Michael yawned, accidentally smacking his head as it jolted back. Wincing, he rubbed his head, trying to reorient himself, his mind lingering in the strange place where dreams are remembered as fact before realization dawned.
"Sorry," the guy with the weird, slightly ratty face apologized, "I didn't know how long you wanted to sleep for."
Michael stared at him a bit before he remembered: Jack. "You know things are bad when dreams make more sense than reality. How long was I out?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," Jack reported. "A couple of hours, I think, but it's hard to tell. Nothing's really happened since you've been out."
Michael raised, glancing around for his stuff. Jack seemed a little less ratty than he'd remembered, but then his thinking was still fuzzy; plus, it was hard to tell, as he didn't know what Jack had looked like before at all in order to judge. "What did I think to do before going on?" he wondered, assembling his gear with Jack's assistance.
"You ready to go?" he asked Jack.
"Assuming there's a cure further on, then right now," Jack answered determinedly. Taking the torch, he started creeping cautiously down the corridor. Michael quickly followed, the wooden pole tightly gripped between his fingers, his ears alert for danger from ahead and behind. Aside from the slow, gentle swaying of the torch in Jack's hand, the only other thing Michael observed was the gentle trickling of water, and the odd rhythmic scraping of stone against stone.
He hoped that it wasn't some rat-man or worse taking a leak.
They didn't have to travel far to find out; after a couple of turns in the corridor, including one that sent them on a U-turn following the other side of what had been the wall with the sign on it, they arrived at a T-junction. Jack shifted forward, the torch first pointing down the left corridor, then the right; the first was obviously a dead end, for jutting out of the wall directly across was a fountain, whose basin filled most of the corridor; to the right was, quite likely, the source of the strange stone-against-stone noise, as round pieces of the stone floor rotated. Another patch, further along the corridor, showed a similar spinning. The wall of the T-junction had another message inscribed onto it:
THE FIFTH LESSON
SOME SOURCES OF WATER WITHIN THE PIT ARE SAFE, WHILST SOME ARE NOT. THIS ONE IS ALWAYS SAFE, BUT OTHERS MAY NOT BE. YOU WOULD BE WISE TO BE WARY IN THE FUTURE; BUT NOT SO PARANOID AS TO AVOID DRINKING ENTIRELY, FOR THAT WAY LEADS DISASTER.
OTHERTIMES THE WALLS, CEILING AND EVEN THE FLOOR CAN BE YOUR ENEMY.
Michael slipped the backpack off his back; he inquired of Jack, "Do you have a water-skin?"
Jack nodded, but after a pause, added, "Do you think we should really trust the sign?"
Michael shrugged, "They've not been lies yet. This place is unpleasant, but I don't think unfair."
"Maybe I should test it out first?" Jack suggested. "I'll take a sip; if I get worse then you'll be safe. If it's a cure, or even a partial cure, then..." His free hand idly brushed behind him; Michael guessed he'd been thinking about his tail.
"Go for it," Michael encouraged, watching closely as Jack slowly dipped a finger in, then dripped a small amount of the water into his mouth. A discerning expression appeared on his face as he licked his lips; Michael took the opportunity to carefully extract his water-skin from underneath the oil jar.
"It seems safe," Jack announced finally.
Michael turned, his water-skin in his hand, and slightly rolled his eyes. He could understand Jack's nervousness, he supposed, after what happened to him, but he was being a bit paranoid. Once done, he stoppered it, then took the torch from Jack, allowing him to fill his own water-skin. Michael took the opportunity to watch the rotating pieces of floor. A quick look indicated that the walls were fine, and seemed to be flat, so nothing of too much consequence would happen if they fell over. The plates would probably be more than a nuisance than anything.
"Would you like to go first," Jack asked from over his shoulder, followed by a tinkling of water, before he added, "or should I still go first?"
Michael thought for a second; if something bad did happen, he'd rather it didn't happen to him. On the other hand, being a jerk to the only person he had to work with probably wouldn't have been good either. "I'll go first, I've got the torch," he replied, shrugging his shoulders subconsciously. "I think the trick with these spinning plates is to step into the middle," he added, tentatively stepping his foot out.
"Wait!" he heard Jack yelp behind him. One pole end suddenly appeared between his legs, jabbing down on the spinning plate. It then retracted, and the pole prodded at various rocks on the walls and ceiling. "Well, if what you said was right about the signs," Jack explained, "then there could be other traps other than the obvious."
Michael closed his eyes, cursing himself. "I bet you're glad you were nice now, huh?" his mind taunted. Aloud, he thanked Jack, slowly stepping onto the spinning plate.
Caution proved to be a little bit of a mistake, as Michael stumbled; he managed to catch himself before falling over, but dropped the torch, which unhelpfully decided to go out. A small amount of torchlight could be seen ahead - Michael guessed there might have been another chasm ahead - but it wasn't enough to be able to see where to go. Especially as he was now sprawled on a rotating floor.
"Are you alright?" a nervous Jack asked, the sound of his voice spinning around weirdly.
Michael chuckled, "Yeah, just hurt my pride, and put out the torch. Being cautious might not be the best idea. Let me try to go ahead, and relight the torch; then I'll come back and at least you'll be able to see where to go."
Jack suggested, "Maybe I should go back and get another one, or light it there?"
Michael pulled himself to a seated position, feeling around for the torch. "You can if you want," he suggested, "but I'd rather not wait here spinning like an idiot." The spinning was starting to make him feel ill; he was slightly relieved when his fingers brushed against the tip of the torch. Feeling about to place enough of it to grab, he thought, "Well, that's at least one problem handled."
Michael carefully curled up into a crouch, slowly rising to a squatted stance, bracing himself as well as he could against the spinning floor beneath him. He slowly reached out both hands, checking for the walls. "Try to stand back," he warned, "I'm going to try to jump off, but if the floor does something weird I might end up jumping into you."
"Alright," Jack replied, the voice spinning around Michael's head as he measured the time of each rotation between when the far end of the torch scraped up against the wall. Tensing the muscles in his legs, he slowly stepped back, then ran forward, leaping in the faint direction of torchlight beyond.
Michael landed, bracing himself as he was suddenly spun in the opposite direction. The light looked a little closer, but it was coming from around a corner, so only faintly helped him to see that the next piece of floor was rotating as well. Another couple of slow, timed jumps later, and he was bracing himself against the walls, the floor now steady underneath him.
"I'm on the other side now," Michael called out to Jack, bracing his hand against the wall. "There's a chamber here, once my head stops spinning I'll go light the torch."
Jack shouted back, "Sure."
One hand against the wall, Michael unsteadily walked into the chamber; the unpleasant odor of a latrine assaulted him. The torch was, inconveniently, placed in a far corner beyond another passage out, not giving the chamber itself much light; yet another sign was beside it, but Michael's head was spinning around and it was too far away and blurry to read. His hand suddenly touched something metallic; pulling back, he noticed a golden lock embedded in what he'd thought was a wall. "Clever," he thought, shifting his hand to the other wall, swaying towards the torch.
Passing through the doorway, Michael read the sign as he lit his torch:
THE SIXTH LESSON
WHAT GOES IN MUST COME OUT. IT PAYS TO NOT DROP INTO THE MORE OBVIOUS PITS, BUT THEY'RE NOT THE ONLY SUDDEN DROPS TO WORRY ABOUT.
THOUGH IT MAY SEEM UNFAIR FOR EVEN THE BOUNDARIES OF THE ROOM TO BE AGAINST YOU, SOMETIMES THEY MAY SECRETLY BE YOUR ALLIES; OR AT LEAST YOUR WAY FORWARD.
Michael, feeling a bit steadier on his feet, returned back through the chamber and crossed to the other door. His nose wrinkled as he glanced down the smelly pit, and thought, "No, I do not want to fall down there." Stepping around the corner, he stumbled and nearly dropped the torch again as he bumped into Jack.
"You didn't wait for me to come back?" asked Michael.
"Well, you did it," Jack shrugged, "and I didn't know that you would come back."
Michael sighed exasperatedly, "Look, I'm sorry about being cautious about you-"
"Oh, no," Jack interjected, "well, maybe that too, but mostly I was worried you'd fall into a pit or something."
Michael, slightly red with embarrassment, deflected by pointing towards the latrine pit, "Thankfully some of them come with a warning smell."
Jack crinkled up his nose, commenting, "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of. I guess one advantage of being a little bit rat-man is a better sense of smell. I couldn't tell where it was, so just in case you'd fallen in..."
"Er, well thanks, then," Michael replied.
Jack shrugged, "Don't mention it. I think we should probably get out of here, unless you need to use the facilities."
Michael shook his head. "Not me," he replied.
Jack nodded, "I'll go first; anything to get away from that smell sooner."
Michael briefly glanced down into the pit, the germ of the idea someone else having fallen down in there growing fruitful; he regretted doing so, aside from relieving himself of some poor bastard trapped down there, dying from the stink. He quickly followed Jack, who had scurried quickly out of the room, and was looking at the sign.
"Secret doors," Jack commented, pointing at the sign. His free hand pulled on the torch, then prodded at the sign and the bricks within reach. "We should look out for loose rocks or anything that might secretly be a button or lever or pressure pad."
"Sounds like you know what you're doing," Michael noted.
"Yeah, I've played way too many role-playing games," Jack explained. "This is pretty standard dungeon-crawling stuff."
"Ah, right," Michael replied. "So, this is kind of your element, then?"
Jack shrugged, "Sort of; usually I'm not the one who actually has to do any of it. My characters are. But I at least know in general what to do."
Michael, advancing forward to check the walls further along, noted, "I guess you're a good guy to have around, then."
Jack turned, and grinned, saying, "Thanks. What stuff are you into?"
Michael answered, "Not much really: work, classes and the assignments for that, talking to friends, seeing movies or going to concerts with them occasionally; if I have a boyfriend or girlfriend at the time, then more going out with them."
Jack inquired, "No hobbies?"
Michael shrugged, "Not really. I sometimes work out, kind of not at the moment and never really seriously."
The conversation paused for a while as they proceeded further down the zigzagging path, carefully probing at the wall and floors for the trigger to open the secret door. Once they'd rounded the wall, Jack asked, "So, you're not seeing anyone at the moment?"
Michael shook his head. "No," he explained, "not for a couple of months. I probably shouldn't; my friends keep trying to set me up with people who I don't really like."
Jack, testing various stones on the floor with his foot, "Is that why you came here?"
Michael shrugged, "Yeah, I guess. I wanted to do something very non-me. A moment of craziness, I guess. Having random sex with strangers in a kinky club seemed, well, an experience."
Jack blushed, "Yeah. I probably should have thought about that part of it more."
Michael asked, "You didn't come for sex?"
Jack explained, "Well, sort of. I, well, I didn't know any gay people. I thought maybe they all came to places like this, so when I found one that seemed to like the things I did I thought it'd be good."
Michael laughed, "Ha, most of the ones I know don't, but then I don't know many gay guys either."
Jack laughed as well, slightly nervously. He started, "Would you...?" before breaking off.
"What?" Michael asked.
"Never mind," Jack replied, changing the subject by yelling out, "Yes! I found it!"
While they'd talked the pair had weaved through the walls. They had all been aggravatingly solid, and it had probably taken them ten times as long to advance with the searching and the weaving as it normally would have. After so long with no results, Michael was getting bored and careless; he felt lucky they'd found it, having to backtrack would have been too much.
Jack revealed the wall - around the second major zigzagging of the walls - had a small stone on the side that, when pressed, slid the otherwise normal-looking wall to the side wide enough for most but the tallest and widest men to pass through easily.
"Good work," Michael said. "Does that mean I can stop now?"
Jack shrugged, "For now, I guess. Hopefully they all work this way; then we can just keep an eye out for this arrangement. If they've just mass-produced these things, that's more likely. I think it shuts after a while, though, since we've not seen the rats or the other guys." Jack quickly ducked through the gap; since Jack had the torch, Michael quickly followed him.
"A straight path, hooray," Michael exclaimed half-sarcastically as he and Jack looked at the passage beyond the secret door. Jack's pace was quick, and Michael hurried to catch up. Jack occasionally paused to have a quick glance at the sides before pressing on, running forward.
Turning around another loop, Michael asked, "What's the rush?"
Jack paused, replying incredulously, "Do you want to be in here?"
Michael said, "No, well, we weren't in a rush before, so I was just..."
Jack turned, his face irritated, shouting "Do you think I like looking like this?"
Michael stepped back in shock, answered timidly, "No, but-" He cut off his own answer by yelling, arms instinctively shoving Jack forward as an portcullis swiftly clattered down from the ceiling. Michael pulled his arms back just in time to avoid having them caught by the edge. Jack sprawled on the floor, the portcullis separating him from Michael.
"Jack, are you okay?" Michael asked, gripping onto the framework.
Jack slowly picked himself up, wincing and wiping his nose as it dripped blood. "Shit," he swore, as he noticed the portcullis. "That... sorry, I guess I should have been more careful. There must have been a pressure plate under one of the rocks."
Michael asked, "Okay, how do I get through?"
Jack hobbled slightly, picking up the torch and then looking over the portcullis. "Try stepping on different parts of the floor," he instructed, "maybe it's just weight-activated. I'll try this side; if people can always go back, then there should be a pad or something on this side too, somewhere."
On each side of the portcullis, the two guys pushed and prodded on the floor; after testing each of the rocks, they turned to pushing on the stones in the wall and tapping the ceiling with poles. Without success, Jack tried searching the area around the corner as well, Michael leaning up against the metal trellis.
After what felt like an eternity of tapping and stamping, Jack returned to the portcullis, apologizing, "Sorry, I guess maybe it needs to be reset?"
Michael shrugged, replying, "Well, you're the expert. Maybe we can pry it up with the poles?"
Jack shook his head, noting, "The poles are made of wood; the portcullis looks like it's made of iron, so I'm pretty sure it'd just break the pole. There's nothing hard to help jack it up either."
Michael asked, "So, now what?"
Jack suggested, "There might be something further on, but it'll mean you possibly sitting here in the dark for a while..."
Michael slumped down, sitting in the corner, gripping his pole. "Alright, just be careful. I don't want to be sitting in the dark here for too long."
Jack paused to say something, but apparently thought better of it, turned and stepped forward. The light dimmed, and Michael's grip tightened, the grain of the wood scraping against his palms, as he watched Jack test the next cell for secret triggers. His ears strained to listen for any rat-men that might be scurrying around. He shivered.
Jack turned; he then swore loudly and then laughed. "There's a lever here," he called out. Jack disappeared around a corner; Michael heard a grunt, then a clank of metal as, somewhere, a chain's links were pulled tight. The portcullis slowly raised, and Michael quickly scrambled underneath, rounding the corner to where Jack sat breathing heavily.
Michael saw the trickling fountain rather than hearing it; it was in another dead-end. A little ways off, just within the range of the torch's light, was the gilded glint of another special keyhole. A heavy metal lever, like a giant light-switch, was embedded in the wall on other side from the portcullis.
"Hey, are you alright?" Michael asked. Jack was clutching his stomach, pointing towards the fountain.
"Don't drink," Jack mumbled, before he screamed in pain. His short nubby tail sprouted outward with a quick jerk, the thin tip sitting between his knees. His knuckles inflamed, James' fingers becoming misshapen and gnarled as he twisted them into fists.
"Oh shit," Michael swore, dumping the pole and reaching into his backpack quickly. Grasping for his water-skin, he pulled it out, forcing the end into Jack's short muzzle, which pushed out, teeth irregular and jagged.
Tipping Jack's head back, Michael forced him to drink. Jack choked; the water splashing back. Michael saw Jack's skin darken.
Tilting the transforming man's head downward, Michael thrust his fingers down Jack's throat. Jack's scream cut short, as a huge gush of acidic liquid squirted out of Jack's open mouth. Michael pulled his fingers out, wiping them off on the rat fur as he held Jack's head up. Jack continued to vomit, Michael shifting to get out of the way of the watery pool.
Eventually Jack stopped heaving; his transformations seemed to slow down as well as he sat there gasping. Cradling him, Michael asked, "You alright now?"
Panting heavily, Jack replied weakly, "Yeah." He brought his shaking, misshapen hand to his face, to wipe his mouth. When he saw what had happened, he cried out in horror.
"Hey, hey," Michael soothed, "I think it stopped now. At least you can still think." Jack lay there silently. Michael added, half-jokingly, "Hey, mind if we move? Not too keen on sitting in vomit."
"Okay," Jack said, struggling to his feet as Michael helped him up. Taking the torch, Michael slipped Jack's arm - which he noted had slightly changed in structure - over his shoulder. Advancing past the fountain, Michael glanced at it: it looked exactly like the other fountain. Even the water looked the same. He swore to himself, then pressed on.
"Lucky it's mostly straight ahead," Michael thought as the pair shuffled forward; Jack's head downcast, remaining quiet as they headed forward. Michael held their two poles in Jack's hand slowly shuffling forward.
At the next bend, Jack mumbled weakly, "Thanks for..."
Michael, pausing to catch his breath, answered, "Hey, well at least we know that one is safe, and you don't seem to have gotten much worse."
Jack noted, "That's not how it feels."
Pushing off from the wall, and rounding the corner, Michael asked, "Well, in those games of yours, your characters find things to get better, right?"
"Yeah," Jack admitted.
Michael stated, matter-of-factly, "Well, then that's just what we'll have to do. In the meantime, you can help by keeping your rat senses on alert, and maybe that'll help us avoid danger."
"Okay," Jack agreed noncommittally.
The passage forward was a twisting, turning serpent; Michael kept hold of Jack, who walked forward as if in a daze, bracing himself against the walls to rest. Supporting Jack, who was very unresponsive, made the turns difficult, and the events were starting to wear Michael down.
"Wait," Jack said suddenly, slightly startling Michael. He seemed to snap out of his daze, nostrils flaring and brow furrowed.
"What is it?" asked Michael.
Jack explained, "There's rat-men up ahead. I can smell them; that probably means that they could be able to smell us as well."
Placing one hand tentatively on Jack's shoulders, inquiring "Are... are you alright?"
Jack replied, "Not really, but if we're going to get past them then you can't be carrying me."
Michael asked, "Do you want to stay here? I could scout it out and if there's enough for me to handle I could come back to get you."
"No," Jack said, "I think I could help. We'll have to get closer for me to tell for sure, but I might be able to provide a distraction."
"Okay then," Michael agreed, slightly concerned. "Has Jack's mind been affected by the transformation?" he wondered to himself as they carefully crept forward together.
Jack's nose twitched and wriggled, straining his senses; Michael tried sniffing, but he could really tell anything. He guessed that Jack was able, with his slightly-transformed nose, to smell things he couldn't. The passage straightened out, as though the map was urging them forward.
Progressing forward a short distance, Jack suddenly stopped Michael. Now, Michael could hear noises, albeit faintly: scrabbling and gurgling and grunting and moaning. Jack turned to him, grinning. "I was right, they're having sex!" he whispered excitedly.
Michael whispered back, slightly wary that Jack had gotten worse, "And that's good for us, because...?"
"Because," Jack explained quietly, "if I offer myself to them, and maybe I'm rat enough that they'll accept it, and I can be a distraction. You've got some oil in your backpack, right?" Michael nodded, and Jack continued, adding appropriate gestures at points, "Well, take my loin cloth, and stuff it in there. You might need to soak it, leather's probably not the best for a molotov cocktail. If you've got something else then use that instead. Just let me get close to the fountain; I'll jump in and hopefully that will protect me a bit."
"That sounds really dangerous," Michael said, "won't it explode?"
Jack shrugged, "There was a lot of rats before, I'm not sure but I think they're all there from the sounds of it. We need to put them out of commission or we'll just keep pushing them farther into the maze in front of us and they'll always be a problem."
Michael nodded reluctantly, whispering, "I can't argue with that, but let's just take a look at it first."
"Just one thing," Jack said, his gnarled hands halting Michael's step forward. "I... I don't really know how to, uh, seduce a guy."
"Oh," Michael replied; accidentally snorting in amusement. He covered his face, and said, "Would rat-men be seduced the same way normal guys would?"
Jack, eyes widening, whispered loudly, "How am I supposed to know?! I just need to know something! I've never done it before!"
Michael snorted, further clamping his face, before breathing in deeply to calm himself. "Well," he advised, "if you're naked, and they're naked, then that should help. Probably the best to go up non-threateningly at first - maybe leave your stuff back with me - then maybe choose one and, maybe, go to jerk him off. Maybe suck him - it - off a bit. I think most males would take that as nice. Make your ass available too, lift your tail up. Generally do the stuff in porn; it's not real but I think just getting in on the sex stuff should be good enough."
Jack nodded, "Okay, I'll try."
Michael patted him on the shoulder, asking, "This isn't... something you want, is it? I mean, for first times it's a bit like stepping into the lion's den." To himself, he added, "Or rat's nest."
Jack's eyed focused on Michael, whispering resolutely, "No, but I'm not going to get another option if I'm stuck in here, like this. I need to get a cure, and get out. Any cure lies beyond them."
Michael whispered, "Well, we could... at least for your first time..."
Jack shook his head, "I might be contagious through sex. If I did that to you, I wouldn't be able to live with myself. Anyway, I may not need to actually do anything, at least for very long."
Michael bowed his head; Jack was stuck on the idea, and he probably had more knowledge about dungeons than he did, so it might make sense to get rid of the rat-men now than to keep pushing them back. "Okay," he said, "I think this is kind of stupid, but I don't really have an alternative. Let's just scout them out first, okay?"
Jack nodded, creeping forward; Michael followed soon after. The passage beyond zigzagged; the noises the rats were making were clearer now, and they were either fighting or fucking; according to Jack, the latter was the most likely, and if he could smell them, then that probably would tip towards sex. They each gripped onto their poles and torch tightly, on the off-chance the rat-men tried to confront them.
That didn't eventuate, and soon Michael caught the glint of gold; another "members only" doorway was up ahead, where the passage turned. The noises were clear now, and Michael could now smell them too - the scent of sweat and sexual fluids, even of another species, was obvious - so at least Jack was human enough at the moment to warrant trusting him.
Jack's humanity was slightly concerning Michael; from Jack's own words, one of the other men he'd come in with had been transformed when rats had attacked them. He didn't feel good about potentially killing things that had once been human.
Jack turned, whispering, "Your face is fl- it might be better if you were to look around the corner." His face was consumed with nervous twitches and slight despair about his condition.
Michael slid past Jack, head slowly edging around. Fortunately, there was a torch around the corner which illuminated the chamber, preventing their own torch from giving them away.
In the opposite corner, a clone of the two previous fountains bubbled away. Slightly further along, several rat men sprawled together. All naked, a couple munched on muesli bars, crumbly remnants of the others littered on the floor, gathering attention from another rat, who licked up the crumbs from the floor and the feet of the other rats.
Most of the rats were aroused, their cocks out of their sheaths; despite their color and dimensions, Michael was unnerved by how similar they were shaped to human ones. One was sniffing around the rear of the one licking up the crumbs; gently stroking himself off with the thumbs of his hands, or claws, or whatever the rat-men had. The muzzle of one of the eating ones was smeared with what could easily have been semen or saliva; it was too hard to tell just from the glint of the torches. The final two were rutting, the larger one pressing heavily down onto the smaller one's body, braced against the ground on all fours, rear in the air.
Turning away with a shiver, Michael headed over to Jack, who was standing in the corner facing the wall. "I think you might be in luck; there's a T-junction up ahead, the rats are down one path, the fountain's down another. A couple of the rats are already busy, and some are eating. They're all sort of piled up together. You may-"
Suddenly, Jack sobbed and turned around, face in his hands. Michael glanced down; Jack's own - apparently, fully rat-man penis, was unsheathed, the pink spire jutting out towards Michael. He'd apparently removed his loincloth in preparation. "I'm aroused by their smell," he admitted sadly; "I wasn't at first, but-"
Gripping Jack's shoulders, and shaking him slightly, Michael countered, "It's no different from all the random times you've gotten aroused by the smell of some guy, okay. Just try to calm yourself down, alright. Just relax and let me deal with the rats. I don't think it's a good idea for you to go out there, and you probably don't need to. Just put your loincloth back on, and I'll deal with the rats, okay?"
Michael slipped his backpack off, quickly rummaging around for the jar of oil. Ignoring Jack, he grabbed the torch, marching forward. Breathing outward, he counted down from three in his head.
On "Three", he stepped out from behind the wall. The rat-men who weren't too distracted looked up.
On "Two", he threw the jar of oil; it arced through the dimly-lit passage, bouncing off one of the shocked eating rat-men, before cracking open on the floor. Oil started to spill out.
On "One", he threw the torch, jumping back behind what Michael hoped was the safety of the wall.
Time slowed as Michael cringed, waiting for something to happen: an explosion, perhaps, or screams of pain at least, if the plan had worked; or an attack by the rat-men if it hadn't. Michael's heart thumped, and thumped again, waiting.
Nothing seemed to happen.
Nervously, Michael turned over - suddenly realizing that, if he'd gotten the attention of the horny rat-men, having his bare pass poking into the air was probably not the best thing to do - and slowly turned, right eye inching around the corner.
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" he swore.
One of the rat-men, who had apparently been surprised when the oil jar had bounced of his round belly, was staring at the torch he found in his hands. The other eating rat-man had apparently finished, and was reaching forward, grasping the torch-bearer's cock, slowly stroking it.
A heartbeat later, Michael heard a cry from behind him; the air swirled as Jack ran past, erection slapping him in the chest, his eyes wide with fury, and one end of one of the wooden poles gripped tightly by his two hands. With a shriek, he quickly raised the staff tip up, then brought it sharply down on the wrists of the torch-holding rat; the torch tumbled over to the ground.
Michael quickly pulled his head back, closing his eyes.
The oil ignited with a furious bellow; Michael cringed as the slightly-cool air quickly became unbearably warm. He heard loud squeals of pain as several of the rat-men got caught up in the flames; their pained cries, and the smell of their burning fur and flesh made Michael's stomach queasy. The floor beside him vibrated, and he heard frightened squealing masses rushing past him; at least some of the rat-men on this side of the flames had been spared from too much of the burning oil. The noises of their retreating, stone-clattering claws quickly faded away under the continual, though now dulled, roar of the fire and the pained, dying squeals of the others who had not been so fortunate.
Michael curled up into a ball, waiting for the worst to be over.
Eventually the heat blasting from around the corner seemed to cool, and the painful wails of the rat-men had stopped; the revolting stink of burnt flesh and rat fur remained, lingering like an unpleasant cloud. Reluctantly, Michael opened his eyes, bracing against the stinging smoke in the air around him, and extended himself once again to peer around to the passage beyond.
His vision was blurred by the smoke continuing to dissipate through the rest of the maze, but Michael could see as well as he wanted to. Jack huddled, his front fur singed and damp, as he sat wide-eyed in the fountain; the pole was still tightly gripped by both his hands, one end still smoldering and pointed outwards. Low flames continued to lick up the now-sooty walls, the oil quickly burning up. Black masses - Michael didn't want to think of them as burned, dead rat-men - lay clumped along the passage.
Bracing himself against the wall, Michael pushed himself into a standing position. Coughing and bracing himself against the wall to keep out of the way of the huddled bodies and the hungry, hot flames, he crept towards the fountain, shielding his face with his hands. When the cool spray of the fountain misted his face, he called out, "Jack?"
Getting no immediate response, Michael coughed as he breathed in some smoke and tentatively reached out towards the shivering, wet Jack. Jack cried out, the end of the stick whacking into Michael's leg.
"Fuck!" Michael swore as he fell over, right arm passing a little too closely to the burning oil. His arm hair now singed, he quickly pulled back his arm and yelled, "Jack! It's me! Michael!" Bracing for another attack, he crawled over to the fountain.
"It's over," Michael reassured Jack, taking Jack's hands in his own, slowly prying the clenched digits from around the pole. Michael's nose crinkled; Jack's fur had gotten quite badly burned, and it stank. The pole clattered to the floor, and Michael gently hugged the shivering, disarmed Jack.
Michael cradled him for a while, enjoying the cooling waters of the fountain, before the fear of the previous fountain forcing him out, pulling a jittery Jack to his feet as well. Drops raining down onto the heated floor, the pair retreated to where they had left their backpacks.
Bending down to retrieve his own, Michael heard Jack retching behind him; slipping his arms through the leather arm-straps, Michael turned to pat Jack on the back. "It's okay," he said.
"I don't think I'll ever forget that smell - those sounds - it was-" Jack confessed, his stomach heaving again.
"I know," Michael replied, his own stomach churning again. "Look, there were so many of them; if they'd gotten you they'd have turned you into one of them like they did with the other guy." Jack started shaking badly; Michael realized he probably shouldn't have reminded Jack that at least one of the rat-men had, not too long ago, been a human like them.
The sudden growing darkness, and the grind of stone sliding against stone startled him; turning around, Michael noticed that the far wall turning outwards, closing off the passage beyond. Rushing forward, he pressed his weight against it, but to no avail; his bare feet slid across the cobblestones, gaining no traction, until the wall clicked into place. The pair were now in near complete darkness, the only remaining light was a small amount coming through a barely finger-thick hole near the side. Michael tried peering through the small shaft - which he quickly realized was one of the golden keyholes - only to find a key blocking his vision.
"What is it?" squeaked a hoarse-voiced Jack.
Michael shrugged; then realizing he could barely be seen, added, "I don't know; one of the members' doors has opened, I think. Hopefully it's not permanent." Extending one arm to the wall, he tentatively stepped forwards, Michael's other arm waving about as to avoid walking into Jack; his leading foot gently poked the floor to avoid stepping on any of Jack's vomit.
His hand struck a furry, breathing thing; Michael nervously whispered, "Jack, I really, really hope that's you."
"It is, if you just touched me," Jack replied. Michael felt Jack's rough claws sliding over his hand. "If you don't mind," he requested, "I think I could do with a hug."
"Okay, sure thing," Michael nodded, gently embracing Jack; the feel of the hot, hairy body, the slightly claw-like hands wasn't much comfort to Michael, but he at least felt good that he could maybe calm Jack down somewhat.
"I really wanted to join in with them," Jack admitted, his tone self-loathing. "That manly - well, rat-manly - scent of sex... a part of me wanted to just go for it." Michael felt a hot, fleshy tip starting to probe his abdomen; given the placement of Jack's sheath, he assumed Jack had gotten slightly aroused with the reminiscing. Jack seemed to realize it too, and pulled back, apologizing, "I'm sorry."
Michael replied, "Don't worry about it; warm bodies together, arousing thoughts: I get it."
Jack, voice quivering, cried, "But I killed them. I burned them. It was horrible. They tried to get to the fountain, but I whacked them away. I didn't want them getting near me. I shouldn't still be thinking about them fucking like that."
Michael reached out; Jack had retreated over to the wall, and had sat down. Patting around in the darkness, Michael tried to sit down next to him. "Look," he reasoned, "you've probably still got a lot of hormones racing around your system, so now when you're safe they're probably resurfacing. You did the right thing; they would have attacked both of us - maybe turning us into rat-men too - and if our brains had changed too, then we'd be dead, in a way. We would have been trapped down here, just like them, attacking other people and turning them into rat-men. I wouldn't like that, I don't think you would either, and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't if they still thought like humans. Yeah, you did a horrible thing, but it was justified."
"Just who are you trying to convince with that speech?" Michael's mind accused. "You're the one who threw the oil. It might have been Jack's idea, but you were the one who did it."
It seemed to work though, Jack's sobbing seemed to stop. Michael felt one of Jack's odd hands touch the inside of his knee. "Thank you," Jack mumbled. Michael patted him back on his knee.
"Actually," Jack coughed awkwardly, "maybe you should not do that right now."
Michael chuckled understandingly, "Oh, okay."
"I mean, unless you don't mind..." Jack started. Pausing to breathe heavily, Jack slid his hand further up Michael's leg; then it quickly retracted, and Jack apologized again. Grunting in frustration, he said, "I'm sorry, that would probably be a bad idea. Especially for you."
Michael suggested, "Well, you could-" before light started streaming back in through a thin crack in the wall up ahead as the stone door rumbled, the passageway opening.
Michael leapt to his feet, dashing forward; "Hey! Hey!" he yelled to whomever, or what he hoped was a whomever, was opening - "Or was that closing?" Michael thought - the door. Pounding on the stone, Michael tried to reach through when the gap was big enough; his hand touched smooth metal. Squeezing and wriggling through the opening, he yelled in frustration; whomever had designed the doors had apparently considered this scenario already, as a metallic panel was hinged on the other side of the door: folded flat it would lie roughly flush with the wall, but opened out and it would frustrate anyone trying to pass through. Angered, Michael pounded on the metal sheet, quivering and shaking it to no avail as the door slid closed.
Frustrated, Michael turned and paced away, before freezing mid-step. The fire had been put out; aside from singed stones with a distinctive pattern, there was little to suggest that there had been a fire. The burnt remains of the rat-men had also been cleaned up, the lingering smell and a few spots where their furred skin had been fused to the stone the only traces of them that remained. An unlit torch and a new jar of oil had been neatly placed in a pile further down the passage, in the common corner of the way forward and the fountain.
"What the fuck?" Michael asked aloud to nobody in particular. He stared warily at the items that had been left for him - "Why had they done that?" he wondered - before tentatively picking them up.
A clattering from behind twisted Michael around; Jack, with the rest of their belongings including the two poles in tow, emerged from the dark passageway aroused and frustrated. Michael gestured with the items in his hand, commenting, "They cleaned up." Noticing Jack's arousal, Michael added, "Uh, do you-"
"Let's get going," Jack grumbled. "I'll calm down in a bit."
Michael added, "Maybe they took the bo- er, the rat-men away to get healed or something? Maybe they're not dead after all?"
Jack shrugged, avoiding looking at Michael. "Maybe," he mumbled, "let's just go though." Marching past Michael, Jack headed past the torch jutting from the ring embedded in the wall - Michael reasoning that it had either been somehow unaffected by the fire, or replaced by the same people or whatever who had cleared things up - and into the dark passage beyond.
"Hey!" Michael called out, somewhat confused, "Wait up!" Unscrewing the lid of the oil jar, Michael dipped his new, unlit in before hastily pushing the oily end into the wall torch's flame. Once lit, he leaned it against the wall before screwing the jar lid closed, carefully placing it into his backpack, then grabbing the burning torch and hurrying forward.
Michael wondered whether he'd done something wrong, or whether Jack was still worked up over what happened. He found getting over stuff easy - a little too easy, he sometimes wondered - and had a hard time reading people when they were stressed or angry.
Was Jack annoyed he'd run off? That might have been it; the guy was pent up and an emotional mess, so that might have been it. Being touched by Jack had been weird - not as unpleasant as he'd been expecting, but definitely a bit creepy - but he'd been willing to do something with Jack earlier. Considering it, he realized that could have been a really bad idea. Maybe that was what made Jack frustrated, instead: wanting to do something sexual with him, but the distraction of the door bringing the dangers of that back into focus. Then there was the guilt over what he'd done, and whether it might have been overkill based on the fact Jack wanted to fuck the rat-men so badly himself.
"This is the kind of stuff I came here to get away from," Michael sighed.
Pushing it out of his mind; Michael rushed forward. Sexually frustrated or just anxious in general, Jack wasn't in a good state to go off into the maze alone. Quickly checking a dead end for anything useful, or on the off-chance Jack had stopped, Michael turned, heading down another quickly-turning path.
The passages seemed to twist less now; "Luckily," Michael thought as he barely made out something moving in the darkness. Calling out for Jack to wait, Michael rushed forward. Glancing down quickly, he noticed Jack's arousal had abated.
"Don't go running off like that!" Michael admonished.
"Sorry," Jack sighed. "I just needed to cool off a bit."
Michael inquired, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Jack shook his head, "No, I'd rather not. Let's just walk, okay?"
"Okay," Michael agreed, "but we should at least walk together."
Jack's pace slowed down marginally, Michael keeping up at a slow jog. Jack slowed down eventually as the path tried to seemingly turn in on itself, veering off in another direction at the last moment.
Around the next corner, the floor seemed to disappear. Jack dashed up ahead, calling back, "There's some stairs here." Sure enough, Michael noticed the cobblestone stairs curling down. The foreshortened wall above them had another sign:
THE FINAL LESSON
YOU SHOULD NOW BE AWARE OF MANY OF THE WAYS THE PIT WILL TEST YOU; FROM NOW ON YOU WILL BE LEFT MOSTLY ON YOUR OWN.
A FINAL GOOD FORTUNE, BRAVE ACOLYTES!
Crouching down, Jack stared down the stairs, before reporting, "There's more maze down there, I think; at least it's not a giant green pool or anything." Sniffing heavily, he added, "No rat-men either." Michael wasn't sure whether Jack sounded disappointed or relieved, but he did sound somewhat tense. Finally, after a heavy pause, Jack asked, "Do you want me to go down first?"
"No, I'll go first," Michael answered, "You've... you need a break I think."
Stepping to one side, Jack extended his arm out. Michael, gripping tightly onto the torch, stepped down, briefly glancing behind Jack at the gold-plated lock just beside the stairs.