Diver, Nimbus, Kingsfoil and a sleepy Key sat around a coffeeshop table with a map scroll. Diver grumbled about losing his journal; it'd been part of the stuff wrecked or stolen by the Sunward Ho gang. "Based on that description of the mountain, here's what we'll need from the box of cool treasure." He tapped some notes.
-Retinari's Net: Drop it to trap enemies.
-Spellbook of the Black Lotus: Gives a unicorn unlimited mana for 30 sec, once/day.
-Wingblades of the Great Red Spot: Wind/lightning damage.
-Thrice-High Ribbon: Triple jump.
-Stonecutter's Hatchet of the Notch: Cuts through terrain.
"Are we set?" he asked.
Key was idle again. He'd been grumpy about being woken up. Back on Earth he was fixing breakfast and occasionally checking on his computer. Cooking sounds emanated from his idle equine body as a microphone picked them up. When the human got back he yawned. "Let's go. I'll walk on autopilot and eat."
They all drank their coffee of +10% energy, stuffed their cheap replacement saddlebags with a carefully chosen selection of food and whatever potions were available on short notice in the recently burned town, and walked outside. Diver called out to the sky, "Hey, world, take note! We hereby boast that we're going to set a record for speed on Mount Improbable!"
His HUD announced: Quest progress is now being tracked.
"Should we start running?" said Kingsfoil, shouldering his share of the magic gear.
Noctis was following them for now. "Nah. We're not at the actual entrance yet. Let's get this over quickly though."
An angry fire spirit summoned by the recent battle flew at them with a roar like sirens. Key fended it off with his telekinesis. Diver used the chance to practice with the red-copper razors he flicked out from the front edges of his wings, like switchblades. He hopped into the air, flew past the fire spirit, and brushed next to it. A highly localized gale of shredding wind pierced the monster and tore it in half with a single blow. Diver landed in a crouch, feeling cool. "I like these. Do they come in other elements?"
Noctis said, "Yeah, but most aren't that powerful."
Three bears jumped them on the northern outskirts of town. Nimbus pinned two with the unbreakable net, and the adventurers beat the tar out of them all. Then there was the canoe-riding sequence, where they managed to hit a rock at just the right angle to fling them over much of the river's course.
Soon they reached the foot of a mountain with a winding trail and many ledges. An ornamental gate and a save crystal marked the official entrance. Diver looked back at his party.
Noctis waved goodbye. "Good luck!"
Diver hugged her. "See you." To the others he said, "Activate... crystal!"
They all pinged it to mark their progress.
They scarfed down mugs of coffee, donuts for another 10% energy boost, pineapple muffins (wound resistance, in honor of the spiky fruit) and forbidden bacon sandwiches (attack power, from the implied un-equine aggression). The taste was almost absent, still. Diver felt stuffed but powerful.
Music began, and a tiny clock was now visible in the corner of Diver's vision whenever he focused on it. The first stage of the mountain was just a steep trail until a rock golem blocked the way. It stopped blocking the way when Diver chopped it up with two passes of his wingblades. There were endless rolling boulders, but Kingsfoil hacked a ledge out of the solid rock to make the rocks fall harmlessly out of their way. Then he dug a trail upward around a complicated lock.
Diver tapped his hoof; this part was slow going. "I guess it's much faster than solving the puzzle."
Kingsfoil talked around the hatchet in his mouth. "Yeah. The lock is meant for the unicorns, mostly. Takes telekinesis."
"Want me to take a turn with that hatchet?"
"Nah. I can't get tired." Key kept casting a minor spell on him to restore his stamina, and he couldn't really feel anything.
In a few minutes they'd cut through the lock and hurried up the mountain trail ahead. There was a cliff of ledges. Diver studied it, conferred with the others, then tied that triple-jump ribbon around his tail. The piece of cloth was the first reminder he'd had in a while that his tail existed, and it was startling to feel it at the base of his spine after so long taking it for granted. With that on, he jumped, jumped twice more in midair, then started flying. At maximum altitude he landed on a ledge, then anchored a rope to it and tied the ribbon on the end so the others could use it. The others bounced and climbed up in fewer stages than should've been possible, even using the hatchet to make a few extra hoof-holds.
At the top there were pillars with cracks that could only be seen from above. Diver figured that one out right away and they raced through the puzzle to create a new path. A mountain-goat minotaur blocked their way and they bull-rushed him right off the cliff and hurried on.
Finally they came to a winding trail with a suspiciously safe ledge, a checkpoint crystal, and a path to a deep round crater. "Ready?" said Diver.
The others caught up. Key said, "Timer's running out on the food bonuses."
They stuffed themselves with the last of their snacks, tied the triple-jump ribbon onto Kingsfoil, prepped the spell tome for Key, and charged into the crater.
A dragon slowly descended from the heavens, its scales crackling with lightning. Diver tapped one hoof; Noctis had briefed him. As soon as it roared dramatically and battle music began, everyone sprang into action.
Diver ran around the crater arena to distract it, slashing here and there with his blades. Key hacked a few bits out of a wall to create a tiny stepping-stone. Kingsfoil hopped onto it, snagged the hatchet, triple-jumped to get higher, and carved a similar hoof-hold. He nimbly hopped down to the floor, where Diver dodged the dragon's lightning breath and tossed the net to the deer. Kingsfoil took off again, much higher than a non-pegasus should be able to get. He waited for the right moment and pitched the net, which crashed down hard on the mighty boss dragon. The beast now seemed magnetized to the floor but it was struggling to get up.
"Key, go!" said Diver.
Diver activated the spellbook, giving him unlimited mana. He began blasting the monster with endless streams of his best spell so far, a little energy blast from his horn with the force of a punch. With each hit the dragon took little damage, but was stunned for a fraction of a second.
That was Diver's cue. He jumped and flew along a staircase of clouds, rising above the crater's rim. From here he sensed massive electric potential, power in the air. He raised his forehooves, jumped and shouted to call down the lightning. A huge bolt crashed down through him but washed through with little damage, on its way to the boss. Diver landed feeling singed and wobbly. The dragon roared, crackling with electricity, and crumbled into glowing dust.
A crystal heart containing an icon of wings descended from the heavens. An angelic choir sang a single "Ah!" Diver decided the prize was taking too long to reach the floor, and jumped up to snag it in midair.
You have earned the Heart of the Pegasus! said a message that hung in the air, apparently visible to all. The letters appeared slowly as though being typed. If you accept this item, you will receive the full powers of a pegasus!
WARNING, it went on. This item will alter your mind! Consequences include --
"What are you waiting for?" said Key. "We might still be on a timer."
Diver landed, clutching the crystal in his forehooves. "I doubt it."
Consequences include a new air-related sense, an intuitive interface adjustment, motor control/sensation adapted to this body, possible mild claustrophobia, and reduction of any acrophobia. Mental changes may not be fully reversible. Rejection will still grant you partial rewards for this quest, equivalent to what ordinary players get. Please say 'Accept', 'Question', or 'Reject'.
Diver faltered. He'd already decided to commit to this new species. In fact, he already was a new sort of creature by being an uploader. He'd already gone through mental changes by virtue of getting his brain shredded on an operating table. It was just that last time, the procedure was meant to copy him exactly, not to make him different.
Did he want to get simply a set of gameplay bonuses, or to also get something deeper?
He took a deep breath. This is about more than being a silly fantasy creature. I'm jumping into things, but I'm doing that with open eyes. These changes seem good, and there seems to be a way to undo some of them if they go wrong. Let's try this. "Accept," he said.
The world went mad. The air was squishy, green, and the ground felt made of splinters and the scent of booze. Key said something and the words tasted tangy. Diver twitched. "I don't know how to process this!"
Kingsfoil looked up. "Something else is coming."
Colorless green ideas slept furiously in the corners of Diver's vision. He blinked and shook his head, tripped, crashed face-first, and threw his hooves over a plaid cloud to gag. The cloud was... voltless? There were sparks inside it that mixed like red and blue, sweet and sour; he didn't have words for them. The air overhead felt thin like a tunnel.
"Look out!" said Key, and tried to shove him out of the way.
It didn't work. The falling treasure chest was guided by a localized low-pressure zone so it crashed straight along that. Of course. Diver saw that just in time to get beaned by it. He plowed face-first into a mass of cloud --
Major wound. Humid. Flight power charging. High up.
Diver groaned and turned over onto his back. He blinked. The sparks were everywhere. He twitched his wings and felt the energy separate a little, drawing from his own mana pool to create voltage. There were no numbers and yammering notes in his vision now. He hurt, he was atop a mountain in still air, and his still-glitching mind knew how to stir wind and lightning by magic.
"You all right, there?" said Kingsfoil. "Sorry I didn't react faster."
Diver climbed to his feet and looked around. "I think so. You said the power-up was 'a little confusing'. Yeah. A bit. Got any healing power left?"
The deer leaned down and touched him, creating a rune-field that took him a minute to solve.
Diver's head wound faded and he didn't need any notation to tell him so. "Thank you both. What's in the box?"
Key solved a puzzle-lock and pried it open. "We earned... Cheese?"
There were three one-pound wedges of Swiss cheese in there, each labeled with a ribbon bearing an elegant "M". There were also three cloth badges with a stopwatch icon and a trophy, and three more with a cheese-bearing dragon.
Key said, "I think this is a booby-prize recognition of a successful speed-run record, and an incredibly cheesy victory."
"Fair enough," said the deer. "Are we done here?"
The unicorn nodded. "I need to log out and get to bed. Where are you, Foil?"
"Oh, wow. Are you close to the fighting?"
"The war's farther south. They mostly just have Grenada again."
The two non-uploaders chattered while Diver tried to make sense of his vision, his more intuitive link to the game world's interface, and the feel of air around his feathers. Things were happening in the real world -- the Outer Realm, or as one native had put it in a gloomy moment, the "Dark World" where death had teeth. That world needed adventurers too. What could someone like him do there, using a robot body?
Come to think of it, Ludo the AI seemed to mostly use quadrupedal robots shaped like mythical creatures, sometimes even with plush pelts, to seem non-threatening. He'd just become _more_ fit for operating one intuitively.
I promised Noctis not to run off, thought Diver, and folded his wings along his sides. To the others he said, "Thanks again. Let's divide the loot and get back to town, or at least somewhere that you... your bodies can rest without being harassed."
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!