A Sanguine Sacrament

Summary: When the dread stars align, a ritual tournament is conducted on a distant island. The greatest warriors from the world are called. The victor must seal away a great evil, but at a tremendous cost.

The Pagoda

The Tianwei Pagoda loomed over its namesake town for centuries. It stood atop the hill like a persistent stargazer, casting a long shadow across the village like a cyclopean sundial. Zhou Lifeng the Ever-Victorious trotted up the hillside path with his thoroughbred, doing his best to ignore the unsightly scar it received in the recent battle. The insolent villagers were rounded up and separated into men and women, awaiting his orders as to their fates.

Lifeng and his fellow deserters expected the remote village's militia to fold like cheap furniture after exchanging a few volleys of arquebus fire and crossbow bolts. Instead, they'd ambushed his troops intermittently up on the rocky advance to the village. Once he'd cornered the militia near the village's palisade walls, the wretched old woman who led them had the audacity to charge him with a spear. He cut her down like the peasant vermin she was, but not before she'd marred his beautiful steed.

Lifeng knew the pagoda tower was the highest vantage point in the area, so it made an ideal observation point for his men. He doubted anyone would bother to chase them, but it would be foolhardy to ignore the structure's strategic importance. Since it would be his stronghold, he wished to inspect it personally. He brought his best men with him, in case the enemy holed up inside for an ambush.

Lifeng hesitated at the entrance as a chill running down his spine. All he knew was the villagers were terrified of it, and he felt something amiss about the entire structure. The locals his men beat for information said the place was an old monastery, but the monks were long dead after a bandit raid. The locals heard strange sounds and saw lights in the tower, making them think it was haunted. Foreseeing their imminent defeat, the locals might've still prepared unpleasant surprises inside. He hesitated as the doors opened before them. They were carved stone slabs with metal rings and hinges, which would have taken dozens of his line of men to force. While he was unnerved, he would not be alone.

So, Lifeng entered the pagoda behind a line of his men. He was a descendant of the ancient Zhou dynasty, and it was his birthright to once more seize all under heaven. The quivering conscripts before him were peasant stock, tools to achieve the greatness history owed him. When one of the men stepped back and pleaded, he eviscerated him with his sword. The unfortunate spearman still breathed, so Lifeng made long, painful incisions along his groin and joints. He ordered the remaining men to stare at it, to see the man he'd just sent to his filthy, ignoble ancestors. He then ordered the first rank into the front door of the pagoda, as he'd thoughtlessly sent them onto suicide missions before.

Lifeng ordered the rear echelon to hold the doors with stone chocks. Whatever unseen mechanism or magic opened the door could close it behind him. He would not enter battle without an escape plan, even if it was only him to escape. He clutched his jian longsword tighter in his hand, while his men closed into a protective line between him and whatever occupants dwelt in the pagoda. Every fifth man of his twenty-troop unit held a lantern, so they would not be caught in the dark. He halted to survey his surroundings.

Lifeng saw the entrance to the temple was a surprisingly airy, open chamber that seemed spacious due to its sparse ornamentation. Natural light poured in from ample skylights, reflected downwards from large windows. There was little furniture, save a handful of dusty benches beside the doors. A wooden staircase at the end of the chamber led to the second floor. Wary of traps and structural decay, he ordered his armored men to climb up the stairs.

Lifeng heard a scream when the third man gaily ascended the stairs. A spearman armored in a heavy stone coat plunged through a creaking stairwell, screaming as broken boards lacerated his legs. The other soldiers halted their ascent and tried to pull him out, succeeding only in driving the broken wood deeper into his wound. Lifeng raised his sword, preparing to solve the problem more permanently. A crippled soldier would only slow him down. He stopped when something fell from the ceiling. Behind him, a stone wall rose from the floor, blocking off their escape.

Lifeng had never seen anything directly like it, but he'd heard of similar machines used in the sieges back east. It was a wooden cradle holding a crossbow-like mechanism, with a magazine of bolts as long and thick as horse members. A chain connected the string and release mechanisms, powered by an unseen mechanism built into the wall. When the chain began to rotate, he was already sprinting up the stairs. A man bolt almost caught him, but he pulled a spearman in between him and the fatal projectile. The mortally wounded soldier barely had time to comprehend what happened before expiring.

By that time, Lifeng moved upstairs with an alacrity astounding even himself. The repeating crossbow turret was certainly an unpleasant surprise, but he still had at least a half-dozen men. He forced those who'd made it upstairs behind him in front of him, and onwards to the next level. Those traps needed someone to maintain and reset them, he mused, someone he'd cut down with gleeful celerity.

Lifeng moved down the main hall of the second floor with a furious haste. Wooden training dummies and musty mat-covered floors indicated it might have been the monastery's training area when it was active. The thick layer of dust on the floor indicated little activity since then, although he saw some small, very human footprints in the dust. Content he was closing in on his quarry, he ordered his men up the stairs at the end of the hallway, eager to close the distance with his foe.

Lifeng ordered his men to proceed slowly and carefully up the stairs, to avoid breaking the fragile wood. He waited behind cover for his men to ascend the stairwell, ensuring the master of this malign monastery would not claim him. Unlike the ground floor, there was not enough space for a crossbow trap, but that did not preclude other hazards. Better to sacrifice a few pawns than allow a king to be harmed, he thought.

Lifeng's suspicions were confirmed when he heard screams from outside his alcove. He peaked outside to see the stairs collapsed into a smooth ramp leading downwards, with a spiked pit opening at the base. Three of his men, those last up the stairs, rolled plummeted down the ramp into the yawning pit. They screamed and pleaded for nonexistent mercy on the way down. No sooner had the third man vanished within than the entrance snapped shut, silencing their cries forever. The stairs reverted to their normal shape, and a rope came down from the men that made it upstairs.

Lifeng pulled himself up, with blind fury guiding him. It was not the dead men or blocked escape that bothered him, but the cowardness of the pagoda's master. Perhaps it was some insane old monk, an opportunistic vagrant, or desperate villager holding out against his conquest. Either way, he would not allow his name, his rise to be sullied by some ignoble, dirt-humping peasant filth. He alone had the Mandate of Heaven, not his former commanders back east, not the petty warlords that carved up bits of Tianguo, not the pretenders that clambered for local rule. Eager not to perish as quickly as his men had, he observed the third level of the pagoda.

Lifeng saw shelves of books and scrolls stretching from floor to ceiling. His eyes perked up. While he did not care for the soft, hollow fools that read and learned, such archives were undoubtedly priceless. Or, at least, worth a princely ransom to those that cared. With such loot at stake, he looked at his three remaining men with a wicked grin. He ordered them forwards, as they were almost to the top. There was no other place the enemy could hide. Just like the time he burnt down a forest to purge resistance fighters, he would scour this pagoda until nothing remained.

Lifeng did not need to wait long for the third level's trap to spring. His men dispersed into the rows of bookshelves, advancing in unison to drive out any hiding enemies. He saw the shelves crashing down like a row of cheap dominos, his men's anguished screams beneath them. Extricating himself from beside the nearest shelf, he ignored their cries for help until the shelves stopped crashing. Then, as silently as a ghost, he crept through the darkened room. Whomever sprung the traps would certainly come to investigate, and all he needed to do was ambush them.

Lifeng did not have to wait long. A shelf built partially into the wall opened up, and the secret compartment disgorged his potential tormenter. He thought she was male at first, but she was clearly a young woman with a shaved head. She wore the saffron robes of the martial orders, and she wore a set of butterfly swords on her sash. She carefully and dispassionately observed the men crushed to death beneath the bookshelves. As she came towards him, he lunged at her with his longsword.

Lifeng expected to run her through. Instead, she drew her righthanded blade, stepped to the side, and harmlessly deflected the sword thrust. The tip of her blade cut into his forearm, leaving a long, painful line where she cut. The wound seared his soft, vulnerable underarm. He shouted in agony as her second blade plunged towards his neck. In that instant of flashing steel, he realized how truly outclassed he was. He only seethed in rage as the blade closed in. However, something stayed her hand.

Outside, the Tianwei villagers forced their way out of their holdings. The guards were disorganized and routed, with their leading officer and most experienced troops having vanished into the pagoda. The villagers armed themselves with stashed and captured weapons, forcing the brigands from their homes. As the sun set, the remnants of Lifeng's army sprinted into the wilderness as broken bands, never to threaten them again.