No toy could remember the moment of its creation, because at the moment of creation it had no awareness at all. It just meandered about, mindlessly performing its set task and entirely oblivious to all. Individuality only came in degrees, a tiny bit at a time.
Day-by-day a toy would gain a vague awareness that there was a constant Rump-a-dum-dum around it. Then it would gain a vague awareness that it was being vaguely aware!
Day-by-day the toy would start to piece together that those Rump-a-dum-dum noises seemed to be synchronized with the little batons that it saw beating against a drum. Then it would piece together that those were its batons, and that it was moving them with its hands, to play its drum.
Day-by-day the toy would begin to wonder why it was playing that drum. And then it would stop. And then the world would sound so empty and strange without the sound that it would start playing again. But it would play it a little differently now. Rump-a-dum-dum-dum! Rump-a-rump-dum!
Now, at last, it would be an individual being, and while wandering about it would start to recognize that there were other beings that were not itself. Some of them would smile knowingly and wink at it and ask if it had “come to itself yet,” which the toy wouldn’t understand the meaning of.
Some of the other toys, though, would be entirely disconnected from their surroundings, like a ballerina that was glassy-eyed and monotonously twirling on top of her box without a single step of variation. And the drummer would see how that little ballerina-on-a-music-box was day-by-day starting to come to herself and look back at him with a bemused wonder. Then the drummer would understand what it meant to “come to oneself” and realized, almost with horror, that once it had been so oblivious itself!
And so the drummer would go back to those that had smiled and winked and would tell them that yes, it had come to itself, and now it was very much confused. Then they would tell him it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, it happened to them all. Then they would tell him that he probably ought to follow this road over here, and presently it would bring him to a great and important city. Once there he could start to learn about the real world.
And a toy, such as this drummer, would thank them, but want to know why he hadn’t always been aware, and why he was now, and where did he come from to begin with?
“No one really knows,” the smiling Bishop might say.
“Even when we know how to know, we still don’t know where we came from,” the winking Knight added.
“We see you new toys waking up, but we don’t actually see any of you get made, now do we?” the questioning Rook offers. “Just one moment there’s an empty pond over there, then you turn your back, and when you look again there’s this rubber duck swimming through it completely oblivious. And it’s always behind your back like that. No matter how you try to see it, new toys always come in secret.”
“Oh how curious,” the little drummer says. “But how do you–”
“To the city,” the stern King repeats. “That is the place for you.”
“They’ll give me the answers there?”
“They might give you an answer or two…but mostly more questions, and really you’d better get used to that in this world. So the sooner you get there and the sooner you get used to it the better, so you’d better get going now!”
And with that a drummer would figure he had better start down that road!
It wasn’t a very straight road, indeed it incessantly curved back-and-forth in a whimsical sort of way. A road meant for play, rather than for function.
And this proved quite the challenge for the drummer. For all his short life he had always marched in straight lines. Indeed with such straight legs and no knees, what else could be expected of him? Thus as he approached the first turn he walked straight into it, then straight through it, then straight off of it and straight into the dirt going the completely wrong direction.
He came to an immediate stop and stared about, trying to understand what was going on. He decided that he ought to try again, and so took another step, still in the wrong direction!
Once more the drummer halted, and he was really getting quite anxious now! He did not know how to move back to the path except for by trying to walk again, but each of his tries seemed to be carrying him only farther away. He couldn’t help but worry whether by trying so hard to return to the road he wouldn’t just wander away from it forever.
And so he waited for a good deal, but nothing useful came from that either, and so he decided he really ought to try just one more time. He thought really hard about going the right way, looked down to his foot, and watched as it continued straight forward in sheer defiance!
And so the drummer paused again and wondered a bit about how exactly one was supposed to go the right way, which meant that he was still pausing and wondering when another toy happened to come her way down the same road.
It was the dancer he had seen from before, the one that had been unaware of her own existence. She went down the road spinning and spinning, which meant of course that she had no trouble with the turns whatsoever.
“Oh,” she exclaimed when she saw the drummer standing off the road a few inches from her. “Are we supposed to leave the road here?”
“I–no, I don’t think so. I just can’t seem to turn properly.” The drummer was very ashamed.
“Oh, are you going to stay here forever then?”
“I just might have to.”
“Wait, I have an idea…” and she spun over next to him, looped her arm around his, and twirled him right back onto the road.
“How did you do that?!” he asked in amazement.
“It’s just what I do. Now can you continue on your way?”
“Well…I can because the road is straight right here. But I see another turn waiting up ahead, and once I get to it I’ll be right back in the same sort of trouble again I suspect.”
“No worries there. I’ll just stick beside you and help you around that turn as well.”
“And the next?”
“And the next and the next and the next.”
Well that was certainly a relief! So the drummer and the dancer continued down the road together. They would still fumble from time to time, such as when the drummer wouldn’t come to a complete stop before walking off a curve in the road, or when the dancer would spin too far and end up pointing back the way they came; but now at least they fumbled together, and somehow that made it better. And both of them would straighten the other out and then they would continue onward together.
“This is quite a long time we’ve been on this road, isn’t it?” the dancer asked after a long time being on the road.
“Yes…but maybe it’s that way with every road. Really I’m not sure myself, I’ve never been much of an expert on them.”
“Sir, I’ve been wondering, what is that you’re holding in your hands?”
“These are my batons, and I use them to play my drum. See, like this.” Rump-a-rump-rump-rump! Rump-a-dum-a-dum-dum!
“Oh!” the dancer cried out, and her spinning changed to matched his beat. And as he saw her change her spinning he changed the way he was drumming. So now her dancing moved his drumming, and his drumming moved her dancing. It was a little disorienting at first, but then they settled into a joint cadence.
Just then they came upon the next turn, and a wonderful thing occurred. The drummer found that so long as he beat his instrument in time to the dancer’s spinning he could now make the turn on his own. And the dancer found that as she matched her spinning to his drumming, she could straighten back out anytime that she turned too far. And so they pulled and pushed with their little music and dance, and beat their way much more easily down the path.
Such good time they were making now, that soon they were catching up on another toy, one that had been sent on his journey long before either of them.
It was a puffy teddy bear, who didn’t have quite enough stuffing to stand up straight. As such he trundled along in a constant stoop, picking out his path carefully and methodically. As the two friends came alongside of him the drummer slowed his beat so that they could match pace with the bear.
“Hello there!” the dancer called out joyfully.
The bear turned his head to see them, which in turn rotated almost half his entire body. “Oh, hello,” he said slowly. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Are you off to the city as well?” the drummer asked.
“Well, you know, I was. But I’ve been travelling down this road for such a very long time and I still haven’t seen it. I’m beginning to wonder if the city doesn’t exist.”
The drummer and the dancer both found that a very confusing idea.
“But how could we have been told to go to a place that doesn’t exist?” the drummer asked.
“I don’t know,” the bear sighed. “It was just a thought that occurred to me while I was walking along my way. Or perhaps it did exist once, but it doesn’t anymore. Or maybe it isn’t really worth going to anyway. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can think of so many reasons why it isn’t a good idea to stay on this road anymore.”
“Hmm” the dancer pondered.
“And if I can think of so many possible reasons for why I shouldn’t keep going to the city, then surely one or two of them must actually be true. Wouldn’t you think?”
“Hmm” the drummer thought. “But if you don’t go to the city…then where will you go?”
“I thought I would try at this town along the way.”
The drummer and the dancer looked in the direction that the bear pointed, and for the first time noticed that they were nearing a group of buildings on the wayside. First came a building of brick, quite tall and filled with windows on every level. From those windows came quite the tumult of noise, for the tenets of the place were enjoying all manner of raucous songs and games. There was the clinking of bottles, rough laughter, instruments playing out of sync, various shouts for attention, and even the occasional thunderous crash.
Those crashes in particular shook the entire building, for it had not been built very well. Each of its row had a stray hole here and there, and too many of those holes were on the same side, and when the building settled it had decided to lean in that one direction.
Pressed right up against the brick apartments was another building of rough granite. It was as if the second building had been hastily thrown up for the express purpose of catching the first. As such it had not been made very well, either, and had inherited its progenitor’s leaning tendencies. So it rested right up against a third building of wood.
And so it continued, one building tipping onto the next, over and over, until at last they ended in a cluster of little, clay huts. There was a fresh sign out in front of the huts and it read New Vacancies: Cheap!
“Well!” the dancer said in shock. “I don’t know that I care to stay at a place such as this!”
“Why not?” the bear frowned. “I think it sounds like fun.”
“I think I like our fun better,” the drummer said to the dancer and she firmly nodded.
And that made the bear feel a bit upset. Because he hadn’t had any companion to give him fun of any sort during his long slog down the road. Indeed his walk had been so dreary and so lonely that he was quite content to take up residence here and never worry about the fabled city at the end of the road ever again.
But now he felt that this drummer and this dancer were snubbing him, and would probably laugh at his expense after they had parted ways. That made him really quiet mad, so he reached out, grabbed the dancer roughly, and rushed off with her shouting “Oh don’t be such a snob! Give it a try, I’ll bet you like it!”
“Oh dear!” the dancer cried, then looked earnestly to the drummer over the teddy bear’s shoulder. “Help me! Please help me!”
A horrible terror gripped the drummer: a sense of loss that he had never felt before. He fought down the despair, though, and beat out a chasing rhythm on his drum. His legs sprang into action, carrying him quickly towards the bear. He had almost caught up with him when the bear made a sudden turn towards the brick building.
“Oh dear,” the drummer said, trying to pound out a cadence that would turn him. It was tough to do, more than he had anticipated. He had come to rely on the dancer’s touch to do these things, and his swivels were much more erratic now. Still, after a few over-corrections he got mostly in the direction of the bear and began again his charge.
The bear had seen this, though, and made for great many more twists and turns, even more than had been on the road to the city. The drummer valiantly kept up the chase, but he slowly fell farther and farther behind.
“Please don’t worry,” he called out to the dancer as she was about to disappear from view behind the first building. “I will find you. I will keep coming, and I will find you. I promise!”
But a terrible fear was starting to rise inside of the drummer. What if he couldn’t catch up? What if he couldn’t find her? Did such questions even matter? He had to, he must. For her to be lost was just…just unthinkable.
He hadn’t liked that droopy bear. Not from the moment they had met him. They should have just hurried by him without so much as a “good day.” What had the drummer been thinking speaking to such a toy? He wouldn’t be making any mistakes like that again. From now on it was just him and the dancer, no one else.
“Good evening there, chap,” a sly voice called from the side. It was a jack-in-the-box, popped out to welcome newcomers. “First time at our fun, little wayside?”
“No thank you,” the drummer said sternly, but even as he said it he felt bad for being rude to a toy that might not deserve it. “I’m sorry,” he turned to face the affronted jack. “I’m just in a hurry.”
“Well what are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”
“Did you see a bear run past this way? With a dancer on his shoulder? It wouldn’t have been more than a moment a go.”
“Oh yes, that bear!” the jack-in-the-box nodded enthusiastically, even before the drummer had concluded speaking. “Yes of course I saw him. Friend of yours? He came here, signed in, and went between those two buildings right there. Probably on his way to the motel on the other side.”
The drummer turned to look down the alleyway that the jack-in-the-box was pointing towards. It was a narrow crevice between two of the leaning buildings, completely covered in dark shadows.
“Through there?” the drummer asked fearfully.
“Yes, through it towards the motel.”
“Are you quite sure?”
The jack-in-the-box folded his arms indignantly. “You ask me where to find them, I say that’s the where they went. So don’t go if you don’t believe me, what do I care?”
Something felt wrong to the drummer, but the jack-in-the-box seemed so certain. The drummer couldn’t really afford to pass up such a good lead, especially when he couldn’t even explain to himself why it was he felt so hesitant. So he took a deep breath and charged forward.
“Wait, you have to sign the registry!” the jack-in-the-box called after him, but the drummer didn’t stop. Soon he had passed into the shadow between the buildings.
What few windows lined this alleyway had been smashed in, with bits of broken glass littered about and crunching under the drummer’s feet. The rooms beyond had been stripped of all their furniture, and the wallpapers were heavily stained by dirt and grease. The only light was the occasional prism of orange streaming through the broken windows on the right, beyond which the sun was slowly setting.
As the drummer pushed on through the darkness he became aware of some voices just ahead of him. They were low and muttering, speaking in quick, hurried breaths.
“H-hello?” he called out, and all at once the voices fell silent. “Oh don’t go away,” he pleaded. “I need some help, please.”
“Oh…he needs some help,” one of the voices said silkily. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, stranger?”
Out of the shadows a tall, wooden doll emerged. Its original unvarnished surface had been covered all over by a wide array of rainbow colors. Behind it followed two weeble wobble brothers.
“Helping people is our favorite thing to do,” the wooden doll grinned. “The jack-in-the-box sent you?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“He always sends toys here for us to help them.”
“Oh, well actually he sent me here to find someone I’m looking for.”
“Yes, that’s often what we help people with. To find someone. The person you’re looking for is right this way. Follow me.”
“But…you don’t even know who I’m looking for!” That strange discomfort was returning to the drummer and he started to take a few steps back. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t have come this way at all. He wasn’t sure why he felt so wrong, but maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t know the reasons why. Somehow he knew he just ought to listen to that feeling.
“But I do know,” the doll said. “And I hate to tell you this, but she looked like she had been hurt.”
“Yes, she didn’t look good at all. She needed a lot of help. I think she was calling for you.”
“The dancer was?”
“Yes,” the doll nodded solemnly. “It was her.”
The hesitations left the drummer immediately, replaced with a fresh panic.
“Where is she? Take me to her!”
“Of course, though I think we’re going to need some money to reach her. Might need to bribe a guard or two, you understand me?”
“Yes. Have you got any?”
“I–no. I don’t even know what that is.”
“Oh…so it’s like that. Well no worry. Maybe someone left you some money. Let’s go and see.”
The doll put his arm around the drummer and steered him towards the end of the alley and down another path.
“Well I’m not sure who would have done that,” the drummer was saying, still a bit confused.
“One never knows,” one of the weeble wobbles said from the drummer’s elbow.
“But it wouldn’t hurt to check, of course,” the other said from the opposite side.
“No…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. But maybe we should go and find her first. We’ve got to get her back, whether with money or not!”
“Of course, of course,” the doll soothed. “Trust me, I know just what to do.”
They had made a few turns down crooked streets and were now approaching a large, iron factory. It was grimy and smelled of soot and didn’t seem like a particularly nice place to be at all. At the front of it was a heavy door, and beside it a receptionist seated behind a glass window.
“Hello there, Orr,” the doll said to the receptionist, who was a piggy bank.
“Duth,” the pig droned lazily.
“I’ve brought you a new worker, he’ll do excellently on your team.”
Orr grunted and leaned forward, squinting appraisingly at the drummer. “Well he’s new, probably has at least six months of hard labor in him, so that’s good. But they didn’t make his arms very big, won’t be able to lift so much.”
“Oh but he is a determined, spirited sort.”
“Yes, I’m sure…”
The drummer didn’t understand just what they were talking about, nor how this was helping him to obtain money, nor indeed how the money was related to finding the dancer. He was just about to say all this when the two concluded their discussion.
“…and three large discs as a standard finder’s fee,” Orr said, sliding three plastic chips over to Duth.
“Is that…money?” the drummer asked.
“Oh, so we can go get to the dancer now?”
“Well…no,” Duth said awkwardly. “We’ll need a bit more. But I’ve got you a job now, see. You’ll be earning money at a rate of…” he glanced over to Orr.
“New workers are compensated at 2 small discs per week. Food and lodging is provided.”
“There you go!” Duth said energetically. “That’s a capital rate for you.”
“But I don’t understand what it’s for.”
“Money gets you anything you want,” one of the weeble wobbles said.
“If you want to convince your girl to come back, money will win her for sure,” the other said.
“Oh, she didn’t leave me. She was taken by another toy, a teddy bear.”
“Yes, yes, the story of us all, brother,” Duth smirked. “But either way, you make enough money and you’ll be able to buy her back from the bear.”
“Actually I had been thinking more of just grabbing her and running.”
“Oho!” Orr laughed. “More a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, huh? Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little small for a job like that.”
The drummer paused and looked down at his hands. The pig had a point, the bear had been much larger than he was.
“Yesss,” Orr continued, “you know it’s true. But once again, with some money, you can hire some other toys to help you out with that. I know some who will even make sure the bear never comes back after you, if you catch my drift.”
“I see,” the drummer said slowly. “Well thank you for explaining. I think I’m finally beginning to understand. I’ll do some work, I’ll make some money, I’ll be able to pay to get her back…”
“Exactly,” the doll praised. “And it’s the only way, believe me.”
“Then…I guess I’d better do it. Where is the work?”
“Capital attitude,” Orr snorted approvingly. “Come right this way.”
The doll and the two weeble wobbles slunk into the night while Orr let the drummer in through the door, and led the way through a maze of corridors into the heart of the place. The drummer had never seen a place like this before, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he cared much for it. It was dark, with only the occasional, weak candle to give any light. Worse than that, all the toys that they passed along the way seemed to be in a very dire strait.
It wasn’t just that they were so dirty, chipped, and torn. It wasn’t just that most of their paint had scratched off and they had been scored with deep gouges. It wasn’t just that they were missing eyes and buttons, and some of them entire limbs! More than all that it was just the haunted, vacant expression they all bore. Toys with no soul in them, more machines than living things.
The drummer vaguely wondered why so many gaunt, expressionless workers might have come to this sort of place, but then he pushed the thought from his mind. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was the work, and the money, and buying the dancer’s freedom. He realized that he still was quite confused about a few matters. How was he to know when he had enough money? Where was he supposed to go to pay other toys to help him get her back? And still he didn’t even know where she was!
He felt a little bit of anger towards all the people that had helped him thus far: the jack-in-the-box, the doll, the pig. Each of them had made clear that they really wanted to help him, but none of them had really seemed to listen to him very much.
Again, never mind that now. Work now. Money now. Ask more questions at the next opportunity.
And so it was that the drummer found himself shuffling with a small army of workers down a massive corridor towards an even more massive furnace. At first all the drummer could see of it was the huge cloud of smoke, yawing ahead of them like the end of the earth. The closer they got to it the more it choked them. Soon the drummer was coughing black onto his white, painted gloves. Still they pressed forward, and now the drummer could make out the flame at the furnace’s base. It was too shrouded in smoke to see any tongues, but there was a definite glow of deep, vibrating orange. Its heat was immense, and the drummer felt a crackling along his fresh paint.
“Team three back to barracks! Team four, your quota is two mountains before relief!” A foreman in his toy car snapped down to them. He was gesturing to two immense piles of coal, each more than ten times the height of the drummer! One-by-one the workers walked up to the first pile, selected a single lump of coal, and marched with it towards the flame. When they got close enough that their faces began to singe they hurled it forward with all of their might, eliciting a shower of sparks which proved that they had made their mark.
If ever they missed their mark then they were handed “the pole” and had to shield their eyes to try and see their stray piece of coal and jab it into the flame. All the while the foreman would shout at them, counting down how long they had before he would throw them in instead!
The drummer had a lot of questions about this process, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of place that would care for questions. So he set to work, following the pattern of all the others. All of his first lumps of coal failed to find the furnace, and he quickly was given a nickname by the foreman: Useless.
That harsh toy shouted at him and shoved him, telling him it would be easier on them all if he would just dive into the flame and rid them of his nuisance. All the while the drummer frantically thrust out with the pole, silently pleading for the shower of sparks that would mean he had managed to right his error. When at last the blessed torrent came he ran with from the spot, only to be clutched by dread anticipation as he came back to the pile of coal, and knew he was about to miss yet another throw.
There was no relief, he found himself in perpetual fear. The terror in front of the flame, the anticipation of failure, the despair of the missed throw, the terror, the anticipation, the despair. Each time round they seemed to come faster, seemed to nip more savagely at one another’s heels. The terror. The anticipation. The despair. He was going to be thrown in, that was all there was to it. He couldn’t keep up at this pace. Terror. Anticipation. Despair. But for as quickly as the cycle repeated, the mountain never grew any smaller! The task would never be done, they would never leave here. He couldn’t keep doing this! He had to collapse, had to give up, had to be thrown into the furnace and get it all over with. Terror! Anticipation! Despair!
The little drummer cried in agony as he thrust his blistering gloves forward. The small lump of coal sailed high into the air and a shower of sparks burst forth.
“Well,” the foreman said in surprise. “You get to live a minute more. Move along, useless!”
And so it was. The drummer shuffled along with the line and made his way back to grab another piece of coal. Heart thumping he threw that one clean into the fire as well. Another minute to live.
But what a life!
Much to the drummer’s surprise, he did manage to prolong it minute-by-minute. It seemed that he had broken a spell by having successfully hurled that lump of coal into the furnace; now he found that he could do it again and again. Sometimes he still missed, and then he had to jab with the pole while the foreman screamed at him from behind, but those failures were quickly becoming more and more infrequent.
And despite his fear that the mountain of coal would never be exhausted, it did in fact grow smaller and smaller until it was no more. It took a very long time, but it happened. And then the second mountain diminished until it, too, was no more. The team was sent back to their barracks to rest. The drummer hung his head down sadly. He had barely survived that one work session, and was sure he would not be able to make it through another.
And yet he did. It was still a back-breaking, nerve-wrenching ordeal, but he did come out alive after the second workload many hours later. And he made it past the third. And the fourth.
And the more he survived, the more his nerves began to be numbed. It wasn’t a calm tranquility that he had found, far from it! It was that as each of his nerves fired in rapid succession, eventually they scorched out so that he couldn’t register them anymore.
And though there were no mirrors for him to see himself, somehow he knew that his face must be becoming more gaunt and hollow, just like that of all the other workers. He was wearing the same lifeless mask that had so troubled him when first he came into this place.
He tried to repeat to himself the reason for it all: to raise money to buy the dancer’s freedom. All of this would be worth it when he was free and she was free, and then they would get back to things just as they had been before. To raise money. To buy the dancer’s freedom.
After what seemed like an eternity he did get paid. Two small discs, as promised. All of the other toys took their pay to a murky corner of factory housing for pleasures the drummer did not understand. None of that for him, though, he simply stowed both discs under the cot in his room. After a second eternity he was able to add another two discs. After a third another two.
And then, after an eternity of eternities, he had lined the entire underside of his bed. Surely he must have enough money to buy the dancer’s freedom now? But how to go about this whole process of “buying?” Thus far he had avoided speaking to the vacant souls around him, but it couldn’t be avoided now.
“You wanna do what?” the ventriloquist dummy asked with one eye closed and a cocked head.
“I want to free another toy. A dancer.”
“Sure…only you say you don’t know where she is, or who to pay, and what exactly to pay them to do…just that you want ‘them’ to help you somehow. Did I get all that right?”
“I…well I thought so, but…really I don’t know anything about anything, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”
“Can you tell me what I should be doing to fix this?”
“Sure, easy. Forget about her.”
“Oh I don’t think I know how to do that. I think about her all the time.”
“Listen, kid. All my life I used to say you should only worry about yourself, anything more is just an anchor on your soul. Then I came to this place, and you know what, worrying about yourself is too much, even. So now I say let go of everything. You and I might die tomorrow and that’s just it. Might as well die without worries.”
“I’d rather die thinking about her.”
The dummy sighed and kneaded his brow. “You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. Your money, you do with it as you please. If I find you a contact, someone who can help you out with your problem, then you’ll let me be?”
“Oh yes, I promise!” the drummer nodded enthusiastically. “You really mean it? You promise you’ll help me?”
“I don’t do worries, and I don’t do promises. But I’ll try and find someone. Give me two days.”
And that was the last the drummer ever saw of the dummy. And the last he saw of his money. When he came back from his next work shift both were long gone.
“Have you seen a ventriloquist dummy around here?” he asked the knight who stood guard at the factory exit.
“Sure, he came through here just a bit ago. Lucky bloke had enough to buy his passage.”
“You know, his freedom. The freedom they tell all of us we can buy if we save up enough for it. Course it isn’t but one-in-a-thousand that actually can.”
“Our freedom for what?”
“You know. To leave.”
“What? I can’t leave?”
“Are you serious?! You really don’t know? Of course you can’t leave. You’re a slave! All of us are.”
“Me more than any other! Because I’m the slave that keeps the rest of you trapped. If it weren’t for me standing guard here you’d all be escaped already.”
“Why do you stand there then?”
“You mean why not take a bribe, let some of you out, and then run for it myself? Oh I’ve thought about it. Any guard who tells you otherwise is a liar, and some of them have even tried it…” The knight lowered his voice and leaned in very close. “But then I saw what happened to them after they were caught–and believe me, all of them were caught. So maybe one day when my plastic’s all rubbed off and I can’t feel anything I’ll cash in and take that final ride, have my fun and then pay my last dues. But that day isn’t today.”
The knight nodded in a carefree manner, but after a moment looked down despondently. “Oh, who am I kidding?” he asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a ‘final ride’ anyway. When you’ve been here as long as I have, there’s nothing waiting for you out there anymore. That’s the real reason I don’t ever run.”
“If you were out there, you could help me find the dancer and get her free again. I think you’d be a lot better at that than I’ll be by my myself.”
The knight perked up at that. “A quest, eh? It’s been a long time since I looked for one those. And with another military man, even! I say, that would be a dream!”
“You needn’t run away for it, though. I can save up enough money for both of us to get out.”
The knight scoffed. “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“And when I do, you’ll come with me? You promise?”
The knight’s helmed head shifted about awkwardly. He didn’t want to raise any false hopes, least of all in himself…yet he was unable to deny the thrill of its call.
“Listen, sir,” he said firmly. “I feel obligated to tell you that I don’t believe you will succeed. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. But who knows, maybe you have a force of will like I have never seen in this place. And if you do, and if you manage to save up enough discs…well then yes, I do promise. I would gladly pledge my sword to one that had such self control as that! I would not rest until we had won your woman’s freedom.”
“Oh good. I’d much rather have your help than anyone else. There is one thing, I’m afraid if I save up that many discs people will just keep taking it from me. Do you have a place I could leave them.”
“You would trust me with them?”
“Yes. You promised.”
And that was that. Every week, when the drummer got his pay, he brought it straight to the knight, who in turn led him to a quiet aisle lined with lock boxes. The knight had a key to one of them, and disc-by-disc the drummer built a small mound of wealth within. It was, of course, a very long and slow process, but the drummer remained as committed as ever. To him it didn’t matter how long anything took, so long as it was the thing he had to do.
A few months later, after the drummer had saved up about a quarter of the total funds needed, the mound seemed to start growing of its own accord. Each time the drummer came to make his deposit, he could swear that the pile was larger than when he had last seen it. At first it only grew by an extra disc or two, but each week the rate of growth increased. Not only with the same small sized discs that the drummer was paid with, either. Now and again there were medium sized ones, and even one or two larges!
“Where do you think these are coming from?” the drummer asked the knight one day.
“Not a clue,” the knight said quickly. “I guess you’re just lucky.”
Eventually the mysterious additions outnumbered those made by the drummer, so that there was enough to buy both his and the knight’s freedom, and in half the time he had anticipated.
And then, one quiet day, the two of them were standing before “the accountant” holding sacks bulging with their fortune.
“And you attest that you came by all of these funds honestly? The ordinary accrual of your assigned work wages?” the accountant asked.
“Yes, all of it,” the knight said. “Of course you can look up our pay rates and how long we’ve been here to verify that the sum checks out.”
“Oh, I already have,” the accountant said silkily. “And yes, it is…conceivable.”
“I don’t even know how to come by funds that aren’t ‘honestly,'” the drummer offered.
“That is true,” the knight vouched. “He doesn’t.”
“Hmm, well I suppose I have no reason to deny your purchase. Though I am authorized to double your rates if you wanted to open new contracts…”
“Not a chance,” the knight said. The drummer took his cue and shook his head emphatically.
“Suit yourselves,” the accountant pulled two pieces of paper over to him, scribbled at their bottom, then pounded them with a large, rubber stamp. “Show these to the guards at the gates and they will let you through. I assume you know the way?”
“Of course I do,” the knight said.
And so they returned back to the knight’s old post, where his fellow guards stood in wait. There was a strange look between them as they saw their old comrade pass through the open doors. A sort of wishful longing, a stirring of things long since repressed.
The knight also paused a moment in the doorway, and looked back at his home of many years: a wide, empty chasm stretching eternally like a void. He had no love for it…but it was a part of him, and he would feel its absence.
Not the drummer, though. He gleefully strode out into the sun, squinting up at the blinding orb. It hurt him to see it, but it was a hurt that felt good. Yes he was still in this dreary town, and yes he still missed the dancer terribly. But he was getting closer to her now. Closer to being back on the right way. He reached down to his sides and pulled up his long-forgotten batons. They were blackened by soot and chipped all around, but they would still serve him. He pounded out a marching rhythm, and at once the knight snapped out of his reverie and hastened to follow the beat.
“So how can we find the dancer now?” the drummer asked as soon as the knight’s attention had returned to the present.
“We’ll have to ask around I suppose. You’ve got a description of her? And of the bear what took her? Alright, I know a few good places to float those out. Someone will have seen them, don’t you worry.”
The drummer still didn’t understand, but the knight seemed confident, so that was reassuring. He decided he would just wait and watch what the knight did, and then he would understand what he had meant.
So they ambled along, the knight trying to find his way through roads that he only half-remembered. He had been down in the factories for quite a very long time, and things had changed a great deal in the meantime.
“Things haven’t been kept up very well, have they?” he said as they hopped across a particularly pothole-riddled road. “I mean they were never very good here to begin with. But somehow they’ve gotten even worse!”
“This is not a nice place,” the drummer affirmed. “Is the city at the end of the main road nicer?”
“What? You mean the one they tell you to go to when you first get made? You can’t ever get there, y’know. Probably doesn’t even exist.”
The drummer came to a sudden stop, taken aback by hearing the knight echoing the exact same thoughts as the bear when he took the dancer. “Why do you say that?” he asked sadly.
“Oh…don’t listen to me,” the knight waved his hand dismissively. “People around here just say that, but they don’t know anything.”
“Why do they say that?”
“Listen, when I first went down that road I was quite committed to it. I passed this city and went a long way farther before giving up and coming back. And let me tell you, there is unquestionably something strange about it. Not a normal road at all! Really you get the sense that you’re not even moving forward after a bit, like you’re walking in place and the turns will never end.
“And that’s not just me, either,” the knight continued. “Lots of other toys got the sense that something wasn’t ordinary about it, too. Like some of them turned around and went back to talk to those chess pieces that first set you on the road. They could never find them. The road just seemed to keep stretching out forever in that direction once you got set on it. So don’t let me cast a shadow on your hopes, but I do say that that is no ordinary road.”
“I guess it doesn’t go to an ordinary place then.”
“What’s that? Oho! I rather like that, good point! Couldn’t be a run-of-the-mill road that takes you to the Great City, now could it? You’re probably on to something there.”
“The Great City is supposed to be something special then?”
“Of course! It’s supposed to be paradise! Now don’t ask me what that means, I thought I knew once, now I know that I don’t know at all. But it’s good. And special.”
“I see. Well once we get the dancer free, she and I will be taking the special road to find the special city. You’ll have to decide if you want to come with us or not.”
“I’m with you for as long as you’ll have me, Captain. I like you. So what if I don’t believe that there’s a city at the end of that road? I didn’t believe you could save up all those discs either, and see what happened there!”
At this point they had come to a low, dilapidated tavern.
“This isn’t a nice place, either,” the knight told the drummer as they walked up to the door. “But it was the best place for information back in my day, probably still is. You just keep close to me.”
The drummer didn’t need telling twice, and so the two went through as one, peering through the smoky dark until their eyes adjusted enough to take in the scene. There were a dozen rough tables strewn about haphazardly; the clientele were in the habit of moving them about as they saw fit, and the management was in the habit of not caring. Along the back wall were two counters, the one for buying food was greasy, and the one for buying drinks was splotch-stained. The only light in the place came from some chandeliers with candles set in a ring. The place was so smoke-filled that it seemed to choke the flickering flames, and bid them shine only dimly.
“This way,” the knight said after a moment, leading the way forward to the bar.
“What can I get for you?” the wind-up clock barkeeper asked as they draw near.
“Some information, my good fellow,” the knight said brightly, flicking a medium disc onto the counter. “I’m trying to find someone.”
“Mm,” the clock said, pocketing the disc and cleaning a glass with a rag.
“A dancer, a spinning ballerina in fact. Possibly in the company of a large, tan teddy bear. They would have come into town over a year ago.”
“Well I remember the bear, of course, but not the dancer.”
“The bear is well enough. Where is he?”
“You mean you really don’t know?” the barkeeper asked incredulously.
“Well, no,” the knight cocked his head, wondering just what it is that they weren’t cluing in on. “You see, my friend and I have only just came out of the factory. Been down there for quite a long while.”
“Oho! Hope you aren’t leading the guards to my nice establishment!”
“Not at all! We came out honestly.”
“Sure, sure. Well then you probably don’t know, but a little while back they started a registry. Made everybody sign up, and kept tabs on where they all were all the time. And all the newcomers had to sign it, too. Even if they was just visiting.”
“So that teddy bear is the last name in the book!”
“What? You don’t mean…?”
“I do! Hasn’t been a single other toy shown up since that day.”
At that the clock snorted. “Hardly. I mean some say so, but those of us with sense figure this finally proves that the Maker isn’t real. Course administration claims that he is, and rushed the bear straight up into their penthouse. They use him for a figurehead to push all their campaigns forward. That’s where he is if you want to see him, but good luck!”
“You said you’re from the factory? Any idea why its still running then? We sorta figured it would have shut down after the ‘Maker’ was found.”
“Well it’s not like my friend and I were privy to the board’s motivations…. But really a lot of us inside doubt that summoning the Maker was their real intention at all. Maybe at the start, but not for a long while now.”
“What then? Surely they aren’t trying to make the scowlies?”
The knight leaned in close, to be sure he wasn’t overheard. “Oh yes, indeed. They’re entirely committed to it now, trying to find ways to make them useful.”
“Train a scowlie? Why I never!”
“Only very basic things, you understand. They’ll never talk or reason like you and I do, but I’ve seen some tests run with them, where they had been fashioned for single, simple behaviors.”
“Well…” the knight drew back somberly. “Not very nice things. But enough of that for now. Thank you for the information.”
The clock clearly wanted to speak more with the knight, but already the knight had turned, shepherding the drummer across the room and out into the light.
“What is a Maker?” the drummer asked when they were out in the open again. “And a scowlie?”
“You mean all that time in the factory and you never found out what we were doing there?”
The drummer just shook his head.
“Well…the Maker, according to those who believe, is some great being who made all of us. That’s why none of us knows where we come from, because he makes somewhere else, puts some of his own life inside of us, and then places us secretly in the world. Now that’s a long-old religion, and people don’t really believe in that today. They don’t like the idea of anyone out there having that sort of unbridled power.”
“They’re afraid of him. See we all know he wouldn’t be too pleased with us if he saw us right now. And anytime something bad happens they say its him punishing us. So one day, long time ago now, some of the richer toys got together and built the factory. Said they were going to start making toys of their own. Take the responsibility from the Maker. Not only that, but they said they were going to make the Maker! Fashion him right here in toy form!”
“But…I thought you said they didn’t believe in him?”
“Well, they don’t…and they do. It’s confusing, I know. I guess you could say they wanted to make him here just in case. Because then he couldn’t be up there anymore if ever he did exist.”
“So how did they know how to make him?”
“They figured that if they made enough toys they might make one that looked just like him. And then he would sort of–transfer into it. I don’t understand it all, it was based on ancient manuals that had been written about the Maker. Something to do with: if you capture his image, then he will be in that toy. Don’t quote me on that, but that was the gist of it. Anyway, just think about it: then you would have the Maker of us all caught up in a box. If he still had any powers you could make him do whatever you wanted, or at the very least keep him bound down so that he can’t blast us all into dust.”
“I see…and now they think that the bear is him?”
“Well, you heard the clock. They do and they don’t, same as ever I suppose.”
“Well I think that I’m the Maker.”
“What?! Don’t say that!”
“It’s blasphemy. Well, I guess maybe you don’t know enough for it to be blasphemy. But a lot of people around here would find a claim like that insulting. They’d say you were being disrespectful to the Maker.”
“But what if I am him?”
“Well…no offense, but you just don’t seem the type.”
“What is he like, then?”
“I–I don’t really know…. Well, obviously he makes things, right? That much is clear. Can you make things like he can?”
“Sure.” The drummer reached down and stacked one rock sideways onto another.
The knight laughed and slapped the drummer on the back.
“Well who’s to say you aren’t, then! Really if any of us was, I suppose why not you?”
“Anyway…the teddy bear wasn’t even the last toy made either. I came after him, I just never signed the registry.”
“You what?! Well I guess that makes sense, you’ve already mentioned that you were around at the time.”
“And actually the dancer came even after me.”
“Well then maybe she’s the Maker!” the drummer laughs.
“I suppose she might be.”
“Curious that she wasn’t on the registry either…. Course, if the bear had her against her will, perhaps he was keeping her hid at the time.”
“But what’s a scowlie, then?”
The knight shuddered. “Nasty thing. See they couldn’t make anything proper in the factory. They couldn’t even make toys like you and I. They could make things that looked like toys, but they were just vacant and lifeless. They tried figuring out the secret of life, and that led them into…weirder experiments. The result were these strange, warped beasts. Random forms of metal, monsters really. And they weren’t ever really alive either. Just like I said in there, they can’t talk or reason, they just operate on one intent, usually a destructive one.”
“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”
“No, you don’t. Trust me.”
“But at least we know where the bear is now.”
Here the knight sighed deeply. “Sure, we know. But that’s a long ways from actually being there. You can’t just stroll into the Administration Building. Especially if he’s their precious figurehead, he’ll be safe from the public, somewhere locked down tight.”
“You don’t think we could get there?”
He shrugged. “Frankly I don’t know how…. But I imagine you will want to try anyhow?”
“Of course. And if that’s where your quest goes, then I will come along. Whether I can see success in it or not, I meant my pledge to you sincerely.”
“Well then…I guess the first thing for us to do is get a look at this place. Let’s go.”
They did get a look at the building, and what they saw was not quite as disheartening as the knight had feared. There was a central lobby to the building, a place with public access that anyone could approach. The rest of that floor, and the one above, were office spaces, where various representatives could meet with you if you had an appointment. Above that was seven more floors, which were inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t authorized. There were guards at each stairwell and lift that would only admit those that knew the right password.
The knight spent his few remaining discs and managed to track down one of the workers who had been involved in the construction of the building. They got access to some old blueprints, and got a general idea of how things were laid out up above.
“So these top three stories are the highest security areas,” the knight explained to the drummer, after he had had some time to review the plans. “The Boss and other high-profile officials stay here, as well as some of the more historically significant documents, and who knows what else.”
“The teddy bear?”
“I would guess…not, actually. From what I’ve been able to gather, he might be important as an image of the Administration’s ‘divine will,’ but most toys see him only as a lackey. No one gets the impression that he is actually involved in any real administrative decisions. If anything they’re probably more worried about him getting out than anyone getting to him.”
“So that leaves these middle three floors. Considering that the bear is known to live in this building at all times, that further rules out floor five, it’s only small spaces large enough for offices.”
“So four or six?’
“Six is something of an enigma. It’s simply a grid of large, divided spaces, and no one really has any idea what they are for. Conceivably one of them could be the living quarters of the bear. But there’s nothing more definite to point to it as a likely place for him.
“Anything for four?”
“A bit of a stretch, but yes. See we do know that in one of these floors has the printing press where they put together their propaganda. Those flyers have to reach the ground floor to go out in the caravans, and the fourth level is the last one that the lifts on the ground floor have direct access to. To get to the higher levels you have to get on a second set of lifts that start on number four. Four is kind of the cap-off point of the first half of the building, and for sheer convenience’s sake it would make sense if the press was on it.”
“Is that helpful?”
“Just a hunch, but if the communications department is indeed on the fourth floor, and the bear is so frequently featured in those communications…then it might stand to reason that he’s on the fourth floor as well.”
“Which of course brings up the question, well where on that floor? See here, it’s a sort of spider-web design of rooms. This large central one probably holds the press itself, and all the different departments extend from that down these hallways. They’d want him out of the way until he needed to rehearse a script, so probably one of the large rooms at the far end of these halls. Here, here, here, or here.”
The drummer rubbed his batons together. They were getting close!
“These two have windows, which would not work, because that would risk him being seen by the public outside of their control. So that leaves two. Room number 422 and 478.”
“And they’re identical. For the life of me I’ve tried to find some way to reduce our options down further, but this is far as I can get. Keep in mind, I might have made a mistake at any of the earlier steps already.”
“Which room is easier to get to?”
“You’re still okay with the distraction-and-bridge idea?”
“Then 422. It’s right next to a room with a window, which window is right across from the roof of the Spring Club.”
“Alright, 422 then.”
The knight shrugs. “Just as well. In the end it was always going to be a bit of a guess. You’re still sure that you’re the one who should confront the bear? I’m bigger than you are.”
“The dancer knows me. I should go.”
“And even if the bear is there, there’s no guarantee that the dancer is with him. Or that he has any real clue where she is. And even if she is there, or he does know…well, I can promise you that getting out of there isn’t going to be easy.”
“That’s okay. I don’t need it to be easy.”
The knight clapped the drummer on the back. “Well alright then. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
The next day the drummer stood perched on top of the Spring Club. It wasn’t exactly open to public access, but the knight had managed to smuggle him up there via a ladder placed in the back alley. Then the knight had left to go perform his own part of this heist.
The drummer leveled his eyes at the tall, many-windowed building across the way. The knight had pointed out the window in question to him, the one that he would have to pierce through. Just to the right of that was cold, dark concrete, seemingly innocuous, but the drummer knew it was the wall of the room where the bear was this very moment.
The knight seemed less certain of that fact, but the drummer knew it. He was there.
Even just thinking of that bear, the anger started to stir up in the drummer. How could that toy have hurt the dancer like that? He had no right to take advantage of her like that. It hadn’t been an accident, and it hadn’t been a mistake. That the drummer could have understood. But no, the bear had done it only to be cruel!
Slowly the drummer became aware of his tiny fists raised in front of his eyes, trembling with a flowing rage. He didn’t know why or how, but some part of him wanted to hurt that bear. Because the bear had been a hurter, too.
A large crack split the air and a corner of the administration building rippled. A cloud of rubble and smoke rushed up against the windows on the first floor. Soon those windows flung open, and various toys stuck their heads out into the air, coughing and gasping for fresh air, while others spilled out through the front doors.
The drummer and knight hadn’t been sure if the firecracker would just make a loud noise, or actually collapse the corner pillar. Apparently it had been the latter!
Another equally loud crack burst from the opposite corner of the building, right beneath the cart full of the day’s propaganda papers. Wood splinters and shreds of paper flew everywhere!
“NO TOYS, BUT FREE TOYS!” the knight’s voice echoed from the streets below. “THE FACTORY SUPPRESSES ITS WORKERS AND ENGAGES IN ILLEGAL PRACTICES, AND THE ADMINISTRATION KNOWS IT!”
A few other various shouts from frightened passerby echoed up and down the streets, and then a troop of guards came filing out of the administration building. As soon as they appeared on the scene the knight turned around and ran away, leading them on a chase and calling further criticisms over his shoulder as he went. Hopefully he would get away alright.
The drummer snapped his head up, and narrowed his eyes at the window that was his mark. He stepped back to the edge of the roof, and reached down to where their ladder still emerged from the dank alleyway. He hoisted it up until he could grip its mid-section, then ran forward with all his might. He streaked across the roof, faster and faster. The other edge rushed up to meet him, and he dove to the ground, skidding his legs along the gravel as he thrust the ladder upwards and outwards like a javelin.
It sailed through the air, rungs whipping by him as they measured the distance to the window of the administration building. The ladder’s firecracker-tipped ends touched against the pane.
The glass burst into a thousand pieces, and further cries echoed up and down the street. The ladder clanged into place, extending as a bridge at the drummer’s feet. The drummer didn’t pause for a second. He raced across the chasm, knowing full well that it would not be long before more security arrived!
Through the broken window he could see a hallway and a few toys fleeing down it, afraid that he was some maniac come to murder them, no doubt. Well good. Hopefully their stampede would keep the guards back for a few extra moments.
The drummer took one last leap, clearing the last of the ladder and landing inside of the building. He had already made out the bronze 422 on the second door on the right. He stomped over to it, pulling out the hammer slung at his waist. The knight had told him to not even bother turning the knob, the first thing that the bear would have done once the explosions went off was lock it.
Instead the drummer lifted the hammer high over head, and slammed it down on the doorknob, popping the whole thing off with a satisfying crunch. Then he kicked out at the door and let it swing wide.
“Oh no, no, please no!” a panicky voice shrieked from inside. Though it had been a long while now, the drummer recognized it instantly.
“Bear!” he growled. “Where is the dancer?!”
He advanced on the large, misshapen lump huddled on the floor of the lavish receiving room. The lump shuffled and the bear’s faced poked up in terrified confusion.
“The dancer! You took her and ran away, remember?!”
The bear shook his head frantically.
“On the road, on our way to the Great City. We passed by you and spoke to you, then you took her and ran into this dirty town!”
The bear’s eyes squinted at him, as if trying to see someone different. For the first moment it dawned on the drummer that he must look very, very different than he had back on that day. Now he was stained black with soot, scorched and cracked, to say nothing of the haunted glint in his eyes. For the first time it dawned on him that the bear looked very different as well. His fur had been swept back and painted. It made him look unearthly, like some sort of mystic.
“That was quite a long while ago,” the bear finally said. “Yes, I remember. I took her, I kept her for some time. But I haven’t seen her in a long, long while.”
“Where did you send her?”
“Send her? No, I woke up one day and she was gone.”
“She didn’t say where?”
“Of course not. She hated me.”
“What?!” hot tears sprang from the drummer’s eyes. This was too much. She was alone out there? And no one knew where! This was the one good thread they had had to follow, and it didn’t get them any closer at all.
“Maybe–maybe she’s back on the road for the Great City,” the drummer said suddenly, grasping for some stray glimmer of hope.
“I–doubt it,” the bear said slowly, backing away towards the corner. “I don’t think she wants the same things that she did before. She’s not really the same toy as she was then…none of us are.”
“I AM!” the drummer roared, charging forward so that the bear scurried flat against the wall. “I STILL WANT TO GO TO THE GREAT CITY!”
“I don’t think you’re the same. Not at all the same at all…”
The bear had a point. For never before would the drummer have considered the violences that his mind was entertaining here and now. He still had that hammer gripped tightly in his hand. Maybe the dancer wasn’t here. Maybe he couldn’t save her yet. But the bear was here, and he could still punish him.
The drummer’s eyes winced shut and his fists shook. A deep struggle rippled through him. At last he dropped the hammer to the ground with a thud.
“I am the same!” he strained. “Same enough anyway.”
The bear looked from the drummer towering over him to the hammer down on the ground.
“You probably should hold onto that, y’know.”
“Don’t you know what they keep on floor six here?”
“The scowlies!” the bear shuddered involuntarily. “They’ll already be on their way.”
“I don’t hear anything out there.”
“That’s how you know that they’ve arrived!”
A sudden chill ran through the drummer and he spun around on the spot, just in time to see a stream of metal sheaves flowing through the center of the doorway and straight into him. He didn’t even hear the impact as he was flung him across the room and slammed into the wall. Still the shafts kept pressing forward, skewering through his chest and pinning him to the spot. The metal blades that weren’t pinning him began to spin and slide, morphing into an erratic form, somewhat like a metal hand, walking on its fingers.
Wincing through the pain the drummer gripped his hammer tightly and swung it in a wide arc. Or at least he tried to. He barely got it more than an inch before one of those metal fingers snapped out, bursting the hammer into a thousand pieces. The blades piercing the drummer’s chest drove in deeper. A humming sound came from inside the metal demon, and now the skewers began to push out in each direction, straining against the drummer’s core, trying to burst his whole body apart.
“What do you–? Why–?” the drummer’s voice came out strained and weak. He was vaguely aware of another of these strange demons bursting into the room and charging down the squealing teddy bear.
The drummer’s eyes fluttered rapidly, his vision floated in and out of focus. “I’m the maker,” he mouthed. Cracks were widening in his chest, snapping up his body, splitting across his lips. “I made every toy.” His body made a loud popping noise and the metal blades sprung partway open. The drummer’s few remaining fibers began to twist and divide. “I made the hands that made you,” the two separate halves of his mouth motioned. “I am you.”
There was a tremendous snap and the drummer’s body burst apart, his entire torso exploding into a cloud of splinters. All thoughts ceased within his mind, and what chunks of body still remained collapsed lifelessly to the floor.
And yet. With that snapping of his body, all of his silent words suddenly reverberated off the walls like a great, rushing wind. It pounded through the space and quaked through the core of the scowlie. Though it had not been fashioned with any ears, it heard it all, and the fingers it walked upon flailed about wildly. A spasmodic shriek emanated from its rubbing sheaves, and the blades started folding and turning, reassembling, fusing together in fervent heat. The edges became less sharp, the pallor less cold, the features less random. The whole being glowed bright yellow, lost entirely from view as it shone like a mortal star!
Sparks rained off of the fusing metal, and as they showered downwards they landed on the boots of a new, metal drummer. It was not merely similar to the wooden version that had just been destroyed, it was the exact image, fresh as the day the drummer had first created. Even his original coloring had somehow been baked into the steel. Though this new version stood in this room, still there also lay the broken and lifeless version of the drummer on the floor. The one that was crafted of cheap wood, stained black by soot, and cracked by heat. The one that still held the handle of the hammer in its glove.
The second scowlie, which had finished with the bear, turned and shrieked at the metal drummer, trying to discern if this was another target or not. The drummer turned and faced it back, unflinching.
“I am you, too,” he said confidently, then raised his baton and brought it down on the drum. It’s metal top resonated much more brightly than when it had been made of wood, and a spasm rippled through the scowlie. It gave one more shriek, then dashed out of the room.
The drummer nodded approvingly, then exited the room himself. He walked back to the hole that had once been a window. He ignored the ladder-bridge, and instead leaped out, falling the full four stories to the ground. He landed gingerly on his boots, then marched off down the street, heading in the direction that the knight had led the guards down.
It did not take him long to find them, the clatter of metal and wood soon echoed to him from a side-alley. There, at its end, he found the knight laughing in combat with the guards. He was outnumbered 20-to-1, but he was a well-made figure, cast from solid pewter. The guard’s thin blades were simply too weak to do more than scratch his armor, and so he danced about, systematically cleaving their spears in two.
“Charge him!” the Guard-Sergeant shouted. “Your weapons are useless, grab him with your arms!”
“His weapon isn’t useless!” one of the guards returned, not wanting to put his own, wooden neck anywhere near the knight’s sword.
“Cowards!” the Sergeant charged forward himself. The knight spun quickly and put a well-placed kick in the assailant’s chest, knocking him back to the ground.
“Haven’t we done enough of this?” the knight chortled.
“The scowlies will get you!” the Sergeant spat, slinking away while rubbing his chest.
Immediately the knight’s jovial nature turned dark. “What’s that?!” he demanded.
“Knight, don’t worry,” the drummer said, rushing to his side.
“I leave you toys alive and you’ll send scowlies after me next, is that about right?!” the knight continued after the Sergeant, pointing his sword at the toy’s chest.
“Knight, the scowlies aren’t a problem.”
“No drummer, you haven’t seen them. They absolutely are a problem. I know you won’t like this, but we have to break these toys now.”
“I have seen them. In fact, I am one of them.”
If the knight’s helm could have opened his jaw would have been agape. Instead he just cocked his head in a strange away, unable to fathom why the drummer would even say something like that. Even the guards cowering against the back wall stared to the drummer in bewilderment.
“You don’t know what you’re saying–” the knight began slowly.
Before he could continue the drummer closed his eyes, then his face split and his metal sheaves began to unfold, twisting and re-forming back into the shape of a scowlie.
“A trap!” the knight cried, driving his sword into the heart of the creature. The scowlie grabbed the sword lazily, and yanked it out of the knight’s grip. Then it shuffled again, reforming back into the drummer, holding the sword aloft in his hand.
“No, knight. It’s still me.”
The knight made a strange, flustered noise, and flailed his arms like he was in danger of losing his balance. “But–but all this time?”
“No, just now. When the scowlie killed my old body up in the Administration Building.”
“A scowlie…killed you…?”
“Killed the body. But I was in the scowlie, just as much as I was in that old body. Just as much as I’m in you. Just as much as I’m in them,” he nodded his head towards the still-cowering guards.
“You mean–wait, just what are you trying to say?…Surely not…the Maker?”
The drummer cocked his head in amusement. “Didn’t you say that the Maker put part of himself into each toy?”
“Did I? I think that’s what they say, yes.”
“I liked that part. So I decided that that was who I was. So I don’t think it’s just me who is the Maker. So are you, if you to decide to be. So is everyone. And if everyone decides to be the Maker, and brings their part together, we’ll finally be able to make him again.”
The knight didn’t respond. He took a few shaky steps over to the guards he had just been fighting, and sat down among them. All the toys stared at the drummer in a silent stupor.
“I thought you’d be happy,” the drummer frowned.
“I–I’m overwhelmed,” the knight’s voice was hollow.
“Because it…it…well it breaks everything I thought I knew.”
“So? Isn’t this better?”
“Yes, I suppose…if…”
“If it’s true.”
“So you don’t believe me?” the drummer sounded hurt.
“I don’t know. Really I’m not saying that. Just that it’s–overwhelming. You figured all of this out while you were up with the bear, did you?”
“See, it doesn’t come that easily for the rest of us.”
“It wasn’t so easy. I had to die to figure it out.”
“Oh,” the knight said stupidly, really not sure how to properly respond to that. “Little drummer, please don’t be offended. But it’s really going to take some time before I even know what I think about what you’re saying.”
“Oh…okay, I guess. We can talk about something else if you’d like.”
“Um, sure. Uh, did you find out where the dancer was?”
“No, I didn’t,” the drummer’s face looked troubled, then almost instantly brightened. “But I’ve just thought of a way to find her.”
“I’m sure you have. Why don’t we go find her, and maybe–maybe that’ll give me some time to just think about everything you’ve said along the way?”
“What about us?” one of the guard’s piped up.
“What about you?” the knight returned. “You’re free to go if you’ve had enough.”
“Or free to come with us if you want more,” the drummer added enthusiastically.
The Sergeant frowned at that, rose to his feet, and ducked down the alley with his head bowed. One-by-one the other guards followed until only two remained. Each of them looked to one another, and then back to the drummer.
“We’d rather come with you. Come and see–whatever it is you’re doing. Looking for a dancer, you said?”
“Yes,” the drummer nodded. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but she and I came up with a dance, and when I played the music for it we always knew just how to move together.”
“So follow me.” And with that the drummer whisked out his baton and brought it back down on his drum. Rump-a-dum-a-dum-a-dum! And as he struck out his old, familiar tune, his legs snapped to attention and whisked him down the alley. His rhythm reverberated loudly off the walls, and the knight and two guards fell into step behind him.
They marched out into the street, then made a turn and were off on their way. One street, then another, then another. The whole area was still reeling from the attack on the Administration Building, but whatever toys recognized the drummer and the knight were much too frightened to approach them. Instead crowds parted and stared wide-eyed at them as they passed. After a little while the marchers were past the heart of the city, and on their way into the next district.
Here the houses were more modest, and had wide spaces between them for growing groves of trees. The ground hadn’t been leveled here, and naturally rose and fell in little hills and dells. As more and more of the city-proper fell behind them, it became clear that the drummer’s dance was leading them in a straight line for the gutted remnants of an old town in the distance.
It was perched atop a steep rise in the land, an old suburb of the city that had been almost entirely consumed in a terrible fire long ago. There was no official community there now, only vagrants and gangs of criminals, competing with the local wildlife for a hole to sleep in. Of course the knight with his sword and the guards with their half-spears were already better armed than any peasant that they might find, and so the party wasn’t too worried as they followed the slope of the land into its blackened ruins.
No one tried to molest them anyhow. Indeed, they didn’t even see any of the toys, only the ratty bedrolls and smoldering fires of their camps. So strange in this place was the sight of the visitors, that the inhabitants had scurried for cover, and now peeped out at them in awe from their hiding places.
The journeyers marched straight down the central street, old rubble crumbling into dust beneath their feet. The drummer’s beat echoed unnaturally off the half-toppled buildings, as if it had been so long since those old walls reverberated sound, that now they didn’t quite remember how.
All at once the drummer felt his feet turning, taking him off the central road. He quickened his rhythm, beating a trail down a nearby alley. Over the moldy frames fallen out of the windows, and across the crunching beads of shattered glass. His feet began to slow, and presently he came face-to-face with a small apartment, its door hanging on just one hinge, yellow paint peeling off in chunks.
The drummer stilled his batons, then looked back to his accompaniment, they looked back at him, eyes unblinking. He turned back, swallowed, and pushed his way through the creaky door. The knight and the guards waited respectfully outside.
“So it’s you,” a quiet voice sighed from a corner.
It was dark inside, with the only light spilling to the floor from a broken window on the right. The voice had come from just beyond that light, tucked into the gray of a corner. The drummer slowly made his way in that direction, until the form of a small toy took shape in the shadows. He came to a stop in the dusty light.
“Dancer?” he asked, squinting to see her better.
“Oh, but it is you. It must be.”
“No,” she returned more forcefully. “Whatever you came looking for, it isn’t here. It isn’t anywhere anymore.”
The figure’s head turned until it was pointed firmly away. “Toys break. It’s what they do.”
“Oh,” he said blankly, not really understanding.
“You should go on now.”
“Not without you! I came to–”
“To what?!” the head spun back to face him. Now the drummer’s eyes were adjusted enough to be really sure that it was the dancer…but her face was stained and cracked, and hot tears were flinging from her eyes. “You came thinking we could just go back to how things were before? That nothing that happened in between would matter? It doesn’t work like that!”
“What did happen?” he crouched down by her.
She raised her hand, as if to say something, but after nothing came out she made a noise of exasperation and let the limb drop.
“If you don’t understand I can’t explain it,” she finally shot out. “I didn’t realize you were still so stupid about–everything.”
The drummer looked down sadly at that. It had struck something in him. “Yes, I am still stupid,” he said flatly. “Everyone confuses me. They’ve tricked me over and over, and I should have realized it, but they were all so much smarter than I am. I still don’t understand most of what everyone’s saying.”
A look of pity flashed across her face. “I’m–sorry. They did that to me, too.”
“Did it make you mad? I felt very mad about it after a while.”
“A lot,” she croaked, tears now flowing like little streams.
He reached out and took her little fingers in his hand. She started to pull her hand away, but stopped with just the fingertips still touching.
“And then I did bad things because I was so mad,” she said between clenched teeth. “And that made me like them.”
“I’m sorry, dancer–”
“Don’t call me that!” she balled her other hand in a fist and pounded it on the ground. “I’m not a dancer anymore.”
“But why not?”
“Look!” she said angrily, thrusting her palms down towards her legs. The drummer looked, but saw nothing. And then he understood…they were gone.
“Oh no!” he cried.
“Now you get it, do you? I’m broken, drummer. You can keep on beating your batons, but there’s no more gallivanting down the road to a magical City for me. It’s over.”
The drummer wiped away his tears. “No, it’s alright. There’s something wonderful, I can fix and make things now! I can–”
“No!” she snapped, jabbing her finger at his face. “You have no right!”
“I’m trying to help!”
“And I’m telling you that you don’t get to! You. Left. ME!” She shot him a face full of fury, then threw herself to the opposite side and collapsed in shuddering sobs.
“I–” the drummer winced, not sure how to explain that she misunderstood.
“I–” it wasn’t his fault that everyone else had been so mean and delayed him.
He buried his face in his hands and the tears finally flowed out of him as freely as they were for the dancer. “It’s like you said, I’m still stupid. I get so mad because I was supposed to save you, but everyone tricked me and I was too stupid to see through it! I was supposed to, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t enough.”
And then no one said anything for quite a long while. They both just cradled their heads and mourned their wounds. Then, after a long while, they cradled one another and mourned the other’s hurt as well. And they were there for such a long time that the knight and the guards might have come to check on them, but they could hear that the two toys needed their time together.
“I–am glad to see you again,” the dancer said cautiously after they had both been quiet for a while. “I just wish it had been before things were too late.”
“Are they really too late?”
“I cannot walk. And I cannot have you trying to fix that. It would–I don’t know–it would be like saying being broken didn’t matter.”
“I see…” the drummer furrowed his brows thoughtfully, then raised them as a new suggestion occurred to him. “I could…carry you instead.”
“You’d get tired. I’d be a burden” the dancer said, but more importantly she did not say ‘no.’
“That’s my decision. And I think it’s okay for me to be burdened…seeing as I wasn’t there to stop you getting broken.”
The dancer bit her lip.
“Well…maybe you can carry me for a bit…if you want…”
The drummer rose to his knees and very gently slid one hand under the stumps that were all that remained of her legs. Then he put his other arm around her back, and she curled her own arm around his neck. At last he stood up, and together the two of them exited the building.
“Well,” the knight nodded to the drummer, “are we off to the road?”
“Yes,” the drummer said. “Off to the city at last.”
And so the five of them turned from the burned out village, and turned from the seedy town, and felt their way back onto the winding road. At long last they had found the way back towards the Great City. It would, of course, be a very, very long time before they found it, but that was alright.