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A short trot past the river stood a black stone shrine with a sealed door, surrounded by twisted pillars. The ground them was scraggly grass amid stone. "This is the place?" asked Key.

Scale nodded.

"Then give me a minute." Key stood idle, busy doing things Earthside, then resumed. "How do we get in?"

Scale said, "It's your show. It's a unicorn's job to get past the entrance."

He cantered around the pillars, studying runes carved into each one. After a minute he lowered his head and paused.

"Thinking about it?" said Diver. The runes looked like they were arranged in groups of four, in three panels on each pillar, but he wasn't trying to solve the puzzle for Key.

"Taking notes. Do you see one that's all those hook-shaped marks?"

Diver shook his head. Scale grinned to herself, saying, "Hmm..."

"You've solved this?" asked Diver. "Did you do the matching dungeon for the earthbound race, or do you all start with full powers, or what?"

Scale said, "Most of us have gotten our powers, so we've seen the Labyrinth and Mount Improbable and the Fire-Mine several times over."

They chatted while Key worked on the puzzle, poking here and there at the columns. Diver said, "Does it get dull?"

"Not really. The details vary, and really what makes it interesting is who we travel with each time. I specialize in being a battle sidekick, so I'm better suited than most."

"I can't find it," said Key. "It should be four hook marks, or... no, three hooks and that slashy one." He kept searching.

"Hmm!" said Scale.

Key looked sheepish, rubbing one ear with his hoof. "I could use a hint."

Diver wondered where the gesture was coming from: a camera watching the human playing Key, and translating his expressions?

Scale said, "Teamwork!"

"That's your answer to everything, isn't it? All right... Diver, can you try looking at this from the air?"

Diver saluted, crouched, and kicked the ground away. His wings weren't strong yet, but wind rushed beneath them with every flap and carried him higher. He wheeled around in a rising circle as he remembered to look down. The sight of the land so far below -- only around thirty feet, but with nothing to stand on -- made Diver draw in a deep breath and be glad he had no bowels. These wings of mine work! Reluctantly he paid attention to the pillars below instead of the rush of air and feathers. "The one to your right!" he called out.

Diver felt his flight power run out, making him unable to rise or keep altitude. He could still glide, though, so he enjoyed the drop for as long as he could and tried not to be scared of the ground rushing closer. When it threatened to smash him muzzle-first he reared back and flapped hard, which turned out to be the right move. "Whew! On that pillar there, I saw a set of symbols on top like what you said."

Key went over to study it again, then slapped his forehead. "Of course. Scale, could you hit this pillar when I say so?" He outlined a sequence of symbols to poke.

A minute of puzzle-solving later, the sealed door slid into the ground, revealing a staircase into the depths. A cheerful music sequence played, then faded to silence.

"You mastered the basic light spell, right?" Scale asked.

Key nodded, then raised his head dramatically and made his horn glow. "I can leave this spell going passively, right?"

The mare said, "I believe for you there's a 'switch to passive' icon?"

"Got it." The unicorn did nothing visible but his horn kept shining. "I haven't got enough of a mana pool to cast this and much else at the same time besides basic TK though. The pool improves once we do the quest, I hope."

Diver blinked twice at the technical details. "Ready?"

They descended, and hit a checkpoint crystal together.

#

The Labyrinth of Night was vast and echoing, lit here and there by crystals. The light sources usually meant trouble, since they existed to free up magic power for Key to fight more effectively. There were horrors of fang and shadow in the stone maze. Between battles the three horses explored murals showing unicorns building monuments, commanding the sun and moon, and casting spells in ways that made Key stop to take notes. "A lot of thought went into the layout," he said. He looked troubled, though it was hard to tell if his equine body matched his real face.

After a battle with regenerating golems and a set of platforms where brawny Scale had to bash a new path at Key's magical direction, they found a vault with an elaborate puzzle blocking a door. Key's hooves clip-clopped across the uneven stone floor as he studied the situation. Dimly glowing crystals hovered in one corner. "Okay, let's take stock. Diver?"

Diver looked things over. "Crystal colors: red, yellow, green, blue, purple, black. Five platforms next to the gate: stone, wood, iron, bone, leather. I guess we have to put one crystal on each, and leave one color out."

Key consulted the cryptic diagrams etched all over the wall, then shut his eyes. He recited what he'd found:

-Blue goes with stone if-and-only-if red not used
-Iron is red, black or blue
-Yellow, green and black abhor mined materials
-Leather can't be yellow or black
-No primary colors on once-living matter
-Wood is yellow if-and-only-if iron is red.

He fell silent for so long that Diver was tempted to tip him over again. Diver asked Scale, "What if he has to leave? Are we stuck here?"

The earthborn leaned against the iron platform and giggled. "That takes us back. One of us was with two shadows -- Earthside players I mean -- who got distracted and completely forgot they'd left their computers idle. We just ignored that body and put our thoughts into the rest of us, so it was no real hardship. But then one of the shadows came back and his friend had gone to sleep. He was so angry! Did you know the Outer Realm has twenty-four different time zones?"

"More, actually."

"I'm sorry. Of course you know. In your case as an immigrant, you'll slow down while he's busy doing human things. If he totally forgets then we'll get a teleport out of here, then maybe come back later."

The reality of being trapped in an underground maze would give way to adventurers' convenience. The inconsistency bothered Diver, but it was a compromise made necessary by working with real players. With people. No... with humans. If Diver played with what was now his own kind, reality would make more logical sense and not keep bending to fit the narrative of a human with a more important life outside Hoofland.

Key, some unknown time later on Earth, returned his attention to the body that was just his puppet. "I think I've got it. First, I'll take the red crystal and..."

They arranged five of the gems on the platforms, leaving a sixth aside. The puzzle-solving ditty played again and the big gate rumbled open. A checkpoint crystal filled most of the little antechamber leading to a well-lit arena pit.

"Boss monster ahead," said Key. "Seen this kind of structure in plenty of games."

Sky Diver tapped the crystal, and the others did the same. "There's a substantial chance we're going to get killed in a moment, then." He looked down into the seemingly empty pit and contemplated the worry churning in his imaginary gut.

"Doesn't matter for you any more than for me. Let's go."

Key followed a few terraced platforms to hop carefully down. Scale jumped straight down, landing in a battle pose, and Diver glided because he could.

A trio of stalactites slammed down from the distant ceiling, forcing all three adventurers to dodge. When the dust cleared, a snake made of tan stone in a Mesoamerican style slithered down like a rockslide and hissed like a rain of sand. Obsidian razors like giant feathers flicked out along its sides. The name "OPHIORM, THE NIGHT-PLUMED" flashed across Diver's vision and a fast-paced tune full of dulcimer and rattles began.

Major Key struck a pose with his horn high, raising his knives in a magic glow. "This shouldn't take long."

They brawled. The monster coiled and slithered rapidly across the pit, retreating up the three pillars and back down in between barrages of dropping boulders on them. Diver pushed Key out of the way of one rock but couldn't dodge it in time. A weight crushed him, making his body flare with pain.

He cried out, disoriented and hurt. The arena was far away. The checkpoint crystal hovered beside him. How...? Oh! I just died. That was all? He shook himself and found everything intact, though a lingering ache still slowed him down. Diver glided back to the arena, feeling that he was in a dream. The last time, on an operating table, didn't stop me for long either.

Back in battle, the pegasus used his wings to jump onto the monster's back and hammer its stone-feathered sides with his hooves. He leaped free when it twisted around, trying to bite him. Obsidian eyes stared lifelessly at him. Diver took cover behind a pillar. The boss monster slammed into it, cracking it and sending a shower of broken stone down on them all. Key yelped and scurried away but was crushed to death.

"It's working!" Scale called out, unconcerned. The serpent's rocky hide had cracked.

Key bounded back down the entry platforms to reach them again. "What now?" It looked like the treasure they'd found in this dungeon had spilled out of their saddlebags when they died, and now littered the floor.

Scale said, "My turn. Cover me." She sprang into more aggressive action to work her way toward the monster's tail. After two minutes' intense brawling, she hindleg-kicked the beast so hard that three sections of its hide cracked worse, revealing a trio of glowing orbs. "Unicorn time! Think carefully."

Two pillars were smashed now, leaving just one. Diver stuck around near Key, distracting and fending off the enemy. The unicorn grabbed chunks of fallen stone and flung them but could only do minor damage that way. "I can't seem to target the glowy bits on that thing."

Scale said, "You're close, but try something different."

Diver landed on the serpent's back and whacked one of the targets, but it threw him off before he could accomplish much. It was Key's turn, apparently, so he went back to covering the guy. But Key kept trying variants on the same thing: swinging the knives within his magic grip, swinging one in his mouth, flinging them and running to fetch them again, and throwing rocks.

"Hint!" said Key after his second death. He climbed back into battle and looked around, hopping out of each attack's path and making none himself.

Scale's mane had gone wild and she had several bloodless wounds. "What are you and what can you do?"

"Unicorn. I levitate things and cast spells." Key magically scooped his blades back off the ground as he ran past the thrashing serpent.

"That horn is for more than... what you're doing."

Key huffed in frustration, "I've used everything on my magic menu, not that I have many spells yet. Do we have to leave and find some item we missed?"

Diver was in midair when he understood. He's a unicorn. Their gimmick is their magic horns. Those are like extra limbs, like hands, like sense organs. Except he's only using his power to control things instead of sensing them. He kept his muzzle shut, not wanting to spoil things.

The fight went on, but it was a stalemate. Diver began to wonder if there was a limit to the number of deaths they could suffer, and got distracted long enough to get horribly bitten in half. Just as he started to feel himself being torn and shredded, he died and popped back to life by the checkpoint, hit with a searing pain that made him collapse and scream. It gets worse each time in quick succession. Next time... ow! He shuddered and kept in the air as long as he could. "We need a solution, Key."

"I'm trying!" The unicorn was twitching and flailing now, probably mashing buttons on his controller.

"Scale, I think I solved it. Can I say?"

"Not outright."

Diver swerved hard to port to dodge another fearsome snake-swipe. "Key, you're just talking. Can you listen?"

"To what?" Key cast a light spell, turned it off and did it again, pointlessly. He scowled. "Unless you mean..." He stood there idly --

And then a wave of white light pulsed around him. It faded out at a short distance, but he was close enough to the last pillar that it interacted with some hidden cracks and exposed them for all to see.

The "puzzle solved" sound effect played again. "I don't think we needed that," said Diver.

Key pointed to the cracks. "All right! Diver, get the upper one, and Scale, you hit the bottom two!"

Diver jumped and soared. The pillar shook as Scale bashed it in the right spots. Diver hurried to slam his hooves into the topmost weak point. At last the whole beam shuddered and collapsed, revealing a wickedly sharp javelin made of something like red-tinged copper.

Key ran close and snatched it up with his horn. He jabbed experimentally with it. "Better reach than with the knives."

"The material's made for levitation," said Scale. "Finish it off!"

The snake menaced each of them in turn. Key stabbed at its glowing weak points but could do no damage. "There must be some trick to... of course." He dropped the spear, set off another scanning-ping with his horn, and revealed a real vulnerable spot under the monster's chin. "Acupuncture time!" The party maneuvered and dodged. Diver veered up to make the snake tilt its head up, barely avoiding its snapping jaws. Then below, the beast roared and the whole room shook. Diver landed, rolled to his feet, and found that Key had stabbed it to death.

They got out of the way of its death throes. When it had crumbled into sand, another crystal appeared, this one with the image of a horn inside. Silver coins spilled across the sand, adding to the supply in the group's saddlebags from the rest of their adventure.

"Congratulations!" said Diver.

Scale said, "Did you learn anything?"

Key trotted up to the prize. "About using my powers to scan things? Yeah. Let's see what this does." He took it, and it vanished in a flash. "All right! Got a boost to my mana meter, and access to better spells once I learn them. Arcana-type spells, whatever that means."

"Those are the broadest type. You unicorns are the natural wizards. But really, being a unicorn is about interacting with the world in both ways, sensing and affecting. The horn is part of you, not just an excuse to have magic."

Key grinned at both of his companions. "Sounds a little too mystical for me, but at least it helps solve puzzles. Thanks, you too! It's been fun but I need to get dinner. Can we just walk out?"

Scale's voice was flat as she said, "The exit's hidden behind that wall."

Key pinged it and revealed a shimmering teleport portal. "Great. Sorry to hurry out, but the nearest restaurant closes soon. See you!" He jumped through and was gone.

Diver sank onto his rump and caught his breath. "He didn't get it, did he?"

Scale said, "He got the powers but not the lesson. What can you expect, though? Not that I know this, but we know what it's like to have a natural magic conductor on your forehead, moving through currents of mana and feeling everything in the world like an invisible pattern you can tug on."

Diver shut his eyes. "I guess that's a whole side of the Hoofland experience that I'll never know."

"There's still a chance to switch races. If you finish the pegasus quest though, you're locked in."

"For the rest of my life? But a guy like Key can just create a new character if he wants something new."

Scale shook her head. "I was wondering if you'd ask about what the earthbound or unicorn experience is like, or the more exotic races like bat-pony and deer. The rule we've been using is that as an immigrant, you'll be locked in for a century. Subjective time."

Diver gaped. Back Earthside, before he signed his brain away, he'd had a natural lifespan of around threescore and ten years, and he'd used up most of those even before the near-crash of his plane showed him his luck was running out too. Now... now the only limit was how long this world existed. Whether outside forces would force the realm of Talespace to shut down because of some damn lawsuit or a terrorist attack or a law against AI. "I could be a pegasus for a hundred years, and not be done seeing all there is to see. But only if Hoofland survives against people out there who won't take it seriously, or who fear it."

Scale walked over to sit beside him, facing the sand-pile of the defeated boss and the world portal leading outside. "You said you weren't going to run right off to do things Earthside."

"I won't. I promised you a solid month before I worry about things like that." He thought of his quest list; even if there was no reward but the favor of an AI, it was worth trying to keep his word.

"You're worrying now, though. I can already hear you thinking about having an obligation to help us by working in the Outer Realm. Your 'real world'." Bitterness had crept into her voice.

"My old world," he said. He reached one forehoof out toward her, and she pressed hers against it. "I mean it. I really like this place so far. If I leave to do other things, it'll be to protect this world, not to abandon it because it's just a game and the Chinese restaurant closes early tonight."

The mare's ears lifted from where they'd lain flat against her head. "You like 'Dragon Empire' food? I know a place in town that serves it. Everyone says the taste isn't right, but it's one of the better attempts so far, and the decor is nice. Want to go?"

"Sure." Neither of them bothered to stand up for a minute. Reluctantly he stood at last and offered Scale his hoof, which worked like a magnet to help pull her up. "You'll have to show me how the heck chopsticks work when you don't even have thumbs, though."

She giggled. "Immigrants always ask that."

"I think I'm done being an 'immigrant'. Let's do Mount Improbable if you have time... or if some part of you has time, I suppose. I want to see what it's like to be a full pegasus, even if I'll always be considered an outsider to some extent."

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A note from Snow Quill

In this story's time period "Dragon Empire" is more than a cartoony euphemism for China. China's "Social Credit System" has evolved into an AI on the level of Ludo, the mistress of Thousand Tales.

As a regular human player, Pike only gets bonuses to his stats and powers. For someone inside the game, getting full racial powers can mean more...


About the author

Snow Quill

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!

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