It was an easy takeover. The team guarded their ritual expert for an hour while he danced and chanted around a pillar of golden fire; he said he was on autopilot while eating some pasta and they should shout if anyone tried to kill them.
At the end, the ray of mystic energy flared broadly enough to threaten the party, died, and came back in Harvest Moon's orange coat color, shot through with silver streaks. Diver tried warming his hooves by it, becoming aware of something he'd been missing: temperature. The day was warm and the fire just hot enough to draw human hands or Hooflander hooves close in primal curiosity.
The queen's voice echoed from the flames. "Good work, my loyal subjects. Sunward Ho's power has decreased by a point. If we can knock the enemy beneath fifty, opposing her will get much easier."
"What is she at now?" asked Diver.
"Fifty-two, due to other conquests back and forth. Unfortunately, that means the Noble must act."
Scale said, "Status?" toward the doorway.
Their ninja reported back, "No contact yet. Maybe the enemy has pulled back rather than fight over a single point."
Diver scuffed a nearby column with one hoof. "We're thinking in terms of a conventional war. These are mostly Earthside people here to make trouble, though. They already raided Noctis and did some damage even though it didn't accomplish more than to tick us off.
We may be in for an unconventional attack of some kind."
The queen said, "I have supporters from around Earth, but mainly active when it's evening in North America and Europe. Our strength will temporarily ebb starting about now, leaving us vulnerable until the moon rises again over those lands."
Scale watched the empty distance, then turned back toward Harvest Moon's voice. "Want us to press on, your majesty?"
"You might as well. Try to seize the two-point node to your north; I will have another force converge there soon after you arrive."
Diver tapped his breast with one hoof and lowered his head. "Your majesty."
The party abandoned the point on the theory that the queen would detect an attempt to seize it and the enemy's mainly Earthside forces would be going to bed about now, too. The sun set in Hoofland, leaving Diver's party in surprising darkness. In Noctis itself the moon was always visible, by some power of the night-minded Noble. Their ninja lit the way with a dim horn-light.
Diver asked, "Are you shadows up for another fight?"
The ninja nodded. The cleric said, "This place is gonna be my home. I might as well."
"Really? You're going to upload?"
"I'm sixty-eight. Do you know how awful 'assisted living' homes are? It's one or the other. Or spend my savings on a new lung, and probably die a few years later anyway." The silly cartoon horse trotted along quietly for a while. "Diver, do you believe in God?"
The question would have bothered Diver a year ago, before his own similar decision to leave the ordinary world behind. He looked into the darkness beyond their sharp-edges little circle. "No. I haven't in a long time."
He thought of the woman he'd known, in another life. Uploading wouldn't have saved her. This game, this fantasy, could save people... but only if it gathered the wealth and power int he real world to make its technology available to everyone.
Diver spoke and flapped his wings once, sending a crackle of electricity along them and into the ground. "If there's to be any justice in the world, we have to be the ones to create it."
"That's about where I am at this point. Why take the chance that all the priests are wrong, when there's a real sort of immortality for sale?"
The ninja stopped, and the motion of his head spun shadows around them. "Must be nice to be so damn rich."
Diver raised his wings defensively. "I got in after the big price drop."
"So cheap that it's only six figures. Right. People like me only get to hope there's a real heaven, 'cause we can't afford your version."
"It'll get cheaper still. Cars and computers and electricity were rich people's toys for years."
Scale came to Diver's defense. "Your world's not fair. There's only so much we can do about that. We're trying to help."
"Really? By fighting over this game map? If you take over from the griefers, how does that do a damn thing for us 'shadows'? In fact, even your slang says you think you're not human."
Diver felt spotlighted by the unicorn's spell-light, but there was no warmth in it. "You're right. It doesn't help you. We should be doing more."
Scale nudged him, saying, "This place is your home now. Plenty of other people get here and bounce right back out."
The many-bodied Noctis, despite being an AI, wasn't among the circle who knew about the Ascension program. Diver had committed more than Noctis knew to Hoofland, but the change meant taking some responsibility for the world beyond it. "Making uploading practical for everyone should be our goal. But I'm no scientist or economic planner. What I can do here and now" -- he stamped the ground -- "is fight this war, in a way that doesn't just win but that makes people Earthside think of our world in a different light."
The unicorn said, "Sure looks like you're playing it exactly like it really matters. Capture the control point, move on to the next, beat the boss."
That was true, which stung him. "Then what would you suggest?"
"They're trolls. They're playing to screw around, not because they care. So help them screw around. I don't know; build some obscenely shaped castle as tribute?"
Scale said, "This is our world, shadow. Not a toy."
The shadow laughed at her. "Have fun with that. You're the toy. Thanks for the perspective; I should go outside and do something real. Take my stuff; I don't care." He flopped onto the ground and "slept", abandoned by the human controlling him from the outside world.
The mare sniffled. Diver draped a wing over her, and the cleric hesitantly did the same with one hoof. Somewhere else in the world, did the rest of Noctis feel the same way?
"He's right," said Noctis. "We tell ourselves we're a vital part of Hoofland, but background characters are all we'll ever be to humans. Why are they so mean?"
"The real -- the Outer Realm is hard for us."
"Not 'us'! You're not one of them anymore."
That was more true than she knew. Diver said, "You've brought happiness to a lot of people. That's more than a lot of humans can say. What can we do to make this world better with our own skills and perspective?"
"Lock the shadows out! Kick their accounts and leave us alone." A faint red light shined in the distance, probably the coming dawn.
Their cleric said, "Now, now, miss Scale. We shadows aren't all bad, right? If you push for Hoofland to disengage from human players, or block accounts just like any other game, then that's how people will think of it."
She sighed. "I suppose. Get here as soon as you can, will you? We'll throw you a party."
The distant light caught Diver's attention. His eyes widened and he took to the air. The red light wasn't to the east, but to the north, and it was coming from the ground. "Guys? About face and start running."
In a spreading wave from the direction of the next magic node, the ground was lava. All of it.
Scale looted the unicorn's body, barked a command to the brainless guards who'd been following them, and ran. The cleric hurried after. The game added a breathless note to his voice, but he was otherwise casual as he said, "What's wrong?"
"Wave of lava!" said Diver, landing long enough to rest his wings. He felt the pull of air through his lungs and the beat of his hooves on dirt. "Anyone seen this before?"
Scale glanced backward as they ran. "No. How much of it?"
"As far as I could see." There was no horizon in this flat world, but fog blurred everything beyond a few miles out.
"Humans!" she hissed. "That does it. I'm cheating a bit." She shut her eyes for a moment, still galloping south away from the red wave. "Meteor knows his squad's suddenly been cut off from a supply line he had going. Flint Core -- you haven't met him -- just got killed. Grassy Gnoll sees something odd in the distance as he works Mount Improbable with some newcomers. Diver, this isn't just one node that's going haywire."
Diver flew again and risked veering away from his southward course to get a better view. "It's everywhere!" He turned back to catch up, and saw he was right: another wave was spreading from somewhere to the east. He told them, turned his herd southwest, and said, "What could cause this?"
"I don't know. Some of my mage friends might."
The cleric said, "Don't ask me. I don't know the inner workings of this world's code. A glitch with elemental magic? Warn the queen as long as you're talking to your other selves."
The hellish light was closer now and showed no sign of stopping. "Get across the canyon?" said Diver.
"No time for ziplining."
Diver ran and soared just above the ground. "Then you two will die. Sorry. If only there was -- aha! Give me your stuff." He pointed to the scattered clouds in the sky.
"Cloud backup storage!" said the cleric. He reached his neck into his saddlebags and tossed Diver a pouch. "I'll get this back, right?"
Diver said, "It'll be your cloud bank. I'll try to, uh, paddle the cloud somewhere safe or wait until the lava's gone. Scale, any valuables?"
"Good thinking." She stopped and fished with her hooves for the coins and potion bottles they'd looted off the goons they'd killed. Diver landed and filled his saddlebags until he wasn't sure he could fly. "Sorry, you two." The wall of lava was in plain sight now, about to sweep over everyone.
The cleric said, "It's only death. Doesn't seem to be a big problem anymore for us."
Diver hugged Scale, then took off and landed on the nearest cloud. His wings ached and he took a moment to catch his breath after such a sharp takeoff. Below him the whole world was becoming a sea of lava. He didn't look down at where his friends were dying.
He carefully leaned over the cloud's edge; it was only the size of a car. He tried beating the air with his wings to push it along like a raft, but at this rate he couldn't get anywhere useful. Still he had to try. It was all he could do.
Bits of the air crackled. The red light flickered and seemed to change direction, and moments passed when it seemed like time had jumped forward. The sky... the sky was a mass of cubes. Nothing was real. There was a taste of cough syrup in his mouth and he couldn't feel his body. Then all sound ceased, and then so did the world itself. There wasn't even a proper death notice, just a glitch and darkness.
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!