The new monstrosity.
Maha stopped crying after a little while as she trailed Mhumhi back to the corridor, sinking into a kind of sullen silence, her eyes red and accusing. Mhumhi was relieved when they came to the reservoir room. The sound of rushing water seemed to help clear his head, block out the haunting sound of the beating heart. He thought he might stick his face in and clean it- even in the sewage, it might feel cleaner.
They came to the corridor and Mhumhi stopped short. Kutta was lying outside the door.
“Kutta!” he cried, dark thoughts about hulkers’ hearts spinning out of his mind entirely as he ran to her. “Kutta, what are you doing, are you all right?”
Kutta opened her eyes slowly. There was gunk all over her face again. Mhumhi was suddenly aware of how cold the concrete under his paws was, and nudged at her urgently. “Kutta, go inside, you’re sick-“
“I’m sick,” said Kutta, slowly, and blinked at him. Her gaze seemed to slowly focus, and then she drew back a little. “Mhumhi, your face- what happened?”
“It’s not my blood,” said Mhumhi. “I’m fine. I have food for you.”
She blinked at him again. Mhumhi looked back at Maha, who was standing a little ways away, staring at Kutta with wide eyes.
“Go in the room, Maha,” he said. “Close the door behind you.”
She brought her eyes up to him, and her gaze grew sullen again.
“Why should I?”
“Do as I say!” Mhumhi snarled at her, open-mouthed. Maha put her hand up to her mouth and ran into the room and slammed the door.
“What was that about?” Kutta twisted her head back to stare at him, wavering slightly. “Why are you being cruel to her?”
“It’s nothing,” said Mhumhi. “Nothing… Take the meat, Kutta, there’s enough of it.”
Kutta seemed to accept that his tone brooked no argument, and slowly got to her feet. Mhumhi eyed her, her ribs and her bony hips.
“Where did you get the meat?” she asked. “Not our dispensary…”
“Another dispensary,” he said.
Kutta licked at his muzzle, then the corner of his mouth, and his stomach gave that familiar heave. He hacked up meat into a pile on the floor. It was slippery and dark red, different from the pale bloodless stuff they normally got, but Kutta said nothing. Perhaps she was too sick to notice. Mhumhi felt sick just watching her eat it. She did not know- he did now know if she would eat it if she did- he did not know how he himself had eaten it. He had looked into the hulker’s eyes and eaten him.
“It’s good,” said Kutta, making him tense, but she merely raised her head to look up at him, licking her lips. “I feel better…”
“Good, then we should take you back inside, get you warmer,” said Mhumhi, nosing up against her, but she drew away.
“Inside… no.” Kutta backed away from him. “I can’t go back inside, Mhumhi. I’ve done a terrible thing.”
“What terrible thing?” asked Mhumhi, half-amused by the seriousness in her tone. “What could you possibly have done?”
Kutta did not answer, but she was shaking slightly. Mhumhi went up to her and pressed against her side.
“Come on, come back in, you can lie down where it’s soft, and the puppies can snuggle with you-”
“No, no, it’s that, it’s them,” gasped Kutta, pulling away from him. “It’s Tareq, I’ve done something awful to him.”
“What do you mean?” said Mhumhi, suddenly getting the worst feeling of apprehension. Kutta looked away from him.
“You must feel it,” she said, “you must feel it, when he whimpers- when you see them stumble- that awful feeling, where you want to-” She hesitated. “Tell me I’m not the only one who feels it! Tell me I’m not the only one who wants to ki-”
“Keep your voice down,” said Mhumhi, shooting a look towards the door. “No, Kutta, no… you’re not the only one who feels it.”
“Oh,” said Kutta, shaking, and limped a little away from him. “And now I’ve done a terrible thing, poor Tareq, poor Tareq… I couldn’t help myself.”
“Kutta, tell me what happened,” said Mhumhi, now truly alarmed, and looked nervously towards the door again. It had been very quiet.
“I was sleeping,” said Kutta, “and I felt feverish, and he- reached towards me, to touch me, I don’t know, and that terrible feeling came back again, and I- I- I couldn’t help myself!”
Mhumhi drew away, feeling thick dread at the guilt in her eyes, and scratched at the door. “Maha? Maha! Let us in, now!”
“No!” came Maha’s voice. “Go away!”
“Maha, please, let us in- we’ve got to see-” Mhumhi stopped himself, for he had been about to say “what’s left of Tareq,” but Kutta didn’t look like she had eaten; had she left the body there? Was Maha inside with his lifeless body?
“Maha! Open the door!”
“No!” shouted Maha. “I’m not letting either of you in ever again! You’re a bully and you don’t share, and Kutta- she- she bit Tareq!”
“Bit him,” Mhumhi repeated, slowly, then said again: “She bit him?”
“On the hand! He’s bleeding! I hate both of you!”
Mhumhi put down his paw and looked at Kutta. She shuddered.
“It’s true, I- I bit him! And then I ran out here. I’m a monster, Mhumhi.”
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, “you only bit him. He probably deserved it.”
“Don’t you say that, he’s just a puppy,” Kutta moaned. “And I know why I bit him. I hate myself!”
“Stop that,” said Mhumhi, coming close to lick her ears. “You’re sick, and it’s making you silly. Tareq is fine. You haven’t done anything he won’t recover from.”
“Why do I feel this way, Mhumhi?” Kutta asked, leaning into him. “I don’t want to… I hate it.”
“You’re sick,” Mhumhi repeated, though his tone was more listless. He knew exactly what she meant. He only wished that he had bitten Tareq’s hand, rather than experienced what he had earlier.
He nosed Kutta and pawed at the door again. “Maha, let us in. Kutta and I are sorry. We’ve been mean to you.”
There was no answer. He scratched with increasing urgency.
“Kutta is sick, and it’s very cold out here. Let us in!”
Still she did not answer. Mhumhi growled, looking at his shivering sister.
“We’ll have to wait for her to calm down,” Kutta said. “She gets like this… angry…”
Mhumhi saw the sense in her words, but he was still annoyed. “But where will you go? You can’t stay out here in this place when you’re-“
“Sick, I know,” said Kutta, weary-sounding. “There’s a little alcove at the end of the tunnel that has some old paper and things…”
Mhumhi thought that sounded dubious, but he walked beside her and helped her limp to the end of the concrete hallway, where there was a closed door on one side and on the other side there was indeed a little alcove, just a few shelves and a pile of paper. Mhumhi, thinking or rats, nosed around in it a bit, but though he smelled a few dried droppings it appeared the paper had not been inhabited for some time. Perhaps Maha had something to do with that.
Kutta settled down on the paper with a sigh and put her head down, and Mhumhi curled up beside her, trying to share his warmth with her. The paper was a poor substitute for a blanket, but it was better than the bare floor.
Kutta was soon breathing evenly, if raspily. Mhumhi could not get to sleep himself. He did not want to get up and leave Kutta, but his mind ached for something to do to distract it from terrible visions of the day’s events. He spent some time licking his injured paw. It seemed to be healing, though his paw still tingled oddly from time to time. The wound itself was closed and scabbed, so that was good.
He grew bored of tending to himself and nosed about in the papers. There were a great many of them stuck together, most faded down into whiteness. Some of the ones beneath the top layer, however, still had an odd glossiness to them. He pawed at them, enjoying the crinkling sound, and dragged a batch, crumpling, closer to himself.
On one page that still had a few dark colors he saw a strange image, and he had to blink at it a few times for it to make sense: it was a hulker.
He pushed the paper away from himself at once, alarmed. It reminded him of the eerie high board with the smiling hulker face on it. The paper was attached to a bunch of others, though, and they crumpled open. More pictures of hulkers.
He was interested in spite of himself, and he pawed the thing back to him and looked at the pictures. Hulkers standing, hulker faces… He licked a page with his tongue to turn it and found the taste awful and bitter. But there were still more hulkers… hulker after hulker… so many images of them. How did images like that get onto boards or paper, anyway? He thought that it might not be natural, but he did not know how anyone would put them there. And why? Who liked hulkers that much?
He turned the page again and was surprised to see not a hulker, but a dog. A domestic, by the look of it, for it had floppy ears. It was smiling, tongue hanging out. There were strange scribbles all around it.
At least there was some representation, Mhumhi thought, but it was somehow more eerie to see the dog there, smiling in that empty way at nothing, frozen in place. He pushed the papers away from himself, crumpling them loudly as he slid his paw.
“What are you doing?” asked Kutta, sounding groggy.
“Sorry, Kutta,” he said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I’m only playing with these papers. There are pictures of hulkers on them, did you see?”
“Oh,” said Kutta. “Yes… they’re everywhere.”
“I wonder,” Mhumhi began, hesitating a bit, for the question sounded foolish to him. “Do you think… someone made these?”
“Made them?” Kutta was quiet for a moment. “Someone… who, though?”
“I know,” said Mhumhi hastily, “that makes no sense. They just are, I suppose, like everything else.”
“I don’t know,” said Kutta. “I don’t know… Mhumhi, have you ever thought that the city felt like… like it wasn’t made for us?”
“Sick-silly,” said Mhumhi. “I shouldn’t have said anything. The city, made? Who’d make it? The city is the world! Who could’ve built all this?”
Kutta did not respond, aside from a soft whine. He rolled over to nuzzle at her and felt her breathing start to slow again.
Mhumhi must have fallen asleep too, for the next thing he remembered was slowly waking up with a bed feeling. His eyes fluttered open. Kutta was still snoring softly beside him.
Something was making his stomach churn, though. He was not quite sure what- there was nothing he could see or hear, but- He raised his head and sniffed the air.
There was something strange. He could smell hulker, hulker he wasn’t familiar with, and the scent seemed to flicker, somehow, like it was incorporeal, which didn’t make any sense. The hairs on his back rose. He got up from Kutta’s side, ignoring her sleepy murmur, and turned the corner.
There was a hulker crouching in front of the puppies’ door. Mhumhi was startled by the sight of it- the scent hadn’t smelled anywhere near that close, but there it was, touching the door with its hands and rocking back and forth in place. Mhumhi got the sense that something was wrong with it.
He was not sure what to do. The hulker had not seen him, and while it was an adult, it did not seem dangerous. It had nothing in its hands and it seemed fragile, the way it rocked. He thought it smelled like a female. Perhaps it had scented out the puppies and wanted to look after them…?
If that was the case, Mhumhi thought, it would be best for him to make himself scarce, not scare it off. But he stayed where he was, easily visible if the hulker should happen to turn her head. That bad feeling had not gone away.
The hulker raised a forepaw, crooked forward awkwardly. Beneath her dense coverings Mhumhi glimpsed a hairy wrist. She batted on the door.
There was a beat of silence, then Maha’s voice came from the other side: “Go away! Bad dogs! You can’t come in!”
The hulker paused, tilting her head slightly, then rose up on her hind legs. She looked unsteady, swaying for a moment, then batted on the door again.
There were a few scraping noises, and then Maha opened the door, her face tearstained. “I said you can’t-“
She stuttered to a stop, staring up at the strange hulker, who still swayed as she looked down at her.
“Who are you?”
The hulker rocked wordlessly for another moment, tilting its head the other way, then grabbed Maha by the hair and dragged her out of the room.
Maha screamed, but Mhumhi was already running. He had not formed a plan or even had a coherent thought- his teeth merely hit the hulker’s calf.
The hulker squealed and dropped Maha on the ground. It raised its hands and beat at his head, one, two, three blows that knocked him dizzy. He let go of its flesh, tasting blood- his or the hulker’s? How did it taste no different?
The hulker had not finished, though. While he was dazed it took one long leg and kicked him in the side. He staggered back with a yelp.
Maha was getting to her feet, one hand on her head pressing down her wiry hair. The hulker turned and lurched towards her. Mhumhi gave it a warning snarl and ran towards it, stopping short when it turned and swung its fist at him.
“Mhumhi!” Maha cried. The hulker turned to look at her, and Mhumhi threw himself forward, catching her elbow, bearing her down.
She squealed and kicked him away again, but he was faster this time and caught a glancing blow only because he stumbled on his injured leg.
On the ground the strange hulker pushed herself up on her hands and looked at Mhumhi. Her eyes showed no white. She opened her mouth and laughed, and all of Mhumhi’s fur rose. It was not a hulker laugh. It was a hyena laugh.
Maha gave a little scream, and the hulker looked at her and crawled forward on all fours, grinning. Mhumhi lunged at her again, but this time he only caught the edge of the wrappings around her chest. She yowled and rolled, and Mhumhi let go, springing back. But this time he had gotten in front of Maha.
“Go!” he said to her, turning back to look at her. “Go back into the room and shut the door! I’ll get rid of it!”
She merely stared at him and whimpered, both hands around her face.
The hulker gave that awful eerie laugh again. It had started to rock again on its hands and knees. Mhumhi got a sense of strange sickness from it. For once his instincts were not telling him to kill, but to flee- to flee as far and as fast as he could from this strange monstrosity.
The hulker giggled and crawled backwards. Through the hole he had ripped in its shirt, Mhumhi could see tufts of dirty gray hair growing on its scabbed ribs.
Mhumhi risked a glance back to see Kutta limping around the corner towards them. The strange hulker looked too, thrusting its chin forward on its neck, and then dragged itself to its feet. It broke into a shambling run away from them and disappeared around the corner out of the hall. Without thinking Mhumhi gave chase.
The hulker sprinted ahead of him out into the reservoir, loud with rushing water, and catapulted over the railing. Mhumhi skidded to a stop and stuck his head underneath just in time to see it land with a mighty splash in the filthy water far below.
For a moment there was no sign of it, just the water roiling from the impact. Mhumhi felt Kutta come up next to him by the rail, but he did not dare take his eyes away- there! The hulker’s dark head had emerged near the edge of the pool, and it kicked and thrashed its way to the edge and climbed out.
“Should we go after it?” Kutta said, but Mhumhi did not answer. The hulker was climbing into a pipe- the very pipe he and Kutta had entered the reservoir in the night before. It wriggled inside, its flat feet the last things to disappear.
Mhumhi felt a chill at the sight. He glanced at Kutta, who was panting hard.
“It’s not safe here anymore,” she said.
They went back to the corridor. Maha was still crouched down on the concrete, hands clamped to her head, and without conferring Mhumhi and Kutta went on either side of her.
“Come on, puppy,” said Mhumhi, and he licked her forehead. It tasted salty.
Maha put one hand on his neck, curling her fingers into the thick fur there. He winced but tolerated it. She rose and he led her back into the little room.