The forest that lay across the river was thick with trees of all sizes. Some of those trees were very, very old and their gnarled, ancient branches formed a jagged canopy that blocked the light of the moon. Needless to say, then, the further that Daniel the Dik-Dik, Francois the Fennec Fox, and Wollunqua the Python moved into the mighty wood, the darker it became.
“I am afraid,” said Francois, his voice small in the great blackness, “For I find my way around with the stars, and now I cannot see those stars.”
“I’m scared, too,” said Daniel, “I’m used to living in a deep hole under the ground. And while it’s dark there, it’s also safe. I don’t feel safe here.”
“Do not fear,” Wollunqua hissed, “For I do not require light as you do. A snake is a creature of darkness. I can feel the rustle of the trees, and I can see the warmth of the living beings in this forest.”
Despite his bravado, there was something slow and lazy in the way the snake spoke.
“Wollunqua, you sound tired,” Daniel said with concern.
“Tired? No, not exactly,” came the mighty python’s reply, “But as I have told you, I can see warmth. But here, tonight, it is very cold. I do not see warmth here. And without this warmth, I am not able to move so quickly as I normally do.”
“What if we are attacked?” Francois’ voice whispered, trembling, “Will you not be able to protect us?”
“Understand this, Fennec Fox,” said the snake, “It is not the way of things that a Python should protect a fox. Or a Dik-Dik. No. I am here because it was promised to me that you would bring me to Beshekee, that I could make my case. If you cannot do so, I see no need-”
Wollunqua’s hissing was cut short by the violent rustling of leaves ahead of them.
“There is something ahead of us,” the python called in a hushed voice, “Something hot. Something living. I feel its footsteps quaking the earth beneath me. For a moment, I saw it glowing up ahead of me.”
For another awful moment, all was quiet. Then, once again came the awful shaking.
“Hello?” Daniel called out before Francois and Wollunqua could quiet him.
“Is someone there?”
On his left, Daniel felt the soft fur of a Fennec Fox. On his right, he felt the icy scales of a Python. Francois and Wollunqua were huddled up next to him. And they were terrified. Ahead of them, something living was stirring in the trees.
“There is something warm moving about us,” Wollunqua said, “And it approaches us.”
Then, suddenly, fearfully, there came a terrible sound from nearby.
“LEAVE MY FOREST NOW!”
The voice was a deep and mournful groan, like the sound that a pig makes as a lion kills it.
“LEAVE MY FOREST, NOW!!!”
It was getting closer.
Daniel was afraid, but still he called out, “Hello? We did not mean to trespass in your forest. It’s just that-”
“SILENCE, DIK-DIK! YOU SHALL TURN AND RUN, OR YOU SHALL ALL BE DESTROYED. KNOW YOU NOT WHAT I AM?”
Daniel’s eyes widened, “Are you…”
“I … AM … MAN! AND I EXIST ONLY TO KILL!”
Man! The one thing that all other creatures feared! That most terrifying of beings: more wicked than Shezmu, the Dik-Dik Devil who created them! Crueler than Hydra, the most brutal of the snakes! More frightening than anything a Fennec Fox ever feared! The baddest of the bad! Was this really Him? The ruler of the forest, the one that Otterdammerung had warned them of?
Oh, no, please don’t let it be, thought Daniel furiously, and he knew that his friends were thinking the same. He prayed furiously to the Dik-Dik gods, and he knew Wollunqua was praying furiously to the Python Powers, and perhaps even Francois was appealing to some spiritual force. Man existed only to kill, so indeed this must be the end-
“LEAVE MY FOREST, NOW! OR BE DESTROYED!”
Wait a minute, thought Daniel, his little Dik-Dik heart furiously pumping, Man exists only to kill. Why, then, do we receive this warning?
“Excuse m-m-me, M-M-Mr. M-M-Man,” he stuttered, hoping he was right.
“SILENCE!” The awful grating moan called out from the trees.
“Daniel, what are you doing?” he heard Francois whisper in a panic.
“We must escape quickly,” Wollunqua hissed, and Daniel felt the great coils begin to move away from the Man.
“Well, now, wait just a minute, Mr. Man,” Daniel called out in the loudest voice the little Dik-Dik could muster, “Why do you wish for us to leave? Why don’t you simply kill us? For fun, or at the very least, to eat us? What do you possibly have to fear from some harmless wanderers in your forest?”
“I AM MAN! I NEED NOT EXPLAIN MYSELF TO YOU!” the wicked reply came.
“I don’t think you are Man,” said Daniel, “Wollunqua said Man would not or could not speak with the other Animals.”
“DO YOU SEEK PROOF?” the evil creature called, “I SHALL GIVE YOU PROOF! BEHOLD… MAN’S FIRE!”
The trees rustled again, and suddenly a great, bright, golden light cut through the blackness, blinding and brilliant. And it illuminated a figure, standing in the trees, and indeed that figure seemed to stand on the legs of an ostrich, with the mane of a lion, and the outstretched arms of a baboon.
Daniel gasped, squinting at the blaze behind the being. “You… you are … man!”
“YES, AND NOW… YOU SHALL ALL DIE!”
The shadow of the Man seemed to ready his sharpened claws.
“I’m sorry, my friends,” said Daniel, “I was wrong. I did not believe this could be a Man. But he must be! For he has Man’s fire, and now he shall destroy us all!”
“Where is Man’s fire?” Wollunqua hissed fearfully, “I do not see it… where is it?”
“It’s just ahead of us,” Daniel cried, “Can’t you see it fill the whole forest?”
“Where?” the snake said again, his head fearfully darting about.
“Just ahead of us!” shouted Francois, “How is it you cannot see it? How is it you cannot feel…”
“SILENCE, LESSER BEINGS,” the Man moaned, “YOUR DEATHS ARE AT HAND!”
“Wait!” Francois said, “Wollunqua, you still do not see Man’s Fire?”
“No! Where is it? I do not wish to burn!” the snake howled.
“Do you not understand?” Francois said, the fear in his voice subsiding some, “I have seen Man’s Fire before! And, indeed, Man’s Fire burns! Man’s Fire is hot! And whatever this light is, it does not burn… it is not hot!”
Wollunqua turned back towards the dark silhouette, and hissed again. This time, he was not afraid. He was angry.
“My friend, the Fennec Fox, is correct,” Wollunqua said cruelly, “You are not Man.”
“NO! I AM MAN! FEAR MY FIRE! FEAR MY CLAWS! UH, FEAR, MY, UH-”
The creature was cut off when the mighty python lunged, wrapping his powerful coils around the manly silhouette in the blink of an eye. The creature, whatever it was, squealed in terror. Its voice was no longer the fearful moan, but a higher-pitched squeak. Wollunqua tumbled to the ground, wrapped about the “Man.”
“No! Please, do not hurt me,” the being was saying, “I meant no harm, merely a jest, I would never have hurt you-”
Daniel and Francois moved closer to Wollunqua and the creature he had imprisoned. By now, their eyes were finally adjusting to the bright, golden (as well as cold) light ahead of them. They were able, at last, to clearly see the creatures face. It was, indeed, not a Man.
It was Otterdammerung, the Otter that had taken them across the river! To his stubby front legs, he had lashed some long branches, so that they would appear as the baboon-like front legs of Man. At his back legs, he had stood on uprooted tree stumps, so that they would appear as the ostrich-like legs of Man. All about his head, he had lashed long, reedy leaves, to appear as the lion-like mane of a Man.
“Otterdammerung?” Daniel said incredulously, “You are the Man of the Forest?”
“Well, uh, technically, yes,” the Otter stammered, somewhat out of breath in the Python’s coils. “There are many remnants of Man around here, Rafts and Spears (for that is what Man calls His claws) and other Manly things, but I believe the last real Man of this Forest died some time ago.”
“Then why pretend to be him?” Daniel asked.
“It was a wonderful scam!” said Otterdammerung, “For when that Star fell from the sky, many creatures came from all over to attempt to secure its power! Lions, Eagles, Baboons, Hyenas… all manner of creatures! And Otterdammerung realized that he could profit from this! He collected secrets from each creature that came into the woods. Then, as Man, he scared them away! Many traded more secrets with Otterdammerung in return for a ride away from the forest! Those that did not, drowned in the river! And all the while, I collected all the wisdom of the Savanna and kept the Star to myself!”
“So that bright light you said was Man’s fire,” said Francois, “That is the fallen star we have come to find?”
The Otter nodded nervously. Wollunqua had been slowly tightening his grip this whole time.
“So, what does the Star do? What is its magic?” asked Daniel the Dik-Dik.
“I don’t know!” Otterdammerung cried, “For no being that I encountered knew that secret! And I have feared to go close enough to the Star to test it myself!”
“Then there is no reason to keep you alive!” hissed Wollunqua, and the Python’s great jaw began to unhinge, opening to a terrifying width as he prepared to swallow the Otter whole.
“No, wait! Please! There is a reason, there is! Do not kill Otterdammerung!” the little Otter was squirming in vain inside the great coils of the mighty and cruel Python.
“What is that reason?” Daniel asked.
“Because…” Otterdammerung said, now struggling to speak, “I have learned many secrets of the Savanna!”
“Not good enough,” Wollunqua said, slowly beginning to push the Otter into his great gaping mouth.
“But I know the one you want! The only one you want! I know… where Beshekee is!” Otterdammerung was gasping with horror now.
“Why believe you?” Francois said, taking his turn to taunt the terrified prankster.
“I will take you to him! And if I am wrong, then you can eat me!” Otterdammerung blubbered, practically begging.
“Deal,” said Daniel the Dik-Dik.
And so Wollunqua the Python pulled Otterdammerung the Otter out of his mouth and loosened his coils. The frightened little Otter gratefully sprang free.
“Beshekee,” he said, pointing off into the distance past the light of the fallen Star, “Is that way!”
And so Daniel the Dik-Dik, Francois the Friendly Fennec Fox, Wollunqua the Mighty Python, and Otterdammerung the Tricky Otter continued their journey into the Forest, lit by the Fallen Star they were soon to collect. And then, on to find Beshekee!
Next Chapter: Beshekee!