“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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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.