That morning, Delilah woke from what felt like a very long slumber. The moment she opened her eyes, she found herself staring into an all-too-familiar, plain white ceiling. It was the hospital, and it took her only all of two seconds to realize this. She’d ended up here after passing out a day ago from a fever, but from experience, she should be fine now. Indeed, Delilah was a frequent guest of the hospital. She had been born weak—in the sense that she fell sick easily, not that she had any inherent illnesses or that she had an eggshell skull. It was nothing like that.
“Delilah, how do you feel today?” came a man’s voice as the curtain around her bed was drawn open. This voice, too, was one that she knew well. It belonged to Otis, one of the nurses in charge of this ward. Clad in blue, Otis was a man a few years Delilah’s senior. The stability of his work ensured that he knew almost every patient on a personal level—the regular ones, at least.
Delilah, of course, was one of them.
“I’m feeling quite fine now,” she replied with a somewhat apologetic smile. “Thank you again. When can I expect to be discharged?”
“You can probably leave later today,” Otis answered, “For now, though…”
He was still speaking, but his voice began to fade into the background. Delilah thought, for a moment, that perhaps she was fainting again—but that thought was short-lived. She knew very well what it felt like to be losing consciousness, it happened every so often, but this was not it. Standing by her bed, the nurse too furrowed his brows with a troubled expression. Their eyes met, and although a million unspoken questions were asked, no answers came.
As everything dissolved around them, their surroundings were replaced by a sheer white—a kind of whiteness so bright that it forced them to close their eyes.
When she came to, Delilah found herself sitting on a black chair in a pure black room. This stood in stark contrast to the bright light from just a moment ago. She was not alone. Rather, the girl was seated in a small circle with three others: Otis and two other adults, both of whom looked older than Delilah. The woman wore a doctor’s robe, so there was no doubt what her profession was; the other man wore a suit. Regardless of profession, the four exchanged glances that could only be described as puzzlement.
Before anyone could speak, a male voice broadcasted from somewhere in the room. It sounded as if it was all around them.
“Welcome to the world of Pistevo,” said the voice, “The four of you have been carefully selected for this game of survival.”
Survival? I might as well give up now, thought Delilah, in an attempt to amuse herself amidst this confusion. After all, she was only a girl who easily got sick, who couldn’t even attend school properly. For that reason, despite being eighteen years of age, she still hadn’t finished high school.
Once again, confused glances were exchanged. Delilah found solace in the feeling that she was not alone in this confusion, but that did not solve any problems—or, alas, even begin to name them.
“Some of you will be paired with other real people, and some of you will be paired with fictional characters brought into this game. For the entire duration of the game, you will assume the role of your partner’s spouse. Gain entry back into your own world by passing the tests and surviving the game together with your partner. Failure results in eternal imprisonment. Let the game begin.”
The lighting of the room began to change again—if “again” was indeed the word to use here—and their surroundings started to brighten up. The process halted, however, when the man in a suit called out, “Wait! Define ‘surviving’.”
After that momentary pause, which was a clear sign that whoever manipulated the space around the four people had heard what the man said, their surroundings only continued to brighten. Once it reached a kind of normal brightness, four sheets of paper dropped from above onto the laps of the four people sitting in a circle. They consisted of simple profiles of their respective partners.
The first thing Delilah read from her sheet was: Zeph, “After You”.
She gasped, and three baffled pairs of eyes darted to her.
“Do you happen to know who you’ve been paired with?” Otis asked.
Eagerly, she nodded. “It’s Zeph!”
“Zeph?” asked the doctor.
“The Zeph!” Delilah emphasized.
The man in a suit and the doctor exchanged a confused glance; Otis smiled. “Good for you,” he said, “May your dreams come true.”
At the same time, in an identical room just next to the one the non-fictional people were sitting in.
“You don’t seem surprised at all,” noted a young woman clad in armor.
“I’m a guide in a game, of course I’m not surprised...haha,” replied a young man in a uniform, who was sitting right across from the knight.
Beside him was a woman taller than them all, sitting with her legs crossed. If the others hadn’t already known—from their information sheets—that she was a vampire, they wouldn’t be able to identify her as one with the naked eye as their sole receptor of information. She arched an eyebrow with a skeptical smirk.
“Whatever that means,” she said.
Across from the vampire and next to the knight sat the knight’s partner, a young man—though visibly older than the one who claimed to be a guide in a game—dressed in traditional scholarly clothing. His soft smile seemed ever-present, painted elegantly across the lower part of his face like the work of an esteemed artist.
“It did take us quite a while to come to terms with what the reality is, but I always believed that there must be a creator somewhere, and that it is true for all worlds. It was only happenstance that we exited our own worlds and entered that of another.”
“But we’re technically not real here, Calix,” the knight reminded him, “I’m from a novel, you from a manga, Zeph from a game, and Venus from a movie. And I don’t even know what most of these things are!”
Another burst of laughter came from the young man in a uniform—Zeph. “Interesting...how very interesting. Whatever ‘survival’ means, this is certainly going to be an amusing game.”
“An amusing game?” the knight echoed, “I guess I understand the meaning of ‘game’ in that context, but that doesn’t explain anything about you being a ‘guide’.” After saying so, she shifted her gaze to Venus. “And what are you again? Don’t say ‘vampire’, we’re past that.”
“I am a powerful woman,” Venus replied confidently. “You have your sword, but I can kill you with my bare hands.”
As if to illustrate her point, she raised a hand almost casually to the side, revealing her long fingers and nails.
“With critical weaknesses,” Zeph added with a grin. He didn’t even try to hide his enjoyment. Venus crossed her arms and leaned back into her chair, neither denying nor confirming his statement. For that reason, Zeph continued. “She can only enter others’ property when invited.”
“Huh…” Calix voiced, deep in thought.
The vampire gave an exaggerated sigh. “That’s true,” she admitted, twirling a strand of hair around a finger. No sooner than she began doing that did she stop. The woman looked upon the ancient scholar without moving a muscle. “I would try to get you to invite me; too bad it won’t work on you.”
“...Layna, this woman is a little intimidating,” mumbled Calix to the knight—but not without a smile that indicated he was only half serious.
The knight named Layna nodded once. “Zeph is straight-up terrifying though. I can’t tell what he’s thinking.”
“But,” Venus continued—if she heard the two at all, she ignored them. Instead, she turned to Zeph and placed a hand gently on his thigh. Leaning toward him, she said, “You’ll let me in, won’t you, darling?”
Unfazed, Zeph kept his smile on. “My wife will not—so of course I must respect and prioritize her wishes. I’m sorry, but you have been rejected.”
A rejection as clear as that would thicken the invisible barrier if she ever did try to enter Zeph and his assigned partner’s premises. Knowing so, Venus also knew immediately—indeed, Zeph had forced this knowledge upon her with that line alone—that Zeph was familiar with her story, her characteristics, her strengths and weaknesses. As the vampire removed her hand from him, she stole another glance into his eyes, in search of clues. His enigmatic smile confirmed her suspicions.
She snickered, unwilling to let him know that she was aware of his awareness. “Your wife is a sickly girl, isn’t she? She wouldn’t last long anyway. And how do you know she’ll reject me?”
“I’m glad you asked.”
Crap. Another trap.