Daniel was still a Dik-Dik, his friend Francois was still a Fennec Fox, and their new associate Wollunqua was indeed still a big and mighty Python. Still they sought a fallen star, hoping that it could be given as a gift to Beshekee, the one being more monstrous than a Man. Making a friend of this being, they believed, would earn them his protection and they would maybe never need to worry about the cruelty of Man again.
So it was that they scampered, scrabbled and slithered in the direction Francois believe the star had fallen. Their path lit by the big bright Moon, and off in the distance was a dense thicket of ancient and gnarled trees, surrounded by a very wide and very quick river. As they approached the furiously rushing water, the Fox and the Python shared their scariest stories of encountering Man with Daniel the young Dik-Dik.
“So there I was,” said Francois in a low and hushed whisper, “I had been looking for some food all night with no luck. I couldn’t even find a single little bug to fill up my tiny fox tummy. So I kept sniffing about, but it was nearly dawn, and many of the bigger, meaner animals come out at dawn. So I decided to take a little risk and go a little further than I normally do. I looked up and followed my favorite star, the Shining One of the Morning, hoping maybe I would get lucky and stumble upon a nest or an anthill. Now, this night was very cold, and I was starting to feel afraid. Then, I heard a sound off in the distance like the wind blowing through the dead autumn leaves. Cautiously I followed it, and I found that the closer I got to the sound, the warmer it became. So I crept closer still, and soon enough I saw a light, warm and bright enough to swallow up the night and make it as day. And this light: it simply sat upon a small pile of wood, surrounded by rocks. Terror came over me like a wave when I realized what this light truly was: Man’s Fire! And, then, as I looked up, I saw their awful, wicked shadows dancing upon the boulders about me! How terribly they were, shaped like all the biggest and cruelest creatures: with the back legs of the Ostrich and the front legs of the Baboon and the mane of the Lion! And how their shadows writhed and danced in their cruel imitation of the daytime! And then came their awful chattering, loud and piercing the night in their dark ritual! And their laughter: like the Hyena but far crueler even! I turned and bolted back to my foxhole without looking back, and I went without food that day and the next!”
Daniel gasped, “How horrible!”
Wollunqua the giant Python simply snorted, “So you did not even sssseee the Man? Merely their shadows?”
“Well, er- no, but their shadows are certainly frightening enough,” said Francois, “And that sound they make!”
“For a Fennec Fox, I ssssuppose that would indeed be sssssufficient to terrify,” said Wollunqua, “But I indeed once battled a Man! And would have slain him, too, but for the fact that he summoned the rest of his pack, and their evil claws which they throw. I still bear the scar today from the wounds they inflicted!”
“Tell us the story, Wollunqua!” Daniel said excitedly.
“Indeed, sssshall I,” the snake hissed, “You see, as you may know, we Snakes as well as most other creatures were made by the Great Serpent Hydra, whose image you see in the stars at night. And Man was made by his great enemy, the White Mongoose, the deathly pale deity of destruction, in mockery of the natural order. So it is that they walk on two legs instead of four, and so it is that they build mounds of their own in an evil reflection of those made by our brothers the termites. One morning as I slunk across the ground in search of a crocodile or antelope to kill and devour, I came upon a few of Man’s Demonic Mounds. There they stood, reaching to heaven, but there were no Men in sight. I confess I was afraid. And yet, more than that, curious to see what the inside of a Man’s home was like. So I slithered over to the hole in the nearest mound, and went in. Inside the hole there were items, made from trees these Man had savaged! Including a wooden basket; and in this wooden basket, there was a very tiny, and strangely hairless Man! Tiny, yes, but still a Man and no less dangerous. I considered fleeing and yet I knew that if I made a name for myself as having slain a Man in his own home, I would be respected all across the Savanna, even by the Lions and the Eagles themselves. And so I drew up the side of the wooden basket, and began to coil myself about this tiny, scheming Man. My friends, it was a fierce battle! The Man struggled brutally with the strength, I daresay, of a hundred Dik-Diks and fifty Fennec Foxes! He attempted to choke the life out of me even as I bravely wrapped his small body in my coils! And yet, even with all his Manly Might, I would have won, had not many much bigger Men heard his evil roaring and come to his aid. They grabbed me and flung me out of the basket, where I impacted the hard surface of Man’s Mound. Then two of the biggest ones came and me with their artificially fashioned claws! I knew that, while I could perhaps defeat one Man, I could not defeat them all. I quickly slithered away, however one was able to hit me with his thrown claw as I did so. It cut me across the back, where I bled for hours. To this day I still bear the scar!”
Using his tail, the snake indicated an old scar across his back. “Wow!” said Daniel, “I can’t believe you almost killed a Man!”
“Indeed,” said Francois, “It is true you Pythons are mighty.”
“We are,” said Wollunqua, “But Man has his numbers! Even if you kill one, there are always more! That is why we shall enlist Beshekee’s help.
Now, as they had been talking, they had come very close to the roaring river. Beyond it were the thick and ancient trees of the foreboding forest ahead of them.
“That is where the star fell,” said Francois, “Among those trees!”
“Then we have to cross the river!” said Daniel, “Wollunqua, can you swim us across?”
The snake looked uneasy. “Snakes can swim some,” he told them, “But this river is very wide and very fast and very strong. I do not know if even I could cross it.”
“There must be a way,” Daniel wondered aloud, and the trio moved closer to the banks of the great river. As they began to look around for a way to get past the powerful river, they heard a voice.
“Lookin’ to cross, are ye?”
Daniel darted his head from side to side. Francois lifted his huge ears towards the sky. Wollunqua placed his head on the river bank to listen to the vibrations of the earth.
“I’m over here, ye buffoons,” the voice said derisively, seeming to come from the river itself. And then, indeed, a sleek and glistening figure slowly began to emerge from the rolling, churning waters themselves. Long and thin, the creature that strode out of the river was covered in a layer of wet brown fur. This was an Otter.
“Otterdammerung is who I am,” said the Otter, “And I see this strange assortment of critters be interested in crossin’ me river!”
“You can take us across?” Francois asked, somewhat skeptically.
“That Otterdammerung can do,” came Otterdammerung’s answer, “But, of course, t’ain’t for free. A price, there’ll be, for Otterdammerung’s invaluable assistance.”
“How about you bring us across and I do not eat you,” said Wollunqua impatiently.
“You could eat Otterdammerung, he supposes,” the Otter told the snake, “But then, how will ye cross the river? Ye won’t, that be how. And even if you could, do ye think ye could survive in those woods without me help? I think not, for those woods, and this river, and Otterdammerung too, are ruled over and owned by the Man of the Forest! And as sure as snakes slither and Dik-Diks go ‘dik-dik,’ if you ate Otterdammerung his master would be enraged, and come after you!”
“You do not work for a Man!” the Python said angrily, “Now bring us across, or spend the next few hours digesting in my belly!”
“Do not work for a man? No?” the Otter said with a sly grin, “Take a look across the river, and kindly inform Otterdammerung what it is ye see balanced on that old Acacia tree?”
The animals looked over the river and sure enough, balanced on the old Acacia tree, was one of Man’s artificial claws, tied to the end of a long and straight branch.
“You do know a man!” said Daniel, “but we would be happy to meet your price if we could. What is it you require from us?”
Otterdammerung smiled. “Why, Otterdammerung seeks wisdom. Wisdom a great old snake, and a clever little fox, and perhaps even a spirited young dik-dik could provide. For is knowledge not power? You shall each tell me a secret of the Savanna that only your kind knows. Then I shall bring you across.”
The trio exchanged looks. Then Daniel nodded. “We agree to your terms.”
“Excellent!” Otterdammerung said, “But you must whisper them in my ear, or they will not be secrets.”
The animals nodded. First, Wollunqua slithered up and hissed something quietly in the Otter’s ear.
“Why, of course! That, Otterdammerung would never have guessed,” he said, grinning and nodding, “But I am certain they are delicious.”
Then Francois’ turn came, and he scampered over and whispered in Otterdammerung’s ear.
“That saddens Otterdammerung,” he said, “But it is useful knowledge all the same. I accept it.”
Now it was Daniel’s turn, and he was very nervous, because he did not quite know what kind of secret he knew. He was not wise and old like Wollunqua, nor clever like Francois, and he had spent mostly his whole life living in his hole underground. He wracked his little Dik-Dik brain, trying to think of a good secret.
“Come on, little Dik-Dik,” said Otterdammerung, “Your turn it is.”
So Daniel scrabbled over to the Otter and leaned in close to his ear. “I do not know any big secrets, except for the secret of why we are here: We are going to find a fallen star and bring it to Beshekee!”
Otterdammerung’s eyes widened, “Are you now? This is a good secret, Dik-Dik. I accept it. Now the three of you: follow Otterdammerung!”
And the Dik-Dik, the Fennec Fox and the Python followed the Otter as he lead them down the bank of the river. Finally he took them to a group of branches, tied together by twisted vines into a flat platform floating on the water.
“This is another item made by Man,” the Otter said, “It is called a Raft. Get on it.”
And the Dik-Dik, the Fennec Fox, and the Python scrabbled, scampered and slithered onto the Raft, and Otterdammerung leaped into the river and began to pull them across, holding one of the twisted vines in his mouth. It took a bit of time, but soon enough they had crossed the river.
“Otterdammerung has kept his promise,” said Otterdammerung, “Now you are free to head into the forest. But beware; the Man of the Forest is ruthless and merciless. Should ye sight him, Otterdammerung can perhaps protect ye: for a price, of course. Does this interest ye?”
“Well, Mr. Otterdammerung,” said Daniel, “Thank you for your help, but we don’t want to give up all our secrets just yet.”
“Fine, then,” the Otter said, shrugging and smiling, “But if ye change your minds, I’ll be here.”
Leaving Otterdammerung behind, Daniel the Dik-Dik, Francois the Fennec Fox, and Wollunqua the Python began to head into the woods. In their haste, they did not see the shadows dancing on the trees ahead of them.
Next Chapter: The Man of the Forest!