Stain on the couch.
They limped and staggered together through the streets. Kutta’s breathing was a harsh rasp beside him. He could hardly hear it over the sound of his own hammering heart.
The sun was beginning to go down, coloring the pale white plaster of the houses around them a sickly yellow-orange. Mhumhi could still hear and smell the little dogs returning around them from the dispensary, their low noises of greeting and warning to one another, their reaffirmation of their old, illegal scent-marks.
For some reason he could not see any of them. He felt strange and blind. All the could really see were dark shapes- teeth- Sacha’s legs kicking-
Beside him Kutta coughed and fell down on her side.
He stopped, trembling, and limped back over to her. The wire was still clasped around his back leg, and it had been a long time since he’d been able to feel the lower half of it.
Kutta breathed in a frothy way, lying there on the ground with her eyes closed and her tongue hanging out, and there came that terrible feeling in him again, seeing her weakness- he jerked and snarled, opening his mouth over her wounded shoulder.
But it wasn’t just that, there was anger, there was rage in him-
“Why did you make me leave her?” he shouted. “You made us leave! We could have- she could have been still alive!”
Kutta whined and did not respond. There were bubbles around her tongue and lips as she panted. Another terrible snarl came out of Mhumhi, and he convulsed and snapped his jaws over her.
“It’s your fault! You killed her! You didn’t go with her at first- you left her afterwards! Now she’s-” He was seized by another sudden convulsion, but this one took him away from his sister, pointing back towards the way they had come. “We must go back! We’ve got to go back and get her!”
His mind seized on this sickening point of hope. Yes, yes, they could go back, there was still time, she was still lying there, waiting for them, and the terrible creatures would vanish like ghosts or bad dreams-
“She’s dead, Mhumhi,” said Kutta, without opening her eyes.
Mhumhi whirled around and roared at her. “STOP SAYING THAT!”
Kutta did open her eyes now, and she pushed herself up slightly to look at him. “You know… you heard… you heard what they were doing to her…”
Mhumhi growled and shook his head, his heart hammering and thudding, because he did not want to think about it, not about the hideous sounds of tearing and crunching and wet sucking they had heard behind them, with their sharp canine ears, as they had run away.
“She’s gone,” said Kutta. “She gave us our last chance… she distracted them for us…”
“STOP!” screamed Mhumhi, and he fell on her and bit her muzzle shut, snarling.
Kutta whimpered, and he felt her blood and saliva in his mouth, and he was so full of rage that she would dare even whimper that he thought he might kill her then and there-
He opened his mouth and backed away, stumbling on his injured leg, panting and drooling on himself.
Kutta, panting, was still looking at him, and he wanted to cringe away from her yellow gaze. He could see the marks his teeth had inflicted on her muzzle, more wounds to add to all the ones she had already acquired. His tail was tucked tight underneath his rump, and he was shaking, and now he did look away, shutting his eyes tight.
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta, “help me… I don’t know if I- I don’t know if I can walk- we’ve got to get home- we have to meet Kebero and Bii- and we’ve left a blood trail, Mhumhi, what if they follow us, help me, help me-“
Mhumhi whined and shut his eyes tighter for a moment, then he went around to her other side, crouching to push at her shoulder. His sister got up, shuddering, the sticky fur on her shoulder warm and wet against his. She leaned against him heavily, panting hard, and then together they limped forward.
They were able to pass through several more dusty streets this way, panting into each other. Mhumhi felt the eyes of smaller dogs on them, smelled their fear at the awful sight of the pair of them, but again he could not really see them. He was seeing Sacha’s body, the distorted shape of her head and the jaws opening over her, Kutta’s yellow eyes staring at him…
They reached their house. Mhumhi could barely remember how they had gotten there. Kutta slid against him, gasping, and he pushed back, muttering at her, “We’re almost there… almost there, Kutta, then you can rest… we’ve got to go through the door.”
They limped to the door, and Mhumhi pawed it open. The interior of the house was dark and still, but there was something harsh and unfamiliar about the scent. Mhumhi felt sick.
“Kebero!” he barked.
Beside him, Kutta slid from his shoulder and onto the floor. She was coughing again. He spared a fearful look for her, then left her and limped up the stairs, his paws slipping and scraping for purchase on the wood.
The bedroom was dark and empty. He put his nose down and sniffed- he could catch their scents, they had been there not long ago, but they were not there now.
He went to look in the bathroom. It was empty, the toilet hole a yawning pit- not even a fly or a cockroach, since Bii had come.
He dragged himself back down the stairs. Kutta was still lying near the open door, and suddenly the sight of it frightened him, He limped over to catch the handle in his teeth to pull it shut.
The harsh smell was strong downstairs, and he followed it, unwillingly, to the couch, where there was a giant fresh piss-stain on a ruined cushion. The scent told him what he needed to know: it had been made by a member of the police. Their home was marked.
He looked at Kutta, but she seemed to have fallen into an uneasy doze, her breath rasping, and he did not want to disturb her. Rather, he was almost frightened to go near her. He limped into the kitchen, where in the dim light he could see all the open cabinets gaping blackly at him, mocking him. He had to investigate every one, knowing that he would find them completely empty, that each confirmation would drive the stabbing pain deeper into his chest…
The kitchen smelled like Sacha. Of course it did, it had been her favorite place in the house. There were things she could climb on, with her short legs; she could stand on top of the counter and be taller than all of them. He reared up painfully, his one good leg trembling, to sniff it. The sink was bathed in her scent. She liked to lie there. She had liked to lie there.
He felt a whine rising in his throat, and quelled it. He wanted to call for her, to cry. But he did not want to wake up Kutta. He got back down on three legs and limped beside her, intending to lie down, but almost as soon as he did he got back up, shaking, because he knew if he closed his eyes he would see Sacha’s legs kicking, the jaws opening. He began to pace and limp around the empty house.
His head was drooping low, and a shaft of moonlight was coming through the window and dazzling his eyes, when he heard Kutta speak.
He looked at her. She had rolled up from her side and her head was up. Her breath still rasped when she panted.
“Where’s Kebero and Bii?”
Mhumhi looked at her, then away; he did not know what to say to her.
“They’re not here?” she said. “They’re gone?”
“They’re not here,” said Mhumhi. He looked at the couch. “The police were here.”
Kutta looked towards the couch too, sniffing the air. For a moment she shifted and tried to get up, her feet slipping and sliding on the smooth wood floor, but she fell back down and started coughing. Mhumhi stared at her.
“I’m all right,” she said, when she had got her breath back. “I’m just very tired… The police either arrested them, or they ran away. We can track them when I’ve got some strength back. You should sleep, Mhumhi…”
Mhumhi gave a little whine.
“What if the police come back here to arrest us? What if-” He stopped himself, but he knew she mirrored his thoughts, for her ears had gone back. What if those creatures came and tried to get in?
“We can’t go anywhere- at least I can’t,” she said. “I’m worried about your foot, Mhumhi, it looks bad. I wonder if Maha could get the rest of the wire off of it.”
“We didn’t feed them tonight,” Mhumhi pointed out. Another worry to add to the pile.
“They’ll be fine. Maha catches rats sometimes, and I know they’ve eaten insects… they can eat about anything. They’ve got that new blanket, too, so they’ll be warm down there.”
Mhumhi thought back to the day before, when they had dragged the blanket out of the wolves’ den. It seemed like so long ago. How frightening the wolves had seemed back then! How fierce their teeth! And yet, they had barely marked either of them. He looked at his sister, at her bleeding shoulder.
“Those things… those dogs… what was wrong with them?”
Kutta gave a little tremor from her spot on the floor, and he felt immediately bad for bringing it up.
“They weren’t dogs, Mhumhi,” she said. “That’s all I know, that they weren’t dogs. They didn’t talk- they couldn’t talk, I don’t think- you saw the way they acted, mindless- it was like they weren’t intelligent, like rats, like animals.”
“Monsters,” muttered Mhumhi, limping through the moonlight.
“The hulkers look more different from us than they did, but the hulkers are really dogs, Mhumhi, they can talk and think and smile- those things, those things were not dogs.”
“Hulkers,” said Mhumhi, slowly. “Kutta, you saw it, didn’t you? One of those things- the first one- it had a, a hand. A hulker hand. Why? If it wasn’t a dog, and it wasn’t a hulker, why did it have a hand?”
“It couldn’t have,” said Kutta, though she looked and sounded unsure, her ears back and her eyes wide. “It couldn’t have been a hand, Mhumhi, it must have just had mange or something, some deformity, because otherwise that doesn’t make sense. We didn’t see it correctly.”
“Sacha saw it,” said Mhumhi, and he saw Kutta tense, over on the floor, and then flinch as she disturbed her wounds.
“Either way,” she said, “either way, we know- we know what must be killing and eating other dogs. It’s not the police, nor the hulkers. It’s those monsters.”
Mhumhi agreed with her, though he thought there were things that didn’t make sense. “What was that wire?” he asked, staring down at the mess that was his leg. Pink skin was showing around the area the wire had constricted. “I don’t understand how I got so caught in it!”
He felt a sudden burst of guilt, for if he had not been caught, they would never have lingered in the area, so long, smelling like blood. They would have been safe down in the sewers, all three of them, safe and sound with the hulker puppies…
“I’ve heard of things like that,” said Kutta. “Wires or metal jaws you can get trapped in… I’ve never heard that there were any in this part of Oldtown, though, I thought it was more of a mid-city hazard.”
“But where did it even come from?”
“Oh, it must have been something that rusted, or fell down and got tangled,” said Kutta, laying her head down on her paws. “I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t there before,” said Mhumhi, pacing through the moonlight again. “I’ve walked by that pole a hundred times… marked it, even. The wire was never there before.”
“I don’t know, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi glanced at Kutta, at her muzzle with dried blood in the fur, and felt a second surge of guilt.
“We mustn’t stay here too long,” he said. “The house… I bet it’s being watched now. The police will come back. We’ve got to find a safe place somewhere else.”
“Yes,” said Kutta, softly. “Down in the sewers… If we could get down there, hide with the puppies, we might be better off. But swimming through the muck with these wounds- Mhumhi, it’ll kill us.”
Mhumhi thought of the sickening scent and the sewage, and shuddered. She was right. And he could not think of anywhere else- and even if they could find a safe place to lie low and lick themselves, they would leave a trail behind them, clear as day, with the smell of their blood and exhaustion.
He looked at the heavy-smelling stain on the couch again, wondering if it would be really so bad if they were caught by the police again. But Sacha’s words returned to him, with another pang: they were always looking for ways to have fewer mouths to feed.
“Kutta,” he said, feeling a strange idea come to him, unbidden, as he thought of the crowd that day at the dispensary. “Kutta, I know where you can go. If we find that pack of dholes again- the leader, what was his name, Rakshasa- I know he’ll take you in. They can protect you.”
“No,” said Kutta, at once.
“Come on, Kutta- you’ll be safe, they’re your own kind.”
“My kind!” Kutta cried, and she actually bared her teeth at him. “They’re not my kind! Since when was I a dhole? I’m not a dhole, I don’t know how to be a dhole- I’m a- I’m whatever our pack is, Mhumhi, I’m you, and I’m not a dhole! And don’t you dare try to abandon me!”
In her distress, she was struggling to get to her feet again, slipping and sliding, until finally she did it, and staggered over to him with her teeth still showing.
“Kutta, be careful, your wounds-” he started to say, but she cut him off.
“What would you do if I left?” she said, coming up close to him, getting in his space so that he cringed. “Where would you go? To join the police? They’d kill you! How could you even think that I could leave you!”
Mhumhi whined, and fell trembling to the floor, wagging his tail over his belly. Kutta stood over him for a moment, shaking a little, then collapsed on top of him.
“Sleep,” she said. “We’re going to sleep- you’re going to shut up, and not come up with any more ideas. Then we’ll decide what to do.”
She had fallen with her foreleg and head over his back, heavy and warm. Mhumhi twisted a little to lick her injured shoulder. She flinched.
“No… go to sleep.”
He ignored her, focused on licking the area clean. She did not protest, only coughed again, her body rattling with it.
He must have fallen asleep for a time after tending to her, for the next time he woke up it was pitch black. The moon had gone down, and all was still and silent. Kutta’s body was still over him, though he could no longer hear the rasp of her breath. She was a limp deadweight.
Mhumhi’s leg was aching terribly, and he found he could not go back to sleep. He shifted painfully.
“Kutta, wake up,” he whispered.
Kutta did not stir. In the darkness Mhumhi squirmed for a moment and managed to drag himself from underneath her.
He nosed her. She was still warm, but her sides did not move. He whined and pawed at her, fear rising in his breast.
“It’s so dark,” she murmured. “What’s the matter?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, and stepped back, panting.
“What is it?” He heard her shifting around in the darkness, claws scratching the floor. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” said Mhumhi, which was a fantastic lie. He’d been afraid that she’d somehow died on top of him during the night.
“I feel a little better,” said Kutta, and he felt her warm form get closer before her nose brushed his cheek. “I think the bleeding in my shoulder has stopped, too. We should run away now.”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, feeling lost. “Where, though?”
“At first I thought about trying to go to Lisica,” murmured Kutta. “We could tell her what’s really been killing other dogs.”
“We don’t even know that those things were doing all the killing,” Mhumhi pointed out. “We don’t even have proof they existed. And I don’t like that golden jackal.”
“That’s a moot point,” said Kutta, but he heard the faint amusement in her tone. “But I don’t think we should go to them anyway. I don’t trust them not to just turn us in if they hear the police are looking for us. I don’t think they felt very strong allegiance towards us… we’re not like them.”
“So there’s nowhere we can go,” said Mhumhi. He found himself thinking of the pack of dholes again. If he convinced Kutta that he’d go with her, maybe…
“No,” said Kutta. “There is one way we could go. Back down to the sewers, without swimming. There’s a way there through the subway.”
“Through the subway?” Mhumhi took a moment to revel in the fact that his guess had been correct. “Was that the other way you and Mother used to take? Wasn’t there something wrong with it?”
“Yes,” said Kutta, sounding uncomfortable, “but I think that if we’re quick and quiet we should be able to get through all right.”
“Quick and quiet?” Mhumhi glanced down at his injured leg. “Why must we be quick and quiet? What sort of thing will stop us from being loud and merry down there, exactly?”
“There’s nothing really down there, not exactly,” said Kutta. “Not that Mother or I ever saw… but there was a cave-in, and it- er- opened up a new way.”
“A new way to where?”
“I don’t really know,” Kutta admitted. “But Mother was very frightened of it when she smelled the air. She said that way wasn’t safe anymore and wouldn’t use it. But if we’ve got no other choice, I think if we run straight through it we ought to be alright.”
“Well,” said Mhumhi, who has getting an extremely bad feeling about all of it, “that’s very encouraging. But there’s another problem with that, Kutta.”
Mhumhi gave a short, desperate laugh. “To get to the subway we’ve got to go back past that part of the city- back was where those things were.”