Sky Diver appeared in midair over a forest. His wings wobbled. He rolled to the left and whooped, trying to get used to a subtle difference in how the air flowed. It was as though he'd escaped from a stuffy room into a warm breeze, but better yet, the current streamed through layers of feathers on the wings he still found too new to take for granted. He whooped and laughed and veered up into a stall. Ah, I should know better than to stall after so many years in airplanes! He flicked his wings to a new angle, taking him into a graceful spin. Then into a swift, level flight, in search of adventure in this newborn world.
He found the swamp before any of his herdmates. He circled around it until his flight power ran out and he had to touch down nearby. A buzzing in his spine made him feel that something magical was here, possibly a power node, but there was no blatant sky-beam like the shrine he'd raided. He pushed into the air again and roamed in spreading circles until he found the others exploring the forest and a hill. "I found something," he said as he led a few strays toward where Harvest Moon and the other equines had converged. "What are you doing?"
The queen and one of the guards kicked down entire pine trees with their hindhooves, sending a snap like thunder through the woods. "Gathering resources," said one of the guards. "Do you see any axe-worthy rocks yet?"
"Here, majesty," said a unicorn, and floated one over to her.
The queen said, "That's a start. Start chopping these trees up, please."
Diver watched the earthbound viciously fell more trees while the unicorns sliced them into blocks and planks. "What, you're going to build a castle right here?"
Nimbus fluttered into view, more comfortable in the narrow spaces between trees than Diver had been. "There you are."
Harvest Moon said, "Greetings. Diver, we're without tools. We're just crafting some basics. You should do more scouting."
Diver related what he'd sensed in the swamp. The queen said, "Good catch. Yes, that's a clue for us. You're at a disadvantage when it comes to finding control points that aren't already claimed. We earthbound can sense them more easily." She stamped the ground, shut her eyes, and made faint lines of energy sweep out from her like cracks along the ground. When they faded she smiled. "Right. It's in that direction. I'll need to get closer to the node to perform the ritual, but that's the sort of site we need. Shall we begin?"
It looked like everyone here had kept their starting racial powers along with the full powers granted by Mount Improbable and its equivalent quests. Diver escorted the queen to the swamp, and only then realized that it was several miles wide. He skirted the fringe, looking for a relatively pleasant place to land. "I don't like the look of those giant Venus flytraps."
The queen made a face as her hooves squished into the muck. "Fetch Rigel, would you?"
Rigel the guard left his woodcutting duties and came over to attack the swamp with fire magic, drying patches of ground and killing a few suspicious plants. Diver slammed a huge mosquito into a shallow grave, then struggled to pull himself out of the sticky mud. Harvest Moon seemed to have no trouble beyond discomfort.
The queen stopped and stamped the earth, sending up a shower of dark sparks. "Here we are. I'll need an uninterrupted hour. Are you ready? If trouble comes, I want Rigel guarding me while Diver fetches the others."
The ritual began. Harvest Moon's version of it involved a drumming of hooves on the soggy ground, carrying her around in circles and posing with her head upturned, her mane swirling in a breeze that only affected her. Diver kept watch from the air as much as possible, occasionally fending off a shambling fish-monster with the fire-mage's help. "How many points is this one worth?" said Diver.
"Three," Rigel said.
"Even without a temple or something?"
"Two without, three once we build one."
Diver said, "And you need what, fifty to become a Noble again? That'll be a lot of work, if we need a whole temple for one bonus point."
The queen shrugged. "It doesn't need to be fancy to count, though. Once we get some basic carpentry going we can make a wooden shrine-fort."
Diver fidgeted, feeling useless. He took to the sky again and kept watch for trouble. Soon enough, the orange flare of Harvest Moon's colors streamed into the sky from the middle of the swamp, like a flag. Finally he could focus on helping the carpenters or move on to find the next point.
In the distance a party of twelve appeared. Diver smiled at having such good eyesight, but the newcomers were heading closer. The new beam was hard to miss. He landed and told the queen, "We've got company."
"Make contact. Find out their intentions." There'd been some politicking, horse-trading and jockeying for position in the waiting area, but it wasn't clear that the new array of Nobles would turn out the same as the old.
Diver saluted and flew off again. When he reached the approaching dozen, who were all naked and unequipped like himself, he called out, "Hello, travelers! What do you want?"
They were all pinkish or brownish with similar mane colors. It was kind of unsettling, like looking at nude misshapen humans on all fours. All earthbound too. The herd leader said, "We're looking to do some crafting in that forest. Have you got tools yet? We can save time if we work together."
That sounded good. Diver landed to rest his wings. "Sounds good. Meet here, then send out a few hoofers so you don't outnumber us." He winced inwardly; he'd already given info away while trying to play cautious.
"Don't worry!" said someone in the oncoming herd. "We're looking for the queen. Seen her?"
"Excuse me." Diver flew off to the woods but waggled his wings in a particular way to warn anyone in the swamp who was paying attention. In the forest he called, "Strangers. I don't trust them."
Nimbus was just about to leave the carpenter party for another scouting mission, but turned back to laugh at Diver. "Shouldn't you be all loving and trusting now?"
"If goodness means gullibility, the world's in more trouble than I thought. How big is our herd?"
"Eight counting you and the three at the swamp."
"Then let's gather here. I'll fetch the queen's group."
Diver hurried over to Harvest Moon and her two companions, working on the swamp shrine. It was just an incomplete wood-block platform so far. The queen looked at the strangers, who now turned toward the sky-beam she'd created. "Indeed. Withdraw to the woods. If the strangers try to capture the focus point, we can harass them from the air."
On their way to the forest, though, Diver and the queen's three (none of them fliers) got intercepted. The pinkish herd had steered to cut them off, all still looking friendly. A strange feeling came over the pegasus; a fight seemed inevitable. Even so, no one had done anything openly hostile. He had the choice of how to act, but the right answer was obvious. The ones he cared about were in danger. He flew to within a few paces of the strangers and punched the ground as he landed in a cool pose, kicking up dust and flaring his wings wide. "Whoa there!" he said.
The smilers' leader said, "What's wrong? We just want --"
"Horseapples. Stop and talk or we'll treat you as hostile."
They kept coming, saying, "Are you threatening us?"
Throwing the first punch wasn't a bright moral line, against people who liked to get you good and surrounded before politely asking you to kneel. Diver darted forward and invoked ice onto his forehooves as he smacked the grin off the leader's muzzle. The stallion staggered, frostbitten, but he kept to his hooves. Darn earthbound toughness. Diver swerved up out of retaliation range a moment before someone tried leaping after him.
Harvest Moon and the others charged now, too. Diver glimpsed only parts of the fight as he swerved, dived, hindleg-bucked and rose again to pummel the newcomers. He kept his advantage only for seconds, though. Someone yanked him down and stomped him, and by the red flare of pain Diver figured he'd taken a major wound. Shouts came from somewhere off to the side; the forest party was running in with improvised spears!
It still went badly. The queen's herd was outnumbered, and with almost no equipment on either side, the earthbound had the advantage of strength and endurance. The enemies ganged up on him and stomped him flat. The last thing he saw was the underside of a grey hoof.
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!