• 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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95. The Games, Part 1

Radish leaned against the window of his Crystal Empire train car, watching the vast open wilderness of Equestria’s northernmost reaches fly by. The Equestria Games’ opening ceremony was tomorrow.

The Crystal Empire’s train was ornate, massive, and luxurious. Each car had been carved from a single giant crystal block by the Empire’s craftsponies. Radish had been given his own private car, a perk of being both a Games competitor and a major of the Royal Guard. His teammate Cheerilee had taken an earlier train, and so had Light Fantastic, who had her sights set on operating a merchandise booth outside the stadium. Twilight, with her princessly responsibilities, had gone ahead on as well, and Rainbow Dash had turned the Friendship Express into a mobile gym for the rest of Ponyville’s delegation. Still, there were ponies on this train that Radish knew.

His door flew open. Gazeta, the palace press pony, sauntered inside. “Hi, major! Swell accommodations you’ve got here. Nicer than mine.”

“What can I do for you, Gaz?”

“I’m doing profiles of the Games competitors, and I realized I needed a photo of what you’re currently passing off as your cutie mark.”

Radish turned to show it off. “Oh? Sure. Get its good side.”

She snapped a photo of it. “It’s a crying shame, you know. Your real cutie mark is a national treasure. It made Equestria just that much more interesting.”

“Would you like to have it on your flanks?”

“I’ve already got a tattoo from college that I regret.” She sat down on the bench opposite Radish. “Say, how about an interview?”

“What’s the angle?”

She pulled out her notebook. “Your big showdown with Prince Armor! I’m thinking a headline like, ‘Stallion who Slammed Celestia Sets Sights on Shining!’”

“That makes me sound like a villain.”

“How about we play up the trainer-trainee relationship? Something like, ‘Can he defeat the pony who taught him everything he knows?’”

“Shining Armor didn’t teach me everything I know.”

“Give me something to work with, here.”

“There’s no guarantee I’ll even fight Shining Armor in the games. It’s single-elimination. His team might lose before we can face each other.”

“Or maybe you’ll be eliminated first?”

“Not going to happen,” Radish said resolutely. Gazeta snapped a photo of Radish’s resolute face.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“Posterity. I have a sense about when I’m witnessing history in the making.”


The train rolled into the station in the late morning. Radish disembarked. He explored the station for a bit before moving on, reading educational placards about the local history.

The train tracks to the Crystal Empire had actually been laid during the Empire’s long absence, to support mining explorations into the area it had once occupied. Though its existence had mostly passed from memory, the invention of rail had suddenly put many faraway lands, both old and new, within a day’s travel. Enterprising ponies who knew their history set their sights on the mines the Empire had once drew its resources from, believing them to be easy pickings without the crystal ponies, or their tyrant conqueror, around to object.

Prospecting the lands, however, yielded little material wealth, and even the hardiest of ponies found the frigid wastes inhospitable. Without the crystal heart, the local weather was intractable, owing to magical blizzards that swept the lands on a regular cycle. Up until the Empire’s reappearance, the train line was maintained only for scientific expeditions, which would sojourn in and out of the area as the seasons allowed.

The Empire reappeared just beyond the reach of the rail line, and the crystal ponies, wary of the new invention and the possibility that it could bring more conquerors to their doorstep, asked Princess Cadance to keep it out of the Empire. Thus, the train station was built on the outskirts, and travelers had to walk or hire coaches into the city proper.

Radish stepped out of the station, adjusted his saddlebags and looked around. Next to a tall crystal coach, he saw a tall crystal coachstallion, holding a sign reading, “Maj. R. Root.” Radish approached him.

“Uh, I’m Major R. Root. Is this for me?”

“Yes, sir. Welcome to the Crystal Empire.”


The coach conveyed Radish through the streets at a relaxed clip. Radish had only glimpsed the city on his previous, and only, visit to the Empire, and that had been at night. He was now seeing it by daylight. The streets were busy, but sparkling clean. The streets and buildings had been polished to a shine in anticipation of the Games.

The coach stopped, and the coachpony opened the door for Radish. Radish gazed up at the tall crystal building before him.

“This is the hotel?”

“Yes, sir. The finest in the Empire.”

“Nice.” Radish reached into his coin bag.

“Oh, we don’t tip in the Crystal Empire, sir.”

“Nice.”

Radish entered the lobby and checked in. A bellhop took his bags to his room while he explored. He found himself in a courtyard with a large pool, where numerous ponies were swimming and sunbathing.

“Major Root? Is that you?”

He turned to see a muscular unicorn mare at a shaded table, sipping a tall smoothie. It took him a moment to recognize her, as he'd never seen her out of armor before. She was Crosspatch, the leader of Cadance’s personal guard squad.

“Oh. Hello, Chief Petty Officer Crosspatch.”

“Actually, it’s Flag Captain Crosspatch now.”

“Congrats. That’s higher, right?”

“It’s complicated. Crystal Empire ranks vary in prestige according to competing rulesets based on ancient social mores that only crystal ponies understand. But the pay is higher, at least.”

“That is complicated. Uh, are we… good?”

She chuckled. “They’ve got a saying here in the Crystal Empire: ‘First impressions are just a rehearsal.’”

“Oh. I like that.”

“But don’t expect me to go easy on you if we face each other in the ring.”

“Likewise.”

“Speaking of which, could you sign this?”

She pulled out a pink Nightmare Root T-shirt. Radish squinted at it. Its artwork and fonts were different from the shirts he was used to seeing in Light’s shop.

“Where did you get this?”

“A street seller in the east district.”

“This is a bootleg.”

“There’s no copyright law in the Crystal Empire.”

“Hmm, Light’s not going to like that. Who should I make this out to?”

“Starter Striker. My husband.”

“You’re married?”

“Yeah. Three years, now.”

“And he’s a fan of… me?”

“Well, this kooky fictional version of you.”

“Okay.” Radish autographed the shirt and gave it back. “What made you want to compete in the Equestria Games?”

Crosspatch shrugged. “Fame. Glory. A chance to prove myself to the world. How about you?”

Radish paused to think about it. “I guess I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”

“You have a comfort zone?”

“It's small, but growing.”

A white dove landed on Radish’s head and dropped a pink envelope into his hoof. It flew off. He opened the envelope.

“Oh. Princess Cadance wants to meet with me.”

“Have fun.”

“How’s she doing these days?”

“She’s still a princess of the people. Still being way too cavalier about her own security.”

“Well, hopefully these Games pass without any supervillain attacks.”

“Now, why would you say that?”


The Crystal Castle loomed over the city like the gnomon of a sundial. The city’s stadium sat behind it like a curled-up dog. Radish entered the stadium and made his way to the field. Crystal ponies were tending to last-minute preparations: testing the bleachers, adjusting the signage, and trimming individual blades of grass to perfect evenness. He found Princess Cadance on the sidelines, overseeing the hubbub.

“Radish! Welcome to the Crystal Empire!”

Radish bowed. “Hello, your high- oh!”

Cadance threw her forehooves around Radish and hugged him, nuzzling his cheek. “So good to see you! It’s been too long.”

Radish froze. “I…”

“What’s wrong?”

“I didn’t know we were on… such familiar terms.”

She let him go with a laugh. “Oh, Radish. We’re practically family.”

“We are?”

“Well, sure. I mean, you’re just like a-”

“Please don’t say, ‘like a son to Celestia’.”

“I was going to say, ‘like a brother to Twilight'.”

“Oh. That’s okay.”

“You know, she’s been telling me about your exploits. Taking down Worthy Wagoner, helping her with the CAA, fighting those vines…”

“Just doing my duty.”

She looked at his flank. “She also mentioned the… changes you’ve made to your cutie mark.”

Radish shifted to show it off better. “Light and Rarity painted them. Aren’t they nice?”

“Yes, nice. But Twilight was very worried about the effect that living with fake marks could have on a pony.”

“Twilight’s smart, but she’s wrong on this one.”

“Well, if you ever want to talk about it, I’m here.”

“Princess, you’ve got bigger things to worry about than me.”

Cadance shook her head. “Every heart in Equestria is connected. Help one, and you help all of them.”

“You should listen to her, Radish. She knows what she’s talking about,” said a familiar voice. It was Shining Armor, walking up to them.

“Hello, Prince Armor.”

Shining Armor extended a hoof. “Just ‘Shining’, remember?”

Radish clasped his hoof and shook it. “Hello, Shining.”

“I hear we may be facing each other in the ring again! Don’t think I’ve gone soft, just because I’m a prince now.”

“Of course not.” Radish turned over Shining’s hoof and examined it. “Oh, that’s a nice hooficure.”

Shining withdrew his hoof. “Yeah, well, these hooves are going to be taking down everypony between me and the gold, no matter how smart their mouth is.”

Princess Cadance walked between them and draped her hooves over their necks, pulling them into a tightly-gripped group hug.

“Aw, isn’t this nice?” she said cheerfully. “My favorite boys, bonding through a healthy, friendly competition!"

“Yes, dear,” said Shining.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Radish.


Radish trotted out to the plaza in front of the stadium, where numerous ponies were setting up merchandise booths. He found Light Fantastic arranging a booth of her own.

“Hey, Rad!”

“Hey, Fan. Did you know they’re selling knockoffs of your stuff here?”

“Yeah, I saw. I’m not sure if I should be upset or honored. How are you feeling? Ready to compete?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Go get ‘em, tiger.”


The Equestria Games commenced with a grand ceremony. There was no sign of trouble, though Spike did seem to have some difficulty lighting the ceremonial flame. Radish assumed somepony screwed up the kindling.

Wrestling began the second day of the Games. Radish and Cheerille watched other teams’ matches carefully from the sidelines, looking for weaknesses in their styles. A Games official, a stern-looking earth mare, approached them with a clipboard.

“Ponyville team, your first match will commence presently. You will be competing against Griffonstone,” she said.

“Griffonstone?” asked Radish. “That means-”

“Hello, sir. It’ll be an honor to fight you.”

Radish turned to see Wing Trooper Grenatta, wearing the griffon version of wrestling gear.

“Hello, Grenatta. You don’t have to ‘sir’ me on the Games field.”

“I’d prefer to, sir. It’s more professional.”

“Okay. I hope you weren’t offended that I didn’t ask you to compete for Ponyville. I’ve had a lot of other things on my mind lately, so I wasn’t thinking about stuff like that.”

“Not to worry, sir, I like competing for Griffonstone. Griffons don’t get much glory on the world stage.”

“All right, then. May the best team win.”

She walked off to talk to her teammate. Radish looked up at the VIP section, where the four princesses, plus the delegates from other lands, sat watching. Just below them were Twilight’s friends. Radish couldn’t make out any of their faces. Light was somewhere in the crowd, but Radish had no idea where.

He stared up at the scoreboard. On one side was the flag of Griffonstone, under which were images of Grenatta and her partner. On the other side was the flag of Ponyville, under which were images of three smiling flowers and a red radish.

“Wow,” gasped Cheerilee, “I never thought I’d see my cutie mark up on display like that.”

“Yeah. Me neither.”

“Go Ponyville! Fight! Win!” called out mares’ voices. Radish looked in the direction of the shouts.

Pinkie Pie and a small group of other Ponyville mares were lined up in cheerleader outfits. Some of them waved at Radish. Some of them winked at him. Pinkie Pie grinned widely. “Hey Rad! Don’t worry, the Ponyville Pep Platoon is here to cheer you all the way to victory!”

Radish swallowed hard. “Oh, uh, thank you, ladies.”

Cheerilee put her head into his side and shoved him toward the wrestling ring. “Come on, you can flirt with the cheer squad after we’ve won.”

“I resent the implication.”

The two teams approached the wrestling ring. Radish took stock of the opposing team. Grenatta was slightly smaller than an average female griffon, but her partner, a male griffon with ocelot-spotted fur and falcon-checkered wings, was about twice her size. He regarded Radish and Cheerilee with an unimpressed stare.

“That’s Guttersnipe Grimes,” whispered Cheerilee. “He’s been banned from every professional wrestling league in Equestria. My sister said he’s been spotted on the underground fight circuit in the Kludgelands.”

Grimes stepped forth, making a beckoning motion with his talons.

“I’ll go first,” Radish told Cheerilee.

Radish and Grimes entered the ring. The crowd quieted down. A whistle blew. Radish and Grimes collided into a fierce grapple. The crowd roared to life.

Grimes twisted and threw Radish down, then dropped his full weight on Radish’s back. Radish caught him with his rear hooves and shoved him away. Radish then pounced and seized Grimes in a headlock.

Grimes launched Radish and himself into the air. Both of them slammed face-first into the ground. Grimes recovered first, grabbed Radish by his rear hooves, and swung him into the ground like a sledgehammer.

Radish saw Cheerilee reaching out to him. He slid over to her and tagged her in. She rushed into battle while Radish sat and caught his breath and popped his jaw back into place.

Cheerilee seized Grimes and slammed him, then picked him up and piledrove him back down. She locked her rear legs around his neck and pulled.

The two rolled back and forth across the ground, trading holds, counters, and reversals, each one more painful-looking than the last. A whistle blew. Cheerilee had scored seven points more than Grimes, granting her a win by technical superiority. The crowd cheered her on as Grimes scowlingly exited the ring and Grenatta took his place. The whistle blew.

Grenatta rolled forward, slipped behind Cheerilee in a flash, and grabbed her haunches. She raised Cheerilee into the air and slammed her down. She pinned Cheerilee, and the referee counted to three. Cheerilee was out.

Cheerilee limped out of the ring.

“Sorry, I got cocky,” she said to Radish.

“Don’t worry about it.”

Radish took Cheerilee’s place in the ring. Grenatta carefully circled him, then swooped forward. Radish took her in a hold and tried to force her down. Radish locked her torso and rolled her over, but she slipped out of his grip and threw him across the ring. He landed on his hooves and charged.

She guarded high, and Radish flipped and landed on his back, sliding towards her with his rear legs aimed at her head. He sprang off the floor and clamped his thighs around her neck. He squeezed and twisted his lower body, pulling Grenatta down. He rolled onto her and pinned her.

The whistle blew one last time. Ponyville had won.

The crowd went wild. Radish’s and Cheerilee’s cutie marks on the scoreboard glowed with golden light. The Ponyville Pep Platoon cartwheeled onto the field and tossed Radish and Cheerilee into the air, catching them and piling onto them.

“Whoo-hoo!” shouted Pinkie Pie, pulling them both into a crushing embrace. “That was amazing!”

“Thanks, Pinkie,” wheezed Radish.

“Well done, Major Root,” said Cheerliee, smiling. “If you were my student, I’d give you an A+ for that performance.”

“Thanks, teach. You did great.”

Grenatta landed next to Radish and extended her claw.

“Good match, sir.”

“You fought well,” said Radish, shaking her claw with his hoof. "I'm proud of you."

“Thank you, sir. The griffons back home won’t be impressed, but I’m glad you were.”

Radish took a sideline bench, watching as crystal pony workers changed the scoreboard for the next competition. Light Fantastic landed on the grass next to him.

“Hey, Light. Were you watching?”

She smirked and drew her hoof up and down his chest. “I sure was. You looked so hot out there.”

He looked back to the scoreboard. It was now showing the cutie marks of different athletes, for a different sport. He looked down at his dye cutie mark, brushing his hoof over it.

“What’s wrong?” asked Light.

“Nothing.”


The rest of Team Ponyville’s matches went well. Cloudsdale put their beefiest Wonderbolts on their team, but Radish and Cheerilee beat them swiftly. The team from Appleloosa- an earth stallion and a buffalo gal- gave them the most trouble, requiring a strategy of quick feints and surprise moves to carry them to victory.

The Saddle Arabian team beat Maretonia’s, and were defeated in turn by the Crystal Empire’s team of Shining Armor and Crosspatch, who also went on to beat the Dodge Junction team. After that, Ponyville and the Crystal Empire were the only teams remaining.


Radish was relaxing on a bench in a plaza behind the stadium, staring up at a massive crystal statue of Spike and going over strategies in his head, when Shining Armor approached him.

“Well, Radish, looks like we’ll be facing each other after all.”

“Felt inevitable, didn’t it?”

Shining Armor sat down next to him. “Could I ask a favor of you, one stallion to another?”

“Yeah?”

“When we fight, I want you to fight me at your absolute best. Don’t hold back.”

“Uh, I wasn't planning on holding back.”

“I’ve been watching your matches. When you slam your opponent into the ground, you never do it as hard as you could have. When you twist a limb, you stop before making it too painful.”

Radish kept silent.

“And I’d rather forfeit than win against somepony trying to go easy on me. If you sense yourself about to give me any quarter, don’t. Give me your all.”

“Why is this so important to you?”

Shining Armor shrugged. “We want to give the audience their money’s worth, don’t we?”

“Sure. Okay, you got it. No quarter.”

“Thank you, Radish.”

Shining Armor left the plaza. Radish watched him go, then leaned back on his bench. He reworked the strategies in his head until the sun started to set, then left for his hotel.

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