• 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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99. The Monsters, Part 1

Princess Luna and Harold walked side-by-side through the mists of the dream world. They stopped in front of a towering wall of glowing spheres hovering mid-air, inside each of which was a miniature scene playing out like a silent film.

“Now, place your hoof upon a bubble,” Luna instructed. “You will sense the nature of the dream inside.”

Harold walked up to a nearby sphere depicting a green unicorn stallion on a walk through dark woods. He placed his hoof on its surface and tried to clear his mind.

He frowned. “I… I don’t feel anything.”

“We will practice until you do. If you are to be my apprentice in dream matters, you will have to develop these skills- and many more.”

“You want me as your apprentice?”

“Naturally. It is quite rare to find one who has power in the dream world. Occasionally a pony might have it as their special talent, but for much of Equestria’s history, the gift was limited to Celestia and I. And her dream powers have always been rather… elementary.”

“But I could not do what you do. Ponies look forward to seeing you in their dreams. They will be disappointed to see me.”

“Do not be so sure. I have overheard my ladies-in-waiting speak quite adoringly of ‘that handsome new bull who works in the astronomy tower’.”

Harold turned to hide his blush. “That is… flattering to hear.”

“Come now. Let us see what nightmares plague ponykind tonight.”

She led him to a separate grouping of dream orbs, a row of about twenty, laid out on a long marble display counter.

“Whose dreams are these?” asked Harold.

“Family and close friends. I start every night by first checking on those closest to me.”

“You give priority to your favorites?”

“But of course. It is a princess’s prerogative.”

Harold peered at a sphere. Its surface was fogged up. “Why is this one hazy?”

“Ah. That is Radish Root’s dream. I keep that one censored because he so frequently dreams about, well…”

“I understand.”

Harold turned his attention to the first orb in the lineup. He could see nothing in it but dangling willow branches. However, the orb itself seemed to be twitching- shaking and pulsing in size.

“What is wrong with this one?”

Luna sighed. “That is not quite a nightmare. It is a recurring fantasy born out of anxiety, guilt, and longing.”

“Do you assist in those?”

“If I can.”

Harold placed his hoof on it. He gasped and startled back. “It is Celestia’s, isn’t it?”

“Yes. But I cannot help her in there. I never could.”

Harold felt the ground under his hooves rumble. He looked around. “What was that?”

Luna’s eyes went wide in panic. “I want you to wake up. It’s not safe here.”

“What about-”

Luna touched her horn to his forehead. He vanished from the dream world. She turned and gazed up at the expanse around her. It was darkening red. She heard something stomping up from behind her.

Celestia touched down lightly in a secluded grove along the river running through Canterlot’s uptown. She brushed aside dangling willow branches to find a bespectacled light blue unicorn stallion, stretched out on the grass. He smiled brightly upon seeing her.

“Hello, Celestia.”

“Hello, my love. I’ve missed you.”

They kissed, slipping down to the ground in an embrace. Celestia rested her head on the stallion’s chest and sighed in contentment. He stroked her mane and sighed in wistfulness.

“Celestia… isn’t it time you moved on from me?”

“I don’t know what you mean, my dearest.”

“I died, ages ago, at the end of a long, fulfilling life. When will you begin yours?”

“Don’t be silly. You’re right here with me.”

“You know I only wanted you to be happy.”

“Shh. Let’s just enjoy the moment.”

The ground under them tremored. The trees surrounding them shook, making their branches creak and their leaves rustle.

“That felt like an earthquake,” said the stallion, adjusting his glasses. “But there are no fault lines in Central Equestria.”

Celestia frowned, looking around worriedly. “That was no earthquake. That was… something else.”

The ground shook again, much more violently. The river sloshed back and forth in its banks, rising into a tall wave which crashed toward the pair. Celestia threw up a yellow barrier to shield her beloved. The ground fell away from under her and she slipped into darkness.

Celestia found herself alone in the starlit expanse of the dream world. Its usual aquamarine space was bright red. She felt cold. She also felt observed.

“Luna!” she called. “Are you there?”

She heard a crash behind her, like the shattering of glass mixed with the cracking of stone. Celestia turned around just as a massive claw swiped at her face.

She woke in her bed with a yelp, clutching her sheets. Her bedroom door flew open, and Luna rushed in.

“Sister! Are you alright?”

Celestia steadied herself. “I've just had the most terrible dream.”

“Why do you think I'm here? You know as well as I that this was not a dream, but a vision.”

The sisters walked up to the window, gazing out at the night.

“Then we haven't much time,” said Celestia, determinedly. “The stronger he becomes, the more we are all in danger.”

“There is but one course of action…” Luna said resolvedly.

Celestia nodded. “Yes...”

“...I will summon Radish Root at once,” said Luna.

“...I will summon Twilight Sparkle at once,” said Celestia.

The sisters frowned at each other.

Luna, I don’t think this is quite up Radish’s alley.”

Celestia, I think this is exactly the type of mission my Champion is suited for."

They stared each other down.

“Perhaps… we could agree on a compromise?” offered Celestia.

“I’m listening.”

“...Tirek was sent to Tartarus for his crimes. But it appears he has found a way to escape,” finished Celestia. She and the other princesses had convened in a rarely-used conference room of the Crystal Castle.

“We believe it happened when Cerberus left his post at the gates,” added Luna.

Twilight ran through the timeline in her head. “But that was a long time ago. Why is he just now starting to steal magic?”

“His time in Tartarus left him very weak,” said Celestia. “He has just now gained enough strength to use his dark powers.”

“But with each passing moment, he grows stronger still,” Luna warned.

Cadance smiled at her sister-in-law. “And I know just the princess who can stop him.”

Twilight sat up straight, full of resolve. “Yes. I'll find him and–”

“No, Twilight,” interrupted Celestia. “I’m afraid I must call on another to stop Tirek.” She braced herself for the others’ reaction. “Discord.”

Luna, Cadance, and Twilight gasped. Luna narrowed her eyes. “Sister, may I speak with you… alone?”

“Not this time, Luna.”

Light Fantastic was awakened by a subtle movement in her bed. She turned to see Radish sleeping next to her, fidgeting quietly. Radish didn’t snore, but he did have a habit of talking in his sleep. He usually only ever said one thing. Light leaned her ear toward him to hear it this time.

“Mmm… Celestia…”

Light smiled.

Go ahead and enjoy her, she thought. You deserve a little treat.

“...hmm? Oh, hello, Princess Luna…”

Light frowned. I said a treat, not a buffet.

“...a centaur?”

Okay, this is getting ridiculous.

Radish woke up. He blinked his eyes a few times, then noticed Light staring at him. “Oh, hey Light. Uh, was I talking in my sleep?”

“Uh huh.”

“I have to go. Luna wants me.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet.”

“For a mission.”

“Involving a centaur?”

“Uh, that’s classified.”

“Are there no other guards who can handle whatever this is?”

“There’s no other guards like me, Fan.”

“Well, I can’t argue with that.”

Radish hadn’t been in the palace’s throne room since the Halcyon affair. He had never received orders straight from both princesses on their thrones before. He stood tall before them and saluted, concerned with what they were about to tell him.

“Major Root,” started Celestia, “you are aware of the current situation?”

“Princess Luna has informed me that an old enemy of Equestria is on the loose, ma’am. I’m prepared to do whatever you need me to stop him.”

“The job of tracking down Tirek has been assigned to a… specialist,” Celestia said. Luna rolled her eyes at the term.

“You, however, have also been given an important task, worthy of your talents,” said Luna.

“Yes, ma’am. What are my orders?”

“We want you to go to Tartarus,” Celestia stated plainly.

“What did I… Oh, wait. Do you mean to investigate?”

“Yes,” said Celestia. “When Twilight returned Cerberus to his position at the gates, she reported that none of the evil creatures imprisoned in Tartarus had escaped.”

“Did she confirm that visually?”

“No, she was told this by the Superintendent,” said Luna.

“There’s a superintendent there?”

“Indeed,” Luna said. “While Cerberus guards the gates, the Superintendent patrols the many caverns of Tartarus, checking on the prisoners and sending routine status updates to all the kingdoms. But he never reported Tirek’s escape.”

“You think he’s corrupt?” Radish asked. “That he covered up Tirek’s escape?”

“That is for you to determine,” Luna said.

“Radish, you seem to have a knack for finding security holes in a facility’s design,” Celestia said. “We want you to go there and determine the means of Tirek’s escape. Find out if there is a weakness in Tartarus’s walls… or its personnel.”

Radish saluted. “I will, princesses. I am honored you put your trust in me.”

“And, major? Please, be careful,” said Luna. “Where you are going, there could be any number of unknown dangers.”

“I will be, ma’am. Thank you.”

Radish left the throne room. Celestia eyed Luna suspiciously.

“What?” asked Luna.

“Nothing,” answered Celestia.

Radish found the palace quartermaster, Chandler, in the palace airship yard, making some last-minute adjustments to the landing gear of a small red dirigible.

“Just about done here, major.”

“Hi, Chuck. I was told to come see you.”

“Yep. I hear you’re heading to Tartarus. There’s no train there, and all pegasi guards are needed on duty to protect Canterlot. So the big horns have assigned you an airship.”

“Oh, cool. Who’s my pilot?”

“All our pilots are busy ferrying VIPs to safe zones. This baby will be preset with Tartarus as its destination, and fly you there on autopilot.”

“Autopilot? That means there’s no one to correct the course if something goes wrong.”

“Nothing’s going to go wrong. But if something goes wrong, pull the emergency descension lever. The craft will land you safely and automatically release a homing pigeon with a distress message.”


“Oh yeah, Princess Luna said to give you this. She made it clear you are only to open it upon arrival.”

He passed Radish a small silver attache case. Radish turned it over in his hooves. It had Luna’s seal embossed on its lid.

“Hmm. Interesting.”

Radish approached the airship. The envelope was sleek and aerodynamic, and the gondola was an enclosed aluminum capsule about the size of a large cart. It had the flag of Equestria painted on both sides.

“Does she have a name?”

“It’s not a she, it’s an it. And it’s registered as ‘Sky Skiff 3’.”

“I’m going to call her ‘Tiffany’.”


Chandler finished his work and stepped back, wiping his brow.

“All right, you’re all set. It’s a long ride to Tartarus, so I hope you brought a book.”

“I’m going to spend the ride reading Tiffany’s manual.”

“Thrilling. Don’t tell me how it ends. Just pull the yellow lever when you’re ready to go. Airspace should be clear from here to Tartarus. The weather might not be.”

Radish entered the ship’s compartment and closed the hatch behind him. The cabin interior was oak trimmed in mother of pearl. There were seats for one pilot and four passengers. He looked upon the pilot controls, then checked the small cubbyhole where the emergency messenger pigeon was roosting.

Royal messenger pigeons were professional to a fault- they didn’t go by names, but numbers. This one had “55” painted on its breast. Radish nodded to it. It nodded to him.

Radish secured his belongings, buckled himself into the pilot seat, and pulled the only yellow lever. Mechanical noises cranked and gurgled from above, before, and below Radish. The craft took off.

Radish was halfway through the ship’s manual when a beeping noise rang out from the instrument panel. He looked at the gauges, and saw that he had arrived at his preprogrammed destination. The airship slowed to a stop, then descended. It landed softly on a vast barren plain. The world outside the windscreen was foggy, though Radish could make out the base of a tall, craggy mountain.

He opened the cabin door and stepped outside, adjusting his armor. The gates to Tartarus weren’t in view- he’d have to do some scouting to find them. He wondered if there would be signs pointing the way.

Radish returned to the ship and pulled out the attache case from Princess Luna. He undid its clasps and opened it. The first thing he saw was a letter written by Luna.

My Dear Champion,

Please forgive the deception. Celestia doubts your ability to face the worst of the world’s monsters, but I harbor no such reservations. I have taken it upon myself to surreptitiously alter your destination. You have not been sent to Tartarus, the one place in the world we know Tirek is not. I have instead sent you to the place I am certain he will be found. Welcome to Midnight Castle.

Radish looked back up at the mountain in front of him. The fog blew clear of the peak, revealing a massive, ancient fortress dominating the entire mountaintop.

“Oh, son of a-”

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