Chapter 1:

The Player Who Sold Her Soul


“Do me a favour and queue yourself.”

Thus went the title of a thread only a couple of hours old. This thread was the only one Jason could find online to explain his current predicament. For a private server like Maniavolution, being stuck in the loading queue was certainly odd.

Did someone leak the password? No trace on the web though. A raid? Hmm…

Thoughts trickled through his head hidden within the sweat-filled cavity that was his VirtuaSim. He could go for a walk. Stretch those muscles a bit. But no. At least, that was what his soft fluffy bed told him.

Of course, there was always the option to hop onto the priority queue. For only $50, he could make the wait shorter in exchange for making his wallet lighter. But he’d much rather take that $50 and stick it up the bottom of whoever came up with that idea. The gall to even list a bank account at the bottom.

“Any donations are appreciated,” my ass.

He had been double-checking his recording software for a while now, going through his preset settings to make sure they won’t interfere with his actual brain. Playing games or browsing the net with the VirtuaSim was one thing, but running a video capture software at the same time? No one actually died from a VS model overheating. Yet.

There was a reason why any content creator worth their salt would go for models with built-in cooling. But a tight wallet and even tighter arse meant that Jason is a filmmaker. While content creators made content, filmmakers made art. And only one of those made money.

Maybe this project would be the one that catapulted his name to media fame. Jason Null—the one who brought down Black Hat. A banger documentary was exactly what he needed to revive his channel, to bring back monetisation. Until then, a diet consisting of only cup noodles it was.

[ In queue: 55 players ahead of you ]

After fiddling with his software and other settings, making sure they wouldn’t turn his hair into spaghetti, he gave his visor-clad eyes a rest. In a matter of minutes, he would (hopefully) be bathed in nostalgia, exploring the world of Aksara Online once more.

It was an experience that defined a generation. Twelve years had passed since he last strolled around Pallas Plains, spamming Tornado Slash—that one Berserker skill that made him spin like a top with a greatsword sticking out. In school, he held the record for most consecutive Tornado Slashes. Ten, in fact, before he threw up in his VS.

But the glory days were but a fleeting moment. A couple of years after he moved on from Aksara, Speedrun Studios sold off the IP to New Game Plusworks. The game became a shadow of its former self. Every new update was an extra nail to the coffin. Now, only crappy mobile clones of Aksara existed.

But Jason knew it wouldn’t just be a walk down memory lane. Aksara Online was only available in the form of private servers. While technically illegal, NGPlusworks didn’t bother shutting them down. After all, it was free advertising for their money-making zombie known as Aksara: Reborn.

[ In queue: 3 players ahead of you ]

Jason jolted back to life, nearly choking himself when the cables connected to his VS yanked him back down to his bed. Thankfully, even after dozing off, he didn’t oversleep, making it just in time for his turn. What a shame it would’ve been if he was kicked out for inactivity. That electricity bill wouldn’t pay for itself.

He felt his chest pounding. Anticipation squeezed his heart like a stress ball. It wasn’t just the thought of revisiting the good old days that made him feel like a child again, it was also the sense of new adventure. He never played during the Mania update, which was what Maniavolution was based on. Hopefully, the tweaks to the game by virtue of being a private server wouldn’t sully his experience.

[ In queue: 0 players ahead of you ]

As the count reached zero, he was blinded by a beautiful blue sky. A cool refreshing breeze caressed his disembodied form. A surge of familiarity crashed like a tidal wave. The game’s title faded in over the horizon, making it feel all too real.


Below the title, several options beckoned him to proceed further. His first order of business was to create the body which would serve as his proxy in this virtual space. There were many races to choose from, each one appearing before him only to strike a pose. As a racist, Jason decided to play as a Human.

Gender? Being a girl would be awesome, but he was here for business, not fun. Someone needed to document and expose the crimes going on in Maniavolution. And as the director cum cinematographer cum editor cum producer cum narrator, it was best if he worked in the body that he was most familiar with. Male it was.

After painstakingly crafting his avatar, he took a step back, admiring the peak male physique that he would soon call his skin. With the final finishing touches in place, the game prompted him to enter his username.

[ Json Null ]

It was the name of his channel after all. Best to be on brand.

Now in his new body, the only thing left was to point at the “Confirm” button. And with that, everything went dark.

Is it just me, or is this taking longer than I thought?

As he came to, all he saw was a sea of red.

Massive walls of lava stretched as far as he could look up. Volcanic rock shifted slowly and unsteadily underneath his feet. His body in real life was starting to sweat buckets. This wasn’t the reception he expected.

As he would soon find out, spawning in a lava zone was the least of his worries. Try as he might, his head, his body—not a single muscle was moving! Or so he thought. His body didn’t move slowly, it “teleported” from position to position.

“Good. Lord the. Lag!”

Pulling up his mental interface, he confirmed that it wasn’t his internet that was being a traitor, it was the server. The game was running at frames per minute.

Before long, the source of the lag would show itself.

Dozens, if not over a hundred players poofed into existence right before his eyes. Like him, they were all in starter equipment. Everyone was jumping, crouching, lag-teleporting in between movements.

Then, the unholy symphony of a hundred voices all but left his ears ringing. These newbies were shouting, hollering and addressing each other’s mother.

THIS is spawn?

With such a large rowdy crowd of newbies gathered in what appeared to be an endgame location, Jason was left scratching his head in momentary bursts of speed. Back in the official release, first-time players would spawn on Novice Island. To his knowledge, Aksara never changed the starter location even until its end of service. This hazardous area must have been a Maniavolution-exclusive feature.

“Guys! Guys! Look over. Here!”

Eventually, Jason was able to face the direction of the loudest voice.


A group photo? The hell?

The incoherent screaming quickly turned to coordinate cheering after that stunt. The unruly mob showed signs of discipline, even in this lag-ridden state. Slowly, the horde followed the leader, that same guy who took the group photo.

Confused, Jason caught up to the player right in front of him, tapping his shoulder.

“Who’s. That?” he gestured towards the player at the front.

“You don’t know? That’s. Low Tier Gaming. He’s stream…ing.”

That explained the ridiculous frame rate and the horrible queue before it. He had just logged in at the same time as some streamer. The idiot was overloading the server capacity with his fans.

Jason turned around, hoping to avoid the legion of newbies. But everywhere he looked, he was met with a sea of lava covering every direction. There was no way out of this spawn. While lava didn’t instantly kill players, all it took was a few seconds for their HP to drop to zero. With the lava walls the height of skyscrapers, death was certain.

Perhaps that Low Tier Gaming did have a plan after all. Was he going to use his fans as a giant, human ladder of sorts? He wasn’t sure if something like that was even possible in the game, but now was a good time to find out.

But all of a sudden, his movements became fluid again. The lag vanished. Frame rate was stable. Weird, but he wasn’t going to complain.

As he turned to face the crowd once more, they were completely gone. All signs of life had disappeared, replaced with crystals hovering just over the ground. These crystals only meant one thing.

All of the players were dead.

Like something straight out of a horror movie, the screaming just moments ago was replaced with oppressive silence.

How? Just how?!

His character was just fine, but the actual person in the VirtuaSim was not. What was more terrifying than the sudden death of nearly a hundred players was the fact that he had no idea what caused it. The lava was angrily static. There was nothing in sight that could do this.

A sudden burst of cold air brushed his neck. He stumbled to his side, cushioning his nape with his hand. It was almost as if a ghost had breathed down his neck.

“Oops. You must’ve been out of range. Silly me!”

Six smoke-coloured wings burst forth, three from each side, casting an ominous shadow over the earth. He could only lay motionless on the ground, his legs crumpled under the weight of the otherworldly presence standing before him.

For his gamer sense was telling him—that young woman with a carefree smile, wings twice her size—this was a fully maxed out player.

A player who sold her soul to Aksara.