• Published 9th Nov 2012
  • 26,258 Views, 1,502 Comments

Without a Hive - Phoenix_Dragon

A young changeling is separated from his hive, and must blend in and survive among the ponies of Equestria.

  • ...

Chapter 3: Alone

Chapter 3: Alone

Late in the morning, a ragged and dirty unicorn filly staggered out of the forest.

It had been the worst morning of Nictis's life. He had woken only to again see Princess Ceymi, his mentor, lying still and lifeless. He lay where he had collapsed the previous night, after a half-hearted search for survivors; a few minutes of staggering around in the dark, finding nothing but remains. Most had been gathered in the middle of the clearing, the broken bodies of nymphs laying where they fell. Rather than flee, they had attempted to stand their ground, to protect each other. When the soldiers fell, they couldn't have lasted long.

Two were missing, giving Nictis just a glimmer of hope, only to have it shattered when he followed the torn up ground and brush to find what little remained of them.

Lying there, he simply stared, motionless for several minutes. Even with the slightly bloated feeling of all the loving energy he held, he could feel nothing but a hollow emptiness inside him. Everything was gone.

Eventually, he rose. Inside, he couldn't help but feel that everything was hopeless, that he might as well just stay there with Ceymi, wait to die with the rest of the changelings slain there, but he knew he could not. He was too important, Ceymi had said. He must live. She had given him an order, and he would follow it. He would have to go on. Even if he couldn't see how, he had to try.

He cast one last look over Ceymi, tears starting to well up again. There was one thing more important than his own survival: the secret. The shroud that hid the hive and their existence safely away from their foes. His horn lit up with green fire. He had more than enough energy within him for the task.

As he reached the edge of the forest, thick smoke billowed up from the distant trees behind him. Nothing remained of the ill-fated expedition but fine ash, the fires spreading to consume everything around that horrible scene. The whole damn forest could burn for all he cared.

Green flame flashed across his body as he retook his disguise, struggling to focus his grief-dulled mind. Meadow Song. I am Meadow Song. Just a normal unicorn filly...

Weakly, numbly, Meadow Song trudged on toward Hoofington.

The outskirts of the town of Hoofington stretched almost all the way to the Everfree Forest, yet one house sat slightly apart from the others, partly shrouded by the trees.

By the edge of the forest. Meadow looked around. If not that house, then one of the others nearby, and hopefully the ponies there could point her to the correct one. She approached it, mind dully cycling through the information she needed to remember. Starry Eyes. Misty Dawn. Gray Oak.

It's not enough, Meadow thought, anxiety beginning to creep past the cold numbness. She wasn't ready for this, not alone. She knew only the most basics of pony culture, and almost nothing of the pony she would claim to know. She had no practical experience beyond tricking a few foals too distracted by a stupid game to pay her any attention. She wasn't an Infiltrator. She was just an overeager nymph with some very basic training, and she was walking blind into the den of her foes.

It wasn't enough, yet she had no choice. She couldn't turn back. Even if she could evade all the monsters living in that giant forest, it had been two nights of hard flight under the nigh-impenetrable canopy, and another across the badlands beyond. They had likely traveled a few hundred miles, maybe more, and she had only the vaguest idea of the direction they had taken. It would take a miracle to find her way home before she starved, and she was certain there was no love to be found in those dark wilds and dead wastes. Here, at least, she could survive.

The house was drawing nearer. It was different than most of the other structures, the walls made entirely out of wood, rather than using wood as a frame for that strange white stuff that formed the majority of the walls. Meadow frowned. She didn't even know the name of what appeared to be one of the most common building materials. What kind of pony wouldn't know that? She had no clue what she was doing, and... She shook her head in a vain attempt to clear her thoughts. No. I can do this. I have to do this.

She gingerly opened the gate in the low, wall-like structure that ringed the house, an odd construction of perpendicular slats of wood spaced too widely to function as any kind of proper wall, and did her best to avoid dwelling on the fact that she didn't know the name for that, either. Walking carefully along the small stone path, she stepped up onto the small landing at the front of the house, before coming to face the first obstacle on her path to hiding among these ponies.

A door.

The hive didn't have doors. There were no cultural standards on how to deal with them, and there was no proper concept of private spaces, not when any of the thousands of drones might have wandered through any area at practically any time. Their studies had progressed enough that Meadow knew ponies had peculiar notions about privacy, but not to the point where they had learned any particulars. It had been just enough to know that ponies were extremely sensitive about the matter, that they could become extremely upset and even hostile about any perceived violation of those strange social rules, and that there were some things you never do in private that you could do in public. Or was it the other way around? Or both? She gave a trembling sigh, trying to focus her mind.

She would have to wing it and hope for the best.

It seemed fairly obvious to her that ponies would like to be treated with respect--who doesn't?--but she had no idea what a pony would consider respectful. The best comparison she had from life in the hive was the deference given to the Princesses, or better yet, the Queen. Even though she typically dwelt in a public space, it was considered respectful to announce one's presence when approaching her. Or perhaps more correctly, it was considered very unwise to not do so. In any case, barring any knowledge on how to properly deal with the current obstacle, it seemed the appropriate course of action.

"Hello?" she called out in a soft, wavering voice, one that could probably barely be heard at all from behind that door. A moment later she tried again, slightly louder.

No response came. Most likely, any ponies inside couldn't hear her. She could call out louder, but the thought of shouting to get a pony's attention didn't seem like the most polite and respectful method of gaining their attention. The thought of a changeling doing so in order to get the attention of the Queen was almost enough to make Meadow blanch. The ponies must have a better way of handling this situation.

She thought back. She had seen several ponies approach doors in Colton. The ones going up to the shops just opened the door and walked in, as had some of the ponies approaching homes, but many of the ponies going to homes had stopped and rapped a hoof against the door, then waited to be let in. That seemed like a possibility, but she was conflicted. Was knocking and waiting socially dominant or submissive? Were they a guest waiting for the host to decide if they could enter, or was it a master expecting their underlings to open the door for them? Though if they were expecting such, shouldn't they have an underling accompanying them so they didn't have to knock themselves? Yes, the former possibility seemed more likely.

Meadow timidly lifted a foreleg and tapped the edge of her hoof against the door. It was almost silent. A bit worried, she repeated the gesture, but slightly more firmly. This time it made a soft but clear sound.

For a few moments, nothing happened. She was about to try again when the sound of movement inside caught her attention. A moment later there was a soft click on the other side of the door, and it swung open.

An elderly earth pony mare stood there when the door opened. Despite the coloration, a light blue coat with a curly, golden-yellow mane, the similarity between her and Starry Eyes was certain. The build, the face, and most notably, those same clear-blue eyes which were now looking down with surprise at the bedraggled unicorn filly on her doorstep, fur disheveled and dirty, her cheeks wet. "Oh!" the mare said in surprise, taken aback by the unexpected sight. "Oh my. What happened?"

"I..." Meadow had started to automatically reply, to blurt out some quick lie, but she checked herself. This was not a time to go flailing about wildly. She had been trained in this. Deception, lies, manipulation. Ceymi had spent so long teaching them this, insisting that it was the most important aspect of an Infiltrator's training.

When you try to deceive your prey, a conversation becomes a battle of words and thoughts.

And in a battle, you have to take control, never letting the opponent have the initiative. Control where the conversation goes, fight on your own terms. Keep them off-balance, so that you weaken their ability to strike back. Weaken them enough, and it should be easy to get exactly what you want.

She drew in a breath, trying to calm her nerves. She did have one clear advantage: ponies were emotional creatures, and the sight of a distraught foal was obviously uncomfortable to this mare. Meadow's voice wavered, only mostly intentional. "A-are you M-Misty Dawn?"

Surprise and concern met the comment. The first strike delivered, the foe pushed off-balance, forced to react instead of lead. The mare nodded faintly. "Yes, I am. Who are you, dear?" Another pony was approaching to stand beside the mare, a gray unicorn with brown hair and silver eyes, a folded bundle of papers held beside him in his magic. He must be Gray Oak.

Words are like weapons; always use them correctly. Some are blunt instruments, used to batter down an opponent. Others, such as the subtle use of tenses, are a dagger hidden in one's hoof, sneaking in to slip past their defenses.

"I-I'm Meadow Song," she said weakly. "I... I knew Starry Eyes."

The mare's eyes widened just slightly, a momentary shock before her fear rose up. It was a bitter taste, yet one that Meadow was pleased to sense. The thrust had found its mark. Misty stammered slightly. "Y-you... she..."

As with any battle, strike where you are strong, and where your opponent is weak. Push any advantage you can get.

Emotion was on her side now.

Establish a connection. "W-we met a little while back." Build sympathy. "I was on my own for so long, but she took me in. She took care of me, let me come along on her expedition." Build an emotional investment. Emotions could be hard to fake convincingly, but there were ways to work around that; it took only a moment of thinking back to the sight of Ceymi's body lying unmoving in the field to bring back that terrible tightness in her throat, eyes watering anew. "She was the only friend I've ever had. She took care of me like I was her own child..."

Misty was now clutching the stallion, trying to deny the feeling of horror rising inside her.

"She was the only one who ever cared for me like that! A-and then... last night... we were camped in the Everfree, and... these monsters..." The image of the manticore's stinger sinking into Ceymi's side ran through her mind, followed by the sight of her shuddering on the ground, face scrunched up in pain. Meadow's legs nearly gave out as she heaved a deep sob, but she forced herself to remember, to not push the images away. One final, finishing blow. "She tried to fight them off... to protect us... but they got her... I didn't know where to go!"

Finally, she sunk down to the ground, while Misty clutched Gray Oak, sobbing, the stallion doing the best he could to comfort her despite the pain and sorrow radiating from him. Even through the pain of her own sorrow, Meadow couldn't help but feel a little proud of how well she handled her first real confrontation. Nothing builds sympathy quite so swiftly as shared suffering.

It was awkwardly quiet inside the home of Misty Dawn and Gray Oak. The crying had been fairly short-lived, but the sorrow ran far too deep to dissipate as swiftly, for any of them. The two older ponies sat on a couch, holding each other for comfort, while Meadow sat in a nearby chair, taking the occasional nibble out of... well, she knew it was a sandwich, thanks to Misty asking if she wanted one, but that didn't really tell her what it was. The flowers in the middle were easy enough, but the strange, spongy substance that they were, well, sandwiched inside of, was something entirely new. She had to force herself off of such distracting topics. She had to keep up appearances of being a sad, distraught little filly, instead of giving in to the numbness that threatened to overtake her. The thought of Ceymi made that all too easy, despite how happy Meadow was with her handling of the current situation. They had invited her into their home, and she could feel the strong sympathy they felt toward her.

Meadow had to remind herself at some point that ponies consider those flank-markings particularly important, and had surreptitiously snuck a glance of theirs; the mare's was a sun casting rays below it, while the stallion's was simply a tree. Even his own fate was uncreative, Meadow noted derisively, while idly wondering if ponies would make note of such a thing.

The quiet couldn't last forever, though. Meadow could see Misty wavering on the edge of a decision for a few minutes, indecisive, before she finally managed to ask one question. "What... what happened?"

Meadow had known they would ask eventually, but she had little to go with. Every detail she could present would be one more that could reveal a lie. She would need to say something, but something vague. She took a deep breath.

"It was just a small little trip," she said, slowly. "Just a few other ponies. We weren't even going to be out that long, just... just a little trip." She paused a moment, trying to appear uncomfortable with the fictitious tale. "They set up camp. Starry and I were getting ready for sleep, when... when the manticores..."

She paused again, but it was not an act this time. The manticores were all too real of a memory. She swallowed past the lump in her throat, trying to push the image of those beasts into the background; that memory helped conjure up the emotions she needed to present, but they also distracted her from working out the details of her tale. She had the opportunity to craft the event exactly how she wanted it, for the maximum effect. Perhaps...

An opportunity presented itself. "Everything was just so crazy, every--" She cut herself off. She had been about to say "everyling," then maybe "everyone," but ponies just had to make their own weird version of the word, just to confuse everyling. "...everypony started screaming and running around. I don't know exactly what happened, except... Starry told me to run. I... I didn't want to leave her, but she insisted, so I did... but she didn't run with me." She sniffed, wiping a foreleg against her nose. "S-she didn't run. She stayed and tried to distract the monsters. I... I don't think I would have made it if she hadn't..."

It was risky, Meadow knew. They could easily take it as her having cost them their daughter, but she was pleased to see a faint smile on the elder ponies' faces, a glimmer of pride at their daughter's fictitious sacrifice. Ponies are so easy.

Eventually, the decision came that she had been hoping for.

"I don't know what we can do," Gray Oak said, his voice soft and steady despite the sorrow she felt in him. "But we'll make sure you're taken care of. It's the least we could do for you, bein' a friend of our daughter."

"Thank you," Meadow croaked out weakly. Past the grief, she couldn't help the self-satisfied cry of triumph she let out in her mind, a bittersweet smile on her face.

Misty quickly wiped at her eyes and stood, grief abruptly pushed to the background. "I-I'm sorry, we should get you all cleaned up. The bathroom is back this way. Come on, I'm sure you'll feel better after a good bath."

Meadow was somewhat amused by the change in behavior. Ponies pushed far enough by emotion would often fall back to familiar, comfortable behaviors, Ceymi had said, and it seemed Misty's comfortable behavior was that of a mother caring for a foal. Meadow considered that as she followed the mare. If ponies drew such strong bonds simply by a matter of family, culturing such a familial connection would be the perfect way to build affection.

Soon Meadow was shown into the "bathroom," which she had supposed was a room containing a bath, but instead appeared to contain everything but. There were several fixtures, one of which she recognized as a toilet--Meadow still wasn't sure why Ceymi had thought that one particular pony invention deserved such special and early mention in their lessons--but the rest were a mystery. The most prominent was a giant, elongated metal bowl, large enough to fit a pony in, with some strange knobs and a curtain that could be closed around it. She looked at it strangely, a look that Misty missed while turning a couple of the knobs.

Things were made much more clear when water started pouring out from a spigot and began to fill the metal bowl. It was rather extravagant, something that increasingly seemed common for ponies, but it made sense. Back in the hive, they would just use a pool of water to bathe in, but ponies had made this complicated contraption so they could make a pool when they wanted, and drain it away when they didn't need it anymore. It seemed horribly impractical, which of course meant it fit in perfectly with her impression of ponies so far. "Uselessly extravagant" was going to be a common impression, she imagined.

Misty slipped off for a moment to get her a "towel," which turned out to be a large piece of thick cloth. Who knew what purpose it held, though hopefully she'd find out before she made too obvious of a gaffe. Considering how meticulously clean most of the ponies had seemed, except for a few of the foals playing games, bathing must be something they all knew from a young age. That could be a problem, seeing as how she hadn't even recognized a bathtub when she saw it.

Next, Misty was turning the knobs again, the flow of water ending. She looked over to Meadow, uncertain. "Would you like me to help you clean up?"

Meadow nodded, thankful for the opportunity to learn this apparently important aspect of pony life. Misty smiled the tiniest bit in response, then gestured. "Well, climb on in the tub and we'll get you scrubbed down."

Any complaints of "useless extravagance" running through her head died the moment she slipped into the water. They not only made a system to fill and empty this "tub" with water, they made it so it would heat the water! And it was amazing! All that Infiltrator training failed to suppress the faint moan that escaped her lips as the heat enveloped her, soaking into her tired muscles. Maybe this soft, fleshy body wasn't entirely bad; she couldn't imagine the heat seeping into her body and soothing her quite the same way with a solid carapace in the way. That hardly made up for the other deficiencies of this pathetic form, but it was nice to have found one potential advantage.

Fur, however, was showing itself again to be one of those deficiencies. Even with Misty helping, it took a surprising amount of work to get the dirt out of that fluffy, annoying stuff. Meadow would have thought that dirt wouldn't show that well on brown fur, yet somehow it managed. Together they scrubbed and scraped, working out all the traces of gray and brown and black that dirtied her coat--and the few specks of red that both of them did their best to not consciously notice.

"Goodness," Misty said softly as she scrubbed at a particularly muddy leg. "Did you roll through half the forest on your way here?" She cracked a very weak smile, though she felt only uneasy concern.

Meadow, in response, made a weak smile at the poor attempt at humor, coupled with a faint sound that could generously be interpreted as a chuckle. She was rewarded by a swelling of affection from Misty, such a delicious feeling. She drew in only the tiniest taste, far too tiny for anyone to notice, particularly not a pony with their limited senses. She didn't want to do anything to impede its growth.

"Just how long has it been since you've had a good bath, anyway?"

Meadow thought quickly. What would be a span of time that would be long, but not inappropriately long? Any actual answer would likely be too specific. She decided on something a little more vague. "A while. There aren't many tubs out in the woods."

Misty smiled with sincerity this time, giving an affectionate rub at the foal's mane.

Sadly, all the scrubbing and cleaning left her with little time to enjoy the warm, luxurious bath. The cleaning would have been done in moments if it had been a simple matter of washing off her familiar carapace, dirt and muck rubs right off the smooth surface, without all this excessive scrubbing. Even worse, she soon learned that it was not the worst disadvantage of fur, so far as bathing went. She learned this as she exited the tub, only to learn that fur had an amazing ability to retain water.

At least she learned what purpose a towel had: it was, generously speaking, a device for drying a pony off after a bath, though it could be more accurately described as one which, after several minutes of furious rubbing, might reduce a pony from "wet" to merely "damp." The fur clung close to her hide, while her--thankfully short!--mane and tail hung limp and heavy.

She was beginning to develop a deep loathing for fur.

When they returned, Gray Oak was sitting where they had left him, but he was now looking through a large book set on the table before him. Misty huffed out a sad breath, but she smiled when he looked up to her. With a faint tremble, she walked over and sat at his side, tenderly pulling Meadow in to sit beside her. Meadow followed along, leaning over slightly to get a better look at the book that had both their attention.

It was filled with pictures of Starry Eyes. Other ponies showed up on occasion, usually one or both of her parents, but Starry was the one feature common among them. The two older ponies leaned into each other, eyes tearing up as they looked over the memories.

They turned the page, and Misty let out a choked, bittersweet laugh, reaching out to fondly touch one of the pictures. It showed Starry Eyes, little older than Meadow Song looked, wearing a cut-up sack, a hat made of folded paper, and carrying a flag made of an old branch with a blue pillowcase tied to the end. "Her first adventure," Misty said, voice raw from sadness, but she smiled happily at the memory. "Almost got lost in Harvest Bounty's fields, trying to find the ruins of a lost civilization. Found the remains of an old wall from before Harvest extended her fields, and she decided it was the remains of an ancient castle of a lost princess." She smiled, giving the photo a tender stroke of her hoof.

More photos drew more tales, each new one drawing a weak but genuine smile from the two ponies, and Meadow listened intently, soaking in every detail. Rarely, she would slip in a word or two of her own, agreeing with some assessment of their daughter's adventurous or caring ways, which always made their faint smiles--and their budding affection--just a little stronger.

"And there she is, just back from her very first expedition," Misty said softly. "It... we knew what she was doing was dangerous. We worried so many times. We could have lost her then, or countless times since then, but... but how could we deny her what made her so h-happy?" Her voice cracked, a tear running down her cheek. Gray Oak's leg squeezed comfortingly around her, leaning in to give his silent support.

Meadow, however, was leaning in to see the picture more clearly. To her, it was not Starry Eyes in that photo. It was Ceymi. There wasn't a single physical sign to tell the difference between the real Starry Eyes and her replacement, but Meadow knew she had been replaced. She knew she was looking at Ceymi behind that disguise, entering this happy place in her life. Meadow blinked a few times, fighting back tears of her own.

The stories continued, the couple telling short, happy tales of their daughter Starry Eyes, completely oblivious to her true nature. Meadow watched and listened to the tales, halfway between fascination and sorrow. Every tale now was about her mentor.

At some point they had dinner. It was a simple affair of a bunch of different vegetables cut in different ways and scrambled together--a salad--and some water that had been heated, with other vegetables and spices mixed into it--soup, apparently. It was even pretty tasty. Meadow, however, was too lost in thought to really appreciate it, making only a passing note of it.

She was eventually roused by Gray Oak's question. "Do you have any family?"

Meadow looked up from her meal, blinking. So many possible answers ran through her head, but the one she settled on was the most truthful. "Somewhere. I don't know where, but... but someday I'll find them again."

She had never seen what "heartbroken" looked like, but she was pretty sure it was what Misty Dawn's expression was, just before the older pony left her chair and embraced Meadow in a firm hug. "You'll find them," she murmured, the powerful feeling of sympathy and affection swelling in Meadow's senses. "You'll find them."

It was evening when Misty Dawn showed Meadow to another room of the house: a bedroom.

Meadow looked around. The large fluffy-looking object must be the bed, it was the only thing large and uncluttered enough for a pony to sleep on. There was a desk with a variety of books, scrolls, and other, less identifiable objects. A dresser, a mirror, a chest, a broad assortment of various little statues, stones, carvings, and so forth. "...is this?..."

Misty nodded softly. "It's her room. We always kept it ready for her, for when she came h-home..." Her voice caught, and she went still for a moment, before flashing a faint smile.

Together, they entered the room. Meadow slowly walked around, looking at everything gathered in here. The tales they had told earlier had mentioned all the little keepsakes and souvenirs that Starry--that is to say, Ceymi--had brought back from her expeditions. Slowly she looked over each one, wondering where the Princess had found them.

Finally, she made her way by the desk, where Misty stood, one hoof gently touched to a small device resting atop it, a circular metal object with a glass face. Meadow peered at it for several seconds before recognition struck. "That looks just like Starry's cutie mark."

Misty gave the faintest tremble. "Her first compass," she said quietly, then let out a faint chuckle. "Thing barely even works, but she took it everywhere. Every little foalhood adventure. She even brought it along on a few of her expeditions. I... I think she left it here because she was worried she'd lose it." She let out another soft chuckle, despite the pain in her voice. She gave the compass a soft, loving pat. "...now then, you should get to sleep. Gray and I need to talk. We'll have a lot to do tomorrow."

Misty lifted the covers, and Meadow climbed into bed. Leaning in, Misty gave a soft kiss atop her head, whispering softly. "Sleep well, child. Everything will be fine now."

She turned off the light and left, giving one final glance before shutting the door.

Meadow sighed and stretched out, rolling around a bit in the bed. Oh, it was so wonderful. Sure, she was completely used to sleeping on bare rock and hardened wax, and could even endure the hard ground with this fragile, soft body she was imitating. This, however, was something entirely different. It was so soft, curving with her body. No hard ridges or lumps poking uncomfortably at her, no awkward and uneven terrain leaving her curled in uncomfortable poses while she slept. These ponies certainly knew how to make the most basic things in life so pleasant.

Curling up in the blankets, she drifted away into her thoughts. This was the same bed Ceymi had slept in, all those times. Normally, sharing a space another changeling had spent time in would mean nothing, but this... there was something different about it. The place itself was more important, much like how the Queen's throne was more important than some bare patch of rock where another changeling might sit. It wasn't just a bed Ceymi had slept in. It was Ceymi's bed. She had slept here during her visits, during the happier times of her life, enjoying the luxurious moments that came among the difficulties and hazards of being an Infiltrator.

And now... now those times were gone forever. Meadow shoved the thought away, curling up tighter in the blankets, trying to ignore it.

The tears came anyway.

It was shortly after breakfast--she didn't know what pancakes were, other than delicious--when Misty Dawn and Gray Oak sat her down, saying they needed to tell her something.

They were uneasy, particularly Misty, who seemed to be on the edge of some difficult dilemma. Meadow could sense conflicting emotions in Gray Oak, as well as regret and uncertainty, but they seemed muted under the feeling of sympathy and determination.

While she wouldn't allow any impression of it, Meadow was scared. Something important was coming up, something that she knew nothing about, and she was doubtful that she'd be able to influence their decision much. Misty, perhaps, but Gray seemed determined to see this through.

"Meadow Song," he said. "This might not be easy, but Misty and I have talked it over." Meadow tried not to show her anxiety. This was not starting off well. "We want to help you, but there isn't much we can do for you." Getting worse. "We can't raise and take care of a foal ourselves now, much less do anything to help you find your family." Yep, she was being cast out. "...I know it's probably not what you want, but there's only one place we know of that can take care of you, and help you." She was a failure. All the connections she thought she had been so masterfully crafting were unwinding before her eyes. "It's... well, it's an orphanage."

Of all the worst--wait, a what?

"What's an orphanage?" Meadow blurted out.

Gray considered the question a moment. "Well... see, it's a home, but a very large home. It's a place for little foals who have lost their families. You'll have other foals your age to play with, good food and care, and schooling. I know of the couple that runs the place, and they do wonderful work finding homes for the foals under their care. I..." He paused, taking a deep breath. The feeling of unease was rising steadily. "I don't want you to feel like we're kicking you out, or anything like that. I meant what I said earlier, but I think that if there's anypony that can help you find your family again, it's them."

Gray Oak was clearly concerned that she would be upset about this, but as Meadow thought, she couldn't imagine why. A place for orphaned foals? Foals were stupid and gullible, it would be easy to deceive them, and they seemed so quick to grow attached to new ponies. Better yet, these were foals who had lost their families. A strong emotional conflict already in-place, ready to be exploited. It was like a giant feast, just for her! And on top of that, having every need taken care of, and education! They would teach her all she needed to know about ponies, without her even having to put any effort into it. It was perfect. It was greater than anything she could have hoped for.

She had to temper her reply, as obviously they expected her to see it as less than ideal. Best not to shake expectations too severely. "That... that actually sounds pretty good," she offered, with a smile.

"Are you sure?" Misty asked, a little too quickly, and she just nodded again.

"Yeah," Meadow replied, smiling more.

The trip was planned for that afternoon. The older couple treated her to a light lunch before Misty brought out her old camera, to add one more picture to the collection. Once that was done, they gathered their lightly-loaded saddlebags and departed. Traveling through town, and passing among all the ponies in it, made Meadow feel slightly anxious, but that was nothing compared to what waited for her at a strange-looking structure called a "train station." Part of it was like the other structures, but it had a broad, covered platform where a few ponies had gathered. Beside that platform were "tracks," as Misty called them, just two long strips of metal, supported by wooden slats. Everypony stood expectantly near those tracks.

Soon they took their place on the platform as well. It took only a few moments for it to feel increasingly absurd. They were supposed to be traveling. Why, then, were they just standing in place?

"Oh, here comes the train," Misty said, and Meadow's heart nearly stopped.

A giant, smoke-belching metal monstrosity was tearing its way along the tracks. The volume of it grew greater and greater as it drew closer, punctuated by a sudden, piercing squeal as it began to slow. The thing was massive, so large it had to be segmented into individual parts, and each segment was the size of a small building. More than a dozen of them were strung together, hauled along by the giant machine at its head, which itself stood many times the height of a pony. It made its way past them, slowing, until it finally ground to a halt.

Meadow stared wide-eyed at it, hardly able to comprehend what she saw. Now some ponies inside the contraption were getting out, and the ponies on the platform were getting in, most of them hauling bags and bundles with them.

"Never seen a train before?" Gray Oak asked, and Meadow was too awestruck by the sight to do anything other than shake her head.

Eventually, it was their turn to board. They made their way in, with Meadow very gingerly crossing from the platform into the train itself. She was able to remain composed as they got to their seats, only to have it fail the moment the train rocked slightly under her. The ground is not supposed to move!

Where the slight rocking of the train was enough to unsettle her, the lurch and grind of it beginning to accelerate was terrifying. A faint rattle went through the train, growing in frequency as the vehicle gained speed, the deep, rhythmic sound of the front-most section growing faster by the moment. The buildings were sliding by, soon replaced by fields and trees as the train hurtled away from the city.

They were halfway to their destination before she was able to feel properly calm again, and even then, the lurching tilt she felt every time the train entered a turn got her heart pounding in her chest. Despite her misgivings, she could see the merit of this form of transportation. They were going easily faster than a gallop, possibly faster than she could fly in her natural form, and this beast of a machine showed no signs of tiring.

Only an hour after departing, the train pulled into the station in a town named Mareville. Meadow tried to act calm, legs quivering slightly as she quickly got off the train. It was nice to have made the trip in a fraction of the time, but it was something that would take some time to get used to.

As the more personal unease faded, a more detached, strategic thinking took over. Ponies had made this impressive machine, which had just transported many dozen ponies and many hundreds of pounds of cargo across a significant distance as swiftly as a fast changeling could fly. Changelings didn't have anything like it. Granted, they didn't typically need to move such large quantities of changelings and materials, much less over such a significant distance, but when they did it took many more changelings, and much more time and effort. And this was a machine for civil purposes. What manner of creations might they have if they were ever roused to fight?

She quickly pushed those thoughts away. It hardly mattered to her, right? She was an Infiltrator. Or at least, sort-of kind-of an Infiltrator. In any case, she was not a soldier, or a strategist, or anyone else who would have to worry about dealing with angry Equestrian armies and their theoretical multi-ton killing machines. No, she just had to focus on surviving. Surviving, and not doing anything that would give away the secret of her species' existence, which would surely lead to those theoretical multi-ton--

No. Focus. Again she pushed those thoughts away. She had more immediate concerns to think of, such as how to best establish herself in the upcoming buffet these ponies called an orphanage.

It was only a short trip from the train station before they reached a large gate, standing open, with an intricate sign made of curved metal bars arcing over it. The words announced the "Rising Sun Orphanage," and behind it rose one of the largest structures Meadow had seen among the ponies. It was as large as one of the hive's defensive spires, but laid horizontally rather than vertically and no more than two levels tall. It had the same blocky design as most of their buildings, but it was made primarily of stone, which somehow made it look more natural in Meadow's eyes. Several foals were playing in the field nearby, watched over by a content-looking stallion.

"Are you okay?"

Meadow blinked, not quite realizing how intently she had been watching. She glanced up to Misty, who again looked concerned. "Oh. Yes, of course," she assured, giving a genuine smile. "This place looks perfect."

Misty was obviously pleased by this. "Well, I guess we should head in, then."

After the short walk up the path, they passed through the large front doors, entering a grand lobby. Meadow was halfway torn between disgust at such a large space being wasted for such little purpose, and appreciation for how good they managed to make the useless space look. It was certainly pretty, with polished stone, hardwood banisters on the curving staircases and upper balcony, and the large chandelier hanging overhead, refracting the sunlight filtering in from the broad upper windows. Uselessly extravagant, naturally.

One of the ponies working there greeted them, then quickly fetched the mare who ran the place. That mare turned out to be a middle-aged pony, pale pink with rosy red mane and pale-blue eyes, and sporting a garish red heart emblazoned on her flanks. Surprisingly, she was already giving off a strong sense of sympathy the moment she had come into sight, even before introducing herself to them as Crimson Heart, owner and operator of the Rising Sun Orphanage. It grew even stronger when Misty Dawn and Gray Oak gave a shortened version of the previous day's events.

"Oh, that's just horrible," Crimson Heart said, eyes full of sadness when she heard the--thankfully abridged--tale of the fictional ill-fated expedition, while Meadow was quite thankful for all the training and practice that helped her hide the incredulity she felt. This mare was pouring out affection for ponies she had met only moments before. If even a few ponies here were so welcoming, this place was going to be the grandest feast she had ever experienced!

"I'm sure we'll be able to take good care of little Meadow," Crimson was assuring them while coordinating with a few members of the staff. "We have plenty of room available, always did have more room than we needed--and thank goodness for that, I should think. Please excuse me, I'll go make sure everything is taken care of, if you'd like a few moments alone."

With that, and a parting smile, she hurried off to catch a few more of the staff.

They stood there for many long seconds before Gray Oak broke the silence. "Well..."

Misty let out a deep sigh, then stepped in and gave Meadow a firm hug. "I'm sorry. I just feel like you've just come into our lives, and we're kicking you out. I... I hope that she can help you find your family, wherever they are, and that you don't feel like we're abandoning you."

"It's okay," Meadow said, comfortingly, while drawing steadily on the delicious emotions coursing from the older mare. "This should work out fine."

"We can write to you," Misty said quickly, glancing up to Gray Oak, who smiled and nodded. "And... and we have a few things to give you."

She unbuckled her saddlebags, lifting them over to set them lightly across Meadow's back. They were a bit large for her but lightly loaded. "A few brushes, and stuff like that," Misty said as she opened one of the flaps, and drew out the small compass Meadow had seen the night before, now strung on a loop of cord. "And this. Something to remember Starry by. I think she would have liked for you to have it." Misty's voice was wavering faintly, again, eyes glistening. "Who knows, maybe someday it'll help you find your way to your family."

Meadow took the small compass in her hoof, faking an appreciative smile. Such absurd sentimentality and romanticism. Despite that thought, as she held it she couldn't help but imagine Ceymi holding the same compass, however long ago. "Thank you," she replied, voice suddenly sounding very small.

More hugs were given, the three of them spending their remaining moments together in silence.