Moving clouds came naturally to a pegasus. From the moment they were born, they tossed little bunches of cumulus beneath their hooves. The texture, the ethereal body of the cloud was like nothing else (and the taste somewhat startling, for being mostly moisture) and it seemed that one could move an immense amount of cloud matter without much trouble. A little push in the air and they drifted at a pony's whim.
But Cloudsdale was obviously more than a mere cluster of clouds. It was a metropolis of crafted homes and venues—tracks and schools and arenas. With a little fluff and flourish, they all looked like nothing more than a fleet of clouds moving across the sky. Rows after row of buildings drifted towards the Unicorn Mountains. The ponies of Cloudsdale moved it in one fell swoop. Anything short would have left a trail and some hint as to where they'd gone. To the rest of Equestria, it'd look as if they'd simply vanished.
A perfect tactic, Rainbow thought, although a cowardly one.
Rainbow Dash led a squad of pegasi in a wide V-formation, one of many made to cut the wind and create a wake for the rest of the fliers to push the clouds through. The wild spread beneath them, and though miles from Canterlot, the influence of chaos had spread even there. Some trees ceased to be trees at all, instead clumps of metal, or green gelatin, or else a myriad of colors that barely conformed to a sense of anything. Some clung with their roots to small islands of land that rose into the sky, almost high enough to meet their flight path.
The ground was the last thing on Rainbow's mind.
“Cloud Chaser,” she said, without looking to the pegasus on her right. “Break formation and circle the right flank. Get a tally.”
“Whistler already said no pony is missing,” said the purple pegasus. “And where would we have left them?”
“It's crucial we have every pegasus. And we're not leaving anypony behind. Ask again.”
Cloud Chaser grunted and then snapped her wings taut, letting the rest of the flock pass by as she rode the wind back towards the sea of clouds. Another half dozen pegasi closed on Rainbow's right, filling the formation.
Every group of pegasus had a leader, Rainbow knew, and they were responsible for knowing where all of their group was. And each of those groups reported to a larger group, all the way up to Spitfire, who lead from the front. It should not have taken long to check each of these groups. But minutes dragged on and Cloud Chaser had still not returned.
The wind changed and Rainbow tilted herself against it. It thrust her mane back and forced her to beat her wings harder to force her way through the wall of wind. And her wingponies were struggling to keep up.
“Only a few hundred more wingbeats,” she told them, letting the currents of air carry her voice back. “Come on! You're the best fliers in Equestria, and Cloudsdale is counting on you. Give it your all!”
They did. Not everypony had gotten used to the massive cross-country trips that Rainbow had. The journey battered them, wore them to the bone and then some. But in the end they eventually found respite and calm air behind the high rising cliffs of the mountains.
The lead groups landed upon plateaus and bits of cloud to catch their breath and drink what moisture they could find. They dotted the mountainside in the colors of their coats, and one by one the clouds shifted to a stop, safely hidden behind the rock. Satisfied that she had done her job, Rainbow Dash retreated to the turret to oversee the rest of the move.
“Your formation was uneven, Rainbow.”
Rainbow Dance glanced over as Spitfire landed beside her, a single beat of her wings steadying her on the ground. “We made it here, didn't we?”
“It put a lot more stress on everyone flying. Not just your wing. Every group behind you had to compensate. It could have broken the line.”
“But it didn't,” said Rainbow Dash. “And I'm just worried.”
“I'm worried too, Rainbow.”
Spitfire pulled back her goggles and rubbed her eyes. Even the captain was beginning to show signs of wear and tear from the weeks they'd spent in the air. “I'm worried about you,” she said.
Before she could reply, Cloud Chaser whipped across the top of the rock, panting. She gave a quick salute to Spitfire. “All pegasi have completed their count again.”
“And?” said Rainbow Dash. “Is everyone here? Is everyone okay?”
Cloud Chaser glanced at Spitfire, who gave her a nod. The purple filly hung her head. “It seems like everypony was taken out of Cloudsdale, but we're missing one.”
“What?” Rainbow's heart jumped in her chest. She was just being careful. She hated being right, if it meant that somepony was in trouble. Her wings flared up and she took a step. “Who?”
Spitfire cleared her throat. “Which group, Cloud Chaser? Which pony, and where did we lose them?”
“I don't know,” sputtered Cloud Chaser. “I mean, where they went. Where they could have gone. An orange pegasus, barely more than a filly. Under Cloudkicker's care... I believe her name was Scootaloo.”
Rainbow's wings traveled higher. “Her? She can't fly yet! You were supposed to... someone was supposed to be watching the children! And she's just... gone?”
“I'm afraid so,” said Cloud Chaser. “What do we do...?”
Rainbow knew what to do. Gather every pony and fan out, look for her, before something happened. One of her friends had fallen from the clouds, once, and she'd gotten lucky. With the ground the way it was, though, there was no time to waste.
But Spitfire spoke first. “Get some rest and some water,” she told Cloud Chaser. “You've done enough for now.”
“Thank you,” said Cloud Chaser, before diving back for the clouds below.
Rainbow followed after Spitfire. “We have to get everyone back in the air, and...”
“And what?” snapped Spitfire, as if ready to cut her off. “Most of these ponies are totally exhausted. You want them to scatter across the ground to look for one pony? We don't even know where we lost her. The count could have been mistaken.”
I can't believe this, thought Rainbow Dash. “A pegasus, a child is missing, and you don't want to do anything about it?”
“Of course I do!” Spitfire sighed and paced around the edge of the rocks. “But if we send a bunch of worn out ponies across the ground, we're going to be losing more than one. We have to hold together.”
Rainbow Dash shook her head. Her wings were sore, but not beaten. Her body had been hardened by her training and she knew she could handle it. “So let me look for her.”
“No?” Dash snorted and dug her heels into the dirt. “Look. I agreed to help you, to listen to you, but that's because I thought you knew better. But if that's your answer? I don't know if I can.”
Spitfire closed her eyes. “I knew you would feel that way,” she said. “Look. These wings?” she said, indicating the Wonderbolt mark on her suit. “They mean more than fame and fortune. They mean more than brash heroics. It's our duty to protect Equestria, and to protect Cloudsdale. If something happens because we send out a search party, that's going to be on me. Once we've recovered from the move, I can set up a team to look for Scootaloo, but until then, we have to stay strong.”
She turned and pointed at Rainbow Dash. “That's what it means to be a Wonderbolt. To have to make the difficult decisions. To do what's best for the herd. If you really want these wings, Rainbow, you have to accept that.”
Even with her wings up and ready, Rainbow Dash felt like a ton of lead. She drew a breath and looked away. “I don't know. I don't know what it means to be in your horseshoes. But I'm not you. And if having that suit means that I can't help a pony when she's in trouble...”
Rainbow Dash shook her head. Her words felt like frostbite on her tongue, but she had to speak them. She turned away from Spitfire and looked down over the sprawl of clouds that made up Cloudsdale.
“I don't know if I want them after all.”
A couple of tears fell from her eyes, hitting the turret ground like raindrops, and then she dove off into flight, away from the pegasi.
Rarity carried as much as she could in one load of magic, which was, naturally, quite a respectable cargo for a unicorn. Behind her floated a mass of fancy chairs, pots, pans, serving trays, table linings, and every little bit of décor that the palace kept aside for special occasions. The ghost of its weight strained along her back and in her horn but she kept her composure and walked calmly down the stair from her tower to the storage beneath the castle.
Pinkie performed marvelously, she'd thought, in finding the ponies that she'd asked for—and a few others that she hadn't, but there was little she could do about that. The trouble was that Blueblood had also been moving in a cadre of unicorns, and between his accumulation and Discord's disruptive redesigns of the castle, space was at a premium.
A brown stallion passing her up the stairs paused as their paths crossed. “Ah! There you are. I was meaning to inquire...”
Rarity smiled over at Turner but did not stop her descent, instead indicating for him to follow. “If it's about your room, I have it about clear. Mind you it's somewhat of a sparse affair. And I apologize for how cramped it is, I just...”
“Oh, that's quite alright for me,” the stallion laughed. “I think I can do wonders with it regardless. No, I wanted to get a chance to talk to you about my responsibilities.”
They paused their chatter for a moment as they descended a floor, passing a pair of guards. Not everyone in the castle shared her dislove of Blueblood, after all. But once they had gone beyond their sight and sound, Turner spoke again.
“You can't believe how impossible my job is becoming these days with the sun and the moon completely out of whack. To you it's eventide, but did you know it's actually just hours past the turning of midnight? My internal clock hasn't changed since... well, ever! But ponies don't want to hear it's time for breakfast when they're settling in for dessert. I've been running around Ponyville for weeks, setting the clocks by the whims of the sun rather than the one that ticks in my heart...” He trailed off, ears leaning to the side. “Is something funny?”
Rarity blushed and realize she'd been giggling in the smallest of bursts. She couldn't help it. “Oh, I'm sorry, it's just your accent. Trottingham?”
Turner puffed up a bit as if in pride. “No, but it runs in me. I'm Ponyville through and through.”
“All the better.” Rarity stopped at the first door at the bottom of the staircase. A row of doors, twisting corridors carried off towards the lower levels of Castle Canterlot. She needed only to make use of the vacant chambers to store all the junk in her tower. Turner opened the door before she could tug at it with another spell, and she smiled and dipped her head.
Inside sat the fruits of her day's labor. Neat stacks of plates and preserved flowers and pitchers and every utensil imaginable. She delicately sat her latest load on the floor and began sorting them item by item into appropriate groups.
She spoke as she sorted, plate by plate drifting by between them. “As for your responsibilities, the castle is in desperate need of a pony of your talents. You'll be responsible for making sure that every implement is exact, morning, noon, and eve. And any other time you deem appropriate.”
Turner nodded. “I'm grateful for the invitation, Rarity, but I can't help but wonder if a servant might have sufficed for this.”
“Perhaps, but no one will question your presence with your particular talents. And so much happens to depend upon time around here. Meetings, appointments, vast royal conspiracies...” she smiled over at him. “You understand.”
And that put a twinkle in the stallion's eyes. “Ah. And if I should just happen to perceive something while going about my duties, it would be only polite to fill in my dear neighbor on the affairs.”
“I'm not one for the rudeness of gossip,” she said, “but I'm afraid it is my duty. Besides...”
Rarity tapped the side of a mug against his chest. “I hope there comes a day when we will need the true time, again, and I want you there.”
As the stallion flustered and smoothed his tie, and she'd placed the last folded cloth upon its brethren, she heard a familiar set of hoofsteps. Alone, oddly, but unmistakable: the heavy thomp of a fetlocked stallion who could only pretend to know true grace. Rarity urged Turner behind a pile of end-tables and turned to face the opening door.
“Prince Blueblood,” she said, giving a proper courtesy as he came in. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
He brushed past her and took the room in quickly. “Ah, I'm beginning to see why Princess Luna kept you on. You make an excellent housekeeper.”
Rarity laughed acidly. “I cannot help it if maintaining the palace falls upon my humble hooves. Unless you'd prefer I distract the servants from kissing your fetlocks.”
The prince shook his mane but gave little reaction. He hadn't allowed himself to surrender an inch of victory to her after his explosion at the meeting. “And I can't help but notice that you brought on a court musician. It's unfortunate that I already have one...”
“Only a poor keep has but one entertainer,” Rarity retorted. “What do you want, Blueblood?”
Prince Blueblood turned and met her gaze. “I want you to reconsider, Rarity. You're sharp and in spite of your downfalls you still have that bit of regalness that makes a unicorn a unicorn. If you would support me, we could rally the castle in an instant.”
Shock worried over Rarity's face if but for an instant. An instant was enough to betray a weakness, but she swallowed it quick and hoped he would not notice. Of course he would beg for her help, alone, where none could see them. And no one would believe if she or Turner claimed such, but it meant that Blueblood considered her enough of a threat to parlay with. But she knew her response.
“Then it is only by virtue of my dissent that we are still alive and well within the castle walls,” she said. “I'm afraid the answer is still no.”
Blueblood scowled. “Fine. Remember this when I take back what is rightfully mine. Remember I offered you forgiveness and grace.”
Rarity did all she could to do nothing more than smile. “Of course,” she said. “Now tell me. You haven't been intercepting my mail, have you?”
This gave Blueblood pause. “No, I'm not prone to the same poisonous tacts you enjoy. Why, is someone tampering with it?”
She searched him, and he did not seem to be lying. This did not comfort her. “I don't know,” she said. “My sister isn't returning my letters. She normally writes every day... even when Nightmare Moon sat upon the throne, she wrote. And now it's been days. I fear something has happened to her.”
And then he lifted a hoof and with strange delicateness placed it upon her shoulder, and for but a moment she could see no pride or venom in his gaze. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I do not know what may have become of her, but I will send some of the guard to investigate immediately.”
Rarity's mouth hung open. She shifted uneasily and it was moments before she shook her head. “No, I... it's alright. Do not trouble yourself. I have friends who can look for me.”
The prince released her and took a step back. “I will send them anyway,” he said and offered a cordial smile. “Besides, if you're speaking of your bouncing pink friend, you may not be able to count on her any longer. There has been an accident on the Princess' Road, and we cannot send our troops far enough to investigate. I hope you understand.”
All of the bits of sympathy she'd gathered for him in those few moments were washed aside in a wave of dread and loathing.
He's lying, she told herself. To get me off guard. He couldn't pick her out on the road. But if he knows where she is bound, then he too has eyes beyond the castle walls. He must be lying...
If they were gone, she would know it in her heart. Yet doubt hung over her and she couldn't help but fear the loss of two ponies so dear to her.
Shadows filled Apple Bloom's room, and nothing more. Even the memories of Applejack's sister seemed fuzzy and muted as she stared at the empty bed, perfectly made. The scattering of toys put away in their chest, drawings pinned on walls and resting on the desk. Apple Bloom had gone out to play and not come home that day.
She picked a pink ribbon off of her bed and held it against her face. “Gracious, I hope you're alright...” she said, trying to muster the beginnings of a lecture. But she didn't have it in her. She just wanted her sister back.
Her heart leapt as somepony came in downstairs and she raced to meet them. But they were too heavy to belong to Applebloom.
Big Macintosh stood in the doorway, covered in dust and muck.
“Did you check Sugarcube Corner?” asked Applejack.
The red stallion nodded, head low. “Eyup.”
“And the library. The carousel?”
Big Macintosh nodded after each question. He pushed his way inside and worked up a mug of water. “I asked everyone,” he said, breaking his usual monotone. “Not a pony seen or heard our little sister for days. And Granny knows every inch of this orchard. I don't want to think what might have...”
Applejack shook her head and cut him off. She worked her way outside, pink ribbon between her teeth. The first sprinklings of rain fell down from the night sky, struck her back, and tingled a bit before evaporating.
“Winona!” she called.
The dog barked and bolted out of the barn, sitting in front of Applejack. Then she let a little whine.
“You're worried too, huh.” She mussed Winona behind the ears and lowered the ribbon. “Please. I know it ain't much, but if you can catch her scent...”
Winona buried her nose in the soft fabric and took a good whiff. Then she turned to the air and began to search, not even flinching at each bit of rain that pelted down upon them. The dog followed a thread of trail, and Applejack followed her, hoping that there would be something.
Winona ran and Applejack was her shadow. They twisted through the orchard in figure-eights, and it seemed as if they picked on new trails and fell on old ones before they tapired out altogether. But Winona would not stop searching and Applejack would not give up on her so long as there was still some hope.
When their path twisted toward the Ponyville road she felt a little bit of hope. Whatever had been the cause of Apple Bloom's absence, she didn't care. She could forgive some slight of mischief, some accident or happening. As long as she got her sister back.
The storm continued to lash about the orchard and dark branches scraped behind them. They dashed through fizzing puddles and towards the light of the city.
Then Winona turned away and lead Applejack another way. To a different road that led to the Everfree.
Then Winona's nose twisted and she stopped, spun in a circle, yards from the forest or anywhere. She traced the trail back, and forward again, and cocked her head to the side. She let a little howl.
“It can't end there,” said Applejack, panting. She pushed Winona on the head. “Did she go in there? Oh, why in tarnation would she... but did she? C'mon, pup...”
Winona smelled the area carefully, tracing every inch of road and wet grass. The force of the wind blew the clouds, and Discord's fascimile of weather gave way to the the large, full moon resting close on the horizon. Pearl light lit the land and sent tendrils of shadow fading into the dark behind tree and post and towards Ponyville. Every which way the darkness went.
After minutes had passed, Winona slinked by Applejack and sat down, letting a low whine.
“It's not your fault,” she muttered, tugging her hat down over her face. “You're a good girl.”
Winona leaned up and licked her face. Her teeth remained clenched.
I'd sing a thousand songs and walk a thousand miles to have you back here with me, thought Applejack. This ain't over, sis. If you're lost, I'll find you. And if you were taken away by some nightmare I'll bring you back.
Once she had taken steps into the forest with her friends, to find the Elements of Harmony. That seemed so long ago, now. Now the forest seemed even darker. But if there was a chance Applebloom was inside, she wasn't going to wait. She straightened her hat and glanced back at Winona.
“Why don'cha go home to Big Mac and let'im know where I gone off to,” she said.
The dog persisted, but she eventually managed to coax her companion into returning home. One hoof after the other, she strayed into the Everfree Forest.