After the mountain adventure he left Key and Kingsfoil, the two humans playing on ordinary computers, "sleeping" in a safe-looking hollow tree. It had its own save point. Their bodies faded out without dropping their gear. Diver nodded to himself, tapped the save crystal, and tried out flying on his own.
He whooped. With the new upgrade he had no artificial flight ceiling, and even with his overloaded saddlebags and wing-blades he could fly twice as long as before. He pushed as high as he could and felt the warmth of the rising sun along his hide. He didn't simply run out of flight power; he felt the subtle strain of his wing muscles and knew to transition to gliding. Wind rushed along him as he played with different ways to hold his hooves, dangling or horizontal. Something tickled behind him and he glanced back to find he had a tuft of tail-feathers along his hairy tail. The tilt of his head made him yaw right but he wiggled his tail to compensate like an airplane, changing his move into a gentle roll. He was on his back in the sky, gliding above a forest where the sun was only starting to show him the brightening world.
Diver rolled level again and slipped down to a mostly dignified landing. He bounced up again and again on his way south to practice the moments of takeoff and landing, which seemed to be the hardest parts.
When he made it back (after overpowering a giant wolf with his unfairly good weaponry), he spotted Meteor the pegasus first. He was working with some other equines to rebuild a guard tower. "Hey, Meteor, I got it. Any news?"
A unicorn cast some sort of scanning spell. "Whoa, where'd you get those wingblades?"
"They're loaners from the queen."
Several people called out "All hail Harvest Moon!"
"Backgrounders," muttered Meteor. "That was a cheap victory, if you were using her gear to make it all easy."
Diver's wings drooped. "But I told you, and you giggled at the speed-run idea. Or... Golden Scale did, anyway."
"From my perspective it's disrespectful. This isn't one of your theme parks, existing just to make everybody feel like the Chosen One."
Diver left him, abandoning the idea of boasting all over town about his cheesy victory. Instead he found Nimbus' ruined arena and the tent that the batty innkeeper had pitched there for now, with a storm-cloud logo on its canvas.
He peeked into the tent. Nimbus was inside, surrounded by a pale glow as she cupped something between her wings and forehooves. Electric current flowed between them and swirled around a sphere of cloudstuff. Nimbus said, "Hang on," and took another minute to complete her spell. The orb slowly shifted into a fluffy hexagonal tile made of slate-grey vapor. She set it down next to three others, then stretched. "Powered up yet?"
"Yup! I've got --" Diver extended one wing, which made the wingblade flick out like a switchblade and slash half the tent. The whole thing collapsed on them. Buried under canvas, Diver finished, "Yes. Yes I did."
Nimbus grumbled and threw the tent off of them. "Okay, you're flagged. Take those things off before I lose my head."
Diver carefully leaned his muzzle over one wing, then the other, to undo the buckles with his teeth and one hoof. He still wasn't quite used to his long neck. The blades clattered to the dirt. "Sorry. Anyway, it went well. Here's the rest of the equipment we borrowed, plus... cheese?"
Nimbus took the blades, the spellbook and the other things borrowed from the queen's stash. "That's maximum cheese. Seen that before; don't ask. Fills your mana at the cost of you having to scarf down an entire pound of cheese in mid-battle. As for those patches, it looks like you got an achievement from our sarcastic AI overlord."
"Do those do anything?"
"No. Now that you're stronger, you're worth bringing to the war conference. The queen's scheduled one to figure out how to respond to this uprising in the east."
Diver chuckled bitterly, thinking of the real war that Key and Kingsfoil had mentioned. Before uploading, Diver hadn't paid it much attention, since it was on the far side of the world. Now, well, he didn't know offhand what continent held the computers where his mind was stored. All the troubles of the world might well be thousands of miles away.
Or, dangerously close, yet invisible from here.
There's only so much I can do. Diver ruffled his wings and tail-feathers, feeling lighter but still weighed down by coins and other trinkets from the quest. "How's the town? I'd like to do some shopping, but not if there's urgent need for repairs."
"The invaders mostly just hit the castle and some isolated spots like my dome. Bastards. Not everything is open since it's morning now, but you should be able to get whatever you need from shadow-run shops. Try the Busty Dragon Inn or the Pointy Emporium, depending on what you need. Some armor, maybe? Meet me in the castle at sunset."
The little cloud-tiles caught his attention. "Rebuilding the dome? Can I help?"
Nimbus sighed. "It'll take forever to get a proper cage up again, but the basement is partly intact." She pointed a wing toward the cratered trenches that the underground rooms had become. "And I can rebuild the rest better than before. So I'm doing tiles instead of concrete. If you want, I'll teach you the basics of cloudsmithing when you get back."
"I'd like that."
He spent a few happy hours wandering around and shopping. There was no way to afford equipment nearly so good as what he'd borrowed, but he got what he thought was a good price on some light leather armor. The breastplate fastened around his back, chest and torso ("barrel" was apparently the term) like a jacket and had clasps he could work with his teeth and hooves. It seemed silly to get a weapon for his mouth so he could pretend to be a human swinging a sword around. Instead he invested in some basic wingblades, which were little more than daggers carefully strapped to his wingtips. He figured his loadout wouldn't weigh him down much; heavy armor and giant weapons weren't suited to pegasi. The rest of his money went into a tiny sapphire focus gem, worn around his neck. It was supposed to help him get started with magic. The equipment was less powerful than what he'd borrowed, but it was his.
He made it back to Nimbus, who looked him over and nodded approvingly. "Ready for that lesson?"
Diver looked at the ruined tent, and covered his muzzle with one wing. "Sorry. I forgot to buy a replacement."
She shrugged. "I see you're getting better with moving your wings."
Diver looked at them, craning his neck around, and wiggled one wing. Indeed, he could now move them without feeling like he had puppet strings tying them to his "arms" or legs. "I guess my brain's adapting. Which is good, right?"
"Oh! Check this out." He moved his wing a certain way that flicked one wingblade into position, making an audible shing! noise. He grinned, put it away, and did it again. Shing!
"You're easily amused."
Now that he could sense something of how Hoofland represented voltage, current, and magic, the innkeeper gave him a lesson. It was possible to charge bits of cloud, and common magic crystals, to create something like circuitry. "So what's this do if I hook it up?" Nimbus asked, pointing to a diagram.
"Just a battery hooked up to a wire. No resistance. So... the energy flows all at once?"
"Yeah. Basic zap spell. If you can 'draw' that in combat while generating voltage with your wings, then you're a living Tesla coil. Bzzzt!"
"Is that a real circuit design?"
Sonia grinned fangily. "Trying to build this in the real world is basically like dividing by zero. Physics doesn't like it when you try that."
It was strange to think that there was a real-world equivalent of this self-contained lightning spell. He'd been thinking of Hoofland as its own self-contained cartoon magic zone, but both local physics and the minds were more complex than they seemed. "I'd like to learn more about the spells," he said. "So we wingy horses just do elemental lightning?"
"Pegasi can do wind and frost, too. For those you need to tap into the ambient magic field..." She started explaining in more detail, in terms that he could only now relate to using his expanded senses. Wind seemed to be about manipulating local air pressure, which fascinated him because of his experience as a pilot. There were a lot of neat things he could eventually do with air magic, like creating explosions without flame or sustaining himself in thin air.
They forgot about making cloudstuff bricks and instead practiced making little bursts of ice and slashing wind. Nimbus reached the limit of her magic knowledge, decided he was a good student, and planted a kiss on his muzzle. She might've tried to take that further, but the canvas tent collapsed on them both, again.
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!