Object 195

The Holder of Trade

In any city, in any country, enter the largest shopping mall you can find - we recommend you take a fast car for a quick getaway afterward. Bring with you your most prized possession (not another Object - they are not your possessions; they merely let you hold onto them for a while). Find the Customer Service desk and ask politely to speak to "The Holder of Trade", while handing over a cash bribe - $1,000 or the local equivalent should do. The person at the desk will look around furtively, and then lead you to the door of a nearby office which you didn't see before speaking to them. They will knock three times and open the door.

The person who steps out should be a burly gray-haired man, wearing a blue business suit and smoking a cigar. If you see anyone else in his place, flee for your life, and with great fortune, you may escape. He will greet you gruffly and ask what your business is. Do not be fooled, this is merely the guardian of the one you want. Stare him in the eye and tell him, "I seek an audience with the true Holder." A look of terror will flash briefly over his face, then be replaced with anger as he tells you he is the Holder, how dare you question him. Keep staring him in the eye and repeat, "I seen an audience with the true Holder."

Finally, he will wilt, and turn back into the office, slamming the door behind him. Do not follow him, nor listen to his pleading and whining on the other side of the door. Finally, it will open and he will lead the true Holder out by the hand. The Holder always takes the form of a small child, though its exact appearance varies. It will be carrying a green silk drawstring purse in one hand. Pretend you believe it actually is a child. Try not to look in its eyes; you won't like what you see in them.

The child will rush up to you and grasp your hand. Its hands are so cold you will fear that yours will freeze solid and snap. Do not flinch. You are safe as long as you do not show any sign that you know there is something odd about it. Greet the child kindly, coo over it. Ruffle its hair if you like. The guardian will follow it out of the office, reassuming his former gruff manner as he tells you to keep a close eye on his child and take good care of it. Ignore the fact that he is not starting to sprout odd appendages; horns, tentacles, extra eyes, and so on. He is currently harmless; it's the child you need to watch. The child will look up to you - once again we must point out, do not look it in the eye - and say you brought them a gift. Hand over your most treasured possession. It will take it, look up at you, smile benignly and thank you politely, then tear or smash the item to pieces with inhuman strength. Smile. For the love of your soul, do not protest. Smile at the child, and keep smiling as it takes your hand. The guardian will nod at you and reenter the office, still shifting form as he does. Turn around, back into the main mall.

The mall looks a little different now. The lights are made of human bones and skulls, glowing a sickly phosphorescent green, just enough to see by. The walls drip stinking blood, and the floor feels as if it is breathing under your feet. You will notice that everyone you pass is turning slowly into something horrible, each one different and each more hideous than the last. Do not respond. Smile at them if they look at you, apologize if you bump into them, and generally act as if they are normal humans. Some of them are; the people who were in the mall are still normal humans, seeing no difference in their surroundings, thinking they are going about their normal business, their metamorphosis pure illusion. Others, however, actually are monsters, losing the illusions which made them seem human. There is no way to tell which is which, and you must not waste your energy trying. Find a shopping cart, there should be one nearby. Do not be put off by the fact that it is made of rotting bones. The child will hand over a scroll of human skin. Take the child's hand in your left hand, and enter the stores one by one.

Follow the list the child gave you. Parts of it are written in incomprehensible hieroglyphs, but then so are all the labels on the boxes and packages. Match them up closely. Other parts of the list are in your own mother tongue, but they tell only complex riddles to describe which item to take. Be careful; one hieroglyph looks much like another, but you take the wrong box even once, you will be devoured by what comes out of it. Examine every shelf in every store, make sure you get everything. Don't worry too much about how long you take. You have all the time in the world, though we advise that you work fast enough that you will still be in condition to drive when you get out.

As you work, the child will jabber nonsensical words continually in an increasingly shrill voice and run back and forth, jerking your arm until your shoulder feels close to dislocation. Every time you stop, it will dart forward and scatter items from the cart on the floor. Pick them up with your right hand - do not release the child's hand for even a moment, pay no heed to the agonizing cold of its hands or its wild struggles. Do not show any anger. Smile indulgently at the child's antics. If you express any emotion other than adoration toward it, it will scream for its brothers and sisters, which are the real monsters among the mutating shoppers, and if you are familiar with the other Holders you should by now have a pretty fair idea of what they will do to you.

Scour each shop for every item on the list - you can only enter each store once, so make sure you have read the full list and checked every item in the store. Check off the items on the list as you go, if you can do so one-handed. When you have finished with each one, approach the checkout clerk at the front. The clerks are even more monstrous than the shoppers, and you may feel your mind bending in a futile attempt to comprehend them. Remain resolute. They will glance at your items and tell you a price, and then the child will hold out the silk purse in the hand you are not holding. Place your right hand in the purse without releasing the child's other hand or taking the purse from it, and dig around for the correct change by feel only. This is even harder than it sounds, even though the currency is of the usual mint of the country you are in; every coin but one in the purse has had its edges chipped and sharpened to razor-fineness. Ignore the mess they will inevitably make of your fingers, do not allow your smile to fade. do not remove any money other than the correct change from the purse, and certainly do not remove the normal-feeling one, or the coins will all fly out at you sharp-edge first, eventually leaving your body in pieces. Should this happen, your flesh will be devoured by the demons, each piece still conscious for every second of digestion, and the discs left of your bones will become more coins for the next Seeker to handle. Hand the money to the clerk when you find it, making sure each coin is well-smeared with your blood, and say, "So shall I shed more blood before this is done, and do it with a will to reach my goal." As you do this, each clerk will nod and fade into nothingness, smiling, insofar as you can tell with their mutilated faces.

When you have found the last item on the unbearably long list, the writing will fade from the scroll. If you exit the last store having missed even one item, the list will burn to ashes, taking the building and every real human still there with it, and leaving you to suffer perpetually in the pain of the fire and your own rage at yourself for your failure. If you succeeded, head for the front doors. As you come within sight of the outside world, you will be confronted by the most horrible creature yet. If you can bear to look at it without screaming, which would alert the rest of the beasts and call them to feed on you, you may notice that rags of a blue suit hang from its misshapen form. This is the true appearance of the Holder's guardian, its transformation complete. The Holder will release your hand at this point, run forward, and hug the monster. Let it do so, and make sure that you do not lose your smile. Push the cart forward for the beast's inspection. It will nod, and say, "Do you have the change?"

Politely ask the child to hand you the silk purse. It will do so. Dig around in the purse, laughing and talking as you do so - we recommend you comment on the fabulous deals you found at the stores. Scoop all the coins except for the one with no sharp edges into your hand, but don't remove your hand from the purse yet. Mutter about how the last few pennies seem to be caught in the lining. Keep making rummaging motions with your hand in the purse and talk absentmindedly until the thing clears its throat impatiently.

Hurl the money into its face and scream as loud as you can, "Is this a fair trade to keep them at bay?" Run toward the doors before it recovers; make sure you still have hold of the purse. The child will follow you. Push it to the ground and leave it, throw yourself out through the front door, and get away as fast as possible. You will hear the screams of the child as you go; it has failed in its duty, and its kin are exacting their revenge. Do not be tempted to look back, however heartrending - or satisfying - you may find the sound, or you will see what the "child" really looks like, and none who have seen it have remained sane long enough to describe it.

Drive until the next sunrise - do not stop, whatever you may see outside the car, and keep your doors and windows locked. As soon as it is fully light, pull over. Open the purse. In it, there will be one final coin left over. Take it, hide it, and burn the purse to ashes. Get some first aid for your hands, and then get some sleep.

The coin looks like any other coin of the country you are in (a dollar, a pound, a Euro) but the markings on it are of an unknown civilization, and the face it bears is that of an elven creature. When placed under the tongue it gives the gift of languages. The coin is said to also grant the gift of understanding the languages of animals as well as humans. The coin is even able to translate written languages, including ciphers. The language of the Objects themselves is immune to the coin.

The coin is Object 195 of 2538. Be prepared to pay the price for your prize.