It was a large room, but the back half was still filled with the press of long, lean, furless bodies: there might have been nearly twenty of them. Mhumhi had never seen so many hulkers clustered together like this- they made a forest of bare legs, arms shifting to their faces and down again. There was more variety in them that he had yet seen, too; he even saw one or two that were bone-pale in color, standing out against the darkness of the room.
They cringed every time he took a step forward, so he stepped back, and back again, back through the doorway. They stayed where they were, a couple in the front of the crowd swaying from side to side, flicking their eyes at him.
It was certainly a different type of hulker than he had encountered before, Mhumhi reflected, but it made sense that there would be different types of hulkers like there were dogs- he supposed that the bouda were also another type of hulker. This type did not seem very keen on speaking, though.
Perhaps Mini was right, though, and none of them spoke Dog. Though it was odd that they did not react at all to his voice; the bouda had, even when they had not understood the words.
He tried one last time, softly: “I won’t hurt you.”
One or two of them turned their flat faces in his direction.
Encouraged, Mhumhi went on. “Come here. Can’t you speak?” The thought occurred to him that perhaps they had lost the power to, like Vimbo.
Some more of the hulkers swayed from side to side a little. One near the front was staring at him, eyebrows drawn down.
Mhumhi wagged his tail and tapped the floor with a forepaw. “Come here, come.”
The hulker near the front- he could see that it was a young male- took a step forward, but then one of his companions grabbed his arm and he cringed backwards.
Mhumhi gave a little twitter, jerking his nose up, and more of the hulkers clapped their hands over their ears. Well; this was frustrating, and getting him nowhere. He backed all the way out of the room, and then turned around.
At once he heard a horde of footsteps come padding forward behind him. The fur rose on his back and he whirled back around. They cringed away en masse.
“You all better stay here,” he said, dropping his voice an octave, and took another step back through the hallway. His paw impacted something that crinkled, and he glanced down.
Again he heard the pad, pad of footsteps, and when he snapped his head back up the ones in the front were cringing from a few inches closer.
This was an odd impasse, and not one that he liked. His gaze seemed to be effective enough to hold them in place, but as soon as he lowered it they would come forward. There was no telling what they hoped to gain from getting close to him; Mhumhi was feeling a dark sort of suspicion from the destroyed hallways with their smeared handprints.
He stepped forward, stopping himself from raising his lip- no call to display aggression, yet- and they shuffled backwards obediently. Well, most of them. There were three or four that stayed where they were, looking at him, thrusting their heads forward a little.
One of these came forward another step, looking down at him. Mhumhi raised his head to meet the hulker’s eyes.
He had not really seen it before in the dim light, but now the hulker was closer to him, closer to the light spilling in from the doorway. There was something bizarre about this hulker’s eyes. They had black pupils and a ring of brown iris- but the sclera around them that should have been white was as black as the pupil.
Mhumhi did not find this sight comforting in the slightest. He tucked his tail.
The hulker took another step forward. It did not seem frightened any more. It reached out a hand towards him, fingers curling like claws.
Mhumhi decided that this was enough; he needed a door between them and himself. He tensed, splaying all his paws, and then whirled and ran for the door that led to the stairs.
The hulker behind him screamed, high-pitched. There was a moment of silence where all Mhumhi could hear was the pattering of his paws on the carpet and his hammering heartbeat.
Then they all screamed, all at once, joining their voices together, and came pounding down the hall after him.
Mhumhi squealed and increased his speed, his legs crossing in a blur, but then skidded to a sudden stop. He couldn’t lead them to the stairs- Kutta and Mini and Tareq were that way!
He turned, feeling frantic, and saw the mass of furless bodies coming towards him. The door beside him clicked open and he whirled and came face to face with a new hulker.
This one gave a howl and backed away, and he took the chance and jumped into the room with it- with just one he had a chance- and spun to shove the door shut so that it clicked.
He paused a moment, panting, then turned an ear and then his head towards the hulker cowering behind him. At least it seemed to still be frightened.
The door handle clicked and turned. Mhumhi froze.
He had been thinking that the hulkers were brainless, like hyenas, for some reason- but of course they were not, they were hulkers. Screaming, spitting hulkers.
The door opened and they poured into the room, shrieking and howling. Mhumhi made a last-ditch effort- he jumped towards the other side of the room, where there was a window- but a hand caught his hind leg and he slammed to the floor.
The hulker that had caught him dragged him backwards by his leg, and his forepaws scratched and scrabbled on the carpet. More hulkers come on either side, and one grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, the other by a foreleg, another by his tail. They still howled and shrieked. Mhumhi gave a frantic scream of his own, eyes bulging, as they pulled at him. Agony like fire spread through his limbs, and he thrashed hopelessly, snapping his jaws at air.
The hulker holding him by the scruff gave a howl and yanked, making him squeal. It had an affect on the other hulkers, too: they dropped their holds on him and stepped away.
Mhumhi, panting thinly through the constricted skin around his neck, gave a weak squirm. The hulker crouched and wrapped his arms around Mhumhi’s chest, squeezing, and Mhumhi felt the terrible strength in those arms and his ribcage constricting and gave a pathetic final whimper.
After a moment, he realized that his ribs had not been snapped. The hulker was squeezing the breath at him, but he had also laid his head on Mhumhi’s back and was breathing heavily into his fur.
It was sort of a bizarre moment, with Mhumhi half on his back, hind legs quivering in the air, forelegs crooked over the hulker’s arms. The hulker nestled his face a little more into Mhumhi’s fur and sighed.
One of the others came forward, half-crouching, and stretched out a hand towards Mhumhi. Mhumhi showed his teeth, giving another futile squirm in the hulker’s grip. The hulker himself gave a kind of low shout and turned around, dragging Mhumhi with him, so that their backs were to the others.
The other hulker came around and stuck his arm out again with a grunt.
Mhumhi’s captor seemed to hesitate, and then his grip relaxed a little. At once Mhumhi started to thrash, but then the other hulker darted forward and grabbed him around the middle and dragged him into its own lap.
This one was female, and she was uttering little grunts as she swayed with her arms about him.
Others were coming closer, and Mhumhi felt her arms tightening, but soon without so much as a warning he was yanked from her grip and dragged into another pair of arms. Hands from all around were coming to pat his head and neck and back, voices were uttering meaningless crooning sounds. Mhumhi was practically smothered by their eagerness.
Somebody tugged on one of his ears, and Mhumhi decided that he had had enough. He gave a gigantic thrash and sank his teeth into the hand nearest his face.
The hulker screamed, and the rest scattered, dropping him on the floor and giving him a wide berth. Mhumhi let go of his victim, which backed away, sobbing, and panted.
They were all peering at him, and some went and looked at their companion’s hand, but made no move to comfort it. Mhumhi backed towards the door, raising his lip a little when a couple of them moved forward again. Thankfully, they stopped.
He made it through the door, with the hulkers in the room still wavering and frightened-looking, and then out through the hall, still casting sharp glances over his shoulder. They were following him, but at a distance.
His rear bumped the door to the stairway. He felt slightly at an impasse; he dearly wanted to get bak to Kutta and the others, but not with this horde following him. He did feel now, somewhat, that there was not a great deal of actual aggression within them, but he was not sure what to make of their overzealous- affection, was it?
He lunged forward with a growl, and they shrieked and scattered, many vanishing into the doorways along the sides of the hall. At once Mhumhi turned around and pushed on the door, scraping and shoving with his paws until he could get his nose through. He could hear a hulker padding its slow way up behind him, and whirled with a growl.
The hulker cringed, and then reached out a long arm and pushed the door open.
Mhumhi hesitated, panting a little, but the hulker just stood there cringing and holding the door. The others were peering round-eyed, heads poking out of doorways.
Mhumhi looked up at the hulker keeping the door open, and it averted its eyes, dropping its gaze to the floor.
Slowly he backed through the door, and looked at the hulker again, and it let go and scrambled back. The door swung shut. Before the echoes of the slam faded he could hear a conference of little grunts and hoots starting on the other side.
Perhaps it would have been a better idea to go upstairs, leading them further from his pack, but Mhumhi was quite done with bravado for the moment, and ran pell-mell down the stairs and shoved his way through the door at the bottom.
And there was Kutta, running towards him down the hall. Tareq and Mini were visible on the ground behind her. Mhumhi sighed a little and wagged his tail.
Kutta did not stop running, however, her yellow eyes tightening, and hit him like juggernaut, bowling him over. She braced her paws over either side of his chest, ignoring his startled whimpers, and growled down at him.
She snapped her jaws over his face.
“What were you thinking?”
Mhumhi drew his forepaws a little closer to his chest, eyes wide.
“You ran after that thing alone! Like an idiot! D’you think you were doing us a favor? Or are you just stupid? Do you want to die?”
Mhumhi could only wag his tail between his legs and whine, but the rage in her eyes did not subside, and she gave him a real snarl.
“Do you want to die? Because I am prepared to kill you myself, right now. You left me- with these two- couldn’t go after you- heard noises like death from up there-”
“I’m all right,” he whimpered. “I didn’t get hurt-”
“That’s too bad!”
“I think he gets it,” called Mini, from her spot in Tareq’s lap. “Don’t maul the poor pup.”
“Poor pup,” Kutta growled, getting closer to his face until he squeezed his eyes shut. “If you ever do anything like that again, don’t bother coming back! Because if you don’t die, I’ll kill you.”
This statement seemed to satisfy her, for she backed up a little. Mhumhi decided to stay on his back for the time being.
“Ah,” said Mini, voice very dry, “that’s real love, there.”
“No one asked for your opinion,” said Kutta.
“I guess they didn’t,” said Mini, voice even drier. “What’s that at the door?”
Kutta looked up and put her ears back, and Mhumhi rolled to his feet. Dark hulker eyes were peering through the window at the top again.
“There’s something wrong with its eyes,” said Kutta, backing up a step.
“They’re all like that,” said Mhumhi.
“There are a lot of them,” he said, glancing back at the door- yes, there were other silhouettes clustering behind the window. “And they’re not like other hulkers…”
“They wouldn’t be, right, living here,” said Mini. She put one forepaw down on Tareq’s arm, her black eyes shining a little.
“I don’t think you understand,” said Mhumhi. The door opened.
He and Kutta both sprang back, and the first hulker came through, peering around with a kind of wariness.
“Do they understand dog?” Kutta whispered.
“No,” said Mhumhi. “They don’t-”
He stopped, for Mini had burst out into the hulker language, wagging her tail. She spoke rapidly.
The hulker looked at her, blinking, and then looked down at Mhumhi, reaching a hand towards him. Mhumhi raised his lip a little.
Mini’s voice faltered for a moment, but she spoke again, putting forth what sounded like a question. The hulker was ignoring her entirely now, its eyes flicking between Mhumhi and Kutta. Another eased the stair door open and poked its head out to look.
An edge of desperation entered Mini’s voice, and she said something else, and then looked at Mhumhi.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi. “I don’t think they-”
“Maybe they speak another language,” said Mini, quivering a little.
“I don’t think they speak at all,” said Mhumhi. “I don’t think they can.”
“No,” said Mini. “That’s impossible. They’re human. They’re here. They’re supposed to-”
Tareq interrupted her then by putting her down on the ground and standing up, staring at the strange hulkers, more of whom were slowly feeding in to the end of the hall. He took a few slow steps forward. The hulker that had been reaching its arm out to Mhumhi slowly turned its eyes up towards him.
Tareq said something in hulker and then ran forward.
“Tareq, stop!” cried Kutta, trying to put her body between him and the hulkers, but he pushed her away and stopped directly in front of them. He said something else, his high voice eager.
The hulker rose to its full height and stared down at him. Mhumhi felt a prickle of anxiety.
“Tareq,” he said, “step back, slowly, please…”
The strange hulker gave a sharp scream and grabbed Tareq around the chest, lifting him up. Mhumhi and Kutta started forward at once, and then stopped.
The hulker had wrapped his arms around Tareq, holding him close, and Tareq had likewise encircled him back, his small round face more blissful than Mhumhi had ever seen. They swayed together for a moment. One of the other hulkers came forward, hand outstretched, and the hulker holding Tareq transferred him over so that she could embrace him as well.
“Oh,” said Kutta, and sat down. “That’s good, I suppose…”
“That’s all they do,” muttered Mhumhi, casting an evil eye on the one nearest him, which had reached out a hand to him again. “They just scream and hug things.”
“I… suppose there could be worse things,” said Kutta. “But why don’t they speak? Aren’t they, you know…?”
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi, watching as the giggling Tareq was passed between another pair of hulkers. “I don’t know what’s the matter with them. They don’t seem bad, though…”
“No, this is very bad.” That was Mini, from the floor, her rear legs splayed limply underneath her. She was still quivering. “These… things… they must not be human. Something’s horribly wrong with them. I don’t understand. It shouldn’t be like this.”
Her voice had finally attracted a hulker’s attention- the one looking at Mhumhi changed its focus to her, and extended an arm in her direction.
“No!” Mini yapped sharply. “Don’t let those things near me!”
“They won’t hurt you,” said Mhumhi, surprised by the vehemence in her tone. He paused. “Well, they may be a little rough, but it’s not-”
“I don’t want them near me,” Mini repeated. “They’re not human. They’re- they’re-” She shuddered.
“I don’t know,” said Kutta, and Mhumhi looked back and was rather startled to see that she was letting one of the hulkers pat her head. “They look just like them, and they’re very kind.” She closed her eyes a little when the hulker scratched behind her ear.
“Kindness isn’t what makes humans human,” growled Mini.
Mhumhi had an uneasy sense that he knew what she meant. It was what Danai had told him, back in the bouda’s lair. It was a human’s mind that defined it, not the body.
But he could not agree with that, or with Mini. If he said that these hulkers were not human, than he would have to admit that he was.
The hulker crouched in front of him, extending its hand, and he stared into its strange dark eyes. At this close proximity he noticed something that he had not before. On either side of the hulker’s long nose, between its eyes, there was a faint dusting of brown fur, and the scent of dog.