There was a hyena in the safe place. They heard it calling from one of the floors below them, its voice echoing up through the stairwell.
“It’s Vimbo,” said Kutta, quietly, a more or less unnecessary statement. Mhumhi had intimately recognized the sound, and even if he had not, the chances of another hyena wandering this far out into the desert were…
“Should we go to meet him?”
Kutta was looking slightly down, her brow wrinkled, and her tone made it sound as if it wasn’t really a question, just common courtesy; of course they would go down and meet Vimbo.
Mhumhi felt a little tremor go through him, and for a moment he could not quite speak.
“Are you all right?” Kutta asked, turning her nose slightly towards him, and he felt a second tremor, because she knew exactly what wasn’t all right.
“That’s a hyena,” said O, and they both looked at her as her chair creaked forward. She was blinking towards the door. “It’s a hyena sound, isn’t it? Have you brought one here to eat?”
Mhumhi was temporarily confused until he recalled their recent introduction of the state of the hyenas in the city.
“He may as well be,” he said, biting out his words one by one, “because if I go down there to meet him, Kutta, I’ll kill him.”
Kutta closed her eyes for a moment. She did not seem surprised.
“He doesn’t-” she began.
“If he hadn’t left,” said Mhumhi, “Maha would still be alive. I don’t care what else you’re going to say.”
Kutta opened her eyes, shifting her weight on her paws.
“He wasn’t the one that killed her. You know that. In fact, if you must blame anyone, blame-” She hesitated.
“I blame her,” said Mhumhi. “But she’s dead too. So I’m going to kill him.”
His words made no sense at all, really, and he felt it; they were just spinning out into the void- but he wanted to put his teeth into Vimbo’s meaty flesh, and pretend it was someone else’s, over and over and over.
Kutta said nothing, just watched him with her eyes half-hooded as he began to quiver. O was watching him too. He felt a stab of hatred at her confused gaze, and also shame.
“Maha,” said Tareq, from his vantage point in the screamer’s arms. Kutta twisted her head around to look over at him.
They heard rapid hulker footsteps come slapping up through the hallway, and Henli pushed through the screamers to stand in the doorway, puffing.
“There’s a hyena in the building,” she said, her eyes wide. Mhumhi noticed that the metal thing was back in her hand.
“Yes,” said O. “It’s been a long time… I remember that sound.”
“I’m going to get rid of it,” said Henli. “You stay on the upper floor, O. The child too. And you…” She looked down at Mhumhi and Kutta, questioning.
“Get rid of it?” Mhumhi saw the fur on Kutta’s back was rising a little. “How do you mean?”
“Kill it,” said Henli. “It must have followed you here. It’s all right.”
“You mustn’t kill it!” Kutta said, her eyes widening. “We know it- we know him! He’s not dangerous!”
Mhumhi let out a low growl. Kutta turned on him.
“We must try to hear out what he has to say,” she said.
He gave her an incredulous look.
“Well- well, you know what I mean,” she stammered. “He’s- he’s got a point to make his side heard, even if he can’t actually… Look.” She bristled suddenly, glaring at him. “If he had put his teeth into any of us, I would say kill him. But he didn’t. He ran away.”
“Oh, yes,” Mhumhi said. “We must wait for our enemies to bite our throats before we-”
Kutta tensed and opened her jaws, and he subsided.
“We are not restrained right now,” she said. “And we’re running out of things that can be betrayed.”
Mhumhi put his ears back at this, for it was not a comforting notion.
“Let’s meet him,” Kutta insisted. “At least.”
“That hyena,” said Henli, drawing their attention back to her; she’d been watching them all the while. “You recognize it? What sort of relationship-?”
“You’re not to kill him,” Kutta said. “If he’s dangerous, we’ll kill him ourselves. But it’s our affair.”
“Hmm,” said Henli, her face smoothing. “A dog- that’s one thing. A dog in the building, that’s all right. But a hyena… we have people sleeping here. Helpless.”
“He won’t go to the upper floors, then,” said Mhumhi. He shot a sharp look back at Kutta, but she was looking over at Tareq, who had buried his face back into the screamer’s chest.
“He’ll stay here,” she said. “And you two. But some of those screaming things- we’ll have them come with us.”
“What?” asked Mhumhi, and found it mirrored in the expressions of O and Henli. Henli in particular looked displeased.
“Do as I say,” said Kutta, and there was something cool and sharp in her tone that made his ears prick up. He squeezed his jaws together.
“If that hyena gets-” began Henli, but Kutta cut her off with a look.
“It won’t have a chance to bother you,” she said. “Stay here where you’ll be safe. Watch Tareq. Mhumhi, pick one of those things to go with us.”
Mhumhi wrinkled his lips back a little, but he went forward and put his mouth around the nearest screamer’s hand. She made a gurgling coo and stroked his head between the ears.
Kutta circled round another screamer, nipping lightly at his side, herding him forward. Mhumhi drew his screamer gently forward- she followed willingly, her blackened eyes shining brightly down upon him. Behind them some of the other screamers started forward as well.
“Stay,” said Henli, the word sharp, and they all seemed to freeze in place. The one Kutta was herding put his hands over his eyes, and did not move when she nipped at his hip.
Mhumhi still had the female’s hand in his mouth, the flesh getting hot and damp as he checked the force in his jaws to keep from breaking it. She had frozen too, but now when he lightly tugged, the points of his canines just beginning to dig into her skin, she stepped forward again. An empty smile had formed on her face, nearly infantile, and she reached out and patted his head again.
Kutta seemed to think that this was enough, for she spared them a glance before setting forward again, her tail waving like a flag over her furry hindquarters. Mhumhi could see in the corner of his eye that Henli had pulled the corners of her lips far down, but she did not tell the screamers to stay again, and the female went with them into the stairwell, holding the door for them, and then pushing it back closed with her free hand.
They went down to the next landing, on the second floor, then Mhumhi spat out her hand.
“What is it?” he said. “Why’d you want one to come with us?”
The screamer was trying to pet him with her damp hand, and he shook himself in irritation.
“I’m telling you, I’ve learned,” said Kutta, her voice low. “I don’t know about O, and I definitely don’t trust that Henli. If we leave Tareq up there, we need one of these things- just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“Just in case we’re locked out by something only a hulker can undo,” said Kutta. She looked up at the vacant-eyed female and stepped a little closer, wagging her tail a little. “It will listen to us and help us, won’t it?”
“Only if we make it understand us,” Mhumhi pointed out, but Kutta wasn’t listening; the screamer had seen an invitation in her movements and had knelt to sweep her up in a massive hug around the chest. She was squirming to extricate herself.
When they had gotten themselves and it sorted out, they went back down to the first floor, the screamer trotting meekly ahead so that it could push open the door. Mhumhi couldn’t help but glance back at where the stairs continued down to the basement, the cold breeze stirring his fur in an unpleasant way. It still smelled like Mini down there.
They went through the door, out into the first hallway, which was as blank and boring as they remembered. Mhumhi inhaled, his nostrils quivering. Vimbo’s heavy scent was close. But it was not here.
They went all the way to where the large black doors stood, leading back to the airy atrium that was at the entrance to the building. Here the screamer seemed reluctant to go any further, rubbing her hands over and over themselves. Kutta went up to the door and reared against it on her hind legs.
“It doesn’t go in,” she said, her tail curling between her legs. Mhumhi went to add his weight beside her and found that she was right; the black doors did not yield in the slightest.
“The handles,” he said, and then stopped. There were no handles on this side of the door.
“Strange,” said Kutta, and she went down on all fours again. “Then let’s have that thing open them…”
They looked at the screamer, which had backed as far back against the wall as she could manage, her face turned away from the doors.
“Maybe they’re only meant to open one way,” said Mhumhi, meaning it as a joke, except as soon as he said it he wished he hadn’t. Kutta drew her lips back slightly.
From behind the doors they heard the click, click of nails on stone, and then a loud snuffling.
“He’s right there,” said Kutta, her fur going back up.
“If he comes in, he won’t be going back out,” said Mhumhi, and jumped when the doors slid open.
And there was Vimbo, standing as large and dirty and spotted as he had ever been, his head low and his mouth slightly open. He turned his head slightly to one side and uttered a little squeal.
The screamer made a little garbled sound which Mhumhi could not interpret behind them. Anyway, he had no time to pay attention to her; Vimbo was stepping forward, between the black doors. He shuddered and bared his teeth.
Vimbo stopped and looked at him, halfway between one room and the other. His black eyes were wide. Mhumhi stared down into them, trying to gauge what he thought, what he was feeling- was it surprise, at the sign of aggression? Was it fear? Anger? Even pleasure, at seeing them again? He could make out nothing.
“Vimbo,” said Kutta. The hyena’s head swung around to look at her. She stopped. It was the only word they knew he understood.
Vimbo let the silence hang for a moment, then uttered a little grunt and stepped the rest of the way forward, making them both stumble backwards. The black doors slid shut again behind him.
Seeing him and smelling him so close made Mhumhi feel confused- and no longer very much like biting him. He had forgotten that curious blankness that Vimbo had, that non-understanding that had fooled him into thinking that the hyena was merely a dumb animal; even now he found himself questioning, because he had never been the one to have the words that broke through to him, had never understood the one-sided conversations he had even been capable of having. At the moment he seemed as innocent and guileless as the screamer.
Whom he was rapidly approaching.
Mhumhi only had a second to really process it was happening, for Vimbo had unexpectedly broken into a lope that allowed him to cross the hall in two strides to stand directly before the screamer. He stretched out his neck to look up at her, and then he suddenly reared.
Mhumhi was aware in a horrible way of just how huge the hyena was, for he was bracing his forepaws against the wall on either side of the hulker’s chest and looking her in the eyes. They could hear him snuffling. His mouth was open. It seemed like the top of the hulker’s skull could easily slide between his jaws.
Kutta uttered a sharp whine and ran forward to snap her jaws around one of Vimbo’s ankles, tugging, and Mhumhi started forward too, then stopped. The screamer had put her arms around Vimbo’s coarse-furred neck.
Vimbo was holding still, just standing there on his hind legs against the wall, his bulk practically engulfing her while she uttered little hoots and scratched at his neck. Kutta slowly let go of his ankle.
Vimbo turned himself to get back down, half-dragging the screamer as well before she let go of him. At once she stepped around the hyena to go and pat Mhumhi, smiling.
Mhumhi was bewildered enough that he did not protest, even when she tugged on one of his ears. Vimbo’s head was low again, his eyes unfocused. He gave a low moan and seemed to rock a little on his paws.
“Vimbo,” said Kutta again, but this time he did not look back at her, just stepped forward and suddenly tottered sideways, crashing into the wall.
Kutta went to his side at once, Mhumhi following more slowly, screamer still in tow, his tail tucked. Vimbo was squatting, jerking his head up and down to let loose a series of squealing whines; from Mhumhi’s point of view it looked quite senseless, but he did not think that there was any other way to interpret it but as a sign of distress.
“Are you all right?” asked Kutta, gingerly stretching her neck out to sniff at him, but he rose up and roughly shouldered her out of the way, startling a growl out of her. He made his way towards the stairs in a kind of swaying zigzag.
“There’s something wrong with him,” said Mhumhi, coming up alongside Kutta.
“Obviously,” she said. She still seemed shaken.
Vimbo pushed open the door to the stairs with his nose.
“No!” said Mhumhi, and jumped forward to aim a sharp bite at the hyena’s hindquarters. “You’re to stay down here!”
Vimbo squatted and whirled around, and Mhumhi jumped back- the hyena’s ears were pressed flat, and he could hear Kutta let out another nearly-inaudible vibration of a growl.
Vimbo squealed, turning his head so that his teeth flashed sideways. Mhumhi acknowledged the size of that head. It was suddenly apparent that the hyena would be impossible to kill with just the pair of them.
But Vimbo turned back around and finished pushing his way through the door. Mhumhi gave Kutta a helpless look. She had tucked her bristling tail underneath her stomach.
“Better keep on him,” she said.
The door was just closing behind Vimbo’s heavy rump when they tried to push after him. The screamer scrambled up and pushed the door the rest of the way open so the could get through, bumping uncomfortably close in the stairwell. Vimbo paid them no mind. To Mhumhi’s surprise, he did not go up, but down, snuffling and sniffing as he went, his nose in the air, towards the place where the cold air blew.
“What d’you think he’s smelling?” asked Kutta, softly, as if the hyena might try to eavesdrop.
Mhumhi sniffed, and sniffed again. His heart sank.
“Mini,” he said. “This scent- it’s not just from earlier. They must have taken her body down here.”
Kutta uttered a little whine. “He doesn’t know that she’s dead!”
This was true, but there was little they could do to inform him about the fact. Mhumhi was suddenly seized by the notion that Vimbo might not know that Maha was dead either, that all his anger was resting on a creature that had no idea what he had caused.
Vimbo went down the stairs, and they followed him, though Mhumhi kept having to shut his eyes, loathing the sight of the black room at the bottom again, at the purpose he suspected it had been used for. At the very least the soft music had stopped playing, so that it was merely silent and cold again.
Though not entirely silent. There were a few screamers down there, Mhumhi realized, when they pushed inside after Vimbo. They were huddled around a metal counter, and they looked back at the three of them, hooting and cringing nervously. The female screamer that had come with them slipped around them to join the throng, uttering restrained little shrieks, and they mingled loudly for a moment. The metal in the room was suddenly ringing with their excitement.
Vimbo’s ears were flattened again, and he shoved his way through the screamers to put his paws on the metal counter. They scattered with a series of displeased hoots and grunts. Mhumhi had a view now of what they’d been clustering around- a little black thing wrapped in a white cloth. Mini’s body, her chin and paws resting limply on the metal while the back half of her stayed shrouded.
Vimbo gave a grunt and nudged a paw against her, straining his neck so he could sniff over her.
“Oh, why are we here,” said Kutta, turning to miserably press her head against Mhumhi’s side. He turned and pushed his nose against her.
“Why is she here?” he said. “O told us she wouldn’t become meat- that they’d bury her in the sand- but she’s down here.”
“Good point,” said Kutta, raising her head back up. “Good point… What are they thinking?”
“I think you’re being very rude,” came Mini’s faint little voice, from within the towel.
Vimbo gave a loud little squeal, pawing at the metal. One of Mini’s black eyes had snapped back open.
“Don’t bury me,” she said.
“You-” said Mhumhi.
“Why, you-” added Kutta.
Mini gave a little sneeze and shut her eye again.
“I’m almost dead,” she said. “But there’s no need to kill me off like that.”
“You were dead!” exclaimed Kutta. “I didn’t hear a heartbeat! You stopped moving!”
Mini opened her eye again. “I changed my mind.”
“You changed your-”
“I felt like being dead,” she continued, over Kutta’s incredulity, “for a short while there- but yes, I changed my mind… It’s allowed.”
“I honestly don’t think that’s how it works,” said Mhumhi, but he had raised his tail and was waving it a little.
“Well,” said Mini, “it hurts a lot, being alive right now, to be honest, and I haven’t got very much left in me… But death is a very final thing. To be honest, I’m frightened of it. Of, you know, the nothingness. More so than the pain. I want to be able to think for as long as I can manage it.”
She seemed to be drawing strength from her own words, for she raised her chin a little.
“And these fellows gave me something very nice that makes me hurt less,” she added. “They’ve fixed me up very nicely. I think they’ve done it before.”
Mhumhi glanced at the screamers, which were all focused on the tiny dog.
“I thought you didn’t like them,” he said.
“I don’t like them as humans,” said Mini, putting her chin back down. “But I’ve decided I like them as not-humans.”
Vimbo gave another grunt, and went down from the counter, back on all fours. His head dropped low.
“By the way, I think that was Vimbo,” said Mini, sounding hazy. “Unless you’ve found another hyena.”
“We haven’t,” grunted Kutta. Mhumhi felt that annoyance was starting to come off of her in waves as she watched the little domestic.
Mini raised a paw very slightly, like she was going to attempt to crawl forward, and then said something in hulker. Vimbo gave a low whine.
“What did you say to him?” asked Mhumhi.
“I said it’s all right,” said Mini. “It’s not as bad as it seems.”