Bear’s wounds were so great that he could no longer walk, no longer use his weapons. The gobs had assumed him to be dead, a piece of worthless fluff no longer worthy of the slightest consideration now that he had ceased to hack and slash at them. Bear had cannily maintained his silence while they were about, but once they had moved on in pursuit of the girl, he cried out for aid.

It was a risk, to be sure. He might attract more gobs, or something worse. But with his body torn up in battle, there was no other way for him to continue to serve the girl as he had since the day she had come home, when they had met on the playroom floor. His service, and the completion of the Unspoken Promise, was greater than any threat from within or without.

“Hello there, little toy bear.” A silhouette loomed over Bear, the size and shape of a small child, maybe half or less of the girl’s age. “Do you need help?”

“That is correct,” said Bear matter-of-factly. “I have lost my charge, she who is as my sister, she who I have sworn to protect and see through from birth to maturity in a promise unspoken to her parents on the day of her birth.”

“That is an awfully big promise for such a small bear,” said the shadow. “I can carry you for a bit, if you like.”

“That would be most kind of you,” said Bear. “I have no way of repaying your kindness, which makes the gesture all the more noble.”

It wasn’t until the shape picked Bear up that he noted something odd. The child-sized shape’s grip was watery and cold, and the presence of shadow and indistinctness of features did not dissipate with distance or the strength of light. “I hope you don’t think it rude of me to ask,” said Bear, after they had walked for some time, “but what might I call you, and what might you be?”

“I am a shade, and you may call me Shade, for you see I do not remember any other name I might have had,” was the reply. “Long ago, something dreadful happened, and I must wander from the Gobwood to Childhood’s End again and again until I can remember what it was.”

“That seems a terrible punishment for something unremembered,” said Bear in a kindly tone.

“It is not so bad,” replied Shade. “And it is much better with a traveling companion. I try to help others when I can, and the Gobwood is always full of those that need my aid.”

Bear saw the wisdom in this, and did his best to engage Shade in pleasant conversation as they walked. In time, the two came to the edge of a great crag overlooking a forested valley with jagged uplifts in the smokey distance. Atop one of them was the ragged shape of a great pleasure wheel.

“The Great Eye,” whispered Bear.

“Childhood’s End,” said Shade sadly. “The end of my journey, and the beginning of yours.”

Inspired by this image.

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“What has led you to the Xia Valley and the Game of the Dreaming? What do you hope to see when the blossoms take your mind?” asked Datai Chu, the duly appointed and empowered 217th Overseer of the Games. “As late entrants, you will be subject to my ruling on whether or not you are worthy of the games and the Flowers of Xia.”

Ru Shim, a former soldier in the Qingdu Emperor’s great army, replied “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might prove myself worthy of the renown I once possessed. I hope to see a field of worthy enemies that I might lay low in fair combat.”

Qiang Zhou, a mercenary and fortune-seeker, said “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might earn the purse for winning it. I hope to see a challenge not possible in the waking world, that I might overcome that which no man has ever faced.”

Jiang Tang, a farmer facing the loss of his land if he could not pay a debt, was direct: “I also seek the Game of the Dreaming for the purse, as it is the only thing that might save the land that my family’s hands have tilled for generations. I hope to see a circumstance in which a hardworking farmer can see his toil rewarded.”

Xuan Li, a wanderer facing the end of his long and proud line due to his inability to sire an heir, answered last: “I seek not the Game of the Dreaming, but rather the flowers themselves. Win or lose, I hope only to see a vision of what might come to pass if my line were not wiped from the earth.”

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“Buck’s a shadow pinscher.”

“A what?”

“A dog that’s specially bred to detect evidence of spirits–ectoplasmic residue, cold or warm spots, that sort of thing.”

“That might just be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Oh, come on. With all the stuff on the internet these days, is spiritualism such a stretch, even if you’re a skeptic?”

“Not that. That name, Buck.”

“Buck is a fine name for a shadow pinscher!”

“So, this kind of dog–which I’ve never heard of before and which for all I know you just made up in some recess of your addled brain–was bred to sniff out ghosts and you didn’t name him ‘Scooby-Doo’? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“First, Scooby-Doo was a Great Dane. Second, there were never any real ghosts on that show. If I had a dog bred to sniff out latex masks so we could see that Old Man Withers was really the Screeching Phantom of Midley Moors, then we could talk.”

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Not even the peyadh spirits themselves could say for sure from whence they came, in the very rare instances that they deigned to communicate with the “slow folk,” who they considered inestimable bores. This mystery didn’t much perplex the peyadh, for they lived very much in the moment and were concerned primarily with entertaining themselves. An eternity of near incorporeality and nigh invisibility to the slow folk made entertainment a must for these restless beings, usually in the form of impish pranks.

One peyadh, who would have called itself a him and called himself Squout if pressed, enjoyed tweaking the patrons of a Great Plains Greyhound bus station. When Squout had first arrived in the area in the 1920’s, he had tweaked the buses’ engines so they failed in interesting and unpredictable ways–the highlight of which had been a Tulsa-bound International Harvester bus whose engine had simply dropped out a hundred miles into its trip.

Squout had eventually come to sympathize with the mechanics who were forced to remedy his tinkering, especially once they, being a superstitious lot, began leaving him small gifts, and turned his mischief on passengers. Swapping luggage tags on similar suitcases was a favorite, as was swapping suitcase contents between cases and between buses. The mill worker, headed to Topeka, was as confused at finding a set of garters in his suitcase as one Miss Anders, bound for the shady side of St. Louis, was when discovering Oshkosh overalls among her unmentionables.

Johanssen took a fresh puff from his cigar. “Phantasms are manifestations of residual emotional energy, kid. That means when you get right down to it, they spring from the human mind. And as anyone ought to know, the human mind is a seriously messed up place. God really should have taken that one back to the blueprints.”

“Like what?” said Adrian.

“For example: the more agitated you are, the more emotional energy you put out and the more likely it is to stick around,” Johanssen said. “So a lot of the really fun phantasms tend to be associated with old mental hospitals. A drooling lunatic with paranoid delusions puts out major emotional wattage in the same padded room for twenty years, you’ve got a good chance of a phantasm. He croaks, you’ve got a good chance of a motile phantasm. Best of all, there’s a strong chance the phantasm will take the form of something from the nutjob’s coconut.”

Adrian crossed his arms and looked at Johanssen expectantly. “You’re not going to just leave it at that, are you?”

In fact, it was clear from the fire in the old man’s eyes and the rate at which cigar smoke belched out of him that he’d been tearing at the bit to share ever more. “This one time we were called in to sweep a San Fran kookhouse. Found a whole nest of ’em. Loquacious bunch, too: Gil got them talking. There was the Chosen Sloth of the Beginning, which came out of a paranoid delusion of a luminous treehanger that was going to remake the world in its own image. Then you had the Banjo Skeleton, which really doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation. And the Disco Colossus of the Drive-Through…well, maybe when you’re older.”

It was called “The Game of the Dreaming.”

Every autumn, when the first leaf fell in the Xia Valley, the masters of the local school would open the tournament and many would respond to their call, from all corners of the Empire. The Xia tournament was far from ordinary, however, which led considerably to its allure.

The masters would go out at midsummer to the nearby mountain, returning after a week’s absence with strange purple flowers that no one who lived in the area could ever recall seeing in the wild. Ground up, fermented, and placed into ornate bottles, the flower draught was the centerpiece of the tournament. A special arena in the form of a labyrinth with an open top was maintained at the school; competitors would quaff the flower draught and then enter, seeking a plain clay pot placed at the center.

Spectators would watch as the champions, many of them accomplished martial artists, ran about wildly, screaming, fighting invisible spirits, and otherwise acting in ways most unbecoming. For the challenge was not one of mere strength but rather mental and spiritual fortitude. The flower draught would inflame the mind with fantastic visions, veiling the world of the real and reducing the strongest of men to gibbering wrecks in the face of torments only they could see.

Xuan Li entered the 217th Xia Valley Tournament as its last entrant, arriving only hours before it began.

It would be the last such tournament the valley would ever see.