Chapter 1:

LEVEL 1: Losing My Crown

CREO: Game of Creation

My game—that’s all I’m good at, it’s all that matters. I am the best there is, and no one is taking my crown.

I repeated it to myself over and over in my head as I waited for my prey. Platforms moved in every direction at rapid speed throughout the 3D arena space. The platforms were huge metallic cylinders, which shone in every color like one of those old-fashioned discs when you hold them up to sunlight. Some of them had traps that sprung out—spikes that home in on you and explode, giant blowtorches, clouds of poison gas—y’know, the works.

The arena space, at first glance, was a white void—I liked things clean and simple after all—but if you try to evade my cylinders of death by going to the edges, you end up right back in the direction you came. Why? It’s a huge mirror ball, designed to confuse, of course. Works like a charm, 99% of the time. I’m not the reigning national CREO champion for nothing.

This particular victim probably thought himself impressive by evading my cylinders and traps, acrobatically springing from one platform to the next, up, down, left, right, no pesky gravity to get in the way. Of course, he still didn’t stand a chance. I sat on my throne and waited for him to reach the center of my maelstrom—a crown donning my avatar’s head. In this world, where I reign supreme, I’m known as KAI, a simple shortening of my other name, but one that strikes fear in all who dare challenge my might as a CREO architect. My avatar has armor that mirrors that of a manga character I like, with red hair and green eyes.

Oh, looks like he made it, backwards and upside-down, as I calculated. My opponent, some no-name regional champ from Kyushu with a rabbit avatar, had appeared in my sights. I rose from my throne, bored with this tournament already, and sent a single shot from my fingertip into the enemy’s head. Game over, I win.

The arena reset and I found myself atop a floating island—a fluorescent forest set before me, waterfalls tracing upward into the air, coalescing into a massive sphere of water, which then rained down on the forest (and me) in a downpour. If he seriously thought a little rain was going to stop me, he’s a bigger idiot that I imagined. I smirked and set off into the jungle—this was the fun part, the hunt.

In CREO, architects create their own worlds in which the player must hunt the architect down. In tournament play, the players take turns in each other’s CREO world, and whichever has the better score after the two matches wins. Time and getting a kill garner points. Since I got my enemy in one shot back when he was in my world, I’d be getting a pretty hefty load of points. I could take my time in his world and still win comfortably, but I was ready to end this and head to the finals. This was a statement—I was still the best. Sure, I’d lost a couple of big matches in the past year. I was the shock winner of the national championship last year. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a smooth ride the whole way, but this was still my game—it’s all I was good at, it’s all that mattered.

I navigated through his monsoon with ease and speed. He had a pack of cheetahs running after me (wrong biome, dude), and there was some admittedly cool climbing sections. My avatar was drenched by the time I reached his palace—it looked to be modeled after Angkor Wat, only with more pyrotechnics. The guy seemed surprised I made it to him so quickly, I almost felt sorry for him—he seemed to be preparing so big finishing move involving a cannon, but too bad—I never got to see it fire because I’d slashed his avatar to pieces the instant he’d gotten into sight.

The jungle palace fell away, and I stood before the crowds of avatars cheering my name. One more match, and I’d defend my title. I’d show all the haters and trolls that I’m the best there is, not just another momentary star clinging to his time in the spotlight.

Now, who’s my next victim?

Pluton, god of the underworld. Stupid name if you ask me, but anyway—like me, he came out of nowhere and now he’s the talk of everyone in the CREO community. This was his first national tournament, yet he already has a corporate sponsor (meaning a fat paycheck) and devoted fanbase. I can’t tell you how many copycat CREO worlds I’ve ravaged that were based on Pluton. The commentary from the announcer/CREO mascot—Kuu—was unbearable:

“GET FIRED UP! The mysterious newcomer who’s yet to even give an interview—despite Pluton being totally unknown until a few months ago, the worlds and play skill they’ve displayed make them a clear favorite for national champion! They’ll face KAI—who’s seen several high-profile losses pile up since his fluke victory last year.”

Utter garbage. When it said that the camera was pointed right at me, and I promptly smiled and pointed at my crown, still very much on my head—proof of my champion status. True, the international tournament was… rough. Still, top 16 is better than anyone else in this country could pull off, even Pluton, whoever he or she is.

“Players, prepare for battle!” Kuu said in its unbearably cutesy voice. What even is a cloud-bear? Although it is fluffy and cute. In the center of the virtual arena, ominous red lights shone, bathing me and my challenger in the color of blood. As is custom before any CREO match, we walked toward each other, the crowds cheering all the while, until we met in the middle and shook hands (for avatars who lack hands, a simple head nod works). The so-called ‘death god’ was much taller than my avatar, wore black armor, a black cape, and had what looked like smoke billowing from under his feet. His eyes glowed violet and a red circular symbol was painted on his chest—which had, of course, been emblazoned on countless merchandise products. His grip wasn’t overly strong though… The order of matches was chosen randomly—light flicking between my side of the arena and my challengers as the CREO AI decides whose world we will battle in first. It’s all for show, of course—the AI chooses instantly, but you gotta give the audience what they came for—suspense followed by carnage. The lights settled on Pluton’s side of the arena, eliciting more cheers than I would’ve liked. We would start in his world. No matter, I’d win either way.

What? It’s dark? This was totally unlike anything we’d seen from Pluton before. Despite the dark-sounding name, his CREO worlds were usually elaborate palaces with lots of obstacles. Then, while you’re dealing with those, he comes and snipes you. This was a dark dungeon. I could hardly see anything, despite springing for that expensive night vision upgrade.

Where is he? My heart started beating faster. Not good, stay calm. Remember why you’re here—to win, to show them all you’re worthy. I calmed down and scanned the area with another skill of mine. The best players have access to the full arsenal of battle skills—at least the legal ones. I’ve modded a few of my own, like a skill that lets me know my enemy’s position from anywhere on the map, but all my mods are a little too powerful to be allowed in-tournament.

Nothing on the scanner… and no discerning features of the map either—just a dark dungeon hallway extending into nothing… nothing…


He descended on me faster than I could process. Those eyes glowing in the dark, as if they were tearing into my soul and feeding it to the void. A flash of his sword and his scream… I’d never heard him speak before—he screeched like a wild animal about to rip apart prey. I tried to parry his attack, only his swing was too fast, and I didn’t see his second blade.

In an instant, the darkness was replaced by the white expanse of my CREO world.

Did I just lose that? Damn it. I sat back on my throne. Where I was comfortable. By my calculations, it would take 5 minutes for him to reach me. I could regroup and salvage this.

He’ll probably come from my right, unless—

“SuRpRisE, KaiTo-KuN.” What was this? He was here already, breathing down my neck, a sword cutting into me. Why did it hurt? Why did I feel so cold? His voice, like a nightmare…

Then he killed me. The pristine white of my CREO world was gone—replaced by the cheering crowds. Pluton raised his fist in victory. I was still stunned. He was like a nightmare. It was one thing to defeat me so completely, but to go out of his way to scare me? And what he said—how did he know my real name?

The crowd cheered Pluton’s name. I was a long-lost memory. He received his reward—a big stash of KobaCoin, the main currency of the digital world and the only accepted currency for use in CREO. He also got a sweet trophy presented by none other than MiYU, the greatest musician of our generation. The praise, Kuu prancing about the monster that was Pluton, MiYU’s song, the party in the audience, the crown now missing from my avatar’s head, promptly, ceremoniously placed atop Pluton’s. I didn’t want to look at any of it. That was supposed to be me. I was supposed to prove all the haters wrong! Instead, I was back to being a nobody. CREO is my game—it’s all I’m good at, it’s all that matters. In that moment, having lost my title and pride—my whole world was over.

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