Opal of the Pink Mist

Ninos felt his way along in the darkness. The tunnel, for the most part slowly curved downward with nary a deviation. Which was good as there was not much room at all. His belly scraped along the dirt as he drug himself along while he had to be careful not to disturb the ceiling with his head. All the while, a strong, pungent sweet smell filled his nose. It was a heady sensation that made his whole body tingle.

Finally the tunnel stopped. His hands edged along as he felt the opening out, then pulled himself into a larger room. There was a faint, gentle glowing light down here, blues and purples reflecting off the dark walls, giving away tantalizing impressions of the area he now found himself in. The pink mist was everywhere. It enveloped him, its strong odor washing over and playing tricks on his mind and body. The room itself was round, like a squashed leavened bread-roll, and a pillar rose in its center.

There, on the pillar-mound, was the monster, glowing in the darkness of its hand-made cavern. But it looked much different than the one that had burst out of Lumeria’s back the day before. It was long, nearly 10 feet now, with one third draped over the side of it’s perch. It hand no legs or arms that he could see. Instead there were small nubs with a fan of 5 long cucumber-like appendages. The two nub-fan flanges on its back end pressed and kneaded into its belly. The two nearer its front were buried deep into the mound top. The beast’s skin was thin, stretched over jutting ribs as its insides churned. Its long neck and head extended forward, its chin hanging over the opposite end of the dirt platform. Its head was twice that of a man’s, the skull-like faceplate starting to crack in places. Finger-like feelers along the rim of it’s mouth twitched as long feathery antennae swiveled in his direction. It raised its head, opening its eyes and stared at him. Its gaze was as vacant as his sister’s.

The thing before him looked less like a horrible monster that would snatch him in the night, or that hideous giant wurm that had stabbed him in the belly so long ago. Instead it looked pitiful, tired, and in pain.

It tried to roll towards him, while still staying fast to where it was fastened to its rest, its mandibles snapping weakly. After two “bites” it gave up trying to reach him with its mouth and instead extended a long blue-black tongue with sharpened, boney tip to try and make up the distance. The tongue’s tube end opened and closed, making a soft sucking sound. It stopped two feet from him and wiggled there for a moment, then retreated back into the gaping maw of the creature.

Ninos backed away slightly, his back against the dirt wall. He was defiantly out of the beast’s reach, but it unnerved him slightly how close he actually was.

Suddenly, the beast convulsed. It started near the head and ripped down the body in a massive wave. Its jaw opened wide, trying to scream but no sound came rolling forth. Its head collapsed on to the mound top, its eyes shut tight, tears forming in the corners.

A moment later, the sticky sweet smell hit him hard. His entire body felt lighting run though every extremity, and the blood rushed from his head, downwards. A craving he had not felt since, well, puberty, welled up inside. His temperature rose, his breath became heavy. He shut his eyes tight, and tried to recover his mind. That smell was playing with him, taunting him, inviting him. Ninos bit his lower lip to snap himself out of whatever this smell was doing to him. It helped to clear his mind a bit, but he could feel he was still in its grip. But that grip slowly passed until it was just a tiny whisper in the back of his mind, easily pushed aside. Steading himself, he opened his eyes.

The wurm stirred on her platform. She lifted her head, her antennae swiveling towards him yet again, her vacant eyes focused in his direction. The haze of the room shifted, light from her blue and purple translucent skin danced on the pinkish mist. She shone like a giant opal, glowing in the darkness. No longer was she something to be feared, or pitied in his eyes, but something to be treasured. No, she was HIS treasure. A treasure he did not want to share.

He shook his head. That scent was still playing at him, making him think things he really shouldn’t. He was here for a different reason, he needed to get back on track. With his right hand, he pulled the spatha from its scabbard then ran it along his left palm. He hissed at the pain. But it did the trick. His mind cleared of the alien carnal desires.

Ninos pushed himself away from the wall and squared his shoulders. He untied the bag from around his waist, then reached in and pulled out an unleavened loaf of bread. He looked up to find the wurm’s tongue reaching out again. Ninos jumped slightly. He started to back up again then paused. He waved the loaf around slightly, and watched as her tongue tracked to it.

“You want this?” he asked as the tongue quivered just out of reach. Slowly, he brought it into her range.

Instantly she stabbed the bread with the barb at her tongue’s end then rolled the loaf up its length until she could grasp it with her mouth feelers. Once she had a firm grip, her tongue retreated and she munched on the loaf. Four bites is all it took for her to consume the bread that would normally be considered a full meal for a grown man. Again her tongue reached out. He handed her another.

The convulsion came on before she had finished. In her pain, she crushed what was left before flopping to mound top. And again, that smell washed over Ninos, thundering against his mind. He balled his left hand into a fist, the pain from his wound pushing the smell’s effects back.

Ninos shook his head. Whatever was causing her to convulse so violently was also connected to this scent that was driving him batty. He tossed the bag of food to the base of the dirt pillar and within easy reach for her, then started walking around the edge of the room until he was at her backside.

There, just below her was a pile of white oblong eggs, each one topped with a pinkish hue. They were scattered, laying where they fell. Some were split open, their creamy insides slowly leaking out into the ground, but most were whole. While keeping a close eye on her, he walked forward and picked one up. Its skin was like thin leather, soft yet slick to the touch. It was neither warm, nor cold and about the length of his two hands put together. That weird, sticky sweet smell emanated from the top of the egg, along with a different scent; one that was softer, more delicate… reminding him of a light, creamy desert.

Still holding the egg, he backed away as she started to stir. He wanted to examine the egg more, but felt better about not being within her striking distance. Fortunately, she had discovered the bag. It now held her undivided attention. Once his back was again to the wall, he held the egg up so that her glow could shine thorough. Nothing seemed to be held inside as he saw no signs of life. Not even a yolk.

He lowered the egg as he watched a round white mass slowly breach her end. It was nearly out when it paused. Then she convulsed again, an egg falling onto the pile below, a puff of pinkish mist emanating at the same time. That strange smell washed over Ninos once more, stronger than before.

Ninos sighed. Her laying her eggs was causing both their conditions.

While she was motionless, he walked around the pillar and checked the bag. It was nearly empty. He gathered it up and started retreating backwards as she stirred. But this time she did not try to reach for him. She just looked at him, her antennae quivering, her eyes vacant.

“Are you satisfied?” he asked more to himself than to her. She cocked her head. Ninos looked inside the bag and grabbed the last round of cheese that was sitting in the bottom. He held it up for her. Her head moved forward again, but this time she batted the food away gently. Her feelers reached out grasping air as her head moved closer until they tugged at one of the wineskin ropes around his shoulder. He blinked as he suddenly realized how close to her he actually was.

“You want something to drink now? Is that it?” The opened the cork top of the skin, tipping it until a single drop rested on the neck’s rim. Her tongue came forward, it’s tube opening expanding until it enveloped the skin’s neck. Then she reeled the skin in and tipped it upwards, it resting between her mouth’s finger-feelers. He watched as she drank though the tube in her tongue. She dropped the skin at his feet when all its contents were drained, then reached for the second at his shoulders.

Before he could hand it to her, she convulsed. Her head curled downward. She seemed like she was trying to fight the pain the act of expelling her eggs left her in. Without thinking he stepped forward, ignoring his own rush from the smell she emitted. He shifted the egg he was holding to the crook of his left arm then, reached up and rubbed the center of her forehead, right above her eye sockets.

“It’s all right,” he tried to console her, “It’ll pass.” Under his touch, she trembled ever so slightly. Slowly she opened her eyes again and raised her head. At first she butted her large head-plate against his chest softly, her antennae tickling his cheeks, then her feelers reached for the egg cradled in his left arm.

“You want this?” he asked, presenting her the egg.

She took it then bit away a third of it, shell and all. Repositioning her grip on the slick cylinder her jaw opened for another bite, then froze. She closed her eyes tightly, her dark skin just underneath them, flushed. A moment later, her eyes, still closed, softened as she swallowed the rest of the egg whole. She arched her head upwards then finally opened her eyes. Her head moved left to right, slowly gazing about the dark chamber. Then she looked at Ninos.

They were no longer empty, her eyes. They were bright and sparkled in the dim glow. And they so reminded him of Lumeria’s.

She butted her head against his chest again, this time with more vigor then turned and looked behind her, antennae and feelers reaching. Ninos stood there watching. She repeated the motions, head-butt then turn to reach behind.

“You want something from back there?” Ninos’ asked.

She nodded once.

He started walking back around the pillar then stopped. His eyes grew wide.

“You understood me,” he said as he spun around to face her.

She nodded again, then pushed him away with her head.

“You want more eggs?” he asked.

Again she nodded, but this time the motion was crisp, sharp.

He retrieved about a half dozen then placed them next to her on her platform.

“Will that do you?” he asked.

She reached down and carefully picked up an egg, then offered it to Ninos.

“You… want me to have this?” he asked as he took the egg.

She lowered her head to below his hands then gently pushed then and the egg upwards towards his mouth.

Ninos took a bite of the egg. It’s leather shell gave way easily to his teeth, its interior tasted like a rich custard. Once opened, he placed his lips around the bite hole then drank the egg. If there truly were Gods on the high mount, THIS is what their ambrosia would taste like. He closed his eyes as he ate, letting the the egg’s taste fill his world.

“Wow,” he muttered as he finished, “That was delicious.”

He stopped. The thoughts of carnal desires that had been eating at his mind since he entered the tunnels were washed fully away. He was fully in control of his own body again. Even the pain still stung from his left palm could not cloud his mind. He felt … sober; strikingly so. And human. It suddenly dawned on him how not-human he had felt before. He looked on the great wurm before him.

“The egg stopped the metamorphosis?” he said, more of a statement than a question.

She nodded slowly.

“And you really are Lumeria, aren’t you?”

The wurm closed her eyes and buried her head into his chest, crying silently.

“Shit,” Ninos said, rubbing the spot in the center of her forehead again.

She shuddered again, her whole body heaving. But she kept her head level, almost none of the force transferring to Ninos. He held her head tight.

After she regained herself again, he let go of her.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked.

She handed him another egg, then motioned to the ceiling.

“You want me to take the eggs to everyone?” he said.

She nodded.

“They want to open up the tunnel and dig you out,” he said as he collected his discarded bag. “Is that a good idea?”

She shook her head.

“It would make things easier, like getting food to you. No offense, you're in no shape to go anywhere.”

She continued to shake her head.

“Alright,” Ninos sighed. “I’ll do my best to talk them out of it for now.” He bent over and gathered as many eggs as he could into his bag then tied it back around his waist. He looked at his left hand. Already the deep gash was healing over. It wouldn’t be long before it was gone completely.

“I’ll be back with more food tomorrow,” he said as he made his way to the tunnel. “Will you be okay until I return?”

She nodded at her brother, then motioned for him to get going.

Ninos acknowledged her, then disappeared into the dark earth.

Fading Daylight

Ninos felt someone grab his writs and yank him from the earth. The last light of the fading sun danced on his cheek as fresh air filled his lungs. He took a deep breath, enjoying the sensations. When his eyes finally adjusted, Menes and Papak’s faces greeted him. Papak whacked him on the back as Menes made sure his feet were under him before letting go of his arm.

Sextus looked down from the top of the trench, one foot on a support beam.

“And?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Ninos said, his tongue rolling around the inside of his lip. “Hold on the report, you guys want these.”

Ninos untied the bag from around his waist and retrieved a single egg. He held it up to the light, letting its milky transparency glisten. He handed it to Menes, then brought out another for Papak.

“What are those?” Sextus asked as he hopped down into the trench.

“Eggs,” he replied handing his brother-in-charge another. “Oh, and you guys might wanna back up. I probably reek of that pink mist.”

“Is that bad?” Sextus raised an eyebrow.

“The entire tunnel system is overflowing with that mist. Not poisonous, but it messes with your head.”

“Wonderful.” Sextus rolled his eyes. “And what do I do with this?” he asked holding up the oblong egg.

“You eat it.” Ninos tossed the bag gently over the edge of the trench. Placing his hands on the support beam he hoisted himself out.

“Flaming Buzzards!” Papak exclaimed, a bite already missing from his. Menes shivered from head to toe as the effect from his egg kicked in.

“I know, right?” Ninos said leaning back over the trench at his brothers. “Would probably make an awesome hangover cure too. Those things are what’s keeping me on the level right now. With all the mist I’ve inhaled, I’d be tripping balls otherwise. And not in a good way.”

Sextus took a bite into his egg. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply as the effects coursed through him. He stumbled back against the dirt wall of the trench.

“Sextus?” Menes asked reaching out to try and help.

“Woh,” Sextus said as he finally opened his eyes.

Ninos let go of the breath he realized he was holding.

“Listen, I’m going to put the rest on the table. Everyone needs to eat one. And… probably only one.” He paused. “Except for Father. I don’t know what if anything they will do to him.”

Sextus nodded.

“Then I’m heading to the baths in hopes that I can wash this stink off. And I REALLY need a soak in the tepidarium…”

“Ninos,” Sextus said, climbing out of the trench himself. “I assume you recommend that the rest stay covered?”

Ninos nodded.

“She’s not going anywhere anymore. That mist is bad. Best to leave it where it lays until we come up with a safe way to vent it. I’ll give you a full report when I return.”

With that Ninos emptied his bag of eggs out onto a worktable. Sextus picked up a second egg and watched his brother trot off.

Meeting in the Thermae

Ninos slapped his coin on the tiny ledge of the side entrance to the baths as he flashed the token around his neck to whomever might be sitting behind the counter. He shuffled on, not bothering to check to see if the attendant had accepted his fee. Once inside, he stowed his things in a basket, then oiled up and scrapped off. He grabbed a towel from the stack near the archway that lead to the thermae proper.

He stopped when he entered the first room, the frigidarium, for it was empty of people. Normally the thermae was bustling with folk after a long day's work. To find it now eerily quiet was unsettling. He passed the cold pool, headed past the tepidarium and into the hot baths.

There he found out why the baths were so devoid of others. Sitting at the far end of the hot water was a very large older man, with a nearly bald dome for a head. His hair was gray and the bags under his eyes spoke of years of lots of stress and little sleep. Standing behind him were two high legionaries in full armor, at sharp attention, sweltering in the bath’s humidity. A smaller fellow in a simpler tunic was just beyond the guards, wine carafe and towels in hand.

“Perfect,” Ninos muttered to himself, “a city lord slumming it has taken over the baths. No wonder people are steering clear.”

He nodded, acknowledging the man of higher status, then took his place as far away as he could in the water. A moment later, the heat started working it’s way into his sore body. He relaxed and put his head back against the stone edge of the pool. All the while he could feel the sharp glare of the guards burning holes of hate and bile into his flesh. Ninos didn’t care. He ached too much to care.

“How’d you get in here, son?” the older man asked, not moving from his position at the far end.

Ninos cracked an eye open, then weakly pointed off towards the side entrance.

“There’s a back entrance to this bath used by the sewer and street engineers,” he replied. “People complained about the stench after we got off duty that they made us install a separate apodyterium for us to clean up in before entering the bath proper.”

“Oh,” the older man said, “you’re a legion engineer for the city works?”

“I am,” Ninos said.

The man raised a waterlogged chubby hand and waved his two guards back.

“Here for the Lupicarii?” Ninos asked.

“What?” the older man sat up for a moment then chuckled. “Oh, oh no. I have no need of a brothel’s services.”

“Hum,” Ninos scratched his chin. “I can’t think of any other reason why someone of your stature would be slumming it down in the lower sector, sir.”

The man burst out laughing.

“Oh, if I could spend time with a beauty, I would!” He snorted. “Alas, the Gods are fickle and the Twins Nikkii and Ergii no longer visit a man of my age. So spending coin on their services, no matter how good they may be… would be a waste of my money. No, no. I am here for the baths!”

The older man waved his wine bearer to give Ninos a cup filled with the red liquor. It had a strong, yet pleasant smell, robust and made the inside of his nose tingle.

“Thank you!” Ninos said, smile on his face as he toasted his benefactor. He took a soft sip letting its smooth yet vibrant flavor fill his mouth. “This is excellent.”

“Isn’t it?” the man chuckled. “My personal vineyards had a very good year that harvest. If I cannot enjoy women, I shall partake my fill of good wine and hot baths!”

“So what’s your name, son?” he asked after having his own goblet refilled.

“I’m Ninos.”

“Ninos…” the man rolled his hand inviting him to add more to the statement.

“Just Ninos, sir,” he replied.

“You’re in the legion but not a citizen?” The man cocked an eyebrow at him.

“I am a citizen by birth,” Ninos replied, “But the man who raised me to adulthood is not my birth father. And he has never officially adopted me or my brothers, so we cannot claim his linage.”

“Oh dear. Complicated family matters?” the man asked taking a sip.

“And getting more complicated by the day,” Ninos said, staring deep into his newly found winecup.

The man laughed again.

“Well, and I thought mine was complicated enough,” he said.

“Do I dare ask?” Ninos replied.

“To put it bluntly, My only living son is a dick.” The elder man grouched. “I have spent a lifetime building up what I now have, preserving what my father left me and expanding it until it has become quite a legacy. But that boy has been spoiled rotten. He’s more intent on squandering what I’m to leave him. I am convinced he will destroy it all in the end.”

“Ouch,” was all Ninos could say.

“Some days, finding myself in the baths in the lower quarters is my only escape from his insipid stupidity. Enough of family matters,” the man said wading closer to Ninos. “Tell me of your work. You said you were with the sewer engineers?”

“No,” Ninos paused as he rethought through the course of events the past few days. “Well, I guess I am now. I am with the twelfth Contuberium Architecti. Until just a few days ago we were the street and drainage engineers. But with Councilor Aggrius’ death we’ve been ‘promoted’ to the sewers.”

“I heard about that. The assassination of Aggrius is sending ripples all the way to the Senate floor and leaving a gapping hole where that man once stood.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up there.” Ninos said putting down his goblet. “Aggrius was murdered?”

The man nodded.

“Indeed. Poisoning. All too common, really.”

“Do we know who did it?” Ninos asked.

The man sighed.

“No, but I have my suspicions. Nothing to stick a conviction to however. I assume that your unit’s patron has been named as his successor?”

“Yes,” Ninos replied. “My adopted father was forced into the position. Now we’re trying to figure out how not to go bankrupt while fulfilling our duties.”

The man took a long drink then waved for more.

“The sewers, the bottomless pit of civic duties.” He snorted as his cup was refilled. “I do not envy you or your farther. Maybe it’s good he didn’t formally adopt you. That way, if he passes suddenly you will not end up with his debt.”

“Maybe.” Ninos looked at the water for a moment. “At the same time, the work is desperately needed. Flowing sewers means filth leaving the city instead of piling up on the streets and stagnating. Else we’ll have another plague race through like the one that happened a generation ago.”

“You know your history well,” the man said. “I lived though that horror. My first wife and two of our sons did not.”

The man was quiet for a bit, his eyes distant as his lips subtly moved, mumbling something to himself. He then rose and stretched.

“You make a good argument, son. I might be able to get some assistance for you.” He said as he relaxed. “Let me see what strings I can pull.”

“You really don’t need to,” Ninos said, finishing off his drink, then turning it upside down onto the floor. “I was not asking for assistance. This is now our problem, not yours.”

The man laughed.

“No, you didn’t ask. And that, my boy, is why I am offering.” He smiled at Ninos, broad and honest. “I have been surrounded by self-centered and self-serving people for so long, hearing someone honestly worried about doing another, nay, an entire population good is refreshing beyond belief. Please tell me that all of your family is like that, not just you.”

“For the most part,” Ninos replied.

“Yes, that is good.” The man stepped up from the pool and his servant toweled him off.

“Seriously, though,” Ninos said, “I cannot accept such an offer. I have no way to repay.”

“Son,” the man said as he turned to face Ninos, “This is Regalius, capital of the Empire. Keeping the population here healthy and happy is paramount. Even the poor of the lower districts are citizens. If the sewers are kept good and help keep diseases at bay like you said, then it’s in everyone's best interest. You can repay me by seeing to your duty.”

Ninos stood, water ripping away, and saluted the elderly statesman.

“Yes, sir!” He said sharply as if receiving an order from his unit leader.

“Very good, son,” the man beamed. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some work ahead of me. Not that I mind.” He laughed.

Ninos bowed as he watched the man exit the caldarium, followed by his guard and servant. After he was gone, Ninos sat back on the rim of the pool.