The Only Mark That Matters

by CocktailOlive

First published

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

Celestia travels to a far corner of her kingdom to investigate a rumor about a colt with strange, illicit cutie marks. She meets Radish Root, a boy whose marks make him an anomaly in the fabric of Equestria, a mystery to himself, and an outcast among society.
When Radish joins the Royal Guard just prior to the return of Nightmare Moon, he finds his life being complicated by all the changes coming to Equestria. His marks will lead him into adventure, intrigue, and trouble... but will they ever lead him to answers?


Proofreader: Slavenger Karl
Cover Art Gallery
Table of original characters
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1. The Mark

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Princess Celestia’s royal chariot soared through the gloomy gray-clouded skies of Equestria’s Flint Steppes. The lands below were equally gloomy, an endless stretch of country consisting of dry gray rocks protruding from dry gray dirt. It was a part of her kingdom that she had rarely visited- few of her subjects lived in this region, and those who did chose it for its isolation.

A small farm came up in the distance. It had, until recently, been a long-abandoned homestead, and the farmhouse and outbuildings were still in a dilapidated state. The crops- mostly root vegetables- were newly-planted. The ponies who lived here had bought and moved into this place just a few weeks ago, and the need to get away from the world had taken precedent over every other living consideration.

The pegasus charioteers sighted a safe patch of earth for a landing, and brought their princess down with expert gentleness. She stepped off the chariot.

“Thank you, sirs,” said Celestia to the pegasi. “I don’t know how long this will take. Relax until I return.”

They nodded, smiling proudly, and started to undo their harnesses. Celestia walked up to the farmhouse door and knocked. There was a clatter inside. The door opened. In the doorway were two earth ponies in simple country attire.

“Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Root. I am Princess Celestia. I understand an issue has arisen with your son’s cutie mark that requires my attention.”

“You didn’t have to come out all this way, your highness,” said the father. “This has all been some kind of misunderstanding. Some twisted prank.”

“That is what I came to determine. May I speak with the boy?”

“You shouldn’t! It’s not right! It’s disgusting!” said the mother.

“I have seen many unusual sights in my time. Now I must see what all this consternation is about. Please, I came to help.”

“He’s… he’s in his room,” said the father, pointing to a door leading to a hall. “At the back.”

Celestia nodded, and walked inside. As she made her way to the back, her attention was drawn to the trash bin in the kitchen. It was stuffed full of merchandise bearing her own image- a plush doll, a T-shirt, postcards, and more. She magically lifted out a ball of crumpled paper and smoothed it out. It was a poster of her raising the sun. Its corners were torn off.

“He had all kinds of stuff with you on it. We thought it just meant he was patriotic. We didn’t know it would lead to… to something like this,” said the father. “We’re getting rid of it all.”

She rolled it up and placed it back in the bin. She walked down the hallway to the last door. She knocked.

“Come in?” said a faint voice inside.

She opened the door and entered. A young colt was sitting on his small bed, dressed in a heavy canvas smock which concealed all but his head. There was little else in the room but plain furniture and empty shelves. Celestia could see the torn-off corners of the poster still tacked to the wall.

As the boy looked up, his eyes went wide and his jaw dropped.

“Hello, Radish. I am Princess Celestia. I would like to have a talk with you.”

He nodded, jaw still open. Celestia walked in and closed the door.

“I understand you have recently earned your cutie mark. Congratulations. This is normally a joyful occasion in a young pony’s life- the start of lifetime of self-discovery.”

The colt looked off to the side, and nodded.

“But I understand your cutie mark is quite unusual. News of it has spread even as far as my royal palace in Canterlot.”

“It’s not my fault!” the colt blurted out. “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“No. Of course not. May I see it?”

The boy cringed, inching his back against the wall.

“You don’t have to show me if you don’t want to. But I came to help, and I can only do that if I fully understand the situation. A pony should never be ashamed of their mark.”

The boy nodded, and undid the clasp on his smock. He put it aside and turned to show his flank. Celestia approached for a better look. She stared. He shivered. She leaned in even closer and peered at it.

“I see. Well, this is an authentic cutie mark. The reports didn’t quite do it justice.”

On the colt’s flank was an image of Celestia herself, depicted head on. She was kneeling, with her front legs prone and her hindquarters held slightly higher. Her tail was lifted. A stallion was taking her from behind.

The stallion was an adult, but had the same coat and mane colors as the boy- buff yellow and chestnut brown. Black outlines on the figures allowed the image to stand out from the surrounding fur. The angle of the image obscured the stallion’s cutie marks. His front hooves were gripping Celestia's haunches, and he had an expression of serene bliss on his face. The tiny Celestia, however, had an expression of wild passion- her widely-smiling mouth hung open with her tongue lolled out to one side, and her eyes were joyfully rolled up to the heavens.

“Well, at least it looks consensual.”

When Celestia was first informed of it, she believed whoever made the report was simply exaggerating or misinterpreting the mark. Cutie marks are often heavily symbolic and wide open to their owners’ interpretation. But this, however, left little to interpretation. This colt’s cutie mark was himself, as an adult, fucking Celestia.

“Tell me, Radish, how do you interpret your cutie mark? What does it mean to you?”

“Well, it’s us. We’re having sex.”

“You’re awfully young to know of such things.”

“Earth ponies help animals do it every spring.”

“Hmm. How did you earn this mark? What were you doing when it appeared?”

“It happened when I was sleeping. I woke up with it. I think I was dreaming about you.”

“What do you think this means your special talent is?”

“Having sex with you!”

Celestia winced.

“This may not be us at all.”

“It is! How could it not be?”

“As the ruler of Equestria, this mark may be using me as a generic placeholder, to represent any mare. This stallion may generic as well, just taking inspiration from your coloring.”

“What? It’s us.”

“Perhaps this indicates you have an interest in medicine? There will always be a need for doctors who specialize in reproductive health.”

“No, I’ve never wanted to be a doctor.”

“Perhaps this represents your artistic interests? Do you dream of writing novels or plays about romance?”

“No! Look at it. It’s just us, together.”

“But how can your talent involve me if you’ve never met me before?” asked Celestia.

“Well, you’re here now! You came! And now, well…”

Celestia’s eyes widened.

“I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. I only came here to assess your cutie mark.”

“But… I thought you came to… do this. With me.”

“You’re far too young to even be thinking about it. It would be highly inappropriate, immoral, and illegal.”

“Then, how about when I’m older? It looks like I’m bigger in the mark, right? Maybe this means I’ll become your husband!”

“Cutie marks don’t tell the future. They don’t tell you who you are to marry. And a husband’s role is more than that of a sexual partner, he is a committed equal in a serious relationship. I have no plans to ever marry- my duties to Equestria are far too great.”

“Then, the royal consort!”

“Royal consort?”

“You know, I could live in the palace, and whenever you want, like after a hard day, we could do this!” he said, pointing to his mark.

“Surely you want a better future for yourself than that.”

“What could be better than that? It’s what everypony wishes they could do. And thanks to this, it could be me! Look how happy you look. That means that you’ll really like it, too. We’re meant for each other.”

Celestia sighed.

“I came here hoping to help you find a better interpretation of your mark. I’ve never seen one this elaborate, or explicit, or specific. It is unique, no question, and it may take time before any of us truly understand what it means. But I must make myself clear- I will not be having sex with you. At any age. My choice of partners is mine alone. I do not sleep with somepony simply because their cutie mark depicts it.”

“But, but… but you have to!”

“I have to?”

“I mean, you’ve just got to! If this is what makes me special, then we can’t not do it! It’d be like banning a pony with a bowling cutie mark from every bowling alley! It’d be like a pony with a violin cutie mark never being allowed to touch a violin!”

Celestia looked at him sternly.

I am no violin, boy.”

The boy looked sheepish, then mumbled a soft apology. He hunched over.

“I don’t know what to do. My parents were so angry when they saw this. They took me out of school, moved us to this old farm, never let me see anyone, always make me wear something to hide it. I can’t help what mark I got. But if we never do this, then I have no purpose in life. I have no destiny.”

Celestia’s face softened. She walked up to the colt and put her wing on his shoulder.

“I am sorry that your mark has caused you difficulties. That should never happen to a pony. You’ve done nothing wrong, and I will talk to your parents to try to help them see that.

“Cutie mark magic is a force nopony fully understands, and none can control. Nopony should be asked to forsake their mark, but I think you’d be happier if you found a new destiny.”

“Then I’m back to being a blank flank. Maybe forever.”

“You have a world of potential ahead of you, but sex with me will not be part of it. I am confident you will find new interests, even love interests, and forget all about me.”

“What if I work really hard? What if I grow up to be really strong, and smart, and handsome? I’ll prove that I’m worthy of you!”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

Just drop it,” she said, coldly.

Radish gasped, then buried his face in his hooves, hoping she’d leave without another word. Then, he heard a whisper in his ear.

“Listen, if anypony ever gives you grief over your cutie mark, tell them Celestia is a personal friend of yours. And that she found it flattering.”

“Really?” he asked, lifting his eyes.

“Really. Goodbye, Radish Root. I wish you all the best.”

She left his room. Radish heard her speaking to his parents. Though he couldn’t make out the words, he could hear Celestia’s voice- soothing and warm, understanding and peaceful. As their discussion went on, his parents voices slowly returned to a level of calm he hadn’t heard in weeks.

He heard the front door open and close, then the sounds of her chariot taking off. He looked out his window and caught a glimpse of her flying away. His parents knocked on his door, something which they had never done before.

“Come in?”

They slowly entered the room, looking embarrassed. They hugged him.

“Son, we’re sorry.”

2. The Find

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Radish Root lay prone on a dusty mesa top, binoculars in hoof, watching a smoking mountain peak. He looked at his timepiece, then opened a notebook and checked a column, adding a small comment. He then opened a different notebook, and wrote a note in it as well.

“Good afternoon, Sky,” he said to the buffalo attempting to sneak up on him from behind.

“Oh, come on, I thought I was being totally silent,” she said.

“You were.”

“You couldn’t have smelled me. I’m downwind.”

“That Cactus Lark nesting in the mesquite made an alarm call. I figured it was either you, or a coyote coming up here.”

“Mesquite? I passed that five minutes ago.”

“It always takes you five minutes to climb the mesa. Coyotes take seven.”

“Ugh, you’re so… wait, you call those ‘Cactus Larks’? They’re never near cactuses.”

“The first pony to describe them was named Cactus Jelly.”

“That’s confusing.”

“What do you call them?”

“Squawkadoos.”

“Squawkadoos. I like that.”

He added a note to the back of his book.

“How’s the watch going?” Sky asked.

“No change. Today marks the first anniversary of the dragon’s arrival. They say a dragon knows by the first year whether or not it likes its cave for a nap. This feller might be staying for the long haul.”

“Well, its smoke isn’t so bad from this side. I guess we’ll just have to get used to not going to the lakes on that side.”

“Sorry. They’re nice lakes.”

“You know you’re lying next to a Dust Shaker, right?”

Radish looked over to the rock beside him. Coiled under its outcrop was what ponykind called a Ladder-backed Rattlesnake. It was staring at him intently.

“That rattler and I have reached an understanding. I can stay here as long as I don’t mess with her eggs. And if she bites me, she’ll be exposing herself to that Red-kneed Hawk overhead.”

Sky looked up at the hawk catching thermals above them. Buffalokind called them “Red-kneed Hawks”, as well. The snake peeked out at it from the rock, then retracted in fear.

Sky laid down on her back between Radish and the snake, stretching out under the mid-day sun.

“It’s so good to get a ranger out here who gets this land, Radish. The last Plains Ranger around here was a really stuck-up unicorn.”

“What happened to them?”

“He didn’t reach the same understanding with Hoopla, here,” she said, looking at the snake.

“She bite him?”

“Yep.”

“He live?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Her name is ‘Hoopla’?”

Sky laughed. She pulled out a small cloth bag.

“You want a jalapeño chew?”

“You bet,” said Radish, holding out a hoof.

“Nuh uh. You know the rule. First you have to show me her.”

Radish sighed. He pulled down his ranger uniform’s trousers, revealing his cutie mark. Sky snickered, then gave him a chew. He put it in his mouth and sucked.

“Is she really considered beautiful? She’s so skinny.”

“A lot of ponies like skinny.”

“Do, uh… do you like skinny?”

“I did when I got this.”

He checked his timepiece again and wrote more down. Sky looked at the cover of his Plains Rangers notebook.

“Hey, I never noticed- your notebook says, ‘Confidential’.”

“Yeah. Plains Rangers’ observations are meant for official Canterlot eyes, only.”

“But you share your data with us all the time.”

“Unofficially. A long time ago, the Rangers decided that any information gathered about dragons is too important to not to share with allies. It could save lives. So they started a tradition: for every observation, we write it down in the official confidential report, which goes to Canterlot, and also write it down again on an unmarked backup file, which I ‘accidentally’ leave lying around your village.”

“You bend the rules to help keep us safe?”

“You could say that. Don’t say it to anyone, though.”

“Even that stuck-up unicorn was sharing his data with my tribe. I guess he wasn’t that bad. You hear that, Hoopla?”

Hoopla nodded.

“You buffalo share all your dragon knowledge with us. It’s only fair we do the same.”

“Oh. Heh heh. About that…”

“What?”

“There may be one thing I haven’t shared with you.”

“Oh?

“It’s not exactly about dragons.”

She pointed to the smoking mountain before them.

“It’s more like what’s near that dragon.”

“What’s near that dragon?”

“Right before it came, some of the youths were playing in a cave at the base. They found an old pony skeleton. Pegasus.”

“Skeleton? Some lost prospector?”

“Nuh uh. It was really old. Like, it had ancient armor. They didn’t describe it well, but it sounds like it was from the Rough Classical period.”

“But the only… huh. That could have been a Storm Centurion! They disappeared in the Southern Plains six hundred years ago. Dang. If that dragon wasn’t on the same mountain, I would have loved to check it out.”

“Your shift is over, isn’t it? Let’s go.”

“I can’t approach a sleeping dragon’s mountain. That’s the number one rule.”

“I can bend rules, too. There’s that rule that says you can provide escort support to locals who request it. And I’m requesting it. We can get in and get out without waking that dragon.”

“It’s not worth risking our necks. It’ll be there in another hundred years when the dragon’s moved on.”

“But the Storm Centurions vanished without a trace. You could solve a six-hundred-year old pony mystery today. That might be enough to impress… her,” Sky said, pointing to Radish’s flank.

“I’m not putting you in danger for her.”

“Too bad. I’m going. If you don’t want to escort me, you can go back to camp.”

“Sky, wait up. Sky!”

Radish looked at Hoopla.

“I really am over Celestia, you know,” he said to the snake. She shook her head.

“Ah, what do you know?” he said, and followed Sky down the mesa.


Radish and Sky entered the cave at the mountain’s base. Radish pulled out a miniature firefly lantern and shook its tenants awake. They cast a soft green glow over the rocky walls.

“They said it was back here,” Sky said, leading Radish in.

They explored the cave until the lantern light caught a pile of bones sticking up out of the dirt. Radish and Sky bent over it.

They gazed upon the ancient half-exposed remains. It was indeed a pegasus skeleton. A dulled bronze helmet covered an open-jawed skull.

“It really is a Storm Centurion!” gasped Radish. “What a find! I wish we could get a whole team in here to study it.”

“Yeah? Why?” asked a deep and massive voice behind them.

The hairs on the backs of their necks stood up. They both slowly turned. A massive orange dragon’s face protruded from the darkness, illuminated by the firefly lamp.

Both Radish and Sky threw themselves prostrate.

“O, great dragon,” they said simultaneously, “please forgive us for disturbing you.”

“I was already awake. This mountain was an awful place for a nap. The cave up top stinks.”

“That’s the cave lilacs,” said Sky. “They release scented oil when you crush them.”

“I must’ve crushed a million of them, then. So, who’s the stiff?” the dragon asked, pointing a claw at the skeleton.

“She was a Storm Centurion,” answered Radish. “Looks like her wings were cracked.”

“By a dragon?”

“By another pony, probably,” he said. “They were sent to the these parts to hunt bandits.”

“Ponies killing ponies? That’s funny,” said the dragon, adding a toothy laugh. The laugh blew centuries of dirt off the skeleton. Radish winced at its rough treatment. Something new caught his eye in the pile. He shined the light on it.

“It’s her name tag,” he said, looking at an engraved strip of platinum.

“So?” said the dragon.

“Her name was… Willow Wagoner? Wow, the Wagoners are a super wealthy family, even to this day.”

“We talking a reward?” asked the dragon. “What’s my cut?”

“Uh…”

“The Wagoners are notoriously stingy. That’s why they’re so wealthy,” said Sky.

“Ha. That’s the way to do it. I’ll just take the platinum,” said the dragon, reaching out a claw.

“Oh. Ok,” said Radish. The Plains Rangers didn’t need a rule about never saying ‘no’ to a dragon, it was just common sense.

“Wait! Please, he needs that tag to impress his leader,” said Sky, looking at Radish. “He’s in love with her.”

“Sky, forget about her!”

“That’s all it takes to impress the pony leader?” laughed the dragon. “She sounds low-class.”

“You think that’s low-class? Check this out!”

Sky yanked down Radish’s trousers and exposed his cutie mark. The dragon squinted at it. It burst with laughter, the force of which blasted dirt from the cave floor to the back of the cave. The cloud of dust rebounded off the back wall and back over Sky, Radish, and the dragon. They all coughed.

The light caught more reflective objects now exposed by the blast. There were five other armored skeletons.

“The rest of the centurions!” exclaimed Radish as he rushed to examine them. “This one is Sandy Stick! Look! That’s Robin Grayskies! Sunbonnet! They’re all here!”

“More platinum for me!” said the dragon. “Now, claw it over.”

Radish sighed.

“Yeah. All right.”

“Wait!” said Sky. “I can tell you where a much better cave is. It’s full of cave mites.”

“I love the feel of cave mites. Where?”

“I’ll trade you. I’ll tell you if leave us and these remains intact. Isn’t a good sleep better than some tiny platinum bits?”

“Hmm…”

“And I’ll throw in these jalapeño chews,” she said, holding up her bag.

The dragon sniffed them. He lashed out his tongue and slurped them up, leaving a fat trail of saliva on her hoof. She shook it off.

“Deal,” he said, chewing. “The cave?”

“Three mountains south, the one with striped cliffs. South side, about a third of the way down. It’s hidden by briars.”

The dragon slipped away.

“Sky!” gasped Radish. “You could have got us killed!”

“But it all works out. The dragon gets a nicer cave, on the other side of the lakes. My tribe gets a major archeological find, and you get enough fame to become the toast of Canterlot.”

“Then what do you get?”

She looked at his face in the glowing light. She brushed some dirt off his uniform.

“I get to help you. You were never going to stay here for long. Most ponies join the Rangers because dragon-watching sounds impressive. They all move on when they feel they’ve got enough glorious stories to take back with them.”

“Sky, I want to be different from that.”

“You are. You’re the only pony who’s actually needed the glory. It’s stamped on you. Now you’ve got something that’ll really impress Miss Skinny. I bet she’ll be so excited about this discovery, she’ll swoon for you and invite you into the palace as a guest of honor.”

“Sky, I don’t care about Celestia. I can shave off these cutie marks and brand the skin so they don’t grow back. I like it out here. I like hanging out at the tops of mesas with you. And we just got the lakes back.”

“Yeah. I wonder what she’d look like all wet.”

“A lot skinnier, no doubt.”

Sky laughed. She hugged him. He hugged back. They looked at each other.

“You have to go, you know. You can’t spend the rest of your life wondering what could have been.”

“I know.”

“But you can always write. Just don’t send it by hawk mail- Hoopla will have conniptions.”

“Walk me to Ranger HQ?”

“Yeah, but could you leave the chat with the dragon off the record? Both records? My chief will just get mad at you, and your sarge will just get mad at me.”

“Who’d believe it, anyway? I barely believe it. Bargaining with a dragon.”

“At least he liked your mark.”

Radish looked down at his flank.

“Guess it’s good for something.”

3. The City

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“Mr. Root, congratulations on this find. Everypony thought the Storm Centurions were lost forever.”

“‘Twern’t nothin’. I mean, it was nothing! I feel honored. But the Black Bluffs buffalo tribe deserves the real credit.”

“Uh huh. Can I get a shot of you with next to Willow?”

“Sure.”

Radish stood next to the museum case displaying Willow Wagoner’s restored and posed remains. He blinked as the photographer’s flashbulb snapped.

The Royal Museum of History was no stranger to night soirees celebrating new exhibits and acquisitions. The Wagoners, being a major contributor to the museum, had spared no expense in bringing their honored ancestor’s bones back to Canterlot as quickly as possible, restoring her armor to its ancient polish and putting Willow in a daring mid-flight pose. The rest of the Storm Centurions, however, were still being carefully excavated and studied by Sky’s tribe.

Radish had never been to Canterlot, or any large city for that matter, and was immediately dizzied by both the size and number of its glittering skyscrapers. Even finding the museum had been a challenge, and explaining to the front clerk that he was an invited VIP was an ordeal. Still, at least this one photographer seemed to understand that tonight was in honor of him.

“One other thing,” said the photographer. “Usually when we credit a pony, we include a picture of their cutie mark. Could I-”

“Could you just use the Plains Rangers emblem? I feel like that’s my mark more than anything now.”

“Sure, we do that kind of thing all the time.”

She made a note in her pad, and walked off. An expensively-suited unicorn walked up from behind Radish, looking him up and down. Radish didn’t have to do the same, he knew Worthy Wagoner from the portrait on the foyer wall.

“Hmm. Yellow earth pony from the south, afraid to show his marks. And you’d be about the right age.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re him, aren’t you? The boy with the… naughty cutie marks? I told Gemmy that really happened.”

Radish said nothing.

“To think, my ancestor’s remains were found by that boy. Let’s keep this between ourselves, shall we? I can make it worth your while.”

“Not to worry, sir. I won’t let anypony know I have anything to do with you.”

“Good boy.”

Worthy walked away, then stopped and looked at Radish over his shoulder.

“She’s not coming, you know.”

“How’s that?”

“The princess gets invitations to a hundred social functions a night. She never accepts any of them. She’s not coming here. And she certainly wouldn’t be impressed by the likes of you.”

He walked away, chortling to himself. Radish huffed off to the bar. He ordered a double malt on the rocks and knocked it back. He turned to find a large brown earth pony in the next seat, wearing the golden armor of a royal guard.

“Hey, don’t let these bozos get to you,” he said. “The only danger they’ve ever faced was running out of hors d’oeuvres.”

“Heh, good one. Say, ain’tcha, I mean, aren’t you Saguaro Shade? I’ve seen your picture in the Ranger Academy.”

“That’s me. Those were some good times.”

“And you’re in the Royal Guard now.”

“Don’t think I’ve gone soft, though. It’s a lot harder than it looks. And I don’t just mean the million-bit marble floors.”

“No, sir.”

“You ever think of becoming a guard? We get a lot of transfers from the City Watch. We could always use ponies with a little more trail dust on their hooves.”

“I have thought about it, sir.”

“The only problem is, you’d have to guard a lot of these stuffed shirts,” he said, gesturing to the crowd.

“Well, they can’t be worse than Dust Shakers during breeding season.”

“Give me a mountain of randy rattlers over the Meet-and-Gallop any day. Tell you what, come by the palace tomorrow, I’ll give you the whole sales pitch. And about those cutie marks of yours…”

“Sir?”

“The only mark that matters is the mark a pony leaves on the world. The whole flank picture thing is just for kids.”

“Well…”

“You know what I mean.”

4. The Palace

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“And that’s all you need to know for now,” said Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard. “If selected, you’d begin with ground floor duty. It’s basically watching over the tourists. I know that sounds like a demotion from what you were doing in the Plains Rangers, but the smallest job in the palace is bigger than the biggest job outside it.”

Radish had his doubts about that, but kept quietly standing at attention.

“Still, there are plenty of opportunities for advancement for ponies who distinguish themselves. And I’m liking what I’ve seen from your time in the Southern Plains. The letters from your sergeant and the local buffalo chief speak highly of you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Radish, “it was an honor to work with them.”

“There is one more thing, though. We need to talk about the bugbear in the room. Sit down.”

Radish took the seat in front of Shining Armor’s desk. Shining Armor looked at the door, and cast a spell to lock it.

“Sir?”

“Years ago, every pony in Canterlot was talking about a colt down south who got a cutie mark of the princess… engaged in sexual activity. Gossip always moves on quickly to the next thing, but I don’t forget a thing like that. You can wear all the clothes you like, but every rangepony’s mark is on file. I know the cutie mark of every pony under my command, and of every pony I’d consider for a position here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t judge a pony by his mark. We’ve seen marks of every kind in the guard, and our armor covers them, anyway. But I need to know: did you enter the Academy, join the Plains Rangers, and work your way up to apply for the Royal Guard, just to sleep with the princess?”

“Sir! I’ve had to answer this accusation in every step of my career!”

“And you’ll answer it at this one. Why do you want to be a guard?”

“To follow in Saguaro Shade’s hoofsteps, sir. He’s a legend at the academy.”

“You should know, a lot of ponies want to become guards in hopes of catching the princess’s eye. They think some heroic deed will make her fall madly in love them, then lead to a whirlwind romance, marriage, kids, whatever.

“But let’s get something straight. I don’t tolerate any inappropriate talk about her. Absolutely no one touches her. And even if you save Equestria a hundred times, even if you take a spear in the gut for the princess herself, she doesn’t owe you a thing- not a kiss, not a ‘thank you’, not even a glance.”

“I know that, sir.”

“If I thought for a moment that you posed a danger to the princess, I’d have trashed your application. But you have a fine record, and I was willing to take you on. However, the princess herself has asked to speak with you first, and it’ll be up to her. Go meet with her. Courtyard A.”

“Yes, sir.”

Radish sighed as he exited the captain’s office. He recalled where Courtyard A was, and as he started for it, he heard an angry young female voice behind him.

“You! Hey you!”

Radish turned and looked. It was a waifish purple unicorn, with a cutie mark of a large star surrounded by several sparkles. She was wearing saddlebags loaded with what looked like way too many books for her to carry alone. Although he hadn’t met her before, he knew who she was- the captain’s kid sister and Celestia’s star pupil, Twilight Sparkle.

“How may I help you, miss?” asked Radish politely.

“Don’t give me that! I know who you are! Everypony knows who you are. You’re that sicko with the gross cutie mark. What, you think the princess would do that with someone like you?”

“I’m sorry, miss,” said Radish, allowing a soupçon of sarcasm to come through his words, “but this is an inappropriate topic for discussion. Is there anything else I could help you with? Perhaps I could direct you to the nearest exit?”

“Ooh- you- you’re disgusting! If you so much as go near the princess, I’ll turn you into a-”

“Twilight! That’s enough!” yelled Shining Armor, emerging from his office. “You don’t go around picking fights with ponies in the palace!”

“Shining! How could you even think of letting this… this… pervert in here?”

“I dunno, Twily, maybe I’m trying to find you a boyfriend,” Shining Armor said with a mocking grin.

“Ugh! I’m serious! Everypony knows he only came to Canterlot to try to… get with… the princess. He should be imprisoned. He should be banished. He should be defenestrated.”

Radish rolled his eyes.

“Pardon me, miss. Pardon me, captain. But I’m required elsewhere,” he said, turning to take his leave. “The princess shouldn’t be kept waiting.

Shining nodded, and Radish walked away, suppressing a smug grin. As he left, he could hear Twilight Sparkle sputter angrily and complain more to Shining Armor.

Radish walked down the halls and out into the courtyard, one of many in the palace. This one was home to several fruit trees and berry bushes, which royal gardeners tended, and royal chefs used for ingredients in royal meals. Celestia was there, sitting on a stone bench, sipping from a delicate teacup.

Radish felt his hooves get heavier and his heartbeat quicken as he approached her. He took a deep breath, stood before her, and saluted.

“Ranger Radish Root, reporting as requested, your highness.”

She looked upon him. She sipped her tea.

“Hello, Ranger Radish Root.”

“Hello, ma’am.”

“You’ve come a long way in a short time.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“And now you want to be in my Guard.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I thought I told you to drop it.”

Radish shifted his hooves uncomfortably. “Ma’am?”

Don’t. I told you we were friends all those years ago, and friends don’t lie to each other. I want you to speak freely, but honestly. You aimed your whole career path towards fucking me, didn’t you?”

“Ma’am! I…”

She gave him a glare.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, caught in her piercing eyes.

“You realize, that a princess may not sleep with a member of her Guard? You’ve applied to one of the few professions which makes what you desire impossible. Frankly, you would have had a better chance of sleeping with me if you worked at the crêpe shop down the street.”

“I imagined you’d make an exception.”

“Never.”

Radish’s gaze kept steady.

“Then, may I fetch you a crêpe?”

Celestia snickered, nearly fumbling her teacup.

“Come,” she said, scooting over to one side of the bench, “sit.”

He sat beside her. Somehow, she seemed just as tall compared to him now as when he was a young colt.

“The finest minds in Equestria have been studying cutie marks for ages, and there is still so much we don’t know. Yours was an interesting case study for them back then. They never reached any meaningful conclusions about it. May I see it again?”

He pulled back his pants, exposing his mark. She studied it.

“It hasn’t changed,” she said.

“No, ma’am.”

“My answer still hasn’t changed.”

“I understand, ma’am.”

“But you have changed.”

“Uh, thank you, ma’am?”

“That is a compliment. I’ve seen your record. As you declared you would, you have grown strong and smart. And yes, handsome.”

Radish made a tiny gasp.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“You now much more resemble the stallion in the mark.”

“Yes, ma’am. I agree.”

“I believe your cutie mark is leading you on a unique path, and I don’t know what that is. But you’ve made your choices, and I must make one now.”

She finished her tea, and put the cup aside. She looked up at an orange tree in front of them. It was tall, with branches full of lush, broad leaves and large, heavy fruit.

“That tree was a gift from the city of Balencia. The soil is different there. The climate is on a different schedule. We weren’t sure if it would even survive up here, much less thrive. But it surprised us all.”

She turned to Radish.

“It didn’t belong here. You don’t belong here. So I am giving you the same chance to thrive as this tree. Let’s see what kind of fruit that bears. Welcome to the Royal Guard, Radish Root.”

Radish stuttered, then jumped off the bench and saluted.

“Thank you, princess!”

“Dismissed. But help yourself to an orange as you go. They’re delicious.”

5. The Job

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I, Radish Root, pledge to serve and defend Equestria and its Leadership, to uphold its Constitution, to secure its Peoples from all opposers, and to discharge well and devotedly the duties of the Royal Guard. This, I swear on my honor.”


Radish guarded. Radish patrolled. Those two duties were his life now. He guarded the galleries. He patrolled the corridors. He guarded doors. He patrolled the grounds, the parapets, the perimeter, and the towers. That was what it meant to be a member of the Royal Guard.

Radish’s time in the Plains Rangers had allowed him to enter the Royal Guard at the rank of lieutenant. A lieutenant in the Rangers would have been one of the highest-ranking officers, but a lieutenant in the Guard was one of the lowest, above only cadet and private. Most cadets and privates were off-site, training in academies and in the field. The training Radish was given by his Guard superiors was geared mostly toward replacing his Ranger instincts with Guard instincts.

The Royal Guard predated Celestia, Canterlot, and Equestria itself, emerging from historical predecessors which guarded the leaders of the disparate kingdoms of the ancient Tribal Period. During the great coming-together which marked the founding of Equestria, the Guard had been known as the “E.U.P. Protective Pony Platoon”, in celebration of the new mingling of earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi. The name was obsoleted a few centuries later when the service was opened up to non-pony Equestrians, and since then griffons, zebras, bovines, donkeys, and hybrids had served.

Guards who distinguished themselves did indeed move up to guarding more important parts of the palace, including standing sentry next to Celestia herself. Guards could also be sent on long-term patrols outside Canterlot and be stationed in outposts around Equestria, forming what was known as the Royal Excursionary Forces, or REFs. Equestria did not officially have a standing army, but unofficially, there were entire fighting herds around the nation ready to mobilize at a minute’s notice. A robust network of courier pegasi, supplemented by messenger birds, kept the kingdom connected.

There were rumors of other more covert investigative and enforcement organizations working in and out of the palace, which intrigued Radish. He was certain there really was a “Royal Spymaster” somewhere in the palace, an idea that his fellow guards were split on. Those kinds of rumors gave the palace an air of mystique, which Radish badly needed as he did his duty.

As Shining Armor had said, most of his duties involved handing tourists. He had never handled tourists in his life. The Southern Plains would get visitors, campers, birders, herpers, surveyors, prospectors, and strays, but none of them called themselves tourists. Radish had grown up assuming the term was derogatory.

He now was responsible for the safety of hundreds of tourists a day. The Royal Palace (also called “Canterlot Castle”) allowed sightseers, both guided and free-roaming, to visit its ballrooms, galleries, grounds, legislative chambers, hedge maze, and sculpture garden. Radish stayed out of the sculpture garden if he could avoid it- something about the statuary there made him uneasy.

Radish had just finished helping a tourist read their map for the fourth time since his shift began. He checked his pocketwatch and realized he was behind in his patrol of the south corridors. He pushed through one of the palace’s many massive double doors, and made his way down a hall flanked on both sides by suits of armor. Tourists were forbidden from this hall- the suits were unsecured, fragile, and their halberds had a tendency to fall over from the vibrations of a passing pony.

“Mister! Hey, Mister!” he heard a youthful voice call to him.

“Who goes- oh. Hello, Young Master Spike. What can I do for you?”

A tiny purple dragon scampered up to him. Found as a lost egg, Spike was the adoptive brother and academic assistant of Twilight Sparkle. Supposedly, Princess Celestia had a role in raising him, as well. She had magically imbued his natural dragon fire with the ability to transport documents as smoke, making him one of the fastest means of communication in Equestria, a power he frequently used to communicate with the princess, bypassing and having priority over all other methods.

This made his station in the royal court rather ambiguous, as he had personal ties to the highest echelon of power in Equestria, but was still an underage scribe who slept in a repurposed dog bed. He, like Twilight, had free rein of most of the palace, and had duties that had him interacting with officials throughout. It was possible he was actually in the line of succession. Radish had asked his superiors to clear up his exact position (and Twilight’s, for that matter) but they always responded with just enough ambiguity to make him suspect they had no idea.

“You’re Radish Root, aren’t you?” he chirped excitedly.

“That’s right, sir.”

“You’ve been around dragons, haven’t you?”

“Yes, in the Southern Plains. I was responsible for monitoring a napper for over a year.”

“What was it like?”

“It was an adult male needle morph, orange, with-”

“Needle morph?”

“Dragons come in all shapes and sizes. ‘Needle’ refers to one of the most common shapes- long and narrow, with large swept-back wings and a pointed snout.”

“Can you tell what shape I’m going to grow into?”

Radish had no idea what morph Spike would grow into, if it would be a named one at all. His lack of wings at this stage was interesting, and Radish sometimes wondered if he was a true dragon, and not some close biological ally, or a hybrid thereof. But Radish didn’t need to tell him that.

“Probably one of the more powerful ones,” he said, leaning down to Spike. “A big, strong dragon with limbs like redwoods and fire like a volcano.”

Spike’s eyes were shining.

“Spike? Spike!” called out a female voice. Radish knew its shrill tone anywhere.

Twilight Sparkle trotted around a corner. Her face turned foul when she saw them.

“You!”

“Good afternoon, Lady Sparkle.”

Radish had no idea if Twilight was technically a lady of the court, or what that would even mean, but it was more fun to call her that, especially since she seemed to grit her teeth whenever he did.

“Spike, get away from him! You don’t know who that is!”

“Sure I do! He was a ranger! He’s seen dragons, Twilight!”

“He can’t tell you anything about dragons we don’t have in books, Spike. And he is not to be trusted.”

“Why not?”

“Yes, miss. Why not? Have I done something to offend?” Radish asked, adding a measure of mock hurt to his voice.

“Oh, you know exactly what you’ve done. And it’s only a matter of time before you wash out of here and slink back to the desert!”

“Dear me, miss. I do apologize! How may I set things right?” Radish threw in a touch of a Trottingham accent, just for his own amusement.

“You can hop in the moat!”

“I’m sorry, but that would tarnish my armor. Princess Celestia prefers her guards to maintain a tidy appearance.”

Twilight stammered and stomped a hoof.

“You-”

“Twilight, stop!” said Spike. “Why can’t you get along with somepony for once?”

“I don’t need to play nice with a pony who only joined the Guard to… to…”

“To what?” asked Spike.

“Yes, Lady Sparkle? What is it?”

“I can’t even say it in front of a child. That’s how bad it is!”

“Lady Sparkle, Young Master Spike, I must continue on my patrol route,” Radish said with a bow. “Please keep safe, and enjoy your visit to the palace. We love having you over.”

Radish continued on his way. Twilight Sparkle watched him go with a scowl.

“Twilight! Why’d you do that?” asked Spike. “I was learning about dragons!”

“He has nothing we need, Spike. And once I get some real pull around here, he’ll be a distant memory.”

6. The Night

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Throngs of revelers filled the palace grounds. Though Celestia was never in Canterlot for the Summer Sun Celebration, hundreds of her admirers partied at her palace each year just the same. There never had been any trouble during Summer Sun, but something about this morning felt wrong to Radish.

He scanned the crowd for anything unusual. Palace guards were each assigned a small collapsible spyglass for long-range observing. Radish hated them- they were practically the same model that were sold in the kids section of the palace’s gift shop, just with a different logo stamped on them. Radish longed for the solid feel of his Plains Rangers binoculars. He was now trying to adjust his spyglass to focus on the guests, barely able to make out faces from flanks.

A bell chimed, and the crowd began calling out the countdown to sunrise. Radish felt his haunches tense.

“Three… two… ONE!” The band struck up a celebratory song as ponies cheered and clinked champagne flutes.

The sun did not rise.

Shocked gasps rose from the gathered. Radish looked at the palace's clock tower, then his own pocket watch. The time was right, but the sky was wrong.

Is something wrong with the sun? Or... is something wrong with Celestia!?

Murmurs arose from the crowds, followed by panicked shouts. Some of the guards among them were calling for calm, and the band resumed their song to try to bring some sense of normalcy back. Some of the masses were already rushing for the exits.

Radish scanned the horizon with his spyglass. Celestia had chosen Ponyville this year, a small hamlet which was visible from Canterlot. He saw a few blurred lights from the town, but try as he might, he couldn’t make out any details as to what was happening there. Then, he saw something rushing toward the palace from the town. A pegasus guard, one who had accompanied Celestia there, was barreling toward Canterlot at an astounding pace, leaving a crackle of lightning in his wake. He barely slowed as he reached the palace, and flew right onto the balcony where Shining Armor was stationed.

This is bad.

The next hour was a blur for Radish. The first new set of orders was to get the celebrants out and secure the palace. Nothing was explained to the lower ranks. Rumors were spread, debunked, and replaced with new, worse rumors. All anyone was sure of was that something awful must have happened to Celestia. The Wonderbolts, the nation’s fastest team of fliers, were dispatched to Ponyville. A contingent of pegasus guards towing earth and unicorn guards in chariots followed. Radish wasn’t chosen to go.

A curfew was called over Canterlot. With nothing to do but stare worriedly at the sky, ponies took notice of a change in the moon. The Mare in the Moon, a dark pattern on the moon's surface in the shape of a unicorn's profile, had vanished. The rumors grew worse from there. Most ponies had some vague memory of an old pony tale about the Mare in the Moon, but none had ever sat down and read the story in its entirety, if it was ever written down at all.

The only pony who would have ever read something like that would probably be… Twilight Sparkle!

Radish found Zero, the pegasus charioteer, doing a security sweep of skies above the north wing. He called him down.

“Yes, I took Twilight Sparkle to Ponyville,” he said. “But we just dropped her and Spike off, and came back here.”

“You could have been one of the last ponies to see her. Did she say anything?”

Zero nodded.

“She spent the whole trip complaining to Spike about her assignment. She was saying something about a prophecy. She saw this coming, Rad. Nopony listened to her, not even the princess.”

“Prophecy? Can you remember any details?”

“She kept talking about a nightmare, and the moon,” Zero said, looking at the dark sky. “Wasn’t there some old myth about that? Nightmare Moon?”

“If Twilight was researching this, she may have left some records behind. Come on, we can search her study for this prophecy!”

“Our orders are to protect the palace.”

“But our job is to protect the princess. Twilight’s notes may help to do that.”

“Well, I’m not leaving my post. And you shouldn’t, either.”

He flew back up and resumed patrol. Radish looked out at Twilight’s dorm, a tall, lone tower near Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.

This won’t take long. She was always so organized.


Twilight’s dorm was more like a book depository with a bed. Radish held up a firefly lamp, and gazed at the massive collection of books arranged both neatly on shelves and piled high into seemingly-arbitrary stacks.

Twilight learned about Nightmare Moon from one of these. I just need to pick up where she left off. That will lead to Twilight, which will lead to Nightmare Moon, which will lead to Celestia.

He flipped through book after book. Twilight’s interest in reading material was vast and varied. It was not as well-organized as he imagined.

No wonder she needs a dragon assistant. What other creature has the patience to deal with all this?

He heard hoofbeats running up to the tower from outside.

“Twily!?” he heard Shining Armor call. “Is that you!?”

Oh no. He must have seen the light from the palace.

Before Radish could react, Shining Armor burst into the room with a hopeful expression on his face. He saw Radish, and his expression turned the foulest Radish had ever seen.

“Root! What the hay are you doing in my sister’s bedroom?” he demanded, advancing on Radish, his horn sparking angrily.

“She knew, captain! She knew some kind of disaster was coming! She knew something about Nightmare Moon!”

Shining Armor’s face twisted.

“And what do you know about Nightmare Moon?”

“Nothing! I thought that if-”

“We were keeping it quiet so as not to start a panic! A monstrous dark mare appeared in Ponyville. She took credit for kidnapping the princess. And my sister stood up to her and identified her as Nightmare Moon. Then Nightmare Moon attacked the guards and escaped! Both she and Twilight are missing, and now I find you abandoning your post and rummaging through her things!?”

“Twilight’s the smartest pony in town! If we follow her research-”

“Enough! You’ve disobeyed orders, broke into Twilight’s home, distracted me from my duties… and… and… whoa.”

Midday light filled the room. The sun was up. The eternal night was over, as unexpectedly as it began.

7. The Friend

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Radish dragged his scrub brush back and forth across ancient masonry. He was no stranger to cleaning duty, but cleaning the old tunnels underneath the palace, he had to admit, was a genius punishment. The layers of dirt in the tunnels were older than most of the bricks of the city above. A single stone in a wall took an enormous amount of time and exertion to clean, but at least he was learning a lot about what they looked like a thousand years ago. It turned out they used to be a slightly less darker shade of gray.

He heard light hoofbeats approaching, but kept focused on the task. Then he heard a soft voice behind him.

“Lieutenant Root?”

It was Twilight Sparkle. By now, the story had reached all corners. She had braved some preternatural forest and returned, having defeated Nightmare Moon and rescued Princess Celestia.

“I heard about what you were doing during the crisis,” she said. “I’m sorry you got into trouble on my behalf. I know you were only trying to help.”

“No, I should’ve kept to my station,” Radish said, continuing to scrub. “If I had just waited another fifteen minutes, everything would have been fine.”

“But you couldn’t have known that. During a crisis, you have to act on the best available information at the time.”

“Maybe, but that wasn’t my call. In the Plains Rangers, we had a lot of independence. If someone needed my help, I could spend all day with them. If I saw something suspicious miles away, I could check it out. Here, I need permission to scratch my, uh, nose.”

“I understand. It takes a lot of getting used to Canterlot. I’ve tried talking to Shining about it, but-”

“It’s fine. I’m lucky he didn’t kick me out.”

“He was so relieved to have the princess back, I think he was in a forgiving mood. I found you because I wanted to thank you for believing in me.”

“Believing in you?”

“I’m flattered you thought my studies alone could have helped save the day.”

“But your studies alone did save the day, didn’t they?”

“Not alone. My research led me to the Elements of Harmony, but I couldn’t have reached them, or understood their meaning, without the friends I made in Ponyville. They saw me through it all. And they taught me just how powerful friendship really is.”

She stepped a little bit closer.

“Shining said you called me the smartest pony in town. I didn’t know you had that kind of respect for me.”

“‘Respect is the currency of the plains.’ Chief Shortshadow always said that. We couldn’t have operated there unless ponies and the buffalo respected each other. We couldn’t study dragons unless we respected their power. And I’ve always respected your talents, Lady Sparkle, even if we’ve quarreled.”

It was the first time Radish called her “Lady Sparkle” not in mockery, but out of respect. He thought she deserved it.

“We got off on the wrong hoof. I got off on the wrong hoof with each of my new friends in Ponyville, too. But I learned how wonderful friendship with them could be. I would like it if we could become friends, too.”

He stopped scrubbing and looked at her, cockeyed.

“Really?”

“Really. I’m still new to this whole friendship thing, so please be patient with me if I mess up at it. I’m sorry about all those things I said about you. Could we start over?”

Radish had never seen her like this. Contrite, sincere… sweet?

He resumed scrubbing. “I’d like that, Lady Sparkle. I wanted to say how grateful I am to you for saving Equestria.”

“Oh, stop!” she said, blushing. “I got enough of that from everypony else. And please, could we drop the ‘Lady’? Just ‘Twilight’ is fine.”

“Oh. Okay… Twilight.”

She smiled. Then, she noticed a feature in the brick he was scrubbing clean. It looked like a lever surreptitiously built into the wall.

“Hey, what’s that? Is that a switch?”

“Uh huh. I’m guessing this wall opens up.”

“A secret passageway!? Why haven’t you opened it?”

She pushed him aside and put her magic aura over the switch, grasping for the right way to turn it.

“Hey! Don’t!”

It clicked, and the wall slid open, revealing a long, dark passageway. The rush of air unsettled hundreds of years of dust.

“What a cool find!” she said. “There could be anything down there!”

She shined a light from her horn, and cast a glow down the passage. There was no end in sight.

“It probably leads to the cisterns,” said Radish, sitting back.

“What cisterns?” asked Twilight.

“Before the waterfall reservoirs were built into the mountain, the palace’s water supply was collected in huge underground vaults. They’re just used for miscellaneous storage now.”

“How did you know that? I’ve been here most of my life, and I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s in the Royal Guard manual. Every part of the palace, old and new, is.”

“Wow, that’s one book I never bothered with. See, we’re learning from each other already!”

Radish stared down the long corridor.

“Now I have to clean all those walls, too,” he sighed.

“Oops. Sorry. Is there a way I can make it up to you?”

Radish thought about it.

“Well, if I ever finish down here, I’ll have free time again. And I’ve barely explored Canterlot at all.”

“I haven't seen much of Canterlot, myself. Was there some place you wanted to go in particular?”

“There’s this café in midtown that has poetry nights. I’ve always wanted to see what they’re like. But I don’t want to go alone, and I don't know anyone who's into that kind of intellectual stuff. Would you like to check it out with me sometime?”

“I’d love to!”

“Great!”

“But I can’t.”

“Oh.”

“I’m not staying in Canterlot.”

“What?”

“Twilight is moving to Ponyville, to further study the magic of friendship.”

Radish whipped around, and there was Princess Celestia. He threw himself on the floor.

“Your highness! I’m so sorry!”

“For?”

“I abandoned my post when Canterlot needed me the most.”

“I’ve been told that, during the crisis, you attempted to research what was happening. I appreciate the approach, though it’s one you should have suggested to your superiors, not taken upon yourself to do.”

“And I took all the books on Nightmare Moon with me to Ponyville, so you were kind of researching a dead end,” added Twilight.

“Oh. So much for my big heroic moment,” Radish sighed.

“Twilight, could you give us some privacy?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Twilight. She turned to Radish. “I’m sorry. I’m returning to Ponyville once I’ve packed my things. But there’s a type of friendship called ‘pen pals’. Do you think we could be each other’s?”

“That’d be great. I never get mail from friends.”

“And I’ve never had any to get mail from! This will be so fun!”

She said her goodbyes and trotted away, the glow of her horn lighting her way down the hall. Radish was then alone with Celestia, with only flickering lantern light illuminating them. He kept his head bowed.

“I’m glad to see you’re all right,” he said. “I was so worried.”

“And what were you worried about? The threat of eternal night? The cruel reign of Nightmare Moon?”

“What? None of those! I was worried about you!”

“Why? Were you afraid that with me gone, you’d never fulfill your destiny?”

“Destiny? What destiny?”

She motioned to his flank. He looked at it, not comprehending at first. Then a realization dawned on him.

“I… I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was scared for you.”

“Oh?”

“No one knew what happened to you. I kept thinking that you could have been dead, or injured, or captured. I had this image of you being frightened and alone.”

“You felt sympathy for me?”

“I guess so. Oh.”

He prostrated himself before her again.

“I’m so sorry. All this time, I've only seen you as my goal. But you were nothing but a goal to Nightmare Moon, weren't you? You were right- I don't belong here. Guards should protect the princess from ponies who just... see her as their goal."

“Stand up.”

He lifted himself and looked at her. She was smiling.

“I’m glad to hear you’ve learned something. It took an emergency for Twilight to learn something important, as well. The magic of friendship saved me, her, and my sister.

“Twilight has promised to send me reports of what she learns about friendship. I would like you to put to parchment what you learned today, as well. Five hundred words minimum. Due in two days.”

“Yes, ma'am. Wait, you have a sister?”

“You’ll see.”

8. The Sister

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Dear Radish,

Greeting from Ponyville! I’m still getting used to this town- everything is so different from Canterlot! But everypony’s been really nice. My new friends are taking me out on the lake today. I’ll tell you all about them in subsequent letters. I can't wait for you to meet them!

Independent study also takes some getting used to. It feels strange to be learning without classes, schedules, and teachers, but it’s also pretty exciting getting to chart my own syllabus. I’m practicing spells that my old professors said were too advanced for me. I think I’ve almost cracked a new one today.

Please continue to take care of my brother, Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna, too! It’s so exciting to have a new princess in the world. Princess Celestia was overjoyed to get her sister back.

I can’t wait to hear insights into palace life from the boots on the ground. If you have any insights into friendship as well, I’d love to hear those, too.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle



Shining Armor’s second-in-command was a powerfully-built, pumpkin-orange pegasus named Barrel Roller. Her voice always had a hint of annoyance in it, though Radish could never be sure who she was annoyed with. Radish thought it was best to always assume it was him.

He now sat before her desk, which was always piled high with papers that overflowed its edges. She looked at him with a bored expression on her face.

“So, Root, how’s the tunnel scrubbing going?”

“I’m about to reach the first T-junction. I plan to take the left corridor.”

“Uh huh. Keep at it. But seeing as you’re accustomed to working in the dark, I’ve got a special assignment for you. You’re on the Night Shift this week. The Night Shift. You know what that is, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Make sure Princess Luna isn’t disturbed. By anything. That means you guard her tower as silently as possible. Even the clanking of your armor might upset her.”

“I don’t clank my armor, ma’am.”

“Uh huh. Do you know what could happen if she’s upset?”

“I have an inkling, ma’am.”

“Let’s not risk it. If all goes well, you won’t even see her. But if she asks for something, treat it like the order came from Celestia herself. And don’t do anything to make her feel out-of-date. Don’t comment on the way she talks- it’s old-timey and she’s using the royal we, and that’s just fine with you. And for Celestia’s sake, don’t bring up Nightmare Moon.”

Radish had read all these warnings in a memo issued by Shining Armor. But this wasn’t the first time a superior had repeated something Radish was already supposed to know, and Radish knew it wouldn’t be the last.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“By the way, Celestia graded your, uh, homework.”

She passed Radish back his own typewritten essay to Celestia. It now had numerous red markings on it. He scored an 87, with most points off for spelling, punctuation, and questionable grammatical choices. He flipped to the end, and Celestia’s summation was that he properly understood his lesson. Radish breathed a sigh of relief.

“I normally wouldn’t send a B+ guard to protect a princess, but she’s found fault in about half the ponies I’ve assigned to her. So, she can try you on for size.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll do an A+ job guarding her.”

Barrel Roller made a noise inside her throat that made it clear whom she was annoyed with now.


Radish gazed up at Princess Luna’s tower. Though the night was too warm and humid for his liking, the tower, which actually had the little-used name, “Selenic Spire”, seemed to chill the air around it. It stood off by itself in a quiet corner of the palace grounds.

It was one of the tallest buildings in the palace. The exterior was made of intricate brickwork trimmed in blue and silver. The tower had a scant few windows, and a single balcony on the topmost floor, which now jutted out over Radish's head. It was the balcony of the master bedroom. Somewhere up there, a mystery lived.

Radish entered the tower and checked in with the duty officer. He ascended the long spiral staircase running clockwise up the center of the tower.

Radish hated spiral staircases. Like the mountainside trails of the Southern Plains, they left him completely exposed from the side. Even worse, the path was linear, with only forwards or backwards to go if under attack. He looked down the vast well hole the stairs curved around.

This place was built for alicorns, all right. Something with wings could go up and down in seconds. Legs take ages. They could put a lift right in the middle. It would make traversal faster for legs, give the stairs cover from the sides, and block unauthorized flyers. They should have done it a long time ago.

He reached the top of the spiral, and passed through a heavy wooden door flanked by two silent guards. The corridor beyond was kept dark, with only slivers of moonlight making it through a thin window along the top of the wall. He waited for his eyes to adjust, then continued.

He relieved the guard standing partway down the hall. While guards typically worked in pairs, this hall was too narrow for it, built on principles of magic architecture that few understood anymore. He would guard it alone.

At the end of the hall was the oak door to Princess Luna’s bed chambers. It was decorated with an elaborate carving, though Radish couldn't make out what it was in the dark. He dared not approach it for a better look- he had been ordered not to get any closer to Luna's bedroom than halfway down the hall. He moved into his position, then turned and stood in the dim light.

A guard’s primary weapon was a collapsible, telescoping short spear. While on patrols, it was kept in a compact form on the guard’s back, snapping under the saddle plate. While standing guard, it was extended and held at one’s side. There were other weapons available to guards who had cleared the training for them, and Radish longed for the day he would be allowed a sword. He now held his spear in hoof, and it felt as flimsy as his spyglass.

Okay. Just a few hours standing alone here, with the princess of the night one room over, and only a pointy stick to fight whatever jumps out of the darkness.

Little had been told to him, or the public, about Princess Luna. After the blast from the Elements of Harmony wore off, a thousand years of atrophy caught up to her. Her tower, which had stood sealed and untenanted for a millennium, was reopened, aired out, and refurbished for her recuperation. Since then, she rarely, if ever, left her bedroom.

Some of the palace staff were saying she was seriously, maybe permanently ill. Some said she had died, and the guarding was only done to keep up appearances. Some said she was reverting to Nightmare Moon beyond that door.

Radish stood, waited, and focused his senses. He thought he could hear her, or something, shuffling around the bedroom. The fur on the back of his neck stood straight.

The door creaked open. Radish spun around and stood at attention, gripping his spear extra tight.

“Guardstallion. We require thee,” said a slow whisper.

Radish collapsed his spear and snapped it onto his back. He approached the door, now ajar by a few inches. He could see the carving on the door now- it was an arrangement of the constellations in the sky over a city- a city that wasn't Canterlot, but ancient and unknown to Radish. He pushed open the door and stepped inside.

The inside of Luna’s room was vast and lit by the moonlight pouring in from large windows and balcony doors, all wide open.

Why have us guard the stairs when the room is open to the sky? Anything could fly in.

In the center of the room stood the shadowed figure of Princess Luna. She was much smaller than Celestia- only a little bit taller than Radish. She had a short blue mane that hung limply around her face. She wore regalia- a black tiara and peytral which seemed to weigh heavy and fit loose on her lean frame. She was staring at him.

“We are Princess Luna,” she simply said.

“Yes, ma’am. How may I serve you?”

“Thou art the one called Radish Root, art thou not?”

“Yes, princess.”

“We have heard the most disturbing rumor about thee.”

“I’m… sorry?”

“Remove thy barding. Show us thy supracutaneous marking.”

“Ma’am, I-”

“Do it!”

Radish sighed, and lifted up his armor to show her his cutie mark. She approached, leaning in to stare at it until her face was mere centimeters away. She drew back and angrily narrowed her eyes at his. He dropped his armor back down.

“What is the meaning of this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Art thou our sister’s betrothed?”

“No.”

“Has Celestia fallen from grace, and is now the subject of mockery?”

“Never.”

“Have cutie marks sunk so low in the past one thousand years, that wanton acts are now commonly depicted?”

“It’s just my mark, ma’am.”

“What is thy talent, then?”

“I don’t know. It appeared in my sleep. I never figured out why.”

“Didst thou become a guardstallion to bed Celestia?”

Radish winced and turned away. Luna circled him like a predator.

“Answer.”

“Yes.”

“Is she aware?”

“Yes.”

“What response had she?”

“It was a ‘no’ from her, ma’am.”

“A ‘no’ from her. We see.”

She walked away from him, over to her balcony. She gazed up at the moon.

“Guardstallion, there was a time when we were so envious of our sister, we lost ourselves in our own darkness.”

She turned back to him.

“But if this is where her popularity leads, then perhaps our obscurity is not such a misery. We are at least happy to be spared of that humiliation,” she said, thrusting a hoof toward his flank.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She stalked up to him.

“Guardstallion, this recuperation is interminable. Our body is feeble. We can barely stand, much less fly. Our magic is weaker than a yearling’s. Celestia visits us but twice a day, for the dullest of conversations and the blandest of teas. We have no other callers than doctors and servants. We have the same books on our shelves as a thousand years ago. There is nothing else in here but reminders of our own failures.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“How long dost thou guard our door?”

“I rotate to a different section in four hours. I’m guarding your tower all this next week.”

“That will be changed.”

“Ma’am?”

“Let the others scurry about below how they please. We want thee outside our door all night long, so that when we are in need of cheering, we may look upon thy cutie mark again. This will continue as long as we deem it.”

“Oh. Yes, ma’am.”

“Show it now.”

He lifted his armor. She stared at his mark for an uncomfortably long time.

“We are cheered. Return to thy post.”




Dear Twilight Sparkle,

Today I made a new friend. She's old-fashioned, and a bit on the serious side, but she's really fascinating to hang out with.
She's been pretty down lately, so I'm looking for ways to lift her mood. She mentioned that she’d like to get some new books for her place. I was wondering if you could recommend some good ones for her. Something long and engaging- she has a lot of free time.

Your Pen Pal,

Lt. Radish Root

9. The Paradigm

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"Keep still, guardstallion."

"Yes, ma'am."

Radish held his breath and closed his eyes. Luna had called him in near the end of his shift for a viewing of his cutie marks. She was staring so closely at his flank, he could feel her breath spread his fur.

"Tell us, how did Celestia remark upon seeing these?"

"Well, she said it looks consensual."

"Indeed it does. But why would Celestia consent to an act such as this with one such as thee?"

"I, uh, always hoped she'd want to because I was... handsome?"

Luna walked in front of Radish and peered down at his face. He leaned back. She cocked her eyebrows.

"And dost thou still desire her, guardstallion?”

“I try not to think about it. I know it will never happen.”

“That is wise. It will not. Has thou, then, another mare in thy sights? Mayhap a guardmare, or palace serving wench?”

“Oh, palace personnel aren’t supposed to date each other.”

“‘Date’?”

“Uh, court each other.”

“Why not?”

“You know, the rulebook didn’t say why. It just said not to.”

“‘Tis commendable that thou obey without question. Thy superiors know best."

"Yes, your highness."

"Dawn is nearly upon us. We must retire now. That will be all, lieutenant.”

"Aye, ma'am."

The sun was up by the time Radish had exited the tower. He strolled across the castle's outer wall. He shielded his eyes from the sun and looked out south. That was the direction of Ponyville, where Twilight Sparkle was studying. It always looked so peaceful.

Something caught his eye. Out of the mountain range far west of Ponyville, a plume of black smoke was pouring out one of the peaks and pooling in the skies.

Radish tried to get his spyglass on it. It barely looked closer. He ran to the spotting scope mounted nearby. He got the mountain in the center, and adjusted the coarse and fine focus knobs. He couldn’t see where the smoke was coming from, but he knew what it was coming from.

Oh no. Not here.

Commander Barrel Roller flew up behind him.

“Root! You’re-! I see you’ve seen the problem.”

“Dragon, ma’am. Probably a stray napper.”

He looked up.

“What are our orders?”

“Report to the captain. There’s a plan in the works.”

Radish entered Shining Armor’s office. Shining Armor was at his desk, with Celestia standing to one side and Saguaro Shade at the other. A large map of Equestria was laid out over the desk, along with several books, scrolls, and reports.

“Did you see?” asked Shining Armor.

“Yes, sir. Dragon. Likely taking a nap. It could last anywhere from one year to over a hundred.”

“The princess has a plan, but we wanted to hear your opinion on the matter before we begin.”

“Mine?”

“Saguaro Shade's idea. Says it’s a test for you.”

Saguaro Shade nodded and said, “Go on, Root. Show them what you bring to the table.”

“I see. Well, a solo Excursionary could get close to assess the…”

Celestia stepped forward.

“No. This will be a test for Twilight Sparkle and her friends, as well. I’ve decided to send them in to handle it.”

Radish stammered.

“You want to use Elements of Harmony against a dragon? I don’t know much about how they work, but I thought they heal emotional bonds. This dragon is only sleeping- it’s not being malicious.”

“You misunderstand. They will not be attacking, they will ask the dragon nicely to leave.”

Radish’s skin crawled and his heart dropped into his stomach.

“I… I see. That’s never been done before, but if you have that kind of confidence in them…”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Shining Armor, “are you forgetting? We have a secret weapon. A dragon of our own to talk to it!”

Radish’s mind reeled.

“You don’t mean… you can’t put Spike in front of that dragon!” he cried.

Celestia and Shining leaned back in surprise. Saguaro Shade smiled.

“Wanna explain why?” asked Shining Armor.

“Sir, ma’am, we’re probably in an egg-hatching season. Which means a single stray dragon is likely trying to get away from the all the newly-hatched baby dragons. The noise, the smell, the responsibility- it wants nothing to do with the younglings. Showing up with a baby dragon may enrage it and put the team in danger.”

“What are you talking about, Root? Dragons love their babies, they don’t shirk them.”

“Sir, dragon eggs are hatched in a communal nursery and cared for by a select few who are suited for it. The rest of the adults have little interaction with them- parents may never have any strong relationships with their offspring as ponies define them. Those with roosts too close to the nursery may leave to go find peace elsewhere. That’s probably what our napper is doing.”

“Where are you getting all this? We don’t have this information anywhere.”

“It’s buffalo lore, sir.”

“You mean it’s unsubstantiated.”

“Almost all dragon knowledge is. There have been very few dragon encounters over the years. They don’t converse. You can’t experiment on them. And it’s a field of study where the subject can eat the researcher. All we have to go on is rumor that gets slowly confirmed or debunked over time. The buffalo have the oldest rumors and have had the longest time to test them. They’ve sometimes lost whole tribes to learn one fact.”

“You realize what you’re saying goes against what’s in the Codex Magnus, right? It says that dragons form tight family bonds from egg to death.”

“You… you still use the Codex Magnus!?”

“Any reason why we shouldn’t?”

“It’s a fake, sir.”

Shining Armor and Celestia looked at each other, surprised. They both looked at Saguaro Shade. He nodded.

“Explain yourself,” said Shining to Radish.

“The Rangers threw out the Codex years ago. It’s useless,” Radish replied.

“Flash Magnus was one of Equestria’s greatest heroes.”

“But he didn’t write the Codex. It was written decades after his disappearance.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“The Rangers have analyzed the text. It uses words that weren’t known in Flash Mangus’s time. It refers to events that he couldn’t have known about. And it describes dragons in terms that we know to be false. It claims they wear the hides of their kills. It says their scales light up when they breathe fire. It claims they vote for their leaders, for Celestia’s sake!”

Celestia looked at him, puzzled.

“Uh, just an expression, ma’am.”

“If all this is true, why haven’t we heard about any of it?” asked Shining.

Radish breathed in, exasperatedly.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know. I thought everypony knew this by now.”

Shining Armor turned back to Saguaro Shade.

“Well? Is what he’s saying true?”

“They went back and forth on it in my day, trying to salvage some parts as authentic, or written by ponies who knew Flash, and so on. But no Ranger was ever helped by a single line of the Codex Magnus.”

Shining Armor frowned.

“We read the Codex to Spike growing up,” he muttered. “He loved those stories.”

“Radish, what would you recommend?” asked Celestia.

“No one should ever approach a sleeping dragon. That’s Rule One.”

“Not around here, Root,” said Shining, shaking his head. “If we don’t get rid of that dragon, we lose almost all of Central Equestria to a hundred years of smoke. We’re sending in the girls. I want to know what you think they should do when they get there.”

“Okay. Here goes.”

Shining’s horn glowed as he lifted a quill.

“To talk to a dragon, you have to flatter it.”

Shining Armor wrote down “charm”.

“An offering of food can take the edge off.”

Shining wrote down “apples”.

“Dragons like dark humor and dirty jokes.”

Shining wrote, “make it laugh”.

“And whatever you do, don’t attack it. Don’t touch its hoard, either.”

Shining stopped writing.

“Well, I thought that would be obvious.”

“It can be reasoned with, as long as it’s shown respect. The best thing to do is recommend a better cave. They’ll have to scout for one if they don’t know of one. Look for cave mites especially, while avoiding lilacs.”

Celestia floated a quill to the page and wrote, “Just let Fluttershy handle it”. Shining nodded to her and turned it face-down on his desk.

“Thank you, Root. I think we have enough.”

“Sir, I could go with them-”

“You’re a guard here, Root.”

“Yes, sir.”

Radish stepped out of Shining’s office. Saguaro Shade followed him.

“Well, sir? How’d I do?”

“You said more or less what I would’ve said. Nice to see the Academy is still giving a proper education. And it’s always fun to hear you break out of that kiss-ass voice you do.”

“Sir, the Codex Magnus?”

“I don’t get to pick and choose what the captain read growing up. And it’s going to be a while before they start printing it with the proper caveats.”

“Sir, this plan of theirs is really dangerous.”

“You’ll get no argument from me. But the captain and the princess will also get no argument from me once their minds are made up, ever.”

“Twilight Sparkle is a friend of mine. She should be going in with guards, not party planners and dressmakers.”

“Root, this is a new paradigm. I don’t fully get it, but it’s not our place to question it. Out loud, at least.”

“Yes, sir.”

“By the way, I’m a bit curious about some of those factoids you were spittin’. I don’t believe I’ve seen anything about dirty jokes in the Ranger annals.”

“It’s, uh, something the Black Bluffs believe. They haven’t cleared it for publication yet.”

“Yeah? You were with them when that dragon did a resettle, weren’t you? Were lilacs involved in that?”

“We… had our suspicions.”

“Root, if there was a first-order dragon encounter, HQ should have been informed.”

“I’ve said all I can say about it, sir.”

Saguaro Shade sighed.

“I know what that means. I won’t pry. But can you tell me if we’re sending those six girls in with the best information we have?”

“We are. That’s what terrifies me.”


Twilight Sparkle led her friends Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Fluttershy up a dusty mountain path. She read over the letter Celestia had sent her for the tenth time as they walked.

“Can anypony tell me why we’re going to talk to a dragon without bringing Spike? You know, our own dragon?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Indeed,” said Rarity. “I was so hoping for a chance to spend some quality time with him.”

“Princess Celestia consulted Radish Root on it. He thinks the dragon would be adverse to meeting a baby of its own kind,” answered Twilight.

“Radish Root?” asked Rainbow Dash. “Isn’t he the one with, you know…”

She pointed to her cutie mark, then made a series of obscene gestures. Pinkie Pie giggled.

“Lay off, Rainbow Dash,” said Twilight. “He’s a friend. And he’s studied dragons.”

“Well, excuse me. You’ve got to admit, it’s pretty weird.”

“Now, that ain’t fair, Rainbow,” admonished Applejack. “A feller can’t help it if’n his cutie marks are, uh, odd.”

“Odd? I’ve heard they’re positively pornographic!” said Rarity. “Have you ever seen them, Twilight?”

“I may have peeked at his file once. Before we were friends.”

“And?”

And I don’t think they’re relevant to this mission. Look, he’s recommended several strategies for dealing with the dragon- humor, charm, throwing apples at it. And lastly, he thinks Fluttershy will be instrumental in accomplishing our goal. Don’t fall behind, Fluttershy, we’re depending on you.”

“Okay,” squeaked Fluttershy.


From a corner of the palace walls, Radish watched the mountains through a scope. The smoke had stopped. He couldn’t see the cave mouth, or the six mares, who had apparently reached it. Then, a streak of red cut through the sky. Radish looked up to reacquire it, then got the scope back on it.

A magnificent red dragon flew away from the mountains. Radish tried to memorize as many of its field marks as he could before it disappeared into the clouds. He pulled out a small notepad and scribbled down his observations.

“Once a Ranger, always a Ranger, eh, Root?” said Saguaro Shade from behind him.

“Did you see it, sir? Adult needle morph. Red, underparts gold. That might be a known one! If only I had a good look at its head. It was too far to sex it.”

“Root, six untrained ponies have just done what generations never dared try. They woke up a dragon and convinced it to leave.”

“I’m amazed, sir. This opens up whole new lines of research. If we throw out Rule One, we can learn more about dragons in a day than we have in a decade.”

“Let’s hope we don’t have to do this again. Still, you should be proud of yourself.”

“Me?”

“They did go in following your advice. And I’m sure they can tell you what sex it was.”

Radish thought on this.

“Sir, a lot of folks think those six are just one-hit wonders. That they got lucky with Nightmare Moon. But they’re for real, aren’t they? A new party of adventuring heroes. Like in olden times. They can do some real good out there.”

“That’s more optimism than I can muster, Root. But I’m impressed with them today.”

“Makes you wonder what they’ll do next.”



Dear Twilight Sparkle,

Congratulations on your successful mission to speak with the dragon. I’m relieved everypony came out safely.

I’m being told that the details of your encounter with the dragon are being classified secret, so I won’t ask about how it went down. Just know that everyone here in the palace is enormously proud of you and your team.

I hope Spike wasn’t upset about being left behind. I’m sure he’ll get to go on the next adventure.

Your Pen Pal,

Radish Root

10. The Buddy

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Radish sat on a bench in the guards’ locker room, polishing his armor in preparation for his shift. A fellow guard- a tall, eggshell-white unicorn named Spatterdash- sat on the bench next to him, polishing his own armor with much more gusto.

“And now… perfect!” said Spatterdash, gazing at his face in the mirrored surface of his peytral. “Who’s that handsome guy?”

A snaking plume of smoke drifted into the room, then stopped in front of Radish. It curled into a ball and burst into a flash of light. A sealed scroll dropped at Radish’s feet. He picked it up and read its addressee tag.

“What on earth is that?” asked Spatterdash.

“Dragon mail. Spike can send documents through his fire breath.”

He put it in his saddle bags.

“You’re not going to read it?”

“I’ll save it. It’ll give me something to read on break.”

“Spike is kind of like a royal official, right? It could be important.”

“It’s marked as just personal.”

“You don’t seem too enthused to be getting personal mail magically delivered from the kingdom’s only dragon scribe.”

Radish sighed.

“Spike keeps writing me asking about dragons,” he said.

“Makes sense. Everypony, uh, I mean, everybody should know their heritage.”

“His parents- his pony parents- raised him reading from the Codex Magnus. It’s an ancient text about dragons that’s totally bunk.”

“So, he wants better info about dragons?”

“Yeah, but Twilight’s already given him everything the Plains Rangers have published.”

“But the Rangers don’t publish everything they know, do they?”

“We’re… I mean, they’re, not allowed to publish things they can’t prove.”

“Which is a ton of stuff, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s all things I’d hate to tell Spike. For example, he’s asked about how his egg could have ended up in Equestria.”

“A griffon peddler showed up with it one day, right?”

“That’s the story the older guards tell. Shining’s ordered me not to repeat it to Spike or Twilight Sparkle. I don’t think Celestia wants her to know the story, either.”

“Oh? The story is that bad?”

“The griffon supposedly said she found the egg by a riverbank. Claimed not to know what it was. But Celestia did. When she told the peddler that dragon trafficking was illegal, the peddler just put the egg down and bolted, never to be seen again.”

“And I suppose the Rangers have their own ideas about that?”

Radish looked around the locker room, then lowered his voice.

“No griffon can snatch a dragon egg and live. And egg guardians don’t misplace eggs. But they do discard non-viable ones. Or ones that appear non-viable.”

“And Spike’s egg appeared non-viable?”

“It sure needed a lot of magic to hatch. If the guardian thought an egg was no good, they’d just kick it out of the hatching grounds. It could have rolled into a lava flow, and lava flows into rivers…”

“And then the griffon finds it. So, not something the little tyke would want to hear.”

“I can’t tell him he was discarded. It would break his heart. Twilight Sparkle would hate me. The captain would be furious. Princess Celestia would be, too.”

“So, what, you just lie to the kid?”

“It’s just speculation, anyway. Not something he needs to be burdened with.”

“Wouldn’t you want to know if you were him?”

“Is it even my place to tell him?”

“Well, what are you going to tell him?”

Radish thought about it.

“I could get him to focus on something else. The positives of dragonkind.”

“Which are?” Spatterdash asked.

“Hmm. The Long Runner buffalo tribe thinks some dragons live by a personal code of honor. I could put out feelers, see if they’ll share what they know about it.”

“Code of honor, huh? That would be better to hear than, ‘oh, your kind just thought you were trash’.”

Another trail of smoke flew to Radish and coalesced into a scroll.

“Oh, this one is actually marked urgent,” Radish said.

He opened it.

Radish- please disregard the previous letter. I think I’ve figured it out. Signed, Spike.

Radish withdrew the previous letter and opened it.

“He was asking for romantic advice. Like I’d have any.”

“Romantic? Wait, is he interested in ponies?”

“I’d expect so. He was hatched in a room full of unicorns. I’ve always wondered if he imprinted on them.”

The door opened, and Shining Armor stuck his head in. Radish and Spatterdash stood to salute him.

“Did I see dragon smoke come in here?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. Personal mail. I was going to look at it on my next break,” said Radish.

“Probably about that Rarity girl. I keep telling him he’s too good for her.”

“Oh?”

“You can tell him that, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

Shining Armor left. Spatterdash raised an eyebrow.

“You gonna tell him that?” he whispered.

“I’m in no position to give any romantic advice,” Radish whispered back.

“Yeah? Why not?”

Radish gave him a look, then lifted up his saddle blanket and pointed to his cutie mark.

“Oh, right. Her. Uh, none of us wanted to be the one to tell you this, but you say her name in your sleep. A lot.”

“I dream about her. A lot.”

“Well, don’t worry. You’ll get over her.”

“What if I never do? What if these cutie marks drive me insane?”

“Root-”

“Call me ‘Radish’.”

“Radish, a lot of us have had crushes on PC at one point or another. It’s normal. It’s healthy. But it’s not forever. You’ll move on.”

“Spatterdash…”

“Call me ‘Spats’.”

“Spats, she’s the ultimate mare. How do you move on from the best?”

“‘Best’ doesn’t mean ‘best for you’. But there is a mare out there who is.”

Radish thought this over.

“Yeah, maybe. Thanks. But I still don’t know what I’m going to tell Spike. I don’t know what’s best for him.”

“Well, I-”

Another scroll popped into existence in Radish’s face. He grit his teeth and read it.

“Oh! He’s excited! He helped out Rarity at her shop, so she’s going to show him her gem cave!”

“Isn’t he too young for that?”

Radish and Spats shared a laugh.



Dear Spike,

I’m happy things are going well with Miss Rarity. I’m afraid I don’t have any romantic advice to offer, but my buddy Spats thinks that well-polished scales will turn anypony’s head. I’ve enclosed a sample of his favorite armor shine. Let me know how it goes.

Sincerely,

Lt. Radish Root

P.S., I’ve heard from the Long Runners. I’ve enclosed what they believe are examples of a “Noble Dragon Code”. What do you think? Do any speak to you?

11. The Moon

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Dear Radish,

It’s great that you’ve been making new friends in the palace. I’m starting to realize how many friends I could have made during all the time I spent there. I’m glad that I made at least one before I left.

Now that I’m a librarian, sharing books is one of my most favorite ways of breaking the ice with a stranger- which, as Pinkie Pie says, is just another word for a friend you haven’t met!

Radish rolled his eyes, then continued reading.

I’ve included in this package a wide variety of books for your friend. Don’t worry about returning them- these are from my own collection, and you can consider them a gift. Let me know which ones your friend likes the most!

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle



Radish entered Selenic Spire and met the duty officer at his desk.

“Ah, finally. Princess Luna has been asking after you since she woke up.”

“But she knows my schedule, right? I always start thirty minutes before sunset.”

“Oh, I love to tell princesses they’re too impatient. And they love to hear it, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What’cha got there?” he asked, pointing to Radish’s saddlebags.

“She mentioned wanting some new books. Twilight Sparkle sent me a whole bunch.”

“I’ll need to check them.”

Radish piled the books on his desk. The duty officer went through them. He picked up a pulp jungle adventure novel with a gold pegasus on the cover.

“Too intense for her.”

He put it aside. He picked up a gothic ghost story.

“Too reminiscent of Nightmare Moon.”

He put it aside. He picked up a war epic.

“Too intense, and too reminiscent of Nightmare Moon.”

“Are we allowed to censor Lady Sparkle’s gifts to Princess Luna?”

“Censor? Who’s censoring?” he said, putting most of the books in his drawer and closing it. “But the rest of these are fine.”

Radish put the remaining books in his bag and climbed to Luna’s hall. As he entered, her door creaked open.

“Guardstallion Root, to our side.”

“Yes, princess.”

He entered her room. She looked at him expectantly.

"Okay," he said, and started to unbuckle his armor.

"Nay, we need not the levity of thy cutie marks tonight," she said. "For tonight, we-"

She noticed his saddlebags.

“What dost thou have in thy satchels?”

“Oh! You mentioned wanting some new books. A friend sent me some.”

Radish opened his saddlebags and arranged the books on one of Luna’s tables. She stared at their covers, one by one.

“Boarding school adventure tales? A biography of a mathematician? A detective story set at a racetrack? Guardstallion Root, thy friend’s tastes are wanting.”

“Hmm. Sorry.”

“Make sure you tell them that.”

“Okay.”

“What’s this one?”

She picked up a dark purple book and stared at the illustration on its cover, then flipped to its back. Radish recalled it being some kind of courtly romance tale of knights and high-class ladies.

“This… may keep our interest. Thank you, guardstallion. Thy gift is appreciated.”

“You’re welcome.”

She looked at the longcase clock against the wall.

“‘Tis about time to begin. Guardstallion Root, we have important business tonight. Dost thou know our unique talent?”

“Raising the moon?”

“Indeed. That duty has fallen to our sister lo these past thousand years. We are now ready to assume that function once more.”

“That’s wonderful!”

“Truly. But now we need our technique assessed. We must know the opinion of the common pony. Watch us raise the moon, and provide critique. Behold it now.”

She trotted onto her balcony, and Radish followed. Luna’s horn glowed with a deep indigo aura. The moon flew from below the horizon and stopped high in the sky. Luna turned to Radish.

“Well?”

“I kind of wish it was… slower.”

“Slower? Thou wish ponykind to see us perform our duties lazily? Hesitantly? Feebly?”

“No, it’s just that… I like seeing it in motion. I don’t like it when I just blink and miss it.”

“So, ‘tis a spectacle you desire. And Celestia raises it too fast for thy liking?”

“Yes.”

“And she handles the sun the same way?”

“Yes, it just pops up. But you can’t look at the sun, anyway.”

Luna looked at the moon.

“Then we have this advantage over Celestia. Our talent may be looked upon in wonder, while all eyes must shun hers. We have never considered this.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Now, behold- we will attempt anew.”

She thrust the moon back down below the horizon. Then, she closed her eyes and concentrated. Her horn glowed again, but softer.

The moon rose up elegantly. It slowed as it approached its apex, and stopped so gently, Radish had to keep staring to make sure it was done moving.

“Is it to thine liking?”

“That was amazing. I’ve never seen it like that before.”

“We are in agreement. The moon is beautiful, and should move gracefully, like a partner in a dance. The sun is utilitarian, like a common wall sconce. Let Celestia spring her sun on ponies, with its demands of daily toil. The moon will rise gently as a song, calling to all that beautiful night is upon them.”

“That’s why ponies love the moon. The gentleness. The peace and quiet. It means they don’t have to do anything but sleep.”

“This is the lesson we needed. We had once believed that sleeping ponies were shunning our night. But they were truly enjoying it to the fullest, were they not? Radish Root, if thou had been at our side a thousand years ago, telling us so, we may not have fallen into darkness.”

“Oh! That’s very nice of you to say, your highness.”

“Now, as a reward, thou may sit by our side upon this balcony. We will enjoy the peace and quiet together, until Celestia once again flings her baleful sun skyward, disrupting the perfect beauty of night.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“You are welcome, Radish Root. Now, the peace and quiet.”

Radish sat in the chair next to Luna’s. He took in the sky, with its wisps of cloud sailing slowly overhead. The moon shone brightly, illuminating the palace grounds.

He took in the palace. Even at night, it’s beauty was overwhelming. Other guards on other, lesser night shifts patrolled the walls and courtyards. Crickets chirped far below in the palace commons, while a nighthawk called overhead.

He took in Canterlot, seeing ponies buzzing about the streets. They milled about on sidewalks, pulled and rode taxis, and sat drinking at outdoor dining tables.

“Radish Root, we must break the peace and quiet. Look at how the night has changed. Ponies now inhabit it as they do in the day.”

“It’s nightlife, your highness. It’s the weekend. Ponies enjoy going out at night these days. They go to bars, clubs, movies, and all kinds of other things.”

“Dost thou partake in this… ‘nightlife’?”

“Well, I don’t get out much. And it’s hard for me to be in public.”

“Why?”

“I’m always afraid somepony is going to see… you know.”

Luna looked at him with curiosity.

“My cutie marks.”

“We had not considered. Even to modern pony sensibilities, they are a disgrace?”

“Uh… well… yes.”

“That is regrettable. If those nightlife ponies knew thee as we do, they would have no compunctions about thy company.”

“Wow, thank you, Princess Luna,” Radish said, blushing.

He waved his hooves out at the world.

“I wish they all could know you better, too.”

“Then we are of the same mind. We have plans for a public coming out.”

“Really? Soon?”

“We will debut ourselves at the upcoming Grand Galloping Gala. There is much to accomplish before then. We have many powers to regain. Our body itself is still in a weakened form.”

“I’ll help you any way I can.”

“Of course. It is thy duty. Now, we return to the peace and quiet.”

Radish sat back in his chair, watching the world. Luna perched forward in hers, observing it.

12. The Voice

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Radish sat in the Guard breakroom reading a spy novel. He didn’t like where it was going. A dragon fire scroll popped into the air and landed on his table. He eyed it suspiciously. A guard at the next table, a wiry female earth pony named Maple Bar, looked at him.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s from Twilight Sparkle.”

“Yeah? So?”

“She just… writes about her life in Ponyville a lot. And I’m running out of things to write back to her.”

“Oh, sorry, is protecting the most important ponies in existence is too dull to write about?”

“You know most of what we do here is classified, right?”

“Isn’t Twilight Sparkle some kind of court official? She’s on hugging terms with Princess Celestia. She probably has the highest clearance.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve never seen that in writing.”

“Then just write about the stuff that isn’t classified.”

“What have you done in the last week you would write a friend about?”

“I did awesome at target practice. Oh, and I saw a weird squirrel today- it was black with a red tail.”

“That’s Chet. I’ve already written about him.”

“So what’s her ladyship writing about today? Just riff off that.”

Radish sighed and opened the scroll. He read through it.

“Well, Rarity- that’s the fashion one-”

“Uh huh.”

“She made dresses for the others for the Grand Galloping Gala…”

“That’s nice. Wait, for free?”

“But they all didn’t like them…”

“Geez, what a bunch of ungrateful-”

“So they got her to make new ones that turned out awful and they held a fashion show where some fashion bigwig came…”

“You get a story like this every week?”

“Pretty much.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, sometimes there’s action.”

“Oh, I know- just lie! Tell her the Royal Guard held a fashion show of our own! And I looked amazing in heels!”

“What was Chet doing?”

“He had a pecan. He was running off with it.”

Radish took a pen in his mouth and wrote.

Dear Twilight Sparkle, Pecans are in season now in Canterlot, and the palace residents are excited about all the possible ways to enjoy them. Do you have a favorite nut? We should exchange recipes some time! Your Pen Pal, Radish Root. P.S.: Maple Bar says hi.

“‘Favorite nut’, huh? That’s a winner.”


Radish mailed off his letter and checked his pocket watch. The Night Shift would start soon. He donned his armor in the locker room and made his way across the parapets. The palace was now closing to tourists, and the last few stragglers were meandering toward the exits.

As he passed a group of four tourists, he heard one of them gasp.

“That’s him! Told you he comes this way!”

Radish kept walking.

“Hey! You!”

Radish stopped and turned to them.

“Pardon? Are you addressing me?”

“You’re the pervy mark guy, aren’t you?” one asked.

There were dozens of regulations regarding interactions with tourists. One of Radish’s favorite was that, outside of an emergency, he didn’t have to allow tourists to delay him on his way to a post.

“I’m sorry. I’m due for a shift. If you’ll excuse me.”

One of them jumped in front of his way.

“Yeah, it is you! The guy whose cutie marks are porn of Celestia!”

“I’m sorry. I’m due for a shift. If you’ll excuse me.”

“Show them!”

Radish moved to walk around him, but the others surrounded him.

“Come on. Let’s see them!”

“Get out of my way.”

“Or what?”

“I said, move aside from the Royal Guard!

“Not until you show us your cutie marks,” the one behind him said, holding up his camera.

Radish took his spear from his back and extended it to its full length. He slammed the butt of it into the bricks at his feet, cracking one.

“And what do you think you’re going to do with that?” the one to his left scoffed.

Radish narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t do anything with it.

Technically, he was authorized to escalate to physical force with tourists should the need arise. During training, Shining Armor had made a point of saying that need would never arise. Radish didn’t want to be the one to prove Shining Armor wrong. Radish went over his options in his mind.

Then, he heard the loudest thing he had ever heard in his life.

“INSOLENT PEASANTS! WAYLAY NOT A ROYAL GUARDSTALLION UPON HIS COURSE TO HIS PRINCESS! BEGONE!”

It was Luna. It wasn’t so much she was screaming, but as though her voice had been boosted to a higher level of existence. The sound was coming from everywhere, echoing off the palace walls and scattering birds from the trees. The grass of the commons was flattened by the sheer force of it.

The tourists yelped and fled. One of them dropped his camera behind him. Radish picked it up. He looked at the top of Selenic Spire, but saw nopony. His ears were ringing.

Radish entered Luna's tower. The duty officer waved Radish over with a terrified expression on his face.

“What was that about!?” he yelled. “She’s not answering us!”

Radish could only stammer.

“You better get up there!” another guard from down the hall called. “You’re the only thing in this palace that calms her!”

Radish made his way to the spiral staircase. A pegasus guard landed before him.

“Come on, no time to lose. I’m taking you the fast way up!” she said.

She grabbed Radish by the armor and flew him up the well of the staircase, depositing him on the landing outside Luna’s hall. Radish watched her fly away, not quite believing what just happened.

He entered Luna’s hall. Her door flung open.

“Guardstallion. To us.”

Radish entered her bedroom. She furrowed her brows at him.

“We observed thee upon thy approach. Those… tourists were most ill-mannered. We commend thee for not drawing blood. Mercy is a quality not easily found in a guardstallion.”

“Thank you, your highness.”

“Thanks are not needed.”

“But…”

“But?”

“A guard should protect his princess, not the other way around.”

Luna smiled.

Radish took a step back and inhaled sharply. He had never seen her smile before. The sight hit him like a gust of warm air.

“‘Tis true, Radish Root. However, a princess must correct a peasant when she sees them in need of correction. This is for their benefit.”

“I understand. Was that a… voice spell?”

“Ah! ‘Twas our proper royal voice! ‘Tis meant for addressing crowds of commoners. We’ve not needed to do so until now. Did it sound… good?”

“It was amazing.”

“Excellent. What is that?”

He realized he was still holding the tourist’s camera.

“Oh! A camera. One of them dropped it. I should give it to Lost and Found.”

“Nay, we will have it. ‘Tis their penalty.”

“Oh. Okay.”

He gave the camera to Luna. She turned it over in her hooves.

“Celestia has informed us of these. Wilt thou show us how it works?”

“Sure!”

He walked up to her side.

“You point it at what you want to take a picture of, adjust the focus, look through the viewfinder, then push this button here.”

She snapped a photo of the bottom of her dresser. She looked at Radish expectantly.

“Then?”

“See this number? That’s how many pictures are left on the roll of film. Once you use up the roll, you drop it off with a developer. They give you your photos in an hour.”

“We see. Come. Let us ‘use up the roll’. Stand at attention.”

“Okay.”

She snapped several photos of Radish at odd angles.

“Now, us, as well,” she said, shoving the camera in Radish’s chest.

“Oh… okay…”

Radish felt weird about taking photos of a princess in her bedroom. Yet, orders were orders. She stared into the lens and he took a photo.

“How about some more… interesting poses?” he asked, immediately regretting phrasing it like that.

“Yes,” she said. “Try this.”

She stood on her balcony, then reared up on her hind legs. Radish took a few of her like that. She sat at her tea table, striking a coquettish pose while holding an empty teacup. Radish took more. She put on an artist’s smock and pretended to paint at her easel. Radish snapped a few more.

“These should look great,” Radish said.

Luna trotted up to him and looked at the camera again.

“What is this switch here?”

“A timer. So you can set it down, then go stand in front of it. The camera then takes a picture ten seconds later.”

“Then, the two of us may be in a picture concurrently?”

“Yes…”

“Activate this timer, Radish Root. We wish to have one of thee at our side.”

“Really? Okay.”

He placed the camera on a shelf, hit the timer, then stood by her.

“Look fierce! Thou be a guardstallion defending thy princess!”

Radish extended his spear and brandished it at the camera, striking a fearsome expression. Luna stood tall and serene behind him. The camera clicked.

“Thou wilt ‘develop’ these for us?”

“Yes! I can’t wait.”

“Excellent.”


Radish waited in front of the counter of the palace’s photo department. The developer came from the back room with a stack of photographs in his aura.

“Lieutenant, I may need to have these evaluated for security risks. And propriety. They're photos of a princess… in her bedroom.”

“Did you not hear her yesterday?”

“The whole palace heard her yesterday.”

“So, you want to make her that mad again?”

The developer made a squeak and gave Radish the photos. He flipped through them, then held up the picture of himself defending Luna.

“And we’ll need two of these.”

13. The Drill

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“Mail call,” called the palace mail clerk, walking past Radish’s bunkroom. “Root?”

“I’m Root!”

The clerk tossed him a letter, then continued distributing mail to the rest of Radish’s bunkmates. Radish turned it over in his hooves. It took him a moment to realize why the postmark seemed so foreign. It was foreign, or it was at least from a sovereign tribal nation within Greater Equestria’s borders. The letter was from Sky. Radish opened it and read.

Dear Radish,

It’s been a while since I’ve written in Ponish. How’s my grammar? Send back critiques. The tribe is fine. The new ranger in these parts is nice, if a little antsy. Hoopla likes her.

The dragon is sleeping soundly. We’re helping plants and animals get resettled by the lakes. The swimming is nice. We miss you.

The excavation is taking longer than we thought. Radish, we think the Storm Centurions turned on each other. Their injuries weren’t done by any bandits. Sunbonnet was run through with a centurion short spear. Thorn Bramble’s skull was punctured in the back of the neck by a bucking dagger. Willow Wagoner may have lured the rest of her squad into the cave as some kind of ambush. Maybe that’s why ol’ Worthy was so keen to get her dug first. We’re still figuring it out, but there might be a lot of prominent ponies upset with you once the real history gets published. Heads up.

I’m sorry things didn’t turn out how you wanted with Miss Skinny. If you want to blame me for encouraging you, I understand. I was picturing you with some grand destiny, and couldn’t stand the thought of you never trying for it on my account. But you sound like you’re doing well, and maybe a grand destiny is still in the works for you.

Sincerely,

Skies Above



Radish lay back in his bunk and sighed.

“Bad news?” a bunkmate asked. “From a girl?”

“Yes and yes.”

“Sorry. It happens a lot. Guarding is murder on relationships. But hey, there’s a support group here for guards who get dumped by post.”

“She didn’t dump me. She’s uh, warning me about a scandal.”

“Oh, geez, Root! Yours?”

“I’ll get blamed, yeah. And a really rich and powerful family could come down on me for it.”

“Yikes. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but you need to take responsibility.”

“I know. I’ll do what I have to. For her.”

“She must be pretty special. How’d a guy like you meet a girl like that?”

“Oh, my last posting was next to her tribe’s land.”

“Tribe?”

“Yeah. Black Bluffs buffalo.”

“A buffalo girl? I heard that wasn’t biologically possible. You’re either the luckiest guy on earth, or the unluckiest. Do you know what it’ll look like?”

“Hmm?”

Radish noticed the clock on the wall. He checked his calendar of sunset times.

“Oh, back to The Night Shift,” Radish said.

“Stay safe up there. I swear I won’t tell anypony about your problem.”

“Thanks.”


Luna paced her bedroom floor in front of Radish. She was wearing an antique steel helmet.

"Lieutenant, now is the time for a serious matter- the practice of battle magic! To be a princess worthy of this kingdom, we must be prepared to defend it, should the need arise. Thus, thou will assist us practice attack spells.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Hold the target.”

“The… target?”

Luna placed a round silver platter at his feet. She had painted a bullseye on it.

“Yes. We will fire a standard beam spell. Thou wilt move the target and attempt to baffle our aim.”

“What happens if…”

Luna raised an eyebrow.

“Uh, never mind.”

He picked up the tray and held it above his head. Luna took a few paces back, and fired a dark red beam from her horn. It hit her ceiling. Radish flinched.

“Ah. It would seem we need… calibration.”

Two guards from the interior of the tower burst into the room, brandishing spears.

“Princess! Are you all right?” one asked.

“Ah, be at peace, guardmares. We are merely training,” Luna replied. “Though, we applaud thy response time.”

The guards looked at Luna, then at Radish, who was still holding the target tray above his head.

“Very well, ma’am. I’ll, uh, inform the rest of the tower guards that you’re… holding drills.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

The guards left. Luna concentrated. She fired off several more beams, each one hitting a wildly different spot than the one before, blasting holes into the floor, walls, ceiling, and furniture. She hit a vase, shattering it.

Radish cringed at the last one. He had seen movies in which old vases were said to be worth a fortune. Luna noted his reaction.

“Worry not. That vase was a birthday gift from Celestia. She gave it to us a few years ago, and it was clearly homemade.”

“A few years ago?” Radish asked, before realizing he shouldn’t have.

“Yes, ‘twas… oh. We see. ‘Twas really a thousand and a few years ago, was it not? Sometimes the long passage of time… escapes us.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“For what? Reminding us of our millennium of incarceration? Of how we are woefully out-of-step with the modern era? Of how the world continued on without us, forgetting our very existence!? Guardstallion Root, is that what thou be sorry for!?”

“Yes! All those!”

“Dost thou think we wish to be coddled!? To have our feelings guarded as though we were a teary-eyed foal!?”

“I don’t know! Yes?”

“NO!”

Luna reeled back and thrust her horn at Radish, blasting a wide beam at the target platter. He yelped and threw it above him, ducking for cover. The beam burned the air above Radish’s head. The platter landed in front of his face, now reduced to a hoop with a large smoking hole through its center.

Luna walked up to him and gazed at it.

“Radish Root! Look at this! We have disintegrated this tray, though it be made of starsilver! Celestia herself could only dent such an alloy!”

“Congratulations, ma’am.”

“Of course! Our magic’s strength relies on emotion. Thy dithering vexed us so much, we were empowered to achieve this feat! After feeling so little for so long, we had forgotten the taste of a feeling felt deep and true.”

“That’s… good?”

“Gather those plates, guardstallion,” Luna said, pointing to a stack of dishes on a shelf, “and come to the balcony.”

Radish obeyed.

“Now, thou hast the dual task of tossing a plate over the side, and enraging us to fuel our power.”

“You want me to… make you angry?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Okay…” Radish sighed, resigning himself to fate.

Luna gazed at the sky above the palace.

“Now, do it!”

Radish threw a plate, shouting, “I heard a tourist call you creepy!”

Luna blasted the plate to shards, then turned to Radish with a fearsome look on her face.

“Another!” she said through clenched teeth.

Radish took a plate.

“Your bedroom smells like my parents’ barn!” he shouted. He threw the plate, and it was blown into dust immediately after leaving his hoof. Luna’s hooves were shaking and digging into the stonework of her balcony.

Another,” she seethed.

Radish took a breath, shouted, “Celestia has nicer legs than you!”, then threw three plates in the air. He ducked.

“WHAT!?”

Luna fired off a beam so wide, it disintegrated every plate. She turned to Radish, baring her teeth.

“GUARDSTALLION, YOU GO TOO FAR! WE WANT THEE OUT OF OUT OF OUR SIGHT, OUT OF OUR TOWER, AND OUT OF EQUESTRIA!”

“But I…”

“BUT NOTHING! GO! THOU ART EXILED FROM THIS LAND!”

Radish picked himself off the floor. He stumbled away from her, trying to process what was happening to him. As he reached the door, Luna gasped. He turned. She was staring out at the palace in disbelief.

The beam she had fired at the plates had struck clear across the palace grounds, and blasted a hole through a tower along the east side. The damaged sections of wall collapsed, sending billows of dust out across the commons, while debris rained down on the parapets and walkways below. The rooms inside were on fire, and thick black smoke was pouring out of the windows.

Radish’s heart twisted. He looked at the door in front of him.

“Guardstallion… wait,” said Luna desperately.

Radish looked at her. There were tears in her eyes.

“We… we… didn’t mean to. ‘Twas an accident. Thou must be our witness. Please. Do not go. Do not leave us alone.”

Radish went to her side. He sat on the balcony tiles, staring at the destruction.

“It’s okay,” he said softly. “I’ll take the blame.”

He didn’t know why he said that. He didn’t know how he could even sell that idea. He just knew that Luna shouldn’t be blamed for this.

“No. We cannot ask that of thee,” she said.

“I’m already banished, right? They can’t do much worse to me.”

“Guardstallion… ‘tis not right.”

“Guards protect princesses,” Radish said. “It’s in our oath.”

Suddenly, a loud snap went off in the air, and a glowing pink bubble appeared surrounding the palace. Radish stared at it in awe.

“Is that… Shining Armor’s shield spell?”

Radish had only heard it described before, and he assumed its size and power was exaggerated. He now saw it was no exaggeration.

“Luna! Are you all right!?” called out a voice from above.

Princess Celestia dropped down onto the balcony.

“The palace is under attack!” she cried. “I want both of you to… to…”

She saw the expressions on their faces. She turned toward the smoking tower, and a realization about trajectories dawned on her.

“What the hay did you two do!?”

“It was my fault!” yelled Radish.

“Oh, really? How?” she demanded.

“I, uh, well…”

“Nay! Please, blame him not!” cried Luna, stepping in front of Radish. “He was only obeying his princess! I have wrought this calamity, and I will suffer the punishment!”

“You’re damn right you will! You are going to clean up that mess, every brick of it! And the rebuilding cost is coming out of your coffers, not the palace’s!”

“Cost? But sister, the loss of lives? I am a villain once more,” Luna said, ruefully.

Celestia turned to Radish.

“You didn’t tell her?”

“Tell her?” asked Radish.

“Luna,” sighed Celestia, “that was the legal department you just blew up.”

“I… killed all the lawyers?”

“Lawyers don’t work at night, Luna," said Celestia. "Most days it’s hard to get them to work past four.”

“But no guards were in there? Cleaning staff?” asked Radish. “There’s even a rumor the Royal Spymaster works out of that building.”

“There is no Royal Spymaster, Radish!” Celestia chuffed. “And no, Legal doesn’t like anypony in there after hours. You’d know that if you ever guarded more than this room.”

“I…”

“Speak not ill of his posting!” cried Luna. “He does his duty, and does it well! Look at what he has made possible!” Luna said, pointing to the flaming tower.

Celestia looked at Radish, coldly. Luna realized what she just said.

“That is to say… not that. Er, this! Behold!” Luna said, holding up the ruined platter.

“That was an antique! What did you do to it?” yelled Celestia.

“No, not that! It was… er…” said Luna, looking at the smashed vase. Celestia saw it.

“I made that for you! What… what…”

Celestia looked again at Luna’s and Radish’s faces again. Her own expression softened. She snickered, then started to crack up. She dipped her head low, the threw it back and laughed heartily.

“Princesses?” called out a new voice.

A pegasus chariot landed on the balcony with Shining Armor and two high-ranking guards. He looked at Celestia, Luna, and Radish.

“We’ve got the fire control teams on the scene. The palace is under lockdown, and we’re combing the grounds for clues… Ma’am? What’s going on?”

“Oh, Shining. Good work,” Celestia said, wiping her eyes. “Excellent response time on this drill.”

“Drill, ma’am? I didn’t know there’d be a drill tonight.”

“Well, I couldn’t very well let you prepare for a preparedness exercise, now could I?”

He raised an eyebrow. He looked at Radish, who could only shrug.

“So Legal was demolished… as a test?”

“Oh, right. Let me get that,” Celestia said.

She pointed her horn at the burning tower. A ball of gold light shot out and engulfed the building. The fire control teams backed away.

The tower’s glow subsided, and then the tower was restored. Radish’s jaw dropped. Luna stood in awe. Shining Armor just stared.

“There. All better now. Drill over. Well done, everypony,” said Celestia, cheerfully.

She flew away. Shining Armor turned to Luna and Radish.

“And you two are all right?”

“Yes, guard captain,” Luna said. “We commend thee for thy expeditiousness.”

“Yes, sir,” said Radish.

He left with his guards, eyeing Radish suspiciously.

Radish’s and Luna’s eyes met.

“I…”

“Guardstallion, we thank thee for falling on thy sword for us. ‘Twas unexpected, noble… and appreciated.”

“You’re welcome.”

“We let our temper get the better of us. It was unbecoming of a princess.”

“It’s okay.”

“Thou will keep thy silence?”

“Can I stay in Equestria?”

“What? Oh, but of course. We did not really want thee cast out, we were merely surprised by thy… comparison.”

Luna looked down at her legs. She turned one to see it from the side.

“Please, refrain from such comparisons, again.”

“Yes, your highness.”

“It would seem we are clearly ready to defend Equestria.”

“I feel safer already, ma’am.”

“Good.”

“Princess, did you know Celestia could do a spell like that?”

“Nay. Oft times, she is a mystery, even to us. As are the workings of the legal department.”

“Do you still want to practice battle magic?”

“Perhaps such things should be taken a bit more… delicately.”

“I understand.”

Another crack split the air. They looked up at Shining Armor’s shield. It was dissipating from the top to the bottom.

“We would, however, like to practice shield spells,” she said.

She looked at Radish.

“Guardstallion, take thy spear and have at us.”

14. The Ride

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Radish sat in front of Barrel Roller’s desk. She glared at him.

“Root, you ever get candy from the gift shop?”

Oh no, she’s starting with a metaphor.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I like the nougat bars. But a lot of ponies like the nougat bars, so they’re always out of nougat bars. I’ll never get to have a nougat bar. And I’ve come to terms with never getting to have… a nougat bar.”

Radish kept silent.

“But some ponies might say, ‘Why not just get the closest thing to a nougat bar? There’s a cookies and cream bar, and they’re the same price, even.’”

“Ma’am?”

“It may seem nice. There’s probably something really charming about it. Mysterious. Dangerous. Taboo, even. But the cookies and cream bar is just as off-limits as the nougat bar, Root, even if it tells you otherwise.”

“Please, ma’am. I’m lost.”

“Princess Luna has the right to put her guards where she wants, when she wants. If she wants the same pony to guard the same door for weeks on end, so be it. But you don’t just guard her door, do you, Root?”

“No, ma’am. Princess Luna likes to interact most nights.”

Interact, huh? At night. In her bedroom."

“MA’AM!”

“Root, it’s reached the point where I have to ask for the record, just so I’m not implicated. Is there anything improper happening between you and Princess Luna?”

“No, ma’am!”

“What do you do in there all night?”

“I… lots of stuff. I help her rearrange her furniture. We listen to operas, and she critiques them. We play board games. I watch her paint. We have our own book club. I listen to her rant about Celestia. And lately, I’ve been helping her practice telekinesis.”

“Are you qualified to help somepony practice telekinesis?”

“Well, I’m mostly there as the weight.”

“She practices by lifting you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Does it feel good, Root, having her aura all over you?”

“Ma’am, I do what I’m ordered to do. My interactions with Princess Luna have been completely professional. And she’s not a substitute for nougat! I have no desire for nougat anymore!”

Radish regretted saying that last part loudly. He regretted saying it at all. Barrel Roller stared at him, then wrote something down on a form in front of her.

“Go start your shift, Root.”

Radish approached his position in Luna’s hallway. Before reaching it, Luna opened her door.

“Guardstallion Root. Come.”

Radish entered Princess Luna’s room. It smelled of lavender incense now. Luna was arranging something on a wooden cutting board.

“Ma’am?”

She held out the board in front of him.

“Behold. Parsnips.”

He looked down. There were indeed several long parsnips.

“Ah, yes?”

“They are ours.”

“They… oh! You mean you’ve regained your earth pony ability to grow plants. That’s great!”

“Indeed. You have farmed, have you not?”

“My family grows beets. Red and golden.”

“Beets! ‘Tis a most challenging crop. Thy family must be skilled, indeed.”

“Thanks.”

"We need thy seasoned appraisal. Evaluate these.”

Radish took one. He turned it over in his hooves, inspecting its color.

"It looks great."

He thumped it on the back of his hoof.

"It sounds great."

He sniffed it.

"It smells great."

He crunched into it.

"It tastes delicious.”

“Truly? We require thy honesty more than thy obeisance.”

“I mean it. These would win a blue ribbon.”

“We are pleased,” she said, putting the rest away. “Now, there is another reason we require thee tonight. Our pegasus flight power is also returning to its former strength.”

“That’s fantastic.”

“Yes. Behold.”

She jumped into the air and fluttered her wings. She hovered over the floor for a few seconds, then dropped back down. Radish stomped his hooves in applause.

“Thank you. But this room is too small for full flight practice. We require more space. You will watch us jump off this tower, and judge our form.”

“You’re going to what?”

She walked over to her balcony.

“Ma’am!”

She jumped off.

“Princess Luna!”

Radish ran to the railing and looked down. He didn’t see her anywhere. He frantically scanned the skies, seeing nothing but darkness.

“LUNA! PRINCESS LUNA!”

He hung his head.

“I lost her. I lost her!” he said, stunned.

He turned around. Luna was right behind him. He yelped and flailed backwards, tripping over the railing and plunging off the balcony.

He screamed on the way down. Luna caught him at the halfway point. He screamed all the way back up. She deposited him on the balcony floor, cradling himself and whimpering.

“Guardstallion Root. How feel you?”

“F…fine… th…thank you,” he said through chattering teeth.

She kneeled down to his side.

“Nay, we thank thee. We did not think ourselves strong enough to catch and carry a fully-grown and armored pony on our back. Was this a challenge thou devised for us?”

He looked at her. He stopped shivering.

“Yes?”

“‘Twas most brave. Foolhardy, but we admire a guardstallion who leaps headlong into danger for his princess.”

“Thanks.”

“Now, how do you judge my form?”

“It’s fantastic.”

“Excellent. You serve me well, guardstallion. Thy appointment to this palace was not folly, after all.”

“Thank you. Wait, who said it was folly?”

“Thy commander, Barrel Roller.”

“Oh.”

“But we will correct her.”

“Oh?”

Radish sat up. He trotted over to the rail again, and looked down at the palace.

“Do you see that lit window down there? That’s her office. Looks like she’s still working.”

“You wish this correction now?”

“No, better idea. Pegasi in flight training like to do this thing called ‘buzzing the tower’. It’s when you fly so quickly and closely past the trainer, you terrify them.”

“And you wish to see Barrel Roller terrified thusly?”

“Think you could do it with me on your back? I’d love to see the look on her face. And she’s not going to bust a guard helping a princess train.”

“Ah, we see. Courtly intrigue. Betrayal and revenge. Backstabbing and spite. Deceptions and manipulations. We never participated in such dealings in our day. We found them beneath us. Now you would have us wreak your revenge?”

“I… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be asking you to do that.”

“We did not say we would not. We found Barrel Roller brusque and dismissive. This measured retribution you have devised is appropriate.”

She kneeled down.

“On our back, lieutenant. We shall buzz her tower.”


Barrel Roller sighed, staring down at the training schedule. She hated this nitty-gritty work. Too many moving parts in this system. Too many systems in the system, too.

She heard a whoosh of air blow past her window, powerful enough to shake its panes.

That’s odd. No gales scheduled for tonight. Was that a large bird of prey? They know they’re not allowed here.

She poked her head out her window and looked around. Her eyes grew wide as a missile of blue and yellow streaked out of the darkness and blasted past her. She flailed her hooves and wings while crying out. She allowed herself to fall out the window, then took a hovering position. She scanned the air around her. Then, her mind finished processing what she saw blow past her.

Root.”

She reentered her office, then dug up her file on Princess Luna. In it, Princess Celestia had outlined a recovery regimen for Luna, giving a long timetable for each power she expected her sister to regain. She drew a hoof down the paper, and found the schedule for Luna’s flying ability.

If that was Luna and Root, she’s a month ahead of schedule for a maneuver like that.

She leaned back in her chair and smiled.

“Root. Heh. Who would've thought?"

15. The Consultant

View Online

“So, Root. How are the tunnels looking?” Barrel Roller asked. Her desk looked a little bit tidier now.

“I believe I’ve cleaned twelve percent of them by now. But I’m getting faster at it.”

“Yeah, I think that’s enough.”

“Really, ma’am?”

“I firmly believe that cleaning punishments should be done someplace ponies will actually see. The next time you screw up, I’ll have you washing the tower windows. From the outside. But scraping dirt in the dank, filthy tunnels for months is probably a health hazard. I think it’s safe to say you’ve learned your lesson without developing black lung.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I did learn my lesson. And I promise there won’t be a next time.”

Barrel Roller snorted.

“Enjoy your day off, Root.”


“So, Root. Where you headed on this fine day?” Maple Bar asked Radish as he trotted through the back halls with packed day bags.

“Actually, I’m going to check out Ponyville. Twilight’s letters make it sound nice. And I haven’t seen her since she moved there. And I’ve never met those friends of hers.”

“Think you’ll get along with those five? They seem… you know.”

“We’ll see.”

“Maybe you’ll get a free dress out of it.”


Radish trotted through the streets of Ponyville, taking in the town. It was quaint- the streets were unpaved, most ponies had a friendly smile, and the air smelled of flowers. The architecture was of an older pastoral style, with most homes having thatched roofs and a split door. There seemed to be a large number of circus-style tents looming in the outskirts in all directions.

He followed signs to the library. Twilight's letters hadn't mentioned it was a tree. He tried the door, but it was locked. He knocked, and there was no response.

“Twilight? It’s Radish.”

“She’s not home,” said a girlish voice behind him.

He turned and saw a light green unicorn.

“She and her friends went to Cloudsdale.”

“Cloudsdale? How?”

The unicorn shrugged.

“Magic, I guess. Did you need a library book?”

“No, just visiting Twilight.”

“Did she not know you were coming?”

“I didn’t know I’d have today off.”

“Sorry.”

“Thanks, anyway.”

She nodded and walked away. A new idea struck Radish.

“Miss?” he called after her. “Which way is Zecora’s?”


Radish stood before the trailhead into the Everfree Forest. Twilight’s letters had spoken of the forest in foreboding tones since her first sojourn into it. Radish had heard of lands that existed outside of pony care, and he even experienced a taste of it himself in his Ranger days. While the buffalo assisted Southern Plains flora and fauna like earth ponies, none could fly, and allied birds could only modify clouds so much. The buffalo skies were influenced mainly by the unpredictable accumulative effects of Central Equestrian pegasi. It was said that when one flapped its wings near Canterlot, the result was unintentional storms over the plains.

The Everfree Forest, however, wasn’t like normal unattended wilderness. It was a deliberate force on its own. There were ancient and malevolent influences within, which both attracted and produced monsters that weren’t found anywhere else in the world. This wasn’t so much a place that ponies didn’t care for, but one they could never hope to control.

Luckily, the path to Zecora’s hut was easy to follow. Radish walked up to her front door and knocked. She opened, clearly not expecting to see a pony in an official Royal Guard T-shirt.

“Good morning. Miss Zecora, I presume?”

“That is I, royal guard. I hope the road was not too hard.”

“No, miss. I’m a friend of Twilight Sparkle. Lieutenant Radish Root.”

“She has mentioned a Radish Root! She did not say he was so… cute.”

They traded smiles, and she showed him inside. Her home was full of the tools of the potionmaking trade, as well as hundreds of ingredient containers, and assorted curios from lands beyond Equestria. Radish could spend days trying to understand everything he saw on the shelves, tables, and walls. She placed steaming mugs of tea on a table and motioned him to sit with her.

“Thank you. I wanted to consult with you regarding a magical flower Twilight mentioned in one of her letters. Poison joke.”

“That was quite a funny tale. And it helped rebalance the scale. Pony folk no longer hide whenever I go far and wide.”

“It seems like poison joke’s power is almost limitless. It took the Elements’­ strongest pony and made her tiny. It took their best flyer and made her crash-prone. It made Twilight’s horn useless. I’ve got to know, can it be weaponized?”

Zecora frowned. “To a dark place this road leads, coating swords with poison weeds.”

“But it’s non-lethal and reversible. It’d be the perfect weapon for defending a palace.”

“Then, by the order of the crown, is the reason you came down?”

“No, it’s my day off. My superiors don’t know I’m here. Twilight doesn’t know I’m here- she’s apparently in Cloudsdale today, somehow. But I’m always looking for potential ways to make the palace safer. The royal potionista hasn’t even heard of poison joke.”

“The palace had stood for so very long, yet you think it is defended wrong?”

“The whole architecture of the place makes me nervous. Big rooms, long hallways- it’s just like being on the plains, where there’s no cover for miles around. The palace was built with unicorn defense in mind- standing a distance away from enemies and blasting at them with spells. We earth ponies have to rely on long-range weapons and group tactics to defend effectively. But if an attacker ran into poison joke booby traps, they could be rendered helpless- tangled up in their own hair, or tripping over their own feet, for example.”

“Think of the name as it is spoke. Not ‘poison trap’, but ‘poison joke’.”

Radish thought on this, sipping his tea.

“I see. You’re saying the plant selectively chooses its targets and effects based on how comedic the result would be. Any dramatic situation in which lives are on the line, like a battle or an infiltration, wouldn’t be funny enough to trigger it. It would be too soon.”

“I am glad you understand. I could not rhyme that on demand.”

“Thank you for your time, and for sharing your knowledge. If you’d like, I could put you in touch with the royal potionista. She’s always looking to correspond with other potion researchers. You might even get paid for your expertise.”

“Into my life you stroll, and put me on royal payroll? If this is what a pen pal’s for, I hope Twilight gets many more!”

They shared a laugh. Radish finished his tea and stood up. He bowed to her.

“Have a nice day.”

“Going now? You would disembark, and not ask about your cutie mark?”

“You know?”

“I do so love arcane lore. Your issue was like none before. The gossip mill was most enthused, when your cutie marks made the news.”

“Is there data you have collected, to help a pony so affected?”

“None, I fear, that may shed some light. But you seem to have done all right.”

“I long for her when we’re apart, but when she’s close it pains my heart. I just wish I could forget her, before I become old and bitter.”

“That has an easy solution: you should really get a girlfriend.”

“That’s a bit of slant rhyme, miss.”

“Twilight said you had some wit. I’m glad I could see half of it.”

“Ow. Well, thank you. I'll think on your advice.”

He went to the door, then stopped himself. He looked back at Zecora, cleared his throat, and stood up straight.

“Are... are you seeing anyone?”

Zecora's eyes went wide and her ears pricked up. She smiled sympathetically.

“Would you think I was a jerk, if I said I was married to my work?”

“No. That’s basically what Celestia told me, a long time ago.”

“Don’t let that discourage you. There are other fish in the ocean blue.”

“Thanks.”

He said his goodbyes, then left her hut and started down the path back to Ponyville. A loud boom cracked the air, scattering birds from the trees around him. He looked up, seeing only a cloudless day. Then, an expanding wave of rainbow streaked across the sky. Radish quickly ascertained that it came from the direction of Cloudsdale.

Zecora stuck her head out of her window.

“Rainbow Dash?” Radish asked her. She nodded.

“A sonic rainboom- what an achievement! But we will never hear the end of it.”

16. The Dream

View Online

Radish entered Luna's hallway to see a maid pushing a coffee cart out of the bedroom.

"Hello, lieutenant!"

"Hello, Miss Mornings. How's the family?"

"They're all really curious about Princess Luna. I wish I could tell them more about her."

"Yeah."

"Hey," she said, leaning in close to him, "is it just my imagination, or has she been getting taller by the day?"

"No, she definitely has."

Luna's door flung open. "Lieutenant! We require thee! Come!"

"Aye, ma'am."

"Careful," whispered Miss Mornings, "she's had five shots of espresso."

"Thanks for the warning."

Radish met Luna in her room. She gazed at him excitedly.

"There is important business tonight! It is time we-”

Luna was interrupted by the bursting of a scroll into existence between her and Radish. It plopped to the floor of her bedroom and rolled toward Radish.

“Guardstallion Root, what is the meaning of this?”

“Sorry, ma’am. Twilight Sparkle sends me mail magically using Spike’s dragon fire.”

“At all hours of the night? Whilst thou be on duty with thy princess?”

“Ma’am… the tag says it’s urgent.”

“And?”

“And… may I… read it?”

Luna looked at him coldly.

“She could be in trouble,” Radish said.

“Then she would alert somepony in a position to help, not a guardstallion standing watch over his princess.”

“I suppose…”

“Read it, then, if it is so urgent. Tell us what is so important that it must interrupt thy duties.”

Radish sighed and opened the scroll. He read over it, and gasped in horror.

“What is it?” Luna asked.

“Ma’am… Twilight and her friends are in Appleloosa.”

“Where?”

“A brand new settlement out west. But the town is in a territorial dispute with a local buffalo tribe. Ma’am… there could be a war by noon tomorrow.”

“That is most troubling. But why tell thee?”

“She knows I’ve worked with buffalo tribes down south. Twilight’s asking for advice about brokering peace with them.”

“That is no task for a mere lieutenant, lieutenant. Peace treaties be the domain of royalty. Thou must let thy princess handle this.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.”

Luna took a scroll and a quill, and began writing at her desk. Radish watched nervously. She ended by signing her signature and furling the scroll, looping a ribbon around it and sealing it.

“Now, how does one send this back?”

“I… actually don’t know. I think it’s a spell Celestia does. It comes out of Spike’s mouth somehow. I always respond to Twilight through conventional post.”

“Oh? You wish to trot into our sister’s bedroom, wake her up, and demand she send this?”

Radish certainly did not want to do that, as he still didn’t know what “this” was.

“Uh… no…”

“Radish Root, there is a better way. We shall make our will known using the very ability we were going to practice tonight. In ages past, 'twas our duty to visit the dreams of ponies and see them through their nightmares.”

“I never knew you could do that.”

“‘Twas our most precious contribution to the world. Ponykind has been bereft of this service for far too long. We are now strong enough to travel the dream realm once more. We will seek out these ponies in Appleloosa and deliver our counsel to them in their sleep.”

“All right. If you think this is best…”

“‘Tis. Come.”

Luna trotted over to her bed. She pulled back the covers.

“Into our bed, lieutenant.”

Radish just stared.

“Why dost thou hesitate? Is our bed not to your liking? ‘Twas built by the finest craftspony of the day! Doth thou prefer to explore the dream realm lying on the floor?”

“Yes! No! Uh, okay.”

Radish undid his armor while Luna stared at him. He looked at her bed. It was built with a headboard that curved over the occupant, giving the appearance of a large crescent moon. He touched the bedspread.

“Quicker,” ordered Luna.

Radish climbed in under the covers. He stared wide-eyed at Luna. She stared back at him. He never felt less like sleeping in his life.

“Now, you sleep. We will guide thee to the realm of dreams.”

“Ma’am, I don’t know how to just go to sleep.”

She leaned over to him. She put her muzzle extremely close.

“There are too many thoughts flitting about inside thy head. Be peaceful. Be calm!”

“I… okay.”

He closed his eyes and cleared his mind. He could feel her beside him. Then, he felt her presence vanish.

He opened his eyes. He was standing in an endless dark void.

“Princess Luna?”

“Here.”

Luna stepped out the darkness. Her form was vague and shimmery, like a rippled reflection of herself in a pond.

“Radish Root. Thou hast improved thy barding. We approve.”

Radish looked at himself. He was back in armor, but it was different. The armor was black with purple highlights, polished to a mirror sheen, and decorated with a blue crescent moon medallion instead of the normal star.

“I don’t understand.”

“Come. We go now to avert this crisis.”

“How do we start?”

“Behold. Dreaming minds.”

She waved to the empty air in front of them, and a thousand bubbles swooped past them. Each one contained a different scene playing out. Some featured ponies going about mundane activities, others contained fantastic action and adventures. Many depicted sex.

"Each of these is someone's dream?" asked Radish.

"Yes."

“So we just find a dream from someone in Appleloosa, get into their head, and tell them what to do?”

“Yes. We are searching for the best lead. Ah here!”

A glowing sphere settled in front them. Radish could only make out a swirl of sharply-contrasting colors from within.

“Whose dream is this?”

“The one named Pinkie Pie.”

“Really? I don’t think we should go in there.”

“Why not?”

“I get the impression her head is rather… chaotic.”

“You fear the mind of a sweets baker? Radish Root, we will not have so cowardly a guard in our service.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s go in.”


Twilight Sparkle paced worriedly across the floorboards of her Appleloosan hotel room as Spike and her friends watched. Twilight turned to Spike.

“Anything?”

“No, Twilight! If Radish were sending you a letter, you’d know!”

“Are you sure you’re not… stopped up?”

Rainbow Dash snickered.

“No, I’m not stopped up! Radish probably missed your letter because he’s sleeping!”

“No, he’s on the Night Shift guarding Princess Luna! That means he would have gotten it, and he would’ve had Princess Luna send back his response!”

“Are you sure Princess Luna knows how to send back a letter through me?”

“Of course! I mean… why wouldn’t she?”

“Twilight!”

“Well, I’m sure they’ll figure it out if it means stopping a war!”

She looked at Pinkie Pie, who was in bed, snoozing on her back with her legs in the air.

“Pinkie Pie! How can you sleep at a time like this?”

“Aw, let her sleep, Twilight,” said Applejack. “We ain’t a-gonna be any help to anyone if we’re bushed.”

“We haven’t been any help at all! This is a disaster! Ponies and buffalo are going to get hurt, and history books are going to put all the blame on me!”

“Uh, why?” asked Spike.

“Because… I don’t know! I represent Princess Celestia and the Elements of Harmony! I should have thought of something that made everything all right!”

“It’s okay, Twilight,” Spike said encouragingly. “This is your first war! I’m sure you’ll have everything figured out by the next one!”

The next one!?


Radish and Luna found themselves in a cozy bakery kitchen. Radish assumed it was the one Pinkie Pie worked in. Twilight had mentioned it a few times in her letters.

“Miss Pie? Can you hear me?” called out Radish.

“Speak, Pie! We require thee!” called Luna.

Pinkie Pie popped up behind Radish's back.

“Hi there! Welcome to Sugarcube Corner!”

She gazed up at Luna. She gasped excitedly.

“Hey, I know you! We’ve met! You were Nightmare Moon!”

Radish slapped his forehead. He slowly inched back. Luna advanced on her angrily.

“Silence! Speak not of such things!”

“My bad! What can I get you?”

“Thy rapt attention! We have approached thee through thy dreams to deliver a royal advisory! Thou will heed our words!”

“Huh? Through my dreams?”

Radish stepped closer.

“Pinkie Pie, I’m Radish Root. We’re here to talk you through the land dispute with Chief Thunderhooves.”

“Radish Root? Twilight’s pen pal Radish Root? Wasn’t there something funny about you?”

“Never mind that now. Can you listen to what we say and then repeat it to Twilight when you wake up?”

“I doubt it. I never remember my dreams.”

“Pie, we find thee vexing,” huffed Luna.

“Well, do you at least talk in your sleep?” asked Radish. “Maybe the others can hear you.”

“Talk in my sleep? I dunno. How could I know that?”

“Do not thy copious bedfellows relay such information to thee?” Luna asked.

Radish cringed.

“Uh, who says I have copious bedfellows? Radish! What has Twilight been writing about me?”

“Nothing like that!”

“We meant no offense,” said Luna. “Thou appear quite capricious and frivolous in manner. Mares of a similar bearing in our day had but one thing on their minds- to frolic with as many stallions as possible… or other mares, if ‘twas their wont. Sometimes both.”

“Is this your war advice?” asked Pinkie Pie. “I don’t think that’s going to help.”

“Pinkie, listen,” said Radish, “the Plains Rangers went through a long and rocky learning period to get along with buffalo. The key is respect. That’s your foundation that you build everything else on. Compromise and empathize.”

“You mean… you gotta share… and you gotta care?”

“Uh, sure.”

“Nope. That didn’t work.”

“What? Okay, start finding commonalities. Things both sides already agree on.”

“Like their diets, or how they all have hooves? Tried that.”

“No, something-”

“Pie, there is but one certain way to dispel the clouds of war betwixt two disparate peoples!” Luna said. “An arranged political marriage to unite the belligerents!”

Radish winced.

“Ooh! That would be so cute!” said Pinkie Pie, excitedly. “Imagine the babies! They’d be so fuzzy! I'll definitely remember something like that when I wake up!”

“Excellent! Good luck, Pie. Remember, ‘twas thy Princess Luna, not Celestia, who saved this day.”

“Bye!”


Pinkie Pie muttered through her snoring.

“You were Nightmare Moon!” she announced to the ceiling.

All heads turned to her sleeping body.

“What did she say?” asked Applejack. “Nightmare Moon?”

“Huh? Radish Root?” Pinkie Pie mumbled.

“Radish Root? Hey Twilight! She’s dreaming about your boyfriend!” chuckled Rainbow Dash.

“Oh, hush,” said Twilight. “She’s never even met Radish. Unless… of course! Luna is the night princess! She and Radish must be reaching out to Pinkie Pie through her dreams!”

“Don’t that beat all. So she’ll tell us what they’re sayin’ when she wakes up?” asked Applejack.

“I doubt it. I never remember my dreams,” mumbled Pinkie Pie.

“Whoa, weird,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Well, at least she talks in her sleep. Spike, write down what she says,” said Twilight.

“…I have copious bedfellows…” moaned Pinkie Pie.

Rainbow Dash snickered. Fluttershy blushed.

“Oh, I’ll have what she’s having!” laughed Rarity.

“Copious… bed…” repeated Spike, writing on a scroll.

“Don’t write that!” hissed Twilight.

“Is this your war advice?” muttered Pinkie Pie.

“War advice! This is it!” Twilight said excitedly.

“… gotta share… gotta care…”

“Ugh! Not this again!” spat Twilight.

“Imagine the babies!”

“Babies? What babies?” asked Fluttershy.

“Bye!”

Pinkie Pie snapped awake. She saw her friends gathered around her, staring expectantly.

“Uh… oh. Hi, everypony. Were you all just watching me sleep?”

“Pinkie Pie! Were you just talking to Radish Root and Princess Luna in your dreams?” Twilight desperately asked.

“Uh, I think so?”

“What did they say?”

“I think Princess Luna called me a loose mare. And that I remind her of a lot of loose mares from olden times?”

“Hey! Not in front of Spike!” warned Twilight.

“What?” asked Spike.

“Wow, Luna’s kind of judgy for an ex-con,” Rainbow Dash said.

“Now, Pinkie, don’t you listen to her. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with enjoyin’ a roll in the hay,” assured Applejack.

“Did Radish say anything?” asked Twilight.

“Nothing we haven’t tried.”

“Seriously? Then we’re just… out of options?”

"Did they say something about babies?" asked Fluttershy.

Pinkie Pie scratched her head. "Uh... I don't think so."

“Pinkie Pie, dear, are you sure this was a genuine communiqué from the palace, or were you just dreaming?” asked Rarity.

“No! I can prove it! I can tell you what Radish looks like! He wears terrifying black shiny armor with a fearsome moon symbol on his chest!”

“Really?” asked Fluttershy.

“He does not!” said Twilight.

“Oh. I guess it wasn’t him, then.”

“Ugh. Everyone get some sleep,” said Twilight. “We’ll figure this out in the morning.”


Radish opened his eyes. He was back in Luna’s bed. Luna was staring down at him. He slightly twisted his body.

“Our advisory was a success! Soon the warring sides will be united as family.”

“Princess Luna!” shouted Radish, sitting up.

“What?”

“These things have to be handled delicately! You can’t just order strangers to marry off willy-nilly! There are serious consequences in… in…”

Luna gazed down at him, eyes furrowed and lips pursed.

“Guardstallion Root. Thou raise thy voice at thy princess? Thou would gainsay a royal advisory?”

“I’m… I’m sorry.”

Luna closed her eyes to calm herself.

“We do not surround ourselves with brown-nosers and apple-polishers like some princesses we could name. We respect thee for voicing thine concerns.”

“You do? Really?”

“We do not, however, respect being bellowed at like a common school filly!”

“Please forgive me.”

“Thy princess shall forgive you. War brings out the worst in all of us.”

“Princess, I’m worried about Twilight and her friends.”

“Dost thou trust them?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean every situation is in their control.”

“Nay. But perhaps their Element of Harmony jewels can calm the rage of war should our advice fail.”

“I don’t think they bring those everywhere they go.”

Luna reeled back.

“What foolishness is this? Radish Root, they are doomed.”

“Thanks, princess.”



Dear Radish,

I think we got some signals crossed during the Appleloosan conflict. Luckily, both sides wanted peace more than war, and now they’ve found that friendship can bring very different peoples together.

Spike seems to think that Little Strongheart and Braeburn are on the cusp of a relationship. He tends to romanticize everything, but Pinkie Pie got really excited about the idea of a marriage between the two of them. If you have any insight into pony-buffalo romance that could help them navigate these waters, please let me know.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle



Dear Twilight Sparkle,

I do not.

Your Pen Pal,

Radish Root

17. The Dreamer

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It was unusual for a guard to be called into Celestia's office. Most palace personnel never see the inside of it. Radish had been called. He took a deep breath and knocked on its door.

“Enter,” came Celestia's response from within. Radish pushed through the large doors and entered. The office was massive and lined in bookshelves, with a wide mahogany desk in front of ceiling-to-floor windows. Princess Celestia was seated on a sofa off to the left side of the room, reading a stack of papers in her aura. She put them on a coffee table before her.

“Princess, you wished to see me?”

“Yes. Come, sit,” she said, motioning to the space on the sofa beside her. Radish sat next to her.

“Radish, I’d like to thank you for helping Luna practice her dream power. She’s overjoyed that she can help see ponies through nightmares again. She’s like a whole new mare.”

“I’m glad to help.”

"She speaks very highly of you."

"It's my honor to serve."

"A bit too highly, in my opinion."

"What do you mean?"

Celestia seized Radish by the shoulders and pushed him down onto the couch.

“Princess!?”

"You are mine, Radish. Not hers. Or do you need to be reminded of that?"

"But- mmmph!"

She jammed her lips against his, shoving her tongue into his mouth. Radish's eyes went wide.

Her horn glowed with a golden light. Radish’s armor and Celestia’s regalia vanished. She broke the kiss, grinning. She drew her bare hoof across his cheek.

"I've been looking forward to this. Take me, Radish. Take me like in your cutie marks. I want to make that face.”

"Celestia..."

He wrapped his hooves around her and kissed her. She moaned deep in her throat.

A sound like a crack of thunder burst to their side. Princess Luna stepped through a starlit portal into the office.

“Radish Root! We have entered thy dream so that we may...”

She saw Radish and Celestia, entwined upon the couch. Luna froze. Radish froze. Celestia grinned wickedly.

"Too late, Little Lulu," she said, putting her cheek to Radish's. "I've had my claim staked on this one for a long time. Why don't you go find a butler to play with?"

“Princess Luna!" gasped Radish. "I’m sorry! I'm-”

Luna turned and walked back into the portal. She vanished.

The dream Celestia snorted. "Forget about her. She wouldn't know what to do with you. Now, where were we?”

Radish woke in his bunk. His mane and pillow were damp with sweat. His jaw was clenched. His guts were twisted. He stared at the darkness above his bed, too afraid to close his eyes.


Radish stood silently at attention in Luna’s hallway. He hadn’t heard a single noise coming from her bedroom since his shift began an hour ago. He felt like he had been leaning sideways all night.

He screwed up his courage, then approached her door, against protocol and against his better judgement. He knocked. There was no response.

“Princess Luna? It’s Lieutenant Root. I’ve come to beg your forgiveness.”

The door creaked open by itself.

"Come in," said Luna's voice from somewhere in the darkness.

Radish entered the bedroom. Luna was at her breakfast table, holding a mug of coffee in her hooves.

"Please," she said, "sit down."

Radish took the seat opposite her.

"Princess..."

She held up a hoof to silence him.

"Lieutenant Root... we apologize. We should not have entered thy dream. We only did so because we detected distress from thee. We thought thou were having a nightmare. We came to help."

"Oh... I see."

"It seems we are so out of practice with dreams, we could not tell a... pleasant fantasy... from a nightmare."

"No, it's not your fault. It's just that... with me, they're the same thing."

"What dost thou mean?"

"I think I got my cutie marks fantasizing about... her. But I don't know why. I don't know what they mean. So dreams about her are just reminders that I don't understand myself. That I'll wake up without answers... and without her."

Luna's ears drooped.

"Radish Root... we are sorry. That is a very complicated nightmare."

"It is?"

"In our day, ponies had nightmares of threats to life and limb. Monsters and marauders. But that has changed?"

"Well, ponies have nightmares about all kinds of problems nowadays- money, relationships, jobs, family... public speaking is a big one..."

"Art thou saying that modern nightmares are born not out of fearing death... but of fearing life?"

"I suppose that's how you'd say it."

"But this is a disaster! We are not qualified to assist ponies in such matters! We have always joined ponies' nightmares to fight alongside them in battle! But we cannot simply blast away their problems with money. Radish Root, we have regained our ability to see ponies through nightmares, only to learn that we are useless in this regard!"

"You're not useless! I haven't spoken to anyone about my cutie marks like this in ages. It feels good to open up about them again."

"Then, we may still help ponies by... talking with them?"

"That could work. I think a lot of ponies could just use a sympathetic ear."

"It is a monumental task, to take on the sorrows of so many."

"Well, you don't have to do it all at once. Maybe you can just start on a small scale."

"With children, you mean?"

"Oh... uh, I suppose."

"Do modern foals have simpler nightmares?"

"Before I got my cutie marks, I mostly had nightmares about flunking exams."

"Then thou should have been more devoted to thy studies."

"See? You're giving good advice already."

Luna looked down at her coffee, considering this.

"Radish Root... thy counsel is appreciated. We thank thee."

"You're welcome."

"Please, do not feel chagrin over thy intimate dreams. They are normal and healthy."

"Oh... thanks. But..."

"We do not begrudge dreams of Celestia. She is a common fantasy. Common to the point of cliché."

"But then... how come no one else ever got a cutie mark like mine? Why am I different?"

"We are sorry, Radish Root. We do not know. Achieving a cutie mark during sleep is not unusual. Sometimes dreams allow one to imagine possible futures, and decide on one."

"I don't remember the dream I had that night. I just woke up with a vague memory of Celestia. Then... I saw my marks."

"Had we been witness to that dream, we could provide insight. But we cannot view a dream that has already been dreamt. We are sorry. We have no answers for thee."

"It's okay. Don't worry about it."

"Lieutenant... dost thou resent Celestia for spurning thee?"

"Well, it was always a longshot. A pipe dream."

"But dreams should be enjoyed. We wish thine did not distress thee so. We do not know what cosmic ties bind you and Celestia together, but we are confident you will someday find the answers you seek. Perhaps further dreams of her will provide the clarity you are missing."

"Huh. I never thought of it like that. Thank you."

"You are welcome." She stood up. "But now we must return to our duties."

"I understand. There's a whole world of dreaming ponies out there who need you," Radish said, standing up.

"Unfortunately, now that we will be patrolling the dream ream all night, we will have very little time to socialize. You and I will see much less of each other from now on."

"Well, if you ever need anything, I'm right outside your door."

"Thank you, Radish Root."

They nodded to each other. Radish saluted Luna and left the room. Luna walked over to her balcony, gazing out at the world. She closed her eyes, and her horn glowed softly.

She stood still for a few minutes. Suddenly, she shuddered and opened her eyes. She frowned, looking up at the moon.

"So... they live, after all."

She looked back at her door. She smiled.

"If I ever need anything..."

18. The Outing

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

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

“She has an office?”

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

“Oh, she commutes to work.”

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

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

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

“That’s wonderful.”

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

“Bat ponies? No, ma’am, I haven’t.”

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

“That’s… wow. What happened to them?”

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

“Ma’am?”

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

“You think of me as your Champion?”

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

“I… thank you, princess!”

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

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

She held up the map.

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

“All the time in the Rangers.”

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

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

“Yes. How shameful of her, no?”

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

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

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

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

“Millions!”

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

“Will they be easy to convince?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, your highness.”

“Thanks are not needed.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve heard that, too.”

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

“Oh?”

“But Princess Celestia vetoed that.”

“Oh.”

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

“Oh?”

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

“Is it, uh, magic?”

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

“Could I have a sword, too?”

“What for?”

“The other ninety percent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too, sir."

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

“No, sir.”

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

“I won’t, sir.”

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

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

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow.

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


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

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

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

Then he heard an ear-splitting voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They stared.

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

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

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

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

They stared at him.

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

They continued to stare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No siree!” said Applejack.

“Not in the least!” said Rarity.

“I wasn’t staring!” said Fluttershy.

“Yeah, show us!” giggled Pinkie Pie.

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

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

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

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

“And what do you say?”

“Sorry, Radish,” they said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lieutenant Big Strong Guard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took a map from Radish and flew off.

“Miss Rarity,” said Radish.

“Uh, yes?”

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

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

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

“Miss Fluttershy?”

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

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

“Oh. I can do that!”

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

“Miss Pie-”

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

“Miss Pie, you-”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Twilight?”

“Scan for dark magic residue?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Huh. Thanks for the warning.”

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

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

“Multiple. First of all, cat herding.”

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

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

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

“Site security.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Radish.”

“No problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problemo!”

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

Fluttershy stepped forward, with the skunk on her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shifted to what, exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

“What?” asked Twilight.

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

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

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

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

She had found a large, luxurious bedroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radish looked at Twilight with pleading eyes.

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

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

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

Pinkie Pie gave him a wide grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Over here, Radish,” said Twilight.

She had found a control panel on a near wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rarity sat and gazed at it.

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

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

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

“First what now?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“You know, sleep in shifts?”

The girls looked at each other, confused.

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

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

“How do you do things?”

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

Rarity looked back at the door they came in from.

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

“Ooh, perfect!” Pinkie Pie said.

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

“Sure.”

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

“But why-”

“Thank you, dear!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No…” said Rarity, pondering it.

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

“Library-dwelling egghead?” finished Rainbow Dash.

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

The other four looked between themselves. They shrugged.

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

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

“What are you writing?”

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

“Official report?”

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

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

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

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

Twilight looked at the door mechanism.

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

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

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

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

“That’s really nice.”

“Luna’s really nice.”

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

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

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

“No. But I am her Champion.”

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

“Yeah.”

“We won’t let her down, Radish.”

“Thanks.”

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

“Nice night.”

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

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

“No, I’m fine.”

Radish pulled out a bag from his pocket.

“Want a jalapeño chew?”

She gingerly took one and sniffed it.

“This smells awful.”

“They help me focus.”

She chewed it. She spat it out.

“Ugh. Sorry, but I can’t.”

“It’s okay.”

“Here, try this instead.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, sunflower. Obvious.”

“Yeah.”

“Watermelon. Pineapple. Tomato.”

“Uh huh. Summer fruits.”

“A fancy tea. I can’t help there.”

“It's hibiscus chamomile. Her favorite.”

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

“Starfruit.”

“Never had it. Oh, Balencian orange.”

“Balencian orange? Really?”

“Yeah. From Courtyard A.”

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

Twilight pulled out a scroll and wrote it down.

“Anything else?”

“This smokiness…”

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

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

Radish bristled and scowled.

“What?”

“It’s radish seed.”

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

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

“Uh huh.”

“Oh my.”

“What’s this candymaker’s name?”

“Bon Bon.”

“Could you tell Bon Bon off for me?”

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

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

“Do you taste anything else?”

“That’s all I can figure. Sorry.”

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

“What the prize?”

“A big block of salt.”

“That sounds nice. Thanks.”

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

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

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

Just like Luna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay. You’re right.”

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

“Really? That’s a nice place.”

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

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

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

“Could I have a look through those?”

“Sure.”

He gave her his binoculars. She adjusted the knobs.

“Wow, these are good!”

“Right?”

“I can see vultures in the sky!”

“At night?”

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

“Vultures are looping? Uh…”


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

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

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

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

“Heavens! Nightmare Moon’s perfume!”

She spritzed her wrist and sniffed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is them!” said Rarity excitedly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Starfruit.”

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

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

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

“Those look so bulky.”

“Uh, what does?” said Rainbow Dash.

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

“Hush! I’m missing it!” said Rarity.

“…inferior equipment?”

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

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

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

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

“Really? That’s a nice place.”

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

“Could I have a look through those?”

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

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

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

“Vultures are looping? Uh…”

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

“Let me see.”

There was a pause.

“Twilight, get ready!”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s them! Four bat ponies inbound!”

The five startled back.

“Oh dear,” said Rarity.


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

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

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

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

Radish held out his pendant and stood tall.

“Hello. My name is Radish Root, and-”

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

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

The bat ponies took to the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, that didn’t work either.”

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

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

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

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

“You say something?” he snapped.

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

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

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

“Well, maybe it didn’t take.”

Radish seethed.

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

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

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

“You guys! Stop it!” said Twilight.

They both turned to glare at her.

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

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

“What?” Twilight asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all stared.

“What does that mean?” asked Fluttershy.

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

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

Radish sighed.

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

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

“To the death,” he said.

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

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

“How?” asked Radish.

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

The others stared at her.

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

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

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

“No!” shouted everyone else.

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

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

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

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

She looked around herself.

“I don’t know!”

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

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

“Uh, probably?”

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

“I’ll try them all!”

“NO!” everypony else yelled.

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

“Okay, there may be a way-”

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

“Sorry!” yelled Pinkie Pie.

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

“Ow! It’s metal!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, dear.”

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

Radish banged his spear on the metal walls.

“Hey! Here!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?” asked Radish.

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

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

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

Twilight looked down at the wolf.

“That… could work! Okay, if we-”

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

“Move!”

They clambered across the cage away from the beast.

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

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

“Got it!” everypony called.

“One… two… HOLY-”

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

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

Twilight raised her horn high, preparing her spell.

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

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

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

“I need more time!” Twilight yelped.

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

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

“Now!” Radish howled, skittering back.

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

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

19. The Outing, Part 2

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The next thing Radish heard was counting.

“Thirteen! Fourteen! Fifteen!”

He became aware of something repeatedly and painfully crushing into his ribcage. Then, something yanked open his mouth and pinched his nostrils closed. Something soft and wet enveloped his lips, and two blasts of warm moist air were forced down his throat. His eyes cracked open to see Rainbow Dash’s mouth on his own. Her eyes met his. She parted her lips from his, sat back, then looked over her shoulder.

“I’ve got obvious signs of life, here!” she called.

“Radish!” shouted Twilight Sparkle, putting her hooves on his shoulders with tears in her eyes. “I am so, so, sorry!”

“Ugh?”

“Land’s sakes! You did it, Rainbow!” said Applejack, clapping a hoof on Rainbow Dash’s back. “Yer a regular field medic!”

“It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!” laughed Pinkie Pie maniacally.

“Lieutenant, how do you feel?” asked Rarity.

“Raghr…”

“Easy, now. You’ve just been wretched from the jaws of death, literally and figuratively,” she said. “Both you and the metal beast were hit by the heart-stopping spell. We have elected not to resuscitate it, however.”

“Hrhr?”

“Radish, I swear to you, I will never, ever, ever cast another heart-stopping spell as long as I live,” cried Twilight.

Radish took a deep breath. His chest was sore and his limbs were numb. He sat up with Twilight’s help. She held him gingerly and sobbed into his shoulder.

“I’m so ashamed. I was the only one here who never learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I almost killed you, and I didn’t even know enough to save you!”

Radish could feel himself slowly catch up to the world. He tried to form words, but couldn’t. Then, he felt cold air on his lower body, and realized his cutie marks were exposed. A surge of adrenaline jolted through him, and he twisted his body to hide one and covered the other with his hooves.

“No. Don’t. You don’t have to hide it,” said Twilight, wiping her eyes.

“That’s right. We ain’t never shamed a pony over their mark, much less a friend,” said Applejack, “and we ain’t a-gonna start now.”

“Honestly, ponies are so easily-offended these days,” said Rarity. “Why, your mark is daringly alternative! It would be the envy of Prance’s underground club scene.”

“Yeah, no big whoop,” said Rainbow Dash, shrugging. “At least it looks consensual.”

“Consensual?” laughed Pinkie Pie. “Celestia looks like she’s having the time of her life!”

“It’s… nice,” Fluttershy said.

“Thanks, all,” wheezed Radish. “What about the bat ponies?”

“They didn’t follow us,” said Twilight. “We might’ve scared them off.”

“Yeah, I’m sure they were terrified of us fallin’ into their deathtrap,” said Applejack.

Radish felt his chest.

“My pendant!”

“Yeah, sorry. The wolf fell on it,” said Twilight, gesturing to the remains of the beast. “We tried lifting it, but we can’t even budge it.”

“No! That was for the bat ponies to know Luna sent us!”

“What? Well, now what?”

Radish sighed. “We’ll just try to talk to them, pony to pony.”

“Come on,” said Pinkie Pie. “I got the doors open. We can get back upstairs. And look! Twilight’s ahead!”

She pointed to the wall panel. It read “TOURNAMENT SUSPENDED. TWILIGHT SPARKLE: 2 KILLS.”

Twilight’s ears drooped and she groaned. She put Radish’s hoof around her shoulder and supported him as they walked. They exited the area, walked through the rows of seats, and took stairs up to the control room. In its back was another door, which slid open to another hallway. It led back to the floor they had previously searched, through a door they had been unable to open from the other side.

“Okay, I know where we are,” said Twilight. “Come on. We’ll let you rest in Nightmare Moon’s bed.”

“But the bat ponies must still be around.”

“We’ll deal with them, okay?”

They walked on. Rainbow Dash walked near Twilight and Radish.

“Miss Dash?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for saving my life.”

“Well, I couldn’t just let you die. And don’t go around saying I was your first kiss, either. Rescue breaths don’t count.”

“Wasn’t my first, anyhow. But you have my gratitude.”

“Oh, really? Who was it? Not Celestia!” said Rainbow Dash.

“No.”

“Luna?”

“Heh. No.”

“Was it a buffalo?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“Y… I can’t talk about it.”

“Really?” asked Twilight.

“I can’t talk about it,” he sighed.

Fluttershy lagged behind, pulling Rarity back with her. They stopped behind a corner.

“Rarity?”

“Yes, Fluttershy, dear?”

“It’s about Radish’s cutie mark.”

“Now, don’t be rude.”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just, the way Celestia looks on it… can sex really feel that good?”

Rarity was taken aback, then smiled as she put her hoof around Fluttershy’s shoulders.

“Oh, darling! There’s a world of passion beyond the simple rutting of your woodland friends. Why, the right stallion… or, uh, mare?”

Fluttershy shook her head.

“Well, the right partner could make your world stop, or spin out of control.”

“Oh, my.”

“And then take you off to other worlds entirely. Worlds where pleasure is your key, your currency, your map, and your sustenance.”

“What?”

“And then he brings you to the very edge of all sanity, and you’re too afraid to take one more step, but more afraid still to take a step back. So you leap off!”

“Wait, I’m confused.”

“And you plunge. And he plunges with you. And you’d plunge for the rest of your life if you could.”

“Rarity?”

“Oh! Uh, but I believe you should start with something a little more gentle.”

“Do you think he and Princess Celestia will ever do that?”

“Well, it seems unlikely.”

“What do you think his cutie mark means?”

“I haven’t thought about it. Perhaps we’ll never know.”

“That’s sad for him.”

“Well, sounds like he could use a little kindness, no?”

“Oh. Hmm.”

Fluttershy hovered over to Radish as Twilight carried him.

“Um, Lieutenant Root? I’m glad you’re all right.”

“Thanks.”

“Thank you for fighting that machine monster. You were very brave.”

“It’s my duty.”

“I just want you to know, that even if you never get to have sex with Princess Celestia, I bet you’ll find a really nice partner just the same.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

She flew off. Twilight sighed.

“Well, at least they’re not awkward about it anymore.”

They opened the door to the bedroom. The four bat ponies were curled up on the floor around Nightmare Moon’s bed. They raised their heads and hissed, stalking up around the group.

“Oh, heck,” said Twilight.

“Wait!” called Radish. “Nightmare Moon sent me!”

The bat ponies eyed him suspiciously. One crept close to them. He sniffed Radish. His eyes went wide in surprise.

“Echo! Vesper! Murk! Stop! This one smells of the mistress! He speaks the truth!”

The bat ponies surrounded Radish and sniffed him all over. He cringed.

“The mistress lives?” one asked.

“Yes. I have orders from her.”

The bat ponies lined up and kneeled before Radish.

“We feared her lost forever," one said. "What is her bidding?”

“The mistress has returned in a new form. She now rules the night from a tower at the palace in Canterlot,” said Radish.

“Just… the night? Just one tower?”

“It is her whim. We do not question it.”

“Yes. No. We do not question it.”

“Return with us to her side. You will be honored and rewarded for your long fealty.”

One of the bat ponies, the only female, sniffed at Rarity.

“You smell of the mistress’s perfume! Are you a consort of the mistress?”

Rarity stammered. The others nodded their heads at her.

“Oh, er, we get along famously.”

“And the rest of these?” one of the males asked, pointing to the others.

“They’re my porters. All in the mistress’s service,” Radish quickly said.

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash with a proud smirk, “we’ve been carrying his weight all day.”

One of the other males peered suspiciously at Twilight. He sniffed her and gasped.

“That one, Envoy, is a spy! She smells of the evil one!”

“The evil one?” asked Radish.

“The sky-burner! The dark-chaser! The one the mistress seeks to overthrow!”

“Ugh, you just have to go and hug Celestia every time you see her,” said Pinkie Pie, annoyed.

“I do not!” protested Twilight. “Besides, how could they… wait!”

Twilight pulled her candy sticks from her bag.

“You’re smelling these! What do they smell like to you?”

The bat ponies sniffed the candies.

“Petitgrain!” the female hissed. “The evil one’s favored perfume!”

“Thanks!” said Twilight, writing it down. “That’s all of them!”

“The heck is petitgrain?” asked Applejack.

“It’s orange leaves and twigs, dear, all crushed up,” replied Rarity.

“What? Who wants to smell like that?” scoffed Applejack.

“Huh, so that’s what that is,” said Radish. He addressed the bat ponies. “The evil one is evil no longer. She has come around to the mistress’s side.”

“Impossible! The mistress said she was beyond all redemption!”

“Oh yeah? Behold!” said Radish.

Radish turned, brushed the fur on his flank straight, and showed off his cutie mark. The bat ponies gathered around him to look at it. They laughed uproariously.

“The evil one is reduced to this?” one howled.

“This is her role now?” guffawed another.

“She looks like she’s having the time of her life, huh?” asked Radish.

Twilight scowled. Pinkie Pie laughed into Rainbow Dash’s chest. Applejack hid her face behind her hat.

The female bat pony stared at Radish’s cutie mark, mouth agape. Her face looked flushed.

“The Envoy’s boudoir skills must be advanced,” she said. “May others partake?”

“Oh, uh…” stammered Radish.

Fluttershy put a hoof around her shoulders and whispered something in her ear. The female bat pony’s eyes and wings went wide.

“We will leave for Canterlot at once!” she yelled. “Come!”

The bat ponies led them back to the hangar. One of them screeched at the floor, and another trap door opened. A large carriage slowly raised out of the floor.

“Come. Into the carriage,” one said.

“Whoo-hoo! Riding in style!” said Pinkie Pie.

“Nice craftsponyship,” said Applejack, kicking its wheels.

“Nice enough to hold together after a thousand years?” asked Fluttershy.

“You question the sturdiness of the mistress’s conveyance?” hissed a male bat pony.

“No,” she squeaked.

“Envoy! Consort! Enter. Take your pick of seats,” he said, opening the carriage door while the rest hitched themselves onto its harnesses.

“Well,” said Rarity. “at least being a consort has its privileges.”

She entered the carriage and took a rear window seat. Radish stepped forward, but was held back by Twilight.

“Radish, when we get back to the palace, I want you to turn me in.”

“For?”

“Killing you!”

“I’m alive.”

“No thanks to me! Please, I can’t go unpunished for casting lethal dark magic on a royal guard! I can’t allow myself to receive special treatment! I’ll take whatever punishment I get.”

“Okay, I’ll tell Shining Armor you killed me.”

“Promise?”

“Don’t worry.”

“Thank you, Radish,” she said, nuzzling him. “Visit me in prison, okay?”

“Okay.”

He entered the carriage and took the other rear window seat. The bat pony slammed the door shut and walked over to the harnesses.

“Hey!” called Radish from inside.

“Uh, forgetting someponies?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“The carriage is for the Mistress’s favored own. Porters may walk home.”

He finished harnessing himself.

“Now, wait just a minute!” said Twilight. “You’re not going to… hey!”

The bat ponies took off with the carriage, leaving Twilight, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash in the hangar. They watched it go, dumbfounded.

“Hey! Stop! Turn around!” called Radish. The bat ponies either could not hear him, or acted like they could not. He and Rarity looked at each other.

“Oh dear,” she said. “I believe we’ve had a miscommunication.”

Radish looked out the window. They were hundreds of feet in the night sky, with the shadowy landscape speeding underneath them. The Mountains of Difficult Terrain were becoming a distant speck on the dark horizon. Radish’s hoof went to the door handle.

“Don’t open it! We’ll be sucked out!” cried Rarity.

“Well, what do I do? I’m botching the mission as we speak!”

“Are you, Radish? The mission is to get those bat ponies back to Canterlot. And so you are.”

“But we left the others behind!”

“Yes, an hour’s hike from Glad’s Glades, which is lovely in the morning. We bought round-trip train tickets with flexible dates for a reason, dear. Now only ours will go to waste. The others will simply take the scenic route home.”

“How can you be so calm about this? Celestia will be furious I left Twilight behind! The captain will kill me! I’ll be kicked out of the Guard!”

“Oh, please, Radish,” she said, putting a reassuring hoof on his shoulder. “Surely they don’t expect perfection on your first outing?”

“Rarity, they barely tolerate me there as it is. I was hoping to impress them on this. Now I’ll be back to scrubbing tunnels, if I’m lucky.”

“The six of us will vouch for you. Take the fall for you, if need be. Princess Celestia can’t fire us- we don’t work for her.”

“Wait, the six of you don’t get paid for being the Elements of Harmony?”

“Well, a stipend. Tax-free, though.”

“That’s pretty good.”

“Listen, if you are loosed from her majesty’s service, you could come live in Ponyville. I’m sure Twilight wouldn’t mind having you close by,” she said, nudging him and winking.

“Rarity, I think you got the wrong idea about us.”

“Oh dear, was I pushing something that wasn’t there?”

“Yeah.”

“I do apologize. I get carried away with affairs of the heart sometimes. Was there somepony else, then?”

Radish looked at his cutie mark.

“Oh,” Rarity said. “Radish, I must be honest. I just don’t see that happening. I’ve been the target of a precocial crush or two, and believe me, they don’t work out. And it’s not as flattering to the crushee as you’d think.”

“Huh. Sorry.”

“For what?”

“Nothing. She’s just… hard to get over.”

“No doubt. But you have a lot to offer some lucky mare out there.”

"But what mare is going to want a guy with... this?" he asked, pointing to his mark.

"Oh, pish-posh, darling! Any girl who rejects you over your cutie mark never deserved you in the first place. I truly believe there's someone for everyone, and I just know that you'll find that special someone who appreciates every piece of you."

“Hmm. Thank you, Rarity.”

“Not at all. You know, I think I’ll swear off matchmaking my friends. I’m hardly a romance expert, anyway.”

“Really? I figured you were popular with guys.”

“Well, you’ll think me an awful hypocrite, but I have my sights set on a rather high-stationed pony myself. Celestia’s nephew.”

“Oh, that guy?”

“You know him?”

“No, he rarely visits Canterlot. He lives in a villa by the Marediterranean Sea.”

“Really!? Oh, it must be gorgeous! Can’t you just picture us there, sipping sangria on a white sand beach?”

“I could try to get you insider knowledge of the guy. Maybe put in a good word about you around the palace?”

“Ooh, I appreciate the thought, but these things must be handled delicately. I don’t want to seem over-eager.”

“What, you don’t just walk up to royalty and proposition them?”

They both laughed. Rarity pulled out a deck of cards.

“I bought these at the train station for the ride home. Do you play canasta?”

“Is that like gin?”

“I don’t know. But seeing as we’re hours from Canterlot by wing, we have time to teach each other both games.”

They played cards as the world swept by under them. The air rushing over the carriage made no sound. The lands below were a dark abyss with a few lights from scattered towns. Moonlight shone off rippling lake surfaces. Radish felt himself growing calmer.

“We’re coming up on Canterlot,” said Rarity. “Oh, soaring above it at night! How breathtaking!”

They looked out the window to see the lights of Canterlot. The streets were ribbons of amber, and the buildings glowed gold from within.

A loud whistle split the night. “CITY WATCH! Stop and open up!”

They looked out the window to see pegasi of the City Watch angrily surrounding them, shining bright beams from their flashlights into the carriage. The bat ponies reared up mid-air, hissing. An argument ensued that Radish could only half-hear. Nightmare Moon evidently did not imbue her minions with a respect for municipal authorities.

“Oh dear, did we need to file a flight plan for this?” asked Rarity. “Or were we speeding?”

Radish cracked open the door.

“Hey! I’m lieutenant of the Royal Guard! We’re on a mission for the princesses!”

One of the watchponies yelled an expletive at Radish.

“Well!” chuffed Rarity. “So much for the supposed helpfulness of the Watch!”

The bat ponies then dove, dragging the carriage straight down. Radish and Rarity were pressed to its back. They held each other and screamed. The carriage swooped, flying straight along the ground, dodging and weaving the buildings and traffic of Canterlot’s downtown.

The palace was coming up rapidly. The royal guards on the parapets and in the sky saw them coming. They dodged as the carriage blasted past them.

Radish noticed the sun rising. Somewhere in the palace, Celestia was awake, working, and probably watching. Radish wondered if she was hanging her head and sighing at his incompetence.

Radish heard the bat ponies screech. They swooped low again, coming to a stop under one of the bridges in the palace commons. They flew up to the underside of the bridge and latched onto its stones. The carriage dangled underneath them like a pendulum. Radish and Rarity fell on their backs onto the rear of the carriage. Radish kicked open a door, and it broke off its hinges.

“Hey! What are y’all doing!?”

One of the bat ponies answered. “The sky fire is up! We sleep now!”

“Are you kidding me? We’re like fifty meters from Luna’s tower! The Mistress is right- uh oh.”

The carriage creaked. The creaks became groans. The groans became the snapping of timbers.

“Radish, I’d like to get out now,” said Rarity.

“Jump for it! Get clear!”

They bolted out the door into the stream under the bridge. The carriage fell apart and collapsed into the stream, splashing Rarity and Radish out of it. The bat ponies looked down at them.

“Envoy! Consort! Are you hurt?”

“Lieutenant Root? Miss Rarity?”

Radish looked up. Several guards were now surrounding them, brandishing their weapons. Radish stood and shook the water off of himself.

“It’s us, fellas.”

The guards relaxed. Radish helped Rarity out of the stream.

“Could somepony escort Miss Rarity here to a guest room? Draw her a bath and light the fireplace.”

“Oh, how courteous," she said. "Thank you, Radish.”

“Lieutenant? What happened out there? What are… whoa! Are those bat ponies? They really exist?”

The guards looked up at the bat ponies hanging upside down from the masonry. They were huddling together in shadow.

“Silence, day slaves! We sleep now!” one called.

“Yeah,” sighed Radish. “I’m going to towel off and report in. Just let them sleep up there, I guess. Keep the tourists off this bridge.”

“Speaking of which, Root, you might want to get back in uniform,” said a guard. “We’ve got schools here on field trips.”

Radish looked at his cutie marks. Even soaking wet, their subject matter was plain as day.

“Right.”


“So, Root. Let’s recap,” said Shining Armor, staring at Radish’s preliminary report on his desk.

Radish kept silent.

“You took Equestria’s premier team of heroes, including my little sister, out into the mountains, and left most of them, including my little sister, behind to fend for themselves in one of the most dangerous dark magic locations on the planet. You lost every piece of equipment you were given, including a customized prototype spear, a one-of-a-kind, thousand-year-old-pendant, and your own pants.

“You unleased dangerous creatures on Canterlot without prepping them in any way, nearly killing watchponies and your fellow guards. You left them to sleep under the west bridge, forcing everyone to take the long way around the commons all day. You wrecked an antique carriage and left its remains in the palace creek for maintenance to clean up. And you somehow started a rumor that Rarity and Luna are lovers.”

Radish remained silent. Shining Armor shrugged.

“Frankly, I expected Twilight to bring you home in a body bag, so at least you did better than that. You got the bat ponies back, everyone’s safe, and the palace scholars are champing at the bit over the chance to study Nightmare Moon’s lab. And it’s nice that the Guard gets some representation on missions like these.”

Radish still kept silent.

“So, B minus. Didn’t screw it up.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Once the bat ponies and Luna are awake, go reintroduce them. Then we’ll consider the mission complete.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did Twilight perform out there?”

“She’s a skilled team leader and an impressive spellcaster.”

"There were no magical mishaps? Miscast spells?"

"Uh..."

"On your honor as a guard, and on your oath to Equestria?”

Radish sighed.

“Twilight used a heart-stopping spell from Nightmare Moon's spellbook on the machine wolf. I let myself get caught in the line of fire. It stopped my heart. Rainbow Dash resuscitated me.”

“Twilight literally killed you."

“Well, I’ll live.”

“You didn’t think to put this in the report?”

“I reported on Nightmare Moon’s lair and the bat ponies- that was the mission. I didn’t think I’d have to include every single thing the others did. I didn’t include Pinkie Pie’s song, either.”

“She really sings on these things? Like, spontaneously?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Root, Twilight is never going to grow if others run interference for her. She can’t be shielded from the consequences of her actions, no matter how special she is.”

“What are the consequences, sir?”

“My guess is, Princess Celestia will give her a stern talking-to, an essay assignment, and a service project.”

“I see.”

“And you are going to review mission reporting protocol. I never want to have to ask you twice for the whole truth again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed. See a doctor about your heart.”

Radish left Shining Armor’s office. Shining Armor looked down at Radish’s report. He thought it wasn’t bad for a guard’s first, despite omissions and some questionable grammatical choices. He closed the folder.

“Protect her to the last breath, huh?” he muttered. “And after, apparently.”


Dozens of guards and staff stood waiting in the commons as the day’s last light vanished behind the horizon. They watched the west bridge and the top of Selenic Spire. Radish stood under the bridge looking up.

There was a series of screeches from under the bridge. The four bat ponies shot out from under it. They immediately saw Radish dove at him, taking a hovering position above him.

“Envoy! The night returns! We finish our journey to the mistress,” one said.

“Okay, let’s go,” Radish said. He pointed at Selenic Spire. “She’s up there.”

“Where is the mistress’s consort? The one named Rarity?”

The crowd gasped, muttered, giggled, and whispered.

“She’ll, uh, stop by later,” Radish said uneasily.

“So be it!”

One of the bat ponies grabbed Radish and dragged him skyward. He yelped, then gave up trying to reason with him.

They hovered in front of Luna’s balcony.

“Mistress! We have returned!”

Luna stepped forth from her bedroom. She was wearing a black cloak concealing her entire body, and had the hood pulled down over her face.

Her royal voice thundered out.

“ECHO! VESPER! MURK! NOCTURN! WELCOME HOME, MINIONS!” bellowed Luna. Radish clamped his hooves over his ears as the sheer force of sound pushed the bat ponies back. “THY MISTRESS CELEBRATES THY RETURN! THOU WILT BE REWARDED FOR THY FAITHFULNESS!”

The bat ponies landed with Radish on the balcony, and kneeled.

“Thank you, mistress! We missed you!”

“THERE IS MUCH TO DISCUSS, MUCH TO PREPARE, AND MUCH TO LEARN! WE HAVE MANY NEW TASKS FOR THEE IN THIS MODERN WORLD!”

“We will complete your tasks!”

“GO NOW INTO THE NIGHT AND FEAST TO YOUR CONTENT! THE INSECTS OF CANTERLOT HAVE GROWN FAT AND SLOW!”

“Thank you, mistress!”

The three male bat ponies flew off into the night. The female one lingered, looking back at Radish.

“MORE TO SAY, HAVE THEE, VESPER?”

“Mistress, what must one do to partake of the Envoy as your sister does?”

Luna looked at Radish. He gave an uncomfortable shrug.

“I SAID GO FEED!”

She skittered off the balcony and flew into the night.

Radish’s ears were ringing. Luna approached him and threw off her cloak.

“RADISH ROOT, YOU- ahem. Radish Root. Thy quest was successful. Congratulations.”

“What?” asked Radish, his ears still ringing.

“Ah, we apologize for our use of our proper royal voice. Nightmare Moon used it for them, thus the necessity tonight. We shall eventually teach the bat ponies to respond to commands at a lower volume.”

“Oh, I see.”

“May we see the pendant?”

“A giant mechanical wolf destroyed it.”

Luna frowned.

“Radish Root, that is a shame. We were going to let thee keep it in reward. Its value would have bought thee a mansion.”

“Oh…”

“In its stead, we will give thee a boon of a land grant.”

“Land? Really?”

“Truly. Behold.”

She walked over to the telescope mounted on her balcony. She aimed it at the moon and looked through it, adjusting the focus.

“Come, see.”

Radish looked through the eyepiece.

“Dost thou see that dark spot in the center? ‘Tis called the Sea of Omens. ‘Tis thine now.”

Radish stared.

“Really? Part of the moon now just… belongs to me?”

“We will file the papers in the morning.”

“Thank you!”

“Thanks are not needed.”

Radish bowed.

“One more thing,” said Luna. “Thou will not fraternize intimately with Vesper. The bat ponies are brood siblings, and thou art now of their brethren, too.”

“Oh. Okay. Wait, siblings? Wow, I’ve never had siblings before.”

Luna leaned down to him.

“It is not always easy.”


Radish Root sat in his bunk, staring at his deed of ownership for the Sea of Omens, which he had framed and hung on the wall over his bed.

“Hey, Root. You got a package.”

The palace’s mail clerk tossed Radish a heavy rectangular box. Radish caught the box in his lap, causing his eyes to bulge.

“Thanks,” he groaned.

It was from Twilight. He opened it. Inside was half of a big block of salt, and a letter.


Dear Radish,

We did it! We got all the ingredients of the Celestial blend. As promised, here’s half the prize. Would you be so kind as to share some with the bat ponies? They got the last ingredient, after all.

I also gave Bon Bon a good talking-to about using games to make fun of others, especially brave and noble members of her majesty’s Guard. She agreed to make up for it by starting on a Lunar blend recipe. If you have suggestions about what should go into it, please let me know.

P.S., Thank you for keeping your word and turning me in. Shining Armor and Princess Celestia were furious, and they have every right to be. I’m not being arrested, but I am on academic probation- which mean Princess Celestia will be keeping a much closer eye on my independent studies. It’s a small price to pay for never having to worry about killing a friend again. I’m also going to be learning field first aid.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle


Radish filed the letter in his footlocker and looked at his calendar pinned to the wall. He made a small note on the date.

My first successful mission, he thought. Hopefully not the last.

He lay back in his bed and closed his eyes, wondering about what was yet to come.

20. Old Friends

View Online

Princess Luna lay back in her balcony lounge chair, sipping white wine. She gazed up at the evening sky, smiling.

"Sister, you look happy," said Celestia, dropping onto the balcony next to her.

"I am most happy, indeed!" said Luna, floating her sister a glass of wine. "The bat ponies are safe and sound, I have completed another step towards undoing Nightmare Moon's dark deeds, and my Champion has proven my trust in him to be well-placed."

"I'm glad everything turned out all right."

"It seems not even a fatal blow from your champion could stop him from completing his mission."

"You're going to hold that over me forever, aren't you?"

Luna smirked and took another sip. "Nay. Lieutenant Root begged my forgiveness on the girl's behalf. I assented."

"Thank you, Luna."

"I share much of the blame, anyway. I had forgotten some of the dangers in Nightmare Moon's lair. And I believe there are still many more perils lurking within. For this reason, I want it sealed, with all entry barred."

"Twilight's already helped with that. She brought this back for you."

Celestia gave Luna an ancient ruby, the key for the lair's door.

"Good."

"Luna... about Radish..."

Luna sighed and rolled onto her side. "I know what you are going to say. He has held the same post for far too long. A guard should never get too comfortable in one role, and this mission has proven he is capable of so much more. You want me to end his stint on The Night Shift."

"No, I was going to say you can have him for as long as you want."

"No... I cannot, for his sake. Most training occurs during the day, doesn't it? By working only nights, he is falling behind his fellow guards. The longer he guards my door, the less suited for it he becomes."

"True. But we can always find a workaround."

"There is no workaround for destiny. I do not know what that boy's destiny is, but I do know that he will never find it standing alone in my dark hallway, night after night."

"Listen, Luna-"

"I will still require his assistance up until my debut. After that, I will make a decision about his future."

"Very well."

Something in the night sky caught Celestia's eye. The four bat ponies dropped down onto the balcony.

"Good evening, mistress!" they said as one, bowing to Luna.

"Greetings, minions. You remember my sister, Celestia? Celestia, allow me to introduce Echo, Vesper, Nocturn, and Murk."

"Hello, evil one!" they said.

Luna held in a snicker. Celestia rolled her eyes.

"I prefer 'your highness', if you don't mind."

Vesper approached Celestia and sniffed her. "Your highness, you do not smell of the Envoy. Have you been neglecting your sensual duties to him?"

Luna burst with laughter. Celestia scowled.

"You will clear this matter up, won't you, sister?"

"But of course."

Celestia approached the bat ponies and loomed over them. "Well, now that we've been formally introduced, perhaps we could discuss a certain midnight raid on my personal vault, roughly a thousand years ago? Several valuable items were stolen that I'd like to see again."

The bat ponies shared nervous glances. Luna gulped.

21. New Friends

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Radish sat on a bench in a quiet spot by the castle's lake, watching a wren hop around the sedges. He heard light hoofprints approaching from behind, and turned to see Twilight.

"Hi," she softly said.

"Hi, Twilight. What brings you here?"

"The girls and I wanted to come visit you. Basically, a friendship follow-up. We split up to look for you. How are you feeling?"

"The doc says I'm fine. But he prescribed me a few days off anyway. And some of these."

He held up a half-empty pill bottle and read its label. "For maintaining regular myocardial rhythm following moderate to severe curses."

She groaned. She sat next to him on the bench, and pulled a thermos out of her bag. "I brought you something. Zecora says that nettle tea is good for the heart."

"Really? The buffalo say it's good for the liver."

"Well, hopefully it's good for something."

She poured him a capful. He sipped it. "It's sure not good for the mouth. How are things between you and Princess Celestia?"

"Still tense. I just dropped off my next month's syllabus for her approval. I'm back to a really basic curriculum. Mostly studying fundamental theory."

"Sorry."

"Don't be. I like it. In fact... I had this idea that I wanted to run by you."

"What do you mean?"

"Now that I'll be spending most of my time doing research, I could devote some of that research to cutie mark magic. Maybe I could help you figure out what yours mean."

Radish sighed. "Twilight, Celestia said cutie mark experts tried to figure them out. They never got anywhere."

"But that was years ago. There's always more to learn. Maybe new relevant data has come to light in the meantime."

"I don't want you worrying about it. Please, let it go, okay?"

"Okay. But if I come across something, I'll write you."

"All right."

Radish sipped his tea. "I'm starting to like this stuff."

"Some things just take a little patience and understanding."

"You don't have to turn everything into a friendship lesson, you know."

"Sorry, force of habit. I'm going to go find the others. Stay here, okay?"

"Sure."

She left, and Radish waited, sipping more tea. A sudden urgency reminded him why nettle tea was said to be good for so many different organs.

Oh, right. It's a diuretic.

He rushed to the nearest bathroom. Upon exiting, he heard a bouncing noise approaching him down the hall.

"Radish!" shouted Pinkie Pie, springing up to him. She threw herself on the ground before him and held up two hooves pleadingly. "I am so, so, so sorry! Please forgive me!"

"For what?"

"We've been friends for days now, and I haven't even given you the questionnaire!"

"The what?"

She pulled out a quill and a composition notebook. "First up, when's your birthday?"

"It's... wait. Is this a party thing?"

"No, this is your party thing! I prepare a party-planning preference profile for all my pals!" She looked back at her notebook. "I'm also gonna need to know your favorite flavor of punch, what you want your piñata shaped as, whether or not you want it to be a surprise..."

"How could it be a surprise if I ask for it?"

"You let me worry about that! I'm full of surprises!"

"Pinkie Pie, I don't really make a big deal out of my birthday."

"Ha! Good one! Now, what did you do for your last birthday? Be specific- I need to top it."

"Well, I was living alone on the plains. Ranger Command sent me a dram of whiskey for my birthday. I woke up before the break of dawn and used it to toast the sun as it crested over the horizon. It was my way of feeling connected to Celestia- I had this small hope that she could somehow see me through the sun, and would smile upon the gesture."

Pinkie Pie dropped her quill and notebook, frowning. She slowly walked over to Radish and hugged him tightly. "Radish, that's the saddest thing I've ever heard."

"Well, it was good whiskey."

She patted him on the head. "You don't need to worry about feeling connected to Celestia now. She'll be first on the guest list."

"You don't have to do that."

"I'll make it a pool party. Just imagine her emerging from the pool, her dripping wet fur clinging to her every curve..."

"Please stop."

"...then the two of you partner up for chicken fights, and she sits her thighs on your shoulders..."

"October tenth."


After finishing all six pages of Pinkie Pie's questionnaire, Radish continued his way down the hall back to the lake. Rarity trotted around a corner and cheerfully waved at him.

"Lieutenant! There you are!"

"Hello, Rarity."

"I'm glad I found you. I just had to give you your gift in person!"

"Gift?"

"You didn't think I'd let you go unrewarded for everything you did on the mission, did you?"

"Oh, that's not necessary."

"Of course it's not necessary, darling. That's what makes it a gift!"

She pulled out a small gift box and passed it to Radish. He opened it to find a square of cloth.

"Oh! A bandana!"

"A pocket square, dear." She pointed at the pattern, a jagged, tessellated black-and-white design. "It's houndstooth! A fierce, striking pattern for a fiercely-striking stallion!"

"Wow, thank you."

"Not at all."

Radish looked around, then bent in low and motioned for her to come into whispering distance. "Just so you know, word among the maids is that Celestia's nephew just got out of a relationship. He's going stag to the Gala."

She grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him excitedly. "Really!? Oh, Radish! You're a doll! That's wonderful news!"

She let him go. "Oh dear, if word of this is already out, every eligible lady in the kingdom will be on the hunt."

"Come on, you're a national hero. Who can compete with that?"

"Oh, that's very kind of you to say. But there's no harm in scoping out the competition as long as I'm in town, is there?"

"I'm rooting for you."

"Is that a pun?"

"Not intended."

"Good. Ta ta, Radish." She turned to go, then turned back and grinned. "Ooh! I've got a fabulous idea! Once I've become a princess, I could have you transferred to our villa!"

"Transferred?"

"Think of the fun we'll have! You can guard us at the beach, on the yacht, on the roque court..."

"The what?"

"And," she said, putting a hoof over her stomach and smiling down at it, "when I'm expecting foals, there's no one I'd want guarding me more than you."

"Ugh, that's... oh, wait. That's actually a really nice compliment. Thank you."

"You are welcome, Radish."

She took her leave. Radish put his new pocket square in his pocket, trying to intuit its purpose. Barrel Roller rounded the same corner Rarity had appeared from. He quickly saluted her.

"Root, you gonna be okay in time for the Gala?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good. You're on crowd monitoring. South wall. Shouldn't be too bad."

"Aye, ma'am."

"And you should advise your friend Miss Rarity not to get her hopes up."

"Oh?"

"And neither should you- the prince doesn't use royal guards. He has a team of privately-hired bodyguards. All female."

"Sheesh."

"Don't 'sheesh' the royal family, Root."

"Yes, ma'am."


Radish took a door out of the building to find Applejack outside, staring at a palace map and scratching her head.

"Applejack?"

"Oh, Radish! I was lookin' for ya! I brought'cha somethin'." She pulled a jar from her bag and gave it to him. It contained what looked like a gelatinous rainbow. "It's zap apple jam. We always hang onto a few jars from each batch for special gifts."

"Applejack, I can't accept this. It's too precious. Your family's zap apple jam is legendary."

"Well, you can't return it. There's no receipt."

"Thank you."

"Ain't no biggie." She looked back down at her map. "Hey, Radish, maybe you could help me with this- I'm tryin' to figure out where to put my food stand for the Gala. Do y'know a spot that'd get a lot of hoof traffic all night?"

"Well, what's your packet say?"

"Packet?"

"When you applied for a vendor's permit, you should've got-"

"Applied? Permit?"

"Applejack, you did get permission for your stand, didn't you?"

"Uh, let's say I didn't..."

"All the slots would've filled up on the first day!"

"Radish, I need this! Can you pull some strings for me?"

"What strings? I'm a lieutenant. You're an Element of Harmony. You have more strings than I do."

"Hey, you're right! I'm goin' straight to the top with this. Thanks again, Radish."

"Wait, straight to the top of what?"

Applejack galloped off. Radish watched her go with an uneasy grimace. He turned around to see Rainbow Dash standing right behind him.

"Gah!"

"Radish. Gotta talk to you."

"Okay. What about?"

"I, uh... got this in the mail." She held up a reward certificate. It had the Wonderbolts insignia at the top, gold foil decorating the margins, and her name printed in the middle. "The Wonderbolts send these out to civilians who save lives with their resuscitation techniques. And they sent me one for saving yours."

"Congrats."

"You told them?"

"It's a standard form. Part of mission reporting protocol."

She threw her hooves around his neck and squeezed him. "I can't thank you enough! This is going to put me so far into their good graces!" She let him go and nudged him with an elbow. "Hey, you didn't just do this to get a real kiss, did you?"

"Are you offering?"

She slugged his shoulder. "Ha. No. But you can have this." She pulled out an autographed headshot of herself. "This is proof that we were friends before I became the Wonderbolts' number one hotshot. Hang onto it. It'll be worth a lot some day."

"Aww. Thanks. That's good, too."


Radish returned to the bench by the lake to find Fluttershy already sitting in it. The wren was perched on her hoof, chirping at her.

"Fluttershy?"

"Oh, hi, Radish!" She whispered something to the wren, and it returned to the sedges. "I brought you this. I brewed it myself."

She gave Radish a thermos, smiling proudly. He opened it and took a whiff.

"Oh, is this-"

"It's nettle tea. It's supposed to be good for the heart."

"Why, thank you."

He screwed the cap back on and started to put it in his bag. Fluttershy frowned.

"Oh, you're not going to have some? You don't like it?"

"No, it's not that, it's..."

She looked on the verge of tears. Radish sighed, took off the cap, and downed it all in one gulp.

"Wow, that's fantastic."

She brightened. "I knew you'd like it! I made it extra-strength."

"Oh..."

"Have you seen Twilight?"

"She went looking for you five."

"Oh? I should go find her!"

"She'll probably-"

Fluttershy had already flown off. Radish watched her go, then bolted for the restroom again.


Radish returned to the lake just as Twilight came back.

"Sorry, Radish. I couldn't find the others. Are you okay? You're shaking."

"Just a little dehydrated."

"Well, the six of us were going to have dinner in town tonight. Can you come?"

"Sure, I-"

"I asked Shining Armor to come, too..."

"Oh. You know-"

"...but he said he's too busy."

"Yes, I can come."

"Great!"


Radish returned to his bunk room and started putting his gifts from the girls in his footlocker.

"Hey, Rad," said Spats, peeking down from the top bunk, "how was your day?"

"Not bad. Met with some friends. Gonna have dinner with them later."

"That's nice. Is that a new pocket square?"

"Yeah. Do you know what they're for?"

"They give a stallion a touch of class."

"Wow, my first touch of class. Want some zap apple jam?"

"Look at all that stuff- drinks, food, accessories, autographs... the ladies just shower you with gifts, don't they? What's your secret?"

"Well, they got me killed."

"Never mind, then."

22. Nuisance

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“This meeting of the Cutie Mark Crusaders is now in session,” said Apple Bloom, banging a gavel on the clubhouse lectern. “Girls, we’ve got some major business this time. Scootaloo?”

Scootaloo took her place at the lectern. She cleared her throat. “We’ve learned that there’s a cutie mark conundrum that’s been chronically under-chronicled.”

She stuck a crayon drawing of a stallion to the board behind her.

“This is Radish Root. He’s a guard at the royal palace. Apparently, there's something wrong with his cutie mark, but nopony will tell us what it is. In fact, they act downright suspicious about it! Crusaders, we’ve got a cutie mark conspiracy on our hooves!”

“Oooh,” said the other two.

“What do you think is wrong with his mark?” asked Sweetie Belle.

“Maybe it’s an activity that’s too dangerous to do, like shark wrestling!” responded Scootaloo.

“How could he get it unless he wrestled a shark in the first place?” asked Apple Bloom.

“He could’ve started with a baby shark,” reasoned Scootaloo.

“Maybe it’s an activity that got outlawed. So now he can’t do it anymore,” suggested Sweetie Belle.

“What activity has been outlawed like that?” asked Apple Bloom.

“Uh… lawn darts, I think?” Sweetie Belle said.

“Maybe it’s a mark for supervillainy. He’s been trying to take over Equestria since he was a kid!” offered Scootaloo.

“Then why would the Royal Guard hire him?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“Out of fear!”

“I think we need more information,” said Apple Bloom.

“I tried asking Rarity,” said Sweetie Belle. “She just said that Radish is ‘a sweet gentlecolt who deserves his privacy’.”

“Suspicious,” said Apple Bloom.

“I asked Rainbow Dash, but she said not to worry my pretty little head about it. Then she said ‘Catch ya later’ and zoomed off super fast!” said Scootaloo.

“Even more suspicious!” said Sweetie Belle.

“I asked Applejack,” said Apple Bloom, “but she just said-”

“Now, you listen. Radish’s cutie marks ain’t none of y’alls concern, ya hear?”

“That right! How did you-”

The three fillies turned to see Applejack standing in the doorway of their clubhouse.

“I mean it, girls. You leave Radish Root alone.”

“But why won’t anypony tell us what’s wrong with his marks?” asked Scootaloo.

“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with them. Some folks are just private about their flanks, and y’all should learn to respect that.”

“Have you seen them?” asked Sweetie Belle.

“Well… that don’t matter.”

“You have to tell us what they are,” asserted Apple Bloom.

“No, I certainly do not.”

“Oh yeah?” said Apple Bloom, pulling out a stack of wide-ruled loose leaf covered in marker scribbles. “The official charter of the Cutie Mark Crusaders states that part of our mission is to collect all available information regarding cutie mark accomplishment and failure. What if our cutie marks have the same problem his do?”

Applejack laughed. “Well, if that happens… uh, never you mind.”

“Sis, I’m afraid our duty is clear. We’re gettin’ to the bottom of this.”

“It don’t matter none, anyhow. He’s in Canterlot. What are you gonna do, take the train all by yourselves, walk right into the palace, and demand to see him?”

The three crusaders looked at each other.

“You’re right, sis,” said Apple Bloom. “We certainly can’t do a thing like that.”

“Darn tootin’.”


“Hey, Radish. Three kids from Ponyville are here demanding to see you,” said Maple Bar, trotting into the palace breakroom.

Radish spit out his pretzel. A cold sweat formed on his scalp.

“Tell them I’m not available.”

“I already told them you are.”

“Maple Bar, I don’t want to talk to them.”

“They said they can wait all day if they have to.”

“Then they’ll wait all day.”

“I think they’re unescorted.”

“Then report them to Guest Relations.”

“No, I'm on break. Just go see your nieces or whatever.”

She sat down with a cola and a nougat bar. Radish made an angry grunt and left the breakroom. He met the Cutie Mark Crusaders in the front commons.

“Young ladies.”

“Howdy there! You’re Radish Root, ain’tcha?” Apple Bloom cheerfully asked.

“How can I help you?”

“We’re from Ponyville. We call ourselves the ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders’,” said Scootaloo.

“I know. Twilight’s written me about you. Sorry, but I can’t help you get your cutie marks.”

“That’s not why we’re here. We wanna know about your cutie mark,” she said.

“No. Now, if there’s nothing else I can help you with-”

“Now, don’t be like that. We heard there was something unusual about it,” said Apple Bloom.

“It’s fine.”

“Really? Because everyone acts really funny when we ask about it,” Sweetie Belle squeaked.

“That’s fine. It doesn’t matter.”

“How can you say that about your cutie mark? Don’t you know what we’ve been going through trying to get ours?” asked Apple Bloom.

“It’ll happen when it happens.”

“But it happened wrong for you, didn’t it? What if it happens wrong for us, too?” asked Sweetie Belle.

Radish’s face fell.

“It didn’t go wrong for me. I’m fine.”

“But do you even get to do what’s on your mark?” Scootaloo asked.

“No. But I’m fine with that.”

“How can it be fine if you never use your special talent?” asked Apple Bloom. “Doesn’t it bother you every time you look at it? Don’t-”

“Now look here! It doesn’t matter what my cutie mark is!” he snapped, angrily advancing on them. “The only mark that matters is the mark a pony leaves on the world, and that’s what I’m trying to do here as a guard! The whole flank picture thing is just for… just for…”

The girls gripped each other and cowered away from him. He took a breath and sighed.

“Look, girls. The cutie mark is just one part of a pony. It’s one you can’t even see without craning your neck. Buffalo do fine without them. Dragons do fine without them. There are more important parts of a pony- your brains, your guts, your heart. Just… focus on making those the best you can. The rest will take care of itself. Okay?”

The girls mumbled an “okay” under their breaths.

“Dash,” said Radish, looking up, “could you see them home?”

“Did you say, ‘Dash’?” asked Scootaloo.

Rainbow Dash slipped off the roof behind them and dropped to the ground in front of Radish.

“Okay,” she said, “how did you know I was up there?”

“Saw your shadow.”

“Well, it’s not like I can control where the sun is. Yet.”

“Rainbow Dash!” said Scootaloo, excitedly buzzing her wings. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you three. I can’t believe you came all the way here to bother Radish! Now, apologize to him!”

“Sorry, Radish,” they muttered.

“Now, move it. You’ve got a lot of explaining to do back home.”

She ushered them away, turning to give him an apologetic look. He nodded. He turned and walked back to the break room.

He passed Maple Bar on the way. He scowled at her.

23. New Family

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Dear Twilight,

I’ve been tasked by Princess Luna to bring the bat ponies up to speed with modern times. I think what they really need are lessons on friendship. Would it be all right if I used the letters you send me- your “Second Looks at Friendship”- to teach them?

Your friend,

Radish



The bat ponies gathered attentively around Radish at Luna's breakfast table, listening to him read Twilight’s letter about a slumber party she shared with Applejack and Rarity.

“So,” said Radish, putting the letter down, “what do you make of Twilight’s conclusion that friends can ‘embrace each other’s differences’?”

“This seems counter-productive!” said Nocturn. “Why not embrace similarities first?”

“Fool Nocturn! Because similarities are not a source of conflict!” hissed Murk.

“Is it just me,” said Vesper, “or did the belligerence between Applejack and Rarity cloak a deeper passion? May we read more recent letters to see what becomes of their relationship?”

“Do not skip ahead!” said Murk. “Allow the story to unfold in its own time!”

“I agree with Murk!” said Nocturn.

“You forget, the letter about the gala tickets revealed that Rarity lusts for stallions,” Echo reminded her.

“Perhaps not exclusively!” cautioned Vesper.

“And Applejack lusts for… wait. Envoy, what does Applejack lust for?” Echo asked.

“I don’t know,” shrugged Radish. “Apples?”

“Perhaps Applejack lusts for the Envoy!” suggested Nocturn, cheerily.

“I don’t think so,” said Radish, considering it.

“Do not pester the Envoy with mere orchardists, when his sight is set on the Mistress’s sister!” Vesper warned.

“My sight is not set on Celestia!” said Radish.

Across the room, Luna sat at her desk working through a stack of paperwork. She smirked to herself.

“Look, let’s get back to the letter,” Radish said. “Applejack and Rarity learned to embrace their differences. So how can you four embrace the differences of other ponies?”

“The other ponies did not spend a thousand years in the mountains! We could ask them what they did instead!” said Vesper.

“Good.”

“They were never blessed with the Mistress’s power! We could offer our commiserations!” said Echo.

“They might not understand that. But a lot of ponies don’t know much about Princess Luna. You could tell them what you like about her.”

“Radish Root,” called Luna as she worked, “we do not need the bat ponies to act as our propaganda ministry.”

“I like her soothing presence!” said Echo.

“I like her strategic mind!” said Vesper.

“I like her fearsome power!” said Nocturn.

“I like her skillful cooking!” said Murk.

“Princess Luna, you cooked for them in the old days?” Radish asked.

Luna looked at them.

“Nightmare Moon prided herself on her artistry in many subjects. But no, we don’t remember cooking.”

“You roasted grubs and beetles for us!” Murk said. “In exotic spices and marinades!”

“Ah. The other ponies may not find that appealing,” Luna said. “I believe you four have properly absorbed this letter’s teachings. You may now go out and feed. But be mindful of the city’s right-of-way laws for flying. I don’t want to hear one of you got another ticket.”

The bat ponies looked at each other.

“And what of the preview of the next letter?” asked Murk.

“Ah, right,” said Luna. “Lieutenant, if you would?”

Radish cleared his throat and adopted a dramatic tone. “When bizarrely comedic ailments befall the Ponyville Six, they believe they’ve been cursed… by a mysterious zebra from the Everfree Forest!

The bat ponies collectively gasped.

“Is there a song?” Murk asked.

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

The bat ponies trotted off the balcony and took flight into the night, chattering excitedly about the next letter. Luna watched them go with a smile.

“Thank you for undertaking these instructions, lieutenant. I am finding these lessons helpful in learning about the modern world, as well. We did not have ‘s’mores’ in my day.”

“We can make them next time. I’ll bring the ingredients.”

“You are too kind. You are making a fine brother to the bat ponies.”

“Thank you, princess.”

“I’m sure you will also make a fine husband someday, as well.”

“I… uh… thank you.”

“I do not think Nocturn was being foolish when he suggested you court Lady Applejack.”

“Oh?”

“Do you not find her comely?”

“Does ‘comely’ mean pretty?”

“Yes.”

“I think she’s very comely.”

“And, as she is not employed here, you are not restricted from ‘dating’ her.”

“That’s true.”

“Would you like my help composing a love poem to her?”

“It’s just that… Applejack has a reputation in the farming community. Ponies ask her out all the time. She turns them all down. Some like to say that being rejected by Applejack is a rite of passage.”

“Oh? Has she given reasons for these rejections?”

“She just wants to focus on her farm.”

“Well, perhaps the rest of these letters will give us insight on how one may win her heart.”

“That feels like cheating.”

“All is fair in love and war, Radish Root.”

“But the Guard has rules of engagement for war.”

“Don’t be so literal.”

Murk flew back into the room. He spat a mouthful of writhing grubs onto the floor.

“Mistress! Will you cook these for us, as in the old days?”

Luna leaned backed, cringing. “That is now the Envoy’s duty. Radish Root, the kitchen is on the first floor.”

Radish held in a dry heave.

“Okay,” he squeaked.

“Thank you, Brother Radish! Could you pan-fry them in ketchup?”

“What? No. I have to draw the line somewhere.”

24. The Gala

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Radish knocked on the ancient, heavy door of Luna’s bedroom.

“Princess? The gala is about to start. It's time for your debut.”

“Enter, Radish Root.”

Radish opened the door. He found Luna at one of her windows, watching the crowds filter into the palace. She was elegantly attired in a new gown. She looked utterly miserable.

“Radish Root, we cannot do it. We are in no state to debut ourselves tonight. Our recovery is incomplete.”

“Princess…”

“Look at us, Radish Root. We are but a pale shadow. To stand next to Celestia as we are would bring us mockery and scorn. We dare not be seen like this.”

“If there’s anything I can do…”

“Thou hast performed thy tasks dutifully. ‘Tis we who have failed.”

She looked at herself in her floor mirror.

“We knew we could never outshine her. But we at least thought we could achieve our own radiance. Perhaps it will never happen.”

Radish walked up to her. He looked at her reflection in the mirror, trying to see what she wasn’t seeing. Her dress seemed fine- a graceful fuchsia robe trimmed in sapphire. Her hair looked good- braided and worn up behind her tiara. Was it the shoes?

“I’m sorry, princess.”

“Dost thou have an assignment down there tonight?”

Radish did. Barrel Roller had told him to bring down Luna as quickly as possible before joining crowd monitoring. With two princesses and large crowds of VIPs in the gala, all guards were needed on duty tonight.

“My assignment is whatever you need it to be, princess.”

“Then, wilt thou keep us company through this long and miserable night?”

“Yes, Princess Luna.”

She opened a cupboard and pulled out an antique bronze chess set.

"You play?”

“I know how. I haven’t played in a while.”

“Celestia plays with us, but we think she lets us win. Another way she outshines us. Thou wilt play thine best.”

She set the board on her breakfast table. They took seats facing each other, and Radish took off his helmet and set it aside. Luna made the opening move. Radish carefully moved a piece out to meet hers.

They maneuvered their forces. Luna played distractedly. Radish played nervously. They each took a few of each other’s pieces. Radish brought a knight in position to capture one of her rooks.

“Stop,” said Luna. “Thou wilt checkmate us in sixteen moves.”

“I will?”

She laid her king down on its side. “We know the Hippogriff Gambit when we see it. We underestimated thee.”

“I didn’t know what I was doing had a name. I was just trying to flank your defense and hope for the best.”

“Ah, the tactics of a guardstallion. We thank thee for not holding back. Now, we reset and change sides.”

The band on the commons outside struck up a new burst of music. Luna left her seat and walked to her balcony. She looked down at the party. Ponies in elegant formalwear were slowly dancing to a minuet across the expertly-manicured greens of the gardens. Luna watched them for a moment. She hung her head sadly, and walked back toward the chessboard.

Radish stood up and met her halfway. He straightened his armor, bowed, and extended a hoof to Luna.

“Princess, would you like to dance?”

She looked at his hoof, then took a few steps back.

“It… it is not done. A guard offering a dance to a princess? And out of pity, no less? It is a scandal. Thou hast insulted us, Radish Root.”

His hoof dropped.

“I apologize.”

Luna looked back to the crowds.

“We don’t even know this piece. It is of a genre that was unknown in our day.”

“Ma’am?”

She turned to Radish.

“There would be no scandal in a guard instructing a princess on how to dance to the latest music. Thou will show us?”

Radish lifted his hoof again.

“I will.”

She placed her hoof in his.

“Please, go slowly.”

Radish stood on his hind legs. She took to hers. She draped her other hoof across his shoulders. He put his other hoof around her waist. They held each other close.

Radish didn’t know how to dance a minuet. He didn't know any formal dances at all. But Radish couldn’t let Luna go this night without a dance.

They started slowly, swaying to the gentle notes. Radish tried to lead. Luna let him. They circled. He felt the heat of her body, the softness of her dress, and the fur of her cheek intermingling with his. He could smell her perfume now- jasmine with a hint of vanilla.

The music picked up. Radish met it with faster steps. Luna kept up with Radish. Radish was no longer listening to the music, but feeling it. It guided his movements as he guided Luna's. They glided across the floor as one.

The music ended. They slowed to a stop, and Radish drew back from Luna. He gasped and stumbled a few steps away.

“What is wrong?” Luna asked.

“Your hair. It’s…”

Radish didn’t know what to call it. Different? New? Alive? Awake? Amazing? No, there’s a word for it…

“It's ethereal now!”

Luna ran to the floor mirror. She leaned forward, gazing upon herself in wonder. Her mane and tail had changed. Like Celestia’s, they now moved with a life of their own, wafting through the air as if perpetually caught in a soft breeze. Points of light within them twinkled like stars deep in an ultramarine expanse. Radish instinctually took a step back, as if his hooves just realized that he had been dancing with a force of nature.

Luna undid her braids and shook out her mane. It flowed freely around her face.

“Radish Root, we are restored!”

“That’s what you meant? I didn’t know it could do that!”

“Of course. Did you think Celestia was special in this regard as well?”

“I never thought about it.”

“We feared it we had lost it forever. Was fear holding it back? Perhaps all we needed was diversion- a moment of escape from the fear. Radish Root, we are in thy debt.”

“Think nothing of it. I’m happy to help you.”

“Then, give us thy honest opinion of it.”

“It’s incredible.”

“Truly?”

She looked into the mirror, drawing her hooves through her mane.

“It is not too… dark?”

“Why shouldn’t it be dark? You’re the night princess. It looks like the night sky!”

“The night sky, you say? But it is not too… plain? Celestia’s has more colors.”

“Plain? There’s nothing plain about it. You look gorgeous!” Radish said. He then sheepishly looked away. “Uh, I mean…”

Luna lifted her chin to look down on him.

“Lieutenant, thou forget thyself. We merely asked for thy opinion on our tresses, We did not commission odes to our beauty.”

“Forgive me, ma’am.”

“Thou art forgiven.”

She turned around and looked at her tail in the mirror, swishing it left and right.

“And this? Does it please the eye?”

“Uh…”

“Speak.”

“It’s lovely, ma’am.”

Lovely, he says,” she muttered. She turned and stalked up to him. “Lieutenant, thou must control thyself! Imagine if someone overheard these honeyed outpourings.”

“Forgive me, ma’am.”

“Thou art forgiven.”

“Princess, the Gala. We can still debut you if we hurry.”

She walked back to the balcony, and looked down at the party. Waiters were collecting empty champagne glasses and hors d'oeuvre plates.

“The moment is gone, Radish Root. A lady's grand entrance must be done at the evening's beginning. The toasts have concluded, and the guests are lining up for the lavatories. This is no time for a debut.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I know this night was important to you.”

“It was not in the stars. There will be another day. Besides,” she said, pushing aside the balcony furniture with her aura, “our instruction in the new dances is not yet complete.”

She held out a hoof.

“Continue your lessons,” she said. “Our debut can wait.”

Radish walked onto the balcony under the bright moonlight. He took her hoof. They bowed to each other.


The band on the greens finished its last encore. Radish and Luna continued to sway together, until the Gala's final echoes had passed over the tower. Luna peeled herself off of Radish.

“Lieutenant, we thank thee for these dance lessons. We now feel… confident in our ability.”

Radish looked into her eyes. His hoof was still holding hers.

“No, thank you, princess. I had a wonderful evening.”

She withdrew her hoof from his.

“It is time to retire,” she said.

“Yes.”

“We bid thee goodnight.”

“I… yes. Have a good night, princess.”

He bowed to her. She smiled and nodded. He left her room, his heart racing. He walked back to his bunk in a stupor, passing staff pushing brooms and packing up chairs. As he undressed for bed, he looked at his cutie mark. He brushed his hoof over it as Spats walked in from the adjacent shower room.

“Hi, Rad. How was your Gala shift?"

"It went pretty well."

"Where were you assigned?"

"I was... uh..."

"I'm playing with you. All of us guards on the walls and in the sky could see you foxtrotting with Luna."

"Am I in trouble?"

"The commander just kind of grumbled and said, 'Whatever pleases her highness'."

"Was that your first time seeing Luna?"

"Yeah, she looked amazing. You got a lot of envious stares, Rad."

"Huh. So, not a debut for her... but a sneak preview."

"When's the big premiere?"

"Soon, I hope."

Radish heard a bursting noise behind him. He turned and saw a sealed scroll in his bunk. It was from Twilight.

Dear Radish,

I’m sorry we missed each other tonight at the Grand Galloping Gala. I appreciate all that you and the other guards do to keep such events safe. I know some of my friends may have been a little rambunctious, and I’m sorry about the mess we made. If you can think of a way we can make it up to the maintenance crew, let me know.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle

P.S., have you been to Joe’s donut shop? It was always my favorite. Tell Joe who you are. You’ll see.



“That from Twilight Sparkle?”

“Yeah. What did those six do tonight?”

“Wrecked the ballroom, chased the menagerie indoors, splattered cake on the prince, left broken glass on the stairs. But they did it in style, at least. They had on the best dresses in the gala.”

“Did you see Celestia tonight?”

“Spent the whole time greeting bigwigs, schmoozing bigwigs, and saying goodbyes to bigwigs. Poor gal never gets to dance at these things.”


Luna sat at her dresser, humming and brushing her hair. Celestia approached her from behind.

"It's beautiful, sister."

"Thank you. It is a great relief to me. I am sorry to have missed the Gala. I promise I will be by your side next time."

"That would be wonderful."

Celestia drew a hoof through Luna's flowing locks. "It's just as I remember it. What caused it to bloom?"

Luna stopped brushing. "I... heard a piece of music outside. A very pleasing composition."

"Oh, I think I know which one you mean. Cypress Serenade, right?"

"...yes. That was the one."

"That explains it. It was always your favorite growing up."

"It still is."


Radish stepped into Pony Joe’s Donuts, a large, brightly-lit shop in Uptown Canterlot. He had never been. Joe, a burly unicorn, was behind the counter.

“Hi. I’m Radish Root. Twi-”

“Oh, hey. Twilight’s guard friend, right? Got something for you.”

Joe placed a coffee and a chocolate cinnamon donut in front of Radish. Radish reached into his bag.

“Uh-uh. This is on Twilight.”

“Oh. Give her my thanks.”

“Will do. It’s great to see she’s got so many friends these days. She was a real lone wolf before Ponyville.”

“Yeah, I knew her then. We didn’t get along.”

“Really? How come?”

Radish chewed his donut and washed it down with a swig of coffee. He shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter. We’re good now.”

“I hear that.”

“Could I pay for her next one?”

“Sure, but there’s no telling when she’ll be back in the ‘Lot. Now that she’s a big-time, world-saving hero, we’d only be seeing her back here if there was a big-time, world-ending crisis. Or another gala.”

Radish sipped his coffee.

“Another gala would be nice.”

25. The Threat

View Online

Radish thrust his spear into a training dummy and withdrew it in one quick motion. Cotton stuffing dropped out of its chest onto the grass.

“Root, you’re over-committing your strikes,” said his spear training instructor. “If your opponent had dodged that, you would have fallen flat on your face.”

Radish took a step back and looked at the dummy.

“I could take this guy lying flat on my face.”

“Cute retorts don’t protect princesses. Do ten more sets, and this time, keep your mass centered and your mouth shut.”

An hour later, Radish trotted off the training field, reading over his evaluation. One of his fellow lieutenants, a gray, sinewy earth stallion named Cairn, trotted alongside him, reading his own.

"So, Root. How'd you do?"

"The sarge wrote here that I have excellent thrust, good aim, average form, and slow reflexes."

"A couple of things to write home about, at least. Need some pointers at getting faster?"

"I'm just fatigued. You woke up at reveille. I've been awake since yesterday afternoon."

"Right. How's The Night Shift been?"

"Uneventful. Princess Luna hasn't needed anything all week."

"You mean you haven't spoken to her since-"

"No."

"Hmm. Mares can be a mystery, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Pardon me, Lieutenant Root?"

Radish and Cairn turned to see a royal lady-in-waiting approaching them. She curtseyed. “Lieutenant Root, Princess Luna wishes to see you in the captain's office, posthaste.”

“Posthaste? Okay.”

She looked him over.

“Well, perhaps post-shower, then posthaste.”


A freshly-showered Radish knocked on the door of Shining Armor'’s office.

“Enter,” Luna called from within.

Radish opened the door to find Luna, Celestia, Shining Armor, Barrel Roller, and Saguaro Shade inside, gathered around a desk covered in tomes and scrolls. He inhaled sharply.

“Ma’ams? Sirs?”

“Root? What are you doing here?” asked Shining Armor.

“Reporting as requested, sir.”

Celestia looked at Luna with annoyance. “Luna, dear, I don’t think Lieutenant Root needs to be a part of this.”

Luna bristled. “Why shouldn’t my Champion be included? You have sent for your own six.”

“With all due respect, ma’am,” said Barrel Roller, “this is far above Root’s paygrade.”

“Then increase his paygrade,” said Luna pointedly.

Radish took a deep breath and held it.

“Sister, may I speak with you?” asked Celestia through a gritted-teeth smile.

“Yes, sister. Let us speak.”

The sisters moved to a corner of the room. Celestia cast a spell which put a shimmering translucent yellow box around them. Its seemed to be a soundproofing spell, as they proceeded to a conversation that looked loud, yet was completely inaudible.

Radish looked to his superiors. “Sirs, ma’am, I didn’t mean to be a source of conflict, here.”

“This was bound to happen, Root,” said Saguaro Shade. “We’ve got two princesses now. That means when they disagree, there’s a deadlock.”

“I see. What do I do if they give me conflicting orders?”

“Princess Celestia signs your checks, Root,” said Shining Armor. “Her orders supersede Princess Luna’s, every time.”

“Does Princess Luna know that, sir?”

“You tell me,” said Shining Armor. “You’re the one who’s spent so much time with her.”

“Uh… I don’t, um…”

“Sure doesn’t look like it,” Saguaro Shade said, nodding toward the princesses.

The sisters’ loud conversation started to look more like a heated discussion. The heated discussion grew into a full-blown argument. Radish frowned.

The princesses got in each other’s faces. Luna petulantly stomped a hoof. Celestia emphatically waved her wings. They both looked at Radish. He cringed, without knowing why. Then, Celestia narrowed her eyes and made a comment out of the side of her mouth to Luna, which made Luna’s eyes go wide.

Luna then looked at the floor, saddened. She turned to Celestia and said something calmly. The two sisters nodded, hugged, and then the soundproofing spell vanished.

Luna approached Radish. “Radish Root, our summons of thee was premature. Please return to as thou were. If we are in need of thee, we will let thee know.”

“Very well, your highness. Sirs. Ma’ams.”

Radish left the office, giving the door a lingering look before moving on. He took a quick meal in the commissary and returned to his bunk, where Spats was brushing his tail.

“Hey, Radish. Where’ve you been?”

“I got a special summons by the princesses… and then they canceled it.”

“Ah. Well, it happens. Are you going to bed?”

“Yeah. Gotta be up at the crack of afternoon.”

“See you later, Rad. We’ll keep the castle safe in the meantime.”


Radish lay across a thick, plush rug in front of a softly crackling fireplace. Celestia lay by his side, leaning her head on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry you had to see Luna and I argue this morning, Radish. She can be such a child when she can't get what she wants."

"What did she want?"

"You."

"And what did you tell her?"

She rolled on top of Radish, lovingly gazing into his eyes.

"That she can't have you."

They kissed.

“Radish…” purred Celestia.

“Celestia…” whispered Radish.

“Lieutenant!” shouted Luna.

Radish looked to the side. Luna was standing there, frowning. A starry portal closed itself behind her.

“Princess Luna?”

Luna sighed heavily. “We are sorry to disturb thy… fantasy… again. But we must speak with thee where no ears may hear us.”

“Oh, beat it!” sneered the dream Celestia. “Can’t Radish have one dream in peace? Just because you don't have the guts to-”

Luna held up a hoof. Celestia and the room vanished, leaving Luna and Radish floating in a black void.

Radish gulped. “Princess, I am so sorry.”

“As we have said, thy dreams are a part of thee. We do not judge. Though, for the record, the real Celestia's bedroom looks nothing like that."

"Well, I haven't seen it yet."

"Yet?"

"I mean, uh..."

“Radish Root, there is no time for this. As we have also said, we would let thee know if we are in need of thee. We are in need of thee.”

“What can I help you with, ma’am?”

“Discord.”

“Between you and Princess Celestia?”

“Nay. ‘Discord’ be the name of a monster. A foul spirit of chaos who wields unfathomable power, and uses it to wreak havoc for his own amusement.”

“Wait… that statue near the hedge maze? The one that’s a big jumble of animal parts? The tour guides say it represents Discord. That's a real thing?”

“Yes. Celestia and I defeated him with the Elements of Harmony a thousand years ago, but now that the Elements have passed to new hooves, the spell is broken. He has returned.”

“Is this why you called for me?”

“Indeed. However, Celestia wants only the new wielders of the Elements to confront him.”

“Twilight’s team? Celestia summoned them to fight an ancient monster with unfathomable power?”

“Yes. But I have my doubts those six are up to the task.”

“Your highness, they’ve done great things. I couldn’t have found the bat ponies without them. They got rid of the dragon. And they… uh…”

Radish trailed off and looked away.

“Defeated Nightmare Moon?” Luna finished for him, eyebrow raised.

“Saved you from her!”

“Radish Root, Nightmare Moon may save us all. She prepared a weapon in secret to use against Celestia. I believe that weapon can now be used against Discord.”

“Whoa, really? That must be one incredible weapon! What is it?"

"Celestia's own spear, stolen from her personal vault. Nightmare Moon hid it in a place of great power. It has been absorbing this power ever since. I believe that after a thousand years of empowerment, not even Discord can withstand it."

"Celestia owned a spear?"

"Yes, it was a Hearth's Warming gift from the palace weaponsmith. I believe he fancied her- he only gave me a knife that year."

"Hmm. Is this place of great power back at the lair?"

“Nay. It is at the center of a distant island called Never Atoll."

"Never Atoll?"

"Has thou heard of it?”

“Never at all.”

“We thought not. It is tiny, shrouded by mists, and isolated by currents.”

“Do you want me to go to the island and get the spear for you?”

“Yes. Thy brethren shall convey thee.”

“Oh! Me and the bat ponies, on a mission together?"

"Please do thy best to keep them on-task."

"Do I get any special gear?”

“Nay. To remove any equipment from the palace would arouse suspicion. This quest is against Celestia's wishes and unsanctioned by thy superiors. It must remain totally secret, lest Discord learn of it. If thou are found out, thou must keep thy silence, disavow our involvement, and accept all punishment thyself.”

“But they’ll notice I've left the palace. It'll look like I've deserted during a crisis again. I’ll be kicked out of the Guard.”

“We will request thee as our personal attendant for the duration of this crisis. Thy superiors will simply think thou be in our bedroom. That will not be seen as suspicious, as thou has often been in our bedroom.”

“Uh…”

“What?”

“Nothing. I’m on my way.” He looked around. “How do I wake up?”

“The usual way, of course.”

Radish looked down at his hoof. He bit it.

He awoke in his bunk with his hoof in his mouth. He checked his bedside clock. He had slept for less than ten minutes.


Radish redonned his armor and made his way to Selenic Spire. It was beyond the palace’s large hedge maze, which itself was beyond the sculpture garden. Radish paused, then headed into the sculpture garden and searched for the statue of Discord.

He found an empty pedestal with a nameplate. The statue wasn’t of Discord, it was Discord all along.

No wonder that thing gave me the willies. Was it watching us?

He heard the sounds of a group coming his way: four sets of hoofsteps, one set of wingbeats, and one repeating bouncing noise. He knew what that meant.

“Radish!” called Twilight. She and her friends rushed up to him.

“Ladies,” he said, bowing.

“What are you doing here? Princess Celestia didn't say you'd be coming with us,” Twilight said.

“Actually, I’m on my way to Princess Luna’s tower. What are you guys doing out here?”

"Discord's hidden the Elements of Harmony in the hedge maze."

“He what!?"

"Don't worry, we're about to head in and get them back."

"Without guard backup? You should have a battalion with you."

"You know, maybe he's right," said Fluttershy. "It couldn't hurt to have a battalion. Or two."

"It's better this way," said Twilight. "Anyone who comes with us would be putting themselves in danger."

Radish frowned. "Danger? Twilight, what do you think guards are for?"

“Now, don't be like that,” said Applejack. "We ain't sayin' we wouldn't appreciate the company, but you know the Elements of Harmony only work fer us.”

“And with great Elements come great responsibility,” added Pinkie Pie.

“Yeah, we can’t help it if we’re the chosen ones,” shrugged Rainbow Dash.

“Well, I don’t want to hold up the chosen ones," said Radish. "Stay safe in there.”

"Don't worry," said Twilight, pulling her friends into a group hug. "With the magic of friendship on our side, there's no way we can lose!"

"Yeah... okay."

The girls galloped onward to the maze entrance. Radish watched them go with an uneasy frown. He continued on his way to Luna's tower. As he approached the door, he heard a stallion's voice.

“Mornin’, Root.”

Saguaro Shade appeared around the curve of the tower.

“Corporal!”

He quickly saluted. Saguaro Shade returned the salute, then peered up at Selenic Spire. He turned back to Radish.

“I'd heard Princess Luna ordered you to her tower. But didn't you just finish a night shift in there? I figured you’d need some shuteye about now.”

"I'm no stranger to double shifts, sir. Besides, it'll be hard to sleep after that summons this morning. I mean, both princesses and the senior officers all in one room? I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“I'm guessin' Big Blue's filled you in on what's really goin' on," he said, looking at the front door.

"Sir, if this is the crisis I've heard it is, why hasn't the Guard been mobilized?"

"Princess's orders. It's not an enemy you can throw a spear at, Root. Only the Elements of Harmony can handle Discord. And only those six girls can handle the Elements. Which raises the question- what's Princess Luna really want from you now?"

"She..."

The front door of Luna's tower flung open. Luna was there, waving a book in her hoof.

"Radish Root! There you are! What is the holdup? Our book club was to begin ten minutes ago!"

"Forgive me, ma'am."

Saguaro Shade raised an eyebrow. "All right, Root. I won't keep you. Enjoy the, uh, book club."

He saluted Luna. "Ma'am."

He took his leave. Radish watched him go, slowly backing toward the door. He entered to find Luna, and no one else, on the first floor.

“Did thou see how we covered for thee?” asked Luna giddily. “Thy corporal had no idea why thou really be here.”

“Ma’am, he knows we're up to something.”

“You think? He did not… Ah. We see. More courtly intrigue. ‘Tis exhausting keeping track of who knows what. Here, then,” she said, giving Radish the book, "in case he questions our cover story."

Radish took the book. "Daddy Long-Shanks?"

"Do not get thy hopes up. It is not a horror story."

“What's the situation now, ma'am?"

"Discord has already revealed himself, jeering Celestia and challenging the Ponyville girls to a battle of wits. He has not appeared to me at all. I think he has... forgotten my existence."

"That's... good. Right?"

“At the very least, it gives me the freedom to prepare thee for this mission. You asked about special gear- we have found something for thee that will go unmissed.”

She pulled a large knife in a sheath from behind her back and gave it to Radish. Radish unsheathed it. It had Luna's cutie mark engraved into one side of the blade, and it's maker's cutie mark on the other.

"This is that knife from the weaponsmith. It's been in our closet all these years," she explained.

"Whoa."

"What?"

"Was that weaponsmith named Ferrum Flats?"

"Yes, I think so. Why?"

"He was a legendary craftspony! He designed the boot knives the Plains Rangers still use to this day. It's an incredibly useful and elegant design, and this is a version he custom-made for a royal! This is a masterpiece!"

Luna frowned. "Truly? He put thought into this present? We were not an afterthought?"

"Maybe a spear makes for a better weapon, but you can do so many more things with a good knife. I think Ferrum Flats wanted you to have something you could use every day."

"Keep it."

"You mean, permanently?"

"Clearly, we did not know how to appreciate it for the gift it was. It deserves to be in the hooves of one who does. Use it well."

"Thank you, ma'am." He attached the sheath to his front left boot.

"You will also need this where you are going," said Luna. Her horn glowed, and a red potion bottle appeared in her hoof. She unstoppered it and held it up to Radish's face. "Here, drink."

Radish leaned back. "What is it?"

"Never Atoll has unique defenses. This shall protect thee from the worst of them.”

“What's the worst of them?”

“Flowers which release mind-addling pollen in the air. The effects are wide-ranging, from lethargy to fiendishly terrifying hallucinations. This antihistamine will give thee immunity from all types of pollen for twenty-four hours.”

Radish took the bottle and drank it. It tasted like chalk mixed with strawberries. "Thanks, princess. I'm glad I won't have to deal with terrifying hallucinations."

“Why not, brother? It sounds fun!” called out Nocturn. He and the other three bat ponies landed at Radish’s side. "We are woefully immune to Terror Daisies. We once tried snuffing them, to no effect."

“Hey, guys! Good to see you." He pulled them into a group hug. "But don't go around snuffing plants, okay?"

"Sorry, Brother Radish."

“We can’t wait to show you Never Atoll!” said Echo excitedly.

“Oh? What’s it like?”

“A volcanic island, home to poisonous frogs and venomous birds!”

“Venomous birds!? What, do they have fangs?”

“No, Brother Radish,” said Vesper, “they have scorpion tails!”

Radish looked at Luna, cockeyed. “Ma’am?”

“Nightmare Moon may have… enhanced… the local wildlife,” admitted Luna. “But ‘tis nothing thou cannot handle. Thou at least stand a better chance against the stinglets than a seamstress and an apple farmer have against Discord.”

Radish turned to the bat ponies. "And you four know the way there?”

“Yes,” said Echo. “The trip will take mere hours.”

“I thought you guys don't really do well in the daytime."

"We do not!" said Murk. "We shall make the journey taking turns, allowing two to rest in the carriage while the other two pull it!"

"What carriage?"

"They have obtained a civilian transport," explained Luna. "It will be inconspicuous to observers."

"But the bat ponies won't be," pointed out Radish.

Luna frowned. "Ah... yes. Well, that cannot be helped. Come, I will convey you five to the conveyance."

Her horn glowed, and a flash of light changed the world around Radish. He stumbled sideways and fell to the grass which had appeared under his feet.

"What is wrong, Radish Root?" asked Luna.

"I... I've never been teleported before," he said, holding in a dry heave.

"Truly? Well, it only becomes easier."

"Okay."

Radish climbed to his feet and looked around. They were now on the mountain outside the city. A large luxurious black stagecoach was parked in front of them.

"That's the civilian transport? Where did you get it?" Radish asked, approaching it.

"From a street in the Uptown district!" said Nocturn. "It was just sitting there!"

"You stole it!? That's an Imperial 70 Coupe! It's one of the most expensive coaches on the market! Every patrol in the region will be looking out for it!"

"Truly?" asked Luna. "It looks rather... chintzy. But we think... oh, dear."

Radish looked at what had drawn her attention. The skies over Ponyville were now full of pink clouds, and the landscape under the town was a checkerboard of several pastel colors. Many of the town's houses and landmarks were drifting casually through its airspace.

"What the-? Is that Discord's doing?"

"Yes. It has begun. Tarry no longer, Radish Root."

"Ma'am, you're not safe here. Come with us."

"Nay. He may eventually remember me, and come seeking me in revenge for his long imprisonment. I must stay to protect thy mission. If the girls fail, thou are Equestria's last hope."

"Ma'am! I can't-"

"Fare thee well, my Champion."

Her horn lit up, and she vanished. Radish's shoulders drooped.

"Brother Radish, she is right," said Nocturn. "We must leave now."

"Right. Let's go."

Murk and Nocturn hitched themselves to the coach, while Vesper and Echo climbed inside. Radish followed them in and sat back on one of the overstuffed plush seats. He took off his helmet and put it aside.

"Damn, I've never been in a luxury carriage. This is nicer than some rooms in the palace."

The interior of the cabin was lacquered blackwood. The fixtures were gold, and recently-polished. The upholstery was a dark purple velvet, and the seat backs were embroidered with a corporate logo aside a family coat of arms. Although Radish didn't recognize the coat of arms, he knew the logo.

"Wagoner Corp. Huh. I think you guys stole this coach from the Wagoner family."

"Are they friends of yours?" asked Echo.

"Nope. I have nothing to do with them," Radish said, rubbing the mountain dirt on his boots off onto the carpet. He pulled out a pencil and notebook. "Okay, guys. Let's go over what you know about the island. I want to hit the ground running. We get in, get the weapon, and get back to Luna."

"Well, Brother Radish," said Vesper. "The story of Never Atoll begins in the Course Era. It was discovered by the Mighty Helm in... Brother Radish?"

Radish had slumped back in his seat with his eyes closed. His notebook and pencil fell to the floor. He started snoring.

"Should we wake him?" Vesper asked Echo.

Echo was now asleep too, curled up on his seat.

"Very well," Vesper said. She leaned back and closed her eyes.


"Brother Radish! Awaken!"

"Wha...?"

Radish woke up in his carriage seat. The four bat ponies were gathered around him, staring.

"We have arrived to the island!" said Nocturn.

"Right," he said, trying to uncrick his neck. "Let's go."

They stepped out of the carriage. Radish looked around. They were on a stone landing pad, on a rocky shore of a tropical island. The view of the horizon was blocked in all directions by a wall of dense fog. The fog, however, only extended up to a certain height, and the sky over the island was clear.

"Thanks for getting me here, guys."

"You're welcome!" they said as one.

"The sun's pretty bright here. How are you feeling?"

"This sunlight is most draining," said Echo. "Our strength is greatly diminished."

"Yes. It really sucks," said Vesper.

"Where did you hear that word?" asked Radish.

"From the scullery maids. They speak in many colorful metaphors."

"Well, leave that in the scullery, okay?"

"Sorry, Brother Radish."

He saw a stone pathway leading to the interior of the island, flanked by rows of succulents. He started down it, and the bat ponies followed him.

The island was rife with tropical vegetation, though it was all growing in neatly-organized planters and beds. They passed rows of evenly-spaced pine trees. They walked under arches of hanging ivy.

"This is the lushest evil lair I've ever seen," Radish mused.

"The Mistress spent many hours growing the vegetation to her liking," said Murk.

A small, tiger-striped bird landed on a twig near Radish. It bobbed forward, displaying a long, black scorpion tail curling over its body.

"I am a special Envoy of Nightmare Moon," Radish told the stinglet. It tilted its head, questioningly.

"He speaks the truth!" said Echo. The bird nodded and flew away. Radish watched it land in a tree and chirp to a flock of its kind. They scattered to spread the word.

"Nightmare Moon was cultivating plants and bonding with animals on this island. The mountain lair was where she explored her unicorn magic, but this... this is where she indulged her earth pony abilities! I had no idea she even cared about her earth pony side!"

He galloped over to a row of towering oak trees. He put his ear against the trunk of one and tapped it. He whistled, impressed at how healthy it was. He planted his hooves in the soil and knelt prone, placing his chin on the ground and closing his eyes.

"What are you doing?" asked Nocturn.

"Shh. I'm listening to the earth."

The bat ponies looked at each other in confusion. Radish opened his eyes.

"She really took care of the soil. It's full of life, even a thousand years later."

He excitedly trotted down the path, taking in all the plant life.

"She must have collected species from all over the world! I bet some of these cultivars are lost to modern botany! Or maybe she created them herself? Did she say anything about what she was growing here?"

"She spoke of the purpose of some of them," said Nocturn. "For instance, she was most proud of those."

He pointed to a row of coconut trees. Radish loped over to one, gazing up at it. He bucked its trunk, and a coconut fell at his feet with a thud.

"This is huge! But it has an odd smell. Almost medicinal."

"The Mistress bred them to produce a powerful soporific," recalled Murk. "A single macaroon made from this would put even Celestia in a deep slumber."

"And these," said Echo, pulling a kiwi off a trellis and tossing it to Radish, "contain a compound which induces a suggestible state. If dropped in a town's water supply, the entire populace could be subdued."

"See these?" asked Vesper, pointing to a small bush full of long green peppers. "Their juice can corrode even the strongest of alloys. We used them to break into Celestia's vault."

"Amazing," said Radish, putting the coconut, kiwi, and a pepper in his bag. "Nightmare Moon might have conquered the world with just her earth pony skills. Kind of makes me proud. Hey, I wonder if..."

He galloped down the trail, to a crossroads in the path. He looked in all directions, seeing terraced gardens, orchards, and crop fields.

"Did she have any assistants here? Gardeners? Maybe ones that looked... unusual?"

"She permitted no one but us here," said Nocturn. "And she rarely brought us here."

"Dang."

"Brother Radish, the spear?" asked Echo.

"Oh, right. Do you know where it is?"

“Yes. It is inside the cone.”

"Cone?"

Echo pointed to a flat-topped mountain in the center of the island.

"Oh," said Radish, "it's inside a volcano? Figures. Is it dormant, at least?"

"It was a thousand years ago," said Nocturn. "It probably still is."

They made their way down the path, past a cattail-lined pond, where fat pink frogs sat on large lily pads.

"Are those the poisonous frogs you mentioned?" Radish asked.

"Yes," said Nocturn. "Their skin oozes a paralyzing toxin. We do not recommend licking them."

The path eventually turned into a wooden walkway suspended over a vast field of flowers. Radish walked with caution.

"And these are the flowers that can mess with your mind?" he asked.

"Yes. Each species has a different effect," said Echo. "The blue ones induce hopelessness. The yellow ones induce forgetfulness. And so on."

Radish looked out at the fields. There were over a dozen different species. Radish didn't feel any different- Luna's antihistamine was working.

"You guys are sure you're immune to all of them?"

"Yes. It is a gift we have in common with the Mistress."

"Okay. Good." He peered at the flowers under his section of walkway. "What do the gray flowers do?"

"There were no gray flowers," said Echo.

"Well, there are now."

The bat ponies peered down at the field. There was a thick vine crawling along the ground and climbing the supports of the walkway. It produced large, lopsided gray flowers along its length.

"That... is new," Vesper said in a low voice.

"They're an odd shape," said Radish. "Maybe some of the species here crossbred? But without an earth pony's guidance, most plants shouldn't be able to complete a life cycle. Say, did Nightmare Moon ever-"

He turned around. The bat ponies were staring at him, blankly.

"Guys?"

They started laughing. Their laughs were so perfectly in sync, they sounded like they had one single voice- but it was a male voice that didn't match any of theirs.

Radish took a step back. "Uh, I think we need to move away from these flowers. Let's get going, okay?"

"Hi, Moony!" they said in unison, tilting their heads in the same direction, to the same degree. The voice was smooth and smug. "How's it hangin'? Nice digs here! But a volcano island base? Isn't that a tad cliché? What, are you going to carve a giant skull into the mountain?"

"What the-"

The bat ponies started walking toward Radish, grinning widely while keeping their eyes locked on him. "Yep, it's me! Oh, don't act so surprised! I know about all the secret lairs you've been building! The mountain retreat, the cloud superfortress- even that little one-bedroom dive under Canterlot's Riverwalk. You've got such an eye for real estate! Of course, they're all a bit too... orderly for my taste."

Radish narrowed his eyes and flicked out his spear. "Discord, I presume?"

The bat ponies didn't seem to hear him. They gestured in their speech emphatically and identically. "Oh, I just can't wait to see the look on Celestia's face when she realizes her precious baby sister has been plotting world domination behind her back!"

It's a thousand-year-old message, thought Radish. Meant for Nightmare Moon's ears.

"So, let's not wait! See, Moonpie, if you're hearing this message, then you've stumbled across the housewarming gift I left for you."

Radish looked down at the gray flower vine.

"Just a little something to liven up your next visit to this slice of paradise. Sadly, it won't affect you, but when your bat minions get a whiff of its pollen, they'll be compelled throw a little chaos into your life."

Radish banged his spear on the walkway. "Guys, if you can hear me, snap out of this! I know you're stronger than some old flowers!"

"They'll give you a count of five, then bolt and tell Celestia all about Nightmare Moon. Everything- the hideouts, the experiments, the schemes. With the two of you locked a family feud, Equestria will plunge into chaos!"

"Guys! You cannot go back to Celestia! She can't know about this mission! I'll be fired! You'll alert Discord to what we're doing! And you're my ride home!"

They lined up and leaned forward, grinning mockingly.

"I suppose you could always just blast your minions before they can tattle, but you have to be careful about your power consumption, don't you? Otherwise, the Luna personality will regain the upper hoof in your mental tug-of-war."

"The Envoy commands you to shake this off! Brother Radish needs you!"

"Oh well, the choice is yours. Either way, I win."

"Please, guys! For Luna?"

"Five!" they shouted.

Radish frowned.

"Four!"

"I'm sorry about this," said Radish, gritting his teeth.

"Three!"

Radish gripped his spear sideways and leapt at his brethren, bringing its haft down across all four of their heads simultaneously. It dented in four places. The bat ponies shuddered, then looked at Radish in surprise.

"Why, Moonykins!" they laughed in Discord's voice, "if you're hearing this message, you tried to take out your minions with non-lethal force! How unexpected! So here's something else that's unexpected- you've activated a hidden command in the pollen. They're no longer going to snitch on you. No, they're going to come after you. Just like you came after me in Monacolt. You know, I still have lumbago because of that. So don't expect any mercy."

"Guys, I know you wouldn't hurt me," said Radish. "Remember the friendship lessons? Remember the s'mores?"

"But hey, look on the bright side, you've got another five seconds."

Radish started backing away.

"Five-four-three-two-one!" they shouted. Then, they shuddered. They looked at Radish, bared their teeth and snarled, stalking toward him.

"Shit."

He dropped his dented spear and leapt off the wooden walkway just as they pounced. They smashed through its planks, slamming into the ground underneath it. Radish landed softly in the field and rolled.

Now on the ground, Radish realized just how tall the field's flowers, grasses, and forbs were. They towered over him. He couldn't see where the bat ponies had landed, but they couldn't see him. He crouched still.

He heard rusting in the vegetation around him, and then a thunk. The bat ponies had leapt out of the field. Vesper and Echo were back on the walkway, stalking its length while peering into the field and taking deep sniffs. Murk and Nocturn were airborne, belting out echolocation screeches into the field.

They can't see me in all this. That chaos pollen in their muzzles must be keeping them from smelling me. And these plants just scatter their echoes. I'm safe, as long as I don't move a muscle.

His mind raced. Vesper leapt at something in the field, barking and tearing apart a cluster of weeds. She returned to the walkway, now with Radish's spear. The two bat ponies in the air swooped down, crashing through the vegetation in long, curved swaths. The two on the walkway watched them carefully. Radish listened, mapping their movements in his mind.

They're using a search pattern to tear up the field. But why are they doing it like that? Wait...

Radish recalled something from a Plains Ranger Academy exam.

Their search pattern is a thousand years out-of-date! Bandits figured out how to slip through this kind of detection spiral centuries ago! I can get out before they tear up too much of the field, as long as I use the noise they make as cover.

Radish crept through the grasses, catching glimpses of Vesper and Echo on the walkway through the vegetation. They weren't hearing him over the racket Murk and Nocturn were making. Radish crawled under the walkway and out of their sight.

That's half the problem. Now to get out of here.

He crept under the walkway toward the center of the island. He heard a bat pony crashing toward him, and he paused. Murk galloped right across Radish's path, shredding everything in his way, missing Radish by a half-meter. Radish waited a beat, then continued.

He made it to the tree line just as the bat ponies completed their sweep. Radish looked back. The entire field was now torn to shreds, leaving barely a blade of grass standing. The brethren howled in frustration, then flew off in separate directions.

Radish found himself in a thicket of juniper trees. The branches were dense enough to obscure him from most directions, but they were also obtrusive enough to slow his progress through. He crawled, not entire sure where he was going.

Okay, Radish, think. You've got four bat ponies hopped up on Discord dust, trying to kill you. They're stronger, faster, and have better senses. They know the island. The daylight is weakening them, but the day is half-over. And my own immunity to the pollen will only last until tomorrow.

So what do you have in your favor?

He looked down at the soil in front of him. Without an annual running of the leaves, the ground was bare of litter. A large black ant crossed his path carrying a blade of grass. He heard a twig rustle above him. A stinglet hopped down from a juniper branch, gobbled up the ant, then looked Radish in the eye. Radish waved to it. It waved to Radish with a wing.

Nightmare Moon used this island to explore her earth pony abilities. For an earth pony, this place is a playground... and an armory. The bat ponies know the island, but I understand it! I can work with it!

He made his way out of the juniper thicket and found himself in a deciduous forest. The trees were thick, ancient, and laden with thick, ancient mosses. He climbed one for a better view. He peeked out of the top of the canopy, seeing the vast island around him. In the center of the island was the volcano- the place of great power where the world's deadliest weapon waited.

You messed with the wrong pony, Discord. I'm going to save my brethren. I'm going to get that spear, and I'm going to take you down. Mass centered, mouth shut. You won't know what hit you.

Radish slid back down to the forest floor. He organized his gear, then took a swig of water from his canteen. He paused a moment to listen to the world around him, then moved on.

26. The Threat, Part 2

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Vesper silently touched down at a brick path crossroads. She checked each direction, sniffing the air and twitching her ears. A glint of metal in the bushes caught her eye. She slowly stalked toward it. It was unmistakably the gold hue of Radish's armor. She pounced.

She landed on the back of Radish's saddle plate and tore off Radish's helmet. She sank her teeth into and gobbled down a fat wet chunk of its occupant.

Its occupant was a coconut.

She looked down at the mangled remains of metal and fruit before her, licking the coconut's juice and pulpy shreds from her lips. She frowned, something in her memory breaching the surface of her chaos haze. She turned and saw Radish, unarmored, approaching her cautiously.

She fell over.

Radish caught her, lowering her gently to the ground and checking her pulse. It was strong. He swiftly left, knowing the others were rushing to check out the commotion.

The three bat stallions landed at her side. They poked her sleeping body, and got only snores in response. They fanned out, on the hunt.


Echo swooped through a meadow, scanning for any sign of Radish. He heard a splash in the distance, then banked to check it out. He found a pond with its surface rippling. He stalked its margins, then crouched, staring and waiting.

He heard the creak of wood in the tree behind him. He looked up to see Radish perched on the limb of an oak. Radish leapt at him.

Echo flapped to meet him mid-air, and the two stallions collided and went crashing into the pond. Echo used his wings to maneuver in the water, pushing them both down to bottom. He shoved Radish into the muddy bed, pressing his hooves into Radish's throat. One of Radish's few remaining breaths escaped him as a pained grunt bubbling up to the surface.

Radish struggled, trying to shove Echo off, but Echo's grip was like iron. He dug a hoof into the mud and tried to smear it in into Echo's face, but Echo swatted it away with a wing. Echo pressed his hooves harder.

His vision dimming, Radish looked sideways at the pond bottom. He breathed his last remaining breath as a gurgled command to the army which had amassed around them.

Echo felt his wings go numb, and then go limp. He twisted his neck to see numerous fat pink frogs clinging to them. More frogs leapt on him from all directions, numbing each spot they touched.

Radish emerged from the water, gasping and carrying Echo's unconscious body. He dragged Echo to land and lay him down, checking his breathing. The frogs gathered to watch.

"Thanks, all," Radish said, softly and hoarsely. "He'll be all right. Anyone hurt?"

The frogs ribbited in the negative.

"I need to go before the others come. Could you watch over him?"

The frogs ribbited in the affirmative.


Radish snuck between tall rows of corn stalks. He didn't know what evil plans Nightmare Moon had for a corn field on her island, but as long as it gave him cover, he didn't care. He reached the end of the row and peeked out, scanning the landscape.

A large grassland stretched out before him. In the distance beyond it was a vineyard, and beyond that was a large, wide mansion with smooth, tan walls, topped with a roof of thick green curved tiles.

Nightmare Moon had an adobe hacienda. And it's really nice.

He crept through ditches, behind hedges, and darted between topiaries. He made his way to the back of the manor, paused to listen, then reached for the back door.

It swung open quietly. He walked into the manor. Numerous large windows illuminated the interior. It was largely empty, except for a few pieces of furniture which looked hoof-carved. There was thick dust on every surface.

Okay. Maybe there's a library or records room. If I can get a sense of what every plant on this island does, maybe I can put together an antidote.

He explored the house. It didn't look well-used by pony or critter. He found a massive indoor pool, devoid of water. Judging by the lack of water marks on the walls, it had never been filled.

Nightmare Moon had so much all to herself that she never even used. Why did she even want the rest of the world?

He heard a door slam somewhere else in the house. He froze, then tip-toed to the next room. He heard hoofsteps, which quickened into a full gallop. They were coming his way. Radish ran. The intruder ran faster.

Radish reached a solarium full of empty planters. Murk burst into the room after him. He stared at Radish.

"Hey, Murky," Radish said softly. "How are you feeling?"

Murk charged at Radish. Radish reached into his bag. As Murk pounced, Radish shoved a kiwi into his maw. Murk landed on Radish, knocking him down while sinking his teeth into the fruit. He stopped moving, his eyes drooped, and he sat on the floor and drooled, as if stupefied. The punctured kiwi dropped out of his mouth. Radish put a hoof on his shoulder.

"Murk, can you understand me?"

"Yes."

"Are you okay?"

"No."

"Are you in pain?"

"Yes."

"How can I help you?"

"I don't know."

Radish's ears drooped. "Then what should I do?"

"Kill us before we kill you."

Radish shook his head. "No. Never."

Murk said nothing. Radish looked at the chewed kiwi on the ground.

"That's made you suggestible? You have to obey any command?"

"Yes."

"I command you to stop being affected by Discord's flowers."

Murk furrowed his eyes, as if trying to process this. He started to laugh in Discord's voice.

"Moonybuns! If you're hearing this message-"

"Damn it."

"-you tried to outwit my pollen using some kind of logic! You seriously thought that would work?" He grinned maliciously, leaning forward. "I eat logic for breakfast. With a side of hash browns and bottomless mimosas."

Murk shook his head, then snarled at Radish. He seized Radish by the neck and threw him across the room. Radish struggled to his feet, gasping, "Stop being affected by Discord's flowers!"

Murk froze. He furrowed his eyes again. He laughed in Discord's voice, again.

"Moonybuns! If you're hearing this message-"

Radish pulled his pencil and notebook from his bag and tore out a page. He hastily scribbled "STOP BEING AFFECTED BY DISCORD'S FLOWERS" and shoved the note into Murk's hoof. He ran.

"-and bottomless mimosas." finished Murk for the second time. He looked around, not seeing Radish. He realized he was holding a note, and read it.

He furrowed his eyes. He laughed in Discord's voice.

"Moonybuns! If you're hearing this message-"


Radish crouched between boulders on the island's rocky shore. He looked up and down the coast.

Okay, the coast is clear. Huh... I've never used that phrase literally before.

What now? If I can find a safe place to sleep, maybe I can contact Luna in the dream world.

He frowned.

Then I'd have to tell her I failed the mission. That I failed my brethren. That I failed... her. Will she really disavow this mission? Would she leave me here? And what if Discord already has her in his clutches? What if I really am Equestria's last hope?

He shook his head.

No. You need to focus on a way to win, not all the ways you can lose.

He looked up the coastline.

Okay. That's the way we came in. It's the fastest way to the volcano, and it has decent cover. Maybe this 'place of great power' has the power to free my brethren.

He made his way down the coast. The carriage was still parked on the landing platform.

I didn't really give it a good look-over. I wonder if there's anything useful inside. Probably some quality booze, at least. I'll save it for the victory celebration.

He waked on, back to the trail he originally followed with his brethren. He heard metal groans behind him- the sound that large shock absorbers make. He turned to look.

Nocturn was standing on top of the carriage. He narrowed his eyes at Radish.

"Nocturn? Can we talk?"

Nocturn gripped the carriage and flapped furiously, slowly pulling it up off the ground.

"Hey, come on, bud," said Radish backing up. "That's not ours."

Nocturn hovered the coach toward Radish. Radish ran. He leapt sideways just as Nocturn released the coach. It crashed into the trail, its windows shattering and its cabin exploding into splinters. A flying chunk of wood clocked Radish in the back of the head, and he went rolling into the trailside mulch.

Radish turned to face Nocturn, but didn't see him. He caught a swooping shadow on the ground, and saw Nocturn in the sky, shoving several large clouds together. Nocturn bucked the aggregate cloud, turning it dark black. He seized it by the side, and aimed its bottom toward Radish.

Dammit, he's fighting like a pegasus.

Nocturn slammed his hooves into the storm cloud, and a massive bolt of lightning shot out the bottom. Radish leapt as it hit the ground inches from him. His fur stood on end and his teeth chattered from the rush of static in the air. His ears were ringing from the thunder. He forced himself up off the ground and limpingly shambled to cover.

Radish made it to a row of pine trees and hit the dirt just as Nocturn shot off another blast of lightning. The bolt struck the top of one of the trees. Nocturn plunged his hooves into the cloud and twisted it, then pulled out a jagged piece of hail as big as a bowling ball. He spun around and flung it at Radish.

Radish narrowly dodged it. Nocturn pelted the ground with chunks of hail of varying size, which shredded through the pines' branches. Radish found a tree with limbs thick enough to cover him from the worst of it. Nocturn hurled the rest of the cloud to the ground, and it burst into a bank of fog, flooding the space around Radish with cold wet white mist.

Radish couldn't see a thing now. He crouched low, listening. He heard a shriek ring out behind him. He heard another to his left.

I'm blind, and he's hunting me with echolocation. Okay, what do you know about sound waves?

Radish couldn't recall anything from Ranger Academy or Guard training about how sound works.

Twilight could probably lecture for days about it. I hope she's okay.

He felt a piercing pain in his ears. His scalp vibrated. Before he could move, hooves grabbed him by the neck and dragged him skyward. Nocturn flew Radish out of the fog bank. Radish kicked out his hooves and slipped to the ground, hitting the dirt hard and rolling. Nocturn hovered warily above him, out of reach. Radish climbed to his feet, knees shaking.

"Nocturn! Fight it!"

Nocturn blasted into the air and flew a large loop, then buzzed toward Radish at breakneck speed. Radish barely dodged as Nocturn sliced the air above his head, snapping his teeth at Radish. Nocturn then banked, and sped toward toward Radish in a tighter loop. Radish dug his hooves into the soil and flung a clod upwards as Nocturn swooped past him again. Nocturn's mouth filled with the dirt, and he landed on a tree branch to cough it out.

Nocturn heard the fluttering of dozens of tiny wings all around him. A flock of stinglets had gathered to watch the fight. Nocturn pointed at Radish and barked a command to the birds. The birds looked at Radish. He made a hoof gesture to them. They nodded to him.

They brandished their stingers and surrounded Nocturn, forming a cage in all directions. Radish ran. Nocturn spread his wings, but the stinglets moved in closer, stabbing at the air in front of him, forcing him to stay put on the branch. He looked at the ground, and Radish was gone.


Radish stood before the base of the volcano.

Is there a way in? A hidden door?

He cautiously walked around it for a few minutes. He saw nothing.

Okay, quit stalling. Nightmare Moon would have flown up there. You have to climb this thing.

He started to climb. In the distance, he heard a piercing screech. He climbed faster. He heard another, and he scrabbled harder up the slope. As he reached the halfway point, he heard a third screech, and when he reached the top, he heard a fourth.

He crested the top of the cone, breathing hard, and looked down into the crater. He gasped.

The volcano was dormant, all right. Growing inside of it was a massive tree, from below sea level up to the lip of the cone. The canopy was thick and green, and from what he could see of the trunk, it was wider than Luna's tower.

Wow.

The drop inside was long and steep. He started around the edge of the crater, looking for a way down. Four shadows appeared on the ground surrounding his own, and four sets of hooves crunched into the ground around him. The bat ponies surrounded him, spreading their wings to cordon him.

They hunched low, gritting their teeth. They seemed a lot more wary of Radish now. Echo took a step forward, as if daring Radish to pull out another earth pony trick. Radish was out of tricks. He took a step back, his rear hooves reaching the cliff edge. The bat ponies, satisfied, stalked toward Radish.

Radish drew the Ferrum knife from its sheath and held it defensively in front of himself. The bat ponies stopped. Their heads twitched, and their bodies shuddered. They took to two legs, and walked back and forth in front of Radish.

"Why, Moonbeam!" they laughed with Discord's voice. "You'll only hear this message is if you try to pull a knife on your minions. Wow, you must be getting really desperate! Are you a supervillain, or a back-alley thug? Oh, if only I could be there to see it. You're so much more fun to torment than your mild-mannered alter ego. Luna just cries like a baby when I toy with her."

Radish seethed. His hoof holding the knife shook.

"Go ahead. Cut your precious bat babies. We both know it's nothing compared to what you've already done to them. Maybe they'll... oops, looks like I'll have to cut this message short. Celestia's found some moldy old banishing spell scroll, and I'm going to let her believe it works on me. I think I'll wait until Hearth's Warming to reappear- really crush that holiday spirit, you know? Toodles!"

The bat ponies dropped back down to four legs. They resumed their approach.

"Please, guys. Stop. It's me."

They crouched to pounce. Radish held his knife close, and planted his hooves.

The world went dark.

Radish took a beat, not understanding what was happening. The bat ponies looked around, equally confused. The sun was gone, replaced by the moon. It was night, abrupt and unscheduled.

Discord. He's messing with the sky. That means he's done something to the princesses!

Radish's heart beat out of control. His stomach twisted. His skin crawled. His vision blurred. He searched his mind for options, ideas, or hope. He came up empty.

It's over. I couldn't save them. I couldn't save anyone.

He grit his teeth and closed his eyes.

It's the end of the world, and I'm alone.

The bat ponies started coughing.

Radish looked up. The four of them were hacking and wheezing, as if trying to hock up hairballs. They finally each spat a gray goop into the ground in front of Radish. Their eyes met Radish's as they rubbed their muzzles.

"Brother!" they shouted in their own voices.

They flew to Radish and hugged him from all sides. It took Radish a few beats to blink himself back to reality.

"Guys?" he asked hoarsely. "You're okay?"

"The night has restored our full strength!" cheered Vesper.

"And tipped the battle in our immune systems' favor!" said Echo.

"We have defeated and expelled the chaos pollen!" said Nocturn, pointing to the blobs of gray goo on the ground.

"And are free of Discord's foul influence and innumerable messages!" finished Murk.

Radish squeezed his brothers and sister. "I was so worried about you guys. I am so sorry."

"No, I am sorry," said Nocturn. "I could not stop myself."

"Thank you for sparing us," said Vesper.

"Of course," said Radish, wiping an eye. "But now we've got to-"

The moon plunged below the horizon. The sun shot up into the sky. It was day again. Radish looked his brethren in the eyes.

"Uh... guys?"

"Still good, Radish," said Murk. "Once immune, we cannot be retaken."

"Okay. Good." Radish sheathed his knife. "But we really need to get that spear."

"Hold on, brother," said Echo.

The bat ponies gripped Radish and glided down into the volcano. They landed on the soft black soil inside. Radish gazed up at the tree. It was bigger than he thought a tree could get.

"What kind of tree is this?”

“A Volcanic Ash," said Echo. "It draws power from the earth and sky, and concentrates it into the weapon."

“Where's the weapon?”

“Here, brother," said Vesper.

She pointed to a patch on the tree where the bark seemed to be growing in concentric circles around a dark spot.

“This is the door. It requires an earth pony to open.”

Radish held his hoof against the dark spot. He closed his eyes and focused his senses. He felt past the bark. The tree was old, strong, and aware of him. Radish could feel the power Echo spoke of, coursing through it. There was an anomaly- a hollow deep inside.

Suddenly, he could no longer feel the bark. He opened his eyes, and the bark had receded, leaving the hollow open to the world. He peered inside.

The walls of the interior of the tree were lined with dark green mushrooms. Radish took a step back.

"Okay, these must be a security feature. I bet these mushrooms are poison, or explosive, or something."

Murk approached a mushroom and sniffed it. He bit one off the wall and chewed it. He swallowed.

"I taste no poison or explosives, brother. And they have a rich, nutty flavor. I think they would be best deep-fried in butter."

"More than that," said Nocturn. "They are the chamber's source of illumination."

He tapped a mushroom twice. It lit up with a bright green glow. The mushrooms next to it also lit up, and then the rest. The entire hollow was bathed in green light.

Radish carefully stepped inside. In the center was a knotty wooden column rising from the ground into the ceiling. The column opened itself as he approached it, revealing a compartment long enough to contain a spear.

Radish looked inside. It was empty.

On the interior wall of the compartment, a message had been gouged by spearhead in a messy script:

Dear Moon-moon,
Thanks for the backscratcher!
Hugs and kisses,
Discord

"Damn it!" howled Radish. He slammed two hooves into the wall, smashing some of the mushrooms into a splatter of goo. He grit his teeth and tried to calm himself.

"Is there anything else on this island that we could bring back? Anything useful at all?”

“Against Discord... no,” said Echo.

Radish slumped against the wall, sinking to the floor. "That's it, then. Equestria is doomed because of me. I'm the worst Champion of all time."

Murk sat down next to him. "Radish, this is not your fault."

"It doesn't matter. I still lost."

Vesper sat at his other side. "Nightmare Moon once told us that a blade cannot be sharpened without some loss. But the blade is better for it."

Radish looked at his brethren. "Huh."

He pulled out the Ferrum knife from its sheath. He placed it gently in the empty compartment. It levitated, slowly turning end-over-end, and sparkled with a soft golden light.

"We'll leave this to get powered up. Maybe one day, someone can put it to good use. But what I'm not going to leave here is Discord's graffiti scars."

He placed two hooves on the column, closed his eyes, and focused. The bat ponies gathered, watching him.

"The tree knows how to heal itself. It wants to heal itself. It just needs an earth pony to take the first step with it." He lowered his voice. "It's okay, old one. I'm here."

He stepped back. The column closed around the knife. He nodded, smiling, and led his brethren out of the tree. The bark covered over the hollow.

"I'm sorry, guys," said Radish. "We failed Luna."

“Perhaps the Element of Harmony bearers are up to the task?" offered Echo.

“It shouldn’t have been their task to begin with!" Radish said. "They're not trained for this. Every guard in the castle knew what they were signing up for. We’ve pledged our lives to defend Equestria. Those six just had this life thrust upon them. It’s not fair that civilians should risk their lives for guards.”

The bat ponies shared a look, then nodded to each other.

"The sisters have truly changed," said Nocturn. "Nightmare Moon would have thought nothing of sending civilians to fight her battles. Now Celestia does so, and Luna seeks another way."

"That's... it's not Celestia's fault. The Elements only work for those girls."

"Could they not pass the Elements to more capable fighters? Like Brother Radish and his fellow guards?" asked Echo.

Radish sighed. "I don't know. Maybe they really are chosen ones."

"Chosen by who?" asked Murk.

"I have no clue. But if I ever meet them, I've got some words for them. Come on. We've got to report back to Luna. But not before tying up some loose ends.”


Radish emerged from a hole in the middle of the destroyed flower field. He held up a black-and-white striped flower bulb in his hoof.

"Here it is. The chaos flowers were growing from this bulb. Maybe someone out there can analyze this, and figure out how Discord's powers work."

Murk peered closely at it. "It looks so much like a radish."

Radish looked at it. "Let's not read into that."

Vesper dropped down to Radish's side, holding his armor.

"I found it. It seems I mangled it pretty badly," she said, sheepishly. "And I could not find your spear."

"Don't worry about it," said Radish, redonning the damaged armor.

They moved on to the remains of the carriage. Its broken timbers and windows were strewn across the path.

"Oh," said Nocturn. "Did I do that?"

"Yeah," said Radish.

"Sorry."

"It's okay. It's probably insured."

Radish picked through its wreckage, finding only a golf towel, some maps, and a half-empty bottle of bourbon. He put them in his bag. He looked to the sky. It was day, for now. Which day, however, Radish couldn't be sure of.

"Now, how are we going to get off the island? Are there carriages parked here?"

"There's a schooner docked on the west side," said Murk.

"That's like a boat? Can you sail it?"

"Yes. We acquired it in the first place."

"Stole it, you mean?"

"Well... yes."

"Great. We can have a nice cruise to the end of the world."

Radish started walking west. The bat ponies followed him.

"You know, Radish," said Echo, "even Nightmare Moon faced setbacks. Sometimes she faced self-doubt and despair. But she always strove onward."

"Really?

"In those days, there was a mystery interloper. An earth stallion, clad all in black, hiding his face and bearing no symbol. He frequently disrupted Nightmare Moon's plans in their infancy."

"There was some kind of... ninja earth stallion, going around foiling Nightmare Moon?"

"Yes. Vesper had a crush on him."

"I respected him as a worthy adversary!" hissed Vesper.

"The point is," said Echo, "those defeats were what prompted Nightmare Moon to explore her earth pony side. She realized that by neglecting a third of her being, she was incomplete. That is why she established Never Atoll. To learn more about herself, and thus, her enemy."

"What happened to him?"

"We do not know," said Murk. "We never saw him again after he stole the lenses."

"Lenses?"

"Nightmare Moon once crafted an array of magically-treated lenses," said Nocturn. "It was intended to draw away the power of the sun, turning it into a second moon."

"Sheesh. How close did she get?"

"Not very. She had no means of getting them close enough to the sun."

"Oh, so Nightmare Moon didn't have a spaceship?"

"Not that we knew of."

Radish stopped in his tracks. "Then... what's in there?"

He pointed to the western face of the volcano. Built into rock was a giant door, similar to the hangar door of the mountain lair.

Nocturn squinted at it. "Oh, that's just the cannon."

Radish looked at the bat ponies. "Cannon?"


Radish and the bat ponies stood on the slope of the volcano, in front of a steel bunker hatch jutting out from the rock. The door was painted with a stylized depiction of a cannon.

"It was intended to be the distribution system for her pollens," Nocturn explained. "Gasses from the volcano would be stored in a compressed state, then used to blast payloads of pollen high into the atmosphere. The jet stream currents would spread them all over the world. Unfortunately, the jet streams shifted, and she gave up the plan."

"Huh," said Radish. "It was all or nothing with her, wasn't it?"

"This is the door to the control room. It opens with this," said Echo, pointing to a lever in the rock.

"Yeah, I'm not touching that. Discord already messed with two things on this island, and jokes always come in threes."

"I thought it was deaths that come in threes," said Vesper.

"I doubt Discord knows the difference. I'm not falling for his nonsense a third time. But I still want to inspect this cannon. We need to make sure Discord hasn't tampered with it. Is there another way inside that he could have overlooked?"

"Uh... there's a ventilation shaft," said Nocturn, pointing up the slope. "Discord probably doesn't consider a building's ventilation needs."

"Crawling through air vents, huh? Most guards dream of that."

"Why?" asked Murk.

"It's, you know, real action hero stuff."

"Oh."

They found the air shaft camouflaged by brush above the door, and pulled off its cover. Radish peered down into the dark shaft. He led the bat ponies inside.

They braced themselves against the sides and slid down until the shaft turned and forked. They opened a grate, and dropped down inside a control room, similar to the one above the fight pit in the mountain lair. It had thick glass windows overlooking a vast open room. A large steel tube, aimed at the hangar doors, occupied most of the room.

"That's a big cannon," said Radish. "Does everything look like it should?"

"It seems to be untouched," said Vesper. "But... oh. That is not right."

They looked out another window at the rear of the cannon. The bat ponies gasped at what they saw. Radish groaned.

"Discord tampered with the launch system!" said Nocturn. "He has replaced the gas storage tank with a giant pink bag!"

"It's called a 'whoopee cushion', guys," Radish sighed.

"Why?" asked Echo.

"Because it makes a fart sound," growled Radish disdainfully.

They followed stairs out of the control room to the ground floor, and approached the cannon. There was a large hatch in the side for loading it, and a small porthole so one could confirm the payload. Radish cupped his hooves around his face and peered through it. He grumbled. The bat ponies took turns looking into it.

Loaded inside the cannon was a banana cream pie, two meters wide and topped with a mountain of whipped cream that was bigger than Radish.

"Nobody eat that," said Radish.

"We wouldn't dream of it," said Murk, licking his chops.

"So," said Radish, pacing the floor, "the propellant is a gag, the ammunition is a gag... the target must be a gag, too. Is there a way to see what it's aimed at?"

"Yes. There's a targeting system," said Nocturn. "I'll show you."

He led them back into the control room. He pointed to a part of the console, where there were two flat plates, each about the size of a large pony's hoof.

"This device uses micro-gyroscopes to attune to the Earth's geomagnetic field. It allows an earth pony to extend their senses far across the landscape. One can aim the cannon with a thought."

"Are you serious!? That's science fiction-level technology, even today! Why didn't Nightmare Moon just share her inventions with the world? She would have gotten the love she wanted, no evil schemes necessary."

"We asked her that once. She told us that respect earned through deeds is not respect at all, just fleeting social currency. She said she was fighting for the love she was already entitled to."

"Huh. So, how do we know the target?"

"We can examine the gyroscopes in here," said Nocturn, sliding open a hatch cover on the wall. "Oh... that... that is not a gyroscope."

Radish looked into the hatch. Mounted inside of the machinery was a long golden spear.

He inhaled sharply. "Is that..."

"Yes," said Murk.

"What's it doing there?" Radish asked warily.

Vesper looked at it, then the control panels, then the cannon. "It's replacing the targeting system. Discord planned to use Celestia's own spear to lock onto her body's magnetic field. She is the target."

"All this high technology, all that chaos magic, and it's all just used to throw a pie at Celestia," muttered Radish. "But why didn't it ever launch?"

"Look at this, brother," said Echo. He pointed to a small wire attached by a wad of chewed gum to a closed hatch. The wire ran into the control console. "I believe the exterior door was booby-trapped. Had we entered the normal way, we would have set off the launch sequence."

"Okay, good. We're finally one step ahead of Discord. Now, how do we-"

The door slid open by itself, detaching the wire. It shut itself. It opened and shut several times in a row. The squeaking of metal sounded a bit like mocking laughter.

"What in the-"

"We did not touch it!" said Murk.

"No," said Radish. "It's-"

A piercing alarm blared out of the ceiling. Red warning lights illuminated the walls of the control room and cannon deck. All the doors to the control room slammed shut and bars closed over the air vent, trapping Radish and the bat ponies inside. The whole room vibrated, and the massive doors to the outside of the mountain rumbled, then started to open. The cannon started moving forward. A speaker on the wall of the control room buzzed on.

"Hey, Mooncheeks! If you're hearing this message-"

"I'm getting real sick of that phrase," growled Radish.

"-you've just tripped the countdown on your big honkin' boomstick. Don't worry- this blue steel beauty is going to be put to much better use than your silly complete global saturation plan. Get this- it's going to launch a banana cream pie right into Celestia's face! That sourpuss of hers could really use a bit of sweetener, you know? T-minus sixty and counting!"

"Is there an abort button?" asked Radish. "A shutdown code? A cancel command?"

The bat ponies shook their heads.

"It was all or nothing with Nightmare Moon," said Nocturn.

Radish put his hooves on the guidance system's control plates. Crackles of electricity snapped at his hooves, and he yelped and hopped back. "Damn it!"

Radish gripped the spear and pulled with all his might. It was affixed into the wall by two thick clamps which resembled different animal claws cobbled together out of scrap metal parts. It didn't budge.

"Come on, guys! Help me get this out!" The five of them pulled, to no avail.

Radish pointed at the window. "Bust through that and smash the cannon!"

"Brother Radish, it is only a pie," said Murk.

"She's had enough humiliation on my account! Do it!"

The bat ponies beat at the glass. It didn't scratch. Radish dumped out his bag, looking for something useful.

"Oh... I forgot about this," he said, holding up the metal-corroding pepper.

He crushed it against the clamps, smearing its juice onto them. The liquid dissolved the metal on contact, producing smoke and a hiss that sounded a bit like a squealing creature. The clamps jerked open and released the spear.

Radish held the spear at last.

"Heh. It's warm. Now we can- gaakkk!"

The clamps extended out of the wall and seized Radish by the throat. He struggled in their grasp and dropped the pepper, which splattered the floor of the control room. Its leaking juices ate through the floor, and it sank out of sight in a smoking haze.

The bat ponies attacked the clamps with hooves and teeth, trying to pry Radish from their grasp. They wrenched him away, and pulled him to the far side of the room. The clamps continued to extend toward them and snap at the air.

Radish looked at where he dumped out the contents of his bag. He held up the chaos flower bulb.

"Thanks for the housewarming gift, Discord. I've got something for you, too."

He jammed it into the clamps. They snatched it, then receded back into the wall, holding it tight like a prize. A crackle of electricity passed over the bulb. There was a groan of metal, and the cannon readjusted its aim.

"Ten seconds to launch!" Discord's voice announced over the speakers with glee. "Nine! Eight!"

"Everyone cover your ears!" cried Radish. They hit the floor together.

"Sev- oh, who's got time to wait? One! Special delivery!"

The giant whoopie cushion let rip into the cannon.

The sound made by the launch of the pie was the worst thing Radish had ever heard. The massive pie rocketed out of the launch tube and into the sky.

Radish and his siblings peeked out through the window. The lights in the complex died out, leaving the space lit only by the outside. The clamps went limp and dropped the chaos bulb, which rolled over to Radish. The control room doors slid open.

"Hope you saved room for dessert, Discord," said Radish.

"Brother, you just saved Celestia from a big pie!" said Vesper.

"Guards protect princesses," Radish said, putting the chaos bulb back in his bag. "Even from the absurd."

"We will tell her what you did for her!" said Echo. "She may lie with you in thanks!"

Radish laughed. "If only it were that easy."

He looked at the spear in his hooves. He gripped it tight, and focused his senses into it.

"I was afraid of this. Discord took it from the tree the same year Nightmare Moon placed it there. It only absorbed one growing season's worth of power."

"Is that a lot?" asked Nocturn.

"For a farmer, it's everything. For a weapon... I don't know. Maybe with enough strength and the right aim, it could bust his hide."

"You don't seem as upset as one would expect," said Echo.

"I've used up my supply of self-pity for today. If I can't stick this through his heart, I'll ram it down his throat."

"Brother," said Murk, touching Radish's shoulder, "I think Nightmare Moon would have liked you."

"Oh? Thank you."


The five trotted out onto the island's west dock. A large black schooner was tied off, bow-out.

"Well, it looks seaworthy," said Radish. "There aren't even any barnacles."

"Even barnacles feared Nightmare Moon!" said Echo.

Radish peered closer at the boat's hull. There was a family crest painted on the stern. He laughed. "You guys stole this boat from the Wagoners, too."

"Perhaps its return will soothe the loss of their carriage?" said Nocturn.

"Nah. Statute of limitations, plus marine salvage law. This tub is ours now."

"You could use it to take Celestia for a pleasure sail," suggested Vesper.

"Or Applejack!" said Nocturn.

"Or Luna," said Murk.

"I do not believe it will sail very far with any mare," said Echo, peering over the pier. "The water is no longer water."

The others looked. The ocean was dark brown and densely viscous. The waves were no longer moving, but jiggling slightly. Radish grit his teeth.

"Guys, is that...?"

"Yes," said Murk, sniffing. "The seas are now chocolate pudding."

"Don't eat that."

"...okay."

"Radish," said Echo, "We have been in the sun too long, battling both you and the chaos pollen. We are at our limits. We do not have the strength to fly back. If we cannot sail, we will need to rest until night."

"There might not even be night anymore," sighed Radish. He looked off into the distance. The island was still encircled by a wall of mist. He spread out the maps from the carriage across the dock in front of him. "When you guys stole this boat, did you get it from the mainland?"

"No," said Nocturn. "It was moored at an island a short flight from here."

"Was it this one?" Radish asked, pointing to a small circular island a few grid squares away from their position.

"Yes."

"That makes sense. That's the Wagoner family's private island. They've always had more boats than anyone, and nowadays, they have zeppelins. If you can get us to the island, we can take one to Canterlot."

"You wish to steal one of their vehicles?" Vesper asked.

"No. When a royal guard does it, it's called 'commandeering'. One of the perks of the job when Celestia signs your checks."

"I believe we can make it," Vesper said. The other bat ponies nodded.

"All right then," said Radish, gathering up his things. "We're in a world that's falling to chaos, and all we've got is a moldy old flower bulb, an undercooked weapon, and a bare-bones plan."

"Are you worried?" asked Echo.

"No. Because we've also got each other."

27. The Threat, Part 3

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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.

28. Nightmare Night

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Radish stood sentry in Luna’s hallway. Her door flew open.

“Lieutenant! We would have words with thee!”

Radish jumped to attention. “Ma'am?”

“Hast thou heard of Nightmare Night? Echo says ‘tis tomorrow!”

Radish sucked in air. He was hoping to avoid the topic until the holiday was over for another year.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She stomped over to him and poked a hoof into his chest.

“And thou never thought to mention it to us? Explain thyself!”

“I was afraid it would upset you!”

“And so it has! A night bemoaning our misdeeds as Nightmare Moon! Instilling terror of us in younglings!”

“Princess, it’s mostly just a holiday for kids dressing up and getting candy. Almost no one remembers its origins. And it’s really only celebrated in rural areas.”

“We will not have it! This will be changed!”

“But how could you… oh! Is this your coming out?”

“My… yes! Excellent idea, lieutenant! We will debut ourselves to the modern world and reform this festival in the same night! Radish Root, thou will assist in the preparations! One of these rural areas must be chosen as the setting.”

“Might I suggest Ponyville? Twi-”

“Ah, the site of Nightmare Moon’s return! What better way to show the world that we have broken from her malignant influence than returning to the place that we… that she… attacked. Oh, Lieutenant Root, this is daunting!”

“Princess?”

“If we show ourselves in Ponyville, we will be shunned on sight!”

“But Twilight and her friends live there! They know the real you!”

“We… will keep them in mind. But wouldst thou keep to our side?”

“Yes, princess.”

“And if the crowd bewails our presence and hurls invectives at us, thou will stand up for us?”

“I will.”

“And if they set upon us with torches and pitchforks, thou wilt defend us?”

“They’re going to love you. But yes.”

She stared at him.

“Then that is why thou must stay behind.”

“Princess?”

“Radish Root, we have come to rely on thee too much. If we are to be a worthy princess, we must make our debut without leaning on another. We must do this alone.”

“I… I see.”

“It must be this way. We ask for thy understanding.”

“You have it. I want you to have the best coming out you can.”

“We will bring thee back some candy! What kind dost thou prefer?”

“Jalapeño chews.”

“We are unfamiliar with that, but we will honor thy request.”

“Thank you, princess.”


Radish watched as Luna prepared her chariot. It was the coolest thing Radish had ever seen. Luna had the palace’s craftsponies build it out the wreckage of Nightmare Moon’s carriage, and she added a few new visual flairs to it. Radish hoped the giant eye on its front was purely decorative, though he could swear it sometimes blinked at him just as he looked away.

Luna had put finishing touches on the bat ponies, as well. The quartermaster had crafted them armor matching Luna’s own coloration. Their chestplates also featured a central eye design, flanked by flamboyantly curved pauldrons.

“Echo and Nocturn shall pull the chariot,” said Luna. “Vesper and Murk- patrol Ponyville's outskirts. Lieutenant Root, with us gone, there is no need to guard our bedchamber. You instead will guard our garden.”

“Oh! Really?”

“Truly.”

Luna's courtyard garden had always been private. Radish had never seen it- neither guards nor palace staff were permitted entry.

“Now, there is but one last thing- we must complete our look!” cried Luna. She looked into the sky threw her hooves wide. “To us, our darklings! Become our shroud!”

A flurry of high-pitched screeches accompanied the fluttering of dozens of leathery wings. A flock of bats surrounded Luna and landed on her, coming together to form a solid black cloak. Radish was stunned.

“That looks amazing! I’ve never seen bats do that before! Everyone’s going to love it!”

“Agreed. We anticipate that bat cloaks will be all the rage once Ponyville has seen this.”

“Goodbye, princess. Have a good Nightmare Night.”

“We shall, for it shall be the last Nightmare Night! Away!”

The chariot soared skyward toward Ponyville.

Radish felt a twinge of sadness at the world losing a holiday. He had celebrated it in a limited way as a child, carving rutabagas into lanterns with candlelit faces, and dressing up as a space pony while his Ma and Pa took pictures.

He had shared the holiday with Sky, which was the first time she made candy chews with him. Together they made them in a variety of flavors, giving them to buffalo youths and setting aside some for Nightmare Moon- though it was really the elders who split that pile at the end of the night. Radish and Sky shared spooky stories until they fell asleep under the Mare in the Moon, and awoke laughing at the nightmares they gave each other.

Radish stared at the moonlit courtyard garden before him. It smelled properly earthy. He walked the rows of vegetables. Luna was growing parsnips, pumpkins, carrots, turnips, and…

Radish looked closer. Luna had planted radishes, as well.

He tried to tell himself it didn’t mean anything, that they were a common and beloved root vegetable. He looked at the placard she erected for the row of radishes. It was a brand new varietal. She had given it a name- “Champion Radishes”.

Did she want me to see this?

Radish tried to tell himself it didn’t mean anything, that this was a common and logical name to give a cultivar of vegetable, especially if Luna had designs to enter them in a contest at a fair.

Radish pictured himself at a fair with Luna. They tasted deep-fried snacks together. They played carnival games, and Radish won her an oversized stuffed bear. They rode the Ferris wheel together, and it stopped at the top.

Radish shook his head, breaking out of the fantasy. He stumbled over to a wooden bench and fell onto it.

“What am I doing?” he said to no one.

He heard a whinny. He looked around.

“Who’s there?”

A small screech owl hopped out of a cavity in a nearby oak tree. It perched on a branch and looked at Radish.

“Oh, hi. You a friend of Princess Luna?”

It stared at him. Radish knew it wasn’t actually angry at him, it was just that the arrangement of its facial feathers made it look that way. Still, the look was hard to ignore.

“She’s in Ponyville tonight. She’s having me guard her garden.”

It stared.

“So, see any trouble tonight? Ruffians? Pumpkin rustlers?”

It stared.

“I’m not in love with her."

Incapable of rolling its eyes, the owl rolled its entire head.

“I mean it. Falling in love with one princess was bad enough. I can't go through that a second time. And Luna's even more different from me than Celestia is! She just got here from ancient times. She's barely had a taste of this world. In some ways, it's like she's brand new."

The owl turned to look at a moth.

"But she's not new, is she? She's ancient. She watched this city get built. I must look like a toddler in her eyes. Maybe a puppy."

It straightened a feather on its wing.

"She's like this force of nature, you know? She rules the night and dreams. What am I going to do, ask her to dinner and a movie? I might as well ask out the moon itself. She needs- deserves- so much more than what I can give her. She should be with some kind of king or something."

The owl took a step to the left. It turned its head back at the tree.

“Criminy, I need a girlfriend,” Radish said, leaning back.

The owl looked at him again.

"A lot of nice mares work here. But I can't date coworkers. So what am I supposed to do, just go out into Canterlot, hang out in some bar, and hope the love of my life just happens to walk in? How does anypony do that and succeed?"

The owl flew to a different branch. It looked at the sky.

“Even if I did, who would ever want a guy like me? I bet even you've heard of my problem, huh?"

The owl returned to its cavity.

“Fine, just leave! A guy pours his heart out to you, and you just go sit in your hole! See if I ever listen to your problems!”

It kept out of sight. Radish sighed.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I’m just lonely. Could you come out? I’m going to be here all night.”

The owl flew out and perched on his shoulder, looking at him.

“Hi. I’m Radish. What’s your name?”

The screech owl made a soft hoot.

“Mortimer, huh? Nice to meet you. You're, uh, not going to tell Luna about what I said, are you?"

Mortimer chirped.

"Thank you. And thanks for watching over Luna’s garden. It looks great. You can tell she puts a lot of care into it."

Mortimer flapped down to the base of his oak tree. He pointed to something. Radish approached for a better look. Though he hadn't noticed it in the darkness, the moonlight was now illuminating a small dedication plaque. It had an engraving of a stallion's face, a name, and a date. The date was over a thousand years old.

"Vert Vines. Who was he? Luna's... boyfriend?"

Mortimer hooted.

"Her gardener? He tended this place in the old days?"

Mortimer nodded.

Radish planted his hooves in the ground and closed his eyes. He opened up his senses to the garden. "I can feel the love that he put into nurturing this place. It goes deep. But the upper layers feel different- there was a changing of the caregiver. Luna took over caring for this garden when he... died?"

Mortimer whinnied.

"Disappeared? That's terrible. Your oak missed him. And so did Luna. Her growing seasons feel... sad. She was keeping the garden to honor him, but the loss was paining her." Radish walked over to the Champion Radishes, and felt the soil between them. "But this year's growth feels happier. She gets a lot of joy out of gardening now. But there's also fear, and, confusion... and guilt."

Radish walked back to the bench and sat down. Mortimer perched on the bench next to him.

"It's because of me, isn't it? I remind her of him. So she's confused about her feelings for me. Just like I'm confused about my feelings for her."

Mortimer chirped. Radish pet his head.

"And that's okay. We both could use some time to figure ourselves out. But until then, there's one thing that's clear between us- I'm her guard. And she asked me to guard something really special to her." Radish hopped off the bench. "So I should quit moping and do it."

Hoot.

"Okay, you check the top of the courtyard, and I'll do a perimeter sweep. And keep alert. It's Nightmare Night, after all."

Radish and Mortimer guarded the courtyard garden all night. They had no trouble.

The sun rose. Radish bid good day to Mortimer, and ended his shift in Selenic Spire. He made his way inside the back areas of the palace, to the commissary. On the way, he heard a familiar voice speaking in an unfamiliar tone.

“Radish!”

It was Luna. She flew up to him with a wide smile on her face.

“Good morning, Princess Luna!”

“‘Tis a most good morning, indeed! My coming out in Ponyville was a rousing success! Nightmare Night was fun! The decorations! The costumes! The games! And Twilight Sparkle was indeed helpful! She helped me make friends, Lieutenant! I have friends now!”

“That’s great!”

She bowed her head. “Nay, what am I saying? You have been my friend these many months. Our vastly different stations matter not. I regret leaving you behind. Forgive me. It was my pride that kept you out of the fun.”

“That’s okay.”

“But I have not forgotten my promise- here, your reward!”

Luna reached behind her back and produced a small box of jalapeño chews. Radish took it and opened it.

“These are an uncommon sweet in Ponyville,” said Luna. “The local confectioner said she could not give them away. Yet she did give them away to me, just the same.”

“They’re southern. The buffalo turned me onto them.”

“I’ve not sampled them. May I taste?”

“Sure.”

He gave one to Luna and took one for himself. Luna chewed, then pursed her lips.

“Friend Radish, you must have the palate of a dragon. These burn like fire. And the texture leaves much to be desired.”

“You get used to them.”

“Nay, you get used to them. I will keep to the caramels.”

“I’m glad to hear everything went all right,” said Radish.

“It truly did!” Luna looked around the hall. “We should hold Nightmare Night celebrations here in the castle! Imagine- cobwebs in every corner! Bats flying through the corridors! Bobbing for apples in the throne room!”

“That would be great! Canterlot barely does anything for Nightmare Night.”

“Pish posh to that! ‘Tis my night now, I will see it celebrated to the fullest! Start picking out a costume, Radish!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Perhaps we could dress up as your cutie mark! I could put on a Celestia wig and stand in front of you making this face!”

She contorted her face into a parody of Celestia’s expression on Radish’s mark.

“Uh…”

“Ha! I am only ‘ribbing’ you, lieutenant! ‘Tis something friends do to strengthen their bond. Rainbow Dash and I ribbed each other heartily throughout the night, and now we are thick as thieves. Now, you must rib me as well!”

“Well, princess, Nightmare Night is over, so you can take off that grotesque mask.”

“But I wear no mask. I… oh. I see.”

She stepped up to him imposingly.

“You dare mock a royal’s countenance? I’ll have you strung up by your ears!”

“Princess! I was only-”

“Ha! Tricked you! Do you see what I mean? Do you not feel thicker with me now?"

"I do, Princess Luna."

She smiled warmly. "Good. I consider myself lucky to know you, Radish. Without your careful guidance, I'd still be a miserable waif crouching fearfully in the shadows. Now I feel as if I have risen... from the grave!"

Lightning flashed outside the windows. Radish jumped in surprise.

"And that... is what makes this next part so hard," she said, sadly.

"Princess?"

"Radish, it is time you left The Night Shift."

"Did I do something wrong?"

"Nay. I did. I took what was meant to be a week-long assignment and turned it into your sole duty. That was selfish. I want you to have postings in more interesting parts of the castle. I want you to work shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow guards. And I want you to live in Celestia's sunshine and sleep under my moon, as a pony should." She took a step closer to him. "Will you do these things, for me?"

Radish looked into her eyes. "Yes... yes, I will."

"Thank you, Radish. You may consider your duty to me complete, for the time being. Congratulations on a job well done. You have earned this."

She walked up to him, put two hooves around him, and hugged him. His eyes went wide.

"Thank you," he said softly.

"You are welcome, Radish." She let go and stepped back, smiling. "Until next time."

"Until next time."

She took to the air, flying down the hall and out of sight. Radish watched her go.

“Happy Nightmare Night, lieutenant,” said Celestia, walking up to him dressed in a jester outfit.

"Happy Nightmare Night, princess.”

“It sounds like Luna had a good time in Ponyville. I want to thank you for all you’ve done for her.”

“It was nothing."

"I hope you're not too disappointed to be leaving the Night Shift."

“Well, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. I just hope she’ll be okay without me. No, I know she’ll be okay without me. She’ll be great.”

"I think so, too."

Radish held up the box of chews. “Would you like one?”

“Oh, thank you.”

She ate a chew. Her eye twitched. She frowned.

“Radish... were there jalapeños in that?”

“Yes?”

She took a deep breath and a hard swallow. “Did… did you not know that I am very allergic to jalapeños?”

“What!?”

She dizzily stumbled back onto her haunches, gripping her throat. She gasped for air and slumped to the floor.

“MA’AM!”

Radish ran to her side. Her eyes rolled back as she wheezed.

“Ra… dish…”

“Princess! I… I…”

“Gotcha!” she said, winking.

Radish frowned.

“Ma’am, that was in bad taste.”

“Not as bad a taste as that candy, Radish.”

29. The Fooling

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Princess Celestia lay on the divan in her private study, leafing through a recent scientific journal.

"Celestia..." called a distant voice.

She looked up. "Who's there?"

"Celestia!" called the voice again, now much louder and closer.

She sparked up her horn and cast a detection spell. She detected no one in her tower but the standard detail of guards and servants.

"Whoever you are, show yourself. I am in no mood for games," she said, sternly.

A burst of light put an elderly stallion in the center of her floor.

"Celestia!" he bellowed.

Celestia gasped. "Starswirl? Starswirl the Bearded?"

"Yes. It is I," Starswirl the Bearded said, approaching her.

"This cannot be. Starswirl disappeared well over a thousand years ago." She stood up and loomed imposingly over him, her horn afire. "Who are you, really?"

"Celestia, do you remember what I said to you when you botched your transfiguration midterm? Your greatest weakness is that you overthink..."

"...and under-analyze. I still don't understand what you meant by that," she said. Her horn stopped glowing. "Starswirl, what happened to you?"

"There is no time to explain right now. I have come to deliver an urgent warning. I have peered through the veil of time and space and gazed upon the potentialities of existence. I have discovered a crucial nexus point in pony history. Or, rather, your future."

"What do you mean?"

"Everything comes down to one decision. At some point in your life, you will meet a boy with cutie marks depicting the two of you in the throes of passion."

"I have met this boy! Please, tell me. What does it mean? What am I supposed to do about him?"

"Listen carefully, Celestia..."


Radish patrolled an empty corridor of the palace's administration building. He stopped to examine the inspection date on a fire extinguisher. Princess Luna appeared behind him in a burst of teleportation magic.

"Radish!"

"Ma'am!" Radish gasped. "What do you need?"

"I wish to share something most comedic with you! In light of the defeat of the mischievous Discord, and the prankful joys of Nightmare Night, I have played a delightful trick upon Celestia!"

"Oh, really?"

"Truly! I entered a dream of hers, taking the form of our old mentor, Starswirl the Bearded. In this guise, I delivered a mock prophecy regarding your cutie marks!"

"What? What did you say?"

"I told her that if she does not sleep with you before the next summer equinox..." Luna started to crack up. "...all her hair will fall out!"

Radish cringed.

"What?" asked Luna. "Is that not hilarious?"

"Ma'am... I'm not so sure she'd see the humor in that."

"No?"

"No," said Celestia, icily. Radish and Luna turned to see her scowling.

"Now, sister," said Luna, cowering away, "it was merely a jest."

Celestia pulled a pair of shears from behind her and snipped at the air. "You want to talk prophecies, Luna? How about we predict how long it will take for your mane to grow back?"

Luna cowered behind Radish. "Protect me, my Champion," she whimpered.

"Uh..."

"Stand aside, lieutenant. This is between sisters."

Luna teleported away. Celestia teleported after her. Radish stood in silence for a moment, then returned to staring at the fire extinguisher.

30. Twilight's Birthday

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Radish Root grabbed Saguaro Shade’s shoulders and dragged him to the floor. Saguaro Shade bucked Radish off, throwing him far across the gym mat. Radish landed on his feet and galloped at him. Saguaro Shade dodged, then grabbed Radish by the flanks and shoved him down. He pinned Radish’s right forehoof behind his back.

“Root, you need to stop switching up fighting styles during battle. The Royal Close Quarters Defense stance will cover all your bases if you let it.”

“But if I throw in a Ranger move, anyone anticipating a guard move will be thrown for a loop. And nopony’s going to know how to counter a buffalo move.”

“If a manticore is bearing down on Celestia, do you want to sit there going through a rolodex of styles in your brain, or do you want one form stored on muscle memory to carry you forward?”

“There are anti-manticore moves?”

“There are moves to counter everything. But only if you work with your fellow guards as a team, and only if they can rely on you using moves they know.”

“Okay. Show me.”

Saguaro Shade helped Radish up. They took positions facing each other, preparing for another round.

“Oh, I think you’ve got new orders,” said Saguaro Shade, nodding to the far wall. Shining Armor had walked in and was waving Radish over. Radish trotted over to him, toweling off.

“Captain.”

“Hey, Root. How’s hoof-to-hoof going?”

“Corporal Shade says there’s hope for me yet.”

“Sure. Did you know Twilight’s birthday is coming up? The third.”

“Oh? I didn't realize."

"She's having a party in Ponyville. She asked if you're available. You are. I'm giving you a day pass so you can attend."

"Really?"

"Yeah, Root. This is important. It's Twilight's first birthday since she's made any friends. Ensuring it goes well is a top priority. That means you are going to go there and have fun, even it's some Pinkie Pie-planned kiddy party with a clown. You're going to enjoy the punch, even if it's nonalcoholic. You're going to compliment the cake, even if it's lemon. And if there's a piñata, you're going to whiff so that Twilight can be the one to break it."

"Yes, sir."

"No being a wallflower, either. But if Twilight wants to dance with you, your hooves don't go past her withers. Got it?"

"Aye, captain."

"Now, let's talk gifts. What are you going to give her?”

“Uh, well, I think she might like some books from Princess Luna’s collection. Princess Luna’s read them, and a lot of them are rare first editions of texts that are centuries out of print.”

“See, classic mistake. Everypony gives her books. She can get her own books. A real friend would get her something personally meaningful.”

“I was going to include a card.”

“You know, Rarity is making her a whole dress from scratch.”

“Well, I could give that a shot. What are her measurements?”

Shining Armor scowled.

“Just… come up with something homemade.”

“Yes, sir.”

Radish visited his personal garden plot. There were no mushrooms yet, but daisies in various colors were coming in nicely along the margins.

Nothing more homemade than homegrown.

He inspected them and saw a perfectly-formed flower with long, showy petals the same color as Twilight's mane.

The nicest girls should get the nicest flowers. And a librarian should get a flower worthy of her library's collection.

He dug it up, cleaned it, pressed it dry in newspaper over the next few days, mounted it on thick stock paper, and labeled it by species and the location and date of its collection. He had it framed and wrapped at the palace's gift wrapping center. Shining Armor flagged him down on his way out.

"Good news, Root! Rarity’s cat is sick, so we’re moving Twilight’s birthday to Canterlot!”

“What?”

“It's going to be here in the palace, at seven."

“Oh, nice.”

“Is that her gift? What is it?”

“An Aster elegantula, sir. A model specimen.”

“Sounds fancy. Good job.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“The party’s in the palace ballroom, so dress up nice and formal.”

“Oh. Uh…”

“What?”

“I, uh, don’t really have formal clothes.”

“We do pay you, don’t we, Root?”

“Yes, sir.”

Radish found Spats in their barracks, shining a pair of dress shoes.

“Hey, Spats? You’re kind of a clotheshorse, right?”

“How’d you guess?”

“I need nice clothes. For a thing.”

“Twilight Sparkle’s birthday?”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t believe they’re getting to use the ballroom again. The new plaster is barely dry.”

"You got something I can borrow?”

“You know you’ve got like twenty pounds of muscle on me? You’d wreck anything I could lend you. And you’d look like a clown.”

“Could you come help me pick out something, then?”

“Sounds fun, but I’ve got a real date tonight.”

“Can you at least give me some pointers about what to buy?”

“With your colors, you’ll want to stick to earth tones.”

“But I am earth tones.”

“No, darker earth tones. You could push into the blues as far as navy, or go as warm as maroon. If the sales ponies try to put you in anything outside of those, walk out the store.”

“But what kinds of clothes?”

“Button-ups and slacks. Maybe a sweater. Most Uptowners are skinny little willows. They don’t really make nice clothes for big slabs of meat like you. Just don’t go up a size to compensate- you’ll look like you’re swimming in them. Don’t be afraid if some of those muscles show through, though. I doubt Twilight will turn you away for looking too buff. Shining might. And don't fall for that shirtless collar fad- it's a tragedy of our times.”

“Thanks, Spats.”

“Have fun at the party.”

“You have fun too, on your date.”

“Oh, I will. She’s a classy dame. Taking me to the Garden Party.”

“Isn’t that right next to the ballroom?”

Spats froze. He looked down at his shoes and frowned.

“Those six are going to make a scene, aren’t they?”

“I’ll try to stop them.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Rad.”


Radish wandered the boutique district of Canterlot’s Uptown. The vast majority of apparel stores were geared towards mares. He found one with stallion-shaped mannequins and entered, looking around.

“Need any help?” asked the salespony.

“Yes. Lots.”

She assisted him in trying on various shirts. He settled on a maroon button-up.

“I like it. Now, I’ll need pants to match.”

“Well, we don't have much of a selection right now. Pants are out for stallions.”

“Uh, out?”

“Guys are going bare-bottomed to formal events these days. Cutie marks are back in! You’re going to want to show yours off. Even touch them up a bit so that they really pop off your fur.”

Radish stared at his reflection in the mirror.

“You know, I think I’d prefer to wear pants. I don’t want to seem too trendy.”


Fully dressed, Radish walked up the palace ballroom, a large building on the south side of the palace’s entertainment quarter. There were a lot more ponies than he thought would be invited. As the shop pony had said, most stallions were without pants. Twilight and her friends were engaged in a conga line to a rockabilly song belting out of a small phonograph. Radish put his gift on a table as Shining Armor entered behind him.

“Sir, am I late?”

“Nah. Those six always get up to some shenanigans when they’re together, so I had everyone else come thirty minutes later so we could skip all that.”

“What were the shenanigans?”

“There was a whole thing where they disrupted the Garden Party outside. Now I guess the parties have merged.”

“Oh. How’s Spats?”

“Spats?”

“Radish! I’m glad you could come!” said Twilight, loping up to Radish and Shining. She was wearing an understated yellow dress.

“Thanks for the invite, Twilight. Happy Birthday! Nice dress.”

“Thanks! Rarity made it for me!” she said, turning and posing to show it off. Radish could feel Shining Armor staring at him.

“Radish! Heads up!” called out Pinkie Pie’s voice.

Radish turned to see a slice of chocolate cake sailing through the air at him. He ducked and caught it with his tail. He transferred it to his hoof and took a bite.

“Nice reflexes, Root. Wish you were that quick in drills,” said Shining Armor.

Pinkie Pie bounced up to them. “Hey, Rad-a-Rooty! Welcome to the party!”

"Hi, Pinkie Pie."

She looked at Shining Armor. “Hi there! I'm Pinkie Pie! What's your name?”

“Pinkie Pie,” said Twilight, proudly, “Allow me to introduce you to my-”

“Ooh! Are you Twilight’s boyfriend!?”

Twilight gagged. Shining Armor screwed up his face. Radish looked at the cake slice, and put the rest in his mouth.

“Of course not!” howled Shining Armor.

“Oh, my bad. You're not ready to put that label on your relationship, huh? I understand."

"Pinkie!" cried Twilight.

"And look- don't feel threatened by Radish, here." Pinkie said, pulling Radish into a noogie. "They're just pen pals. Even though some of us are rooting for him. No pun intended."

Shining Armor glared at Radish.

Ah ha ha!” laughed Twilight, loudly. “Say, why don’t we-”

The song on the record changed to a more high-tempo jam.

“Ooh! I love this one!" said Pinkie. "Come on, Radish! Let's scoot boots!"

Pinkie Pie grabbed Radish and dragged him to the dance floor, leaving Shining Armor gritting his teeth and Twilight cringing. She twirled Radish in the air by his hooves. He held on for dear life. She slipped on a piece of cake, and the two of them skidded across the floor in opposite directions.

Rarity helped Radish to his hooves.

“So good to see you, lieutenant,” she said. “And I must say, you’ve built an excellent ensemble around the pocket square I gave you.”

“Thanks. My friend Spats helped.”

She leaned into him. “Is Spats that stallion you came in with? He's quite striking.”

“That’s Shining Armor. Twilight’s brother. And he’s-”

“Brother? Oh, that could get complicated. No, I best not. Unless... did he say anything about me?"

"Uh... he said your cat is sick."

"Ah, he sounds like a compassionate, caring individual."

"Sure."

"What does he do for a living?"

"Actually, he's-"

Radish felt something flat and hard bonk the top of his head. He turned to see Rainbow Dash standing behind him, holding a large wooden mallet in her wings.

“Hey, Radish! Ever play croquet?” she asked. “I challenge you!”

“Rainbow Dash! We were having a conversation!” admonished Rarity.

“Yeah? I think Fluttershy’s about to beat you to the punch.”

She pointed to the refreshments table, where Shining Armor was serving punch to Fluttershy. Fluttershy seemed pleased as punch to make his acquaintance.

“Ooh, that sneaky-! Pardon me, I’m going to introduce myself.”

She stomped over to the table, but changed to a more delicate gait as she closed the distance.

“So, croquet?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“How do you play?” asked Radish.

“I dunno. We’ll figure it out.”

“Okay.”

After a few rounds of non-regulation croquet, Radish went back inside to get some punch. He didn’t see Shining Armor, but there were now a pair of older unicorns, a stallion and a mare, near the punch table. They greeted Radish as he approached.

“Radish Root, right? Twilight’s pen pal?” asked the mare.

“That’s right, ma’am.”

“I’m Twilight Velvet, this is Night Light. We’re Twilight’s parents.”

“Oh! Nice to meet you. And welcome to the palace. You’ve raised a wonderful-”

“We need to talk to you," said Night Light. "In private.”

Well, that’s not good, Radish thought.

They brought him through a door to the ballroom’s kitchen, which was now vacant and dim. Night Light cast a spell and locked the door behind them.

“What… uh… what’s going on?” Radish asked.

“First of all, we want to thank you for all you’ve done for Twilight,” said Twilight Velvet.

“Oh, I’ve barely done anything.”

“Are you kidding?” she said, rolling her eyes. “She told us all about how you helped on the dragon mission, the bat pony mission…”

“And we’re sorry that she killed you out there. Trust me, we didn’t raise her to do that!” said Night Light, putting his hoof on Radish’s shoulder.

“Really? She told you about all that?”

“Yes, why wouldn’t she?”

“I guess those missions are more classified on my end than on hers.”

“Ooh. I hope she hasn’t broken the law by telling us,” said Night Light.

“Why, Celestia might send assassins in the night to silence us!” laughed Twilight Velvet.

Night Light laughed loudly. Radish laughed uneasily.

“Speaking of Celestia,” said Night Light, “she’s the reason we want to talk. We know about your cutie marks.”

Radish cringed.

“No, it’s okay,” he said. “But there's something about them you need to hear.”

“Something about them?” asked Radish.

“See, when you got them, it was a bit of a cause célèbre in Canterlot,” Twilight Velvet said. “Celestia had the city's top minds trying to figure them out. They were supposed to do it discreetly, but ponies talk anyway. Soon, the whole town was abuzz, speculating on what they could mean."

“Celestia said no one ever reached any meaningful conclusions about them," said Radish.

"Well... they didn't have all the available information... because I withheld some," sighed Night Light.

"What do you mean?"

"One of my ancestors, a unicorn named Midnight Runner, well... apparently he once saw a pony with cutie marks very similar to yours."

"Are you serious?"

"This was during the Tribal Era, when the three pony kinds lived separately and despised each other. They would only begrudgingly meet to trade goods and services. Midnight Runner was... ah..."

He looked to his wife. She put a hoof on his shoulder and nodded. He sighed.

"He was a spy for the unicorn tribe."

"Whoa, what?"

"It was his job to sneak into earth pony territory and keep tabs on what they were doing. The unicorns had all kinds of suspicions about what the other tribes were up to. Some feared they were amassing armies, or developing secret weapons. Midnight Runner's talent was stealth spells. He could even evade the earth ponies' animal sentries. During one of his forays into the earth kingdom, he snuck into a pottery studio, thinking it was some kind of weapons forge. The potter there had cutie marks of himself... having sex with a unicorn mare."

"With a unicorn? But most earth ponies in those days would have never even seen a unicorn their whole life."

"Yes, that's true. Just like how you got cutie marks of Celestia without ever meeting her."

"Did Midnight Runner find out what they meant?"

"No, he didn't even think they were real. He assumed they were a vulgar joke, like some kind of anti-unicorn propaganda. He didn't even report them- he was afraid his superiors would punish him for even claiming to have seen something like that."

"Then, how do you even know about it?"

"He recorded it in his field journal. Unicorns keep everything their ancestors wrote, so it's been passed down for ages. It was encrypted, but a thousand-year-old cipher isn't hard to crack."

"Huh. But why didn't you tell anyone?"

Night Light sighed. "Because his writing is just so... bigoted. He was a true believer in unicorn supremacy. His notes are full of bile and slurs for earth ponies and pegasi. He entertained violent fantasies about conquering and subjugating the other tribes. It's..."

He was shaking. Twilight Velvet hugged her husband. "It was painful for us to read," she said.

Night Light composed himself. "Yes. Most ponies in those days were probably like that, but to have it in your own hooves, from your own ancestor... I was ashamed, lieutenant. Showing the journal to cutie mark researchers would have meant giving the entire thing up for analysis. Investigators would have examined every page, down to the ink. Historians would have studied every word. They might have published their findings, and then everyone could have seen every hateful word Midnight Runner wrote. The thought of friends and neighbors seeing that, Celestia seeing that, our kids seeing that... I couldn't do it. I'm sorry."

"But you're not responsible for your ancestors."

He sighed. "But I was responsible for my children. At the time, Shining was a hotshot cadet, Twilight was already Celestia's star pupil, and Spike was just a hatchling. I feared this would put a dark cloud over all their futures. So I kept it secret, and all those cutie mark researchers never heard about it."

"Would it really have helped them?"

"We'll never know now. Maybe it could have given them some new lead to pursue, or a spark of inspiration that could have brought answers for you. Everyone was treating your marks as an intellectual riddle to figure out. We had all lost sight of the fact that we were supposed to be helping the little boy who got them. I never thought I'd come face-to-face with him. And I never thought he'd grow up to be my daughter's friend." He bowed his head. "Please, forgive me."

"It's okay. Really, it is. I know a thing or two about public shame. I wouldn't want to wish it on you, or your kids."

Night Light held up two small notebooks in his aura. "Here's the original notebook, and the deciphered version. They're yours do with as you see fit. Share them, publish them, have them studied, anything you want."

Radish took them. "Thank you. But I'm not going to show them to anyone. My marks are my burden alone. I don't want them to cause anyone else an ounce of anxiety."

"Thank you, lieutenant."

"I appreciate you telling me. Let me repay you, somehow."

“No. No friend of Twilight owes us a thing," said Twilight Velvet.

Radish looked down at his slacks. “Well, uh, if you’re curious about what they really look like… would you like to see them? Very few ponies have.”

“Seriously?” asked Night Light.

“Yes!” said Twilight Velvet.

Radish checked around, then lowered a side of his slacks. Night Light cast a bright light onto Radish’s cutie mark.

“Well, I’ll be,” Twilight Velvet said.

“Wow, I didn’t think it would be so detailed,” said her husband.

“And Celestia doesn’t want to do that?” scoffed Twilight Velvet.

“Mom? Dad?” called Shining Armor, banging on the door. Radish quickly cinched up his slacks. Night Light grabbed his drink and splashed Radish with it. He stood wet and blinking in confusion. Shining Armor used magic to unlock the door and threw it open.

“Mom? Dad? Root? What are you three doing in here?”

“Oh, I accidentally spilled club soda on Radish here. We were helping him get it out before it stained,” Night Light said.

“I thought club soda got stains out,” replied Shining Armor, suspiciously.

“You hear that, Vee? It gets stains out!" exclaimed Night Light.

"Thanks son, you’re a genius!” said Twilight Velvet.

“Okay, well, come rejoin the party when you’re ready.”

He backed through the door, eyeing Radish.

“Sorry about that, lieutenant,” said Night Light. “I was afraid he would think we were having one of those ‘What are your intentions with my daughter?’ kind of talks.”

“Oh, I-”

“Yeah, especially after the last guy,” said Twilight Velvet.

“The last guy?”

“One time a cadet tried to romance her. Roses, chocolates, serenades under her window- the whole nine yards. Shining had him sent to the front lines.”

“The front lines of what?”

“The Guard intermural dodgeball tournament. It was a massacre.”

“Poor guy was never the same,” sighed Night Light.


They emerged from the kitchen. The ballroom's lights had been dimmed and a contemporary ballad was playing on the phonograph. Several of the ponies were slow-dancing.

"Radish, there you are!" said Twilight, trotting up to them. "Come on! Dance with me!"

"Oh? Sure."

They walked to the center of the dance floor. Radish took to his hind legs and held out a hoof.

"Oh, you dance bipedally?" she asked with surprise. "That's so sophisticated."

"That's me, Twilight. I'm Mister Sophisticated."

She stood on her hind legs, wobbling a bit. He took her hoof to steady her, and placed his other on her withers. They held each other at arm's length and slowly circled.

A flashbulb went off from the side. Twilight Velvet had snapped a photo of them. She waved grinningly, then gestured for them to ignore her.

"I'm glad you could come to my birthday," Twilight said.

"Me, too," said Radish.

"I like your pants."

"Thanks. They're new."

"Sorry to have my birthday in a public setting. It was a last-minute change."

"What do you mean?"

"You know, if we were having this party in my own home, you wouldn't have to hide your cutie marks."

"Yes, I would. Spike would be there. And your folks."

"Well, they go to bed earlier than the rest of us."

Radish scanned the room. "Where is Spike, anyway?"

"He's been outside, psyching himself up to ask Rarity to dance all night. Oh! There he is."

Twilight pointed to the far side of the room, where Spike was nervously approaching Rarity. He wore a red bow tie. His scales were polished to a mirror shine, causing him to reflect spots of light across the walls like a disco ball. He held out a claw and asked her something. She said something cheerfully, and put her hoof in his claw. They slow-danced, closely. Twilight's mother snapped a flash picture of them, too.

"Aww," said Twilight. "Looks like that scale polish you sent him did the trick."

"I'm glad."

"But I'm worried he's setting himself up for disappointment. I just don't think Rarity will ever reciprocate his feelings."

"He's got his whole life to deal with disappointment. Let him enjoy a dance."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to touch a nerve."

"Hmm?"

"You know, because Celestia didn't... reciprocate your feelings."

"Oh. Yeah. Well, it's okay. I get a salary from her, and that's almost as good."

Twilight chuckled and leaned her chin on his shoulder. "I'm glad you stayed in the Guard. And I'm glad we became friends."

"Me, too."

The song ended, transitioning into a disco beat. Radish and Twilight separated and dropped back to all fours.

"Look, Twi," said Radish, "Don't plan your special days around my special... problem. You should have your birthdays however you want, wherever you want. I'm fine wearing pants, I promise."

"You shouldn't have to hide who you are when you're among friends. How about we plan a special get-together sometime, where we can all hang out unclothed? No kids, no parents, no pants."

"You know what? That sounds nice."


Radish lay in his bunk, paging through the decoding of the ancient text. It was the closest thing to an answer he had received in all his years. It was also the farthest thing from an explanation.

He turned to a new page. In this one, Midnight Runner had described earth pony children with a series of colorful metaphors.

Well, that's... elaborate.

He found the entry about the earth pony with cutie marks like his own. Midnight Runner didn't see fit to describe them in any detail, but simply denigrated their bearer's appearance, profession, and odor.

Who was the potter? My ancestor? And who was the unicorn mare? Did they ever meet? Am I their descendant?

Radish pondered it over.

No, that's impossible. He was probably just another unlucky guy with no answers. Maybe the cutie marks weren't real at all, and it really was just a vulgar joke about the enemy.

Radish flipped another page.

Funny, for a spy, he seemed to have missed something big.

“Hey, Radish? What's wrong? Is that book not a good one?” asked Spats, entering the room.

“Not really. It just leaves you with more questions than answers.”

“I hate it when they do that. How was the party from your end? My date did not care for Twilight’s friends. She dragged us out the minute Applejack started digging up weeds. I spent a while trying to calm her down, but I don’t think it’ll work out between us.”

“Sorry.”

“No biggie. She was only beautiful and wealthy. You make any headway with Twilight?”

“Headway?”

“Did I read it wrong? You two seem perfect for each other. It’s a tale as old as time- the delicate aristocrat girl falling for a rugged soldier type. Then they run away together, so her father, brother, and betrothed hunt them down and kill the guy. Then she throws herself off a cliff in grief. Classic story.”

“We’re just friends.”

“Probably for the best. The captain’s her brother, after all, and the cliffs around here are high.”

A tiny envelope poofed into existence in front of Radish. Inside it was a note from Twilight's parents.

Radish- just to be clear, we have no problem with earth ponies mixing with unicorns. ;) -TV
And you seem like you'd do just fine in dodgeball. ;) -NL

"But her folks seem to like me."

“Really? That was never my strong suit. Speaking of which, nice clothes.”

“Thanks. I took your advice.”

“I wish more ponies did. The world would be a classier place.”


Dear Radish,

Thanks for coming to my birthday party! It was a lot of fun, and I learned a new lesson on friendship from Rarity.

I got your gift! Thank you! The library in Canterlot had an extensive herbarium, something the one here in Ponyville is lacking. You’ve inspired me to start one. How about I name it after you? I’ll have Spike start setting it up right away.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle

P.S.: My parents had a lot of nice things to say about you. Thank you for making them feel welcome at the palace.

P.P.S: Sorry if I was an awkward dancer. I'll be better at it next time, I promise.

31. Hearth's Warming Eve

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Radish sat up straight in the chair before Shining Armor’s desk. The captain was flipping through what looked like a manuscript. He had been doing so since Radish was called into the office. Radish cleared his throat.

“Did you need something from me, sir?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. It’s almost Hearth’s Warming. I want to make sure all Twilight’s friends are taking that seriously.”

“How seriously, sir?”

“What are you getting her?”

“I’m still deciding.”

“Well, decide quickly. And make it good. You know what I’m getting her this year?”

“No, sir.”

“A whole pageant!”

“Sir?”

“I’ve convinced Princess Celestia to choose Twilight and her friends to put on the Hearth’s Warming play this year. They’ll be the lead roles.”

“Oh? That sounds more… uh, never mind. That’s wonderful, sir.”

“No, Root. What were you going to say?”

“It’s just… that sounds more like an imposition than a gift, sir.”

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow.

“It’s just that the holidays are extremely busy and stressful for a lot of ponies, sir. Adding rehearsals onto that-”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s the same play every town does every year. Everypony already knows the script by heart. Barely any rehearsals are needed. All they have to do is show up, dress up, and say the lines. It’s the rest of us who will be doing the heavy lifting.”

“The rest of us, sir?”

“It’s a royal production- I want all my guards to have a hoof in it. Don’t worry, you don’t have to act. All I need now are ushers.”

“When would this be?”

“Hearth’s Warming Eve.”

“I was going to see my parents.”

“Well, invite them! They’ll love it.”

“So there are tickets for them?”

“Sure, if you buy them.”

“Can I just paint some sets ahead of time instead?”

“I've got Cairn doing the sets.”

“Costumes?”

“Spats volunteered.”

“Marketing?”

“Spike is doing flyers. Dragon mail, you know? Root, are you trying to weasel out of helping my sister put on a play about ponykind coming together?”

“No, sir. What does an usher do, exactly?”

“Basically what a guard does. You’ll be a natural.”


Radish Root stood sentry over the aisle of the Performance Hall’s section B. The hall was packed. The play was in full swing. As Shining Armor had said, it was a familiar script. Twilight and her friends seemed to be improvising some lines, though- Radish had never heard a reference to Starswirl the Bearded in the Hearth’s Warming tale before, and didn’t even know he had been alive in that era.

The special effects were impressive. The costumes were high-quality. The ending song was nice. Radish helped the crowds shuffle peacefully out. He stepped into a side hall, where ponies were mingling and waiting in lines for the bathrooms. At the bar, he saw his parents getting punch.

“Ma! Pa!”

“Son!”

They hugged.

“You look amazing in that armor!” Celery Root, his mother, said.

“Thanks, ma.”

“And you grew your tail out!”

“I had to. It’s the dress code.”

“It looks great!”

“Thanks.”

“So, how’s it been?” Beet Root, his father, asked.

“Great. The palace is amazing. I’m getting along with my fellow guards, and I met a nice owl.”

“What about you and Celestia?” asked his mother.

“Uh, what about me and Celestia?”

“Is she still not interested in you?”

“Ma, she’s my boss. She’s the princess.”

“She’s also your cutie mark.”

“That doesn’t mean she has to have anything to do with me. I’m lucky she even let me work here.”

“We just figured all she needed was time. Once she got to know the real you, she’d take another look at your marks and decide to go for it.”

“She won’t. It’s okay.”

“Then, is there somepony else?” his father asked.

“No.”

“How about that girl who played Smart Cookie? She’s quite a looker,” said his mother. “Do you know her?”

“Ma, that’s Applejack.”

The Applejack?”

“Yeah.”

“Ooh, maybe you’re the one she’s been holding out for all this time!”

“I’m just trying to focus on my job here.”

“Son, you can do both,” said his father. "You know, you could reconnect with Praline- did you know she lives in Canterlot now?"

"Praline? What, from elementary school? Dad, I haven't spoken to any of my old classmates since..."

He trailed off. His father and mother looked down, saddened.

"Since we took you away from them," his father said.

"It's okay,” he said, giving his parents a hug. "It all worked out. Better than I could have hoped for. Come on, I want to show you something."

He led them outside, to a quieter corner of the palace grounds. He whistled. The four bat ponies, clad in their black armor, dropped down from the sky. They bowed to Radish’s parents.

“Hello, Mother and Father Root!” they said in chorus.

“I am Echo!”

“Murk!”

“Vesper!”

“Nocturn!”

“So good to meet you!” said Celery Root. “Thanks for taking care of our boy.”

“Your boy takes care of us!” said Murk, roughly patting Radish on the head.

“So, how come you four are bats, anyway?” Celery Root asked.

“Ma! Don’t just ask a pony why they’re a bat.”

“Oh, we were not bats always,” said Echo. “We were pegasus siblings. Nightmare Moon kidnapped us when we were foals.”

“She tortured us, brainwashed us, and mutated us through forbidden dark magic and illegal mad science,” said Nocturn.

“What?” said Radish.

“What!?” said Beet Root.

“WHAT?!” said Celery Root.

“Did you not know that?" asked Vesper.

“I had no idea. I thought you four came out of a cauldron or something,” said Radish.

“I am afraid it is all true, Roots,” said Princess Luna ruefully, walking up to them.

“Princess?” said Radish.

“Oh! Your highness!” said Radish’s father. He and his wife bowed.

“Mistress! Happy holiday!” said Echo.

“Would you four excuse us?” asked Luna.

The bat ponies nodded, then trotted away. Luna turned to Radish and his parents.

“Roots, you now know the horrid truth.”

“Princess, you’re not responsible for what Nightmare Moon did,” said Radish.

“That’s right, sweetie. Don’t beat yourself up,” said Celery Root.

“In the spirit of this holiday, I wished to find some way of making recompense to those four. I tried to track down existing relatives so that they could rejoin their families, but could find none. Their family line died out centuries ago. No doubt because of me.”

“I'm sorry, princess," said Radish.

“I don’t know how else to make it right,” Luna said.

“Mistress, it is not necessary!” said Vesper.

The four looked up to see the bat ponies hovering overhead. They dropped down to the ground.

“I told you four to leave,” reproached Luna.

“We did leave. But we still heard,” Vesper said, pointing to her bat ears.

“The past is the past. We have long forgiven Nightmare Moon,” said Murk.

“But I ripped you from your families! Think of the suffering you went through! The suffering they went through!”

“You have suffered, as well,” said Nocturn. “A thousand years in the moon, alone. What more suffering could we wish on you?”

“You have been nothing but kind since your return,” said Echo.

“You have given us a wonderful new home,” said Murk.

“And wonderful new family,” said Vesper. “We cherish our time with Brother Radish.”

“You guys…” said Radish, getting misty-eyed.

Beet Root and Celery Root whispered back and forth to each other.

“Your highness, we have an idea,” said Celery Root. “If you’d like these four to experience family life again, how about letting them stay with us for a while?”

“Truly?” asked Luna, surprised.

“Really?” asked Radish.

“We've got plenty of room,” said Beet Root.

The four bat ponies looked at each other, then went into a huddle, whispering among themselves. They broke apart.

“We accept!” said Vesper.

“You do? You would like to stay at their beet farm?” Luna asked.

“Yes, but there is a condition,” Murk said.

“Yes?” Luna asked. “Name it.”

“You must have a Happy Hearth’s Warming,” the four bat ponies said as one.

Luna gasped and turned away.

“I will,” she promised.

“Thank you, Mistress," said Murk. "We will return when we’ve had our fill of family life.”

“Could you four take Ma and Pa on a tour of the castle? I’ll catch up.” Radish said. “Just stay out of the restricted areas.”

As the bat ponies led his parents away, Radish walked up to Luna’s side. Noticing she was stifling tears, he mumbled an excuse to leave.

“Stay, Radish Root. You and your parents have brought me great joy this holiday. The small gift I have for you now seems trifling in comparison.”

“You got me something?”

“Indeed. We are friends, after all, and you have done so much for me on my long road to recovery.”

“Oh, I barely-”

“And give me not thy false modesty.”

“I was happy to help. Anything you need.”

“I need your spear.”

“My spear?”

“Yes. You’ll see.”

Radish took his spear from his back and gave it to her, still in its collapsed form. She took it in her aura and concentrated. Dark blue glowing lines carved themselves into the handle and faded, leaving behind an intricate etching. She passed it back to Radish, and he looked at it. She had adorned his spear handle with an elaborate engraving of herself in silhouette, as well as moons, stars, and roses.

“Since ancient times,” she explained, “knights would carry into battle weapons inscribed with mementos of whom they fight for. Let this be a reminder to yourself, and a warning to your enemies, that you are my Champion. No one else has this honor.”

Radish held it close to his chest and smiled.

“It’s beautiful. Thank you. But now my gift for you seems trifling.”

He pulled a small gift box from his bag and gave it to her. She took it and opened it, pulling out a wrappage of blue stick candies.

“A candymaker in Ponyville made these in honor of you. A special Lunar Blend.”

She held the candies in her aura, staring at them. She tasted one. She closed her eyes and smiled.

“The taste is wonderful. It is strong, complex... and sweet."

"It's their most popular candy now."

"Thank you, Radish."

"Happy Hearth's Warming, Princess Luna."


Radish trotted across the palace commons on his way back to his bunk. He saw Princess Celestia heading from that direction, clothed in an elegant red winter cape with white trim.

“Hello, ma’am! Happy Hearth’s Warming!”

“Happy Hearth’s Warming, Radish!”

“I, uh, got you something,” Radish said, reaching into his bag. He pulled out a large envelope and gave it to her.

“Why, thank you.”

She opened the envelope and pulled out a typed essay. It was the same one she assigned him after Nightmare Moon. He had now corrected all the mistakes he had lost points on, and retyped it. She looked at Radish.

“I just thought you deserve more than a B+ guard, you know?” he said. “Twilight helped me with the punctuation.”

Celestia smiled. “So, what you’re saying, is that your gift to me… is you?”

“Oh, uh… that’s not what I-”

“I’m teasing, Radish. Thank you. You know, the last guard who redid a punishment essay without prompting was Shining Armor.”

“Really? What was the essay about?”

“That’s between us, Radish. But I got you something, as well. It's in your bunk.”

“Oh, ma’am, you didn’t-”

“All my employees get something, Radish. I enjoy the personal touch of picking out each one.”

“What? There’s like a thousand on your staff. You get all of us something unique? And you do that every year?”

“That’s the magic of Hearth’s Warming, Radish,” she said, winking.

Radish entered his bunkhouse. The other guards were examining and admiring their gifts from Princess Celestia.

“Radish! Check it out! PC gave me belt polish!” said Spats, proudly showing off his gift.

“You can polish a belt?”

“I can now! This is the good stuff, too! Imported from Saddle Arabia! What’d you get?”

Radish looked into his bunk and saw a small wrapped box. He opened his gift. It was a jar of hard candy sours, made from Balencian oranges.

“Hey, the royal confectioner made these, from that tree in Courtyard A,” Radish said, reading the label.

“Really? Usually only royalty gets to eat anything from that courtyard. You must have been extra good this year.”

“You have been, too, Spats. Here, have one.”

Radish tossed Spats a candy, who caught it in his aura. Radish took one, and they both popped them in their mouths simultaneously.

The candies were powerfully sour. Spats made a noise and spat his into a handkerchief. Radish savored his.

“I don’t think she likes you, Radish. That would pucker a hippo.”

“Maybe it’s her way of saying she thinks I’m tougher than a hippo.”

“Then, congrats.”

A puff of smoke appeared over Radish, and turned into a scroll. Radish read it.


Dear Radish,

Happy Hearth's Warming!

Shining told me how you volunteered to be an usher for our play. Thank you so much! It was a lot of fun, and I’m so relieved that it all went off without a hitch. My friends even learned a little bit about the meaning of Hearth's Warming. I hope the rest of your holidays go well.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle

P.S. I just found the book of Ranger tales you left for me. Thank you! I got you something as well. You’ll know when you get it.


Radish showed Spats the letter.

“I wonder what that means?” Spats asked.

"Hey, Root," called Zero from the bunk room door, "the commander wants to see you in her office."

"She's in her office this late on Hearth's Warming Eve?" Radish asked.

Zero shrugged.


Radish went to Barrel Roller's office. It was the only room in the command tower with lights on.

“Hey, Root, got something for ya.”

She pushed a paper across her desk to Radish.

“Apparently, some ponies have been complaining about the quality of the optics provided to the Royal Guard. So some ponies who have pull with the princess have recommended guards get special dispensation to use some other scopes from some other services.”

Radish looked at the memo. “I can use my Ranger binoculars now?”

“You know, if some ponies were unhappy with the royal spyglasses, they could have asked their commanders nicely for an upgrade, instead of siccing Twilight Sparkle on them over the holidays.”

“I was just speaking off-hoof. I didn’t know she’d do this.”

“Uh huh. By the way, I hear we’ll be without the bat ponies for a while.”

“They’ll be taking a sabbatical. Sort of a home-study program.”

“So no more bat spoor under the west bridge? No more beetle carapaces strewn across the parapets? No more echolocation screeches at night outside my bedroom window?”

“Yes, ma’am. They should return having learned a bit more, uh, refinement.”

“That’s the best gift you could have given me, Root. Thanks. Happy Hearth’s Warming.”

“Happy Hearth’s Warming, commander.”

32. Hearts and Hooves Day

View Online

Radish Root relaxed in the palace’s library, reading a magazine about Canterlot’s food scene. He realized he hadn’t been to a single restaurant the magazine mentioned.

“Root, there you are.”

Radish looked up to see Shining Armor standing before him.

“Sir?”

“What are you doing for Hearts and Hooves Day?”

Radish startled back. “Why, sir, I’m flattered, but-”

“Yeah, yeah. Funny guy. I’m serious.”

“I, uh, didn’t have plans.”

“See, when Twilight lived in Canterlot, she never got anything for Hearts and Hooves. I want to make sure she gets something from all her new friends this year.”

“Sir, it's supposed to be a day for special someponies.”

“Twilight doesn’t have a special somepony, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon. Ponyville is hardly the type of place she’d meet a smart, sophisticated stallion.”

“We could set her up with Spats. He’s working on a law degree.”

Shining Armor stared at Radish with a perfect mixture of disgust and disdain.

“Just send her something nice, but nothing she could misconstrue as romantic. And not a book.”

“Yes, captain.”

Radish went to a bookstore after work.

He picked a tome from the historical section and a Hearts and Hooves card from a rack, and brought them up the counter. The clerk, a grey female pegasus with blue eyes, rang him up.

“Want me to gift-wrap this?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Are you sure you want to give your special somepony a book about Hearts and Hooves Day for Hearts and Hooves Day? I could recommend something a little, you know, spicier.”

“I don’t have a special somepony. It’s just for a friend.”

“It’s not really supposed to be a day for just friends.”

“My pen pal’s brother is my boss. He insists.”

“That’s… wow. I’m sorry. That’s a weird spot to be in.”

“ ‘preciate it.”

“If you do find a date for H n’ H, I can recommend a restaurant in Midtown. It’s intimate. You know, dark inside? So dark you couldn’t even see a pony’s cutie mark.”

Radish’s eyes went wide in surprise.

“You know?”

She leaned on the counter, smiling easy.

“You’re a bit of an open secret around The ‘Lot. No judgement, though. I think it’s kinky.”

“Thanks.”

She held out a hoof, and Radish shook it.

“I’m Hazy Shade. Your boss is Shining Armor, right? So your pen pal would be Twilight Sparkle?”

“You know her? Oh, of course you do- this is a bookstore.”

“Yeah, she came in here a lot. Really high-strung in those days. One time she lectured me for putting some obscure grimoire in the fiction section.”

“Well, she’s all about friendship now.”

“That’s great. I hope she enjoys this one.”

Radish took the wrapped book. He made for the door, then stopped. He went back to Hazy Shade.

“Say, are you, uh-”

“Taken, sorry.”

“Have a nice day.”


Radish had never celebrated Hearts and Hooves day. He had vague memories of passing and receiving cards in elementary school, before his parents moved him away. He never thought about it in Ranger Academy. On the plains, it came and went like every other day. The buffalo had their own special days set aside for romance, but Ranger HQ told Radish to make himself scarce on those days.

Canterlot celebrated Hearts and Hooves Day with gusto. Red and pink hearts, streamers, balloons, and bows were on every storefront and lamppost. Restaurants advertised specials for couples.

Radish found himself walking down the streets of Midtown, a district for which Hearts and Hooves Day was too mainstream to celebrate. There were no decorations or couples’ specials. He felt less on edge.

“Well, I’ll be! Radish Root! Howdy!”

Radish turned to see Applejack, hitched to a tall cart with green striped awnings.

“Oh, hello Applejack!”

“What brings you out here?”

“Book shopping.”

“Oh, lemme guess- you also got a letter from Twilight’s brother, demanding you get her a Hearts and Hooves present? Even though it ain’t the kind of holiday for jus’ friends?”

“He told me in person.”

“Why, of all the nerve. He came to you in the palace?”

“Well, he’s… yeah. He did.”

“I mean, it’s a sweet idea an’ all, and I get Twilight’s not had many friends before, but Hearts n’ Hooves is sposed’ta be for special someponies. I don’t like it when traditions get all blurred up, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And askin’ a feller like you to send her somethin’ is gonna confuse things further. She might think you’re sweet on her or somethin’.”

“He said to send her something non-romantic.”

“And you got her a book?”

“Yeah.”

“I dunno. You know how much she likes books.”

“Are you in town shopping for her, too?”

“Partially. I just dropped off a delivery downtown. A batch of Sweetheart Apple Tarts! Then I thought I’d poke around this part of town for a gift. But now I’m just flummoxed about what to get her. She’s kind of hard to shop for- I don’t know much about that scholarly stuff.”

“My ma always says gift-giving is not about what they want, it’s about what you want them to have.”

“Wise lady, your ma. I want Twilight to have a good set of tools! I don’t think she has any in that library.”

“That’s nice. And it’s very non-romantic. Palace maintenance buys their tools from a smith not far from here. I’ll show you.”

“Thank ya kindly.”

Radish took Applejack to the smithy. It was a long warehouse-style building with the forge in the back behind long aisles of racks displaying finished tools.

“Land’s sakes!," said Applejack, trotting down an aisle, "I ain’t never seen so many kinds of tools in my life! Look at these funny wrenches! Y’all Canterlot folk sure have some fancy things!”

“That’s funny, I don’t really think of myself as Canterlot folk. ‘Canterlites’, is what they’re called.”

“But you’ve been livin’ in town for a while.”

“I don’t get out of the palace much.”

“I don’t blame ya. This city’s a lot of a lot, ya know?”

Applejack bought a basic toolset for Twilight. She had the case personalized with Twilight Sparkle’s name and had the tool handles stained purple.

“I hope she likes it,” said Applejack.

“She will,” assured Radish.

“As a thank you, let me buy you a smoothie!”

“Oh, okay. Thanks.”

They trotted to a neighborhood smoothie stand. Applejack got Radish a hay smoothie and ordered a mango smoothie for herself.

“Really? Mango?”

“I eat things other than apples, Radish. I grow things other than apples.”

“Sorry.”

“Nah, I know I’ve cultivated a real apple-istic image for myself.”

“Well, it’s not a bad… image.”

“Thanks, Radish. You come from farm stock, too, don’tcha?”

“As much as any earth pony, I guess. But my parents both had office jobs when they had me. They bought a farm in the Flint Steppes and moved us out there when… well, you know.”

“No, what?”

“When I got my cutie marks. They wanted to live in the middle of nowhere to escape the shame.”

“Oh. I didn’t realize it was as… dramatic as all that. I’m mighty sorry.”

“It’s okay. Celestia talked to them, and we were a happy family again after that.”

“She’s swell, isn’t she?”

“Really swell.”

They sat on a sidewalk bench and enjoyed their smoothies, watching the ponies on the street go by. Midtowners tended to wear clothes that were a clashing medley of garments from various decades. Many had numerous piercings and wild manestyles, and some pulled carts that were plastered with bumper stickers featuring the names of bands, mottos of life philosophies, and brash political opinions.

“Sure are a lot of, uh, interestin’ ponies in this part of town,” said Applejack.

“They say Midtown is where ponies end up when they don’t fit in anywhere else.”

“Well, everyone fits in down in Ponyville!”

“That’s a nice thought.”

Applejack deposited her smoothie cup in a trash can.

“You take care now, ya hear?”

“You too.”

Radish watched her pull her cart down the street. He took a deep breath. He ran after her.

“Applejack, wait up.”

She stopped and turned.

“Yes?”

“I liked hanging out with you today.”

“Likewise!”

“And Hearts and Hooves is tomorrow, so I was wondering…”

She smiled, politely. Radish knew what that smile meant.

“Oh, never mind. Have a nice day.”

“Aw, come on. You were so close. Finish the thought.”

“Would you like to have dinner tomorrow?”

“That’s mighty sweet of you, Radish…”

“Okay.”

“…and you’re a real nice feller…”

“Oh…”

“…but I’m so busy with my farm, I just can't give a nice feller the time he deserves, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“But there are plenty o’ gals who can. And I bet Miss Right is just around the corner.”

“Thanks, Applejack.”

“Next time there’s an Apple Family Reunion, stop on by. I’ve got single cousins. Real pretty ones.”

“Oh?”

“And hey- at least now you can brag about going through the rite of passage like all them others.”

“You know about that, huh?”

“Yep. Granny teases me ‘bout it.”

“Sorry.”

“Not a problem. Here, take this.”

She reached into her cart and pulled out a miniature pie with a heart shape cut out of the crust.

“I always pack spare Sweetheart Tarts in case some get ruined on the trip.”

Radish took it. He could smell the spices in the filling.

“Happy Hearts and Hooves Day, Radish.”

“I thought you didn’t like it when traditions get all blurred up.”

“Liftin’ a friend’s spirits is my tradition.”

“Thank you. Happy Hearts and Hooves, Applejack.”

“Take care. Stay sweet.”

She continued down the street. Radish sat on the bench and ate his tart.


Many of the tourists visiting the palace on Hearts and Hooves Day were couples walking hoof-in-hoof, or hoof-in-wing, or wing-in-aura, or some combination thereof. Many asked Radish to take their pictures posing in front of the palace’s more romantic views. The maids were giving out chocolates from silver trays in the halls.

Radish sat in a palace breakroom, staring at a red paper heart that had been stapled to the bulletin board. The door swung open, and one of his fellow guards, a sleek tan earth pony named Rhum Runner entered, looking stressed out. He looked around, saw Radish, and brightened.

“Hey, Root! I need your help, buddy.”

Rhum Runner had never called Radish “buddy” before. Radish was apprehensive.

“Yes… buddy?”

“You doing anything for H n’ H? Or anyone?”

“What is it, Rhum?”

“I need a fourth for a double date on Hearts and Hooves.”

“I… really?”

“You like mares, right?”

“Yeah.”

“My girlfriend Chicory has this single friend. Doesn’t want to be alone on H n’ H. And she likes stallions.”

“And you thought of me first.”

“You want to come or not? It’s at Teaky’s. You know, where they’ve got those ridiculously complicated drinks.”

“Your treat?”

“I’m treating Chicory. You can treat Sodypop. That’s her name.”

“Is she cute?”

“Are you picky?”

“I used to be.”

“And where did that get you?”

“It got me here, considering a last-minute blind double date.”

“Great! Meet you there. Dress nice. Bring a flower.”

“The eating kind or the looking kind?”

“They don’t allow outside food.”


Radish entered Teaky’s at seven, carrying a rose. Rhum Runner met him in the front. He straightened Radish’s jacket lapels.

“You look like a million bits, buddy. You’re gonna knock her dead. And bring up your dragon-watching! She’ll be hot for you in no time.”

“Rhum, what if she asks about my… you know…”

“What?”

“Come on.”

What?”

“My cutie marks!”

“Oh, geez. You’re that guy, aren’t you? When you said you used to be picky, you meant you picked Celestia?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, nopony’s going to compete with Celestia. Time to bring you down to earth, buddy. But don’t worry, there are fine ladies here among us mortals.”

“Okay. But what if she asks what they are?”

“What do you normally do when somepony asks about them?”

“Lie, make excuses, and leave.”

“Well, don’t do that here. Why not just tell the truth? We’re all adults. You could even show her. She’d probably get a big kick out of it.”

“Okay.”

Rhum Runner led Radish into the restaurant, a large bar and grill decorated in tropical themes. Ponies were drinking out of coconuts, pineapples, conch shells, and ceramic sharks.

Chicory, a light blue earth pony, and Sodypop, a magenta unicorn, were seated at a booth. Radish greeted them politely and gave Sodypop the rose, which she smiled at. They sat, ordered drinks, and chatted.

“So, Radish. Tell me about yourself,” said Sodypop.

“Well, my family farms beets. I was a Plains Ranger for six years. I did dragon monitoring on the Southern Plains for two of those years. I worked with two different buffalo tribes- the Long Runners and the Black Bluffs. Then I transferred to the Royal Guard. I've worked closely with Princess Luna. And Rhum Runner here is my buddy.”

“What’s your cutie mark?”

“Here, check it out.”

Radish pulled aside his slacks and showed her his cutie mark. She spit a mouthful of tropical drink across the table.

What the fuck is that!?” Sodypop demanded.

“It’s me having sex with Princess Celestia.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you!?”

“Don’t worry, it’s consensual,” Radish assured her.

“Chicory!” Sodypop hissed. “This is who your boyfriend brings for me!?”

“Rhum!” growled Chicory. “Was this a big joke to you?”

“What? What’s the big deal?” asked Rhum Runner. “It’s just his mark. We’re all adults here.”

“So, Sodypop,” said Radish. “Tell me about yourself.”

No.


Radish and Rhum Runner stood outside the front door of Teaky’s.

“Hey, sorry. I thought she would be more of a, you know, free spirit,” Rhum Runner said, putting his hoof on Radish’s shoulder.

“I never got my drink.”

“Well, Chicory is gonna need an extra to calm down. Hey, let me make this up to you.”

Radish waited.

“Um… how about a hug, buddy?”

He hugged him.

“You’ll find someone,” he said. “Just keep being you.”

“Thanks, buddy.”


Radish hunched over the counter of Joe’s Donuts. He ordered a blackberry donut with decaf.

“Don’t bother with the coin purse,” said Joe. “Remember when you paid for Twilight’s next tab? She returned the favor.”

“Then let me pay for her next tab.”

“Fine by me. You two can chase each other’s tabs for as long as you want.”

Radish leaned on his hoof and sipped his coffee. He looked over to a booth where two ponies were snuggling into each other. He sighed.

“You okay?” asked Joe.

“Just… had a bad dinner.”

“I know what that means. But you should stick around. H n’ H is a big day for comfort food. We’ll probably see a bunch of lonely hearts in here.”

Ten minutes later, Radish was talking to a slender silver unicorn.

“Palace guard? What’s that like?” she asked, brushing her mane behind her ear.

“Lots of rules, but it’s a great place to work.”

“Do you see the princess often?”

“Sure. Both of them.”

“Both? Oh, right. There’s that, uh, moon one now.”

“Luna. She’s nice.”

“How’d you get into it? Is your special talent about weapons, or fighting?”

“Oh, I’ve always just wanted to be where the action is.”

“But what’s your cutie mark?”

“It’s a… uh… you know, I don’t like talking about my cutie mark.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a sensitive subject for me. So, you live in Canterlot all your life?”

“Why is it a sensitive subject? What’s it of?”

“Never mind. What kind of movies do you like?”

“Don’t just say ‘never mind’. What’s your problem? Why won’t you answer the question?”

“Does it really matter?”

“‘Does it really matter!?’ Your cutie mark is who you are. It’s what you are. Why are you being so weird about this?”

“Why are you being such a bitch about this?”

“Yeah, nice talking to you. Ass.”

She left some bits on the counter and walked out.

Radish leaned his head on his hoof.

“Could I have another?”

Joe placed a donut in front of him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Where’d that girl go? Not a love connection?”

“No.”

“Don’t worry. Plenty of fish in the sea.”

“I guess.”

He heard a popping sound, and a scroll appeared above him and fell onto the counter.

Dear Radish,

Happy Hearts and Hooves Day! I wasn’t expecting all my friends to give me gifts today- I always thought it was more of a holiday for special someponies. Thank you for the book about its origins. I had no idea there was a such a cool history behind it- I thought candy shops invented it! Some of the kids here in Ponyville took the wrong lesson from it, though. They had to learn that love can’t be rushed or forced- that love happens when two hearts are ready for it.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle

P.S., Here’s my H&H gift to you. I made one for all my friends.


Radish pulled a homemade bookmark out of the bottom furl of the scroll. It was the same color as his coat, and the tassel was the same as his mane. He smiled and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

He swiveled around in his stool and gazed up at the palace through the shop’s windows. Some of the exterior lights had been tinted red and pink for the holiday. He lifted up his coffee cup and toasted the palace.

“Happy Hearts and Hooves Day, Celestia.”

“And yourself, lieutenant.”

Radish whipped around. Celestia was in a corner booth. He steadied himself on the counter.

“What in the…”

“Oh, you didn’t know I was here? You were toasting me in absentia?”

“Sorry.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know.”

She left the booth and took the stool next to him.

“Bad day?” she asked.

“Did you just see?”

“Yes. And heard.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. It was unbecoming of a royal guard.”

“I found her etiquette to be quite discourteous. Many of these Uptown ponies are overly-used to getting their way in all things. Sometimes a strong upbraiding can give them something to think about.”

“Yeah.”

“But still, language.”

“Yes, ma’am. Uh, may I ask why you’re here?”

“Twilight turned me on to this place. I’m picking up one of their holiday specials for Luna and I to share.”

“Could you tell her I wish her a happy Hearts and Hooves, as well?”

“Of course.”

Radish sipped his coffee. It was cold now. Joe wasn’t around to warm his cup.

“Radish, I’m sorry if my ah, presence on your cutie marks is causing you to miss out.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“No.”

“I’m just so unused to anyone caring about my marks. After you met with my parents, they turned around on them. I’m really grateful for that, by the way. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I was happy to help.”

“I just stayed on the farm for a while after that. Didn’t really interact with anyone but a few traders and some tutors. They never asked about my marks, they were just there for business.

“Then I joined the Rangers, thinking it would take me a million miles from anypony. It did, but the Academy had to come first. You know- groups showers, physicals, swim drills, any number of ways to be exposed. They all saw it. I got some stares, some laughs, some questions. But there were marks of all kinds there- lollipops, spoons, topiaries. We all forgot our marks after a while. The training was what mattered.

“And on the plains, I was usually assisting or arresting ponies. No questions about it there. The buffalo don’t have marks, and they never asked about mine. Just one ever knew. She teased, but only because we were that close.

“And the palace guards all knew my story coming in. They act like it’s no big deal. I always wondered if you or Shining had something do with that?”

“No, other than we simply hire the best. The best don’t mock one’s marks.”

“So when I get asked about my marks, it really throws me for a loop. I’ve spent my life avoiding anyone who cared, so I never built up a defense on the matter. I’ve got as thin a skin about it as when you met me.”

“I’m sorry. Pony society, especially Canterlot, is very much oriented around cutie marks. Your problem is almost singular among ponies. I’d like to help.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Your highness, your order is ready,” said Joe, emerging from the kitchen with a tall box.

“Thank you, Joe,” said Celestia, taking it in her aura. “Radish…”

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine. Don’t let your food get cold on my account.”

“It’s an ice cream cake.”

“Then don’t let it get warm on my account.”

She pulled a homemade bookmark out of her wing. It was her colors, as well.

“Just remember that you have friends who cherish you for who you are, Radish. Even on your worst days.”

“Thanks, princess. Happy Hearts and Hooves. For real.”

“Happy Hearts and Hooves, Radish.”

A white dove flew in through the shop's open transom, carrying a pink envelope in its beak. It lighted on Celestia’s outstretched hoof. She took the envelope and held up a coin, which the dove took before flying away. She opened the envelope, pulled out a letter, and read it. A joyous smile spread across her face.

“Radish! It’s from Shining Armor! He’s in love!” She threw her hooves around Radish and hugged him tightly. Radish’s entirety of being froze solid.

“With… you?”

Celestia laughed and picked him up, holding him above her head.

“With my niece Cadance, silly! They just had the most wonderful Hearts and Hooves date!”

“Oh! That’s great!”

He dangled there in her hooves, not entirely disliking it. Then, he realized what he just heard.

“Wait, you have a niece?”

“You’ll see!” she cheered, her eyes shining brightly.

33. The Suitor, Part 1: Courtship, Plain and Simple

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Dear Twilight Sparkle,

I’m glad to hear Fluttershy has learned a bit more assertiveness. Iron Will ran his promotion through Canterlot for a few days, and a lot of Canterlites are now doing that rhyming couplet thing before getting into slap fights. It’s pretty funny to watch.

Palace life is fine. I’m off the Night Shift for now, and back to general guarding. I’ll miss hanging out with Princess Luna, but she said I’m not excused from our book club. At least the tourists are pretty calm in the spring.

I’m working toward certification for a sword. Swords need special clearance because of how dangerous they can be to an unskilled wielder. I’ve got the basics down, but Corporal Shade says I need to get faster. He’s insanely quick on the draw- you should see him in action. I hope I get there soon.

Your Pen Pal,

Lt. Radish Root



Radish stood sentry at the gift shop’s entrance. A teenage mare approached him with an apologetic look on her face.

“Excuse me, sir, sorry to bother you. Could you tell me how to get outside to the lake?”

“Yes, miss. The exit is at the end of this hall. You’ll see a sign for it.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem, miss. Have a nice day.”

The teen trotted away while Radish stretched out his legs.

Not a bad morning shift. Not a bad morning. But then again, spring mornings are Celestia’s specialty.

Gentle sunlight streamed through the hall’s tall windows. Radish could feel its warmth against his armor.

The warmth ended as the world outside went dark.

It took a second for everypony present to react. At first Radish thought a large cloud had been moved over the palace for whatever reason, but as he looked through the windows, he saw there wasn’t a beam of sunlight as far as he could see. It was now night, in the middle of the day.

Oh no. Not again. Luna, tell me it’s not you again!

Radish approached a window. The ponies outside were gazing at the sky, terrified. The tourists and staff around him started to panic. Radish ran through the emergency procedures he knew. There was now a protocol for unexpected nighttime.

“Attention! Remain calm! Please make your way to the designated exits in an orderly fashion.”

“What’s going on? Is Nightmare Moon back? Is it Discord?” asked the gift shop clerk, frightened.

“Let’s not speculate, miss. The best thing to do is to… oh.”

The world outside was full of morning light again. Radish looked out the window. Everything seemed normal. The clerk stared out the window with him.

“What was that?”

“I can’t say, miss.”

The palace’s public announcement system sprang to life with a squeal of feedback. It was Celestia’s voice.

“Attention. We just experienced a temporary lapse in sunlight due to a magical anomaly. Everything is under control. Thank you, and have a wonderful day.”

Radish raised an eyebrow. The clerk did, too.

“Gee, could she be more vague?”

“Well, miss, at least everything is under control.”

“Take it from me, if somepony has to tell you everything is under control, everything is not under control.”

“Yes, miss.”


During his stint on the Night Shift, Radish and other guards with uncommon schedules attended evening briefings held in a large auditorium headed by Barrel Roller. Now he again attended morning briefings headed by Shining Armor. The vast majority of what happened in the palace was irrelevant to Radish- it was a machine of thousands of moving parts that nopony but Celestia fully understood, and his job was simply to keep a few of the parts safe at a given time. Radish always paid careful attention anyway.

“First off, if anypony asks about the sunlight blackout yesterday, the palace has released all the information on it that it’s going to. The matter is closed,” said Shining Armor, clearly annoyed by the questions he was anticipating.

Some of the guards present grumbled. The “anomaly” explanation did not go over well, within palace walls or beyond. Radish had received constant questions about it from tourists in the palace. He had no answers.

“Second, the palace will be hosting a new guest. His name is Halcyon, and he’s from the Far Eastern Edgelands.”

There were some whispers through the room. Radish had heard of the Far Eastern Edgelands only in passing. He didn’t know anycreature lived there. The rumor was that nocreature could work with nature there, leaving it too stark for ponies, too misty for dragons, and too windswept for griffons.

“He’s been given Personal Guest Status by Princess Celestia. He’ll be staying in Guest Suite One for the foreseeable future.”

That’s a bit odd, thought Radish. PG Status is usually reserved for close friends of Celestia. Twilight and her friends get that status. And Suite One is the biggest and nicest in the palace. Who is this guy?

Shining Armor stuck a transparency in his magic lantern projector, putting a picture of the guest’s face on the wall. He was dark gold with bright white spots along his neck, with stern, chiseled features and a short copper mane. His neck was thicker than a lamp post, and his head was massive enough to justify it.

“He has an unconventional appearance, but I know that’s not going to be an issue for anyone in my guard. See that he’s given all the respect a PG deserves.”

Personal Guests were given a lot of freedom throughout the palace, and had access to facilities that tourists didn’t. They had the privilege to command staff, and even guards, for reasonable requests. Twilight's friends liked to push the limits of what was considered “reasonable”. Radish liked to push back.

“Double-check your duty rosters, because some of you may be on guard while Princess Celestia entertains him.”

Radish kept his expression plain, knowing a few in the room were looking to see his reaction. Shining Armor seemed to pause for a half-second to look for it, too. Radish gave them nothing.

“Other than him, AG1 plus Spike will be visiting, as well. They’re all PGs, too, as usual. Guest rooms four through ten.”

Shining Armor had recently issued a memo stating that Twilight's team would be given an official name to be used in Royal Guard communications, arguing that the term “Elements of Harmony” should be reserved for the magical weapons they wielded. He solicited suggestions from the lower ranks, and received a large number, as a lot of guards had their own pet names for the team. Maple Bar called them “Team Harmony”. Cairn called them the “Everfreekers”. After consideration, Shining Armor announced they'd be designated "Action Group One", or AG1. Most guards assumed he threw out all the suggestions and went with what he wanted all along.

Interesting timing. Do they have something to do with this Halcyon?

“Dismissed.”


Radish and a pegasus guard named Shoofly arrived at their first post of the day and relieved the guards already present of their last post of the night. They took their positions guarding the doors to the Royal Breakfast Nook. It was the last place in the world Radish wanted to be.

Princess Celestia and Halcyon were sharing breakfast inside. It had apparently run long. Once in a while, a butler passed through carrying silver trays in or out. Each time the door opened, Radish could hear a snippet of conversation.

He couldn’t make out many words, but the conversation was light. Friendly. Too friendly for Radish’s taste, and punctuated by too much hearty laughter from both sides. Princess Celestia seemed to be having a wonderfully entertaining breakfast with this Halcyon. Radish grit his teeth.

Shoofly looked over to him, and mouthed the words, “You okay?”

He mouthed, “I’m fine.”

She gave him a sympathetic look. The butler passed through the door again. Instead of conversation, Radish heard the scooting of chairs. They were done with breakfast and were standing up. They were coming his way.

They exited the room, sharing another laugh. Radish and Shoofly saluted. Celestia noticed them a beat later than usual, and returned the salute.

“Oh! Radish! Shoofly! I'd like you to meet Halcyon. He’ll be staying with us at the palace for a while.”

Radish took his first look at Halcyon. He was an earth pony, of sorts. He had no cutie mark, and wore no clothes. His gold coat was dappled with white specks, and his lower legs were a shade darker than the rest of him. His right foreleg had long parallel scars, like claw marks.

His proportions were different from most ponies Radish had seen. He was built like a bull- he was only about half a head shorter than Princess Celestia, and was broad-chested, broad-shouldered, and had a thickly-muscled neck and thickly-muscled legs. His tail was like a lion’s.

“Good to meet you, sir,” said Shoofly.

“Welcome to the palace, sir,” said Radish.

“Good morning to you two!” he said, loudly. His voice was deep as a dragon’s. “Thank you both for guarding our repast!”

“You’re welcome, sir,” said Shoofly.

“You’re welcome, sir,” said Radish, feigning knowing the word ‘repast’.

“Come, Halcyon,” said Princess Celestia, brightly, “let me show you the hedge maze. It’s just been rearranged, so even I don’t know the way through. It may take us a while to solve.”

“I look forward to it! It’s a beautiful morning for getting lost.”

“Why, thank you,” said Celestia, leading him down the hall with a wing, “spring mornings are my specialty.”

As they exited the door to the hall, Shoofly swooned, leaning on her spear for support.

“Oh, wow,” she said.

“What?” asked Radish.

“I’m sorry, Radish. But that guy, wow.”

“What? You think that guy’s good-looking?”

She looked around the hall, then leaned over to him.

“I wouldn’t mind having him in my breakfast nook.”

“Criminy, Shoofly.”

“I’m sorry, but, well, I don’t blame Celestia for wanting a nice long meal with him.”

“These are just diplomatic talks. Happens all the time.”

“Diplomatic? He has Personal Guest status. I haven’t heard anything about him representing anything.”

“Well, why else would he be here?”

“Radish, I know you have this… thing for Celestia…”

“It ain’t like that. Not no more.”

“...but no one does business over breakfast. This is courtship, plain and simple.”

“We would have been told if he was royalty."

“You don’t have to be a royal to court a princess. You should know that more than anypony.”

“I was just a boy, speaking out of turn.”

“I thought you propositioned Celestia during your job interview.”

"Yeah, and she said no."

"Did you think she’d say no to everypony?"

"She's not interested in suitors. She said her duties to Equestria are too great."

"Love can sneak up on you, Radish. I’m sure she’s as surprised as all of us that she’s found someone she's interested in.”

“He’s probably just some trade delegate.”

“Then he’d have Delegate status.”

“Or some artist opening an exhibit in the palace.”

“Well, he’s sculpted, all right.”

Shoofly.”

“Radish, you’re letting this get to you. You should get a girlfriend of your own.”

“Gee, great advice. I'll go get one after work.”

A maid pushed through the doors with a cart loaded with the morning’s used dishes.

“You know, lieutenant,” she said, “I don’t trust that guy either. He’s fishy.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve never met a guest who was so nice to the staff.”

“Oh.”

“Or one with such a great sense of humor.”

“Yeah? He’s funny, is he?”

“Well, it was a lot of observational humor. You know, ‘ever notice this’, ‘ever notice that’. Celestia loved it.”

“Thanks, Onion Tartlet.”

“Hey, Onion Tartlet,” said Shoofly, “if you were Celestia, would you like being courted by Halcyon?”

"I wouldn't mind showing that guy around my hedge maze."

“Hey, look at that,” said Radish. “Shift’s over. I’m out of here.”

He collapsed his spear on his back and left. Onion Tartlet leaned over to Shoofly.

“Okay,” she whispered, "Marry, fuck, kill: Radish, Halcyon, Shining Armor?"


Radish sat in the commissary, eating a grilled salad. He stared at the letter he was writing. He didn’t know how to end it.

“Hey, Radical,” said Spats, sitting down with him. He had recently started calling Radish “Radical”, and Radish had neglected to tell him to stop before it became a fixture.

“Hey, Spats.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Because, you know, the whole… you know, thing.”

“What thing?”

“I mean, Celestia and this Halcyon fellow, getting on famously.

“How famously?”

“They were in the hedge maze for hours. They came out in good spirits.”

“It’s a nice hedge maze.”

“Not that nice.”

“It’s none of our business. Good guards don’t gossip.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Got time for a hoof of cards?”

“A quick one. Do-”

There was a clamor in the commissary. Several ponies had left their tables and were gathering around the windows. Spats and Radish craned their necks to look. Spats squinted and stood on his chair, then quickly dropped back down to Radish.

“Oh, it’s nothing. A neat bird. So,” he said, pulling out a deck of cards, “aces wild, and…”

Radish was walking to the windows. Spats cringed and muttered, “Sorry, Radical.”

Radish stared out the window. He put his binoculars to his eyes. He focused them. His body twitched.

Princess Celestia and Halcyon were in a rowboat in the middle of the lake. She sat in the bow facing him, holding a lacy white parasol while he rowed. There was a picnic basket between them.

“Now that’s picturesque,” said a guard by Radish’s side. “Oh! The royal painter thinks so, too. Look!”

On the edge of the lake, Broadstrokes, the palace’s chief artist, had set up an easel to paint the pair. Radish dropped his binoculars to his chest and shuffled back to Spats, who was shuffling the cards.

“Hey, uh…” Spats started.

“Just deal,” said Radish.

“Are you talking to me or yourself?”


With the remainder of his break, Radish went to the palace post office to deliver his letter. The postpony on duty, a sage green pegasus named Swift Sparrow, looked at the envelope.

“Another for Twilight? She’s around today.”

“I don’t always get to see her when she’s at the palace. And she likes my friendship insights in writing so she can file them.”

“You know, back when she lived here, she presented the post office with a report on how we could make mail delivery more efficient. Wasn’t for school or anything, she just thought we needed it.”

“Did you take any of her advice?”

“We sure told her we did.”

“Ah.”

Radish mailed his letter, then, as he was almost out the door, he stopped, turned, and went back to the counter.

“Hey, can we get mail to or from the Far Eastern Edgelands?”

“Nope. No zip codes there.”

“We have archeologists out there, right? How do they get mail?”

“A messenger badger. He's the only thing tough enough to make the journey, but he's pretty slow.”

“Huh.”

“Is this about Halcyon?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I hear that’s where he’s from. The post hears a lot of things, you know, but the post respects privacy. Guards respect privacy, too, don’t they?”

“No, guards have big loud mouths, in case there’s invaders in the palace.”

“The post also treats every piece of mail with respect, no matter where it came from, how its packaging is shaped… or who’s receiving it.”

“You implying something?”

“Not at all. Have a nice day, lieutenant.”


Radish resumed his shift patrolling the eastern wings of the palace. He stood on a parapet and watched the inner commons. A pair of gardeners were trimming the hedges below him. Their conversation was carried up to him.

“Striker just saw him in the bowling alley with Celestia and Team Sparkle,” said one of the gardeners to the other. “Said he bowled a pretty impressive game his first time. And we all know that PC’s a sporto.”

“What, you think he’ll pick Celestia up like a seven-ten split?” the other gardener asked.

“I wouldn’t doubt it. Most of the mares and a chunk of the stallions in this palace are gawking at him.”

“Huh. After all these years, a mysterious handsome stranger comes from a mysterious faraway land to sweep Celestia off her feet? Sounds like a fairy tale.”

“Sounds suspicious.”

“Celestia’s not stupid. But she deserves to be happy for once. I think the last guy who tried to court her was, well…”

“Who?”

There was a pause and a whisper.

“What, him? I mean, if you want to call it that.”

“I wonder how he’s taking it.”

Radish leaned over the parapet and looked down at them. They noticed his shadow on the ground, looked up, and jumped back.

“Good afternoon, lieutenant!” one of them shouted up at him.

“Good afternoon, Morning Glory. Verbena. Tending to the grapevine, are we?”

“Would you like some hedge clippings, lieutenant? They’re fresh.”

“I’m on duty. But you two enjoy yourselves.”


Radish lay in his bunk reading an old detective novel. He didn’t like where it was going. He decided to stretch his legs in the palace’s entertainment quarter, which was open to off-duty guards during certain hours.

He paused to read the outdoor bulletin board, which had news about the goings-on around the palace. There were tea socials, arts and crafts workshops, and a new tour of the castle’s antique doorknobs and hinges. He didn’t see anything that interested him.

“Radish!”

Radish looked behind him. Twilight Sparkle was galloping toward him.

“Twilight!”

She skidded to a stop in front of him, and they hugged.

“Have you met him?” she asked. “Isn’t it exciting?”

Radish sighed with as much annoyance as he could convey.

“Met who, Twilight?”

“Halcyon! A real live visitor from the Far Eastern Edgelands!”

“I didn’t know anycreature lived there.”

“Neither did I!”

“What has he said about it?”

“Not much. I think he and Princess Celestia are planning a big announcement about it together. They seemed pretty excited, but cagey, about something during shakes.”

“Shakes?”

“Yeah, we got a round of milkshakes to celebrate his bowling score! Two-ninety nine! For his first time! But Rainbow Dash thinks he deliberately let Celestia win.”

“She bowled a 300?”

“Yeah, it was amazing. She had laser-like focus. I think she really wanted to impress her new friend.”

“Well, that sounds nice.”

“How have you been?”

“Not so good. I had a bad lunch. And before that was a bad breakfast.”

She put a hoof on his shoulder.

“Please take better care of yourself, Radish! Princess Celestia needs all her guards in top form to protect important guests like Halcyon.”

“You’re right, Twilight. Maybe dinner will be better.”

“It definitely will be.”

“Oh yeah, I just mailed you a letter about a friendship problem I had with Lieutenant Shoofly.”

“That’s great! I can’t wait to read it! No spoilers, now.”

“Of course.”


Radish walked down the palace back halls. A valet stopped him.

“Lieutenant Root, you are cordially invited to join Princess Celestia for dinner tonight.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Proper attire has been made available at the office of the royal clothier.”

“Really?”

“Dinner will be held in the Starry Spire dining room at eight.”

“That’s… thank you!”

The valet looked around, and whispered in his ear.

“Don’t thank me yet. Halcyon will be there.”

Radish sighed.

“Thanks, Hallmark.”

“Oh, you know my name? For security reasons?”

“No, I just… know it, I guess.”

“Thank you, lieutenant.”

“Have a good evening, Hallmark. Someone should.”


The royal clothier was a vintage unicorn named Galloon. Radish had never interacted with him before- his uniform and armor had been provided by the Quartermaster.

Radish was technically supposed to have a dress version of his uniform, but when he asked Barrel Roller about it during his first week, she said they were waiting on the right material. The next day Radish realized she meant she wasn’t sure if he was the right material for the job. He never asked about it again.

Radish entered Galloon’s studio to find him busy over a slanted table.

“Ah, lieutenant. Welcome.”

Being from Unicornwall, Galloon pronounced “lieutenant” as “left-tenant”.

“Hello, sir. I’ve just been infor-”

“Yes, yes. I have it right here.”

He levitated a smart, modern tuxedo on a hanger in front of Radish. Radish gasped.

“For me?” he asked.

“Who else?”

“For, uh, free?”

“No, her majesty makes a habit of demanding a guard’s company for dinner and making him pay to dress well for it. It’s a bit of a racket she’s running, you know.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not used to, well, VIP treatment. Or even IP treatment. Some days I don’t even get P treatment.”

“Go try it on,” he said, pointing to a side door. “Call if you need help.”

Radish went into the side room and unpacked the tuxedo, separating its various parts onto a bench. There was a small note with a guide on how to wear it. Though it was more work than donning his armor, he managed to assemble it onto himself.

He looked at himself in a full-length mirror, brushed his mane with his hoof, and struck a movie spy pose. He liked the way he looked.

“Are you striking a movie spy pose in there?” called Galloon.

“No! Yes. How’d you know?”

“Everypony does it with their first tuxedo. May I see?”

“Yeah. I mean, yes.”

Galloon entered the room and appraised Radish’s look. He made a few adjustments with his hooves and his magic.

“How do I look?”

“Clothing her majesty’s finest in finery has always presented a challenge, with their over-bulked frames and their rough-hewn visages. They often end up looking like gorillas dressed for a stage act. But over the years I’ve become an expert in the matter. Lieutenant, I have outdone myself.”

“Thanks, Galloon. I love it.”

“I took the liberty of including a sample of cologne. It’s a powerful scent of oakmoss and cloves.”

“Thank you. Is that kind of scent popular with, uh, discerning ponies?”

“Like the princess, you mean?”

“Well…”

“The true gentlecolt impresses with his social graces, not his fragrance. How is your dining etiquette?”

“It’s… uh…”

“Hmm.”

“I’ll be on my best behavior.”

“Can you carry a polite dinner conversation?”

“No.”

“At least you’re honest. Stick to light topics that all may participate in. Listen and support others in the conversation- do not dominate it. Be eternally self-effacing, and if all else fails, compliment the wine.”

“Oh, should I bring wine?”

“Good heavens, no!”

“Do you know why I’m even being invited to this?”

“It’s not my place to know or speculate.”

“I see. Thank you for all your help.”

“I wish you well, lieutenant. Do your best to comport yourself with dignity.”

Radish looked at himself in the mirror again.

“First time for everything.”

34. The Suitor, Part 2: Dinner Among the Stars

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Radish showered and dressed for dinner, dabbing the cologne on the back of his neck. He got a few stares, sniffs, and comments from his coworkers as he made his way to Starry Spire. Spats made him hold for pictures.

Starry Spire was Celestia’s personal tower. Radish had never been inside- guarding it was reserved for much more experienced veterans. Inside was Celestia’s bedchambers, bath, and living areas, as well as her personal study and magical laboratory.

The guards at the door let Radish pass wordlessly, and he entered the brightly-lit foyer. It was far more colorful than Radish was expecting- he assumed it would all be white marble trimmed in gold, like much of the palace. Instead, the floors and walls were covered in rich and varied hues of purple, red, green, and orange. Tapestries of arcane runes and sigils lined the halls, and the furniture lining the halls was plush, sturdy, and ancient.

A valet pointed him to the end of a hall, which terminated in an elevator. Shining Armor was waiting for it, dressed formally as well.

“Captain?”

“Root. Nice tux. How you feeling?”

“Fine, sir.”

“Sounds like you’ve been asked that too many times today.”

“I have, sir.”

“Try to buck up. This dinner is important.”

“Important? Why’s that, sir?”

“Forget I said that. This is just a nice, informal get-together between friends.”

“Are you invited as well?”

“You didn’t know?”

“The, uh, guest list seems to grow longer by the minute.”

“It’s you, me, Princess Celestia, Halcyon, AG1, Barrel Roller, Saguaro Shade, and the head of the Royal Archeological Society.”

Radish leaned back. “Sir, that’s a lot of big names. And then… me.”

“I don’t make the list, Root.”

“Wait, I thought the head of the Archeological Society was on an expedition… to the Far Eastern Edgelands…”

“And how would you know that?”

“I was part of an archeological discovery myself. The museum told me he was abroad.”

“Right. Well then, you’ll have something to talk about with him.”

The elevator car reached the ground floor. The doors opened with a ding. Radish and Shining Armor entered, and Shining Armor pushed the button for one of the highest floors. The elevator whirred and ascended.

“Root, I want to speak with you, stallion-to-stallion. About your feelings on Halcyon.”

“My feelings don’t matter. I do my duty, to the princesses and their guests.”

“Yeah? Nice line. I don’t buy it.”

“What do you want from me!?” Radish snapped.

Shining Armor gave him an annoyed look.

“I mean, what would you ask of me, sir?”

“Root, things are happening now that may drastically change life for the princess, the palace, and Equestria. We're all going to need to deal with that.”

Radish bent low toward Shining. “Is it… really that serious? He’s been here a day.”

“That’s no one’s business but theirs. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

The elevator opened with another ding. A butler was standing in the hall, waiting for them.

“Captain,” he said, “a situation has arisen that requires your attention.”

He held up a silver tray with a small note. Shining took it in his aura and read it. Shining grit his teeth, balled up the note, and stuffed it in his pocket.

“Son of a nag. I have to deal with this. Root, go on ahead. Tell them not to wait for me.”

The butler led Radish to a large drawing room. Inside, the guests were mingling to a string quartet. A cherry-red pegasus was behind a bar, doing cocktail shaker tricks with her wings. She poured a drink for a distinguished-looking unicorn- the head of the Royal Archeological Society.

Celestia was at the far side of the room, speaking to Halcyon and Twilight. The conversation looked playful. Celestia wore a rich violet evening gown and had her hair braided down one side. Twilight had a blue dress on. Halcyon now had a thick forest green cape draped over him.

Twilight’s friends were gathered chatting around a side table furnished with appetizers. They, like Twilight, were dressed in evening wear, and Radish was impressed at how well each mare’s dress complemented their personal idioms. He assumed Rarity crafted them all.

“Whoa, Radish! Looking good!” said Pinkie Pie, bounding forth.

“Spiffy duds, Radish,” agreed Applejack.

“Indeed! You look quite dapper!” said Rarity. “Whoever said tuxedos were on the way out should take a look at our lieutenant here.”

Radish tried to keep from blushing, reminding himself that these girls were always generous with compliments.

“Thank you. You all look lovely tonight.”

“Ha!” scoffed Rainbow Dash. “Listen to him trying to be all smooth. And is that cologne I smell?”

“Yeah, you like?”

“Only in your dreams, lieutenant.”

“I dream a bit bigger, Miss Dash.”

Applejack snorted and laughed.

“Oh, we know,” said Rainbow Dash smirking. “Say, I hear Barrel Roller is coming tonight. Could you introduce me?”

“You’re a fan of the commander? I thought you were all about Wonderbolts.”

“She dominated Fight-and-Flight records for years! Still holds onto a few. I heard she once chased a gang of pirates through a tropical depression and came out the other side with them in cuffs. Didn’t even get wet!”

“That sounds like her, all right. I wonder where… oh. There she is.”

Barrel Roller entered the room escorted by Saguaro Shade. Saguaro Shade was wearing a blazer with a turquoise bolo tie. Barrel Roller came in a long black dress. Both Radish and Rainbow Dash had to snap themselves out of staring as they approached.

“Root, glad you could make it,” said Saguaro Shade.

“Good to see you, sir, ma’am. Oh- the captain’s seeing to something that came up. He said not to wait for him.”

Saguaro Shade and Barrel Roller eyed each other.

“We know. He caught us on the way out,” said Barrel Roller.

“That’s the downside of being captain, Root,” said Saguaro Shade, “you miss out on the fun once in a while.”

“Something to think about if I ever become captain,” said Radish.

Barrel Roller did her best to stifle a snort. Rainbow Dash nudged Radish with her wing.

“Oh. Have you met Rainbow Dash? She’s the Element of-”

“HI! I’m Rainbow Dash!” she squealed.

While Rainbow Dash awkwardly and excitedly introduced herself to Barrel Roller, Saguaro Shade pulled Radish aside.

“You okay, Root?”

“Just a bit bewildered, sir. Most guards go their entire lives without being invited to a Starry Spire dinner party.”

“These are unconventional times, Root.”

“How so, sir?”

“Forget I said that. Let’s just enjoy the party. Try the canapés.”

While Saguaro Shade sampled the hors d’oeuvres, Radish took a deep breath and walked up to Celestia and Halcyon.

“Welcome to the party, Radish,” said Celestia.

“Thank you for the invitation, your highness.”

“Ah, Radish Root!” said Halcyon. “Good evening!”

“Hello Mr. Halcyon. I hope you’re enjoying your stay at the palace.”

“I am overwhelmed! I’ve never seen such beauty before,” he said, waving his hoof around the room while keeping his eyes on Celestia. Celestia smiled.

“I felt the same way when I first got here,” Radish quickly said.

“I was just getting to know the ponies here through their cutie marks. As you can see, we don’t have them where I’m from.”

He lifted his cape to show his flank. From across the room, Rarity took an extra hard look, as if trying to memorize the view. The cellist almost missed a beat.

“Each pony here has told a fascinating tale about how they earned theirs.”

Some of the other guests turned to look at them. Others turned away, pretending not to hear. Celestia eyed Halcyon, warily. Radish, however, was well-practiced at changing this subject.

“Oh, no doubt, Mr. Halcyon. Twilight’s story in particular is quite fascinating! The news of a dragon hatching in Canterlot really sent the Plains Rangers in a tailspin. Speaking of which, we’ve been getting reports that a dragon migration may soon be upon us-”

“What is your cutie mark?”

Radish now kept several responses to this question on deck. He chose his favorite.

“It’s two ponies smiling,” he said.

Celestia looked relieved, and she smirked a bit. Rainbow Dash smirked broadly, and Pinkie Pie suppressed a giggle fit.

“Really? May I see it?”

Saguaro Shade and Barrel Roller eyed each other. Twilight cringed.

“Oh, it took me so long to figure out this cummerbund, I doubt I could get it back on before dinner’s served. But trust me, it’s a beaut!”

Saguaro Shade and Barrel Roller eyed each other, this time with a slight levity. Twilight smiled.

“And what does it indicate your special talent to be?”

“I always saw it as meaning that it’s my destiny to bring happiness to others.”

Celestia smiled. Rainbow Dash hid her face with her wings, and Pinkie Pie shoved her head under a table and let out a loud “HA!”

“Then how did that bring you to join the guard?”

“Oh, I try to bring happiness to others all the time around here! From the tourists needing help, to my fellow guards having somepony watching their back, to the staff who always deserve a smile and a thanks…”

“And to his princesses, who appreciate all that and more,” said Celestia, cheerfully.

“Thank you, your highness,” replied Radish. “That’s a lovely gown.”

“Oh, this old thing?” she said playfully. “It was a birthday gift. Which birthday, though, I’m afraid is lost to time.”

“I’m afraid the concept of formal wear is foreign to me, as well,” said Halcyon. “We haven’t it where I am from, either. The royal clothesmaker was kind enough to provide me with attire.”

“And where you’re from- that’s the Far Eastern Edgelands, right?” Radish asked.

“To you, yes. But to me, it is neither far, nor to the east, nor on the edge. We simply live where we always have. We had no need to name it.”

“I see. So, who’s ‘we’? I’d love to hear about your people as well as your land, Mr. Halcyon.”

“Just ‘Halcyon’, if you please. These honorifics are also foreign to me.”

“I apologize, Halcyon. So, about them…”

“Actually, Radish Root, my compatriots and my homeland are quite a tragic tale. I do not wish to recount it now.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I am not offended.”

“How are you finding your quarters?”

“They are lovely. Though a bit too spacious for a single occupant.”

Celestia turned away. Radish tried to read her expression in the reflection of the balcony doors, but couldn’t make it out.

“My ma would say that’s a good problem to have,” laughed Radish. “I sleep in a bunkroom with nine other ponies, most of whom never learned to wipe their hooves.”

He looked at Celestia. “But I’m grateful for the accommodations all the same, your highness.”

Celestia turned back. She gave a half-grin and a nod.

“May I get either of you a drink?” asked Radish.

“Yes. Would you fetch me something large, cold and strong?” asked Halcyon.

“No, thank you, Radish,” said Celestia. “I need to check on dinner. Enjoy the hors d’oeuvres in the meantime.”

She left out a side door. Radish looked at Halcyon.

“You know, Halcyon- if you’d like to know more about formal wear, you should stick close to Rarity tonight. She’s a fashion genius.”

Rarity overheard him, and smiled widely. He waved her over to them. She trotted close quickly.

“Rarity, would you mind telling Halcyon about evening wear while I see to his drink?”

“Love to! Now, Halcyon, the first thing you have to understand is that the history of clothes is really the history of needles…”

Radish trotted to the bar. Halcyon watched him go with a frown. Radish took a stool and the bartender came to him.

“Could I get a Horse’s Neck, please? And a double rye on the rocks for our guest.”

Fluttershy took the stool next to him.

“May I have some bubbly, please?” she asked. “It’s nice to see you again, Radish.”

“Good evening, Fluttershy. I like your hair.”

Fluttershy was wearing her mane up in a small bun, held together with two crossed pins.

“Thank you. Rarity did it up. You know, I always get really nervous about dinner parties like this. But it’s always my friends who help me get through them. Do you need help getting through this one?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“I’ve practiced putting on a brave face in front of the mirror so many times. I know that look.”

“Fluttershy, do you know what’s going on with this Halcyon guy?”

“Only that he’s a new friend of Princess Celestia.”

“How did they meet?”

“They haven’t said.”

“Nopony’s asked?”

“Twilight asked. They gave a vague answer.”

“Isn’t that weird?”

“Well, you like to rely on vague answers yourself, Radish. Shouldn’t we let them have that privilege, too?”

“I guess.”

“Horse’s Neck, double rye rocks, and a bubbly,” said the bartender, putting the drinks before them. “That’ll be sixty bits.”

Radish patted his pockets. “Uh…”

“I’m kidding! Enjoy!” she said. She winked at Radish. He tasted his Horse’s Neck, and noted that she made his double strong.

“Thanks. I really needed this.”

He reached for the rye, but Fluttershy tapped his hoof with hers.

“Tag in. I’ll take this to Halcyon,” she said.

“Thanks.”

She carried off the drink while Twilight joined Radish at the bar. She spun around in the bar stool a couple of times, then ordered a cranberry wine.

“Thanks for coming tonight, Radish.”

“Thanks for inviting me. You are the reason I was invited, no?”

“Actually, Halcyon asked about you being here. I just assumed you were on the guest list. It’s weird, but you’re not automatically invited to our activities when we’re here at the palace.”

“I’m too bottom-rung around here to be getting special treatment, Twilight. Even if we are pen pals.”

“I thought scrubbing the tunnels was the bottom rung.”

Radish frowned.

“Oh, sorry, are you still not laughing at that?” she sheepishly asked.

“Give it a couple years.”

“I heard Shining got called away. Think he’ll be back before dinner?

“It seemed important. I wouldn’t count on it.”

“That’s a shame. We've been seeing each other less and less these days."

“Say, do you know why Luna’s not here?”

“She’s apparently not feeling well.”

“That’s too bad. Oh, thanks for helping her get through Nightmare Night.”

“Thanks for helping her get to Nightmare Night. You know, she spoke really highly of you that night? She was really keen on finding that candy you like. Bon Bon had to dig through her old inventory to find some.”

“I didn’t mean to send her on a scavenger hunt.”

“She said she owed it to her Champion.”

“Oh, Luna…”

Radish looked down at his cocktail. He drank a deep swig.

“Ah, yes! The Night Princess!” said Halcyon, suddenly behind them. “I was so hoping to meet her tonight. Her beautiful moon inspires and soothes those in my land, as well.”

Radish looked over Halcyon’s shoulder to see he had apparently left Rarity and Fluttershy mid-conversation. He had downed his double rye and left the empty glass in Fluttershy’s hooves.

“I’m sure you’ll meet her, Halcyon,” said Twilight. “She just has an unconventional schedule. She works all night, protecting us from nightmares.”

“So I have been told. Now that I am in your land, perhaps I will meet her in my dreams.”

“Are you suffering from nightmares, sir?” Radish asked, after straining to unclench his jaw.

“I’ve not had a pleasant night in ages,” he said, staring at Radish. “I am hoping that changes soon.”

Celestia reentered the room, speaking to a butler. Halcyon wordlessly left Radish and Twilight to rejoin her side.

“Isn’t he fascinating?” Twilight asked.

“Endlessly,” replied Radish. “You’re saying he wanted me here tonight?”

“Yes, he seemed to have heard of you.”

“Well, I have kind of a reputation.”

“Right. I’m impressed how you were able to sidestep his questions about your cutie marks.”

“Years of practice.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but I’m really proud of you, Radish.”

“For what?”

“We both know you came to Canterlot hoping to… act on your cutie marks.”

“Yeah.”

“But you’ve grown past all that. You’re serving Celestia and bringing honor to her as her guard. You’ve found a true reason for being here. And it must have taken enormous strength to get over a pony as wonderful as Celestia.”

Radish looked at Twilight, then over to Celestia. He slumped back onto the bar.

“That does take strength, doesn't it?”

“How’s sword training going?”

“I know the moves, but I don’t have the instincts.”

“Well, don’t feel bad. You’ll get it.”

“Were you around when Captain Armor was doing his sword training?”

“Oh, he was swinging around a toy sword since as long as I can remember. It was second nature to him by the time he trained on a real one.”

“Ugh, I am so far behind him.”

“You’ll do great. I remember you taking on that big mechanical wolf with a machete!”

“It took my pants, Twilight. I bet Shining Armor’s never lost his pants in a fight.”

“Radish, quit being a camera.”

“Huh?”

“You’re focusing on the negatives!”

She giggled and snorted at her own joke. Radish gave an attempt at laughing with her.

The distinguished-looking pony approached them. “Hello, lieutenant. I’m Celadon. I’m the Chairpony of the Royal Archeological Society.”

Radish shook his hoof.

“Hello, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine! I was out of the country when you discovered the final resting place of the Storm Centurions. Everypony in the Society would give their right hooves for a find like that.”

“Thank you kindly, but it was actually buffalo youths who made the discovery. Then a dragon took up residence nearby, preventing anyone from getting close for a year."

“Really? I hadn’t been made aware of those details.”

“I tried to set the record straight.”

“Good on you. Straight records are my favorite.”

“May I ask, sir, how you’ve come to be in our company tonight?”

“Ah, I’m a friend of Halcyon.”

“Oh? How did you meet?”

“I believe he intends to reveal that on his own terms. But I think that he will do so-”

“Dinner is served!” called Hallmark from the door to the dining room.

“-during dinner,” Celadon finished.

The guests entered the dining room to find a long table set for them. Radish took a deep breath before looking at the name placards on the table. He was seated between Fluttershy and Twilight, who was to one side of Celestia, with Halcyon on her other side. As it was set up, it was impossible for Radish and Halcyon to even see each other. Radish looked at Hallmark, who made an almost-imperceptible nod. Radish made a perceptible smile.

Dinner was a prickly pear filet seared in a balsamic reduction, with pokeweed salad, duchess potatoes, and freshly-baked bread. Radish was famished, and had to restrain himself from wolfing down his meal.

Radish didn’t need to worry about not dominating the conversation- Pinkie Pie did for most of the night. Saguaro Shade, Barrel Roller, and Celadon all kept to a side conversation between themselves, while Rainbow Dash and Applejack had a long and mostly-friendly argument about team sports. Twilight and Halcyon played tug-of-war for Celestia’s attention, who calmly alternately listened to both. Radish spent most of the night talking to Fluttershy about the creatures in Celestia’s menageries.

Toward the end of dinner, Celestia whispered something to Halcyon, who tapped his glass with his spoon to call everyone’s attention. He stood up.

“May I have your attention, please? I know that I may seem a mystery to some of you. Some of you are no doubt wondering who I am, and or why I am a guest at your palace. I would like to reveal all now.

“I am a survivor- one of the few remaining of my kind. My homeland- which you refer to as the Far Eastern Edgelands- was the original cradle of ungulate kind. It was there that hoofed life first emerged from the primordial darkness. It grew, evolved, and ascended to greatness. A grand civilization was achieved.

“But disaster after disaster struck, bringing the First Hoofed civilization to ruin. Geological instabilities cracked our streets and homes. Unnamed monsters devoured our crops and infested our water sources. Magical anomalies swept the land, making the very laws of physics unpredictable.

“Most of the First Hoofed Ones fled the ancestral homeland. They fell into ultimate disharmony, splitting into factions, and form followed faction. Earth ponies, unicorns, pegasi, zebras, buffalo, cows, donkeys, and many more hoofed races both extant and extinct, all developed from that first race. From us. All of you are our legacy.

“In that land, some of the originals remained behind, unwilling to leave and unwilling to change. I am descended from that race of survivors. But the disasters never ceased, and even the hardiest survivors now find themselves on the precipice of ruin. I was sent out to seek help before my kin- and your forebears- perish forever.”

“What!?” exclaimed Twilight. “That’s amazing!”

The other guests looked at her in annoyance.

“Not the part about the oldest civilization falling into ruin!” she quickly said. “The part about it surviving this long! You can teach us so much about ungulate history!”

“I can, and I will. But you also have much to teach me. Your seekers of the past, your archeologists, came across me on my sojourn, saving me from perishing in the wilds. They agreed to convey me here, and taught me about Equestria during the long voyage.”

Celadon stood and spoke.

“It was our pleasure. It was a one-in-a-million chance that we happened upon Halcyon. I feel like the luckiest archeologist alive- he’s like an ambassador from history! We learned a great deal about each other’s cultures during the long trek to Canterlot. I believe his people can teach us not only of our past, but of our future, as well.”

“I’m in agreement,” said Saguaro Shade. “These disasters you’ve suffered could come knocking on Equestria’s door one day. You, sir, could be the key to preparing us.”

“I believe you have all you need. You Equestrians have developed so many amazing things since splitting off from the homeland- magic, technology, culture,” said Halcyon. “I wish to learn about it all. But what I believe can save us more than anything is this power of… ‘friendship’.”

“The original hoofers don’t have friendship?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“No. They live for themselves, just as dragons and griffons do. Relationships among my people are transactional, temporary, and reluctant. Us survivors have recognized that this must change if we are to survive, but we are simply failing to make it work! I have come to you seeking to learn about friendship, so that we may thrive once more.”

“Well, if you’re lookin’ to learn about friendship, you’ve come to the right place!” said Applejack. “Twilight here knows so much about it, she’s practically a Friendship Pre’fessor!”

“Oh no,” laughed Twilight. “I’m still just a student in friendship studies. I still have a lot to learn. It’s all of my friends here who are my teachers!”

“In any case, the royal guard is at your disposal,” said Barrel Roller. “We’re always happy to help an illustrious guest. Isn’t that right, Root?”

All eyes were suddenly on Radish, who was in the middle of sipping wine. He quickly swallowed.

“Oh, absolutely!” Radish said. “You can count on me, ma’am. In fact, I’d like to volunteer being Halcyon’s personal guard while he’s here.”

He leaned forward, trying to see Halcyon past Twilight and Celestia.

“I’m still learning about friendship, myself,” Radish said. “I bet we can learn a lot from each other, if you’ll let me stick by your side.”

Halcyon leaned forward to see Radish. He started to open his mouth, but Twilight leaned in between them.

“That’s great!” she cheered. “Radish here is one of the palace’s best guards!”

Barrel Roller, now in the middle of a bite, coughed and choked. Saguaro Shade slapped her on the back.

“Sorry,” she wheezed. “It went down the wrong pipe. Actually, we’ve got Root on a pretty tight schedule this week. But don’t worry- there are other guards here who are almost on his level,” she said, toasting her glass in Radish’s direction.

“Thank you, ma’am, I aim to please,” said Radish.

“Oh, I know,” she said, grinning behind her glass.

Dinner soon ended, and wait staff began collecting plates. The guests retired back to the drawing room, then began to take their leave of the party.

“Whoo-ee!” said Applejack. “That was the best grub I’ve had in moons. Uh, don’t tell granny I said that.”

“Uh, Applejack, you’ve got a bit of, oh, here,” said Rarity, wiping her friend’s cheek with a handkerchief.

“Great party, Celestia!” said Pinkie Pie.

“Halcyon, I’m really happy that you came to Canterlot,” said Twilight. “We’re going to help your people, I promise.”

“Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. You have brought me hope in my darkest hour.”

Radish lagged behind. Soon there was no one left but himself, Celestia, Halcyon, and the bartender, who was packing up her supplies and cleaning out her mats.

“Thank you for coming, Radish,” said Celestia, pleasantly.

“Thanks for inviting,” said Radish, not moving.

He looked over her shoulder. Halcyon was relaxing into the couch. Her couch. In her tower.

“Well, have a good night, Radish,” said Celestia, a touch more firmly, eyes shifting to the door.

“Have a good… night’s sleep, ma’am.”

Radish walked out into the hall. He turned. She closed the door. It locked. Radish backed away.

“Root, you comin’?” asked Barrel Roller, holding open the elevator. He joined her in it, still watching Celestia’s closed door as the elevator doors slid shut. He stared, unfocused, as they descended. Barrel Roller leaned against the side of the car, watching Radish’s face.

“Interesting night, eh, Root? Maybe historic.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”

“Don’t lie to your commander, Root.”

“Well, the wine was good, at least.”

She snorted.

The elevator reached the bottom and opened. They exited the spire into the cool evening air. A lone cricket chirped from a nearby bush.

“You’ve got sword training tomorrow morning, don’t you, Root?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Why do you even want a sword? They’re so unwieldy, most guards don’t bother. I never did.”

“That’s part of the reason. If you see a guard with a sword, you know they’ve trained their heart out to be able to use it. It’s an intimidating sight.”

“You want to look scary, Root?”

“Well, scarier.”

She snorted again.

“G'night, Root.”

She walked off. Radish stopped and sat on a stone bench by the hedge maze. He stared up at Starry Spire. Most of the windows were still lit.

After a while, the bartender trotted past him pulling a noisy cart of bottles and cans. Radish looked at her.

“Do you need help, miss?”

“Oh, I’m good.”

“Sorry, I would’ve tipped, but I didn’t know to bring any money tonight.”

“That’s okay. Princess Celestia tips for everyone. And she always over-orders my favorites so I can take home the leftovers. Here!”

She reached into the cart with a wing, and flicked out a can of cider to Radish. He caught it, cracked it open, and drank.

She sat next to him with a miniature wine bottle. She took a swig.

“I’m Grenadine Splash. Radish Root, right?”

“That’s right. I’ve seen you in the tourist bar. But you also work in the officer’s club, right?”

“Good intel. PC lets me stretch my wings for big shindigs like tonight. But what I really want to do is run the royal distillery.”

“There is no royal distillery.”

“It’s my goal to start one. In that old abandoned alchemy lab.”

“That’s a good place for it. There’s easy access for deliveries, and it’s isolated in case of fires.”

“That’s what I was thinking!”

“Thanks for the, uh, liquid support tonight.”

“Nothing like a social lubricant to ease the burden of a fun get-together.”

Radish finished his can. He crushed it in his hooves. He glanced up at the tower again. The lights were still on, though the curtains had been drawn closed.

“I’m sure they’re just talking about all that rebuilding civilization stuff.”

“It’s none of my business. Good guards don’t gossip. We just do what we’re supposed to do.” He stared at the tower again. The lights behind the curtains were definitely dimmer now, like mood lights. “For her.”

Grenadine Splash raised her bottle to toast the tower.

“For her. But you know… you’ve got options. You really seemed to be getting along with Fluttershy tonight. I’m pretty sure she’s single.”

“Oh, really? Fluttershy?”

“You’re not into her?”

“I think she’s great.”

“But?”

“You know about my cutie mark, don't you?"

"Yeah, so? You've got issues being in public, she's got issues being in public. It's perfect. You two can just stay in together."

"She lives in another town.”

“Ponyville is like an hour away by train. Most ponies spend that much time in downtown traffic every day. Plus, she flies.”

“She’s part of Equestria’s most important team of heroes. I… wouldn’t want to throw off their group dynamic or anything.”

Grenadine Splash reached into her cart and pulled out a bunch of red-striped paper straws.

“Here,” she said, “since you seem to be grasping at some.”

“Ha ha. I mean it. It’s a matter of national security. They need to keep their heads in the game.”

“Do they know that? Those six won’t be single forever. And they can do a lot worse than you.”

“They can do a lot better, too. I’d probably just screw things up with her. Make her cry. Make the rest of the team hate me.”

“Where’s this insecurity coming from?”

Radish glanced back at the tower. All the lights of the other floors were being snuffed by the staff, one by one. The top floors were still lit dimly.

“Just think about it, okay?” Grenadine said.

“I’ll… I’ll think about it. Thanks.”

She finished her wine, and put the bottle and Radish’s crushed can in her cart. She hitched onto it and started away.

“It was nice talking to you,” she said.

“May I escort you home?”

“I was going to fly home.”

“Never mind, then.”

“But I should lighten the load first.”

She tossed him another can.

“Thanks,” Radish said, catching it.

“Just remember, a cold one can make the good times better, but they can’t make the bad times good.”

“Let me know when you get your distillery up and running. I promise I’ll be in better spirits by then.”

“Better Spirits. Good name for the brand. I’ll share the first bottle off the line with you.”

“That would be great. Thanks. Good night, Miss Splash.”

“Good night, lieutenant.”

She flew off with her cart. Radish took one more look at the tower. He could swear he could make out moving figures in the dim lights before they went out. He downed his can.

He returned to the barracks and flopped into his bunk. Spats peeked down from the top bunk.

“Radical! How was dinner among the stars?”

“Just fantastic.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Spats… am I insane for wanting Celestia?”

“Hey, she’s a fantastic lady. You’d be insane if you didn’t.”

“Should I just give up on her?”

“Yes. Definitely.”

“Do you think I should ask out Fluttershy?”

“That’d be swapping one celebrity for another. Find yourself a nice, humble, civilian girl, who never fights any villains or has crazy adventures.”

“Know any?”

“If I did, I’d be dating her myself.”

“Yeah.”

“But if she dumped me, I’d be okay with you taking her out.”

“Thanks, Spats.”

“Could you please hang up that tux now? You’re killing me lying in bed with it.”

“Okay, Spats.”


Radish stared up at Starry Spire. All the windows were dark. In between cricket chirps, he thought he could hear something from the top of the tower. He strained to listen. He caught something that sent his heart into his gut. He took a step back, teeth gritting. He looked at the door of the tower. He started going over his memory of the interior and the guards’ positions within as he walked to the door.

In a burst of glittery flares, Princess Luna emerged from a starlit portal above him.

“Radish Root. Is this the behavior of a royal guardstallion?”

“Princess Luna? I’m having a nightmare?”

“Indeed. Your distress lights up the dream realm like a bonfire.”

“How much was real?”

“Halcyon is real, all right, and you will leave him alone. You will stay out of his and Celestia’s business.”

“Princess Luna… does Celestia really like this guy?”

“Asking that question is not staying out of their business. What right have you to interpose? Who do you think you are, lieutenant?”

“I’m… what is really going on!?”

“Again, an inappropriate question. Radish Root, I thought better of you. I thought your childish lust for my sister had subsided. I thought you were a stallion of honor. Of duty.”

“I am!”

“Then keep to your duties. I will not repeat myself.”

“Princess Luna!”

Radish awoke in his bunk. It was still dark out. He stared at nothing until it was time to get up.

35. The Suitor, Part 3: A Job to Do

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Radish Root swung his practice sword low. Saguaro Shade met it with his. Radish swung it high. Saguaro Shade met it. Radish swung faster, advancing on his instructor. Saguaro Shade transferred his baton from his mouth to his hoof and held his ground against Radish’s blows.

“You’re fighting well this morning, Root. You seem to have extra fire in your furnace.”

“Just feeling motivated this morning, corporal.”

“Yeah? That’s what I like to see in a guard. Maybe Princess Celestia should bed down with a guy every night.”

Radish twitched, then launched himself howling at Saguaro Shade. He furiously smacked his baton against Saguaro’s. The batons cracked into splinters. Saguaro Shade fell back and Radish was on him, holding his broken baton up to Saguaro Shade’s neck.

“Say it didn’t happen! Say you’re just messing with me!”

Saguaro Shade slipped out of Radish’s grasp and pinned him to the floor.

“Yeah? What’s it to you if it did? What’s it to any of us?”

Radish tossed him aside and leapt on him.

“We’re her guards!”

Saguaro Shade knocked him off and held Radish in a headlock.

“What are you guarding her from, Root? Living her life? Where’s that in the manual?”

Radish exploded out of the headlock, wrenching his neck. He ignored the pain and galloped full-bore into Saguaro Shade and tackled him in a wild fury. Saguaro Shade planted his hooves and held him at bay, then stepped aside and let Radish fall on his face. He pinned Radish’s hooves to his back and sat on him.

“Root, listen to me. Princess. Celestia. Doesn’t. Belong. To you.”

“I know that!”

“Then why are you so angry?”

“Because I- because…”

“Yes?”

“Why was it so easy for him and so impossible for me!?”

“There we go.”

He helped Radish up off the floor.

“What’s so wrong with me, corporal? Ain’t I good-looking? Ain’t I easy to get along with? Don’t I do my job well? Do I ever lie, cheat or steal around here? Am I not a decent, hard-working pony?”

Radish felt his eyes water. He turned away.

“Root, if that’s all that mattered, the princess would be dating everyone. You made your choices. You chose the Guard- a position that puts you near her but out of reach, like you’re separated by a gully that’s five feet wide and a mile deep. She’s made her choices, too. The only choice left is how you react to it.”

“I know. I know! I don’t know why I’m feeling this way. I thought it was over and done with.”

“Root, the palace has ponies who help ponies who don’t know why they feel the way they feel.”

“A therapist, corporal?”

“You’ve never been to one?”

“A few times, as a kid. My parents thought it would help me with my marks. Look how I turned out anyway.”

“Root, you turned out damned fine. you just need to lighten your rucksack a bit. And the palace docs are bar none.”

“I guess I could give it a shot. And I’m sorry I busted the batons.”

“For the record, I have no idea what goes on in anypony’s bedrooms. And that’s the way I like it.”

“How do you do it, corporal? How do you work so closely with her without aching for her?”

“I’m married, Root. I have something real.”

“And what, you just don’t see her that way?”

“I don’t. Is it that hard to believe?”

“Yes.”

“Go shower, Root. You’ve got a job to do.”


Radish’s morning assignment was an unusual one for him- a supply run. He entered the Potion Bureau’s main workshop, donning a lab coat and safety glasses as per the rules. He found the Head Potionista, a petite white unicorn, sitting hunched behind a bubbling concoction flowing through a complicated array of glassware. She smiled at him, the view of her face distorted by the refractions of the vessels and tubes.

“Oh, Lieutenant Root! Welcome! You’ve got to see this!”

Radish stared at the array from the side.

“What is it?”

“Artificial phoenix blood. In case the royal pet needs a transfusion someday.”

“Their blood is colorless?”

“Yeah, it’s basically lighter fluid. Hey, is your neck all right?”

“I wrenched it during practice.”

“Oh, I’ve got something for that. Hold on.”

She rolled her chair over to a cabinet and rifled through its drawers, then pulled out a small vial of brown liquid. She floated it to Radish’s hooves.

“What is it?” Radish asked.

“De-wrencher.”

He popped the stopper and drank it. He coughed.

“Was that alcoholic?”

“It has a bourbon base. How’s the neck?”

“I can’t feel it anymore.”

“Great!”

“What can I do for you?”

“Zecora has completed work on a shipment of potions. I need a courier who’s familiar with the Everfree to get them here.”

“You’ve got it.”

“But not by train.”

“Hmm?”

“Those potions have a molasses base. That means they have to be moved slowly, or they go bad.”

“How bad?”

“They’d bubble over into a big black stinky mess.”

“Sheesh. How slow?”

“Nothing faster than walking.”

“So, pulling a fragile cartload on hoof, from Zecora to here, up the mountain road? That would take me…”

“Yeah, twenty hours of travel time, assuming no traffic. Sorry. But there are plenty of great campsites along the way.”

“I was thinking sixteen. And I’ll probably just keep trucking overnight.”

“Please don’t! No one should cart while sleepy. Your commander has cleared you for taking as long as you need. Just have a nice rest along the way, okay?”

“Okay. Well, at least it’s a pleasant walk.”

“Yeah, it should be a nice change of scenery from looking at palace walls all day.”

“You know, I don’t even see the walls anymore.”

“Whoa, that’s like, crazy transcendental. You should teach a class.”

“See you tomorrow. If all goes well.”

“Stay safe out there, lieutenant.”

“Thanks, Potion Nova.”


The train line between Canterlot and Ponyville was now called the “Friendship Express”. Radish assumed Twilight had something to do with that. He exited Ponyville’s train station and trotted through town. With Twilight and her friends in Canterlot, Radish’s acquaintances in Ponyville were limited to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, whom he had no desire to see again. Twilight’s letters had described a few residents and places in town, but without her group around, Ponyville seemed to revert to a sleepy, unremarkable village. Radish passed through it and found the path to the Everfree Forest.

The path to Zecora’s had decent signage nowadays, and a billboard on the outskirts of town advertised her services and recommended the safest way to her hut. He walked cautiously through the Everfree, keeping watch on the ground at his hooves and the branches above his head. On the plains, most hazardous creatures were small and cryptic- snakes, scorpions, jackalopes- but in the Everfree, most things that could harm a pony were large enough to swallow a pony in one bite. There were now signs informing hikers about them, though Radish thought some of the factoids about timberwolves seemed hyperbolic.

He sighted Zecora outside her hut, carefully placing round-bottom flasks into rows inside straw-packed boxes, then putting the boxes in a wooden crate inside a cart.

“Howdy, Zecora.”

“Welcome back, Radish Root. Thanks for taking on this route.”

“Not a problem. I’m glad the partnership with the Potion Bureau is going well.”

“These medicines are quite unusual. I hope you’re not expecting trouble?”

“Why? What do they cure?”

“A bolstering inoculation, to protect oneself from radiation.”

“What? I haven’t been informed of anything related to radiation danger!”

“Perhaps it’s just to be prepared, so that the populace isn’t scared?”

“Well, it might not be my business anyway. I’m just a lieutenant. I don’t get informed of everything.”

“You seem troubled, lieutenant. Is it the palace’s new tenant?”

“So you’ve heard, huh?”

“Ponykind does love their gossip. It flows out of them like a faucet.”

“Do you know anything about the Far Eastern Edgelands?”

“Even in my old home land, the distance there was quite grand. Far beyond our pleasant shores, just heaths and tundra, steppes and moors.”

“Anycreature live there?”

“Information is hard to come by. Do you think his tale’s a lie?”

“It’s… I guess I shouldn’t even be prying. Luna’s even warned me off it.”

“Lieutenant, do you know… why you cannot let it go?”

“Still stuck on Celestia, I guess. I mean, she still stuck on me, too,” he said, looking at his armored flanks.

“I seem to recall giving advice. Did you not find it wise?”

“I know. Get a girlfriend. I keep hearing that. I’m just not good at that kind of thing.”

“If at first you don’t succeed…”

“What do you think of me and Fluttershy?”

“…I, uh, don’t think she is who you need.”

“I know- a girl who’s outside of the palace circles. That’s what Spats said.”

“Have a nice walk home, friend Radish. Things won’t always be so, uh, baddish.”

“Thanks.”

Radish pulled the cart out of the Everfree, through Ponyville’s main thoroughfare. Traffic was light- there were only a few other carts on the road, hauling flowers, crops and garbage.

Radish walked out of town onto the road to Canterlot. It was scenic, at least. He walked for a few hours, running through every trick he knew to keep his attention on alert for extended periods of time. His focus started to wane in spite of his techniques, so he ate a jalapeño chew. The pain sharpened his attention on the road ahead.

He passed a few others coming from the opposite way, and a few ponies passed him from behind. After about seven hours on the road, a lone yellow unicorn trotted up from behind to keep pace with him.

“Hey there, stranger,” he said.

“Hey.”

“Trucking to Canterlot?”

“That’s right.”

“Mind if I walk with you?”

“I’m actually on royal business, so it would be best if you keep some distance.”

“Royal business! I thought royal guards didn’t work alone?”

“Sometimes they do.”

“What if somepony jumps you and steals whatever this is?”

“They’d get hurt bad.”

“What if they had a whole group waiting to ambush you?”

“Like at that pass down the road over there? The one that birds flushed from a while ago? Where there’s enough room to hide about… six average-sized ponies behind the rocks? One of which’s shadow is clearly visible on the tree behind them?”

“Yeah. Just like that.”

“Wouldn’t be enough to beat a guard.”

“What if they had unicorns among them?”

“All guards are trained to handle magic-users. It’s one of the first things we learn.”

“Yeah? How?”

“That I can’t divulge. But any unicorn trying to mess with a guard might find themselves with a broken horn. I hear that’s pretty traumatic.”

“I can imagine.”

“So it’s a good thing nothing’s going to happen to me at that pass.”

“You know what? I think I’ll take your advice and keep some distance. But don’t worry, if you need me, I’ll be right behind you.”

Radish sighed. A short time later, he was at the pass where the road dipped low between rocks. He stopped in front of it. The unicorn stopped behind him. Radish whistled out a chickadee call. A titmouse call whistled from behind the rocks.

“What… are you doing?” asked the unicorn.

Radish continued on his way. He passed between large boulders. Two cuffed and unconscious ponies- a unicorn mare and a pegasus stallion, were laid out on the ground. A purple earth stallion in guard armor was standing over them.

“Hi, Lieutenant Sugarplum Dreams.”

“Hi, Lieutenant Root.”

The unicorn behind Radish stepped back.

“Who the-”’

“I lied,” said Radish. “Guards never work alone. But they’re not always together. Sometimes your partner is flying overhead, watching for trouble. Sometimes they’re a few klicks down the road, clearing your path. But you’re never alone in the Guard, especially when you’re in clear view of the palace.”

Sugarplum Dreams trotted up to the unicorn. “So, who do we have here?”

The unicorn put his aura around Sugarplum’s neck, dangled him in the air, and squeezed. Radish walked over to the unicorn and socked his lights out.

“Thanks,” said Sugarplum Dreams.

“Thanks for taking out these two. But where are the others?”

“It was just them.”

“Seriously? They thought they’d ambush a guard with just three?”

“What would they have stolen, anyway?”

“Anti-radiation potions.”

“Is the palace expecting a ton of radiation soon?”

“I hope not. Need help with these three?”

“Nah, keep going. I’ll signal for pickup,” he said, pulling out a small mirror and reflecting it toward the palace. “Where you gonna stop tonight?”

“There’s a campsite on the map two hours down. Looks posh, actually. Hot showers.”

“Flint’s? Nice place. You might actually find some palace personnel there. It’s a favorite for day trippers.”

“Might be nice to camp among friends.”


Radish pulled into the campsite and secured his cart. He showed his royal expense card to the camp employee, who gave him a receipt.

“Don’t worry about your cargo,” she said, “we’ve got extra night security.”

She pointed to a skunk in the tree overhead. It waved at Radish. He nodded to it.

He ate a meal he had packed, then used the restroom. He emerged and looked around. There were indeed a few palace staff camping there- a group of butlers were gathered around a table, playing cards. A pair of hoofponies were toasting marshmallows on their fire. A palace lawyer and an accountant had joined a game of cornhole.

"Well, howdy, Radish!"

Radish whipped around. Applejack was leaning against a thick oak tree, guitar in hoof.

“Oh! Hello, Applejack.”

“You always go campin’ in yer armor?”

“I’m on a supply run.”

“Ah. It was a nice day for it.”

“Are all of you here?”

“Naw, I’m here by my lonesome. All that fancy palace air starts to get stuffy for a farmgirl, y’know?”

“Yeah.”

“Care to jaw for a bit?”

“Well…”

“What if I made a rule that discussin’ affairs of the heart is off-limits?”

“That would be a relief.”

He sat against the tree next to her, keeping his cart in view. She plucked her guitar a bit.

“How’s the farm?” he asked.

“Doin’ jus’ fine. Bumper crop this year.”

“That’s good.”

“And yer family’s farm?”

“Red beet margaritas became a trend in the south, so beet farmers all over are doing well.”

“I’ll be. The last time apples were trendin’ was during that whole shaved apple craze. Didn’t last long.”

“I remember that. How’s the family?”

“Granny’s good. The new hip is workin’ out well. Big Macintosh is fermentin’ hot sauce now. And Apple Bloom was actually inspired by you a bit. She tried to go for a spear-throwin’ cutie mark.”

“Neat.”

“She skewered the mailbox pretty good, but no cutie mark.”

“Well, tell her I’m rooting for her.”

“Was that a pun?”

“Not intended.”

“Good.”

Applejack got a few more lines of her song out from her guitar.

“That’s nice,” Radish said.

“It’s an old song. Been in the family for ages.”

“Maybe I should pick up an instrument. I think I need a hobby.”

“We could start a band! Tour Equestria! Play to sold-out shows from here to Vanhoover!”

“Yeah. That’d be fun.”

“But seriously, you ever wanted to do somethin’ other than guardin’?”

“I read a bunch of spy novels in my teens. Sometimes I wondered if I could do that. Sneak around, uncover enemy plots, defeat evil masterminds, and rescue… ponies in need.”

“Well, you’ve got the tux now, at least.”

“Heh. Yeah.”

Radish looked up at the stars. “Do you believe in fate?”

She mis-plucked a string on the guitar.

“Oh my. That’s mighty heavy stuff for this time of night,” she said.

“Sorry. I’ve been in a mood.”

“I figure there are forces out there that are always gonna try to push or pull us. But we can always push or pull back,” she said, looking up at the Milky Way.

“Until we wrench our necks,” said Radish, rubbing his shoulders. “Then, it’s time to let go.”

“Hmm?”

“Sorry, I broke the rule.”

“Not a problem. Sounds like you realized somethin’ important.”

“Yeah.”

They sat together, listening to the sounds around them- campers laughing, fires crackling, crickets, frogs, and a Whip-poor-will. Applejack strummed her guitar gently. Radish felt his weariness catching up to him.

“I’m going to hit the showers and then hit the hay. Thank you for the song.”

“Have a good night.”

“Uh, did you… come out all this way to cheer me up?”

Applejack chuckled. “Are ya feelin’ cheered up?”

“Yeah.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Good night, Applejack.”

“Sleep tight.”


“Thanks for getting these here safe and sound,” Potion Nova said. “I heard you had trouble?”

“Just some highwayponies. Nothing big.”

“On the main thoroughfare to Canterlot? That’s audacious.”

“Well, it’s less-traveled now that the trains have improved. They probably thought the roads are easy pickings again.”

“Not when we’ve got guards walking them! At least you can use the train for the return trip.”

“Return trip?”

“Oh, you didn’t know? It’s Zecora’s cart, after all, and she needs it back. And since I’d hate to waste a trip, I’d like you to deliver a shipment of equipment and ingredients to her.”

“Potion Nova… is the brass giving me busy work to keep me out of the palace while Halcyon is here?”

“This was all my idea. You’re the one who put me in touch with Zecora. You know the Everfree. You have a Class A Carting license. And, yeah, I know you don’t want to hang around here while he’s… spending time with Celestia.”

“I appreciate that. But I can’t dodge Halcyon forever. Guards are supposed to face problems head-on, not run from them.”

“Okay. But I was going to offer you another duty that would keep you out of his way. I was wondering if you’d like to work here as a potions test subject.”

“Guards do that?”

“Guards are the best choice for it! More body mass.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

“Oh, that’s a whole document you’d have to read and sign if you did it.”

“I’ll… consider it. When I get back from Zecora.”

“How’s she doing, by the way?”

“Great. Still rhyming.”

“Oh, before you go, I got something for you.”

She trotted up to a workbench and floated a test tube from a rack.

“Barkin’ Dogs Potion. Soothes sore hooves.”

“Thanks. My dogs are barkin’.”

He swigged it. He coughed.

“Was that alcoholic, too?”

“Radish, just about every potion here starts off with a grain alcohol base. Sometimes potato alcohol. Sometimes mezcal. ”

“Can I have more?”

“No, I have to cut you off. Have some water.”


Radish secured cargo space for Zecora’s cart on the Friendship Express, then took a seat in the rear car. He stared out the window, watching the landscape fly by. He slowly became aware of a noise coming from the opposite aisle. He turned to see a green earth mare in a gray vest and flat cap, scribbling in a notepad. She noticed him noticing her, and spit her pen into her hoof.

"Hi there, soldier!"

"Hello, miss."

She leapt to the aisle and leaned grinningly toward Radish. "Say, mind if I ask you a few questions about what's been happening in the palace lately?"

"I'm sorry, miss. I can't really answer any questions from the public."

"Ah! I'm no ordinary public!" She reached into her vest and pulled out a card with "PRESS" printed on it. "I'm a reporter for the Canterlot Tribune!"

That's even worse, thought Radish.

"I'm sorry, miss. All inquiries from the press should be directed to the Royal Communications Office."

"The thing is, the Royal Communications Office is rather tight-lipped these days. Like, say, regarding the sun blackout. Now, what the heck is a 'magical anomaly', and how did it kill the daylight for a few seconds without warning?"

"I'm sorry, miss. All inquiries from the press should be directed to the Royal Communications Office."

"And I hear Princess Luna's been under the weather. Could that have something to do with it? Did she cough so hard, it flung the sun away?"

"I'm sorry, miss-"

"-all inquiries, yada yada yada. You know, I've had more enlightening conversations with parrots."

"I'm not much of a conversationalist."

"Tell you what, take my card, and if you feel like you've got something original to say, drop on by downtown. I protect my sources' identities."

Radish took the card and shoved it in his armor's pocket without looking at it. "Thank you, miss. I'll be sure to do that."


Radish unloaded the cart off the train and pulled it to Zecora’s. He knocked on her door.

“Hi, Zecora. I’m back with your cart. And a whole bunch of other stuff.”

“Thank you, Radish, for completing this quest. You look like you’ve been refreshed.”

“Must be the Barkin’ Dogs Potion. Is there anything else I can do for you while I’m here?”

“After yet another walk, would you not like to sit and talk?”

“Okay, since I’m apparently not on the clock.”

Radish and Zecora sipped tea.

“This is good tea. And I like your home. It feels… I don’t know, safe?”

“Thank you for the compliment. I am glad that you were sent.”

“Potion Nova just thought I wanted to avoid Halcyon.”

“Do you think-”

“I have to deal with this, right? I can’t just sit around forever, hoping Celestia will suddenly change her mind about me.”

“If you want to know-”

“And she deserves happiness! She’s been leading Equestria for over a thousand years. I don’t even know if she’s been in love once that whole time. That’s so long to go without love. She should get to be with anyone she wants.”

“There is a saying-”

“It’s not her fault she’s on my cutie marks. I have no right to interfere with her life.”

Zecora sipped her tea.

“Thanks, Zecora. You’ve been a big help.”

“You are welcome, Radish Root. I’m glad our chat has borne you fruit.”

“You got any Barkin’ Dogs Potion?”

“Sadly, my bourbon stores are dry, and so is my gin, rum, and rye.”

Radish left the Everfree Forest and took the next train out of Ponyille. He watched Canterlot slowly growing closer from his window seat.

A family with a small filly rode in the same car. The filly stared at Radish while her parents talked.

“A living fossil, he is!” said the mother. “Why, I’d wager he’s the most important visitor this country has seen since its inception!”

Radish sighed and leaned back. The mother caught sight of her filly staring at Radish.

“Well, I’ll be! A royal guard! Hello, there, mister!”

“Hello, ma’am.”

“Say, you must have the dish on this Halcyon fellow!”

"Is it true what they say about him and the princess?” asked her husband.

“What do they say?” Radish asked.

“That he's come to court her!” said the wife. “Oh, imagine the wedding!”

Radish imagined it, then stopped imagining it.

“I can’t speak for their plans, ma’am.”

“And can you imagine the kids they’ll have?” she asked.

Radish tried. He didn’t have the imagination necessary. But he did hit a realization.

“Well… those kids would have the most wonderful pony on Earth for a mother.”

“And it would be your job to protect them!” she said.

“Yes… yes, it would be. My duty. Protecting Celestia’s children. Protecting… the royal family.”

Radish had never considered that there would ever be a royal family. The idea seemed rather foreign in Equestria. Celestia did have family, of sorts- her adopted niece Mi Amore Cadenza, who had been studying abroad for the past few years, and her nephew Blueblood, who kept to his villa and his yachts.

But a real royal family? Celestia, her husband, and their children, living together and loving each other in the palace? Who could ever imagine it would come to that?

Radish realized that he would be guarding it all. Guarding their family meals, their birthdays, and Hearth’s Warmings. Standing watch over the nursery where they played. Chaperoning the little tykes as they went out in costume on Nightmare Night. Radish felt the responsibility, hypothetical as it was, pressing down on his shoulders.

“I hope you’re up for it! Looking after kids isn’t easy,” said the father.

Radish looked at the filly, who was still staring at him. He sat up straight.

“Know what else won’t be easy? Messing with Celestia’s kids while I’m around.”


The train pulled in as night fell. The moon seemed to rise a bit slower than usual. As Radish entered the palace front commons, crashes and flashes burst over his head. He looked up.

“Oh… wow.”

Fireworks filled the skies over Canterlot. Radish had never seen ones so intricate, bright, and beautiful. Shoofly walked up to him and watched them with him.

“That’s nice,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“Oh! Look!”

In the sky was a new shape: the signature of the unicorn casting the fireworks. It was a spinning orange sun- Celestia’s cutie mark.

“Wow, the old lady is really putting on a show tonight,” she said.

“Yeah. Do you know what the occasion is?”

“Yeah...” she said, turning to Radish, “it's to commemorate the debut of our, uh, distinguished guest. The palace put out a press release about Halcyon while you were gone.”

"What did it say?"

"Stuff about his people and his journey here. Nothing about him and Celestia. But word among the staff is that we may be getting close to that. Sorry."

“Don't be. Celestia can be with whoever she wants. I just want her… to be happy.”

“That sounded convincing.”

“I think I just convinced myself.”

“So, end of an era for you?”

“Let’s hope so.”

“Wanna hit the town sometime? I can be your wingpony. I know all the singles bars- I bet the girls in this burg will throw themselves at you.”

“You know what? I’d like that.”


Radish walked the back halls of the palace on his way to his bunk. Shining Armor appeared around a corner as he approached, as if he had been waiting for him.

“Sir,” said Radish, saluting. “The supply runs are complete.”

“Good. Those potions are the first step in getting Halcyon’s people to a better status quo.”

“Oh, they’re for his people? They’re suffering from radiation?”

“Radioactive dust storms are just one of the many disasters that’s befallen the Edgelands.”

“That’s awful. But at the speed these potions have to be moved, I don't know how we'd get them across the sea."

"Logistics is on top of it, Root."

"Yes, sir.”

“I heard there was trouble on the road in.”

“Three stickup ponies. Sugarplum Dreams acted heroically. I’ll have my report soon.”

"What was your read on their demeanor?"

"Demeanor? Uh, well, overconfident, I suppose?"

“That’s troubling. If criminals are getting it in their heads that royal guards are easy pickings, we may have an image issue.”

“Sir, I’m sure they were just too foolish to be afraid of the Royal Guard. Ponies with sense know better than to mess with us.”

“So, you don’t think the public sees AG1 as the real heroes, and the Royal Guard as a joke?”

“No, sir! I’m sure whatever Twilight knows about heroism she learned by growing up with you as a role model.”

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow. “Root, sometimes I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, or if you actually believe the smoke you blow up my chimney.”

“I meant that one, sir.”

“Right. By the way, you’ll be guarding the galleries the rest of this week… unless you’ve agreed to test potions.”

“Sir… testing potions sounds fun, but I have a job to do as a guard.”

“Even though Princess Celestia and Halcyon will be touring the galleries?”

“That doesn’t bother me.”

“Sounds like you mean that one, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine. Check the duty roster for details.”

“Yes, sir. And sir, on a personal note- I’d never want to stand in the way of Princess Celestia’s happiness.”

“You know, when I first became Captain, there were rumors that Celestia and I were secretly lovers.”

"Really?"

“But she’s always been more like family to me. And you always want what’s best for family. But sometimes you don't know what’s best for family- that’s where trust comes in. And trust is as important for guards as it is for family.”

“I trust her. And you can trust me, sir.”

“Good to know.”

Shining Armor started to walk away.

“Oh, sir?”

“Yes?”

“Was that family on the train planted there for me?”

“What are you talking about? What family?”

“Nothing, sir. My mistake.”


Spats waved Radish over as he came out of the bunk shower room.

“Radical, you missed dinner. I saved you something.”

“Thanks, Spats.”

They took seats at a table in their common room. Radish unwrapped the caprese sandwich Spats brought him.

“Ever miss home cooking?” asked Spats.

“Sometimes. But I was a Ranger for years before this. I did a lot of cooking on campfires between here and home.”

“Ever miss those days? Sleeping under wide open skies without nine other guys snoring in your ear sounds nice.”

“That was nice, all right. But I don’t mind the company nowadays.”

“How’s sword training?”

“Almost ready for my final. It’ll be nice to have a solid weapon on my hip.”

“Not a fan of the Royal Easy-Carry Retractable Lancing System?”

“Half the time the extending mechanism gets stuck, and the other half I can’t push it closed.”

“How were you armed as a Ranger?”

“Most Rangers carry a big ol’ boot knife and a crossbow. But our treaty with the buffalo said I couldn’t carry weapons on their land. They let me keep my penknife, and a couple of times, I’d turn my bandana into a sling and whip rocks at a cactus cat that was getting too close.”

Radish took a bite of his sandwich.

“We never talk about you, Spats. Where are you from?”

“San Franciscolt. Ma owned a hat shop. Dad, uh, ran a numbers racket.”

“Really?”

“Never got caught. Did get jumped, though.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“He lived. Gave up the game after that, and took up guitar. Played requests and little ditties of his own in bars.”

“You play anything?”

“Oh yeah. Sax. Didn’t bring it to the palace, though. I’m probably rusty these days.”

“How’d you end up in the Guard?”

“Well, I’d have to begin that story when I got these.”

He pointed to his cutie mark, a piece of white material with a line of black buttons.

“I, uh, was never sure what that was supposed to be,” admitted Radish.

“It’s called a ‘spatterdash’, just like me. You put them over nice shoes to protect them from dirt.”

“Oh. I guess I’ve never had shoes that nice.”

“I was always one for looking snazzy. I always assumed my mark would be something fashion-related. Then one day, my family was vacationing in the lake country, and my sister nearly fell off a dock. I grabbed her just in time. It was the first time I used my magic to lift anything that heavy. That’s when these appeared.

“See, she had on a brand new dress that would have been ruined. At first, I thought this meant my destiny was to help others keep themselves neat and tidy. But on the long cart ride home, I thought more about it. It hit me that she could have drowned. I realized that saving my sister from drowning was a lot more important than saving her dress from getting muddy. I realized my marks were more symbolic than I thought- I’m meant to protect delicate things from getting hurt.”

“Is that why you wanted to become a guard?”

“Actually, that’s why I wanted to become a lawyer. So I could help out the little guys when they’re about to be thrown into the deep end. I’d been interested in how the law works ever since I was a kid, probably ‘cause my old man was so good at skirting it.

“I saw a lot of folks in the neighborhood get a raw deal in courts through no fault of their own. I was so used to seeing the law being biased, corrupted, and useless, that I grew up thinking it was like that everywhere. I figured even PC must be like that.

“But one day, a tropical storm was bearing down on the town. Not pegasus-made, it was some freak thing. To this day we don’t know what caused it. It was looking bad. We didn’t have the infrastructure to withstand it, the transportation to escape it, or the supplies to survive it. But wouldn’t you know it, Princess Celestia herself came to our aid. She stood right on the coast and shoved the storm back with her magic. It was incredible.

“But she didn’t come alone. Her guards were cutting up the storm, redirecting the floodwaters, and evacuating the buildings. One of them pulled a friend of mine out of a whirlpool.

“And when all was said and done, they had saved every single life. PC had nearly died facing down that storm. That’s the day I realized that not all ponies in power were corrupt. There were good ones. And they were here.

“I went to the nearest recruiter and signed up. They’ve been putting me through law school on the side. I want to go back to my old block and help the kinds of ponies who get raw deals from the law. Until I can protect others as a lawyer, I can protect them as a guard. And I’ll look snazzy doing either.”

Radish chewed on his sandwich and Spats’s words. He frowned.

“Dammit, Spats.”

“What?”

“You know why I joined the Guard. I was just hoping to… you know.”

“Yeah.”

“I came here for a totally selfish, unrealistic, and stupid reason. But you, and I bet everypony else, came here for real reasons. You all wanted to help others, to make something of yourselves. You all must see me as a damn clown.”

“Radical, no one here judges you. If any one of us had your marks, we’d be trying to fulfill them, too.”

“Spats… I need a real reason to be here. I need something to tell people when they ask why I became a guard. I don’t have a story like you. All I ever wanted was Celestia.”

“There’s got to be something else you’re sticking around for.”

“Well… the Discord crisis showed me that there are enemies out there that I never could have imagined. Someone has to stop enemies like that.”

“Someone like you?”

“Someone exactly like me. Thanks, Spats.”

“Not a problem, Radical.”

“Could you stop calling me ‘Radical’?”

“Not a fan?”

“Not really.”

"Noted." Spats looked at the clock on the wall. "Ah, it's almost lights out."

"Then we should hit the hay. We've got guarding to do."

36. The Suitor, Part 4: Marked Improvement

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Radish Root took to his hind legs and held his practice sword in his outstretched hoof. He advanced on Saguaro Shade, warily.

“Root, you’re a bit slow today.”

“Slow, sir? Or cautious? I ain’t gonna be caught off-guard by you again.”

They clashed and locked their swords. Radish carefully backed out of his corporal’s reach.

“That’s all well and good, but you’re passing up openings to strike.”

“I know those are false openings meant to draw me in.”

“Yeah? Then when are you going to make one of your own?”

Radish narrowed his eyes and thrust forth. Saguaro Shade quickly struck his hoof, neck, torso, buttocks, and hind legs with his baton. Radish fell back.

“Something on your mind, Root?” Saguaro Shade asked, helping him up. “Or maybe too little on your mind?”

“I’m just feeling… unfocused.”

“Because you dropped Celestia from your brain and put nothing there in her place?”

“Am I that much of an open book, sir?”

“More like a compass without a north.”

“Any suggestion what to point myself at?”

“Root, what are your ambitions here outside of Celestia? And don’t say Luna.”

“Sir…”

“Do you want to be captain someday?”

“I imagined I’d have to wait my turn behind the commander and you, and a hundred other guards.”

“What, then?”

“I’d like to be the Royal Spymaster someday.”

“Root, there ain’t no Royal Spymaster.”

“Isn’t that what a Royal Spymaster would want everyone to think?”

“You got me there, Root. But I’ve been in this castle a good long time, and nopony’s seen nor heard of any spymasters, and Celestia soundly denies such a thing.”

“Well, if there ain’t one, I could become the first. Protect Equestria from the shadows.”

“That’s hardly in keeping with the dominant paradigm around here. Guards put on bright, shiny armor with a nice big star for a reason. Good guys don’t skulk- they shine.”

“Sir, you know as well as I do the value of a good skulk. Almost every animal out on the plains has cryptic coloration, whether it’s hunting, being hunted, or guarding its kin.”

“You wanna be Celestia’s snake in the grass? Far cry from what you first came here to be for her.”

“But it’s better, right?”

“I suppose. I’m glad you have some kind of goal, at least. But if you want sword clearance, you need more than a goal. You’ll need reflexes.”

Radish readied his baton. “En garde, sir.”

“We, uh, don’t really say that around here.”


Radish stood sentry over a large room in the palace’s east art gallery. This room held a number of abstract paintings and sculptures from some of Equestria’s most celebrated modernists.

As Shining had said, Celestia was showing Halcyon the galleries today. Although Celestia rarely shied away from her adoring public, the tourists had been barred entry so that she and her guest could enjoy the art without crowds. Only Celestia, Halcyon, Radish, and another guard, a burly unicorn mare named Claymora, were in the room now.

“What exquisite craft!” said Halcyon. “We have nothing that compares in my homeland.”

“Many of these pieces wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration- schools of thought and design workshops, sharing ideas and spreading techniques,” Celestia noted.

“Another way the lack of friendship has left my people bereft! Imagine the beauty they will create once they understand it.”

He turned to see Radish.

“Ah! Radish Root! It is pleasant to see you again!”

“Good morning, Halcyon. Good morning, your highness.”

“Good morning, lieutenants,” Celestia said pleasantly.

"I understand you valiantly defended my people's potions yesterday,” said Halcyon. “I am in your debt."

"Oh, it was a team effort, sir. I barely did anything."

"My people believe that modesty is a form of dishonesty. If you do not sing your own praises, who will?"

“Actually,” said Celestia, “we always make sure to reward meritorious service around here. Lieutenant Root will be receiving a medal for his actions.”

“Oh!” said Radish. “I’m honored.”

“You should be!” said Halcyon, leaning over Radish, “I was exposed to the radiation like the rest of my people. Thanks to your hard work, I am feeling more vigorous than ever before!”

“Glad to hear it, sir. Guards are here to help.”

“Then perhaps you can help me interpret these works of art! Tell me, Radish Root, what does this piece mean to you?”

He was indicating a large canvas that dominated one of the free-standing walls that divided the room. It had been painted entirely sky blue except for one stray black mark in the upper-right corner.

Untitled #17 by Frosty Dawn? She never said, but the tour guides say it represents-”

“I am asking for your opinion.”

“It’s a bug, sir.”

Both Halcyon and Celestia seemed surprised by this.

“A bug, you say?” asked Halcyon.

“I think it’s a clear blue sky, and that black thing is a dragonfly zooming past the corner of your eye.”

“Is this true, Princess Celestia?” Halcyon asked.

“Radish, that’s a bit… physical for Frosty Dawn,” said Celestia. “Most of her pieces explored her emotional states.”

“Forgive me, ma’am. I don’t have much of a head for art.”

“Fear not, Radish Root. This is all dizzying to myself, as well,” said Halcyon. “I look forward to learning about all of these.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Celestia continued the tour and led Halcyon out of the room.

Claymora looked at Radish. “I don’t think that guy likes you.”

“He’s from a land without friendship. He’s trying.”

“Trying to embarrass you in front of the princess. And it worked.”

“Hey!”

“Sorry. But none of these are about bugs. Nopony makes art about bugs.”

Radish stared at Untitled #17.

“That’s a bug.”


Radish hunched over a book on art history in the palace library. He found the page he was looking for.

“Oh. I guess it’s not a bug.”

“Hi, Radish!” said Spike in a hushed, library-appropriate tone.

Radish looked up to see Spike clambering into the chair next to him with a thick graphic novel.

“Howdy, Spike. Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t make the dinner party. I’m attending to Princess Luna while she’s not feeling well.”

“Is it serious?”

“She keeps getting migraines. They’re bad enough to keep her in bed.”

“What have the doctors said?”

“That her test results are for her eyes only.”

“Well, that’s true. When did it start?”

“Uh… about four days ago.”

“So, around when Halcyon showed up?”

“I guess. Say, do you think he has something to do with it?”

“I don’t see how,” Radish said, considering it.

“Maybe Princess Luna is in love with him, and it’s paining her to see him spend so much time with Princess Celestia!”

“Spike, that’s a little… melodramatic.”

“Or… maybe she’s getting migraines because Halcyon got her pregnant!”

Radish cringed and looked around the library. No one was in earshot.

“Spike! You’re too young to be talking about stuff like that!”

“Hey, how old were you when you got… you know?” he said, gesturing to Radish’s side.

“You know about that?”

He shrugged.

“It’s Equestria’s worst-kept secret. Can I see it?”

“No.”

“Aww. Come on.”

“No! You’re too young. And isn’t Celestia like a mother to you?”

“They’re that bad, huh?”

“Look, could you get a message to Princess Luna for me? Just tell her I said, ‘get well soon’ and… ‘thanks for the advice’.”

“Okay.”

Spike returned to his graphic novel. Radish stared at him. Spike looked up.

“Well, I’m not going to do it now. I’m on break.”

“Spike! There you are! I need your help!” said Twilight Sparkle, trotting up to them. “I’ve hit upon some new ideas about rebuilding Halcyon’s civilization. I need you to copy scrolls from the social studies archives for distribution. We should start with fifty copies each.”

“I’d love to help you, Twilight, but Princess Luna needs me, and I’ve got to deliver her a message from Radish! See ya!”

He hopped off his chair and scampered away. Twilight watched him leave, then looked at Radish.

“Hello, Radish.”

“Hi, Twi. How’s it going?”

“Bad. I’ve barely begun my studies into friendship, and now I have to use what I know to save an entire people from ruin!”

“It’s not like you have to do it all alone. I mean, a project like this could take centuries.”

“Centuries!?” she exclaimed, loudly enough to be shushed by the librarian.

“Well, yeah. Maretonia wasn’t built in a day. And I guess Halcyon’s land wasn’t, either.”

“Or maybe it was. That’s another thing I’d love to ask Halcyon about, if Princess Celestia ever stops monopolizing his time.”

“Monopolizing his time?”

“It means taking up most of it.”

“I know what it means. I thought you’d all be working closely with him.”

“Not yet. Princess Celestia has been doling out assignments to us while she’s been teaching him about Equestria.”

“What kind of assignments?”

“Writing up friendship lessons and preparing aid packages, mostly. Rainbow Dash is coming up with lessons on healthy competition. Applejack is looking for crop varieties that can grow in the edgelands. Pinkie Pie is… actually, I’m not sure what she’s doing.”

Twilight noticed his book. “Oh, wow! Stray Cat’s Guide to Modernism, Post-Modernism and Post-Post-Modernism! I had no idea you were into abstract art!”

“I’m not. That’s why I’m reading it.”

“Learn anything interesting?”

“Well, Frosty Dawn’s Untitled #17 isn’t a bug.”

“Who said it was a bug?”

“Never mind.”

“Hey, Shining is acting kind of upset about something. Do you know what’s going on?”

“I’m not sure what I’m allowed to tell you, Twilight. What’s your clearance level?”

“Five.”

“What? That’s one of the highest!”

“All six of us have been Fives since Nightmare Moon. Spike, too.”

“I’m a One, you know.”

“You’ll get there someday. So what’s going on with Shining?”

“He’s worried about the public’s perception of the Guard.”

“Why? Everypony loves the Royal Guard.”

“But do they fear us?”

“Of course not!”

Radish frowned.

“What?” she asked. “You want to be feared?”

“Yes. I want ponies to quake in fear as I approach and sigh in relief as I go.”

Twilight laughed loud enough to get another shush from the librarian. Radish scowled.

“Radish,” she said more quietly, “scary ponies don’t study modern art in the library. They get into bar brawls and back alley fracases.”

Radish closed the book and looked at its cover.

“Huh.”

“What?”

“I’ve been thinking about finding a hobby, but I might already have one. And it’s not for the faint of heart. I used to wrestle competitively with the Black Bluffs.”

“Really? Weren’t they five times your size?”

Four times, Twilight. And yeah, they beat me all the time. But a whetstone still sharpens a blade, even though the blade will never cut through it.”

“Ooh! Was that an ancient martial saying?”

“No, I just came up with it.”

“I’m going to write that down,” she said, producing a quill and parchment, “I love hearing these bits of barracks wisdom.”

“The point is, off-duty guards have wrestling matches in the training gym. I could wrestle again!”

“Radish, you could get hurt.”

“Now, why did you say that, instead of, ‘Radish, you could hurt someone’?”

“Oh, uh… you’re right. You could hurt someone. You’re such a big, strong guy, you might accidentally snap the necks of everyone you fight.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

He checked the clock on the wall.

“Well, my break’s over. I’ve got to go guard some abstract depictions of post-pastoral alienation as seen through mid-century Califoalnian cityscapes.”

“We don’t have any paintings like that here.”

Radish checked the book again.

“Oh. Dang it.”


After finishing his duties for the day, Radish entered the palace gym. He found two guards already wrestling across a large square mat. He trotted up to the organizer watching them.

“Hey, can I sign up for matches?”

“Sure. Right now it’s just informal matches between whoever wants to go, but we’ll be starting a full tournament soon.”

“Is there a prize?”

“Yep. A gift certificate to that pizza place down the street.”

“I’m in.”

“The sheet’s over there,” he said, pointing to a clipboard on the wall. “You know the rules? It’s Canterbury Style, Variant Two.”

“Yeah, I know the rules.”

“You have the gear?”

“Right here in my bag.”

“You ever wrestle before?”

Radish showed him a stitched cloth patch. “I got this from the Black Bluff buffalo. It’s a wrestling trophy.”

“You wrestled buffalo? Aren’t they three times your size?”

“Fo… Yeah. That’s right.”

“What do these words say?”

“It’s Black Bluff, for ‘Marked Improvement’.”

“Nice. Get geared up.”

Radish emerged from the locker room in wrestling gear. The organizer introduced him to his opponent, a yellow, blue-maned pegasus stallion.

“Hi,” he said, extending a hoof. “Lieutenant Flash Sentry.”

“Lieutenant Radish Root,” said Radish, shaking it.

“Root? The guy with... uh, never mind."

“Yep, that's me. Tell you what- beat me, and you can see them.”

“Oh, you’re on!”

The two took their places, then circled each other. Radish eyed Flash cautiously.

Unicorns had their magic duels, and pegasi had their flight competitions, but every contact sport in Equestria developed out of earth pony traditions. Earth ponies’ primal connection to the land provided them with strength, stamina, and durability far above that of baseline pegasi and unicorns. In terms of power, Flash was at a disadvantage, and his key advantage over Radish- his wings- was nullified. Under the Variant Two ruleset by which Radish and Flash were competing, a pegasus’s wings were braced to their sides by pads.

However, wrestling is more than a contest of raw physical strength- a unicorn or pegasus with enough brains and heart could outmatch a stronger opponent, and all guards were trained to take on bigger and stronger foes. Radish had no delusions that this was going to be easy.

Flash bolted forward and went for Radish’s legs. Radish got his hooves around Flash’s midsection and grappled his opponent down. Flash wriggled out of Radish’s grip and grabbed Radish’s torso, attempting to push him onto his side. Radish re-centered his balance and pushed back hard, shoving Flash down.

Radish had Flash on his back. Flash slipped away, swooped behind him, and put him in a headlock. Radish lurched forward, throwing him. Flash landed on all fours, facing him.

He's fast. No, wait... it's more like he's frictionless.

Pegasi have electro-magical fields around their bodies which allow them to stand on clouds and manipulate the weather with their bare hooves. As a pegasus flies faster, the field grows stronger, forming a protective shield which deflects air particles to cut drag.

Flash, however, seemed to be controlling his field consciously, powering it up to full strength at any speed. He cut through the air with no resistance, and slipped out of Radish’s grasp with ease.

That must be his special talent. Good one for a guard to have. Okay, I can't get a grip on him. I'll have to work around that.

Radish rushed Flash again, a bit slower than he really could, to lure Flash into shoving him. Radish planted himself, and pushed back just enough to bait Flash into over-committing his push, then ducked and allowed Flash to trip over his body. As Flash stumbled, Radish rolled onto him.

Flash engaged his electro-magical field again and squirmed. Radish leaned his full weight on Flash's abdomen, and Flash popped out from under him like a cork from a bottle. Flash slid across the mat, but shut off his field just in time to stop himself at the edge of the ring, narrowly avoiding a ring-out. While he recovered and stood to turn, Radish hooked his hooves around Flash and slammed him into the mat.

"Oof."

The referee gave a three-count. Radish had won.

"Good match," said Flash as Radish helped him up.

"Thanks. You've got nice moves," said Radish.

"Are you entering the tournament? I'd love a rematch."

"Yeah. And since you've been a good sport..."

Radish pulled back his singlet and showed Flash his cutie mark. Flash's eyes went wide.

"Whoa."

"I know, right?"


Radish lay back in his bunk, smiling.

“Radish. You look happy,” said Spats, peeking down from the top bunk.

“I wrestled for the first time in years. I won.”

“Was there ever any doubt? You’re a stack and a half, Rad.”

“You know, I spent a lot of time working out because I thought it would impress Celestia.”

“I figured.”

“I had this fantasy where she’d see me as an adult for the first time, and she’d be taken aback at how good I looked.”

“And?”

“She wasn’t even taken a little aback.”

“Well, don’t take it personally. She still hired you.”

“Sometimes I wonder why she did.”

“She gave you the job because she knew you’d be good at it.”

“It felt more like a dare, really. Like she was giving me room to fail, and then she’d be rid of me forever.”

"Princesses don’t hire guards to fail, Rad. The hiring paperwork alone takes weeks to put through.”

“Yeah, it’d be a hassle to the administration office to get rid of me.”

“And to me, too. You’re the only one here who wipes his hooves.”

“Thanks, Spats.”

"You gonna wrestle more?”

"A lot more. I'm entering a tournament."

"Are you hoping someone will be taken aback by that?"

"No. For the first time in my life, I’m doing something that’s just for me. And no one's going to be surprised when I win the whole thing."

37. The Suitor, Part 5: Ever So Sensitive

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Radish stood guard over the palace’s gallery of ancient ceramics. This room made him more nervous than any other- he was in constant fear of accidentally bumping into one of Equestria’s oldest teapots.

A unicorn walked into the room, humming and floating a map of the palace in front of her face. She was seconds away from walking into a display case of nine-hundred-year-old bud vases.

“Ma’am!” called Radish.

The unicorn stopped and lowered her map to look at Radish. It was Rarity.

“Why, Radish, dear! Whatever is the matter?”

Radish pointed to the case in front of her.

“Oh! My, I would have trotted right into that, wouldn’t I? I’m sorry, I was glued to my map. These galleries are ever so labyrinthine.”

“You should see the labyrinth.”

“Ha. Wait… did you just call me ‘ma’am’? Oh, Radish, how could you?”

“Forgive me.”

“I suppose I must, lest I fall into the stereotype of a cantankerous senior citizen.”

She looked around, then trotted close to Radish with her head held low.

“How are you doing, dear? It hasn’t escaped me that Halcyon must be adding a certain degree of unease to your life.”

“I’m trying to handle it with aplomb.”

“Ah, good on you. That’s the best way to handle anything. But, cards on the table- I overheard your conversation with the bartendress after the dinner party.”

“Uh, all of it?”

“I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, I was stooping behind a hedge to wipe pollen off my stilettos when you two started talking.”

“Those are shoes, right?”

“No, they’re fabulous shoes. Not that anyone at that party seemed to notice.”

“Sorry.”

“My point is, I heard you discussing Fluttershy.”

“What do you think? Would we be a good match?”

“Does the thought of her stir passion within you?”

“Uh… maybe?”

“There’s no ‘maybe’ in passion, dear. A ‘maybe’ is a ‘no’.”

“Rarity, the only thing that’s ever stirred passion in me my whole life has been Celestia. Maybe I’m, you know, stunted where I feel feelings.”

“I see what you’re saying, and I sympathize. But Radish, Fluttershy is a dear friend of mine, and she’s ever so sensitive. I’d hate to think you would use her as some kind of… practice girlfriend to wean yourself off Celestia.”

“Whoa,” said Radish, feeling his balance shift sideways a bit. “That… that might be exactly what I’m doing…”

“Then I’m glad we’re having this chat.”

“So, should I just drop it before I hurt her?”

“Oh, don’t be so hasty in everything! How about this- if you think you’d like to date Fluttershy for Fluttershy, could you tell me something you like about her that’s unique to her?”

“Her voice.”

“Yes, it is quite sweet, isn’t it?”

“Her smile.”

“Well, that’s a bit obvious.”

“Her mane…”

Of course, her effortlessly gorgeous mane. It is the envy of Ponyville mares. How she gets that volume, we’ll never figure out.”

“The warmth she gives off…”

“Hmm, that’s rather abstract. What do-”

“…the way she’s so sweet and generous…”

“Uh, generosity is my thing, dear. Hers is-”

“Kindness! The way she supports you. Encourages you. Makes the effort to understand what you’re going through..."

Radish thought back to how she comforted him at the dinner party. He wondered how another dinner with her- just her- might go.

I’d take her to a nice restaurant, of course. The kind with a candle on the table. And a guy playing a violin. We’d both come dressed to the nines.

"...and she’d be the most beautiful mare in the room…"

“Uh, what room? Where are you?”

I’ve spent years imagining a life spent with Celestia. Strolls on the beach. Picnics in the gardens. Cuddling in front of a fireplace on cold winter nights. Why should all that go to waste? I can still have that life, with someone who appreciates me. Someone kind…supportive… loving…

Radish felt his heartbeat quicken and his face grow hot.

"Why, Radish... you're blushing!"

Radish turned away. "No, I'm not. Guards don't blush."

"I do believe you’re feeling that stir of passion, dear."

“I… I think you’re right. What do I do?”

“I’m afraid this is where my intervention ends, Radish. Remember- I swore off matchmaking my friends. If you wish to pursue her, I will neither help nor hinder you. You must do this without me.”

“Can you at least tell me what kind of flowers she likes?”

“Ooh, I’m just dying to! But I must stick to my principles. Stick to them like bees stick to gardenias.”

“Well, thanks anyway. I’ll figure something out.”

“No, I’m saying I’m standing firm on this. Standing firm as a well-watered gardenia.”

“I can just ask the palace florist for advice. Have a good afternoon. Enjoy the galleries.”

“Radish, you absolute… oh, I see. Hilarious.”


No one else visited the ceramics gallery all day, except a hoofpony who approached Radish at the end of his shift.

“Lieutenant Root, Princess Luna requires you in her bedroom.”

Radish waited for him to hear himself.

“Ah, that is to say- in her bedridden state, her highness requests the company of her ‘Champion’ to comfort her.”

“Thank you. That’s what I thought you meant.”

Radish entered Luna’s bedroom. A doctor, nurse, and wizard were seeing to her. She dismissed them as he approached.

“Radish Root. So good of you to come.”

He took a stool at her bedside. Her mane wafted weakly and her eyes were glassy.

“Princess. What’s wrong?”

“Fret not. This is but simple exhaustion. I have been overexerting myself during my dream duties.”

“You shouldn’t work so hard.”

“A worthy princess works tirelessly for her subjects.”

“And a worthy guard works tirelessly for his princess. How can I help?”

“Just sit and talk with me a bit. How are you?”

“I’m doing okay. Princess… I want you to know I took your words to heart. I’m really trying to move past my crush on Celestia. To support her as she… finds happiness with someone else.”

“Oh, Radish, forgive me. I was too hard on you.”

“No. You were right. I think I'm ready for someone else, now.”

“Really? I am glad. But Radish, I… ahh!”

She gripped her head and shuddered.

Radish stood up. “Princess!”

“Just a headache,” she said. “Please, distract me from the pain. Let us speak on pleasant things. You’ve kept up with our book club?”

Radish sat down. “I’m halfway through Herd and Prejudice. I uh, don’t understand the main character. I don’t get what she wants out of life.”

Luna smiled. “Ah, Radish Root, her ways seem mysterious to you because she is an elegant lady of a more refined age.”

“Like y-”

Radish cut himself off. Luna smiled.

“I was in the moon during that particular age. I can only experience it through literature, as you do. The world I left behind was much more rough around the edges.”

“Oh.”

“And please, do not hesitate to pay me compliments.”

“Okay.”

“Now, let us discuss the story. Where do you think it’s going?”

“Well...”

Radish and Luna chatted about the novel for another hour, until a servant announced that Spike had arrived with her supper.

“Have him wait a minute.” She turned to Radish.”Radish, I wish to… gah!”

She gripped her head again. Her whole body tensed in pain. Tears formed in the corner of her eyes.

Radish held her shoulder to steady her. “This isn’t exhaustion! What’s really going on?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“This started when Halcyon showed up, didn’t it?”

“He is not the cause.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because these pains are coming from the world of dreams.”

“What? You mean, you’re under attack by some kind of nightmare monster!?”

She relaxed and sat back. “No. There is a disruption in the dream world. Like a burning, shrieking wind. The more time I spend there, the more it pains me.”

“Then stop going there!”

“Would you abandon your own duties over some aches and pains?”

“My duty is to keep you safe! Princess, could this be Nightmare Moon’s doing?”

“She is gone, Radish. Purged from existence.”

“But her stuff is still around. Her lairs and weapons are still out there. She had all kinds of secret plans, even against you. Could she have left some plan in motion?"

“Her magic leaves a recognizable signature. This is not one of her machinations.”

“What about Discord? He left traps behind for you, too.”

Luna motioned to her side table. There was an empty flask laying on its side.

“I had that suspicion myself,” she said. “I used the spores from Never Atoll to make an anti-chaos potion. It had no effect. This is not chaos magic at work, either.”

“Princess Luna, first there was that sun blackout, and now there’s this burning wind in the dream world. It’s like both night and day are under attack. As your Champion, I need to know what’s going on so I can protect you. What aren’t you telling me?”

She weakly placed a hoof on his arm.

“Radish, I appreciate how much you care. But some problems are not yours to solve.”

“Please?”

“Let us plan our next book club meeting. I would like to have a thorough discussion of the novel's ending."

“Princess…”

“Next Tuesday at seven will do.”

Radish sighed. “Okay. Just promise me you’ll still be around by then.”

“I promise.”

Spike entered, exactly one minute to the tick after Luna’s order. He was carrying a domed serving tray.

“Oh, hey, Radish.”

“Hi, Spike.”

Spike set the tray down on a table by the bed and hopped up on the stool next to it. He took off the cover, revealing a miniature trough made of fine crystal. It was filled to the brim with porridge.

“Spike, this is far too much,” said Luna.

“I just thought you might need some extra nutrition. You know… for your condition.”

“Spike, I am not pregnant!”


Radish entered the training gym to see Maple Bar slamming Rhum Runner into the gym mat.

“Ow,” said Rhum Runner.

“Three!” called the referee.

They walked to a bench along the wall to towel off.

“Hey, Root, wanna go next?" asked the organizer.

“Sure. Versus who?”

“Um… excuse me, Radish,” said a gentle voice behind him.

He turned and saw Fluttershy.

“Oh, Fluttershy! It’s nice to see you!

“Likewise.”

“How may I help you? Or… did you come to watch me fight?” Radish asked hopefully.

“I’m next. I’m your next opponent.”

Radish stared.

“Uh… are you sure?”

“Yes. You see, I recently went through some assertiveness training and they say if you don’t keep up your skills, you lose them, so I just thought that maybe wrestling royal guards in front of a crowd is a good way to, um, keep my teeth sharp.”

Radish stared.

“That is,” she said, hiding half her face under her hair, “unless you’re too chicken to fight me.”

She cracked a warm smile. Radish’s heart felt light.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

They squared off. Radish approached Fluttershy warily. He knew not to underestimate her. He knew her frailty was all surface-level, and she was hiding an enormous inner strength. He knew she had gone toe-to-toe with some of the world’s most dangerous creatures and come out on top.

Don't get distracted. But don't hurt her. But don't come off too gentle. But avoid her stare. And-

"If somepony wants to throw down, show 'em you're no clown!" barked Fluttershy.

"What?"

She sprang on him. She got her hooves around Radish’s shoulders and pushed him. He got his around hers and pushed back.

She tripped on her own hooves and fell backwards. Radish pinned her, and the referee gave a three-count.

“Oh, that was fast,” she said, lying on her back. Radish helped her up.

“Nice moves,” Radish said.

“No, they weren’t. But I had fun trying.”

“Well, you have good reach. If you keep low and use that reach, you might could win the next match. I could show some moves if you'd like.”

“I’m sorry, but we’re leaving Canterlot today.”

“Oh, I thought you’re all helping with the Halcyon thing.”

“Princess Celestia says she has a slew of experts working on it now, and she’ll contact us as we’re needed. We all have our lives to get back to in Ponyville, after all.”

“I see. Well, safe travels home."

“Thanks. And good luck wrestling everyone else.”

“Thanks.”

She started to trot away.

“Uh… Fluttershy?”

She stopped and looked back.

“Yes?”

“Would you…”

Fluttershy stared, waiting.

“I mean… do you…”

“What is it?”

“Would you… uh… tell Spike goodbye for me?”

“Oh, he’s staying to help Princess Luna. He’s convinced he knows more about her condition than the doctors.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks anyway.”

She smiled and nodded, then trotted off. Radish watched her leave out the door, then let out a breath. He turned to see Maple Bar, Rhum Runner, and Flash Sentry staring at him.

“Root, that looked painful,” said Rhum Runner. “Need a hug?”


Radish took a meal in the commissary. Shining Armor approached him.

“Captain?”

"Root, Halcyon wants to talk to you."

“Why?”

"Excuse me, Root?"

“I mean, yes sir.”

“Go meet him in the orrery, ASAP. And play nice.”

“Of course, sir.”

The royal orrery was a massive clockwork model of the solar system commissioned by Celestia centuries before Radish was born. It was housed in a large room in the palace’s Astronomy and Astrology Tower, which also contained various laboratories dedicated to each, as well as a planetarium open to tourists. The building was topped by the royal observatory. Radish entered the orrery room to find Halcyon gazing up at the device.

“Look at it all, Radish Root,” Halcyon said. “The heavens cast in iron.”

The orrery was actually made of brass and steel, but Radish didn’t feel a need to correct him.

“Yes, sir. It’s quite a mechanism.”

“But it is obsolete. Many new planets and moons have been discovered since its construction.”

“Well, that’s just how science works. Our knowledge of the world improves every day.”

“Perhaps I could work with Princess Celestia to update it.”

“Are you an astronomy enthusiast, sir?”

“I find stargazing fascinating. And you?”

Radish trotted around the room. Arrays of blue lights were embedded along the upper walls in the form of star constellations. He pointed to one.

“That’s Aquarius. The Water-bearer. To the Black Bluffs, it symbolizes the unbroken chain of life that stretches back into prehistory, and which will continue until its time comes to an end.”

“What does it symbolize to you?”

“An unbroken promise.”

“To Celestia?”

“No. To her, I swore an oath on my own honor.”

“Radish Root, do not think me a fool.”

“I don’t.”

“I know what your cutie marks are.”

“Then why’d you ask?”

“Why did you hide them?”

“To spare Celestia the humiliation.”

“If you wish to spare Celestia humiliation, you should leave this palace and never return. Flee to another land. Live and die in obscurity.”

“I can’t. That oath I swore on my honor? I said I’d do my best to protect her and Equestria. I can’t do that if I leave.”

“She would hardly begrudge you breaking that oath if it meant never being burdened by your presence again.”

“We’re friends.”

“You can’t really believe that. Perhaps she’s spared your feelings too long. Perhaps she’d prefer that I made the request. Begone from this palace, Radish Root. You are a disgrace to everyone here. You have no place within these walls.”

“Celestia pays me to be within these walls.”

“She hired you out of pity.”

“She hired me because she knew I’d be good at the job.”

“She merely felt sorry for your unfortunate life circumstances.”

Radish narrowed his eyes. “Yeah? You know, since you were so curious about those circumstances…

Radish raised his armor and showed Halcyon his cutie mark. Halcyon scowled. Radish grinned.

“Looks pretty happy, doesn’t she?” said Radish, cheerfully pointing to the tiny Celestia. “Sometimes I wonder what’s going through her head. Probably nothing as good as what’s going through her-”

Halcyon swung his hoof at Radish’s face.

Radish flinched.

Halcyon’s hoof slammed into a pink transparent shield which had appeared between the two of them. The blow made a room-filling bright red flash on impact. Both stallions took a step back, rubbing their eyes.

"Please be careful, sir," said Shining Armor, entering the room with his horn glowing, "you almost hit one of my guards."

"I would expect one of your guards to have better manners," growled Halcyon.

Shining powered down his horn and the shield. "And I would expect Celestia’s personal guest to behave, even when she’s not around.”

“I shall… endeavor to show more restraint in the future,” muttered Halcyon. He turned and stomped out of the orrery, slamming the door behind him.

Shining Armor sighed. “You call that playing nice, Root?”

“Forgive me, sir. I’ve never been told to live and die in obscurity before.”

“Just… get going. It’s almost lights out.”

“Yes, sir.”

Shining Armor started to walk away, then looked over his shoulder.

“And for the record, Root, you’re not a disgrace to anyone here. I don’t let disgraces work for me. And even if he becomes prince of this castle, he doesn’t decide how my guards live and die. That’s my call.”

“Oh… thank you, sir.”

Shining Armor walked out. Radish gazed up at the slowly-moving brass planets. He approached them.

“I don’t suppose any of you can tell me what it all means, can you?” he asked them.

The planets didn’t answer him.

38. The Suitor, Part 6: Unnecessary Injuries

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Radish stood on guard in a gallery room exhibiting photographs of Equestria’s roadside attractions. Celestia and Halcyon walked in, chatting about an upcoming Wonderbolt derby. Radish chewed the inside of his cheek as they neared.

“Radish Root,” said Halcyon, seriously. “I am glad to see you again. I beg your forgiveness for my behavior yesterday. I am ashamed of myself.”

“Don’t worry about it, sir. I’m sorry, as well.”

“Thank you, that is a relief.”

“What’s this, now? What did you two get up to yesterday?” Celestia asked.

“Oh,” said Radish coolly, “it was a silly little disagreement about-”

“You,” said Halcyon.

Radish sighed.

“Me?” asked Celestia.

“I was enraged at his cutie marks. I assumed they were debasing your honor.”

“Ah, that,” said Celestia. “Don’t worry. I’ve known Radish since he was a child. He could never debase me.”

“Uh, thank you, ma’am,” said Radish, slowly.

“I am impressed by this gallery of photographic arts,” said Halcyon, gesturing at the walls. “My society had not advanced this far before the disasters. Was this a result of friendship as well?”

“Yes,” said Celestia. “There were two ponies each vying to invent a camera they could sell to the public. Only when they formed a partnership could they crack the final design together.”

“Ah, so then a friendship can be born from a competition?” Halcyon asked.

“Indeed,” said Celestia. “That’s a nice way to put it.”

“Then perhaps Radish Root and I could be good friends, after all!”

Radish winced. Celestia looked at Halcyon, concerned.

“Sir,” said Radish, “I don’t think of us as being in any kind of competition.”

“But you compete in the castle’s fighting games, do you not?”

Celestia raised an eyebrow.

“The… oh! You mean intramural wrestling,” Radish said.

“Radish, you’re wrestling?” Celestia asked.

“Aye, ma’am.”

“Then I would like to, as well,” said Halcyon. “Radish and I will face each other in competition, and thus will become friends.”

Halcyon grinned widely. Radish kept his gaze neutral. Celestia frowned.

“Halcyon,” she said, “you are several weight classes above Radish. It would be unfair, and quite dangerous to him.”

Radish inhaled sharply. “Actually, ma’am, we’re using the Variant Two ruleset. There are no weight classes.”

“That ruleset all but invites unnecessary injuries,” said Celestia. “I’ve often considered banning it.”

“Your guards have to be prepared to take on creatures of any size,” said Radish. “Fighting outside our weight class makes us better-equipped to protect you.”

“Ah, you see, Princess Celestia?” said Halcyon. “He is prepared to fight me… for your sake. And I am, as well.”

Celestia shrugged. “If that’s what you want. Come. It’s lunchtime, and the chef has made something special for us.”


Radish finished his shift and walked through the back halls. Celestia rounded a corner in front of him.

“Come with me,” she said, and walked on. He followed her into a parlor Radish had never been in. Its walls were a rich green trimmed with dark brown wood. The furniture was similarly colored. Radish recalled from the Guard manual that this room was intended to invoke the tranquility of a forest. Radish did not feel tranquil.

“Radish, you and I haven’t yet spoken to each other about Halcyon. I want to have that conversation now.”

“Ma’am, I’m here to protect your guests, not opine on them.”

“I am not oblivious to the tension between you two. It is common knowledge, even to him, that you were my suitor- a suitor I rejected.”

Radish took a deep breath. “Ma’am, I was just a silly little kid. I’d like to move on from those days.”

“And though he hasn’t said as much, it’s obvious that Halcyon is romantically interested in me.”

“I… suppose. But you must get hopeful suitors in here all the time.”

“I don’t.”

“Really? But you’re so…”

Radish quickly shut his mouth and looked away.

“No, finish the thought, please,” Celestia said.

“You’re so amazing. I assumed you get a never-ending stream of princes and nobleponies and legendary heroes coming here asking for your hoof in marriage.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“I, uh, guess not. I’m sorry.”

“Would you give me your honest opinion about Halcyon?”

“He’s a bit loud.”

Celestia laughed. “He comes from a very windy place. I can’t wait to see it.”

“You’re going to the Edgelands? Soon?”

“Very soon. He and I will journey to the Edgelands together, so that I may meet his people and assess their situation in person.”

“A journey like that could take a long time. Months.”

“Yes, and that excites me. It’s been eons since I’ve been on a true expedition into unknown lands. I never dreamt I would get to see the cradle of ungulate civilization, with one of its own people as my guide.”

“I’m… happy for you.”

“We will be spending many long hours together as we rebuild his civilization. And after that, I think I may like to spend even more time with him. Perhaps… many long years with him.”

Radish looked down at his boots. Celestia took a step closer to him.

“What do you think about all that?” she asked, gently.

“So you…” Radish took a deep breath and cut himself off.

“What? Ask. Please. I won’t punish you.”

“So you love him, then?”

Celestia stood tall, closing her eyes to consider her answer.

“I’ve been asking myself that very question. I don’t know. I can tell you that I feel a fondness for him that I haven’t felt for a stallion in a long, long, time. It could be the beginning of something.”

“You told me…” Radish looked aside and bit his lip.

“What did I tell you?”

“When I was a kid, you told me you’d never marry, because your responsibilities to Equestria were too great.”

“Ah, I remember. But that burden is eased now. Luna co-rules with me, while Twilight’s group sees to many important matters in my stead.”

“Oh.”

“Does that upset you?”

“What do you want me to say!?” Radish hissed through gritted teeth. “Why are you even asking me about it? We both know I never had a chance with you. Just live your life however you want.”

Celestia knelt down to his eye level.

“Radish, you and I have been getting along so well lately. I thought you were over your precocial infatuation with me. I thought we had built a friendly, professional relationship.”

“I am. We have.”

“You can’t get into arguments with every stallion who takes an interest in me.”

“That’s not what happened!”

“Radish… I really need you to move on from me. For your sake as well as mine.”

I have.

“Have you, now? You don’t desire me? Even just a little bit?”

“No.”

“What if I gave you one last, desperate chance? Would you leap at it?”

“What?”

“The last time you proposed to me was when you were a colt. Have you considered proposing to me as a stallion?”

“That would be inappropriate,” he responded. “A fireable offense.”

“Let’s waive propriety for now. Try asking again.”

“No.”

“Please. I’m as curious as you are what my answer will be.”

“I know what your answer will be.”

“I don’t. Perhaps I will choose you over him.”

“Celestia… will you marry me?”

“No.”

She stood up and frowned.

“Hmm. Interesting. I’m sorry, Radish. That was unprofessional.”

Unprofessional!?

“You’d be well within your rights to report me for misconduct.”

Radish narrowed his eyes and growled, “I’d be well within my rights to-!”

“Yes?”

He took a deep breath. “Will there be anything else, madam?”

“No. Dismissed.”


Spats entered his bunk’s shower room with a towel draped over his neck and a basket of toiletries in his aura. He saw Radish sitting on the sink counter holding a double-edged safety razor in his mouth.

“Radical? I mean, Radish? What are you doing?”

“Something I should have done a long time ago,” Radish said, around the razor’s long handle in his teeth.

Spats put down his basket and approached cautiously. He inhaled sharply at what he saw. Radish had applied a thick foam of shaving soap to his right cutie mark.

“Radish! No!”

“I’m done with her, Spats. I’m done with these.”

“How could you!?”

“This is long overdue. I’ll keep my flanks bare until they go bald.”

“You’re using my shave soap, Radish!? I get that from an uptown import shop for seventy bits a bar!”

“You’re right, Spats. It’s too good for her. Store brand is all she deserves.”

Radish scooted his flank under the sink faucet and washed the soap off.

“No, don’t waste it!” howled Spats as he ran forward, watching the expensive lather drain away. “Oh… Rad. What did she do to you?”

Radish applied his own canned shaving cream to his cutie mark and rubbed it in.

“I tried to move on, Spats. I really did. But she wouldn’t have it. She won’t let me drop her from my heart. So I’m dropping her from my fur.”

Radish pressed the razor against the top of the little Celestia’s head, and, with a quick downward motion, shaved it off. Spats winced.

“Radish! Stop!”

“Why?”

“Shave with the grain, not against it!”

“Fur has grain?”

“Yes, Radish,” sighed Spats. “Fur has grain. Hold still.”

Spats took the razor in his aura and washed out the fur. He held the razor to the little Celestia’s body.

“You really want to do this?” Spats asked.

“Yes.”

“Shaving off your marks is against dress code, you know.”

“So is polishing your armor with sea serpent wax.”

“I guess we’re both scofflaws, huh?”

Spats shaved off the little Celestia’s body, exposing pale pink skin underneath. He scraped away her multicolored mane and tail. Radish watched her go, and felt his body relax in places that had been clenched since he was a child.

“You okay?” Spats asked.

“Yes.”

“And the little you? Want him gone?”

“Yes. He wants to go with her.”

“Oh? Okay.”

Spats shaved the little Radish away, from his hooves to his mane, until there was nothing of the cutie mark left.

Radish closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the mirror, letting out a sigh of relief that fogged a large patch of it.

“I have to clean up these edges,” said Spats. “If I had better tools, I could do a nice bit of stallionscaping, but-”

“A big square bald patch is fine,” chuckled Radish.

Spats worked on the edges for a few minutes. Radish approved.

“Okay, one down,” said Radish. “But I’d like to do the other. I need to learn. I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life, after all.”

Radish went to work on his other cutie mark under Spat’s guidance. Soon he had finished. Radish felt his bare skin and smiled appreciatively.

“How does it feel?” Spats asked.

“Like I just dropped a huge burden off my back. I can’t thank you enough, Spats.”

“Yes you can. You can buy me more soap.”

“Worth it.”

Another guard, Bunker Buster, entered the bathroom, also with an aura full of toiletries.

“Whoa, you got rid of them?” he asked.

“Yep,” said Radish, unable to take his eyes off his flanks.

“Shining will have your head, you know. Cutie shaving is against regs.”

“So is dyeing your tail, Bunker Buster,” retorted Spats.

“It went prematurely gray!”

“You dye it gray.”

“Yeah, fog gray, like it used to be. And it still is, as far as the captain knows. Got it?”

“Got it,” said Spats.

Radish continued to sit and admire his bare flanks. His eyes started to tear up.

“So, you’ve never done that before now?” asked Bunker Buster.

“It always seemed taboo, you know? Like they weren’t mine to lose. Like I’d be breaking cosmic law.”

He hopped off the counter and gazed at his reflection from other angles.

“But they’re my flanks. My fur. My cutie marks. They are mine to lose. And they’re out of here. If cosmic law wants them, it can chase them down the drain.”

He pulled Spats and Bunker Buster into a tight hug. “I feel so free! Is this how you guys feel all the time?”

Spats and Bunker Buster looked at each other. They shrugged.

“Yeah, Rad,” said Spats.

“We’re happy for you,” said Bunker Buster.

“So, what do normal, regular ponies who don’t have pornography on their asses do for fun around here?”

“Uh, the bowling alley’s open,” offered Spats. “It’s free for guards.”

“Sounds fun. Come on, the beers are on me.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Spats.

“I think I’m going to like the new Radish,” said Bunker Buster.

“Me, too,” said Radish. “I can’t wait to meet him.”

39. The Suitor, Part 7: Never that Simple

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“Well, that’s another win for Radish,” sighed Spats, adding up their bowling scores.

“Don’t feel bad, guys,” said Radish, leaning back in his chair and smiling. “Sometimes the pins just fall your way.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Bunker Buster. “Another game?”

“Not just yet,” said Radish, scanning the palace bowling alley. “You know I’ve never been in here before? I’ve never wanted to be around this many tourists at once. And I’ve always been afraid of kids seeing my flanks.”

Bunker Buster frowned. Spats put a hoof on Radish’s shoulder. “Sorry, Rad. It never occurred to us that something as basic as a bowling alley could be so hard for someone.”

“Not anymore! Hey, what’s in there?” asked Radish, pointing to a large room off to the side.

“The games room,” answered Spats.

“I think I’m gonna go check it out. You two- just keep practicing.”

The games room had numerous token-operated games machines, including air hockey, foosball, and billiards tables. Radish found Spike standing on a stool and playing a pinball game themed around a treasure-hunting pegasus. Spike’s ball slipped between the paddles, which were decorated like hissing snakes. He let out the worst swear he knew.

Melon farmer!

He turned to see if anyone had heard him.

“Oh, hi, Radish. Can you believe this thing? I think it’s rigged.”

“Wanna play some pool? My treat.”

“You bet.”

Radish dropped a token into the table, and it released the balls. Radish broke the rack and sank the seven, earning him solids. The two played back and forth.

“So, Radish. What’s it like being a guard?”

“Busy. Not a lot of privacy. But you make good friends.”

“What’s Shining like as a boss?”

“He’s a riot. This place wouldn’t be the same without him. What’s he like as a brother?”

“Competitive. Confident.”

“Yeah? Wait ‘til I face him at my sword final. I bet I’ll cut the frills off his doily.”

“Huh?”

Radish took his pool cue in one hoof and assumed a two-legged sword stance with it as his sword.

“My sword final! I’m finally gonna have a decent weapon around here!”

He thrust at the air in front of him.

“Wield it by hoof on two legs! By the mouth on four legs! Take it in your tail and swing! Parry, lock, thrust, hit!”

“Whoa.”

“The finals are open to the public, you know. You can come watch. Heck, invite the girls.”

“I dunno, they all just went back home to Ponyville.”

Radish sank the five ball. “They’ll love it! They can join the crowd in cheering for me and laughing at Shining Armor’s ineptitude!”

“You dream big, Rad.”

Radish sank the one. “Nah, dreaming big is for suckers. Live big, Spike. Don’t ever let anyone make you live small.”

“Are you okay, Rad?”

Radish sank the eight ball, winning the game. “Spike, I’m fantastic.”

“Um… excuse me?” said a soft, feminine voice.

A tall yellow earth mare had approached them. She wore an airy crop-top and had a dish of banana pudding for her cutie mark. She smiled excitedly. “I saw you bowling. You’re really good.”

Radish shrugged casually. “Well, sometimes the pins just fall your way.”

“I see you’re really good at pool, too.”

“Now, that I will take credit for. It takes a keen eye and steady hooves to make these shots.”

“Well,” she said, stepping closer and giving Radish a look up and down, “I think I’ve got a pretty keen eye. How about you show me those steady hooves?”

“What do you think, Spike? Mind letting the lady take a turn?”

Spike was already gone. He had scampered out of the games room and up to Spats and Bunker Buster.

“Guys! You’ve got to see this!”

The three of them peeked around the games room’s door frame and watched Radish playing pool with the girl. She was leaning far over the table. He was leaning over it next to her, giving her pointers about her next shot.

Shoofly walked up behind them. “Hey guys, what’s happening?”

“Shh!” said Spats. “Check it out.”

She peeked around the corner with the rest of them.

“Is that Radish? With a girl?”

Radish showed the girl how to bank the cue ball for a difficult shot.

“Wow!” the yellow mare said. “I’m guessing sports is your special talent?”

“Well, I’m a royal guard. A pool cue is basically a spear. Actually, it’s a lot more solid than our spears.”

“Ooh, a royal guard! Then, what’s your cutie mark?”

Radish leaned in and lowered his voice. “Sorry, viewings are reserved for serious offers only.”

The girl giggled. Shoofly leaned back and fanned her face.

“What?” Spats asked her. “Is that a good line?”

“Oh, yeah,” Shoofly said. “It’s got me intrigued about his cutie mark, and I’ve seen it.”

The yellow earth mare drew her face toward Radish’s. She whispered something in his ear. He whispered something back in hers. She turned away and blushed.

“Radish Root with confidence,” sighed Bunker Buster. “So much for the singles scene.”

The girl took her leave, rejoining a group of friends she came in with. Radish walked over to the group, feigning an innocent expression.

“Well, Rad?” asked Shoofly.

“Well, what?”

“Come on!” Spike said. “Don’t keep us in suspense!”

He smiled. “Her name is Bananas Foster. She lives uptown. And she’s coming to watch me in the wrestling tournament this afternoon.”

Spats punched his shoulder. “Nice, Rad! She can watch you win at a third thing today.”

“I told you the girls of this burg would throw themselves at you,” said Shoofly.

Radish leaned on his cue stick and sighed contentedly. “And it’s only been two hours.”


“Okay, the brackets are set,” said the guard tournament organizer, hanging a whiteboard on the gym wall. “It’s double-elimination. No time limits, twenty-second counts for ring-outs.”

Radish and several other ponies gathered around to see the brackets. Radish saw Halcyon’s name among the competitors- his first opponent would be Maple Bar.

Pfft. Maple Bar can take that guy.

He found his own name. He was up first, and his first opponent would be…

“Shining Armor?”

“Hey, looks like we’re the opening act, Root.”

Radish turned to see his captain in wrestling gear. The guards around him gasped, guffawed, or grit their teeth.

“Are you sure, sir? Variant Two rules might be a little… strenuous… for senior officers.”

Shining Armor snorted. “Well, I’ll try to at least provide as much of a challenge as Fluttershy.”

Radish smirked. “I’ll see you in the ring, sir.”

He entered the locker room and dressed for their bout. He went over strategies in his head.

Shining Armor was somewhat smaller than Radish. While Radish had the advantage of earth pony strength, Shining Armor would be without his main advantage- unicorns were prohibited from using their horns in a match, either to summon magic, or as a piercing weapon.

While some athletic competitions used magic-inhibiting horn rings to prohibit unicorn magic, such rings were so costly they were reserved for major sporting events, not amateur intramural competitions. Instead, Shining Armor would wear a pad enclosing his horn. It contained a potion-treated cloth layer which would emit a shriek and a flash if he tried to use his magic, immediately disqualifying him.

He wasn’t underestimating Shining Armor, though. Nopony became the captain by being a weakling. The guards had all heard rumors that Shining Armor beat a hydra into submission with his bare hooves his first year in the guard. This was one of the more tame rumors about his past.

Radish emerged from the locker room and took his place in the ring. There were a lot more ponies in the gym’s bleachers now- apparently word had spread, and a lot of the palace staff and tourists were interested in seeing the bouts. Bananas Foster was among them, sitting in the back row with her friends. She waved at Radish. He waved back.

The referee blew his whistle.

Radish and Shining Armor collided, jockeying for control. Radish twisted Shining’s shoulders down to the mat, but Shining surprised Radish by bursting out of his grip and seizing him from behind. He lifted Radish up and slammed him down on his back. Radish’s lungs emptied of air.

“Oof.”

Shining held him down. Radish tossed him off. The two stallions circled each other, analyzing each other’s motions. Shining swooped toward Radish, and Radish crouched low. Shining vaulted over Radish, seized his hind legs, and pulled them above his back, twisting them and pushing them down into a painful pretzel. Radish grit his teeth. He didn’t even know what this hold was called, but it was the worst position he’d ever been in.

Radish clawed forward, but that only increased the pressure on his legs. He tried to buck them out, but earth pony strength was useless when his limbs were tangled around each other. Shining Armor pressed harder.

Radish slammed his forehooves down and flung his full weight into Shining’s face. His body came crashing down on his captain’s. The two stallions tumbled over each other. Radish clambered to all fours. His hind legs were free, but were sore and slow to obey him.

Shining Armor tried to flank Radish and tackle him from the side. Radish dug into the mat and warded him off with a forehoof. Shining Armor seized the forehoof, bent it unnaturally, and twisted it behind Radish’s back.

Radish only knew of one way to regain control from this lock, and it would mean putting more joints through more pain.

Radish put his full strength into his aching legs and spun his body, flinging his foreleg out and hurling Shining Armor into the mat with a room-shaking slam. The crowd gasped. Shining Armor dizzily blinked his eyes.

Radish now had only one leg that wasn’t in searing pain. He dropped to pin Shining Armor with it. Shining Armor’s eyes narrowed. He sprang like a cobra, colliding with Radish mid-air.

The two landed in a grapple. Radish pressed on and forced Shining down. Shining gripped the floor and tried to dive at Radish’s rear knees.

Again with the legs. He’s trying to divide and conquer my limbs. But why do his moves seem… familiar…

Radish realized he had seen some of Shining’s moves in specialized hoof-to-hoof training.

He’s using anti-manticore moves against me! Radish felt a swell of pride. He must be really desperate. I’ve read that manual, too, captain. And I know moves that aren’t written down anywhere.

Radish backed out of Shining’s range. He took a position at the other end of the ring, pawed the ground, and charged. Shining Armor easily dodged him, just as Radish knew he would.

Shining leapt onto Radish’s back and clutched his face, just as Radish knew he would. Radish leapt, twisted mid-air, and slammed Shining Armor head-first into the floor, using their momentum to scrape his face across the mat. Shining grunted in muffled pain.

Radish flipped him onto his back to pin him with his one remaining good leg. His captain caught the leg and rolled, flopping Radish to the mat. He pressed his entire weight onto Radish’s shoulders, pinning him down.

The referee counted to three and blew his whistle. The crowd rose and cheered.

Shining Armor sloughed off of Radish. Both lay on their backs, breathing hard. Shining touched his face and winced.

“Sheesh, Root. Who taught you to grind someone’s face into the ground like that?”

“A Black Bluff named Stoney.”

“You used buffalo moves on me?” He snorted. “You know I had to go through the whole anti-manticore manual to beat you?”

“I noticed. What was that last flip?”

“An anti-chimera move.”

“Huh. I haven’t trained on that one yet.”

Shining stood and helped Radish to his feet. He held up a hoof. “Good match. I had fun.”

Radish shook it. “Me too, sir.”

The crowd chatter in the room changed, filling the gym with murmurs, whispers, and gasps. They turned, and Halcyon was standing in front of them.

“Radish Root, you competed well. But does this defeat mean we will not face each other?”

“It means Root has one elimination,” said Shining Armor. “That puts him in another bracket. Both of you will have to win a few matches before you can face each other.”

“Interesting arrangement. It gives a second chance after failure.”

“Yeah, but just one. And if you want a chance at Root, you’ll have to get past me first.”

“I look forward to it. Princess Celestia speaks highly of her captain’s skills.” He loomed over Shining Armor. “Please, do not feel you have to go easy on me just because I am her guest. We engage in practice combat in my homeland as well, and we do not wear soft pads to do it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Radish rubbed his legs, watching Halcyon walk away. “I don’t suppose there’s a manual for fighting him, sir?”

“Life is never that simple, Root.”

Bananas Foster approached Radish.

“Hey, thanks for coming,” said Radish. “Sorry you had to come out here just to watch me lose.”

“Are you kidding? You were amazing out there!”

“Oh? Thanks.”

She stepped closer. “Hey, uh… are you allowed to leave the castle? Like, to have dinner in the city and stuff?”

“I am.”

“There’s this new restaurant downtown that everyone’s raving about. Would you-”

“Yes. Yes, I would.”

“Great! Meet me in Stirrup Park at seven?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Okay! Cool! See you there!”

She trotted off, smiling. Shining Armor cocked his eyebrows.

“Root? Did you just… make a date?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Huh.” He lowered his voice. “You know, you might want to stop by the Potions Bureau. They have free contraceptive elixirs for palace personnel.”

“Sir, it’s our first date. What kind of girl do you think she is?”


Radish stopped by the Potions Bureau.

The atrium was dark and the front desk was unattended. He peeked through a small window in the door to the main potions lab. The potions staff had taken off for the day, but the lights were still on in the Head Potionista’s office. He entered the lab and found the cabinet where the contraceptive potions were stocked. Radish put one in his bag, paused, then took two more. They clinked in his bag.

“Did you hear that?” whispered a male voice from inside the office.

“Shh!” shushed a female voice from inside.

Ooh, thought Radish, Potion Nova’s got a fella in her office after hours. Better get out before-

The office door swung open. There were five ponies inside.

“Sorry,” said Radish, backing up. “Didn’t mean to disturb your… get-together. I’m going now.”

“Wait!” called Potion Nova, skittering out of the office.

“Don’t!” admonished one of the others. It was Hallmark, the butler.

“Why? He’s perfect to bring in on this!” said Potion Nova.

Radish approached them. Aside from Potion Nova and Hallmark, Swift Sparrow, the postal pony, Onion Tartlet, the maid, and Morning Glory, the gardener, were inside. They all stared uneasily at Radish.

“Guys? This isn’t a party, is it?”

“No,” said Potion Nova. “This is more like a conspiracy. Welcome to it.”

“What’s going on?”

“We think there’s something funny about Halcyon,” said Onion Tartlet. “And I don’t mean his observational humor.”

“He’s just a foreigner,” said Radish with a shrug. “I’m sure he thinks we’re all weird, too.”

“See, I don’t think he is,” said Swift Sparrow. “We’ve had expeditions going to the Far Eastern Edgelands for decades. They’ve never encountered any locals.”

“He said his civilization fell. He’s one of the last of his kind.”

“It’s the oldest scam in the book,” said Morning Glory. “You pretend to be from someplace far away that no one knows about, so you can make up whatever you want about it. Conponies used to do it all the time for places like Zebrica, Mongoatlia, even Prance. Now that those places are better known, they have to go farther.”

“Celadon vouched for him. His expedition found him in the wastes.”

“Maybe Celadon is in on it,” said Onion Tartlet.

“Celadon’s got ten degrees and fifty years as a well-respected archeologist.”

“Consider Master Halcyon’s dialect,” said Hallmark. “Some of his pronunciations of vowels would suggest a west Fillydelphia upbringing. None of the archeologists from the expedition have such a dialect. He could not have picked it up from them.”

“Come on, you think he’s Fillydelphian? And Celestia doesn’t know the difference?”

“Radish,” started Potion Nova, “we think-”

“No. I’m done with this. If Celestia wants to shack up with some dude, that’s fine by me. You know what’s not fine? Clandestine meetings for plotting against the crowns. I won’t report this, but whatever problems you have with Halcyon, you’re better off forgetting them and moving on. I am.”

“Please, he could-”

Radish stormed out of the office. He grabbed two more contraceptive potions on the way out.


“Well, how do I look?” asked Radish, posing in front of the bunk’s bathroom mirror. He was wearing the clothes he bought for Twilight’s birthday.

“You look great,” said Spats. “What’s the game plan?”

“After dinner, I think we’ll go for a stroll along the riverwalk.”

“Classic. Well, we won’t wait up for you.”

“Hey, come on. It’s the first date. What kind of girl do you think she is?”


“This part of the city is lovely at night, isn’t it?” said Bananas Foster, walking down Canterlot’s riverwalk closely by Radish’s side.

“It must be great to live here,” said Radish, taking in the view of Uptown’s spires. The lights of the district were soft and warm.

“I was thinking it must be amazing to live in the palace.”

“Usually, it is,” sighed Radish. “But lately, it’s been feeling a little… much.”

“Come on, I want to show you something.”

She led Radish to a small stone bridge over a bend in the river.

“This is my favorite part of the river. It’s so dark and quiet. Most ponies would find it unnerving, but I think it’s peaceful.”

Radish looked around. The bridge was well-secluded, owing to thick and ancient magnolias surrounding this part of the riverwalk. They were in bloom, and their flowers were sweetly fragrant. The river here was slow and silent.

“You’re right. It’s really nice. Thanks for sharing it with me.”

She sidled up close to Radish.

“I’m really glad you came out here with me tonight.”

“Likewise.”

"I've been so lonely lately…”

“Me, too…”

“...ever since you got my boyfriend arrested."

“Boyfriend!?”

“Yes. The unicorn you punched out on the road to Canterlot.”

“The stickup pony!?”

“Mmm hmm. He wanted me to give you this.”

She pulled a dagger from her mane and thrust it at Radish’s heart.

Radish caught her hoof in his teeth and bit down, twisting the dagger from her grip. It clattered to the bridge’s stones and he kicked it away. She raised her other hoof to punch him in the face. He bit down harder. She cried out from the pain and buckled to the ground.

Radish spit out her hoof. She cradled it and started laughing.

“You don’t know the trouble you’re in, lieutenant!”

“You’re under arrest.”

She sprang from the ground and bucked him in the face with both rear legs. He skidded back. She made a leaping dive for the knife. Radish bit down onto her tail and yanked her back, flipping her over his head and slamming her into the bridge. She moaned and passed out.

He sighed. “So that’s what kind of girl you are.”

40. The Suitor, Part 8: Coffee and Pie

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Radish sat slumped on a bench in a City Watch station, watching his captain talk to a sergeant of the Watch. They glanced over at him unhappily several times during the conversation. Finally, the sergeant returned to his office and Shining Armor approached Radish.

"You okay, Root?"

"I'm fine, sir. What's going to happen now?"

"We're letting the Watch handle this, quietly. They've been after Puddin' Tame for a long time."

"Puddin' Tame?"

"That's her name."

"Oh. I should have known that was a lie, too."

“She’s part of a gang of crooks who have been running petty crimes and scams in Canterlot for years. Looks like they’ve recently built up enough confidence to take on bigger scores. They’re the ones who tried to jack your shipment. I guess they took it personally that you stopped them.”

"How many more are out there?"

"The Watch doesn’t know, but probably a lot."

"And I'm in their crosshairs."

"The Royal Guard doesn't take attempted murder on one of their own lying down. Commander Barrel Roller has asked to handle this personally. She says she'll bust up the whole gang like gangbusters."

"I don't want her to put herself in danger on my account."

"Root, she lives for a good fight. And she hasn't been in once since she took a desk job."

“What’s a good fight these days?”

Shining sat down next to him.

"You've never had somepony try to kill you, have you?"

"Not... quite like that."

"It's different from some wild animal or magical creature, isn't it? It's personal. Changes how you look at ponies."

"Yeah..."

"My first time was as a cadet. I was on a royal cargo train when a band of prairie pirates attacked."

"I've never heard of that. What happened?"

"They boarded us, and we fought. But during the fight, I noticed the pirates' leader breaking away from the fray. I chased after him. It turns out there was a VIP onboard traveling undercover. Somehow her identity got leaked, and the brigands saw her as an easy kidnapping target. And with everyone occupied repelling the boarders, I was the only one who could stop the boss from getting to her."

"I'm guessing you beat him easy."

"Hardly. He was hopped up on some black market potion. It made him insanely strong. He punched right through my best shield spell."

"What'd you do, then?"

"I cast my spell again. He broke it again. I cast it again, he broke it again, and so on. We were at an impasse, but I was clearly going to wear out before he would. I'll never forget the look in his eyes as he readied what he thought would be the killing blow. It was pure, cold, malice, aimed at my very life."

"But the killing blow didn't come."

"By then, the rest of my unit had finished mopping up the bandits, and came rushing to my aid. The pirate leader surrendered. I got a medal, promotion, yada yada. But the real reward was the grateful look on the VIP's face. That’s the look I choose to carry with me. That overrides the pirate leader's hateful eyes, every time."

“I didn’t save anyone. I don’t get a memory of a grateful look to carry out of this.”

“Do you know why I got called away before the dinner party? Someone tried to break into the palace’s supply depot that night. Lieutenant Zero repelled them, but got a black eye for his trouble. I’m guessing it was this same gang.”

“They’re probing the palace’s defenses. Testing the Royal Guard. They could be plotting something big.”

“That’s my read, too. But tonight you took one of them down and sent them a message. You want a grateful look?” He looked Radish in the eyes. “Here.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Have you given Corporal Shade’s advice any thought?”

“You mean therapy? I don’t know if I have the time.”

“You do now. I’m giving you the rest of the week off.”

"Did you take the rest of the week off after the pirates?"

"Yeah, because my captain ordered it, too. And I want you to lay low for the time being."

"Like, I'm grounded?"

“You're being targeted, Root. The next girl who smiles at you could get to the knife a lot quicker.”

“Oh….”

There was a clamor at the front of the station. Shining looked up.

“Ah, dang. The press is here. I need to go give a statement. Why don’t you quietly slip out the back? Just take a cab straight to the palace, okay?”

"Okay.”

“And… that VIP I mentioned? She’ll be on break from school soon, and she’ll be visiting Canterlot. I think you should meet with her.”

“Why? Is she single?”

“You know who I’m talking about, Root. Cadance is an expert on helping ponies who are going through tough things.”

“Does she know about my… whole deal?”

“No. Princess Celestia and I decided that your marks are yours to reveal- or not- on your own terms. We don’t bring them up behind your back. But I would encourage you to talk to Cadance about them.”

“I’m not going to dump that problem on Princess Cadenza while she’s on break, sir.”

“Everyone needs backup at some point, Root. Sometimes it’s your unit rushing to your rescue. Sometimes it’s just the right pony to talk to.”

“Well… okay.”

“Good.”

Shining left to deal with the press ponies. Radish walked through the station until he found what looked like a rear exit. He stepped out into a dark, humid alleyway.

Just slip out the back. Sure. Nothing bad ever happens in back alleys.

“Well, hey there.”

Radish spun around and raised a hoof in self-defense. A green earth mare in a flat cap and vest was leaning against the wall.

“I knew someone would come out the back. The real story is always trying to slip away from the press conference.” She reached out a hoof. “I’m Gazeta. I’m a reporter. And I’d love to hear your story.”

Radish lowered his hoof. “We’ve met. You gave me your card on the train.”

“Oh! The guard? You never stopped by.”

“I’ve been occupied.”

“That I can believe. You’re Radish Root, aren’t you? Talk about a chronic case of bad luck.”

Radish turned to walk away. “Have a nice night.”

“But maybe bad luck is what this town needs. You’ve put more members of the Warmbloods away in a week than the Watch has all spring.”

Radish stopped. He looked back at her. “That’s what they’re called?”

“Uh huh. Well, currently. They change their name a lot.”

“What else do you know about them?”

“You keep your ear to the street, you learn some things.”

“Have you told the Watch these things?”

“The Watch is where good intel goes to die. They ignore every lead they get from the public.”

“The Royal Guard doesn’t. Tell me what you know.”

“That could land me in hot water.”

“I can pay you.”

“In my line of work, the best currency is information.”

“I don’t have any of that.”

“No? I bet you’ve got a few beans to spill about that Halcyon guy.”

“The palace put out a press release about him. That should have all the information you need to know.”

She fished out a folded newspaper from her bag. “Yeah, I’ve seen it. Of course, the real story in any press release is what they leave out of it. And what they left out of this one is a real head-scratcher.”

“What did they leave out?”

She smiled. “Come on. We can talk about it over a cup of coffee. My treat.”

“I’ve already had one bad date tonight.”

“How about coffee and pie?”

“...fine.”


Radish and Gazeta took a corner booth in Horns and Hardcart, a spacious, 24-hour automat downtown. She put the press release on the table between them.

“All right,” she said, “look at this and tell me what’s wrong with it.”

Radish read it over. He shook his head. “Is this a punctuation thing?”

“It’s announcing Halcyon to the world, but there’s no photo of him.”

“What are you talking about? There’s one right there.”

“That’s an artist’s rendition. Photorealistic, but still a drawing. What I want to know is, why would they go through the trouble?”

Radish squinted at the image. It was the same picture of Halcyon’s face that Shining Armor projected during the briefing. As far as he could tell, it was indistinguishable from a photograph.

“Well, maybe he has a cultural thing against being photographed. Or maybe he just thinks the camera adds ten pounds.”

“Or maybe it’s because he’s not what appears to be, and you can’t fool a camera?”

She spread a series of photos across the table top. Radish frowned.

“You tried to photograph him? That wouldn’t work. Cameras don’t work in the palace outside of designated photo op zones. Anywhere else, and you just get a picture full of lens flares. It’s a spell that Celestia casts herself.”

“Yeah, all because some Ponyville kids took an embarrassing photo of her for their school newspaper. Talk about an overreaction.”

“I’m fond of the spell, myself.”

“I’m not. It means the only way to get a photo of Halcyon is to climb to a vantage outside the palace, use a long-focus lens, and try to snap a picture of him.”

“Don’t tell me you did that.”

“Of course I did. And guess what happened?”

“You felt a sense of remorse over being a voyeur?”

“I got attacked by birds. Since when does the palace employ attack swallows?”

“We don’t.”

“Well, that’s what they were. The blue kind with black wings. They swarmed me and I dropped my camera. It broke my lens and ruined the rest of my roll.”

“Black wings? That’s a northeastern species. They don’t get any closer to Canterlot than… Fillydelphia.” Radish clicked his tongue. “Did you get a photo of them?”

“No. They came out of nowhere and were gone in a flash.”

Radish looked at the photos. Gazeta had circled certain orange blurs inside certain palace windows on certain photos.

“What are these?”

“That’s Halcyon, or the best photo you can get of him from extreme range while he’s moving past a window.”

“It can’t be. Halcyon’s gold-colored. These are too orange.”

“That’s my point. He photographs differently from how he looks.”

“It’s probably bad film, a bad photographer, or a bad developer.”

“It’s none of those. And I resent that.”

“You probably just took a picture of the Quartermaster. He’s big and orange.”

“I resent that, too.” She leaned back and sighed. “You really don’t know what’s going on with Halcyon, do you?”

“No. I really don’t.” He looked down at the table. “Sorry. I have no information to trade you.”

She pulled out her notebook, wrote something down, and tore out the page.

“Here,” she said, offering it to him. “For your trouble. A list of places the Warmbloods have been gathering lately. Maybe the Guard can put it to better use than the Watch.”

“Thanks. We will.” Radish looked at a clock on the wall. “It’s getting late. Can I escort you home?”

“That’s sweet, but you’re the one being targeted. I should escort you home.”

“I don’t think anyone in the palace should see me with a reporter. In fact, why don’t we say this chat never happened?”

“If it never happened, then I’m not paying for your pie.”

“...fine.”


Radish took a cab to the palace and entered through the back. He found Princess Celestia pacing the atrium of the rear entrance. She approached him with a relieved expression.

“Radish…”

He saluted. “Your highness.”

“I heard about the attempt on your life. Are you all right?”

“I sustained no injury, your highness.”

Her head drooped as she stepped closer. “I’m sorry for how I behaved. If that had been the last time we spoke…” She grimaced and looked off to the side.

“Yes?”

“Please, forgive me. I need you to know that-”

“Radish Root! I am glad to see you safe!”

Halcyon appeared around the corner. Princess Celestia stood up straight, calmed her expression, and turned to him.

“Halcyon?” she said. “What are you doing back here?”

“I heard that Radish Root was attacked!” He looked at Radish. “It must have been a terrifying ordeal for you!”

Radish shrugged. “Oh, it wasn’t so bad. One time I got into a bar brawl in Fillydelphia- now that was terrifying.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah,” said Radish, stepping closer to him, “a lot of unsavory types hail from Fillydelphia.”

Halcyon stared into Radish’s eyes. “I would not know.”

“Some cool birds live there, though.”

“I would not know that, either.”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t. Well, sir, madam, it’s been a long day for me. I’m going to turn in.”

“Good night, Radish,” said Celestia. “And if there’s anything you need-”

“Thank you, your highness. You’re too kind.”


Onion Tartlet heard a soft rapping at the door of her quarters. She opened it to see Radish.

“Lieutenant?”

“Miss Tartlet, is there still room for me in your conspiracy?”

She looked relieved. “Yes. We’re all getting really worried. Princess Celestia is already planning her journey to the Edgelands with Halcyon. They could be leaving as soon as next week.”

“Then we don’t have much time.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“Everyone needs backup at some point. And I think Celestia needs all of us now.”

41. The Suitor, Part 9: Some Pretty Strange Secrets

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Radish held his practice sword in two hooves, slowly circling Saguaro Shade.

“You sure you’re up for this, Root? I heard about your night out.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I’m seeking the help I need.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Radish clashed his baton against Saguaro Shade’s. They traded blows and blocks back and forth across the arena. Radish advanced, pressing his corporal back. Saguaro Shade thrust low, only to have his weapon swatted away. Radish brought his own weapon to Saguaro Shade’s throat.

“Well, corporal? How’s my focus today?”

“You’re finally fighting in the moment. Forcing my next move, instead of trying to predict it.”

“A fighter’s only as good as his next move.”

“I like that. Where’d you hear it?”

“I just made it up.”

“Did you also make up that tail feint?”

“It’s from the anti-chimera manual, just scaled for a pony-sized opponent.”

“That’s innovative of you, Root. I think you’re as ready as you’ll ever be for your final.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do you proud.”

They sheathed their batons and bowed to each other.


Radish trotted inside the palace’s photo studio, one of the locations in the castle exempt from the censorship filter spell. He found Halftone, the royal photographer, making adjustments to a boxy contraption on a workbench.

“Pardon me, sir.”

“Can this wait? I’m close to figuring out how to photograph a snowflake.”

“That’s been done.”

After it’s melted.”

“That’s just water.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

Radish put the paper with Halcyon’s press release down onto the workbench.

“I need to know about this.”

Halftone looked at it. His ears drooped. “So, you figured it out. Please don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t. Just tell me what’s going on.”

Halftone wiped his glasses and sighed. “The day Halcyon arrived, Princess Celestia gathered a bunch of the palace staff for a meet-and-greet with him. She asked me to take his official photo. He came in here and sat for it, but… I botched it.”

“Botched it?”

“Every time I looked at him through the viewfinder, he looked off. Too bright, too dark, blurry, miscolored, you name it. I had to keep adjusting the light, the focus, everything, way more than I should have. When I developed the photos, I found I had adjusted way too much. Halcyon’s official picture came out a big orange blur.”

“Really?”

“Captain Armor wanted the photo ready for his briefing. And I couldn’t get Halcyon to sit for another- he had gone to bed. So… I faked it.”

“How?”

“Minor photo problems, I can fix on my own. But when I have a big problem, I go to Broadstrokes.”

“The royal portrait artist?”

“He can rework a photo with his magic. He was at the meet-and-greet, so he knew what Halcyon looked like- he’s a genius at memorizing faces. He agreed to make a fake photo from scratch.”

“He can just whip up a photorealistic picture?”

“Yeah, but he hates doing it. He says the more realistic a painting is, the less true-to-life it is. Whatever that means. Anyway, I submitted it to Captain Armor. They later used it for the press release. No one noticed.”

“Hmm. Then, has Halcyon ever been clearly photographed?”

“I guess not. Why? Do you think he’s a ghost or something?”

“Do ghosts not photograph clearly?”

“No. There are ghosts all over this castle, but I’ve never gotten a good picture of any of them.”

“Thank you for your time.”


Radish went to the Potion Bureau on his lunch break. The staff was out to lunch, but the Head Potionista’s office was full. Inside was the same group of conspirators, along with a new one- Katydid, the records archivist.

“Thanks for coming back,” said Potion Nova, “we think we’ve blown this Halcyon thing wide open.”

“How so?”

“Take a look at this, lieutenant,” said Katydid, giving Radish a stack of documents. “This is the sign-in log for Secure Storage.”

“Are you allowed to show us this?”

“Sure, it’s not classified. It just sits on my desk all day, where anyone can walk by and read it. But look- the day Halcyon showed up, Princess Celestia went down there, and she didn’t come back up for hours.”

Radish looked at the line she was pointing to. Celestia had signed in around noon on the day, then signed out around 3pm. Under “Reason for visit”, she wrote “study of artifacts”.

“Is that unusual?”

“Normally, if she needs something from Secure Storage, she sends a clerk to retrieve it.”

“Okay, but what does this have to do with Halcyon?”

“Well, when she came out of the archives, she was, ah… disheveled.”

“Disheveled?”

“One of the hairs in her mane was out of place.”

“That is unusual.”

“So you see where I’m going with this?”

“No.”

Katydid shifted uncomfortably on her hooves. “Well, you know what else is down there, right?”

“Uh, a ton of stuff. Even Discord’s ugly mug is there.”

“Yes. Exactly.” Katydid waited, as if expecting Radish to make a connection.

“What?”

“Lieutenant, we think Halcyon is Discord,” said Swift Sparrow.

“Discord is stone. We all saw him. If he broke free, we’d have been alerted.”

The conspirators all gave each other a look.

What?” asked Radish exasperatedly.

“Lieutenant… you must have heard that rumor,” said Morning Glory.

“What rumor?”

“You know, that Celestia…”

Radish waited.

“...and Discord…”

Radish waited, impatiently.

“...used to be lovers.”

Radish made a dry heave, then another. “What? That’s insane!”

“It makes sense, in a weird way,” said Potion Nova. “They’re both uniquely powerful ancient beings. They can probably relate to each other in a way they can’t with anyone else.”

“Discord tormented the royal sisters! Made Luna cry! Gave Celestia nightmares!”

“Love doesn’t have to be rational, Radish,” said Onion Tartlet. “The ‘enemies-to-lovers’ plot is hugely popular in novels, plays, movies…”

“That’s fiction! Even if it were true- which it’s not- why would Discord be Halcyon?”

“Well- and keep in mind that this is a rough draft- we think it went a little something like this,” said Morning Glory.

Hallmark took a position at one side of the room and contorted his body into the same pose as Discord’s statue. Onion Tartlet walked up to him in a regal-looking trot.

“I, Princess Celestia,” she said, “will now free you, Discord, from your stony prison!”

She dipped her head toward Hallmark as if casting a spell. Hallmark stretched out and laughed maniacally.

“Ha ha ha! Now that I, Discord, am free again, I will turn off the sun and begin my reign of chaos all over again!”

“But Discord,” cried Onion Tartlet, “I have freed you- because I love you! I cannot stand another moment without you! And I know that you love me, too!”

“Don’t be foolish, Celestia!” said Hallmark, turning away, “our love could never be! Your people will never accept it!”

“Then we will keep our love a secret! Meet in secret! Make love in secret!”

Radish held in another dry heave.

“No, dearest Celestia, I have a better idea- I will take pony form, so that we may be together, publicly! I will make myself into a stallion so handsome, no one will question why you wish to be with me. I will give myself a backstory that no one will be able to disprove! And I will present myself to a respected member of pony society and have him introduce us!”

“That is brilliant, my love! But wait, my sister Luna knows all your tricks, and will not be so easily fooled.”

“Then I will create a disturbance in the dream realm, to weaken and distract her!”

“Stop,” said Radish. “It can’t be Discord doing that. Luna confirmed it’s not chaos magic.”

“Oh?” asked Hallmark. “Drat.”

“Then I, Princess Celestia, will cause the disturbance myself!” announced Onion Tartlet. “Then we will take a long voyage together, and let her run the kingdom for a change!”

Hallmark turned back to her and got back into character. “You’d pain your own sister, just to be with me?”

“Yes- because love doesn’t have to be rational!

“But what of all your servants? Your staff? Your guards? Won’t they object to you throwing caution to the wind and leaving with a stranger?”

“No, for they only want me to be happy. Except…”

“Except?”

“There is a guard who is madly in love with me…”

Radish crossed his hooves and scowled.

“...and, though I do my best to deny it, deep down, I harbor feelings for him, as well!”

“Wait, what?” asked Radish.

“Shhh!” whispered Swift Sparrow. “This is where it gets good.”

“Leave him to me, my little sugar swan,” said Hallmark, grandly, “I will challenge this guard to a duel and give him a proper thrashing, thus proving myself the superior stallion!”

“And by the time he and Luna have recovered, we will have sailed away to our new lives!” cheered Onion Tartlet.

They embraced each other.

“Oh, Celestia!” cried Hallmark, “I will now restore the sunlight, so that it can shine on our love!”

“Oh, Discord!” cried Onion Tartlet, “Come, and dishevel me!”

They gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes, and drew their faces toward each other.

“And… scene!” said Potion Nova.

Onion Tartlet and Hallmark let go of each other and turned away, blushing.

“Well,” said Radish, “I think your play needs some work.”

“Like we said, it’s a rough draft,” said Morning Glory. “But it fits what we know.”

“Has anyone actually gone down there to check on the statue of Discord?”

“No one can,” said Katydid. “That’s the other thing. Princess Celestia raised the security clearance level to Five for the room he’s in.”

“Five? That’s one of the highest! You should have led with that.”

“See? Even if it’s not Discord…”

“Which it is,” insisted Onion Tartlet.

“...Celestia is still hiding something down there. And she devoted a lot of time to it the day Halcyon arrived.”

Radish mulled this over. “Well… what do you want to do about it?”

“We intend to bring more palace personnel into the fold, including the department heads, then draft a letter of concern signed by all,” said Hallmark.

“That’s your plan?”

“Well, there’s not much else we can do,” said Potion Nova. “Think you can get more guards to listen? Maybe high-ranking ones?”

“Look, maybe we can talk to Princess Luna about all this…”

Hallmark frowned. “Lieutenant, did you not hear?”

“Hear what?”

“Princess Luna’s pain has grown too much for her to bear. The doctors had to sedate her.”

“Sedate her! I’m her Champion! I should have been the first to know!”

“There’s nothing we can do for her now, except uncover the truth,” said Onion Tartlet.

Radish went to the door.

“Oh, I’m going to uncover the truth, all right. The truth won’t know what hit it.”


Radish galloped through the back halls of the palace. As he rounded a corner, he skidded to a stop to avoid bowling over two ponies. It was Maple Bar, limping down the hall, clinging to Flash Sentry for support.

“Mape? What happened?”

“Oh, hey, Rad. You missed my match with Halcyon. No prize for guessing how it went.”

“He did this to you?”

“Tell ‘em, Flash.”

“She competed very well,” said Flash Sentry. “It was an impressive display of-”

“No. Tell him the truth.”

“Halcyon folded her like a calzone, flipped her like a pancake, and slammed her like… uh… well, you get the idea.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Nothing’s broken.”

“What’s his fighting style like?”

“He’s weirdly fast,” said Maple Bar. “Like, you grab for him, and he’s not there. Then he’s suddenly got you. And yes, he’s as strong as he looks.”

“Don’t worry, I can take him,” said Flash.

“And then I’ll knock him out of the loser’s bracket,” said Radish.

“Love that optimism,” said Maple Bar. “Can we get to the clinic now?”

Flash helped Maple Bar along to the hospital wing. Radish ran on. He reached the base of Selenic Spire just as Spike was coming out the front door.

“Oh, hey, Radish.”

“Sorry, Spike, no time to chat. I have to see Luna.”

“There’s nothing to see. I just came from her. She’s sleeping. Well, more like a medical coma. But ‘sleeping’ sounds nicer.”

“She can’t go to sleep! The dream world is what’s hurting her!”

“The doctors gave her something that keeps her from dreaming.”

“How long are they going to keep her like that?”

“Uh… they wouldn’t tell me.”

Radish gazed up at Luna’s balcony. He chewed his lower lip.

“Spike, I need your help.”

“With what?”

“Research.”

“I’m Twilight’s research assistant, not yours. I oughta charge you.”

“I’ll give you fifty bits.”

“Actually, how about you give me a peek at that, instead?” Spike said, pointing to Radish’s armor-covered flank.

“If I show you my flanks, you’ll help me?”

“Cross my heart.”

“Okay.”

Radish lifted up his armor, revealing a shaved square of skin.

“Aw, man. What a ripoff. I should have taken the bits.”

“You promised.”

“Yeah, yeah. What can I do for you?”

“Come on. We’re going to the archives.”

Radish led Spike across the commons to the administration buildings.

“Hey, Spike? Have you ever heard of enemies becoming lov… uh, becoming a couple?”

“Were you going to say ‘lovers’?”

“...yes.”

“Sure. It’s a pretty popular storyline. Happens in comics all the time.”

“Hmm. What about in real life?”

“Is this about you and Twilight?”

“What? No.”

They reached the front desk of Secure Storage. Katydid had returned from lunch and was on duty.

“Katydid, I need access to the lower levels.”

She frowned. “They’re at Clearance Level Five now, remember? I can’t look the other way this time.”

“Oh, Level Five?” asked Spike, walking around Radish, “Not a problem for a Very Important Dragon like myself. I’ve been Level Five since Nightmare Moon. Hey, Katydid.”

“Oh, hi, Spike! You’ll sign for access?”

“Yep. But I’ve got to bring Radish with me as my personal bodyguard. To protect me from rats.”

“Okay. But there’s no rats down there. The snakes scare them away.” She pulled out a key embossed with a ‘5’ on its handle while Spike signed in. “Take all the time you need.”

Spike twirled the key on a talon as he led Radish down the spiral stairwell to the archives. “So, what kind of research are we doing down here?”

“First, we need to check on a rubbish heap.”

They passed through the maze of aisles until they reached the locked room with Discord’s statue in it. Spike used the key. Radish entered the room determinedly. He found what he was looking for, where he last left it.

“Discord.”

The statue of Discord stood there, unchanged, albeit dustier.

“Whoa, this is where they stuck him?” asked Spike, approaching.

“Can we be sure this is the real thing?” asked Radish. “What if he got free, and just put a fake in his place?”

Spike sniffed it. “Nah, this is the real thing. I can still smell banana cream pie on him.”

“Okay. Load off my mind.”

“Ahh… ahh… choo!” Spike cupped his claws to his snout and sneezed a burst of green fire into them. Radish hopped back to avoid it.

Spike rubbed his nose. “Ugh, it’s so dusty down here. Is this all you wanted to see?”

“No. Something else is down here. We just need to find… oh. That’s new.”

At the far end of the room, there was a tall metal door where there hadn’t been one before. Radish approached it. It had a flat metal seal across it bearing the image of Celestia in silhouette.

“I’m guessing our Level 5 key won’t get us in there,” sighed Radish. “Looks like this door can only be opened by Celestia herself.”

“Yeah,” said Spike, walking up to it. “Whatever’s in there must be pretty important.”

He leaned against the door with one claw. “Sorry, Rad, I don’t think- whoa!”

The door swung open, causing Spike to fall onto the floor.

“Guess she forgot to lock it?” he said, standing up and dusting himself off.

Radish peered into the room. Inside was nothing but darkness. He clicked on his flashlight and affixed it to his helmet. Spike snatched a torch off the wall and lit it with his breath.

Radish examined the opened door’s locking mechanism. “Celestia put some of her magic in you, didn’t she? That’s how you send scrolls on smoke, right? The door must think you’re her.”

“Or maybe it’s because I’m half Celestia!” gasped Spike. “There’s this old rumor that I’m the secret love child of Princess Celestia and the Dragon Lord. Wait, is that why you were asking about enemies becoming lovers? Is that what this is all about?”

“I’m sorry, Spike, that’s not biologically possible. And she would have told you if she was your mother.”

“I dunno,” Spike said, “princesses can keep some pretty strange secrets.”

They gingerly entered the room, casting their lights around. Radish stopped in his tracks. “No kidding.”

His flashlight illuminated a tall glass capsule. Hovering inside it was a miniaturized cumulonimbus cloud. As Radish walked up to it, his fur stood on end.

Spike’s torch shone on a thick, filthy mass of roots breaking through the ceiling and reaching to the floor. Distracted by the sight, he walked into a third object, a crystal ball on a pedestal. His light caught small, ethereal purple wisps emanating from the ball and streaming toward a fourth object in between the other three.

Radish and Spike cast their lights on it. The wisps from the crystal ball, the roots from the ceiling, and a cable from the bottom of the capsule all converged into a circular dais in the center of the room. Sticking up from the center of the dais was a long, golden spear.

Radish’s eyes went wide as he approached it. “Son of a bi-”

He looked down at Spike. Spike looked up at him. “Of a what, Radish?”

“Of a big, honkin’ spear.”

“I can see that. What are we looking at?”

“It’s Celestia’s personal spear- a Hearth’s Warming present from the palace blacksmith, Ferrum Flats, a long, long time ago.”

“Really? I never get anything cool like this for Hearth’s Warming.”

Radish peered closer. The spear was no longer a solid piece of metal, but segmented and mechanized. Next to Ferrum Flat’s maker’s mark was a new mark- the insignia of Chandler, the Royal Quartermaster.

“Looks like Celestia had it modified to make it collapsible, just like a modern Guard spear.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“Maybe so it’s more portable? Or more… concealable?”

“But what’s all this stuff it’s plugged into?”

Radish took in the whole of the assembled objects.

“Tree roots, a storm cloud, and a magic crystal.” He looked back at the spear. “It’s being powered up by earth power, pegasus weather, and unicorn magic. Celestia is charging the spear with all three of her alicorn powers. She’s making a superweapon!”

“Sheesh. For what? Or, rather, against what?”

Radish looked out the door, into the next room, where Discord’s stone form stood.

“She told me she doesn’t like to send others to fight her battles. Maybe this is her way of ensuring she’ll never have to again.”

“You’d think something like that, she’d keep in her own tower, not the archives.”

Radish put his hoof on the tree roots and closed his eyes. “Hmm. Citrus. Non-native citrus.”

He opened his eyes and gazed up at the dark ceiling. “This is the Balencian orange tree! We’re underneath Courtyard A.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve snuck in there for snacking, from time to time. Those oranges are crazy sour. If there was a fruit I’d weaponize, that would be it.”

There was a new sound outside the room- heavy hooves walking across the stone floor.

“Spike? Are you down here?” called out Celestia’s voice.

Spike and Radish looked at each other, fearfully. They both doused their lights. Spike rushed to the door and closed it, enclosing them in darkness. They both huddled with their ears against the door.

“Spike!” called Celestia, now muffled. Her hoofsteps were getting closer. They stopped in front of the door.

The door made a series of clicks and clunks. Radish scooped Spike onto his back and pressed against the wall. The door swung open, concealing Radish and Spike behind it. They both peeked around the door at Celestia as she walked into the room, her horn lighting the way bright as the sun. They shut their eyes to adjust to the new light, then cracked them open to watch her.

She walked up to the spear and put a hoof on it. She inspected the tree roots closely. She walked up to the glass cabinet, and wrapped her wings around it. Finally, she touched her horn to the crystal ball, causing it to glow.

She then walked to the side of the room and looked at a small shelf that neither Spike nor Radish had noticed. Nothing but a single scroll sat on it. She seemed satisfied that it was there. Radish and Spike hid again as she turned. She left out the door, clicking it shut and locking it behind her.

Radish and Spike reignited their lights.

“Well, that was a close one,” said Spike.

Radish walked up to the spear-charging devices. The crystal ball was now glowing with purple light, and its emanations looked more substantial. The miniature thundercloud was flashing lightning inside its case, which struck the bottom plate and flowed through the cable.

“I guess she has to recharge these things every once in a while,” said Radish.

Spike approached the shelf. He hopped up and grabbed the scroll.

“Huh.”

“What?” asked Radish, walking up to him.

“It’s a transcript of throne room proceedings… from the day Halcyon arrived!”

“Don’t court transcripts usually go into public records?”

“Yeah, but this one is marked Top Secret. Clearance Level Six! This, I’ve got to see!” said Spike.

“Spike, don’t. Stumbling into a secret room is one thing, but looking at documents above our Clearance Level is something else entirely. And by ‘something else entirely’, I mean a federal crime.”

“Who’s going to prosecute me for a federal crime? I’m just a widdle baby dwagon.”

“Spike, I’m serious. We can bend the rules, but we can’t-”

Spike unfurled the scroll. A cloud of dust wafted up from the paper into his face.

“Ahh… ahh… choo!”

He sneezed out a large green flame which enveloped the scroll, reducing it to smoke. The smoke hovered in the air for a moment, then flew away from them, slipping under the door and out of sight.

Radish seized Spike in a panic. “Spike! Where is that going!?”

“Uh… usually a scroll goes to the last place I was thinking of.”

“You just sent it into Rarity’s lips!?”

“Hey! I have interests outside of Rarity, you know!”

“Then, where’s it going?”

“Well, your talk about bending the rules made me think of that rigged pinball game in the bowling alley, and that time I tried to tilt it.”

“What?”

That made me think of the claw game right next to it.”

“What?”

“There was this cute stuffed seal inside. I thought it would be nice to win it for… okay, for Rarity. Happy?”

“You sent a top-secret document… into the claw game at the bowling alley… full of ponies!?”

“Uh, heh heh. Yeah. But look on the bright side- no one ever wins at those things.”

Radish bit down into his hoof to muffle his own screaming. Spike walked up to the door and opened it.

“Come on, Rad. We’re never going to get that scroll back if we stay down here.”

They made their way out of the archives, passing the statue of Discord.

Radish scowled at it. “If I find out you had something to do with this, I’m going to crush you into gravel.”

The statue did not respond.

42. The Suitor, Part 10: That Kind of Power

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Radish and Spike pressed their faces to the glass of the games room’s claw machine.

“Look! There it is, in the corner!” yelled Spike.

The scroll was indeed inside the machine, in a back corner, under a stuffed seal.

“Told you no one ever wins at these things,” said Spike. He rolled a quarter-bit across his knuckles, flicked it into the air, and caught it. “You go get the key. I bet I’ll have won it before you get back.”

“Just guard the machine, okay?”

Radish rushed to the front counter. A clerk was leaning on his hoof, sipping a soda, and reading a magazine.

“I need someone to open the claw game!”

The clerk glanced up. “Sorry. A separate company is in charge of those games.”

“You don’t even have a spare key!?”

“Nah. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: everything in there is cheap junk. Worth way less than the cost to win them.”

“Ugh.” He upturned his coin purse onto the counter. “Just break all these into quarter-bits.”

Radish returned to Spike, who now had the stuffed seal and several more plush dolls around his feet.

“Spike! You’re supposed to be grabbing the scroll, not toys!”

“I had to move all this other stuff out the way to get the scroll out of the dead zone. Trust me. I have a method.”

He scampered around the sides of the machine. “First, you gotta check out the angles.”

He returned to the control, and dropped in a quarter-bit. A timer started counting down from ten. “Then you gotta get the claw just right…”

He maneuvered it into position above the scroll. “Wait for it…”

The countdown timer showed two seconds left.

“Spike!”

“Then… bam!”

He slammed the button. The claw descended. It closed on the scroll. It dragged it out of the pile of toys.

Radish held his breath.

The claw swung back and forth as it went. It stopped above the chute and released. The scroll fell sideways, then wedged into the chute, stuck.

Radish slammed his head against the glass. “Oh, come on!”

“Relax, Rad. Check this out.”

Spike stuck his face into the bottom of the chute, then blew fire. It whooshed up and engulfed the scroll, turning it into smoke once again. The smoke flew out of the machine, stopped in front of Radish’s face, then popped back into a scroll again. Radish snatched it and held it tight.

“Pretty cool, huh?” said Spike, gathering up the stuffed toys. “That may have been my shortest-range delivery ever!”

Radish sat down on the carpet, and fell over on his side. He started to laugh.

“Radish?”

Radish wiped his eyes and looked at the scroll in his hooves. “Come on. Let’s see what makes this so important.”

“I thought you were worried about breaking federal law.”

“Spike, somehow this was the most stress I’ve had all week.” He pulled Spike into a headlock and gave him a noogie. “No matter what happens to me, no matter what Halcyon turns out to be, nothing could possibly be any worse than you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No, thank you. Here.” Radish dropped his bag of quarter-bits into Spike’s arms. “Fifty bits, just like I offered.”

“Then, you take this.” Spike gave Radish one of the plush toys, a blue whale.

“Thanks. Wow, that clerk was right about these things.”


Radish and Spike locked themselves in a private study room in the library.

“So, want me to read this out loud?” asked Spike, hopping onto the table and opening the scroll.

“What, like you’re reading me a bedtime story?”

“It’s an advanced study technique. I do it for Twilight all the time.”

Radish cradled his stuffed whale and sat back in his chair. “Sure. Have at it.”

Spike cleared his throat and read.

“LOG #857-67.5. THURSDAY. 0900 HOURS.”

That means Celestia went down to Secure Storage hours after this, thought Radish.

“PRESIDING: PRINCESS CELESTIA. ON DUTY: CAPTAIN SHINING ARMOR, COMMANDER BARREL ROLLER, CORPORAL SAGUARO SHADE.”

The senior officers were all there.

“APPEARANCES: ROYAL ARCHEOLOGICAL SOCIETY HEAD CELADON, GUEST PETITIONER HALCYON. ALSO PRESENT: ROYAL PET PHILOMENA.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: I call today’s session to order. I understand we have a very special guest from very far away.

HALCYON: Greetings, Princess Celestia. I am Halcyon.”

“Uh, Spike,” interrupted Radish, “you don’t have to do the voices.”

“Yes, I do. Now, hush.”

He returned to the scroll.

“PRINCESS CELESTA: Greetings, Halcyon. I have been told quite the tale about you. I admit, I was a bit skeptical when I heard it.

HALCYON: That is understandable. I can scarcely believe this new world I have entered into, myself. I could have never imagined what wonders awaited beyond my homeland.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: And your homeland would be?

HALCYON: It has no name like yours.

CELADON: Your highness-

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Hello, Celadon. I wasn’t expecting to see you again for years.

CELADON: I believed Halcyon was important enough to personally escort here.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: How did you meet?

CELADON: We found him in the region of the Far Eastern Edgelands our cartographers designate “FC-78”.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: That is quite far, indeed.

CELADON: But he says he spent over a moon traveling from his homeland before we found him.

HALCYON: I was sent to seek help. I am a weary survivor and hopeful emissary of a once-magnificent people.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: The precursor race to all hoofed beings?

HALCYON: I believe so. There is much I do not know about the lands and peoples outside my own. Your ‘archeologists’ have taught me a great deal already.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: And Celadon, you believe his story?

CELADON: I can only tell you that we encountered Halcyon in the wilds- dehydrated, famished, injured, and alone.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: What manner of injury?

CELADON: Some very serious lacerations. They were infected.

HALCYON: A beast I had never seen before attacked me. I drove it off, but not before it clawed me.

[HALCYON turns to show claw scars on right foreleg.]

HALCYON: Had your people not found me, it no doubt would have kept returning until it finished me. I owe them my life, and as you are their leader, I owe you my life, as well.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Please, your life is no one’s but your own. What happened next?

CELADON: We nursed him back to health, and he told us of his people’s situation. He also demonstrated his primordial powers to us.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Primordial powers?

HALCYON: Yes. My people are not divided into tribes as ponykind. We have not what you call magic, and none of us can fly to shape the skies. But we have a close connection to all aspects of the natural world. It is like an extension of our bodies. May I demonstrate?

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Please do.

HALCYON: [claps hooves]

[A small whirlwind appears in front of Halcyon.]

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Quite impressive.

[The whirlwind dissipates.]

HALCYON: Through this connection, we marshaled the sky, as your pegasi do, we bonded with the land and its life, as your earth ponies do... [raises hoof]

[Swallows fly in from the balcony and perch on Halcyon, then chirp.]

[HALCYON points at PRINCESS CELESTIA.]

[The swallows fly circles above PRINCESS CELESTIA. They coo at her.]

PHILOMENA: [squawks appreciatively.]

PRINCESS CELESTIA: [smiles]

[The swallows fly out of the throne room.]

HALCYON: And we guided the sun, moon, and stars… as I have been told you do.

HALCYON: [stomps hoof]

[THE SUN sets.]

CAPTAIN SHINING ARMOR: [brandishing spear] Whatever you just did, you had better undo it. Now.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: At ease, captain. [to Halcyon] But he is right. This sudden loss of the sun will frighten my people. [horn glows] [exertion] [frustrated gasp]

HALCYON: Forgive me. [stomps hoof]

[THE SUN rises.]

PRINCESS CELESTIA: But… hmm. Thank you. [INTO THRONE’S PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT MICROPHONE]: Attention. We just experienced a temporary lapse in sunlight due to a magical anomaly. Everything is under control. Thank you, and have a wonderful day.

HALCYON: I meant no harm. Ages ago, the sun and moon started to move on their own, and we assumed they had learned enough from us that they no longer needed our guidance. We had no idea the duties had actually been taken up by others.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: I had no idea the duty belonged to others before the unicorns of old. Is it your intent to reclaim that duty?

HALCYON: I have not come to lay claim to anything. I have come to beg for help.

[HALCYON kneels.]

HALCYON: Please, Princess Celestia, my people are dying. I believe this power of “friendship” can save them. Will you teach it to us?

PRINCESS CELESTIA: We will do all we can. I will send for my student and her friends. They are the nation’s experts on the subject. In the meantime, we will prepare shipments of relief packages for your people.

HALCYON: Thank you, Princess Celestia.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Palace lodgings will be provided to you in the meantime.

HALCYON: Me? Live here? Surely not. I am unworthy of such splendor.

PRINCESS CELESTIA [smiling]: I disagree. [Approaching Halcyon] You risked your life for your people. Though you possess amazing power, you begged humbly for help. This speaks volumes about your worth. And Philomena seems to like you, too.

PHILOMENA: [squawks in agreement.]

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Please, stay with us. I believe you have as much to teach us as we have to teach you.

HALCYON: Thank you, your highness. I humbly accept your hospitality.

PRINCESS CELESTIA: Welcome to Equestria, Halcyon. [Extends hoof.] And to the palace.

HALCYON: I believe I will like it here.

[HALCYON kisses PRINCESS CELESTIA’S hoof.] [PRINCESS CELESTIA smiles.]”

Spike put down the scroll. Radish crossed his hooves, pondering it all.

“So Halcyon caused the blackout,” said Spike.

“And the senior officers knew the whole time,” noted Radish.

“But why keep that a secret?”

“Like Celestia said, it would frighten everyone. Heck, it frightens me now. The last beings with that kind of power were Discord and Nightmare Moon. And Celestia couldn’t bring back the sun on her own- she had to wait for Halcyon to do it. Things are starting to make sense now.”

“They are?”

“Spike… Halcyon isn’t Celestia’s guest. She’s his hostage. We all are.”

“What are you saying?”

“That demonstration in the throne room was a show of force. He was letting Celestia and Shining Armor know that he can take away the sun at any time, and there’s nothing they can do about it. With that kind of power, we’re all at his mercy. Heck, we’re all at his whim.”

Radish got off his chair and paced the floor. “This whole time Celestia’s been playing host to him, she’s been placating him. Keeping him happy while keeping him close. That way, she can suss out his intentions, study his powers, and work out a strategy against him.”

“You think so?”

“I hope so.”

“If he’s a threat, why wouldn’t Celestia just get the girls to blast him with the Elements of Harmony?”

“He hasn’t actually made a move against Equestria. Would they activate against an implied threat?”

“Like, a pre-emptive harmony strike? I dunno. Those jewels kind of have a mind of their own.”

“Besides, the Elements take time to work. When the girls used them against Discord, it took about forty seconds for them to complete that whole rainbow firing sequence. That’s more than enough time for Halcyon to stomp away the sun again.”

“How do you know how long it took?”

“Special intel.”

“Wouldn’t the Elements just undo anything Halcyon could do during those forty seconds?”

“There’s been some debate on that subject. They got rid of Discord’s chaos locally, but left some of his stuff in the world. Same thing for Nightmare Moon’s lairs and experiments. And Halcyon’s powers are a big unknown. To take on someone like him, you’d need a sure thing, plus the element of surprise… and overwhelming power.”

“Like with, say, a concealed spear supercharged with alicorn powers?”

Radish slumped against the wall. “Yeah. Celestia must be planning on taking him on, alone. That’s why the Guard ranks are being kept in the dark. That’s why she sent the girls back to Ponyville. And that must be why she… pushed me away.”

“Pushed you away? How?”

Radish put a hoof on his flank. “Convincingly.”

“So, what do we do?”

“First things first. Can you smoke the scroll back to where it was?”

“Sure.” He blasted it with a flame, and the smoke slipped under the door. “Now what?”

“I want you to return to your duties. Pretend like everything’s normal.”

“What are you planning?”

“Halcyon wants to wrestle? Fine, then. I’ll wrestle him.”

“What good will that do?”

“I’m going to up the stakes. Make him a wager he can’t resist.”

“He’ll pulverize you. He’s like four times your size.”

“The finest dust does the greatest damage.”

“Is that a guard saying?”

“No, I just came up with it.”

“I should write that down. Twilight loves stuff like that.”

Radish walked up to Spike and hugged him.

“Uh, Rad?”

“Twilight’s a good pony. Promise me you’ll take care of her, okay?”

“You’re scaring me, Radish.”

“Don’t be scared. This is almost over.”

43. The Suitor, Part 11: A Grander Arena

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Radish entered Potion Nova’s office. She was alone, eating instant noodles at her desk. She swallowed a mouthful.

“Lieutenant! Katydid said you went down to the archives, then came rushing out! What happened?”

“Well, the good news is that Halcyon isn’t Discord.”

“Really? What’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is that he’s… still bad news. He could be just as dangerous.”

“Do you want to gather The String for another meeting?”

“The String? That’s what you’re calling your conspiracy group?”

“Yeah. Cool name, huh?”

“Sure, cool. But don’t bother. This conspiracy is over. I’ll take things from here.”

“You have a plan?”

“Yeah, but it’s risky.”

“Then, do you have a Plan B?”

“The only Plan B is Celestia’s Plan A. And that’s riskier.”

“So, how can we help?”

“Actually, there’s a favor I need to ask of you. For a friend.”


Radish slipped behind Lieutenant Drift and seized her midsection. He lifted her up and pinned her to the floor.

“Three!” called the referee.

Drift groaned in pain and clutched her shoulder. Radish moved off her.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, standing up, “I’m still a little sore from fighting Halcyon.”

“That’s what Rhum Runner said. Everyone who fights Halcyon ends up sore, or sprained, or whiplashed…”

They sat down on a side bench together, looking over the tournament brackets.

“Look on the bright side,” she said, “you’re sailing to the top of the losers bracket on Halcyon’s battered leftovers.”

“That means I’ll have my chance at him soon.”

“Not before I do,” said Flash Sentry, trotting up in a wrestling singlet. “I’ve got him next.”

“Good luck.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve been observing him during his fights. I can take him.”

“Yeah? You’ve got a strategy?”

“I’ve noticed he likes to keep his head low, and he tends to guard his right foreleg.”

“Because of his scars?”

“Probably. All I have to do is get his head to the floor, take his left side by surprise, then flip him on his back.”

“That’s all, huh?”

“I’m not saying it will be easy. But nothing worth doing ever is, right?”

“Right.”

“Go get ‘em, Sentry,” said Drift.

He nodded, then trotted to the ring. Drift leaned back, giggling.

“What?” asked Radish.

“Look,” she said, pointing at the other sides of the gym. A large number of guards and palace staff, mostly mares, were gathering in the bleachers to watch Flash’s fight with Halcyon. “The fan clubs are here.”

“Fan clubs?”

“Yeah. Flash is popular around the palace- it’s those big blue eyes and that easy-going smile. And a lot of staff have been drooling over Halcyon. Now everyone gets to watch them roll around on the floor together.”

“Ugh.”

Flash and Halcyon took their positions in the ring. The referee blew his whistle. Flash bolted forward.

Flash seized Halcyon’s sizable neck in a headlock. Halcyon tried to crush him into the mat, but Flash quickly repositioned and shoved his head down. He flipped around and shoved his weight into Halcyon’s left foreleg, knocking Halcyon onto his side.

Flash pounced and tried to push Halcyon onto his back. Halcyon seized Flash, but Flash slipped from his grip and shoved him anew.

Flash’s fans cheered. Halcyon’s fans booed. Halcyon scowled. Radish leaned forward, watching carefully.

Halcyon threw his weight up, knocking Flash off. Flash darted to his side and made a grab for his leg again. He missed it, grabbing air and falling on his stomach.

Halcyon slammed his entire body down onto Flash, knocking the breath out of his lungs. As Flash gasped for air, Halcyon rolled Flash onto his back and pinned him.

The referee counted to three and blew his whistle. Flash’s fans booed. Halcyon’s fans cheered. Radish frowned.

“Aww, that’s too bad,” said Drift.

“He got closer than anyone,” noted Radish.

“I meant, for his fans.”

“Well, that puts Flash in my bracket, so they’re going to be disappointed all over again when I beat him," said Radish.

Drift shrugged. “I bet they’re just going to change over to Team Shining Armor now. Cheer for him against Halcyon.”

Radish looked at her.

“What?” she asked.

“Their match… it’ll be quite an all-star exhibition, won’t it?”

“Sure. Why?”

“It gives me an idea.”

Radish caught sight of Flash, Shining Armor, and several ponies now gathering to watch the organizer change the brackets. He got up to join them.

“Hey. You did pretty good,” said Radish to Flash.

“I’m going to have to forfeit my fight with you. Halcyon really did a number on my withers.”

“Come on, Sentry, what about our rematch?”

“I can’t risk getting any more hurt right now. I’m trying to make Sky Patrol.”

“I’ll be gentle.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“Yeah. All right.”

Flash spoke to the organizer, who took his nameplate down. Shining Armor approached Radish.

“So that’s it, Root. You, me, and Halcyon are the final three competitors. And I’m fighting Halcyon next.”

Radish gazed around the gym. “You mean, in here?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“It’s just… I feel like a friendly match between the Captain of the Guard and an illustrious personal guest of Princess Celestia should have a grander arena than this dingy old training gym.”

“You think so?”

“I bet a ton of ponies are going to want to see it, including VIPs. It’s too bad you can’t have your fight at, say, the public ring in the sports quarter.”

Shining Armor put a hoof to his chin. “You know, Root, that’s not a bad idea. I haven’t competed in a packed stadium since my hoofball days.”

“Oh?”

“Those were some good times. The roar of the crowd, the halftime shows… the cheerleaders…”

And no censorship spell in the sports quarter, thought Radish.

“That sounds exciting, sir. Perhaps we could invite some members of the press? They could get the whole thing on film.”

“I like the way you think, Root. I’m going to go talk to Princess Celestia.”

Radish watched him go.

Okay, maybe this will be easier than I thought.


Radish sat in the break room with a root beer. Barrel Roller walked past the door, and, seeing him, entered.

“Root, I wanted to let you know that we’ve checked out those locations you gave us for the Warmbloods. They’re legit. And the gang is having a big meeting at one of them soon.”

“If you’re making a move against them, I’d like to be a part of it, ma’am.”

“The captain gave you the rest of the week off.”

“Because they tried to kill me. I should be part of their downfall.”

“I don’t think so. It’s too personal for you. We’ll handle it.”

“Ma’am-”

Shining Armor walked past the door and noticed them.

“Hey, Root, great news!”

“You’ve got the ring for your fight with Halcyon?”

“Even better- the throne room!”

“What?”

“The throne room, captain?” asked Barrel Roller, skeptically.

“It was Halcyon’s idea. He said that in the glory days of his homeland, athletes would perform feats of strength in the great hall to entertain the royalty.”

“Is that so?” asked Radish.

“And since the throne room is due for a remodel soon, we’ve decided to give it a proper send-off. We’ll set up a ring and some seating so a select few VIPs can watch. You know, senators, dignitaries- even my parents are coming!”

“But the throne room is secured by the camera filter spell,” said Radish. “No one will be able to get photos of your fight.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s a shame. But Broadstrokes can make images of the highlights. Did you know he can magic up photorealistic paintings?”

“I, uh, think I’ve heard that.”

“What do you say, Barry?” he asked Barrel Roller, “You gonna watch?”

“Sir, I have actual work to do.”

“Oh, come on, it’ll take five minutes. It’ll be the most fun you ever had.”

“Sure, captain.”

Shining trotted out. Barrel Roller sighed. She walked to the door.

“Root, judging by your response to that, I have to assume it was the failed result of some ill-conceived attempt at a devious machination.”

“Ma’am, surely I don’t come across as one who goes in for devious machinations?”

“Just cut it out. No one’s as devious as they think they are.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“But if you’d like to observe the operation to take down the Warmbloods, fine. Just hang back and keep an eye out.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”


Radish had rarely been in the throne room. His Royal Guard Oath ceremony had taken place there, and his training took him through it a few times. It was looking vastly different now.

A large purple wrestling mat had been set up in the center of the floor. Both sides of the hall were now lined with elevated, tall-backed red velvet chairs which looked more at home in a dining hall than a sports arena.

These seats were now filling with guests. As Shining had said, most were VIPs- various statesponies and members of Canterlot’s upper crust. Radish knew a few of them by reputation.

Radish had been given a front-row seat by merit of being the only other remaining competitor in the tournament. He overheard a guest behind him ask her husband if there would also be a match in the throne room with “the other guy”. Her husband scoffed and said the other guy was nobody special.

Princess Celestia took her seat on her throne. Luna’s throne was empty.

“Oh, hello, Radish! Nice to see you again!” said a mare’s voice.

Radish looked and saw Twilight’s parents sitting down in the two seats to his left. They had T-shirts, caps, and pennants bearing Shining Armor’s face.

“Hello sir, ma’am.”

“Spike said you two had a fun day together yesterday,” said Night Light.

“Thanks for always being so great to our kids, Radish,” said Twilight Velvet.

“Oh, it’s nothing.”

“So, what odds do you give this Halcyon guy? How many rounds do you think he can go with our Shiny?” Night Light asked, boxing at the air in front of him.

“I, uh, think this may be a quick fight.”

“Radish,” said Twilight Velvet, lowering her voice, “how have you been? You know… there’s been all these rumors about Princess Celestia and Halcyon…”

“I just want what’s best for her.”

She put a hoof on his shoulder. “Oh, you’re such a dear. You know, the next time Twilight’s in town-”

The lights went out.

Exciting music blared. Spotlights crossed the floor and back. Shining Armor entered, cloaked in a shiny robe. He reached the center of the mat, tossed the hood back, and smiled at the crowd. The crowd cheered. He tossed his robe into the stands and took a fighting stance.

The music changed. Halcyon strode in plain-faced, with his eyes focused on Shining. He took his position, facing Shining Armor. The lights turned on again and the music stopped.

Twilight Velvet gasped. “Wait, that’s Halcyon? He’s the size of an icebox!”

“Lieutenant, this is just for funsies, right?” Night Light nervously asked Radish. “No one’s going to get hurt, right?”

“I, uh…”

The bell rang.

Shining rushed to Halcyon’s side and gripped his front right leg. Halcyon opted to grab Shining and crush him where he stood. Shining slipped from Halcyon’s grip and backed away. Halcyon calmly approached Shining.

Radish looked at Princess Celestia. She watched the fight with a worried expression. Radish looked back at the fight. Shining Armor was on Halcyon’s back. Halcyon bucked him off.

Shining recovered and dodged Halcyon’s charge. He seized Halcyon’s rear legs and pulled, then twisted them up. Radish felt a twinge of pain in his knees where Shining had done the same to him.

Halcyon broke out of Shining’s grip and flung himself at Shining. Shining got Halcyon’s scarred foreleg and tried to pull it. Halcyon swung the leg in a large circle and tossed Shining Armor into the air.

Shining landed on all fours. Halcyon leapt at him, aiming to grab him. Shining dodged, but found himself in Halcyon’s grip anyway. He crushed Shining into the mat, face-down.

Shining squirmed and struggled under Halcyon’s immense weight. Halcyon increased the pressure.

“What is he doing?” Night Light asked Radish.

“He’s, uh, aiming for a submission, not a pin,” said Radish. “He’s trying to get Shining Armor to tap out.”

“You mean, beg for mercy!?” asked Twilight Velvet.

Shining Armor kicked a leg free, but Halcyon grabbed it and twisted it over Shining’s back.

Shining Armor grit his teeth.

“It’s okay, son! You can do it!” called Night Light.

Shining Armor wriggled and squirmed jerkily. Halcyon dug his elbows into Shining’s sides.

Shining Armor screamed out in agony.

Radish couldn't believe it- he didn't know his captain could scream. The audience gasped. Night Light and Twilight Velvet held each other and looked away. Celestia winced. Halcyon pressed, twisted, and dug into Shining Armor harder.

Then, another noise joined the scream. The pad covering Shining Armor’s horn flashed and emitted a high-pitched howl. The referee blew his whistle. Whatever Halcyon just did to Shining Armor was enough to make him instinctively call upon his magic. Shining Armor had disqualified himself.

Halcyon stood up off of Shining Armor. Shining Armor remained on the floor. Twilight Velvet bolted from her chair to his side.

“Son! What’s wrong!?”

Shining Armor lay moaning, shaking, and clutching his sides. He tried to stand, then collapsed into a whimpering heap.

Night Light stood on his chair. “DOCTOR! WE NEED A DOCTOR!”

Princess Celestia leapt off her throne and landed next to Shining Armor. She threw her hooves over him and teleported away with him. The room went silent. Radish looked around. Halcyon was nowhere to be found.

Twilight Velvet ran to Radish. “Radish! Where did she take him?”

“Infirmary, most likely. I’ll show you the way.”


Radish sat in the infirmary’s waiting room, staring at the clock on the wall. Shining’s parents had gone in to see him some time ago. Radish hadn’t heard anything since they went in.

Night Light and Twilight Velvet came out of the infirmary door, holding each other. They saw Radish, and immediately hugged him.

“How is he?” asked Radish.

“He’ll be okay,” said Night Light.

“Radish, you’re not going to fight that Halcyon, are you?” asked Twilight Velvet.

“He just earned the privilege, ma’am.”

“You can’t! He’ll brutalize you!”

“Please, don’t worry about me.”

A nurse poked her head through the door. “Lieutenant Root? The captain would like to see you.”

“Go on, Radish,” said Night Light. “We need to find Spike.”

Radish found his captain resting alone in a private room. The curtains were drawn, dimming the light from outside.

“Root…”

“Sir. How are you?”

“Lock the door.”

Radish complied.

“Sir?”

“I’m humiliated, Root. The second I felt insecure, I sparked up my horn.”

“Sir, I’m sure it was just an involuntary reflex. No one thinks you were trying to cheat.”

“You ever have a magic horn, Root?”

“No, sir…”

“We unicorns train our whole lives so that we don’t have involuntary reflexes. I used magic deliberately, in a moment of weakness, because I got scared. I’ve shamed myself and disgraced my office.”

“But Twilight accidentally casts spells all the time.”

“The Captain of the Guard should have better horn discipline than his librarian kid sister, Root!”

“I’m sorry, sir. How are you, physically?”

“Bruised ribs. I’m out of the tourney.”

“Is Halcyon?”

“No, he didn’t break any rules.”

“Sir, he sent half a dozen guards to the infirmary without breaking any rules.”

“I know. He’ll win the whole thing now.”

“Only if he beats me, sir.”

“I advise against fighting him, Root.”

“I have to. The reputation of the Guard is at stake, isn’t it? If word got out that a guest beat every guard at their own tourney…”

“That’s not important.”

“It is, sir. The more the public thinks that guards are pushovers, the more adversaries will come out of the woodwork. We’re not a joke, sir. We’re not easy pickings. Ponies need to be reminded of that.”

“Is that your only stake in this, Root? Or do you just want Celestia to see you beat Halcyon?”

“I do, sir. Because I want her to see your training and guidance reflected in my skills. I want her to know her guards are tough, and you made them that way.”

“Root… you’re not just blowing smoke up my chimney, are you?”

“Sir, even if I never felt a twinge of attraction to Princess Celestia, I’d still want to impress her. She’s my princess and my boss. And I’d still want to do you proud.”

Shining Armor looked Radish in the eyes. “That’s nice, Root. Go get ‘em.”

“Is there anything you want to tell me about him?”

“Don't let him bellyflop on you."

“Anything regarding his… nature?”

“His nature is that he’s a Personal Guest of Princess Celestia. That’s all you need to know.”

“What if I knew more than that?”

“Then that would be a serious breach of security protocol, wouldn’t it?”

“It would. Get well, sir.”


Radish stood alone in the orrery, staring up at the constellation of Aquarius. Halcyon walked into the room.

“Radish Root, a servant said you wished to speak with me.”

“Yes. I wanted to give you a chance to forfeit our match.”

“Why would I do such a thing?”

“A lot of competitors have been getting injured, and I’d hate to see Princess Celestia’s illustrious guest be harmed.”

“You fear for my safety?”

“I do.”

Halcyon leaned in and grinned. “We have empty boasts in my homeland, as well. I am not concerned.”

“Then, care to make it interesting?”

“Is it not, already?”

“Sorry, that’s slang for betting on the outcome.”

“What do you wish to bet?”

“If I win, you have to tell Princess Celestia the whole truth about yourself.”

“What truth do you believe I am hiding?”

“I don’t know. If I did, I’d tell her myself.”

“What if I have no such secret?”

“I’m risking my neck because I think you do.”

“And what if I win?”

“I’ll leave the palace, just like you wanted. I’ll live and die in obscurity.”

Halcyon narrowed his eyes. “What guarantee can I have that you will not renege?”

“The same thing that binds my oath to the Guard. I swear, upon my honor. Will you swear the same?”

“What if I have no honor to swear upon?”

“If you have no honor, then I’m doomed either way.”

Halcyon laughed. He leaned down to Radish.

“I accept your terms.”

44. The Suitor, Part 12: An Uphill Battle

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Radish sat by the palace’s lake, staring at a flock of ducks floating by. He went over the past week in his mind. Celestia approached him with a worried expression.

“Lieutenant?”

“Ma’am?”

“Halcyon has requested use of the throne room again for the final match. I wanted to ask if you still intend to participate.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m looking forward to it. And I’m honored to be considered worthy of such an arena.”

She looked down to the ground. “Radish, you saw what happened to Shining Armor.”

“I did. It was very kind of you to convey him to the infirmary. If the situation requires it, I hope you’ll be so kind as to convey Halcyon there, as well.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps I should just cancel this whole thing. Then we can all stay out of the infirmary.”

“Halcyon might be disappointed at that, ma’am. I think he’s hoping to impress you by winning the tournament.”

“I know. But what are you hoping to accomplish?”

“It’s just a friendly match, princess.”

“Oh, is it, now?”

“Of course, ma’am. It’s not like the fate of Equestria is at stake.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “No. Of course not.”

“But I promise you, I’ll fight as if it was.”

“Thank you, lieutenant. That’s good to know.”


Radish changed into his wrestling gear in his bunk room as his bunkmates watched.

“Hey, good luck out there,” Spats said. “We’re all coming to cheer you on.”

“Thanks.”

“But you know,” said Bunker Buster, “no one’s going to blame you if you need to tap out. There’s no shame in second place. No need to risk your neck over a pizza coupon.”

Radish sighed. “This is for a lot more than that.”

“What, you bet on yourself?”

“Yeah. I’ve got a lot riding on this.”

“Do you have a strategy, then?”

Radish looked at his bunkmates. He sighed. “I do, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

“Hey, this is Canterlot,” said Spats. “Everything we do is uphill.”


Radish pushed open the throne room’s huge double doors. There was no music or spotlights to highlight his entrance. The mat and seats were still set up, but the only VIPs in attendance were the senior officers, department heads, and Celestia on her throne. The rest of the stands were full of guards and staff. His bunkmates cheered for him. Spike sat in the front row, eating popcorn. He waved at Radish.

Radish stepped onto the mat. He looked at the senior officers in the back row. Shining Armor, now wearing bandages across his chest, gave Radish a nod.

Halcyon pushed through the doors. The cheers for him were more subdued. He headed straight for his spot facing Radish. The two stallions stared each other in the eyes.

“Radish Root, I have been looking forward to this.”

“So have I. May the best stallion win.”

They each took a deep breath.

Okay, thought Radish, Flash’s strategy was to rush his unguarded side. Shining Armor’s strategy was to wear down his legs. They both lacked the muscle power to make their plans succeed. But I don’t. I can work on his limbs, then get him down and over.

But Halcyon will be wise to strategies he’s seen before. I have to distract him so he doesn't realize what I’m doing.

Radish looked at Celestia on her throne. She watched carefully.

Luckily, he showed me he has a temper. Exploiting that is the first step on the uphill battle.

Radish locked eyes with Celestia. He gave her a pleasant smile and a bow. She gave him a worried nod back. Halcyon watched this and scowled.

Radish crouched. Halcyon did not. The bell rang.

Halcyon sped toward Radish. Radish dodged. Halcyon grasped for Radish. Radish dodged.

Radish grabbed Halcyon’s right foreleg and folded it, shoving it upward. Halcyon tried to crush Radish, just as he did Shining Armor.

Radish rolled under Halcyon, forcing him to fall to his side. Radish threw himself onto Halcyon’s shoulders. Halcyon caught Radish and threw him straight across the room. The audience gasped.

Radish splat against a wall. The referee blew his whistle. A ring-out wasn’t a defeat, but Radish would have twenty seconds to return to the ring. Radish walked calmly back.

Radish and Halcyon faced off again. Halcyon lunged, and Radish dodged and shoved. Halcyon stood his ground, tearing rips into the mat. The two stallions grappled. Radish focused his earth pony strength, commanding himself to push harder. Halcyon started to lose ground. The audience cheered.

Halcyon roared. He picked up Radish and slammed him into the mat at full force. The audience jumped in their seats.

Halcyon stood over Radish, grinning maliciously. He put a hoof on one of Radish’s shoulders and pressed it down into the mat. Radish grunted.

Radish seized the hoof, rolled himself free, and attempted to twist it behind Halcyon’s back. Halcyon growled and flung his arm out, slinging Radish into the mat. He bounced and skidded like a rock on a lake, then slid to a stop.

Radish heard a whistle blow and felt a breeze. He climbed to his feet, and saw that the force of his landing had scraped his singlet halfway off his body. The bare spots where his cutie marks used to be were now exposed.

There was a muttering through the crowd. Princess Celestia looked aside, frowning.

Radish put his singlet back on, then approached the center of the ring.

“You sheared her from your body?” growled Halcyon in a low voice.

“That’s right,” said Radish with a shrug. “And boy, she nearly clogged the sink.”

Halcyon seethed. The referee blew his whistle again, and the two stallions collided.

Halcyon grabbed Radish by the haunches and slammed him into the mat, then picked him up and slammed him down again. Radish heard a loud shattering noise, and he wasn’t sure if it came from inside him or from the marble floor under the mat. The audience collectively moaned in sympathy.

“Radish!” called a worried voice behind him. He turned to see Spike nervously clutching his own tail. “Please, stay down! Throw in the towel!”

Radish smiled at him, and climbed to his feet.

Halcyon leapt into the air. Radish hopped back. Somehow Radish misjudged Halcyon’s leap, and Halcyon landed directly onto him with a crunch.

Radish fought to keep Halcyon from pinning him, while focusing his senses on his opponent. Halcyon was breathing hard- harder than he should be. The breathing seemed off. Wrong. As if it was coming from another creature, with a different chest and throat.

He focused more. Halcyon was heavy, all right- but heavy in the wrong places. His weight was distributed differently than it appeared like it should be- he was more front-heavy than he looked.

Radish tipped Halcyon tail-over-head, sending him on his back. Radish pounced to pin him.

Radish missed Halcyon’s body, landing on empty mat.

Halcyon knocked Radish onto his back and kneeled his front elbows on Radish’s abdomen. Radish squirmed. Halcyon folded Radish’s four legs in unnatural shapes and pressed down on them. Radish hissed. He was feeling pain in nerves he didn't know he had. Spittle bubbled up from his throat.

The two stallions stared into each others’ eyes. Halcyon was in a position to pin Radish and win, yet he wasn’t trying to. He was going for a submission, just like with Shining Armor.

Radish had no intention of submitting, yet he was in too much pain to think of a plan. His joints were on fire, and the limbs they held together were going numb. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t even squirm now. His body shuddered involuntarily, begging him to surrender.

“Enough!” called out a clear authoritative voice. All eyes in the room looked. Celestia was standing off her throne with a horrified expression. “This is a massacre! You’ve toyed with him long enough! Just pin him and be done with it!”

All eyes turned back to Halcyon, who looked appalled.

“Yes, ma’am!” yelled Radish.

The audience burst into laughter. Spike guffawed. Shining Armor smiled, and Saguaro Shade chuckled and nudged Barrel Roller, who hid her mouth behind her hooves. Celestia sputtered a bit, then started laughing as well.

Radish dropped his head back and laughed. Halcyon fumed. His eyes grew wide with rage.

Then, his eyes grew larger than possible. His cheeks distorted, and the rest of his body seemed to be melting away like wax.

The rest of the room seemed to be melting away with him. Radish thought he must have hit his head too many times, but he could hear the rest of the ponies in the room gasping and crying out in fear. Halcyon dropped back on his rump and started wheezing.

Radish sat up. Everything in the room was spinning. He looked down at his hooves, and saw that they were the wrong hooves. His body was gold and white, like Halcyon’s. He gazed across the crowd. Everyone, even Celestia, now looked like Halcyon, but distorted as if seen in funhouse mirrors.

Halcyon fell over to his side and convulsed. Radish’s heart sank into his gut. He ran to Halcyon’s side. “Halcyon! What’s wrong!?”

Halcyon coughed up foamy blood between wheezes.

“Medic!” howled Radish.

He heard a thud on the mat next to him. Celestia had landed beside them. She spread her wings and enveloped Radish and Halcyon. Then Radish heard a blast of thunder and felt every point in his body get burning hot and freezing cold. A different surface placed itself under his feet. Celestia had teleported them.

Celestia unmantled her wings from them and held Halcyon aloft in her aura. He was unconscious, and the color of his coat was growing darker. Radish stepped back and looked around. They were in the infirmary.

“Doctors! Medical emergency!” Celestia howled. Ponies approached with a gurney, and Celestia lowered him into it.

“Wait out here, Radish,” she said. She followed the doctors as they wheeled him through swinging double doors. Radish watched them go, stupefied.


Radish paced the infirmary waiting room. Celestia entered with an exhausted expression on her face.

“Radish, please follow me.”

Radish followed her into the infirmary proper. She led him down the hallways to the intensive care unit.

“How is he? What happened?”

“He is stable, but… very different. As for what happened, I think it best we both find out together.”

They reached a door with Halcyon’s name scrawled on a whiteboard to the side. Celestia opened it. There was a large orange bull in the bed. His horns had been cut down to stumps. He looked pale and tired.

“Ma’am? Who is this?”

“Yes,” she said, approaching the bed. “Who are you?”

He looked at Radish and Celestia, and sighed. “I said my name was Halcyon when I got here. That was a lie. My name is Harold. I’m not from the Far Eastern Edgelands. I’m not a survivor from some ancient precursor race. I'm just a bull from Fillydelphia.”

“How? How is that possible?” asked Radish.

“It is a very long story. One I’ve been eager to tell. Please, reserve judgment until you’ve heard it all.”

Celestia furrowed her brows. Radish leaned forward in interest.

“Princess Celestia,” Harold said, “it all started the first time I laid eyes on you. I was just a boy when you held the Summer Sun Celebration in Fillydelphia. I couldn’t hope to get close to you through all the crowds, so I watched you from my fire escape through my little amateur telescope. It was good enough to see you.

“I had always heard that you raise the sun, but seeing you do it was something else entirely. It was astonishing. I couldn’t help but fall in love with you, then and there.”

Celestia frowned.

“And as you left town, a deep sense of panic hit me- I may never see you again. I may never get to be that near to you, ever again. I was heartbroken, and there was nothing I could do.

“I grew up, turning from an amateur astronomer to a professional one. I thought working with the sun, moon, and stars could keep me connected to you, in some small way. Then, it hit me- if I could just make a new discovery in the heavens- something really special, maybe it would be enough to impress you. Maybe you’d want to meet me. Maybe you’d even fall for me.”

Radish and Celestia traded unhappy glances.

“I scanned the skies every night, fixated on making that discovery. I could feel excitement growing inside me! I knew I was close! I knew my time was coming soon!

“But it was all taken from me. The observatory where I worked was attacked by a group of fanatics. They believed in a very old legend about magic lenses that could drain away the power of the sun. They thought that’s what we were trying to do. With a few destructive spells, they collapsed the observatory, with us inside."

“I remember that,” said Celestia. “It shocked and appalled Canterlot. They were brought to justice, at least.”

“I was hurt in the attack, hospitalized for days. All I could think of was that absurd belief that ruined my life. But then I realized it might not be so absurd. The sun’s power might be attainable, after all.

“Astronomers have long known about certain energies the sun puts out- stellar radiation. It normally has no effect on us. But just as there are potions that can harden a creature against radiation, so too can those potions be reversed, to make one absorb it. And the right apparatus can concentrate sunlight to flood a chamber with a creature inside it.”

“What on earth for?” Celestia asked.

“I wanted to fill my body with the power of the sun. To become a creature of the sun, just like you. To turn myself into a companion worthy of you.”

“The chances of such an experiment succeeding were minuscule. The chances of it killing you were almost certain."

“Yes, I know. I didn’t even care if I lived or died anymore. I would be with you, or be nothing at all.

“I built my apparatus in the remains of the observatory. And on the eve of a certain Summer Sun Celebration, I took the absorption potion, stood in the sunbathing chamber, and waited for you to raise the sun on me.”

“You don’t mean-” Celestia said.

“Yes, the morning of Nightmare Moon’s return. I waited for the sun. It didn’t rise. I waited longer. I had been up all night and the night before in eager preparation, and soon I succumbed to exhaustion and passed out in the dark.”

He lay back in the bed, staring at the ceiling.

“In that dark, I dreamt of you. Of us, together. I had a rude awakening.

“As both the sun and the princess were missing, anything that seemed out of place was immediately suspected as the culprit. The fanatics’ claim that the observatory could steal the power of the sun was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the possibility of eternal night had many more starting to believe it.

“Locals reported seeing me working in the abandoned observatory. The police broke in, tore me from the chamber, and accused me of having something to do with your disappearance. Me, of all creatures!

“Instead of being exalted by your sunrise, I was brutally interrogated in your name. As I sat in a cell beaten and bruised, the sun finally rose, long after the potion had worn off. I was released with no apology.

“I wandered without purpose. But as the days stretched on, changes took place. In those hours you were held captive by Nightmare Moon, I had been bathed in concentrated moonlight. It did something to me. I had been empowered as I wanted, not by the day, but by the night.

“I gained a loose connection to the dream realm. It manifested in a power over daydreams- altering the perceptions of those around me, as if they were daydreaming what I wanted them to see. It started off small- making ponies see the wrong time on a clock, or mistake the color of a flower. After enough practice, I found I could change how I appear. That’s when I developed a new plan to get into your graces. To become your suitor at last.

“I cloaked myself in a form invoking raw, primitive mystique- perfect for catching the eyes of elite, prim-and-proper ladies who had seen far too many frilled collars in their lifetime. I gave myself a new name. I sent an unassuming fan letter to the Edgelands archeological expedition so I could follow their messenger badger all the way to their outpost. And I convinced them that I was a wanderer from a lost civilization.”

“You interrupted an important expedition with these… falsehoods!?” Celestia growled.

“Yes. If it’s any consolation, a beast really did wound me. I would have died out on the moors without the expedition’s care.”

“You call that consolation!? I don’t want any of my subjects to be harmed, even if they’re...” She made a disgusted noise in her throat. “Continue.”

“The expedition, however, was more interested in seeing my fictive lost civilization than taking me to you. I used my powers to expand the lie- to make it look like I could control all of nature. Finally, they believed I was worthy of the attention of a princess. Celadon brought me here, and I treated you to that lie, as well.”

“But the entire world saw the sun go out!” said Celestia. “You have that much power?”

“No, your highness. I only made the few present in the throne room daydream that the sun vanished. You did the rest.”

“I see,” said Celestia. “At first, I thought you had lowered the sun, so I tried to raise it. When that didn’t work, I assumed you pushed it deeper into space, so I tried to lower it…”

“But if it was an illusion on just the few in the throne room…” realized Radish.

“Yes,” said Celestia. “I had actually pushed it twice as far away, dimming the sky, then I pulled it closer, restoring the daylight. What a fool I was.”

Harold sighed. “It was a desperate gamble, the kind of trick that wouldn’t work again. But it didn’t need to.”

“Then what was your plan?” demanded Celestia. “Court me, seduce me under a false identity, and then leave, having gotten everything you ever wanted?”

“No, I was hoping to stay with you for the rest of my life.”

Celestia seethed with rage, but when she saw Radish looking sadly down to the floor, she realized what Harold meant.

“You’re… not going to live much longer, are you?”

“The experiment had its downsides, too. I need a constant supply of anti-radiation potions to keep stable. But it’s borrowed time- they’ve been wearing off faster and faster. I doubt I’ll live another month, even with the best care… which I don’t expect to have.”

“If you were sick, why did you want to fight me!?” demanded Radish.

He looked at Radish. “Because despite all my efforts to remake myself into a worthy companion for Celestia, I still could not compete with the stallion who bears her image on his body. Palace staff would whisper about how you, not I, were Celestia’s true destiny. I had to prove myself your better to put those whispers to rest.”

“You burned out your body, cut your life short, schemed and lied for months, and for what?” asked Celestia, exasperatedly. “All because you wanted to bed me?”

“That was my goal… up until the moment I finally met you face-to-face. When I stood before you, looked into your eyes, and heard your voice… I realized I could not lie my way into your bed. I settled for lying my way into your company. I would get to spend my last days at your side.

“And that was enough. It’s been bliss. Getting to talk to you. Getting to share meals with you. Strolling the hedge maze, sharing a rowboat, and touring the palace. Even if these would be the last things I ever do, they’d be more than most creatures could hope for in a lifetime.

“I know you’ve been faking enjoying my company. You pretended to be interested in me, because you were afraid of the power I pretended to have. You were only worried about what I could do to the sun, weren’t you?”

She furrowed her brow. “Yes. I’ve spent the week in fear of you.”

“I am sorry. I rode into the palace on a wave of lies that I could no longer control. I never meant to worry you.”

“Worry me!? What about what you’ve done to Luna!?”

“I have done nothing to her!”

“She’s been suffering because of a disruption to the dream realm! It’s clear to me now that your dream-based powers are what’s been causing it!”

“I… I didn’t know.” He rolled over onto his side, away from her. “I will leave the palace. That will spare her more suffering.”

“You are not going anywhere. Lieutenant Root, Hal… Harold is under arrest. Fetch cuffs and secure him to his bed.”

“May I take a moment with him, ma’am?”

“Why?” Harold asked.

“Yes, Radish, why?”

“Because he’s me, ma’am. He’s me if you never talked to my parents. He’s me with a couple more bad days in my life. Princess, I could have easily ended up where he is now.”

Celestia’s face softened. “Take your moment. I will inform the senior officers of this revelation.”

She walked to the door.

“Princess Celestia,” said Harold. “I am sorry. About everything.”

She looked into his eyes for a moment, then turned and opened the door.

“Wait!” pleaded Harold. “Please, I must know- at any point, were any of your smiles genuine? Were any of your laughs at any of my jokes real? Was there ever a moment when you truly enjoyed my company?”

Celestia scowled at him.

“Yes. Happy?”

“Yes. Finally.”

“Oh, and entering the tournament under a false identity disqualifies you, Harold. That would make you the winner, Radish. Congrats.”

Celestia walked out.

“Lucky me,” sighed Radish.

“You also won the bet, but I’ve already told her everything.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry,” said Harold.

“Me, too,” said Radish.

“Did you mean what you said, about how we’re the same?”

“It’s true. Growing up, I would have done anything to impress Celestia. I’ll have to admit, your approach was much more creative. I never would have thought to mutate myself with radiation. I just lifted weights and hoped for the best.”

Harold sighed. “I never had trouble putting on muscle. Us bulls have to be extra careful all the time, so we don’t break the things- and creatures- around us.”

He rolled over on his side. “But I did, anyway, didn’t I? But I’ve really upset her, haven’t I?”

“Yes, because she cares about all of us. She hates that one of her subjects would hurt themselves on her account. And I think she would have really loved a real Halcyon.”

“But not a real Harold. I’m an actual, honest-to-goodness villain, aren’t I? The kind she’s been fighting all her life. I came here faking my identity, feeding everyone lies, wasting her time and resources. I beat up her guards, hospitalized her captain, and made a fool out of her.”

“Maybe you can make up for it.”

“You know, I actually did draft up plans for updates to the orrery. It was meant to be a gift to her.”

“I can talk to the tower staff, see if they can work on it with you for… for…”

“The rest of my life? The few weeks of it?”

“Yeah.”

“It would be nice to leave something meaningful behind. In the royal palace, no less.”

“But could you do it as Harold, and not tell anyone about Halcyon? I don’t want the world learning that Celestia was fooled.”

“Neither do I.”

“Thanks.”

“I am sorry that I have been hounding you all week. I assumed you were my rival for her affection. Everyone who knows about Radish Root assumes he and Princess Celestia will end up together someday.”

“She’s been clear about it. We won’t.”

“How do you do it, Radish? How do you stay sane? You’re close to her every day. You have her on you.”

“I don’t know. Maybe I will end up like you someday, anyhow.”

“I don’t think so. You’ve got a whole palace of ponies who care for you. I never had anyone who cared about me.”

“You have one now.”

“Thank you.”

“So, uh… you used your illusion powers during the fights?”

“Yes.”

“What about your photo?”

“Ah, by making myself look wrong through the camera, I made the photographer mis-adjust his settings.”

“And you spooked that reporter with fake birds?”

“Yes. Black-winged swallows would nest in the ruins of my observatory. They were my only companions for a long time.”

“Did you fake your bowling score, too?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. I bowl like that all the time.”

“Huh.”


Shining Armor leaned back in his desk chair and regarded Radish with half-lidded eyes.

“Root, I’m classifying everything regarding Halcyon, a.k.a. Harold. Only you, the princesses, the senior officers, and some doctors know he was a phony. You are not to breathe a word about it to anyone else- not even Twilight, Spike, their friends, or any guards or palace staff. And definitely not tourists.”

“But the stands were full. A lot of ponies experienced his illusion powers going out-of-control.”

“We are letting the world know that ‘Halcyon’ had unique, undisclosed powers, which he accidentally used during his match.”

“Disqualifying him, huh?”

“That’s right. Making this yours.”

Shining Armor floated a gift certificate to a nearby pizza parlor into Radish’s hooves.

“Congrats. Try their garlic sticks.”

“Thank you, sir. I hope I did the Guard, and you, proud.”

“Well, you let a sick guest beat the stuffing out of you until he collapsed from a medical emergency.”

“Yeah.”

“But when he collapsed, you immediately rushed to help him. That’s what the public wants to see from the Guard. That's what I want to see in a guard.”

“Thank you, sir.”

"And that's what sweet girls like Fluttershy like to see from a stallion."

Radish’s eyes went wide. "That's... good to know. Uh, what do I say if someone asks where Halcyon went?”

“His medical condition required him to return to his homeland. But he’s taking with him all he’s learned about friendship. Maybe someday, we’ll see him again.”

“I see. At least there isn’t really a lost civilization that needs saving.”

“Right. The only civilization you need to worry about is your own. And on that token, should we postpone your sword finals? You got thrashed pretty bad.”

“No, sir. Someday I may need to wield my sword even after a bad thrashing.”

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow.

“Oh!” said Radish, “But if you need to postpone it, because of your bruised ribs, I’d understand.”

Shining Armor leaned forward and grinned. “Root, that’s just the kind of bravado I’m looking for in a swordstallion. And the kind of cockiness I love to slap out of them during finals.”

“Yes, sir.”

“See you in the gym tomorrow. Six hundred hours.”

“Oh, that early?”

“Princess Luna wanted to watch.”

“She’s better?”

“Ever since Hal… Harold collapsed, his powers shut off. He’s no longer affecting the dream realm.”

“I’m relieved she’ll be all right.”

“Princess Celestia, however, doesn’t get to just suddenly feel better. She’ll need her friends for that.”

“Oh, AG1, you mean?”

“Root, I’m talking about you.”

“Sir, I was an obsessed suitor just like Harold. She needs to see less of me for a while.”

“She doesn’t see it that way. She’s coming to your sword final tomorrow, too. And you had better do her proud.”

“Aye, sir.”

“And speaking of her, cutie mark shaving is a violation of the dress code. Do it again, and I’ll come down on you and all your bunkmates for all their little grooming violations, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all the official business. But before you go, Root- and this is just a personal, stallion-to-stallion thing... growing up, did you ever picture yourself proposing to Celestia?"

"Oh, uh... all the time."

"How did you imagine doing it?"

“Well, I would… wait. Does this mean you’re thinking about proposing to Princess Mi Amore Cadenza?”

Shining Armor opened his drawer and pulled out a ring box. He showed Radish the ring inside. Radish knew just enough about jewelry to be stunned.

“Yeah, but that’s top-secret, too. Don’t even tell Twilight.”

“No, sir.”

“So, how does a stallion propose to a princess?"

“I’d take her to the cliff on the far side of Horseshoe lake, overlooking the flamingo feeding grounds. They take off as a flock to return to their roost each day at sunset. As the sun goes down, she’d watch a thousand brightly colored birds soar over our heads, then look back at me to see that I’m holding up a ring. I’d tell her she means everything to me, and that I’d like to spend the rest of my life with her.”

“Sheesh, Root, how long have you been holding onto that?”

“Many years, sir. But not anymore. You can use it, if you like.”

“Why don't you hold onto that? I was thinking something indoors."

"All right sir."

"Now, Root... are you going to be okay with me marrying Cadance?"

"Uh, why wouldn't I be?"

"I figured you might have a problem with a guard marrying a princess."

"Oh, I see. But Mi Amore Cadenza has her own, separate guard service, right? She can marry any of her aunts' guards that she wants."

"That's right. I'm glad you understand."

"Why, she could marry me, if she was so inclined."

"...that's... that's technically true, Root..."

"Does she like gardenias? I’ve got a nice crop growing in my garden."

Shining Armor stared at Radish. Radish stared back.

"Dismissed, Root."


Radish left Shining’s office and made his way through the administration halls. Grenadine Splash came out of a side office, staring at a piece of paper she held in her wings.

“Lieutenant, I’m glad I found you.”

“Hello, Miss Splash. What can I help you with?”

“Something funny happened. I was called into the planning office and given this memo. The Potion Bureau has recommended refurbishing the old alchemy building into, and I quote, ‘a large-scale production facility for distillation of botanicals into ethanol-based disinfectants, astringents, palliatives, elixirs, cordials, and aperitifs, overseen by a practiced mixologist, with the surplus of materials to be concocted at said mixologist’s discretion’. And that mixologist is me.”

“Congratulations.”

“It’s basically saying I can have my distillery. And I can make whatever I want as long as I send some base ingredients to the Potion Bureau and their adjuncts every once in a while.”

“That’s great. That could be a big help for Potion Nova and Zecora.”

“You did this for me, didn’t you?”

“I just talked to a friend.”

“Thank you so much!”

She hugged him. He hugged back, and let go as she pulled away.

“Now, remember,” said Radish, “you promised to share the first bottle off the line with me."

"Are you kidding? You can have a lifetime supply!"

"Really?"

"Really. Come by when it's all set up."

"Thank you."

“Have a nice day, lieutenant.”

“Have a nice day, Royal Distiller.”


Radish and Shining armor stood facing each other, swords at the ready. Luna sat down next to Celestia in the bleachers.

“Luna, dear. How are you feeling?”

“Better, now. My head is clear and my strength has returned.”

“Good.”

“Sister, may we speak of Hal… of Harold after this?”

“Yes, but not soon. I’m still sorting my feelings on the matter.”

“I understand.”

They watched Radish advance on Shining Armor, probing his defenses.

“So, what say you, sister- shall we make this interesting?” Luna asked. “I’d wager my Champion beats yours.”

“You don’t have to make it weird, Luna. Radish is fighting to demonstrate his skills to his captain, not to defeat him.”

“Very well, I bet you one bit that Radish scores his first point within the next ten seconds.”

“I think you overestimate-”

“Point!” called the referee.

The audience went wild. Luna looked at her sister, smugly. Celestia looked at her captain, annoyed.


Radish trotted out into the rear of the palace’s commons and gazed out at the lake. It was peaceful, with a few swans lazily floating at its edges. He heard the sounds of rummaging through the cattails. He approached and saw a pink tail and yellow haunches sticking out of the vegetation.

“Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy poked her head out of the grasses. “Oh, Radish. Good timing! Do you have a knife I can borrow? This bird is caught on a string, and I need to cut her loose.”

Radish looked into the cattails, and there was indeed a female Red-winged Blackbird with a string wrapped around her leg. The rest of the string was tangled in the reeds.

Radish took his sword from its scabbard. He cut the string with a quick flick, and the bird flew free and landed on Fluttershy’s head.

“Oh, thank you, Radish! Is that new?”

“Just earned it,” he said, showing her the blade.

“Congrats! Oh, so your first act with it was saving this bird?”

“Guards are here to help.”

“That’s really nice.” She looked up at the bird. “There, there. Let’s get you home.”

She took the bird to a nest in a bush by the lake shore. Radish sheathed his sword and pulled out the rest of the string. It was attached to an official palace yo-yo, purchasable from the gift shop for three bits. Radish put it in a nearby trash can.

“Sorry about the litter. You know tourist kids and their toys.”

She hummed as she helped the bird get settled in.

“Say, uh, Fluttershy…”

She turned to him.

“Hmm?”

“Would you like to go on a date with me this Friday?”

She looked surprised, then saddened, then apologetic.

“Oh, Radish... I’m sorry. I don’t-”

“Never mind. Forget I asked.”

She walked close to Radish. “No, I can’t forget you asked. Because it took you a lot of courage to ask, didn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“And I can never forget when my friends show courage, because that always gives me courage.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m flattered, I really am. But I just don’t see you in that way.”

“I understand.”

“You’ll still be my friend?”

“Always.”

She hugged him. He hugged back.

"Does this mean you’re giving up on Celestia?" she asked.

"No. It means I'm letting go of her."


Radish took a deep breath and walked through the door of the palace’s mental health clinic. He walked up to the registration desk.

“Hi, can I make an appointment with a therapist? I’m a new patient.”

“Sure,” said the clerk. “Fill these out.”

She passed him a clipboard with forms. He took it and sat down. He filled out his personal information, and reached a question about why he was making an appointment. He chewed the pen in his mouth over a few times, then wrote, “Want to sleep with boss”. After that was a question about what he expected to get out of therapy. He wrote, “Stop wanting to sleep with boss”, hoping they’d seen dumber answers than his before.

As he flipped over a page, a poof deposited a dragon mail scroll into the seat next to him. It was addressed to him, from Twilight. He read it.

Dear Radish,

I’m sorry to hear that Halcyon had to leave suddenly. Princess Celestia really seemed to like him. He seemed really interested in getting to know you, too. It’s a shame we won’t learn about his homeland from him, but it makes me all the more determined to spread friendship to every corner of this world. Maybe we’ll see him again someday.

I hear the palace hired a new astronomer. Is it true he’s updating the orrery? That’s a huge project. I’d love it if you put me in touch with him- he sounds really knowledgeable. And what’s this I hear about a royal distillery? Please take me on a tour when it’s ready!

You should get this letter after your sword final. Sorry I couldn’t be there to watch. Let me know how it went. Don’t be too upset if you couldn’t score against Shining Armor- he’s the captain for a reason.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle


P.S., Congrats on winning the intramural wrestling tournament. I know you’re probably feeling down about winning on a technicality, but trust me- you got to the end on your own merits. Rainbow Dash says she'd like to test her mettle against you some time, and she doesn’t impress easily.

P.P.S, I think Fluttershy is in the castle today, tending to resident birds. Could you help her with anything she needs?

Radish pocketed the scroll, and finished his forms. He exited the waiting room into the hall, to see Celestia walking toward him.

“Hello, lieutenant.”

“Princess? Do you require something?”

She nodded to the door behind him.

“Yes. Therapy, weekly. Since its invention, actually.”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s none of my business.”

“No.”

Radish started to leave, and Celestia put her hoof on the door. She paused and looked at him.

“I’m sorry for how I treated you,” she said. "Can you forgive me?"

“It's okay. You were only trying to protect me.”

“Yes… and no. Radish, I’ve never known what to do about… us. But it’s not a lie that you’d genuinely be better off giving up on me. I’m sorry- I can’t be for you what you wish I could be. I just can’t fulfill your cutie marks.”

“You’ll never have to. I’ll never ask. I’m happy to be your guard, and your friend.”

“Hmm. I said I was your friend all those years ago. But I’m really not, am I?”

“Well… you and I have never really spent that much time together, I suppose…”

“Let’s change that. Would you like to have dinner with me? We can get to know each other, as friends.”

“I’d like that. And maybe we could make a rule that discussing affairs of the heart is off-limits?”

“Avoiding topics doesn’t make them go away. But we can explore other topics, and see what common interests we might have.”

“Yeah, that would be nice.”

“Radish, you shouldn’t consider yourself similar to Harold. He came to this palace through self-destructive shortcuts and deception. You got here by hard work and honorable, distinguished service.”

“I appreciate that,” Radish said in a low voice, “but I went through some dark days. Had some dark thoughts. Sometimes I wondered how far I would go. What I would end up doing to myself. Or you.”

She frowned. "I’m sorry, Radish. If you'd like to keep shaving your cutie marks, you'd have my permission."

“I don’t want you to start making exceptions for me.”

"I make exceptions for guards all the time. Colonel Jono is allowed to burn incense in his quarters for zebra holidays. Sergeant Gunhilde is permitted a specialized diet. And you merit unique consideration, as well.”

“It’s not a real solution, though. It’s more like retreating from the problem.”

“Well, the option will remain open.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

"And princess, I want you to know that if a real suitor ever comes to court you- someone you actually want to spend your life with- I promise I’ll handle it with dignity, as befitting one of your Guard. And I’d dutifully guard you, your spouse, and your children, to my last breath. I swear it, on my honor.”

Celestia gave Radish a warm smile.“Thank you, Radish. I know you would. Please, take care of yourself.”

“And you as well, princess.”

“I’ll see you later.”

Celestia entered the therapist’s office. Radish went back to work.

45. The Bust

View Online

Thirty Warmbloods quietly converged upon and slipped inside a downtown Canterlot warehouse under the cover of night. They gathered around their leader, a rugged olive-green pegasus mare named Broken Arrow. She spread a number of maps, photographs and timetables across a folding table in the middle of the crowd.

“Okay, listen up. I’m only going over this once. In two days, the palace is sending a resupply of arms and armor to their southern watchtowers. This is the premium stuff: hoof-made by the royal quartermaster. We get these, we’ll be able to go toe-to-toe against anypony who stands in our way.”

“Our way of the Canterlot Central Bank, right?” asked a unicorn mare. “That’s what all this is leading up to, right?”

“The bank is just the beginning! Once we're armed like the guards, we can run this town. We can clean out banks, jewelry stores, museums, anything! We can bust our own people out of prison. The City Watch will be helpless.”

“What about the Royal Guard?” grumbled an earth stallion. “They’ve been giving us trouble lately.”

“Don’t worry about them- we’re about to take out a new insurance policy. Our source in the Watch says a VIP is coming into town- a very VIP. Celestia’s niece.”

“Celestia has a niece? Get out,” scoffed an earth mare.

“Word is she keeps a low profile,” Broken Arrow said. “Been living in Mountreal, but she’s coming into town this weekend. And we’re going to take her hostage.”

“Is she powerful?” asked a donkey.

“Nah. Get this- she’s supposed to be the Princess of Love.”

Love?” scoffed a pegasus stallion.

“Yeah. The worst she can do is blow us a kiss. We’ll ambush her here,” Broken Arrow said, pointing to a map of Uptown Canterlot, “and with her in our care, the big horns won’t dare make a move against us. We’ll have the run of the city. Heck, of the country.”

The Warmbloods chattered amongst themselves, salivating at the prospect of what they could do with the full run of Equestria.

“Wow, that’s an ambitious plan!” shouted a voice from above. The Warmbloods all looked to the ceiling to see Gazeta standing on a crossbeam under the rafters. She snapped a photo of the gathering, and they all winced at the brightness of the flash.

“Get her!” howled Broken Arrow.

She leapt off the beam just a number of magic auras converged onto the spot where she had been standing. A blur of yellow and blue swooped through the building and snatched her mid-air. Flash Sentry carried Gazeta through an open skylight and deposited her on the rooftop.

“Are you all right, miss?” Flash asked.

“I’m fine. Wow, you’re fast.”

“Quick as a Flash,” he said with a wink. He dove back inside the building, landed in the center of the gang, and flicked out his spear.

“You folks are under arrest. Keep your hooves, wings, and horns where I can see them.”

Each Warmblood pulled out a long serrated dagger. Broken Arrow pulled out two and held them wide with her wings.

“You got some stones, coming here alone.”

“Oh, you’re never alone when you’re in the Guard. Right, commander?”

The rest of the skylights flung open. Barrel Roller, Radish Root, Spats, and ten other guards dropped into the building, weapons in hoof.

“You got that right,” said Barrel Roller. “Drop ‘em.”

“You think we’re afraid of you guards?” snickered Broken Arrow. “The Royal Guard is a joke. You lot couldn’t protect a cookie from a toddler. And in case you can’t count, you’re still outnumbered.”

Barrel Roller walked up to Broken Arrow and stared her in the eyes. She re-sheathed her spear. “Then take your best shot, missy.”

Broken Arrow plunged her daggers towards Barrel Roller’s neck. Barrel Roller swatted the daggers away with her wings and headbutted Broken Arrow, who crumpled to the floor. Barrel Roller looked around at the rest of the Warmbloods.

“Anyone else?”

The Warmbloods all dropped their knives.


Gazeta snapped photos of the Royal Guard ushering the shackled Warmbloods into the backs of several patrol wagons. Radish walked up to her.

“Quite a bust for the Guard, eh?” she said.

“And quite a scoop for you,” noted Radish. “Beats peeping on the palace with a zoom lens, huh?”

“I don’t think I’ll need to anymore. Word around town is that Celestia is going to stop casting the censorship spell on the palace. Apparently it was more trouble than it was worth.”

“Hmm. That means tourists will start hounding me for pictures of my cutie marks again.”

“Nah. Once this story hits the stands, no one’s gonna wanna mess with a guard ever again.”

“We couldn’t have done it without you,” said Radish. “Thank you.”

Gazeta looked down and kicked a hoof at the ground. “Hey, uh… I don’t normally do this…”

“Hmm?”

“...and I never thought I’d be the kind of girl who goes for a guy in uniform. But I was wondering… do you… uh…”

“Yes?”

“...do you know if Flash Sentry is single?”

“I think he is.”

“Really? Great! Thank you!”

“No problem.”


Gazeta sat down in a booth in Horns and Hardcart with a cup of coffee and a late-night meal. She went over her notes of the bust. A hefty seafoam green unicorn stallion with a gray mane sat down opposite her.

“Miss Gazeta.”

“Oh, hi. I’ve got to thank you. You were right about the train. And the hideouts. And this bust has given me new leads to follow- don’t be surprised if you see an exposé on the Watch in the coming weeks.”

“Sounds like your career is on an upswing.”

“Oh, yeah! This is going to send the Tribune straight to the top! True crime stories make much better reading than all that ‘who’s Celestia in love with’ pap.”

“Has the Royal Guard offered you a reward for the intel you provided?”

“That commander wants to meet me tomorrow morning. I think that’s what she wants to talk about.”

“I believe she’s going to offer you a job in the royal press corps. I think you should take it.”

“What? Why? Then I’d just be a mouthpiece for the crowns.”

“Do you know what palace correspondents make?”

“Not really.”

The unicorn put a slip of paper on the table between them. She looked at it. She took a sip of coffee.

“Yeah, I think I’ll be taking the job.”

“Good.”

“So, what are you expecting to get out of all this?”

The unicorn reached out a hoof. “A new friend, I hope?”

Gazeta smiled and shook it. “Want some pie? My treat.”

46. The Migration

View Online

Thousands of dragons filled the skies over Canterlot. The Great Dragon Migration was deep into its first day.

Radish and Spats watched from one of the castle’s highest balconies. Spats watched reclining in a lounge chair, sipping a highball. Radish observed the flock intently through his binoculars, scribbling down notes.

“Lots of needle morphs up there,” noted Radish.

“Is that significant?” asked Spats.

“I don’t know. But it’s interesting.”

“And this thing happens how often?”

“The saying is ‘once in a generation’,” replied Radish, checking his pocket watch.

“A pony generation or a dragon generation?”

“Neither, actually. That saying comes from the Codex Magnus. All the recorded dragon migrations have actually happened at seemingly random intervals, ranging from years to centuries apart. We’re not sure what triggers it.”

Spats sipped his drink. “I wonder how Spike’s handling this. Think he’s feeling some kind of instinct to join them?”

“Good question. He could be feeling a tug-of-war between nature and nurture right now. The Plains Rangers used to write his parents for information about his development- instincts, behaviors, cravings. They never responded.”

“That is pretty invasive, Rad.”

“Not as invasive as what the REFs wanted. They wanted to perform penetration tests on his scales… while he was in them. Night Light told them to go penetrate themselves.”

“Special delivery for Radish Root!”

Radish and Spats looked up. A gray pegasus mare in a Ponyville mail uniform was hovering over the balcony, holding out an envelope.

“I’m Radish Root,” he said, taking the letter.

“And I’m Spats!” said Spats. “Thank you for your hard work, miss.”

The girl smiled, then flew off. Spats watched her go as Radish read the letter.

“So what’s up?” asked Spats.

“It’s a letter from Applejack. We got our answer. She says Spike joined the migration.”

“Ooh. That should be interesting.”

“Historical, more like.” Radish stared up at the skies. “We could learn everything we always wanted to know about dragons from him after he returns.”

If he returns. Maybe he’ll meet a cute dragon girl, settle down, start a clutch…”

“Living the dream, huh?” Radish referred back to the letter. “She says Twilight, Dash, and Rarity are tailing Spike.”

“Do they want your help?”

“Actually, Fluttershy is freaking out over the dragons. Applejack is asking me to come help calm her down.”

“In Ponyville? Now?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“You know, I’ve never been to Ponyville. I hear it’s nice.”

“Sure, but… you just want to see that mailmare again, don’t you?”

“You saw the way she was looking at me.”

“I couldn’t tell which way she was looking, actually.”


Radish and Spats stepped off the Friendship Express onto the Ponyville station platform.

“All right,” said Radish, “the post office is that way. I’m going that way. Good luck.”

Spats checked his look in the reflection of a station window. “Thanks, Rad. Know any good mail jokes I can use as an icebreaker?”

“Well, the secret to any good mail joke is in the delivery.”

“Ah ha. See you later.”

They split up. Radish walked to Sweet Apple Acres. Applejack saw him coming down the path and waved him to follow her.

“Thanks for comin’, Radish.”

“I should thank you. I’ve always wanted to see Sweet Apple Acres. It’s one of the most famous farms in Equestria.”

“Well, I’ll give you the insider tour if you help me with Fluttershy.”

“Where is she?”

“Over here.” Applejack pointed to her farmhouse’s cellar doors. “She’s been down there all day.”

Radish tried the doors. They didn’t budge. He knocked on them.

“Fluttershy? Are you down there?”

“No!” shouted Fluttershy, from down there.

“Fluttershy, it’s okay. We’re not in danger.”

Not in danger!? Have you not seen the sky full of massive, ferocious, fire-breathing dragons!?” she wailed.

Radish sat down on the ground next to the doors.

“Look, Fluttershy, during a dragon migration, the safest place to be is right underneath their flyway.”

“You’re lying.”

“No. Migrating dragons fill their bellies before they start their journey. They fly on pure instinct, so they don’t pay attention to what’s below them. And flying for days at a time is fatiguing. All those dragons above us are too well-fed to want to eat us, too single-minded to notice us, and too tired to come looking for a fight.”

There was a pause.

“Oh… I should have realized that,” said Fluttershy, softly. “It’s the same with a lot of animals’ migrations.”

“So, feel like comin’ out now?” asked Applejack.

There was a clunk from inside. The cellar doors creaked open. Fluttershy stood at the top of the stairs, looking sheepish.

“I’m sorry. I let my fears get the best of me. Again.”

Applejack hugged her. “It’s alright, sugar cube. This is hardly a regular Tuesday.”

“And Radish, you came out here just to comfort me?” Fluttershy asked.

“I said I’d be your friend, always.”

She pulled him into the hug with her wings. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”


Radish, Applejack, and Fluttershy sat on the farmhouse’s porch and watched the Great Dragon Migration. Radish continued to take notes.

“It looks like a lot of them have holes in their wings,” noted Fluttershy. “What causes that?”

“We don’t know,” said Radish. “Some ponies think that even dragons have predators. Beasts so big, the dragons have to swarm them to drive them away.”

Fluttershy cradled herself. “Radish, that’s terrifying.”

“Yeah. But maybe it’s the dragon population that keeps those beasts from wandering into Equestria. And maybe the migration developed to redistribute their numbers, so there would always be enough to keep them at bay.”

“Oh. Like they’re protecting us without realizing it? That’s an interesting idea.”

“Y’know, a dragon lives just past the Everfree,” said Applejack. “Spike stumbled into his cave when he was feudin’ with Twilight’s owl.”

“He wrote me about that,” said Radish. “It’s probably been here since before Ponyville was founded. Did anypony see it take off and join the flock?”

“Dash said she did,” said Applejack.

“Hmm…” said Fluttershy, looking down.

“What’s up, Fluttershy?” asked Applejack.

“If he’s gone to join the migration, then that means his cave is unguarded. I hope nopony tries to steal any of his treasure while he’s gone.”

“Yeah,” chuckled Radish, “if he came back and found any of his hoard missing, he would go ballistic. He would probably tear Ponyville apart trying to get back what’s his.”

The three friends went silent.

“Uh, nopony in Ponyville would be dumb enough to steal from a dragon’s hoard, would they?” asked Radish.

Applejack and Fluttershy looked at each other.

“Well…” said Applejack, rubbing the back of her head, “Rarity tried to steal from that red dragon… right in front of it.”

“Sheesh.”

“She learned her lesson, though.”

“Okay, and no one else?”

“I can’t think of any,” said Fluttershy.

“That’s good.”

They continued to watch the migration. Radish reached the end of his notebook. Applejack watched him close it up and put it away.

“Hey, Radish, Dash told me about how Apple Bloom went and pestered you about your cutie marks. I gave her a good talkin’-to. I promise she’ll leave you alone.”

“Thanks. Where is she, anyway? This could be educational for her. Maybe she can get a dragon-related cutie mark.”

“She’s been out with her friends all day.”

“All day? Huh,” said Radish, putting a hoof to his chin.

“What?” asked Applejack.

“You don’t think they’d try to go after the dragon’s hoard, do you?”

“Radish! Are you accusin’ my baby sister of bein’ a low-down, no-good, dirty rotten sneak-thief?”

“Sorry.”

Applejack looked out across the landscape. She grunted. “Stay here.”

She scurried inside the house. Radish and Fluttershy heard the sounds of rummaging. A moment later, she came scurrying back out. “Dagnabbit! That’s exactly what they’re doin’!”


The three galloped down the path from Sweet Apple Acres.

“My good shovel, Apple Bloom’s little red wagon, and Big Macintosh’s brand-new burlap sacks are all missin’,” said Applejack as they ran.

“Treasure-hauling supplies,” surmised Radish.

“Right,” said Applejack. “Those three are in a lot of trouble.”

“If they disturb that dragon’s hoard, the whole town is in a lot of trouble,” said Fluttershy. “How do we get to the dragon’s cave?”

“We’ll ask Owlowiscious! He knows the way!” said Applejack.

The three of them reached Twilight’s home. The door was locked and no lights were on.

“Owlowiscious?” called Fluttershy. There was no response.

"He must be out feeding,” said Radish.

"He can’t be. There's no restaurants in Ponyville open this late,” said Pinkie Pie.

Radish, Applejack, and Fluttershy looked. Pinkie Pie was now alongside them.

“Pinkie Pie? What are you doing here?” asked Fluttershy.

“You didn’t think you’d leave me out of this adventure, did you? I’m the only one left!"

“Do you know where the nearby dragon cave is?” asked Radish.

“The nearby what now?”

“Radish, you’re the one who knows about dragons,” said Applejack. “Do you think you could find it?”

Radish looked around. “Hmm. Fluttershy, can you fly me up high for a better look at the landscape?”

“Uh… okay.” She gripped Radish by his torso and flapped. She struggled to get him off the ground. “Eeeeh. Radish, you are really heavy.”

“It’s all muscle,” he said pointedly.

“Here, lemme give ya a boost,” said Applejack. She positioned herself under them, then bucked them both straight up.

They flew skyward. Fluttershy wailed and flailed. She held Radish and spread her wings, attempting to glide them down safely. They landed roughly on the upper balcony of Twilight’s library. Radish helped Fluttershy up.

“Applejack!” she yelled. “How about a warning next time!?”

Radish scanned the horizon with his binoculars. He could see a swath of damaged trees in a straight line, as if something massive had crashed through them during a takeoff. He smiled.

“I see something. Dragon signs. It’s less than an hour east of here.

“Oh, that dragon cave?” called Pinkie Pie. “Yeah, I know that one.”


The four of them took a path leading from the town’s outskirts and into nearby woods. Pinkie Pie led while Radish kept an eye out for danger.

“Ta-da!” said Pinkie Pie in a loud whisper, pointing to a clearing. Beyond the clearing was the mouth of a cave in the side of a large hill.

Pinkie Pie noticed a piece of paper stuck to the side of the cave’s entrance. “Aww. He never brought it inside.”

Radish looked at it over her shoulder. It was an advertisement for the bakery she worked at.

“You came to this cave to deliver a flier?”

“The coupon is still good, if you want it.”

Radish examined the ground. “I don’t think the Crusaders came through here. There’s no wagon wheel tracks or filly hoofprints. But look-”

He pointed to a set of adult hoofprints leading into the cave. “Someone is here. We need to stop them.”

Pinkie Pie stuck her hooves into a set of the prints. “Hey, they’re my size! I hope it’s not me from the future in there, come back in time to rob the past.”

“If it is, could you remember to not do that?” asked Radish.

“You got it!”

He warily entered the cave. The others followed.

The cave was quite large, certainly large enough for a dragon. It continued deep inside the earth. As they rounded a corner into another chamber, they were greeted with dim yellow light, like that from a lantern. They heard clattering noises. Radish stopped and held up a hoof, motioning the others to keep quiet. They peeked around the next corner.

In the largest, deepest chamber were mountains of jewels and gold. Digging through the peak of one of the piles was a crimson earth mare with a long scarlet mane.

It was Fetching Steps.

"Dammit,” growled Radish. “The cherry tart is here."

"My cousin Cherry Tart is here!?" asked Pinkie Pie excitedly. Radish pulled the girls back.

“No. That mare in there is a dangerous covert agent with advanced skills working for an unknown player,” said Radish in a low voice. “She’s interfered with Royal Guard business and stolen important items.”

“Ooh, like your heart?” asked Pinkie Pie, nudging him.

No. I’m going to confront her. I want you three to take ambush positions in the tunnel. If she tries to escape, take her down.”

Take her down?” asked Fluttershy, skeptically.

“Radish, we ain’t yer guard squad,” said Applejack. “Let’s just go in there and talk with her.”

“Ah ha!” yelled Fetching Steps, pulling a small golden box out of the pile. It was embossed with a coat of arms that Radish couldn’t make out. She opened it and smiled at its contents.

Radish stomped into the chamber. “All right, drop it.”

She turned and gasped. “Whoa! Lieutenant Radish Root! I haven’t seen you since the cruise!”

“They were on a cruise?” muttered Applejack, raising an eyebrow.

“What are you doing here?” demanded Radish. “What’s in that case?”

Fetching Steps dropped the case into her saddle bag. “How’ve you been? How are the bats?”

“You need to put that back. If the dragon sees something missing, it’ll be enraged. No one will be safe.”

“Nah, a certain amount of theft is built into the system. It’s the cost of doing business.”

“Now, look here, missy,” said Applejack, entering the chamber with Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie in tow, “this ain’t no laughin’ matter.”

She looked at them and frowned. “You brought… them?” she asked Radish disappointedly.

“Any reason I shouldn’t have?”

“Yeah, five’s a crowd.”

She kicked at the pile of treasure she was standing on. It collapsed, sending a wave of gems at Radish. He jumped back. She surfed the wave past him and bolted for the cave entrance.

“Get her!” yelled Radish.

Pinkie Pie, Applejack, and Fluttershy awkwardly tried to form a line to block her escape. As she ran towards them, a low rumble filled the cavern. Cracks in the cave floor split open in her path. Fetching Steps skidded to a stop while the other girls stumbled back.

The ground erupted with a burst of dust. A large creature resembling a flat copper alligator crawled out of the hole.

“Oh my!” exclaimed Fluttershy. “It’s a gharbuncle!”

“Is that bad?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“No. They only eat precious metals. They only attack creatures who-”

The gharbuncle reared up between the girls, roaring from a massive maw full of far too many teeth.

“-intrude into their feeding grounds. Oh my.”

The gharbuncle plunged toward Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy. They scattered. Radish grabbed it by its tail. Its scales were like jagged scrap metal. They cut into Radish’s arms, and he lost his grip.

Applejack produced her lasso from under her hat and snagged the creature’s mouth shut. It whipped its head, flinging her across the room. She landed in a pile of gems.

The gharbuncle turned its attention to Pinkie Pie. It pulled off the lasso and snarled.

“Uh, could I interest you in a coupon for half off select baked goods?” she asked, backing away. The beast pounced at her.

“Pinkie Pie!” cried Fetching Steps. She leapt and shoved Pinkie Pie to safety. The gharbuncle clamped down on Fetching Steps’s tail and yanked her into the air, slamming her into a wall and then the floor. She moaned in pain. It put its jaws around her head.

“Hey!” shouted Radish. The gharbuncle turned to look at him. He was holding up a small antique silver coin.

Radish put the coin in his mouth and swallowed it. The gharbuncle hissed with fury.

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Radish. “I’m going to eat all this treasure before you can! Better come and stop me!”

It ran at Radish. Radish readied his fighting stance.

Fluttershy flew up in between them, held her hooves out wide, and howled, “STOP!”

The beast stopped. Fluttershy put her hooves on her hips and glared at it reproachfully. It gave a sheepish look and made a series of whines at her.

“Oh, really? You poor dear,” said Fluttershy. She landed by its side and patted it. “Gary here says this used to be his cave, before the dragon took it over and kicked him out.”

“Aww, that’s so sad,” said Pinkie Pie.

Fluttershy turned back to Gary. “But you really should have started with that, instead of trying to kill us. And Radish! Eating its food? He needs to fatten up to attract a mate!”

“I… really?” asked Radish.

“And you!” Fluttershy said, looming over Fetching Steps. “If you hadn’t come in here plundering, none of this would have happened!”

“Uh… sorry?”

“Now, you put that case back, and we can all go home,” ordered Fluttershy.

Fetching Steps looked around. Radish, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Gary had her surrounded.

“Okay, okay.” She pulled the case out and set it down. Gary snapped it up and gulped it down.

Fetching Steps scowled. “Well, that sucks. Be seeing you.”

She headed toward the cave exit. Radish stood in her path.

“You’re not going anywhere. You’re under arrest.”

She grinned. “Sure, lieutenant. Did you bring your cuffs, or did you just want to hold my hoof all the way to Canterlot?"

"Applejack, hog-tie her," said Radish.

Fetching Steps winked at Applejack. "Well, as much fun as that would be… "

She dropped herself into the hole in the cavern floor, kicking its sides as she fell. The hole collapsed and filled in behind her.

“Hey!” called Radish. He tried to dig after her, and found moving the debris impossible. Gary made a grunt to Fluttershy.

“He says that he dug tunnels all over the place. She could come out anywhere,” said Fluttershy.

“Blast,” said Radish. “I wonder what she came here for.”

“Oh, probably this,” said Pinkie Pie. She pulled a small black bottle from behind herself.

“What’cha got there, Pinkie Pie?” asked Applejack.

“I saw her sneak it out of that box and tuck it into her hair when Gary popped up. I yoinked it and replaced it with my emergency jar of jelly beans when she grabbed me.”

“How are you so good at sleight-of-hoof?” asked Radish.

“From playing jacks with my sisters.”

They looked at the bottle.

“It’s an inkwell,” said Fluttershy.

“No markings,” noted Radish.

“But that bottle is mighty old. They don’t make glass like that anymore,” said Applejack.

Gary grunted dismissively.

“He says we can keep it,” said Fluttershy. “He can’t eat it.”

“Here,” said Pinkie Pie, giving it to Radish. “I can tell you want it the most.”

“Thanks,” said Radish, putting it in his bag. “I need to figure out what this was all about.”

“But what are we going to do about that dragon?” asked Applejack. “When he gets back, he’s gonna be mighty steamed at Gary here.”

“Leave that to me,” said Fluttershy. “I’ll sit them down together and make them make peace.”

“You’re not afraid?” asked Radish.

“I’m more afraid of what will happen if I don’t.”

Radish shook Gary’s foreclaw. “Take care. Good luck attracting a mate.”

Gary grunted.

“He said, ‘you too’,” translated Fluttershy.

“Heh. Thanks.”


The four ponies left the cave and made their way back to Ponyville. They reached town square and found the Cutie Mark Crusaders sitting inside a gazebo. They were attentively gathered around Spats, who seemed to be recounting a tale to them.

“Hiya, Rad,” said Spats. “Hello, ladies.”

“Oh, hi, Mister Root,” said Apple Bloom, warily.

“Girls?” said Applejack. “Y’all were in town this whole time?”

“Well, we were going to go out and get cutie marks for mushroom-hunting,” said Scootaloo, pointing to their wagon, sacks, and shovel by the gazebo.

“But it’s not the season for mushrooms,” said Fluttershy.

“That’s what I told them,” said Spats. “Then they started asking me about my cutie mark, so I got into that whole story…”

“So now we’ve got a new goal to shoot for!” said Sweetie Belle.

“You three want to be guards?” asked Radish.

“No, lawyers!” the fillies said in unison.

Applejack frowned. “Uh… we can talk about this later.”


Radish and Spats sat on a bench on the train platform, waiting for the next train to Canterlot.

“So, did you find your mailmare?” asked Radish.

“She was still out on deliveries. But I met a very cute teacher at the post office. Long story short, we’ve got a spa date next week.”

“I’m happy for you.”

“How was your day?” asked Spats.

“I swallowed a coin," said Radish.

“What, on purpose?”

“It was a spur-of-the-moment impulse. Do you think I should see a doctor?”

“Nah, just be on the lookout for any change.”

47. Their Bond

View Online

“So, they refused to move their campsite, and as drunk as they were, there’s no way I could have put them all under arrest without bloodshed,” recounted Radish.

“Then, what did you do?” asked Celestia.

“I, uh, came back at midnight… dressed as a ghost. Made a bunch of spooky moans and rattled chains.”

Celestia gave Radish a stern look. “Radish, don’t tell me that actually worked.”

“They hopped in their cart and sped off. Never saw them again.”

Celestia leaned back in her chair and laughed. “The resourcefulness of Plains Rangers never ceases to amaze me.”

Radish shrugged. “When you work alone, you have to get creative.”

Dinner with Celestia -just as friends- had been going well. They shared a simple meal on her tower’s balcony, and the semi-public setting was putting Radish at ease. He had spent half the night regaling her with anecdotes from his Ranger days, which always flowed naturally from him.

Celestia caught sight of something in the sky. Against the sunset, an ornate pink carriage was coming in for a landing accompanied by multiple pegasus guards.

“Ah,” she said, “she’s here. Ahead of schedule, too.”

“That’s your niece? If you’d like to go meet her, I understand.”

“No, I’ll give Shining Armor some alone time with her first. I believe he has something special planned.”

“I see.”

Radish watched the carriage land behind a building. He sighed and frowned.

“Are you okay, Radish?”

“It’s just… reckless.”

“What is?”

“We knew Princess Cadenza was being targeted, yet she still came in on a very conspicuous transport, along a very predictable route. ”

“You’re concerned about her security arrangements? What would you have done differently?”

“Well, I’d send that carriage, but she wouldn’t be in it- it’d be a decoy. I’d have a royal cargo train arrive the same day, and it would be packed with guards.”

“Radish, Cadance went incognito on a cargo train years ago. Bandits still found out and made a play for her.”

“I know, that’s why the train would be a decoy, too.”

“Two decoys? Then where would the real Cadance be?

"Canterlot gets shipments of ice wine from Quebuck. She could be concealed inside a cask on a cargo cart. It’s a niche product, so robbers would ignore it.”

“That’s a three-day journey. Both ways. You want to cram my niece into a barrel for the better part of a week?”

“It’s still a lot nicer than what kidnappers would do to her.”

“Radish, I appreciate the thought. But one of the privileges of being a princess is getting to travel as a passenger, not freight.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

“But I do want to personally thank you for uncovering the plot to kidnap her,” said Celestia, warmly.

Radish looked aside. “Oh I, uh, just passed some intel along. Their plan never would have worked, anyway.”

“Nonetheless, I am grateful. Thank you, Radish.”

“You’re welcome. I just hope that’s the last time anyone threatens a princess.”

“Wouldn't that be nice?”


Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Captain Shining Armor stepped into the captain’s home, nuzzling each other.

“I can’t wait to see Twilight again,” she said. “Do you think she’ll remember me?”

“Of course she will!” assured Shining Armor.

“And she really has friends now? True friends?”

“Yeah, it’s great. I’ve never seen her so happy.”

“And one of them’s a guard? A stallion?”

“Uh huh.”

“Is he cute?”

Shining rolled his eyes. He floated a file folder from his desk into her hooves. “You tell me.”

“What’s this?”

“He’s the same guard that you're meeting with.”

“Oh, really?” She read through the file. She smiled. “You must have a soft spot for him.”

“What makes you say that?”

“It says here he abandoned his duties during the Nightmare Moon crisis, but only got cleaning duty as punishment.”

“If you’d seen those tunnels, you’d know that was no slap on the wrist.”

“How come his cutie mark isn’t in here?”

“That’s, uh, a big part of what he needs to talk to you about.”

“Oh, I think I know what this is about. I’ll help any way I can.”

“Thanks.”

“Wait… his name is Root? Luna’s mentioned a Lieutenant Root in her letters. She writes about him with a very fond tone.”

Shining Armor sighed. “Yeah, it’s the same guy.”

“Wow, he gets around, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

Shining Armor led Cadance to a table where dinner for two was set, along with a bottle of champagne chilling in an ice bucket.

“I hope you’re hungry,” said Shining Armor.

“I’m famished,” said the princess. “Thank you!”

He felt the ring box in his pocket. He took a deep breath.


Radish rolled up his left sleeve and showed Celestia a short curved scar on his upper foreleg. “...and I got this one from a joint snake.”

“That doesn’t look like a snakebite,” noted Celestia.

“No, it had a knife.”

Celesia cocked her eyebrows. “Radish, have you been telling me tall tales all night?”

“Ma’am! I would never… what is that?”

A bright pink flare shot out from behind one of the palace buildings. It zoomed spiraling into the sky, then exploded.

The sky cracked like thunder. An expanding shockwave of light burned across the castle’s airspace, heading right toward Radish and Celestia.

“Get down, ma’am!” howled Radish.

He leapt off his chair, vaulted over the table, and hurled himself at Celestia, knocking her to the floor and shielding her body with his own. He held her face tight into his chest as the blast wave passed over them. Radish felt his fur tingle all over. The noise subsided.

Radish looked into Celestia’s face. “Ma’am, are you okay?”

Celestia smiled. “Radish… look.”

Radish looked up at the sky. Hovering above the castle was a massive glowing pink heart, spinning like a top and spitting out smaller hearts. Each of these smaller hearts burst like a firework into a dozen tiny hearts, which were drifting down around the palace like snowflakes.

“What… is that?” asked Radish.

“It’s joy, Radish. A burst of pure joy from the Princess of Love. I believe Shining Armor finally summoned up the courage to pop the question.”

“That came from your niece? Whoa.”

Celestia looked Radish in the eye. “Uh, Radish? You can get off me now.”

“Oh. Forgive me.” He worked to untangle his limbs from her.

“Aunt Celestia! Wonderful news!” called a youthful voice. A pink alicorn in a school blazer flew up from below the balcony. “Shining just-”

She saw Radish laying on top of Celestia. She put her hooves to her mouth and fluttered back a bit.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were, uh, with someone.”

“No!” gasped Radish, “We were just-”

“Don’t let me interrupt! We can catch up later!”

Princess Cadenza flew away.

“Wait!” called Radish.

She was gone. Radish got off Celestia and helped her to her feet.

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Celestia smirked. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll explain it to her later. She'll understand- Shining Armor has also tackled me for my own protection.”

“Really? What happened?”

“A bee flew too close to me.”

The two walked to the balcony railing and watched the hearts drift down. Celestia caught one in her aura. “I think I’ll save one of these.”

She cast a spell to encase the heart with a crystal ball. She held it and examined it. Radish saw a note of wistfulness in her eyes.

“Ma’am,” said Radish, “I meant what I said, about you finding love. If you ever meet someone who makes you want to fill the sky with hearts, I promise I’ll support you one-hundred percent.”

“That’s sweet, Radish. But I also meant what I said, all those years ago. My duty to Equestria will always come first.” She smiled at the heart in her hooves. “But I can still be happy for Cadance. And when you find that special someone, I'll be happy for you, too.”

"Hmm.” Radish looked at the display of glowing hearts in the sky. “I don't suppose you have any other nieces?"

“Sorry. Can I interest you in a nephew?”

“I’ll pass.”


Princess Cadenza landed on her fiancé’s porch and reentered the dwelling.

“So, how did Celestia react?” asked Shining Armor, eagerly.

She looked down. “She was, uh… occupied. I’ll tell her later.”

“Oh? Okay. Then, how about we start planning the wedding? Or have you been planning it since you were a little filly?” asked Shining Armor.

She smiled. “Oh, I just want something small and simple. And soon.”

“How soon?”

“How about this weekend?”

“You realize that Canterlot society will be expecting something big for a royal wedding? They’ll want the wedding of the century.”

“That’s just not me, Shiny. Fancy dresses, pricey cakes, and a million strangers watching us? I’d rather just have an intimate get-together with close friends and family.”

“All right. But my parents will balk if there’s no cake.”

“Yeah. As I recall, Celestia has a bit of a sweet tooth, as well.”


“Here, Radish, try one of these,” said Celestia, floating a plate of chocolate tortes to him. “They’re my new favorite dessert.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

They heard a knock at the door.

“Excuse me, Radish.” Celestia left the balcony to answer it. She spoke with a messenger pony. She turned back to Radish with a frown.

“Radish… it’s Harold.”

She flew over to Radish, touched her horn to his head, and teleported them both. They reappeared in the medical center lobby. The night receptionist recoiled in surprise. She showed them to Harold’s room, where a doctor stood by Harold’s bed. Harold was sleeping.

“We received your message,” said Celestia. “What’s the situation?”

“He had been responding well to the latest course of potions,” said the doctor. “It’s repaired a lot of the damage he did to himself. He’ll be very weak, but he may live for years now.”

“That’s good,” said Radish.

“But just a few moments ago, he fell into a coma. We can’t determine what happened.”

Celestia looked closely. “Hmm. He’s dreaming. You can tell by his eyelids.”

“Yes, and that’s a new development,” said the doctor. “We think his experiment inverted the dream centers of his brain. It gave him the power to project daydreams, but left him unable to dream while sleeping.”

“But now that he’s lost his power,” said Celestia, “his mind may be making up for lost time. He could be plunging so deep into the dream lands that he can’t find his way back.”

“Can you get him out?” Radish asked Celestia.

“I”m afraid my own skills with dreams are limited. Only Luna can retrieve him.”

“Oh…” said Radish, looking down. “But he caused Luna so much pain…”

“I doubt she’d refuse to help him out of spite,” said Celestia. "But perhaps it would be best if the request came from you?”

“Aye, ma’am. I’ll talk to her. She should be finished with breakfast by now, so she’ll be in an agreeable mood.”


Absolutely not,” said Princess Luna firmly.

“Ma’am…”

“Harold’s mad experiment nearly tore the dream world and my own mind asunder. Being trapped in his own dreams is poetic justice.”

“Princess, you’d really leave one of your own subjects languishing like that, when you could save him?”

“‘Tis a punishment which fits his crimes.”

“What if I made it a personal request?”

“How can you be so forgiving of his misdeeds?” asked Luna. “Look at what he did to you!”

She pointed to an object on her bedroom wall. Radish approached it for a better look. It looked like a framed slab of marble with a small crack running lengthwise through it.

“Uh, what is that?” asked Radish.

“That is a piece of the throne room floor, where he body-slammed you into it!”

“Really? I cracked the floor? And you kept it?”

“It is a testament to your resilience, and a reminder that enemies come in all guises.”

Radish turned to face Luna.

“Princess Luna, I’m all healed from that match. But he may never be.” He kneeled in front of her and bowed his head. “Please. Save him. I beg you.”

Luna sighed resignedly. She approached Radish with a bashful smile and lifted his head to her. “Compassion. Selflessness. Mercy. These are more than just virtues- for a princess, they are duties. Thank you for reminding me of my duties. I will help Harold.”

“We both know you didn’t need reminding. You were always going to save him.”

“Perhaps.” She placed a hoof on Radish's shoulder. “And perhaps I simply wanted to give you an opportunity to make me proud again.”

“I’m always proud to make you proud.”

She bent close to him. “I’ve not yet thanked you for saving me from my agony.”

“I didn’t even know I was doing it.”

She leaned closer. “I know. Even unwittingly, you come to my rescue.”

“Aunt Luna? Are you up?” Princess Cadenza landed on the balcony and entered Luna’s bedroom. “You’ll never guess-”

She saw Luna and Radish, with their faces very close together. Her eyes went wide. Radish froze. She turned around and flew off without another word.

“Niece Cadance? Come back!” called Luna.

She was gone. Radish sighed. “Sorry, Princess Luna.”

“Fret not. What matters now is Harold’s rescue.”

“Thank you, princess.”

“Had you met Cadance before?”

“Just briefly.”


“Well? What did Luna say?” asked Shining Armor.

“She was… also occupied.”

“Wow, busy night.”

“You have no idea.”

They sat on the sofa for a while together, watching the fireplace crackle. Shining Armor held Cadance close.

“So, our first night as an engaged couple. How about we… celebrate?” he said, playfully nodding to his bedroom door. She giggled.

There was a knock at the door. The couple groaned. Shining Armor answered the door and spoke with an officer. They discussed something at length, and then he closed the door with a determined look on his face.

“What’s the matter?” asked Cadance.

“We’ve got trouble. But don’t worry, your handsome Guard Captain will protect you.”

He walked to the patio and shot a beam into the air. A glowing pink bubble encased all of Canterlot.

“Shiny? What’s going on?”

“The princesses have issued a security alert. We’re at Threat Level Grande.”

“Oh, dear. The city may panic. I should get out there and comfort the people.”

“That’s the last thing you should do!”

“Shiny, I have to. It’s my specialty. It’s my duty.”

Shining Armor sighed. “All right. But only in the daytime, and only with me, and a double squad of guards, at your side.”

“Okay. I think we should put the wedding on hold until this is over.”

“Yeah, I understand. But that just gives me all the more motivation to find this threat and stop it.”

“I know you can handle it.”

They nuzzled.

“Hey, check it out,” said Shining, pointing to the window. Multicolored points of light were flashing in his backyard.

“Oh, the fireflies! I’ve missed them.” She walked out to the back porch and gazed appreciatively at the fireflies around her. “They come in so many colors here.”

“Stay there. I’ll bring you a drink.”

He turned and busied himself pouring two flute glasses of champagne. A bright green flash illuminated the room from behind him.

He turned back to his fiancée. “Whoa, that must have been a huge bug!”

She scowled. “What do you mean?

“That green light. It must have been some firefly!”

“Uh huh.”

He went to her and gave her a champagne flute. She held it and sniffed at it.

“Dear,” she said, “how long does that… big shield spell of yours last?”

“I’ll maintain it as long as I need to. And with you by my side, giving me strength, I bet I can keep it up for weeks.”

Weeks?

“But it won’t come to that. I’ll have this threat sorted so fast, we won’t even have to delay the wedding.”

“The wedding. Right. You know, I have some thoughts on that.”

“We can go over the details later.” He draped a hoof across her shoulders. “I believe we were just about to head upstairs…”

She rolled her eyes and brushed off his hoof. “Not tonight, dear. I have a headache.”

“Oh, you do?”

“Yes. And you know what? It looks like you do, too.”

“No, I don’t.”

Her horn glowed green. She grinned and pressed it to his forehead.

“Yes. You do.”

48. The Wedding, Part 1: Invitations

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Shining Armor paced the briefing room podium determinedly. Radish and the rest of the guards leaned forward in their seats, eager to learn more about the alert status.

“Guards,” said Shining, “we’ve got a situation. Last night, Princess Luna intercepted intel about an imminent attack on Canterlot. We don’t know the exact nature of the threat, but it doesn’t matter- you train every day to face the unknown. I want all of you to stay alert and watch each others’ backs.

“The palace will be closed to tourists for the time being, freeing up guards to concentrate in critical areas. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna will be suspending their typical duties to take turns as Royal Overwatchers.”

The guards muttered amongst themselves. Royal Overwatching was an ancient tradition, during which a royal visibly stands alert over their domain, scanning the land for trouble using spell-enhanced scopes. It was largely symbolic, but symbols have power, even to Equestria’s enemies.

“The citywide shield will be up until further notice. City Watch is enforcing an eight o’clock curfew, and the Wonderbolts will be doing regular sky sweeps. Travel in and out of Canterlot will be restricted, and communications will be limited and monitored. Your letters home will have to wait until this is over.”

The muttering in the ranks turned to grumbling. No one had lived through anything like this before. Some of this seemed borderline unconstitutional.

“But there is some positive news. Canterlot will soon be hosting a royal wedding.” He smiled. “Mine. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza was silly enough to accept my proposal.”

The crowd erupted with cheers and applause.

“The ceremony is going to be held in the palace. All of Canterlot is invited. Princess Celestia herself will officiate…”

The cheers got louder.

“...and it’s all going to happen this Saturday!”

The crowd stopped applauding, and the cheers shifted into a confused din. The guards all eyed each other nervously. Several hooves shot up.

“Yes, I know, it seems sudden. But Cadance and I had a long talk about it. She doesn't want to wait to start our new lives together, and neither do I. And Equestria’s been through a lot the past couple years- Nightmare Moon, Discord, all those parasprite infestations. We owe it to the people, to our guests, and to ourselves to throw the wedding of the century.”

One guard, Colonel Spearhead, gave up on raising his hoof and just spoke up.

“Sir, we can’t make security arrangements in that amount of time!”

More guards took their cue to shout out their misgivings.

“Don’t guests need invitations months in advance?”

“How can we have a wedding during a threat!?”

“Who’s even planning this!?”

“Guys!” laughed Shining Armor. “I’ve been thinking about this wedding every day since I started dating Cadance. You’ve all guarded large-scale events in the palace before. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all prepared. All we’ll need to secure is a few buildings where the guests will concentrate.

“The invitations are going out by dragon mail as we speak, but Canterlot society doesn't need an invitation to come party at the palace, all they need is an excuse. And as for the threat…”

He looked sternly at his guards.

“If we let this enemy derail a royal wedding, they’ve already won. We’re not going to let that happen. We are going to hold our heads up high and say ‘I do’, without fear. That’s the Equestrian way.”

Radish had never heard “the Equestrian way” defined in those terms. He had never heard that phrase before at all.

“And as for who’s planning this, who else? I’m choosing my own sister, Twilight Sparkle, as the wedding planner… and my best mare!”

There were some more positive mutters now. Everyone had a lot of confidence in Twilight. Radish did.

Well, at least she’s going to be happy to hear about this.

“Now, most of you have never interacted with Cadance before, but you should consider her to have every bit of authority as the royal sisters. And when it comes to the wedding, her word is absolute. Her own guards and staff are staying with us, so I want you to get along with them- we’re all one big happy family here. AG1 will be handling a lot of the preparations, too, so give them the usual amount of latitude. Oh yeah, and Spike thinks he’s in charge of the bachelor party- just humor him.”

Shining Armor continued his briefing and doled out assignments. As the crowd filtered out of the room, Shining Armor approached Radish.

“Root, Cadance would like to meet with you now. Come with me.”

He led Radish down several halls, into the parts of the palace that he rarely patrolled and that tourists never saw. They reached tall double doors, beyond which Radish had never been.

Shining stood aside, and Radish pushed open the doors, revealing a large, expensively-appointed drawing room. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza was languidly reposing across a plush red divan. Radish entered, and the door locked behind him.

Radish got his first good look at Princess Cadenza. She was lankier than Celestia and Luna- almost gangly- with a thick pink mane and tail which didn’t magically move like theirs. She wore a small crown. Her cutie mark was a crystal heart flanked by bits of gold lace. She was eating chocolates out of a heart-shaped box and drinking pink champagne from a deep goblet.

“Radish Root?” she asked with her mouth full.

“Yes, princess. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Radish said with a bow.

She swallowed her mouthful of chocolates and washed it down with a gulp of champagne. "Oh, the pleasure is all mine. Come, sit down."

She motioned to the divan she was lying on. Radish hesitated, then sat down at her side. She leaned over to him.

“Mister Root, I need your help for my wedding," she said, pleadingly.

“Oh? Uh… anything, your highness.”

She held up Radish’s personnel file in her aura.

“It says here that you used to guard my Aunt Luna’s tower.”

“Yes, ma’am. It was an honor.”

“I would love, love, love it if you would guard it during my wedding.”

“Oh? Princess Luna will be in her tower during the wedding?”

“No, of course not. She’ll be right up there with Aunt Celestia when Shining Armor and I say our vows.”

“I see…”

“Is that a problem?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No, ma’am! I just thought… uh… nothing. Never mind.”

“What, you didn’t think you’d be attending my wedding, did you?”

Radish did.

“No, ma’am. Of course not.”

“Listen," the princess said, leaning in closer to Radish, "whoever is threatening Canterlot might see Luna’s tower as easy pickings during my wedding. Someone could steal all the ancient, powerful artifacts she's keeping in there.”

Radish wasn’t aware of any powerful ancient artifacts in the tower. Cairn said she had a foosball table delivered last week.

The princess touched Radish's shoulder. “I need you there protecting it, so I can have peace of mind on the happiest day of my life.”

“You can count on me, your highness.”

Good."

“Who else is assigned with me?”

“No one. It’s just you.”

“Ma’am?”

“That tower is on the other side of the palace from the wedding hall. It’s outside of… what did Shiny call it? The prime cartoon zone?”

“Uh, primary cordon zone?”

“That’s it! Gee, you’re smart!” she giggled, playfully nudging Radish.

“Thank you, princess.”

“Basically, we can’t afford to spread any more guards out that far away from the ceremony. But I'm sure a big, strong stallion like you can handle it all by yourself, can't you?" said Cadenza, brushing her hoof up Radish’s foreleg.

Radish swallowed hard. “I can handle it, ma'am. During my Ranger days, I was responsible for a much larger and much more remote territory all on my own.”

“Thank you, Mister Root." She lifted a wing to his chin and drew his face toward hers. She grinned entrancingly. Radish's tail twitched. "I knew you were the pony for the job."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said softly.

"Let's toast on it," she said, floating glasses of champagne between them. She clinked his glass. “To a perfect wedding.”

Radish wasn’t allowed to drink on duty. He drank his glass in one gulp.


Radish shuffled out of the drawing room. Shining Armor was still in the hallway, staring out the window.

“Root? That was quick.”

“We, uh, didn’t really talk about my… issues. She just gave me an assignment for the wedding.”

“You’ve already got an assignment for the wedding. Commander Roller wants you on parapet patrol.”

“Princess Cadenza wants me guarding Selenic Spire.”

“What are you talking about? Wait here.”

Shining Armor entered the drawing room. Radish could hear the muffled sounds of something akin to an argument behind the doors. A moment later, Shining Armor reentered the hallway, wincing and rubbing his forehead.

“She was right, Root. Go report to Luna.”

“Aye. Oh, and congratulations on your engagement.”

“Thanks.”

“Is your head okay?”

“My head is none of your business, lieutenant.”

“Sorry, sir.”

49. The Wedding, Part 2: Preparations

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“Hey, there’s the hot shot!” said the duty officer in Luna’s tower. “Defender of the Spire, himself!”

Radish saluted. “I’m here to see Princess Luna.”

“Go on up. She’s expecting you.”

Luna’s bedroom door unlocked and opened itself as Radish approached. He entered to find Luna at the balcony gazing at the city through her telescope.

“Lieutenant Root, I have been informed of your duty,” she said without turning. “Congratulations. Cadance must have been greatly impressed by your record.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

She turned and nodded. “This time, I can. I sought out Harold and found him in the deepest, darkest depths of the dreamlands. But he was not merely lost- he was being held captive.”

“Captive!? By what?”

“A very powerful, very malevolent entity. Harold had stumbled across its dream- a dream of conquering Canterlot.”

“Discord?”

“Nay. This was a creature unlike any I’ve known- shapeless and elusive. It was interrogating Harold for information on Canterlot, the palace, and Celestia, using frightening imagery to torture him to his breaking point.”

Radish frowned. “Is he okay?”

“He did not break.” Luna looked out toward the infirmary. “Harold refused to give up even the smallest detail. I must admit, he was quite valiant.”

“So this entity didn’t learn anything?”

“Nay. But neither did I. It vanished as I stepped forth to confront it. Likely, it woke up. I conveyed Harold to a safe place in the dreamlands. He is still unconscious, but he will have pleasant dreams until he awakens.”

“That was very kind of you. Thank you, princess.”

“I was merely doing my duty as the Princess of the Night. But we are left with a problem- somewhere out there is a creature that dreams of attacking Canterlot. I believe its attack is imminent, and the threat it poses is severe. Thus, I called for this heightened security level.”

“You can count on the Guard to stop this thing, princess, whatever it is.”

“Thank you Radish,” she said, looking out the balcony to the shield barrier. “Shining Armor’s shield is quite impressive. With him on duty, we should be quite well-protected.”

“And we have the Elements of Harmony on-site,” said Radish, encouragingly, “with those, AG1 can beat anyone.”

“True, they have proven themselves to be reliable, if unconventional, protectors.” She turned to Radish. “You’ve now conversed with Cadance?”

“Yes ma’am. She’s, uh, very friendly. I don’t know much about her. I didn’t even know she existed until recently.”

“I’ve only met her twice since my return, but we’ve maintained regular correspondence. She has spent the last few years at the University of Mountreal, working toward a cardiology degree. She wants to heal hearts, both literally and metaphorically. It is admirable that one of her station chooses so demanding a path.”

Luna grinned.

“It was quite a shock when Celestia told me that there was another alicorn princess, and that she had adopted her as a niece, making her my niece as well. I never thought I’d have one.”

She made a short, mirthful snort.

“That means I soon will be family with Shining Armor, Twilight Sparkle, Spike, and all their relatives as well! I returned as Nightmare Moon completely alone, but I now have a growing family. It is wonderful.”

She smiled sweetly. Her eyes shone.

“Think of it! Celestia and I may soon be celebrating Hearth’s Warming at a full table! I’d almost forgotten what that is like. Celestia was by herself for a millennium. It was just the two of us for so long before that.”

She took a step toward Radish.

“Lieutenant, why not court Twilight Sparkle? If the two of you were to wed, you and I would be family, as well!”

Radish chortled. “She’s destined for someone a lot better than me. I think she’ll end up with some great wizard, or a dashing prince charming. Besides, I’m brethren with the bat ponies, so I’m already like a… son to you?”

Radish didn’t like the sound of that as it came out of his mouth. Luna frowned and shook her head.

“Radish, I am no mother to the bat ponies. I forced my way into their lives through acts of cruelty.”

“Nightmare Moon did that. They’ve all forgiven you.”

“Forgiveness does not undo the deed. Though I am happy that your parents have taken them in. They are doing well?”

“You bet! Ma and Pa have taught them which bugs are good for the farm and which ones are best to gobble up. We’ve got the most parasite-free farm in the Flint Steppes.”

“Excellent. Now, about my tower…”

“Yes. Princess Cadenza is worried about the valuable artifacts you keep here. If you could tell me about them…”

“I have no such things. Nightmare Moon purloined all my artifacts for her own purposes.”

“Then, if someone broke in here, what’s the first thing you’d be worried about them stealing?” asked Radish.

Luna looked around.

“Hmm, perhaps some of the paintings? Custom furniture? Imported soaps? I am sorry, Radish, I do not have much that would interest a burglar.”

“That’s good, I guess. You can enjoy the wedding with peace of mind.”

“I am sorry you will have to work during the wedding.”

“It’s my duty.”

Luna smiled. “It is a shame. I would have liked to have shared another dance with you.”

Radish’s heart did a flip. “But… isn’t a princess dancing with a guard a scandal?”

She laughed. “In my day, it was. But it seems the world has moved on. I’ve been informed that anypony may now dance with anypony. I think that is an improvement.”

“Princess, I think you should stop thinking of a thousand years ago as ‘your day’. You’re here, now. This is your day.”

“Thank you, Radish. But Saturday is Cadance’s day, at least.”

“I’ll do my part to make sure nothing goes wrong.”

“I will save you a slice of cake. And… perhaps we may still share a dance after?”

Radish’s heart tripped over itself. “I… I’d like that.”

“Good.”


Radish patrolled the entertainment quarter. He tried to picture just how many ponies would be filling the palace campus on Saturday. It was daunting.

“Radish!” called a familiar voice. Radish turned to see Twilight Sparkle rushing up to him.

“Twilight! Good to see you. And congratulations! You’re about to become part of the royal family!”

“Crazy, isn’t it? I didn’t even know Shining and Cadance were dating.”

“You didn’t?”

“What, you did?” she asked.

“Yeah, all us guards did.”

“Really? You never said anything.”

“Well, now we’re even for you never telling me that there was another alicorn princess in the world. And that she was your foalsitter.”

“I thought everypony knew about Cadance.”

“I didn’t.”

“I guess we should talk more often.”

“How’s everything going?” asked Radish.

“Oddly. Cadance was acting strange today. It’s like she barely remembers me. And she seemed a bit… haughty. She used to be the nicest pony ever.”

“She was rather nice to me. She trusts me to guard Selenic Spire all by myself during the wedding.”

“You're working during the wedding? That can't be right. You're one of my best friends! You should be at our table."

“That’s the life of a guard, Twilight. Sometimes you miss out on the fun."

"What’s even in there worth guarding?”

“Not sure. But even if someone just wants to steal Luna’s socks, I won’t let them.”

“She wears socks?”

“Sometimes. They’re really cute striped ones.”

“Uh…”

“Never mind. I didn’t say that. So, you’re best mare, huh?”

“Yeah. I’m about to check on what everyone’s doing. Everything’s moving so fast. Plus, there’s this nebulous threat. Do you know anything more about it?”

“Not really,” Radish said, looking up at the pink-tinted sky. “But whatever it is can’t get through the barrier.”

“Hmm. What if it's already inside?”

“Then us guards will handle it.”

“At least you’re confident.”

“We’re the best of the best, Twi. And your brother is the best of us."

"Yeah. He's a great BBBFF."

"A what?"

“Big brother best friend forever! I've got a whole song about it, if you'd like to hear it.”

“I should get back to work.”

50. The Wedding, Part 3: Rehearsal

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Rainbow Dash rocketed through crisp mountain air. She took a shortcut through a cloud, and narrowly avoided a flock of geese in her path.

“Hey! I’m trying to practice a sonic rainboom here!” she shouted at them.

“Then you should know local flight regulations. They were in the stand-on position, you were in the give-way position,” said Barrel Roller, drifting down from above. “And you never cut through a cloud without knowing what’s on the other side.”

Rainbow Dash gasped. “Commander Barrel Roller! Sorry! My bad!”

“You wanna hit ultrasonic speed over Canterlot, you have to work with the mountain, not against it. Come to my office, I’ll show you the temperature maps.”

“Temperature maps? Uh, I mean, right! The temperature maps! Can’t do a sonic rainboom without… mapping the temperatures.”

“Yeah. Of course, an expert flier like you would know that the heat island effect of the city, the humidity from the waterfalls, and the wind coming off the slopes create thermal gradients that require a cubical klick-by-klick understanding of the air around here. Flying in the open skies of Cloudsdale is like biking with training wheels, Miss Dash. Canterlot airspace is the big leagues."

“Hey! I could pull off a sonic rainboom in the vacuum of space if I had to!”

“I don’t doubt that. There’s no geese to hit up there.”

Rainbow Dash scowled. Then, she grinned. “Oh, I get it. You’re trying to tear me down so you can build me up!”

“Is that a fact?”

“I bet you do it to all your favorite fliers, huh?”

“You want to see the maps, or not?”

“You got it.”

They flew off together.

“So,” said Rainbow Dash, “I bet they’ve got you at a really important position during the wedding, huh? Guarding the princesses? The bride and groom? The rings?”

“The water.”

“Uh, what?”

“The captain believes that the enemy out there may try to sabotage the city’s water supply while the populace is distracted by the wedding. He’s having me guard the mountain reservoirs.”

“What? Aren’t those guarded all the time, anyway?”

“By corporate security guards. The captain wanted someone with combat experience overseeing them.”

“You’re like second-in-command! Anypony could do that. Just have Radish do it and come join the wedding.”

“Oh, we’ve got Root doing something important- guarding an empty building.”

“Wow, sucks for him.”

They landed on a checkpoint platform on the outskirts of the city. Unicorn guards permitted them passage through the city shield, and they took off for the castle.

“Sucks for all of us, really,” sighed Barrel Roller.

“What do you mean?”

“Root transferred from the Rangers. Ponies like him are good at watching over large open areas, but slow on their hooves. That comes from spending years doing lookout work in mountains, where you have to move slowly and deliberately over rough terrain. I’d rather put him on a parapet, and put a pony with an urban background in Luna’s tower. Ponies who came up in the City Watch have more experience patrolling multilevel buildings- they’re better at tracking sounds through multiple floors and walls.”

“Huh. So why not swap him out?”

“Root’s task was ordered by Princess Cadenza herself. I can’t countermand it.”

“Well, what does she know about guard duty?”

“It doesn’t matter. Guards obey princesses.”

“What, even if they’re making a mistake?”

“Princesses don’t make mistakes, Dash.”

“That’s nuts. Of course they do.”

“Not as far as a guard is concerned. Or a Wonderbolt, for that matter. You wanna be one of them, you better see it the same way.”

“Really? Doesn’t that seem… I don’t know…”

“Doesn’t that seem like something the ‘Element of Loyalty’ should have no problem with? Why, yes, Dash. It does.”

Rainbow Dash fell silent.


Radish completed a circuit around Selenic Spire, scanning its exterior with his binoculars and taking notes on its windows and vents. Maple Bar trotted up to him.

"Hi, Rad. You wanted something?"

"Yeah. You're good with wood, right?"

“I come from a long line of foresters. Why?"

"Can you evaluate the strength of the front door?"

Maple Bar approached the tower's door. She peered at it, sniffed it, and put her ear to it and tapped it.

"This is black quebracho. It’s one of the hardest woods on the planet. You'd need a battering ram to dent it, and he’d get a concussion trying.”

“That’s a relief. Thanks, Mape."

"No problem."

“What do they have you doing during the wedding?” he asked.

“Guarding the south entrance,” she answered.

“Guess neither of us will get any cake.”

“Or a chance to catch the bouquet,” she sighed.

Radish picked a dandelion at his hooves and tossed it to Maple Bar. “Here, catch.”

She caught it in her mouth and chewed it.

“Aww, thanks,” she said, with her mouth full. “Now all I need is a boyfriend to go with it.”

“You’ll find someone.”

“Not around here. Canterlot guys are kind of milquetoast.”

“You’re too picky.”

“Says the guy who grew up wanting to marry Celestia.”

“And how well did that turn out for me?”

“Oh. Good point. Hey, isn’t that Lady Sparkle?” she said, pointing to Twilight trotting determinedly across the commons. “She looks upset.”

“Must be stressful, being a royal wedding planner on short notice,” said Radish.

Twilight stopped. She cursed and stomped the ground.

“Really stressful,” added Radish.

Twilight turned and saw Radish. Her face brightened. She loped over to him.

“Radish! Boy, am I glad to see you!”

She threw her hooves around him and hugged him. Maple Bar giggled. He leaned away from her.

“Twilight, you can’t hug a guard on duty. It’s against the rules.”

“Radish, I need to talk to you alone. It’s important.”

“Go on, Radish,” said Maple Bar. “Don't keep Lady Sparkle waiting."

"Okay," sighed Radish.

He led Twilight into the spire. She looked around the foyer.

"Wow, so this is Luna's tower? It's dark."

"Yeah."

“Radish... there's something wrong with Cadance.”

“What is it?”

“She’s nothing like the Cadance I grew up with! She’s been displaying rude, deceitful behavior all day!”

Radish shifted his weight on his hooves. “Okay, well, why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know! Maybe she’s always been like this, and I was just too young to realize it. Or maybe she’s had all the privileges of a princess and none of the responsibilities for so long, she’s become spoiled rotten.”

“Well, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“I can try to stop the wedding.”

“Stop the wedding!? Over a little rudeness!?”

“She’s marrying Shining under false pretenses! We can’t let her get away with that! And Shining deserves better!”

“Twilight… do you remember how we used to fight? You thought I was a sick freak stalking Celestia, and I thought you were a stuck-up bi- uh, a stuck-up know-it-all.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I bet you wouldn’t have wanted me to marry Shining Armor back then, huh?”

“You… and Shining?”

“We were rude to each other, because we misjudged each other. But then we got to know each other. And now we’re friends.”

“Radish, it’s true that I misjudged you. But that was before I knew anything about friendship. I misjudged everyone back then. But this is something different. Cadance has gone bad. And if you really consider me a friend, shouldn’t you trust me on this?”

Radish looked into her eyes. They were trembling.

He sighed. “What are you asking of me?”

“Can you tail Cadance?”

“No. I have to stick to my tasks.”

“Okay. Can you ask Luna to make a case for calling off the wedding?”

Radish looked over to the staircase leading up to Luna's bedroom.

“Twilight… this wedding is important for Luna.”

“For Luna? How?”

“She hasn’t been to a wedding in a thousand years. She missed the last gala, too. She never gets to just put on a nice dress and go to a nice party. I want this for her so she can feel like a part of the world again. I want her to have fun. And I want everyone to see how wonderful she is.”

“Radish…”

“But more importantly, this marriage will give her new family- including you! She’ll have new relatives to love and to love her back. I want that for her, Twilight.”

Twilight looked down at her hooves.

“And I want what’s best for Shining. He can’t marry Cadance. I need your help to stop him.”

“Twilight, I have a duty to my princesses and my captain.”

“Even if they’re making a mistake?”

“That’s not my call. I don’t know better than them. And neither…”

Radish stopped himself.

“Neither do I?” finished Twilight.

“I’m sorry, Twilight.”

She turned to walk away. “I’m going to go speak with Shining.”

“It’s getting late.”

“I agree. We’re running out of time.”

“Twilight…”

She charged out of the tower, leaving Radish alone. He shook his head and rejoined Maple Bar outside.

“She ran out all upset,” said Maple Bar. “What’s up?”

“I wish I knew.”


Radish made his way back to the barracks. As he reached his door, he heard a shout ring out through the air.

“Who goes there!? Stay indoors, Twilight Sparkle!”

It was Luna, on Royal Overwatch duty at Celestia’s tower. Apparently she had spotted Twilight on the grounds nearby.

That would put her near the event hall. Twilight, what are you up to?

He waited on the stoop and listened for anything else from Luna. Flash Sentry trotted up with a guitar case on his back.

“Oh, Root. What are you doing out here?”

“Just… listening to the night.”

“You’re a poet, Root.”

“What are you doing out here?”

He nodded to his guitar case. “Just got done with band practice.”

“I didn’t know you play.”

“Not as much as I want to. But you’ve got to make the time, you know?”

“What’s your wedding assignment?”

“Sky Patrol, Sector 11.”

“Sector 11? That’s right on top of the wedding. I think Shining likes you.”

“He must like you, too, right? He gave you an entire tower.”

“Yeah, someone has to defend Luna’s imported soaps from dust bunnies.”

“Hey, don’t knock it, Root. The smallest job inside the palace-”

“-is bigger than the biggest job outside it. You really believe that?”

“If it weren’t true, we wouldn’t have this mysterious enemy trying to attack us. What do you think it is?”

“Something powerful,” said Radish. “Maybe a dark wizard, or an ancient monster.”

“Well, they picked the wrong wedding to mess with. Got time for a game of pool?”

“Sure. I-”

Their attention was drawn skyward. Luna was flying back to her tower. She stopped on her balcony and raised her horn, lighting it up with a large aura.

“What’s she doing?” asked Flash.

“She discovered the threat in the dream world,” answered Radish. “I think she’s going back in to find it again.”

“I haven't spent much time around Princess Luna. What’s she like?”

“She’s a lot of fun. Kind and warm, but when she’s serious, she’s like a force of nature.”

“That sounds… oh!”

Flash peered worriedly at Luna. Her aura was flashing wildly and throwing out sparks. Radish got his binoculars on her.

Suddenly, Luna’s aura enveloped her entire body and hoisted her up into the air. She flapped her wings helplessly and gripped her throat, as if she was being throttled. Then, she was slammed into the floor of her balcony.

Radish sprinted off the stoop and ran for her tower full-tilt. Flash Sentry flew over him, speeding toward Luna’s balcony.

Luna’s aura lifted her back up again, then threw her into the railing of her balcony. It shattered. She tumbled off and plummeted. Radish put everything into his gallop, but Flash swooped and caught Luna, lowering her safely to the ground and laying her on her back. Radish reached them.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Sentry,” she said, weakly. “That would have been a painful fall.”

“Princess Luna!” cried Radish. “What’s wrong!?”

Luna’s face was bruised. Her lower lip was swollen and she had a black eye. “Radish…”

“I’ll get help!” said Flash. He flew off. Radish cradled Luna in his lap.

“What happened?” asked Radish.

“I went back into the dreamlands to hunt for the enemy. But it was prepared for me this time. It overwhelmed me with the power of a thousand minds, turning my own magic against me.”

“Bring me into the dream world with you. We can fight it together. I’ll get them, whatever they are. They’ll regret hurting you.”

She smiled. “Radish, my Champion…”

“Yes, my princess?”

“You are holding me too tightly.”

Radish eased up. “I’m sorry.”

“Aunt Luna!”

Radish turned. Princess Cadenza landed at Luna’s side and threw her hooves around her.

“Oh, Auntie Luna! Are you okay?”

“Niece Cadance, I am sorry. I tried to hunt down our enemy. It ambushed me instead.”

“Don’t worry about that now.” She closed her eyes and waved her horn over Luna’s body. She frowned. “Oh, dear.”

“What is it?” asked Luna.

“Your heart was hit by a powerful hex. But I can dispel it.” She touched her horn to Luna’s chest, held it for a moment, then smiled in relief. “There. But you need to rest in bed for a few days, or else you could develop serious complications.”

“But, your wedding...”

“Your health is more important. Consider it doctor’s orders.” Cadenza looked up at Radish. “Mister Root, help her into her bed. Get her anything she needs. I need to talk to Shiny and Aunt Celestia about this.”

“Aye, ma’am,” said Radish.

She spread her wings and took off. Radish carefully draped Luna’s hoof over his shoulders and steadied her as they walked into her tower. He helped her climb the long spiral staircase.

“I did not realize what a chore these stairs are to ascend,” Luna said. “They are an undue burden for my guards and staff.”

“We could put a lift in the center,” noted Radish. “It would make traversal faster for legs, give the stairs cover from the sides, and block unauthorized flyers.”

She didn’t seem to hear him as she focused carefully on each step. They reached her bedroom. He lowered her into her bed and pulled up her covers.

“Can I get you anything? Water?”

“Nay. Fret not.”

Princess Celestia landed on the balcony. She looked at the broken railing in horror, then ran into the room. “Luna! Are you all right?”

“I will be fine, sister. Our niece was quick to administer a healing touch.”

“I’ve just spoken with her. She says you’ll have to sit out the wedding. I think we should talk about postponing it.”

“Nay! This wedding is for the happy couple, not for me. It shall go on with my blessing. Don’t worry about me- I will have my Champion here to keep me company.” She looked at Radish. “Won’t I?”

“Of course,” said Radish.

“Then he can keep you company in the infirmary,” said Celestia. “You’ll be safer there.”

Radish made a slightly dissatisfied noise in his throat. Celestia looked at him.

“What is it, lieutenant?” she asked.

“It’s just that… this tower was built like a fortress. The infirmary was built… well, like an infirmary. It’s got a lot of entrances, and wide halls designed to allow ponies to move through them rapidly. Not to mention, it’s full of sharp objects. If the enemy wanted to follow up with an attack on Luna, she’d be safer here.”

Celestia stared at Radish for a beat, then looked around the room. “Hmm. What do you think, Luna?”

“I agree, but for a different reason. If our enemy comes after me in the infirmary, other patients, including Harold, will be put in harm’s way. A worthy princess does not put the sickly at risk.”

Celestia sighed. “Very well. I’ll have Shining Armor redistribute some more guards here for the wedding. Stay with her, Radish.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Celestia left. Radish and Luna looked at each other.

“I am sorry,” said Luna. “It looks like I won’t be able to bring you that slice of cake. Or share a dance with you.”

“Your health is what matters. We can dance when you’re better.”

“I will hold you to that.”

51. The Wedding, Part 4: Gifts and Guests

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Luna was asleep the next time Celestia checked in on her. Radish was standing guard at her bedside. She motioned him to join her on the balcony and closed the door behind them.

“Radish, I’ve spoken with Shining Armor. He’s assigning Mudlark Squad to the spire for the wedding.”

“What? That’s a squad of five privates. There are more higher-ranking ponies in here on a normal day.”

“I know. He says he has planned out the wedding security to the pony, and that moving any senior officers now would open up tactical gaps. We simply don’t have the flexibility to put more experienced guards in Luna’s spire now.”

“But… that means I’ll be the one in charge here.”

Celestia nodded. “Radish, sometimes a guard is thrust into the deep end and must prove his mettle. Can I count on you to protect my little sister?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll die before I let anything happen to her.”

Celestia sighed. “It’s easy to make a claim like that. I’ve heard it from a lot of guards over the years, and it’s not as comforting to me as you think it sounds. Dead guards can’t protect princesses.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I just don’t want you to worry. I am confident in my ability to protect her.”

“We don’t even know the nature of the threat,” said Celestia. “There’s no telling what you could be up against.”

“Whatever it is, I’ll adapt. We guards are trained to think on our hooves.”

“Ah, but what if you’re taken by surprise? For example, like… this!”

She turned and bucked at Radish’s face with her hind legs. Radish ducked her hooves, rolled sideways, and flicked out his spear. He thrust it forward with both his forehooves, the realization of what he was doing overcoming his muscle memory just fast enough to stop him. He froze, the spearhead mere centimeters from Celestia’s ribs.

She looked down at the weapon. Radish dropped the spear and threw himself prostrate before his princess.

“I’m so sorry! That was just reflexes! I swear, I’d never hurt you!”

“Yes, and your reflexes have improved greatly since you started out here. You used to be much slower. But why draw your spear against me, and not your sword?”

Radish looked up at her, then at his spear on the floor.

“You have such long legs.”

“Oh?”

“I mean, they give you a lot of reach. Your legs are longer than my sword, but my spear is even longer. I needed the reach advantage, and I’d also be able to throw my spear in case you took flight, while still keeping my sword in reserve.”

“You processed all those judgments in the split-second I attacked you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”

“Good. That makes me feel a lot better. Take this.”

She pulled a collapsed spear from behind her back. Radish realized what it was, and quickly pretended not to recognize it. It was Celestia’s own spear, the one she had been charging with her alicorn powers during the Halcyon affair.

"I normally don't trust magic weapons,” she said, “but this has been enhanced with earth power. It should work like any other spear for you, just with greater durability and stopping power."

"It's beautiful. Is this Ferrum Flats's mark?"

She rolled her eyes. "Radish, I know Luna sent you to retrieve this from one of Nightmare Moon's lairs. And I know she swore you to secrecy about it. She spilled everything a few eggnogs into Hearth’s Warming."

“I, uh…”

"And I know you and Spike saw this in my secret room in Secure Storage. He confessed soon after."

"Oh, that little..."

"It’s fine, Radish. Just use this to protect Luna."

Radish took the spear. He flicked it out and felt its weight. He focused his senses into it.

“I can feel the earth power in it. But it also contains pegasus and unicorn power, right?”

“Yes, but you won’t be able to control those without wings or a horn. And that’s for the best. If there’s an emergency, I want you to rely on your own strengths.”

“I will. But I’ll also need to make some changes to the spire.”

“Changes?”

“Yes. I need to seal most entrances, barricade certain rooms, set up checkpoints in the halls, and reinforce some walls.”

“I thought you said it was built like a fortress.”

“It is. But now it’s a short-staffed fortress.”

“Very well. Get what you need from the supply depot. And Radish…”

“Ma’am?”

“Thank you.”


Chuck wasn’t on duty at the supply depot at night- instead, a unicorn named Heat Sink was behind the counter. Radish entered carrying a stack of papers.

“Lieutenant. How can I help you?”

“I need supplies for Luna’s tower.”

“Oh?”

Radish gave him the list. Heat Sink looked over it.

“Barbed wire? Chain link fencing? Security mirrors? What the heck are you doing to that place?”

“Just taking precautions. A lot of this is long overdue.”

“This is all authorized?”

Radish showed Heat Sink a signed order from Princess Celestia.

“Yes, but these requisitions are top secret. You can’t let anypony know about this.”

“Oh, it’s top secret chain link fencing? Then come on back. I’ll show you our most covert rolls of it.”


Radish began the next day by meeting the duty officer for Luna’s tower.

“Hey, Root? Your supplies arrived,” he said, gesturing to piles of crates stacked up next to his desk. “And so has this. The list of guards assigned to you. Your own squad at a lieutenant’s rank. Not bad.”

“Squad Leader Root. I like the sound of that.”

Radish took and read over his squad’s files. Private Goldbrick was an earth pony. Private Tongs was a hinny. Privates Mondegreen and Buildup were unicorns, and there was a pegasus private named Flashbang. Their records seemed skimpy to Radish- there was little more than their names.

“Good luck with those kids,” said the duty officer.

“What are you doing during the wedding, sir?”

“Guarding Sky Bridge D6.”

“Is, uh, is that a bigger priority than Princess Luna?”

“I don’t make the assignments, lieutenant.”

“Right.”

But I can make some assignments of my own, thought Radish.


Radish entered Luna’s courtyard garden. Her gourds were coming in nicely.

“Mortimer? You in here?”

The screech owl flew out onto a branch of his tree and stared at Radish.

“Listen, I need to secure this tower. I’m short on staff, so I’ll have to use every advantage. That includes you.”

Mortimer flapped to a lower branch.

“Does anyone else live in this garden?”

Mortimer made a whinny, and pointed to a crack in the wall. Radish approached it and peeked inside. A rat was staring back at him.

“Oh, hi there! I’m Luna’s guard. Can you help us out?”

It shook its head.

“I promise, this isn’t a ploy to let Mortimer eat you. You can even stay in the walls, if you like.”

It nodded.

“Are there more rats where you came from?”

It nodded.


Radish entered the attic of Selenic Spire. He cleared his throat and addressed the rafters.

“Hi, I’m Radish. We met last Nightmare Night. I could use some help protecting Luna. You guys have some experience in that regard, don’t you?”

Dozens of pairs of yellow eyes opened in the darkness above his head.

“Would you be willing to help? It could be dangerous, though.”

A swarm of squeaking bats flew down from the ceiling and surrounded Radish. They landed on him and gripped each other, forming a flowing black cape.

“Wow, this is comfy. Come on, I’ll show you where I want you.”


Radish’s squad stood at attention and saluted him. Radish had never been saluted before. He liked it. He passed out documents to each guard.

“We’re short on prep time, so I’m giving you these. These are called ‘one-time pads’. Don’t lose them. They’ll tell you what your assignments are, and when. The shift lengths will be irregular and the rotations will be randomized so that our enemy can’t stake out and memorize them. The next document is what we need to accomplish before the wedding begins.”

The squad read through them.

“We’re moving the furniture?” Goldbrick asked.

“To provide improvised cover, yes. There are several places inside that could become chokepoints for guards during a battle. We’re going to turn them into ambush spots for invaders instead.”

“And we’re messing with the plants outside?” asked Tongs.

“We need to improve visibility around the base of the tower. Anything could hide in those bushes.”

“We’re adding lights?” asked Flashbang.

Radish sighed. “Yes, this tower is far too dark, as are the grounds around it. Anything could hide in the shadows, too.”

“But Luna’s the night princess,” Buildup noted.

“Meaning she can see in the dark. Her enemies might be able to, as well. We can’t. We’re lighting this place up.”

“And this wire?” asked Mondegreen.

“We need to block anything trying to fly up the stairwell. We’re putting chain link fencing across it.”

“But Luna’s bedroom is open to the sky,” said Flashbang. “If something could fly at her, it would fly at her from outside.”

"Page three. We're also fencing off every window, balcony, chimney, and vent. And the top of her courtyard."

The squad flipped through their instructions.

"What are these Xs you have throughout the tower?" asked Tongs.

Radish gazed up at the top floor. He smiled. "Those are our secret weapons."


Radish focused his binoculars across the palace grounds. He saw just who he was looking for.

“Spike!” he called, rushing up to the dragon.

“Hey, Radish! I’ve been looking for you!” said Spike. “You’re invited to the bachelor party!”

“That’s great, Spike. Can you send a message for me?”

“Communications with the outside are restricted, remember? Every letter I send would have to be approved by Shining Armor first.”

“I know you squealed on me about Celestia’s secret room.”

“What kind of message would you like me to send?”


Luna was awake the next time Radish checked on her. Her bruises had healed somewhat.

“Princess, how are you feeling?”

“Still weak, lieutenant. Your squad has been making quite the racket.”

“We’re shoring up the Spire’s defenses, from the attic to the wine cellar,” said Radish.

“I hope you’re not making too many changes to the tower that are... drastic and permanent?”

“You know what else would be drastic and permanent? Losing you.”

“Radish, I appreciate the sentiment, but not the tone.”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“You are forgiven.”

“I have some emergency procedures I wanted to go over with you…”


Radish affixed a convex mirror onto the building neighboring Luna’s tower. He backed away from it to see how well it could reflect around the curvature of the spire.

“Root!” called out a voice from behind. He looked and saw Saguaro Shade approaching him, carrying an extra sword in a scabbard on his back.

“Word is you’re in charge of Princess Luna’s protection for the wedding.”

“Yes, sir. I’m ready for this.”

“I watched you clear your sword certification. I think I can feel confident giving you this.”

He took off the extra sword and held it in front of himself.

“I thought you could use a sword with a little more sting in its swing. This is a Grandiose Gladius, one of the best swords our smiths can forge. You’d normally get one of these at the rank of colonel or higher, but these are stressful times.”

He pulled the sword out halfway to show Radish the blade.

“It’s swashbuckler steel. Preferred alloy for earth ponies- stronger than the standard issue, and holds an edge better. You’ll give out long before it does. The sides have a coating of starsilver, making them magic-resistant.”

He passed it to Radish. Radish unsheathed the sword and whistled at it in admiration.

“Thank you, sir. I hope I won’t need it.”

“That’s the same thing I said to this here gal,” Saguaro Shade said, unsheathing his own Grandiose Gladius from his hip. He showed Radish the flat of the blade. It had a face engraved on the side- a buffalo lady, wreathed in bluebonnets, with the name “Lovey Dovey” inscribed in a ribbon underneath her.

“Who is she? A previous officer?”

“That’s my wife, Root.”

“She’s pretty.”

“Thanks. She was always proud I never got blood on her face. I always dread the day I may have to.”

“You must have an important duty during the wedding, like guarding Celestia, right?”

“I’m guarding the train platform.”

“What?”

“Captain’s orders. He believes it’s a key target for our mysterious enemy.”

“Sir, between me guarding a princess, and you being as far from them as possible, I’m starting to question-”

“Corporal, there you are,” said Barrel Roller, dropping down to them. Radish and Saguaro Shade saluted her.

“Corporal Shade, Lieutenant Root, there’s been a development. Twilight Sparkle has been designated a Security Risk. Captain Armor has uninvited her from the wedding, and Princess Cadenza has banned her from palace grounds.”

“What!?” gasped Radish.

“The memo is going out as we speak. Lieutenant, if you see her, you are to report her immediately. Corporal, you’re now authorized to apprehend her on sight… with unrestricted force.”

Radish sputtered. Saguaro Shade raised an eyebrow.

“You’re telling me,” he said, “Twilight Sparkle, Celestia’s star pupil, the captain’s kid sister, the heroine of Equestria, the Element of Magic, the wedding planner and best mare… should now be treated like an enemy?”

“I’m not. Princess Cadenza is. She now believes that Sparkle is the threat that Princess Luna detected. The same one that attacked her.”

“Ma’am!” exclaimed Radish. “Twilight could never do that!”

“She disrupted the rehearsal in a hysterical state. She lashed out at the bride in an attempt to halt the wedding. Princess Cadenza was in tears. Captain Armor and Princess Celestia are furious.”

“Ma’am, Twilight had concerns about Princess Cadenza,” said Radish.

“And Princess Cadenza has concerns, too. She believes that Twilight Sparkle harbors deep-seated taboo feelings for her brother which are manifesting as an irrational possessiveness. It’s corrupting her on a magical level, akin to Nightmare Moon.”

“That’s insane! Cadenza’s lying!”

Barrel Roller and Saguaro Shade shared a glance between themselves.

“We’ve got orders from a princess, Root,” said Barrel Roller. “And once orders are orders…”

“Then orders are orders,” finished Saguaro Shade. “Aye, commander. We’ll do our duty.”

“And Root,” said Barrel Roller, “another accusation like that, and I’ll have you mucking the menagerie.”

Barrel Roller flew off. Radish turned to Saguaro Shade.

“Sir, everything about this stinks.”

“Take care of Luna, Root. It’s all you can do now.”

“But… aye, sir.”

Saguaro Shade walked away. He rounded a building corner, where Barrel Roller was waiting for him.

“The kid’s right, you know,” he said.

“The kid’s gotta learn that there are wrong ways to be right,” she said. “And shouting that a princess is lying is the wrong way.”

“I’m guessin’ you’ve been pursuing the right way.”

Barrel Roller held up a photograph of Cadance.

“I snapped this just an hour ago. Whatever’s the matter with her, she’s not the same kind of thing Halcyon was.”

“Well, it’s nice to rule that out. We ought to talk with her personal staff. They’ll be able to tell us if she’s really been actin’ out of the ordinary.”

“Hmph,” harrumphed Barrel Roller. “Sparkle sure believed she was.”

“And now Sparkle’s ponsona non grata,” noted Saguaro Shade.

“Yeah. I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like what?” demanded Shining Armor, approaching the two. They saluted him.

“Sir,” said Barrel Roller, “I request permission to-”

“Commander,” said Shining Armor, “I want you to coordinate with Captain Spitfire of the Wonderbolts. Expand the sky sweeps outward and upward. Corporal, go liaise with the City Watch. Make sure they’re not a weak link in the city’s defense.”

Sir,” said Saguaro Shade, “perhaps it would be prudent to-”

“That is all, you two,” said Shining Armor. “Dismissed.”

52. The Wedding, Part 5: Ceremony

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The Wedding Day came.

Radish stared up at the shield barrier and grit his teeth. He wished he could face whatever was out there, instead of waiting for it to show its face. He hoped it had a face. He hoped it had only one face.

He stood alone in front of the main entrance to Selenic Spire. With a limited number of guards, he couldn’t afford to double up postings. In a few minutes, Goldbrick would relieve him, and he’d move to Luna’s side.

Just keep to your duty. Whatever happens, we’re not losing a princess again. Not for one minute.

“Radish!” he heard a mare’s voice call.

“Lieutenant!” he heard a stallion’s voice call.

He turned to see Twilight Velvet and Night Light rushing up to him.

“Hello, ma’am. Sir.”

“Radish, have you seen Twilight?” Twilight’s mother asked desperately.

“No, ma’am. Not since yesterday.”

“Neither has anyone else! Do you have any idea where she could be?”

“She’s been banned from the wedding. I assumed she'd either be back at your place, or her old dorm.”

“She’s not! We've checked every place in town!” said Night Light. “And every library and bookstore!”

"Radish," said Twilight Velvet, lowering her voice, "do you and Twilight have any kind of... secret place? Where the two of you go to... be with each other?”

"Ma'am, it's really not like that."

"Oh. Well, do you know a place she might go if she doesn’t want to be found?"

"Hmm... there's the tunnels where we became friends..."

“The guards say they searched them!” said Twilight Velvet. “Nothing.”

“And they spoke as if they were hunting a dangerous fugitive, not searching for a missing girl!” said Night Light.

“And they’re spreading the most disgusting rumor about her!” added Twilight Velvet. “Radish, you don’t believe that she’s… jealous, do you?”

“That struck me as unlikely, ma’am.”

“We’ve tried to talk to Cadance, but she won’t even see us,” said Night Light. “Something is wrong with her, lieutenant.”

“That… that was Twilight’s read, too."

A volley of bells rang out from the wedding hall's tower. The couple frowned.

"The wedding is starting soon," said Twilight Velvet. "We can't just go in there like everything's normal!"

“Sir, ma’am. Twilight is fearless. If she believes she has no other choice, she may try to crash the wedding."

"Then we definitely should be there," said Night Light. "Once we're all together, we can talk things out."

"As a family!" agreed Twilight Velvet.

"Good luck, sir, ma'am."

"Thank you, son," said Night Light.

They hurried away. Radish watched them go apprehensively.

He scanned the commons around him. Guests were now milling towards the wedding hall. He kept alert, trying to look as imposing as possible. He chewed the inside of his cheek, wondering how long the alert state would last.

How long can the captain maintain the citywide shield? Will he put off his honeymoon to keep it up? How is this any way to start a marriage?

Two well-dressed mares approached the tower. Radish thought they might have been bridesmaids, but he had also heard the bridal party had been changed recently. He didn’t know what to make of that. Every part of the wedding seemed to be going off the rails.

“You! Guardstallion! Move aside!” one of the mares barked.

Radish raised an eyebrow. “Sorry, miss. This tower is on lockdown.”

“We come under the orders of Mi Amore Cadenza herself! She demands we be let in!”

“What for?”

“Do not question!”

“Mi Amore Cadenza is the bride! Her word is law on her wedding day!” affirmed the other one.

“Yeah? She told me to protect Princess Luna,” said Radish, annoyed, “and that’s what I’m doing. Nopony gets in without a damn good reason.”

“We are the Bride’s trusted subordinates! You will obey, or face her wrath!”

“Look here, I’m not-”

A third well-dressed mare rushed up to the other two.

“You two!” she said to the others, “there is a problem with the…”

She looked at Radish.

“…Something Borrowed and the Something New. They are not secure. The wedding could be ruined.”

The other two bridesmaids seemed so upset, they were practically hissing.

“We must go to the… big guest room… to secure them,” the first bridesmaid said.

The second one looked up at the tower. “But what of the Something Blue?”

“It will have to wait!” said the third one, smiling smugly. “Do not worry. I am told it will be the easiest.”

She then leaned into Radish’s face. “You, guardstallion! Make sure the moon princess does not leave her bed!”

“You got it.”

The bridesmaids ran off, leaving Radish with more questions than ever.

As his shift at the door was coming to an end, he heard the sound of metal scraping against stone. It was coming from an old wishing well in a small park across from the tower. He got his binoculars on it. The grate covering its opening was being pushed up from below.

He brandished his spear and approached it. Radish had read the well’s historical marker before. It had actually been a vent for the mines far below Canterlot. When the mines were abandoned, the vent became a forgotten curiosity, in a little-used park, outside Luna’s long-empty tower. He had asked for maps of the mines in case they were relevant to security, but Shining had assured Radish that every passage down there had been sealed ages ago.

Then what’s coming up? And how did it get down there?

A magic aura tore the grate on the well off and flung it aside. Radish hopped back. Out of the uncovered vent climbed Twilight Sparkle and an extremely disheveled Princess Cadenza, squinting into the daylight.

“We’re topside!” cheered Twilight. “There’s still time. We can still make it if we hurry!”

“Princess Cadenza? Twilight?” Radish asked, lowering his spear.

“Radish!” said Twilight, relieved. “Boy, am I glad to see you. Shining Armor is in danger!”

“Be careful, Twilight,” warned the princess as she stepped between them and aimed her horn at Radish, “he might be a changeling too!”

“A changeling, ma’am?” asked Radish, slowly backing away.

“I know how to check!” said Twilight. “Radish, what part of you was I angry about the first time we met?”

“Uh, you mean that?” asked Radish, motioning to his armor-clad flank.

“Show us!” said Twilight. “It’s really important.”

Radish stared into the eyes of the first Security Risk he’d ever been friends with. They were scared, pleading eyes.

He lifted his armor, revealing his cutie mark. It hadn’t taken long to grow back, and the shorter fur made the details look sharper than ever.

“What on earth is that!?” gasped Princess Cadenza.

“It means he’s a friend,” affirmed Twilight, smiling.

“It does? But that’s… that’s… wait, I remember that rumor. That was real? That was you?”

“Radish,” said Twilight. “The Cadance marrying Shining Armor is an impostor! She had the real Cadance here imprisoned in the mines!”

“She’s a changeling! A shape-shifter!” cried Cadenza. “She’s been feeding off Shining’s love! Controlling his mind!”

“I see. Things are starting to make sense now. I’ll take you both to Princess Luna. You tell her what’s going on, and she can order the Royal Guard to arrest the impostor.”

“There’s no time for that! Shining could be saying ‘I do’ right now!” said Cadenza.

“Come with us, Radish!” said Twilight. “We can stop her together.”

“I… can’t. I have to guard Princess Luna. Whatever this plot is, she’ll be a target, too!”

“That’s… you’re right. You protect Luna. We’ll handle the impostor.”

Twilight and Cadenza nodded to each other. They turned to leave, with determination filling their eyes.

“Twilight?” called Radish. “The fastest way to the wedding is through the servants’ entrance on the south side. Take these.”

He tossed them a key ring, which Twilight caught in her aura.

“These will get you past every door and let you take the service elevator. They’ll also let you control the security shutters.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Princess Cadenza. “I won’t forget this.”

She smiled, and they galloped off. Radish replaced the grate on the vent as a pegasus lieutenant, Skittery, dropped to his side.

“What’s going on? I thought I heard running.”

“We’ve got a problem. I need you to… what is that?”

They noticed several shadows on the ground around them. Both looked up at the city shield. There was something different. Something wrong.

Something outside it?

Radish scanned the skies with his binoculars. Hundreds of flying black creatures were slamming themselves against the barrier. Cracks were forming across the entire shield. Radish’s blood turned to ice water.

Radish and Skittery simultaneously shouted alarm calls. Skittery flew to his position. Radish ran back to the spire door. He made an alarm knock on the door, signaling the guards inside to prepare for battle. They noisily rushed about inside, taking up defensive positions.

It’s an army. An entire army is invading Canterlot. I’m... part of a war.

Radish tried to focus his racing mind. Across the palace grounds, civilians were galloping for safety. Pegasus guards took up formation in the air, while other guards organized themselves on the ground. Radish readied his spear.

The sky barrier shattered. A buzzing black murmuration descended on Canterlot. Radish called out an order that none could hear. A black pony-sized insectoid creature slammed into the ground in front of him, cratering the pavement and knocking Radish back. It pounced at Radish.

He dodged. Radish charged it with his spear, and it took to the air. He looked up. Thousands of such creatures were swarming the streets. A mass of them split off and flew right at him.

They grasped at Radish from all directions. He bucked away most of them and swung his spear. The creatures flew out of his range. He felt a presence behind him and turned. He, himself, was standing in front of him, grinning.

“What the-”

The other Radish punched Radish in the face with all of Radish’s strength. Radish reeled back, skidding to a stop. Several of the creatures flashed with a green fire, then resembled Radish.

What did Cadenza call them? “Changelings”?

He shook off the punch and charged at the other Radishes with his spear. They scattered and regrouped behind him. One of them tried to seize Radish from behind, and he swung the spear wide, knocking the other Radish into the sky. It retook its insectoid form and hovered.

A swarm of changelings, Radish-shaped or otherwise, surrounded him and dogpiled him. He bashed, kicked, and headbutted the attackers.

He tore himself out from under the dogpile, losing his helmet on the way. Needing to fight up close, he sheathed his spear, drew his Grandiose Gladius, and assumed his two-legged stance. He stood in between the mob and the door of Luna’s tower. They surrounded him.

“None of you are getting anywhere near Luna. Surrender now.”

“Surrender now,” they repeated in his voice.

Radish snarled. He heard clanking metal above him, and looked up. The creatures were all over the tower, tearing at the chain links covering every means of entry.

The chain links broke. Radish stood in horror as the enemy flooded every level of Luna’s tower.


Twilight Sparkle and Cadance rushed out of the service elevator and bolted down the hallway toward the wedding hall. As they passed an intersection, Twilight took Radish’s keys in her aura, stuck one into a panel on the wall, and turned it. A security gate slammed down, blocking the way they came.

“That ought to keep them off our tails,” said Twilight.

A side door just beyond the gate crashed off its hinges. Saguaro Shade was thrown into the hallway. He crashed into a vase stand. His armor was badly battered and half-falling off. A wave of changelings burst out of the door, grasping at him. He seized the broken vase stand and swung it around like a bat, swatting changelings to the floor.

“Dang blasted cockroaches! I’ll learn ya to mess with the Royal Guard!”

“Corporal Shade!” cried Twilight. “I’ll open the gate!”

“Don’t you dare! I can handle these doodlebugs! Just get!”

“But-”

He jammed the stand into the top of the gate, wedging it closed.

“Run!”


A squad of changelings landed in Luna’s bedroom and surrounded her bed. They tore away the blanket and pounced on its occupant.

Its occupant was two pillows stuffed under the sheets.

“She is not here!” called Vesper, hanging from the ceiling. The changelings looked up just as she let go and landed on one with a crunch. She spread her wings and bared her teeth. “But I am.”

A squad of changelings, beaten senseless, rained down from the top of the tower and landed around Radish and his enemies. He smiled.

“Secret weapon,” he said. “And there’s more where that came from.”


A swarm of changelings tore their way into the tower's courtyard. They found all the windows and doors to the interior of the tower blocked by more wire. They pulled at it. From the oak tree in the center of the courtyard, a cacophony of high-pitched squeaks called out. A colony of bats, led by Nocturn and Echo, poured out from the tree’s branches and flooded the courtyard, mobbing the invaders.


Private Flashbang dove down through the well of the tower’s spiral staircase with a contingent of changelings hot on his tail. He tucked his wings and flew through a small hole in the fence that had been put across the stairwell. The swarm failed to see the fence and slammed into it. More and more slammed into the ones already pressed against the chain links, and soon a pile of tangled changelings were suspended midair on the fencing.

Flashbang grabbed a small black thundercloud from a stockpile he had stashed in a side room. He shook it, then bucked it at the fence.

It burst with lightning, electrifying the fence and the enemies clumped against it.


Barrel Roller patrolled the edge of City Reservoir #2, one of several massive underground cisterns which hold Canterlot’s water supply. She heard a splash at the other end of the cavernous room, and saw ripples in the water’s surface.

She took flight, brandishing her spear, scanning the deep pool.

A large changeling with purple eyes and red fins leapt out of the reservoir and seized Barrel Roller from behind. Her spear dropped into the water.

She flew it into the ceiling, then bucked it into the side of the room. She dove onto it.

The two grappled across the slick floor. The creature pinned Barrel Roller into a corner. It hissed in her face, then took a deep inhale.

It coughed violently, stumbling away from her. She arched her back and spread her wings.

“The love inside you tastes dry and bitter!” it growled accusingly. “Why!?”

She walked up to it.

“I’m an acquired taste.”

She punched it out.

A dozen more attackers leapt out of the reservoir and surrounded her. She rolled her eyes.

“Fine, everyone can have a sample.”


Private Tongs and Murk stood hind-to-hind on the landing of the second floor, surrounded by changelings creeping toward them on the floor, ceiling, and walls.

“Ready, miss?” asked Murk.

“Ready,” said Tongs.

She covered her ears. Murk screeched at the changelings, causing them to buckle in pain. The two pressed their advantage and attacked.


Private Goldbrick seized a changeling in headlock and threw it at a group of changelings rushing at him. He turned and jabbed one sneaking up behind him. Two more tackled him and pinned him down.

“Where is the moon princess!?” one of them hissed at him.

“No princesses here. How about a pair of dukes?”

He slugged one with a left hook, then slammed the other with a right cross. He grabbed them both and ran, body slamming them into the rest of the group.

One of the monsters spat a green goo at his right hoof, gluing it to the wall. He yanked, pulling a clump of bricks out of the wall. He slammed them into the spitter’s face. He smiled at the possibilities with this new weapon.


Private Mondegreen stood behind a fortified checkpoint in the third floor hallway, blasting at changelings from his horn. A rat appeared behind the vent cover of an overhead air duct and squeaked at him.

“Understood,” said Mondegreen. “Go reinforce Checkpoint Alpha, Activate Contingency Six, and tell Private Buildup that we’re at Code Red. Oh, and find out what happened to Lieutenant Root.”


Radish thrusted his sword at the changeling horde. One of them flashed into the form of a moose and tried to lock his sword with its antlers. Radish easily sidestepped its wild swings and sliced at it. He took off some of its fur, which reverted to the form of black scales as it hit the ground. The creature squealed and changed back to its true form, clutching its side.

Another took the form of a buzzard and swooped at Radish, gnashing its beak. As Radish was forced away from the tower, a swarm of Radishes attacked the front door. Radish disengaged from the buzzard and charged at them with his sword in his mouth.

One of the undisguised changelings spat green goop at Radish’s hooves, sticking his legs to each other. He fell on his chest and dropped his sword. A group of changelings piled onto it, each attempting to claim it as a trophy. Radish pulled out his spear with his teeth and aimed it at the goop.

This is going to hurt.

He shoved it into the goop. The power of the earth blasted away the substance like a year’s worth of erosion compressed into a second. Radish’s boots fell to pieces and his hooves ached. He ignored the pain and scrambled toward the changelings attacking Luna’s door.

One of them flew into him sideways. It pinned him down and gnashed its teeth. Radish held it at bay with the spear, and it bit down into the shaft. A crackle of lightning burst out and flung it away.

Radish looked at the damage. It had deep teeth marks, out of which sparks burst out. Arcs of pink electricity crackled across the length of the spear, shaking it in Radish’s hooves. A fireball shot out of the speartip, followed by a green cone of light, then a dark purple beam.

That thing destabilized it! All its unicorn magic is leaking out!

Radish planted his hooves and aimed it like a firehose, peppering surrounding changelings with random spells.The recoil was immense.

One changeling caught a particle beam in the face. Another was knocked over by a flood of blue pulsing bubbles. A third was encased in a block of ice. The mob scattered into the air to avoid the attacks, dodging and weaving an assortment of spells. Ghostly jellyfish spiraled out of the spear, chasing and stinging a few out of the air.

The spear sputtered out a few sparks, then went silent. Radish shook it.

The spear rumbled, then felt lighter than air. The remaining changeling mob dove toward Radish. Radish prepared to thrust the spear at them.

Radish felt his fur stand on end. The speartip shot out a sky-filling blast of lightning. The flash blinded Radish, and he fell to his knees. He heard changelings falling limp onto the grass all around him. The spear in his hooves then suddenly shook violently, and then the wind picked up into a howling roar.

As Radish’s vision cleared, he saw a whirling cyclone above his head, emanating from the spear. Dozens of changelings were caught in the twister. Radish took the spear and swung it around, catching more changelings in the whirlwind to slam them against the sides of buildings. He snatched up the mob that was beating at Luna’s door and spun them into the ground.

The tornado sputtered out, then the spear released a cold, dense fog which filled the palace grounds around him. The spear returned to its normal weight and went silent.

And that’s its pegasus power spent.

Something large slammed into Radish from behind. A changeling leapt out of the fog and sank its fangs into his shoulder, piercing his armor. Radish hissed in pain. The creature planted its hooves on him and pulled with its teeth, trying to rip him apart.

Radish heard a whinny from above. Mortimer swooped through the air and slashed at the changeling with his tiny talons. It spit out Radish’s shoulder to growl in anger at the owl’s impudence. Radish used the opportunity to elbow his attacker’s face and knock it away.

Radish stood. Mortimer landed on his nape. Radish whispered a command to the owl, who nodded and flew off toward the tower. Radish centered his stance and faced off against the changeling through the thinning fog.

It was much larger than the others, with eyes like dark red wine and flecks of iridescence down its carapace. Its form was noticeably mare-like. Its fangs were serrated and the horn on its head was more pronounced, with several sharp projections sweeping back.

Radish aimed his spear at her face. “What are you, the head stink bug?”

“I am Maxilla!” she bellowed. “Scion of the Hive and Supreme of the Warrior Caste! You will suffer for this defiance!”

“I’m Root. Lieutenant of the Royal Guard and Champion of Princess Luna. And you won’t beat me.”

She hissed, and a ring of green fire flashed down her body. She was now a manticore.

Nice trick. Too bad for you I studied the anti-manticore manual.

Radish vaulted forward on the spear and bucked the manticore’s jaw. He swatted away its stinger-tipped tail and gouged the spear into the creature’s neck. It reeled back, gripping the wound with its paw. Another ring of fire turned it into a giant cobra.

Oh please. Earth ponies know how to handle snakes.

It struck at Radish. He dodged its bite and wrapped his legs around its neck, cutting off the supply of blood to its head. It thrashed, and Radish dodged each swing of its tail. It burst with flame again. The flames didn’t burn Radish, but the changeling was now a massive creature with the body of a lobster and the wings of a bat. It took flight, and Radish slid off its carapace onto the ground.

Okay, I don’t know what that is. Is that a real animal, or can it just make stuff up?

It snapped its claws at Radish. Radish backed away, narrowly avoiding tripping over a fallen changeling drone. He looked at the spear in his hooves.

It expended its unicorn magic and pegasus weather, but it’s still got earth power. That’s what Celestia wanted me to rely on.

He leapt forward and jammed the spear into the ground. He felt the power of the earth flow out of the spear. He directed it, focusing on the ground beneath him and its connection to the life it sustained.

Radish smiled.

The grass below Radish burst with light. It grew high and ensnared the creature. Its many limbs struggled to free itself. It changed into a minotaur, but the grass held fast. It became a small red dragon, and the grass held, snapping its snout shut to keep it from spitting flame. It turned into a huge hedgehog-looking creature, but the grass held it.

It flashed back into Maxilla’s true form. Radish pointed the spear at her face.

“That’s Kenbucky bluegrass. You can’t break it. Now, order your troops to give themselves up peacefully.”

“It was not supposed to be this way!” Maxilla cried. “The Queen said the Something Blue would be guarded by a coward!”

A coward!?

“She said that you fled your post during a crisis! And that you would surely do it again!”

Radish grabbed her by the horn and pulled her in close. “Listen here, flea. I fled that post trying to save my princess! And I stayed put this time to save my other princess!”

She leaned forward, sniffing at Radish. Radish leaned back in disgust.

“You… you are full of love for your rulers!” she said with surprise.

“And so what if I am!?”

She grinned wickedly and opened her maw. Radish watched a stream of pink light flow out of his chest and into her mouth. He felt colder. He felt smaller. He felt weaker. He stumbled back and slumped to the ground.

She ripped free of the grass and loomed over him.

“Your love is the most nourishing I’ve ever tasted! With you as my food source, I could usurp the Queen herself!”

Radish struggled to his hooves. “Yeah? Snack on this.”

He thrust the spear at her. She caught it and pinned Radish to the ground. She sucked another gulp of love out of Radish. His vision blurred.

“Rest now,” she said, clutching him closely. “Feed me.

“Luna…”

Radish’s world went dark.

53. The Wedding, Part 6: Reception

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“Luna…”

“Yes, my dear Champion?"

Radish opened his eyes, lifting his head off a table he didn’t know he was resting it on. He felt a change against his coat, and looked to see he was no longer in his armor, but his tuxedo. Luna was sitting demurely in the chair across from him in a lavender evening gown.

“Princess?”

“You are missing the reception. Come. Let us dance.”

Radish looked around. They were in the palace ballroom, though it was dim and hazy. Every table beyond their own seemed to blur into a fog. Radish couldn’t tell how many, if any, other ponies were present. He looked back at Luna, who was standing next to him with her hoof extended.

“Okay.”

Luna smiled and allowed Radish to lead her to the dance floor. She leaned against him and rested her chin on his head. He could feel her heart beating against his cheek.

“Do you know this song?” she asked. “It is one of my favorites.”

Radish listened. There was indeed a song in the air, but Radish didn’t recognize it, the genre it belonged to, or even the instruments playing it. He couldn't see a band or a DJ.

“Princess… what happened? Where is everyone? Something… attacked me, I think…”

“Do not worry about that now. Just relax and enjoy yourself.”

“What happened to Twilight? The captain? There was something about Princess Cadenza… something… got in your tower?”

“Fret not. All is well.”

“All is well? But…”

“You are quite dashing in your formal jacket. It is most flattering.”

“…thank you. I like your dress.”

“Thank you. It is new.”

Radish heard a loud boom. The tables rattled. He looked around.

“What was that?”

“Just the entertainment.”

“But-”

“I like your fragrance. What is it?”

“It’s oakmoss. I like… uh… yours, too.”

“It’s bergamot. A gift from Celestia.”

“Celestia… where is she?”

“She is fine.”

“That’s not-”

A new song began.

“Oh! I know this one,” said Luna. “It’s more recent. The first time I heard it, I loved it.”

“Princess…”

"Don't you love it, too?"

"What... what is going on?"

“Shh.”

Radish felt Luna stroking the back of his neck. His heartbeat slowed down. His eyelids drooped and his hooves relaxed.

The music changed again. It became something slower. Luna felt warmer and softer. The room became darker.

54. The Wedding, Part 7: Honeymoon

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Radish became aware of a dull pain in his left forehoof. He opened his eyes and saw an IV needle inserted into it. The glare of fluorescent lights overhead forced him to full consciousness. He looked around and saw that he was in an infirmary bed. Twilight was in a chair at his side, reading.

“Twilight?” he said through a dry throat. She snapped her book shut and perked up.

“You’re awake! How do you feel?”

“Weird all over. What happened?”

“We found you unconscious outside. Cadance said the changelings drained your love to critical levels!”

“Drained my love? What does that mean? I can’t love anyone anymore!?”

“You’ll be fine. Shining and Cadance filled the city with a big burst of love and blasted the changelings out!”

“They’re gone? All of them?”

“Yep. Every last one. The bat ponies have been dispatched to hunt them down. They were really fired up to avenge you.”

“Did we lose anyone?” Radish asked apprehensively.

“Everyone’s fine. Celestia took a hit when she fought the changeling queen, but she says her ego is more bruised than anything.”

“What about Luna?”

“You’re going to love this. The impostor maneuvered you into the role of Luna’s protector because she saw in your file that you left your post during the Nightmare Moon crisis. She expected you to do it again. She even had Shining fill your squad with inexperienced guards so the tower would be easy pickings!”

“Why would I love that?”

“Because it wasn’t easy pickings! You fortified the tower so well, even a squad of novices held it. The changelings never got to Luna- she slept through the whole battle! It was really clever to have her sleep in a cask in her wine cellar. No one went looking for a princess there.”

“I’m glad she agreed. If we have flying enemies, those big balconies are just inviting trouble.”

“The real wedding happened while you were out. I’m sorry you missed it.”

“What, you didn’t postpone a royal wedding just for me? The nerve.”

Twilight smiled. “Luna said not to worry, because you were safe in a beautiful dream. She wouldn’t tell us what it was, though.”

“Oh? That was...? Huh.”

“Why? What did you dream about?”

“A nice dance.”

“Aww. Maybe you’ll get to dance at Rarity’s wedding. She caught the bouquet.”

“Good for her. Who caught the garter?”

“Garter? Oh, that's not really a Canterlot thing.”

“Oh. Well, how was the cake?”

“We saved you a slice! And some apple fritters. Oh! And then there’s all this!”

She gestured to the table by the side of his bed. A pile of get well cards were stacked on it, overflowing the gaps between several vases of flowers.

“Oh yeah, and here's your keys back,” she said, putting them on the table. “They were a big help.”

Radish shifted his weight, staring up at the ceiling.

“Twilight… I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you about Princess Cadenza.”

“Thanks. But I know I didn’t argue my case very well. And nopony could have imagined that we’d be dealing with a changeling queen.”

“You should have heard the rumors she was spreading about you.”

“Yeah, we don’t need to talk about that. Ever.”

“Then, can we talk about how you saved Equestria again? How many times is this, now?”

“Who can keep track anymore?” asked Celestia merrily, entering the room with Luna in tow.

“Princesses! I barely did anything this time,” said Twilight.

“Nonsense!” said Luna. “Revel in your accomplishments, for we are most proud of you!”

“And most contrite for ignoring your warnings,” added Celestia.

Twilight looked down and blushed.

“Lieutenant,” said Celestia, “Shining Armor is taking his well-earned honeymoon, but he left commendations for those who distinguished themselves during the attack, like you.”

“Me? I was a pawn in the enemy’s plan from the start.”

“Indeed! But your intricate planning and clever battle tactics made a fool out of the enemy and saved me!” said Luna, joyously. “Thus, I bestow upon you this favor.”

Luna leaned over and kissed Radish’s cheek. He gasped and sheepishly muttered a thanks, fidgeting his hooves. Twilight and Celestia smirked.

“He actually had this in mind,” said Celestia, pulling out a small box and opening it to reveal a peytral-shaped medal. “The Iron Barding Award, for heroic defense of Equestria.”

“Whoa! I mean, I’m honored ma’am. I’m glad everyone’s okay.”

“As am I,” said Celestia. “And seeing as how we’re bestowing favors now…”

She bent down and kissed his cheek. Radish froze, jaw dropped, letting out a barely-audible wheezing sound. Celestia winked and took her leave. Luna rolled her eyes and followed her out.

Radish was able to breathe again when they were out the door. He turned to Twilight, leaning on his hoof.

“So, uh, you bestowing any favors today?” he asked with a grin.

“Ha! That’s for princesses only. But it’s been too long since we’ve hung out. How about we hit one of those poetry nights you’ve always wanted to go to?”

“That’d be great.”

“One condition, though. Don’t hide your cutie marks.”

“Come on. No one needs to see these. I know they’re indecent.”

“I did need to see them, because their indecency let me know it was you. No changeling would ever come up with something like those! Cadance and I could confront the impostor with full confidence knowing a friend was guarding Luna. Besides, the Canterlot night scene is all about distinguishing oneself using individualistic identifiers. You’ll fit right in.”

“There could be kids there.”

“No way. I’ve read that Midtown Canterlot poetry nights get really blue. Real bottom-of-the-barrel filth.”

Radish laughed.

“Okay. I’ll do it.”


A nurse pushed Radish out of the infirmary in a wheelchair. Radish carefully stepped off and thanked him.

He walked to the long-term care wing, and checked in at the reception counter. He entered Harold’s room to find him still asleep. Princess Celestia was at his bedside, holding a small sunflower in a bud vase.

“Ma’am?”

“Oh, lieutenant. You came to see him, too. That’s very kind of you.”

“Well, he’s the whole reason we knew about the threat. It could have gone a lot worse without him.”

“Indeed.” Celestia placed the flower on Harold’s side table. “Radish, have you wondered why the changeling swarm didn’t simply infiltrate Canterlot society cautiously and quietly using their shapeshifting?”

“I haven’t had time to reflect on their strategy.”

“Their queen enjoyed taunting and ranting at Cadance while holding her captive. Cadance learned a lot of details about them that way. The queen was scouting out Canterlot all last week, intending to replace me.”

“Why didn’t she?”

“Once Luna found her torturing Harold, the castle went on high alert and Shining raised his shield. She was trapped, cut off from her minions, and unable to get near me. She targeted Cadance in order to undermine Shining.

“Because of the alert, the changeling army had to deal with the shield, the heightened security, and all the obstacles you put between them and Luna. In absence of their queen, they defaulted to instinctual swarming behavior.”

“If it hadn’t been for Harold, we all could have been replaced, one-by-one,” realized Radish.

“Yes. And Luna says he refused to give her any information, even under torture. I feel like our accounts are squared now. I can forgive him for his deception… and it feels good to forgive. It also feels good to give him this.”

She pulled out a small circular medal.

“The Citizen Medal of Bravery. He earned it.” She put it next to the sunflower, and placed her hoof on his. “Get well soon, Harold. I would like to start over, as friends.”

She turned to leave, but was stopped by Harold's hoof still holding onto hers. He made a guttural noise, and opened his eyes. “Princess Celestia… I would like that as well.”

“Harold!” exclaimed Radish. “How do you feel?”

“Better. And I bring news of the enemy.”

“The changeling queen?” asked Celestia.

“Yes. I saw her sinking into a coma just as I was slipping out of mine. She is now stuck deep in a mire of her own nightmares.”

“Ah, that’s good news,” said Celestia.

“And she was screaming. She bellowed her name at her nightmares in an attempt to intimidate them.”

“Her name?”

“Chrysalis.”

“Chrysalis? Hmm. I’ll have the name researched at once. Thank you, Harold. You’ve done well.”

“It is my honor, Princess Celestia.”

“I’ll fetch your doctor. Once you’re up for it, let's take a look at your plans to upgrade the orrery.”

“I look forward to it.”

Celestia nodded smiling, then took her leave.

“Need anything?” asked Radish.

Harold leaned back tranquilly. “Nothing at all.”


Radish walked through the palace’s back halls toward his bunk room. He found Saguaro Shade staring out a large window overlooking Canterlot. He was chewing a stalk of stinging nettle in his mouth- a habit that was banned from most areas of the palace.

“Root. Good to see you up and about.”

“Corporal, how are you?”

“Ashamed, Root. That changeling queen made a damn fool of us. Especially me. Guarding the train station- I should have known. This almost went very bad.”

He unsheathed his sword and showed Radish the engraving of his wife.

“Still haven’t gotten blood on her,” he said. “Or whatever those things are filled with. Don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to make that claim. We won the battle, Root, but the war has just begun.”

“Sir, what are we going to do? We have enemies that could be anyone, anywhere. You don’t even know if I’m a changeling or not right now!”

“Princess Cadenza says the repelling spell has created a no-changeling zone in most of Central Equestria for the time being. If any come close, the ambient background love will overwhelm them and foul up their disguise. And they got hit pretty hard, too- they may be limping along for a while.”

“Harold reports that their queen is comatose now,” said Radish.

Saguaro Shade re-sheathed his blade.

“Good to hear. But that may not last forever. We’re going to have to completely rethink the way we handle security. That means changeling-checking any way we can- spells, passcodes, even blood tests. I hear Sparkle first got suspicious because the queen didn’t know a nursery rhyme. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all be singing ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’ to each other now.”

“Hmm. The theme song for a new era of paranoia.”

“Beats no new era at all. I heard your cutie marks made a good shibboleth, too.”

“True. That was Twilight’s idea, too.”

“Damn clever of her. Special gal, that Twilight Sparkle. Brainy and brave. Not a great dancer, but quite a good singer. Building up a good track record in my book.”

“Mine too.”

“Bet she’d look good engraved on your sword.”

Radish chuckled. “I doubt the captain would approve of a customization like that.”

“The captain will probably be moving on now that he’s a prince. Princess Celestia will probably have him ruling over some other corner of the kingdom.”

“You think? I hadn’t considered that. No more Shining Armor around here. End of an era.”

“And the start of a brand new one.”

Radish looked out the window. The city was bathed in late afternoon sunlight. He smiled. “Let’s make it a good one, then.”

55. The Girl

View Online

“Looking good, Rad,” said Spats, watching Radish comb his hair in their barracks bathroom.

“Thanks.”

“What are you wearing to poetry night?”

“My duster.”

“I mean, under it. Midtowners are trendy, in that they despise the latest trends. You’ll want to wear something from about five years ago- anything newer than that, and they’ll see you as a poser. I’m thinking dark corduroys and plaid.”

Radish sighed.

“Twilight wants me to take pride in my cutie marks. Show them off to the world. I’m going unclothed in the café.”

Spats looked at Radish’s cutie mark. Radish had conditioned and brushed it, making it the cleanest Spats had ever seen it- the colors were bright and the edges were well-defined. Even the little Celestia looked prettier.

“Is that… uh… legal?”

“We’ll have to see.”

“You’ve got moxie, Rad. If the gendarmes harry you over it, send for me. I’ll spring you from the clink.”

“But you don’t have your law degree yet.”

“I don’t need one to defend you. No jury in Canterlot is going to put away a hero of the Battle of the Brides.”

“Is that what they’re calling it? It’s kind of a playful name for a full-scale enemy invasion.”

“Alliteration sells papers. Here, let me get that.”

He took a comb in his aura and flattened a cowlick behind Radish’s ear.

“So… you and Twilight hitting the town. May I ask… uh… is this a night for a floral cologne… or a spicy cologne?”

“If you’re asking if this is a date date… Spats, I don’t know."

"Do you want it to be?"

"Twilight’s wonderful. She’s smart, cute, and a national hero. Any guy would be lucky to date her."

"But?"

"But she just doesn’t… rile me up inside.”

“Ah. That’s pretty important, Rad.”

“Should I just get over myself? Maybe my insides don’t know what’s good for me.”

“How does she feel about you?”

“It’s hard to read. She likes to hug, but her whole group of friends is really huggy. None of her letters ever suggested an interest in dating, with anyone.”

“I guess you’ll find out tonight. Whatever happens… you’ve got us,” Spats said, nodding back to the bunkroom, where Radish’s bunkmates were getting dressed for their own nights out on the town.

“Thanks.”

“I’d go with a woodsy cologne. It signals that you’re open to getting close, but not expecting it.”

“Good. That’s the only kind I have.”

“Really? When’s your birthday?”


Showered, dressed, preened, and smelling of oakmoss and cloves, Radish trotted down the back halls of the palace. He reached the tower containing guest quarters and checked in with the front desk guard.

“Hi, I’m here to see Twilight Sparkle.”

“Nopony gets upstairs without submitting to a Changeling Check.”

“Okay. Hit me.”

“How long does it take to pull a standard cartload of cloud vapor barrels from Timbucktoo to Mooieville?”

“Cloud vapor isn’t transported by cart. Or in barrels. And it’s pronounced ‘Moo-uh-ville’.”

“Correct. A hot air balloon crashes on the border between-”

“You don’t bury survivors.”

“Let me finish, please. Crashes on the border between Zebrica and Giraffenia. Where do they bury the survivors?”

“You don’t bury survivors.”

“Correct. What’s the best way to keep milk fresh?”

“Keep it in the cow.”

“Correct.”

“Are we sure changelings don’t know that one?”

“Why would they? Anyway, you’re clear to go up.”

“Thanks.”

Radish entered the guest tower elevator. This one had an operator on duty. She pulled the lever to take Radish to the girls’ floor.

“Taking Lady Sparkle out on the town, huh?” she asked.

“That’s right.”

“As soon as Shining Armor wasn’t around, huh?”

“You implying something?”

“Not at all. You inferring something?”

“Not at all.”

They reached the floor Twilight and her friends were staying on. Radish exited the elevator.

“Have a good evening. But not too good,” the operator said, and shut the door.

Radish walked down the hall, reading the door numbers. He heard a door open behind him, but before he could turn to look, something yanked his legs out from under him and dragged him through it. The door shut and locked behind him, leaving him in a dimly-lit room surrounded by shadowy figures.

He took a low defensive stance. The lights of the room clicked on, and he found himself facing Twilight’s five friends. He backed away, warily.

“Need something, ladies?”

“Yes. Lieutenant, we wish to have a word with you before you step out with Twilight tonight,” Rarity said.

“Let me guess. Something along the lines of, ‘if you do anything to hurt her’?”

The girls grimaced and sullenly looked at the floor.

“Well," said Fluttershy, “the thing is… we’ve all hurt her already.”

“We were completely dismissive of her concerns regarding Cadance, and it nearly led to total disaster,” said Rarity.

“It was doggone thickheaded of us,” sighed Applejack.

“I didn’t believe her either,” admitted Radish.

“But you had an excuse. You had to obey orders,” said Rainbow Dash. “We just got wrapped up in being a part of a royal wedding.”

“We got so dazzled by the glitz and glamor, we didn’t want to believe there was anything wrong!” said Pinkie Pie.

“So, to help make up for it,” said Fluttershy. “We’d like to help you two have the best first date ever!”

"Is, uh, is she actually calling this a date? A date date?”

"Oh, Radish!" laughed Rarity. "Does she have to? She’s been excited about this all day! A girl doesn’t act that way for a mere outing with a friend."

The other girls nodded in smiling agreement.

Radish looked down. "Well, now I don’t know what to do."

"Don't worry 'bout a thing! We're here to help," said Applejack, putting a hoof across his shoulders.

"Meaning?"

“Here you go,” said Pinkie Pie, tossing him a coin bag. “Tonight is on us. Go nuts!”

Radish checked inside the bag. He whistled at the amount.

“We all contributed a chunk of our wedding commissions,” explained Rainbow Dash. “There’s part of a Sonic Rainboom in there.”

“Thanks, gals.”

“Now, the fun part- spiffing you up!” squealed Rarity. “What better way to apologize to Twilight than to ensure her date is the most dapper stallion in the… where are you two going, again?”

“A Midtown coffee bar.”

“Oh, Radish, surely you can do better than that. I have an in with the manager at Plateless. She could squeeze you into a late seating.”

“That’s a restaurant?”

“Well, she calls it a ‘curated tasting experience’.”

“For fuck’s sake, Rarity.”

“Ah, well… perhaps that’s more of a one-year anniversary venue. Though their concept will probably be passé in a year. Now, let’s have a look at the state of you.”

Rarity stepped back to appraise his appearance. She walked a full circle around him, gazing up and down.

“Now,” she said, “did you deliberately comb your mane that way? And if so, what was your line of thinking?”

Radish sighed and dipped his head toward her. “Just do what you want with it.”

“Well, I don’t have time for that. But I can at least…” She floated a comb to his mane and curled it high to one side. “Ah. Now that’s a handsome look. You should consider keeping it this way from now on.”

“My mane has to thread through my helmet.”

“Oh, of course. What sacrifices you make for the service! Don’t think we don’t appreciate it.”

“Thanks.”

“Now, we understand that Twilight wishes you go marks-out tonight. Let’s see them, dear.”

Radish pulled off his duster. The girls gathered around to peer at his marks.

“Why, you’ve cleaned them up nicely! I can even make out the… oh, wait, that’s lint,” Rarity said, pulling it off with her magic. “Now, as for this-”

She held up his duster in her aura.

“Honestly, what were you thinking, Radish? It’s covered in dust!”

“It’s a duster.”

“No, dear, it’s a dust-est. Rainbow Dash, would you go blow-dry this until it ceases to live up to its name?”

“On it,” Rainbow Dash said, taking it out to the balcony.

“Now, don’t worry too much about lookin’ all duded up,” said Applejack. “It’s how you treat a gal that matters.”

"How do you treat a gal?"

“Well, we don’t have time for a full course in etiquette," said Rarity, "but let’s go over some basics. Remember- the gentlecolt allows the lady to go first, except when descending stairs, helping her out of a carriage or gondola, or leading her to the dance floor.”

“Gondola?”

“And compliment her looks,” said Fluttershy. “She’s probably spent a long time getting ready tonight.”

“And girls love a guy who can make them laugh!” said Pinkie Pie. “Here! These are jokes from my private supply! They’re witty, topical, and edge-cuttingly edgy!”

She passed him a stack of index cards. Radish looked at the top card. “What’s brown and sticky? A stick."

Pinkie Pie burst out laughing. “A stick! It works on so many levels!”

“Remember, be a good listener,” said Applejack. “Even when she’s talking borin’ sciencey stuff.”

Rarity pushed Pinkie Pie in front of Radish. “Now, show me how you’d kiss a lady’s hoof. I will critique your technique.”

Pinkie Pie extended her right hoof and put on a posh accent. “Good evening, good sir! Let us away to the merriment!”

“Salutations and felicitations, milady,” said Radish, bowing. He took her hoof in his and kissed it. Pinkie Pie giggled.

“Well, that will do, minus the sarcasm,” said Rarity.

“Hey, this thing is ready,” said Rainbow Dash, returning with the duster. “No charge.”

Radish took it and put it back on. “Thanks. Are we done here? She’s waiting.”

“One last thing,” said Rainbow Dash. “I put something in the pocket. Open it when you’re alone.”

Radish pulled a small envelope out of his pocket. He opened it.

“Hey!” protested Dash.

Radish pulled out a note. “Dear Radish. Twilight has a bright future ahead of her. Please play it safe.”

Radish shook the envelope over his hoof. A condom fell out.

“Oh, my,” said Fluttershy, blushing behind her wings.

“Dash!” hissed Applejack. “What were you thinkin’?”

“What?” asked Rainbow Dash. “We want them to be responsible, don’t we?”

“It’s a medium,” said Radish.

“Well, what did you want me to do, measure you!? Honestly, you try to do something nice for a guy-”

The door to the hall swung open. Twilight walked in. She wore a mauve turtleneck and had her mane in a simple side plait.

“Oh, Radish! There you are! My room is the next one over.”

Radish quickly stuffed his gift from Rainbow Dash into his pocket.

“Er, Twilight,” said Rarity. “Would you like our help finishing getting ready? Or… starting getting ready?”

“This is what I’m wearing,” said Twilight. “The Canterlot city guidebook said that Midtowners frown upon putting too much effort into one’s appearance.”

“Oh, do they?” scoffed Rarity.

Radish walked up to Twilight. “Good evening, Twilight. You look lovely,” he said, taking and kissing her hoof.

“My, my!” she giggled. “What a gentlecolt!”

“Goodnight, girls,” he said to the rest of the group, and led Twilight out.

“Night, Radish! Night, Twilight!” said Pinkie Pie, waving.

“Enjoy yourselves!” said Rarity.

“And be safe!" called Rainbow Dash as Radish shut the door. Radish led Twilight back to the elevator.

“I like your hair,” she said. “And you smell nice.”

“Thanks. So do... you…” Radish recognized Twilight’s fragrance. It was the one Rarity took from Nightmare Moon’s lair. “Did Rarity give you that perfume?”

“She did! She said a spicy perfume would be just perfect for tonight.”

“Did she say why?”

“It must have something to do with the aromas of a coffeehouse, I guess.”

“Your friends are pretty thoughtful.”

“I think they all feel guilty about the wedding.”

“Probably. I feel guilty about it.”

“Well, stop," said Twilight firmly. "It’s time for all of us to move on.”

“Yeah, moving on works for me.”


The two took a cab into Midtown Canterlot’s Arts and Entertainment District. They stepped out in front of a coffeehouse.

“Well, this is it,” said Radish, looking up at the sign. “Bold Roast’s Blooming Grounds. I saw an article about their poetry nights when I first moved to Canterlot. Poetry is an old Ranger tradition, so I’ve always been curious what city poetry is like.”

“I’ve never been here. But I didn’t get out much when I lived in Canterlot,” said Twilight. “And remember our deal.”

“I know,” said Radish, looking at his duster-covered body. “It’s just that… I’ve never gone out in public showing them.”

“Nopony should be ashamed of their marks. Especially not one with an Iron Barding medal. And look!”

She pointed to a sign on the door which read “No minors”.

“Well, that’s a relief,” said Radish. “Okay. Let’s go.”

They entered the café. It was crowded. Radish saw a coat rack and walked up to it. He took a deep breath, and looked back to Twilight, who smiled and nodded. He removed his duster, and hung it up.

He turned back to the room. Nopony was staring at him. None were even noticing him. Some passed their eyes over him while looking around, and then returned to other sights. They chatted, but not about him. They laughed, but not at his expense. A unicorn waitress trotted past him, floating a tray.

“There’s open tables over there,” she said, instead of telling him to leave.

A group passed him as they left the café. They just smiled or nodded, instead of sneering and recoiling.

Radish stood silent, taking in the inattention. Twilight trotted up to him.

“You good?” she asked.

“No one cares. I’ve hid these all my life, and no one in here cares.”

She nudged him. “What did I say? This is Midtown. These ponies see a dozen weirder things than you before breakfast. Come on, before all the seats are taken.”

They took a table in the center of the café. Radish had never felt so exposed, or so comfortable in his own fur.

“This is my treat, by the way,” said Twilight.

“What? No. You’re the hero of the Battle of the Brides.”

“Is that what the Guard is calling it? That’s an awfully flippant name for a full-scale invasion.”

“Alliteration sells papers. Just let me pay, okay?”

“Okay, but only if you get up there and read your poem.”

“What makes you think I brought a poem?”

“You said poetry is a Ranger tradition. And you look like a guy who’s got something to say to the world.”

“It’s… just a few thoughts.”

“I can’t wait to hear it! A Radish Root original.”

“Twilight… there are more ponies in here than I thought there’d be.”

“That means there are more who will love it.”

“Maybe you should proofread it first.”

“But I want to be surprised when I hear it.”

“I don’t think I can do it.”

“Lieutenant Root, did her majesty hire a coward? Did the Plains Rangers employ a scaredy-cat?”

Radish bristled, then relaxed.

“Fine. I’ll go.”

“Great!”

“After I’ve had some coffee.”

The waitress from before took their orders. They looked around, taking in the crowd. Twilight and Radish both noticed a trio of mares in a far booth. Two were pegasi, one was a unicorn. One was familiar.

“Hey, I know her- in the middle,” said Twilight. “That’s Hazy Shade. She works at a bookstore in town. I used to see her all the time.”

“Oh yeah, we’ve met. I asked her out once,” chuckled Radish.

“Really?” asked Twilight in surprise. “You two have dated?”

“No, she said she was with someone.”

Hazy Shade leaned over to one of her companions, a peach-colored unicorn mare. The two kissed.

“That might be the someone,” guessed Radish.

Twilight looked at Radish, then glanced around the room, then noticed how close she was sitting to Radish. She made a small gasp.

“Oh my gosh,” she said. “I just realized. It might look to everyone here like we’re on a date. If you were hoping to meet girls tonight, I may be stopping them from approaching you.”

Radish looked at Twilight. He saw sincere concern for him in her eyes. A warmth spread from his chest up to the back of his head. He smiled.

“Twilight…”

“I didn’t mean to cramp your style. That’s the term, right?”

Twilight.”

“Should I say something? Like, make an announcement to the room that we’re just friends? Do you want to take separate tables?”

Radish laughed. “Twilight! Calm down! You wanted to hang out with your friend tonight, right?”

“Right.”

“Then let’s hang out. I can meet girls any time. Thanks to you, I’m not afraid anymore.”

“Okay.”

“Besides, I doubt anyone here would think we're dating."

"Why not?"

"You’re part of the royal family now. Everyone probably expects you to date some noblepony. I probably just look like your bodyguard.”

“You think?”

“And you know what? If I were given that role, I’d be honored. I'd protect you and your special somepony with my life."

“Aww, thanks. But I don’t want a bodyguard. I've put you in enough danger. And I’m still learning about friendship, so I’m a long way off from having a boyfriend.”

Radish held up his hooves. “So, then, friends for life?”

She pressed her hooves into his. “Of course! Friends for life.”

“That feels right.”

“But it looks like you're done with your coffee. It's poetry time.”

“Ugh, this is going to hurt.”

“At least you have a friend with you.”

“Yeah, I do. Thanks, Twilight.”


“Three, four, five!” said Pinkie Pie, dropping her game piece on a square across the board from her. “Ooh! I made it to Go! King me!”

“That ain’t how this is played, Pinkie,” sighed Applejack. “Hey, Rarity, your turn!”

“Coming, dear!” called Rarity from the guest room’s bathroom. She returned to the game with her hair in curlers. She checked the wall clock. “Ooh, Twilight and Radish must be well into their date by now. I do hope it’s going well.”

“How well?” asked Fluttershy. “Do you think they’re still at the café, or do you think they’ve gone… somewhere else?”

Pinkie Pie tittered.

“I’m sure he’s being a complete gentlecolt,” said Rarity sternly. “I would expect nothing less from a lieutenant of their majesties’ Royal Guard. And Twilight doesn’t strike me as the kind of girl who would… go somewhere else… on a first date.”

“Are you kidding?” laughed Pinkie Pie. “I bet they’re both super-duper pent up! They’re probably going at it like rabbits now!”

“Oh, that’s a misconception,” said Fluttershy. “Rabbits actually-”

“She didn’t ask,” sighed Rainbow Dash. “Say, Radish sure seemed offended at the medium. How far off do you think I was?"

“I bet Twilight is taking his measurement right now,” chuckled Pinkie Pie. “Over and over and over...”

Rainbow Dash lowered her voice. "You don't think he's, like, sized for Celestia, do you?"

"Could we talk about somethin' other than Radish's... root?" sighed Applejack.

"Now, Applejack, there's nothing wrong with a little naughty talk about friends," said Rarity. "Why, I say it's high time for both of them."

"You know," said Fluttershy, "one time Radish asked me out."

“No foolin’?” laughed Applejack. “Me too! Last Hearts and Hooves Day.”

Fluttershy frowned. “Oh.”

“What, was he working his way through this group?” mused Rainbow Dash.

“Whoa, could you imagine if he got rejected by all six of us?” pondered Pinkie Pie. “That’s a supervillain origin story if I’ve ever heard one!”

“Then we should make a pact,” said Rainbow Dash. “If none of us are married to Radish by the time he’s thirty…”

The others leaned in close.

“…we kill him.”


Radish returned to his table amidst light and scattered applause. He slumped down into his seat and hunched over the table.

“That was great!” Twilight cheered.

“No, it wasn’t. Barely anyone was listening. Hardly anyone reacted.”

“That’s how these places work- it’s uncool to enjoy something too much. Your poem was technically proficient and suitably poignant. And don’t think the audience didn’t catch those metaphors.”

“Well, I never metaphor I didn’t like.”

“Ooh. Good thing this wasn’t comedy night.”

“Aww.”

“Hey, let me get the next round of drinks,” said Twilight. “As your reward for going up there.”

“Okay. Could you get me something strong?”

“Strongly caffeinated or strongly alcoholic?”

“See if there’s something that’s both.”

Twilight patted his shoulder and walked to the counter. Radish put his head on the table and closed his eyes. He heard the chair opposite him scrape the floor, and he looked.

Sitting in Twilight’s chair was a fuchsia pegasus mare with a short, yellow mane. She was grinning at him.

“Hi there,” she said. “I liked your poem.”


“Okay, but seriously, girls,” said Rarity, filing her hooves, “marry, fuck, kill: Radish, Shining Armor, and… oh! Twilight’s father.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Seriously?”

"Not a fan of those options? Well then, how about Radish, Shining Armor... and Soarin'," Rarity said, grinning and leaning into Dash's personal space.

Dash frowned. "Are you implying something?"

“Oh, I don’t want to kill anyone,” said Fluttershy. “And could we use something else besides, f- uh, that middle word?”

“Okay, fine,” sighed Rarity. “Marry, hug, and, uh, wave at from a distance?”

“I think I actually did wave at Soarin' from a distance,” said Pinkie Pie. “And Shining Armor probably makes the biggest paycheck, so…”

“Oh?” said Applejack, sitting up. “So you’re sayin’ you would… hug… Radish?”

“Well… he seems pretty huggable to me,” she said, smirking. “What about you, Fluttershy?”

“I’d hug Twilight’s dad.”

The others gasped.


“Hey Radish,” Twilight said, carrying their drinks in her aura, “turns out they do have something that’s both. Check out this- oh!”

Twilight stopped in her tracks. The pegasus girl who was with Hazy Shade had sat down with Radish and was engaged in conversation with him. She looked cool. He looked interested. They looked good together. Twilight waited by the counter, sipping her latte.

“Hey, Twilight Sparkle! Long time, no see!”

She turned to see Hazy Shade, carrying a beer in one wing and a smoothie in the other.

“Hazy Shade! Good to see you. You were always my favorite bookseller in Canterlot.”

“Aww, thanks. So, I see you finally got Radish Root out of his pants.”

“Yes. I’m very proud of him. Oh! But we’re not dating!”

Hazy Shade laughed. “No one here thought you were. But everyone’s excited to finally see those famous cutie marks of his. They’re amazing.”

“Really? Nopony’s reacted to them.”

“Well, that would be rude, wouldn’t it?”

“Is she your friend?” Twilight asked, nodding to the girl with Radish.

“Yep. She brought a poem to read tonight, but chickened out. How’d you get yours to do it?”

“I called him a coward.”

“Ha! You really go for the throat. You’re a good friend, Twilight Sparkle. Well, I should get this beer to Peachy. And it looks like Radish has some good news to share.”

The girl wrote something down for Radish, then hovered away, grinning. Twilight carried the drinks back to their table.

“Well, well, well! I step away for one minute, and girls immediately pounce on you. I ought to be insulted.”

“Look!” he said, proudly showing her the scrap of paper. “It’s her personal messenger pigeon number. Her name is Light Fantastic. She said my cutie mark is a trip!”

“That’s great!”

“You were right, Twilight. Thanks for coming out with me here tonight. I owe you big time.”

“Friends don’t keep track.”


Pinkie Pie pressed her ear up against the guest room door, listening to hoofsteps in the hallway. She grinned.

“Guys! I can hear Twilight! She’s returning to her ro-oom!” She frowned. “But she’s alone.”

A magic aura flung the door open, shoving Pinkie Pie into the wall. Twilight stepped in, grinning.

“Hey, girls! I saw the light on in here. I’m glad you’re all still awake.”

“Twilight? You’re back already?” asked Fluttershy.

“Already? We were out pretty late.”

“Did you and Radish have a nice time tonight?” asked Applejack.

“Oh, you bet! I got to hear his poetry, and we shared an affogato!”

“Poetry? I had no idea the lieutenant had a poet’s heart,” Rarity remarked.

“Affo-what now?” asked Pinkie Pie, peeling herself off the wall.

“It’s a scoop of ice cream drowned in espresso and liqueur,” explained Twilight. “It’s both caffeinated and alcoholic.”

“So, after Radish read you his poetry, did he… try anything?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“I just told you. An affogato.”


Radish hung up his duster and lay back in his bunk. He leaned his head on his hooves and smiled.

Spats walked into the room, muttering to himself. He saw Radish.

“Rad! You look happy. Nice night?”

“It was. I met someone.”

“Someone? Someone other than Twilight?”

“Twilight’s not looking for a relationship. And that’s fine. She’s a great friend, and I’ll always love her as one.”

“Ah. That’s nice. Closure and a new beginning on the same night. So, tell me about her.”

“Her name is Light Fantastic. She's a pegasus. She's got big pretty eyes, a big bright smile, and a short mane that flips from side-to-side when she talks. And she likes my cutie mark."

"She sounds like a jewel, Rad. Congrats."

"Wait, why are you here? I thought you had a date tonight. You’re never back from a date this early.”

“I got closure, too. She broke up with me.”

“Aw, I’m sorry, Spats.”

“Don’t be. Her sister asked me out. We’re seeing each other next week.”

“We’re a lucky couple of stallions, Spats. Need one of these? Rainbow Dash thought she was being helpful.”

He held out the condom. Spats squinted at it.

“A medium? That’s hurtful.”

“I know, right?”

“Let’s put it in the captain’s mailbox.”


“Hey, guys, what’s all the racket?” asked Spike, entering the girls’ guest room while rubbing his eyes and yawning. “Whoa, Twilight? You’re back? Tonight?”

“Spike!” said Twilight excitedly, “I’m glad you’re here! I was just about to tell everyone- Radish met a girl tonight!”

Spike and the others looked at each other.

“Like… a different girl?” asked Spike.

“Different? Different from what?” Twilight asked.

“Think we can get our money back?” Pinkie Pie whispered to Applejack.

“You know what?” Rainbow Dash said. “If you’re happy, and he’s happy, we’re happy.”

“You bet I’m happy! Spike, take a letter. And use the extra-nice ink. This is an extra-nice occasion.”



Dear Princess Celestia,

I finally got to spend an evening on the town with my pen pal, Lt. Radish Root. I saw a whole new side to him, and had the privilege of getting to see him start a new relationship with a very cute girl.

I know that must come as a relief to you as well, seeing you were the object of his precocial infatuation for so very long. You must be proud that he’s moved past his crush on you and found something real.

I've never seen him so happy! He thanked me for encouraging him to take the extra step needed to make it happen. It goes to show that a friend by your side may be just what you need to get you out of your comfort zone and into a new adventure.

Yours faithfully,

Twilight Sparkle



Celestia read the letter over again. She leaned back on her courtyard bench, looking up at the Balencian orange tree. She magically picked an orange and let the peel fall away. She nibbled a slice.

“Well, I suppose that’s that.”

56. The First Date

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Shoofly entered the bunkhouse to find a group of guards all waiting around in the common room.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Everyone wante