Eyes in the dark.
Mhumhi was licking Maha’s coarse hair, trying to clean or at least tame it somewhat, but she kept wriggling and making little impatient noises. She had been lying on her stomach with her legs stretched out and her arms crossed underneath her chin. Now she rolled her head to one side and glared at him.
“Stop squirming,” he said, putting one paw over her back, and stretched his neck to get at her hair again. She pushed herself up and out of her reach.
“Quit tugging on it! I’ll just cut it with something. I don’t care.” Her lips were pulled down very far. Mhumhi sat back on his haunches and licked his lips.
“Don’t talk that way to your older brother, Maha,” said Kutta. She was lying on the comforter near the wall, with Tareq curled up against her belly. “He’s trying to do something nice for you.”
“Well it isn’t nice and it hurts,” said Maha, and she got up and slouched into the bathroom. Mhumhi watched her go, then sighed through his nose. She’d been cross and sulky for the past couple of days- he suspected it was from the prolonged confinement. He’d been loathe to let her outside for fear of more hyena-hulkers appearing.
“Don’t bother,” said Kutta, seeing him about to get up. “Let her have her space-”
“I wasn’t going to go near her,” said Mhumhi, giving the bathroom door a dark look, and went over to sit beside Kutta. “Maybe a night in there would do her good.”
Kutta laughed, in a kind of pale way. Against her belly Tareq stirred, small face furrowed, and put his thumb in his mouth.
“You’ve been having him sleep with you a lot like that,” Mhumhi observed.
Kutta laughed again, this time almost guiltily. “It’s stupid- I know it is- but I’ve almost been hoping that having him there at my belly would make me produce milk. I’ve even tried to get him to suckle once or twice.”
“Kutta!” said Mhumhi, a bit appalled.
“Well, it would certainly help,” said Kutta, raising her lip slightly at his tone. “We do need food…”
“We don’t even have enough meat for you to produce milk from,” Mhumhi pointed out, and she lapsed into silence.
He looked at his sister’s ribs, wanting to laugh himself at the cruelty of their situation. They were getting less food than ever. Kutta had been able to get meat twice more, and they had split what they could between themselves. Biscuit had been able to help some by providing them with boxes of things for the children, but Mhumhi thought he was right- it wasn’t as good for them as the meat was, for it left them sickly-smelling and less robust.
“We’ll have to take him up on his offer,” he told Kutta. She looked up at him, and still said nothing. He understood her reluctance, but the food situation was not the only problem they were facing. The night before, when they had returned to the room, there had been a strange, ugly stench in the hallway, and a sort of thick paste smeared against the walls. It bore the reek of hyena.
“I hate that domestic,” Kutta said. “And I don’t trust him. He wants us to prostrate ourselves in front of these puppies…”
“He can’t make us do anything,” Mhumhi pointed out. “And he wants them to live. I don’t like him either, but he is our ally right now.”
“Yes, right now,” Kutta muttered. “What happens when he finds more of his little domestic friends to help him out? We’ll wake up in that place with teeth at our throats. Like Mother’s puppies.”
Mhumhi recoiled slightly at the memory, and she gave him an apologetic look.
“I’m sorry. But I still don’t think we should be hanging around with someone who wants us and our kind dead so badly.”
“No, but I don’t think we have a choice,” said Mhumhi. Kutta pulled her lips back in a tight smile.
“I thought you just said he couldn’t make us do anything.”
Before Mhumhi could respond, Maha reemerged from the bathroom. She’d put a great quantity of water from the sink on her hair, slicking it down somewhat, and now she stood and scowled at them, dripping.
“What’re you two talking about…?”
Mhumhi flicked his eyes at Kutta, then said, “We’re talking about moving somewhere else.”
This seemed to surprise Maha a little, and they saw her struggle a moment to keep her face set and surly.
“A place a friend showed us in a different part of the city,” said Mhumhi. “It might be safer there, with more food.”
“Oh,” said Maha. “Then- then why don’t we go?”
Mhumhi had to laugh a little. “I guess we will, won’t we, Kutta?”
Kutta looked up at him in a very unamused manner.
The next morning he found Biscuit and told him their decision. The domestic dog seemed delighted, but not very surprised, to hear the news.
“We can move them tonight,” he said, a bit breathlessly, “at the same time- the darkest time- and if we are quick and quiet enough, we shouldn’t have any trouble. The three of us are enough to defend them from little foxes, and there shouldn’t be many police out. Quick and quiet… then it’ll all be over.”
Mhumhi was not completely inclined to share his optimism, but it almost did seem possible that everything would be all right, the way he described it.
It was a harder sell to Maha, who had to be reminded about the part where they would have to walk aboveground.
“But why can’t I just go out of a manhole?” she whined, for the umpteenth time.
“If you want to be eaten by a hyena, feel free,” Mhumhi said, for he was beginning to slightly lose his patience. “And Biscuit tells me that there are a million little dogs down there too now. Feel like being part of a crowd?”
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta, nudging him, and he closed his jaws. He knew Maha would be persuaded eventually- it was really little Tareq that might be the problem, with his tendency to whimper and cry.
“And why can’t I bring the blankets?” Maha asked.
“We can come back and get them later,” Kutta said. “We don’t want to be weighed down tonight, so we can get there as quick as we can. Understand?”
“But how will Tareq be able to sleep at night? Does the new place have blankets?”
“Millions of blankets, loads of blankets,” spouted Mhumhi, until Kutta caught his eye again.
One way or another they managed to get the puppies assembled that night. Maha dithered and deliberated over what to put in her bag, which Mhumhi insisted she pack light, sticking his head in to pull things back out until she got frustrated and tried to wrestle with him. Kutta kept running around trying to think of ways it might go wrong, and kept inadvertently waking up Tareq. Tareq did not seem sure what was going on- they had tried to get Maha to explain it to him, but even she admitted that he was being obtuse- but what he did seemed to get was that everyone was stressed, and cried so he could experience it with them.
They had a bit of difficulty trying to get him out of the room when it was time to go; apparently he had not left it for a very long time. He whimpered and clung to the doorway while Maha pushed him from behind. Finally Mhumhi yanked on his shirt and he tumbled out.
“All right,” said Mhumhi, panting, as Maha quickly shut the door to prevent any retreat. “All right, now let’s practice being quiet while we walk to the exit.”
Practice went better than Mhumhi had anticipated. Kutta took up the lead position, and Mhumhi the rear, keeping the puppies linked hand in hand between them. Once outside the room, Tareq seemed struck dumb with fear, incapable of doing anything aside from clutching Maha’s hand in his and sniffling softly as he walked. Maha herself held him grimly, her face set, and did not utter a word.
They made it through the sewers without incident, and Mhumhi wagged his tail when he saw the pale metallic shine of the ladder underneath the manhole emerge ahead of them. It was just the easiest leg of their journey, but perhaps the rest might go just as smoothly.
From the shadows behind the ladder emerged a large, reddish shape: Biscuit. Mhumhi saw his sister’s hackles rising. He ran to her side.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I told him where to meet us.”
Biscuit came forward, his curled tail wagging, and Kutta stepped into his path, stopping him.
“Let’s go,” she said. “You in front.”
“I must greet the children,” Biscuit said, peering around her at Maha and Tareq. “Then we can go.”
Kutta seemed displeased by this, but with a glance at Mhumhi she stood aside. Mhumhi himself was less than thrilled as he watched Biscuit walk up to the puppies, wagging his tail low now, mouth open in a smile.
“Dog!” said Tareq, eyes wide, and he let go of Maha to toddle over and fist his small hands in Biscuit’s thick fur. Biscuit turned and licked his chin and cheeks, wagging hard. Tareq giggled- the first Mhumhi had really heard him make such a sound.
Maha said, “Hello,” and held out her hand, and Biscuit turned and licked her fingers. Her lips pulled back slightly in a small hulker smile, then a grin, and suddenly she was scratching and patting him all over, ruffling his fur, while he whined and licked her face.
Mhumhi, watching, felt confused. Biscuit had greeted the hulkers as if he was already familiar with them, a long-lost loved one, part of their family. And the puppies had responded in kind. It was as if no tension or introductions had to happen between them at all. He looked at Kutta and saw that she seemed uncomfortable, mirroring his own emotions, flicking her eyes to and away from the scene.
He had not spared much thought to the relationship between hulkers and domestics, much-touted by Biscuit as it was, but now for the first time he wondered if there was not some sort of merit to it. There were no barriers between them at all from the start. Mhumhi, watching the three of them laughing together, felt queer- almost- almost jealous. From where did such unfettered affection come from?
But then, it did not come without a price, he reassured himself, for Biscuit was subjugating himself utterly, acting the puppy, and himself a grown dog-!
“All right!” barked Kutta suddenly, seeming to share Mhumhi’s sentiment. “That’s enough playing. We need to go now, if we want to arrive before the sky starts getting lighter.”
Biscuit separated easily from the children, still smiling, and Mhumhi thought he detected a certain self-satisfaction emanating from him.
“So be it,” he said. “Then I’ll go in front. Children, stay between the wild dogs.”
“Dog!” said Tareq, reaching after him sadly as he trotted back to the ladder. Maha took the boy’s hand, but her eyes were also tracking Biscuit. Mhumhi felt a sudden flash of annoyance and flicked her with his tail as he walked back behind them. She jumped.
“What was that for?”
“Nothing,” said Mhumhi. “Just making sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings.”
She pulled her lips down in a frown at him. Mhumhi found that it did not much make him feel better.
Biscuit made his way up the ladder, rung by rung, then Kutta after him. Tareq followed her easily even though Maha had to let go of his hand- he was eager to get back near Biscuit. Mhumhi watched Maha disappear up through the hole hole before going up himself, wishing for the first time that he was not stationed at the back of their little train.
The upper world was cool and quiet, with that sort of liquid darkness that came after the stars had gone out. Mhumhi heard the faint scream of a vixen disturb the silence, but it was far off, and likely intended for other ears. Still, they all tensed, and Maha gripped Tareq’s hand so hard he whimpered.
“Hush, Tareq!” said Kutta, who had not seen. Mhumhi went forward and nosed the back of Maha’s thigh, making her jump again.
“Calm down,” he said softly. “We’re here to keep you safe.”
Maha did not respond, and he did not see any of the tension evident in her form dissipate. She was scanning all around, her eyes wide and blank.
Biscuit wagged his tail in what was likely meant to be a reassuring way and they all went off, Mhumhi nosing Maha again to get her to start moving. They had debated for some time about how to structure their journey, but had eventually settled on simply taking the fastest route that they could. It was likely they’d be seen by someone, anyway, and the best thing to do would be to have themselves in a safe place before repercussions rolled all the way to the police.
The puppies could not move near as swiftly as Mhumhi would have liked, but they could take hurried strides on their long legs while Kutta, Biscuit, and he stalked around them, focusing their eyes and ears on the darkness all around.
They reached Wide Street, the asphalt under Mhumhi’s paws cool and wrinkled like the skin of some gigantic beast. Despite the evening chill in the air, Kutta was panting, her tongue hanging low as she zigzagged forward. She stopped to cough, flinching when the sound was loud in the silence.
Mhumhi would have liked to comfort her, but he felt he had to stay focused on the puppies. Tareq had been hovering delicately between silent and noisy tears for some time- his rate of sniffing was steadily increasing- and if he started wailing, it was all over. Maha seemed to get this as well, for she kept directing increasingly frantic looks at him as they walked.
Ahead of them, Biscuit suddenly stopped in his tracks.
Kutta went up to him, turning her ears forward and seeming to swallow her tongue in an effort to keep her breathing quiet. Mhumhi pressed close to Maha’s side, and she suddenly reached out and dug her fingers in his fur.
Ahead of them was the line of stoplights that hung near the dispensary, blinking yellow at this time of night. In the pulses of light Mhumhi could glimpse a dim shape- the fallen stoplight. On top of it sat a little fennec fox, staring out at them.
“He sees us,” said Maha, in a kind of gasp-whisper.
“He can’t hurt us,” said Mhumhi, leaning closer to her, but he felt sick all the same: they had been seen, and the fennec was looking right at him and his obvious proximity to a hulker. It was his neighbor, or one-time neighbor, the little fox that had lived in the storm drain.
The fennec did not seem particularly surprised or alarmed at the sight of them. He merely wagged his fluffy tail once and hopped down, his tiny form briefly obscured by the shadow of the fallen light. The yellow lights above them flicked and flashed, and Mhumhi tucked his tail.
In the darkness there were eyes all around them, a hundred or so pairs of tapetum lucidum flashing from the light as they moved closer. Biscuit gave a tremulous growl.
Mhumhi himself was frightened and bewildered. The forms that were emerging around them up out of the darkness were small and sleek: little dogs, foxes, not a sign of the dappled coat of a police dog anywhere. Yet there were so many of them, and they were coming up so quietly and assuredly, with hard stares and heads lowered.
“Baby dogs,” said Tareq, looking around with eyes wide; he alone within the group was not showing signs of fear. Mhumhi looked up at Maha, who has still clutching at his fur.
“What are they doing?” she asked. He could feel her hand shaking, and he wished he had an answer for her.
Kutta backed up closer to them, leaving Biscuit trembling and growling in front of them all.
“What do you all want?” she said, letting her voice carry; the time for silence was very much over.
A dog leapt up onto the stoplight- a large dog, a golden jackal: Sundu. Beside her jumped up a culpeo, a culpeo Mhumhi recognized with a sinking feeling.
“Hello, orphan pack,” said Sundu. Her eyes flashed as the light above her head flickered. “I like not the company you keep these days.”
Biscuit glanced back at them- apparently he’d recognized her too. His tail had tucked entirely underneath him again, and he started backing up closer to them. Mhumhi really wished he wouldn’t.
“If you don’t like it,” said Kutta, raising her tail, “then stand aside and let us take it away with us.”
“I think not,” said Sundu, briefly baring her teeth. “I’d rather have answers- answers about the disappearances, answers about what has eaten our families-”
“You think we have something to do with that?” snapped Kutta. “Don’t be stupid!”
“You’re working with this traitor domestic,” said Sundu, jerking her head at Biscuit. “You’ve been conspiring with him, and now you’re traveling with live hulkers. I’m sure we don’t know what to think…”
“You’ve been spying on us!” cried Mhumhi, feeling it all click in his head. He glared at the culpeo, who twitched his long tail unapologetically.
Sundu seemed to shrug this off with a flick of her ear. “You’re moving these hulkers tonight to Silent street for some plot, we know that much. You had better provide answers now, or we’ll tear you apart.”
Kutta laughed. It was a bold laugh. “Is that a serious threat? You think we’re frightened of a bunch of foxes?”
Mhumhi saw the assemblage around them flick their eyes at one another; some did look nervous. Sundu, however, flashed her teeth again.
“It may take longer to kill you this way, it is true. I don’t mind.”
Maha’s fingers squeezed painfully into Mhumhi’s fur.
“I’m sorry to let you down, but we aren’t the ones behind the attacks,” said Kutta. “You’ve wasted your time. Or do you think that these puppies could really harm you?”
Sundu opened her mouth in a snarl, and there were some fierce yaps from the crowd.
“That domestic dog was seen carrying Lisica’s dead body in his mouth!”
“Then go ahead and kill him,” said Kutta, bluntly. Biscuit whirled around to give her a shocked look as the crowd fell into barking and growling.
“Wait!” cried a voice, and a small figure ran in front of the downed stoplight. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me go and talk to them.”
It was a bat-eared fox, smelling achingly familiar.
“Bii?” gasped Kutta.
“I’m happy to see you two are all right,” said Bii, letting his tail hang in that way of his as he came closer. Kutta sniffed noses with him cautiously, though when Mhumhi tried to go forward and do the same Maha’s grip held him back.
“Kebero-” started Kutta, but Bii wagged his tail.
“He’s safe. He’s fine. I took him with me when I saw the police converging around the house. I thought it’d be best to get out of there and hide, you see. By the time I snuck back in you all had vanished. I didn’t know what to do…”
“Where’s Kebero now?” Mhumhi demanded.
The fox turned his overlarge ears towards him. “Sleeping, most likely, with the other puppies. He’s done well- the best rat-catcher I’ve ever seen- thriving. He asks about you quite frequently, though. And-” Bii hesitated. “Where is Sacha?”
“We don’t have time to catch up,” said Kutta, rather loudly. “What are you doing with this crowd? Can you-”
“Wait, Kutta,” said Mhumhi. “I know why. He’s just continuing his role, isn’t he? As a little spy.”
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta, putting her ears back. Bii bared his teeth in an implike grin.
“I suppose that’s what you could call it, yes. I admit I gave Lisica information on all of you while I stayed with you, but it was all innocuous. You can understand our anxiety at having such large dogs in our midst when the rest of the city seemed so against us…”
“If it was innocuous, why are they here now?” asked Mhumhi. He glanced around the crowd, which had fallen mostly silent, watching them. Atop the stoplight he could see Sundu quivering with impatience. “These friends of yours.”
“Because of the domestic,” said Bii, glancing at Biscuit. “And of course, the hulkers. I didn’t believe it until just now, Mhumhi. You were there when that hulker attacked us…”
“These are tame ones,” said Mhumhi. “They’re only puppies. Come on, Bii, tell them to back off…”
Before Bii could make any kind of response, Sundu snarled again.
“He’s made a deal for you,” she said. “If you stand aside from the hulkers and the domestic, we’ll take you into custody and let you live. If not-”
“Take the domestic,” said Kutta. “But the hulkers are ours. If you wish it, we’ll disappear from this city with them, but you won’t be killing them here tonight.”
“Shame on you!” cried another voice- it was the little fennec, reemerging from the shadows. “I thought you all were all right, I thought you were on our side, but you’ve been feeding these monsters the flesh of other dogs-”
“We don’t eat dogs!”
That had been Maha, her voice shrill with fear, and it made the crowd fall very silent. She shook with fear, looking all around, and licked her lips before she spoke again.
“We’re dogs like you- really- and who would eat their own kind?”
There was another moment of complete silence. The stoplight cast flickering yellow across many backs.
“Kill all of them,” said Sundu.
The crowd all rushed forward at once. Mhumhi saw Bii lay his ears back, his button eyes fearful, before he was suddenly overtaken by a pair of hissing cape foxes, darting forward to nip at Mhumhi’s legs. Two snaps were all it took to send them cringing back, but more were coming up on either side, feinting and lunging. Mhumhi kept his teeth bared and his body pressed against Maha, who was crying and clinging to him- Kutta had leapt around on the other side to defend Tareq, her eyes wide and her teeth bared. Ahead of them Biscuit whined and thrashed and spun around. Mhumhi smelled blood.
Sundu leapt down from the stoplight and ran directly at Mhumhi, mouth open, and Mhumhi barely had time to lay his ears back before Kutta leapt in front of him and engaged her, snarling, both rising to their hind legs in a flurry of snapping and yowling.
Mhumhi wanted to help her, feeling his heart pounding away with confusion and fear, but there were more sharp teeth in his injured leg, and with a yelp he whirled around and snapped at the dark-furred Pampas fox that was leaping away, catching her ear so that it tore through his teeth.
Tareq screamed. Mhumhi turned to see the little boy crouching with his arms over his head while the culpeo tore at the back of his neck.
Mhumhi reared up and caught the culpeo around the shoulders and tore him off, flinging him to the ground as the fox gave a surprised little scream. With an angry chatter Mhumhi lunged down at him again only to break off just as abruptly.
A sound had filled the air, a kind of moaning whoop.
The foxes either did not hear or did not understand the meaning; they continued surging forward, snapping and growling. In front of Mhumhi, Kutta and Sundu broke apart, the latter panting and bleeding profusely from the neck and muzzle- it seemed she’d come off the worse.
“What’s that noise?” she asked. Kutta looked at Mhumhi, eyes wide.
Sundu yelped- Biscuit had come at her from behind, dragging her by the haunches with his huge jaws, and shoved her to the ground. There was blood covering his muzzle, and his pale eyes were sickeningly bright.
“Save the male!” he cried to Mhumhi. “Save the male, get him out of here, I’ll cover your retreat! The female can be sacrificed-”
Maha gave a pained little cry- Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a look and turned their backs on the domestic together, standing on either side of Maha and Tareq. Mhumhi pushed his shoulder against Maha.
“Do you think you can run?”
She bobbed her head, sniffling and sobbing- there were bite marks on her arms and legs. Mhumhi felt a warm fury building up inside of him, quashing his fear.
“Then when I give the word, you take Tareq’s hand and head for the nearest house- we’ll cover you-”
A fox screamed ahead of them. Mhumhi looked up and saw a hyena standing at the edge of the crowd with a limp body in its mouth.
Maha burst into a sprint, dragging Tareq behind her- the surprised foxes fell away, for most of them were staring at the hyena- the hyenas- more were coming out of the darkness, squealing, sniffing, dark eyes gleaming.
Kutta raced forward, catching them up- Mhumhi lunged after her with a snarl, shaking the culpeo’s teeth out of his leg. They ran to the nearest building, a rack of apartments- Maha’s hands fumbled at the door and she choked out a sob when the knob would not turn.
A few foxes had started to chase them, but many were scattering, whining and yelping with terror: the hyenas were moving through the crowd, almost leisurely, catching fox after fox in their teeth. Mhumhi did not dare stop long enough to count how many there were.
“Come on, Maha, down this way,” he shouted, and Maha ran again, stumbling, dragging the howling Tareq as they turned together down an alleyway. Kutta leapt back and snapped at one of the sand foxes that was following them, making it spring away.
That seemed to be enough for the foxes, and they peeled away, tails tucked and panting fearfully. From behind them they could hear the sounds of the hyenas gibbering and laughing- ripping- tearing-
Kutta retched but did not stop moving, helping Mhumhi herd the terrified and sobbing children forward. They rounded the corner of the alley into a street lined with parked cars. Maha broke away from Tareq and ran to the nearest door to rattle the knob- it was locked.
“Come back!” shrieked Kutta, and Mhumhi whirled- a gray blur was streaking towards them around the opposite corner towards Maha.
Mhumhi had a moment of frozen terror before he realized it could not be a hyena, for it was half his size- it was Sundu, snarling, bloody. From the streets behind her Mhumhi could hear heavy paws thudding on asphalt.
“Car, car!” Tareq shouted, and Mhumhi looked back at him for a split second, bewildered. But it seemed to spark something in Maha for she turned around and grabbed at the door handle of the nearest car. The door opened.
“In here!” she shouted, and more shoved than helped Tareq inside. She climbed inside, then Kutta leapt after her, a red blur- Mhumhi was gaining, seeing Maha’s reaching hand-
A hyena thumped loudly on the top of the car as it landed, squealing, and then aimed itself at Mhumhi.
Mhumhi turned end over end with the heavy reeking body- he heard the car door slam and other hyenas gibbering behind him. The hyena had not yet bitten him, merely struggled against him and wafted its hot foul breath into his face and neck. He wrenched himself from underneath it and took off, trusting that somehow the car was secure, that he could lead the hyenas away-
I didn’t want to die for them, he thought, heart pounding and thudding, and he knew anyway that his death here would be pointless, it would not help them, yet he could not stop himself from running- Follow me, follow me, don’t hurt them–
It had worked at least partially- heavy paws were thumping after him. He jumped as something again streaked by his side- Sundu. They exchanged a terrified glance, her with her eyes wide and fearful and blood smeared through her fur, certainly no longer enemies now, not when these monstrous beasts were chasing them.
They turned a corner, thumped over parked cars, scrambled through the gap between a lightpost and a brick wall-
Sundu suddenly gave an awful sound, a strangled choking gasp, and jerked backwards. Mhumhi could not stop himself from skidding to a halt, turning to fight the creature that had caught her- but there was nothing, nothing holding her- she was choking and thrashing against air-
The light from the lamp gleamed against the wire caught around her neck.
Mhumhi whimpered, because there came the hyenas, loping easily in their queer hunched posture, noses sniffing for Sundu’s blood. Sundu had already stopped thrashing, her eyelids drooping. She slid downwards, trembling, held taut by the wire. Her eyes met Mhumhi’s, wet and shining, and he realized that she had already given up.
There were two hyenas, grunting and yowling as they approached, sniffing and jerking back when she gave a straining twitch. One of them looked up and its black eyes met Mhumhi’s.
Mhumhi turned and ran, wishing he could shut his ears, wishing for a hulker’s dull hearing, wishing for anything, really, other than the reality that he was in.
He ran around the next corner and circled the block, heading back towards the car, now that the hyenas were no longer interested in following him.
When he returned he had to jerk to a stop, tongue hanging out as he gasped and panted. The car door was hanging open, the interior was empty, and he could smell blood.
Maha’s distant scream made his sinking head fly up, eyes wide and ears pricked, and he ran in that direction, sprinting, muscles churning like they had never before.
He came down the street and saw her and Tareq being held by two hulkers, dragged by the arms, towards a large black car. In front of them there was a hyena, standing on top of Kutta’s body.
Mhumhi gave a scream and lunged forward, catching the hyena’s sloping flank with such force that they both spun around. The hyena squealed and giggled and ran a short distance away, head low and trembling. Mhumhi brushed his head across Kutta’s, shaking.
Her head bumped painfully against his, for she had been trying to get up, and they both flinched.
“I’m all right- it couldn’t bite me-”
He registered her words with both relief and confusion, and looked over at the hyena, which was cringing ahead of them. There was something solid covering its muzzle, rendering it biteless.
Someone spoke in an unfamiliar language, and Mhumhi realized it was one of the strange hulkers, the one gripping Maha around her chest. It raised an arm and pointed at him.
Maha was fighting her, thrashing and kicking and sobbing. “Let me go! Let me go! Mhumhi! Mhumhi!”
Mhumhi snarled as Kutta got to her feet beside him, and they advanced more slowly on the hulkers, hackles raised.
The one holding Tareq let him go, and raised something- a metal thing. Maha screamed and aimed a kick at her, shouting words in that strange liquid language. The hulker looked at her briefly, then put the metal thing down and picked up something else- a sort of long pole that had been leaning against the wall.
Tareq huddled on the ground for a moment, eyes wide and fearful, but as the strange hulker raised the pole he rose and went in a stumbling dash towards Mhumhi and Kutta. Mhumhi ran forward at once, bracing himself to take the blow that now seemed to be aimed towards the puppy. He saw too late the shining loop hanging from the end of the pole.
Tareq’s fingers touched him just as the loop tightened around his neck and he reared with a squeal, thrashing, accidentally knocking the Tareq over. Kutta cried out as Mhumhi continued to struggle, feeling terror rise up in him- the loop was tight around his neck, squeezing against his windpipe, and he had just seen Sundu die-
He was still connected to the hulker holding the pole, and he dragged it forward, making it stumble. He heard Kutta give a panicked cry, her head darting between everyone assembled- the hyena, the puppies, the strange hulkers, captive Mhumhi- before lunging at the hulker holding the pole.
It aimed a kick at her and she fell back with a yelp. Mhumhi thrashed harder in response, struggling to move closer, but the pole held him away. He changed tack and bounced towards the other hulker, the one holding Maha; his captor shouted and dragged him backwards, upending him, making him fall on his back.
Maha was screaming now, alternating between two languages: “Stop it! Let him go! Let him go!”
The hulker holding her picked her up, even as she struggled, and threw her into the black car. She slammed the door and turned just in time to come face-to-face with Kutta, who had sprinted in a red blur and leapt at her throat.
The hulker got her arm in the way just in time, but it did not stop Kutta bearing her down with her weight. She shrieked.
The hyena, which everyone had mostly forgotten about, gave a whining squeal and bulled its bulk into Kutta, knocking her off the hulker, which whimpered and clutched at its bleeding arm.
The hulker holding Mhumhi at the end of the pole bellowed something and threw open the car door. The hyena leaped through it without hesitation, and Mhumhi, filled with brief terror for Maha, threw himself after it. He yanked the hulker forward as he entered the car, gasping through his constricted airway, claws scratching at the cloth seats. The hyena squealed and cringed away from him as far as it could.
There was a tremendously loud slam from behind him and Mhumhi turned, the pole now hanging unsupported from his neck, and realized he had been trapped.
“Mhumhi!” cried Maha, and he turned to see her curling her fingers through the links of a fencelike barrier that separated the two rows of seats. He and the hyena were on one side; she on the other.
The hyena was cringing and muzzled; no real danger, so he felt safe to turn and do his best to lick her fingers. The pole was braced against the door, preventing him from moving much further.
“Mhumhi, hurry, get closer,” she was gasping. “I can pull it off- I can get it off-”
There were noises from outside, curiously muffled from within the enclosed car- he heard Kutta whistling and shrieking, the hulkers bellowing. He pressed his neck as close as he could against the fence so Maha could hook her fingers through the loop, then with a great tug pulled himself backwards and free of it.
The hyena uttered a little whine as he stumbled free, falling halfway down into the carpeted space below the seats, but made no move to stop huddling against the door.
Mhumhi leapt back up, sparing a brief sniff for the metal barrier separating himself and Maha- there looked to be no getting to her through it.
“The door, Mhumhi, open the door,” Maha urged, crawling along alongside him as he moved. “The handle- you gotta lift it up.”
He gave a wag of acknowledgement, glancing back towards the hyena to make sure it still hadn’t moved. Then he bit at the thing that looked like a handle to him, sinking his teeth into the queer rubbery substance that coated it, and tugged backwards. It did not budge.
“No, Mhumhi, the plastic thing underneath that!”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, letting go. He saw what she meant- there was a handle in a little plastic square above the thing he’d been tugging on. He put his teeth to it, mashing his nose, but his teeth caught and the plastic handle started pulling forward.
It slipped out of his teeth, visibly marked, and snapped back into place without opening anything.
“Pull it harder!”
“What about your door?” he asked, pawing his sore nose.
“It’s locked and it won’t open,” said Maha, clutching her fingers around the fence links, and he supposed that was a good enough excuse. With a growl he went back to the handle, pulling back and drooling from the effort. This time his teeth held, and there was a loud click.
“It’s open!” cried Maha. Mhumhi reared to put his body weight on it, swinging it partially open. Through the window he saw a hulker whirl around, white eyes wide. It slammed itself back against the door, shutting it and sending him backwards into the hyena.
He twisted and the hyena squealed, squirming past him to press itself against the door. Mhumhi, seeing his opportunity, ran to the other side, where there were no hulkers. Maha crawled after him.
Before he could tamper with this door, though, the door on Maha’s side of the fence opened and Tareq came tumbling inside, wailing loudly. Mhumhi spun around as the door slammed, and then the car creaked and wobbled- the other hulkers were getting inside in the very front.
Mhumhi felt a burst of fear, looking at Maha and Tareq unprotected in front of him. He reared and scratched at the fence, growling; he even bit it, but it was unyielding. The hulkers squeezed Maha and Tareq between them as they came in, the smaller of the two dragging Tareq onto her lap. The doors slammed shut again.
Maha was struggling between the two of them, but the one holding Tareq put a hand on her shoulder and said something in the hulker language, a long stream of incomprehensible syllables. Maha fell still.
“What did she say to you?” cried Mhumhi, slamming his paws against the chain-link. The strange hulkers both turned around to look at him, eyes wide.
“I don’t know- I don’t know-” Maha said, in half a sob. “She has such a strong accent- she says we’ll all be hurt if we don’t hold still!”
Mhumhi growled and slammed against the barrier again; the hulkers exchanged a look. One of them did something to the car that suddenly made it growl like an animal, the insides rumbling. Maha gave a little scream and covered her ears. Mhumhi fell back in surprise against the hyena again, which merely squirmed a little and glanced at him.
He pushed himself up, only to flinch- from outside there came a scratching and scrabbling at his window. Kutta, whining, was leaping and scratching at the glass from outside. He ran forward and put his paws against it, unable to suppress a whimper of his own. Then he stuck his head down to tug at the plastic handle again, growling from the effort, but through he pulled it back fully, the door would not open. The hulkers had done something to make it lock like the others.
Kutta whined and yelped, her voice muffled, and he gave a whine-bark of his own. The car gave a jerk and he slammed forward into the barrier and fell down into the carpeted space again.
Kutta kept leaping at the window, whistling and whining, but by the time Mhumhi had got up again it was moving faster, the buildings outside crawling away with increasing speed. Kutta had to run to keep up, giving out guttural contact calls for him, even as he scratched at his window and whined for her.
Maha was squirming again, saying something in the liquid hulker language, but the hulkers did not respond, and the car moved faster and faster, and Kutta got further and further away behind them, and soon Mhumhi could not see her at all.