Keep Your Enemies Closer by Robert Gresham

Purvis Wade felt like he was in hell.

The constant spring rain of his homeland in Taldor was a pleasant nuisance compared to the humid torrential downpour of the Kaava lands. Following behind his Mwangi guide Nabutu was a task in itself, for the native man knew the jungle well and walked over the rough terrain as easily as if it were flat grass. Nabutu was dark skinned and wore only the tanned hide of a giraffe and sandals made from the underbelly of pythons. He used a thin bamboo pole as his only tool, whacking aside heavy foliage and curious snakes.

In contrast, Wade wore a thick leather coat made unbearably heavy by the rain. Black knee breeches were tucked into his leather survival boots and a white cotton shirt covered an undershirt of mithril mail. His leather ring belt held his seven-inch jungle knife and a silver rapier in an elaborately tailored frog. Wade’s hair was unusually out of place as well, with short black curls spilling all over his forehead. His healthy Taldoran tan had burned in places causing his back to itch and ache as they walked.

The jungle was hot and night was approaching.

“How much further is this outpost Nabutu? I thought you said it was only a few miles southeast of Bloodcove.”

“Yes.” Nabutu said, not turning to face Wade as he walked effortlessly along. “You move too slow, too loud. K’naka hut, very close.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Though it was nearing night in the jungle, breaks in the canopy allowed the fading sunlight to spill through. As night grew closer, bioluminescent insects fluttered throughout the air creating an array of glowing, dancing lights.

After nearly a half an hour of further traveling, the jungle began to thin out until at last it broke into a clearing roughly one hundred yards wide. A bamboo building, no more than fifty-foot square, stood in the middle of the clearing on six-foot high tree trunk stilts. Rough wooden stairs led to a door flap made from animal leather, while standing before the building like a scarecrow was a large insectoid effigy fashioned together from bird feathers, reeds, and thin bamboo. Smoke rose from a chimney in the thatch roof, and wade could see a light of some kind emanating from within.

Nabutu cupped his hands around his mouth and made two birdcalls toward the bamboo hut. Within moments, the door opened and a young dark skinned Mwangi man exited carrying a bright glowing rock and a long bone spear. The man called down to Wade and Nabutu in a throaty voice full of groans and clicks. Nabutu replied in his native Polyglot and after a few moments of dialog the man seemed satisfied. He reentered the hut while Nabutu climbed the steps motioning for Wade to follow.

“I will do our speaking Mister Wade. K’naka very old, very proud in old ways. Us no make him angry for health.” Nabutu said nervously.

‘You just say what I tell you to say. If the old man gets angry, that’s just unfortunate.” Wade replied.

Nabutu nodded and the pair walked beyond the leather door flap into the hut. The walls of the building were waist high, and made from bamboo bound together by braided vines, the floor: wide wooden planks. Bamboo pillars adorned with angry carved faces, held up the thatched roof, allowing for a wrap around window with a landscape view of the jungle. Five Mwangi natives, three men and two women occupied the hut. The women were young, late teens to twenties, as were two of the Mwangi men. The fifth was their patriarch, an old man nearing eighty with long white, dreaded locks and the cloudy eyes of the blind. The young man carrying the spear and the light stone moved to stand by the women, who sat cross legged and shirtless near the rear of the hut. The other youth tended a fireplace full of red-hot coals near where the old man sat in a whicker rocking chair. A black iron cauldron bubbled audibly in the fire, a sickly sweet smell erupting from it.

The old man spoke in raspy Polyglot to Wade and Nabutu. He seemed wary and slightly afraid.

“K’naka asks our names and why we come to him at night.” Nabutu translated.

“Wade. Purvis Wade. I’ve come from across the inner sea to speak to you.”

The old man laughed as he heard the translation. Wade noticed that the old man was carving on a solid piece of black wood with a small hook bladed knife.

“What does a foreign man want with K’naka that swims him across oceans?”

Wade reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and removed a fist sized black wooden figure, vaguely aquatic in countenance, and set it before the old man. The women in the hut gasped at the idols appearance causing the man with the spear to usher them out the back entrance of the hut.

“A shadowy assassin in Cheliax carried this. Before his escape he told me you made it for him. Magical attempts to find him have failed. I want to know who you made this for, and now I want to know why you’re women fear it.”

K’naka took up the idol and ran it over in his hands. When he spoke it was hushed and full of sadness.

“He says this was a gift to the earthbound evil, the man who did not walk. The master of the Brotherhood of Beasts.” Nabutu leaned closer to Wade and whispered.

“The Brotherhood? What-”

K’naka continued speaking over Wade, his voice carrying a new sense of urgency. Nabutu nodded furiously, trying to keep up with the old man.

Finally when they were silent, Nabutu spoke.

“He says the man who did not walk came with another man, all black with a black bird. They searched for the stone of woe near the Ruins of Mbaiki far east of here beyond the hunt of the Dragon. They could not find the ancient place and K’naka says he would not tell them. To spare his children he gave the black man the idol.”

K’naka spoke again, his voice deathly serious.

“He says the idol is the man who did not walk. That he carved his true face.” Nabutu translated.

K’naka handed the idol back to Wade. Purvis took another looked at the menacing, aquatic form of the thing. It had the shape of a humanoid, but its crippled legs were twisted backwards beneath its body. The claws of the thing were webbed and four fingered, while its head had the mixed likeness of a sharp-toothed fish and bird.

A sudden loud crack thundered throughout the hut followed by a heavy thud and the smell of burning hair. Wade, startled, turned towards the sound, his hand quickly falling to the hilt of his seven-inch jungle knife. A cat-sized stirge smoked lifelessly on the floor of the hut, having flown through the open, wraparound window. The angry faced carvings on the bamboo pillars glowed a vibrant purple.

The Mwangi youth by the fire scooped up the insect, chopped off its proboscis with a jagged cleaver, and threw the remaining body into the bubbling iron cauldron. He then diced up the feeding tube into bite-sized rings and began to roast them on a long metal spike.

K’naka did not speak but the youth seemed in sudden high spirits. Nabutu explained it was a good omen when a stirge flew in the hut when travelers arrived, that the jungle was providing is hospitality. The youth gave the roasted ringlets to K’naka along with a wooden bowl of stew from the cauldron. He then provided Wade and Nabutu with bowls, but had to bring stew outside the hut to the women who would not return inside.

K’naka spoke no more about the men or the Brother hood of the Beast and when Wade pressed Nabutu to bring it up the look on his guides face clearly told him the subject was closed. The Mwangi man who’d made the stew, Sam’day invited Wade and Naubutu to spend the remainder of the night in the hut and provided them with leather blankets made from the fur of big jungle cats. Despite the constant rainfall on the thatched roof of the hut that sounded like gnomish firearms to Wade, he drifted off to sleep quickly and slept soundly.

In the morning Wade awoke to find Nabutu and himself alone in the hut. K’naka had fled with his family while they slept and a quick scan of the hut showed they took what little belongs they had with them. Nabutu, was wide-awake and apparently had been for hours.

“K’naka says if the man who did not walk wishes to kill you, that you are a ghost man and that he could not be near you. I hope you found your answers Mister Wade.”

“I found answers indeed Nabutu. I’m just afraid I found more questions as well.”

It was then Wade saw the solitary object that K’naka and his family had left behind. On the steps in front of the bamboo hut was a small black woodcarving, the same wood K’naka had been whittling upon Wade’s arrival. It looked like a lion, proud and standing tall, but with the head of a snake. Wade wondered if that was what K’naka thought his true face looked like.

(Featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 4)