Diver nodded to Nimbus, looking at the burning palace in the distance. "I'm ready to help. But what about your inn?" Besides the wrecked battle cage and the shredded cloud-roof, the guests were in a panic.
"Didn't you see my faction flag? This is higher priority. Let's go!" She called out to the deer and griffin, "We could use you too."
When Nimbus had shown Diver her stats (apparently a big commitment for her), Diver hadn't paid much attention to the line that said, "Faction Flag: Night Guard".
Diver followed as quickly as his hooves and wings allowed. Flames lit the town eerily from below. He and the gladiators passed a market where pegasi brought rainclouds, unicorns put up magic barriers and flung jets of water, and earthbound charged in wearing heavy armored coats. The only purple flames were on the castle, where the moat reflected their dance along the roofs and parapets. Even the stone was burning.
Nimbus had already gotten close. She turned back to look down at the others. "Witch-fire. If the queen's not putting it out, that means she's busy. Diver, give us a waterspout; that'll help anyway."
Nimbus cursed. "Right. No full powers yet. How about you hurry to the throne room and help fend off whatever disaster's going on in there?"
One wall of the castle shattered and collapsed, and a beam of moonlight shot out, slamming a lion the size of a monster truck into the air. It skidded fifty feet along the road but started to get up, roaring in fury.
"Not this again!" said Nimbus.
Diver snapped out of his shock. He charged ahead and beat his hooves on the lion's flank while the deer and griffin sprang to attack it too. They were only doing minor damage, as far as Diver could tell, when it roared and body-slammed Diver face-first into the ground with two major wounds plus stunning.
It was the closest he'd come to actually dying, since he couldn't even think for a while. He lay there uselessly on the grass, feeling broken all over. Queen Harvest Moon, the pumpkin-orange mare with the tiara, now hovered on her feather-shedding phantom wings and shot a massive beam from a ghostly horn. Not at the foe, but straight up into the sky.
The lion looked up with a puzzled expression.
Harvest Moon said, "Apollo mirrors." Then the beam bounced down from the moon and shattered the lion into coils of purple smoke.
Diver stammered but couldn't get up. The deer told him, "Sorry. I'm out of magic."
The queen glanced his way and flew down to touch him with her horn. It felt like an icicle brushing against his forehead. Cold washed through him and a notice said one of his wounds had cleared. Then Harvest Moon said, "We have to null out the castle to stop this fire, or it'll burn the rocks themselves. Carry these spells and build a tetrahedron." She began casting four spells at once, juggling them as each cluster of hovering sparks slowly became a silver orb. She wore elaborate dark armor that bore dents and was set with flickering gems.
Nimbus said, "A null zone? But that'll wreck your artifacts."
"Good point. Fetch the box behind my throne; that's all we have time for. Password 'eclipse eclair'." She returned her focus to the spells. The castle burned behind her despite the efforts of the NPC castle guards and other townsfolk.
Nimbus saluted and flew off. When the first orb solidified like a tiny moon, the queen passed it to Diver. "Put this by the statue." She pointed to a magnificent stone zebra on the far side of the castle's gate.
Diver took it and hurried. The orb weighed like a bowling ball between his awkwardly cupped forehooves. He hopped along with his wings only useful for speed, not height.
In the distance, the queen dispatched the griffin and deer to other areas, then carried the fourth ball into the air above her keep. "Clear the area!" She blasted it with magical force and the other orbs reacted, forming a glowing three-sided pyramid that instantly shut all the flames down.
Diver had stopped noticing the fast-paced music, but now it ended with a trumpet blast like a long sigh. He rejoined Nimbus and the others by the scorched grass marking the lion's death.
The queen started to speak, coughed into one hoof, then composed herself and began again. "What, pray tell, just happened?"
Nimbus said, "Your majesty, assassins claiming to represent some 'new queen of the east' called Sunward Ho attacked my inn. They killed people repeatedly, robbed us, wrecked the arena, and trapped me until we slew them all. I came as soon as I could. Others are handling the other fires in town."
The queen cast a spell that made runes dance around her. She expertly flipped and touched several while chanting syllables, then turned the rune-field into a diagram. "Sir griffin, if I could trouble you to check on that forest fire to the north? But first, do you know this 'Sunward Ho'? I assume she's too young to understand her unfortunate use of old slang."
The first people to upload were rich folk, starting in 2036, which meant they'd been born no earlier than the 1970s or so. Old fogeys. Diver was, of course, too young to be a fogey; he was from the 80s and had appreciated Nimbus' thunder dome.
The griffin said, "No. I serve True Sky, the real queen of the eastern Hooflands. If a usurper is causing trouble here, she might be trying to seize control of your nodes."
Nimbus spoke sidelong to Diver. "The Nobles control big mana spots to get their powers."
He'd seen one of them briefly: a beam of light perpetually glowing from a nearby pond. There were a lot of the things scattered across the map, worth various amounts of ongoing mana for whoever controlled them.
"Judging from my map," the queen said, "all my bases are not under attack, yet. I need to check in with my guards and ambassadors."
Nimbus said, "Of course, your highness."
"I'll be going," the griffin said, and flew off to the remaining fire.
The queen spread her wings, then paused. "Agent-Captain Nimbus, you may deputize them if you think it appropriate. You all may borrow anything in the box. We'll figure out the details later." She flew off.
Nimbus's wings stood straight out. "What? I... Thanks, your majesty!"
"Promotion?" the stag asked.
She nodded. "So... Night Guard. We protect the queen and the country. It's fun. Sometimes we fight giant lions. Wanna join?"
The deer took two skittish steps back. "I'm a little busy with a quest of my own. Sorry. I live in the Hart Forest anyway."
Diver said, "I want to know more before I sign up formally, but if you need temporary help, you can deputize me all you want."
Nimbus grinned fangily. "For now, we need to quit flapping around and get you your real powers. You might need them if those jerks come back."
"You might make a good buck," the deer said. "That requires a trip to my home though. I'd lead you there but it'd take too long, and I have work tomorrow afternoon."
That confused him for a moment. "Oh, an Earthside player. Right. What are the Hoofland deer like?"
"What are humans like, in one sentence?"
Nimbus whispered to Diver, "Deer are elves wearing coat racks!"
"I heard that."
Diver smiled. "Thanks, but it sounds like I don't have time to switch paths right now if I'm going to be useful. Maybe next century."
The deer winced. "Immortals. Right. I... hope I can join you in Talespace someday."
Diver asked Nimbus, "How do I do that friend-request spell as a pegasus?"
Nimbus walked him through a few menus, so that he generated a few business cards that let him mark the deer (Kingsfoil) for future reference.
"All right," said Diver, looking at the ornate silver-and-stone chest that Nimbus had rescued from the throne room. "I take it that this box is full of magic items that would've lost their powers from that anti-magic thing the queen did? Yes? Good. My other question is, how do deer and bats --"
"Noctrals," said Nimbus.
"-- Dangly horses, figure into this 'one of each race' rule for Mount Improbable?"
Kingsfoil the deer said, "We're equivalent to the 'earthbound'."
"I would've guessed unicorn, what with the forehead and the telekinesis."
"It's specialized. There's been a long and nerdy argument about exactly how it ought to work, and whether griffins should be playable at all, and so on."
Nimbus said, "We count as pegasi."
Diver thought the situation over. "If you're up for it, Kingsfoil, I'd like to do another quest right now. I'll try to grab Major Key for a unicorn. Otherwise I'll pick the nearest pointy bit of Noctis that I can find."
The deer said, "All right, if it doesn't take too long."
Nimbus said, "What, you want to go right now?"
Diver stamped the ground with one hoof, and grinned. "In an hour or so. We are going to heal up, drink too much coffee, figure out how to abuse that box of trinkets, and then not just do Mount Improbable, but speed-run it."
Kingsfoil blinked. "A racial powers quest? Those are supposed to be journeys of discovery for you uploaders, aren't they? Wouldn't racing through it get you in trouble?"
"It's within the rules."
"But I've read about you people getting mad when a human treats them like a video game level."
Diver said, "Yeah, guilty as charged. Hmm. There're some unwritten rules about how it ought to work, not just what numbers to manipulate." He thought about his plan again.
The Labyrinth of Night had seemed designed to teach Key what a unicorn could do, and a certain way of looking at the world. There was probably a similar lesson built into the pegasus quest. The most obvious teaching was the powers: cloud-walking, cloud-sculpting, weather control, flight. The standard arcane magic like fireballs and teleporting was mostly beyond his kind, and earthbound seemed to do most of the healing and geomancy stuff, but pegasi had magical talents too. So there'd be puzzles and fighting that encouraged him to fly up to the heavens, call down lightning, and wield mist and wind.
Around Diver, the damaged town of Noctis had gone quiet. The residents were busy cleaning up and patrolling for more danger. The castle swarmed with near-identical guards reacting to the damage. This patch of scorched lawn was just a momentary node within the story of Hoofland, a place where he was free to fly anywhere, do anything. Being a pegasus so far had meant being swept along by events, but not helplessly. There'd been a strong wind but he'd chosen to ride it, while seeing other directions he could go. He'd been looking around at his wingmates, judging how to treat them right. His tendency was to charge headlong into battle but that was only one wind, and he was free to peel off from it and discover different ways to fly. There was adventure anywhere he cared to seek it. If that way of thinking colored his thoughts and wasn't the only reasonable way to think, so be it. He was bound only by the rules of the world and his own choices. This is what it means to have wings.
Sky Diver realized he'd shut his eyes. He opened them and smiled. "Spiritual revelation: check. Now let's go abuse the dungeon and set a record for it."
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!