The Seeker tells the story of a man who, more or less spontaneously, embarks on a journey that will change his life forever. He will know what the Holders really are, or at least that's what he thinks he'll do.

Chapter 1: The Dare

In any city, in any country, go to any mental institution or halfway house you can get yourself to. When you reach the front desk, ask to visit someone who calls himself "The Holder of the End". Should a look of childlike fear come over the worker's face, you will then be taken to a cell in the building. It will be in a deep, hidden section of the building. All you will hear is the sound of someone talking to themselves echoing throughout the halls. It is in a language that you will not understand, but your very soul will feel unspeakable fear.

Should the talking stop at any time, STOP and QUICKLY say aloud, "I'm just passing through, I wish to talk." If you still hear silence, flee. Leave; don't stop for anything, sleeping wherever your body drops. You will know in the morning if you've escaped successfully.

If the voice in the hall returns after you utter those words, continue on. Upon reaching the cell, all you will see is a windowless room with a single man huddled in the corner, still talking endlessly and cradling something. The man will only respond to one question: "What happens when they all come together?"

The man will then stare intently into your eyes and answer your question in horrifying detail. Many go mad in their cell; others disappear soon after the encounter, and still others end their lives. But most do the worst thing, and look upon the object in the person's hands. You, too, will be tempted. Be warned that if you do, your death will be one of cruelty and unrelenting horror.

Your death will be in that room, by that person's hands.

That Object is 1 of 2538. They must never come together. Never.

"They must never come together. Nevaaah!"

Dave let a slightly disgusted expression run on his face, as his colleague, Justin, kept acting on that ominous "Never". The other two workers, instead, were laughing openly, which encouraged Justin to offer them his most dramatic renditions of the warning. One of them hinted at Dave, who was looking down on them with the expression of those who watch some little kids as they jump and run in the mud.

"Come on, Dave, just look at him! He's going completely cr..."

And then the sentence got interrupted by another burst of laughter as Justin pulled another tragic/comic "Never". Dave made a dismissing nod with his hand, and tried to put an end to this madness.

"Okay, okay, enough fun. Now let's get back to work! It's almost twenty to five and we still have to finish three articles and a couple of reviews. Come on, come on, everyone!"

The men protested with a friendly "Boo!", but left the chairs they had brought around Justin's desk and headed back to their respective offices. One of them cried out loud "Never!" right before exiting the door, which was welcomed by another burst of laughter, and Justin standing up and replying while posing as the Hulk. The others laughed again and finally left Justin's office; all but Dave, who had stayed in his place next to the window, leaning against it and looking down on Justin.

When everybody was out, Justin closed the door, and talked to Dave as he went back to his chair. He knew he could talk in a confidential tone with him; they had known each other for sixteen years, since university, and they had co-founded the company more than six years ago. He was in charge of that place as much as Dave was, despite being much like the "good cop" in the eyes of mostly everyone around there.

"Come on, don't be angry like that. You gotta relax, man. We're on schedule and the guys can really use a bit of comradery."

"It's not the comradery, Justin. I'm the first one to appreciate a friendly workplace and a relaxed atmosphere 'round here."

"Then what bothers you? We were just having a laugh! What's wrong with that?"

"Justin, the next time you want to shower the guys with some fun, pick a webcomic at random, print out its whole archive and pin the strips on every exposed piece of wall! Or write 'Who's on second' on the whiteboard. But don't, ever, again, set up a sort of scare show like you did today!"

"But why not?"

"Because..." Dave stopped talking for a second or so, "... because. It's not the good kind of humor. It's not even humor. It's just being silly. Eighth graders do that kind of thing."

"But it's not horror! It's what they call a 'Creepypasta'. Someone wasted a quarter out of his life to write this short scary story, so that we can be a little less bored during our long office days."

"Well, people have also spent quarters to draw comics, or to write jokes, or to develop games!"

"Come on, Dave... won't you bet this upset because you... are scared?"

Dave was going to reply, but didn't. Instead, he looked at Justin and smiled, then walked to the door.

"I know what you're trying to do. You won't play chicken with me!"

"I'm not playing chicken. I'm just saying you are afraid that one of your employees might get in trouble if they follow the instructions in a scary story."

"Oh, puh-lease! I'm not that idiot!"

"What do you mean?"

"Nobody would ever believe those stories! They're pure fantasy, and everybody with a brain will tell you so!"

As he finished his sentence, Dave grabbed the door's knob and opened it wide, as usual. Justin caught the moment and said out loud: "Then you're saying you would have no problem going to an asylum and asking for the Holder of the End, am I right?"

All the guys in the room had instinctively turned their attention to the door when Dave came out, so Justin's words managed to reach their intended audience. Dave rapidly thought that his position didn't allow for losing a game of chicken, and that was definitely what Justin was playing. Heck, he told him a million times, "let's be easy-going with the buys but let's maintain a little bit of distance". They were still "the boss", after all. With his usual savoir faire, Dave replied without turning to Justin, "Then you're saying you would have no problem coming with me, am I right?"

The joke had apparently choked the conversation, but Justin came at the threshold of the room and replied, "Well, you're the boss!"

When they heard this, a couple of the employees in the room chuckled behind their computers. Dave noticed it and only gave a wink to his partner. He then entered his office and closed the door. Nobody saw him again that day: he was known to stay at work 'til late, and when Justin was the last one to leave the office Dave only cried a "bye" without even opening the door. Justin knew he was upset for losing a fight, if verbal, in front of his employees. He'd be okay the next day.

Chapter 2: The Seeker

The night was warm. A waning moon was shedding some light over the small part that surrounded the asylum. There was a continuous noise, a mix between the crickets' chant and the sound of the trees' branches waving in the light wind.

Dave had been standing, leaning against the front of his Focus, for almost forty minutes. He had already smoked five cigarettes. He was not a smoker, or rather, he had given up smoking about two years ago; but he was nervous, as he had never been before. He was starting to question his choice of the institution. In the last half-hour he had see only one car speeding on the road that coasted the park; it was probably one of those guys who want to enjoy a nice sprint with their sporty car, well aware of the fact that the police rarely patrolled that straight. The story talked about "any" asylum. There was no reason to pick this one. They lied when they called it "Bellevue". He was now seriously wondering why he didn't pick some asylum in the middle of a busy downtown.

He lit another cigarette and promised himself it was the last one.

"I'll go in when it finishes. I should savor it," he thought. He hadn't paid any attention to the previous ones. He just breathed them in, without even noticing that he was actually throwing semi-lit cigarette butts in a grass lawn. To think he was the one responsible for his company's safety measures! Luckily, the dew had covered the grass in a copious layer of droplets, which choked the butts before they could ignite.

Dave was going over his entrée once again, as he smoked. He had the whole scene completely figured in his head, even though he knew that it wouldn't be as he anticipated it, which would screw up his plans. Nothing ever goes as you expect it. But he was too nervous to improvise...

The cigarette was almost over. As he prepared to take the last breath of it, he repeated to himself his journalist's identity: Mike O'Connor, Washington Post. It doesn't get much simpler. He repeated to himself that there was nothing that could be screwed up. He read the story one last time, trying to visualize the various parts, the voice in an unknown language, the question to ask, the horrific answer to it, and don't ever look at the object in his hands. And then, of course, the chance that the echoing voice in the unknown language stops. The words to say. The run away, just in case...

He tried to recover, and prepare for the undertaking. He was about to drop the cigarette as he did before, when he noticed the butts in the grass.

"Wow, what've I done. I didn't even notice," he thought, as he threw the butt between his fingers into the concrete path. "This must be my lucky day."

He walked down the path toward the front door. He was trying to repeat his debut phrase to himself, but all he could hear inside his head was "I hope it is".

The Bellevue Mental Institution was a small eighteenth-century two-story place, with a front section and two parallel wings at the opposite ends of the main building, which gave it an H-shape. Dave pushed the doorbell button, and the front door's lock zapped open.

As he entered the room, he was pleased to enter in a well-lit environment. The hall was bathed in a white light, just strong enough to give you a detailed vision, but not so much that it would hurt your eyes. The overall feeling was one of calm and serenity. It was probably this way to sooth the patients' troubled minds. In fact, there were almost no signs nor pictures on the walls, and only a couple of gray benches were breaking the plain simplicity of the corridors that extended on both sides of the hall. In front of the door, a large staircase with marble steps surrounded a modern counter, with four windows in it. On top of the windows, a large sign read "Reception". Dave crossed the hall with calm steps, and headed for the only open window.

A white-dressed young woman was waiting for him behind the glass. She put aside a sheet she was writing on and smiled at Dave.

"Good evening, sir. May I help you?"

"Yes. Yes, you can," Dave's voice showed a bit of nervousness. He breathed in, and tried to make it look natural. "My name is Jack O'Connor, and I work for the Washington Post. I'm here for a reportage."

Dave cursed himself for saying his alias wrong. He had gone over it since he left home, and now he said another name. What was it? John, maybe? It was J... J something. John, Jack, Josh, J... The voice of the young woman snapped him out of his reflection, but he hadn't listened to her. He tried to conceal his embarrassment as he begged her pardon and asked her to repeat.

"I said, 'a reportage about what?' All of our records are regularly submitted to the State Healthcare System, so I'm sure you can get all the stats you need from them."

The voice of the clerk was kind, delicate, and she smiled after saying that sentence, but Dave felt like his façade was starting to wear.

"I'm sure you do, miss! But I'm not here for that kind of reportage. I'm here to give the readers a more in-depth view of the mental institutions. I'd like to provide them with a new point of view on the patients you take care of and their status. And I'm also here for something more... spicy, may I say. Something that I'm sure will get the attention of our readers."

Dave paused as he got closer to the glass. He hated to improvise, unless there was nothing at stake. But he had to recover, and he thought he had succeeded: the woman's look showed a good share of curiosity for the work of this reporter. After a few moments, she timidly said under her breath: "May I ask you... what is it?"

Dave leaned even closer, as to whisper into her ear, as if he was to share some secret.

"You see, I'd really love to meet one of your patients. I've heard a lot about him. He calls himself... the Holder of the End, if I'm not wrong."

As the woman heard those words, her face changed immediately. The seduced look left her eyes, and an expression of disillusion replaced it. The clerk, who had almost held her breath as Dave had been speaking, let her shoulders fall down, in a motion that showed she had identified another crazy guy.

"Please wait for a minute, sir," she said as she smiled at Dave. "I'll let the director handle this himself."

"Wait, please." Dave rushed to block her before she left. He knew that the story specified that the worker at the front desk was to accompany him to the Holder's cell.

"I'm sorry, sir. It is the director himself who deals with this kind of request. He'll be here in a minute."

The woman was still smiling, though Dave could tell it was not the same kind of smile she gave him at the beginning. He couldn't but accept.

Dave found himself alone in the white hall. He listened hard to catch any noise, but the only thing he could hear was the attenuated chant of the crickets and the branches waving in the soft wind outside. The atmosphere in the hall was as neutral as possible - there was no vivid color, no sound, and the whole environment was made as insignificant as possible. Even the temperature in the room was set so that you felt neither hot nor cold. Everything was studied to give as little input as possible. It was probably to prevent the patients from getting mad at anything, which could be very dangerous at times. But the absence of anything made Dave nervous. His waiting seemed to him much longer than it was. He would have really appreciated a painting to look at, or a sign to read, or some music to listen to. Even that boring, repetitive music they play in supermarkets would have done the job. Anything to distract him from thinking of what the director would do when they met.

After a while, the young woman and the director entered the room together. Dave was relieved in seeing that the director was alone, which meant he wasn't intentioned to drag him into a room for treatment. The director was wearing a white gown, and had a few keys that ringed in his pocket as he walked. When Dave saw them, he approached them slowly. He produced his hand, and the director shook it.

"Nice to meet you, Mr... O'Connor. I have a brother who is a long-time reader of the Post. I, myself, have too little time for non-medical readings these days."

"Then I guess that's why I don't get a raise. If only medical pros could relax a bit with our news..." Dave smiled as he said this. He tried to avoid laughing.

"I'm sure that must be it," the director replied with a smile. Then he dismissed the woman, who left the room in the direction they came from.

The director nodded at a couple of armchairs, and invited Dave to sit there with him. As soon as they were seated, the doctor started to talk quietly. "I've heard you have a special interest in a patient of mine."

Dave gulped. "Then you confirm that man is in your institution?"

"Don't make fun of me, Mr. O'Connor. You knew you'd find him, otherwise, you wouldn't be here now."

Dave gulped again. He was trying to appear as calm as possible, while giving at the same time the important look of the fearless reporter. He recognized this was what Justin had done the day before, and he had to admit to himself that that strategy was the one that had put him into this situation.

"Let me tell you that I have no idea of who those people are," the doctor went on. "Nor do I intend to find out. They were here when I was hired, and I want to keep my soul as distant from them as possible."

"Why is he using the plural? Won't he mean that..." Dave thought to himself.

"I'm actually not sure where they are, exactly, if I have to be completely honest," the director said. "I guess we'll have to find out now. If you still wish to."

Dave decided he'd ask. After all, he was being a genuinely curious reporter.

"What do you mean, 'they'?"

"Never mind. I have to ask you two questions. Who have you come for, and are you still intentioned to meet him?"

"I've come for the one who calls himself 'The Holder of the End'. And as to your second question..." Dave hesitated for a second, then continued. "Yes, I want to meet him."

The director smiled and nodded his head. He then stood up and took the keys out of his pocket; he picked one of them. It was completely black, without any hole in it, as if it wasn't supposed to be put in a keyring. He put the other keys back in his pocket and invited Dave to follow him. The director opened a completely white door, that melted in the white wall so well that Dave hadn't even noticed it before.

As they went down a ladder, Dave was trying to sort the confusion in his mind. The director didn't seem shivering with a "childlike fear", and the story didn't tell anything about the conversation he just had. Who were "they"? Was he referring to the 538? Did that mean that they were all in the same place? "That" place? Well, the story hinted at "any" institution. It was also possible that it could mean "always the same". Or maybe the 538 were not really...

His reasoning had to stop suddenly. A voice was starting to be heard. It was just a humming chant of sort, a monotonous sequence of incomprehensible words. Dave felt a sudden shiver penetrating into the middle of his bones. He tried to look around for a distraction, and he noticed the ambiance was not the neutral one he saw in the hall. His mental wanderings made him lose track of the rooms they had went through; he didn't recall a level floor though, all he could remember was going down the staircase they were in now. It had been a while since they left the white hall, but he couldn't put his finger on how long it had been. The walls were now black, with wooden pillars running vertically and offering the only diversity in an otherwise empty room. At roughly two meters from the steps there were some wooden decorations, the sort of frieze that you often see in an eighteenth-century building.

Dave was trying to be as rational as possible. The staircase looked old, though pretty solid. The steps were intact, and there were webs under the steps, but the upper side of them, the one you walk on, was free from dust and any dirt. It was as though the staircase had been unused for decades and yet as though it was walked on frequently. But the director said that he had never gone to a Holder's cell since he had been at this place...

Was the director to be trusted? How could he be so calm if it was the first time he was doing this? But, on second thought, the story didn't talk about any danger for the asylum worker. Maybe there was some kind of magical seal that prevented the worker from being harmed.

The staircase ended in a small room, with a single door. The director reached the door and put the key in the lock, but didn't turn it. Instead, he waited for Dave to come next to him.

"There is no turning back from here on. Are you aware of that?"

Dave took a moment for himself before replying. He tried to look up, above his head, to see how deep underground he was. He couldn't understand it: there was a feeble light coming from a couple of rounds above the floor they were on, as if it came from the white hall, but it was evident that there were more than two rounds of stairs. He was pretty sure he had walked down at least four levels, but above the line of light there was only darkness.

"I am aware. Turn that key," Dave said with the strongest voice he could make.

"You know, I've never been in front of a Holder. But I've read the notes I've been given. One thing I know about the Holders, they can read into the depths of your soul. They will abide to all the rules that have been set, but they demand this of who goes in front of them, too. They can't stand lies."

"I understand," said Dave.

"Before entering, tell me your name. The REAL one, 'reporter'."

Dave was shocked to hear that, but he couldn't say a word. Maybe he was just bluffing. But why would he? He had no interest in that. Now that he thought about it, Dave remembered that the director hadn't introduced himself. Well, the fake identity was only a way to protect himself from being committed... and now that was beyond the field of possibility.

"I am Dave. Dave Sebring."

The director smiled.

"Sebring? Like the racing circuit, Sebring?"

"Yeah. That's what people say every time."

"Well... at least... should you run..."

"Stop it. And turn that key."

"Okay, okay. Now beware, we're going in. Do you remember what to say?"

"I'm ready. Turn that key."

"It's open already."

The director pushed the door, which opened lightly. The monotonous chant got louder; Dave felt the shivers again. As the director was moving toward the threshold, Dave remembered his curiosity about the director's name. The director noticed Dave was going to speak; he turned to him and only said: "From now on, there has to be silence. Speak only when requested, and only the words you've been taught. This is no joke. We're going in, Seeker."

Dave nodded. The director invited him to lead; he went on to the threshold. As the shivers got colder, he took a last breath, and finally stepped in.

Chapter 3: The Holder of the End

There was no noise whatsoever. The only sound in the room was the monotonous chant of the Holder; its words made no sense to Dave, and he actually couldn't tell when a word finished and when a new one began. He knew he wasn't supposed to understand the words; he knew it was supposed to be an incomprehensible language; he knew. His heartbeat was getting faster and faster; yet he could not hear it. The chant seemed to defy physics; despite being much lighter in the staircase, it wasn't getting louder as they walked down the place. It was almost like those rooms with loudspeakers at every corner, only here there were no amplificators nor loudspeakers. The voice was genuine, though it definitely had little humanity in it.

The scarce lighting was not enough for Dave to make out the details of the room. He could feel he was in a large room, a square room, whose side was a few meters long. Ten, at most, but probably less than that. He noticed a couple of small lightbulbs in the opposite corners, a few centimeters below the ceiling. He didn't recall the director turning any light on, though. The bulbs shed just enough light to see the exit door on the left side of the room; but, as the director was heading toward it, Dave's attention was caught by the wall in front of the door.

The wall was completely covered by tiny holes. At first glance, Dave thought of the bullets of firing squads, but those holes were smaller. He got closer and looked at them; they were very small, with a diameter of about one or two millimeters. There were a lot of them: tens and tens, maybe a few hundred. They were in no particular order, they didn't form a grid, there was no pattern whatsoever. He was leaving the wall when he noticed that in the upper-right part there was a nail. That's when he understood what those holes were for, yet he couldn't understand why there were so many holes and just one nail. The nail was bent near the tip; the feeble light projected by the lightbulbs cast a wrinkled shadow on the wall.

Dave turned to the director, who was waiting for him next to the door. As much as he wanted to ask him about the holes and the nail, he knew he couldn't say a word in that place. The director gave him a sympathetic look; Dave thought his escort was expecting him to take some time, as to delay the meeting. It was clear, by now, that the meeting couldn't be avoided.

The chant had continued, uninterrupted. It had always been monochord, flat, without any variations, devoid of any emotions or any signs that showed the Holder was aware of Dave's presence. It was as if they were still in a different place, where the Holder had no effect on them. Yet it was nothing like that: Dave's head was getting numb, his reasoning skills were dimmed, but his instinct was somehow unaffected.

The director opened the door, and Dave stepped through it. This time the chant didn't get any louder, as though the door had no sound-deadening power. He found himself in another room, much larger than the previous one. This one was scarcely lit, too, but he could distinguish a triangular shape of sort, with the base behind his back and the tip pointing forward. As he stepped further to let the director in, though, he looked back at the door, and noticed the wall formed an angle, with the door on the vertex. Dave was sure there had been no corridor between the square room and this new one. It was physically impossible that the two rooms were on the opposite sides of the same, thin wall.

As he thought about this, he felt he had to sit down. He was starting to lean to sit on the ground, but as soon as he did the director held his hand and pulled him. Dave was confused; his head was starting to feel empty, because of the tension, and the chant. The director gave him a look that showed his comprehension for Dave's feelings. To him, it looked like the director had a fair degree of experience in dealing with the Seeker and his second thoughts. But Dave was not having any second thoughts: more than anything else, he was confused, tired, as if he had been suffering for hours, days, months, even. He felt no pain, at least not as he would usually think of pain. The chant was starting to crumple his soul, slowly, in a non-noticeable way. His head was getting heavy, as if the only thing that caused him pain was thinking. Dave chose not to try and rationalize anymore; he looked into the director's eyes and expressed silently his decision to go on.

As the two men walked across the triangular room, Dave felt the pain grow stronger. He tried to free his head, to get rid of all those questions and doubts, but the horrible anxiety he was feeling gave him no relief. As he reached the door, the director glanced at him for a last confirmation. It was incredible that the director was apparently so calm... it was like the Holder's chant was not there for him. Dave nodded and the director opened the door.

In front of them, the Holder was kneeling, turning his back to the two visitors, hiding himself in a corner.

Dave suddenly reviewed the story. He got there, in the windowless room, and the Holder of the End was in fact cuddling something. It was the first time he recalled that the chant hadn't stopped, which he took as a good omen. He tried to convince himself that the only thing that could go wrong was not a problem anymore; but in that same moment, the feeling of crumpling got more intense, almost forcing him to emit a desperate moan. Without realizing, he held it back; only much later he would remember how dangerous it might have been, considering the director's warning not to make any sound other than the words specified in the story.

A doubt went through his mind. The story said the Holder would react as expected only to that precise question, and the director confirmed that. But he suddenly wondered whether the story was correct. What if the question in the story was wrong? How could he be sure that the Holder would not kill him at those words? As it was unusual for him when put in front of a choice, he went through his decision-making routine; but, as soon as he tried to analyze, the pain in his soul pierced his spine. He stopped for a second, closed his eyes, took a breath, and then decided to focus on the Holder, on the question, and nothing else.

The chant was still filling the air. That room was definitely in an alternate reality. Dave thought: it was like the laws of physics didn't belong in there. A place dominated by immaterial forces, by untouchable mysteries, where the soulless syllables of the Holder's chant replaced the rules of time and space, now reduced to a meaningless void. Dave looked back for a second, hoping the director's presence could help him get a glimpse of reality; but there was nobody behind him. The door had remained open, but the director had stayed out of the room.

Just as he turned his head away, the chant stopped.


Dave recovered.

"I'm just passing through!" He paused. "I wish to talk!"

His words echoed in the room, but Dave couldn't hear them. He stopped breathing. He was looking straight at the Holder, who was still facing away from him. Dave only noticed the Holder had stopped rocking his arms. The little man was frozen in his corner. Dave waited. For just a small fraction of time.

He knew what he had to do. If the chant hadn't returned. In a few moments.

The Holder relaxed his stance and started rocking his arms again. In a moment, he took on his change again. It took a while for Dave to breathe again. As his blood pressure and his adrenaline levels were getting back to normal, he felt a few words from the Holder. He didn't hear them. They went directly into his mind. The Holder's voice, devoid of any feeling, was telling him that only the Seeker stands in front of the Holder. Only the Seeker asks the question.

Only the Seeker gets the answer.

"The answer," Dave thought. That was the only thing that could get him out of there. That was the only thing worth focusing on. As he realized that, he noticed the painful embrace of the chant had conceded a little relief. For a moment he felt calm, relaxed, as he had never been since he crossed the white door on top of the staircase. He focused on the Holder's head, still turned away from him. He knew he had not to look at the Holder's hands.

Dave gulped for a last time. He spoke the words without repeating them mentally once again. He knew that would screw it all up.

"What happens when they all come together?"

Dave was going to add "Holder" at the end of the phrase. His education and his business experience made him speak to people by addressing them with their name or their title, out of respect. He remembered, and he stopped talking. As he thought about that, he felt the grasp in his soul once again.

But that was just for a second. Immediately the Holder started turning to Dave, slowly, without stopping the chant. Dave fixed his eyes on the Holder's hair, that was at such a height that allowed him to ignore the Holder's hands. A few moments later the little man had turned completely, facing him.

Dave didn't even see what his interlocutor looked like. He kept focusing strictly on his eyes. The only things he saw were a gray skin, as that of a very old man; a thin nose, which barely divided his black eyes; and a thin line of almost white hair running through his forehead. The Holder had no eyebrows, but his eyes were so deep that it almost wasn't noticeable.

As he looked into those eyes, Dave noticed they were so black there was no distinction between the pupil and the iris. But the chant was slowly getting louder, and the pupils gave some mysterious reflexes, as if they were shining from the inside. Dave focused his stare into the Holder's pupils, as his adrenaline and the tension in his muscles made his body as stiff as a wooden statue.

After a while, he had to blink. And when he opened his eyes again, he wasn't looking at the windowless room anymore. He was having a vision. He was having the answer.

Just like a few moments before, he realized he wasn't listening to the answer, nor was he seeing it. He was feeling it. It was like the Holder of the End, this little man that Dave's mortal eyes were staring at so obstinately, it was like he was pouring the answer directly into the Seeker's mind. Dave's senses were vanquished, and yet they were excited at their maximum. He was in a trance, yet completely aware, yet unable to react, yet so firmly in control. His vision was clear, full of elusive images, and incredibly detailed. It was like nothing he had experienced before. His intellect was refusing it, it was fighting what was in front of it; but it was like behind an unbreakable glass, a helpless observer. His heart was torn by the horrid forecast he was having, and yet it was calm, uncomplaining in front of the unavoidable end.

That was it. The Holder stopped chanting, and Dave came round again. In an instinctive reaction, he blinked and tilted his head down; he realized and looked up again, before opening his eyes for good. The Holder stopped looking at him and started to stare in the empty air in front of him, as he started chanting again.

It was a quiet chant, much similar to the one Dave had heard through the first rooms. It was not the mysterious voice that communicated with him during the vision. Everything was over.

Dave understood it was time for him to leave. The Holder was still gazing blankly, still rocking the Object in his arms. Dave knew it was the last risk he should not take that day; he turned his back and stood still for a moment. Hearing that the chant was continuing quietly, he headed for the door, calmly walking out of the room. As he crossed the threshold, he heard the Holder was turning away, back to his corner. Dave closed the door and met the director outside.

As they walked back across the two rooms, Dave didn't say a word. He didn't even look at the director; he kept his head low, as if he was focusing on his steps. The director took the key he had left in the first door, and invited Dave to follow him up the stairs. In a minute, they reached the white hall of the asylum.

The director led Dave into his office. As soon as he got there, Dave's look got a bit less empty. When they entered the office, the young woman who was at the reception stood up. Her hand was clearly hiding a sort of gun. Dave noticed that.

"Please, Ms. Roberts, would you leave us alone for a second? Mr. O'Connor here would like to take some final notes with me."

"Do you still need anything from me?" her voice was a bit wound-up.

"No, thanks, Ms. Roberts. I think I won't need any service from you today. Your shift ended ten minutes ago, you're free to go, if you wish."

The young woman thanked the doctor and left the office. The director showed Dave an armchair, and invited him to sit. Once again, they sat in front of each other. After a few moments, Dave took his head between his hands, and started crying.

The director comforted him quietly. When Dave stopped crying, he got closer and talked to him: "Mr. Sebring, if you allow me. Take some time to calm down, if you need it. Then there's something I'd like to show you."

Chapter 4: The Others

"Here, Mr. Sebring. Come this way."

The director took the corridor on the left. A few steps behind him. Dave was having troubles keeping his pace. He was still shocked because of... well, because of everything. Less than half an hour ago, he was in a completely different world. He was quite convinced he'd be interned for even asking of the Holder, or at least they would laugh at him for believing such an absurd story. You have to be crazy to give credit to that.

Dave had stayed in the room with the Holder for a little less than a minute, according to the director. The vision had probably taken just a few seconds, a fugitive moment perhaps; but it had been by far the longest moment in Dave's life. He was still having some difficulty believing what he had experienced: the rational side of his mind was slowly trying to take the control again, but the horror of the Holder's prophecy was just too vivid. Even worse, Dave was well aware that his mind had already been broken into pieces way before meeting that little man. Even though he couldn't feel that influence anymore, he couldn't get out of his head the awful sensation of the chant that crumpled his soul. He had been feeling a sort of mental suffocation, as though all that was supposed to survive that experience was his body, and the animal rules that dictated its movement - fear, above all. Even if he hadn't really dreaded the moment he'd be in the Holder's room, he had gone there as a prey to the chant. He was not in control, at least not as much as he would have hoped. It was like the Holder had drawn Dave to him, only to show him the darkest prophecy of fear and irrationality.

The director's voice interrupted Dave's thoughts. Dave raised his head, stopped staring blankly for a second, and asked the director to repeat.

"I said we've arrived, Mr. Sebring. Now, before I let you in, just a few words of advice: Some of the people we're going to meet now are quite dangerous, for themselves and for who stands close. But don't worry, those are all in padded locked cells. The ones you'll see walking around are pacific and harmless."

Dave blinked, confused.

"Who are they? Why have you brought me here?"

"The people you'll meet now have been Seekers."

"What do you mean, they "have been"?

"You see, Mr. Sebring," the director said as he entered the corridor. "He who visits the Holder is called a Seeker. But amongst us directors there is this little convention, to call Seekers only those who visit at least two Holders."

Dave was surprised at what he saw. He expected another dark, tenebrous place, and instead, in front of him, there was yet another of those white corridors, the kind the asylum was filled with. Just like the white hall at the entrance, it was completely white, with plain walls and a relaxing, non-stimulating design.

"Why?" Dave asked.

"You are a strong man, Mr. Sebring. Your reaction in my studio showed your attitude."

"Did it? I cried. Is that your definition of 'strong'?"

"Please, Mr. Sebring, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about." The director stopped walking and turned to Dave. His voice was quiet, nothing like the cold, brisk behavior he had had to that point. "Why did you cry?"

"Well, because... because I was shocked..."

"No, you stared blankly at your feet because you were shocked. You cried for another reason."

The director showed Dave a door. It had a wooden cover on the corridor, but it was clear that it was much stronger than a wooden door. The director slowly moved a peephole and a spyglass was revealed; he looked inside and then invited Dave to do the same. Inside the room a man in a straitjacket was staring out of a small window in the opposite room; he looked quiet.

"This is Edmund. He came here saying he wanted to know what would happen if he looked at the Object of the Holder of the End. He got down there, met the Holder, and in the end, he didn't look. When we got back he tried to attack me to kill me. We had to call seven men to hold him down. Now he lives in there. If you look at him he's always staring outside, he doesn't move at all. We give him six live animals a day. We never see them again."

"...cute," said Dave with a disgusted face.

"This here, instead," said the director pointing at a man walking down the corridor, "is Greg. He used to be a pharmacist, and claimed the Holders couldn't be real. I took him there, and when I dragged him up he was completely empty. It took three years for him to walk again. Now he's totally harmless, feelingless, he has no soul nor spirit whatsoever. He doesn't see you, either. You can kick him if you wish, he won't even notice. Only, please, don't."

"No, no... I... won't."

"Mr. Sebring, I can give you the weirdest freak show you've seen so far, but it's not what I want to do here. The reason I'm showing you these people is to warn you."

"Warn me... from what? From becoming like them?"

"Sort of. You see, these people came here with a bad attitude. They somehow thought that meeting the Holder of the End would be the crisis of their life. You may know that the Ancient Greeks meant, by "crisis", a change, a moment of truth. Well, all of these failed Seekers knew in their heart they would die, or go crazy after meeting the Holder... or that anyway, their life would not be the same again.

"You are different," the director went on. "You came here and were wisely scared. But you were not desperate, or prepared for the worst. When you sat in my studio, you thought, "How will I ever be able to go on and share my life with the vision I've had?" That is why you cried. I've seen many cases, and only a few people were thinking of how to move on, what to do next. Most become obsessed with death, pain, the End they've seen in that room down there.

Dave was glad the director was talking about moving on; it was like somebody had given him the chance to wake up from the nightmare he was drowning in. He was going to thank the director for the advice, but something went through his mind all at once. A doubt, a sensation, an elusive feeling of being cheated. But the director didn't give him the time to reflect; he hinted at the exit door, and in a few seconds the two of them were out of that corridor.

"Now, Mr. Sebring," the director said as he closed the door, "do yourself a favor, go home, take a sleep. Tomorrow, you'll go to your workplace, or maybe you'll want to take a day off and bring your children to an amusement park. Do you have children, Mr. Sebring?"

The director had resumed his fast-paced walk across the asylum's corridors, and Dave could barely follow him. His breath was short and he didn't answer for a second; but the director had continued talking without waiting for the answer.

"You could build a sailing ship. You know, the wooden models, they're quite a hobby, and they keep your mind busy. But no matter what you do, try to put your mind as far as possible from this place. Far from the Holder of the End, far from the Holders at all, far from your vision." The director stopped as they had reached the hall at the entrance, and was now talking to Dave in a calm voice, looking straight into his eyes. "Move on as much as you can. You'll be fine. I can understand your state of mind now, but it will be okay. Take your time, Mr. Sebring. Take your time."

"I think... I think I will."

"I see you're feeling a bit better, but you're still shaken. Do you want me to drive you home?"

"No, thanks, Doctor. I'll be fine. I'm in a hotel not far from here, I'll be there in a few minutes."

"As you wish, Mr. Sebring." The doctor opened the door for Dave. "Accept my most sincere wishes, and my apologies for keeping you here 'til late. It's almost half-past two, and you'll be eager to go rest. Have a nice day tomorrow, sir, and don't forget what I told you. Can I trust you to take care?"

"You can, Doctor, of course. The anxiety is going away, and I'm indeed feeling better. I'll take a minute or two for a walk and then leave. I'll be all right. Thanks for everything, and good night, Doctor."

"Good night."

Dave turned to his car and walked without hurry away from that asylum. He heard the voice of the director: "And another thing, Mr. Sebring: Remember to be more cautious. You could have made a mess with your butts."

Dave halted. How could the director know of the butts? Nobody was there to see him, and the director's office looked on the inner court, not on the parking.

And then, in a moment, all of his doubts emerged and crowded his mind. Why did the director talk of the Holders, as if there were many of them? Were they actually 538, one for each Object, like the story said? And where were they? He had been shown two of the failed Seekers, and according to the director they both had met the Holder of the End; but what about the others? Where were the other Holders?

And again, why the director lied about not knowing what the Holder was like? He said he had seen many Seekers, that means he was not the first one, as the director had said before going down that staircase. And thinking about it, Dave recalled him talking of "us directors". What does that mean, that there are other directors? Do they form a... what, an association? Is the Holder in one place or in every asylum? The Holder of the End, that is, because apparently there were a lot of others.

Why did the director keep the Seekers in there? Why not kill Edmund? He was definitely a sociopath, maybe he was a crazy guy before meeting the Holder in the first place. The director said they fed him live animals, why would they do that? And "they", who? The asylum workers? The directors?

Dave turned back to the door, and saw it was closed. He thought about it for a moment and decided to go back, talk to the director and demand answers to these questions.

He rang the doorbell, but the lock didn't open as it had done when he first entered. So he knocked loudly on the door, until a young man showed up.

"Yes, sir, how can I help you?"

"May I talk to the director? There are a couple of things I wish to discuss with him."

"I'm sorry, sir," said the young man. "The director has left at 7 pm. I'll tell him you've asked of him tomorrow. Do you want to leave me your name, sir?"

Dave was astonished.

"Let it be, it's okay. It wasn't anything urgent... I'll talk to him tomorrow, thanks. Good night."

"Good night, Mr. Sebring. Go home and rest."

Dave turned to the young boy, who was smiling, as he shut the door closed.

"I'm outta here," thought Dave as he entered his car and left the asylum's parking lot.

How do you inform your challenger of your victory? By telling him the details instead of discussing the sales projections, that's how.

Justin listened to every word of Dave's story with the enchanted look of a child in a toy store. Only when his friend was finished did he speak.

"Are you saying they give that crazy guy live animals? What kind of animals?"

"I have no idea. And I don't care, honestly. I'm content enough with being here again."

"I knew you were a tough guy. Maybe I would have looked at the Object of the Holder, but you didn't. Great job!"

Dave was much less enthusiastic than Justin. He was playing around with a pen, and keeping his eyes down. Justin noticed it and his voice got more serious.

"Dave, what did the Holder tell you?"

Dave smiled and put the pen away. He joined his hands, breathed deeply, and then looked Justin right in the eyes.

"I can't tell you."

"Oh, come on! We've known each other for so long! Won't you tell me you've signed a non-disclosure agreement with a man in a padded cell?"

"No, you see, it's not that I'm not allowed, or that I don't want to; I cannot. I am actually incapable of telling you."

"What do you mean? Did you forget?"

"I wish." Dave stood up in front of the window. "It was a terrific vision, it was like I was implanted. It... it felt like the... Holder had ripped my brain open and was pouring the answer directly into it."

Justin didn't say anything. After a few seconds, Dave went on.

"I know it sounds absurd... I'm still shocked when I think of that. I can't even tell you how horrific it was. There are really no words for that. You can imagine something very, very, very... horrible, but you would still be far from what it felt like."

Dave stood silent for another second. Justin didn't speak either, so Dave continued.

"It was a prophecy of the end."

"We knew that."

"The end of the world."

Justin commented with a glance. Dave, once again, stood in silence for some moments, for a longer time. After a few minutes, Justin grabbed a ream of sheets he had brought with him, and went to the window, next to Dave.

"I know that you will probably want to go home and forget about this story for a while, but I thought you may want to know. Listen, let's put it like this: I leave this info for you in the lowest drawer of your desk," Justin said as he opened the first drawer from the bottom, "and you decide whether you want to read it or not. While you were away, I've done a bit of research."

"About what?"

"About the others, Dave."

Dave stopped staring at the window and looked at Justin. He was serious.

Chapter 5: The Choice

It had been almost two hours since Justin had left all that paper in Dave's drawer. Dave hadn't almost moved since: he sat down right after Justin left the office, and he started staring at the pen he had put aside a few minutes earlier. He spent more than an hour reviewing the night before, but he suddenly snapped out of it and remembered Justin's list.

So he had done "some research". Then what? Nice to know that while his best friend was risking his life because of that stupid dare, Justin was sitting in front of a computer doing some research. He googled. Yeah, of course, that's what Justin meant by "doing research". And then he printed that awful lot of pages, just because the company apparently grows free paper on a tree in the courtyard. What did he find that took so many pages to be written down?

The words of the director were still ringing in Dave's ears. All he had to do was forget about that story for a while. Maybe if he could manage to distract himself for a few days then the horror of that night would fade in his memory. Maybe he could get back to everyday life, and let that vision melt in the shining sun. It seemed impossible to Dave; he felt like the feeling he had experienced so vividly would never go away, never let him live a normal life again. He felt that the next time he'd kiss his wife, the next time he'd hug his kids, or the next time he'd eat some good food, every single time he would be tormented by that terrible prophecy of frightening frenzy that tore his soul apart just a few hours earlier.

And then he realized the one thing he had unconsciously denied to himself. The true reason of his adventure was not the dare. He knew he was not Marty McFly, he couldn't be tricked into doing such a thing by calling him a chicken. No, in fact, it was he who decided to go there, without any influence from whomever. And he decided to do so because he was wondering what would happen to him. He went there with a question that was not the one to ask the Holder. And that's why he grabbed the phone receiver on his desktop, dialed Justin's internal, and invited his friend into his office.

As soon as Justin sat down in front of Dave, he asked: "Who's next?"

Dave looked puzzled.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, who are we gonna visit next time?"

"I don't know, you tell me!"

"Didn't you read the documentation?"

"That pile of paper? No way! You tell me what you found out!"

"Okay, I'll show you. Can I use your computer?"

Dave invited him to sit in his chair, and Justin opened a web browser.

"See, Dave," he said, "I've found this site: Here, the stories about the 538 Holders are being collected.

Dave had been looking at the screen without saying a word. "It's a wiki, Justin. Anyone can step in and write anything he wants."

Justin smiled as if he had been expecting that remark. "True," he said. "In fact, if I click on 'Add Page', type a number that has not been occupied yet, and write gibberish, it gets in! You see, now my non-existent Holder is in the website.

"Well, they'll delete it, hopefully, because it's plain nonsense. But 'they', whoever these guys are, wouldn't delete it if it was a well-written story."

"You're right," Justin went on. "In fact, I did this experiment yesterday, and now that page is gone. After a few hours, a staff member passed by and removed my vandalism. But please, look at this one instead."

Justin's fingers ran across the keyboard to type another address: The page loaded immediately; it was identical to the homepage of the site they had just left.

"Is this a mirror?" Dave asked.

"Not quite. In fact, it almost looks like the other one is the mirror, and this is the source."

Dave looked confused. Justin clicked on "Add page" and said, with the voice of one who is packing a surprise, "Let's repeat our little experiment."

In the form that opened up, Justin input the same information he had typed at the other side. As he submitted, though, a page showed up, saying, "Your story has not been accepted." Justin stopped for a while, and waited for Dave's reaction.

After a few seconds, Dave commented, without taking his eyes off the screen. "Okay, so this site has a spam filter. It detected your random text and blocked it." He stopped for a second to look at Justin's smile, and then continued. "... But, of course, you have an answer for that. You've 'done your research'."

"Exactly. I've taken some time to write the story of a Holder."

Dave put his hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Wait a second. You're saying that, while I was facing death for your stupid dare, you were here making up horror stories?"

"Not really... not 'here'.... I was... at home... Anyway, you're losing focus. It may well be a spam filter, we said, but a plausible story would be okay, right? Let's try it here. I click 'Add page', submit my story, and...

As soon as Justin clicked the submit button, the same page as before appeared. Justin went on: "This site won't accept a story, but only THE story of each Holder." Dave's face looked confused; Justin continued. "Look at the list: there are less stories here. Probably the ones on the .org site and not available here too have been made up. It would seem that you can only add your story here if it's real."

"Probably this site is Object 538 of 538," said Dave, trying to break Justin's seriousness with a joke. "They must never be hosted together. Neveeerrrrrr!

Surprisingly, Justin didn't laugh at the joke. Dave couldn't help being knocked back at this reaction; it was one of the few times, maybe the first time, in all the years they had known each other, when his old friend was rejecting a chance to kid around. Sure, Justin had taken this situation very seriously - and this was rare enough for Dave to consider what to do.

"What would you think then, Justin? Is this site... magical, or what?"

"You see, if you ping it in order to get the IP address of the server... you get this one." Justin pointed at an IP number printed onscreen.

"Well, then?"

"Dave, see this for yourself. This IP address is the address of this computer. This very computer I'm typing on."

Dave didn't know what to say.

"Justin, are you running this website from my own computer?"

"Dave, I've done this test on the computer in my office, and on my home computer. Every time, you get your current IP address."

"And what would that mean?"

Justin hesitated. "I... I have no idea, Dave."

Thirty minutes later, Justin and Dave were sitting, in front of each other, browsing through the paper Just had brought in earlier. It was the hard copy of all the Holders stories contained in the .cc site. There were little less than 200 stories, most of which were no longer than a page. Most were formulaic, which made it easier to browse through collecting only the important information.

After a while, Dave broke the silence, put the sheet he was reading aside, and snorted. Justin stopped too, and looked at him.

"This is stupid, Justin. All of these stories put the emphasis on how the Objects must not come together. And in most cases, you go facing your death. I don't want to do this again."

Dave got off his chair, stood up, and started pacing in the office, slowly but nervously. He continued talking.

"I'm 36 and the father of two. I have a lovely and beautiful wife, to which I already lied about last night - and I lied for you! I'm not happy with what we're doing here, Justin. What are we trying to achieve? There is no point in visiting the Holders. The only ones who gain something from the Holders are the asylums, who can do their sick experiments on those derelicts who lose their minds going down there!"

Justin was listening quietly. Dave went on rambling, and concluded: "I won't risk my life in the cove of a Holder again!"

"Again, that's the point!" Just interrupted as if he had been waiting for those exact words. "Dave, you have been there, and you're here to tell about it! You're right, many have gone crazy, it's written in the story and you've witnessed it with your own eyes. But you have not! What if you were one of the few men who could gather all the knowledge about the Objects?"

Dave's look got less angry. In a quiet voice, he said: "I'm not the Seeker. Nor am I A Seeker. I have survived meeting a Holder, that's all there is to it."

"You'll survive them all, Dave! Why won't you at least try?"

Dave's voice got louder again: "Because I'm not here to risk my life for your stupid curiosity!"

A few seconds followed; the two friends exchanged some meaningful stares; their conversation went on upspoken for a little while. Then, calmly, Justin announced: "Fine. I'll go then. On my own."

"Justin, don't be stupid," said Dave in a friendly tone. "You said it yourself, you would have probably broken the rules in the room of the Holder. You would risk too much."

"Dave, I may be known for being irresponsible, but I know what I want to do, and right now I want to know more about this whole story! This very night, I'll be visiting..." he said as his hands were rummaging through the paper, "... here: the Holder of the Negative!"

"Stop being silly!" Dave tore the sheet away from Justin's hands. "You will die!"

"I won't!"

Another silent conversation took place in a few seconds between them. Then Dave roared: "Fine! I'll go visit another Holder! I will lie again to my own family, to go to another house of madness and visit another schizoid, but you have to promise that you won't leave your house tonight for any reason, got me!"

"I'll come with you."

"You will NOT! And I choose where to go, okay?"

Justin fell silent for a short moment, then murmured: "Fine! You've won."

Dave gave him no look and searched through the paper on the desk.

"Here it is, number 2, the Holder of the Beginning. Frigging sequential order, understood?"

Justin didn't say a word. Dave folded the sheet in four and put it into his pocket; then he took his jacket and his handbag, stormed through the office as the workers looked at him with discretion, and entered his car. As soon as the Focus's engine was on, it roared as the car quickly left the building.

Chapter 6: The Holder of the Beginning

Dinner that night was unusually quiet. Although Dave was rarely home that early in the evening, none sitting at the table questioned him. It was as if his family could indeed feel the turmoil raging within him. The anger, the confusion, and, although Dave would be the last to admit it, excitement. He was going to do it. Tomorrow, he was going to a halfway house, this time to visit a Holder in town. He still had many questions to answer about these Holders, and he would be a fool not to learn everything he could about them. Helen, his wife, cleared her throat loudly. When no one spoke up, she cleared her plate from the table, and kissed her husband on the cheek. Quietly, she ascended the stairs to the second floor, where the bedrooms were. Dave placed his face in his hands, distraught that he was doing it once more. It was stupid, and he knew it. It was selfish, but he would never admit it.

The next day he pulled his Focus out of the driveway, and sped off toward South Main St., where the halfway house was located. He was less nervous about visiting a place in town now, as Dave was now sure of the Holder's existence. His hands shook as he drove, so much so that he lit a cigarette in his car, to calm his nerves. Dave had never smoked in his car, not since high school. Flashing blue lights appeared behind him. Dave cursed under his breath. He must have been seeding in his rush to get there. He pulled down a side street, and shut off his engine. The officer stepped out of the car, and slowly walked up to Dave's window.

"Hello, Officer," Dave attempted to say in his politest voice. His shattered nerves, however, led him to practically shouting it. The officer asked for Dave's license, which was promptly handed over. "Here ya go!" Dave shouted again, cursing at himself in his mind. The officer glanced up from the plastic ID card and squinted into Dave's eyes.

"Sir, have you consumed any illegal stimulants or narcotics today?" Dave attempted to be calm, however, his "no" was so rapidly spoken that the officer raised an eyebrow. "Cocaine, or crystal methamphetamine?" Dave shook his head vigorously, then attempted to explain in his calmest voice how he was just nervous because he had never been stopped before. With a grunt, the police officer handed Dave his ticket.

Dave stared, shocked. Safety and security were very important to him, they were his job. And yet, he had been going almost 75 in a 45, almost twice the legal speed limit. With a sigh, Dave started his car and pulled back onto the road. The trial would only be the first that day, and he still had the Holder of the Beginning to face.

The rest of Dave's trip to the halfway house was uneventful. He stood in the parking lot, small in terms of spacing, with only room for the workers and a few visitors. Dave had Justin's "research" in his hands, and was going over it again and again. He didn't want to be caught off guard. It seemed much simpler than his first Holder. Nothing appeared as though it could go wrong. There were no examples of when to run away, no words to speak to save your life. You just went in and talked to the Holder. Flicking his still burning cigarette into the grass, Dave walked into the halfway house. Much simpler this time. He walked up to the front desk, attempting to be casual and aloof, but only appearing to be awkward. The woman behind the desk was rather non-descript, her murky brown hair tied back in a lazy ponytail, and stray pieces held out of her face by a brown sweatband. She gave Dave a weak smile as he entered, and it was clear she wanted nothing more than a day off.

Dave walked up to the counter, ready with his reporter story from the other day if anything went wrong. Taking in a deep breath to steady himself, Dave said to the extremely disinterested woman, "Good morning, I was wondering if I might be able to visit a man who calls himself the Holder of the Beginning." The woman's vague expression jolted with a snap as she stared at Dave. After a few seconds she pressed a button on an intercom system and, without ever taking her eyes off Dave, said, "Mr. Reynolds, there is a visitor at the front desk looking for you." With that, the woman stepped out from behind the desk and walked down the hall.

"Sorry, sir, but I need to check on the..." she paused for a moment, thinking of a believable scenario, "maids. They are always getting their schedules mixed up." She practically started sprinting, not ever looking back.

"I believe you are looking for a Holder?" sounded a voice from behind Dave.

Chapter 7: The Beginning

"I believe you are looking for a Holder?" sounded a voice from behind Dave. Dave spun around, shocked to see that someone had crept behind him so quietly. It was a tall man, quite old, with snow-white hair. In his hand was a cane made of ebony wood, rounded into a smooth ball at one end.

"The Holder of the Beginning," Dave managed to sputter out with some dignity, after being caught off guard.

"The Holder of the Beginning?" the man questioned. He didn't look very impressed at Dave's appearance.

"Yes, if you would show me the way, I shall visit him," Dave said, his feathers only ruffled slightly.

"Sir, before you go, I feel obliged to warn you."

Dave cut him off with an impatient wave of his hand. "I know quite well what I am getting myself into, Mr. Reynolds. Now please, show me the way."

The man shrugged his shoulders as if to say "die how you choose", and walked toward a hall to the left. A hall Dave was pretty certain he hadn't seen when he entered. It also led in the direction of the parking lot, which was impossible, because the wall shared with the parking lot was intercepted by the hallway. Clearly, Holders held no respect for physical laws.

As they walked down the hallway, it seemed to be covered in a blanket of silence. Even their footsteps seemed muffled, as though they were the steps of someone far away. The hall seemed to stretch for miles and miles, and Dave's legs burned with the exercise. No matter how hard he grunted or panted, he couldn't hear himself. The walls, a boring, dull-white, persisted straight ahead toward a white door. The door never got any closer, however, and in order to avoid nausea, Dave stared at his own feet.

On and on they walked until Dave thought they had walked past the end of the earth, until Dave was certain he had done something wrong, and would continue walking until the End.

Then it happened so suddenly that Dave almost tripped over himself. They had reached a plain white door, with an old-fashioned handle and lock. The man, presumably Mr. Reynolds, stuck the ludicrously modern key into the oversized lock and turned it. The door let out a muffled click and swung open.

Chapter 8: The Rude Awakening

Dave slumped into a chair in Reynold's office, eyes glazed over. His skull was splitting with terror. Mr. Reynolds was saying something, but Dave couldn't understand. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. He could feel himself slipping. It was overwhelming. The pain was too much. Something was placed in front of him. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. He could feel himself slipping. It was overwhelming. Madness began to rave in his mind, as circles were driven. They didn't matter. Nothing mattered. He could feel himself slipping. It was overwhelming. His mind in constant loop of what he had seen. The things he felt, he felt over and over again. The things he had done, he did over and over in his mind. But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. He could feel himself slipping. It was overwhelming. Madness began to rave, as circles were driven. It didn't -

Dave was jerked from his thoughts as he was shaken vigorously by Mr. Reynolds. It occurred only then that he had been speaking out loud. He couldn't hear what was being said. Slowly, it came into focus.

"Dave, you have to come out. Think of your family. Your friends. The life you want to lead."

It was anger that pulled Dave out.

"Come out!" he shrieked. "Do you know what I saw? Do you know what I did?" Dave screamed the last. He grabbed a coffee mug off the desk and hurled it at Reynolds, who narrowly dodged.

"Dave, stop! You can't dwell on this. You just need to take a few days. Spend some time with your kids. You will get over it."

Dave grabbed Reynolds' shirt over the desk, and dragged him down toward the desk.

"My kids? My kids?" he bellowed. "You selfish bastard, my kids are going to live in this world. The one I've seen." Dave pushed Reynolds back, letting go of the shirt.

Mr. Reynolds calmly smoothed out his shirt, and removed a metal flask from his blazer. He took two glasses from his desk drawer, and poured a generous measure of the dark amber liquid in each. One he passed to Dave, while the other he drank himself. Dave, while never a heavy drinker, decided it was best for him to calm his nerves. The drink made him feel calmer, think clear.

"It was terrible," Dave said, simply. "And I'm not sure it will ever leave. Every time I close my eyes," Dave didn't finish, just choked back a sob.

Reynolds walked around the desk, and patted Dave on the back soothingly. He began speaking, slowly, so he might not stir Dave's panic again. "Dave, I think perhaps it is time for you to rethink things. Reexamine why it is you are doing this. I would hardly think it's worth it." Reynolds then gathered his coat off of a chair in his office, and left Dave alone. There he sat, tears silently streaming down his eyes, until the sun rose.

Chapter 9: No Cure for the Itch

"Justin, I expect you to follow the new format just like everyone else! Efficiency doesn't just end when it comes to the management," Dave scorned, as he poured himself a cup of coffee in the room that was supposed to pass for a kitchen at the back of the office. Dave paid meticulous care to pour in the right amount of cream, and spent much more time than necessary shaking his sugar. Justin was sure it was to avoid looking at him.

Justin cringed, Dave never used to scold him in front of the employees before. They both saw it as a bad sign toward workers to fight amongst themselves in public. But Dave had been very, very different the past month. Upon returning from the Holder of the Beginning, Dave hadn't said anything. He didn't allow Justin to either. It was like he was able to sense when Justin was going to bring it up, and would give him some pointless lecture, or send him on some dull errand that any of the workers could have done.

Dave was a whole different person these days. He came in with tired, suspicious eyes, and rarely had any enthusiasm for what he did. He picked up smoking again, even smoked in his office. He did use an air filter, but Dave would never have violated the rules so blatantly before his absences. Now, it was as though he didn't even care.

It was true, that although the two had founded the company together, sixteen years ago, Dave had been the brains behind the operation. He was the one who could manage the paper side of things. Justin was better when it came to people, and the two of them ruled over their respective fields. Dave would have never thought to have told Justin what to do, or give him orders. These days, Dave even kept Justin out of the corner office. Justin just thought Dave was disturbed with what he had seen, at first. After a month, Justin was nervous that his friend blamed him for what happened. That Dave felt Justin had somehow pushed him into the Holders. After being alone for a month, Justin secretly agreed with him.

Justin opened the bottom-left drawer of his desk and pulled out a rather disheveled old binder. The thing was cheap, and was coming apart, but the information it housed was much more valuable. It was the papers Dave had tried to throw away after his return, the research conducted by Justin on the Holders. Justin stared down at the papers, silently cursing them. He regretted ever having egged Dave on, regretted every encouraging the exploration. He regretted even sharing the story at work. It was costing him his oldest friend.

Justin looked toward Dave's corner office. The blinds were closed, but enough sunlight passed through the window for Justin to see Dave's shadow pacing back and forth against the blinds, the light, ethereal cloud of cigarette smoke passing from between his flat lips. The shadow-Dave stopped for a moment. Then shook his head, and began to pace again.

Clutching the binder in his hands, Justin meditated on a way he could help Dave.

Dave paced in his office, over and over again. He used to pace often when he was thinking about something particularly burdensome, like the future of the company. Now he did it because he couldn't do anything else. He was filled with energy. A nervous, scared energy, but a drive nonetheless. He also had nowhere he could direct it. His work was meticulous and detailed. Boring, now that Dave thought about it. Dave stopped pacing, his mind drifting to the dark corners of his mind. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Dave resumed pacing.

"Mr. Sebring, a representative from Global Maxx is here," Amanda, his secretary, chirped over the intercom. Dave scowled. While Amanda had been with his company for several months now, Dave found himself getting more and more irked by her presence. He silently wondered whether or not he could trust her.

"So? You take care of this, all he is after is a donation," Dave stated into the intercom. He would never yell or shout, but the coldness in his voice hurt Amanda just the same.

A month ago, his secretary was hardly necessary. She did little more than keep track of Dave's appointments, and act as a greeter. Now, she handled the bulk of Dave's work. Dave did little of his work anymore. Dave did little of anything anymore except pace. Dave looked at the clock. It was 3:30. He still had an hour and a half before he should leave. Still, he needed to get out. Dave grabbed his jacket off the chair. Although it was still a little too warm to be jacket weather, Dave found himself constantly chilly these days. Dave muttered some excuse to Justin, and headed out the exit.

Dave went to his second home, his secret sanctuary. The Tapdancing Dragon was a British pub in town that had all but floundered due to its poor placing and its worse impression of a British pub. There was rarely anyone in the restaurant, and the bar was filled with people like him. People who kept to themselves. There were a few people, office workers just like Dave, from the looks of them, who hung out in a booth and talked a little too loudly for Dave's taste. Other than that, however, the Dragon was still the Dragon. Ignoring the advances of the disheveled redhead to his left, Dave signaled the bartender.

Dave fished a prescription bottle out of his pocket. His leading troops in the fight against anxiety, the bottle read "Lexapro, 50 mg. Do not mix with alcohol". Dave smiled a little at the irony as he chased down the little white pill with his drink.

He sat there listening to the problems of those around him. The redhead to his left had just gotten through a messy divorce with her "dirtbag, cheating husband", adding with a not-so-subtle wink at Dave that she was now on the market. Two men to Dave's right had just been fired from a car company that they had worked at together for almost twenty years. Dave smiled quietly to himself. These people thought they had problems. The redhead to his left saw this as a good sign, and tossed her hair back. The men to Dave's right thought he was laughing at them, and one of them, a skinny, bald fellow with worn clothes, stood up.

"An' jus' what in the 'ell is your problem?" the bald one stated. "Yew think this is funny?"

Dave looked at the man, contempt filling his eyes. "Sit down," he stated, his voice toneless and level.

The man was about to protest, but something in Dave's eyes led him to do otherwise. The man sat down next to his friend, who muttered "Shoulda kicked his ass," when he thought Dave wasn't listening.

Dave stared straight ahead, vaguely aware that he should have been afraid of such a confrontation. Never in his life had Dave been in a real fight, and always avoided violence. With a mental shrug, he tossed the thought aside, then, with a physical shrug he toss the redhead's arm aside. She had snuck it around his waist sometime after the confrontation.

"Hi, I'm Sheryl," the redhead claimed, tossing her hair back again.

"Sheryl, huh?" Dave asked, rolling his eyes. Sheryl didn't get the message, pulling him close. With a heavy sigh, Dave encircled her hand, and jerked it away from his body. The sudden motion caused her to fall to the ground, as her stool shot out from beneath her. Those around to see it happen burst into laughter. Dave didn't catch whatever happened next, as he turned his attention back to his drink.

Dave stayed at the bar until around 5, the longest he found he could sit down. He threw down a two-dollar tip for the whole afternoon, and headed out the door. Dave took his time heading home, dreading the night of sleeplessness and questioning that was bound to lie before him.

From across the bar, a man hidden in the shadows of a corner booth watched Dave leave with sad eyes. He had followed Dave here, and watched him destroy himself from within. Dave was too afraid to seek his drug, but his addiction raged on, tearing him apart from within. The man in the shadows knew what was happening. Knew that Dave needed a cure for his itch. He just needed to discover a delivery method. At the bar, in the shadows, Justin began to formulate a plan.

Chapter 10: The Fallen and Risen

Dave thought back to his early college years, when he met Justin and how the two of them would be on the highway all night in the convertible. Two young free spirits, speeding down the moonlit highway. As he remembered this, he unwittingly allowed a small ray of hope into his troubled mind. "Maybe I'm just blowing this out of proportion. Don't get me wrong, the things I saw were real, too real even. But even I might get away from Them if I avoid them from now on."

Dave had not come to work the next day. Just was not troubled, however. Dave was dead tired from his ordeals, and slept throughout most of the day. Dave's wife was happy to inform Justin of this, and also that Dave had agreed to their trip. "Oh, it will be a trip all right, Dave, my man," Justin thought to himself. Justin really wanted to help Dave. Dave's problem was that he didn't want to be a Seeker, even though he was a natural. Justin knew how much Dave wanted to Seek; Dave just needed a little encouragement. It would be so simple, Dave would do the Seeking, and when that was done, Justin would take them. Justin would see if They really were artifacts of great power, and if there was greater power to be achieved by reuniting Them.

The day of the trip came. As dusk fell, Justin arrived in his convertible. "Is that..." Dave began to ask. "Got it from my dad's place. It's been a while, hasn't it?" Justin answered, beaming a bright smile. "Come on, get in! I want to beat the traffic!" Dave hurried into the car, waving goodbye to his family on the porch.

Dave and Justin reminisced about their younger years as night slowly crept upon the emptying highway. They stopped a few times, looking for their favorite restaurants, mostly unsuccessfully as the economic situation forced many small businesses to close down. As the moon rose, they settled for Benson's Shakes, a 1950's Soda Shop which lingered on. Just as they remembered, the food was bad, but it was filling.

"It's been good so far. Where are we going next?" Dave asked.

"It's a surprise. You will like it though," Justin answered simply.

They got back into the car and sped along the highway for a while, passing another car very rarely. Dave felt his anxiety rising, but he tamped it flat without even addressing what may have caused it. He was having a good time; why should he be worried about the Holders? As far as he was concerned, that was a phase in his life which was fading away.

Justin steered the car onto a country road and followed it until he reached a sign proclaiming:

Tanner Oaks

Mental Wellness Center

"What kind of place is this, Justin?" Dave asked, allowing himself to become more alarmed. Justin didn't answer. He drove on to the roundabout and stopped in front of the lobby. "All right, this joke's gone far enough," Dave ordered, unconvincingly. His hands began to shake as the feelings and memories rushed out from the depths of his brain, and pounded at his skull. "TAKE ME HOME, NOW!" he screamed angrily. However, even as he fought, he knew he had already lost. The call was stronger than ever, urging his being into uncovering the Objects, urging him to realize his full potential as a Seeker.

Knowing his defeat, he looked with despair to Justin. Justin sat in his seat, calmly looking at Dave, a large smirk on his face. Dave should have expected betrayal, for Justin was also gone, in his stead was a Seeker like Dave. Dave looked away from Justin and stared into the warm lights of the lobby, which were pulling him like a moth to an electric trap. He kept staring at it until he heard Justin's voice saying, "Go."

That was the last push he needed. He got out of the car and walked to the doors. He thought about which Holder to ask for, and after dealing with 1 and 2, his logic dictated to go with number 3. He had new purpose now. The game was to beat Justin until he could find a way to escape, if there was any to be found. He would collect Objects, to the best of his ability. Dying would be a mercy in most cases, but it was better to live than to face an uncertain afterlife.

All these resolutions and convictions solidified as he approached the desk. By the time he reached it, he was confident enough. Not unafraid, not conceited, and most importantly, not Dave anymore.

He spoke to the attendant: "I want to see the Holder of Eternity."