Echoing Silence

She was only trying to help.
In a flash of light following her biggest mistake, Twilight Sparkle is banished to the Dusklands, a vast amount of wasteland outside the borders of the kingdom of Equestria. Here, the only thing the sisters control is the time of day and Twilight is left to defend herself in the barren lands that her most trusted ally exiled her to. After finding a city in such lands, Twilight worked hard to make a place for herself within it's walls, but when her past comes to find her, she finds it difficult to look at it the same way she did all those years ago. With the threat of war on the horizon for Twilight's new home and an old enemy returning to destroy the harmony of Equestria, Twilight will have to choose where her loyalties lie.
But just how far is she willing to go in order to save the ones she loves the most?

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6. Five

               “A little more to the left. A little bit back to the right. Just a step more…There!”

         Diadem smiled up at the dragon twins hanging the banner. She had brought her team to the surface to help with the last bit of decorations for the Viridian Harvest. Diadem smiled as Sapphire flittered down and swooped over to the group of Den members beading necklaces and jewelry for the ceremony while Emerald darted off to light some torches. Diadem examined the grounds of the square with pride as she smiled, knowing that the evening would bring them peace for the next few months until the autumn winds bring the cold harsh weather of winter. The confrontation from earlier with the foreigners was nearly forgotten as she immersed herself into the therapy of the final touches for the festival.

         “Diadem, are you not ready for the festival?”

         Turning, the Princess of the Den found Pyrros, a friend of Nereus, watching her with a knowing smile. He wore a crimson silk ceremonial robe with gems woven around the neck. The robe tied off at the stomach with a thick sash of blazing orange. The robes matched up almost perfectly with Pyrros’ deep red scales and bronze hair. The Den’s emblem held the ensemble together, made from silver found in the city’s caves. Diadem gave her father’s friend a bow.

         “Just finishing up the last bit of the decorating, Pyrros,” replied Diadem.

         “It’s almost time and you should be getting ready, young one. Your father is going to want to see you wear your new headdress. I’ll take over any last minute details,” said Pyrros as he glanced over his shoulder at her with a wink.  

         “Thank you,” she replied with another short bow before racing off into the Den’s tunnels. Twisting and turning, Diadem made her way through the underground labyrinth until she got close to her chambers.

         As she approached her room, she slowed to a trot when she heard a couple of female voices nearby. Rounding the corner, she found a few of the elk and ki’rin females awaiting her return. A small groan escaped her, but it caught their attention.

         “Princess Dia!” they chorused.

         “Ladies, is there a reason why you are all standing outside of my bedroom?” she asked with a sigh.

         “Oh, please, my Lady. You know exactly why we are here,” replied Sable, one of the elk maids, as she stepped forward.

         “This…is completely unnecessary?” Diadem tried with a false grin.

         “That it isn’t,” sang Sable as she snatched up the pony and entered the bedroom with her entourage.

         “Ack! Sable, please!” Diadem tried a bit panicked as she watched the group begin to pull out various articles of clothing and jewelry.

         Two other maids smiled as they pushed the princess into a basin full of warm water. A surprised scream escaped her as she tumbled in, spluttering out water as she surfaced for air.

         “Girls! I can bathe myself!” she protested.

         “But not with enough time to fix your mane, dress and get up there. Your father specifically asked us to help you get ready,” Sable declared with a pointed glanced.

         “But—”

         “He said something like, ‘She will require assistance to get ready. She has a tendency to forget the time when preparing for celebrations.’ And I couldn’t tell him no, since we all know how you get come festival time.”

         The group murmured their agreement as herbal concoctions of shampoo were applied to her mane and tail.

         “B-But I could have made it—”

         “You would have had a fit if you were late, wouldn’t you?” Sable asked as a ki’rin maid used her magic to massage the concoction into Diadem’s hair. “Remember the time with the checklist?”

         With a defeated groan, Diadem pressed her hooves to her cheek. “Okay, okay! I get it. Just...nothing crazy please?”

         “Oh Princess, we aren’t following your orders tonight, but your Father’s.” The maid giggled while her companions began to scrub the pony down, “You can thank him when we’re done.”

         It felt like an eternity before Diadem was released from the clutches of her father’s hoofmaids. Sable, the head maid, pushed a mirror in front of the princess and she gasped at the pony in her reflection. Her mane had been trimmed and combed after the thorough washing, and it now curled inward at her chin. The ringlets framed her face and her tail was combed straight until the tip where it curved upwards. Her coat shined brilliantly and the streaks in her mane practically glistened in the torch light. The hoofmaids put her in a brilliant garb of gold with deep eggplant colored wraps for her hind legs with a golden trim at the hooves. A brilliant scarlet layered skirt with round, gold bells at the trim, wrapped around her midsection. The vest was a dark indigo with lighter circle designs with a golden yellow wrap at the stomach with two small, round pouches. A golden orange sheer cloth with citrine woven into the fabric was wrapped around her combed and curled mane, and the maids adorned her horn and ears with golden jewelry. The same indigo fabric was at the end of the scarlet skirt with the golden fabric swooping down from it pass her tail dotted with the citrine gems with a deep gold border of half circles.

         Diadem stared at her reflection with an open mouth, her pupils nearly dilating to pinpricks at the transformation. She had dressed up in her usual field attire to attend the festivals in the past because she never wanted to draw a lot of attention to herself. Now, she looked like a proper princess. Her cheeks burned in chagrin and she stumbled backwards.

         “Oh dear! Are you alright?” Sable asked, dipping her head to catch the princess and push her back onto her hooves.

         “Y-Yeah… I… I just…”

         A few giggles escaped the remaining girls.

         “Surprised?” Sable laughed as she moved to stand beside Diadem. “It suits you, Princess.”

         “Please Sable. You know I don’t—”

         Sable tsked at the Princess and nudged her towards the door. “I know you dislike the title, dear. It’ll be fine.”

         She was being nudged towards the door and dug her hooves into the floor. “Sable. Please. I really don’t think that—”

         The argument died on her tongue as her eyes fell upon the ornament her father had especially made for her sitting upon its makeshift shelf. Her hooves dug harder into the stone.

         “W-Wait!” she yelped.

         Diadem ducked away from her appointed hoofmaid and trotted over to the silver headpiece with its slender V-shaped front that widened to the sides and transitioned into sweeping curves, encrusted with multiple crystals that gave a dull twinkle compared to the sapphire which was hovering over the upturned crescent moon at the center.

         “I… I’ll go up in this and I won’t argue,” she promised. “Not that you’d take no for an answer, but I want to wear this headpiece instead.”

         “The silver?” a younger elk piped. “But you’re in gold.”

         “Father had it made for the festival and—"

         Before she could finish her statement, the head hoofmaid began to undo the jewelry upon her horn and forehead, and discarded it on the cot. She picked up the tiara and began to effortlessly set it beneath the golden wrap on the pony’s head and wrapped some of her neat mane around the ends with her hoof. When she stepped back, the gold jewelry was gone replaced by the silver crown.

         “There.” Sable nodded. “Your father should have said he was making something silver. I would have had the attire match.”

         Diadem chuckled. “It’s almost time. We should get to the surface.”

         Sable bowed her head. “After you, princess.”

         Diadem was choked by a sigh of annoyance.

         As she emerged from the tunnels with the hoofmaids at her side, it was dusk. The torches in the center were all lit, brightening the area with a flickering orange glow. The entourage dispersed into the crowd, finding their loved ones as Sable stepped to her side with a smile. The hoofmaid had jumped her in the corridor too fast that Diadem failed to register the beautiful deep earth green gown she wore with gold trimmings and embroidery. The two smiled at one another as they broke through the crowd to the tables where Diadem’s team clowned around. As the two approached, Cedar Evergreen turned and a bright smile broke out on his face.

         “Dia,” he greeted her with a small chortle before he turned to her companion. “Sable, my love. I was wondering where you had run off to.”

         The hoofmaid smiled. “Well our dear old friend asked me to assist the Princess.”

         Diadem’s face heated up.

         “The Princess is late.” Steel Forge grinned. “Yer pops is lookin’ fer ya’.”

         Diadem gave him a stern glare. “I’ve told you guys. It’s not Princess.”

         “Aw, c’mon Dia!” Sapphire whined with a pout. “At least embrace it for the festival!”

         “Saph’s right.” Emerald spoke through a mouth full of gems. “Ya’ know that everyone else is gonna call you that.”

         Diadem groaned. “I know.”

         Sable giggled and kissed her husband. “Where is Fir?”

         “Delilah was watching him and Rosemary,” Cedar replied leaning over and nuzzling his wife. “Should we go get him?”

         “Yes. Before Nereus starts.” Sable replied before bowing to Diadem once more. “Enjoy the festival, Princess.”

         Diadem huffed and rolled her eyes with a smile. “I will.”

         As the couple left, Diadem turned to see the rest of her team eyeing her as if seeing her for the first time. Again, her face burned.

         She was beginning to hate that feeling.

         “What?” she finally spit out.

         “You look great!” Sapphire chirped while Emerald hummed his agreement through his full mouth.

         “Ya’ clean up well, kid.” Forge added.

         “Thank you.” Diadem said.

         “And who might this be?” came a chortle from behind Diadem chortle.

         Diadem turned a bit surprised. Behind her stood Nereus in a robe of deep midnight blue with a silver sash and beside him was the changeling queen. Atynis’ wing was wrapped, signs of the nurses fixing up the injury she had sustained from the orange pony’s kick. Diadem pushed the name of the apple farmer out of her mind as she bowed to the Queen.

         “I see Sable has gotten to you,” he said with a fanged smile. “You look beautiful, Dia.”

         “Thank you,” blushed the Princess. “Greetings, Queen Atynis.”

         “Atynis is fine.” The changeling queen interrupted. “Titles mean nothing inside of a… family… now is it?”  

         The hesitant tone told her that the Queen was uneasy about the statement and the changelings that Diadem could see in the throng of creatures looked shy and… apprehensive about where they were. She gave them a warm smile.

         “Atynis. I’m glad to see your wound was taken care of.”

         “Enough talk of the events of today. We’re here to celebrate and I must begin the festivities,” Nereus said with a smile. “I trust that you both will enjoy yourselves.”

         “Of course father,” Diadem replied with a smile filled with love for her beloved father.

         “I shall await your return,” Atynis stated.

         As the ki’rin left them, he ambled to the raised platform in the middle of the center. He stood tall and proud upon the wooden stage with a stoic expression as the laughter and chatter calmed into silence. He scanned the crowd. Astral was with Lavender, the two standing near the injured and weak, which was only a few feet from the group of ponies that were brought in that morning. He could see the changelings immerse in the crowd as if they had belonged there and he almost broke out into a proud grin, but the Den’s Lord cleared his throat instead.

         “Everyone! Welcome to this year’s Viridian Harvest,” he stated. His voice boomed in the silence and echoed against the stone walls that made up the homes on the surface.  He had captured the attention of his subjects. “We are here to celebrate another successful harvest.”

         A few cheers and whoops escaped some of the onlookers. “I am delighted to celebrate this evening with you all, but there are a few announcements that must be made. As most of you are well aware, I sent our best team out on a rescue mission and they returned successful. As of today, we welcome a new group into our city.”

         Diadem smiled and motioned for Atynis to step forward as Nereus continued. “Today marks the day that the Den opens its tunnels to the Anistera Hive. Welcome the hive with open hooves and with open hearts.”  

         The crowd roared. Elated cheers rang in the clearing and Diadem felt a lump in her throat as Nereus motioned Atynis up to the makeshift stage. The queen gracefully made her way up the scaffold and bowed to the crowd.

         “I thank you all for everything you have done for my children today. We are now in your debt, and shall care for you as we do each other,” Atynis stated as she turned to Nereus.

         “I also wish to welcome back one of our own,” The Ki’rin continued. “My son, Astral Mace, has returned.”

         The stallion gave a sheepish grin as he stepped through the mass. He did not jump up onto the podium, but found his way to Diadem and nuzzled her as some of the citizen’s cheered for him as well.

         “And I would also like to congratulate a dear friend of mine.” He pressed on. “My dear friend Cedar and his wife Sable are expecting once again.”

         Diadem could not contain herself at the sudden news as Sable and Cedar emerged from the throng with their son Fir. Diadem practically bounced over to them and slammed into Sable with a shout, laughing as she hugged her tightly. Astral Mace followed with the rest of the team and they congratulated the couple as Nereus concluded the announcements.

         “With this, I leave the festival in your claws and hooves. Enjoy this evening! To another great and successful harvest!”

         As Nereus concluded his small speech, the crowd roared with excitement. He stepped down from the platform with the Changeling Queen at his heels and as he made his way to his daughter’s team, he could only grin.

         “Congratulations, Cedar, Sable,” he said with a knowing smirk. “I am happy for you, my dear friends.”

         “B-but, my Lord!” Sable exclaimed with a deep blush. “We hadn’t said a word!”

         Nereus chuckled. “It’s not unnoticeable to the Lord of this Den. You both have glowed these past few days with an excitement that only comes with that of a coming calf.”  

         Diadem smiled and stepped away, the twin drakes following her. “Go. Enjoy yourselves,” she said. “We’ve all earned some relaxation.”

         The dragon twins gave her wide, fanged grins before hoping in the air and flying off. The pony mingled in the crowd, introducing herself to some of the changeling additions to the Den and indulged in idle chatter among other members of the clan. She was not unaware of the five mares off to the side, but she intentionally passed them by as she held conversations. She had told Nereus that she would enjoy herself and she was intending to do just that.

        

*

 

         “What’s with leaders and speeches?”

         Rainbow Dash’s inquiry went undetected by the surrounding population as the group erupted into cheers. They had yet to see Twilight in the throng of creatures and each one of them were hesitant to immerse themselves into the mass with changelings freely roaming about. Applejack growled at the queen as she stepped up beside the Ki’rin leader and huffed.

         “I bet she’s got her nasty hooves into him,” she spat.

         “Applejack!” Rarity admonished. “That is quite enough. If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all.”

         The apple farmer growled, but kept silent. Fluttershy flittered up and gasped. “Look girls! There’s Twilight!”

         The five mares turned to see the pony engaged in conversation with a group of changelings. She bowed her head as she spoke with them and Applejack’s stomach knotted almost painfully. She did not like the bugs, but they looked harmless. Even Twilight was talking to them and she was the one who was wronged worse by them. Rarity cleared her throat, breaking Applejack out of her thoughts.

         “Well, we see that she’s talking to some of the citizens and with such a lovely outfit on, I can understand why everyone is vying for her attention. We should start mingling.”

         “Mingling?” Applejack deadpanned.

         “Yes. We should go mingle with the crowd. We can start asking questions and find a way to talk to Twilight,” Rarity replied, scanning the crowd. “Does everypony remember the plan?”

         “Yeah.” They chorused.

         “Good. Then let’s get moving girls.”

         The five mares separated and blended into the crowd, avoiding the changelings at every turn. Rarity and Fluttershy tiptoed towards the booming laughter that was the Den’s leader until they were in the small circle. Rarity gulped as Fluttershy hid behind her, both nervous as they watched the changeling queen interact with the group of creatures. It was not until Atynis turned that she saw the two ponies watching her. Rarity seized the opportunity to speak.

         “Your majesty,” she said with a small nod, “I wanted to apologize for my friend’s boorish behavior. I assure you that she is not normally so… ill tempered.”

         Nereus turned to the two ponies as the group began to break, citizens and friends moving on to other conversations and discussions. He eyed the white unicorn and yellow pegasus with curiosity in his goldenrod yellow eyes, interested in seeing just what exactly would unfold with the three. However, he could not quite hide the tension in his jaw, for the Queen was still injured.

         “I must have startled you and your friends.” Atynis said with a smile. “I understand that our reputation with your kind is not favorable.”

         “Yes, well. Especially recently,” Rarity admitted. “Our home was attacked by changelings a few years ago…the cities were almost left in ruins.”

         Atynis’ seafoam green eyes widened. An attack on ponykind? She opened her mouth to reply when Nereus stepped in.

         “Be that as it may, you all judged a large group based on the actions of one.” The ki’rin retorted.

         “Oh, but, it wasn’t just one…It was like an army,” Fluttershy replied, twiddling her hooves as she hid behind her friend and mane. “T-They…”

         “Hush now, darling.” Rarity replied as she hugged her friend. “It’s quite all right. We understand that what we’ve done nearly cost you all your way of life and we’re relieved that it didn’t. I am being completely sincere when I say that we will make sure our Princesses know that there are more hives out there then Chrysalis’.”

         Atynis snorted ad frowned. “Chrysalis? That manipulative wretch managed to organize a full scale invasion? If what you say is true...”

         The ponies stared at the Changeling Queen with surprise. “Is she not liked amongst your hive?” Rarity asked.

         “She’s a tyrant,” growled the queen. “A Queen whose vision and appetite are far above her station in life. Is this the kind of image you have of the changelings? This one of Chrysalis?”

         “Well…yes.” Rarity replied with a bit of hesitation.

         “Then you know nothing of us,” Atynis huffed. “Changelings are a noble race, industrious and diverse.”

         “I-I am indeed sorry, but you must realize that we were attacked, we were jaded to any other truth that might have been present,” Rarity replied. “Chrysalis’ horde was the first time many ponies in Equestria had seen a changeling.”

         “Rarity…” Fluttershy whispered.

         “I understand,” Said Atynis with a small frown. “It is shameful for our culture to first be represented as such. But anyone should be able to tell Chrysalis from those she impersonates. Her transformations are very well down, but she does not study their personalities, making her easy to detect by a keen eye, and a wise heart.”

         Rarity opened her mouth, ready to give a haughty reply, when the queen’s words registered. She took offense, but closed her mouth. There was something that she had forgotten about in the past few years that slammed into her at that very moment. Somepony had seen through the disguise. Somepony had tried to save them all.

         And they ignored her.

         Fluttershy gave a whimpered cry as she saw Rarity’s mortified expression. It seemed that the unicorn had finally caught up to what Fluttershy had figured out earlier. There was a reason Twilight resented their mere existence, but Fluttershy did not have the courage to open her mouth and tell her friends.

         Tell them that it was all their fault.

 

*

 

         Rainbow Dash refused to brush against a single changeling. They were nothing but trouble in her book, so she flitted above the crowd and scanned it for the stallion that had come into the infirmary with Twilight. It should not have been hard to find him since he was one of the only two ponies she has seen so far. Her magenta eyes scanned the crowd until she found the crimson and black mane that belonged to the pony. She flew down and landed beside the stallion and cleared her throat.

         Astral Mace turned. The cyan pegasus stood there and acted cool as she brushed her hoof off. He scoffed and turned to walk away. Rainbow Dash gaped at his snuff and cleared her throat a bit louder. She flittered in front of him and dropped to the ground.

         “AH-HEM!” she practically screeched in his face.

         “What do you want?” Astral snapped.

         Rainbow Dash pulled back a bit and gave him a cool smile. “I just wanted to talk. Not often that I find a pegasus not a part of a weather team, let alone outside of Equestria. I just wanted to strike up some talk, wondering a bit where you came from to end up out here.”

         Astral Mace stopped, hoof poised to take a step when the question reached his ears. He glanced at the pegasus over his shoulder and sighed as he turned to her. “The name’s Astral Mace,” he said, sticking his hoof back out to her.

         “Rainbow Dash,” she said as she bumped the hoof.

         “I’ve been here as long as I could remember, Rainbow Dash,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, either.”

         Inside, Rainbow Dash was cheering. It was a long shot to think that the stallion would even give her the time of day, but he answered her. That was enough.

         “So, like, you don’t even know if you’re from here?” she asked him.

         Astral took a seat at one of the less occupied tables with a sigh. “Nope. Apparently my birth family came from the North. From a place that ponies live and they call this land the Badlands.”

         “You’re talking about Equestria!” Rainbow Dash told him. “That’s where we’re from. Twilight, too.”

         Astral’s demeanor clouded at the sound of that name. “Her name is Diadem.”

         “Yeah, yeah.” Rainbow said as she waved a hoof and hovered over him. “Why did your folks come all the way out here?”  

         Astral went silent and Rainbow Dash thought that he didn’t hear her, but before she could repeat herself, the stallion gave a sigh. “They didn’t.”

         “Huh?” Rainbow looked at him confused. “But, then, how did you end up here?”

         Astral ground his teeth as he turned to the pony. “My sister. I… never knew my parents.”

         The admission halted Rainbow in mid hover and she landed beside the stallion with a frown. “You…didn’t?”

         A curt laugh escaped him. “I don’t even know about this…Equestria, but if its anything like Dia’s said, I’m glad I ended up here.”

         “What’d she—” Rainbow tried.

         “My sister said that our parents died when a riot broke out in our city. Some place called Dodge City or somethin’,” He continued with an unfocused gaze, as if he were seeing something far off.

         “Dodge Junction?” Rainbow Dash said with wide eyes.

         “That’s it.” The stallion nodded. “Apparently there was some civil conflict going on and our house was one of the first to be broken into. She said that she saw the rioters grab our parents, yelling about how they’d make some mayor listen and...”

         The words had been burned into his mind since he was a young colt. The wounds that his sister had suffered, the times that he asked about them, and all of the crying she did every time he tried to call her ‘mom’ while growing up. He faltered, but the cyan pegasus leaned towards him with a small frown, waiting. He pressed on.

         “She said that she grabbed me from the nursery when she heard our father scream. Took me right out of the back, into the swamp behind the house, but…she saw our parents being dragged out of the house and she said that the rioters killed them.”

         The sounds of the festival returned to him as he pushed the image of his sister’s crying face out of his mind.

         “Wh-what happened to your sister?” Rainbow Dash finally asked. “I mean…I’ve only seen two ponies in the crowd you and—”

         “She died,” he stated as he got to his hooves. “Seven years ago.”

         Rainbow went quiet. She knew she needed to ask about Twilight, but it felt wrong. He just told her that his sister, who saved his life, died. “I’m… I’m sorry.”

         Astral nodded. “So am I. But death is something that you get accustomed to out here. You miss those that you lose, both in life and death. The best we can do, is live up to something they’d be proud of.”

         “So…you’re alone?” she asked.

         Astral shook his head. “Nah. This place, the Den, is home. We’re all family here. We may not all look alike, certainly don’t share the same blood, but family is more than blood, its trust and love.”

         Rainbow nodded. “Yeah, but, T-Diadem’s family is in Equestria. They miss her. We miss her.”

         “You should have held onto her then,” replied Astral. “She’s something special, and this is her home now, too. Just like mine.”

         “Whatever!” Rainbow sighed. “Look, I get it. You think this place is home, but her home is Equestria and we need her to listen to us!”

         Astral Mace felt a sudden heat rush through him. An anger pulsed through him for a moment before he turned away from the mare with a glare. “Then you’re shit out of luck.” He said as he walked off.

         Rainbow Dash’s mouth fell open. No one ever spoke to the awesome Rainbow Dash like that! She jumped into the air and landed in front of the stallion again.

         “No way! You and Twilight—”

         Astral snorted and shoved Rainbow aside. “There is no one here by that name. I suggest you quit it and get lost.”

         Rainbow growled as Astral brushed by her. “HEY!”

         He paused for just a moment to look over his shoulder. “I said get lost.”

         Rainbow Dash went to follow, but the stallion moved into the company of a group of changelings. She grimaced and flew off to sulk and wait for another chance to talk to the stallion.

 

*

 

         Applejack groaned.

         She and Pinkie Pie had started to talk to the towns…creatures, but they were getting no answers. Most of them did not know of a Twilight Sparkle and the few who did walked away with a deep glare. She was getting tired of dodging the changeling bugs and getting no answers. Pinkie Pie, on the other hand, continued to bounce around and try to make friends with the creatures that inhabited the city as they laughed and danced. It was irksome how they were not a single step closer to figuring out what was wrong with Twilight so that they could talk to her.

         Ugh! Applejack inwardly groaned as Pinkie Pie began more of her antics, this time with a couple of kids.

         Applejack moved to a different group, one without a changeling, and was about to open her mouth to say something when their conversation caught her attention.

         “You have to make sure that the soil is saturated.” An elk said, laughing at a boar.

         “No shit?” grumbling the boar.

         “I’m sorry,” said the elk, letting out another laugh. “But you know that you have to ask Nereus or the Princess for water.”

         Ask for water? Applejack thought, stepping into the group. Now why wouldja need to ask for water?

         “Remind me to do that later.” The boar huffed.

         “Ya’ll tryin’ to plant something?”

         Her sudden appearance gave the group pause. They gave the pony a weary glance before the boar nodded.

         “Been tryin’ my hand at farmin’.” He said. “But it ain’t easy out here.”

         “Farming’s easy anywhere.” Applejack corrected with a smile. “The name’s Applejack. Ah’m an apple farmer, mahself.”

         The creatures in the group turned to look at one another, unsure of what an apple was. Applejack gave them all an incredulous stare.

         “Yer kiddin’! Ya’ll ain’t ever had an apple?” she asked.

         “Never heard of it,” the same boar replied with a shrug.

         “An apple is a delicious piece of fruit that grows from trees! It looks like this!” Applejack said, pointing to her apple cutiemark.

         “We ain’t got those,” Another clan member said. “You’d hafta be blind to not see that trees ain’t normal out here.”

         Applejack’s ears flattened. “How do ya’ll get food?”

         “We trade,” an elk replied as if it were the simplest statement.  

         Applejack scowled. “Uhh, Ah don’t understand.”

         “We trade food here. Those of us that are good with crops handle them, distributing them around when trades or the festivals take place, but the main place for trading lies deeper into the wastes, but that’s only once in a while.”

         Applejack went to comment, but the buzzing that came from behind her gave her pause. With a quick goodbye, she removed herself from the group and glared at the changeling that had come up behind her. She met up with Pinkie Pie before making her way back through the crowd. Thoughts swirled in her mind about the lack of food this place surely had, yet they seemed to be happy and even invited a whole changeling hive to live with them! How were they managing it?

         The pink party pony bounced around a few more partygoers as Applejack was lost in thought. Applejack followed her friend and continued to dodge the bugs that littered the crowd. Even Pinkie Pie made sure to stay away from the changelings even with her naturally perky personality. No one could have ever thought that Pinkie Pie would ever become apprehensive of any pony, but the changelings were understandably the ones that would even freak out a friendly pony like Pinkie. She danced through the crowd, avoiding the insect like creatures until she came to a small group talking. Applejack pushed through the crowd and stepped into the circle with her bouncing friend. One of them, a ki’rin, turned and smiled at them. The two recognized her as the nurse who had patched them up and beside her was the doctor. Applejack felt relief rush through her. She knew that these two were definitely going to have something that they could tell her.

         “Miss Lavender!” Applejack called with a smile. “Woo-wee, am Ah glad to see you!”

         “Well hello again, little ones.” Lavender giggled. “What can I do for you?”

         “Well we’d really, really, really, really, really like it if you could help us with something!” Pinkie Pie chirped as she bounced around the ki’rin nurse.

         “What did you need help with?” she chortled at the pink pony.

         “Well, ya’ see, we have a problem.” Applejack said as she took a seat. “We really need ta’ know what is up with Twilight.”

         Lavender blinked at the orange pony. She knew that they were referring to Lady Diadem, but she was not the only one. Fennel, the elk head doctor who had helped with the foreigners, turned his attention to the ponies with a worried expression.

         “Did you just use…that name?” Fennel asked. His fur was a russet color and his eyes like freshly upturned earth. He wore a frown as he eyed the two ponies. “I do not recommend that.”

         Applejack huffed. “Yea, Ah got the same shtick from Twi. Look, Ah need ta’ know what happened ta’ her. We came all this way to get her help, but she won’t talk to us.”

         Lavender and Fennel exchanged a quick, troubled glance.

         “Little ones, I highly doubt that the Princess will want to talk.” Lavender told the two mares. “She does not take kindly to outsiders.”

         “That’s impossible!” Pinkie Pie chirped as she backflipped from Fennel’s back to her spot beside Applejack. “We’re her bestest friends! The Elements of Harmony! She can’t help but be friends and talk with all of us!”

         “Hold it, Pinkie. Let ‘er talk.” Applejack butted in, stuffing her hoof into Pinkie’s mouth with an exasperated sigh.

         “Lavender is right.” Fennel sighed. “You did not see the Princess upon her arrival. She may be much calmer now, but even Lady Diadem will lose her composure if pushed too far.”

         Applejack stomped her foot. “Ya’ don’t understand! Our home, our families, are at stake here! If we can’t get her to at least listen to us, then all of Equestria will be doomed!”

         Pinkie Pie frowned. “Why wouldn’t Twilight want to be friends with us?”

         “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that your friend is the same mare you girls remember. She is a different pony now.” Lavender said as she shook her head. “She came to us a broken mare and had to rebuild herself. But what happened to her is her own story. Not even we know everything, and we patched her up.”

         Applejack snorted. She was angry. Did they not understand how serious the situation was?

         “But even her family is in danger,” Applejack hissed. “Her brother is out fighting while we search for her! Why can’t ya’ll understand?”

         Lavender and Fennel stepped back. The ki’rin and elk gave the ponies sympathetic frowns and a small grimace. Behind the ponies, Diadem walked up with a glare. She reached earshot at the end of the apple farmer’s outburst and snorted.

         “Understand what?”

         The growl that came from behind them made Applejack and Pinkie Pie turn. Diadem stood there with an aggressive glare as if she were a goddess of war. Her neat mane swayed with each step as she stalked forward, eyeing the two ponies with a snarl before she returned her attention to the medics.

         “Are they bothering you?” she asked as she caught Lavender’s eyes.

         “Not at all. You look lovely, my Lady,” Lavender replied with a genuine smile.

         “Actually, they were looking for you,” Fennel spoke up.

         “That’s no surprise.” Diadem growled. She composed herself enough to turn a small smile to the head doctor. “Sable and Cedar wanted to talk to you, Fennel, if you aren’t busy.”

         “Of course. They must be wanting to discuss plans for their calf. I should go see what they need.”

         Lavender bid the elk farewell as he left. The ki’rin turned to examine the princess and the two ponies. It wasn’t until the pink one jumped up and started to chatter excitedly that Diadem snarled. As Pinkie Pie bounced around her, Diadem reached a hoof out to catch her off guard and the pink pony tumbled to the floor face first.

         “Enough of your antics,” Diadem hissed.

         “What the hay is wrong with ya’?!” Applejack snapped.

         “What’s wrong with me?” asked Dia, her eye twitching. “If you can’t even figure that out yourself, you’ve wasted your time here. Get out.”

         “Twilight Sp—”

         Diadem immediately appeared before Applejack, completely filling in her view with her face, and there was no way the farm pony could mistake the anger in her eyes. “Don’t call me that again,” said Diadem in a calm, unsettling voice. “She’s dead, buried and forgotten. I am Diadem. Call me that sun forsaken name again, and not even the winds will find your ashes.”

         Diadem broke her hold over the other pony and walked away. Slowly counting and taking in a deep breath, just like how Nereus had taught her. She looked back just in time to see the apple farmer stomp her hoof and turned away to return to the crowd. Only Pinkie Pie remained, looking back at Diadem with a longing in her eyes, before turning around and following the other mare back into the crowd.

         Diadem continued her wrathful march. Outside, she seemed stoic. Inside, she was burning.

         Diadem had wanted to just pass them by, but the moment that Applejack started to get agitated, Diadem became defensive of her clan members. She stalked through the mass until she was able to calm down. She glanced up at the moon that was reaching its peak soon and sighed. The festival would last all night if she truly wanted to stick around for it, but with the ponies meddling in her affairs, she wanted to call it quits.

         “Dia!”

         The voice came from her right. With a slight tilt of her chin, Diadem could see Astral Mace making his way to her. She gave him a relieved smile and met him halfway. The two shared a quick embrace.

         Diadem chuckled, some of her anger fading away. “I was wondering what you were up to.”

         “Yeah, well, the foreigners wanted to talk.” He snorted.

         “I’ve noticed.”

         The two laughed at each other. Despite their irritations, the two felt at ease with one another and were able to relax enough to smile.

         “Hey, so, I get a dance this time, right?” Astral Mace asked, holding out a hoof to the unicorn.

         Diadem smiled. “Just this once.”

 
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