Laúm kept as low to the ground as he could before huddling in a dirt crevasse carved out by the forgotten waters. He waited for the crest of the red wave to pass before he scrambled to the other side, where he quickly scampered up the far embankment before looking back. Even the wind had quieted, and Laúm lay low, his quick breaths hot against the fine dust. Left and right, he scanned the river bed for skeletal remains of electrocuted Sahu, but he saw nothing. Perhaps the wild dogs had carried off their bones. It would not be the first time that Sophus was wrong.
Not more than 100 feet ahead a black ribbon pointed in the direction of the old city, its form broken by long moonlit shadows where Sahu might hide. On his knees, with the glasses’ heat sensors on high, Laúm slowly approached the Forbidden City. The path was long and straight, cracked with jagged chunks of black material that looked to have been ripped apart by a giant claw. There were whispers of an old road to the Forbidden City, of the Sahu who lurked there, and of the horrible things they would do to any Quondan found in their territory. Laúm had never seen Sahu, but he knew their history. Their lust for blood was legendary. Some of his friends had bragged of seeing Sahu when they ventured into the Forbidden City, but they were the boastful ones. It had been Sophus who had been the loudest and perhaps least believable. He spoke of secret meetings in the abandoned city where he and other children would gather to see Sahu. And, always, he would dare Laúm to join him. Laúm had wanted to believe the stories, but he had his doubts. Yet, here he was, in the Forbidden Zone, just outside the Forbidden City, all on Sophus’s word. Truth was, it was Alluria that interested him more than his classmate Sophus. But that was a secret he dared not share.
The obsidian colored ribbon was still warm to the touch. It was pebbly, just a little sticky, and its blackness stained his fingers. The feel was new, but the smell was familiar—even though he couldn’t place it. Sweet, thick perfume that puckered his nostrils.
Laúm skirted along the sides of the road, darting between large boulders, dead trees, and small mounds of earth lining the route. He approached each shadow carefully, then moved quickly, limiting his exposure in the moonlight. He didn’t feel as if he were closing in on the dangerous Forbidden City. It seemed more like a game. He didn’t really believe that they’d see Sahu.
“Time,” he whispered to his glasses, and he could see an hour had already elapsed. He had promised his parents that he would return before the start of the new day.
Laúm’s confident attitude changed when he saw the darkened outline of the Forbidden City. He crested a small ridge and hid behind the rusting hulk of an old vehicle. A single seat remained in the middle of what looked like the operator’s cabin. Next to the seat were two gnarled levers that Laúm guessed the driver would have used to steer the vehicle. He had seen pictures of these in school, and his parents had said he had travelled inside something similar when he was young, but seeing the vehicle stirred no memories inside him. When he focused on the contraption, Laúm was able to distract himself from how frightened he had suddenly become.
Ahead were open fields leading down to the buildings. The openness comforted him. The terrain provided no safe harbor for Sahu to hide in, but the idea of traveling in the open frightened him more, and he ran to the first structure at the end of the road. He caught his breath while he leaned up against the cool of a stone archway. Perhaps it was a gateway into the city.
Laúm had left this city when he had been a very young child. His memories were only of vague incidents that could have taken place anywhere. The elders rarely spoke of the city, shaking their heads at its mention, warning Laúm and his friends of its dangers, saddened at its loss.
To Laúm’s right, beyond the arch, a wide and squat stone building surrounded by a low stone wall sat alone in the square. A tall and broken spire grew from the structure’s roof, the top half hanging like a snapped tree branch. The small wooden gate at the wall’s entrance had long since fallen off. Only its rusted hinge remained. Laúm stepped over the ancient bush that had once taken over the walkway, crunching its dry, brown remains. At the end of the short path he could see the remains of what used to be a wooden door cut into the arched stone entryway. The disintegrating wooden assemblage groaned in protest when he walked through it, inside to where it was dark and illuminated only by the moonlight filtering through the cracks in the crumbling walls. Above Laúm, a cavernous stone ceiling soared into the darkness of the room. The smell inside was damp, like that of old books, dust, and standing water. Cracked and stained stone columns held the ceiling in place. Laúm’s movements echoed in the ancient hall. The rustling of a bird hiding in an opening between the column and the domed planchement startled him, but his glasses gave him no warning of any danger. In front of him, long straight rows of crumbled pews led to where a stage or raised platform had once stood. It suddenly dawned on him. Had this been a place of worship to iLu?
His parents, elders, and the instructors at his school had talked of this religion that now guided Sahu and some Quondans, too. But while it was not unheard of for Quondans to worship iLu, no temples or buildings of worship had been erected in his compound. Mentions of iLu beyond the academic brought suspicious looks.
Near the stage, a wooden bench remained upright, and Laúm sat down in a cloud of gray dust. Why were his parents so unwilling to talk of what must have once been a great hall? Was this fabled iLu the cause of their troubles today? Was iLu, in some way, responsible for the collapse of their planet’s climate? Surely the scientists and educators of Quonda did not believe in such myth, such obvious wrong thinking. So why fear this old religion? What secrets might it have held to frighten men of science? Laúm had so many questions, but he doubted that he would find answers here. It was time to go.