's Warming, thus undoing another of Nightmare Moon's misdeeds. And this..."

She lifted the piece of chaos bulb. "...this is most intriguing, indeed. We will have the Mage Council study it. 'Twas clever thinking, retrieving it."

"Thank you, princess. But what about the ponies who were siding with Discord?"

"We believe they were simply desperate, acting out of fear. Now that things have returned to normal, they will see the folly of their ways."

"But ma'am, their plans all seemed really premeditated."

"Radish Root, art thou accusing some of Equestria's most prominent citizens of conspiracy against the crowns?"

"Yes."

"'Tis hard to believe. We can see that thou are tired, and-"

"It happened before, didn't it?"

Luna narrowed her eyes at Radish. They stared at each other. After a moment, she frowned and looked off to the side. "...it did indeed. Very well. We will have the matter looked into."

"Thank you, Princess Luna. I... ah-"

Radish felt his nostrils get stuffy. He sneezed, and a large splat of glowing green goop hit the floor.

"Radish Root, art thou ill?"

"Sorry, ma'am," said Radish, rubbing his nose. "That twenty-four antihistamine must have just worn off. I think I just, uh, expelled everything it was blocking me from breathing on the island."

"But thy discharge is glowing."

"There were these glowing mushrooms in the tree. I guess I breathed in some of their spores."

Luna picked up the goop in her aura.

"Ma'am! You don't have to touch it. I'll clean that up. "

"Be at peace, Radish Root. There is something unusual about these spores."

She cast a spell, making a circle of runes appear around the substance. She gasped.

"Radish Root, the Volcanic Ash has gifted us with a weapon!"

"What do you mean?"

"When Discord trespassed inside the tree and vandalized it a thousand years ago, the tree scanned him. It has spent the last thousand years analyzing his nature and calculating his weaknesses. It produced spores capable of poisoning even him!"

"Incredible. So what do we do with them?"

"Nothing. Discord is defeated."

"But he could get free again. We should at least get the poison ready. And sow some of the spores, so we have a perpetual supply."

"Nay. Celestia's way was the correct course of action, after all. We must accept this with humility. We should rely not on weapons or toxins, but on the 'Magic of Friendship' between those six girls. That is our best defense."

She put the spores in a vial, and locked it in her cupboard.

"Now, let us speak of thy reward. We have recently commissioned a new honor for ponies in our service. Thou art its first recipient. Behold."

She floated a small box in front of Radish, and opened its lid. Inside was a blue ribbon with white frills.

"The Lunar Defender Ribbon, for excellence in service to the Princess of the Moon."

"Whoa."

“Unfortunately, thou cannot tell anyone how you earned it. The island must remain secret. Thou must swear on thy honor as our Champion to never reveal it."

“I swear. On my honor as your Champion.”

“Even under pain of torture and death.”

“I will.”

“Even if Celestia orders thee to tell her the truth.”

“Oh… okay.”

“Even if she attempts to seduce the truth out of thee with sweet nothings and sensuous caresses.”

“What?”

“Do you swear, Radish Root?”

“I swear.”

“Good.”

There was a knock on the door. Barrel Roller entered. "Ma'am, it's almost time for- Root! What did you do to your armor? And where is your weapon?"

"Ma'am, I..."

"Discord took control of the bat ponies, commander," said Luna. "They attacked without mercy. The lieutenant valiantly kept them at bay, thus earning this ribbon."

"Oh, is that so?" Barrel Roller asked, raising an eyebrow. "Root held off all four bat ponies?"

"Why is that surprising? We do not choose our Champion lightly."

"I see. Good work, Root."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"We expect his armor and weaponry to be replaced, posthaste," Luna said.

"I'll get Chuck on it, ma'am."

"And the lieutenant has earned tomorrow off, as well."

"But... aye, ma'am."

Barrel Roller left. Radish turned to Luna.

"Princess, thank you for covering for me."

"I spoke only the truth."


The girls' award ceremony finished with fanfare. Radish watched the crowds leave the hall. Satisfied that none of the conspirators from the ship were among them, he turned to head for the back halls of the palace.

"Radish! There you are!"

Twilight Sparkle ran up to him. She threw her hooves around him and hugged him tightly. Radish hugged back tighter.

"Hi, Twilight. I'm glad you're okay. Thanks for saving the world again."

"Oh, you!" she said nudging his shoulder. "I couldn't have done it without my friends. And that includes you."

"I didn't do anything."

"Yes, you did. When I was at my lowest, Princess Celestia sent me back all the letters I'd sent her since I moved to Ponyville. Reading all the lessons I learned reminded me that friendship isn't always easy, but it's worth fighting for."

"What does that have to do with me?"

She held up a scroll in her aura. She cleared her throat and read it.

"Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I received a letter from my pen pal and your lieutenant, Radish Root. He was excited to share with me the results of a spear training session. He says he's improved a great deal since he started out in your service.
It reminded me of how much I've improved at friendship since I began my studies in Ponyville. Today, I made friends with a trio of florists at the market, whereas the old me would have just made my purchase and left.
While spear training and friend-making may seem like the most different things in the world, they're both pursuits that you, in your wisdom, have charged us with perfecting. Growing in my studies makes me feel connected to you, and to him. I wonder if he feels the same way.
Your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle"

"You write her about me?"

"Of course! I write about all my friends."

"That's... that's really nice, Twilight. You know, I've only gotten better with my spear, but I've never made friends at the market."

She laughed. "And I'd just trip over a spear. It's like our destinies complement each other, don't they?"

"Yeah, I guess they do."


Every earth pony who worked in the palace was granted a small garden plot for indulging their ability to cultivate flora. Radish had never used his, until now. He stood in front of his freshly hoed plot, holding his boot. He dug into the plates of the boot's sole with a stick, and scraped out green goo from the mushrooms he had punched in anger. He peered at it.

There should be a good number of spores in this.

He carefully applied them to the soil and woody debris on his plot. He bent down at them.

"Okay, little guys," he whispered. "I need you to grow big and strong, so you can help me deal with Discord if he ever gets loose again. The girls might be the chosen ones, but I've chosen to be a guard. That means Equestria gets every ounce of protection I can provide, and that includes you. Welcome to the team."

"Howdy, Root. Never seen you in this neck of the grounds, before," said Saguaro Shade, walking up to him in gardening apparel.

"Hello, sir. All this business today inspired me to take up a relaxing hobby. I haven't touched a hoe since I left my parents' farm."

"How was the book club?"

"Oh, Daddy-Long-Shanks? The main character is a bit too much of a starry-eyed optimist for my tastes."

"Yeah, mine too. But on a day when when all-powerful monsters get can get beaten by friendship, starry-eyed optimism starts to look like a tactical advantage."

"Think this is last time we'll need them for that, sir?"

"Hopefully we can at least make it through the holiday season before the next existential threat."

"Yeah."

"So, what are you growing here?"

"Mushrooms, sir."

"Oh? For any specific recipe?"

"I heard they'd be good fried in butter."

"Well, that's true of everything, isn't it?" said Princess Celestia, walking up them. They saluted her.

"Corporal, may I speak with Lieutenant Root?"

"Aye. Good day, ma'am."

"Yes, it was."

Saguaro Shade walked away. Radish looked up at Celestia. "Ma'am. How are you?"

"Fine, thank you. Discord shrunk me into one of the terrariums at my school. The one with a tarantula."

"Ma'am! I'm sorry."

"It's okay." She held out her wing, showing a brown tarantula sitting on the feathers. "Sheila's always been a sweetheart."

Shelia hopped onto Radish's head and got comfortable in his mane. Celestia grinned.

"I think she likes you."

"I've always gotten along with critters that other ponies find off-putting."

"So have I." She took a step closer. "Listen, Radish, I know you were disappointed about me cutting you out of the loop regarding Discord..."

"Ma'am, it's my duty to obey. You don't owe me an explanation."

"Luna had this cockamamie plan to send you after Discord with a magic spear. It was a rather... flawed idea, to say the least. But she can be such a child when she doesn't get what she wants."

Radish took a cautious step back. "What... what did you say?"

"That she can be such a child when she doesn't get what she wants. I'm sorry, but it's true. She wasn't considering all the consequences. You see, Radish, the first time Discord appeared, Luna was off doing... Nightmare Moon things. She didn't witness the horrors I did.

"In those days, Equestria had a standing army- the EUP Protective Pony Platoon. The Captain of the EUP- a pegasus named Level Best- decided on a swift, all-out attack on Discord. Her plan was to use the pegasus soldiers to pelt him with lightning to put him off-balance, send the earth soldiers in with enchanted weapons to soften him up, and then have the unicorn soldiers combine all their destructive power into a single shot to destroy him. I agreed to this plan, because she was confident in it and we knew so little about Discord that it seemed reasonable.

"However, with but one wave of his arm, Discord turned all the soldiers into gingerbread cookies. Then he just strolled away, laughing. I was devastated.

"I gathered them, kept them safe, and dedicated most of my time trying to restore them. I knew Discord intended it as a distraction, but the guilt over sending them to that fate was overwhelming. They were eventually restored safe and sound after Discord's defeat, but I still had nightmares about it. And since Luna was banished soon after, I had no one to help me through them."

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

"I vowed to use the ponies under my command differently from then on. Soldiers became guards. I sought alternative means of keeping the kingdom safe- spells, artifacts, technologies, creatures, and so forth. Most ideas didn't pan out, but at least ponies I cared about weren't being put in harms way.

"I hated sending Twilight and her friends to confront Discord, but I had no choice. However, he treated that like a game. But if a royal guard faced Discord, with intent and capability to kill him, he might have taken the kid gloves off. Lieutenant... I was terrified by the thought of what he might do to you."

"I appreciate that, ma'am. But guards are supposed to risk everything for their princesses. And for civilians, like Twilight and her friends. The next villain might not bring kid gloves at all. I've got to know, can't the Elements of Harmony be passed to other wielders?"

"Like you?"

"If I had to."

"I think the bonds between the girls and their Elements are more powerful than ever now. I don't know if there's a power in the world that could break them."

"I see."

"And don't forget, the passing of the Elements to new ponies is what broke the spell on Discord in the first place."

"Oh, right. But they'll have to pass them on eventually, won't they? Will every generation have to go through this?"

"Actually, I'm working on a permanent solution to the Discord problem."

"Like, grinding up the statue?"

She chortled. "No, something more radical than that. I'll make my plan known when I'm ready. But for now, we can take a breather, rest assured that the Elements are in the right hooves."

"Yeah, they are."

"And besides," she said softly, with a grin, "you do realize what would happen if you wielded an Element of Harmony, don't you?"

Radish furrowed his brows. Then, they went wide in surprise.

"I'd be fighting villains with a magic necklace... that looks like my cutie mark!"

"It would be quite a spectacle."

"I guess it's for the best that it never comes to that."

She smirked. "Oh, I don't know. I'd love to see the look on Discord's face as he got blasted by that."

"You know what? So would I."

Radish saw a large shadow on the ground, and looked up to see a pegasus chariot carrying the statue of Discord across the palace's airspace.

"Where are they going with him?" asked Radish.

"Secure storage. Luna thinks that it is no longer safe to display Discord publicly. She says some ponies might get it in their heads try to break the spell again."

"Oh?"

"Yes. I hate to admit it, but it's possible. Sometimes ponykind's worst enemy is ponykind itself."

"Yeah, I know."

"You do?"

"We use pony-shaped dummies for practice, after all."

"Ah, true. I hope you'll never have to use your spear against a fellow pony, Radish."

"Me, too. But if it came to that, I'd do my duty, ma'am."

"I know. But it's my duty to ensure it never comes to that."


Radish emerged from his bunkhouse's shower room and sat on his bed, toweling his mane. Spats emerged soon after, toweling his.

"Quite a day, eh, Rad? What's your Discord story?"

"Story?"

"Every guard is sharing what Discord did to them while he was loose. Cairn got turned into a giraffe. Adelle got turned into a cow."

"But Adelle is a cow."

"No, like, a different cow. And word around the castle is that Discord trapped the senior officers inside a giant dollhouse and dressed them up like dolls. Commander Roller was the mommy, Corporal Shade was the daddy, and Captain Armor was the baby. None of them are admitting to it, though."

"Sheesh. Anything happen to you?"

Spats looked at the floor and shivered. "He put gum in my mane, Radish."

Radish hugged him. "I'm sorry, Spats."

"And you?"

"Attacked by flowers."

"Creative bugger, wasn't he?"

"Yeah."

"Want to play a nice, orderly game of shuffleboard?"

"I'll have to take a rain check. I'm going to hang out with the bat ponies."

"Is that a pun?"

"Not intended."

"Good. I never liked puns."


Fetching Steps knocked on the door of a roadside motel room- three times fast and one time slow. The door opened by a unicorn's aura. She entered and locked the door behind her. A hefty seafoam green unicorn stallion with a gray mane sat on the bed, reading a newspaper.

"Welcome back, dear. How did it go?"

"Main objective complete," she said, pulling out a scroll. "Here- the list of everyone who was siding with Discord."

The unicorn took it in his aura and read it over. "My, my. What naughty ponies. Well done. Any problems?"

"Yeah, these contacts are killing me."

"Go take them out," he said, waving to the bathroom. "We'll have soft ones for you next time."

She put down her things and walked into the bathroom.

"Did you acquire anything else?" he called.

"Mmm-hmm. Check my purse."

He opened her purse and pulled out three-fourths of the chaos flower bulb.

"Interesting. Is this Discord-made?"

"Yep."

"Why didn't it disappear with his defeat?"

"I think it's from Never Atoll."

"Oh? Someone breached its defenses? Who?"

She reentered the room, rubbing and blinking her violet eyes.

"A royal guard. Lieutenant Radish Root."

"Really? Did you see his cutie marks?"

"Yeah. What's the story with those?"

"Sorry, my dear. Information is currency, and you don't have that much credit yet." He looked at the bite through the bulb. "What, did you get hungry?"

"He did."

"Interesting fellow. Worth keeping an eye on. Thank you, Fetch. Oh- was he there?"

"Yes, and he got the stamp."

"Good."


Vesper sat inside a green gazebo in one of Canterlot's smaller parks. Princely Sum sat down next to her.

"Here, the Ordinance of Old Bastion," she said, placing the stamp on the bench between them. "I do not believe it works, however."

He picked it up and smiled.

"No, it doesn't. Because it's incomplete. This is only the handle, made by the earth pony tribe. It's missing the text plate, carved out of crystal by the unicorns, and the storm cloud ink, brewed by the pegasus tribe."

"But the tribes despised each other when this was made. How could they have collaborated on a weapon?"

"That's a good question. Perhaps I'll solve it one day."

"Do you intend to acquire the other pieces?"

"If I do, it would be nice to have your help again."

"If you do, you know where to find me."


Radish entered the Royal Archives, one of the oldest and largest buildings in the palace. A court archivist named Katydid was at the front desk. She regarded Radish with suspicious eyes.

"Hello, Miss Katydid."

"Lieutenant. What can I do for you?"

"I need to get into secure storage. There's something I need to check."

"Lieutenant, the statue of Discord is off-limits."

"Oh, no, that's not-"

"A lot of guards have come by, wanting to speak their mind to the statue. It's not allowed."

Radish pulled the bottle of bourbon he recovered from the Wagoners' coach out of his bag. He placed it on the desk, then scooted it toward her.

"This is Green Duck Reserve. It's two thousand bits a bottle."

"I don't drink."

"You could give it as a gift."

"It's half-empty."

"Half-full."

"I'd be whole-fired if I let you down there."

"Fine," sighed Radish, putting the bourbon back in his bag.

Katydid peeked into his bag and gasped. "Wait... what's that?"

Radish pulled out the golf towel he found in the coach's wreckage. "What, this?"

"Is that an official Onion Field golf towel?"

"I guess. Why?"

"It's the most prestigious golf course in the world! The waiting list for the waiting list is years long! How do you have that?"

"I found it."

"That's a limited-edition tournament design! In mint condition! And you just 'found it'?"

"Yeah," said Radish, putting it back in his bag. "I was going to use it to polish my boots."

Her eyes twitched and her ears drooped. "Lieutenant, that would be a crime against sports memorabilia."

"Oh? That'd be a real shame."

She looked up and down the hall. She motioned for Radish to come into whispering distance.

"Just... make it quick, okay?"

Radish put the towel on the desk. "Okay."


Secure storage was a massive, dimly-lit room deep under the palace. Radish walked its aisles until he stood before the statue of Discord. It had been stored between a stack of wooden crates and shelves of murky glass boxes. He pulled a rolling ladder in front of the statue and climbed within whispering distance of its face.

"Hello, Discord. If you're hearing this message, then you severely underestimated Twilight Sparkle. Don't beat yourself up- it's a common mistake. I've done it myself a few times."

He leaned in closer.

"But I need you to understand something. Twilight and her team are my friends. The Royal Guard is my family. The citizens of Equestria are my charge. And the princesses are my entire world. And you will never cause any of them an ounce of pain again, as long as I draw breath."

He descended the ladder and began to walk away, then stopped looked back at the statute.

"Keep out of trouble. Otherwise, you'll get a lot worse from me than a pie. Roots crack rocks, Discord. Roots crack rocks."


Radish put his knapsack down on the floor of the bat ponies' bedroom, a wide round room at the top of one of the palace's many spires. He spread his bedroll on the floor between their four beds.

"So this is where you guys sleep. I was picturing a belfry, for some reason."

"Luna has been encouraging us to explore our pony sides as much as our bat sides," said Echo. "Sometimes we use the beds, sometimes we use the ceiling, sometimes we sleep on clouds."

"I prefer the floor," said Murk.

Radish walked out to their balcony. "Dang, what a view."

"This is the highest point of the palace," said Nocturn.

Radish looked out at the airship docks aside Uptown Canterlot. "You were right. Watching those ships does give peace of mind."

He sat down on his bedroll. The bat ponies sat down with him.

"You guys did good out there. I'm really proud of you. I'm glad Luna appointed us as siblings."

"Us, too," said Vesper.

Radish leaned back onto his bedroll. "I feel like I could spend my whole day off sleeping."

"A fine idea," said Echo, yawning. The other bat ponies yawned, as well.

"But after that, we've got work to do. The world out there is more complicated than I thought. And more dangerous. The Elements may have enemies who are all-powerful, but we've got enemies who are more subtle. The girls will keep the skies full of rainbows for us, so we're going to keep the shadows clear of trouble for them. That's how our destinies will complement each other."

"You have our word, brother. We will do all we can to keep them safe," said Vesper. The others nodded.

"I know you will. Because we're guards, and that's what guards do."

Radish closed his eyes, relaxed, and drifted off to sleep.

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