“Listen, Vimbo. Yes? No? Do you understand yes and no?”
The river was wide and shallow, the water clear, lifeless. The cliffs rose on either side, steep, craggy, and barren.
“Yes. Yes. Show me the writing for yes.”
They were standing on the damp, sandy riverbank. An endless trail of pawprints stretched behind them.
Vimbo hesitated, then scratched a shape out with his paw.
“Is that yes?” Mhumhi tried to imitate the shape, tilting his head. Vimbo came over and corrected one of his lines with his nose.
“Is it yes?”
The hyena blinked at him.
Mhumhi hoped it was. He had been getting the suspicion that Vimbo was starting to pick up some of their language, but of course there was no way to really be sure what he understood and what he didn’t. But after four days walking through the endless ravine, he was starting to get desperate.
They had not found any deer-goats. Nor had they found anything else that was much bigger than a mouse, and the little darting creatures that they had come across vanished from sight far too quickly for them to even have a hope of catching one.
The river meandered this way and that through the ravine, sometimes little more than a creek, sometimes widening so much that they were forced to wade through it, the splashes echoing loudly on the imposing cliff walls that penned them in.
Mhumhi did not like the river. The water was clear, and it had an odd taste: almost metallic, with the same acridness to it that he smelled in the soil. Nothing lived inside the water; there was only dull gray mud at the bottom that billowed in murky clouds when they stepped into it. Mhumhi almost thought he’d prefer the sewer sludge to this- at least that had evidence of life in it.
It was all that they had to drink from, so that was what they drank. He was not sure if it was the water or merely the anxiety he felt that was making his stomach feel so sour.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, and sketched the shape Vimbo had drawn again, stepping sideways for a large canvas of blank sand. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Vimbo stood over him and watched, blinking slowly.
“Now do no,” Mhumhi said, looking up once he thought he had the lines memorized. “Can you write no? Write no, Vimbo.”
Vimbo looked at him for what seemed an awfully long time, then scuffed out the mark he had made previously. He drew another one, much simpler.
Mhumhi looked at it intently, then copied it. This time Vimbo didn’t have to correct him. He drew it twice more, wagging his tail.
“No! That’s no, Vimbo! That’s wonderful!”
Vimbo seemed to be catching his excitement, for he drew his lips back from his teeth and bounced heavily on his forepaws, squealing.
Mhumhi looked back over the symbols they had drawn, trying to mark them in his brain: yes and no. Yes and no.
Maha had told him, a long time ago, about written words: how they were like voices in your head. His heart stirred: yes, no, yes, no. Was he finally hearing Vimbo’s voice?
“Vimbo,” he said, looking up at the hyena, who was whirling around and around. “Vimbo, do you understand what I’m saying?”
Vimbo stopped spinning, panting a little, and looked at him with bright eyes.
“If you understand, say- write yes.”
Vimbo stared, blinked. Maybe the question was still too complicated. Mhumhi searched his mind for something more point-blank.
“Vimbo, are you a hyena? Yes or no?”
Vimbo made a low sound in his throat, scuffing the sand with his paw.
“Are you a hyena? Are you a bouda?”
That word sharpened Vimbo’s attention. He went entirely still.
“Are you a bouda, Vimbo? Yes or no?”
Vimbo looked down, and began writing with his nose, nudging the sand. Line… line… line…
Mhumhi watched him eagerly, his heart palpitating- but then, something was off. Vimbo wasn’t making the yes shape or the no shape; he was drawing something entirely different.
“No, Vimbo, yes or no,” said Mhumhi, coming up alongside him to nudge his shoulder. Vimbo gave a little squeal and drew away, putting his ears back.
“Just write ‘yes’ again, Vimbo,” said Mhumhi, feeling desperate. “If you understand… just write yes. Just write yes!”
Vimbo was writing again, making foreign characters, scratching over the symbols he had made before, the ones Mhumhi recognized. Mhumhi grew frustrated, and gave a little chatter, scratching at the sand. Vimbo looked up and giggled.
“Anything…” said Mhumhi. “Anything… just write something I understand, Vimbo.”
They stared into each others’ eyes for a long moment, then Mhumhi looked down at the sand. The impossibility of it all stretched as far back as that endless line of pawprints.
“We’re both hungry,” he said. “And tired. Let’s stop writing practice for now, Vimbo.”
He turned away. Vimbo made a little sound, a kind of whine, and ran around in front of him. He cut a line through the sand with his claws.
“No, no more,” said Mhumhi, turning away. Vimbo gave a longer whine, and shuddered. He scratched into the sand once more. Mhumhi’s fur prickled from the particles he sent flying, and he retreated further away down the riverbank, the acrid scent filling his nostrils from the disturbed soil.
Behind him Vimbo made an extremely peculiar sound, a kind of long moan. Mhumhi glanced back.
Vimbo opened his jaws and made the curiously muffled moan again; a long sound that rose and fell. He twitched his tongue, groaned low, and let loose a stuttering cry.
Mhumhi could do nothing but stare. Vimbo was making a cacophony of strange sounds, working his jaws, tongue, groaning, crying out.
“Are you trying to speak?” Mhumhi whispered.
Vimbo kept moaning, his pink tongue flicking, his throat bobbing. Mhumhi gave a whine of his own and went over to him, wagging his tail low.
“It’s all right! It’s all right! I’m sorry- please-”
When he got close, Vimbo shut his mouth and squealed through his teeth, turning his head away. Mhumhi whined, but stopped, for the hyena’s mane was rising slightly.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could say. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything at all. Vimbo walked further away from him.
Mhumhi squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then let it all go: there was nothing he could do. He walked back up the riverbank, tail low. After a little while, Vimbo followed him, keeping a large gap between them.
He couldn’t help turning his thoughts back towards the river. Nothing was living in it; so maybe the water was bad- then again, there were those little creatures that they sometimes saw scampering across its banks: did they drink it? What did they eat? Perhaps insects, or even plants- though there were few of either of those here. The plants that did exist mostly sat in niches along the tall ravine walls, stubbornly clinging against the vertical tug of gravity. Mhumhi marveled at it a little. The cliffs looked like they were made out of layers- layers upon layers of earth stacked on top of each other.
Had a hulker made these? The river seemed like something that could have been hulker-made, but he was not sure about the cliffs.
Slowly his mind turned back towards food. He could not help it. He hadn’t eaten for four days.
Even though they’d found Bii’s scat, the deer-goats he’d claimed to have seen weren’t around. Not a trace of them. And they were moving well beyond where Mhumhi thought the little fox could have possibly investigated.
He thought of turning back, not for the first time. Four more days of retracing their steps… that was eight days without food. Could he do it?
Could he afford to keep moving further away?
He hadn’t settled any of his thoughts by the time the sun sank beyond the cliffs, turning everything gray and shadowy. The water gleamed in a dull way.
Mhumhi drifted towards the cliffs and scratched out a sandy depression for himself, as he’d done the previous four days. He looked back towards Vimbo as he settled inside it. The hyena was a few meters away, standing motionless, a dark figure by the shining river.
Mhumhi closed his eyes, curling tightly, his nose in his tail. The nights were cool here. Vimbo usually slept back-to-back with him, contributing his warmth, but there were times when he was inclined to wander.
Mhumhi tried to put it all out of his head and had succeeded in achieving a loose doze when his ears pricked. He could hear a low, rumbling vibration.
From somewhere far away, Vimbo whooped.
Mhumhi did not get up. They had heard the odd sound several times before, usually at night. He was no longer so sure it was the same kind of vibration that had come from the safe place, because that had come through the ground, and this came through the air. A low, throaty rumble.
It was unnerving, but it was still too far away to seriously worry about. Mhumhi closed his eyes again.
He woke with a jolt in complete darkness. The vibrating roars had stopped, but he heard something moving nearby. He turned his ears, his fur prickling.
There was a soft splash, then a giggle. Vimbo. Just Vimbo.
He put his head down, though he found he did not yet want to close his eyes. They were adjusting to the dim light. The tall walls of the ravine framed a narrow trail of innumerable stars above, a mirror of the glittering river. In this ethereal light moved Vimbo, his eyes reflecting green from time to time.
There was something dangling from his mouth. Mhumhi registered it as a thin tail, before the outline of Vimbo’s throat moved, and he swallowed it down.
So. Vimbo was able to catch something. That was good.
Mhumhi tucked his nose back in and shut his eyes, not feeling as good about it as he tried to tell himself he did. He supposed it was better that Vimbo was less hungry than he could be. Hunger made you think strange thoughts…
He woke several more times that night, but stubbornly kept his eyes shut until daylight returned, refusing to entertain the anxious thoughts swirling round and round in his mind. When he did get up, he saw Vimbo lying on his back in the sand down closer by the riverbank.
Mhumhi stretched, not feeling terribly rested, and gave a shuddering yawn. He licked a paw, then raised a leg against one of the ravine walls. There went more water. He was already thirsty, but he didn’t want to drink.
Vimbo came over to sniff his urine, as he often did, but didn’t add any of his own. The hyena was peculiar that way.
He had wrestled with whether or not to turn back all night, and had not come to a decision. In the end his legs moved him forward. On, on, and on. And Vimbo followed silently.
Mhumhi’s mind fell into the kind of stupor that it had for the last few days; the mindless, boring passage of water and cliff walls all blurring together. Hours passed. More river, more cliffs. And then-
Mhumhi stopped himself, turned around. Vimbo was loping quickly over to him to see what he was staring at.
There was an arching hole in the ravine wall across the river. It was quite large, and the top was smooth: most definitely hulker in nature.
“You want to have a look?” he asked Vimbo, feeling his spirits rising a little. Vimbo blinked.
They splashed and swam across the river, and Mhumhi allowed himself a drink now, grimacing at the taste. Who knew what they would find inside the tunnel?
For it was definitely a tunnel, long and dark and sloping gently upwards, and there had definitely been hulkers there at some point. Mhumhi knew this because he recognized their trash: some plastic cups and ancient decaying shreds of paper were huddled in a niche. There was no hulker smell, though. This tunnel had been deserted for a long time.
Mhumhi’s claws were scratching against the stone floor, and he glanced up from time to time. The tunnel was not particularly twisty, so a decent amount of light still made it in, and he could see the ceiling. It was cracked and crumbling, and there were bits of rocks on the ground. The acrid smell was strong here.
He was still looking up when he ran into something and got his legs tangled. The thing bleated loudly and gave him a sound kick in the stomach before springing up and clopping away.
Mhumhi lay on his side, blinking, registering. Vimbo caught up with him and nosed his shoulder.
“A goat!” exclaimed Mhumhi, the realization striking him like a bite to the nose. “A deer! A deer-goat! Come on, Vimbo!”
He jumped up and started running, tail wagging furiously. Not wrong, not wrong after all! It was here! And at the end of this tunnel- at the end of this tunnel- what wonders would they find? More hoofed animals?
They reached the end of the tunnel all too quickly and emerged squinting into a blast of daylight. The land was stunningly open here compared to the enclosed ravine: stretching wide and endless in every direction until it settled against the horizon. Mhumhi thought that they must be at the top of that cliff: the ravine was a jagged crack in the earth behind them.
The tiny figure of the deer-goat was still running, and Mhumhi’s jaws moved in an involuntary chatter as he resumed the chase. There was little to distract him in this flat, barren place: a few scrubby plants, dust curling in the wind, fluttering bits of cloth on sticks. Hulker, most definitely. And a large flat sign, like the billboards in the city, except this was yellow and just had writing on it.
Vimbo suddenly made a noise behind him, almost gurgling, but Mhumhi ignored him. The deer-goat was starting to slow a little, and he was closing the distance between them. Perhaps it was injured or sick, and perhaps that was why he’d been able to startle it while it was resting in the shade of the tunnel- either way, he was gaining, gaining, and it was meat, meat…
Behind him he heard Vimbo panting harshly as the hyena struggled to catch up, and the sounds made him slow his pace just a mite. He remembered the striking hooves and horns of the one they had met in the dump. Vimbo would be most helpful.
The hyena caught up with him, his eyes wide and his teeth showing. Mhumhi, eyes fixed on the deer-goat- which was passing between two of those fluttering cloths- did not realize what happened until he found himself rolling over and over in the dirt. Vimbo’s jaws closed firmly on his neck.
He froze up of a split second, then shrieked, thrashing. Vimbo jumped back with a loud giggle. Mhumhi jerked to his feet in a cloud of dust. Had Vimbo gone mad? Or- or-
He tried to run forward, but Vimbo squealed and jumped on him again, his heavy body pinning him down, covering him in stinking coarse fur. Mhumhi struggled, snapping until his jaws sank into a haunch. Again Vimbo cried out and jumped away.
Mhumhi felt a bit of numb horror. Had he provoked Vimbo by running in front of him? Was he… was the hyena getting too hungry?
He crouched in the dirt, waiting, as Vimbo swayed a little, then turned to lick at his wounded haunch. At that moment Mhumhi exploded upwards into a run, spine arcing, and Vimbo squealed and chased him.
He was getting away. Vimbo could not hope to outrun or out-endure him. The hyena was already slowing to a lope, tongue lolling, but he was also whining and squealing and calling out.
It might have been wiser to keep running, but Mhumhi stopped, a few feet from those fluttering cloths, and took a look back.
Vimbo was not far away, and his head was bent down as he scratched something in the dirt, over and over again.
Mhumhi tilted his head.
A moment later he was on his side, ears ringing, dirt raining down onto his fur. His body felt as though it had been slammed against a solid wall.
Dimly, through his aching, ringing ears, he heard Vimbo crying out, and through his hazy double vision saw the hyena struggling towards him, staggering. He rose his head, fighting a wave of nausea.
He croaked out the word, mouth filled with the particles that were still drifting through the air, and looked out past the flags.
A small crater had opened up in the ground there, rocks and dirt making violent streaks pointing away from it. And by the edge something was moving, struggling- Mhumhi’s heart seized. The deer-goat.
Part of it was missing. A large part. At least one leg. A good portion of its back end- it trailed red things. It was struggling out of the crater, bleating in agony; Mhumhi’s nose was filling with the smell of blood.
“Oh,” he gasped, seeing the pathetic thing- no longer so hungry, now filled with a swell of pity. “Come on, come on- you can make it-”
The deer-goat managed, somehow, to breach the edge. Mhumhi tried to rise but suddenly Vimbo shoved him down again, trapping him under his bulk.
For the second time Mhumhi was blown back, though not so far with Vimbo on top of him. The hyena rolled off, seeming quite stunned, and something wet hit the side of Mhumhi’s face. He blinked, then caught the smell: blood.
When he looked back past the flags there were two craters, but no sign at all of the deer-goat.
Mhumhi whimpered, trying to make sense of it all. His ears were still ringing, his head and body aching. Vimbo got up, shaking his head- he must have also been affected.
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, comprehending. “Oh, oh, Vimbo- you saved me. You stopped me. Oh- that thing-”
He rose, legs trembling, and looked out. What did it mean? What did it mean when the ground exploded? And how had Vimbo known? Was it those fluttering cloths?
He glanced at one of the things, then followed the flapping yellow line with his eyes. It stretched out for a very long time, in both directions. He couldn’t even see the end of it.
His mind turned over what it could all mean. A line of flags- a corridor of death.
He looked at Vimbo. The hyena was staring, but not at the flags- at the yellow sign with writing on it.
Did the writing tell him about the explosions? Mhumhi couldn’t help but step a little closer to the hyena, and Vimbo glanced at him and touched his nose to his shoulder.
Mhumhi would not have been able to keep moving on his own- not after seeing the very ground get ripped away- but Vimbo began to walk, quite calmly, along the outside of the line of flags. Mhumhi followed him, feeling helpless. He didn’t want to stay there alone. Not here.
There was no end to the warning flags: they went on and on, curving very slightly inwards. Mhumhi began to see more signs of destruction: ancient craters, mostly filled in with dirt now, as well as not-so-ancient craters. There were also bones.
Eventually they came across something Mhumhi had been sort of dreading: the rusted, ruined metal remains of what had once been a truck. Around it were more bones, cracked and shattered where they poked up from the dirt all around.
Vimbo grunted, pawing at the earth beside the flags, and Mhumhi went to see what he’d uncovered. It was another bone- half a jawbone, with little square teeth. A hulker jawbone.
Now they began to come across the remains of more trucks, more cars, and metal things so twisted and ruined that it was impossible to tell what they’d once been fashioned into. More hulker bones. And once- at least once- the narrow skull of a dog.
Mhumhi did notice, beyond the dull sadness of it all, that there was one important detail to all of the cars and trucks: they were all oriented outwards. Outside of the curving line.
He stopped. Henli had told him that a long time ago, the city and all its residents had been cut off. Stopped from contacting the rest of the world.
He had sort of been thinking of the explosions as a freak natural phenomenon, like terrible weather or earthquakes, but this thought colored them in a new way. Perhaps they were hulker-made. Perhaps they were meant to keep something in. Perhaps…
He looked down the long, endless, curving line of flags.
Perhaps the line curved all the way around the land where the city was.
This was a horrible thought, and it made him sit down. A cage. It was all a giant cage. They were trapped in such an effective and thorough manner that it took his breath away.
There was nowhere to go from here. Nothing he could do to bypass this obstacle.
Vimbo looked back and saw him sitting. He approached and nosed Mhumhi, grunting, pushing against his side. Mhumhi swayed a little, then blinked and swallowed.
“Where do you want to go, Vimbo?”
Vimbo turned and started walking along the line of flags again, as he had done before. Mhumhi followed him numbly. He stepped over more bones that must have been flung outward by the force of the blasts. Ah, well, maybe there would be a complete dog skeleton here soon…
Vimbo grunted, and Mhumhi looked up. He had come to a little outcropping of rock, and within it was a downwards-sloping tunnel, almost identical to the one they had gone through earlier.
Vimbo entered the tunnel, and Mhumhi followed him, his paws slipping as they made the transition from dirt to smooth rock. The ground was slick, for this tunnel dripped a little in places. Water droplets slithered through some of the cracks in the walls. It put Mhumhi strangely in mind of the flooded house Biscuit had once shown him on Silent Street.
They came out of the tunnel, and Mhumhi was not terribly surprised to find them at the bottom of a ravine, like the one they had left earlier. It might actually be the same one- he’d not been paying much attention to how the crack bent and curved through the landscape…
It was more of a gorge here, for it was wider, the walls leaning back on either side. The river still trickled patiently at the very bottom.
Vimbo had stopped just outside of the tunnel exit and was sniffing the air. Mhumhi raised his muzzle and sniffed too.
He smelled something. ‘Something’ was the best he could do for a label; it was like nothing else he’d ever smelled. A bit like an animal, yes, but not like a dog, not like a hulker… most certainly not like a rat. Perhaps… perhaps there was something of a hyena to it, but even then…
He looked at Vimbo, who had put his ears back as his nostrils twitched.
The scent seemed much denser than Vimbo’s, cloyingly strong. If it was an animal, it was a large, confident one.
He heard something then. A low rumble, somewhere behind where the cliff walls curved around and away. A rumble like the ones he’d been hearing at night, but close now- very close.
Vimbo was trembling a little, but he didn’t make a sound. Mhumhi shared his anxiety, but he was also intensely curious. And hungry. An animal out here that he did not know… was it what the deer-goats ate?
He crept forward, pulling back his ears to flatten his profile. Vimbo did a worried, silent dance on the sand and then followed him, creeping along.
As they approached the curve in the stone, Mhumhi heard more noises. Splashing. Ripping. Rumbles. Sounds that were quite unmistakably growls, growls that vibrated somewhere deep in his bones.
Mhumhi turned the corner and discovered that the deer-goats did not eat these creatures. Rather, these creatures were eating a deer-goat. These creatures could probably eat whatever they desired.
They were huge. Bigger than Vimbo, who was the biggest four-legged animal Mhumhi knew of, and heavier than an adult hulker. They walked on four legs, had short, tan fur, and blunt muzzles. Their eyes were round and gold. There were three of them.
They had not noticed Mhumhi or Vimbo, intent as they were on their meal. They had stretched out the deer-goat between them in the river, where its head bobbed lifelessly as they tugged and tussled over the remains. Splashing, growling, crunching… it was all so much more real up close, when you could hear a wet sucking noise as a creature pulled meat away from bone, when you saw those savage, pitiless golden eyes. From time to time a dispute would break out between the creatures, and they would lunge at one another with terrible snarls, and Mhumhi saw their canines. Longer than a hulker’s fingers.
He was mesmerized by them.
It had not occurred to him that he’d never seen a real meat-eating animal, or at least one that didn’t look like a hulker- but the curious thing about hulkers is that they didn’t really look made for killing like this. The best they could do was use their hands to swung a weapon, which Mhumhi supposed was effective enough at times, but these animals had weapons that could not be taken away. Weapons Mhumhi shared: those long canines. And some he didn’t: the creatures had oddly flexible paws with hooked claws, like a bird’s talons.
One of the creatures broke off from the feeding, flicking its pink tongue out to lick blood off its nose. Its long tail twitched- there was a little tuft of brown fur at the end. Even with the lower half of its body obscured by the river Mhumhi could see how magnificently huge it was. Every inch of it spoke of bulk and power. It clearly did not mourn the prey it consumed.
Something brushed up against his side, and he jumped. Vimbo was giving him a very urgent look, and jerking his muzzle back. He clearly wanted to be out of there fast. Mhumhi didn’t blame him. But…
“Do you speak?”
All three of their heads swung towards him.
Mhumhi really began to regret this action, as he noticed several things: one, there was no sign of any recognition in their eyes, two, that they were quite protective of their meat, and three, that as imposing as the bulk of them was, he could also see their ribs.
“Let’s go, Vimbo,” Mhumhi said, as an aside, and Vimbo squealed in a kind of agreement and started running.
Back down the riverbank- the creatures were springing after them with terrific, terrifying growls, their muzzles red and bloodied, their eyes round and gold. Back to the tunnel- Mhumhi’s paws slipped and scraped on the wet stone, but he had purchase, he was moving upwards. Behind him the tunnel echoed with panting breaths and heavy, slapping wet paws.
Vimbo shrieked, the sound vibrating in the tunnel, and Mhumhi looked back. One of the creatures had stretched a paw out and hooked its claws into the hyena’s haunch, right where Mhumhi had bitten him earlier.
Mhumhi’s mind went blank. He turned and leapt downwards, half-running, half-sliding, and collided roughly with the huge head of the creature that had hooked Vimbo.
The creature gave a kind of surprised grunt to find Mhumhi’s body covering its face, and he saw Vimbo jerk free of its grip and dash forwards. Mhumhi tried to follow him, but his paws slipped on the slick stone, and he fell back again. The creature breathed in harsh pants, hot air moistening his fur, and one of its great gold eyes was right next to his face.
The other two creatures came on either side, digging their claws into the stone, and looked at him with blunt curiosity. The one he had fallen against had recovered from its curiosity, and opened its mouth- and Mhumhi’s stomach fit right between those canines.
He was most certainly about to die.
But the creature did not bite down right away. He felt its hot tongue probing his side. The other two were sniffing, seeming more cautious, flinching back whenever he moved.
He was too frightened to move very much. Those jaws could come down any moment, severing his life in two.
The jaws did start to close, just then, and Mhumhi yowled with fear as a canine broke into his flesh. The creature was moving forward, dragging him, and the others followed, up and up through the tunnel. Mhumhi’s ribs were contracting- it was holding him so tightly he could barely breathe. He gasped, blood trickling down his shoulder where the creature’s tooth pierced him.
They came up out of the tunnel and the creature briefly adjusted its grip so that it held him around the hips. His head swung down and smacked the ground, and his forepaws scraped fruitlessly against the dirt. It dragged him forward, bending his neck painfully, and he whimpered with pain and terror. He was going to die. He was going to be eaten. He was probably going to be eaten before he was actually dead.
The creature kept dragging him forwards. Now the two others were beginning to growl, trotting to keep up, those pink tongues flicking over their noses. The one holding Mhumhi seemed to want to get away from them, and kept dragging him forwards, letting out rumbling growls that shuddered through its teeth.
Suddenly they all halted. In the dirt nearby something gray was lying down on its side. Vimbo.
Mhumhi struggled to twist his contorted head in a manner that would let him see better. From his upside-down vantage point all he could make out was that Vimbo was lying still, not moving, even though the creatures had now fixed all their attention on him. What had happened? Was he injured?
“Vimbo,” Mhumhi found himself crying out, paws scraping the ground. He was not sure whether he wanted to add help me or run away. “Vimbo! Vimbo!”
Vimbo did not move, though his side rose and fell. The two creatures broke off harassing the one that held Mhumhi and trotted briskly towards him. After a moment Mhumhi’s captor loped after him, still dragging him by the hips. Mhumhi’s head scraped and banged against the ground, but he hardly felt it, so mindless was he from the terrible fear.
“Vimbo!” he choked out again, as dust filled his mouth.
One of the other creatures sniffled down Vimbo’s side, licked its chops, and then grabbed him by the back of the neck. With a frightful growl the one holding Mhumhi let go and leapt towards them.
At that moment there was a great explosion of dust, because Vimbo’s back legs had suddenly kicked outwards. The creatures growled and he squealed, and Mhumhi, crumpled on the ground, could not make out anything, and then-
Something shot underneath him, shoving him up and up. Mhumhi cried out with pain and surprise, his claws scraping coarse fur. The creatures were still growling, two roaring at each other while the third prowled around. Mhumhi was moving rather quickly away from them, though not under his own power. He was on Vimbo’s back, his long legs draped over his sides. Vimbo had picked him up.
The creatures’ spat was brief, and soon enough they turned their eyes to the flopping, running figure he and Vimbo made together. Mhumhi gave a whimper, feeling the cuts and bruises he’d already got from his last encounter with them, and tried to struggle off Vimbo’s back. Vimbo gave a sharp squeal.
Mhumhi turned his head, looking forward, in the direction they were going in- and his heart seemed to stop. They were heading directly for the line of yellow flags.
“Vimbo!” he screamed. “Vimbo, no! Go back! Go back!”
He struggled, his limbs flailing, but they were crossing the line- he cringed, shutting his eyes, and grabbed onto Vimbo’s scruff with his teeth.
Nobody exploded. After what seemed to be a long series of seconds Mhumhi opened his eyes again.
Underneath him Vimbo had his nose to the ground, sniffing, and he was moving quite leisurely. Mhumhi wanted to scream at him again until he looked back behind them.
The creatures had stopped at the line of flags. Clearly they knew what they meant. Two were staring at them, panting, while the third had already turned around, heading back towards the tunnel.
“Vimbo,” Mhumhi whispered, not daring to move. All around them the dirt seemed menacing; he could see old craters- bones- bits of metal. The acrid smell stung his nose. Yet Vimbo simply walked, his nose to the ground, winding this way and that as he moved, following some invisible trail that Mhumhi could not fathom.
They made their floppy, awkward way forward along that stretch of dirt for what seemed like hours (but in truth was barely minutes). When they crossed through the opposite line of flags Mhumhi sighed with relief and slid down off Vimbo’s back onto the ground.
Vimbo sniffed his wounded shoulder, offering it a brief lick. Mhumhi shook for a moment, then sprang up, assaulting the hyena with a frenzy of whines and twittering, licking his chin, his face his ears, tail whirring. Vimbo stumbled back- he had never received a full, no-holds-barred, painted dog greeting before.
“You did it,” he said, gibbering with relief and elation. “You did it! How did you do it? How did you do it? Oh, it doesn’t matter! Vimbo, you’re a masterpiece! Vimbo, you-”
Vimbo thumped his chin hard down on Mhumhi’s back, and Mhumhi finally managed to calm himself. Tongue hanging out, he looked back across the explosion zone.
Another of the creatures had left, leaving only one still watching them. It was stretched out on the ground, and as Mhumhi stared, it curled up its paw and licked it.
He couldn’t help it; he was already a little caught up again by the sight of it. What a being.
He glanced sidelong at Vimbo. “I wonder where these things keep their puppies?”
He was almost certain that the hyena understood him this time, for the look he got was something else. Mhumhi whuffed with laughter.
“It was a joke, a joke!” He licked Vimbo’s chin again, wagging his tail more gently, and Vimbo snuffled back at him.
Vimbo had to be able to smell where the explosive things were, under the dirt. That was the only explanation Mhumhi could think of. And it made sense. He’d always suspected that Vimbo’s nose was sharper than his own, and whoever had buried the things probably hadn’t wanted dogs to be able to smell them.
But some things still got in and out. He risked a glance back towards the flags. The creature had shut its eyes, looking golden in the sunlight. The tip of its tufted tail was twitching.
“Vimbo,” he said. “Vimbo, do you know what I just realized? We just got out of a trap we didn’t even know we were in. We’re free, Vimbo. And look, there’s got to be a whole world out there!”
He cast his eyes greedily over the horizon. Here and there, rocky formations jutted, little plants dotted the ground. Far away, he could see a little line of waving grass, with taller plants- maybe even trees- scattered about. His ears caught the distant chirp of a bird.
It wasn’t terribly much to go on. It was nothing like the myriad of life back in the city, nor the lush garden where Hlolwa stayed, nor the dump with its crawling scavengers. Mhumhi suspected that in that distant grass the meals were few and the creatures were lean.
“You know what, Vimbo,” he said, staring at the grass, “you and I have both got brains. We wouldn’t be here right now, Vimbo, if you hadn’t used your brain. Maybe thinking is a wonderful thing.”
The hyena looked at him, and he swallowed, still feeling giddy.
“I want to go out there, Vimbo, and I want to use this brain, and I- I want to learn about living. And then I’m going to go back to Kutta and Tareq- and Kebero- and Bii- and Hlolwa- and Sacha, Maha, Mini, and Sekayi…” He swallowed again.
“We’re going to tell them everything we learn, and we’re going to bring them outside. Right, Vimbo? Right? We’ll keep using our minds and our feet, and we’ll keep running and thinking. We’ll find what we’re looking for.”
Vimbo made a soft sound.
“I don’t really know what that is,” Mhumhi admitted. “I don’t know. Love. Warmth. Life. A place where I don’t have to hurt others. At least… not very much.” His eagerness was slowly tapering off, as he stared outwards.
“Something,” he said, at length. “I’ll find something, if not everything.”
Vimbo gave a long groan, and rubbed against him, and then the two of them walked out together into the world.