The hulker’s eyes were on him, dark eyes with their mad white rings. It dropped the back legs of the dead coyote and swung to face him where he was cringing, terror-struck, against the brick wall. In its other paw, which he hadn’t seen, it held a long piece of wood.
In a quick motion it swung the wood at him. Mhumhi heard it whistle, the speed and strength of it belying the hulker’s earlier slow movements. He leapt forward instinctively and hit it squarely in the chest. It was horrid and warm and he squealed with fear and thrashed in midair as it grabbed at him, sending it over backwards.
Mhumhi did not look back, he ran, dashing full-speed down the street, around the corner, and away, fear propelling him until the buildings of Oldtown whizzed by in a blur.
He only stopped when he ran straight into a low-slung, trundling tanuki and tripped fantastically, flipping over onto his back. The tanuki barked furiously at him and waddled off.
He rolled back onto his side, panting, looking around. The few small dogs that had been out on the streets were staring at him as he lay in the street, shuddering. He could not get the hulker’s nightmarish visage out of his mind. And the dead coyote… He retched. He thought that if he had not had to keep the meat for Kebero, he surely would have lost it by now.
The bright sunlight and the sight and smell of dogs like himself gradually dispelled his fear, though, and he eventually got up, still shaking a bit, panting as though he’d run twice as far. A horrible thought was coming to him.
Bii was still in the alleyway with the hulker.
He hoped that the old fox hadn’t been spotted from his hiding place behind the dumpster. If he had, Mhumhi didn’t know what the hulker would do. Did it have the strength to shift it? Mhumhi had the sinking feeling that the answer was yes, thinking of the strength that the hulker had put into the blow it had aimed at him, at the way that coyote’s skull had been smashed.
Mhumhi felt ill. He had to go back, to at least see if Bii was all right. At least now he felt certain that he could outrun the hulker… unless it had been startled, or distracted, and had chosen not to chase him…
Forcing himself to retrace his steps back to the alleyway was the most difficult thing Mhumhi had ever done, but he did it, dragging his feet and shaking, until he saw the brick building and glimpsed the blue bins behind it.
The smell of the hulker- which he now recognized, though it was strangely indistinct- was still fresh in the air, but Mhumhi did not think it was in the area anymore, for he heard no movement as he swiveled his ears around. He crept back into the alley, hugging the wall.
No one was there, no lurking hulker or bat-eared fox. There were only a few smears of blood on the concrete to suggest that it had ever come by.
“Bii,” he called softly.
For a moment there was no response, and then suddenly the fox’s tiny head wiggled out from behind the dumpster, nose first and huge ears popping out after.
“It’s gone?” he gasped.
“It’s gone,” said Mhumhi, and Bii came the rest of the way out, back arched and quivering.
“What was it? I heard you scream- I thought-”
“It was a hulker,” Mhumhi told him. “I’ve never seen one before. Bii, it was carrying a dead- a dead dog!”
“Ah,” said Bii. Mhumhi suddenly caught a whiff of urine- the fox had responded to fear in his own way behind the dumpster. “Let’s get out of this place, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi had no argument with that, and they trotted quickly out of the alley, aiming for home. Bii kept close to Mhumhi’s legs, and Mhumhi kept turning to lick him between the ears, to reassure himself.
“I’ve heard that,” Bii said, once they were in the same bright place where Mhumhi had originally stopped, “I’ve heard that the hulkers’ll kill you if they can. I hear they eat dogs.”
Mhumhi suddenly had an awful vision of the creature hunched over a dog’s corpse, digging those talons into the belly and tearing out meat with its flat teeth, and shuddered.
“My mother always said that they were our brothers,” he said. “She said they were dogs.”
Bii sneeze-laughed. “Of course she would say that! She’s a domestic.”
“What do you mean, she’s a domestic?” asked Mhumhi, feeling his hackles rise. “What’s wrong with that?”
“There’s a reason they’re not well-liked,” Bii said. “They have some sort of relationship with the hulkers. Protect them, bring food to them, that sort of thing. Nobody knows why they do it.”
“Ah!” said Mhumhi, suddenly recalling the blue-eyed domestic. It had said it was carrying meat to its sister, but Sacha had been so suspicious. Had she thought…?
He thought of that dog, cringing with its meat, and felt a surge of hatred.
“My mother never went near any hulker,” he said. “I know that much.”
“I didn’t say she did,” said Bii. “I don’t think all domestics associate with them- there’s just not enough of them left. The police drive them to Big Park whenever they find them, to hunt them down.”
“Big Park,” Mhumhi repeated, and then shut his jaws tight. Big Park was where his mother had gone.
“I hear they can even speak,” said Bii, apparently not noticing how stiff Mhumhi had gotten. “Or at least, they can mimic speaking, make it sound as though some dog is calling for help, lure you out, and then…”
The fur on Mhumhi’s back rose. “I’m glad there’s not many of them left.”
“Yes,” said Bii. “I know the police want to eliminate them entirely.”
They didn’t say much else the rest of the way back, and Mhumhi felt a great deal of relief when they finally saw Sacha’s little head poking around the door of their home.
“Some on, come in,” she barked. “Kebero’s hungry!”
Mhumhi bounded up to her, chattering and whining, frantically bathing her neck and chin.
“Oh, Sacha, let’s not ever leave the house again,” he said, rubbing his head against hers so that she was shoved along the floor, ignoring her raised lip.
“What’s the matter with you?” Seeing that Mhumhi was in no state to answer, she addressed Bii. “What happened?”
“We met a hulker,” said Bii, who had gone to lie down on a piece of fabric torn off the sofa. His tongue was hanging out and he looked weary. “It went after Mhumhi.”
“Are you all right, Mhumhi?” exclaimed Sacha, standing up on her hind legs to brace on Mhumhi’s shoulder so she could inspect him. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” said Mhumhi, turning to try and keep licking her so that she fell away. Sacha butted him away with her head.
“A hulker, you said. I thought they were all gone from this area.”
Mhumhi glanced at her small eyes and wondered if she was thinking of the domestic, for she had sounded pensive.
“It killed a coyote,” he said. “It was horrible.” Sacha turned to lick his neck again, and he wagged his tail.
“Mhumhi came back to help me,” Bii said. “Brave of him. I thought I’d die behind that dumpster, waiting for the thing to go away.”
“You did?” said Sacha, pricking her ears, and then she hopped and snapped at his chin. “Don’t you dare do something like that again! What if it had gotten you!”
“But what if it was attacking Bii?” he said, and flinched when she snapped at him again.
“What were you going to do, you big dumb puppy? Cry at it? You see a hulker, you run away! Understand? There’s nothing you can do for someone who gets caught.”
“Yes, I understand,” he whined, falling to the floor and rolling over, tail wagging against his belly. Sacha stood over him a moment, letting him lick her face, then snorted.
“Stop fishing for attention and go feed Kebero now.”
Mhumhi gave a heavy sigh and rolled back onto his feet, looking back wistfully at Sacha.
“Oh shut up, Mhumhi, you’re not a puppy anymore.” She gave his a elbow good-natured shove with her head. “Go on now!”
Mhumhi went upstairs with his tail wagging, and when Kebero came up and jammed his nose in the corner of his mouth, even regurgitated for him without complaining.
Kutta, lying on the bed, got up and stretched. “What was all the fuss about downstairs?”
Mhumhi told her about the hulker while Kebero ate, expanding on all the gory details. When he had finished, Sacha furrowed her brow.
“It attacked you?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, a little put out at her dull response. He’d been expecting to be fussed over again.
“Are you sure it killed that coyote?” she asked. “It sounded like it was just carrying it.”
“Well, it was dead, Kutta,” said Mhumhi. “I don’t know what else would have smashed it up like that.”
“Exactly, you don’t know,” said Kutta. “Maybe it was just taking the body away somewhere.”
“Why’re you so eager to defend it?” Mhumhi asked, feeling a bit irritated. “It was certainly aiming to smash my head in!”
They turned, for that had been Kebero, slinking towards them with his tail tucked. “Will the hulker come here?”
“Oh, no, Kebero,” said Kutta, springing at once to lick his ears. “No, no, it won’t come.”
“What if it comes and smashes my head in?”
“Oh, it won’t, Kebero,” she said, shooting Mhumhi a look over his ears, as if it were all his fault.
“You don’t know that,” Mhumhi said, feeling cross. “I bet it could get through the door even if it was pushed closed.”
“Stop, Mhumhi! It’s all right, Keb.”
Kebero was whimpering and huddling against her forelegs, and she was having to bathe his neck and shoulders to soothe him.
“It’s not going to come in, Mhumhi’s lying,” she told him. “Don’t listen to him, he’s just trying to scare us.”
“I am not, you didn’t see it, Kutta-”
“Be quiet, Mhumhi,” she said, glaring at him, and he sulkily snapped his jaws shut.
Kutta managed to quiet Kebero down with much cajoling, and settled him on the bed with the promise that she would bring Bii up to play with him. She rounded on Mhumhi in the bathroom again.
“Why’d you have to scare him like that? He’ll be up all night tonight now-”
“Well, he should know about it anyway, that thing was dangerous!”
Kutta gave him one of her rare growls. “I know you’re exaggerating, Mhumhi. Mother told us all about the hulkers, they’re not really dangerous-“
“Mother was a domestic!” Mhumhi exclaimed. “Of course she’d say that!”
Kutta went stiff. “How dare you speak that way about our mother.”
Mhumhi knew he’d gone two far, and licked his lips nervously. “I’m not saying she was, you know, working for one, but Bii told me-“
“Why would you listen to anything Bii would say about our mother? He didn’t know her!”
“I know that, but he just said that-”
“Do you think our mother would lie to us, Mhumhi?” Sacha’s tail was high and rigid. “Are you on Sacha’s side now?”
“I’m not on her side,” said Mhumhi sulkily, looking away.
“I hope not,” Kutta said. “Honestly, I don’t know why you’ve got to act so immature all the time, coming in here with a story like that- you were just trying to get Sacha to pay attention to you, weren’t you?”
“You weren’t there, you didn’t see it,” said Mhumhi, but now he was slinking around the bathroom like Kebero had been. “It was trying to kill me.”
“Maybe it was,” said Kutta, “but I bet it was only frightened.”
“But it was huge!”
“Well, that big domestic was frightened of us too,” said Kutta, and Mhumhi eyed her, wondering if she really understood the difference between an overlarge domestic and a massive, blood-smelling hulker.
“Anyway, Mhumhi,” Kutta was saying, seeming keen to slide out from under his gaze, “do you still have any meat left in your belly?”
“Yes, but it’s mine.” Mhumhi resumed his slinking, circling around the smelly toilet hole. Kutta gave an exasperated snort.
“I was only asking. Do you want to go with me today or not?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, who had nearly completely forgotten about Kutta’s secret expedition. “I guess so…” Going outside was somewhat less appealing than it had been that morning.
“If you guess you do, then we have to go now,” said Kutta. “It’ll take a little while, and Sacha wants me to go out with her this evening to the dispensary. I don’t want her coming to look for us.”
“Fine,” said Mhumhi, with little enthusiasm.
“So let’s send Bii up to look after Keb,” said Sacha impatiently. “Come on, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi put his ears back, recalling the conversation he’d had with the fox earlier that day. Bii’s big ears had probably picked up their entire conversation. Perhaps, he thought glumly, it would be better if Bii ratted them out to Sacha. Then she’d yowl at them and send them back upstairs and they wouldn’t have to go.
But when they went downstairs Sacha was napping in the kitchen sink and Bii was still sitting on the floor where Mhumhi had left him.
“Kebero wants to play with you,” Kutta told him, and he got up slowly, wincing as he put weight on his back leg, and limped over to the stairs.
“Should we really let him play like that?” Mhumhi whispered to her, but she merely gave him a mordant look and pushed out the door.
“Come on,” she said. “Sacha’s sleeping. It’s perfect.”
Mhumhi sighed and followed her.