Diver pushed open the door from the lobby of the Nimbus Inn, and reached a stormy stadium. A cage thirty feet high filled the middle of a dark cloud-cave lit by dazzling spotlights. Around a hundred horse-people sat on cushioned concrete benches to either side. The stands had room for twice as many, making him wonder about the true population size, but the room still felt crowded. Diver made his way leftward to a free seat and plopped down with his hindlegs splayed and his forelegs between them, which seemed like this body's most natural sitting pose. He looked around for Scale and Meteor, who'd left while he was checking on Major Key. It was disappointing not to have them watch, but some part of Noctis was probably in the crowd.
Inside the cage, the batty Nimbus wore a microphone headset. "Stallions and mares, welcome to another edition of Battle Dome! You know the rules, so let's hear 'em!"
The audience took up a chant. "Two horse enter, one horse leave!" They stomped the floor to make their own thunder. "Two horse enter, one horse leave!"
Nimbus raised one hoof and cued an actual boom of thunder from the cloud around them. "Our first match tonight is some new blood. On the north side of the arena, we've got a wandering star who was once ban-hammered for arson. It's Peat the Unicorn!"
A moss-green unicorn trotted through a gate in the cage and pranced around, making silly faces. Didn't look like a dangerous criminal.
"On the north side, it's a newbie pegasus looking to make a name for himself. Does he fight for justice, or to pay a secret debt? Please welcome the stallion of mystery, Sky Diver!"
A spotlight speared him. Diver's wings flittered in the sudden hot beam, but he climbed down from his seat to enter the cage's other gate. I'm supposed to beat a guy to death for these people's amusement, with my bare hooves?
Clubs, swords, rocks and a morningstar materialized along various parts of the cage.
"That's not what I meant," he murmured.
Nimbus hustled out of the cage and rang a bell by kicking it. Battle music with heavy bass started.
The unicorn stepped forward, eyed Diver, and jabbed a hoof toward him, suddenly serious. "The Eternal Spear must never fall into the hooves of a cursed one like you!"
Diver blinked. "The what, now?" He'd never heard of this.
Peat used the distraction to rush him and pounce, leading with a hoof-punch to Diver's neck. Diver staggered back and took a glancing blow to his ribs.
You have taken a minor wound! said the world's interface.
"Yes, thank you," he muttered. Diver flicked one wing at Peat's face, fell back, and flapped to get airborne. "You're just making up nonsense, aren't you?"
Peat scurried toward a scimitar that jutted from the cage. His horn glowed green and he jerked his head as though pulling with it. The weapon flew free and hovered unsteadily in the grip of an emerald aura around its hilt. The unicorn brandished it in front of him as though he had hands.
Meanwhile, Diver circled the arena from above. He couldn't stop and hover. His foe tried to jab up at him, but didn't seem to have any reach with his magic. Just when Diver got complacent, Peat stabbed farther and came dangerously close. Then Peat hurled the blade, sacrificing his grip to make a deadly flying slash.
Diver yelped and veered to starboard. The blade clipped his left wing -- Minor wound! -- and made him crash back to the floor, wincing. He needed the height advantage. He forced himself back into the air, circling and feinting to keep Peat from getting properly re-armed. The crowd hooted and a vendor called out, "Popcorn, apples!"
Peat went wide-eyed and pointed to somewhere near Diver. "What's that over there?!"
Diver razzed him. His wings were running out of power on this hop; there was a time limit or something. He used the last of their strength to power-dive at Peat. The unicorn swung a club desperately at Diver but misjudged the timing. Diver didn't. His forehooves smacked into Peat's head with a crack. The impact threw Diver, an inexperienced flier, off to one side so that he landed dizzy at the cage's edge. He rolled to dodge a flying rock, then used his mouth to snatch up a morningstar that was within easy reach. He took a look at the menacing iron spike-ball dangling from a chain next to his face, then spat the thing out. "As amusing as that might be for the audience, I'll pass." He looked around for something more suited to his body. Peat was staggering from his head injury, but he'd lifted another rock and had another sword within easy reach. There was no blood anywhere.
I'm a pegasus. Swinging knives around in my mouth is something a human might do to imitate a fighting style they know. It's naive. In the absence of something custom-made, the best weapon here is... me.
Diver charged like cavalry. Peat flung his rock right into the space where Diver would jump, but Diver saw that coming. He slid at the unicorn, across the concrete floor, and painfully parried the sword using the bottom of his forehooves. The pegasus yanked his enemy up off the floor with a fireman's carry and struggled into the air with him. Peat flailed but Diver managed to get an even better grip on him from behind. Then he got as high as the ceiling allowed, tipped over backward, and did a flying piledriver that cratered the floor and nailed Peat into it headfirst to the neck.
Diver tumbled and crashed into a wall, inches from the blasted morningstar again. He looked back and saw Peat twitching comically, then vanish into a mist of green particles. The pegasus righted himself and breathed hard. "Is it over? Did I kill him?"
"Winner!" shouted Nimbus over the speakers. "Sky Diver takes his first victory in the ring with that floor-crushing smash. Let's stomp the floor in support!" The crowd applauded by beating their hooves on the bandstand again, sounding like a stampede. The battle music became a victory theme with crashing thunder.
Diver turned around, looking at the spectators. Killing isn't such a bad thing here. It's a game! He lifted one hoof and looked at it, seeing the details of shaggy fetlocks around his "ankle" and the chipped edge of the hoof's mass of horn-stuff. He raised that hoof the rest of the way and waved in triumph. Just a game, yet it matters that I learned to do it.
The host said, "All right, peggy, enough basking. It's time for our next match, so get out of there."
Diver wobbled out of the ring, trying to check his status screen on the way to his seat. As he should've known, "hand" gestures for the world's interface weren't easy while walking. He made it back to the seats, where a silver pegasus clapped him on the back. "Good fight! I'll be sure to tell my friend Golden Scale all about it."
This town-mind stuff was going to take some getting used to, along with everything else. Diver didn't mind. "Thanks."
Nimbus sent him to purgatory after the night's fighting. The underground room was near the hotel rooms, next to the ice machine, and held only a battered card table and old magazines.
"Finally!" said an intact Peat, throwing aside a copy of Space Battles Monthly. "The Horse of Dracula there didn't tell me that her arena traps you in the basement for the rest of the session."
Diver's ears lay flat. "Uh. Sorry for killing you?"
"No, you're not. Don't worry about it."
"Where are the rest of the losers people who lost?"
"Different instances of this room in the same space, I think. You get used to some weird game logic after a while. Are you a new uploader, or just a newcomer to Hoofland?"
"The first one. Does that mean you've lived like this for years, fighting and dying and coming right back? Nimbus said you have a reputation."
Peat grinned. "She likes to make contestants sound menacing. I made some bad choices, is all. Once you get out of pony-land and see more of Talespace you'll get a better perspective on how to live without going nuts."
Hoofland was only one of the regions of Talespace, the virtual world whose parts shared only a patchwork framework of rules. Their geography was linked only by "teleport portals", and an AI that was either the Second Coming, or Skynet, or some of both, depending on who you asked. Diver's own impression had been that she was nice, but that he had no desire to define his life around thwarting, softening or aiding the global machine takeover. "I plan to stay in Hoofland for a while," he told Peat.
"Really?" The unicorn said. He waved a magazine around like an outstretched hand, indicating the little post-death room Diver had come to free him from. "Hoofland's got appeal, but you should broaden your horizons. Maybe you'll want to be something else."
Diver's eyes narrowed and his tail flicked back and forth. "Jack of all trades, master of none."
"Is oftentimes better than master of one -- is the rest of the saying. I'm just suggesting you not throw yourself too hard in any one direction just because you want to try something new. I've seen some crazy stuff, good and bad, and I don't usually deal with the really screwed-up people myself."
"What do you mean, you don't deal with them?"
"I'm kind of a roving troubleshooter. I, ah, screwed up fairly badly when I first uploaded, and got literally ban-hammered from this town for a while. So I know something about people misbehaving, and trying to solve or cause big-picture problems for Talespace. You could get involved in that sort of thing too, if you wanted. Hopefully more on the 'solving' side."
This room felt too narrow for Diver's wings, though he could spread them wide and hardly brush the walls. "Thanks for the advice," he said grudgingly, and opened the door leading back out of purgatory.
Too many times in his old life, Diver had tried to do many projects at once and accomplished few to none of them. Not this time.
"Why the long face?" asked Peat.
"Just thinking. I could build a life here."
He was starved, and the hotel's food was bland, even the apples. Diver had been warned about it; in fact, Earthside evangelists used it as one of their arguments why Hoofland and its connected realms were a false heaven, lacking the true pleasures of whatever one did in Christian heaven. ("And ye shall taste only the bitterness of dust and ashes!") Diver shrugged off the dull packing-foam flavor of everything; he'd liked rice cakes anyway. It was said that some people working on the taste problem, and the dull sense of smell that went with it.
Nimbus let him keep his hotel room for the day. As a nocturnal inn, check-out time was dusk. Diver asked, "Do I actually need to sleep?" He wasn't tired yet.
"Basically every few subjective days," the bat-horse told him. "Depends on exactly how your brain works, but it turns out that a lot of the reason humans need sleep is hard-coded instinct from the days when insomnia meant wasting energy and getting eaten by hyenas. And another big part is maintaining a fleshy body, so that doesn't apply either."
Diver's ears perked up; it was cool to think about shedding a basic physical limit while still getting to enjoy sleep. Which brought up another question he hadn't thought to ask. He shuffled his hindhooves uncomfortably.
Nimbus grinned, exposing her little fangs. "Toilets? Obsolete. Sex? That requires further, vigorous testing. You're physically censored right now since you're walking around bare-assed in public, but check yourself out in private sometime."
Diver blushed; that much of his physical reactions was intact. He could feel... warmth, between his hindlegs at the sight of her, but nothing seemed to be there.
The mare loomed closer. "Or would you prefer an interactive tutorial?"
He stammered, "We just met!"
His wings stood wide and his head spun. There wasn't much reason for relationships to work the same way as back Earthside either, was there? That wasn't quite true; some things carried over. He said, "I don't want to give you the wrong idea, that I'm looking to settle down with a family just yet."
"No assumptions, no commitment," she said. "You're a cute newcomer and you have a bed. Isn't that enough for now?"
Bio: I'm a writer with several books up on Amazon. Many of these are in a setting called "Thousand Tales", where a virtual game world offers immortality under the rule of a friendly AI whose ambitions extend far beyond the game. See kschnee.deviantart.com for a larger gallery of stories, and check out novels such as "The Digital Coyote" or "Liberation Game" for my published fiction!