Words appeared, white on black. "DEATH. Sky Diver experienced too much emergent gameplay." Below that was another note: "'In the name of the Dictatorship of Dong!'"
Diver floated in void, then felt gravity reassert itself as the world faded back in. He was in that slapped-together tavern where he'd been before the new world started. Of course; he'd found no save points there yet. Diver shook out his wings and confirmed he was intact, then trotted around until he found a horseshoe-shaped portal with a vague view of the new Hoofland beyond it.
His ears flicked back as more horses respawned nearby. "So we all lost?" The rest of the party appeared a few seconds later.
The queen groaned as she climbed to her hooves. "The what?" she said.
Nimbus said, "You saw that moronic killing-quote too? I thought they were going to rebuild the Sunward Ho queendom."
A large TV on the tavern wall listed similar death taunts for each person who'd been revived here. Diver said, "I'm guessing the former Sunward Ho gang reorganized to overpower any rivals as soon as we began the new world. Seems like an all-earthbound party is good for getting a quick start, since they've got the highest raw stats plus that node-finding power."
Nimbus flapped twice and hovered. "Wait a minute. The world hasn't been reopened to Earthside players yet, has it? I thought we were keeping them out for the first few hours."
Dread washed through Diver, making his mane and tail prickle. "Then this trolling nonsense isn't just Earthside players messing with our world as a game. The locals are in on it."
Everyone griped at once. Harvest Moon stomped the floor. "We must adapt. If we've really improved ourselves, we should be able to defeat a few troublemakers."
Nimbus said, "Including all the Earthside players who made throwaway accounts just to see how badly they could break Hoofland?"
The rest of the queen's guards argued. One of them said, "Lose-lose. If we play the game their way, we're fighting a war against creatures from beyond the universe. If we insist on keeping the shadows out --"
Diver interjected, "We just established it's not just the Earthside players doing this."
"Even so, the shadows are behind it! If we keep them out, then people will say, 'this world isn't serious and doesn't really matter, because they reset it whenever something bad happens'. The more we get outraged at them wrecking things, the more petty we look."
"So this is natives' introduction to democracy," Diver said with a rueful grin. "We set up a system for the most effective thugs to take over."
Harvest Moon said, "Control over the land and its magic is about more than fighting ability. It evolves out of consensus and patient effort."
Diver flopped down on his haunches. "Yet berserker pony herds work pretty well in the first stage of civilization. Sounds historically accurate. I imagine if we reset Earth, we'd get the same kind of rush attack from some other group. How long before the shadows arrive?"
"A few hours subjective."
He grunted. The moment humans logged in, the residents would be back to second-fiddle status, having their time rates constantly adjusted to meet outside needs. "Okay. Your majesty, let's jump back in and try to re-establish contact with your other subjects. Then we can set about conquering more of the focus points."
Back in the new Hoofland, the queen's party landed on a vast, cold steppe where a yeti stomped randomly around. Moon said, "Spread out. Sky, scout."
Diver saluted and took to the air. No one was around for miles. No obvious resources, either, unless you could dig with your hooves. Just sun and tasty-looking grass. He landed to report. "What now?"
"Nimbus and Sky, fly east and west and return in an hour or so. The rest of us will search northward."
He looked around the nearly featureless plain. He could run forever on it, and it wouldn't matter too much who technically ruled the place so long as nobody re-invented the Mongol Empire. "Ideal horse terrain, isn't it?"
The queen looked wistful. "Yes, but we have responsibilities. Maybe someday we can explore all this in peace."
He flew west over gentle hills, seeing nothing that resembled the part of Hoofland he'd explored before. Of course there were no maps or compasses available... Aha! There was a cluster of horses banging rocks together, around a faint beam of light that rippled white and black like smoke caught in a spotlight. The races here were varied and he soon spotted Danio the zebra. "Hello, the camp!" he called down.
They let him land. Danio said, "Where is the queen?"
"East. Did you get ambushed by the Dictatorship too?"
The zebra and the dozen people with him grimaced. "You mean Sunward Ho? Yes, a few of us have died twice already. We've gained some stragglers and lost others who've reappeared somewhere else in the world."
Diver pointed a wing toward the sky-beam. "Are you willing to turn that over to Harvest Moon?"
"Of course. It's a two-pointer."
Diver kept scouting and eventually found a stream with willows growing along it. Danio's team hurried to cut wood and start crafting some tools with that and their rock supply. With that done, Diver returned to find the queen and bring the good news.
Harvest Moon at that point had reached a canyon similar to the one Diver had seen when the world was destroyed. "I detect a powerful node down there," she said, nodding toward the bottom of the magnificent red-striped cliff walls.
"Need a lift?"
He and Nimbus shuttled several of the party down. It was tough work; coordinating with another flier meant learning not to bang his wings into hers, and they lacked the stamina to drop safely the whole way, needing to stop on ledges partway down.
Once that was done, he kept watch and explored the canyon floor. This narrow section left him feeling vulnerable; he was supposed to be above any danger. The queen busied herself with the node ritual.
"Streaks in the rock over here," he called out. "Ore?"
"Oh, good," said an earthbound scout he'd had to lug down here. They were heavy!
By the time Harvest Moon took control of the node and its beam of light shot into the sky, the scout had kicked, cussed and cracked some chunks of copper ore out of the canyon wall. Diver looked skeptically at them. "It'll still be a while before we've got anything like the manufacturing we'd need for weapons and armor."
"Haul this up," the miner said, pointing to the small pile of ore. "We can get going faster than we could Earthside, since we're not exactly doing an accurate model of the periodic table."
Diver grumbled and started lifting rocks out of the canyon. Even with how crafting worked in this world, there still wouldn't be time to --
The party up at the surface shouted a warning. Diver repeated it in the queen's direction before even getting a good look for himself: another gang of eight or so flesh-pink ponies!
"This... is... Hoofland!" one of them yelled, and shoved one of the queen's mares off the cliff.
Diver caught her but went spiraling out of control, barely reaching one of the canyon's ledges. They crashed into a cactus and took a wound each. Shouts of battle sounded above. Diver looked up there, then back down. There was no time to ferry more people up there to help. "Be right back," he told the mare, and flew up and into the fray.
The goons were unarmed like the last bunch, all earthbound, but the queen's party was putting up a better fight this time. One of the foes tumbled over the cliff, laughing. Diver shuddered and yanked another one over the edge by the tail.
Then one of them smacked his wing so hard he lost control and fell screaming to his death. The last thing he saw was Nimbus trying to ferry someone up, and looking agonized at being unable to help him.
Dying was really getting annoying!
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 "Virtual Horizon" or "Crafter's Passion" for my published fiction!