Technically he left Hoofland behind, though Golden Scale forgave him under the circumstances. He left the colorful horse-world through the same tower where he'd first entered, and glanced guiltily back over his shoulders and wings. From there, he returned to Ivory Tower, a massive cavern pierced by a thousand-story skyscraper that people were using as a university, as they gradually cleared out higher and higher floors of adventure.
He didn't go to the Tower itself, but to an eerie black hive where the elevator was guarded by a golem. From there he reached a laboratory with a stark white room.
A disembodied, vaguely Slavic voice said, "Greetings. The procedure is ready. Sit to begin testing." A grey cushion appeared.
He had software test his mental reactions to dozens of poems, songs, jokes, swear words, paintings and textures and more. There'd been a traditional intelligence test followed by a vivid one involving an hour in a maze full of puzzles. He felt as abraded by the data-gathering as by a medical exam, which he supposed this was. "Will there be a battle to earn this upgrade?" he asked the empty test chamber.
The scientist voice said, "Unnecessary. Please say 'Accept' to install the experimental changes you've been discussing, codename Ascension."
"Accept." He waited. "Well?"
"Done. Were you expecting special effects? Here." A triumphant fanfare played and confetti rained down. A status message said, [Level 99 get!]
Diver felt he should find that a little rude, but he let it pass. He looked around the featureless room. "Thank you. How do I get back where I was?"
A plain door appeared. The voice said, "You tend to lose sight of the way back, after a while. I'm glad you have an Ariadne to guide you through this labyrinth."
Account type: Uploader
Main Skills: Flight, Brawling, Dodge, Wingblade, Magic
Save Point: Noctis Castle
Magic: Aeromancy (Novice)
Faction Flag: Night Guard
"Tier Three-Star?" said Diver, in Harvest Moon's throne room. "I'm different enough to not fit neatly into the usual category for humans?"
Nimbus stood there as though she'd never moved. "Quick: thoughts on hooves versus fingers?"
He raised one to look at it, then imagined the fine dark C of his hoof splintering into five wriggling tips. He shivered, then tried to imagine solving a Rubik's Cube with them. It took effort to visualize holding parts of the thing and turning them at the same time. "These are part of me. The idea of having hands instead is, uh..."
Nimbus was looking at his right wing, which he'd unconsciously been twirling in an uncertain gesture. "I guess some of your attention has drifted to your new limbs."
He reared up on his hindlegs and practiced waggling each limb, naturally including his tail. It was even more intuitive now than after he'd gotten powers from the mountain. He twisted his neck back to look at his tail, flopped back onto all fours, and nickered softly. "Seems so."
The queen and her two other test subjects, zebra Danio and the bespectacled Theo, returned soon after. Nimbus and the other dissenters quizzed them as a basic sanity check. She sighed, saying, "You pass for now. I hope you know what you're doing. Want to review the war situation?"
They checked a map that Nimbus had updated while they were getting their brains scrambled. The others filled Diver in. To have the power of a Noble meant maintaining at least fifty points worth of magic nodes, "natural" fountains of energy that were strewn about the flat world map. Ten level-five nodes, or five fives and twenty-five ones, and so on. To control a node meant being the last person to do an hour-long ritual there and not be interrupted. So, Harvest Moon's power rested on having volunteers (including some weak NPCs) ready to kill anyone who started stealing one of her power sources. Right now her power was at seventy-one, well above the minimum and the fifty-one now held by the upstart Sunward Ho.
"Are the nodes there for your exclusive use?" asked Diver, studying the colorful dots. He poked one and to his surprise it changed color; the map was interactive.
The queen shook her head. "Think of them as public fountains where I have first priority, but others can drink harmlessly. As you can see, there are a total of 200 points available on the world map, but various pattern bonuses bring that up to potentially 240."
"256," said Danio the zebra.
He tapped several nodes to show a hypothetical pattern, a mandala of interlocking multicolored ley-lines. "In theory, five Nobles could share this world instead of four, if they cooperated to mix territory this way."
The queen's other Ascended supporter said, "How did I miss that?"
They all fell quiet. Harvest Moon said, "It feels different to see it all laid out this way." She took off her tiara and looked it over. "Do I really need this? Maybe we should have zero Nobles."
"Your majesty?" said Nimbus. "If you've seriously lost all desire for power so soon, do you mind if I take over?"
The queen seemed to be seriously considering it. "I... I enjoy being a Noble, but could certainly have fun without it. Would you be willing to handle the responsibility of defending the nodes, arranging quests for our people, and so on?"
A cold shiver worked its way down Diver's mane and spine. Has this change made me passive? Apathetic? I don't think I especially wanted power even before this. Now, it seems like more trouble than it's worth.
Nimbus stepped back and her wings stood straight out as though she were ready to spring -- up and backwards, obviously, judging from the angle and posture given the still air and ceiling height. She said, "I don't want you to hoof this job over to me because you've suddenly stopped caring. Moon, you've cared about this land ever since you talked me into playing this silly video game you'd just discovered. I've always liked that playful 'bwahaha, take over the world' streak in you, but now it's gone all of the sudden."
Harvest Moon went over to the neglected buffet table and poured herself a drink, though her hooves shook. "There's still a threat to our peaceful enjoyment of Hoofland. I suppose I would enjoy defeating the trolls before their disruption gets worse."
Nimbus gently prodded her with one wing. "What is best in life? To see your enemies driven before you --"
The queen smiled uncertainly. "And hear the lamentation of the mares. Yes, by all means let's defeat the enemy and try to help everyone have fun doing it. But... This world doesn't need to be a zero-sum game, nor a world of stasis where the same people rule forever. I have a few ideas."
"Your majesty," said Nimbus, with a bow.
To give him some experience at serious royal adventuring duties, Diver led one of the raiding parties. He flew and hiked eastward with six NPC flunkies plus two of the queen's Earthside players and Noctis. Meanwhile, Noctis stayed behind to guard the castle, and other parties were making defensive and offensive expeditions with Noctis along. To keep things straight in his head, Diver focused on the fact that it was Golden Scale, specifically, at his side.
Spies put Sunward Ho's power level at fifty-six and rising as her friends seized control of a few more nodes on the map. The good news that the gain hadn't come at Harvest Moon's expense, yet. The deer of the north and the less organized lands of the south had both requested aid against their newly aggressive dawnward neighbor.
The land itself didn't change much as the party traveled. The landscape was procedurally generated, meaning that a random number generator had been seeded with a single word of power, which could be used to calculate an endless array of hills and streams and little adventures without direct human or AI design. Atop that a number of designers had worked with love and dedication to make each square mile of virtual terrain into something unique, with a mix of seamless blending and surprises. Here a canyon roared with a magma river and a honeycomb of caves, and non-fliers needed to cross a rickety rope bridge guarded by an Australian-accented sphinx. Or the other rickety rope bridge guarded by a black knight; there was too much traffic on the sphinx road.
Diver picked a third option. "Rope?" Someone tossed him one. He flew across the burning updraft of the jagged canyon, staked one end on that side, then got his wingless allies to ride a pulley across. One of the world's ever-present special effects AIs cued some Indiana Jones music. Diver smiled, which he supposed was how it got paid or rated.
After another long walk they were in the flat world's middle. In the distance eastward was a Greek-style temple with a beam of golden light reaching high into the sky.
"It's going to get tricky from here on," said Golden Scale.
"Know any save points nearby?"
One of the Earthside players said, "There's a goblin lair just south, I think."
The party detoured to reach the Skulllick Tribe's territory in a supposedly ancient quarry. They had to kill a few of the nasty knife-wielding greenskins but the checkpoint crystal hovered on the area's fringes, making it possible to mark everyone's progress without having to do the endlessly repeating quest to wipe the tribe out. Diver asked, "Their function is to get slaughtered every day to entertain passing adventurers?"
Scale said, "Pretty much. The Forces of Evil run it as a farm, as in, something that generates minor loot for heroes and some kind of evil currency for themselves. No real minds at this one."
"FoE? I thought they didn't usually get involved in Hoofland."
"They don't, much. This place doesn't matter. Let's get on with the magic-node raid."
Diver looked down with suspicion into the quarry, where the remaining goblins milled around obliviously between filthy tents and a cave. "The latest trolls aren't playing by the usual rules, right? What if there's more to this place than it looks like?"
One of the shadow players said, "You're reading too much into it, Diver. We've saved; let's go."
He nodded and headed out. From there the group went quiet, sticking to the tall grass as they approached the temple.
Their self-proclaimed "ninja unicorn" cast a far-seeing spell to make a lens in midair. "Lightly guarded. I see four identical earthbound grunts, a pegasus who thinks he's cleverly hidden by the roof, and a unicorn who's obviously AFK."
"Hmm?" said Golden Scale.
"I mean not paying attention. He's doing standard idle animations. We can take 'em, but the trouble is they'll respawn nearby -- maybe at the quarry -- within minutes, and who knows how many reinforcements they'll bring."
They'd need an hour to steal the control point, doing the ritual in Harvest Moon's name. Standard practice was to have offensive reinforcements including defense turrets of some kind, and a teleport route from a headquarters to the battle line. In this case the queen's resources were reduced by the griefers' strike and stretched thin by other missions, so Diver and company didn't have much backup coming for hours. "I don't see any backup defenses on their side either," said Diver. It was a level-one point on the frontier, a low priority.
Scale frowned. "Kill 'em, and hope they've got good stuff to steal. Then one of us takes the point while the rest defend."
They all nodded, and whispered out the rest of a plan. Then they scarfed down pizza and coffee, an important tactical move for the stat bonuses.
The ninja crept through the grass and laid a snare for whenever the idle unicorn paid attention, then backstabbed an NPC before he could cry out. Diver worried that the faint tense music would give them away, but it was only a sort of compensation for Earthside players who could never have full sense awareness and effectively had a tiny field of vision.
He'd circled around to the direction the hiding pegasus was watching the least, and managed to ambush him atop the temple roof with a slash of one wingblade, scoring a major wound. Diver lost sight of what the others were doing as he and the other flier rolled across the roof, shouting and thrashing hooves while drums boomed in time with their blows. Then he kicked the villain off the three-story roof, and got reminded that they both had wings.
The pegasus flapped for altitude and let loose a string of racial slurs in a weird robotic monotone. Diver chased him and went for a stunning blow rather than a wound by suddenly flipping to strike with his hindhooves instead of his blades. The trick worked, and the foe crashed onto the temple steps. Diver followed with a diving punch that stunned him again, and another slash that killed him. The pegasus' body flickered and vanished, leaving behind a pile of potions.
Diver looked around. Scale and the shadow players had taken out the other NPCs, keeping their own NPCs in reserve, and they were now looking at the enemy unicorn who just stood there. Occasionally that guy leaned his head down, pretending to graze, always with the same animation.
"Doesn't seem sporting," said Diver. "His player is probably asleep or something."
The ninja grinned and began stealing his armor and equipment piece by piece, stripping him nude. "Free experience!"
Scale said, "He's got a point. Diver, this is a good time to try out magic attacks. Altar Beast, get started."
Their cleric (the other shadow) hustled into the temple with their NPCs to start the ritual. That left Scale, Diver and the ninja with the oblivious unicorn and no other opposition in sight.
Diver didn't want to hurt this guy, but there was no mind directly attached to this enemy's body, and he'd be a threat if he paid attention. Reluctantly, Diver reared up and channeled energy into voltage on his wings, charging his blades with electricity. "Sorry, but we're not letting some griefer spoil our fun." He slashed the defenseless unicorn first with lightning, then with a double-strike charged with ice. The enemy toppled and died, still blank-faced.
"Eerie," said Diver, stepping away from the pile of loot. "I guess humans will always be at a disadvantage here."
The ninja turned back from watching to the east. "You're not a real human anymore, just because you uploaded?"
"I don't think I am, completely. Not that being human is bad." There was no blood on his weapons, when he checked. "Jury's still out on whether being a true Hooflander pegasus is better."
Scale said, "Come on; let's get inside and recharge before we're counterattacked."
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!