The safe place.
They saw no more roofs.
Now it was just them and the dunes, the cart dragged by the two dogs, the hyena loping behind, blots casting shadows on the vast nothingness of the desert.
The stranger still followed them, far in the distance. It was still moving at an easy pace, following their pawprints and the tracks of the cart.
It had got a little closer, but still all they could tell was that it was a large dog. The hot wind had dried their noses and coated them with chafing sand- and that was all Mhumhi could smell, sand.
He paused at the crest of a dune, Kutta hesitating in tandem beside him. The cart pulled back against their shoulders down on the slope, and at the bottom, Vimbo grunted.
“What are you thinking of?” Kutta asked him. Her tail was being blown sideways by the wind, tickling his hindquarters. His own tail fluttered like a little white flag.
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi. From the angle they had stopped at, the cart blocked their view of the stranger. “Do we still know where we’re going?”
No one said anything. The roofs, their reference point for the road, had run out, but they had kept going, unnerved by that relentless pursuer. The sun was high in the sky now, and Mhumhi could see nothing but sand. Even the black smoke rising from the distant city had disappeared.
“Maybe we should just stop and meet them,” Mhumhi said. “All of us- and Vimbo- we’re not in any real danger, right?”
Kutta pulled her tail out of the wind, curling it between her hind legs.
“I won’t put the children in danger, though.”
Mhumhi had to concede this point, and they went on again, dragging the cart, heavy and chafing on his aching shoulders and chest.
“He got closer during that little break,” said Mini, from within the cart. “I think he’s gaining now.”
This was not reassuring, but there was nothing they could do but keep moving. Laden as they were, there was no real chance of outrunning a single dog. Mhumhi listened to the thudding of Vimbo’s large paws on the sand behind them and hoped the hyena would be enough of a reason for the stranger to keep its distance.
They pulled forward, over and down and between the dunes, dragging their paws against the loose, sliding sand. The cart kept stuttering and grinding on its wheels, which were getting choked with sand. Sometimes they would have to simply drag it without them turning.
Vimbo gave a whoop, and Mini responded with a shrill yap.
Kutta lunged forward, as if trying to put on an extra burst of speed, but Mhumhi hung back, digging his hind legs in.
“Wait! We won’t get anywhere if we exhaust ourselves. This is pointless. Let’s just see what they actually want.”
Kutta, panting, looked at him, but did not argue with him.
“Tareq-” Mini started, but Kutta said, “No, have him stay in the cart for now. If that stranger makes a run at him… Tell Vimbo to stay close.”
Mini gave a grumbling whine and spoke to Vimbo.
Mhumhi tugged at his traces, and Kutta followed his lead, turning the cart together to face the stranger. He was very close now, padding through the sand a mere hundred feet away, curled tail wagging a little with each step. It was doubtlessly a domestic, a large one, and his eyes-
“It’s Biscuit!” exclaimed Kutta.
Mhumhi relaxed a little at this, recognizing the bulky domestic, but Kutta was stiffening up beside him.
“Don’t you let him near the children, Vimbo,” she said.
The hyena glanced back at her at the sound of his name, then resumed his stance in front of the cart: legs splayed, short tail raised, and mouth open in an alien grin.
Biscuit stopped about twenty feet away from them, raising his head up. Mhumhi thought he looked exhausted- his eyes and coat were dulled, and thick drool hung from the corners of his jowls. His breaths came quick through his nose, his sides expanding sharply.
“May I approach?” he asked. His voice was thin.
Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a look, her wary, him uncertain. From the cart Mini started yapping furiously, stiff-wagging her tail.
“No! Go away from here, you!”
That was Tareq, sitting up with round eyes. He reached out a hand over top of Mini, stretching his fingers towards Biscuit. “Come, dog!”
Biscuit took a step forward, and Vimbo gave a growling whoop, jerking his head. Tareq let out an impatient whine.
“Come, dog! Good dog!”
“No!” Maha pushed herself up too, on Tareq’s other side. “I don’t like that dog. Make him go away!”
“I like the dog!” exclaimed Tareq.
“I don’t like the dog, and I say Vimbo tears his-” began Mini, but shut her jaws when Kutta shot her an angry yellow look.
“Don’t frighten them.”
“What’s left to do that,” said Mini, but quieter.
Biscuit gave a hoarse little whine.
“Please,” he said. “Please…”
Mhumhi turned his ears forward and back.
“Biscuit,” he said, “how did you escape the cages? When we last saw you…”
“If you tell the hyena to stand down,” said Biscuit, his drool quivering with each word, “I will tell you.”
“The hyena doesn’t stand down,” said Mini. “You’re not in a position to make requests, you know.”
Biscuit turned his blue eyes towards her.
“You would let a dumb creature like this near the children?”
“He’s not dumb!” Mini bristled, showing her tiny white teeth. “He’s smarter than you, ice-eyes- nicer, too-”
Biscuit looked at Vimbo, who was still being menacing, whooping and posturing.
“He speaks Dog?”
“He does not! It doesn’t matter, we can communicate- and why do you care? You’re not in a position-”
“I escaped the wild dogs,” said Biscuit, and he looked at Mhumhi and Kutta now. “I escaped- I was aided by the small fox. I told him I was a companion of yours once, and that I would protect him from the ones chasing him there.”
“A fox- you mean, Bii?” Mhumhi felt rattled. It was the first time he had thought of the bat-eared fox since their own escape. He had been trapped inside the kennels still…
“I do not know his name,” said Biscuit. “I was not able to protect him.”
Kutta stared at Biscuit’s face for a long moment, then slowly raised her lip.
“Not able… I see.”
“Please,” said Biscuit, again. “I must see the children… Let me see that they are safe.”
“You can see them from where you are,” said Mini. “Don’t try to be coy, dog. I know how it goes. You want them away from us, don’t you?”
“That is not true,” said Biscuit. “You- you are better able to protect them than I, right now.” He took in a shuddering breath. “And you are taking them to-”
Mini growled, wrinkling back her lips.
“I know,” said Biscuit. “I do know… Even though it is forbidden, little toy, you are taking them there… Even though it is not yet the time…”
“‘Forbidden,’ ‘time,’” said Mini, “that all means scat to me. I’m not drinking the piss of domestics like you anymore. I want to see it myself.”
Mhumhi saw the muscles in Biscuit’s ragged shoulders suddenly flex, his face wrinkling as if with disgust.
“You have turned your back,” he said. “You have become selfish- you are-”
“Are you going to say that I’m a bad dog?” Mini snorted.
Biscuit’s eyes were shining coldly in his dark face, but he said nothing more to her. He looked at Mhumhi and Kutta.
“You two have done well,” he said, “protecting these children. They are more important than ever now.”
“Listen,” said Mhumhi, trying to turn more within his constricting harness, “thanks for the nice words, but we’re not putting them into some kind of breeding pool for you.”
“Don’t think you’re getting them from us,” Kutta added, with a growl.
“I told you,” said Biscuit, lowering his head. “I do not mean to take them. I think, though it is premature, it might be time- might be time for humans to visit that place again.”
“What place? The safe place?”
Here Biscuit seemed briefly puzzled, and then he looked at Mini, and gave a low whuff of a laugh.
“What do you see?” demanded Kutta, and she looked back at Mini as well. The little domestic had gone very pop-eyed.
“You two,” said Biscuit, ignoring the question. “You two wild dogs… If circumstances were different, I would try to save you. You have performed deeds beyond your kin. It is to be lauded.”
“Lauded… what do you mean, try to-”
Vimbo suddenly yowled and charged forward, stopping nearly eye-to-eye with Biscuit. To his credit, the domestic did not flinch. He bared his teeth and said something in hulker.
“No!” Mini twisted free of Tareq’s lap and sprang down from the cart. “No-” She cried something out in hulker, running towards the pair of them.
Biscuit was still speaking, and to Mhumhi’s surprise Vimbo’s tail had gone down, his rump lowering, his eyes wide- he was staring at Biscuit-
“No, Vimbo!” cried Mini, and she sprang at them, thrusting her tiny self between the to of them, growling up at Biscuit.
Biscuit ignored her completely, still locking eyes with the hyena, and Mhumhi saw Vimbo’s own gaze waver, and then, somehow, he stepped back.
“Vimbo!” cried Mini.
Biscuit turned and grabbed her by the back and shook her furiously from side to side.
Vimbo squealed, jerking forward. Mini was queerly silent, her head and limbs flopping.
“Stop!” cried Kutta, lunging forward in her traces, and Mhumhi gave a wordless cry, putting his ears back. The cart rattled and bumped with their uneven motion.
Biscuit dropped Mini, and she fell onto the sand and did not move. Mhumhi’s breathing was coming in rapidly. He could smell blood.
“The little traitor,” growled Biscuit. His drool was flecked with red, and he swayed slightly as he stepped towards them. Vimbo gazed at him, then looked down at Mini’s still body.
“Vimbo!” cried Kutta, and she gave a mindless thrash in her harness, shaking the cart again. “Vimbo, kill him!”
Vimbo whined, and looked at Biscuit again, and then he turned- turned and ran. His paws beat against the sand, and he ran, and he was running, and he was gone.
Mhumhi couldn’t say anything, and Kutta was gasping for air beside him.
“It is what comes,” said Biscuit, prowling closer, “of trusting an inhuman beast… he was never your ally… he will die in this desert.”
“What did you say?” cried Kutta. “What did you say to him? He wouldn’t- he was one of us!”
“One of you?” Biscuit’s face formed that disgusted look again. “You even assume- you assume he had no other motive. Like the toy. You are naiive.”
They all looked back. Tareq was in the cart, staring and reaching towards Mini.
“You killed her,” said Maha. “You killed her! You- you’re a bad dog!”
“Bad dog!” screamed Tareq.
For a moment Biscuit hesitated, looking almost shaken. Kutta dove at Mhumhi’s side.
“I’ll bite you free,” she said.
Mhumhi’s throat unstuck.
Her teeth gnawed at the harness, clicking against the carabiners. Biscuit was walking slowly towards the cart.
“Don’t come over here!” Maha shouted, and Mhumhi saw that she had put her arms around Tareq. “Stay away from us!”
“I will not hurt you,” he said. “I will not hurt humans. I promise. Don’t be afraid…”
Maha gave a kind of snarl, tugging at Tareq, rocking the cart. Suddenly it all went sideways, to Mhumhi’s surprised yelp- he and Kutta were turned over with it, and the cans and boxes and water container thudded down on the sand. The children fell out too. Tareq began crawling at once towards Mhumhi and Kutta, gasping and sobbing.
Mhumhi kicked, squirming- he’d fallen on top of Kutta, and they were both tangled in their traces. Her hot breath panted in his ear.
“Tareq, help us,” she called, but the little boy had stopped next to them, and was pressing his fists to his eyes and sobbing.
Biscuit walked over to Maha, who had fallen on her back on the sand, and looked down at her.
“You are injured,” he said.
Maha made a noise- kind of a defiant wordless noise- but Mhumhi could see her shaking. He struggled off of Kutta, his four feet touching the sand, and she set her teeth to his harness again.
“You are badly injured,” said Biscuit. He lowered his head to sniff at Maha’s arm, and she raised her arm to hit him, striking the side of his muzzle with a weak bat. He seemed unmoved.
Fibers were parting on Mhumhi’s harness under Kutta’s assault. Biscuit was looking over at Tareq.
“The male is still strong.”
“Kill you,” Mhumhi found himself growling, struggling, even as Kutta gnawed and tugged at his straps, “kill you, I’ll kill you, don’t talk about our puppies like that-”
Biscuit ignored him. His blue eyes had taken on that flat look that Mhumhi could recognize from their time spent together before; it meant that the domestic was about to go on a rant about the loyalty and unworthiness of dogs, the height of man, or something similarly idiotic.
But this time he did not. He looked back down at Maha.
“You will not survive.”
Biscuit leaned down and closed his jaws on her throat.
“No! NO! STOP!”
That was Mhumhi, or Kutta, one of them- they were struggling and tangled in their traces- Tareq was letting out a wordless howl that went on and on-
Biscuit let go of Maha’s throat with red teeth. She took a stuttering, clicking breath, and her dark throat moved, and-
Mhumhi was barely conscious for a moment, it seemed, his ears ringing, and he came back again to Kutta screaming and Tareq’s voice:
“BAD DOG! BAD DOG! BAD DOG!”
Mhumhi got his feet on the ground again, feeling the last few fibers of his harness tear, and backed out of it. Biscuit looked up at him.
“I wanted to save you,” he said. “But I cannot let you go alive, because you know of the forbidden place.”
“You lied,” said Mhumhi. He felt strangely calm. There were dark, cold shadows everywhere on the sand. “You said you wouldn’t hurt her.”
“I put her out of her misery,” said Biscuit. “We have many more females.”
“Biscuit,” said Mhumhi, “I’m going to put you out of your misery now.”
“Kill him!” Kutta was thrashing in her traces, eyes wild, foam coming from her mouth. “Kill him! Kill him!”
“You were good wild dogs,” said Biscuit, swaying again, drunkenly. Mhumhi did not posture, or growl at him. He simply flung himself at his neck.
It was all a blur, all a mad blur- Biscuit reared, and suddenly his heavier weight was atop Mhumhi, pushing him back on his hind legs- he staggered, biting, silent, got his teeth in Biscuit’s cheek, but the domestic pushed him backwards and he fell on his back.
Biscuit’s fangs were flying towards his throat, and Mhumhi thrust up with his paws, ripped at the old wound on Biscuit’s nose, and the domestic fell back with a loud whine. Mhumhi still felt very calm, very cool, and he rolled to his feet, listening- under the screams and the wind he could hear it, he could hear Biscuit’s heard beat, sense his pulse, and he was going to stop it, stop it-
He fell forward, jaws open, but again Biscuit was quicker, caught him by the loose skin on his shoulder, and shook his body from side to side. Mhumhi felt himself tearing.
He jumped back, separated from some of his skin, and set his teeth again into Biscuit’s face, on the other side, one canine going wetly into a blue eye. Biscuit screamed. His dense paws batted Mhumhi away, his face a mask of blood.
“Die,” he gurgled, “die, die, you wild dog, you freak, you are not wanted-”
He lunged again, his heavy body fever-hot, and Mhumhi found himself down on the ground, on his side, his neck exposed- Biscuit’s teeth flashed-
Then he howled, for Kutta’s teeth were in his hindquarters, her yellow eyes mad, something crunching. Mhumhi twisted up and grabbed his muzzle, clamping his jaws shut, feeling his snorting, desperate breath go down his throat.
Kutta tugged her grip viciously back, and Biscuit groaned into Mhumhi’s mouth, his one remaining blue eye rolling from side to side. Mhumhi dug his teeth in harder, and Kutta let go, tucked down and between his hind legs, and bit into his soft belly.
They both let him go after that, Kutta backing out from underneath him. Biscuit fell on his side. Raw red wetness was spilling out of him, pale blobby fat, veins and viscera, coils of intestines.
Biscuit raised his shaking head and looked down at it all.
“Oh,” he said.
Mhumhi looked at Kutta panting beside him, her face darkened with blood, her eyes full of hate.
“Die, you monster,” she spat. “Hurt and die.”
Biscuit blinked his lonely eye.
“I’ll die… I’m dying…” He licked his lips. “Lamya- Lamya-”
“You left her behind,” Mhumhi told him. “You left her in the cages. For the wild dogs to eat.”
Biscuit looked over at him.
“Yes… Lamya… Lamya… Bring her here… Bring her…”
He laid his head down, panting. Mhumhi saw the fat veins on his exposed organs palpitating.
“Let her hold me,” said Biscuit, and closed his eye.
They watched him for another long moment, listening to his heart beat, until it did not.
“He’s dead,” said Kutta.
Mhumhi looked at his bloodied sister.
She whined, her legs quivering, and lay down. “Mhumhi…”
Mhumhi felt that surge again- don’t say it, don’t say anything, shut your mouth-
He looked away. The cart was on its side, the scattered boxes and cans already half-covered by blowing sand. On one side lay a black little heap, a little dead dog. On the other, very still, was Maha.
Mhumhi stepped back.
Her chest did not move.
Her eyes were still open.
Her heart did not beat.
What if I’m not dead yet, she had said. Don’t eat me.
He needed to run away.
“Mhumhi,” whispered Kutta.
He stiffened his legs. Then he went to her, or her body, or whatever it could be, because it wasn’t Maha, it wasn’t. He went to her and stood by her and looked at her. There was nothing. Meat.
Everything, he thought, everything is meat.
“Maha,” he said, almost experimentally. Of course she did not move. Because she was only meat.
He became dimly aware of another sound, the feeling of sand moving beside him. Tareq reached out a hand to touch Maha’s shoulder, and then looked up at Mhumhi.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi.
“Mhumhi,” said Kutta, again, but she couldn’t seem to bring herself to move.
Tareq looked back down at Maha’s swollen, silent face.
“I don’t like it,” he said, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I sleep with her.”
He lay down in the sand next to her body and closed his eyes.
“Don’t do that,” said Mhumhi.
“She’ll wake up,” said Tareq, without opening his eyes. “I dream ‘bout it.”
The wind ruffled Tareq’s hair, and blew sand over Maha’s face. Mhumhi could not stop his soft whines.
“Please… please… please…”