It was a pleasant experience! Nimbus was eager and energetic and apparently experienced with this kind of body. They dragged the unconscious Key behind the front desk and went back down to the little spherical room. There was some sort of software trigger linked to the closed door and his willing, private company, because he felt his body suddenly get a lot more realistic back between his hindlegs. Impressively so, once Nimbus started to explore it.
They spent hours in a tangle of wings and blankets. The mare squeaked happily at being nuzzled along the leathery flaps between her wing-fingers.
"How's this?" she said, doing the same along his feathers.
He shivered. "Nice."
Nimbus said, "You don't even have the full pegasus deal yet. Come back when you do; it gets better."
After the last few hours that was tough to imagine. "Better how?"
"More sensation in these, for one thing," she said, stroking his wings again. "And some tail feathers back here..."
"Why am I working at a hotel?" said Major Key, suddenly awake and climbing up to his hooves. He was still behind the counter, next to a bland NPC clerk with glasses somehow perched on his muzzle.
Nimbus hovered nearby. "You're not. We just needed someplace to stash you. Next time don't fall asleep in the middle of the castle."
Key looked confused, then enlightened. "Oh, you mean logging out. And what are you grinning about, Sky Diver?"
"Just having a good morning! Not sure what time it is for you, but if you're free, we could grab Golden Scale and go on that quest of yours."
"Which one?" asked Nimbus.
"The Labyrinth of Night," said Diver.
The bat-horse swooped over to him with a look of horror, and shook him between her hooves. "No! You mustn't go! None have ever returned!"
Once he'd stopped vibrating he said, "What? That doesn't seem possible."
Nimbus cracked a smile. "Just kidding. It's a vast underground maze full of monsters and deathtraps, but you'll be fine. Did you say Scaley was your third party member though?"
Key said, "We need one each of pegasus, unicorn and earthbound, right?"
"That's true, but that means coordinating three actual life-forms. Shadow, immigrant, genius." Both stallions gave her a confused look and she rolled her golden eyes. "Earthside player, uploader, town-mind. Latin, you know? Genius loci?"
"Spirit of a place, yeah, but what's that got to do with anything?"
"Time." She grabbed a pair of cool sunglasses from the front desk, put them on, and pushed open the inn's door to show daylight outside. "You're operating on Earth time, so we probably seem like we're speaking with a weird delay. Our brains are both running at the usual, slower Hoofland rate. If one of us immigrants, uploaders, goes on an adventure with you, we'll get sped up now and slowed down later. Or we'll stick with the delays in the middle of an adventure. Now throw in part of Noctis as your spear carrier --"
"I'm sure you'd be good at that too," Diver suggested.
Her tail swatted him playfully. "And Noctis has their own complicated time-sharing system. I don't even know how that works."
Key said, "But the townsfolk do go on adventures with players like me, don't they? It's what they're for."
Diver reared his head back, nettled by that thought. "Noctis is... are, whichever, a person. They don't exist just to be someone else's sidekicks."
"Uh, no, I'm pretty sure they do! It's why they were created."
Diver's feathers fluffed as he tried to shake off the unease that tensed his neck and ears. "I don't want to argue about this, and I don't care if my sense of time gets desynchronized from the outside world. Do you want me along, and do you want to invite Scale or find some other earthbound?"
Key said, "All right, fine. I'm just here to have some fun. I'll get ready while you fetch her." He stood there, motionless.
Diver tried pushing him sideways. The unicorn tipped over. "This body we're seeing is a puppet being steered by a creature in another dimension."
Nimbus said, "This body's the same one I used before I uploaded, so I became the puppet. Made a game out of seeing whether people noticed, who didn't already know."
She yawned. "They only guessed once I was rich enough to build the inn. Most Earthside players want to explore and fight, not to build."
"I'd better get going. Ah..." He leaned closer and tried to hug Nimbus, but couldn't do it with more than one leg.
"Do it like this." Nimbus draped her head and neck across his shoulders, nuzzling his mane. He returned the gesture.
"Say, Nimbus. If the Labyrinth gets you unicorn powers, what do I need to do to power these things up?" He flapped one wing.
"Lead a group up Mount Improbable," she said.
Sky Diver, Major Key, and Golden Scale trekked out of town, each wearing a set of cloth saddlebags. There was a rockslide as they climbed, and at one point they got jumped by goblin-weasels with sickles. But between Diver's flight, Scale's brawn and Key's beginner-level telekinesis (Peat had been better with it) they had no real problems. Soon they came to a river where fish-monsters guarded a little bridge. Menacing drum music began.
"Watch out!" Diver said, and tackled Scale. The fish had spat some kind of steam ball at her. Instead of knocking her out of the way, though, he only flipped over her like tripping on a hurdle, and she staggered just enough to take the blast on one side instead of headfirst.
Key hopped forward, bracing his legs wide in a dramatic pose, and grinned. "Time to try these out!" He used the pearly, shimmering light of his horn to make his right saddlebag open and two knives wobble out and drop to the ground.
"Was that an attack?" said Diver. He picked himself back up and checked on Scale, who looked pretty good for having been steam-burned.
"Sorry; I'm getting used to this dual analog stick. It's got a little touchpad and -- whoa!" He narrowly dodged another fishman's attack. He levitated the knives again, having trouble moving his body at the same time as attacking.
Diver said, "Scale, can you cover him while he focuses on the knives?"
"Got it." She leaped back and forth along the riverbank, drawing fire from the enemies.
Diver harried them from above but didn't trust his agility in the stream's current. At last, a knife shot out from the unicorn and buried itself in one of the fishmen. Key had needed to get close to the river to do that, so Scale was busy trying to shove him out of the way. She even had to take an attack herself, which made her cry out as it burned her.
Diver wasn't doing enough. He landed nearby to reset his flight timer, kicked back up into the air, and slammed himself down on the nearest foe. His hooves smashed into scaly flesh and drove the creature into the water, burbling. A clawed hand shot out and dragged him down too.
He kicked frantically. The water around him moved strangely; it was like being buried in wet sponges the size of oranges. The monster's claws dug into his mane and neck and he was pretty sure he'd taken a wound or two in his thrashing. Holding his breath, he forced himself back up to the air. Instead of trying to fly with the beast still clutching him, he curled around and whacked its head with his forehooves until it let go. Diver thrashed his way to shore and lay there coughing. "Ugh! Are... are you two okay?"
"We got 'em!" said Scale, standing on the bridge. Nasty steam burns scarred her hide. Key was on guard with one knife ready, but no more monsters came and the music had faded out.
Diver got up and approached the mare. "You're hurt! Can't you fix yourself up the way you did when Meteor kicked me?"
Key said, "I lost a knife too; did you see one in the water?"
"She's burned and you lost a thing that's imaginary to you. Those are not the same."
"Colts!" said Golden Scale. "I've been adventuring longer than you. A few burns don't even slow me down." She lay on the grass, wincing, and started calling up the runic interface she'd used for spellcasting before.
Key nodded to her, then turned to Diver. "It's true. Getting hurt is temporary, but losing tools hurts us until I can get replacements."
Reluctantly, Diver agreed. "Is it safe to try swimming?"
Scale focused on her magic. "Of course. We beat the monsters."
"Yeah, but... never mind." The fishmen didn't make ecological sense if they were randomly jumping out to attack three grown equines tough enough to fight back. They'd probably not existed until conjured into existence to give the party a challenge. But the missing knife was as real as things got around here.
He waded into the river and ducked his head under. His vision was blurry but it was easy to keep his eyes open. Now that nothing was trying to kill him, he could focus on the low-resolution water flowing across his skin... his blue coat, and through his mane and tail. His wings spread, unbidden, and he paid attention to how the current moved along them with his attempt at paddling.
On the riverbed a few paces deep lay Key's spare knife. Diver poked it with one hoof and got stuck to the metal, like a magnet. He swam back out, still looking at his hoof. "Got it. My hooves still feel like I'm walking on one finger for each. Is that normal?"
Scale looked mostly intact, now. "I think so, compared to those weird arm-tentacles you used to have."
Key chuckled and levitated the knife back into his saddlebags. Once he'd done that and his real fingers on a controller were done pretending to control his horn, he made the rest of his body lead the way onward to the dungeon.
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 "Virtual Horizon" or "Crafter's Passion" for my published fiction!