The journey to the foot of Mount Dream is harrowing. Nearly every step of the way, you are harried by rogue spirits, hungering after the warmth of life, the light of a soul. Your dagger seems to have no effect on them, and when you try to call upon the might of your ancestors, the magic runs wild; sometimes your calls are answered, sometimes they are not, and sometimes you teleport yourself 30 feet straight up instead of closer to the mountain. You’re just glad you didn’t end up 30 feet stright down. Night falls, and you don’t stop to rest, as the spirits grow even thicker as the world grows darker. Dawn finds you sprinting the final miles over the rough ground to the foot of the mountain.
Finally reaching the mountain brings little respite. The attacks from the spirits stop immediately, but you know you cannot rest here. Whatever is driving magic to run wild in the surrounding plains has its root here. Even the physical world seems wrong, and you’re afraid your dagger might start behaving strangely. But even more, you sense a dreaming mind might wander off and lose its way back completely. The dangers facing you are no longer physical, though they could slay you even more quickly.
The path up the mountain is very clear, but it forks at a small pond fed by a waterfall pouring down from somewhere higher up the mountain. There is no sign, so you flip a coin and head to your right. The path leads you up several carved flights of stairs and around several switchbacks before leaving you at the mouth of a cave. Something twinkles inside, and when you step across the threshold into the darkness, you suddenly find yourself surrounded by the night sky.
You can see no cave walls. Stars twinkle all around you in the darkness, and when you turn back to look behind you, the doorway has disappeared. With a sinking feeling, you realize you’re standing on a small, stone mesa, the sides of which fall away impossibly into the starry expanse of the night sky. Across from you is an unlit campfire on a small precipice jutting into the night from the side of the mesa. Knowing you’re expected, you walk across and use the flint and steel near the well-prepared tinder to light a fire.
The sticks catch fire immediately and send up a thick stream of smoke. It smells sweet somehow, and your head begins to spin you step away and begin to cough. When you catch your breath and turn back to the smoke, you find something looking back at you. A brown toad with large, golden eyes stares out from the smoke. Its pupils undulate strangely. “So,” it says, and you take a step back without checking how close to the edge of the plateau you are, “Weimaraner. You’re here. Might want to watch your step.”
You spin around to check your footing, but you’re still standing well away from the edge of the mesa. You step closer to the fire, just to be safe. “They’ve been expecting you, of course,” the toad says. “You just have to pass a couple of entrance interviews before your ancestors themselves will meet with you. It’s pretty painless. My question should be easy: What are you after, Butch? Why are you here?"
He’d probably start off saying something about wanting some frog legs and some rum. He’d definantly ask what the toad was doing there since he didn’t remember having any toads as ancestors (I would make some comment about Everybody Loves HypnoToad). And he’d probably try touching the toad to see if it was real.
So we’re assuming Butch takes his normal aloof and joking attitude. Making fun of the toad, making fun of the ancestors, and possibly trying to lick the toad. Finally, exhausted from his long haunted hike and getting desperate, Butch resolves to get serious and try to get this right. He realizes he’s kind of screwed up everything in his life and through luck or friends/family or his ancestor’s protection he’s survived. Not only survived, but got the ship and crew he wanted. He looks at what he’s achieved and sees that fancy hats and all his bluster will only get him so far. It’s time for him to actually put some effort into this path he’s chosen. “What am I after?” he asks the toad, “I be having all I be desiring. Now I just need to be keeping it. I come for the power of ARR ancestors to protect me ship and crew. Now unless ye be the one handing out that protection let me be speaking with Becky and the rest."
“You’ll get to Becky eventually,” the toad says, staring at you with its unblinking, golden eyes. “She may even promise you what you want. Probably will, really. But you’ve got one more entrance interview before you get to see her.” A wind you can’t feel stirs the smoke, and the toad vanishes. “Step through the flames,” its voice whispers on the breeze, “and into the void. You have work to do here yet.”
You look around, nervous. But your guide is gone, and the stars shine uncaring in the blackness around you. With a shrug and a deep breath, you place a foot into the campfire. It does not burn. Your next step takes you off the small precipice and into the void. To your surprise, you fall. Fast. You swing your arms, but you can’t manage to catch your balance before gravity sweeps you off the edge and down the side of the mesa you’d been standing on.
With a scream, you wake up from where you’d collapsed at the foot of the mountain. Your lungs burn as you gasp for breath, and your heart pounds from the final sprint across the plains. You look around, the panic from the trip and the dream slowly fading. Dawn still lingers over the horizon; you can’t have been out for long.
After taking a short rest to catch your breath, you press on, taking the right fork again. The path ends in a solid wall of stone. You place a hand on it, remembering the dream of walking up the path that was once here so clearly. But the wall is solid, and you can see no path at the top. So you trace your steps back to the waterfall and take the other fork. The path here winds to another cave. You see stars shining in the darkness within. Heaving a deep sigh, you step inside.
Again you stand on a mesa surrounded by stars, and again an unlit campfire waits for you on a precipice across the plateau. With a growl, you storm across the stone and light the campfire. The flame springs to life, and as you step back from the smoke, you see a hazy form stepping forward, much larger than the toad before. Moments pass as the figure walks forward in the smoke, coming closer and into sharper focus. Soon, the form stops moving, and with an eddy in the smoke, you suddenly recognize Shirimpar of Atellos standing in the smoke before you, tapping the Thinblade of Arkosh on his shoulder.
“It’s been a long time, Butch,” Shrimp says, almost seeming to stare through you with his dragon’s eyes. “It’s good to see you’re still walking the path to your destiny.” He takes in your silence and cocks his head. “You still didn’t know? Although I suppose that’s why you’re here.” He sighs and shakes his head as you pelt him with questions and one-liners. “Sorry, Butch. That’s not why I’m here. Of course, I’m not really here at all. For that matter, I’m a odd choice for the most important guide in your life, don’t you think?”
Shrimp shrugs. “Anyway, I have a question for you that Becky wants answered before she’ll see you. You told us what you wanted, but we already knew what you wanted, because we had already arranged for you to have it. You answered that question correctly, and though my question has no right or wrong answer, your immediate longevity relies entirely upon how well you can reflect upon yourself to come up with an answer.”
His eyes glitter as you wait nervously for his question. It comes soon. “So: why do you think you’re so special? Why should we have given you anything when we withheld it from your double in this world? What is it about you that sets you apart from the mongrel we had you put down, and why should we not now do the same to you before you follow in his footsteps?"
What I want to know is why is she so unwilling to talk to me now. Before I couldn’t get her to shut up and now she won’t even talk to me. The real question is why is Shrimp the guide? And also, don’t think I didn’t notice that bit about me still walking my destiny. Apparently they want more from me than just stopping my evil doppelganger, crushing the Elven navy planning on disrupting the Kobold trade, oh and saving all the ancestor spirits from being turned to Shadowkin. So why am I special? Because you chose me is why. You know better than I do what sets me apart. Hack fell to the darkness because you ancestors ignored him. It was only after he joined the Shadowkin seeking the power you denied him and planned to seek vengeance for being overlooked that you turned to me to stop him. And you only turned to me once I had died and you had my soul to barter with. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the second chance to live and you did wait for the opportune moment to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Honestly, though, I don’t blame you. Hack and I rejected you as much as you rejected us. The real reason I’m special is pure luck. If Kami and I hadn’t gotten drunk that night and passed out, I may have gone for a walk and things would have happened differently in my world. But the next day that damn orc Khef woke me up and wouldn’t leave me alone. Then there was that wizard girl Aerin who looked tough but was so lost she didn’t even know she had been abandonded on the island. And once I started hanging out with them, they held me to a higher standard (Khef wouldn’t even let me lie or steal) so I didn’t have another chance to go to the dark side. It was luck that set me on my path instead of Hack’s path but it was the path I followed that made me special and different from my alter ego. So for all I know it was a flip of a coin that decided my fate but now that I’ve done what I’ve done I’m not going to become another Hack. My journey and my companions have determined who I am and I have to live up to their expectations now.
Shrimp smiles, and his form wavers. “Perfect.” With another breath of wind you can’t feel, the smoke swirls, and the lizardman disappears. “Step through the flame,” comes his voice on the breeze, “and into the void. You must make your final ascent.” Really angry now, you kick the campfire off the cliff before jumping into the stars.
This time, you don’t fall, instead touching down on a mountain path high above the plains below. Your back to the mountain, you can see nearly to the ocean, days away. You think you can see all the way to where you left the Seagull. You squint in the light of the rising sun. It doesn’t look like the Seagull’s there anymore. You turn to look to your left and right and come to a disturbing realiztion: there’s no mountain behind you.
You spin around, and the horizon stretches out behind you. The path beneath your feet looks just like the rough stone of the paths you followed near the foot of the mountain, but looking over the edge, those paths and the entire mountain have disappeared. The waterfall, however, remains. It falls from somewhere above the clouds in a steady stream of water straight down to the ground hundreds of feet below. The path curls around the waterfall to another cave entrance leading into darkness. Stars shine within.
This time, the campfire is at the center of the mesa and set upon a marble podium. Becky appears immediate when you light the fire. At first you think she’s in the smoke again, but on closer examination, you realize she’s hovering in the void past the edge of the mesa. You step around the fire to confront her directly.
“You have done everything I asked of you, Hack,” she says, catching you slightly off guard. “You have fully vindicated me in my decision to pull you and your friends from your own world into the troubles of this one. Your debt to your ancestors is paid in more than full, and your soul can be yours again if you desire it.”
You pause, waiting for the catch. Becky smirks. “We would, of course, withdraw our favor again. And we have further use of you should you decide you enjoy the power. The prestige.” She looks you up and down. “The fancy hats.”
Then she shrugs and begins to pace through the void. “It’s irrelevant, of course. I’m going to give you what you asked for. Protection, was it? It’s yours, but your soul stays mine. I have further use for you. Ours is more than just a prestigious line, Hack. It’s central. One of our mothers was there when the Primal Hero Shrine was activated. One of my daughters was there when it was closed. And you were there when it was destroyed. Whatever world you are born into, you are key. And your full destiny is not yet upon you.”
She turns to face you. “Serinor still has changes to go through, Hack. The Time of Chaos must pass, and Serinor must eventually enter the Fifth Epoch for real. You will be there when that happens." Then she smirks again. “Although it would be better if it were one of your daughters. Have you ever considered siring a litter? Your Jack Spaniel has a sister you would get along marvelously with."
She laughs and turns away. “You’re too important to let go, Hack. Or Butch, if that’s what you prefer. And you’re too driven to turn me down, even if you do know you’re being played. So go forth, Butch. Destiny still awaits, even if I don’t tell you what it is yet.” Her laugh echoes across the phantom breeze as her form fades away. “Oh, and take the fang by the podium. Belonged to one of our earliest mothers.” Then she is gone.
You scowl and knock the fire from the podium. The sparks flare in the night sky, illuminating some sort of bone by the foot of the podium. Your eyes widen, and you bend to pick it up. It’s a single piece of carved bone, probably a foot long. The edge is razor sharp, and the point filed to a finer blade than any dagger you’ve seen. If this is a fang, kobolds must have shrunk more than a little over the years. You blink, trying to imagine how immense whichever of your mothers had this in her mouth must have been.
And it’s as quick as that. When you open your eyes from the blink, you’re back at the foot of the mountain, still clutching the carved hilt on the fang. The sun still hangs low over the eastern horizon. It seems that no time has passed, but suddenly, you’re nervous. You feel well rested, and your breath frosts in the cold air. It was still warm when you got here.
Your trip back across the plains is hurried, but quiet. The spirits ignore you, though you can hear them and maybe Becky whispering unintelligibly through the fang. You know before you get to when the Seagull left you that you’re in trouble. From miles away, you can see that the ship is no longer there, but still you hurry on. When you reach the site of your disembarkment, you stop.
Your ship is gone. Your crew, missing. You’re alone on Rutoshen, and you’re uncertain where to go from here.