It took months to get every Hatchling nursed back to health, introduce them in small batches to the rest of the Hive, and teach them what they needed to know to survive in this world we were now all stuck in together.
There were tears. There was anger. There were a lot of Hatchlings who just could not believe what we told them. And all the while it was me, Pearl, telling them it was true. This was the new life we all had to find our place in.
Some Changelings were led out to other hives to continue their training there, once they had grown accustomed to living in our new family. Moonshine took care of the ones who planned to take a Unicorn guise, using my magic training as a guideline not to tell them to run ants over their horns.
Breeze ended up being a pretty good teacher for the ones seeking to fly as Pegasi ponies, and I thought I recognized the brother who 'lost' to Blaze in battle among them at some point. Even Oval helped out, explaining to those who wanted to know how to set up guises for longer durations than just feeding runs or infiltration missions.
It was good to have everyone's help, because there were just so many of us..; Chrysalis' former Hatchling army. It was an endless stream of Changelings we had to tend to, while Matron made sure the remaining few were kept fed and entertained while they waited their turn.
Blaze returned to us a few weeks in, after having helped Starlight Glimmer and Pinkie Pie to bring the captive ponies back to their respective homes. The news she brought from Ponyville made Moonshine walk on clouds for a few days; Princess Twilight Sparkle had agreed to let her study Unicorn magic in her Ponyville palace!
Our Queen Chrysalis had been doing better as well, allowing us to visit her when we needed to talk about something. With the family elated to hear that there was not going to be an invasion, and that they would be allowed to return to their lives, there were only happy faces coming to her to proclaim their love and adoration for her.
While we could not feed from each other, just seeing her children this happy had given our Queen a well-needed boost. She actually smiled when she came to check up on our progress, and she just looked more happy and healthy than she had before.
Matron came to us one day to say Chrysalis had told her to "explain how this spa works", which was as good an invitation as any for the two of them to go down to the nearby pony town in their respective guises and spend a lazy day getting pampered. Matron was positively glowing as she told us all about it.
I tried to ask her a few times just how old she was, or why our Queen appeared to see her as an equal, but Matron always excused herself or found ways to change the subject, and I never received a fulfilling answer.
My siblings in the common room were far more helpful, although Matron's actual age was mostly guesswork. We narrowed it down to "at least a few centuries", but as far as everyone else was concerned, Matron had just sort of always been there whenever she was needed.
Spending months among my family, rather than just a few days, made me realize just how much they were just like any other family. Not everyone always got along, and there were a few skirmishes here or there. Moonshine really had it out for Blaze, Breeze, and Oval for a week or two, but they eventually made up for having drawn her into their plan to use me as a Trojan Horse and peace returned to our little group.
I actually learned the pathways between rooms in my stay in the outpost, knowing just which route to take from one room to the next by the way the tunnels curved. Slowly but surely a map of the place had formed in my mind, and I started to find the shortest routes from one place to another without my siblings constantly having to point me in the right direction.
It helped considerably with going back and forth between the common room and the teaching rooms, which were now being used in reverse order to help the Hatchlings with their questions and additional training, and they were given ample time to get it right this time.
The day finally came for the last few Hatchlings to be brought out of the large auditorium they had been stuck in for so long, and with it came the news that Matron would be leaving for the main Hive with our Queen. We said our goodbyes to Matron in a half-empty outpost, most of the family having left a few at a time to return to their lives in the pony lands, and I asked my questions to her again.
"There must always be a matron to take care of the hatchlings," she whispered to me. "None of us live forever."
She smiled as she walked away, and I was left staring at her trying to figure out what she meant. With the final Hatchlings going through their paces after having been told the harsh truth, there was nothing left for me to do either.
Instead of sitting down, I practiced fighting with Blaze, transformation magic with Breeze, had a few chats with Oval about her mare and how I was expected to behave if I visited, and asked Moonshine to teach me some better magic spells.
Progress on all grounds was slow, and I eventually had to admit to Breeze I truly did not grasp how to shrink myself to the size she wanted me to get to, which made her laugh at my expense.
"You just need to trust in our magic, Pearl," she told me again. "Stop thinking of sizes as solid things. That's what the others keep doing as well. Just think small, and our magic will take care of the rest."
"But it's still just a guise. Won't somepony bump into our true size?" I asked, to which Breeze frowned at me.
"While we were out at the spa, did I feel large? Did you have my adult weight hanging from you in the bath?" she demanded, and I realized she was right. "Our magic allows us to shrink or grow depending on the form we take. Just trust that it will do its job and it's far easier to do."
It still took me a few times, with Breeze constantly demanding I go "smaller, smaller!" before I finally stood next to her as an itty bitty Earthpony filly and she promptly wrapped her forehooves around my neck to hug me to her.
Breeze had me walk around like that for the rest of the day, and I kept being surprised at how much bigger the world looked from my smaller viewpoint. Of course I got my share of jokes at my expense from the others, but it was all in good fun and I had to laugh along with them.
When it came time to rest, Breeze walked up to the alcove I had chosen and told me to keep my guise up for the night.
"You have to be able to keep your guise even while asleep, or you'll be found out when staying a night among the ponies," she told me, climbing up in my alcove with me.
With the both of us posing as small fillies, there was ample room for us to rest, and she shirked up against me.
"I'll know if you lose your guise during the night, big sis," she trusted to me, which really did not help me fall asleep. She was out like a light in minutes, but I just lay there worrying until my fatigue finally got the better of me.
Surprisingly, in the morning, I woke up to the smiling faces of the adult Changelings around me, and Breeze hugging herself to me with glee! I had passed her little test, having remained a small foal during the night, and it was eagerly celebrated between us.
Every landmark I passed was celebrated, for that matter; I learned how to levitate objects without disintegrating them, thanks to Moonshine, and we had a resinball game between us where the object was to toss a blob of resin around trying to hit one another. It was a lot like Dodgeball, but with magic and a blob of rubbery resin. I did not last long against the far more experienced others, but I had fun nonetheless.
After a few bad attempts at flying as a Pegasus, I finally got the hang of it and actually managed to glide my way down to the base of the mountain. On my way back up, I was greeted in mid-air by Breeze pouncing me, and we fell to the grass in high spirits.
It was a great time, and I was sad to hear Moonshine finally leaving us for Ponyville. She had studying to do, and Starlight Glimmer was no doubt waiting for her in Princess Twilight Sparkle's palace, so we did know she had to leave eventually. I had really warmed up to her, even if she had definitely been more difficult to get to laugh.
With just the clutch I had been adopted into remaining, we focused my teaching on the remaining few things I had issue with: My guise was fine, my magic was sorted, and my flying had definitely improved. But the local lore was my bane.
How little I truly knew about the area became clear when the trio started to detail about all of the local happenings. Thanks to the show I knew a lot about the princesses and magical adversaries of them, but I did not know that Clover the Clever had opened the oldest still remaining stone bridge in all of Equestria a few years after the land had been named.
Who had come up with the first recipe for cider? When was the first house in Manehattan built? How long would it take you to walk from Fillydelphia to Canterlot? And how long for a Pegasus to fly it? Or to go by train?
My head was spinning from all the different subjects I was forced to learn before Oval would even consider introducing me to her mare as her cousin, but I somehow managed to thanks to my great tutors. By that time the outpost had calmed down considerably, with only a minimal amount of Changeling siblings still left just to keep the place safe and clean.
All the while we had kept ourselves fed on the resin veins, and I had not been craving any love yet, but I was quickly told I would - once we made our way to Hoofton...
Blaze embraced me out of the blue one day, and said she was not going to come along with us; her former circus troupe had been sighted near Vanhoover and she was going to meet them there to pick up her juggling routine again.
"Take care, kid," she told me. "You've done a lot better than I could have ever hoped for. We're in your debt. Hit me up if you ever need me."
It was hard to say goodbye to her, but we had already sent Oval's mare the news that I would be coming along, with some sob story about my parents having died and Oval needing to help take care of the goods and stuff to account for her long absence. I would have to visit Blaze when her circus came to town.
Breeze was going to stay behind in the outpost for a little while longer, we learned on the day of our own leaving, and I actually broke down crying as we hugged each other tightly. Breeze truly had become my little sister during my stay with them, and since she just travelled around and posed as some unknown filly here or there, I was utterly worried something may happen to her, no matter how much Oval and her assured me she would be fine.
We eventually parted after agreeing to meet up in Ponyville a year from then, to go visit Pinkie Pie, Starlight Glimmer, and Moonshine and to just talk about how well we all did. Breeze was going to let Blaze know about our plans once she actually left the outpost.
I was still sniffling a bit as Oval and I made it down to the communal storage room, and Oval let me lean into him after he changed into his Earthpony stallion guise.
Surprisingly it was the very same appearance he'd had on when I first met him; a caramel-coloured coat with auburn eyes looking out from under the overhang of his red mane. There were a couple of greying streaks through his red mane and tail, and even a few lighter splotches in his coat, but nothing as bad as when I had first laid eyes upon him thinking he was a captive pony!
Once I had calmed down and had taken on my own green Earthpony guise, we packed a couple of random things from the shelves into cases, including a variety of dresses which I had to sort and repack because Oval had just taken a random stack and tossed it in without regard for the colour of my coat. Truly now, I had only been female since I hatched about half a year ago, and I knew better how to match colours than he did.
With our bags finally packed, we loaded them up on a cart and took a slowly-descending tunnel down through the mountain. It took us a longer time to get out this way than through any of the other exits, but it was lower to the ground and would not lead to a runaway cart as a result.
As we finally made our way out of the Hive through an exit facing due West to the setting sun, I turned back to the opening and gave a nod to the hidden guard there. "Thanks for keeping us safe. I'll be coming back some day soon, I'm sure of it."
"Pearl, come on; we have to make haste if we want to catch the train out to Canterlot. We'll have to transfer there to make it to Hoofton," Oval called out to me, and I slowly turned to face him and my future life...