The Gauntlet Blazes On

Summary: "Her final wish was for you to be her. Rainbow wants you to survive her spirit, her loyalty to be more exact. She needs you. She needs you to be the Element of Loyalty, Scootaloo."

English Friendship/Hurt/Comfort Rated: T Chapters: Words: Scootaloo

Part One:

The Letter

The letter had no return address or even a significant marking. Just her own name, printed neatly in the corner. For hours, the envelope had sat patiently on the kitchen table, and now, Scootaloo eyed it as she enjoyed a breakfast of freshly-picked apples and daisies. She was accustomed to fan mail, irritated by it even, but the cautious faction of her mind (at least, what was left of it) proposed the letter might be something different.

"You're gonna keep staring at me until I open you," the orange pegasus declared wryly, placing the last of her daisies back on the dish. As usual, the envelope had no response. She sighed, nudging the plate away and reaching across to retrieve the lone piece of mail. "If you're fan mail, I swear… " Scootaloo utilized her teeth to tear the seal, wincing at the ghastly flavor of saliva and dried glue. An ivory sheet of parchment unfurled itself across the tablecloth, and, her curiosity piqued, Scootaloo leaned in to read it.

Dear Scootaloo,

You may not remember me, but I am Twilight Sparkle, a close friend of Rainbow Dash and a bearer of the Element of Magic. I am terribly sorry to inform you that Rainbow Dash passed on in her sleep three days ago. She was a truly magnificent mare and led a life that she should have been extremely proud of. I have written to you to pass on the message she had for you, before she passed on.

Her final wish was for you to be her. Rainbow wants you to survive her spirit, her loyalty to be more exact. She needs you. She needs you to be the Element of Loyalty, Scootaloo.

Rainbow Dash loved you with all of her heart, and her wish was for you to carry on her legacy. You see, incase you were not already aware, the original Elements of Harmony have all passed on. I am the lone survivor, but I know my days are numbered. So, after consultation with the princesses, we have decided six new ponies must be chosen to replace us.

Scootaloo, Rainbow wanted you to be the Element of Loyalty. If she truly believed this was your future, I believe her. You are a loyal mare, and I believe that with your help, you can find the remaining five. So, if your Wonderbolt schedule clears, I invite you back to Ponyville. I will be in my library if you wish to locate me and I hope you do pay me a visit. It seems all my friends have gone.

Good luck Scootaloo. I have faith in you.

Sincerely,

Twilight Sparkle

Scootaloo had once plummeted at full speed into a gravel-laden clearing. She could recall the sensation: a sickening moment of fear as she realized she was losing control, the struggle to swerve away, the skull-shattering sounds once she collided with the Earth. All of that was nothing- - no, less than nothing, compared to the shock now. For the better part of five minutes, the pegasus stared listlessly at the verbose message, rereading it multiple times for full comprehension.

The ice quickly melted: Scootaloo had always been an emotional mare. Rainbow Dash is dead? Tears pooled in her gray-violet eyes and that feeling set in. The gravel against her cheek, the terror of never breathing again, the Earth spinning cheerfully on, knowing she was dying. Rainbow Dash wasn't dead. This was a mare who had crashed through a canopy of foliage, fractured her left wing, sprained both forelegs, and received a severe concussion. She had limped away from the accident site with a somewhat delirious smile, while rivulets of scarlet blood cascaded down her cheek.

"And that is how you crash. Any questions?"

Peguasi like Rainbow didn't die. Even when facing the gargantuan maw of Death, they would be dragged away kicking and screaming. They did not slip quietly into the night, like Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy. There was, without a doubt, no way to replace Dash, or even consider following in her hoof steps. She had left a mark on Equestria that no amount of time could erode.

"Elements of Harmony, Elements of Harmony," Scootaloo found herself repeating darkly, wings lifting her right off the cumulus flooring. A strangled chuckle escaped her throat, having to battle a sob that was preparing to leave her lungs. "Yeah Twilight, I'll just take Rainbow's place as Loyalty. You know, not a problem. I'LL JUST TAKE THE JOB AND MAYBE PICK UP SOME GROCERIES WHILE I'M DOWN THERE!"

Yelling always seemed to help. In fact, Scootaloo screamed while she tore the envelope to jagged squares and stormed around her home, addressing any inanimate object that reminded her, even vaguely, of Rainbow Dash. "YOU WERE THERE FOR MY FIRST RACE, WHEN I JOINED THE JUNIOR SPEEDSTERS, WHEN I MADE THE WONDERBOLTS! Where are you now?"

Throat swollen and eyes stinging, the mare leaned against her sofa, glaring at the remnants of Twilight's parchment. As much as she desired to project her rage at Twilight for bearing the bad news, Scootaloo couldn't so much as think an ill thought of the unicorn. Twilight Sparkle had lost all of her friends and was now living her final days in solitude. Scootaloo may have been grieving, but Twilight had been mourning for years.

She had been writing Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle whenever possible, which wasn't often, since her schedule made Discord seem well-balanced and her mouth-writing was atrocious. They had reported the deaths of Applejack and Rarity, respectively, along with Pinkie's and Fluttershy's. Because the average life span of a pony was nothing remotely remarkable, Scootaloo hadn't been surprised. Remorseful, yes, miserable, yes. But not surprised.

At least Rainbow Dash had kept Twilight company. She sniffled and swiped at her eyes, the image of the brash pegasus sharing a cup of tea with her close friend surfacing in her mind. "I bet you even let her talk about her studies," Scootaloo said aloud, repelling the spirits with the abrupt appearance of speech.

This Element of Harmony business. Who was Twilight kidding? Scootaloo may have been loyal: she never abandoned her fellow crusaders, not even when both acquired cutie marks before her. But Rainbow Dash embodied the very word. Her concealed compassion for her best friends was more powerful than any of the villains they had ever faced. Scootaloo could never be that. Not even close.

"Twilight, you must be older than I thought. Nopony can even get close to the real Elements. Your magic, Dash's loyalty, who can compare? How am I going to find somebody to replace that? How are you going to find them?"

Groaning softly, Scootaloo left her perch on the sofa, gliding to the window that faced the southernmost region of Ponyville. From her magnificent height, she could view the pleasant bustle as the citizens rushed off to work and school. Twilight's library was quite a flight across the town, and would it be worth the trip?

Guess I'll find out. Twilight, you better know what you're talking about.

:::::

It had been a while since Scootaloo had paid the ground a visit and her hooves complained once they came in contact with the unusually rough surface. While on break from their summer performances, the Wonderbolts had undergone a stressful series of conditionings. To be blunt, they were worse than a trip to Tartarus and twice as exhausting.

The ponies around her hadn't changed though. In Ponyville, where politeness and chivalry was cultivated and bred through generations, it was exceedingly rare to come across somepony without a thread of courtesy. Smiles were cast her way, along with the occasional wave of the hoof. She missed this, the peacefulness, the daily routine. She missed Ponyville.

Try she must, Scootaloo failed to locate a pony she was familiar with, or had known in her fillyhood. She felt like she was in a brand new town, complete with a different set of characters. For a moment, Scootaloo felt isolated, utterly alone despite the throngs of mares and stallions surrounding her. The feeling dissipated instantly when she recognized a gangly, beige pegasus at the steps of Ponyville's only art gallery.

"Featherweight?" With the flick of his oversized ears, the stallion turned on his wings to perceive his old classmate drifting towards him. Glad to see her, he grinned, revealing a set of slightly bucked teeth. In spite of the years that had passed since elementary school, Featherweight had yet to lose his rather awkward attributes.

"Oh, hi Scootaloo! It's great to see you!" Never much one for words, Featherweight stopped speaking and continued to smile at the mare. She found him cute, maybe not handsome, not yet, but the boyish nature of his visage was endearing.

"Hey, good to see you too. Let me guess: your pictures are in the gallery?" Scootaloo gestured at the ornate structure with a hoof, smirking when he flushed and folded his wings to his side, as if embarrassed by this fact.

"Yeah. Taking photos for the school paper really pushed me down the right path," Featherweight explained sheepishly, pointing to the display pinned to the enormous windows. A sign declared his name and offered an example of his work. It was a photograph of Cloudsdale from a great distance, so far that a portion of ground was visible as well. Seated on the ground was a young filly, her wings folded to her sides. Scootaloo remembered being that filly.

"Wow, that's amazing. You're pretty talented." She noticed the time printed below his name was drawing near, so she offered one last smile. "Well, it was awesome seeing you, Featherweight. When I'm done here, I might drop in to see your work. Take care."

"You too, Scootaloo. Bye!" The stallion waved a final time before trotting into the gorgeous foyer of the gallery. Once completely hidden from view, Featherweight slid to the marble floor, a rather goofy grin spreading across his face.

"Scootaloo…"

:::::

The library had been carved into an enormous oak tree, but it seemed like the tree had grown irritated by having a pony live within it. Vines choked the windows and roots sprawled across the front walk, cracking the soil pathway. The parapet, once sturdy and glistening, looked about as steady as a cloud beneath an earth pony. From Scootaloo's view, the building remnants visible had been scarred by extreme weather throughout the years. Yet somehow, it still seemed comforting, inviting.

Since there was no lock on the door, the pegasus stepped in without a second thought and instantly surveyed her surroundings. She had to assume Spike was no longer assisting Twilight, which explained the rather shabby condition of the core library. Books were stacked on every shelf, scrolls littered the floor and several inkpots were overturned. Quills floated around her ears, giving the illusion of entering the arena of a cock fight. This wasn't just shabby… this was wrong.

Brow furrowed, Scootaloo glided over to the pedestal where Twilight Sparkle used to display her latest read. Instead of a tome bearing some complex magical spell, there was a scrap of parchment being ignited by a fallen candle. "Ah!" She swiftly beat the flame out with her wing, saving the piece from impending doom. For the second time that day, she settled down to read another message from Twilight.

Scootaloo,

I don't have much time, for I can hear somepony trying to get into the library. This isn't for a visit. There's a reason I wanted to get you here. The Elements need to be found. Equestria is at risk again, and we can't do this on our own. Please, if you find this, continue your search…with or without me.

And never forget- -

The remainder of the sentence was interrupted by a border of black, an unfortunate result of the candle. Frustrated, Scootaloo knocked the wax stub across the library, pleased when the sound of it striking the wall reverberated. Why was nothing going right? Who had kidnapped Twilight? And what should she not forget?

"This is stupid. Not even stupid, this is crazy! Equestria at risk? Why can't the princess deal with this like she did with Princess Luna?" Her multiple questions were left unanswered by the eerie silence of the abandoned space. Twilight had stood here just minutes ago. She had been writing this letter to Scootaloo frantically, scrawling it out in such a way that made her own writing seem like calligraphy.

"I don't want to do this by myself," Scootaloo whispered dejectedly, a certain bleakness washing over her. "There's got to be some other way. I can't do this by myself. I wish… Rainbow Dash was here."

Rainbow would have known what to do. When confronted by a manticore during one of their lessons, the pegasus had flown up to it, chuckled softly, and bucked it hard enough to loosen one of his needle-sharp fangs. She was brave, loyal, unafraid to live life to its fullest extent.

Her final wish was for you to be her.

"Sorry Dash. I just can't be you."

:::::

One last walk was all she needed. Exerted both psychically and emotionally, the mare was prepared to shuffle back through Ponyville, engage in a brief flight back to Cloudsdale, and sleep until tomorrow evening. Her wings drooped like drapes across her flanks; her violet mane was limp with perspiration. Maybe a quick shower could be added to the schedule.

By now, Celestia's sun had shifted to its zenith, proudly glowing over the cheerful little town. Scootaloo glanced up at the few weather ponies lazily dissipating clouds with their wings and pitied them. Unlike Rainbow Dash, she had never wished to acquire such a mundane job. Being a Wonderbolt was much more her speed.

The area that was closest to her home lay just on the outskirts of the marketplace, where businesses and residences were almost nonexistent. She was alone. Although this had troubled her before, Scootaloo was grateful for her privacy. She needed time to contemplate her quandary.

On the furthest span of land before the horizon led it out of sight, there was an outgrowth of ridiculously large trees and vines, overlooking a grove of stones. Whether the vegetation was difficult to care for or simply left alone, it was difficult to tell, but either way, the patch was thick. As Scootaloo stretched her withers to prepare for flight, she eyed the trees with uncertainty for their safety.

Finally. Time to go home and get in- -

"HELP!"

Oh, what now? The irked pegasus refrained from vocalizing the statement, instead flaring her wings and leaning towards the source of the sound. Of course, it was emitted from the same outgrowth she had eyed moments ago. Today is just not my day, is it?

Scootaloo arrived at the edge of the vines like a bolt from the blue, surveying the tentacle-like swirls that seemed to swallow all other ground. Once again, the pitiful cry found its way to her ears. "Hold on, I'm coming!" she replied, flittering every which way in search of an entrance. The canopy of said patch was laced with moss, but Scootaloo never minded getting her hooves dirty.

Underneath the veil, however, a whole other world blossomed. Darkness fell over her swifter than Nightmare Moon's return and her feathers instantly bent as they came in contact with unseen objects. "OW!" Struggling to stay upright, Scootaloo concentrated on adjusting to the change in light and locating the victim.

"Help, help!" Her ears perked at the screech, which could have belonged to a filly or a shrilly-voiced colt. Whoever it was, they were nearby. Scootaloo dove to evade a creaking bough, her lightning quick reflexes coming in handy as she dodged the natural obstacles. "Help me!"

"I'm coming, just keep talkin'!" the mare exclaimed, her hoof barely missing a rotting log. She tumbled through a spiral of ivy that created a wall, and, her forelegs knotted like old yo-yo strings, caught a glimpse of the poor foal.

The butter-yellow filly was suspended by a single branch, her cheeks glowing with the blood rushing to her skull. Her orange mane hung like a curtain, a cerulean ribbon clinging to the last curl. Scootaloo, held at an angle that she was certain couldn't possibly be good for her body, sighed in relief to see the girl wasn't injured. In fact, she didn't seem too young; maybe the age Scootaloo herself had been during late elementary school.

"Hey, kid, take it easy, I'll get you out of here," the pegasus assured, flapping her wings in the hopes of freeing herself. The ivy held fast, but lost the battle to a kick that almost stripped the vines clean of their leaves. Free of the forest death trap, Scootaloo went to work with untangling the filly's tail from the branch.

"And there you go! See, wasn't so hard." Afraid to release her and lose her in the bottomless oblivion, Scootaloo held tightly onto her as she flew through the canopy again. In the daylight, after she blinked the spots away, the pegasus scrutinized the foal again and realized she knew who she was.

"Are you… are you Pumpkin Cake? You know, the Cakes' daughter?" Pumpkin squirmed out of Scootaloo's grasp, landing on her belly and evoking a cringe from the pony. She turned over, gazing up at her savior with thankful eyes that appeared to stare right into her soul. With a nod, Pumpkin rose to her hooves, quickly examining the scrapes she had received in the incident.

Guess she's not much of a talker. "Oh. Well, I kind of knew the Cakes and Pinkie Pie." Pumpkin Cake stiffened when the latter was mentioned, her oceanic eyes glistening with tears. "Oh, sorry, I forgot. She was pretty special to you and Pound, wasn't she?"

"Mommy said she went to go live where the sun is," Pumpkin said wistfully, her expression vacant, almost catatonic. "She wasn't old yet. Pinkie said she wouldn't leave us until she was old and gray. Like Daddy. Was Pinkie your friend?"

Mommy said she went to go live where the sun is. The haunting explanation of Death echoed within her mind, still carrying the filly's dulcet tone. If the Cakes were alive… Scootaloo paged through her memories, hoping to recall the content of Sweetie's latest letter…

went to my parents' house Sunday for Mother's Day, and had dinner with them. It was nice, but I don't know if they quite approve of me yet. A daughter who's a…

Sweetie Belle's parents were alive; Apple Bloom, though vague on the topic, mentioned taking a train to Appleloosa on Sunday as well. That meant… the Elements of Harmony must have died young. Perhaps not young enough to be considered so, but they definitely had life to live.

Pumpkin cocked her head, studying the mare who saved her from plummeting to the thickets below. She was aware attempting to maneuver objects in such harsh conditions was a rather stupid decision, and promised to never try again. She was lucky, Pumpkin thought, to have somebody around at the time. "Miss? Miss, are you okay?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah… say, uh, Pumpkin, your Mom and Dad, they're, um, Cup and Carrot, right?" A nod confirmed this. "Right. Would you mind if I walked you home? I'd like to see them again and kind of explain to them what happened. Sound good?" The petite unicorn responded physically yet again, and trotted after Scootaloo as she lurched forward, movements unconscious. Side by side, they started into Ponyville, with a single thought surfacing in Scootaloo's mind.

With all the stuff going on today, something tells me I won't be getting that nap anytime soon.