Object 343

The Holder of Servitude

In any city, in any country, go to any out-of-the-way nursing home, making sure that you get there after 11:00 PM. The sign out front will say that visiting hours are over, but the door will be unlocked. When you reach the front desk, ask the receptionist to tell "The Old Maid" that you're ready to play. The receptionist will probably act surprised, as if she were unsure that she heard correctly, and will ask you to repeat yourself. This, too, is a trap. You mustn't tell this woman anything else other than, "She's expecting me." If you say anything else, anything at all, the receptionist will forcibly lead you to a room with one of the most dangerous tenants of the home, who will torture and kill you.

If you answer correctly, then after a few moments of disappointed silence you will be led down a long series of hallways, with slightly open doors lining each side. Inside the rooms will be elderly men and women, sitting by the window, watching television, listening to music, or in some other way trying to ease their monotony. As you look, they will try to meet your gaze. If you lock eyes with even one of them for an instant, they will run toward the door with unnatural speed, flinging it open and dragging you inside to join the horrors that were a second ago obscured.

Around 11:20, you will reach the end of the labyrinth, and you will come to a door different from the others. It will be locked with a large padlock. The receptionist will put a twisted little key in the lock and leave in a hurry. It is now up to you whether or not to open the door and continue your visit; however, leaving now would likely be disastrous, as every door you passed will now be wide open, and they will be waiting for you. The key will seem to stick in the lock, caught on something, stubbornly refusing to turn. Keep trying until it opens; it won't break, no matter how much pressure you put on it.

Inside, the room is complex, yet simple. The otherwise plain walls are lined with long and seemingly endless lines of text. If you had the time to read them, you would have seen that they contain the rules of every game ever played, and every game ever to be made. They contain poems of heroics and bravery, laments of cowardice and betrayal, as well as a code of rather specific loyalty in a small space off in the far corner. But you haven't time; the game has already begun.

Sitting at a plain table in the middle of the room are two chairs, a deck of cards, and what appears to be a young woman. The only proof that she would be anything but is her hair; it is the color of moonlight and covers one side of her face. When she speaks, her voice will be quiet and ancient, finally revealing that she is "The Old Maid", and the Holder that you've come to bargain with. She will invite you to sit, as she shuffles up the deck in preparation.

You will seat yourself at the table, in the chair across from her. She will deal you a hand, but every card will be terrible to read. They hold crimes, tortures, atrocities more ghastly than you can conceive of. It will be all you can do to even hold them, and you must play with them.

Check the time. It will be 11:30. Your time is shorter than you know, and the game is Old Maid. Only in this game, you have to find the maid, and failure results in the personal realization of every horror you hold in your hands. The woman before you will read you like a book, puzzling out your every move, and tell innocent little stories to stall for time. You have 'til midnight to find the one card in the deck that is your salvation. If you find it, it is most likely you will find it close to the last stroke of midnight, just before your time is up. The card itself shows the woman seated across from you, but the card depicts a hairless, haggard crone, save for a young and beautiful patch of skin located where the younger incarnation's hair now falls. Look up, and the young vision in front of you will shrivel, dry, and crack into dust.

Hold the card tightly, and run. You have very little time to exit the building, which will ring with maddening screams, all screaming your name, all accusing you of abandoning them, and all coming closer. If you can make it back through the labyrinth fast enough, you must flee from the building and run until you can no longer see the front door, the windows, or the horror behind them. When you are finally safe, you may look once again at the card you've hopefully held onto this whole time. It shows "The Old Maid", young again, hair pulled behind her ears to reveal the dry skin and empty eye socket you couldn't see earlier. On the back of the card is more of the writing from the room, spelling out a contract of service for a "live-in maid". You must sign it quickly, or you will find yourself standing back outside the nursing home at 11:00 PM, but with no chance of success.

From this day forward, after signing the contract, you will hear a quiet, ancient voice telling you the truth of any subject you ask it.

The voice is Object 343 of 2538. Don't lose the card, or the voice and your hopes will disappear forever.