"DEATH. Sky Diver played Coyote to SuperNinja98's Road Runner. 'In the name of the Dictatorship of Dong!"
He rolled over, groaning. His wings and tail hurt the worst. He was back in the generic world made of taverns, still without a proper save point.
Given the name of his killer, and a decades-old pop culture reference a native AI probably wouldn't get, the outsiders had started showing up. Diver kicked a barstool, part of the furniture designed for humans in this standard fantasy set. He wasn't a human anymore, yet he was caught up in stupid human ideas of power and conquest.
Three more ponies, including Nimbus, appeared in quick succession around him. "Welcome back. I guess they can't get to the queen, at least."
Nimbus materialized, cursing, fluttering her wings. "Which means she's stranded. And respawning could take us God-knows-where again, so even that doesn't help us rescue her."
Harvest Moon appeared with a groan several feet above a table, and crashed onto it.
"How?" said Sky. "You were below the fight."
"I had my other subjects kill me." Moon extricated herself from the furniture and hopped up onto another table. "We're getting nowhere this way. The invaders will be able to get down there eventually and steal the node I just claimed, and probably the one Danio earned."
"Can we get a map?" asked Diver.
Nimbus flew over to the big TV and poked it with one hoof. It didn't give them a world map, but it did show standings: Danio 2, Harvest Moon 3, Daikaiju 1, Bastet 1, Major Key 1, Sunward Ho 7, Dictator Dong 8.
Diver said, "Major Key! He logged in and grabbed a point already?"
A few more dead characters appeared, revived, in the mirror-funhouse distance of the vast tavern. Diver grimaced at the list again. "I need an outside perspective on what's going on. Can we make contact?"
The queen stared into space and waved one hoof, poking at a hidden interface. "I have access to my friends list, but I can't just ask where they are until we set up a proper map of the new world."
There was an objectively right coordinate system for Hoofland, since the software had to track where everyone and everything was, but the horses didn't automatically have access to it. Hiding information had been part of how AI got developed in the first place, forcing early models to learn about their environment instead of just knowing.
Diver said, "Even hearing 'I'm by a big mountain' would help. But right now I'm more concerned with seeing the big picture. How do you open the new interface?"
Once the queen showed him, Diver called up his friends list and made the "screen" visible to the group. Major Key the unicorn popped up as a blue hologram. Diver said, "Congratulations on grabbing a node so quickly. Do you have ordinary Net access where you are?"
"You don't?" Key chuckled. "Oh, right. It's easy to forget you're trapped in the machine."
"Thanks, I think. We have to go through some rigamarole, probably involving crystals, before we can get a computer equivalent. Can you tell us what's going on with this Sunward Ho/Dong thing?"
Key rolled his eyes. "It's all over the Thousand Tales forums. A bunch of goons decided to take over and have a war now that they blew up the world. Both factions are the same basic group, not really enemies. Do you know how many man-hours of work went into crafting magic swords and other stuff that's now erased because someone thought it'd be fun to flood the world with lava?"
Harvest Moon said, "That's about what we know already. What's their goal besides taking over?"
"Goal? I don't think there is one. What's the goal of a kid banging his toys together and saying wham, pow?"
Nimbus bared her little fruit-eating fangs. "We are not toys!"
"To them we are," said Diver. "As for looking like toys, we very much did ask for this." He wished the artist who'd drawn the basis for Hoofland's characters were around today to see what she'd wrought. She'd had a statue in the old Hoofland. "Have you thought about having this world redesigned so we're not horses at all? It would help us be taken more seriously."
Key said, "Eh, you could, but you'd just end up as elves or something instead."
Key's words shook Diver out of his melancholy. "You'd better get going if you're going to compete with the goon factions. I'll ally with you guys if you want, but no promises on actually handing over my nodes. Assuming we can even find each other."
Diver said, "Why not turn them over? What do you gain from ruling a place you can't really live in?"
Key blinked. "It's for fun, of course. Even if I took over I'd only be a half-assed tyrant at worst, since I've got a life out here."
The queen said, "If we're going to meet up, then give us map data. There must be a sketch on your world's forums, at least."
Key turned to someone outside the hologram display, speaking orders. Then: "I'm sorry there's not more I can do. It must be frustrating for you to have all us outsiders intruding."
A crude map with many blank areas filled the display. The team scrambled for something to copy it with, then realized they had not even a bar napkin or a pencil.
Diver sighed. "We can keep going like this, trying to win a war against jerks from beyond the universe, but we're at a big disadvantage. Our bodies are what we actually want to live in; theirs are whatever they picked for a short-term rush and they can probably make new accounts later."
"If they care," said Nimbus, stamping the floor. "Probably most will get bored once they make a mess of our world again, and stop playing. Then we can take over again but we'll all know it's only because the humans lost interest."
Diver shut his eyes and took a few deep breaths while the others argued. It didn't really matter who ruled, right? There was no need to push for power and dominance, so why not do exactly what Nimbus predicted? Some wounded pride about always being weaker than humans didn't matter.
The outside world still did matter, though. Diver wandered off from the group to see what other people had appeared in the tavern. "Is anyone here part of Noctis?" No one here was, or they'd re-entered the world already. He checked his own friends list and saw that Golden Scale was listed as 'online', as though she could ever not be.
She appeared as another image hovering in front of him. "How are you doing?" she asked. Diver explained, and she grimaced. "Yeah, we're all having the same problem. Now that the shadows are here, we keep getting raided and losing our stuff before we can do more than tie a rock to a stick. Want to meet up so we have enough of an army to control a larger area? We can't fully share information, though, until all of me can physically meet up."
Diver said, "Let me run an idea by you. Can you get enough Earthside contact info to find out where the goons' leaders are?"
"Sunward Ho was last seen taking over a river we haven't named yet, and --"
"I mean finding where they are on Earth."
The mare blinked and rubbed one ear. "Maybe? It's not our specialty to know things like that, but we know people. Why?"
Sky Diver really didn't. know many people. His scanty friend list reminded him that Hoofland was only one part of the larger Talespace world, and that he'd left behind the far larger "real world" with hardly a glance back.
"I want to pay the leaders a visit," he said.
Expressions flickered across Golden Scale's muzzle. "You... You said you were going to live here, in Hoofland. That you wouldn't run off for at least a month."
Diver stepped forward and hugged her image, but passed right through. Only the rules of this game world made it impossible for her to teleport to him, or him to her. Only his promise prevented him from ditching Hoofland entirely. "You're right. If I can get the queen's permission, though, what if I visit Earth as a diplomat? That doesn't mean leaving you behind or treating this world like it doesn't matter. Just the opposite, really."
She sighed and mimed returning the hug. "All right. But besides these little visits of yours, I'm still holding you to your promise!"
The questions now were whether Key and Noctis could gather the right physical location from the forums, and whether anyone in this land of magic actually had any Earthside money.
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!