Digging Holes

Ninos and Sextus walked quietly back to the courtyard. Lucius made it quite clear he wanted to be left alone with his daughter, and they obliged.

“Should we tell the others?” Ninos asked as they descended the last flight of stairs.

“I think they already know,” Sextus replied.

The two somber men entered the courtyard. Already the noonday sun beamed brightly, scorching what little grass remained within the yard. Wooden stakes tied with bright red ribbons formed a pathway across the dirt. One section was blocked off, then another, slowly circling the well before stopping completely.

Already, the other brothers were marshaling their equipment. Off on the east side, large wooden beams were being brought in and stacked along with lengths of rope and shovels.

“Fast digger,” Sextus muttered as he took in the length of the survey ropes. He turned to Ninos. “Think you can find a copy of our insula plans in the archives? We need to know how far down the foundation drops, and where the water table is. I really hope there’s no sewer lines running under here.”

“On it,” Ninos replied then darted off.

“Menes, Papak!” Sextus barked as Ninos left. They both trotted over, Menes still caring his long probing pole. “And?”

“She’s digging up the entire yard,” Papak sighed. “We marked the tunnel near the surface that we can probe. All of it’s going to be unstable.”

“Can we open trench it?” Sextus asked.

“Gonna have to,” Menes replied. “We might be able to crawl the length but who knows when it’ll give. Also,” he motioned for Sextus to follow, then picked his way carefully to a series of markers near the west side of the well. “See this?” The tunnel markers suddenly stopped, the ribbon forming a block terminus. A few feet off, they picked up again.

“Think it’s collapsed in there already?” Sextus rubbed his chin.

“No.” Menes shook his head. “If there had been, the surface would have crumbled to fill in the gap.” He motioned to the ground where nothing looked out of place. “the tunnel underneath looks more like this,” he said as he scratched a line into the dirt. The line started as a gentle slope down, then sharply rose up, dipped harshly down, then rose again. From there, the tunnel continued its gentle decent.

“That looks like a water trap,” Sextus said as he frowned.

“We thought so too.” Papak shifted his weight then took the long pole from Menes. The three men walked fast down the survey poles. “From here on,” he motioned to where the markers stopped, “the tunnel gets too deep for our pole.”

“Safe enough for us to start digging up until the trap?” Sextus asked.

“For a trench, yes.” Menes replied.

“Alright, start digging.” Sextus barked. “We don’t have much time before that thing tunnels its way out of our reach.”

“Not going to happen unless she can dig her way though bedrock,” Ninos said as he strode up to his brothers. Under his arm was tucked a huge scroll, it’s wooden bar nearly as tall as he was. Unceremoniously, Ninos rolled it out along the dirt. The scroll itself held multiple pieces of parchment stitched together. Across its surface, the inked diagrams of their home lay scattered amongst complex mathematical equations and notes scrawled, scratched out, then rescrawled all over the documents seemingly in no discernible order. Ninos flipped a few pages down, revealing a complex drawing of the ground as if it had been sliced away. Sextus leaned over Ninos’ shoulder, his eyes scanning back and forth over the parchment’s surface.

“The foundation goes all the way down. It can’t get out.” Sextus said.

“Not quite,” Ninos countered. “There are breaks here, here, here, and here,” he said as he pointed at the corners of the foundation. “They look like drainage points for ground water. If they weren’t there we’d be flooded from the inside out come the first heavy rain. Also, she could get out by digging through the well, to get below the bedrock and down into the water-table.” He tapped at another section which showed the well depth.

“Menes, Papak, where is that thing’s tunnel in all this?” Sextus asked.

Papak pulled a stick of dark charcoal from a small wooden box, then lightly sketched what he thought was the tunnel onto the parchment, using the well as a marker, the lines simply disappearing where they could no longer survey.

Ninos scratched his head. “Is that a sink trap?”

Sextus snorted as a faint, lopsided smile came to his lips.

“That’s what we think from the survey,” Papak said.

“Is she planing on flooding the tunnel?” Ninos asked, “Or filling it with heavy air?”

“If the water idea is true, that means she’d head for the well.” Sextus stood moved away from his brothers and carefully made his way to the well. He leaned over the small stone circle that protruded from the ground. Sextus frowned.

“Ninos?” He called, his voice echoing into the deep. “This well lined all the way down?”

“According to the plans, it is.” Ninos replied.

“Okay - current plan is to dig until we hit the start of the trap and then no farther,” Sextus barked. “We’ll figure out the trap tomorrow. Someone hand me a shovel.”

An Empty Shell

Morning came to the usual routine; up at first light, light wash, drills, breakfast. Well, drills were a bit hampered due to the typical exercise grounds in the courtyard being out of bounds due to all the survey markers, and a massive trench reinforced by wooden beams, but otherwise, same old, same old. Ninos rose from the table and gathered a nearby tray.

“I’ll go take some grub to Father and Sister,” he said looking at Sextus and Balbinus.

“Good,” Balbinos replied. “Gather your tools when you’re done. We’ll need you making new ground maps.”

Sextus nodded in agreement.

“Can do.” And with that Ninos scooped two bowls of meal, balanced them on his tray, then made his way to his sister’s apartment.

When he opened the door, he was surprised to find Lumeria sitting up in bed. Their father, Lucius, dozed in a chair at her side. She was still dressed in Sextus’ tunic, its collar so wide that half draped off one of her boney shoulders. Her eyes were half closed and empty, staring off into nothing.

Lucius stirred as the door creaked. He righted himself in his seat, then stretched. His eyes flickered open, his good eye opening slightly wider than his bad.

“Morning already?” he grumbled.

“I’m afraid so, Father.” Ninos walked inside then set his tray down on a small table, all the while keeping an eye on his father.

Lucius sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“I’m not going to lash out at you,” he said, lowering his hand. “Sorry… Son.”

Ninos smiled softly. It was good to hear those words.

“I have some food for you.”

Lucius took the warm bowl and placed it in his lap.

“How is she?” Ninos asked as he picked up the second bowl for his sister.

Lucius scooped a small portion with his fingers then brought the mush to his mouth and swallowed.

“Healed, Gods bless, but there’s no one home,” he said as he scooped another portion. “Occasionally mutters, mostly about food or digging, then goes back to being like this.” He gestured towards her with the meal still on his fingertips before eating it as well.

Ninos sat down on the edge of her bed, then carefully, gently, rolled her hand over onto her lap and placed the bowl between them. She rolled her head and looked down, her lips mumbling with no sound. Her almond eyes widened even though they still seemed empty.

“Hungry…” she barely muttered before shoving the bowl into her face.

Ninos jumped of the bed. Lumeria buckled forward, her face moving around inside the bowl while trying to engulf it’s contents. He watched in horror and fascination as his sister licked her meal clean. He glanced at Lucius. His father only sighed. When it was obvious that nothing was left, Ninos reached for the empty wooden bowl. Lumeria lunged, her teeth snapping. Ninos snatched his hand away, her bite missing. Greedily, she clutched at the bowl then bit into the rim, trying to eat it too.

“Ow….” She dropped the bowl.

Lumeria flopped over onto her bed.

“So hungry…,” she mumbled as she curled up into a ball under her blanket.

Ninos picked up her discarded bowl, his hand trembling.

“She’s little more than an animal now,” he said, looking to Lucius.

“I don’t know,” His Father said, “Maybe she just needs more time.” He motioned to Ninos to give him a hand up. Ninos obliged.

“Every now and then, I see this spark light up behind her eyes,” He continued “Then it’s gone again.”

Lucius reached for his vine-staff that leaned against the wall under the window that looked out into the courtyard below.

“And how are YOU doing, Son?” he asked while pointing to Ninos’ cheek with the staffs rounded head.

Ninos pulled his cheek aside to reveal his tooth, fully grown as if it had always been there.

Lucius pulled his lips taut. He looked pained for a moment, then snorted.

“That’d be a godlike power on the front lines, my boy,” he said patting Ninos on the back.

“Never thought of it that way,” Ninos replied letting go of the edge of his mouth.

Lucius leaned out the window.

“Tatius! I need you up here watching Lumeria today. Balbinus, you’re on my guard. Sextus, carry on here.” Lucius readjusted his toga after he pulled himself back inside.

“Father?” Ninos asked surprised as he gathered Lucius’ now-empty bowl, “Are you stepping out?”

“Yes,” he replied from the doorway. “Today is another Council day. With all the hubbub of Aggrius’ death, me not showing will guarantee that they send the Town Watch here. Last thing we need is others poking around where they don’t belong. Good luck digging that … thing … out today.”

Ninos nodded and watched his father hobble out the door.

Ninos' Revelation

Ninos came back into the courtyard just as they were uncovering the first dip of the tunnel trap. Shovels scraped the surface, carefully revealing the drop down. Everyone’s face was covered with a damp cloth, just in case. Sextus grunted as he walked over, torch in hand. He dropped it down the shaft that was no wider than any of the men gathered around him. They all immediately shuffled back some distance. It hit bottom and rolled out of sight, yet still illuminated the lower bend.

“No water,” he muttered. “And didn’t explode. That’s a good sign. Ninos, give me an estimate.”

Ninos crept forward and peered over the edge, his hand holding his own damp cloth over his mouth and nose.

“15 feet deep I’d give.” Ninos replied. He squinted for a moment. “What’s that pink stuff?”

“What pink stuff?” Sextus asked as he leaned over his brother.

Ninos pointed to the bottom.

“There seems to be a pinkish mist down there, lining the bottom,” he said.

“Bad air?” Sextus scratched the back of his head.

Ninos picked himself up and brushed his bare knees off.

“Get us a bird,” Sextus barked. “And some rope.”

Tahmasp trotted over to them, a tiny cage that barely held a small yellow warbler dangling from his hand. Ninos helped him tie a rope to the bird’s cage then carefully lowered it into the tunnel until the cage was enveloped by the strange low-hanging mist.

Then they all waited.

And waited.

It was nearly noon when they pulled the small cage up. The little bird chirped as it came up into the light, desperately fluttering against the bars of its confines.

“Looks breathable,” Sextus nodded.

“Good bird,” Ninos smiled as he unhooked the rope from it’s cage. He handed the bird back to Tahmasp.

“Let’s open up the other end of this trap, then break for lunch,” Sextus barked.

Ninos picked up and shovel and helped. Before he knew it, they had broken though the other side of the bend, support beams set as the tunnel got ever deeper. The pink mist swirled around their ankles as they worked. Once the stopping point was reached, Ninos clambered out of the trench and removed the cloth mask to suck in the clean air. He took in the length and depth that he and his brothers had dug. Then he turned and walked over to a bench where his tools were set. As quickly as he could, he scribed out the newest hole in their collective backyard.

All around, his brother were setting their tools aside and gathering around a table filled with bread and wine. A typical scene that was normally punctuated with laughter and camaraderie was strangely quiet. His brothers all sat apart from each other, eating in silence, dwelling on their own thoughts.

Ninos laid his charcoal stick down. His own mind was cloudy, turning on itself without something to concentrate on. He rose from his work bench only to find most of the food already gone. Mattered little though, it wasn’t like he didn’t know where the kitchen was.

Ninos made his way to the kitchen in search of a lunch. He opened the door that separated the hallway from the pantry, only to find Tatius inside, desperately trying to hold Lumeria back as she pulled anything and everything from the selves and shoved it into her mouth. Already her stomach was large and distended. Ninos rushed in to help. Together they pulled her back, as she tried hitting and smacking them as hard as she could. More than once, she tried to take a bite out of each of them.

“Lumeria!,” Ninos hissed, “Stop it!”

Tatius pinned her legs and Ninos grappled with her arms, his own legs wrapped around her hips.

“Hungry…” she moaned, reaching for bread that had been knocked on the floor. Ninos swatted the bread away, then tried to lock her arms.

“Enough!” Ninos could barely contain her as she flailed.

Suddenly, she screamed, her whole body shuttering violently before falling limp. Tears swelled in her eyes as she lay motionless within her brothers’ embrace.

“What just happened?” Ninos said, as he looked at Tatius.

“Help me get her back to her room,” Tatius replied, picking her up by the ankles. “We don’t have much time before she starts up again.”

Ninos wrapped his arms around her chest, just above her breast, the hoisted her up.

“Again?” he asked.

“About half an hour from when you and Father left, she started going into these fits.” Tatius said backing up towards the doorway. “First she wants food, goes berserk trying to get anything in her mouth, then screams and collapses in a quivering heap. After a short time, it starts right back up again.” Quickly, he and Tatius carried her stretched between them as fast as they could back to her room. They barley got the door closed when she starting moving again.

Her once immaculate bedroom was now a disaster site. Like two bears had wrestled here with her bed as the stage. Furniture was tossed about, with more than one piece shattered. Her blankets and curtains torn. The once beautiful scenery painted into the walls were now cracked and marred beyond repair.

“What is going on with you, Lumeria?” Ninos muttered under his breath. “Your stomach’s about to burst and you want more?”

She rolled on her bed, fingers taring at her sheets as she tried to pick herself up.

“Hungry…”

Tatius collapsed in a chair.

“I don’t know if I can last the day, Ninos,” he said. “She’s got the strength of a wild boar when she gets going. Nothing I can do seems to calm her. It’s like she isn’t our sister anymore.”

“If she’s not our sister, then what is she?” Ninos asked. Tatius raised his arm meekly then let it flop and shook his head.

“So hungry…” Lumeria muttered again, weakly biting at her shredded sheets.

“It’s like something else is talking through you…” Ninos said under his breath. He stopped. He rolled that thought around in his mind.

“…talking through you….” Ninos turned and stared out the window.

“Shit!” he said as he barreled though the door.

“Wha?” Tatius muttered as he tired to follow.

“They’re still connected,” Ninos hissed. “Stay here! Bar the door if you need to!”

He ran back to the kitchen as fast as he could, only stopping by his apartment to grab his bag. Once in the kitchen he shoveled as much bread and cheese as he could see into the sack, then tied it tight. Finally he reached for a pair wine skins, then flung the entire lot over his shoulder and marched quickly to the open trench.

Outside, his brothers were already picking up their tools to begin again, their faces again covered with damp cloth to keep dust down. He nearly made it to the last bit of opening when Sextus grabbed him by the arm.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he barked.

Ninos dropped the large sack, then grabbing the draw strings tied it to his belt.

“That tunnel’s big enough I can crawl though,” he snapped back.

“And? It’d be stupid to try.” Sextus snapped back.

“I’ve still got to,” Ninos said, his gaze firmly fixed on the small round hole at the end of the trench. “Look, the whole structure is still close to the surface. Even if it collapsed, with dirt like this, it wouldn’t crush me.”

“But you’d suffocate before we could dig you out.” Sextus hissed. “Why are you desperate to go down there?”

“Because that … thing… is hungry.” Ninos spat, pointing at the tunnel. “It’s still connected to Lumeria, Sextus. I don’t know how. I don’t know why, but it is. The more it hungers, the more it thrashes. And the more it thrashes, the more Sis does too. She’s hurting herself. If you don’t believe me, go see for yourself. Tatius will thank you for the help restraining her. The only way I see to stop this is to go down there as fast as possible. I’m thin enough I can fit through right now.”

“And if that thing eats you?” Sextus glared at Ninos, his fingers digging into his brother’s arm.

“If it stops Lumeria from destroying herself, I’m willing to take that risk.” Ninos glared back, unwaveringly.

After a long moment, Sextus let go.

“On your head be it,” he replied. Sextus removed his baldric and spatha still in it’s scabbard, then placed it over Ninos’ head. “Everyone - STOP! We’re suspending the dig.”

Ninos nodded then disappeared down the tunnel, the bag filled with food trailing behind.