Even without the full range of powers he could earn, Diver had begun to set himself up in Hoofland. With his share of the coins (and some of Scale's share, by her invitation) he prepared for adventure. He bought a bottled healing potion from a friendly deer alchemist and a journal from a purple unicorn who seemed giddy about explaining it. By talking into it he could create entries in the book and flip between sections by magic. Of course it was just a sort of specialized computer tablet, existing purely as software and dressed up as a fantasy tome, but why not make it look and act cool? The only downside to the light cloth-bound book was that advertisements kept appearing in the margins. One time there was even a poorly placed ad targeted at Earthside players. He was pretty sure he had no use for designer gloves.
He rented a room at the Nimbus Inn for the next few days, then hung out at a coffee shop run by an earthbound horse with a goatee. "What are you, if I may ask?" he said to the shopkeeper.
"Oh, I'm in California. I make money selling play food, then swapping the coins for actual cash. The stat boost that people get to help them kill imaginary monsters, will help me buy a permit for a car."
"So the cafe kind of is your real job?"
"Just a hobby. I actually help manage a real one, too. We even have a video screen on the wall showing, well, what you're seeing right now!"
Diver blinked, then noticed a sparkle in the air by a nearby shelf. He waved. "Can I see the other side?"
"I don't have it set up for two-way, sorry. Maybe I should."
It was unnerving to know he was being watched by beings that weren't exactly the same species as him, anymore. "I think you should. It's good to have us interact in both directions."
Diver thanked the shopkeeper and was about to head outside to the bustling village. He paused to check his stats, which now read:
Account type: Uploader
Main Skills: Flight, Brawling, Dodge
Save Point: Nimbus Inn and Battle Dome
Status Effects: Coffee Buzz (+10% Energy)
Note: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of unicorns? The Shadow knows!"
He'd gotten a couple of skills officially recognized already, then. He looked dubiously at the coffee sitting in front of him in a bowl-like mug. The taste was, at best, like an attempt at tea. In hindsight he did feel a little more alert from drinking it, and had assumed there was some simulation of caffeine's effect on his brain. The fact that it gave him an actual stat bonus helped explain the price. "In that case I should take advantage of this to go adventuring."
He trotted out of town, to the Violet Forest. Under its surreal leaves the ground undulated, forming countless valleys. Diver consulted the compass he'd bought from one of Noctis' more sedentary shopkeeper bodies; it was weird talking with someone who pretended to know him as a friend of a friend.
Diver spent several happy hours exploring the woods, admiring the tall trunks, fighting one of the flowers to the death, and searching over hill and stream in search of secrets. He found a cave that opened onto a three-room catacomb where he smashed skeletal rats and recovered a few more coins. To take full advantage of the energy boost and practice his skills, he went back outside and flew through the forest, weaving between trees and seeing how far he could get with a single bound.
He made it back to the hotel, humming and slightly richer. "With all these combat skills I feel like a meathead," he told Nimbus at the counter. "How do I get non-combat ones?"
"Try new things, of course."
"Do you have an Innkeeping skill?"
"Actually, yes," she said, and made her stats appear in the air beside her. Her own list had Innkeeping and Business along with the more immediately useful Spear and Dodge, plus Cloudsmithing. Her public note said, "Live battles nightly at Nimbus Inn and Battle Dome!"
It struck Diver that being able to fight with a spear seemed more useful than knowing how to run a profitable business, around here. He chuckled. "Do you get actual stat bonuses for the mental skills? It doesn't seem like something you can quantify, like the chance of wounding monsters."
She shrugged with her wings. "NPCs. I get random customers and my success with them depends partly on my skill. Mostly though it's the other way around: the list of skills depends on how good I am, like a merit badge. Same for classes. Keep learning how to beat people up and you might get offered a title of 'fighter', but that doesn't automatically make you better at fighting."
Diver shut his eyes and thought about the possibilities of what else he could be. "Think you could teach me to make clouds like this?" He waved toward the stormy walls of the inn, then for practice, tried pointing to them with one wing. It was hard to move just one at a time in a specific way, since it felt like he was using some odd combination of back muscles.
"Sure, but that's advanced peggy stuff."
"Mount Improbable first, then. I'm not sure Major Key is the right unicorn to take along, though. Know any that aren't part of Noctis?"
Nimbus hopped over the counter and greeted a newcomer who was still generic grey, renting him a room on credit. Once he was gone she said, "That guy's going pegasus, so that's no good. How about inviting one of the earthbound from tonight's fight schedule, and taking along one of Noctis' unicorns? Switch things up a bit."
"I was kind of hoping..." Diver stopped and rubbed one of his ears with a hoof, embarrassed now.
She laughed. "I get it. You wanted Golden Scale along specifically."
"This doesn't bother you?"
"Nah. You're not my first stallion, you know, and you won't be the last. If you're interested in Scale then be happy with her too."
Diver's wings twitched. He had to admit he'd gotten to like the tough earthbound mare. Not that he'd necessarily shifted his attraction completely from humans to Hoofland's kind, but his experience with Nimbus had made him start to see the appeal of a cute little muzzle and long ears to play with. Among other things. "I'm worried I'll end up with a harem, and not treat anyone as more than someone to sleep with."
Nimbus hugged Diver with her neck over his. "Then don't. We don't have to live in herds just because we're part horse. Your relationships can be like your species or your skills. You can't do everything and know what every experience is like, and you wouldn't want to, so do whatever you're most interested in. And whoever. There's no chance of getting us knocked up or catching a disease or anything like that, so the only real mistake you could make is hurting our feelings. I doubt you'll do that; you're a big softie."
Diver fluttered his wings and neck-hugged back. "Soft? Will you still think that if I win another match tonight?"
"It depends on how you perform after that, in private."
Nimbus had been a chance encounter for him, someone he'd met because Key had logged out. Had he done anything to deserve the innkeeper as a friend? Diver didn't think so. Then I should earn friends like her any way that I can.
He sat mesmerized by colors. A unicorn called Beam Spam was firing a dazzling array of energy blasts around the arena that splashed off the fighting-cage's walls. A nimble earthbound called Bullet Hell danced through the patterns, trying to get a hit in edgewise with any weapons he could throw.
Nimbus was flying around the outside of the cage, commenting. "That's five solid minutes without a hit! Time for some chaos. Who wants to spin the wheel? Yes, you, the filly with the axe." A wheel of surprises appeared, and when it stopped after the girl's spin, the note "2D (Horizontal)" appeared on the walls. The arena floor rose and its ceiling dropped, compressing the fight into a plane. Even with less room to dodge, Bullet Hell fought on, making it to within melee range of Beam Spam before the unicorn nailed him with what Nimbus proclaimed a "Three-Hit combo!" It was over quickly after that. The crowd cheered.
"What a match!" said a pegasus banker in silver, seated beside Diver. He tossed a small bag of coins over to Diver's hooves, where it clinked pleasantly. "I should get going."
"I'm looking for a unicorn to help me on Mount Improbable. I'm guessing Scale will come but I need someone pointy, too."
Diver grinned. "You're the town."
"Is it really that obvious?" the banker asked, giving a distraught flap.
"You brought yourself some popcorn using another body." For Noctis that probably felt like reaching back over one shoulder without taking their eyes off the game.
"Ah, we were worried we'd done something foolish. As for your quest, Scale would love to come, but shouldn't you have Key there as your donut-holder?"
"I don't think he'd appreciate the adventure the way that a native or uploader can."
Nearby, a deer with a sharp eight-pointed rack prepared to square off against a griffin from the eastern lands. They were both experienced fighters like the last pair, and Nimbus was rattling off stats and reputations for them. Diver tuned that talk out.
The banker shifted uncomfortably on his cushion. "You shouldn't spend all your time with us. Go make some more friends if you haven't got a unicorn you're willing to adventure with. Is Key really that bad, though? Reaching a hoof out to shadows is a way to make sure the humans like us and want to protect our world."
Noctis' reason for living was to be one of Hoofland's marketing features. A town of background characters brighter than the generic ones, able to be friends with a variety of players Earthside and fill in different roles for parties of adventurers. This world was built around companionship and adventure, so a town-mind like Noctis was like part of its operating system.
"You'd rather that I include him? All right. Let me send him a note." He stood and stretched. Unicorns could learn a spell that amounted to e-mail, but Diver would have to buy a scroll at the front desk and use that with his journal's speech recognition to write a letter.
Diver had just turned to walk there when the battle dome's wall tore open. Lightning arced across the gap and a wind stirred the arena, interrupting the fight the moment it began. A quartet of adventurers in white and purple leaped into the dome, shouting, "For the new queen!" One carried a purple-sun flag on his back, and another threw a bomb into the stands. The arena's battle music switched abruptly to some kind of electric guitar anthem.
The bomb landed right at Diver's hooves. This wasn't how he'd planned for his day to go. Why would anyone even do this?
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!