The dark control of the Nightmare regime saturated all of Equestria, and continued to spread. As far as any eye could see, there was not one track of inhabited land that escaped the empire's clutches. But it transcended what could be seen as well. The kingdom laid its roots far into the earth, beyond pony access. The sewage system, now underground complex of Manehattan was proof enough of that. The caverns and catacombs hidden away in the mountainsides and deserts were no safer. Once home to hundreds of frightening subterranean monsters, the caves had all been made sites of eviction, for conversion into oubliettes. But the rule was not restricted to the ground and those beneath it. High, high into the air, beyond the bank of grey clouds mixing with the smoke of factories and fireball makers, floated Cloudsdale, the home of flight, the greatest city ever built aloft. But, just as the ground below was tainted and scarred, so too was the sky above. The former white, heavenly towers were grey and drooping. The spectrum waterfalls had run dry. The walls were torn and frayed, like a ripped fabric in water, suspended in time.
Then came a new addition to the changes over the capital of the air. This one took the resemblance of a light blue dot, hovering strangely, which grew into a rippling whirlpool. The light took the shape of an oval the size of a door, at which point, with all the dignified ceremony of a chimpanzee falling backwards off its branch, three ponies were hurled from the portal.
Fluttershy hit the nearest cloud hard, shifting it along a few meters. Clouds were, naturally, extremely soft, but it still felt like being hit by a large pillow. A few seconds was all it took for Fluttershy to feel she was up to the task of standing up. But upon seeing the current sorry state of Cloudsdale, she wasn't sure if she'd ever be quite prepared. In her childhood, she spent very little time in the flying city itself. Even when she was that poor, frightened lamb of a filly, she spent so much time in Ponyville after getting her Cutie Mark that it was more like visiting Cloudsdale, rather than the other way around. But it was still a great blow to see her old home, the heritage of every pegasus she'd ever known, ravaged in such a way.
"Have you ever been to Cloudsdale before, Trixie?" she asked. "...Trixie?" She looked behind her. Trixie wasn't there, and neither was Cheerilee. But she'd just heard them come... It was at that moment Fluttershy remembered something very important about Cloudsdale. Absolute terror burst through her mind like the contents of a punctured oil pipe. Fluttershy gave a refined scream, and ran to the edge of the cloud floor, about to jump.
She stopped herself at the last half of a second, as she saw a bizarre sight ascending. Trixie was standing on Cheerilee's saddlebags, which even now she was bidding float up into the air. Cheerilee hung on by the straps, her legs dangling uselessly. An exultant smile came onto Fluttershy's face, though still with a hint of sadness left over. "Oooh, thank Celestia, you're both all right. I was so worried...worried that I couldn't save you."
"Don't worry, Fluttershy, we're okay." said Trixie with a warm smile. "But you know what you could have done?...You could have told us that one of the portals lead to a TWENTY THOUSAND FOOT DROP!"
"Oh, oh I'm so sorry!" cried Fluttershy as she flew over.
"Don't just apologise, girl, fix this! If you don't come up with something quick-"
"Do you know the Cloudwalker spell?"
"Why would I know the Cloudwalker spell? What would I possibly have used that for?!"
Cheerilee looked up. "Visiting Cloudsdale, maybe?"
"Butt out, teacher!"
Fluttershy nervously looked down at her hooves. "Erm, well, if I could stand on something, I could be Twilight and perform the spell. Could you scooch over a little-?"
"Are you crazy?! You expect me to hang on to the edge while you do your sky jumper spell and pray that my palms don't get sweaty?!"
"Oh, that doesn't sound good... I wonder if there are still birds visiting here? Maybe if I got enough to support my weight... I hope it works."
"Whatever you do, do it quickly! I don't know how much longer I can keep this up!"
"Hang on, Trixie. I'll be right back, I promise!" Fluttershy headed for the main city.
At first glance, the streets of Cloudsdale were completely deserted. Sure, the floor was in pieces, but for anypony with wings, it seemed to be a cakewalk...cakefly. Fluttershy felt somewhat at ease as she drifted down the lane. It was only when she felt the shadow pass over her, looked up, and saw dozens of black dots flitting hither and thither through the air did she begin to worry. She felt a foal for not considering the possibility of Winged Kin.
Fluttershy widened her wings and flew through a gap in the buildings. She began to weave her way through the little tunnels formed by cracks in the wall, and all of the little nooks and crannies. Every so often, she peeked out to look up at the sky. Every time a Kin passed over, she would invariably freeze up until the Kin seemed to look downwards, at which point she flew even faster.
Eventually, she came to a spot where she decided she would be safe. A small portion of space in between four buildings, with a gap in the ground. She had always found it was a nice, secluded place to watch the birds flying below. There were a lot of spaces like that in Clousdale, but in here, Fluttershy knew it was just her and the birds.
She sat at the edge and looked down the hole. "Hello?" she whispered. "Hello?"
She sighed and leant on her elbow, not sure if she should even try calling again, when she head the faint fluttering of tiny wings. She looked down, and saw what might have been a sparrow flying past underneath. "Psst! This way."
The bird, thankfully, took notice. It fluttered upwards, into the hole in the clouds, and sat on Fluttershy's wrist. But it didn't make a single sound as it did so.
"You must be scared about all the ponies in armour flying around. You don't to be caught by them." She tickled the bird under its chin. "Don't worry, little birdy. I'll take care of you." She hugged the bird closer, gently enough not to frighten it away. Suddenly, she noticed the large white part on its back. At first glance, it seemed like an oddly coloured back. But as she touched it, and as she picked it up, she found it to be a white feather.
"Say, little birdy, do you know where to find another feather like this?"
The bird nodded.
"Could you take me there?"
The bird paused, then shook its head.
"Oh, don't worry. Like I said, I'll keep you safe, no matter what. Please show me the way?" she asked, looking imploringly at the little thing.
The bird finally chirruped, and flew away. Fluttershy followed behind. Not much could be said about their journey. It was the same creeping through the torn-up streets of clouds, the same ducking through alleyways, the same being-ever-so-careful-not-to-let-those-evil-things-flying-everywhere-get-you.
After a while, Fluttershy found herself hiding across the lane from one of the old weather factories. The building towered up into what was left of the heavens, but seemed no longer abuzz with life and worker ponies. The ground was littered with cloud wreckage, and general garbage. The door that stood not so far away from where she hid was barred by strange planks, not made from wood but pitch black and covered in moving purple lines. Two Kin stood in the middle of the road, and Fluttershy strained to hear what they were saying.
Fluttershy turned away, breathing fast. Cooking animals? To eat them? Why, it was the most monstrous thing she'd ever heard! She'd heard of animals in the Everfree forest hunting down and eating each other, without ponies to provide food for them. She'd even seen a few wild birds eating worms, perish the thought. But to process and cook another living thing? ...What kind of sadistic creatures were feeding that to slaves?
Wait a moment, there were slaves? This night just kept getting worse and worse.
"Wait here, little birdy. I'll make sure the cost is clear." Fluttershy peeked around the corner. She looked left, and then right. The Kin had left, and now the doors were safe for opening. Fluttershy crept out of the alleyway, looked both ways as she nervously crossed the street, then as she reached the door, she heard a piece of the wreckage move.
With force enough to nearly crack her bones, a dark blur shot from the shadows and knocked her sideways. She didn't have time to hit the ground before a second blur came from the other side and knocked her straight upwards. The black shapes rammed her and rammed her, knocking her higher into the air, until she became Rainbow Dash and got her bearings and wing balance. The two Kin hovered in front over her, wings raised, both majestic and wraithlike. Dash darted forward, only to be struck hard in the chest by something coming up from below, slashed at both sides of her body, and struck hard in the back. Winded, Dash plummeted through a hole in the clouds.
The wind was rushing past her.
She kept her eyes closed. She couldn't let them hear her scream.
She tried to open her wings. Her sides stung like moon from the slices.
She wondered how close the ground would be now.
Suddenly she stopped. Her eyes shot open. There was a sharp pain on her scalp. Something had caught her by the hair, dangling her above the massive expanse below. It couldn't have been a tree; she was too high up.
She didn't care what it was right now. She just felt so very happy to be alive. On any other day, she'd have found it exhilarating to plummet like that. But all she could think about was how Fluttershy had fallen from the sky all those years ago. And right now, she felt so good to have survived she was laughing.
She looked all around the sky. She didn't care how bleak it was, she just laughed. She looked down at the ground. She didn't care how high she was, she just laughed. She looked back at the thing that caught her. The laughter stopped dead in her throat.
The thing that caught her looked back at her, with piercing eyes that it didn't have. It stared at her closely, analysing every aspect of her. Judging her. Then, finally, the thing that caught her set her down again, slowly released her mane from its clutch.
It ran a talon down her side. She shivered from the touch, then noticed that there was no blood on her, from where she'd felt razor wings cut her before. She didn't even feel like she'd been injured at any point. The thing that caught her rubbed two of its talons together, as if inspecting for dust. Then it laid a claw on her cheek, tilting its head quizzically. Then it patted her head, and watched her, as she felt herself rise into the air.
She kept eye contact with the thing that caught her, so to speak, and noticed as she kept looking downwards that she was on a floating black slab, criss crossed with dancing purple lines, just as the boards on the door had been. A slab of solid shadow, that carried her upwards, but at an angle, away from the towering factory.
As the thing that caught her drifted out of sight, her vision was obscured by a bank of grey clouds. As she rose through the 'ground' of Cloudsdale, she saw a great number of floating shadow slabs in the distance. And also some right in front of her. With Winged Kin standing on them.
After a ludicrous amount of retreating, Rainbow Dash finally managed to hide behind a cloud and give her pursuers the slip. She watched them soaring into the distance, then decided it was safe to head back to the shadow tablets. Once she got there, she found to her initial pleasure that they could be pushed about through the air. And so began the arduous task of gathering the platforms together, and herding them back to where she had first arrived.
By the time she'd got back, her allies had suddenly gone. A sense of dread overcame her once again. She rushed over to the spot where they'd been and looked down. Luckily, Trixie was still working her magic and both were floating there. Unluckily, Trixie was sinking rapidly and drenching the saddlebags in her sweat. "...Took you long enough..." she hissed.
"Don't worry, I'm a-coming!" Rainbow Dash dropped down, and zipped underneath Cheerilee. She put her front hooves to Cheerilee's belly, and pushed her up through the air. Trixie's magic made it so much easier. In seconds, she was level with the five platforms she'd collected, and tossed the two aboard. Trixie collapsed to the ground, looking for all the world like she'd crossed a desert back and forth, with no food and water, while wearing a parka.
Twilight plonked down onto a platform, and straightened herself up. "Are you two okay?"
"I'll be fine," said Cheerilee, "And so will Trixie, I'm sure."
"Shut." said Trixie, "Up."
Twilight's horn started to glow. "Now, if I can remember how it went, the spell was something like..." A cloud of white light flew from the tip of her horn, and split itself into three in the air. The clouds danced through the air like sea snakes, swooshed around the three ponies, and disappeared into their hooves, causing the soles to shine. "Okay, that should do it!" Twilight experimentally jumped back and forth from the platforms to the cloud pathway. Sure enough, she didn't plummet.
Trixie managed to push herself up to a standing position. "Finally, I can change out of these stinking shrouds." Standing tall and closing her eyes, Trixie shone her horn brightly, causing the cloth wrapped around her to become bathed in light. Released from physical bounds, the shrouds leapt off of her, writhed and rearranged itself in mid air, then once again returned to their mistress. The light faded, revealing the glimmering star-spangled cape and hat of the Great and Powerful Trixie.
Cheerilee chuckled. "You two are making me wish I was a unicorn."
"We've got to go," said Twilight. "They could start cooking the poor things any moment."
"What poor things?"
"I overheard the Kin saying that they were actually cooking animals to feed to their servants." She passed Cheerilee the feather she'd found. "I can't imagine what kind of monster they've got working for them that enjoys roast bird."
Cheerilee turned the feather over and over. "...Um, Twilight? I think it might be worse than you think."
Twilight was afraid to ask. "How so?"
"Twilight, this isn't a bird feather..." Cheerilee looked up apprehensively. "...It's a griffon feather."
"Griffon?! But that means...and they're gonna..." Twilight's eyes went wide. "Oh no, Gilda's in there!"
"Who's Gilda?" asked Trixie.
"An old friend of Rainbow Dash from flight camp," Cheerilee replied. "They stopped meeting up after Gilda caused in town."
"No no no no please don't let it be true!" Twilight turned to the two with panic in her eyes. "We've got to find her! It might not be too late!"
Cheerilee was taken aback, "I agree we have to save her, though after the way she bullied your friends, I didn't think you cared this much."
"WELL RAINBOW DASH DOES!"Twilight shifted forms again and shot through the air. All Trixie and Cheerilee could do was try to catch up with the determined pegasus.