Playing with the puppies.
Mhumhi navigated the sewers for the second time with some difficulty, only half-remembering the route Kutta had led him on before. She had left a few marks behind, but not many, likely worried about someone less sympathetic finding them and following them. Mhumhi had to wonder himself whether or not any hungry foxes ever wandered to that part of the sewer. If Sacha was right, they’d be down there even more soon, hungrier.
After some backtracking and false starts, he managed to make his way to the massive cavern where the sewage pooled far below. He couldn’t help but take a whiff, wondering, perversely, if the commingled waste from his own house fell in there as well. It had been a long time since the police had started to enforce the rule that toilets must be used, to keep the waste off the streets. Oldtown citizens tended to be a bit lax about it, but he’d heard that it was rigidly enforced in other districts.
That made him wonder where, exactly, this massive cavern was located aboveground. He had no way of knowing. He might not even be in Oldtown anymore.
It was a curious thought, but Mhumhi shrugged it off, steeling himself instead for the unpleasant task he had to perform.
He made his way down the little side-tunnel and finally to the door. It was a few inches ajar, and light was spilling into the corridor.
Give them the food, then leave, he promised himself, and nudged it open with his nose.
At once something came skimming down with a whap and clipped the end of his nose. He yelped and jumped back.
Mhumhi growled, and seeing that someone was shutting the door, threw his whole weight on it and shoved it open. There was a shrill hulker scream, and something whapped him hard on the head.
“Stop that!” he shouted, whirling around, and snapped at the thing. It turned out to be a wooden plank, which splintered under his teeth as he yanked it out of Maha’s hand. She gave a startled cry of pain and fell back.
That was Tareq, sitting up in his little nest as Mhumhi growled and vented his frustration on the board by tearing it into splinters.
“Oh!” said Maha, who had caught herself with one paw against the wall. “Oh, it’s Mhumhi.”
Her voice was a little uncertain, as if she was unsure if in fact this was an improvement. Mhumhi spat out bits of wood.
“Of course it’s me! Who else would come down this stinking place to feed stinking hulkers!”
“Well, Kutta always scratches to let us know it’s her,” Maha said defensively, drifting back over to Tareq.
That was actually a decent point, so Mhumhi decided to drop it. His nose was still smarting.
“Come over here and get the food from me, so I can leave.”
They both stared at him with their weird hulker eyes. Mhumhi scratched the concrete floor impatiently with one paw.
“If you two are puppies, come and act like it!”
Maha gave Tareq, who looked as though he might start whimpering again, a quick pat and then stood up. Mhumhi put his ears back and growled.
Maha bit her lip and crouched down again and came towards him in that horrible half-crawl again. When she got close enough she reached out her paw…
“What are you doing with your paw?” Mhumhi demanded.
“It’s not a paw, it’s a hand,” said Maha. “And these are my fingers.” She wriggled her weird little talons at him, as if Mhumhi hadn’t been uncomfortable enough.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“I’m coming to take the meat,” she said, tilting her head at him.
Mhumhi stared at her. “Are you planning to bat it out of me?”
Tareq gave his bubbly little hulker laugh. Maha reached for him again, and he jerked away, raising a lip. She scooted closer along the floor and reached for him again. He growled, shaking from the urge to move away from the horrible talons, and forced himself to hold still.
She took her fingers and stroked him along the chin. It was a bizarre sensation, very different from something like Kebero licking him- more pressure, less dampness- and he did not think he liked it, but it had the desired effect. He turned his head away and up came Kutta’s meat.
Maha snatched the goopy handful of it at once and backed away, as Mhumhi licked his lips and gulped. He was becoming a regurgitation machine lately.
He saw Maha moving to hand it all to Tareq, who was reaching his little paws- hands- out eagerly, and snapped, “No! You both eat.”
“I ate this morning,” said Maha.
“Don’t lie to me,” said Mhumhi, stepping forward threateningly, tail raised. “Your older sister gave up that meat for you, now eat it.”
Maha stiffened her shoulders, but she took the meat and divided it into two not-quite-equal halves. Mhumhi noticed that she took the smaller portion for herself. He stepped closer to the two of them.
Tareq cringed away with a whimper, but Mhumhi was slightly distracted, sniffing at the nest of blankets. They smelled like old urine, though a kind of pale, watery hulker urine that he did not approve of.
“Where do you drink from?” he asked, hoping that the answer wasn’t in the sewage.
“There’s a tap right there,” said Maha, raising her arm with one talon extended. He stared at it uncomprehendingly.
“That way,” Maha repeated, and looked to his left. He followed her gaze and saw that there was a tiny little side room attached to the one they were in, with a sink and a little toilet. He supposed at least the waste didn’t have far to travel.
“Why doesn’t the little one use the toilet?”
“He does,” said Maha, “he’s just sick now.”
Mhumhi gave Tareq another sniff-over as the little boy cringed. He wished that he’d stop whimpering like that, because it was making Mhumhi salivate again.
He did smell a kind of rubbery sickness on the puppy, evident in the urine and in the snot dripping from his nose.
“He’ll make himself worse if he sits in it like that.”
“We don’t have any other blankets,” said Maha. “He’s too cold.”
Mhumhi licked his lips. It was indeed very cold in the sewers; he would not fancy spending a night down here even if he wasn’t sick and hairless.
“What about those wrappings you have on you?”
Maha seemed surprised, and looked down at herself. She plucked at the front of her wrapping.
“You mean clothes?”
Mhumhi gave her a blank look.
“I could get more, but I’m afraid,” said Maha. “Mother brought us these from outside a long time ago, but the way she used isn’t any good anymore.”
“Isn’t any good?” asked Mhumhi, distracted by the notion of his mother carrying wrappings to the little hulkers.
“Something uses it now,” Maha told him.
“What uses it?”
“Something,” Maha informed him, pulling the corners of her lips down.
Mhumhi thought of what Bii had been telling him about the things that lurked in the darkness of the sewers, and decided not to press the issue.
“Are there any other ways to the outside around here?”
Maha looked up, and Mhumhi followed her gaze. In the concrete ceiling was carved a circular tunnel going straight up, with iron rungs every foot or so.
“So there isn’t,” he said.
“I can climb up there!” said Maha. “You couldn’t, but I could. I used to, but then more dogs came here, and I was too scared.”
Mhumhi craned his neck up, trying to fathom how anyone would be able to make it up there. “Where does it let out?”
“On a big street,” Maha told him. “Lots of tall buildings. Lots of stores. You could get clothes and candles and everything.”
“What’s a candle?”
“It’s made of waxy stuff,” said Maha, wiggling her hands around, “and you can light it with a match, and it gets warm and makes light.”
“Like a lightbulb?” Mhumhi asked, puzzled.
“No, not a lightbulb, ‘cause there’s no glass. And it hurts if you touch the fire.”
Mhumhi put his ears back- he knew what fire was, as he’d once seen a house- electrical wires laid bare by excessive chewing- go up in flames and take out half an Oldtown block before it wore itself out. It had indeed been warm, if demonic.
“It’s just a little fire,” Maha said. “This big.” She moved her hands about again.
Beside her, Tareq, looking furtively at Mhumhi, tugged at her wrappings and gabbled something.
“What’s he doing?”
“He wants more meat,” said Maha. “I could’ve given him the rest of mine.”
Mhumhi gave her a warning look, and she subsided.
“Why doesn’t he talk more?”
“Cause he’s little, and he also doesn’t understand much Dog.”
“Much… dog?” Mhumhi repeated. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, there’s what we speak, and that’s Dog,” said Maha, scratching her forehead with her blunt nails. “And then there’s what the hulkers speak, and that’s- I don’t know the word for it. Hulker language.”
Mhumhi thought it over, wrinkling his brow. It had not occurred to him that the language he spoke might not be shared by all. “If there’s a hulker language, why don’t you speak it?”
“Cause I’m not a hulker, I’m a dog,” she explained, as if he were stupid. “My first and third mamas were dogs.”
Mhumhi gazed at her, and she sighed. “Our mother was my third mama. My first one, I was in a family of domestics and they took care of me and some others. I think- I think my…” She paused for a moment, then used a word Mhumhi did not know- “my human mother got killed, so they took care of me and some other puppies, but then the police got them and they killed all of them but not me. I got into a little pipe like that one where they couldn’t get me.” She grinned, baring her square teeth. “They tried and one fell in and died. So they left me alone.”
Mhumhi looked nervously up the long tunnel in the ceiling again. It would be a terrifying fall down onto the concrete below.
“Then I went and found Tareq and his mama,” said Maha, putting her hand on little Tareq’s head. He was coughing and crying a little again, his face somehow streaming wetness. It made him smell even sicker, and Mhumhi leaned away from him again.
“That was my only hulker mama,” Maha said. “I didn’t like her. She tried to make me learn hulker language and everything and wouldn’t give me meat. But she didn’t last long. She never came back one day. Same as your mother.”
Mhumhi stiffened a little. “And how long were you with… my mother?”
“I don’t know,” said Maha. “A while. It seemed like forever. I thought we’d be able to stay with her. Or at least me. Tareq cried all the time.”
Tareq sniffled loudly at this, seeming to recognize his name.
“And now she’s gone too,” said Maha, and she looked upwards for a moment, perhaps at the long tunnel, perhaps at nothing. “And now all we have is you wild dogs. I bet you’ll eat us.”
Mhumhi decided the option was still on the table. “What do you mean, wild dogs?”
“I mean not domestic, right? Mean dogs that kill people. Domestic dogs don’t do that.”
Mhumhi felt a little slighted. “We don’t just go around killing people!”
Maha gave him a flat stare. “They killed and ate up all the hulkers I knew.”
“Well, hulkers aren’t dogs.”
“Yeah they are!” Maha aimed a kick at him with one of her hind legs, which he sidestepped easily. “You wild dogs eat your own kind! You wanted to eat me, didn’t you! I know you did!”
Mhumhi raised a lip, suddenly very angry in spite of himself, because he did, in fact, still have that desperate urge to put his teeth through whimpering Tareq’s throat and to taste his hot blood. He thought bitterly that it would mean a great deal meat for all of them, especially Kutta, and a great deal less whimpering.
“I’m not going to eat you,” he said, “so shut up about it. Be glad I even came down here to feed you.”
“I bet it’s just because Kutta said!”
“I said shut up!” Mhumhi growled, and stepped close to her, letting her see his teeth, making her cringe down and whimper.
Tareq said, “Bad dog!” and Mhumhi shot him a look that made him clamp his mouth shut.
“You’re meaner than Kutta said you were,” muttered Maha.
“I’m not mean!”
“We’re puppies, and you’re mean to us!”
“You don’t even act like real puppies!” Mhumhi said, a tad desperately.
“You don’t even act like a real dog!”
“Oh!” said Mhumhi, and gave a little thrash of frustration. “If I was a real dog, I guess I would have eaten you already!”
Maha opened her mouth, then shut it again.
“That’s better,” said Mhumhi. “Puppies who don’t talk. I like that.”
Maha merely looked at him, lips trembling.
“Now I have one more thing to ask,” he told her. “Listen carefully. Tomorrow, if I scratch on top of that hole, will you move the top?”
“Why?” she asked, her voice oddly quavery.
“If I know where it is aboveground, I won’t have to drag things through the sewer,” said Mhumhi, thinking that it should be fairly obvious. “You need blankets, and those candle things, don’t you? If I find the top, I can drop them down.” He paced a little in the small room, pondering. “You should climb up there and put something strong-smelling at the top. That will help me find it.”
Maha was staring at him. “You’re going to get us candles and blankets?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, annoyed. “Unless you don’t think they’ll help him get better.”
“No, they will,” said Maha, wide-eyed. “If you get the really smelly candles, it makes it smell better down here.”
“I still have to figure out what a candle is,” said Mhumhi. “Is there anything else?”
Maha said, slowly, “Kutta said fruit…”
“It’s too hard to get,” said Mhumhi. “Nothing to trade for it.”
“Oh,” said Maha, downcast. “Then no. Nothing else.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, shooting another dubious look at the hole. “Remember to make it smell really strongly. If you could mark it, that would be the best, but…”
“I can,” said Maha. “I think I know what to do.”
“Then do that,” Mhumhi said. He was feeling weary from all the excitement of the day, and from growling and being mean. “I’m going to leave now.”
“All right,” said Maha, her eyes still big, and reached her hand out- his head gave an arrested jerk- and scratched him under the chin. “Goodbye, Mhumhi.”
The sensation was still bizarre to him, and he stayed still for a moment, not sure if he liked it or not. It felt strangely intimate.
“Goodbye,” he said, and turned around. “Close the door.”
He heard Maha getting up behind him, on her two legs, and gave a little shudder. He was glad when he was out in the concrete hall and away again. It was all so strange… too strange.
The hulkers left in him an unease that he had never felt before, the kind of unease that came when something that looked so hideously un-dog talked and acted like it had feelings like a dog, thoughts like a dog… He shuddered again, still feeling the hulker’s touch on his chin.
If they were dogs, why did his every instinct tell him to bear them down, bite them silent? He had never felt the urge to kill before he had stepped into that room. It was as if there were parts of himself he did not even know. Or… two parts of himself, separated, coming back together again for the first time.
He did not like it. He found himself wishing passionately that the hulkers did not exist, for it was their fault… they had brought out this strange bloodlust in him.
His thoughts were dark as he trotted back into the large drainage chamber, but then he had to pause. An odd scent had come to him. It was nothing like the queer pale scent of the hulkers- rather, it was heady and strong, certainly strong enough to come to him over the odor of all the sewage. He took a deeper whiff. It was certainly a living thing, perhaps a dog- he sniffed harder- perhaps not a dog, for he had never smelled anything like it.
Again his thoughts turned uneasily to what Bii had said about there being other things in the sewers, and he glanced back behind him, at the stairs leading up to the narrow concrete tunnel. He almost wanted to go back, just to check… But no, that was pointless, the scent was not even coming from that direction.
Mhumhi licked his lips. If he could utilize the round tunnel in the ceiling, he wouldn’t even have to come down this way again, which had been his intent. Now he felt slightly more urgent about it. That scent provoked a strange feeling of foreboding in him.
As if to confirm it, there suddenly came a strange cry. Mhumhi went stock-still.
It was muffled from the sound of rushing water all around him, but when it came again he was certain he had not imagined it: a low, lonely cry, like a moan, echoing all around the chamber. It seemed to be a question, or an inquiry: a sort of where-are-you?
Mhumhi almost found himself wanting to answer, to whine and invite the stranger over for a greeting, but no, that would be quite a bad idea. He went to the wire railing and put his paws over it, pricking his ears, but the cry did not come again, and he saw nothing but murky sewage underneath the spotlights cast far below.
The unknown scent was fading away, too, as deeply as he inhaled. He found himself strangely disappointed. Whatever it was, it seemed more familiar and more friendly than a hulker.