The final hunt.
Mhumhi had felt this way before, a long time ago- when Kutta had first brought him to see Maha and Tareq. Why should he have to put his life in danger so often? Why should he risk the lives of his loved ones?
He had thought that it had all disappeared by the time the two hulkers had been taken away by the bouda, when he and Kutta vowed to get them back, even if it made things worse off for all of them; when his heart filled with that selfish, greedy love.
And yet now, when he looked at the boy in front of him, his face contorted in anger as he clutched fistfuls of bloody meat, Mhumhi felt nothing but resentment.
Tareq threw a handful at him; the second one he’d thrown after Mhumhi had regurgitated it up for him that morning. Mhumhi did not flinch this time, and the meat fell just short of him and landed on the dirt.
“I don’t want it!”
Mhumhi didn’t say anything, and Tareq’s lip trembled, his fingers squashing into his other handful of meat.
“You killed it!”
The words Mhumhi wanted to say were, “For whom did I learn how to kill?” But he didn’t say them.
“It’s the only food we have, Tareq.”
Tareq threw the rest at him.
“I’m not gonna eat it!”
This time it hit Mhumhi on the shoulder, and he twitched, his lip raising slightly. Tareq gave a whimper and pulled himself backwards, dragging his heavy splinted leg. For a moment Mhumhi thought that the fear in his eyes was directed towards himself, but then he realized, with a little shock, that Hlolwa was standing just behind him.
She stepped beside him, raising her head to stare down at Tareq.
“Look at this thing,” she said. “The domestics would say it was a god, and my pack would say it was a devil.”
Tareq’s whimpering changed to a glare, and he clutched at his broken leg with his dirty hands.
“What power you had, once,” said Hlolwa, addressing him directly. “But you really are a nothing, aren’t you? Why were we ever frightened of you?”
“Go away,” said Tareq. “Mhumhi, make her leave!”
Hlolwa’s mouth opened slightly in an unpleasant grin. “It really is a puppy, isn’t it, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi said nothing, though he felt that ‘devil’ was currently a more apt description.
Tareq glowered at both of them now, his eyes hooded.
“Where’re my puppies?”
Mhumhi drew his ears back, but Hlolwa gave a great snort of laughter.
“That’s the power it has right there, though- it doesn’t realize that we could tear it apart! And it has the audacity to demand my offspring from me!”
Tareq clutched at one of the tires that made up the wall beside him, his eyes clouding with fresh fear. Mhumhi pushed Hlolwa with his shoulder.
“What do you want?”
She bore the contact with surprising good nature. “I came to ask you if you would be leaving to search for your red dog soon. And to see if you had any meat left.”
“Yes, I do,” said Mhumhi, sourly. Tareq hadn’t eaten anything the night before, nor this morning. He had shoved Mhumhi away when he tried to rest with him.
Hlolwa twitched her nose down at the meat on the dirt. “I’m not especially hungry. Are you leaving?”
“I guess I am,” said Mhumhi, sighing through his nose. “I’ll try to be back before sundown.”
Hlolwa pulled one corner of her lips back. “How deep into the gray pack’s territory do you intend to go?”
“As deep as I have to,” said Mhumhi, turning away so he wouldn’t have to look at Tareq’s miserable face anymore. “Until I find out where she is.”
“You’d better take that hyena with you,” said Hlolwa.
He turned an ear towards her, surprised. “Why do you say that?”
“If your sister is being held hostage from them, who’s to say they won’t do the same to you?”
Mhumhi made a noise to indicate how likely he thought that would be, and Hlolwa gave a soft laugh.
“I don’t think they’ll like you trying to take your red dog back, either. You may have to bite a few throats.”
“It won’t have to come to that,” said Mhumhi, scuffing at the ground with a forepaw.
“What, you’re afraid of killing, Mhumhi?” Hlolwa asked, and then she laughed.
In summation, it was not Mhumhi’s favorite morning.
It was some time later that he prowled down along the coastline, tracking pawprints in the wet sand, seeking out Vimbo. Hlolwa’s advice had been wise- it usually was- if unpleasant. Mhumhi had no desire to seem threatening to the members of the gray pack. Even if they were at odds now, Telipa and the others had done them a great service once, back at the water treatment plant. He couldn’t just forget that.
Their sudden animosity was so bizarre to him, really. Fine, perhaps the slaughter of screamers was shocking to them, and Hlolwa not a welcome presence, but…
Mhumhi heaved a sigh. Actually, those did seem like two good reasons now that he thought about it.
He came across Vimbo’s little bone pile, though it looked a bit different. It was clear that Vimbo had been rearranging things, stacking bones in different piles- though to what purpose, Mhumhi couldn’t fathom. The skulls were still placed separately- Mini’s skull occupied a high peak. The sight of it made Mhumhi swallow. He was not sure he liked having it up there, as if on display, a glaring reminded of her death. At least if it was in the ocean he could pretend she had walked away into a better life.
Vimbo was not resting in his dirty pile of blankets. Mhumhi followed the trail of huge pawprints in the sand and found him a little ways away, playing with more bones, nudging them with his forepaws. He glanced up and gave a little whine when Mhumhi approached, flicking his short tail.
“Hello, Vimbo,” said Mhumhi, wagging a little, and went to lick the hyena’s chin. Vimbo lifted his leg in return.
Their greeting concluded, Vimbo went back to his bones, grunting and shoving them with his nose. Mhumhi wondered how he ought to convey that he wanted him to follow him.
The bones Vimbo was playing with were all very long, slender ones- leg bones, Mhumhi presumed. Screamer leg bones. Though for all he knew, Sekayi’s could have been in there too. He doubted screamer bones were terribly different-looking from hulker bones.
“Vimbo,” he called. Vimbo looked up at him, bone dangling haphazardly from his jaws.
For some reason, Mhumhi said, “I hope you haven’t been lonely, out here by yourself.”
Vimbo gazed at him, unblinking.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t always be with us.”
Vimbo was silent. Of course he was. Mhumhi sighed through his nose.
“What do you think, Vimbo? Are we your pack? Or are you still looking for something else?” Mhumhi paused, then gave a little laugh. “No, you can’t think of us as your pack, can you?”
Vimbo put his bone down, still gazing at Mhumhi.
“Can I tell you something?” For a moment Mhumhi was a puppy again, chewing on the carpet, missing his mother, whispering dark secrets down into the toilet hole. “Can I tell you something?”
“Tareq hasn’t eaten since yesterday morning, and I don’t even care very much.”
Vimbo blinked. Then he lowered his head and pawed at the bone again. Mhumhi gave a stuttering whuff of a laugh.
“I still care about him,” he told the air. “I still care.”
Vimbo picked up another bone and laid it across the first.
“I mean, if I don’t care anymore, why am I here in the first place?”
A white bird came to land on a pile of garbage nearby. Mhumhi glimpsed it out of the corner of his eye and turned to watch it strut and preen itself.
When he looked back, Vimbo had lined more bones up, some parallel, some crossing each other, all in a row. He was delicately easing another into place with his nose.
Perhaps if Mhumhi took a bone, Vimbo would follow him.
He stepped forward and set his teeth around the first bone in the row. Vimbo’s head shot up and he gave a squealing growl. Mhumhi jerked back.
Vimbo loped over, shoving Mhumhi out of the way, and carefully repositioned the bone in place with little nudges. He look another from the pile, shot Mhumhi a look, and then went back to the other end of the row to put it down.
Suddenly it all clicked into place in Mhumhi’s head, and he stepped back a little, to get a better view. Vimbo was making another message. But for whom to read? He tilted his head- the pattern must have meant something to the hyena, but it only looked like bones lying this way and that to Mhumhi.
Vimbo wedged the bone he was currently holding between his forepaws and crunched it in half with a splintering sound. He arranged the shorter pieces delicately around some of the others.
When Mhumhi approached his row again, he gave a warning giggle. Mhumhi backed up and went over to the bones still piled up. Vimbo tracked him with his eyes and ears.
Mhumhi selected a large bone and dragged it over to the ground just below Vimbo’s row. He laid it down; got another bone. This he arranged beside the first in a manner that mimicked the bones above it.
Vimbo gave a lurch as Mhumhi got a third bone and set it in place, copying the pattern. He was going for his fourth when Vimbo ran in front of him, grunting softly.
Mhumhi put his ears back- perhaps his action was not being well-received. Vimbo backed him up, still grunting, until they were back at Mhumhi’s row. Then the hyena ducked his head and gently moved one of the bones into a slightly different position.
Mhumhi opened his mouth in a small smile, and then dashed over to the beach.
Vimbo followed him with a whine, his head up, and Mhumhi spun around and spanked the sand with his forepaws, dragging a line with his nose. Vimbo’s eyes widened slightly and he copied Mhumhi’s line. Not perfectly; his nose was a great deal bigger.
They played in the sand for a little while. Well, Mhumhi felt like it was play. He was aware that Vimbo was treating it more seriously, with how stiff his movements had suddenly gotten, and the way that sometimes his joints would twitch, or he would stand there blinking, as though something were suddenly going to burst out of his great gray form. He took the lead and Mhumhi copied him again, line for line, accepting his gentle corrections. Mhumhi had no idea what it was that they were saying.
Perhaps it didn’t matter so much. Suddenly Vimbo flung himself down, on his back, and gave a wild twist, spraying sand everywhere. He bounced back up, mouth open in what could only have been a joyful expression.
He loped over to Mhumhi, who sprang away sideways, tail wagging, and then got the wind knocked out of him as Vimbo plowed over him. They wrestled for a moment, Mhumhi squirming and snapping on his back, Vimbo pinning him and giving him soft bites with the jaws he had used to break bones a moment earlier. Sand flew and covered up the marks they had made together.
Vimbo let him up eventually. There was no contest in terms of strength; Mhumhi would not have gotten up without his permission- still, he came to his feet with a bounce and licked the hyena’s ears. Vimbo shut his eyes. For a moment, all of the fears and anxieties and dark thoughts Mhumhi had been holding on to were just- just- gone.
Vimbo pulled away, shaking his damp, sandy head, and then scratched another line in the sand.
Mhumhi hesitated. Vimbo was looking at him with wide, eager eyes; hope clear in every straining muscle in his body. But. Mhumhi glanced at the sun. But.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his heart sinking. “I’m really sorry, Vimbo. I have to find Kutta… I promise I’ll come back. I promise. I’ll learn. But I have to go.”
The hyena stared at him, eyes blank and dark, one paw raised above the sand.
“I’m sorry,” said Mhumhi, his ears flat, and backed away.
Vimbo followed him, in a jerky way, eyes still searching for Mhumhi’s own. Mhumhi found it very hard to break that gaze, guilty as he was, but finally his rump hit something and he had to turn around.
Vimbo kept following him. Now Mhumhi didn’t want to look back. Together they moved slowly forward, further into the territory of the grey pack.
Their scent grew stronger and stronger, and Mhumhi dipped his head; there were urine-marks everywhere, and the scent of the oils secreted by many paws. He sorted through them carefully, trying to maintain a rational head. Some were old, some were fresh, most were moderately healthy. He came across a place where a pair had urine-marked together, one on top of the other; perhaps there would soon be squirming gray puppies to join Hlolwa’s black ones.
He had mixed feelings about that.
They were well-past the site of their old encampment, at Sekayi’s concrete house, when Mhumhi saw his first jackal. It was side-striped, and it gave a startled little yap at the sight of him and disappeared over the other side of a mound of trash.
Behind him, Mhumhi heard Vimbo give a little grunt.
Mhumhi dipped his nose again. So far, he had not caught wind of Kutta, but perhaps he would have better luck in this area, where the little hovels stood with their fluttering rag entrances. It seemed that many members of the gray pack were using them for shelter. He heard startled growls as he passed by them, caught flashes of wide yellow eyes.
No one yet tried to stop him- Mhumhi suspected VImbo’s presence was helpful. Besides that, it also did not seem like they were terribly organized; over the next rise they nearly stumbled into a pair of black-backed jackals who were seriously fighting with one another, standing up to box.
The pair jumped apart at the sight of Mhumhi and Vimbo, their ears flattened back and their tails tucking, animosity forgotten. Mhumhi decided to address them.
“Do you know where the red dog is?”
One of the jackals broke and ran, but Vimbo stepped around beside the other before she could do the same.
Mhumhi repeated himself: “Do you know where the dhole is?”
The jackal’s whiskers contracted back against her narrow, clever face, and she jerked her muzzle to one side, indicating a direction away from the sea. Mhumhi whisked his tail at Vimbo and walked away. The jackal scampered.
Vimbo uttered a series of little noises and caught up with him.
“Chances are, she was lying,” Mhumhi confided in him, “but I don’t care. I’m going to search until I find Kutta.”
Or whatever was left of her. A small tremor passed through him.
He increased his speed, zigzagging through the garbage, scattering jackals and coyotes wherever he went. Some yapped authoritatively at him, telling him to get out; he took no notice. They seemed hesitant to actually approach him and Vimbo.
He overturned the scat of a golden jackal with his nose in frustration, revealing a squirming white worm underneath. Where was Kutta’s scent? She had to be out here somewhere- the sun was dipping below a muggy bank of clouds- where was she?
Vimbo suddenly gave a squeal, his nose thrust down in the garbage. Mhumhi ran to his shoulder at once, shoving his nose down at the spot, inhaling deeply.
It was not Kutta’s scent. For that, he almost gave it up, but there was an odd edge to it that intrigued him. It seemed most like screamer urine- he’d gotten so used to the scent of that that he could almost tune it out- but no, though it smelled pale and watery, it was in a different way. Mhumhi took in another deep breath. No, it was most definitely not screamer or hulker.
It was not something he knew at all.
The members of the grey pack were slinking closer during his period of inattention, jangling on his nerves, and he snorted. He couldn’t chase a strange scent now, though it prickled at him.
Vimbo’s nose was still down on the ground, pressing into the dirt so that he was actually inhaling it. He scraped the ground with a paw.
When the dirt turned over, Mhumhi caught wind of something else, a scent he did recognize. Bii.
Bii and a strange new scent, all together.
Mhumhi felt that prickle again, some sort of instinct tugging at his brain. But he shook his head, jarring himself. Bii was probably only here to feast on the parasites the grey pack were dropping, and with Mhumhi’s luck that new creature was something he probably didn’t want to meet anyhow. He had to find Kutta…
Vimbo raised his head and loped forward, his ears swiveling. The grey pack scattered to let him through, then reformed around Mhumhi. Their eyes were not friendly. Mhumhi hesitated, than elected to follow VImbo.
The hyena was almost certainly following the strange scent, for Mhumhi could tell it was getting stronger, in the form of sweat, not urine. Vimbo had moved into a run, his breath snorting out through his nose with each pound of his heavy paws. Mhumhi caught up with him easily, his ears slicked back, his strides broad. The scent was making his heart hammer. He was salivating.
A drop hit the end of his nose, and he glanced up- the clouds were getting thicker and grayer. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Vimbo put on a burst of speed and vanished over the next rise.
Mhumhi bounded after in, into a little valley. Vimbo had stopped short, his ears erect, straining to listen. Mhumhi did not have to strain- the sound of something coming, running forward, was all too clear. A stride like none he’d ever heard was clattering towards them.
Over the side of the valley sprang the creature, in an impossibly high jump. Mhumhi’s jaw went slack. He had not seen anything like it- no, that was not quite true, he’d seen something like a part of it, the very first day they’d arrived at the dump. A head with horns on it, like a cow, long slender legs with two thick black nails. Mini might have called it a goat once. It was a very large goat.
The goat hit the bottom of the valley and seemed to stop short at the sight of them. Its eyes were bizarre-looking- ugly yellow, with a horizontal rectangle of a pupil. The rest of it was all short brown fur.
This was all Mhumhi had time to gather before the goat began to run again, straight at them. Mhumhi wondered why, and then he saw it. Her. Kutta was flying up over the side of the valley, her yellow eyes focused, her black tail swinging as she zigzagged downwards. Behind her came members of the gray pack, less gracefully, their mouths grinning and their eyes bright with hunger.
Mhumhi stood stock-still, even with the goat thundering towards him. She did not look injured in the slightest. She did not look distressed, or angry, or frightened- not at all. Only predatory greed showed in her eyes.
Vimbo nudged him with a yowl, and he jumped out of the way as the goat swung its heavy horns at him. It kept going, and so did its pursuers. Mhumhi watched them go by in a daze, including Kutta. She did not even look at him.
Vimbo joined the chase himself, grunting, though he did not stand a chance of keeping up with the speed of the others. Mhumhi felt compelled to follow. He was dizzy, and his paws slipped on wet garbage. It was starting to rain more heavily.
The dogs followed the goat, hounding it as it leapt over hills and scattered trash, gaining ground every time it turned. It, too, was slipping in the wet, teetering dangerously sometimes on those delicate-looking legs. But it always recovered and kept running.
Mhumhi, blinking rain out of his eyes, suddenly found himself at the head of the pack, his longer strides overtaking those of the others. Kutta was beside him.
“Kutta,” he coughed out, through the rain and his own harried breath.
She did look at him, and he saw the surprise in her eyes, and she stopped running. But the jackals crowding behind him and the goat fleeing before him kept Mhumhi running, running, running. The rain was soaking through him, making his fur heavy, making it difficult to see the brown shape of the goat as it ran from hill to hill. Mhumhi sped up. Faster. Faster than he’d ever gone, even when he was running beside Hlolwa, who matched his stride. Faster.
He cut a corner and was in front of the goat again, so that it had to struggle to stop, its hooves slipping, and stumbled forward. Mhumhi sprang, rainwater hitting his tongue as his jaws opened, and caught it by the nose.
The goat’s snorting breath went down his throat. The yapping, whistling horde caught up with the goat and latched on, or tried to. A jackal went flying from a kick as Mhumhi tried to brace himself, keeping his grip hard, tasting blood as the goat struggled. He saw a red flash and there was Kutta, springing to hold the goat’s tail, as a coyote lunged for the soft skin between its stomach and thigh.
They had it between the two of them. It should have been over. But one second Mhumhi was blinking the rain out of his eyes, the soft nose in his teeth, and the next his jaws were empty and pain exploded along his chest and side.
He hit the side of a hill and slid downwards. The goat had hit him with its horns, a blow that had sent him flying. He felt bruised. He was lucky he had not been gored.
Mhumhi stood up, rather painfully, and just caught the sight of the tail end of the goat disappearing down another ravine, the pack in hot pursuit. Rain flowed down his nose and dripped from the fur underneath his muzzle. Mhumhi shook himself, quite uselessly. It was pouring. Rivulets of water were flowing rapidly through the garbage around him, turning dark and oily.
He staggered a little before he managed to get himself running again. The rain hammered onto his sore back. His paws splashed through the ankle-deep water at the bottom of the ravine. He passed a jackal lying with her head in the water, a bloody hole in her side.
Mhumhi’s breath came harsh through his nose, and he ran. The gray pack was breaking up- there were jackals and coyotes standing on either side, panting and dispirited in the rain. Far ahead sprang the goat, and behind it, a red and black streak.
Mhumhi forced himself forwards, half-swimming sometimes, inhaling drops of water. The shapes in front of him got blurry, but he was closing in… closing in…
He was close enough to touch his nose to Kutta’s tail when the goat lashed out with its hind legs and gave her a kick that send her spinning down the hill and into a lake of water.
Mhumhi gave a shriek and stopped. The goat clattered off. He let it.
He ran down the side of the hill, stared into the filthy water- no, no, no, the blow had hit her head, it had hit her head- he saw the red fur rise to the surface, the body limp and floating- no, no, no-
He splashed out to where the water went as high as his chest and caught her by the tail, pulling her back to shore, mind a yawning maw of horror.
Suddenly Kutta struggled, kicking him in the nose, and went back underwater.
Mhumhi let go of her tail and cried, “Kutta!”
She surfaced, splashing and gasping, paddling with her forepaws- she couldn’t reach the bottom here. Mhumhi backed up so that she could kick and struggle towards the shore, where she collapsed, her chin in the shallow water.
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi. His heart was still fluttering like a white bird. “Are you… are you all right?”
She raised her head slightly, her ears flattened from the rain, blinking at him.
“Did we lose it?”
Mhumhi felt a small part of himself close down.
“Yes. It’s gone.”
Kutta squinted up at him, shivering, and said, “I’m sorry, Mhumhi.”