Dusty stone had given way to bare under Alron’s feet; his frantic footfalls no longer kicked up great choking clouds. On the other hand, he’d been running long enough to make every breath an urgent matter, his heart felt fit to burst, and his legs were on fire from strain. He had to stop.

Somewhat to his surprise, he found that he could. The preternatural terror had faded; how long ago, he couldn’t say – had it been just this moment, perhaps shaken loose by physical demands? Or had it been gone for minutes already, only the echoes of it spurring his flight?

The bear slowed to an unsteady walk for a few steps, then gave up and leaned against a support beam, panting hard. His waterskin was about half-full; half of what was left, he swallowed hurriedly, anxious to chase away the hoarse dryness in his throat. A few swallows later, and he didn’t exactly feel healthy, but at least it no longer felt like there was a rasp twisting in there with each breath.

He looked around. The corridor was, not exactly featureless, but too regular to give much meaningful detail. Beams propped up the ceiling at steady intervals, though the sturdy masonry hardly seemed to need it. The floor was hewn stone, worked smooth by craft, feet, or by passage of time, but not so smooth as to be glossy or slippery. Every now and then, passages split off on one side or the other. Both ahead and behind, he could see endings to this particular hall with his magically-enhanced sight.

It sank in, moments later, that all of that was very bad. However he’d got here, it wasn’t by following a single corridor. How many turnings had he made in the grip of that supernatural fear? Which way had they gone? Where was he?

The analytical portion of his mind marvelled at the sheer scope of this place. His more sensible side was quick to point out that he was hopelessly lost in that selfsame scope – when he’d started running he’d left footprints, no doubt, but here? Here he couldn’t even see any dust he might have tracked around.

Well, if he’d come from a dusty area to one that wasn’t… maybe air currents had blown all the dust back the way he’d come? He turned his head this way and that – yes, there was air movement; very slight, but it was there and he thought he could sense which way it was going.

“Amaris?” he called, trailing one hand along the wall. As the echoes of that name faded, he paused, fishing in his pouches for a charcoal stick and marking the way back to the point where he’d come to his senses.

The echoes fell into silence.

“Denna?” he tried, louder. Nothing. “Sydani? Can anyone hear me?” he wailed, at the top of his lungs.

His words bounced off the walls and came back to him, but even holding his breath so the wheeze of it wouldn’t get in the way, nobody else’s calls drifted his way.

He turned down one corner, then another, marking his path and calling his companions’ names – and then the wind turned around.

There was a little grille on the wall, cunningly concealed right up there by the ceiling near one of the supports. The draft went, apparently, straight toward it and out of reach.

There was no help to be had there. Even if there hadn’t been sturdy metal bars in the way, that tiny passage wouldn’t admit his head, much less the rest of him; and it curved sharply upwards, giving no indication of which way on the level he should be going.

It had been a slim hope all along, he supposed – but still, to lose it entirely was a heavy blow.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered to himself, leaning back heavily against the wall and sliding down. How could he have been such a cursed fool?

The answer was, of course, that he basically had been cursed – no mere shadowy figure in a cloak could have sent him in terror without magic. If he thought back, he remembered feeling it sink into his mind.

But that didn’t change the fact that the things he’d done in the grip of that fear had been utterly idiotic.

Well, there was no help for it. He’d have to find his own way out of here. He didn’t think he’d gone up or down anything so obvious as a stairway in his mad flight, and all the passages in this maze seemed level. If he reached its edge, on one side or another, that should get him somewhere. It might take a long time, but if he could only keep a level head, he was not without resources; he was, after all, a wizard. He could get through this.

Alron picked himself up, took a deep breath, and started walking.

The sheer scale of the maze was mind-boggling. It was all he could do to keep track of which direction he was actually going, with all the doubling back he had to do, never mind how far he’d actually come. But he persisted, no matter how many times the path seemed to wind around – a very convoluted path might still be the one that eventually went the way he wanted, after all.

So he went on. Twice he found a dead end and turned back to the next branch. How many steps he’d gone was impossible to say. And then, suddenly, the space before him opened up.

Briefly elated, he caught himself before he could run forward. This place was full of hazards, intentional or otherwise. He’d got in enough trouble by charging off unprepared; best to be cautious now.

He was no expert on architecture, but the doorway looked normal enough; much like the stone arches that braced the corridor, only a bit thicker. There were no tripwires across it, and the floor beyond was the same hewn stone – no tiles that might conceal a pressure plate. There was no obvious reason for such a large room to be here, but perhaps it had been looted long ago.

At any rate, the way he wanted to go was across the room, and everything looked normal enough. He started forward.

No sooner had he crossed the threshold than down suddenly transformed into up.

Alron yelped as the floor fell away from him, tumbling through empty air, swinging about to see the high ceiling all too fast approaching. But even as he fell towards it, down swung about the normal way – back and forth it went, each time he passed the middle of the room’s height. All the while he kept drifting forwards, until he came to rest about twenty feet off the ground and well away from the walls, with a sense that he was forever falling despite his eyes telling him he wasn’t moving much at all.

He forced himself to take deep breaths. Panicking all over again wouldn’t help; it’d only get him tired. Time to assess the situation in full.

The room was vast, about forty feet high, its length and breadth interspersed with pillars that looked to be stout masonry. They were about twenty feet apart, and by that and a quick count the room was about a hundred feet square. Over at the walls, at the limit of what even his enhanced vision could show in the light from the stone hanging around his neck, he could see ledges just above him, with yawning passages behind them.

He’d read about places such as this, though this was the first time he’d actually encountered one. It was rather larger a space than he’d thought it would be; when this place was still in use, guards would stand in those alcoves along the walls and shoot at hapless intruders caught by the inverted gravity, and at this point they’d find themselves with a more difficult shot than it needed to be.

There’d be time enough to puzzle over that mystery after he got out of here.

Flailing around in midair wouldn’t get him very far, but he had more resources than that. He had rope and a grappling hook. Even if he wasn’t able to hook it around one of the columns, the throw should get him somewhere. He just needed to keep firm hold of the rope. Probably he ought to wrap its near end around his arm a few times, or even tie it to his clothing, to be sure it didn’t slip out of his grasp.

His tumbling around had thoroughly ruined his sense of direction, but he did know he’d been walking the “right” way when he’d come into this room. That door had been roughly in the middle of the wall. There were two doors out that he could see at ground level, on opposite walls… and one of them was over in a corner. That at least was an easy deduction.

The hook had scarcely left his hand when the world swung about yet again.

He only got his bearings enough to puzzle out that he was falling upwards a heartbeat before his shoulders hit stone, knocking the breath out of him. He sprawled haphazardly against the ceiling, gasping for air. Significantly absent, though, was the clatter of metal on stone.

Around his arm, the rope was pressed up along with him. A few inches past, it snaked “up” through the air, with the hook tumbling slowly in midair about halfway between floor and ceiling and a good bit of slack coiling around it.

This was bizarre. Alron muttered a few precise words, fingers working careful gestures, shaping the currents of magic to enhance his perception, and with that assistance he scrutinized the space around him.

Most of the room was blanketed in a field of evocation – force that flung anyone entering the lower half upwards with force roughly twice that of gravity; enough to counter it and to work as hard again. There was a band halfway up where the force gradually tapered off and allowed an equilibrium to exist. All of that was ancient magic. Around him, though, was a bubble of force that existed only to push him upwards, and hard – and it still had the faint buzz of freshly-worked magic, so new it hadn’t yet settled into the ambient flow. He couldn’t see anything that might have triggered it, but there it was all the same.

That particular mystery was answered, or at least possibly so, by movement – a figure flitting between the columns, gliding on broad wings in the band of null gravity. It was roughly bat-shaped, and whether naturally or just due to the dim light was dark as a shadow. Magic swirled around it, resonating with the bubble of force that had Alron trapped.

Here, it seemed, was his captor, now whirling “down” from the middle of the room to where he lay. Alron tried to shape a defensive spell, but suddenly the force that pressed him against the ceiling was nigh crushing. He could hardly breathe; his arm felt leaden. The Weave slipped away from his mental grasp even as he started tugging at it, and all he could do was curse in his own head as the bat-like figure drew in close to him.

It settled “atop” him, large, dark eyes seizing his, a rather alarming look of hunger on its long muzzle. “Well, now, this is a tastier morsel than I’ve had for some time,” it husked.

There was a dissonance to the speech – a sense that his ears weren’t actually hearing the same sounds that arrived in his mind. It was a subtle thing, such as an untrained mind might miss: the telltale of translation magic at work. For whatever reason, likely an innate quality, this creature could be understood in his tongue despite not speaking it.

The more practical part of him shoved aside such academic concerns in favour of being singularly alarmed by the message itself. He swallowed, then, despite the compound difficulties of the force immobilizing him and of perfectly mundane fear, he managed to say, “I think you’ll find me tough and stringy, actually.” Successful wizard he might be, but he didn’t exactly pile on his plates.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be quite delicious where it matters,” the bat replied, its muzzle poking under his chin, sharp teeth nipping at his neck.

Alron shuddered, swallowing a whimper. It only belatedly occurred to him that a bat might not want his flesh at all. Some of the mundane sort drank blood, didn’t they?

But instead of piercing skin and sinking into his neck, those teeth no more than grazed him, combing their way down to his collarbone. The great wings folded in close, forming somewhat awkward, two-fingered hands that tugged at his clothing. Farther down, the bat’s body pressed in against his thighs, rocking atop him.

It belatedly dawned on him that aside from the shroud of the wings, the pat’s figure was, in fact, quite feminine, in a tastefully understated way. For a moment as those teeth had been at his neck, modest breasts, such as his hands might easily cover, had pushed against his chest; and if one could disregard the membrane attached to the figure’s side, there was a taper to it that could be quite pleasing, with a slim waist and broader hips. And the smell that was starting to reach his nose, sweeping over him with each frantic breath, was decidedly, exquisitely womanly.

Even if he might still be doomed, well, the way she was tugging at his belt suggested the taste she was most immediately after might be one he’d enjoy providing.

Fear ebbed, giving room for a surge of arousal as the bat slipped his belt open. It was quick enough and intense enough that by the time she finished unlacing his breeches and tugged them down, his manhood was straining to be free, swinging up and smacking against his stomach. She made a happy cooing sound that needed no translation, clawed finger and thumb curling around the base of his length, warm breath washing over the rest.

The same hunger that had been so alarming earlier now lent a shocking intensity to her touch. This was not a woman he’d had to cajole and win, nor even one he’d had to pay; this was a woman – undeniably so, despite her fearsome and esoteric aspect – who craved him with palpable force. Apparently, some giddy part of his mind noted, she hungered for his flesh after all; the wet warmth of her muzzle slid over his hardening manhood in a single gulp, tongue pressed against its underside.

Gods, that tongue. It coiled around his shaft like a snake, squeezing it, slipping a little ways along it as the bat’s head started bobbing. The sensation was incredible – as strong in its own way as ever a woman’s sex had been, and all the more powerful for being so new. Pleasure surged through his body; he arched up off the stone, crying out, and in the wake of that bellow he writhed, clutching at the bat’s head. In that moment, he cared nothing of the peril; all he needed was the pleasure.

She lifted off of him then, one strange hand gripping his wet flesh, stroking along it. The other gestured, arcane words flowing from her muzzle. Analyzing spells cast near him was such a well-trained reflex by now, even his arousal, his ache for release, couldn’t quite distract him from that. The exact spell was unfamiliar to him, but something about transmutation – amplification…

Then the spell washed over him, concentrating on his midsection, sinking into his balls with a tingle – and in that moment everything changed.

He’d thought, before that moment, that he’d known desire; that was nothing to how he felt now. Not only for sex, though that was there as well, in fuller measure than ever he’d experienced before – but for everything. Dreams of acclaim, of worldly and magical power, surged up from the recesses of his mind; and then, washing even those away, the faces of his companions – and with that his yearning turned right back to sex once more.

Denna had been an occasional lover for some time; every detail of the lioness’s body was quite familiar to him, and in that instant he relished the memories. It was hardly news that he desired Sydani as well – she’d even offered him some reason to believe that, should he decide the time was right to make an offer, she might even accept it. Though he’d not had so much opportunity to glimpse the details of the mouse’s lithe and wiry form, now, with blood singing in his ears, it seemed so wonderfully easy to picture her thus.

To think of Aramis in this light – now, that was unexpected. Alron was studied enough to know that sometimes men fancied men, and it would even answer some things if Aramis was one such, but it wasn’t a thought Alron himself had entertained.

Until now, when an inadvertent glimpse of the jaguar bathing in a hot spring came to his mind.

He’d seen the cat pleasuring himself then, and quickly retired to give him privacy. But somehow, it seemed, the sight had stuck with him. He could picture the exact shape of the jaguar’s manhood, ebony-brown against his dark pelt; could re-envision the exact way the trapmaster’s fingers had played over it; yearned, in that instant, to feel such a touch to his own length.

Not that what was happening to his now was in any way unpleasant, mind.

He ached to find his companions again, for any number of reasons – but here and now, he had more immediate concerns, all of them surrounding the creature who was loosening his clothing.

The force upon him had eased while his head was spinning; now he tumbled with the bat through the open air, squirming out of his clothes and casting them aside. She let out an eager hiss as he started responding to her, wings slipping around him, folding over his back, keeping him close to her.

That was fine – almost perfect. All it took to get the rest of the way was a little shift of his hips.

Her sex was tight and furnace-hot around him, clutching eagerly at his manhood; her breath, quick, warm, and urgent over his shoulder. The spread of her wings had made her seem larger than she was – in truth, he was head and shoulders over her. Not that it mattered in the least as they hung in the open air, bodies twisting tight together. A wordless cry of pleasure escaped the bat’s muzzle, and she clung a little tighter to him in every respect; it was all he could do, with only her to push against, to keep thrusting in her rippling tunnel.

But keep thrusting he did. Even as his pleasure built higher, even as the rest of the world slipped from his mind and all his senses focused on this union, he drove his manhood in and out of her with all the force he could muster. Pleasure exploded through him, seed rushing down his length and splashing deep into his mysterious lover, and still he kept pounding. Before his climax could wane, it surged anew – and then yet again. He’d pumped so much seed into her that their churning had forced some of it out of her, wetting his white fur and her black, and lending a wet sound to each motion – and still he kept coming.

How long it lasted, he really couldn’t say. It was the soreness of exertion that forced his strokes to slow, and as they did, finally his climax began to recede, leaving him winded, stiff, sore, and utterly content. For a time, he just clung to this unknown female, drifting together without thought.

And then, suddenly, there was cool stone against his back.

“You’re as delightful as I thought you would be,” the bat sighed over his muzzle, lifting off of the bear’s spent, soft manhood. “You’ve strength, wit, and passion that will be quite good for my line. And as you’ve done me a favour, stranger, so shall I do one for you. Go through the far door, take two right turns and then one to the left, and you will find the way back to the section of this complex whence you came. There is a presence there I do not recognize – companions of yours, perhaps?” She nuzzled over his ears. “Gravity will be yours until you leave this room; then the trap will be in force. Be ready for it – should you wish to return.”

With that flirtatious conclusion and a quick wink, she fluttered away from him, into the open air under her own personal gravity, and vanished through one of the dark balconies, leaving him alone and dishevelled amidst a tumble of his clothing and gear. On the room’s actual floor.

He blinked the fog from his eyes, got up, and dug around in his pack for some supplies. He took a minute or two to groom before he tugged his clothes back on, shouldered his pack, and set out for the farther door.

He had to find his companions, and ensure that together they left this place safely. And then… then, perhaps, there would be some serious talks in his future.

Maybe some exploration of a sort no map could chart.