Dark Sun Campaign Background
That night you awoke to screams. Shaking your head to clear it, you struggled out of your sleep sack and stumbled across the gritty floor of your tent. You threw open the flap to see flames, dark silhouettes struggling and fleeing, the smell of smoke strong in the thin desert air, and then a crashing pain in your head. A moment of blackness and then you were lying on your face in the sand, breathing smoke. You forced a bleary eye open. The tents were on fire, sending columns of dark smoke up to obscure the stars. In the distance you still heard fighting – shouts, screams, dull whacking butcher sounds. You rolled your eye over as far as it could go. At the edge of the village the strong men of your tribe were making a stand, holding the raiders back while the infirm, the pregnant, and the children fled. You knew that you should join them, you belonged with them, but the fact seemed strangely abstract. You could not move.
You were worried by your own lack of worry. You heard a long, agonized scream that could only have been a death-cry, probably a friend of yours, maybe even your father or brother. With an effort of pure will, you forced one arm to move. It flailed bonelessly, robbed of all strength. You swung it as hard as you could and rolled over onto your back.
A face filled your vision, mouth twisted in a hostile sneer. The man who stood over you has coppery skin, red in the firelight, protruding brow ridges, and a perfectly hairless head covered in tattoos. You knew that he had to be a Mul, a hybrid of human and dwarf, bred to the life of a gladiator. You reached for him, thinking that his presence here was important, but not quite able to reason out why. He cocked a speculative eye at you and hefted a heavy club in his callused hand. The club came down and it all went black.
You awaken parched with thirst, head throbbing, face down in the sand. The sand coats your tongue and burns your eyes. You sit up, spitting. You move your hand towards your mouth and you’re surprised when your hand jerks to a stop. Your hands are restricted by a thick rope of giant’s hair. You look around you. You’re part of a crowd of perhaps a hundred beings, all roped together in the middle of a rippled sandy plain. Surrounding you are a number of surly guards armed with spears and clubs. To the east, the swollen red sun of Athas has begun to rise. The sky shades from the red of sunrise through the muddy olive-green of daytime to nearly night-black overhead. Leaning forward to put your head in your hands, you feel a tightness in your throat. You move your hand to your neck and discover that you are wearing a collar of some hard material. You look at your neighbors. Each of them wears a collar as well. They seem to be made of plates of shell or horn, but each has a gem or faceted crystal set in front. The plates of the collar seem fitted far too tightly for you to attempt to pry them apart.
A man steps forward from the circle of guards around you. You recognize him as the mul who clubbed you last night. He cocks his head and eyes you arrogantly. “My name is Nereb Chad,” he tells you, “and you belong to me.”
An ugly mutter runs through the crowd, but Nereb’s feelings appear unhurt. “I’m a slaver,” he explains, “and you’re my slaves. Some of you will fetch me a nice profit in the flesh markets. The rest of you will die in this desert. Those are the only two possible futures for you now, so you’d better start thinking about which one you prefer.
”Now, some of you are thinking that there’s a third option. You’re thinking that maybe you can escape. Well, you can’t, so don’t try.” He holds up four thick fingers. ”There are four things keeping you from getting away from me. First, you’re tied up. That’s some tough giant’s-hair rope binding you, and I bet it’s a lot tougher than the tender skin it’s tied to. Second, we’re thirty miles from the nearest settlement, and we’re going to go much deeper into the desert before we reach a city. So even if you did manage to get away, you’d die of thirst before you had much of a chance to enjoy your freedom.
”Third,” the Mul hooks a thumb towards his barrel chest, “there’s us. We’ve been doing this a long time, and we know what to look out for. We’re watching you all the time. If you get out of line, one of my lads here,” he waves a calloused hand at the motley crew of slavers, with their spears and knotted whips and heavy clubs, “will be glad to beat you down. And if you give him too much trouble, he may just call for me or one of my lieutenants. I used to be a gladiator, and I specialized in killing people in memorable ways. So if a guard calls for me, your neighbors are in for a free show.” Two more figures step up next to him. To his left stands a burly, pinheaded half-giant, towering to nearly twice the Mul’s formidable height. On his right is a rangy female elf, her flesh mottled with old burn scars, her eyes glowing orange. “If they call Egghead, he’ll probably just break you in half.” The half-giant grins vacantly and flexes a bicep thicker than your waist. His head does somewhat resemble an egg balancing precariously on its bottom. “That would be pretty merciful compared to what Pyra would do.” The elf gestures, and from her right hand streams a tongue of fire. It flows out into a ribbon of flame some ten or twelve feet long, dancing in the desert air. At a slight gesture from her, the whip of flame lashes back and forth, almost too quickly for the eye to follow.
The mul tucks his thumbs into his belt. “And reason number four? I think we have someone in the crowd who’s about to show us.” He stares into the crowd, somewhere to your left. You crane your neck to see where he’s looking. So do the rest of the prisoners. A winged Aarakokra, seeing the eyes on him, defiantly throws down the shreds of the rope which he had held in his clawed hands.
”Your thugs will have to catch me first, fools!” he caws defiantly, and leaps straight up into the air. His wide wings labor , stirring the sand around you, and bear him aloft. You raise your arm to shield your face from the flying grit. From the ranks of the slavers rise two other Aarakocra, brandishing spears. Pyra raises her hand, flames licking around it, but Nereb shakes his head. The winged slavers move to intercept, but the escaping Aarakocra pumps his powerful wings and shoots out ahead of them.
Nereb watches the winged figure fly away. It heads northeast, just left of the edge of the red sun. Nerub’s lips move. “Almost…” he says softly. “Almost …” The fleeing Aarakocra is a winged silhouette against the dawn sky.
Abruptly, the figure loses all grace. Its wings thrash wildly, randomly, and it falls, tumbling in the air. It strikes the sand with a thump clearly audible from two hundred yards away.
A murmur starts in the crowd. “What happened?” “He just fell!” “No, I saw blood!” “I didn’t see anything!” “Yes, blood shot out of his head!” ”His fall was too abrupt! He should have had forward momentum! Something must have exerted a downward force!” ”Shut up! What do you know?” ”I’m telling you, I saw an explosion!” Nereb seems content to let the prisoners speculate, until the two slaver Aarakocra land heavily beside him. Between him they carry the body of the one who had fled. Its entire head is gone. Its neck is a bloody stump above its jeweled collar. Nereb leans over the body. For a moment his body blocks your view of what he is doing, and then he holds the bloody collar aloft.
“Reason Number Four is your collar!” he shouts. “If you go more than two hundred yards from me, you will die! If anyone but me removes your collar, you will die! If I die, you all die with me!” He waves the collar at the assembled prisoners. ”You are mine!”
The next week passes in a blur of pain, thirst, grief and despair. All day you trudge across the desert, dust in your mouth and sand in your shoes. The broad red sun beats down on you like a hammer. Your vision grows blurry from the constant glare of the sun on the desert floor. You’re given just enough water to keep you alive, although it seems like far less. You’re weary as you never have been before, so tired you long to sink down in the sand and never move again. But every time you stumble or falter, the lash across your back drives you on. Your back grows scarred, your face red and peeling, your limbs shockingly gaunt. Every night, when the caravan stops, you drop down as if dead and sleep until morning.
But greater than your physical torment is your mental anguish. You’ve seen a couple of people from your tribe here, but so few. Are all the rest dead? Did Pyra burn them alive in their tents, did Egghead crush them with his huge maul, did Nereb use his infamous creativity? Or did some escape? Do you have any chance of escape? it seems so unlikely. It seems that you are destined for the short and miserable life of a slave in some harsh city. Still, every morning you get up and struggle on. Eventually you realize that despite everything, you want to live.
Not everyone does live. Your fellow slaves respond to their plights in different ways. Many stagger along mindlessly, using so much of their stamina for brute survival that they no longer speak or react even when whipped. Some rage against the guards, cursing them, fighting them, attacking whenever one comes within reach. The regular beatings they receive only seem to stoke the fury which may be the only thing keeping them alive. Some manage to keep their senses of humor, and mock the slavers behind their backs. A few still find a core of kindness in themselves, helping those who stumble, sharing their meager rations with those who weaken, spending priceless water crying over those they cannot save. Others are scornful of the weak, mocking those who falter and selling information to the guards in exchange for extra water. And some don’t make it at all. Some fall and cannot rise again.
When a slave falls, the guards try to rouse him with increasingly savage beatings. If this fails, the slave is loaded onto one of the expedition’s three cargo wagons. One or two of those, those with unusually valuable skills, rejoin the walkers the next day. Most vanish. On the nights after a slave vanishes, there is meat in your stew. When the cruel ones discover this, they begin tripping the weak ones, hoping that they will be unable to rise and that you will have a better supper that night. The guards lash those who fall, those who trip them, and those who try to defend them all impartially.
One night, when the caravan halts in the olive dusk, you stop and stand, looking about you, rather than collapsing onto the sand. You feel as though a fever has broken. You are fatigued, yes – tired to the bone – but no longer utterly exhausted. Slowly, you look around you. Most of your fellow slaves have already passed out and lie motionless. But not all. A few remain upright. Forcing your leaden legs to move again, you walk over to them. Some of your fellows have not yet broken. They retain the strength to stand… to speak… to plan….