Kutta took him in the opposite direction of the dispensary, which he was glad about, for it also took him away from where the hulker had been. Instead she trotted towards the subway, or so Mhumhi thought, until she made a sharp right turn onto a dusty, empty street.
Mhumhi put his nose down and smelled vey little. No one, it seemed, had been by since the rain, or at least no one who’d bothered to leave a mark. Kutta’s pawprints ahead of him were the only ones he could see.
The buildings here were older, and falling apart into dry, crumbling plaster; many didn’t even have roofs. A slight wind was blowing some of the dust around into a gently spinning cyclone in one street corner. Mhumhi paused to observe it for a moment until Kutta turned back to nudge him on.
“Look,” she said, trotting ahead. There was a small arched bridge, and below it flowed a small canal, cut away into the concrete and plaster skin of Oldtown. It smelled foul, and the water that flowed sluggishly through it was brown and sinister-looking.
Kutta paused to put her paws up over a metal guardrail, tail wagging, and then ducked underneath and vanished from view. Mhumhi bounded after her and saw that she had taken a narrow brick stair that led down to a grate underneath the bridge.
“Come on, Mhumhi,” she called up to him, waving her brush-tail. Mhumhi followed reluctantly- the smell was no better up close. She nosed him encouragingly when he reached her at the bottom.
“We’ll have to swim a bit,” she said, and then leapt into the water with a splash.
Mhumhi flinched when the fetid water hit him and let out a miserable whine, but she was already paddling away. There was a gap in the huge grate under the bridge- a spot where the bars had rusted away to ugly reddish stumps above the water. Kutta swam through it.
“Kutta,” Mhumhi whined, but she was already gone into the darkness beyond the grate. He dithered for a moment on the stairs before wrinkling his lips and leaping into the water.
It was cold and unpleasant-feeling, and Mhumhi regretted it at once. The smell was going to cling to him for days. He was also not much of a swimmer- no opportunities to practice, really- so it was with some difficulty that he made his way to the dark opening in the grate.
He passed underneath and felt the air immediately get cooler. It was dim inside, the only light coming from the cross-hatch on the water cast by the sunlight through the grate. It dazzled his eyes a little as he swam through it, flickering from dark to light again and again.
Kutta gave a little bark-howl of encouragement somewhere ahead of him, and he saw that there was a platform with more stairs that she’d climbed to. He swam to it, claws scratching on the brick, and dragged himself out of the mucky water in a relieved bound.
“That’s it, that’s the only hard part,” Kutta said, standing away as he shook himself vigorously. “Now it’s just a short walk.”
Mhumhi shook himself again for good measure. “What are we going to see down here anyway?”
“You’ll see,” said Kutta. Her tail was still wagging, damp and draggled as it was. She seemed to be getting into a better mood the closer they got to her secret.
The platform lead further on into the dark tunnel, and there were more stairs going down, and it got even darker. As his vision left him Mhumhi kept close to Kutta, listening to her footsteps click on the concrete. The sound of slowly trickling water was with them always, as was the awful stench.
Kutta stopped suddenly and he bumped into her damp, furry rear.
“Wait a moment,” she said, and he heard her scratching around in the darkness a moment, and then suddenly there was a burst of light.
Mhumhi had to blink for a while to get his eyes adjusted, and what he saw when they were was not reassuring. They were in a wide tunnel with a very low ceiling above the platform. Below the platform there still oozed a viscous, nasty-looking stream. It looked shallow enough to stand in but Mhumhi felt distinctly better up on the platform.
“What did you do?” he asked, still blinking.
“There’s a switch,” said Kutta, indicating with her nose on the wall. Wires ran from the switch along the ceiling to little lights in wire boxes strung every few feet along the tunnel. There were a great number of pipes and other wires running in bundles along the walls that Mhumhi could not make head or tail of.
“Just a little further,” said Kutta, and trotted forward. Mhumhi glanced down at the shallow sludge and spotted a flicker of movement. It was only a very large cockroach, but he still felt unnerved.
The cockroach made him think of Bii, and he wondered if this was the place Bii went to hunt when he was in better health. The thought was slightly encouraging, as it couldn’t be too bad if the little fox was all right down here.
He followed Kutta along the tunnel, which seemed to stretch on forever, light to light with short patches of darkness in between, until finally she led him down yet another set of stairs and through a n-shaped entryway.
Mhumhi was not quite prepared for what he say beyond. Suddenly his senses told him that he was in a very large space, a very large space that stretched far bigger than it should have this deep underground. He went to the edge of the platform to look out and felt weak. The ground dropped away from them in a huge concrete cavern. Broad pillars held up the ceiling while dangling bulbs cast round disks of light on the water far below. The sound of rushing water was loud all around here, and he could see it draining from high pipes set around the room.
Kutta took him down the platform, which ringed the room, until they finally came to another set of stairs, these ones blessedly going up. Kutta hesitated.
“Stay a little ways back, now,” she told Mhumhi. “Try to be quiet, and stop when I do.”
“What is it, Kutta?” he asked, loud over the sound of the water, but she merely whisked her tail in his face and went up the stairs.
Here it was much quieter, as the concrete closed in on all sides again. There was no water here, and the tunnel was narrow and square. Suddenly they came to a door.
Kutta shot Mhumhi a look, warning him to stop, and then scratched on the door.
Behind the door, something moved. Mhumhi tensed.
Kutta rose up on her hind legs, tail wagging, and pushed the door slowly in. Beyond there was darkness, but through the overpowering sewer-stench something strangely familiar prickled at Mhumhi’s nose.
Kutta trotted into the room, and Mhumhi followed, reluctantly. He could definitely hear soft movement nearby. It sounded like something shifting around lying prone. Then it coughed. Mhumhi jumped.
“That’s strange,” Kutta said softly. “Just one…”
Just one what, Mhumhi wanted to scream, but his senses were on live-wire alert now. He crept forward after Kutta, sniffing. That scent… meat… dog…
Behind them, something screamed.
Mhumhi whirled around and felt Kutta do the same in the darkness nearby. There was a figure standing in the light of the doorway. Standing on two legs.
Mhumhi at once felt an overpowering desire to flee, his legs trembling, but in the unfamiliar darkness there was nowhere to go. The figure was small, but it was definitely a hulker, standing there lurching on its thick legs, grimacing at them, its mad eyes bulging. This one was not so well-wrapped as the other, and he saw that it had wildly thick fur upon its head.
“Kutta, I think we can fight it off,” said Mhumhi, attempting to sound braver than he felt. “It isn’t as big as the other one.”
“Don’t even move, Mhumhi,” Kutta said warningly. “Stay right where you are.”
Mhumhi growled. The hulker seemed to flinch at this swaying slightly, and he felt a sudden touch of boldness. It was frightened of him. He opened his jaws in a snarl.
But the hulker had turned to run, and something seemed to snap on in Mhumhi’s brain. He chased.
The hulker gave that awful, undoglike scream again, but it was slow and stumbling. Mhumhi could hear the thudding pulse in its neck, and he knew at once that it was there he had to go. He was salivating, drool dripping from his tongue as he ran, teeth aching for that pulse.
The hulker squealed and tripped, falling flat on the concrete. Mhumhi chattered his delight and bunched his muscles to spring-
-only to be unceremoniously bowled over.
“Kutta!” he cried, for she was on top of him, baring her teeth.
“I told you to stay put! Now look, you’ve ruined all my good work!”
Mhumhi, bewildered, tried to get back up, but she shoved him down with her chest and stood over him until he wagged his tail over his belly and licked her chin, trying to appease her.
The hulker was still nearby, getting up slowly, and Mhumhi twisted underneath Kutta to growl at it. At once she bumped him with her chest, looming over him until he whined and put his ears back.
“They’re not to be hurt, Mhumhi,” she said.
“Yes,” said Kutta, briefly putting her ears back in a sheepish way. “That hulker, and her brother.”
“That…” Mhumhi repeated, unable to comprehend. “That… hulker?”
“Yes,” said Kutta. “I suppose it would have been better if I told you ahead of time after all. They’re hulker puppies, Mhumhi. Mother was taking care of them, and now I am.”