“Number thirty-eight!” a voice shouts from the multi-colored tower. The rubbery orb at the base opens up to show the bubble-filled room within. “We will only wait ten minutes before moving on to the next guest. It is a busy day and we know the Eternal Carnival makes for an excellent final indulgence, but rules are rules. This is why we always suggest that you come two days early and get the games out of your system before challenging Toy Tower. Also remember that all attempts to imitate will be met with the utter destruction of you and your residence under the cover of night. Thank you and enjoy your day. Number thirty-eight!”
Ichabod Brooks takes another look at his contract and sighs, the dark-skinned adventurer leaving his turkey leg and ale behind. The crowd cheers when he stands up and they chant his number at the top of their lungs. When it is obvious that the adventurer is taking his time, the people calm down and return to their food and entertainment. Unlike the others, Ichabod is not in any rush after seeing previous challengers carted out of the colorful building in various states of injury. Only one person has been killed, the young woman having been launched out of a high window and into a tent housing a collection of spears. He is sure that at least three of the others will die of their injuries, which he has heard is a slow day for Toy Tower. The thought reminds him that he has had no luck getting information on the inside of the building. All people care about is taking bets on how the challengers will die and what number will the day’s festivities stop at. Even after spending a full day here, the morbid conversations are surreal considering the carnival that everyone is enjoying.
Coming to the door, Ichabod wrinkles his nose at the smell of candy that wafts off the sparkly walls. Before entering, he touches a pink part of the stone that gives as if made of marshmallow. Getting a better look at Toy Tower, he swears that most of it is made out of either candy or oversized blocks like one would give to a child. Muttering curses under his breath, the adventurer continues inside and jumps when the door slams shut with a loud belch. Feeling a headache starting, Ichabod tries to meditate and waits until he can remind himself that he cannot turn back. By the time he opens his eyes, the man is surrounded by bubbles that pop with a variety of rude and amusing noises. He tries to wave them away, but the giant flowers in the floor and ceiling spew the oily orbs faster than they can be destroyed. Gentle breezes coming out of the walls keeps them afloat, the vents moving to follow Ichabod as he makes his way to a small desk on the other side of the room.
“Ticket please,” a green skeleton requests. Controlled by strings that fall from a disembodied hand, the greeter leans forward with its mouth open to take Ichabod’s tiny bit of parchment. “Thank you. Please note that you can leave at any time. Either by your own power or upon request. You will be given a guide that has the power to transport you back here. Be aware that we do not provide healing services, but there is a medical tent in the Eternal Carnival. Your body will be sent back to the next of kin that you noted upon taking your ticket. Are you still interested in challenging Toy Tower?”
“My contract says I have to reach the top and get a toy,” Ichabod replies, showing the scroll to the skeleton. He pulls a knife when eyes pop out of the creature’s sockets, the wooden orbs left bobbing on their springs. “I’m far too old for this kind of stuff. Between you and me, I don’t want to be here, but I can’t say no to this job. There isn’t a way for me to get a toy that’s like the one at the top, is there?”
The bubbles soar to the far side of the room as the greeter laughs and claps his hands. “I never tire of that question. None of you truly understand what the prize is, do you? All you want is glory or money or whatever you get from this supposed job. Our creator wanted every child in the world to have a unique toy. He worked his entire life to design such things, but was always told that it was a foolish dream. With nobody willing to sell his inventions, he died a pauper who continued to cling to his beliefs. Children should be happy. Each one is a gift that is unique to the world and they should each have something that nobody else has. Reach the top of Toy Tower, the memorial from son to father, and you will earn a prize that you cannot find anywhere else in Windemere.”
“That’s a lengthy way of saying I’d get a special toy.”
“You are not a happy person.”
“Sorry. I’m just tired and wanting to get home.”
“In that case, I will summon your guide and let you be on your way.”
“Nothing else to do?”
“Some take a few minutes to play with the bubbles.”
“Tempting, but I’m going to pass on the offer.”
The skeleton shrugs before reaching toward the nearest bubble and catching it on its bony fingers. In a delicate whisper, the greeter talks in a language that resembles gibberish and random giggles. The quivering orb stretches as it is pulled toward the greeter, but recovers its perfect shape when it is placed on the desk. A milky white liquid blossoms from the core and turns the bubble into an oily pearl. Letting his curiosity get the best of him, Ichabod leans closer to see that something is trying to push out. He can make out the outlines of tiny hands and a pointy object that he assumes is a sword. After a minute of silence, the mysterious guide can be heard tapping impatient and the poking becomes directed at the skeleton.
“My deepest apologies, number thirty-eight,” the greeter says while rummaging in a draw for a long needle. He pops the bubble to free a wooden doll that resembles a wild-haired boy with butterfly wings. “You will be escorted by Andrew. Please understand that he is not here to assist you. While he will answer questions, he will not solve puzzles or lift a hand to help you get ahead. He is immune to all dangers, but you cannot use someone so small as a shield. People have tried and it never ends well. Walk through the door when you have become accustomed to each other.”
“It is an honor to escort a man of your stature through Toy Tower,” Andrew declares with a bow. Flapping his cloth wings, the doll awkwardly takes to the air and immediately gets stuck in a bubble. “Wait a minute! I haven’t finished my task yet. You can’t send me away before we even started. It’s against the rules!”
“Are you talking to me or him?” Ichabod asks, nodding to the skeleton. Drawing an arrow from his quiver, he pops the arrow and catches the falling toy on his foot. “I understand that you’re not going to be much help beyond guiding me. Makes sense considering the challenge is reaching the top alive. My one request is that you don’t become an obstacle. Last thing I want is to trip over you and fall to my death.”
The guide darts into the air and stares into the adventurer’s eyes, his own nothing more than two black dots. “I take offense to even the suggestion that I would get in your way. My job is to guide you and that is what I will do. You will be happy to know that I have seen seven people to the top floor in the last five years. One of the best averages among the guides. You’re in good company with me. I sense that you have multiple magical items. This should be a lot of fun if you’re a professional and serious.”
Ichabod lets Andrew fly around him, the doll hovering around his dark green boots and a leather bag on his hip. The adventurer frowns when his guide tries to get into the quiver, the tiny creature stopping when he gets poked in the hand by an arrow. With a click of its non-existent tongue, the toy floats onto Ichabod’s shoulder and makes himself comfortable. The pair wait for the greeter to grab a silver tassel, which it pulls three times to open a large flower that is really a disguised door. Bright light pours out of the stairwell along with a playful tune that is both inviting and unnerving. Unable to delay or turn back, Ichabod heads through the entrance that slams shut behind him with a maniacal laugh.