We enter through a small, open archway in the side of the structure. The name of the building, or what’s left of it, is carved into the stone above the entrance. Now only two letters remain. They aren’t Deilic; they’re not Staykar either. I wrack the seven languages I have downloaded so far, to see if they have any connection to the symbols. Coming back blank, I take mental snapshots. When I return to the UC and have wifi access, I can cross reference them.
I hate being so information starved.
The small lobby barely fits Tori, myself, and the half-moon counter manned by a single greeter. I take a moment to glance around. The walls are smoother inside than the outside. The original sage green paint has worn away with age, patches of reddish brown showing between the faded coat. The earthy tones work well together.
Tori and I shuffle into the tight space together, our arms brushing against each other. I have to look up, over a head taller than me, to see her face. She smiles warmly at the greeter and gives them a dramatic bow. Folded in half, she reaches well beyond the counter.
The greeter looks a few years younger than me, a tired teen with a crooked tooth grin. They greet Tori and I, bowing back. “Tori, nice to see ya. And…?”
“Aubrey.” I like the way Tori says my name, like Aw-brey… Maybe I’m more out of it than I thought.
“Aubrey, nice to meet you. My name is Tien. Welcome to the East Mantle Underground Springs.” Tien
Eastern Springs? Northern Market? The Mantle is way more structured and populated than I was led to believe. The thought adds to my nausea. I feel untethered.
I wonder if, when I make it back home, I’d be able to meet with someone and make a more up to date map of the Mantle. Since the Overflow destroyed so many homes and businesses and space, the layout has changed a lot. People forced to migrate and adapt, and new roads, or tunnels rather, leading through the trash mountain have all caused discrepancies. That, and the fact that the Mantle seems extremely ignored as a part of Delmoun to begin with...
“Nice to meet you, Tien.” I give a slight bow, dizziness seeping across my vision. Tori pats my shoulder with approval, steadying me as well.
The teen inclines their head toward me. Tori and Tien share small pleasantries before leading us through a narrow hallway. The lighting is dim and comfortable, blue glass globes pepper the walls with candles flickering mildly. I sigh with relief, as the warm air and low light ease my nauseousness.
The further we walk down the hall, the thicker the air gets. It’s humid, hot, and smells like salt. I watch the tunnel fade from man made to clay and stone. I spot a little plant fossil in the candlelight.
The dim lighting fades as we get farther in. I run my hand across the wall's surface to steady myself. The claustrophobia and darkness quicken my heart, the memory of falling down the trash chute resurfaces into my head like a pop-up ad. I recall the eyes that stared me down in my fevered state. I swipe the image aside. Must have been bats.
The teen gives Tori and I two towels each and directs us to the changing rooms.
We change separately and rinse off in the showers before heading to the springs.
The round room domes upward with a star shaped cutout to let in sun and let out steam. The opening is off center, which causes me pause until I realize the floating half of Delmoun is blocked from view. Only clear blue skies light the springs.
I hear Tori’s footsteps as she enters.
“What happens when it rains?” I inquire, my voice echoing. “There’s next to no ceiling.”
Tori picks a small stone from the wall.
“There’s a One-Way Weather Shield.” Tori explains, chucking the pebble straight up into the air. It passes through the shield, causing a visible ripple. The rock reaches its peak and falls down toward us. It bounces off the invisible ceiling and skitters to the ground outside. “It’s also opaque from the outside.”
I gape, “that is so cool.”
“I invented it when I was 15 years old.” Tori stifles a smirk and glances down at me for approval.
I squint at her. “No you didn’t.”
Tori gasps, “I most certainly did!”
I give her a dramatically incredulous look. “Hmmm…”
Tori has a terrible farmer’s tan from her rolled up sleeves. Her shoulders and biceps are so white I can basically see veins and muscles—well defined muscles. For a moment, I forget I’m teasing Tori, so when I snap back to reality my face is hot.
“Ha,” I fake a laugh, “invent this? With the shoddy job you did on my leg? Unbelievable.”
I ignore Tori’s protests and pick a spring for myself.
There are a series of small springs dappling the ground, with grated granite tables beside each for towels. Textured paths to each pool allow us to walk freely without slipping on the slick ground.
I fold my towel neatly on the poolside table and settle into the spring. The warm water is blue and cloudy with minerals.
Tori climbs into a spring close behind me. I breathe into the quiet space and submerge up to my neck, feeling the buoyancy of the water.
“Aubrey! How insensitive of me!” Tori exclaims, voice between melodrama and seriousness. I hear splashing as she turns toward me. The sounds echo. “I never even thought to ask.”
I crane my neck to face Tori.
Tori crosses her arms over the side of the pool and rests her chin atop them. Her eyes sparkle.
“What?” I squint skeptically, leaning in to inspect her eyeballs, but unwilling to leave the comfort of the hot water. I scope Tori’s neck, but her pulse remains even as she suppresses a smile.
“…can you… submerge all those moving electrical bits? Like, are you waterproof?”
“You don’t think I bathe.” I cross my arms.
“You’ve been… a little stinky.”
“You found me in a pile of trash!”
“Exactly…” Tori shrugs. As she turns back around, I see the hint of a smirk. She sticks her pinky finger in her ear and itches. “And you haven’t cleaned up since.” Tori stretches her arms out and sinks into the bubbling water.
“Tori. You live in a sideways apartment that doesn’t have running water.”
“So to paraphrase, it was really kind of me to bring us here.” Tori looks over her shoulder at me, and waves a lazy arm at our surroundings. She’s so annoying.
“I’m the one who asked for a bath.” I remind her.
Tori chuckles and turns her back to me again. “Too true.” A comfortable silence sets between us.
Or perhaps only I thought it comfortable.
“You sure you won’t drown all the important bits?” Tori leans back around.
I sigh, and reply gently but firmly. “I think this bit is going on too long.”
“You could electrocute me! Again.” Tori sits up.
“Are you confirming there is a chance the amazing, unscrupulous owner of Torrential Repairs did, in fact, make a mistake during my repairs?” I tease.
“How dare you. And I dunno what unscrupulous means, but it doesn’t sound good,” Tori says quickly. She sticks her tongue out at me, then sinks lower into the water. The bottom ringlets of her hair float up around her. I wonder if she typically keeps it shorter, and has been too busy to get it trimmed. Her brown eyes glitter just above the surface like an alligator. I notice the faults in her irises. Not faults, that’s not the right word, little flecks. Like freckles for your eyes… I clear my throat.
“How did you know about this place?” I ask.
Tori shrugs and turns from me. “I didn’t. We happened upon it.”
“No, we didn’t. You lead us here.”
“What makes you think that?” I watch as she pokes at random, swirling bubbles.
“Tori, the greeter knew you by name!” I chuckle. “Why are you lying?”
“I’m not. Not tryin’ to. It’s just, I used to come here,” Tori’s words are soft, a ripple in the air. “With friends n’...stuff.” She turns around to avoid my eyes.