Mhumhi fell completely off of the counter in his surprise, coming to a hard rest on the sticky tiled floor below. He twisted to his feet, paws slipping and scrabbling.
The yellow-eyed thing stepped into the light, and Mhumhi’s heart sank. It was a massive male gray wolf, and it was baring its teeth and Mhumhi.
“What’re you doing coming here alone, you little spotted bastard?” it said.
Mhumhi tucked his tail and backed away, back towards the door. The biggest of the dogs, gray wolves were also some of the least friendly, tending towards a certain territoriality. He knew the police had trouble with them, and wouldn’t go after then unless they had large numbers.
“I’m leaving,” he told the wolf, perhaps more hopefully than he should have, for it snarled, “No you aren’t,” and lunged at him.
Mhumhi squealed and scrambled back through the door, bumping through it. With a creak it began to slide shut, catching the wolf as he burst through around the middle. He yelped. Mhumhi didn’t stick around to see if he was all right.
He dashed pell-mell down the aisle with the cardboard boxes, chattering and calling for Kutta. Behind him he heard the wolf snarl and give a short, sharp howl. That did not bode well. Especially not when he was answered with other howls.
“Kutta!” Mhumhi yelled, dashing around the next aisle, but instead he found a wolf, a female this time, snarling and advancing on him with her tail raised. Mhumhi scrambled to do an about-face, sliding on the linoleum, and actually ran into her. Her teeth caught him in the flank before he got his feet underneath him enough to run away.
He heard other nails clicking on the linoleum on the other side of the shelves on both sides. In a desperate move he crouched and leapt, barely catching himself with his front paws at the top of the shelves, and wormed his way over. The female wolf leapt after him but fell back.
Mhumhi ran along the top of the shelf a ways, then leapt to the next over, then the next, panting. Each aisle seemed to hold more wolves than the last, and they were leaping and growling at him. Panting, heart pounding, he wheeled around and leapt over the end of the shelves to a low-hanging wooden sign, suspended from the ceiling by wires. It swung wildly as he hit it, and his paws could not get enough grip on the narrow surface and he fell back and down.
His landing hurt a lot less than it should have- rather than a hard floor, he landed on something soft that yielded to his weight with the sound of crumpling plastic and a great poof. He scrambled to his feat, unsteady on the sinking surface. He seemed to have landed in a bin filled with plastic-covered comforters.
His first, dizzy thought was that he was incredibly lucky, but when he put his nose over the edge he changed his mind. The bin was now surrounded by three wolves, all of them showing their teeth. Somewhere in the distance he heard snarls, and Kutta yelping and shrieking.
A wolf came trotting up and said, “We got the other one. Should we kill ‘em?”
“Wait,” growled one of Mhumhi’s captors, whom he recognized as the big male from the bathroom. “If this one’s police, we don’t want them sniffing around for the body. We’ll have to make him disappear.”
Mhumhi made a bold choice then, likely not one he would have made if he’d had his wits about him at the time.
“I’m not police!” he shouted. “Honest, I swear, I’m not! We only came in here looking for blankets!”
This prompted a great deal of surprise and growling from the wolves.
“Not police?” growled the lead male. “A great painted brute like you?”
“I’m not, really!” cried Mhumhi. “Ask her- ask my sister- don’t hurt her!”
“Sister?” said the lead wolf, then turned to one of the others and barked, “I thought you said it was a red dog!”
“It is!” said the other. “He’s lying to save his spotted hide!”
“She’s my sister, she is, we’re a mixed pack,” Mhumhi babbled, frantic, seeing the tide turning away again. “Please, we’ll leave, we won’t say a word, please don’t kill us…”
“He doesn’t sound like police,” said another wolf, the female that had lunged at Mhumhi in the shoe aisle.
Just then two more wolves ran up, one dragging Kutta by the ear. She was whining, her paws slipping as she struggled to keep up.
“Hi, red dog,” said the female red wolf. “Who’s this fellow?”
“That’s my little brother,” cried Kutta, whimpering.
The wolf released her and she crouched low on the floor, trembling. Mhumhi saw that her ear was bleeding badly.
“The stories match up,” said the female. The big male raised his lip.
“Mixed pack,” he growled. “I don’t like mixed packs. They’re full of puppy thieves, aren’t they?”
This set the other wolves to rumbling amongst themselves. Mhumhi cringed into the comforter, making the plastic rustle loudly.
“We’re not puppy thieves,” Kutta gasped. “How could we? From you…”
“We had a puppy thief before,” said the lead male. “Or- an attempt.” He licked his chops, and the other wolves exchanged looks. “Just one attempt.”
“Please,” said Kutta, “we didn’t even know anyone was in here. We’re not from this part of the city. We were just…”
“Why do you want blankets?” asked the female wolf. “Has someone in your pack got pups?”
Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a frantic look, and then Kutta said, “Yes, and we only wanted more bedding, and there wasn’t any around where we live…”
The female wolf turned to the male and said, “I don’t think they’re going to be doing any thieving. Let’s let them go.”
“Let them go?” growled the male, not seeming to like the idea. “What if they have the police on us?”
The female looked back at Mhumhi, her yellow eyes sharp. “Do they look as though they can go to the police?”
The male hesitated, then put his ears back. The other wolves retreated some.
“Go on and take your bedding,” he said, roughly. “You’ve got a warning, this time.”
Mhumhi sank into the comforter with relief, plastic crinkling. Kutta got to her feet again, still trembling. The female wolf came over and licked her bleeding ear.
“I know who you are,” she said. “I’ve heard of you. The orphan pack.”
Kutta said nothing, just kept her head and tail low and bore the licking like it was a punishment.
“Sorry for all the fuss,” the wolf continued. “It’s just that we make our den here, and most of the dogs in these parts know it and leave us alone. As we like it.” She laughed softly, her yellow eyes gleaming.
“A few weeks ago, someone came after one of my puppies. I’m afraid our backs have been up ever since.”
“That’s horrible,” said Kutta, squeezing her eyes shut.
“Yes, terrible,” said the wolf, her tail waving slowly. “I caught her, though. It was just an old white domestic- quite fat and stout- filthy smelling. I’m afraid I nearly ripped her leg off.”
Kutta flinched. The plastic on Mhumhi’s comforter rustled loudly.
“I thought she’d get away from me, but my lover Amaguk there came and caught her,” the wolf continued. “He caught her round the neck, made her scream. But that didn’t last long. They’re made of weak stuff, these domestics. It was over in a second.”
Kutta opened her eyes and looked at Mhumhi. Mhumhi himself was frozen.
“You killed her?” he hard himself say.
“Yes,” said the large male, Amaguk. “She was stealing my puppy, my daughter. She tried to tear her away from her mother in the night. I killed her.”
“So you see,” said the female, “that’s the reason why we’re all so on edge. I apologize for the rough treatment.”
Neither Mhumhi nor Kutta said anything. The female wolf tilted her head and swished her tail, and the rest of her pack converged around her and the walked away.
After a long moment, Kutta looked up again.
Mhumhi stood, staggering on the yielding surface of the comforter, and hopped clumsily out of the bin.
“We’ll kill them.”
“Mhumhi, no!” said Kutta, putting her ears back, as he tottered closer to her.
“We’ll kill them, won’t we, Kutta?”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Kutta, and Mhumhi heard an edge of raw misery creeping into her voice. “We’re not going to kill anyone. They don’t deserve it.”
She ran over and pushed against him, stopping him in mid-word.
“Please, Mhumhi, don’t make this worse. Don’t make it harder. Please, let’s get what we came for, then we can leave… we don’t have to come back…”
Mhumhi was stiff against her pressure for a few moments more, then he slowly yielded, all his legs going weak against the floor, like he was a puppy again, just learning to walk, with no strength in him, no strength built up… He felt like there was a bald, open wound in his chest, stinging, empty.
He got to his feet and turned around and took the comforter- the whole, heavy, plastic-wrapped thing- and dragged it loudly and roughly out of the bin. It was awkward to carry, and he bit down on it hard, plastic and then fabric and then feathers filling up his mouth.
Kutta came up on the other side and helped him drag it for a little while, and then, as they passed an aisle, she let go and ran down it and picked something up from the floor.
Mhumhi hadn’t the mind to ask her what it was, so he kept dragging the comforter along as she came up behind him with something long and cylinder-shaped in her teeth.
He barely remembered what it was like to leave the store, then to drag the stupid heavy comforter all the way back down the street, around the corner, back to the striped intersection with that grinning, mocking hulker face leering down at him. He dropped the comforter and watched Kutta scratch the manhole cover again.
It seemed to take a very long time for Maha to respond, and while they waited Mhumhi stared hatefully up at the giant face.
Kutta put the thing she’d been carrying down on the ground and said, “Sacha and Kebero…”
“Let’s not tell them,” said Mhumhi, the words rattling out of him. Kutta looked at him, her eyes soft.
“We must tell them, Mhumhi. At least Sacha. She’ll want to know what-”
“Sacha doesn’t care!”
Kutta didn’t say anything back after he spat the words out, just stood there in front of the manhole. Her ear still bled sluggishly, black blood crusting in her fur.
“She’ll just say she deserved it,” said Mhumhi, more softly.
Kutta might have said something, but the manhole cover jerked and shifted, and Maha put her fingers over the edge, peering shyly out. Her eyes brightened when she saw the white mass of the comforter.
Mhumhi was looking away, so Kutta walked around and caught it in her teeth to drag over closer. Maha looked around in a furtive way and pulled herself all the way out of the manhole.
She walked on two legs around Mhumhi, and looked at him, wide-eyed, but he continued to ignore her. She looked at Kutta, but Kutta said nothing as well, just listlessly tugged on the comforter.
Maha put her forelegs around the poofy mass and started to shove it down the manhole, finally sitting down and kicking at it until it dropped all the way down with a very faint smack.
“Here, Maha,” said Kutta, and she picked up the cylindrical thing to show to her. “I found you a candle.”
Maha’s face brightened with a real smile. “You really found one,” she said. She looked at Mhumhi. “I thought you were lying to us.”
Mhumhi glanced up at her, then away again.
“Mhumhi,” asked Maha, “what’s wrong?”
She moved closer to him. He leaned away, tensing, opening his jaws.
“Maha, don’t,” said Kutta. “He’s- we’re not well.”
“Oh,” said Maha. “But you’re bleeding!”
She was pointing not to Kutta, but to Mhumhi’s flank. He realized that it had been bleeding the whole time; he just hadn’t noticed.
“Did someone hurt you?” asked Maha, and then she put her arms around Mhumhi’s neck.
Mhumhi went completely stiff, rigid, even rising on his hind legs slightly against her grip. His mouth was open, his teeth bared. Kutta seemed frozen as well, eyes wide and staring.
Maha kept hugging him, blissfully, even, her arms and fingers hot against his fur, her strange bare hulker flesh pressing up against his, at once all too intimate and too close- he could hear her heart beat, her pulse. He thought of his teeth cutting her skin, of what her hot blood would taste like, pumping out into his mouth, of the way her flesh would fill his belly, of the way she would die, and he would steal her death for himself while he ate her.
It was strange, but he had those thoughts, and he seemed to watch them, watch them pass, as he relaxed into the arms of the hulker girl, felt her touch become part of him, warming him, his neck to his own beating heart.
“That’s enough, Maha!” said Kutta, her tone very, very worried, and Maha let Mhumhi go. His neck felt cold and bare.
“I’m sorry,” said Maha, and crouched there, her eyes downcast. Mhumhi realized his mouth was still open. He closed it.
“You’d better go back,” said Kutta, walking closer, shooting looks at Mhumhi as she did. Maha picked up the candle in one hand.
“Wait,” said Mhumhi. She turned to look at him. He stepped over and gently licked her forehead.