At sunset, after a nap and a chat with a wizard who insisted that Nimbus was doing magic all wrong, Diver headed for the queen's castle. Not surprisingly, the elaborate stone walls were still badly damaged. Here and there they'd been patched with clouds as though someone had stuffed cotton into a wound. The drawbridge was closed but a door had been set into the broken wall that'd taken a giant lion impact.
He walked into the throne room, where Queen Harvest Moon had a map table and a gathering of four horses sitting on cushions. She waved and said, "Help yourself to dinner." A buffet table lined the back wall.
Diver practiced using his wings like a pair of tongs, to help him fetch things. His range of motion was impressive. He piled a plate full of apples, oats, and some kind of bacon-like bark, then joined the royal table.
Harvest Moon said, "Please welcome Sky Diver, who has already assisted the Night Guard. Whenever Nimbus gets here --"
"I'm coming, I'm coming. Your majesty." The bat groused as she trotted in with the queen's box of magic stuff.
"Ah, good. Food's over there. As I was saying, I'd like to formally induct our new pegasus into the Guard as a provisional member. Will you accept, Diver?"
Diver whinneyed, then covered his muzzle, startled both by the offer and by his own reaction. As a human he would've said something like "huh?"
The Night Guard members looked amused. "I remember my reaction to the 'heart of the earthborn' quest," one of them said. "Nearly made me quit Hoofland for building starships in one of the other worlds."
Blushing, Diver said, "The quest caught me off guard. I expected just a boost to my flight power and so on."
Sonia's ears lay flat back. "Yeah, it's unnerving."
Diver asked, "What exactly are you offering, your majesty?"
The orange mare said, "Pledge loyalty to my reign as a Noble, to be on call for tasks that will defend my honor and interests, for one year or until we both agree to end the relationship. In return, I will give you money, a patch of land, access to certain special resources, and a promise to make your life... interesting." She smiled.
Nimbus flapped over to sit beside Diver, biting into a mango. "Normally that means general policing of Noctis and the power-nodes the queen holds, and occasional raids or diplomatic missions. Right now, though, who knows?"
A guild! Diver had just been invited to an old-timey gaming guild. He snorted. Nobody else was laughing, though. "Do you have only five members working for you?" he said, counting Nimbus and the other guests.
Harvest Moon shifted uncomfortably on her cushion. "Thirty, and parts of Noctis. Everyone here has something in common."
"I'm a native," said a zebra dressed as some kind of mechanic.
He wasn't sure how the sensation mapped between brain and body, but it felt like his mane stood on end, prickling down his neck and shoulders. "Why does your strategy meeting involve only the people who live here?"
The queen said, "Reasons that I'll explain, if you promise that they won't leave this room." She leaned over the table to stare at him with those big green eyes. "This is serious, Sky Diver. Cross me by stealing my property or damaging my castle, and we'll have fun fighting. Overthrow me and I'll say 'good game' and buy you a drink. But lie to me and I'll really become angry."
The weight of everyone's gaze was on him. Though the stares were cartoonishly large, the minds behind them were real. Diver leaned his neck back and said, "All right. I won't share whatever secrets you tell me here, without your permission."
The queen relaxed and sat back down. She took a drink from a sort of bowl made for hooves, which struck Diver as a nice touch compared to using human tools and fudging the physics. "Hoofland has only existed for a few years, less than that in subjective time. It began as a few separate, isolated environments for players of Thousand Tales who asked for fantasy adventure. Why this theme? Because some Tales players had grown up with a surprisingly popular cartoon about horse adventurers; that's all. These islands of horseplay were welded into a single world with some attempt at a consistent style and rules. Then, uploading got invented and it became more than a game. There; that's the history of the world."
Diver thought of Golden Scale and the other townsfolk. Some old story had shaped their bodies and minds, defining them. He supposed they should be glad this world wasn't designed by fans of Scooby Doo or something. It had at least grown into something of its own. He'd heard that there was a little Robin Hood world elsewhere in the game, along with a space world that managed to not be full of Star Trek knockoffs.
Harvest Moon paused, shutting her eyes for a moment. "Yesterday, there was a coup in the eastern Hooflands that overthrew Regent True Sky. The king was gone because, well..."
One of the Night Guards said, "He died. On Earth."
Diver winced. It didn't matter what narratives happened to you in Hoofland, if you were an Earthside player, because an ending could come along without rhyme or reason.
"Drunk driver," said the zebra. "I knew the king; he was a good man. And I don't just mean he set up little fantasy quests for people. He was an honest businessman out there."
Diver sympathized. If the timing on that last plane flight of his had been slightly different, he wouldn't be here today.
The queen said, "There was a free-for-all against True Sky. This new queen of that domain managed to have her minions seize control over the various power nodes in that part of the map. She passed the minimum number needed to become a Noble, that is, recognized by the game as a monarch with special powers. Diver, you've seen from me what a Noble can do in combat."
Diver nodded. "Lasers, species-mixing magic, high-powered spells."
"Yes. But there's more to the role than what's on my character sheet. This new 'Queen Sunward Ho' immediately decided that provoking a war would be a fun thing to do, so she sent several blackguards and knaves to wreak havoc in my lands. I hear that even the Hart Forest was hit in a crude attempt to pin the blame on me."
Diver's wings fluttered as he took it all in. He looked at the map spread across the table, and the zebra pulled his plate aside to give him a better view. Hoofland had a vague border between Harvest Moon's night-themed western queendom, the former True Sky land in the east, the deer kingdom to the north, and some kind of zebra/dragon confederation in the south. The references to the Coast of Blades, Flying City Aeolus, and the Griffin Keep Academy made him yearn to explore everywhere and see all the wonders that people had made of this world. He said, "If there's a war, you don't mind that, do you?"
"War itself? It's harmless around here. I send minions to try capturing foreign power nodes and other resources, and we have the occasional assassination attempt, robbery, kidnapping and so on. All in good fun. What we saw the other day is, I fear, the start of something different. The enemy went out of their way to kill residents repeatedly, including immigrants who feel more and more pain as that happens. And including a child who was tagged as such to anyone who bothered to look. To make matters worse, Sunward Ho issued a statement that she plans to conquer all Hoofland using the aid of Earthside players throughout Talespace, and the Forces of Evil."
"The what, now?"
One of the guards said, "The Forces of Evil don't come here much. They're a gang throughout Talespace that believes in villainy for the sake of making sure that the world has 'bad guys'. Or they're a carefully designed outlet for uploaders who're sadists, to channel them into something semi-useful. Or they're a conspiracy aiming to rule the virtual world so they can dominate its culture even as it grows in uploader population. Or some mix of all three. They deliberately make it tough to tell."
For as long as there'd been large-scale online games, there'd been "griefers" or "trolls" who had fun spoiling other people's. The difference here was that people lived in this game, and if it continued to grow, there would be genuine wealth and political power for whoever ruled it.
Diver said, "But we have an AI watching all this. Won't she step in if these Horses Of Evil get too powerful? I mean, all it'd take to stop any obnoxious players is to ban them, or twiddle some bits to make ill-gotten gold disappear."
The queen said, "Ludo has been maddeningly evasive about what steps she'll take. Some of the Forces of Evil boast that she won't intervene, because she so values our freedom to make our own mistakes."
Diver pictured a horde of Earthside players signing up for the game because someone had exhorted them on some Internet forum. That would be something awful! They'd use their accounts to make characters and swarm in as a griefer army, just to see what trouble they could cause. After all, fantasy horses were stupid and childish and didn't matter to anyone real, right? "Wasn't there an old game where the developers built a realistic ecosystem, put it online, then realized that human players were a bunch of immortal, insatiable top predators?"
"Yes," said Harvest Moon. "If fighting dirty amuses people, and there's no real cost, then they'll do it."
"We're at war, then. You want some way of stopping this outside influence and keeping the fighting to some kind of polite standard?"
"Not exactly." The mare cleared her throat and stood to address the group formally. "The enemy has tried to turn our world into just another playground for humans wanting to pretend to hurt each other, while inflicting real pain on real people. Is that the sort of world we came for?"
"No!" said her Night Guards.
"We can be better than this petty gamer nonsense. We can, in fact, become better people. Stallions and mares, I propose that now is the time to implement the Ascension Code."
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!