After soundly defeating the slave quarter guards, the templars, and a band of crazed Smoking Crown Initiates, the Zatla Cowboys paused to catch their breath, but not a moment had passed before the sound of brass horns filled the air. The massive gates to King Hamanu’s compound, Destiny’s Kingdom, began to swing open. Accompanied by a group of half-giant royal guards, the sorcerer-king himself strode forth. Rikus, ever impulsive, charged forward, encouraging his companions to follow. The leaders of the Crimson Legion, along with the Zatla Cowboys, rushed headlong into the fray. It wasn’t long before they realized how hopeless the situation was. King Hamanu’s magic strikes laid Dazeel, the Orchid of the Dunes, flat in the dust, and almost noble Androcles as well, though with his last ounce of consciousness, he managed to duck around a corner and channel his psychic energies into repairing his body before dragging Dazeel to safety and, with the aid of Zuri, helping her back to her feet. As Zuri rushed back into combat, the other two Cowboys huddled in the safety of the alley, watching the hopeless fight unfold before them.
Meanwhile, Rikus’s band, along with Bost and Zuri, found themselves thwarted by Hamanu’s defenses. Then, the situation escalated from bad to worse for our brave band, as the sorcerer-king transformed into a massive bipedal lion, his claws dripping acidic poison. First, Neeva went down, slain by a raking strike. Then, one by one, Rikus’ other companions began to fall before the might of Hamanu and his guards. Occasionally, Zuri’s arcane prowess and Bost’s mighty blows would pierce Hamanu’s magical defenses, but never enough to leave more than a scratch.
Hopeless, unsure what else to do, the Cowboys began to taunt Hamanu. “The dragon is on his way to destroy you,” Bost said.
“You lie!” Hamanu bellowed, his leonine face contorted with rage.
“It is the truth. Your levy has been scattered,” Bost continued. “Urik will pay the price!”
At that moment, the walls of Urik began to thrum with the approach of something massive. Hamanu reverted to his human form, his arrogant pride clearly having faltered, and retreated backward through the gate. “What have you done, Zatla Cowboys? The Dragon will destroy us all!” And with that, the gates to Destiny’s Kingdom swung shut once more.
No sooner did this happen than Zuri’s olivine charm began to thrum with energy. He retrieved it from his belt pouch and was greeted by the disembodied voice and gaze of a familiar adversary.
“What have you done with my levy from Urik?” the Dragon asked.
“We have freed them,” Zuri said. “No more will you feast on the souls of the innocent!”
The Dragon sighed, a rumbling sound. In a weary voice, he said, “Adventurers, do you know how often I have had this conversation? These ‘souls of the innocent,’ as you call them, are what keep the world of Athas safe. It is only their energies that give me the strength to keep Rajaat sealed away in his dark prison.”
“Rajaat?” Zuri asked. “Who is Rajaat?”
In a voice that signaled his amusement at the adventurers’ ignorance, the Dragon began to tell the story of Rajaat. Long ago in Athas’ history, at the pinnacle of the Green Age, during a period known as the Age of Magic, a pyreen named Rajaat discovered the secrets of the arcane, spreading the Preserver magic among the public, while secretly teaching the forbidden art of Defiling magic to a select few acolytes. Together, Rajaat and his champions learned how to prolong their lives indefinitely. They became gods among men, but the energies unleashed by this transformation scorched Athas’ sun into a dark crimson ember.
After some time, the arcane knowledge stored within Rajaat’s mind drove him mad. He hungered to return the world to its pristine Blue Age, and tasked his champions with helping him in his quest. Each was to go forth and wipe one of the races of man from the face of the earth. Ultimately, the Champions of Rajaat discovered their master’s true purpose. To return the world to a Blue Age meant the destruction of all that existed, including the champions themselves. through their combined might, they barely managed to seal him away in a netherworld prison called the Hollow, where he slumbers to this day. The mightiest of the champions, Borys, was transformed through arcane means into the Dragon, and tasked with maintaining the levy, using the souls thus devoured to power the prison that seals Rajaat away.
“Do you know how heavily this burden weighs upon me?” Borys asked the Cowboys. “To keep Athas alive, I must devour the souls of thousands. It is a guilt you cannot even imagine.”
“But why the souls of the innocent?” Bost asked. “Why the souls of slaves and peasants? The wicked of Athas number in the thousands. Surely you can devour them instead.”
With a wry laugh, the Dragon said, “Do you think others have not proposed this before you? Who would choose who is ‘deserving’ and who is not? You? Do you want that burden?”
“Then why not let the world die?” Androcles, who had emerged from his hiding place, said. “Perhaps it is time.” The noble had spoken before he thought, and now that the words were out, he wanted to take them back.
The Dragon paused. “It is tempting. I have considered it. How peaceful it would be to just fly away, to see the far side of the world one last time, to sleep and wait for all to pass.”
The Cowboys stood in a circle, each looking at the next, considering the dilemma they had been offered. Become the arbiters of who lives and who dies on Athas? Let the system of oppression continue as it has for so long? Or just let it all die away?
Then Dazeel spoke. “I love you, Androcles!” she said, setting her multifaceted eyes upon her companion. “I have loved you since I first saw you!”
Androcles and the other Cowboys were stunned into silence by their companion’s admission and its unexpected timing. After a moment of befuddlement, Androcles took Dazeel’s hand in his own and stared into her eyes, unsure what to say in response.
“Perhaps we should let the world live on, then,” Zuri said, watching this scene unfold before him. “Love still exists, even here in the harsh realms of Athas! Isn’t that worth continuing to fight for?”
But Androcles turned to his companions. “No,” he said. “It is because of our love that we should not let this continue. I would not want to see Dazeel continue to suffer in this world. Nor you, Zuri. Nor you, Bost.” He turned to Dazeel, who nodded her head in approval.
“Androcles is right,” Bost said. “What do we do? Let things linger on as they are? For what? So that a hundred years from now the next group of adventurers will be presented with the same choice? The lots of the poor and the weary can never improve. The only way to heal this world is to let it be reborn, no matter what that means for those of us who live now.”
“I need your answer, Cowboys.”
“Leave us, Dragon,” Bost said into the crystal. “Let this world die so that the next can be reborn.”
“As you wish.”
The olivine charm went dark.
For the next several hours, things seemed to return to normal. The streets of Urik had fallen eerily silent with a sound the Cowboys had not heard in a very long time. Peace. The healthy cared for the fallen. Rikus, a broken man, cried over the body of Neeva as Bost tried to comfort him. In the shade of a building damaged during the combat, Dazeel wrapped her arms around Androcles and held him close. The night ended, and the Cowboys began to think, perhaps hope, that the Dragon’s story had been nothing but empty legend, perhaps a tale concocted through years of insanity.
The next day, the adventurers started the long journey back toward Tyr. Talking, even laughing, as they reminisced on their adventures.
“what is that?” Zuri asked.
The other Cowboys followed his finger to the horizon, where a strange haze had arisen. The color of the sky, an unchanging crimson for millennia, was turning blue. The Cowboys watched as this disturbance sped across the landscape toward them, leaving shimmering water, a darker blue than the sky above, in its wake.
It was a strange sensation as the disturbance reached the Cowboys, not an unpleasant one. Like falling asleep. The ground beneath the Cowboys’ feet was changed, and in the space the Cowboys had once inhabited, four schools of multicolored fish flittered away in four different directions.