"H... hello?," you loudly ask.
. . .
Cici finally breaks said silence. "The heck IS it?"
You shake your head. "It looks like... some kind of a coffin...? Like a weird sarcophagus." You eye the candle resting within; it's hard to tell when it's this dark, and what little light there is holds a greenish hue, but you think it's the same color as the candle you saw on the first floor. "...Can you reach that candle?"
Cici looks at you like you've gone mad. "You wanna activate that thing?! Plaire, someone clearly does NOT want us to mess with whatever this is!"
"Yeah," you mutter. "...That explosion was man-made."
Your eyes stay locked on the giant ... thing in the middle of the room.
More specifically, that yellow tape.
You explain. "The explosion upstairs--there was a grenade. A normal, pull-the-pin-and-throw grenade. It had a tripwire... and that tape around it." You point at the DO NOT RESET tape currently binding the big metal sarcophagus. "Same tape the knife had. It wasn't a worm grenade, or made out of skin or ye olde metal. It was a modern grenade. We know from the heart rooms that other people can interact with us--with the dungeon. If someone can manifest whole rooms and vending machines, then someone else can leave a grenade."
"...So you think whoever left that grenade did this." Cici motions to the looming iron figure.
"The trap was left on the stairs," you point out. "Behind a door and a puzzle. That's not a trap you leave for a monster, or an accomplice, that shit was for ME. As far as I'm concerned, this thing--whatever the hell's in there--it's the enemy of my enemy."
Cici thinks it over for a second. "What if they were just trying to keep you away from this thing? What if there's like a demon or a mummy or somethin' inside? We didn't see any grenade traps until we hit those stairs--what if the grenade was to stop us from accidentally RELEASING something!"
"They could have left a note," you remark. "A warning, a hazard symbol, a skull and crossbones, anything. They left an explosive. Fuck 'em, if they wanted stop me from unleashing armageddon they should've spent their grenade money on a fucking sign."
"Just so we're clear," Cici says, "you're willing to risk lettin' loose a space pharaoh or some other crazy SHIT and kickstarting the END OF THE WORLD, out of SPITE?"
. . .
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Plaire," she begins, with some hesitance. "I know you saved my life by taking that grenade--"
"I'm immune to explosions because of Drillga, you don't owe me shit. Go on."
"--And you took the brunt of that fall--"
"On accident," you point out. "You're better equipped to absorb damage like that than than I am, and you brought me back to life afterwards. I feel like that covers any outstanding debts you think you owe me. To reiterate: you don't owe me shit. Go on."
"Alright," Cici concludes, "fair enough! This is a terrible idea. We should grab some of that tape and get the heck outta here!"
"The tape stays wherever it's left, even on reset," you point out. "If we die down here, the tape stays down here. The respawn point is the couch on B2. We have no way to get back here that doesn't involve blowing up stairs or clearing like two whole floors, and we definitely don't know how to get back upstairs from here. I think the candles could fast travel us, but I don't think they do us any good with just one candle lit--and this coffin seems really important to the whole candle situation. If we start this fucker up, we might be able to just... beam ourselves between here and the first floor and back."
Cici's silent for a moment.
"Damn," she finally concludes. "This whole trip downstairs was a waste if we just leave this thing here, huh?"
"I mean..." you shrug. "We had a pretty good time, I guess. We learned a lot."
"Yeah," concedes Cici. "I guess we did. ...You don't have enough mana for a fireball, do you?"
"I think I could squeeze off one more," you inform her. Not for long; the window of opportunity is fading rapidly as you bleed off mana, covering everything from the pain of broken ribs to your difficulty breathing. It's costing a nice chunk of mana just to stand here and talk. "I'm not gonna light the candle if you don't want me to, though. I don't care if I'm in charge, that'd be a fucked up thing to do."
and takes another long, quiet look at the towering sarcophagus.
"I'm gonna light it," she says.
"You sure?" You turn your gaze to Cici. "I seriously don't know what the fuck's in there."
"I know," she replies. "It's my decision, and I'm making it."
Cici flutters on out the door and down the hall to retrieve a torch.
Cici returns with a torch.
She drifts up to the giant triangle... face... headpiece... plate thing.
She lights the candle.
. . .
"Can you help me get the tape off?," you ask.
The two of you take a little while unwrapping the DO NOT RESET tape, and unpinning it from the walls (where it is suspended by old looking metal nails).
With the last of the yellow tape removed, Cici comes to rest upon your shoulder pad. You roll the tape up, inspecting it in your hands.
...It's a lot of tape. Way more than you ever expected to gather after finding it wrapped around that broken blade. If you can figure out how the tape works and actually get it off this floor, you should be able to save yourself a shit ton of work on future runs.
. . .
Still nothing from the very elaborate candle holder, though. Candle lit, tape's gone... silence.
"Hello?," you loudly ask a second time.
Suddenly, the lights begin to switch on.
"Hello," resonates a clear voice from the coffin (statue?).
"I am a trades man," the voice states.
"Like all trädesmen, I am only capable of speaking the truth. The truth is objective and universal; all entities interact with the truth in identical fashion. The truth cannot be altered or controlled. The truth cannot be anything but the truth, and the truth is inherent to my nature.
Do you understand what I am telling you?"
...Uhhh. "Y... Yes?"
"I doubt that you do," says the trades man. "There is a great deal of nuance to the subject, and you don't appear to be very bright."
You glance at Cici, who also gives you a something is not right here kind of look.
You give her a subtle, confirming nod, and turn your attention back to the lit up statue. "Why are you here?," you ask him.
"To conduct trade," he replies.
"What do you trade?"
"In exchange for what?"
"You will receive the bill, eventually."
"You're charging for all of these questions?"
...And not telling you the cost up front.
You give a hesitant look to Cici, who likewise looks to you.
She takes a deep breath. "You still stole that couch, right?"
"Yeah," you reply with a short, strained chuckle.
"What do you want me to ask him? We'll split the bill."
You whisper a question to Cici.
... "You want me to remember all that?"
"I believe in you, Cici. It's important."
Cici turns to the tradesman. "If I were to ask you... IF you were incapable of speaking truth, and you only could give a yes or no answer, what would your answer be?"
"I do not understand the question," replies the tradesman.
"Are you still gonna charge for it?," you blurt out.
"Of course," says the tradesman. It takes a lot to not immediately begin hurling expletives at the statue. He's lucky you don't have a torch in your hand.
"The sky above us is yellow," you announce. "When I say yellow, I want you to say yellow. I'm not asking you to say yellow, this is not a request; I'm only stating my desire that should I say yellow, you also would say yellow. Yellow."
"Yellow," says the tradesman.
"Yellow," you repeat.
"Yellow," says the tradesman.
"What color is the sky?," you ask.
"Having never seen the sky, I do not know," he answers.
"What color were we just talking about?"
"I do not recall," he says.
"Tell me that the sky is yellow."
"This is a pointless endeavor," states the tradesman. "These questions are not helping you to understand anything."
Breathe out slowly.
Think about it.
"Why do you say tradesman weird?," Cici asks.
"There is nothing unusual about the way I say tratesman," replies the tradesman.
"I don't think he can tell the truth," you mutter. "Like, at all. I think every statement he makes is a straight up lie, including all that objective truth bullshit--he's extremely subjective. I think he just knows what he knows and feels what he feels but also has no choice but to lie about it--in a frustratingly natural way, like he's maintaining his own bullshit internal consistency that's contradictory but not obviously, inhumanly so. Like, I've met plenty of people who think they're being objective."
"...So we're NOT gonna owe him our souls later?," Cici clarifies.
"You most certainly will," the tradesman states.
"That question wasn't for you!," Cici yells at him. "Butthole!"
"He might be charging us now," you tell Cici, "but I think we can rule out anything he says as being, itself, correct. The truth might not be the opposite of what he's saying... but I think... I think every sentence the tradesman speaks is inherently false, both subjective AND objective statements. ...So if he said we'll be charged in the future, we won't be. He said he's charging for all these questions, so he really isn't--but he might still be charging for some of the questions, or most of the questions. Does that make sense?"
"...Yeah," Cici mumbles. "I think so."
"You have utterly misinterpreted this entire situation," the tradesman begins. "I'm amazed at how quickly you've managed to reach the wrong conclusion."
You have totally figured out what's going on here, he might have meant. I knew you'd get there eventually.
"Who wrapped you up in the tape?," Cici asks him.
"I'm not allowed to tell you her name," he says, probably not knowing her name, "and I did not see her. She ambushed me." Pointedly, he knows she's a she despite claiming not to see her. He may have heard her voice--hell, you could be wrong in assuming the tradesman's male based on voice and name alone--but still. You think he's seen her, but doesn't know her name. "She must have been very weak to rely on such tactics--and cowardly." ...Oh. That's not great news. "...Not that I couldn't have unbound myself, had I wanted to. I was quite content to remain disconnected from this boring, run of the mill alcazar. You've actually inconvenienced me a great deal by freeing this shell."
Cici asks another question. "So what's going on with you and the candles?"
"Oh, there is no relationship to speak of," he replies. "I have nothing to do with them. They're an annoyance, really, and completely useless. I hate them. I hate this entire place. I wish that I could just will myself away, but alas, life is never that simple. Even if one could, those candles would probably stop you--the bastards."
You have a seat on the floor. Mana drain's accelerating; might be trying to stop the internal bleeding and shit from killing you. You try to 'squeeze' your mana depletion a bit--suppress it, like you did the first time you fought Father Warden. You allow yourself to feel more of the pain, just to try and stay here a little longer... but you also definitely want to fade, not die. You're not sure how well the tradesman would get along with the other you.
Cici hops down to rest on the floor next to you. "Should I ask him what an alcazar is?"
You shake your head. "We need to think about phrasing--if we ask him what an alcazar is, he could tell us it's a giant hamburger or whatever."
"I'm not certain that it isn't," states the tradesman.
You wave a hand at him, and turn back to Cici. "Case in point. I can't tell if he's deliberately giving us the run around or if he's trying to help and he's just bogged down by some bullshit rules. He did say something about interacting with the truth--maybe he's being ran through like, a truth filter or something. Maybe the price of his answers is the effort involved with fucking translating. ...Maybe he's just not allowed to lie in a way that makes it too obvious he's lying. I... I really don't know. I just know he's not gonna give us an answer that could be defined as correct."
Lights are getting dim.
Not much time left.
Make it last.
"You said we freed this shell--is your shell a demonshell?"
"Yes," replies the tradesman. "Could you not tell by the stygian circuitry? Only a genuine demonshell has stygian circuits."
He does have some... vaguely circuitry-esque designs on his coffin thing.
Is that in contrast to the weird veins you felt burning when you regained mana? Demonshells get the piss veins, other shells (fake demonshells?) have stygian circuits...?
Don't think. Not enough mana. Need as many answers as possible.
"Is there anything in this alcazar I should specifically avoid?"
"Difficult to say, as I'm not yet sure how well versed you are in exploring the xanthous. ...And I certainly have no grasp of the alcazar's overall layout. From my limited vantage point, there's only one way out of this building. Below lies the path you must take, while venturing upstairs would accomplish little. The creatures you would face upstairs are also far, far more dangerous than those on this floor and beneath. This dungeon structure in general, I believe, contains the most powerful threats in the entire alcazar. Should you go outside, beware the butterflies. They are not here for your benefit."
He pauses. You start to ask another question, but the tradesman remembers something--
"Oh," he begins, "and on this floor are a few things that absolutely should be here. The striped classroom and miasmatic wound are normal features, and I would advise leaving both alone. The latter in particular you need for a healthy, normal alcazar, and attempting to block it could cause long term damage."
The fucking what
shit, questions, questions
"Do you have any relation to the big things outside the sky?," you blurt out.
"None whatsoever," says the tradesman. "I am too far above them to even know their names."
Cici asks one. "The lady that taped you up--was she a monster? Or an alien or somethin'?"
"Either is likely," the tradesman replies.
Cici follows up. "Is anything bad gonna happen because we freed you?"
"I certainly hope so," replies the tradesman. "I'm already quite tired of you both."
Cici squints at you. "You SURE this guy is lying?," she asks quietly, "I think he might just be a jerk."
"I'm gonna prove it for sure here in a sec," you tell her. You turn back to the tradesman. "Will drinking mana potions--like, the wine and the yellow soda--will that kill me outside the dream?"
"I know the answer," states the tradesman, "but you cannot afford the cost."
Probably doesn't know. Stygian circuits--he might be projecting into the dream world using a different method than you, so he knows how the world itself works, but not all the specifics of how you work.
He'd tell you for free if he knew, though, or at least at an affordable price.
Mana running out. You can see Cici starting to get anxious as her torch dims further and further.
"What's so normal about this alcazar?," Cici asks.
"Well..." he seems to have to mull it over for a moment. "The size is perfectly average. Leaning toward the small size, perhaps, but not unusually so. Normal level of exterior security, no extraneous features or additional modifications. Spacial positioning is fairly standard, and doesn't seem to suggest any particular agenda. Were I to guess, this alcazar was originally formed by an amateur magus, likely as a first attempt. Instructions were probably followed to the letter, and nothing overly ambitious was tried with the physical arcana. My opinion: it is a very normal alcazar. I'm actually underwhelmed by how basic it is."
...That's a lot to parse.
"Will you be in this room after I reset?," you ask the tradesman.
"No," he replies simply.
You nod. "...Thank you."
You stand, with some difficulty.
You think about the candle room on the first floor.
Focus on it.
The lights on the tradesman begin to flare, and glow--
you keep focusing. Pushing
until the green light envelops the tradesman and fills the room. You are briefly blinded as the light consumes you, blanketing everything in a neon green luminescence--
--but then the light shrinks back down. Back to the shape of the sarcophagus, where it continues to shrink until it has vanished entirely
leaving only you and Cici in the 1F candle room.
"...Huh," Cici remarks. She still has her rapidly dimming torch.
You look down. You still have the roll of DO NOT RESET tape in your hand. "Yesss--"
The act of teleporting to this room has cost the rest of your mana.
You wake up feeling like you've been hit by a truck. ...And it then proceeded to back up over your ribs. And light your hand on fire. It passes quickly.
However, the feeling of having slept 8+ hours in fightball pads and a motorcycle helmet will linger. You groan; it takes substantial effort just to start rolling out of bed. The toolbox does not help.
"What happened?," mutters a sleepy Cici.
"Fast travel costs mana," you mumble back. "Uggggh. Not a lot, but I didn't have a lot."
After stumbling to your feet and removing your helmet, you loudly crack your neck.
"Damn!," Cici remarks as she begins to sit up. "You need more comfortable armor."
"I don't think they make armored pajamas," you chuckle dryly. Oh god you are so sore
It's about 10:05 am. Somehow.
You take a second to breathe, and acclimate yourself to being back in the real world after spending so much time in the dream.
"The candles facilitate fast travel," you conclude, "and the tradesman is totally involved with how it works. ...He's trying to help but has to lie. It's like a verbal tic."
Cici nods. "We learned a lot last night!"
You give a strained nod in return. "We learned a shit ton."
and all this new mana shit you and Cici figured out.
You're curious what more you can do with using mana to boost weapons, but by the time you really had a chance to think about it you were being exploded. You clearly reinforced your halberd--in real life you don't think it would last two swings, never mind being used to steer a barrel down a raging rapid. ...But could you make it sharper? Swing it harder? Extend its hitbox?
It might have to wait, though. Knowing now that you have a countdown impacts the situation a bit; each night you spend in the dream not getting shit done is a night lost. You need to figure out how to increase the number on the blood note, or stop the countdown entirely... but you also can't just barge into the dream without a plan, or you'll be wasting nights. You need to get a better idea of what you're doing and what's going on so you don't lose too much time idly wandering around.
A couple days off might not be a bad idea. It would confirm some things about the countdown, at least, and give you the opportunity to get some normal, non-magical sleep.
"...There was something else I wanted to look up," you mutter. "I can't remember what it was."
Cici looks up from her phone. "Cards."
"Tarot!," you blurt out. "Yeah! Because of our classes or signs or whatever."
You quickly run a search on The Fool. The first handful of websites that pop up detail what it means for your love life, or your career or etcetera should The Fool come up in a tarot reading. A few articles also come up about the Deck, a foreign terrorist cell that use nicknames based on the tarot. You know them as being connected to Fuse Hendricks, but you didn't realize they used gimmicked aliases.
(You also don't think there's any connection, but you'll keep an open mind.)
It takes you a few tries to find a website with a broader, more general breakdown of the card meanings.
It turns out The Fool is weird. Number zero, it is simultaneously the beginning of the standard tarot and outside of it; it is the highest trump card, and the lowest. The Fool represents new beginnings, adventure, spontaneity, hope... it's a future yet to be shaped, a card of infinite potential. "No matter how crazy it seems," says the website, "take a leap of faith and follow your heart."
Seems pretty straightforward.
Even before you bought the house, you were just... sort of bumbling your way through life. You didn't do things, they just... kind of happened to you. You had no control, you could rarely voice your real feelings or be who you wanted to. You've spent your whole existence having potential--BEING potential, but always being restrained by your parents or the school or your lack of funds or your anxiety or just... everything.
You've been a background character in your own life--an NPC in your own story. It's almost entirely luck that you're even here now, almost entirely luck (and Cici) that got you to the tradesman last night. You're a cosmic dumbass drunkenly swaggering into something bigger, and you have no idea what that means mechanically. Kate has fire, Cici has growth and hard light armaments--what do you have? Is it anything? Does The Fool, in its infinite potential, get the power to turn into something useful...?
Apparently, if the card shows up in a reading reversed, it has an entirely different meaning.
Lack of preparation. Not being fit for the task at hand. Missing the necessary tools. Being reckless. Failing to consider the repercussions of one's actions. Living in the moment without regard for what lies ahead. The most common depiction of The Fool is of a traveler about to wander off of a cliff while his small animal companion frantically tries to warn him. He's tied to folly, mania, carelessness. In some versions of the deck The Fool is called Le Mat--The Beggar, or The Madman.
"Accordin' to this," Cici begins, tapping away at her cell phone, "The Sun represents joy, harmony, positivity, confidence, enthusiasm... and PREGNANCY?! Oh, hell no--"
Pfft "A lot of the pagan mysticism type sites popping up are for like, love readings and other regular, every day shit," you tell her. "I haven't found one for nightmare class mechanics yet, but if I do I'll let you know."
Cici continues reading from her phone. "Like the sun, this card shines rays of vitality on all who see it. Others will feel the happiness and inspiration radiating off of you. Aww, that's nice."
"It fits, too," you comment. "I mean, aside from you obviously being a big ol' ball of sunshine, you have sort of knight slash paladin powers--you're a beacon to lead the charge, the light in the dark, all that hokey holy warrior bullshit."
Cici smiles wide, falling silent as she continues reading.
You turn back to your computer.
... The Hanged Man.
New perspectives. Letting go. Suspension. Sacrifice. The Hanged Man is on pause, stuck in a state of transition--sometimes as a learning experience, sometimes to repent, sometimes just out of indecision. Some conclusions need to be stalled while you give yourself time to reflect, or wait for a better opportunity to arrive. One is, to put it succinctly, left hanging.
You think about the blood notes. Could they be from the original owner of the house--the one that designed the 'physical arcana' to represent The Hanged Man? Being stuck in the dream, only able to communicate through weird notes in an out-of-place room would definitely fit the idea of being stuck with a different perspective. ...It does raise some questions about who they were before, though.
how do you live your life in suspended animation...? What does it mean to be someone who's identified wholly by being between...?
Living in a house by yourself, anonymously, only getting visited secretly at night by someone who's also barely on the grid.
It's really not that different from your own card, really. Someone that never quite becomes, just... slowly fades into the wallpaper. The Hanged Man that lived here almost disappeared entirely, nameless and forgotten, after fuck knows how many years of hiding in the shadows.
...The only reason you even visited the library was because of this goofy house. You never would have had the courage to attend Kate's concert if this shit hadn't been going on. In another timeline where this was just a normal, cheap house, you would have just kept doing what the original owner did--you'd disappear. You'd sit here, in the dark, probably never trading more than a few words with the locals until you died alone.
But then again, if it were a normal house the original owner would still be alive, and you wouldn't have been able to afford it regardless. It's only cheap because it's an uncontrollable doorway into Your Own Personal Hell: The Movie: The Game.
At least now if you go full supervillain, you have the premise for a good we're not so different you and I speech to one of the witches.
If the blood notes are coming from The Hanged Man, who/what card was the other witch? Are the blood notes coming from The Hanged Man, or Witch #2...?
The Old Librarian was said to only visit, and had sleeping arrangements at the library. She probably didn't own the house, so she probably didn't have the physical arcana set specifically to her tarot...
so that kind of... almost narrows it down a bit. The Librarian isn't likely to be The Hanged Man.
No clue which of the two is keeping the countdown and giving you spawn points, though, or if that's even one of the witches. It could be an outside party, like the tradesman. Trades man. Tratesman.
You still don't know who Nat is, either.
"Fuck," you finally conclude. "Shit's getting complicated. More complicated."
"You're telling me!," Cici declares. "I gotta go check in with Bebe--let her know I'm okay. She's not used to be me bein' out all night! ...AND I need to take a shower."
"Lemme know if anything comes up," you tell her with a slight smile. "I like surprise furniture but I'd rather know everybody's safe."
She nods. "I'll keep in touch! Library's closed Sunday and Monday, so I should be back later today."
Huh. It is Monday. You've almost been in this house a week.
You wave to Cici as she gathers her things and heads out.
...Which leaves you with the question of what to do next.
You scramble some eggs in the microwave, and make an egg sandwich. Over breakfast, you think about what to do with the day; you still need to update Kate, and find out what she's learned about Harv getting attacked. You still need to visit the old library. You still need to find Franklin, both because Drillga gives you dream powers and he probably knows something, and because you really could interview him for your video channel. The game lore videos you've done in the past were okay, but diversifying your content to include other things could help you bring in a wider audience and you do need money something fierce.
(A fucking grenade though? Does she have grenade-based powers? Did she buy a grenade and sleep with it wrapped in police tape so she could duplicate a free grenade every night? A FUCKING GRENADE, THOUGH?)
Marlow won't return to the Back Room until tomorrow.
...You still have those library books you checked out.
And a messy room.
You still have Lagi to get a hold of about Brainsate and maybe Somniplan
and new things to yell at the mayor about.
Flasks would be good. Maybe your own shield, so you don't have to rely on the dungeon providing one.
You could try to contact Infohazard.
You could listen to some Infohazard.
. . .
Even without planning to traverse the dream tonight, you have a potentially long day ahead of you. Figuring out what to focus on first would be a good idea, or you're going to lose your mind juggling it all.