“Our pardon, old friend,” Staun said at her side, startling her yet again. “We meant no harm.” His words came out fast and breathless, as if he was in a hurry to salve any hurt she may have caused with her words.
“No harm, no harm,” replied the sworl trap. The cadence of its voice was similar to ones she dealt with regularly, but there was something different about how it spoke. “I heard you coming, but it’s been a very loooong time since I had any visitors besides the little peepers.”
“So are we alone in here?” asked Staun.
“Oh, no, not alone.” Filia’s breath caught in her throat, and she threw a quick glance around. “Never alone,” the sworl trap said. Filia looked back at it. “Always, always the whiiiispers, the whispers are there.”
“The whispers?” Staun asked, his voice suddenly soft and unsure. Filia had a terrible flashback to his first collapse on the airship. The whispers. The strange whispers. She had never been able to get those words out of her head. Those were the last words she wanted to hear in this dark place.
“Oh, yes,” the wizened old face said. “The whispers are everywhere, all the time. You can’t leave them behind. You know that.” In the light of the torch the face frowned. “But that doesn’t help you here much, does it? Hmmnnn …” It hummed to itself, its eye’s moving back and forth as if rummaging around in its memory for something. “I’m forgetting my hospitality. Let me see what I can do.”There was silence for a moment as the face seemed to concentrate. Then there was a burbling cough from the spring and Filia felt a fine spray of water hit her feet. After a moment the flow of water doubled. She also noticed that the color of the light changed. She looked up, and for the first time she could see the ceiling. It was high above her head and illuminated with faint blue traces. She watched in awe as the light grew stronger, revealing huge carved figures and painted murals that spanned the vault and draped down the walls.
“Well, now,” the sworl trap said. “Is that better?”
“Yes, father,” Staun said, still breathless. Filia looked at him. He seemed stooped, and had a faintly pained look on his face.
“Staun, my friend here, is hurt. I need to bathe his wound and keep him warm,” Filia said. She looked down at the spring. “Is this water safe for that?”
“Oh, yes, oh, yes,” the man on the wall replied. “Quite safe, yes, very safe. And how can we keep him warm?”
“Can we build a fire in here?” she asked, looking around. There did not appear to be any sort of place to make a fire or any fuel, but the floor was stone and she knew that there was fuel back up the tunnel.
“No one has asked me that before,” the face said, “not even the last ones who came here. I don’t know.”
Filia nodded. She felt a bit silly asking a sworl trap for permission to do something.
The face frowned again. “I suppose it won’t hurt anything to have a fire in here. There is nothing left to burn anymore. Yes, please start your fire.”
Filia stared at the face, and it stared back. She had it — she now knew what was different. This one seemed more — what was it — more aware. It wasn’t just echoing back to her what she was thinking and doing. It was almost as if it really was alive.
“Filia, it’s safe enough here, for now. I can feel it. Why don’t you leave me here and go get some wood for a fire. I’ll be okay here.” He looked her way, without quite looking at her, his blind eyes glowing faintly in the torchlight.
“Sure,” she replied, hesitantly. “I can do that.” The idea of going up the tunnel alone was not appealing to her.
“The peepers have an old nest just up the tenth tunnel,” the face said. “They don’t use it anymore, and it will make a fine fire.”
“OK, she said, a bit more hopeful. She looked around. “Where is the tenth tunnel?”
“It’s right there,” the face replied matter-of-factly. “Right under the number ten.”
Filia looked around. “I don’t see any numbers,” she said.
“They’re in an ancient language,” Staun replied. He frowned for a moment, then pointed. “That one.”
Filia walked across the great hall in the direction indicated. After a bit she could see the tunnel entrance. A bit closer and she could also see bits of forest litter. She walked up the tunnel apprehensively, with many glances back and around. Not far in she came across a large jumble of dry branches and shredded bark — an old nest. She forced herself to gather up as much as she could and then she hurried back to where Staun was standing. She dumped the pile on the floor and lit it. The wash of sudden heat reminded her of how cold it was in the tunnels.
“Very good, very good,” the face said. “Now that we have that over with we can get down to business.”
“Over with?” asked Filia. The fire was hardly complete. the dry wood was burning way too fast to last, and she had to make a number of trips back to get more fuel.
“Business?” Staun asked. “What business?”
“Your business, of course,” the face said. “I now have to tell you your future.”