You march up to the counter.
You put your hands on the counter.
You hadn't thought about it
but now that you're here
it feels so obvious.
"Robodemons?," Afu replies.
"Famikon. Blue cartridge."
"Like the Bible games?," Afu asks.
"Yeah," you say with several nods. "But it was by a different company."
Your mom likes garage sales.
You have played a lot of unlicensed games.
You don't know how she didn't notice the title was Robodemons, but somehow a young you--whose entire world was video games and the things keeping you from playing video games--acquired Robodemons.
Robodemons is, you suspect, the closest there will ever be to creepypasta garage sale haunted video game cartridges actually existing.
It was an insane game, where the hero used a jetpack and a boomerang to fight an army of cybernetic demons. There were bones and corpses everywhere. Allusions and references to Hell and Satan and Death and everything else. All that, in an unlicensed blue cartridge. No seal of approval.
You owned it as a child.
But also, your mom likes having garage sales.
So you don't own it as an adult.
It was also hard as balls so you don't know what anything past the second level looks like. You've tried to find videos online but almost literally zero people have played it and actually literally zero people have recorded it for the internet. No ROMs existed the last time you checked. It's that obscure.
Physically being in the store, and perhaps hearing the phrase unlicensed games, has ignited some long sleeping synapse and a deep dark corner of your brain is now quite curious.
"Never heard of it," Afu says.
You look at Marlow. He shakes his head and motions to Afu. "He's the games guy. If he doesn't know, then we don't have it."
It's probably the source of some real weird shit in the formative aesthetic parts of your brain, and you have no idea what that would mean in the nightmare.
. . .
You squint at Afu. "...Do you have the Bible fighting game--"
"No," he interjects, "I wish, I'd have already bought it."
That one didn't have any deep mental attachments, you've just heard it's actually a solid game. Like, it's humorously competent, mostly because it stole all its code from a hyper violent fighting game; all the blood and gore was just... resprited into Bible things. There was a bookstore in Addersfield that carried it (and a bunch of other religious... themed... paraphernalia), but they closed before you owned a console that could play it.
You've also played a lot of other unlicensed Bible games (featuring blue cartridges), but those were all fucking garbo and you have no interest in tracking them back down
...But that fighting game still always felt like a missed opportunity. You were owed at least one good game out of all those hokey knock-offs and it continues to slip through your fingers. You could emulate it online, sure, but you want the physical cartridge. You want the trophy.
"You're killing me, Afu."
"I know," he says. "I'm sorry. I know. I've been hunting for it. I need it to live."
Exasperated, you relent.
"What's a dream ring?"
Afu turns to Marlow. "You made it sound important, bro, you gotta explain it."
Marlow holds his hands up. "I can explain some of it. Some of that story she'd be better off waiting for the boss."
"Oh, yeah," Afu responds with a nod before turning to you. "Ezra's our boss. Not like... a boss-boss, but it's his place."
Marlow clarifies. "Ezra had a lot of money and still has a maybe sort of hoarding problem. He doesn't really care about the business side or how The Back Room is ran."
"He just wants, uh... well, what he told us is--"
"No," Marlow states, "you know what you were gonna say, you gotta finish it."
Afu sighs. "According to the guy himself, he just wants lost toys to find good homes."
Marlow shakes his head. "You need way more dramatic eyebrow waggling when you say it."
Afu smiles, but shakes his head. "I can't match Ezra's eyebrow game. Bro. Those eyebrows tell half the story for him."
"Anyway," Marlow finally says, "if I have to tell the story then I'm not digging around in the back for the stupid rings."
"Fiiine," Afu huffs, and disappears into the... back room. Of The Back Room.
"The year was like... I dunno, probably the 70s. Maybe the 80s?," Marlow begins. "It was in the middle of the Satanic panic. Some pseudo-paranormal spiritualist type toys survived all the bonfires and documentaries. Heck, some of 'em even thrived on it--just look at the Ouija board. But then... there's stuff like the dream ring."
You hear some rustling from The Back Room's back room.
Marlow continues. "Rumors that it was a basic stand-in for an old arcane ritual, and designed to introduce kids to the occult, pretty much killed the ring as a product and the company that made it."
"But what does it do?," you ask.
Afu brings a dusty box to the front counter.
He opens it, like a treasure chest... and inside is a plastic container for about thirty rings.
Only one ring is left.
"Oh, hell," says Marlow, "when'd we sell the other two?"
"I dunno," Afu replies. "There's been one ring left since I got hired."
"I could have sworn there were three left," Marlow says, scratching his head. "Oh, well. What it's supposed to do is... uh..."
"I know you had to--like--" Afu holds out his hands, as though trying to visualize the words. "--Think about a friend while you fall asleep. Right?"
"While wearing the ring," Marlow adds.
"Yeah," agrees Afu.
"And that does what?," you ask.
"...It activates the power of friendship," says Afu.
"Seriously," Marlow adds, "it's a lot more elaborate than that but that's pretty much it."
Hmm. "...And you said your boss knows more about it?"
Afu laughs, Marlow sighs. "Yeah, Ezra'll be in tomorrow if you wanna talk to him."
"How much do you want for it?," you ask, motioning toward the ring.
Marlow looks at Afu, who shrugs. Marlow turns back to you. "On the one hand, it's got a lot of sentimental value for the boss. On the other hand..." He winces.
"Everything in this store has sentimental value," Afu concludes.
"And Ezra's had those rings since... oof," Marlow comments, "I'm sure he knows and I'm sure he'll have to tell us. Anyway, nobody's beating down the door for that last ring, if we don't sell it to you it'll be here forever."
"How much you got?," Afu asks.
"I think the right way to phrase that might be make me an offer," Marlow corrects.
On the one hand, this sounds like it may be related to whatever a Solomon Ring is.
On the other hand... this could just be a waste of money. You won't really know until you try it, unless this Ezra individual does know something more... well, useful.
"So wait," because you have to ask, "if Ezra knows all the history and Afu knows all the game stuff, then you...?"
Afu chuckles. "Marlow's got all the conspiracy theories, and he gives 'em away for free."
"Hey," Marlow says, pointing a finger, "I'm also one of the best maintenance guys in town."
"Oh, yeah," Afu laughs, "I forgot, you're the reason Mondol hasn't bulldozed us yet."
"That's Ezra's theory," says Marlow, holding his hands up. "Like I'd go blow up their boiler room or something if they took over this strip mall."
"Would you?," you ask.
"Yeah," he replies immediately. "They'd know I was going to and they still wouldn't be able to stop me."
It looks... white? Almost a faint amber or gold. It's not plastic, on closer inspection.
You don't see any inscriptions or writing on it, just... kind of an odd stain.
You're not sure what it's made of. The ring, or the stain.
"...I think I might wait," you finally say.
"Trust me, I get it," Marlow replies. He gently closes the box. "Ezra's got stories. Come back tomorrow, he'll have you convinced this thing cures cancer or something."
"If he doesn't get sidetracked talking about the state of malls in the 70s or whatever," adds Afu with a small chuckle.
Aside from your hesitance to blow real money on something that might be a toy, you're already planning on having people over tonight--the ring would just further confuse the results. You need control in your experiments. You've gone in by yourself; you need to try going in with plural individuals, see what that does, then add the ring.
That way, you'll know exactly what the ring does and doesn't contribute, if anything.
You idly browse the store for a little while, but not too long. You don't want to seem like you rolled up here with secrets and an agenda, but you definitely have questions you still want to ask the staff of this store.
"So..." you begin, while examining a line of very old roleplaying books, "where's all the weird shit in this town?"
"Hoo, buddy," declares Marlow, "you don't have to go far. Northside, parts of the east side... the woods are spook central, too."
"The old library," suggests Afu. "The mines. The spooky house."
"Hey," interjects Marlow, holding up a hand, "what did I say? Don't lead with the heavy stuff."
"Well," you say as you manage to keep from smiling too wide, "now I have to ask about those."
Marlow gives a small sigh. "Well. Ninelives started as a mining town, so there's still a bunch of shut down and closed off mine shafts and underground tunnels running all over the place. Poorly documented, pretty much no maps left to speak of, all kinds of weird colors and noises comin' out of 'em all throughout the year. A lot of people think they see or hear ghosts, but it turns out to be the mines acting up."
Afu grins. "The old library's totally haunted, though."
Marlow clears his throat. "Now--I did a full work up of a section of the ground floor of that library. I ran multi-spectrum audio, I had my EDI meter--"
"--And that one reads EMFs too, right?," asks Afu.
"Yeah," Marlow continues, "Yeah I had the whole nine. I went full ghost hunter on... part of the building."
"And?" you ask, "is it totally haunted?"
Marlow breathes in slow before he replies calmly.
"Haunted isn't strong enough a word. I haven't gone back."
"I made it to the door," Afu declares. "Twice. Still can't go in."
Marlow nods. "I'm kinda cynical when it comes to apparitional phenomena and that library still gives me the willies." He turns to you, specifically. "Whoever ran the place last was putting in some work. I don't mean dream rings and ouija boards, I mean serious. Occult. Bullshit. I mean contacting outsiders and the like. Whatever they were involved in, it's pretty much oozing off that building now."
"Whoever ran the place?," you ask. "There's no way to figure that out? Whoever was in charge of the library had to have had a name, right...?"
You see Marlow's face light up
and when Afu sees it, his face lights up as well. "Oh, bro, you got him going."
"As a matter of fact," Marlow winds up, "the last librarian's name should be on record and it should be possible to corroborate it with people who knew her or knew how the library worked. Guess what?"
His fingertips provide you a little razzle dazzle.
"Nothing," he says.
"Zero. Zip. No records, no names, no witnesses. Wiped squeaky clean, utterly immaculate. Friends? None. Family? Never. Her boss? Her bank teller? Her mailman? All silently turned me away. The. Previous. Librarian. Has been unpersoned and replaced with a genetically engineered BY THE GOVERNMENT individual."
You don't think Cici's involved in anything nefarious, though.
"...Which brings me to the Misuschaqua Wildlife Resources Act."
the fucking what
Marlow continues, as if you didn't need a seatbelt for that sentence. "The Misuschaqua Wildlife Resources Act approved the engineering and distribution of twenty six (26) bodies (see: "genetically engineered individuals") for the purpose of staffing animal control services across the state of Misuschaqua."
Afu is still grinning wide.
Marlow leans into the counter. "In other words: 26 tube cops, all over the state. People that can pull the door off the side of a car, for animal control. Twenty six. The whole state. Tell me every part of that doesn't sound bizarre."
He makes some interesting points--but most of them can be dismissed with the assumption that the 26 are an initial test for further use of genetically engineered people in animal control but also other police services. Misuschaqua's been (notoriously) a little slow in embracing the idea of genetic engineering; in many of The States, all state and city contracted police are already being grown in a vat. Misuschaqua was one of the last states to legalize genetic engineering period.
If you think of the 'just 26, and only in animal control' as a test run, it makes a lot more sense. Politicians are frightened, both of change and their constituents' reactions to change. Sometimes you have to slip in big changes a little at a time.
...What doesn't make sense is
if the 26 were distributed all across the state
and he's gotta be talking about Cici and... the rest, right?
...How did Ninelives end up with 3 of the pack? (And you're at 3, right? Bebe, Cici, and Deedee who you haven't met yet) Your gut says it's nicer to send them in groups so they'll have each other but your brain says that's not how state legislation typically gets enacted. It's ... puzzling, not necessarily sinister, that the 26 genetically engineered by the state weren't sent to 26 separate towns.
Marlow continues. "While the agreement to make and send out the 26 is public record, the actual contract those girls are under isn't, not even to them. Even the version those women get to see with their own eyes has redactions."
"Pretty sure that's illegal," you point out.
"It is, absolutely," Marlow confirms. "Find somebody that wants to sue about it. Anybody that knows, knows better than to talk. Nobody wants to fight the bureaucracy. I don't even wanna fight the bureaucracy, at least not on their terms."
Well, now you're just curious. "So what are the 26 for, if it's not really... uh... puppy patrol?"
Marlow leans deeper into the counter.
Afu's grin, somehow, grows wider. "Here we go."
"This is my theory--", Marlow begins,
"Here we gooo" shouts Afu
"--Secret police. Nothing against the girls themselves--they're sweet, Bebe helped me find my dog. But," Marlow says, holding his hands out, "the government's gettin' real big back into stuff like subliminal control and mental programming. On paper, how huge a military they can build and move in on residential areas is limited. ...But then your mailman, your street cleaner, and your census guy are all ripped government officials that could be switched into a fascist killforce at any time. One phrase or radio signal or whatever it is they use now... and boom. Instant army, right where we live. Ninelives' animal control department is a sleeper cell, and they don't even realize it."
"Why..." You look at Afu for help, but he's already fighting back the laughter. Okay. One thought at a time. "Why does the government need to guerrilla ops us? Like, at all?"
Marlow nods sagely. "Mostly because the government's losing its grip at all levels. States sapped power from the president, cities have started eating up all the power of the state. Combined with the wealth disparity, cultural differences, and how media works these days... well, if the national government doesn't start reeling it in, it's gonna get weird. Where the feds can reach is still limited, but they've got... insane resources for reaching those outlets. So... genetically engineered sleeper agents, slipped in as oblivious animal control specialists. Knights disguised as pawns."
You are getting very side tracked.
You return to the counter.
You put your hands on the counter.
You say it like you're not used to hearing it yet.
"The spooky house."
Marlow straightens back up.
Afu shakes his head. "Bruh. Gonna ask him about Spooky House and not even buy anything."
"I'm buying the ring tomorrow!," you insist. "Probably?"
"So--" you and Afu both fall silent as Marlow begins to speak, "a person or persons died in Spooky House. Men in black rolled in--and I mean they rolled in, glossy vans, suits, the whole shebang, wiped the place spotless. Nobody knows who originally lived there, nobody knows what happened, nobody wants to talk. Even the news shut up about it... and if you've seen our local news, you know that means it's gotta be the real deal."
Hmm. "There sure is a lot of all the records getting wiped in this town."
Marlow points at you. "And that--"
Afu grins anew. "Here he goes."
"--is why I think it's the same person. The timelines match up. My theory: Spooky House is spooky because it was partially lived in by the old librarian. Whatever she did, it might've worked, and the feds had to clean up after."
The mysteries being connected would at least make... fewer mysteries.
But one thing has continued to pester you:
"You said person or persons."
Marlow nods. "The old librarian got her mail sent to the library, and there's... uh... sleeping arrangements left over in the old building. So officially, she lived at the library and likely didn't own the deed to Spooky House. Buuut what I think..." He taps his fingers on the counter. "Is that she had a friend, roommate... sister, wife, whatever that gave her a second address. People that lived around the block from Spooky House said the owner was a shut-in, but someone else would come and go at night. I think that someone was the librarian."
"Wait--" hold up "--You've talked to the spooky house's neighbors?"
"Oh yeah," Marlow says bluntly, nodding. "I might do a documentary someday. Anyway, both Spooky House and the old library share stories of people coming and going at weird hours. The times about even up. There's a separate individual that rarely--if ever--physically left Spooky House, though."
Mmnot a fan of that phrasing
"And nobody knows any of these peoples' names...?"
Marlow looks you square in the eye. "That might be the worst part. For me, anyway. I've been around long enough... I went to that library before it fell apart. Like, a lot, at least once every couple of months. I had whole conversations with that librarian when she was still alive." He steadily shakes his head. "...But I never caught her name. Not once, and I guess nobody else did, either. Anybody that knows, anybody who's job it was to know--well, like I said. They don't talk. Whoever their associate was that stayed in the house... well, they're a total ghost. Nobody knows anything."
"Oh, I have no idea," Marlow replies. "I just find it more likely."
"Witches," chuckles Afu.
"You gotta admit," Marlow adds, "The Witches of Spooky House has a ring to it."
"The Spooky House Witches," you mutter.
"See?," he says. "It just feels right."
"I've heard the mayor's pretty weird, too," you mention.
"The mayor's a vampire," Marlow declares. "Like, that's barely a secret. Can't be recorded, doesn't have a reflection, doesn't come out in the daytime. Supposedly lives at the office, but there's no bedrooms or dorms or anything there. Came outta nowhere, dresses and talks like a 19th century noblewoman... and her name's the worst part."
Afu chuckles. "Rill Parsons."
"Real Persons?," Marlow asks. "Seriously? She's not even trying."
"The secretary's human, though, right?," Afu asks.
"Human, I don't know," Marlow admits. "I don't think Ms. Walsh is a vampire, but she's definitely in cahoots with Parsons. She has a real address, for starters, and by all accounts does sleep. The secretary showed up a few months before Parsons did... like she was scouting the place out for her. Might be a... uh... like a follower, or how vampires have servants."
"Like a thrall," you suggest. Like the Renfield to the mayor's Dracula.
"Yeah. Don't get me wrong," Marlow says, putting his hands up. "I'd still vote for Parsons. Larry Montane was a crook, and we're otherwise strapped for decent politicians around here. Anybody that pisses MondolGroup off like Parsons and Walsh have can't be complete monsters, and bills have been lower than I've ever seen 'em before."
Again, you just have one big question.
"But why?," you ask. "Why would a vampire run for mayor...?"
Marlow inhales deeply
before he states "Honestly? I have no idea. The cynic in me says she's softening the town up--she's taken a lot o' swings in the last ten months at trying to de-militarize our police force. Really shook the ranks up, too, had some folks fired and others moved to different departments. She's been trying to scale back the budget, shuffle the funds from the cops to... well, anything else."
He gives a small shrug.
"The rational in me says we needed that, though. Montane built our cops up like a private army--they've got the equipment to fight a war, just not any of that other shit it takes to be a soldier. There's a lot of cronyism, a lot of unprofessional conduct coming out of our police force... very us against them mentality, even for cops."
"And they're lazy as hell," Afu adds.
"That too," agrees Marlow with a finger point. "And infrastructure's gone to hell. If Parsons wiped the whole force and started over I couldn't blame her. I know I just got done talking about how they're sleeper agents for The State, but I'd promote those animal control girls up to being real cops. They're fit, they're smart, they're driven--fuck it, I say, if we have to have cops we could do better than what we got. My only concern is that the mayor's not trying to clean house, she's just spreading out the papers for burning it all down."
He said the mayor's been at it for ten months.
You remember Cici said Parsons became mayor less than a year ago, so that fits.
"...How long ago did the spooky house become the spooky house?"
"Oh, it's always been Spooky House," Marlow replies with a smirk. "Even when the original owner lived there... man, that place had a vibe to it. If you're asking when it all went sideways, that was about... eh, six months ago. The suits showed up, the current library closed while they looked for someone to staff it, and since then Spooky House has been unlivable."
"Unlivable... like...?" You're just playing along at this point.
"People move in," Afu says, "and then they move the fuck out."
"No stopping for comments," Marlow adds, "not even a pause to look back. Whatever it is people are seeing in that house, it's legit. I thought about buying it this last time just out of curiosity, but my wife said no."
"It was cheap enough," Afu laughs, "I coulda bought it if I was a little older."
So if everything Marlow, the bus and Cici have said is accurate:
• The old library fell apart about five years ago
• MondolGroup got their foothold about three years ago
• Rill Parsons became mayor about ten months ago
• The previous librarian disappeared, and the spooky house was wiped clean by the feds, about six months ago. Cici, who had been animal control prior to losing her eye, was hired as the new librarian.
"Do you think the mayor has any connection to the spooky house...?," you ask.
"Hard to say," Marlow replies. "There was a period there where Spooky House was occupied, someone was coming and going at night, Parsons was mayor and Ms. Walsh was her acting secretary, all at the same time--"
Afu nods. "So there's no big twist where Mayor Parsons was secretly the shut-in at the spooky house."
"Right," confirms Marlow. "We're looking at four separate individuals here. It does mean that whatever happened at Spooky House to get the feds' attention--it happened about four months after Parsons became mayor."
You still remember what Kate said to Rill Parsons.
"I think there's something you want in there.
That's why you haven't wiped that house off the face of the earth,
and that's why you want Plaire to sell it to you."
The witches (?) owned the house. Parsons moved into town, became mayor... wants whatever the house is.
Holy shit, did Parsons kill the original owner?
She seemed pretty genuine about not wanting you to die. ...It doesn't seem likely that she'd murder all the original occupants.
That timing can't be a coincidence, though. The mayor does know something, more than she's let on, about what that house is capable of--at the very minimum, you strongly suspect she knows what happened to the mysterious shut-in and the old librarian.
"Since we're being frank, Ms. Stevens, please--allow me.
Those nightmares will kill you."
...Maybe it really is that simple.
Maybe the spooky house witches were eaten by the spooky house.
The old library fell apart five years ago, though. That's... years and years and years of the spooky house not eating anyone, before or after the changing of libraries, and then suddenly Parsons is mayor and two people (?) die.
Rill Parsons and Temperance Walsh are involved somehow.
Rationally, you don't know that the house has killed anyone--all you have to go on for that is the mayor's word. Your nightmares thus far have just ended with you waking up, and no permanent damage. The mayor could have just been trying to scare you out of the house.
The weird dreams could be from fumes leaking out of the mines. The mayor's position probably affords her access to blueprints and other documents that aren't public record--she could even be inducing the dreams at night by cranking up the... uh... fumage.
And then, when she murders you, there's a nice cover story about the house being haunted.
"Did the feds show up during the day?," you ask.
"Yeah," Marlow replies. "They were swarming the house most of that afternoon."
Victim(s?) was killed during the day, removing any suspicion from the mayor--because the mayor's put up the somehow convincing alibi of being a fucking vampire.
There might not be anything supernatural going on at all. The house could just have... you don't know, pirate gold buried in the walls or something that the mayor is killing people to acquire. If you had a talking dog, you would go right now and pull the rubber mask off Mayor Parsons, revealing she was in fact the old librarian this whole time
or... something. Like that.
You suspect that any theory involving the dream being a mining fume induced hallucination isn't going to hold up past the multiplayer test, though, and then you're going to be right back to speculating about witches, vampires, and dog catcher sleeper cells.
You would like to think this doesn't end with you actually fighting vampires, though, or being eaten by your magical house.
"Maybe they'll last more than a week this time," Afu chuckles. "You can actually get some questions in."
You clear your throat.
"Full disclosure... slash... spoilers," you begin, "it's me. I bought the spooky house."
There's a brief, stunned silence.
"For real?," Afu asks.
"It was extremely cheap," you confess. "I didn't know."
"No house is that cheap without some kind of fine print," Marlow states.
"I was desperate," you add. "They were desperate to sell it."
"Do you have the deed?," Marlow asks.
Washer, dryer, deed to house
"Look," you begin, "I haven't even met the last owner of the house face-to-face. We spoke over the phone and then later I threw the phone away. I agreed to buy the house in the middle of the night, it was that kind of deal."
Afu blinks. "So are you like... a mob boss, or a secret agent or what?"
"--My last town sucked and I kind of had to leave suddenly. Now I'm trying to figure out what's the deal with my goofy fucking house."
Marlow leans in close. "How goofy is it?"
"It's..." You heave a sigh. "The god damn goofiest. I'm doing experiments."
"I've got a full suite of ghost hunting equipment if you need it," Marlow says without hesitating. You suspect he really just wants to see the house himself.
"I'm not even sure it's ghosts," you admit. "Like... I haven't seen a ghost. It hasn't been messing with the lights or... or moving the furniture." There's barely any furniture to move "The house has just been..."
entirely sure how much you should reveal.
"...Weird," you finally conclude.
Marlow hmms. "Alien weird, or occult weird?"
"Revisiting psychological trauma weird," you reply. "With a side of forbidden memes."
Marlow raises an eyebrow.
You shake your head. "I make internet videos. One of them was de-listed for... I guess approaching the topic of whatever my house is doing. I had a bunch of randos in the comments section making allusions to things I've never heard of."
"Damn," exclaims Marlow. "If you're not blowing smoke up our asses, you might've stumbled onto the real deal."
"I want to believe in Spooky House," Afu states. "What's the forbidden meme?"
"Something about the first lie," you state. "I don't know what it means, I don't know what it's supposed to be, I don't know if it's just some kind of haunted house fandom shibboleth or if it's actually a warning I should heed or if my life just has some arbitrary new arc words for this, the season where it finally jumped the shark."
Marlow and Afu stare.
You take a breath.
"My best guess is that it's a reference to the lie told by the serpent to Eve--the first lie in the Bible, which was "you will not surely die." Which is to say, I am going to die, and the house is threatening me."
"I feel like you'd get along well with my daughter," Marlow finally replies.
You shake your head. "Don't tell me that."
"I can't take my vacation until she's back from hers," Afu huffs.
"I..." Marlow scratches the back of his head. "The first lie does sound like something I should know, but it's not ringing any bells. It does sound like it could be a shibboleth, but I dunno if that's all there is to it."
"Okay," Afu says, holding his hands up, "I see how it is, making me be that guy. What's a shibboleth?"
"It's like a secret handshake," you explain. "A key or a symbol that lets other people in-the-know know that you're in-the-know. I can walk into a club and be like "hey the first lie" and everybody'll shrug, except people who know what the first lie is can go "oh heyyy yeah the first lie, she's one of us." All my weird comments had variations of that, or the initials TFL, snuck into their posts and usernames."
Afu... slowly nods. "I think I get it."
"A shibboleth for who, though?," Marlow asks.
"And thaaat's my big question," you sigh. "One of them. One of... many, huge, looming questions. There are strangers in my comments section, but I don't... know enough to know what they know. ...Or even who the hell they are."
"What's your internet handle?," Afu asks.
"Porcelain Salamander," you reply.
He turns to Marlow. "It's gotta be something occult, right? The government gets real sweaty about cult stuff. Taking down videos doesn't sound too out there."
"Maybe," Marlow says. "Maybe not. I mean, I could get my content taken down from most reputable media aggregates if I uploaded videos from the Thale incident, and that's... not particularly magical."
"That would get you banned for all the gore, though," Afu replies.
"But it would still get banned," Marlow says. "The point is, she might have stumbled across some blood cult's shibboleth... or a passage from a terrorist manifesto, or a top secret government project name, or just a combination of syllables that confuse the algorithm. All her weird comments could be from bots, and any meaning they seem to carry could just be pareidolia. I think Porcelain Salamander's got it right here, we don't have enough intel yet."
"...Okay, I'll be that guy," you say after some hesitance. "Pareidolia?"
Marlow sighs, smiling and shaking his head. "Pareidolia's when you see something that isn't there. Shapes in the clouds, patterns in the wallpaper, that kind of thing. Human pattern recognition is nuts, and part of how we've survived as a species. You never really think about it, but like... music, man. Music's just a bunch of noises in a row, but we hear a rhythm--and now, when someone drums out certain beats on accident, your brain fills in the rest of the song. Sightings of shadow people are often just pareidolia--just a black mass and the brain filling in some blanks on short notice. We wanna see patterns... but sometimes, there just isn't one there no matter how badly we think there oughta be."
"Ohhh," you reply. "It's like apophenia. ...Seeing connections between things that aren't connected. Like the Monte Carlo fallacy."
Afu shakes his head. "You guys are just showing off at this point. Trying to out-dork each other."
Marlow gives a wide shrug. "You go to video game tournaments. What is that, if it's not trying to out-dork people?"
"That's different," Afu retorts, "I out-dork people for money."