From the journal of Gavin of Westmark:
Scribe Pellanor once told me that a man only understands his own mind if he tells another, and so, despite everything, I continue to follow his advice and write in this journal.
The caravan made it to the city without incident; the trademaster was true to his word, and kept me on two extra days to look after the horses and do the unloading. However, he was also honest when he told me that he was staying in the city for several months with his brother until the spices could be dried and packed, and would have no need of my services. So I once again found myself needing work. I looked for several days, without success. Not wanting to waste my limited coin, I decided to cross the desert on foot and try my luck in Araket.
The journey took longer than I expected, and my water was running low. Thankfully, I found a small trickle of water, and followed it to a canyon with a spring flowing out of a large cave. As I was washing up after making camp, I heard a noise, like a howling animal. I’d barely looked up before I was set upon by a raving, dirty mob of men the size of small children. Most had tattoos, and many had jewelry of bones and other animal parts, and all were armed with clubs or rods. They pinned me down, but I was able to throw them off and get to my feet — my weapons, sadly, still out of reach. Seeing my stature, they backed off. One of their number came toward me, riding a large dog as a man might ride a horse. She was unlike the others; cleaner, better equipped, and without the look of savagery in her eyes. Unlike the others, she understood my words, and acted as translator between me and the apparent leader of the band, the tallest and most elaborately dressed of the pack.
My efforts to reason with them worked, to a degree. The dog rider convinced them that they could use my great strength rather than kill me outright, and eventually helped me bargain with them for my freedom. They spoke of a great monster in the cave that had killed many of their number, and said if I could kill it and thus keep the source of water safe, I would be free to go. I had no assurance they would keep their word, but it at least bought me time.
The civilized gnome introduced herself as Pesha, and told me that she wasn’t quite a captive, but not exactly free, either. The savages had taken her in as a kind of wise woman; she was gnomish, but from more civilized parts. There is clearly more to that tale, but she was reluctant to tell me everything; perhaps I will find out more later.
We planned to enter the cave in the morning, and so I went to gather what wood and scraps I could to keep a fire lit; the savages said the beast was afraid of flames, and we convinced them to light a bonfire at the mouth of the cave overnight. On the ridge, I came across two three more travelers; clearly mercenaries, judging by their demeanor and equipment — well armed and determined, but not openly hostile toward me. One was a stout dwarf, the other a willowy elf woman, and the last was an injured halfling woman, whose red skin suggested she’d suffered from the desert’s heat. I urged them to turn back, but they were commissioned to take this very spring; it seems that water is indeed worth fighting over. They agreed to wait while I went back to the camp, and Pesha agreed that five fighters would be better than two for whatever we would find in the cave, and was able to convince the savage leader of the same.
In the morning, we set out into the cave. The savage leader sent in three of his band to help us; young men, clearly seeking to make a name for themselves among their kin by doing some great deed. (Savages and those of us who think ourselves ‘civilized’ are not as far apart as we might like to believe; I’ve seen the same eager look at the temple among young men given the chance to take up arms.) Torches in hand, we set out, with the elf scouting a bit ahead, the dwarf and I in front of Pesha and the halfling to protect them while they acted as our archers. Despite the danger, the cool, moist air of the cave was oddly refreshing, as the desert was already starting to heat up.
The elf surprised some creatures that looked like the stone of the cave, and we quickly dispatched them — unfortunately, not before they killed some of the savages. I also managed to snap the haft of my spear in the process. A little further in, we came to an odd pool, the source of the water. To our surprise, however, the water wasn’t coming out of the stone wall or bubbling from the ground, but rather a delicate bottle glowing with a faint sapphire hue, set on a carved stone altar or some sort.
The pool felt . . . wrong, somehow, evil and tainted. I planted my torch in the sand and threw the shattered half of my spear into the water, and almost immediately a large beast came thrashing out of the pool, with several snake-like heads. The dwarf and I charged in as it snapped at us; Pesha took cover behind us, and the elf fumbled in her pouch for something. I lost sight of the other halfling; given her general attitude, I assumed it was cowardice, and that she had fled. As the dwarf and I swung at the heads, the elf lit a bottle and if flared up brightly, a trick of alchemy I’d seen once at the temple, but never in combat. She ducked as the beast snapped at her, and dropped it. I tried to pull her from the flames, but she just waved me off, yelling in both common and elvish as she bent to light another alchemist’s fire. As I turned, the beast struck me hard. I was dizzy, disoriented — and then Pesha touched me, and I could feel warmth for a moment, and the scent of leaves after rain, and felt better. At the same moment, I heard the distinctive twang of a crossbow, and saw that the halfling hadn’t been a coward after all, but rather had secreted herself among some rocks and had placed a bolt into the beast’s body; I looked, and saw a smirk of satisfaction as she started calmly pulling her bowstring back, preparing to strike the monster again.
Realizing she was being clever, the dwarf and I waded into the water and also went for the body, ignoring the heads. My spear still gone, I thrust wildly with the first thing in my hand — the torch I’d been carrying. This enraged and seemed to frighten the beast, and we kept at it with fire and steel — the elf’s alchemy, the halflings’ arrows, the dwarf’s steel. After a few moments, the beast fell below the water, the surface now a greasy mess of blood, gore, and oil from our torches.
What we will do now remains to be seen; clearly, the source of water is incredibly valuable, but I can think of no way to carry it out. And the savages are almost certainly waiting at the mouth of the cave to ambush us the moment we come out. But for the moment, these few I’m with I feel I can trust, at least enough to get out of this mess. We’ve decided to rest in the cave for the moment to investigate and plan our next steps.