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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5. Four

Diadem followed her father and Astral through the tunnels, forcing herself to forget about the five mares in the infirmary. Astral had warned her yet she had deliberately gone in there, expecting a group of travelers from a land far away, but instead it was them. Those five pests that had left her to face her worst fears alone. Nothing could have prepared her for seeing them again, but she knew that a part of her, the angry part, was still dormant. She had been able to keep her killer instincts contained despite holding a knife to Rainbow Dash’s throat and she was glad for that little miracle. Had she completely lost it, she knew that Nereus would have been furious.

“Diadem.”

Nereus called to his daughter, coming to a stop. She had been too quiet since they left the infirmary and he knew that she was losing herself in her mind. He could not have that occurring when they had an entire changeling hive to find. Lives were at stake and he was determined to save as many as possible.

“Yes, father."

“I am sorry. You must have conflicted feelings,” he said with a sigh.

“I …Yes.”

She pushed herself forward, passing her father and Astral. She did not want to remember any more of the painful memories that those five brought forth, but some images lingered. She could hear laughter and see smiles, bright colors and cottages. She shook her head to relieve herself of the memories.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let her go in,” Astral said.

“No. You warned me and I went in anyway. There was no stopping it, I guess,” Diadem replied.

Nereus sighed. “It will be dark in about eight hours. I am sorry to ask, but would you be willing to—”

“DIA!”

Diadem flew back as two bodies collided into her and the three of them tumbled to the ground. The twin drakes were holding her tight, each one hugging her as if they had not seen her in a long time. She squirmed in their hold in an attempt to escape as the rest of her team trotted forward, calling out to her.

“Emerald…Sapphire…” she gasped. “I can’t... breathe.”

“D! You should have waited! I could have explained!” Sapphire cried out, hopping into the air. “You worried the heck out of me!”

“I’m sorry I didn’t,” Diadem replied, getting to her hooves after Emerald removed himself from her.

“Just in time,” Astral commented. “We were just about to go looking for you guys.”

Dia looked down the hallway and smiled as the the other two members of her team came towards them. Steel Forge, the mighty boar, and Cedar Evergreen, the proud elk. Both turned their attention from their squad leader to their clan head, each one waiting for their leader to speak, but Nereus was preoccupied with the smaller pony beside him. Nereus watched Diadem get to her hooves with a sigh and she brushed herself off before Nereus return his attention to the squad.

“Time is short in this matter, my friends. You are to locate Queen Atynis and her hive, and bring them back. I will be sectioning off a part of the tunnels that we do not use for them the moment you depart,” Nereus informed them.

“Why are we looking for a changeling hive?” Forge grunted.

“The hive fled from an attack. They nearly scattered from what Astral saw during the horde’s hasty retreat.” Diadem sighed. “It seems that the ones who ambushed him went for the Hive next.”

Her words silenced her companions. They all were well accustomed to the changeling horde, especially their Queen, and the news disturbed each of them.

“Who is behind this?” Cedar inquired, sliding his curious blue gaze to Astral. “Who was it that attacked you?”

Astral Mace’s expression clouded over. Nereus watched him glance to Diadem before he spat out the answer.

“Hippogriffs.”

Diadem tensed. Her fur stood up on end and she closed her eyes as she began to count backwards, forcing herself to take even breaths. The word sent her senses into overdrive as she recalled the events that had lead her to the Den and into Nereus’ care. A cold, dark cave with the sound of grunting and the drip of water that would never reach her parched throat. Chains that had once held her in place rattled and the once cold metal that had wrapped up her legs were like lead weights. They pinned her to the cold stone floor, her magic gone with lack of nutrition and energy. With magic, she could have easily escaped, but starved and weak left her hopeful of another toss of bread.

Diadem stepped back as she recoiled from the vision of the past. Her stomach churned in disgust and she tasted bile in the back of her throat. Cedar and Forge snarled at the mention of it while the twins regarded their friends with caution. Neither of them had ever seen a hippogriff out in the wastes before and they had no idea where the hostility had come from.

“They aren’t the only ones,” Astral growled. “It seems that the gryphons are helping them.”

“Makes sense,” Cedar grunted. “They’re cousins, after all.”

“Then proceed with caution,” Nereus commanded, his golden eyes glittering dangerously. “Find Queen Atynis and her hive, and bring them back safely.”

Diadem opened her eyes. “Yes, Father.”

“We’ll get them back,” Astral said.

“Oh no you don’t,” Diadem replied with a glare. “You’re injured. You’re staying here.”

“Oh c’mon, Dia,” Astral replied. “They’re small!”

Diadem gave a heated glare as she trotted over to him and pressed a hoof to the base of his left wing. He cringed and shouted as he crumbled to the floor, whimpering.

Small, eh?” she asked him. “Those injuries are serious. If you’re not careful, you won’t be able to fly again.”

The pegasus frowned and turned his head away to pout.

“I could walk.”

“And if we run into an ambush?” Forge asked, stepping over and helping the stallion up.

“What if it's the hippogriffs?” Cedar added. “Then they’ll seek out the weakest link first. An injured member would be their primary target.”

“And you’d be dead for sure!” The twins chirped in unison.

“I get it!” Astral snapped.

“Good,” Diadem replied with a smile as she hugged him. “Then stay and help father.”

Astral’s moody demeanor melted as he hugged her back with a defeated sigh. “I will.”

Diadem pulled back and turned, her visage becoming serious as she spoke to her team. “C’mon, guys. We’ve got a couple of hours and a hive to find.”

 

*

 

“Do you see anything, Saph?”

The blue dragonette shook her head as the two flew ahead of their friends, scanning the wastes for any signs of the changeling hive. She glanced at the sun which was already beginning to set its sights towards the horizon and she frowned. They had been looking for three hours with no sight of them at all.

“D’s determined.” Her brother said again, flying a bit closer to her. “She wants to find the Queen for Lord Nereus.”

Sapphire giggled. “Well, you know what they’re saying about him.”

Emerald grinned. “Yup.”

“Em! Saph!” called their squad leader. “You see anything yet?”

“Nope!” The twins chorused.

With a sigh the clan princess trotted along, her eyes scanning the area around her for any signs of movement. They had searched the caves near their original hive, but there was no changeling in sight. Diadem thought about questioning the other hives, but some of them were days away. A quick refuge for an entire Hive would not be days away. Instead, she had directed her team to search the known caves nearby. The first three cave systems had been full of snakes and desert creatures with copious amounts of poisons, but no changeling in sight. Diadem was becoming discouraged quickly.

“Hey! We found something!” Sapphire chirped, swooping down to the group.

Diadem jumped. She had been scanning the area and lost in her thoughts. Sapphire’s dive and shout had surprised her and she watched the dragonette expectantly once she had regained her composure.

“Report.” Diadem stated.

“Emerald went ahead but it looks like there are some mountains in the south western area. We can see the peaks from here.”

“Mountains usually have caves.” Cedar surmised.

Diadem nodded. “Then let’s go.”

It took another hour for them to reach the mountain range. Emerald had arrived first and began to scout for any caves. As Sapphire arrived with the rest of their companions, the green dragon took flight, landing in front of the pack.

“There are a lot of cave entrances here,” He reported.

“Then, there is a high probability that the hive could be in the cave system. The more entrances, the deeper the tunnels go. At least out here.” Diadem replied. “We’ll split up and search. Stay alert. We’ve only got four hours of daylight and we need at least an hour and a half to return in time for the festival.”

“Right,” her squad chorused.

“Everyone have your emergency gems?”

The group affirmed their answers with a chorus of ‘yes’ and they split. The twins stayed together, taking a cave entrance near the top of one of the mountains while Cedar hopped up a level or two before entering a cave. Diadem took an entrance on the right side of the range while Steel Forge took an entrance on the left side of the range.

Diadem trotted quickly, her ears swiveling around at any sound she heard. She was short on time and as she mentally kept time, she eagerly searched the cave for a single changeling. The path had many twists and turns, taking Diadem deeper into the depths of the cavern until the sound of hooves caught her ears. She stopped to listen, eyes scanning the dark cave as she pressed herself against the wall.

The hoofsteps grew louder. With each second, she found herself crouching down and unsheathed her dagger without the use of her magic. She waited until a small light illuminated the cave before her. Blinded, she turned her face away, dagger between her teeth, and hissed. She blinked and returned her gaze down the cavern path where she found—

“Cedar?” she asked through her teeth.

She reached up and rubbed at her eyes to clear them. Blinking away the burning sensation from the sudden light, she found her elk companion staring back at her with a torch in his hoof. She narrowed her eyes, taking in the elk before sheathing her blade.

“You’re not Cedar.” she stated.

The elk shook his head. “Are you from the Den?”

With a nod, Diadem stepped forward. “Yes. I am Diadem, Nereus’ daughter. We’ve come to assist Queen Atynis and her hive.”

The doppelganger fell silent for a few moments as she analyzed him. His eyes were not the light, sky blue she was used to, but rather an apple green. His fur was dark, like wet sand, and his antlers were sort. She almost smiled at how silly it was for her to think that he was Cedar, but the doppelganger began to speak.

“The Queen wishes to see you. Come.”

Diadem trotted behind the changeling as he turned and walked away, leading her deeper into the cavern. She followed behind him until the slim path opened into a large chamber. She scanned the area, finding the inhabitants of the hive scattered about. Some were wounded while others were silently brooding. Her escort led her through the throng of changelings to the Queen who sat near the center, tending to some of the injured. When her eyes fell upon the Queen’s side, however, she saw the injury. Her pale straw, translucent wings had a tear in the membrane and it was caked with a silver liquid. Diadem recognized it as blood and she swore.

“Welcome, daughter of Nereus.” Atynis greeted. “What can I do for you?”

Diadem stepped forward and bowed deeply. “I am here to apologize for what has transpired with your home and with those foreigners.”

“Apologize? It was not your doing, youngling. You have no need to make amends with us,” the Queen replied.

“Even so,” Diadem continued as she straightened up. “We are here to extend a helping hoof.”

Atynis stood and turned towards the pony. Curious, she nodded for her to continue.

“My father is sectioning off a part of the Den’s tunnel system for you and your hive. He’s inviting you all to come stay with us.”

The moment the words left her lips, the changelings buzzed with replies. Diadem waited as the Queen carefully listened to her underlings, analyzing each response as she strode towards the pony with gentle steps.

“My children are concerned,” Atynis replied. “We are not welcomed amongst many. How can we be sure that there will be no ill harm for us in your home?”

Diadem gave a low chuckle. “Do you honestly believe that my father would allow any ill will towards you? Many of our people ask about you and your hive. Your defenders’ deeds have not been forgotten.”

“Deeds from over a year ago,” Queen Atynis countered.

“Deeds that we have not forgotten.” Diadem repeated.

Atynis fell silent. If she were to believe in Nereus and his clan, her children would have a home once again. They did not have to start from scratch, and they could cocoon their larvae in warm bundles quickly. Her decision fortified as she thought about how much they had lost in a span of seconds. The attackers entered through the larvae chamber and practically incinerated half of the chamber before her defenders were at the scene to fend them off. Unfortunately, they had not been ready for the split push they had given on the opposite side of the hive and she called for them to flee. Queen Atynis could feel the panic and pain set in as her children recalled the loss of their home and she looked to the pony with a nod.

“We shall accept this offer on the grounds that my children are protected from harm within your walls.”

“We will protect them,” Diadem replied with confidence. “No one shall harm your children under our care.”

“Then we accept,” the Queen replied with a smile.

Turning from the princess, Queen Atynis turned to her hive and spoke in the buzz and click of the changeling language. Soon, her children were moving about. The few larvae that were saved were bundled in copious amounts of silk and the injured were patched up the best that they could be. With a head count, the Queen nodded for Diadem to lead the way.

The unicorn began to retrace her steps through the cavern trail, taking the caravan of changelings through the winding twist and turns. With each step, Diadem pulled out a gem from her vest pocket, a bright and shiny quartz, and with a whispered word, it began to glow. The signal was sent and she trotted faster through the stone pathways until she reached daylight. Emerging from the dark cave, she hissed as sunlight scorched her eyes. She blinked and rubbed at them to remove the blinding pain until she was able to see once more.

“Dia!”

Looking up, Diadem found her team waiting for her. She smiled and nodded behind her. “We’ve found them, team. Emerald, Sapphire, take the rear. Forge, Cedar, hang near the center of the group.”

“Ma’am!” the four chorused before dispersing amongst the emerging changelings.

“You are truly Nereus’ daughter.” Queen Atynis observed as she ambled to the pony’s side. “You take command rather quick.”

“I’m doing what I think is best. If we are attacked on the way back, I want one of my team to be able to react and protect in time.”

The Queen watched Diadem with curiosity. Ponies were some of the kinds that loathed changelings, and her willingness to protect her hive startled the changeling Queen. As Diadem hurried forth, the Queen followed behind with her hive at her heels. They would arrive just before sunset, Diadem noticed with a satisfied smile. That would give them some time to get the assistance they needed in order to attend the festival.

 

*

 

As per assumption, the large group arrived at the city with plenty of time to spare. Nereus emerged from the tunnels’ depths to greet the arrivals, graciously bringing with him his best nurses to assist with anyone who was injured. Formalities were put aside as he helped  the elk doctor Fennel and the nurses.

“Queen Atynis.” Nereus greeted as he made his way to his daughter and the Queen. “I’m delighted to see you and your children safe.”

“We are not unscathed.” Atynis replied. “But we are here. I thank you, Nereus. No other being on the face of Equis would have offered what you have to us.”

Nereus frowned. “Be that as it may, you and yours are always welcomed here. Consider the Den your home.”

The queen gave a grateful smile. “Thank you, Nereus.”

Diadem’s team followed Nereus and the changeling horde down into the actual tunnels of the Den until they reached an empty area. There was a huge chamber in the middle breaking off into various tunnels that lead to both bedrooms and makeshift stalls and homes on the surface. The injured were immediately patched up, with Queen Atynis being the first, and as Diadem and her team assisted with the changeling’s move in, the transition was very smooth.  

“It will take a few days to make this all feel like home,” Queen Atynis began with a grateful smile, “but we are indebted to you and your children, Nereus.”

“As long as you all find this place a safe home, there is no debt to pay. All I ask is that you all join us, as yourselves, for our festival.”

“Father,” Diadem interrupted with a bow of her head. “If my calculations are correct, the festival should be starting in an hour.”

The ki’rin nodded. “Then we must hurry and finish the embellishments.”

Queen Atynis gave a fanged smile. “My children and I will not miss it.”

Nereus bowed to the Queen. “I look forward to seeing you all there.”

 
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