As many tales of antiquity begin, so too does this one. Long ago, in an age and time long forgotten, there existed a desert world known only to its inhabitants as Athas. Once a world of abundant, lush green vegetation and vast seas, millennia of over-used dark "defiling" magic stripped the planet of nearly all usable water and natural resources. Water existed only in the last "sea", a few small scattered oases, and a handful of tiny lakes and trickling streams. While metals had become infinitessimally scarce, wood, obsidian and bone had taken their place as the primary materials for tools and weapons. A more brutal environment still capable of supporting life is hard to imagine, but Athas did support life, a wide variety of creatures and races, in fact. Among them were humans, dwarves, elves, halflings, a handful of half-breed races, and a myriad of other not-so-humanoid species. But, on this world, if the environment didn't kill you, the other inhabitants would most likely do their level best to do so, some even with great pleasure. Into this utterly bleak and unforgiving world was born one very particular half-breed, a Mul named Rook.
Muls (pronounced similar to "rule") were a very hardy crossbreed of Athasian dwarves and humans, a race that inherited the best that both parents had to offer, in terms of genetics. From their dwarven parent they would typically receive a thick, stocky build and incredible endurance, while their human parent gave them height and agility. The result was almost always an intimidatingly impressive specimen. Males stood well upwards of six feet and could weigh up to 300 pounds of thickly corded muscle, with the agility to match ... the ideal gladiator.
Like most Muls, Rook was born into slavery, in the slave pits of Nibenay in the region of Tyr. As was customary of these breeding pits, Rook was taken at birth from his mother and sold to a gladiatorial stable. This particular stable was owned by one Humboldt Krieg, a man who understood the necessity to cultivate an investment in order to get the best return from it. To this end, children purchased as prospective gladiators were assigned to the healthiest wet-nurses, and once weaned, were guaranteed adequate food and care. Still, even as children, violence and agression were encouraged, and life was a constant battle among them.
You see, the best food was always made available, along with the standard rations, but in much smaller quantities, and always went to the child, or children, who were capable of taking it, and then fighting to keep it. By age seven, Rook was able to defeat boys three and four years older through cunning and ruthlessness. At the age of 10, he was turned over to the trainers, and began to formally learn the killing arts. Upon his fifteenth birthday, Rook already stood well over six feet in height, and was just over two hundred pounds of copper-skinned muscle. In the pens his skills and agility were without compare, and his strength was soon to be unmatched.
Over the next two years, fighting in preliminary matches, Rook quickly earned a solid reputation as an efficient, ruthless killer in the arenas of Nibenay and other nearby cities. Within months of his eighteenth year, Rook found himself in the city-state of Gulg, some two days to the east of Nibenay, fighting in the annual tournament for a berth against the reigning champion of Tyr. As usual, he didn't disappoint. Three short but intense battles all ended the same way, with Rook bathed in the blood of his opponent who lay in pieces on the sand of the arena floor, to the tumultuous roar of the crowd. The following morning, Rook and the other surviving gladiators of Krieg's stable were loaded back into their wagon, and began the two day return journey. This return journey would set Rook's life on a new path.
As the caravan lurched and rolled through the night, to the disbelief of all, a heavy mist began to roll across the dunes, enveloping the caravan. Soon, the drivers could no longer see the stars to navigate by, and minutes later, could no longer see the road they followed. Following a brief discussion among the guards and drivers, the decision was made to stop for the night and wait for the morning sun to burn away the ominous fog. But, as the caravan slept, the land changed around them.
When the morning sun finally came, the air felt very different. Gone was the oppressive heat of the desert, and while it was still very bright and warm, all around them there were small growths of green vegetation. As they traveled through the morning and into the afternoon, the moisture in the air incresed noticeably, as did the surrounding vegetation, much to the delight of the mekillots that pulled the wagons. By early evening the caravan was traveling across lush fields of green grass, filled with buzzing insects and small fur-covered wildlife that darted into the undergrowth at the wagons' approach. As night grew closer, the drivers had taken to discussing heatedly where they could possibly be and what to do about camp for the night. Initially, they feared they'd strayed much too close to the Ringing Mountains, a "forest" area inhabited by the fierce, cannibalistic halflings of Athas, but that was eventually deemed impossible. The mountains were nowhere to be seen in the distance, and furthermore, they were thousands of miles from the caravan's original route. Finally, they decided to stop at the edge of a small stream, thinking they'd found a blessing from the gods that should not go unappreciated. Once the campfires were lit and the slaves fed, the caravan grew quiet and everyone drifted off into a fitful sleep.
Well after midnight, Rook awoke with a start. The skin of his neck crawled as he peered sleepily into the unnaturally silent darkness from between the heavy wooden bars of the wagon's windows. Suddenly, off to his left, he heard a muffled groan mixed with the unmistakable sound of a blade piercing flesh, and was instantly fully awake. As he crouched in the wagon, the mekillots bellowed from the front of the caravan, and with a violent jerk, the wagons began to lurch forward into the night.
By now, the rest of the slaves were awake. Each one crouched in the wagon, tightly gripping the heavy wooden bars or benches for balance, and glancing from side to side for any signs of movement outside their mobile cage. The wagons had only moved a few feet when Rook caught sight of one of the handlers lying motionless on the ground. His sharp eyes stared hard at the man as the wagon passed, and he was able to make out a long slit across the man's throat. His suspicions were confirmed ... the caravan had been hijacked. Hushed whispers filled the wagon, but Rook merely took a seat on a bench and sat quietly, waiting. There was nothing more to be done, for now.
The caravan continued on through the night until finally, just before dawn, they rolled quietly into a small village and stopped. Rook moved to a corner and crouched like a panther, watching for signs of life in the village, but there were none. A moment passed, then two, and a dark-haired man appeared beside the wagon. The man spoke to the slaves in a strange, almost gutteral language he didn't understand, and fumbled with what looked like the head trainer's ring of keys until he'd found the right one. With a loud click, the man unsnapped the heavy ceramic lock on the wagon, and drawing a glittering metal sword, motioned for the slaves to climb out. Rook and the others blinked wide-eyed at the sight of the steel blade, and he wondered immediately why a man of such wealth would need to steal a caravan full of slaves. Rook climbed warily from the wagon and straightened himself to his full height, easily a full head taller than the man with the sword, and stretched slowly. Glancing about, Rook took in his surroundings as other men of similar dress prodded and dragged the rest of the slaves from the wagon. In the pale light of pre-dawn, he could make out a dozen or more pitched tents made of what looked like dark cloth stitched into quilt-like patterns. As the slaves were herded together, he took in each of the captors and saw that each of them carried a metal blade similar to that of the man who'd opened the lock on the wagon. Again the questions bubbled in his head, 'these men must be rich indeed to all carry metal swords ... so then, why do they need to steal slave caravans? Surely they already have more slaves and money than they need.' The first man, the one with the keys, was apparently the leader, and he barked what sounded like an order or a command to the group of slaves, but none of them understood him. With a snarl the man thrust his sword in Rook's direction and repeated himself more loudly, fixing his gaze on the gigantic young Mul. Rook slowly turned and locked his amber eyes and glared at him coldly. The man barked his order for a third time, this time motioning towards a smaller wood and iron wagon that Rook hadn't seen before, and the group of slaves slowly plodded over and into the wagon, their bare feet stepping gingerly on grass for the first time in their lives. Within minutes, the group was on the move again. There were only a dozen of them or so in the wagon, but it was small and cramped, with no windows or ventilation.