Alluria assured him they were heading in the direction of home and Laúm kept a sharp watch for anything lurking in the shadows. Sophus began to sing and they both put their hands up in protest. They had not seen any Sahu, but neither wanted to push their luck.
A strange feeling washed over him, and Laúm stopped in front of a tall building that seemed mostly intact. He had been here before. He was certain of it. This makes no sense, he thought.
Laúm broke free of the group and cautiously circled the structure. It was different than the others near it. The sides were supported by tall columns, and what was left of the roof hung over the edge as if it might have been a hat. Twisted metal rods erupted from the sides of the building, and there were gaping holes in the sides, but Laúm saw past the decay.
The entrance to the house was high above the street and accessed by a series of formed stone steps. Three steps led up to a flat landing, and three more headed into the crumbling structure. All the other homes were without stairs, their openings at street level. Laúm climbed the six steps and peered inside the darkened structure before turning back to the others.
“I think this might have been my house,” he said, “I can’t shake the sense I’ve been here before.”
Alluria bounded up the stairs and pushed Laúm through the door and into the darkness.
“Let’s go see inside your house!” she giggled.
The roof was still intact and no light entered except faint moonlight through the empty window frames. Laúm pulled out the fire device from his backpack and set it on the floor. Its warm yellow light flickered against the walls of what appeared to be a large room, exposing another set of stairs and three openings to other rooms. Had this really once been his home? It seemed large compared to the one-room apartment that he and his parents shared in the compound. He peeked his head into one of the rooms. Even compared to the surrounding houses, it was large and suggested an affluence that surprised Laúm.
“Go on in,” said Alluria. They could hear Sophus singing outside. She shook her head and smiled.
Laúm moved into what looked like it might have been the kitchen when his glasses beeped twice. Heat signature! He put his hand up for Alluria to stop.
“I think there’s something here.” Laúm looked around the room. Rats? To his far left a broken metal rod lay on the floor. He picked it up and approached the far corner where movement had caught his eye. In the dim light he could see an alcove just large enough for something to hide. His hand trembled as he tapped the metal rod on the side wall.
“Come out,” he demanded.
In a flash a small form darted from the alcove straight at Alluria who screamed.
Laúm ran towards the front door yelling. “Sophus! Watch out!”
Sophus struggled with what looked like a wild animal, kicking and clawing him, until he was able to hold the struggling creature at arm’s length.
A child. A small girl baring her teeth.
“What the?” He held her as far from him as possible. “Get it off me!”
Alluria ran down the stairs straight to the melee and grabbed the child away from Sophus. As soon as their eyes met, the child went limp, her head hanging as if someone had flipped a switch. Alluria laid the child onto the dusty road as Laúm approached. She looked to be about six years old, her dirty face streaked with tears, her clothing no more than tattered rags tied around her waist.
“Sahu?” asked Laúm.
Alluria said nothing, brushing the child’s matted black hair from her eyes and gently trying to wake her. The small form began to tremble, and her eyes opened, fixating on Alluria’s.
“It’s all right,” Alluria cooed. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
The child’s dirty hands grasped Alluria’s arms, and Laúm could see her blackened nails digging deep as Alluria winced.
Sophus staggered over. “Let her go,” he commanded, “her parents can’t be far away and it’s late. We’ve got to head back.”
“I am not leaving her,” said Alluria.
Laúm quickly scanned the area but saw no signs of life. Sophus was right. They should go. But what of the child?
Alluria gently pulled the child up from the gray dust of the roadway, the girl still clinging to both her arms.
“Do you want to go with us?” she asked. Alluria pried her one arm free and began walking towards the compound without waiting for an answer. “Well,” she said without turning around. “Are you two coming?”