Bards of the Badlands

by Amber Spark

Chapter 1: The Initiative

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Garnet Dawn nearly fell to the floor of the carriage as a hard bump knocked her from the depths of sleep. She groaned and blinked her weary eyes open. The cabin’s lanterns had sputtered out hours ago and the chill of the wilderness had crept into the lonely carriage.


This time, Garnet did land with a yelp on the hard wooden floor of the carriage. The smell of old timbers and slightly musty upholstery filled her nostrils as she picked herself up and looked out the window.

The sickly scrub and wretched trees that tenaciously clung to life at the edges of the Badlands lurked beyond the dark mist that hovered over the earth. The twisting terrain was dimly lit by the stars spotting the black heavens above. Only the stale runoff from the Elderfields River carried any life to this desolate place and even then, it was but a pale imitation of the real thing.

As they turned a bend on the all-but-forgotten road, the orange and rose unicorn beheld her destination. It wasn’t a wondrous place. Far from it.

But it is, perhaps, a beginning.

Since the accusations, all the other so-called beginnings had turned out to be just painful ends.

She was tired of those. More than anything, Garnet needed a real new beginning.

Still, Elderfields didn’t look like a place for such things. Calling it a city would be giving it too much credit. It was little more than a village with delusions of townhood. The place crouched on the horizon, illuminated by a few watchtowers that stood sentinel on the Badlands side of the village, while any other light was lost in the murky haze rising from the dank Elderfields River.

Still, there was something about the village. Something cold. As if things waited for her in the mist. Unpleasant things. Dark things. Things of shadow. Things of nightmares.

She shook herself and pushed away the dark thoughts. Now wasn’t the time for doubt.


Garnet pulled her eyes from the village and down to the note. With a simple application of magic, her horn lit up and illuminated the message.

It was little more than a scrap, hurriedly copied from a bounty board outside the last nameless town she had managed to escape. A single chance to maybe, just maybe, clear her name.

It was worth a shot.

After all, she was alone. The only ally she had was miles away. And while that stung, she was determined to carry on in her absence. She could do no less.

Honor would demand nothing less. And while the world may have ripped many things from her… she still had a little of that left.


If only a little.

Sunset Shimmer ripped her gaze from the bookshelf and returned to staring out the window. Outside, the summer sun blazed down on the sparkling city of Canterlot. Every golden spire and ivory dome gleamed. Even the small lakes, rivers and the castle moat reflected the cloudless sky and the great glowing ball of fire above.

Still, Sunset found it hard to appreciate the view.

From here, she could see a few leftover banners from the Summer Sun Celebration, though they should have been taken down a month ago. And every banner was a reminder.

She slumped to the floor again and just stared at a forgotten flag on a house not too far from her apartment.

“Really?” Moon Dancer squealed after Sunset had finished speaking. “You… you want to spend the Summer Sun Celebration with me? And… and you want to take me on a tour of… of… the castle?”

Moon Dancer’s squeal upon seeing the Hall of History had left Sunset half-deaf until she remembered the right healing spell. At least the other unicorn had managed to be quiet enough not to damage any windows when they visited the Castle Archives, the smaller version of the Royal Canterlot Archives. Even then, it was a miracle old Scrollwork hadn’t thrown them out on their tails.

She’d even introduced Moon Dancer to Philomena, who had spent the next hour showing off for the younger filly until Moon Dancer had actually fell over trying to keep track of the phoenix’s acrobatics.

But more than anything, it was seeing Princess Celestia once more that had made Moon Dancer’s day. Sunset had found herself smiling as Moony pranced around the white alicorn in delirious glee while they visited her in the West Garden. Sunset had even swiped a few of the Princess’s precious Moon Lanterns for them to snack on as they watched Celestia raise the sun from a small rise in the garden.

That was a good day, Sunset thought with a sigh. I can’t remember the last time I actually had fun with somepony.

She’d had fun with Celestia before. And by herself, of course. But when she had been with Moon Dancer… it was different in a way she couldn’t describe.

You can describe it just fine, groused a voice in the back of her head. You just don’t want to.

Sunset wasn’t about to get into another argument with what she now called her ‘angry little pony.’ She had decided giving a voice inside her head an actual name was a surefire way to end up in a straightjacket.

Still, it had a point. It was the same point Celestia had spent a very long time trying to get into Sunset’s head. Only now did she realize the truth behind it.

I have a friend. And I really enjoyed spending time with her.

Sunset’s eyes moved from the forgotten flag to the eastern horizon. She couldn’t see anything, of course, but every time she looked out the window, her eyes had been drawn in that direction.

And now my friend is spending the next two months in Trottingham with her parents.

Sunset poked at a crumpled scroll. It rolled away until it stopped against one of the dozens of stacks of books scattered throughout her living room.

“This is so not fair. I finally actually want to spend time with another pony… and now she’s halfway across the Celestial Sea on the Griffish Isles.”

With a sigh, she dragged herself to her hooves and wandered over to her desk. Almost by reflex, she reached down and picked up an amber griffon feather from its small stand. It looked just as it did when Professor Polish had painfully plucked it from her transfigured body during Finals Week. After Dean Slate had used it to try and frame her, Polish had returned it to her after a thorough disenchanting and preservation treatment. The same day, the Princess had reinforced it with a stasis spell. It remained perfect, as expected.

Moon Dancer’s cutie mark was now carved into the quill. It was almost too small to see, but Sunset knew where to look. After all, it was just above her own mark.

Where once the feather had been used as a tool for her greatest defeat, now it was a reminder she wasn’t alone.

It didn’t help much right now.

“Because right now, I am alone,” Sunset muttered.

Once upon a time, that didn’t matter.

She flopped down on her couch and stared at the ruin of her apartment. It was too hot to go out and do anything, so she’d been rummaging through her store rooms and pulling out pieces of old projects, samples of half-forgotten experiments, or anything else that caught her eye. Since she was as prepared as she was going to get for her exams this Friday with the Princess, she’d been wasting time watching old documentaries on the history of the Everfree Forest.

She’d already read everything she owned. Again.

You could always go see your parents…

“Nope!” Sunset shouted. “Not happening!”

They’d help you!

“I don’t need any help. At least, not any help they would give me! Now go away!” With that, she shoved the angry little pony into a cage at the back of her mind.

Sunset looked up and stared at her reflection in the hourglass.

“Dammit. Moon Dancer’s been gone for just a little while, and I’m already talking to myself.”

Uh, you’ve been talking to yourself since halfway through finals week.

Didn’t I just lock you up? Sunset demanded.

Yeah, haven’t you figured out yet that you aren’t getting rid of me? You should be happy. It means that you aren’t really alone!

She buried her head in her pillow and let out a little scream. It helped. A little.

Garnet flipped a ten-bit piece to the carriage driver, a dark grey hulking mass of a stallion that looked like he had some yak blood in him. The stallion caught it in his teeth, bit down hard for a moment, then the bit vanished faster than any unicorn magic she’d ever seen. There was a glint in the stallion’s eye as he looked down at her. Instinctively, Garnet pulled her hooded cloak around her.

“Anything else, young miss?” the stallion rumbled.

She steeled herself. She wasn’t some cowering peasant. She was a sorceress, gifted in the ability to guide the Wild Magic of the world. “Another ten-bit piece if you forget you ever saw me. And if it is wasted, I will know.”

The stallion considered her for a moment before a grin broke out on his muzzle. Pearly-white teeth shone in the mist-shrouded torchlight outside the gate house of Elderfields.

“Done, young miss. Ain’t nobody to tell, anyhow. This far out, nopony cares where yer from or where ye be headin’.”

“Then it’s a simple promise to keep,” Garnet said as she threw him another piece. This vanished even faster than the first. “And considering what I paid you up front… I think I’ve given all I owed.”

“And then some, young miss. I’ll leave ya to yer business now. Ain’t plannin’ on stayin’ in this Goddess-forsaken land a moment longer than I got to.”

Garnet didn’t say anything. She just shrugged and turned toward the gatehouse. In few moments, she heard the creak of wheels and the pounding of hooves as her transportation left her behind.

As the chill began to seep through her cloak, she tightened it around herself and approached the gate guard. He was the typical fare. A bunch of metal pieces strapped to various parts of his body, a spear and an expression that showed how little he cared about anything.

“I request passage,” Garnet said curtly.

“Wait ‘till dawn,” the guard snapped. “Too much trouble to open the gates this late at night, just for a little slip of a mare.”

“I’ve come to help with your lost bards,” Garnet snapped. “I do not seek to cause trouble in your town, only to meet with others and depart in all haste.”

The guard lifted his helmet and stared at her for a moment.

“You?” he laughed. “And what’s a little runt like you going to do? If you haven’t heard, fifty of ‘em are just gone.”

Garnet had had enough. She didn’t have much dignity left, but it wasn’t all dead. She spoke a word and in an instant, a gout of flame appeared between them. The guard staggered backward as Eoana took her flame-wreathed form and let out a loud screech in his face. Then, with a few gentle flaps of the disguised hawk’s wings, Eoana perched herself on Garnet’s back.

“Any other foalish questions?”

“No, ma’am!” the guard squeaked as he turned and pounded on the gate. “Open the gates and be quick about it!”

There must have been something in his voice, because nopony protested on the other side. Instead, Garnet heard the sound of cranking gears and stretching rope as the gate of Elderfields opened before her.

“Thank you ever so much for your time,” Garnet said in her sweetest voice, before turning, snapping her tail at his nose and marching into the slumbering village.

Eoana let out another screech as the gate began to close.

Sunset caught herself staring at the bookshelf again when a faint buzzing from somewhere beneath the mess of her desk yanked her back to the real world. With a flare of magic, Sunset floated over the journal emblazoned with her cutie mark out from under a mass of alembics and test tubes. It hummed, sending waves of bright pink light shining through the dusty air.

I’ve got to clean up in here. Later.

The buzzing and glowing stopped as Sunset opened the book and found Celestia’s gentle script tracing itself over the pages of her journal.

Dearest Sunset,

I’m afraid I will need to cancel the rest of the week’s lessons. There’s been an incursion by a rogue dragon into griffon lands and the Griffon Ambassador has requested my direct intervention in the matter. I doubt it will take much longer than a week. I have had prior dealings with this dragon, and the most difficult part will be finding her. After that, I expect things will go quite smoothly. After all, dragons respect strength above all else, and you of all ponies know what I am capable of.

Sunset smirked a little. After the incident with the visiting nobility from—ironically—the Griffish Isles from a few days ago, Sunset had a new respect for the Princess’s diplomatic skills. Especially the skills that didn’t use words.

I am truly sorry. I know you are missing Moon Dancer. I would have you accompany me, but the journey is quite long and I will be doing a great deal of flying. Still, I am certain you will find some way to occupy your time. I would recommend simply allowing yourself to be open to whatever opportunities present themselves.

You may be surprised what unexpected events can teach you.

Yours truly,

Princess Celestia.

Sunset tossed the book on the floor with a groan and buried her head in the pillow again.

“Stupid dragon,” Sunset growled. “Ruining my week by stealing the Princess. What in Tartarus am I supposed to do now?”

As if in response, somepony knocked on her door.

Sunset blinked in surprise. After a moment’s consideration, she narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the journal.

“This is your doing, isn’t it?” Sunset asked the journal. The journal didn’t respond, but Sunset could have sworn it looked smug.

As much as an inanimate object that had no physical similarity to a pony could look smug.

With a sigh, she trotted through the accumulated junk and headed down into the foyer as a hoof eagerly pounded on her front door again.

Night had settled into Elderfields like an unwanted houseguest. A cloying mist stuck to the streets, seeping up from the thick river that wandered through the heart of the village. Shadows darted left and right through the fog, but Garnet Dawn paid them little heed. Despite the doubts nibbling on her mind, there was no reason anypony would look for her here. Even then, she knew this was a bad idea when she turned a corner and saw her destination.

Garnet stared at the grubby tavern with a frown.

Why do bounties that involve others always start in a tavern anyway? What was with that? There were other places ponies could meet, even in a dinky little village like Elderfields. Libraries! Cafes! Meeting Houses!

“This is a bad idea,” the unicorn muttered to herself. “This is such a stupidly bad idea.”

A part of her just wanted to continue through the town and disappear into the Badlands. It was only a small part, but it was loud in her mind.

Still, she trotted forward and pointedly ignored the stares of the townsponies around her. This was probably her last chance to clear her name and not end her days as some strange hermit living… well, living in the Badlands, most likely.

She threw up her hood and made sure her face was sufficiently in shadow. After all, even if this was a bad idea, making a proper entrance was always a good idea.

Sunset froze a second before pulling open the door when she heard the cry from outside.

“What?! Why?!”

She knew the voice, but couldn’t quite place it. However, she did recognize the next voice.

“Short answer, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Sunset threw open the door and stared at the grinning face of the blue unicorn with a white and navy mane and tail. It was hard not to stare at her, because she was filling up the entire space where her door had been mere seconds before.

“Yowza, Sunny, nice place you got here!” Minuette chirped. “Being the personal student of the Princess sure has perks!”

“What—” Sunset tried, but Minuette ran right over her.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I brought a couple friends over. Trust me, we promise to make the day much more interesting.”

Sunset finally rallied.

“One: don’t call me Sunny,” Sunset stated in a voice that could have carved stone. “Two: who’s ‘we?’”

Minuette scooted out of the way to reveal an ivory-coated unicorn with a pink mane and tail. It took only a moment for Sunset to recognize her from Professor Polish’s class.

“Twinkleshine?” Sunset asked, shaking her head. “I don’t—”

“Oh, stop hiding!” Minuette said as she glanced at one of the tall hedges around Sunset’s home. “Come on out, silly!”

Sunset froze again as a third unicorn appeared. She had yellow coat, a light blue mane and a matching light blue tail. And she was glaring daggers at Sunset. If looks could kill, this one would have leveled several towns.

“You remember Lemon Hearts, right?” Minuette said from a few feet and a few hundred miles away.

“It’s nothing personal,” Sunset said with the smallest of smiles. “It’s simply what’s necessary. I have a destiny, Lemon Hearts. You just got underhoof.”

“H-how could you… after… I just…” The sobbing pony stared at her, tears streaming from her raspberry eyes. “After… we… you just used me… you knew and you used him against me…”

“Yes. I did.” Sunset shrugged. “It’s how the game is played. If it’s any consolation… take this as another lesson, Lemon Hearts. A lesson in the proper application of power.”

Sunset walked out of the room, leaving the sobbing pony behind. The small smile never faded from her muzzle.

“Yeah,” Sunset murmured. “I remember.”

“How nice.” Lemon Heart’s voice dripped acid. “Minuette, I did not agree to this.”

“You agreed to play O&O with us in exchange for double your usual order of apple turnovers.”

“You didn’t say anything about her!” Lemon Hearts stabbed a hoof at Sunset.

Sunset flinched.

A year ago, you wouldn’t have.

“I’m sorry,” Sunset said quickly as she moved to close the door. “But I’m very busy today. You’ll need to come back… um… well, never.”

Before she could get the door closed, Minuette got a hoof in. Her smile never faded.

“I’m sorry, Sunny.” Sunset twitched again. “But I’m under royal orders from the Princess herself. I am sworn to a sacred duty that I cannot… nay, will not shirk!”

Minuette looked up to something Sunset couldn’t see.

“What are you looking at?” Sunset grumbled.

Melodrama!” Minuette proclaimed. “But never mind! What matters is we are here on a mission of utmost importance. And I am under instructions from Princess Celestia that I am to use any and all means—and ponies—” She smiled at Lemon Hearts. “I deem fit in the execution of my duties!”

Sunset had a really bad feeling about this.

“And just… what are these ‘royal duties?’”

“Why, to cheer you up, of course!” Minuette chirped. “We’re all here for that!”

Sunset looked at Twinkleshine, who just shrugged noncommittally. Lemon Hearts on the other hoof…

Lemon Hearts turned her blistering glare towards Minuette.

“You’re crazy,” Sunset said.

“You’re not the first pony to call me that!” Minuette said happily, her grin never faltering.

“Won’t be the last either,” Lemon Hearts muttered.

“Minuette, this isn’t a good time, I’m in the middle of—”

“—Being interrupted by your friends!”

“‘Friends?’” Lemon Hearts stage-whispered to Twinkleshine. “I don’t think so.”

Twinkleshine shrugged again.

“You can’t just canter in here and—”

“When I got an official letter from the Princess, I can!” Minuette said as she revealed a scroll with a broken seal bearing the Solar Sigil. “Now, are you gonna let us in, or am I going to have to get creative?

Now that sounded ominous.

“There’s no way I’m getting rid of you, is there?”

“Not in a million years.” Minuette said. Not once had her smile faltered.

“Then at least tell me how you intend to cheer me up.”

“Easy!” Minuette said in that sugary chirp Sunset was really beginning to hate. With a flash of magic, she pulled a book out from one of her bulging saddlebags and showed it to Sunset.

On the top of the book depicting a massive hydra was the title Ogres and Oubliettes. Across the middle of the cover were the words Bards of the Badlands.

“You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

Minuette shook her head. “Nope!”

“And the Princess ordered you to do it?”


“Ordered you?”


Sunset sighed. She could have demanded to see the letter, but there wasn’t much point. Minuette didn’t seem the type to pull something like this on her own. And this had Celestia’s hoofprints all over it. The specter of Moon Dancer loomed over this little invasion, too.

For just a moment, Sunset felt her mask slip.

Moon Dancer got Princess Celestia to send Minuette here just to cheer me up?

“Oh… fine!” Sunset finally shouted. “Get in here.”

“Trust me, Sunny—” Twitch. “You’re going to love this! I’ve got an epic adventure planned for us.”

Sunset moved aside and Minuette pranced through the door. Twinkleshine wandered through at a leisurely stroll and rolled her eyes at Minuette. Lemon Hearts didn’t even bother looking at her. It was just as well. Sunset was pretty sure that glare could vaporize at close range.

Princess Celestia and my only friend are conspiring against me.

I’m doomed.

Author's Notes:

I’m doomed.

Low R2D2 whistle - Ebon Quill

Pretty much sums it up, eh? :twilightsmile:

If you come across any errors, please let me know by PM!

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