Teeth, hand, wire, laughter.
They were quite glad that Sacha had directed them to go that early that day when they saw the lines already forming when they got there. Mhumhi had spared a wistful thought for the extra meat having Kebero might have gotten him, but there was certainly no way the puppy would have been recovered from his earlier distress; certainly no way he’d be prepared to face such a mass of strangers.
Mhumhi felt a bit down, thinking of what Kebero must have been feeling, and wished that they hadn’t argued in front of him, but Sacha had been right. He’d have had to find out about their mother sooner or later, maybe it would help him get some closure and sleep through the night again.
He resolved, anyway, to pay Kebero some special attention when they got back.
When they finally got their meat Mhumhi was still thinking of Kebero, but Kutta’s mind was clearly on the school.
“I still can’t believe we passed it every day,” she muttered to herself, snapping up her meat rather savagely. They were under the concrete overpass again, in the darkened corner. “Right there…! If I had known that, I could have tried to move them a long time ago…”
“Better you didn’t,” said Sacha. “Not without us there. You’d have been caught and had your throat ripped out then and there, I expect.”
“Don’t ease her into it, Sacha,” said Mhumhi. “Really tell her what you think would’ve happened.”
Sacha wagged her stub of a tail.
“Can we try to go in today?” asked Kutta.
“No, we’ll have a look at the two little things first,” said Sacha. “See how feasible it is in the first place. If they’re unmanageable, it won’t be worth it.”
Mhumhi wondered if they ought to tell Sacha the hulkers could talk, but she was probably already suspending her disbelief enough for them. Best let it be a surprise.
“Oh!” said Kutta. “I’ve just thought of something that should make it a lot easier. They can come up through those metal lids- manholes, I think they’re called. If we can find one near the school, we can just take them underground and have them pop out closer.”
“There’s lots of dogs in the sewers, though,” Mhumhi reminded her.
“It’s got merit,” said Sacha. “It’s probably still safer than overland. Though how can they move those metal things…?”
“You’ll see it,” said Mhumhi. “It’s really strange. They use their front paws like- well- it’s very hard to describe. They’ve got these talons-”
“Hands and fingers, Mhumhi,” Kutta reminded him.
“Yes, well, they pick up everything in their front paws and walk around on their hind ones,” said Mhumhi. “I’ve never seen then use their mouth to do anything but eat with. And they don’t lick-”
“I always thought that was strange,” Kutta admitted. “They have never even tried to lick me or mother, they just use their pa- their hands all the time instead. But they’ve got funny fat tongues, so I suppose it’s harder for them.”
“Stop talking about them,” Sacha said. “It’s not making me more eager to welcome them to the family.”
“Oh but you will like them, Sacha,” said Kutta, wagging her tail earnestly. “I’m telling you, they are very sweet.”
“Hmph,” said Sacha. “It doesn’t matter if I do or don’t. With any luck we’ll be rid of them in the next day or so. Then we can begin bringing Kebero with us and…” She gave a slow sigh. “We’ll be able to have enough food again, finally.”
“Oh,” said Kutta. They were all quiet for a moment. Mhumhi could tell Kutta had mixed thoughts about it, but he liked the sound of that. They wouldn’t have to hide anything anymore… They’d be able to eat all their meat. Kutta would probably be less tired and thin-looking, too.
As for the little hulkers… perhaps he’d miss them a little. Maha had been starting to grow on him, really. But it was for the best. They’d be better off with their own kind.
Sacha licked her chops, having finished all of her small portion of meat, and stepped around Mhumhi to peer out at the mass of dogs still waiting in line.
“We’re lucky we don’t live near the edge,” she said. “I don’t know what we would’ve done if the police had evicted us.”
“Let’s not think about it,” said Mhumhi, going to stand beside her and rub his head against hers. “Anyway, we could take them on together.”
“Get off, Mhumhi,” said Sacha, who was being pushed off her feet again. “Like you could take anyone on! You big, useless-”
“But I have you,” whined Mhumhi, wagging his tail. “You’re always there to protect me, right, big sister?”
Sacha raised her lip at him. “I’ll put some holes in your big stupid ears if I hear another word, Mhumhi-“
“Sacha,” said Kutta, coming up on the other side. She put one of her forepaws over Sacha’s back, smiling slightly. “Don’t pick on our little brother so much.”
Sacha squirmed and hopped at her with a snap of her jaws. Kutta hopped back and fell into a play-bow. Mhumhi jumped sideways and gave Sacha a playful thump of his own so that she whirled around and snapped at him.
“I used to lick your behinds when you were puppies and I can do it again,” she growled.
Mhumhi’s tail was wagging furiously, for this was the playful side of Sacha- not more than a shade different from her angry side, perhaps, but to be savored as a rare treat. Kutta caught his eye, grinning, and he knelt down and bowled Sacha over with his snout.
Kutta took off first, laughing, and he jumped over his furiously squealing sister to follow her. Sacha twisted to her feet and gave chase, as they dashed headlong through the crowd of dogs and back across wide street.
They had not played with Sacha like this for a long time, but Kutta and Mhumhi were well-familiar with the game- they slowed down just enough to let Sacha’s short legs catch them up, then turned back and nipped at her with whistles and chatters of glee. Sacha briefly became a furious little spitfire of yowling and snapping, and Mhumhi let himself be knocked over so she could hop on top of his side and tug on his ear. Kutta twisted and bounced back into a bow beside them, tail whisking from side to side.
They wrestled gently with her for a short time, making slow progress through the streets but getting quite out of breath. Sacha herself was panting the most, her pink tongue hanging out far over her teeth, but her tail was up and wagging.
“Alright!” she barked, flopping down on her side. “Alright, alright, enough!”
Mhumhi bounced towards her but Kutta pushed at him with her shoulder.
“Let her be,” she said, and so Mhumhi flopped over himself at her feet, poking at her chin with his paws, trying to be a hulker.
“If we don’t want the sun to go down before we get there, we’d better go,” said Sacha, though she showed no sign of wanting to get up yet. “No more playing.”
Mhumhi pushed at Kutta’s chest while she snapped at him, wagging his tail. “No one’s playing. It’s serious practice-” He broke off yelped, as Kutta had given him a sharp nip on the ankle.
“Come on, you two,” said Sacha, and with a grunt she pulled herself to her feet. “Let’s meet these wonderful little things. Save your energy for all the muck in the sewers.”
Sacha broke off tussling with Mhumhi to cough, perhaps at the thought of it. “All right, she’s right, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi would’ve liked to point out that Kutta was in no position to tell him to get less frisky, but he kept his mouth shut and pushed himself back onto his feet. “It’s this way, Sacha,” he said, wagging his tail, and pointed himself down an alleyway.
Sacha ran up beside him with Kutta following her close behind. She was sniffing the air.
“Do you smell that?”
“Smell what?” Mhumhi took a few quick whiffs. “What, the urine? Smells a bit like that crab-eating fox-”
“No, not that,” said Sacha, and she trotted a little ways ahead of him. “Smells a bit like… hm. I don’t quite know how to describe it.”
Kutta darted up to her other side and put her nose to the ground as well, and for a moment the three of them sniffed together.
“It smells like something big,” said Sacha. “Though…”
“I remember this!” exclaimed Mhumhi. “I smelled it in the sewers once, Kutta, and I forgot to tell you- I think it made a noise, too, whatever it was-”
“Oh, you smell strange things down there all the time, Mhumhi, the muck will play tricks on your nose,” said Kutta, though she sounded a bit nervous. Sacha pricked up her ears and rounded on her.
“You’re not keeping secrets again, are you?”
“No, no! I’m really not!” yelped Kutta, half-laughing. “I really don’t know what it could be! Mother just said that to me about the sewers, that’s all.”
“Hm,” said Sacha, making Mhumhi think that the mention of their mother was ill-timed. “Well, we can’t stop and investigate it now. Let’s get going and get this over with, please.”
“Right,” said Mhumhi, bouncing a bit in spite of himself. “Then it’s this way, this way-”
He sprinted up ahead, rounding the corner out onto the sidewalk.
“Mhumhi, wait!” called Kutta, chasing after him. “Wait for Sacha-”
Mhumhi turned around mid-stride, hopping sideways with impatience. The street was very open here, and deserted and dusty. There was a lone streetlamp with a bank of solar panels on top sticking up a few feet ahead of him.
Kutta whistled behind him, catching up, and he turned to dash towards the streetlamp and then suddenly one of his back legs seemed to split apart with pain and he was jerked to the ground.
He got up at once with a whine, leaping away and then was twisted back over. Something was caught on his rear leg, digging in painfully.
Kutta ran over to him.
“What’s the matter, did you trip?” she asked, tongue still hanging out. “I told you not to go so fast.” She jumped when Mhumhi twisted and squealed.
“It hurts, Kutta, it hurts- get it off!”
Kutta put her ears back and whined, looking down across Mhumhi’s back leg, which was sticking out at an unnatural angle where he was lying on the sidewalk.
“There’s a- there’s a wire or something you’ve got stuck on, Mhumhi,” she said, sniffing at it. “It’s attached to this pole. Let me see if I can bite through it-”
“Hurry, hurry,” gasped Mhumhi, twisting again. “Hurry, Kutta, it hurts-” He thought he might go mad with the pain, it was so sharp, and his leg felt restrained and twisted-
Sacha came running up. “Mhumhi, quit moving! You’re making it worse. Kutta, move away!”
Kutta did so, tucking her tail, and Sacha sniffed around Mhumhi while he quivered and tried to stay still.
“Mhumhi, you’ve got to come closer to the pole,” she said. “If you can move a bit backwards, that should relieve some of the tension.”
Mhumhi tried to do what she had said, though his leg hurt terribly when he tried to roll over. Kutta gave an anxious whine, dancing on the sidelines.
“It hurts too much,” Mhumhi whined, falling back on his side. “I can’t-”
Sacha growled and bit the wire- Mhumhi flinched, feeling the sudden movement go through his leg.
“I don’t think it can be bitten through,” said Sacha. “Kutta, see if you can work it off his leg with your tongue-”
Kutta came over and licked at the area where the wire had caught, making Mhumhi flinch and scrape his claws on the concrete. Sacha went around to the other side of the pole, her lip raised.
“I don’t like this,” she said. “It’s got a funny- it’s all got a funny scent-”
“Are you getting it, Kutta?” Mhumhi asked, raising his head to try and look. His sister gave him a worried glance and did not respond, just kept licking. Sacha came back around the pole.
“It’s wrapped around here,” she said. “We might have a better chance at it if we can find the end of it- come with me, Kutta, let’s look.”
“Wait,” whined Mhumhi, raising his head again as Kutta backed away from his leg. “Wait, where are you going?”
“We’re right here, Mhumhi,” Kutta said, tone soothing. Mhumhi saw her rear up and bite at something high up on the pole.
“No, don’t bite it, pull it,” Sacha growled. Kutta tugged, and Mhumhi saw a bit of the wire coming forward in her mouth.
“It’s wrapped,” said Sacha, pacing and directing from the ground. “Come around again from this side- pull it here.”
Kutta came back down on all fours for a moment, panting. “Oh, Sacha, I smell it too-“
“Shut up,” said Sacha. “Come around- focus on your brother-”
Kutta reared up again to tug at the wire. Mhumhi had to put his head back down again to rest his neck then. He shut his eyes and panted, tongue lolling against the hot concrete. His every instinct was jangling at him to struggle and fight it, to twist away from the thing that had his foot gripped so tightly-
“Don’t move,” said Sacha’s voice near his head, almost as if she’d heard his thoughts. “You’ll break your leg. Don’t think of panicking, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi opened his eyes and looked up at her. Her small eyes, buried as they were in her bear’s face, were hard and expressionless. Mhumhi still found it comforting.
“Take me home?” he said, trying to draw his dry tongue back into his mouth. “Lick it better for me?”
“Once we get you out,” said Sacha, and she leaned close and gave him a swift lick on the forehead. “Though it’s nice having you down at my level, little brother.”
Mhumhi gave a strained little laugh. Behind him, Kutta said, “I think I’ve got it, Sacha!”
Sacha went around and grabbed the end of the wire, which Kutta had managed to partially unravel. Together, tugging it in a circle, his sisters unwound the last bit of it, and suddenly all the tension on Mhumhi’s leg eased off.
“Oh!” he said, rolling over, but when he got up he was jerked back again, his back leg sticking out straight.
“Wait, it’s caught on something,” said Sacha, rearing up to sniff. “I think it’s just one last bit.”
“Someone’s coming,” said Kutta.
Mhumhi looked up, and Sacha fell back on all fours. There was indeed a figure approaching them from far down the broad street. It was obscured a little by the shimmering heat rising from the asphalt.
“It’s a dog, isn’t it?” said Sacha. “Maybe he can help.”
The figure kept moving towards them. Mhumhi thought it looked like it was limping.
“Maybe he’s been caught in a wire too,” he said, wagging his tail at his own attempt at a joke. Kutta gave him a concerned look.
“Just a moment, Mhumhi, we’ll get you off of this,” she said, biting and tugging at the wire. Sacha walked around her to trot towards the figure.
“Help us!” she called. “We could use…”
She trailed off. The figure limped closer.
It was huge. Mhumhi put his ears back. It was bigger than the biggest gray wolf he’d seem. It was not like any dog he’d ever seen before, in fact. It was a mass of dirty gray spotted fur, humped shoulders, a wide mouth, a face-
“It’s got a face a little like yours, Mhumhi,” Kutta observed, and Mhumhi had to agree, reluctantly, that it did share characteristics with a painted dog; the darkened muzzle and eye area, the rounded ears. It had a short tail, which it curled upwards over its heavy hindquarters.
“Hello!” barked Sacha. “What sort of dog are you? Will you say something?”
The dog opened its mouth and gave a strange kind of chattering noise. Mhumhi felt a strange chill, because it sounded rather like- He glanced at Kutta, and saw the startled look on her face, and knew she heard it too. Rather like hulker laughter.
Sacha, of course, picked nothing up of it, and trotted the rest of the way to the strange dog and gave an authoritative squeal. “Why don’t you say something?”
The strange hulking thing seemed to cringe away from her, which Mhumhi found rather amusing- she was a fraction of its size.
“Oh!” said Sacha, a rare exclamation of surprise, and jumped back. Mhumhi hopped forward a little, tugging on the wire, trying to see what had startled her.
Now that it was closer, they saw why the dog had been limping. There was something wrong with one of its front paws- no, it would have been better to say that the wrong thing was its front paw. Instead of a blunt dog paw it had a dark, perfectly formed hulker hand.
Mhumhi had to blink hard to believe what he was seeing. Yes- it was certainly a hulker hand- the dog held its leg up and crooked so as not to step on it, and Mhumhi could see the individual fingers twitching as the hand dangled downwards.
“What’s the matter with you!” Sacha shouted, angry in her confusion, and stepped back a little. The strange dog lowered its head and made a strange noise, a long moan, going higher like a question: a calling noise. Mhumhi recognized it; he’d heard it in the sewers.
“Stop that!” barked Sacha, moving to snap at the stranger, and he cringed away again and snapped back. His jaws caught her around her small head, and he lifted her off the ground.
Mhumhi stared a the image a moment, not comprehending- Sacha’s body dangling like that in his teeth, by the head- he could see her short legs kicking and whirling.
Kutta gave a scream and dashed over, baring her teeth; the stranger dropped Sacha on the ground and ran away a few limping steps, squatting low and cringing. Sacha did not move on the ground. Mhumhi’s heart was hammering. He could smell her blood.
With a furious twist he jerked free of the pole, the wire finally dragging loose behind him, and ran limping towards Kutta. She was snarling and biting at the flanks of the stranger, who was having a hard time getting away with his malformed paw; he squatted and cringed again, snapping at her, his heavy jaws just missing her head. He gave that awful chattering laugh again.
Mhumhi put on a burst of speed, his injured leg stinging as the wire caught and dragged on the street, and lunged at the thing. His teeth caught it in the shoulder and it wailed and whirled around to snap at him. He fell back, stumbling, but before it could really focus on him Kutta bit at it on the other side, so it whirled again, and again, squatting and wailing from their combined assault.
“Come on!” barked Mhumhi, his blood rising, a hot kind of rage filling him- he could see Sacha raising her bloody head from the ground- good, good, she was all right, just like he’d thought- but the thing had better pay for hurting her- he dug his teeth in again and caught skin, twisting, feeling it rip, and the thing shrieked.
It whirled, and he jumped back, waiting for Kutta to bite it from the other side- but then he felt a jolt of fear. Behind Kutta, who was now tearing at the thing’s flank, was a second one- a second creature, loping fast towards them, and this one had all four legs working properly.
“Kutta!” he shouted. “Behind you!”
Kutta turned around and leaped sideways, but the second creature bowled her over and she screamed- Mhumhi slammed past the first one and bit the second on the nose, tugging him, feeling his blood fill his mouth as he dragged him around off of Kutta- then he squealed as well, because the first had started to move towards him, only he’d tripped over the wire still trailing from Mhumhi’s leg- he was getting tangled in his blundering, dragging Mhumhi backward-
Kutta whirled to her feet, one shoulder a red maw, and drove at the second creature, driving it back with its nose still dripping blood. She staggered towards Mhumhi. The first creature was moaning and thrashing, getting more and more caught in Mhumhi’s wire, inadvertently closer. Mhumhi realized, with horror, that he was now tied to the abomination.
Kutta whined, and Mhumhi felt sick, looking at the mess that was her shoulder. She came close against him, panting, looking fearfully at the creature as it thrashed and tugged Mhumhi closer.
“Gat away now,” Mhumhi gasped, fighting to stay standing. “I’m stuck- I can’t get loose- you’ve got to run and take Sacha-”
Kutta whined louder and lunged at the thing, raising her lips in a snarl. The second one lurched back towards them again as its compatriot squealed from the assault. Suddenly Kutta was trapped between them. Mhumhi’s heart gave a horrible seize and he twisted around, trying to break in himself-
For a moment it was all a mass of thrashing limbs and teeth, the silver wire flashing in the sunlight, the smell of blood thick and strong in the air as it splattered on the street.
Abruptly Mhumhi rolled free from the fray. The wire on his leg had been snipped short- one of the strange things’ jaws had closed on it, with a bite just powerful enough to slice through.
“Kutta!” Mhumhi screamed, because he could not see her between the two thrashing gray bodies. He could not even hear her screaming anymore-
Then she suddenly came towards him, leaping high over their heads. The larger one tried to rear and snap at her but fell over, its own hind legs now tangled in the wire as well.
“Come on, come on,” she gasped, tongue dripping blood, and together they limped and ran forward.
“Sacha-” cried Mhumhi, and turned to dart towards her small form.
“No!” screamed Kutta, and she grabbed his ear in her teeth, dragging him away, “Leave her!”
Mhumhi was stunned. “How can you-!”
The two things were twisting- the malformed one was still caught, but the second was freed, and it was loping towards them purposefully, ripped up nose shining like a dark badge. Mhumhi tried to limp towards Sacha but Kutta dragged him back. The thing looked, too, following their gaze, and changed direction towards where Sacha was lying still on the ground.
“Sacha!” cried Mhumhi, but Kutta was shoving him back and back, and he could not understand why. “Let me go! Why are you doing this!”
“Mhumhi!” said Kutta, and there was something in her voice, something he knew he did not want to hear her say- He pushed at her with his shoulder, willing her to let go, and she did, and she spoke.
“Mhumhi, stop! She’s dead already! She’s dead!”
Mhumhi screamed at her then, shoved her aside, but Kutta caught him by the tail before he could go any further towards the creature, which was now dipping its nose over Sacha’s body.
“Let go-!” Mhumhi thrashed, struggling, and Kutta fell down hard on her side. The creature raised its head and looked at them.
“Mhumhi,” gasped Kutta, rising up- Mhumhi looked away, back at Sacha-
“Mhumhi, we have to go, we have to run, now, while they’re distracted,” Kutta gasped.
It was opening its jaws over Sacha’s body.
“No,” said Mhumhi. No, he had seen her- he had seen her lifting her head- he had seen her-
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta.
He turned and ran, ran behind her, ran away.