• Published 23rd Sep 2021
  • 10,201 Views, 4,154 Comments

The Only Mark That Matters - CocktailOlive

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

  • ...

PreviousChapters Next
69. The Currency of the Plains, Part 3: Interred

Princess Celestia’s chariot pulled up to the gate of the Frontrunner Club, one of Canterlot’s oldest and most exclusive social institutions. She met the pony at the gatehouse, who gasped in disbelief when he saw her.

She flashed her membership card, which was yellowed and brittle with age. She didn’t care for her photo on it, as photography was a young art when it was taken. The gate pony didn’t look at it, and just silently opened the gate for her. The doorpony behaved the same way.

She stepped into the cool dark building and wandered its halls, trying not to look like she had no idea where she was going. The place had evidently been renovated since the last time she had been, but its architectural style had seemingly been regressed to an earlier one- Uptown was full of ponies trying to make themselves look younger and their buildings look older.

She found the library, picked a literary magazine from the rack, and sat to read it on an overstuffed sofa.

One of the most regrettable things about trying to socialize as a princess is that the ponies she’d be most interested in talking to were all far too intimidated to approach her, and the ones she’d prefer never to talk to were all too eager. Worthy Wagoner fell into the latter category. It would only be a matter of time before he was sidling up to her, probably while she was in the middle of a good short story.

One-half of a good short story later, Worthy Wagoner sidled up to her.

“Celestia! You’re a rare sight here these days!” he said, too loudly for even an empty private library. He plopped himself on the couch next to her and leaned over on his hoof.

“Good afternoon, Worthy. I was feeling the need to relax in a more… exclusive setting than the palace. And the furniture is nicer here, as well.”

“No doubt it’s good to get away from those hundreds of libidinous stares,” he said with a smirk.

“Oh, believe me,” she laughed, “it’s only gotten worse since that bit of exercise. Now the palace staff see me as some kind of muscle-bound disciplinarian. I tell you, ponies today will fetishize anything but a professional relationship with their boss.”

“I’m glad we can all laugh at that ‘bit of exercise’ now. Some ponies around here were considering it grounds for revoking your membership.”

“Truly? I hope you fought for me, Worthy.”

“I did, though I could scarcely excuse some of your language.”

“And I must reiterate my apology. I’d hate it if my mouth made you feel anything less than comfortable.”

Too much, Celestia, she thought. But Worthy didn’t seem to think so, and looked delighted.

“You must understand,” continued Celestia, “that guard that I was… disciplining… has given me ample reason to correct him in such a fashion over the years.”

“Oh, no doubt! Did you know I met the boy once?”

“Really? Is he a member here?” Celestia asked, grinning.

Worthy laughed loud enough to pain Celestia’s ears.

“He showed up at the museum the night Willow was reintroduced to polite society. He had delusions of using my ancestor’s bones to ingratiate himself into your favor.”

“Ah, of course. I do apologize for missing that night. I had papers to grade.”

“You really must get out more.”

“Well, I’m here now. What is there to do around here these days?”

He hopped off the sofa.

“I’ll show you! Come,” he said, extending a hoof.

Celestia allowed Worthy to take her by the hoof and lead her through the Club’s corridors. He showed her the club’s parlors, fitness facilities, and dining rooms. Foreign incense hung heavy in the air. The place was quiet- no one else seemed to be around.

“Worthy, where is everyone? I thought the old gang would be here.”

“To whom do you refer, Celestia?”

“High Marks, for one. He loved this place. I assumed I’d see him here. And Ash Garden always used to come in here with you. Oh, I was also looking forward to catching up with Gemmy.”

“Ah. They, and many more, no longer meet the requirements of membership.”

“How so?”

“They fell a bit too low in personal worth, and thus, the esteem of their peers. Honestly, it was embarrassing to be near them. This club has standards to maintain.”

“How terrible.”

“They blamed the unpredictability of the markets. I thought that sounded a bit too much like a criticism of your governance.”

“You were insulted on my behalf?”

“Wounded! But I let them know what I thought of their excuses as security marched them out.”

“Hmm. I haven’t seen any security in here today, either.”

“Ah, but security can see us. Don’t be afraid. You are quite safe here.”

“Thank you, Worthy. That’s reassuring.”

“…and that’s all we know so far,” said Radish, pulling his pointer back from the map he had pinned to the wall of the train car. Radish’s old posting was in an area in the Southern Plains which the royal cartographers had labeled “Prickly Mesa”. The Black Bluffs called it “Spiny Mesa”, and Radish’s old Ranger Headquarters had called it “Thorny Mesa”.

“So we barely know anything?” complained Rainbow Dash.

“Never stopped us before!” said Pinkie Pie.

“I know, Dash, but I’m hoping that if we pool our talents, we can find the interloper, or interlopers, and arrest them right quick,” said Radish.

“Arrest?” asked Twilight Sparkle.

“Yeah. I have the full backing of the crown, including the power to arrest criminals in the name of the Guard. The local Ranger, Focus Beam, can get them to Ranger HQ for processing.”

“Hey, Twilight, how come we never do that?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Radish, have you ever arrested anypony before?” asked Twilight.

“Several times. Don’t worry, I’m ready for this.”

“What I’m saying is, shouldn’t we be focused on helping them see what they’re doing is wrong, instead of just clapping them in irons and sticking them in prison?”

“This isn’t some misguided delinquent like Trixie Lulamoon. We could be dealing with professional mercenaries hired by the most influential family in Equestria. And they’ve threatened Light.”

“I know. But…”

“Hold on a minute!” shouted Pinkie Pie. “Trixie’s last name is Lulamoon?”

“That’s what her dossier says,” replied Radish.

“You've got a dossier on Trixie?” asked Applejack.

“She did take over a town,” Radish said. “It’d be irresponsible not to.”

“Er, do you have dossiers on all of us?” asked Rarity.

“You didn’t know? You’re all High-Value Assets to the palace.”

“Well, that may sound like a compliment to you, but it’s still a touch… invasive to us, dear,” Rarity said.

“Oh! Do they say which of us is the highest-value asset?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Uh, guys? Look,” said Fluttershy.

The map on the wall was distorting, as if it was under thick concave glass. Five images appeared on it in glowing neon lines.

The top three were stylized drawings of each of the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ faces. Below them was a black spiral. Beside that was a scroll tied with a long blue ribbon.

Twilight stared at the images intently, her horn glowing softly. Radish snapped a photo of them. They fizzled out and vanished.

“Twilight? Radish?” started Spike. “Was that-”

“Yes,” Radish sighed. “It was them. The same kind of thing that appeared in my bunk.”

“Another air-burned threat,” agreed Twilight. “To make us back off.”

“They’re threatenin’ Apple Bloom!?” howled Applejack. “Why of all the low-down, dirty-”

“And Sweetie Belle?” said Rarity. “Those monsters!”

“And Scootaloo!” said Rainbow Dash. “When I get my hooves on them-!”

“And Zecora! How could they!?” moaned Fluttershy. “She’s not involved in this!”

“Who was the scroll?” asked Radish.

“Our mayor!” answered Rarity. “Why, Radish? She’s a sweetheart, and she has nothing at all to do with this!”

“The message is clear,” said Radish. “They’re saying they can hurt whoever they want, wherever they are. Even in the Everfree. Even a town mayor. Even children. I never should have involved any of you!”

“Oh, no!” said Rainbow Dash. “They made it personal. We are so taking them down!”

“How could they even send those pictures into a moving train?” asked Spike. “How did they even know what car we’re in?”

“They must be scrying us,” answered Twilight.

“How’s that work?” Spike asked.

“It’s a rare power. You magically lock onto a subject, and then you can view it remotely, no matter where you are. Somepony must have locked onto Radish at some point.”

“Then, could they be watching us now?” asked Fluttershy, shivering and looking around.

“Watching and listening,” answered Twilight. “But they’ve overplayed their hoof. Now that I’ve scanned it in action, I can cast a counterspell. They’ll lose their lock on Radish.”

“Not before I say this!” yelled Rainbow Dash. “Listen up! Whoever you are! Nopony threatens us, our family, or our friends and gets away with it! We. Are. Coming. For you!”

The eight friends cheered, and Winona barked, in agreement.

Twilight lit up her horn, and a soft blue light flooded the train car. As it faded, a red glowing crosshair appeared over Radish and shattered, its pieces dissipating into the air. Radish shuddered, as if suddenly realizing he had been cold for days.

“Radish, do you have any idea who could have locked onto you, or when?” Twilight asked.

“I was all over Canterlot. I probably walked past hundreds of unicorns. And tons of tourists walk through the palace each day. I’m trained to keep an eye out for anyone suspicious, but… no. I have no idea.”

“Spike, take a letter,” Twilight said. “Actually, take a lot of letters. We have to warn our friends.”

“Yeah, tell them I put them all in danger,” said Radish, sorrowfully.

“No, Radish, you didn’t. You were helping Sky. We made the choice to help you. These villains made the choice to send threats. Now the only choice left is how easily they’re willing to change.”

“Then they can make that choice in cuffs, Twilight,” said Radish. “I’m taking them down, hard and fast.”

Twilight looked uneasy.

“So, Worthy, what have you been up to lately?” Celestia asked.

They walked through one of the club’s grand courtyards. There was no vegetation aside from short-cut grass and a manicured rose hedge running along the sides. A fountain in the center quietly dribbled. This was the only sound- there was no animal activity at all.

“Overseeing a great many things. Some days I can scarcely keep it all straight.”

“You should delegate more.”

“Ah, but that would require leaving more responsibility in less capable hooves. As I always say, the worst thing about subordinates is that they are beneath you.”

“Thank you for sparing me the cliché about how ‘it’s so hard to find good help these days’,” Celestia said with a playful grin.

“Most ponies have forgotten the true comedy of that saying. It’s always been hard to find good help!"

They shared a laugh.

Celestia took in the vastness of the Club as Worthy led her through its long corridors. Something about the place was making her smile, and she didn’t realize what it was until she imagined Radish trying to infiltrate the building to get some answers.

He’d observe the place for days, find every little way in and out, memorize all the staff schedules, then sneak in and get caught. But that would work in his favor, anyway, because he knows Worthy would come to mock him face-to-face. He’d let Worthy admit to whatever it is he’s doing, then I’d appear right behind him having heard the whole thing.

It’s better if we just skip some of those steps. It’s opera season, and the Wagoners have a lot less time for mocking detainees this time of year.

Radish’s team disembarked the train as close as it could get them to Radish’s old stomping grounds- a trading post town named Sluiceway. Radish took a look around the old train depot. No one he knew was there, and if any stranger was there to observe them, they were being experts about hiding it.

“Ladies and dragon, it’s a long hike to Black Bluff territory. I’ll rent a cart, the rest of you take care of whatever business in town you see fit. We’ll meet back here in say, half an hour?”

They split up, and Radish read the town’s bulletin board. He didn’t see anything relevant, but he didn’t know what was relevant at this point.

He rented a buckboard and gave it a practice pull around town. He parked it, then made his way to the town watering hole, which was right next to its saloon. He took a drink, and the mineral taste of the water sent him back years.

“Radish? Is that you?”

He turned around. It was Sky, though he almost didn’t recognize her. Where before they had been roughly equal sized, she was now a good deal larger than him. Her coat was a darker shade of orange, and she was wearing more clothing and jewelry than she used to. She had upgraded her paint markings into a more elaborate design.

“Sky! I’ll be!”

They charged at each other and hugged. Sky’s grip was overpowering.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” she said. “I thought you’d be looking into this from the Canterlot side of things.”

“We’ve got the best pony possible working on it from that side.”


“Miss Skinny.”

“What? I thought she didn’t like you. Now you’ve got her running errands for you?”

“It’s that serious. And who says she doesn’t like me?”

“Focus Beam’s cousin wrote about how she beat the stuffing out of you.”

“That was a regulation wrestling match.”

“So, what are you doing here?”

“Sky, this is a royal mission now. I brought some of Equestria’s finest to help track down and apprehend your interlopers.”

“Your guard unit? Secret agents? Mercenaries?”

“No, they’re a ragtag group of unlikely heroines who keep saving the day through the power of friendship.”

“Oh. Them. We heard about them. They kind of seem like, well…”

“I know. But give them a chance, okay? Let me buy you a sarsaparilla, and I’ll tell you about them.”

“What, you have money these days?”

“Better- an expense account.”

“Mr. Big Shot at last.”

“You don’t know the half of it- I’m the official Mission Leader!”


Sky took Radish into the town saloon. They shared a booth and chatted, first about the old days, then about the new days.

“So, tell me about Light Fantastic,” said Sky.

“Oh, she’s amazing. She’s an artist in Midtown.”


“It’s part of Canterlot. It’s in the middle of town.”

“What kind of art does she make?”

“Stuff inspired from everyday life in Canterlot. She makes it into paintings, postcards, posters, figurines, and T-shirts. She wants to start doing a comic book, too.”


Radish looked down at the tabletop. “What, uh, what about you? You got a feller?”

Sky looked off to the floor. “Nah.”

“Oh. I always thought Skipper was sweet on you.”

“Well, tell that to Skipper. He’s marrying Stoney.”

“Well, tell them I said congrats.”

“I will. Now, about this team of yours…”

Big Macintosh shut his cellar doors behind him and slid a thick wooden bar over its hooks. He turned and adjusted the lantern on the wall, illuminating the space, then dimmed it when he saw his granny had fallen asleep in her rocking chair in the corner. Gathered in the cellar with them were the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Zecora, and the mayor of Ponyville.

“Y’all get comfortable,” he said in a low voice. “We might be here awhile.”

“Could somepony please explain what’s going on?” asked Mayor Mare.

“Well…” started Sweetie Belle.

“The palace is investigating some powerful ponies in Canterlot for crimes against buffalo!” said Apple Bloom.

“So they’re making threats against all of us to make them back down, but Rainbow Dash and her friends are not going to back down!” said Scootaloo.

“So we have to hide in this cellar until it’s safe!” said Sweetie Belle.

“I see. Well, at least I can get some work done here,” the mayor said, spreading papers across the dirt floor. “Does anypony have a highlighter?”

Apple Bloom trotted up to Zecora. She nodded toward Big Macintosh, who was guarding the door, pitchfork in hooves.

“See how bravely my handsome big brother is defending us ladyfolk?” she whispered. “You know, he’s single.”

Zecora gave her an annoyed look.

“Your brother has a handsome face, but this is not the time nor place.”

Radish and Sky exited the saloon, to find the rest of the team loitering by the buckboard. Spike was helping Rarity load her luggage into it. Twilight spotted Radish and Sky, and approached carefully. She bowed.

“Good afternoon. Miss Skies Above, I presume? My name is Twilight Spar-”

Sky saw Spike walking up next to her.

“Whoa! He’s real!” she said, excitedly rushing up to him. “You must be Spike! I’m Skies Above. You can call me Sky.”

“Nice to meet you, Sky!” said Spike.

“Yes, it’s nice to meet you,” said Twilight. “I’m Twi-”

“Hi! I’m Pinkie Pie!” said Pinkie Pie, bouncing near. “This is Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy, Winona, and Twilight Sparkle!”

“Nice to meet you all. I’ll take you to the village and we’ll show you what we’re up against.”

“Thank you,” said Twilight.

“Hey, Radish,” said Sky. “Want me to pull the buckboard with you?”

“Think you can keep up?” he teased.

“Think you can keep from stepping in a prairie dog hole for more than five minutes?”

They shared a laugh.

Radish and Sky pulled the others over the scrubby plains. Spike and the girls ate lunch out of a picnic basket that Applejack had prepared.

“Hey, Twilight,” whispered Rainbow Dash, “do you think Sky was the buffalo who was his first kiss?”

“He said he couldn’t talk about it,” she whispered back.

“Why do you think that is?” whispered Spike.

“It’s none of our business! We are guests on their land, so whatever’s important to them, is important to us!”

“Do you think this is dredging up feelings in Radish that he’d rather not be dealing with and is incapable of expressing?” whispered Pinkie Pie.

“No, remember? During the fight he said he was always a perfect gentlecolt to Sky because he knew she could do better,” whispered Rarity.

“Well, I couldn’t convey this at the time, but I got the sense that he was making excuses because he was totally stuck on Celestia the whole time he was here,” whispered Fluttershy.

“Would y’all quit actin’ like a bunch of cluckin’ hens? He’s got a gal now, and she’s a-countin’ on us to uncover this plot,” whispered Applejack. Winona barked in assent.

“Hey,” whispered Sky to Radish, “I think they’re whispering about us.”

“Just let them,” he whispered back. “It beats them breaking into song.”

Celestia leaned back into the hot tub of the club’s natatorium. The walls of the room were painted to look like moss-covered stone, giving the impression of swimming in a secret grotto. Worthy Wagoner was relaxing in the hot tub next to her. He had been talking since before they stepped in.

“…and he came in third place! I tell you, we were laughing at him for weeks after that!”

“I hope he was a good sport about it,” Celestia said, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. The hot tub wasn’t built with a pony of her size in mind, though she was losing her patience faster at the company than the seating.

“Oh, a terrible sport! Avoided us at the symphony for weeks! Celestia, Canterlot society simply needs a better class of ponies. Or perhaps a better breed of ponies, eh?”

Celestia crossed her hind legs away from him.

“Worthy, you always seem to know what’s best for everypony else.”

“Why do you think I got this?” he said, standing up and putting his dripping wet cutie mark inches from Celestia’s face. It was an unbalanced scale. “I realized early on that the world is full of opposing powers. Winners and losers. Best to always be on the winning side, eh?”

“It is interesting,” Celestia said, “that with a balance scale, the side with the most value sinks to the bottom, raising its lesser above it.”

Worthy laughed.

“Don’t confuse dead weight with value, Celestia! The most precious treasures often require the biggest piles of dirt to raise them into the light.”

“Ah, speaking of treasure, you should see the lovely brooch Rarity made for me! I’ve received quite a few compliments on it at the theater. She is so very talented.”

“Rarity? The uh, seamstress? From Ponyville?”

“So you’ve heard of her? I believe Fancy Pants is one of her best customers.”

“That sounds like Fancy Pants, all right.”

“And she sources all her jewels herself from caves outside Ponyville.”

“That area has been surveyed and found unimpressive. Anything mined there can’t be worth a thing.”

“Well, let’s not tell her that. Otherwise she might think it was her eye for design and generosity of heart that impressed me about her gift.”

“You spoil those six, Celestia. They will take advantage of you some day.”

“No doubt. But the ponies in my life often don’t seem to take full advantage of me when they really, really, should.”

Too far? she wondered. I can’t even tell any more.

“Celestia, would you join me for dinner tonight? I believe I can show you something far more impressive than a Ponyville cave brooch.”

“Why, Worthy. I thought you’d never ask.”

Radish’s team parked their buckboard outside of the Black Bluffs’ village. Chief Shortshadow excitedly waved to Radish.

“Radish Root! Welcome back!”

“Good seeing you again, Chief. I’m sorry if any of this trouble was brought on by my doing.”

“It probably was, so it’s good of you to come help. We think these interlopers must know a lot of high-level spells to keep themselves hidden. We don’t know much about unicorn magic.”

“Well, I’ve brought someone who does. This is Twilight Sparkle,” said Radish, motioning to Twilight. She stepped forward and bowed.

“Chief Shortshadow, thank you for allowing us to visit your lands. Princess Celestia sends her warmest regards.”

“Oh! How is she? I haven’t seen her since she came here asking about…” He looked at Radish. “Uh, never mind.”

“She was here?” asked Radish. “Asking about me? How long ago?”

“Radish, a chief’s meeting with a princess is confidential.”

“Chief, please. Was it about my cutie marks?”

“Radish, I said no.”

“Okay. Fine. Can I ask about the dig?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Let’s go over the timeline of events. Could you tell us what happened after I left? Headquarters had me relocate my camp to monitor the dragon’s new mountain. I wasn’t around when Willow’s bones were crated up and sent to the museum.”

“Worthy’s personal assistant came. He offered to undertake the entire dig on the Wagoners’ coin, and pay us all to let us on the land. We said no, but he just kept coming back, raising his offer. So, we fed him this line about how we held the cave as deeply sacred.”

“And he believed that?”

“I doubt it, but how could he argue it? Anyway, to get him to leave, we compromised, and let him go home with Willow’s remains. She did have living descendants, after all, so they had a legitimate claim to her.”

“Yeah, but everything else they teach about her in Canterlot is bull plop,” said Radish. “Her museum display is loaded with falsehoods. Of course, the Wagoners are big contributors to the museum.”

“They’re using the museum to spread untruths?” gasped Twilight. “You should have said something! That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard!”

The others looked at her.

“Okay, maybe not. But it’s still really bad.”

“Go on, Chief,” Radish said.

“The assistant was satisfied, but he left his card in the case that, and I quote, ‘you find any of her personal effects. You would be rewarded most handsomely for them if they are left intact.’”

“And did you find anything else of Willow’s?”

“Nothing. Storm Centurions traveled light, just the armor on their backs. But there’s still a lot of cave left to excavate. The more careful the digging, the better the data.”

“Huh. Not at all like how Daring Do finds artifacts,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Who?” the chief asked.

“Nothing,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Okay,” said Radish. “I’d like my team to check out the cave, then the surrounding countryside. They’ve been making a lot of threats- they might be getting desperate. Maybe we can find them before they do something dangerous.”

“Good luck,” said Chief Shortshadow. “Say, did you know you’ve got a bit of a Central Equestrian accent these days?”

“Really? Well, survival is adaptation. You taught me that.”

“I did?”

“Well, I heard it somewhere.”

Celestia stood before the front gate of the Wagoner manor, dressed in an ice-blue evening gown and smelling of petitgrain. Her hair was braided up behind her crown. She wore earrings that she hadn’t put on in years.

Servants showed her inside. The manse was dimly-lit and quiet as a tomb. Celestia was brought to a sitting room where Worthy was relaxing in a lounge chair with a snifter of brandy.

“Celestia! Glad you could make it.”

“Thank you for the invitation.”

“Thank you for accepting it, for once.”

Celestia giggled girlishly. “Well, all those other times you didn’t promise to show me something impressive.”

“Ah, is that what it takes? I would have hoped the pleasure of my company would be incentive enough.”

“Perhaps this will be the night I finally learn to appreciate the pleasure of your company.”

Radish and his friends approached the base of the mountain where the Storm Centurions were found. Outside the cave entrance numerous shelters had been erected, surrounded by a fence topped with spotlights. A pair of buffalo were on watch duty.

“Brazen! Scrapes!” said Radish. He bumped hooves with the buffalo.

“Welcome to the dig,” said Brazen. “Who’d have thought this mountain would get more interesting after the dragon left it?”

“Yeah. A six hundred-year-old crime scene and a mystery stalker,” said Scrapes. “Not as much fun as that sounds.”

“You really think Willow Wagoner killed her own squad?” Radish asked.

“That’s what all the evidence points to,” said Scrapes. “All their injuries were made by her Centurion weapons, and there’s no sign of those bandits they were hunting.”

“But why?” asked Twilight.

“Good question,” said Brazen. “Our first thought was that Willow could have gotten high on mushrooms and went berserk. That was pretty common for troops in those days.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” said Rainbow Dash. “I grew up hearing all about how Willow Wagoner was this legendary heroine, and now you’re saying she was a drugged-out psycho murderer!?”

“Probably not. The wounds on the other Centurions were too precise, and most point to an ambush,” said Scrapes. “Whatever she did it for, she did it deliberately, skillfully, and premeditatedly.”

“But that’s even worse!” Rainbow Dash said.

“Sorry, Rainbow Dash,” said Twilight. “It always hurts to learn your heroes weren’t the role models you thought they were. But it’s important to learn the true history.”

“Yeah? How would you like it if history said that Starswirl the Bearded was actually Tack the Ripper?”

“That’s impossible!” Twilight huffed. “First of all, they-”

“Gals, can we put a pin in this?” asked Applejack, impatiently.

“Right,” said Sky. “Come on in, I’ll show you what we’ve found.”

Sky led them into the enclosure.

“Radish, you remember Hoopla?” she said, pointing to a rattlesnake coiled up under a prickly pear.

“Howdy, Hoopla. Good seeing you again,” said Radish, doffing his hat. Hoopla waved at him with a coil.

“She and her kids are helping patrol the dig site,” said Sky. “They’re all over the mountain. Hoopla, could you go tell them all that these new folks are friends?”

Hoopla nodded, then slithered away.

“Um, Mission Leader? May we see the snake babies after this?” asked Fluttershy.

Only if the mission’s a success,” Radish said.

“Oh. Okay,” she said.

Sky looked around. “Huh. Focus Beam should be here, too.”

“Focus Beam is here. The question is, who else is here?” said a steely voice.

A lanky off-white unicorn with a buzzcut mane stepped out from behind a rock. She grit her teeth, lowered her horn, and sparked it up.

“Beamy, this is Radish. You replaced him,” said Sky.

“Is that so?”

Focus Beam made a series of hoof gestures. Radish made a few right back.

“Okay. Good. And those?” she said, pointing to Twilight and her friends.

“Hello, Ranger Beam. My name is Twil-”

Focus Beam’s aura upended the ground at Twilight’s hooves. Twilight jumped back with a yelp.

“It’s okay! They’re with us. Celestia herself sent them to help!” yelped Radish.

“Okay. If you vouch for them,” Focus Beam said.

“What’s been going on here?” asked Radish.

“Oh, just unseen enemies lurking around every boulder.”

“What has HQ said?”

“To investigate, provide site security, and report back if anything happens.”

“Aren’t they sending backup?”

“Every nearby outpost has their hooves full. I’m on my own. But that’s when Plains Rangers shine the brightest. I’ll get these sneaks and keep these buffs safe, on my honor as a Ranger and a mare.”

“Wait, why are the other outposts so busy?” Radish asked.

“Don’t know. Nopony tells me anything.”

“Miss Beam, we’re here to help,” said Twilight. “May we see the cave?”

Winona sniffed the ground, then barked.

“What’s that, girl?” asked Applejack. “I think she’s caught a scent!”

Winona bounded up the side of the mountain.

“Dunno what she smells up there,” said Sky. “We’ve been up and down it.”

“Applejack, Spike, and Fluttershy- go see what Winona found,” said Radish. “Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, stay with Focus Beam and get her up to speed. Twilight, Rarity, Sky- let’s see the cave.”

“Just stick to the designated paths!” called Focus Beam. “And don’t touch a thing!”

Radish and Sky led Twilight and Rarity into the cave. Inside, wooden walkways had been set up, snaking around digging pits. Crates, tables, and lights filled the rest of the cave.

“Hey, what were those motions you made with your hoof?” asked Twilight.

“Ranger signal code. For when two Rangers get sight of each other in their scopes and need to share information.”

“That’s neat.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

Celestia sat down at Worthy Wagoner’s dinner table while a maid filled her wine glass with a dark red malbec.

“Ah, thank you, miss.”

The maid smiled.

“Celestia, really!” scoffed Worthy. “Why do you thank a pony for doing the job they are paid to do?”

The maid looked sadly down at the floor, and walked away.

“I suppose I’m always grateful for a good glass of wine,” Celestia said, watching her leave.

“Ah, Chateau Pompeuse ’55. We recently bought out the vineyards. Only the best for the best.”

“You spoil me, Worthy. The royal sommeliers would tell me to save such a bottle for a much more grandiose occasion. And to share it between more friends.”

“I hope you don’t thank them for doing that job, either.”

“Well, they do get a card at Hearth’s Warming.”

“How quaint.”

Celestia drank half her glass.

“So this is where it happened?” asked Twilight.

“Yep. The legend of the Storm Centurions ended in this cave,” said Sky. “Or began, really, since they weren't famous until they vanished.”

“Have you found anything of the bandits they were sent to hunt?” asked Radish.

“Not a thing,” replied Sky.

“I couldn’t find anything about them in my research, either,” said Twilight. She cast a texture-scanning spell over the cave. “Uh, Radish? Did you know that a dragon has been here?”

“It was napping in the peak for a year,” said Radish.

“I mean, down in this cave. I’m picking up the same kind of spine abrasions in the rock that Spike leaves on my floors.”

“Oh, is that what those scratches in Carousel Boutique are coming from?” asked Rarity. “I will have to knit Spike some stockings for his spines.”

“Radish? You never told them?” asked Sky.

“About the thing you said to never tell anyone about?” asked Radish. “No, I didn’t.”

“Gee, I didn’t expect you to keep it secret so long,” said Sky. “That was a long time ago.”

“The Water-bearer was even longer ago!”

“Oh. You really took that seriously?” Sky gasped, looking into Radish’s eyes.

“Of course I did! Should I not have?”

“I’m really glad you did,” Sky said, smiling widely.

“Could one of you say what neither of you are saying?” said Twilight, annoyed.

“The dragon confronted Radish and I in this cave. We bargained with it to leave,” said Sky.

“Confronted!?” yelped Twilight.

“Bargained!?” cried Rarity.

“Sky did all the work,” said Radish. “Told him about a better cave.”

“But Radish broke the tension with his cutie marks,” Sky said, smiling and nudging Radish. Radish rolled his eyes.

“What? And you kept all that a secret? That was before the six of us faced a dragon of our own!” said Twilight.

“It was… ambiguously legal,” said Radish.

“And our leaders would’ve flipped out,” said Sky.

“And it could have brought tension between the Rangers and the Black Bluffs,” said Radish.

“And it’s not really relevant to the current problem,” said Sky.

“Anything could be relevant!” cried Twilight.

“Like this, perhaps?” asked Rarity. “Sky, did somepo- uh, somebuffalo lose jewelry in here?”

“No, why?”

“There’s something under these boards.”

Rarity pointed her horn at a section of the walkway. The boards and the ground under them shimmered, turning transparent. Inside the ground was a glowing amber cameo studded with opals.

“Yeah, that’s not one of ours,” said Sky. “Hold on.”

Sky dug it up and brushed it off. Rarity looked closely.

“Why, that’s from the Spruce Woods collection!” gasped Rarity. “Fancy Pants told me all about it. A trove of treasure that was stolen from his family’s winter home centuries ago!”

“How many centuries? Six, maybe?” asked Radish.

“Quite so,” replied Rarity.

“Was that winter home around here?”

“Uh, it was at one of the train stops on the way here, actually. In Summerspring.”

“Hmm. No trains six centuries ago. The Centurions probably stayed over in Summerspring while hunting the bandits. And that wasn’t in the winter…” pondered Radish.

“So Willow took the opportunity to steal from a rival high-society family while they weren’t at home?” suggested Twilight.

“And thought she could hide the treasure in this cave until the heat was off!” called out Sky, as she photographed and cataloged the cameo. “Nocreature would spend too much time out here in those days. It was way drier then.”

“Then she killed the rest of her squad over it,” said Radish. “Do you think they were trying to arrest her for the crime, or did they simply want the treasure for themselves?”

“Is the rest of the treasure buried in here?” asked Sky.

“I detect nothing else like it. A shame,” responded Rarity. “There should be a whole chest of equally stunning pieces.”

“It must be what the trespassers were after,” said Sky. “But they kept pestering our camps after trashing this cave, so they didn’t find it in here either.”

“But if the Centurions never left this cave… and you didn’t find the treasure… and the trespassers didn’t… where did it go?” Rarity pondered.

“Well, it had six hundred years to get stolen,” said Radish. “It could be anywhere.”

“So what do we do?” asked Sky.

“Well, I’ve got an idea you may not like,” said Twilight.

“Behold, the Wagoner coat of arms,” said Worthy, waving at an elaborate woodcarving on the wall above between two different suits of armor.

He had led her into a spacious gallery room on the second floor, full of paintings, sculptures, and objets d’art. Celestia approached the coat of arms and read the Old Ponish motto below it.

“Hmm… The Stars Favor the Bold. True enough.”

“I envy your connection to the stars above. They are something I could never touch.”

“Don’t be too envious. It’s a great responsibility to raise the sun.”

“You do it well, at least. I haven’t a single complaint about your job performance.”

“Thank you, Worthy. I rarely get that kind of feedback. You have so many beautiful pieces here in your collection,” Celestia said, looking around the room. “I knew a few of these artists personally. I had no idea so many of their works ended up in the same place. Some of these are thought lost.”

“Not lost, just protected from the uninformed gaze of the rabble. You should know how lucky you are. I only allow these to be viewed by those who would truly appreciate them.”

“I’m honored.”

She looked at a framed painting on the wall. It was an antique portrait, but of who, there was no way to tell- the top half had been torn off and was missing, leaving only a well-dressed pony’s shoulders.

“Oh, dear. What happened here?”

“A crime against art, by an uncultured miscreant.”

“A shame. Who was the subject?”


“Oh, he was quite a character. He probably would have been amused to hear that uncultured miscreants tore up his portrait.”

“Perhaps, but my ancestors were not so amused to have their property destroyed.”

“Is this what you wanted to show me?”

“Not at all. Come over here.”

Worthy stepped up to a section of a wall that had been deliberately left blank.

“Celestia, it’s time you saw this. The most precious thing in my collection. In anyone’s. Something truly impressive.”

He entered a combination on a panel. The wall slid down, revealing a large vault door. He entered another combination into the dial in its center, and it swung open. Inside was a pedestal. On the pedestal was a cushion, and on the cushion sat a crystal ball.

“Take a look. Do you know what it is?”

Celestia stepped closer and peered into the vault. Hovering inside the center of the crystal ball was a tiny speck of golden fire. Celestia startled back, gasping.

“This… this cannot be!”

“It is. A piece of the sun. An entire frequency of sunlight, pulled down and encased in crystal by one of my unicorn ancestors during the Tribal Age.”

“Captured. Trapped alone in the dark,” said Celestia, gritting her teeth.

“Not captured. It has no agency, no rights. It is simply my property.”

“The sun belongs to all creatures. Even the smallest parts of it. Worthy, this is frightfully illegal for you to possess. Why show me?”

“It’s perfectly legal. I believe you instituted the law banning sun harvest early in your reign- in your youth. But my family was old when you were young. They made sure the language of the law made provisions for those who had already harvested.”

“The Wagoners were allowed to keep this through a grandfather clause?”


“I dislike loopholes, Worthy. I carelessly let congress slip many past me when I was young. I am far more thorough now.”

“No doubt.”

“I ask again. Why show me? You must know how offensive I find this. You know I would like to see this freed and returned to the rest of the sun.”

“I have something you want, you mean? Well, then… make me an offer.”

“Maybe the dragon took the treasure,” suggested Twilight. “What if we asked him?”

“No!” cried everyone else.

“You want answers or not?” she asked curtly. “I’ll take full responsibility for whatever happens.”

“You don’t have full responsibility to take,” said Radish. “I’m Mission Leader.”

“But Radish-”


“Then what are we going to do?”

“Reverse-engineer the trespassers’ MO,” said Radish. “If there are ponies poking around over multiple days, they have to have a base of operations in the area.”

“We’ve looked,” said Sky. “There’s nothing for miles.”

“There’s one place you couldn’t have looked,” Radish said, pointing up.

“What? The peak? Where the lilacs are?”

“No, higher.”

“The sky?” asked Twilight. “I thought we were dealing with unicorns.”

“You’ve all walked on clouds before, haven’t you?” Radish reminded her.

“The cloudwalk spell?” pondered Twilight. “Huh. If they had at least one unicorn to cast it, and at least one pegasus to ferry them, they could be camping out in a cloud.”

“It has been rather cloudy lately,” Sky said. “Dang, we never would have thought of that.”

“So, Mission Leader. Should we get Rainbow Dash to bust some clouds open?” asked Twilight determinedly.

“Hmm. Let’s play it cool. If they don’t know we know, we have the advantage.”

“Bit late for that!” yelled a voice behind them.

They turned to look. There was a bright flash, then the sound of rock shattering.

The mouth of the cave collapsed with a wave of dust and darkness.

“Worthy… I will not pay for the release of this piece of the sun. That would cheapen it.”

Worthy laughed loudly.

“I don’t want money for it.”

“Just say it, Worthy. Tell me what you want from me.”

“We both know what I want from you. The only thing on earth that I’ve been denied.”

“That is your only term?”

“Yes. It is non-negotiable.”

Celestia looked at the glowing speck within the orb. Worthy put his hoof on the vault door and closed it. It locked with a clank that Celestia felt in her chest.

“Well, Celestia? What is your answer?”

PreviousChapters Next