The tower stood lonely and desolate among the ruins of what once had been a great city. It alone had survived the centuries, its brethren having long since fallen and crumbled. Yet time had still taken its due: the panoply of great glass panes that had once gleamed upon the living city had but a few been shattered by vandals, or by the stresses of the building’s senescence. Every inch of exposed surface had been claimed by rust. It had even begun to lean noticeably, proclaiming that the fate of its compatriots was for it merely delayed, not averted.
Once, in a world long since gone, great numbers of people had visited the tower every day. Now, it was host to a lone figure, and he the first for many years. Called Jjosseh, son of Liia, he was just barely a man of sixteen, and he had come from a village some spans to the east, in the lands of the Horse Lords. His family were poor, with little land and no skills for trading. His sister had been wed to a wealthy merchant for a decent bride-price, but she had hated her fate and had run away. The merchant demanded the return of the bride-price, which his family could not pay. His father had been taken as a servant until the price was repaid. So he had come here, to the last tower, to seek a treasure with which to ransom his father.
Such places were said to hold treasures left over from an age of wonders, when people flew through the air like Ikku and could make the weather be whatever they wished. It was said they must have lived in close communion with the gods to have done such miracles, but others said they consorted with demons, for was it not for the ancients’ pride and wickedness that the gods overthrew the age and humbled humanity before them once more? Some said the old places were haunted by monsters, summoned from the shadow either by the gods to enact vengeance, or by ancient sorcerers in their folly.
If only I knew the trick of speaking with things, Jjosseh thought, of what wonders could this tower tell me?
The ancient stairways were at places blocked by rubble where the walls had ceded their will to remain standing. There were four such stairways, and with great patience and care Jjosseh had managed to climb to the eighth floor before he found all of them sealed to further ascent. No treasures had yet presented themselves, claimed as they must have been by time and robbers. But there were several more floors above, and perhaps previous treasure-hunters had been blocked as he now was, and had turned back. He weighed his options: he could attempt to climb further from the outside, a very risky venture given that he had no gear for climbing such a structure, or he could try to climb one of the empty shafts near the tower’s center.
The shafts had once been guarded by metal gates that slid into recesses within the walls, but those were now rusted or fallen. Beyond them lay great dark columns that run up and down the height of the building. What use these could be, Jjosseh could not fathom. But they had iron ladders bolted to the sides of the shaft, rusted but still seeming secure. Moving his knapsack behind his back, Jjosseh began his climb.
The shaft was completely dark except for glimpses of light streaming in through open gates on floors above and below, and it was eerily quiet except for the footfalls Jjosseh himself made. On his way up, he had seen no other living being. Perhaps the old world truly ran on a sort of foul necromancy that resonated even to this day. As he climbed, a numinous chill came over Jjosseh, and he felt that whatever spirits watched over him, they could no longer protect him if he continued. He summoned his courage and continued, pushing all thoughts from his mind except those of a reunion with his father.
I cannot abide my father in fetters, he thought. I will see him once more free or not at all.
Jjosseh had nearly made it to the ninth floor when, trying to pull himself upward, the rung he gripped came off in his hand, and he fell into the darkness below. He frantically tried to catch himself, but only earned bruises as his limbs slammed against the rungs of the ladder then slid helplessly off.
From below he heard a hideous growl unlike any he’d ever heard before. As the sound grew in magnitude it drowned out Jjosseh’s screams. Suddenly, his body was encircled as if by some great tongue reaching up from the dark below, and his last impressions were of his body being pulled downward into a beast’s gaping maw and pierced through by sharp teeth.