The Ring Islands was never a popular board game in Tarsan, but it lost even more favor when the population grew more mobile for the Mechanical War.
— Fangor da Taul, Entertainment Before the War
For the youngest daughter of a trader, Beauty had met many mages over the years but Lanier was unlike any she had ever encountered before. It was difficult to classify the mage as either male or female. If Beauty told herself that Lanier was a woman, then Lanier took on a more feminine appearance. On the other hand, if she told herself that Lanier was male, then the mage was unmistakably male. It was as if Lanier was on the knife edge between the two genders.
Pid leaned over and poked her. “You’re staring,” she whispered.
Beauty blushed and looked down to Pid. She spoke in a low voice, “Sorry.”
“Not me you should be apologizing.” The little girl gave her hard look. It was adorable, but a bit fierce.
The blush grew hotter on Beauty’s cheeks. She glanced up at Lanier who was pouring another tea.
The mage wore a long flannel shirt with oranges and reds in it along with a solid color skirt below. Judging from her experience, the materials were of good quality but Beauty didn’t know much about the cut or shape. It looked comfortable with the faint chill of the late season and rain.
Zi set down the tea cup in front of Daman. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” said the prince and pushed it to the side while peering down at the concentric rings on the table underneath. It was a game board, but Beauty didn’t know the rules, why the rings were segmented, or the purpose for the little markers on the lines in the ring.
Lanier’s red eyes flickered over to catch Beauty’s.
Beauty blushed. “S-Sorry.”
Zi shrugged. “It happens. The question is if you keep staring or if you just accept it.” They had a musical voice that sounded supernatural, or at least trained for stage. It also brought little tingles along Beauty’s skin hearing it.
Pid leaned over. “Don’t ask zir why zi is that way either.”
“I wasn’t,” Beauty said.
Daman shrugged and grunted. “I probably would have. I’m curious.”
“It’s none of your business,” said both Lanier and Pid said at the same time.
The mage raised zirs eyebrows at Pid.
Pid shrugged. “Sorry. I know, I don’t talk for you. I just wanted to save you the effort.”
Lanier chuckled and shook zirs head. Picking up their tea, they took a drink before setting it down on the edge of the ring. “My turn?”
Jorul reached over and used his paws to push the three colored dice over to Lanier. “Here you go.”
Lanier rolled the dice in zirs palm for a second, then rolled them on the table. The red came up one, the blue showed two, and the green was zero. Smoothly, the mage picked up one of the orange ship figures and moved it one space along the ring. Then moved another ship two rings out. After a moment, they finished by moving the second ship one square along the ring toward one of the tokens.
“Oh, that’s my island!” grinned Pid. She grabbed the dice and almost threw them across the table.
Jorul’s paw snapped up to catch it before it fell off. “Off the table, roll again.”
Pid did. She got red two, blue zero, and black three. With a squeal, she moved her blue ship along the ring two and then three places to reach the crystal token first. “Mine!” she giggled and picked it up to transfer it to a bowl next to her.
Daman grunted with approval. “I think I get the rules now. Looks like fun.”
Beauty didn’t think so, but she didn’t want to say anything.
Pid picked up the dice and leaned over to Jorul before rolling them carefully in front of the giant mountain lion.
“They are pretty simple at first blush,” Lanier said. “You have dice to travel, getting treasure, and stealing from others. You leave the game by moving away from the outer ring, and the player with the highest number of treasures wins. House rules make things more complicated, but we stick with the basic three dice, three boats, and double the number of players in treasures and rings. It’s a fun game to enjoy lunch.”
Beauty remembered that she was making sandwiches for Daman and herself. The others already had the meal that Pid had brought along with Lanier’s tear. She ducked her head and finished up before handing the delicate plate over to her love.
She watched them play a few rounds, not quite enjoying herself but not enough to be rude by moving around the cottage or outside.
Lanier finished moving off the board with three treasure tokens in zirs bowl. Pouring the bowl into the wooden case for the game, the mage cleared their throat delicately. “Now, I do consider it my business as to why I have guests.”
Beauty looked up and then over to her love.
Daman struggled to stop watching the board. He grunted. “May I play next? It looks like fun.”
The mountain lion looked at Lanier and then back to Daman.
Daman sighed. Then he sat up, shifted his position, and sat firmly down next to Beauty. His hand slipped against hers and they clasped their fingers. “We were following rumors that you were capable of transforming men into beasts.”
Jorul’s ears perked up.
“We’re looking for someone to bring back my curse.”
Lanier rubbed a finger against the edge of zirs nose. “You want to be cursed?”
Beauty blushed. “Well, transformed would be fine also.” She looked at Daman and felt the longing rise up. “We just both want the beast back.”
Daman cleared his throat. “Many years ago, after my parents died, I was the marsh prince in Gepaul on the Kormar border. I wasn’t exactly the nicest person so when this old lady shows up and asks for shelter, I told her to fuck off because she was so ugly.”
Pid spoke up. “That’s rude!”
Daman grinned at her. “Yes, it was. And I was being a proper asshole. But she then turned into this beautiful fairy princess and cursed me into a shape of a horrible beast until I found someone who could love for my heart, not my physical appearance.”
Lanier said, “I take it Beauty was your true love?”
Beauty nodded, memories of the night flashing past her. She had almost lost Daman that night when her own brothers led the charge into the castle and fought him off. Her heart almost tore in half in that moment.
Lanier gestured with delicate fingers. “Then when you two kissed, the curse was broken and he turned into… that?” The fingers pointed directly at Daman.
Next to the table, Jorul let out a long sigh.
“And you want him back? To the beast he was?”
Beauty said, “Yes.”
“After a break a curse about seeing someone’s heart beyond a physical appearance, you’re looking to get his monstrous appearance back.”
At the accusing tone, Beauty cringed. She should have been happy with what she had. The longing was just hard to resist.
Daman, on the other hand, didn’t seem bothered. “Yes.”
Sitting up straighter, Daman squeezed Beauty’s hand. “We love each other with all our hearts. Nothing is going to change that. I just… We were both happier in that shape.”
She sheepishly agreed. “I liked his roughness. He was rough and brusque, but that’s the man I fell in love with. Plus, the growls, and the fur, and the… then…” She realized she was going down a train of conversation inappropriate for public company.
“I had a huge log.” Daman broke his grip to hold his fingers about two feet apart.
Blushing hotly, Beauty elbowed her prince. “Daman!”
He snorted and brought his hands about eight inches apart before dropping his hands to capture hers again. He grinned as she blushed even hotter with his more accurate measurement.
Jorul’s tail smashed into the ground and he let out a low, sultry growl.
Daman turned to the lion. “I know, but I’m stuck with… this shape with some of the strangest things that happen to it. You know, I can’t get muddy? Every time I stand up, it just slides away. Same thing with mosquitoes, flies, and skunks. It’s unnatural. I liked it when I had mud in my fur, or the way the ground shook when I stomped around, and I could open the doors easily during the winter.”
Beauty ducked her head before she lifted her gaze to speak. “It was about four years ago, we realized we wanted him back. We talked to some mages and they said that having him cursed would trigger the initial one as long as the new curse wasn’t as powerful. So we started looking for someone who curse us and bring back his old body.”
“I’ve been an asshole to every person I could find since then.”
Lanier asked Beauty, “You let him do that?”
She shook her head. “He isn’t a bad person, so I usually went back after a few days and made it right. Usually food, drink, and payment. I don’t want either of us to be villains, it’s just a…” She struggled with the word.
“A longing?” Lanier asked, zirs eyes softening.
Beauty looked at Daman and they both nodded.
“Yes,” she said.
Jorul laughed. “I know that feeling, that hunger to be something different. Back in the day, they sent me up because someone got it up their ass that Lan here needed to pay taxes.”
Beauty stared in shock. “You really were a tax collector?”
“Yeah, hated my job.” The lion growled. “Soulless and cruel, you spend half of your time being told to use any excuse to seize as much money as possible. Most of the other collectors in town were even worse, they went out of their way to bully others. When you get paid a percentage, it’s amazing how fast you can find a missing tax payment.” He growled and shook his head. “I hated that job so much. It cost me my husband and a happy life.”
“You were married?” asked Daman.
Pid spoke up. “No, but he had a crush on a cute guy who was already married to another girl.”
Jorul growled at her.
She stuck out her tongue at him.
Beauty cleared her throat. “What happened?”
The lion stretched and inched over to rest his head on Daman’s thigh. Rolling over, he peered up at the prince. “Well, beautiful,” he started while looking at Daman. “We went in and started making a mess. My commander, she got turned into that white weasel that ran away, started breaking things left and right. The usual threats of prison. We all joined in, I mean, it was our job.”
Lanier sighed. “I panicked. I didn’t know what to do, so I used a transformation spell better suited toward combat. At the last minute, I realized I had done the wrong thing and tried to avoid turning them into sheep.”
Jorul’s tail thumped against the ground. “Next thing I know, I’m a mountain lion trying to get out of his armor. Commander ran away along with the others.”
“I offered to turn him back,” said the mage.
“I hated my job and I hated my life. Even in those few minutes, being a lion felt really good. I had a change everything. So I asked to stay. Offered to protect the tower if that was payment.”
“I didn’t need payment.”
“You got paid anyways, pretty boy,” said the lion with a growl.
“Zi!” snapped Pid. “Lan is a zi!”
Lanier held up his hand. “Quiet.”
Pid and Jorul quieted down.
“Now, first thing. Jorul, you are invading Daman’s personal space.”
Daman shook his head. He rested his hand on Jorul’s head and started to pet it. “I don’t mind.”
The mountain lion began to purr loudly, a deep rumbling sound in his massive chest. “He doesn’t mind.”
“Are you sure?” asked the mage.
The prince chuckled and shrugged a shoulder. “I know what I look like and there is no reason to deny it, I’m handsome. This isn’t the first time someone found me attractive. Nor is it the first time I’ve had a man’s head in my lap. It happens.”
Jorul opened an eye. “Ever do something about it?”
Daman leaned over and whispered something in his ear.
Jorul’s tail thumped loudly. Then he looked at Beauty.
She knew what her prince had said. The couple had a rule while traveling, one they had established a few months after their first trip out. If Jorul wanted to bed the prince, he needed her permission just as someone would have to get consent from both Daman and herself if she was inclined to spend time with a lover. She had only taken the opportunity once, with a childhood friend, but Daman usually enjoyed dalliances every few months. As long as he returned to her and it didn’t turn into anything beyond a casual fling, she wasn’t bothered.
“Not now,” Daman said. Then he spoke louder. “Do you think you could help us? We can pay.”
Lanier looked back and forth. Then zi sighed. “I know what it is like to feel that longing. That was how I ended up becoming a transformation mage. I’m willing to try, but I’m unsure of what price is needed.”
“A favor then? No questions.”
“That is a dangerous offer. You shouldn’t ever make those, otherwise you might find yourself in the middle of a war with no one to help you.” There was a sharpness to Lanier’s tone. Zi had been in that situation and Beauty couldn’t imagine what had happened to cause the haunted look in zirs eyes.
Daman drew himself. “It’s important to me.”
“Let me see if I can do anything first. Come on, stand up… we should probably go outside. This could get messy. Pid, find your cloak, it still raining.”
A few minutes later, they were outside in the drizzle. Daman stood between the two cottages, on the stone path. Lanier had put themselves right before them. The others remained by the edge of the cottage, with Pid standing between Jorul and Beauty.
Lanier held out zir hand. It glowed brightly, a shifting cascade of rainbows about the brightness of a good torch. The colors rolled around each other as zi pressed their fingers lightly against Daman’s bare chest. “I can feel the remains of the curse. Yes, your advice was right. If you were hit with shaping magic, the original spell would take over and you would return to your form.”
Beauty let out a sigh of relief. Even though two separate mages had told them that, she always worried that if they finally got her prince cursed, he would become something entirely else.
Magenta sparks of light rose off both Daman and Lanier. A trickle of blood oozed out from the mage’s nose while Daman scratched his wrist.
The light grew brighter. It grew from the brightness of a torch into the brilliance of a courtyard surrounded by magical lights.
“I’m going to charge the remnants of the curse directly. If I do that and repair some of this damage, that will let me push more power through the frame without a risk of something else taking over.”
Daman groaned. His body shuddered.
Beauty held her hand over her mouth, not wanting to cry out.
The light grew as bright as sunlight. Then it turned liquid before pouring directly into Daman’s chest.
Beauty’s love let out a loud groan of discomfort. His shoulders clenched and twisted. “This hurts.”
Lanier pulled back his hand.
“No!” bellowed Daman, his voice growing deeper. He turned his head to stare directly at Beauty. “More. Make it hurt, I can handle it… for her.”
Tears burned in her eyes.
The liquid energy continued to pour into him. It flooded his insides until his bones and muscles could be seen through his skin. The golden light poured out of his eyes, ears, and nose. More of it ran down his legs until his entire body was coated in the raw power.
Pid grabbed her other hand and clenched it.
Beauty dropped to her knees and held Pid tightly. She couldn’t look away from her lover’s eyes as he stared back at her.
“More,” growled the prince. “Please.”
More blood ran down Lanier’s face. It came from his ears and nose. “This isn’t something you just ram in. I need grace and control. Just a few more seconds though, I’m about done.”
Daman threw back his head and howled. His body grew thicker and dense, swelling up inside his shirt until the fabric tore. Button by button snapped off as fur sprouted across his body.
At the familiar sight of his claws, Beauty’s heart almost burst. She remembered when it felt like to have his powerful hands pinning her hands over her head in the West Wing.
He continued grow, his body filling out to the familiar shape that she had been longing. His bestial feet slammed into the ground and then sank with his increased weight. Powerful muscles flexed underneath fur as his broad shoulders and haunches settled into place. Two horns spiraled up above his broad head, sparkling in the light before settling into place.
The light extinguished with a flash.
Lanier staggered back.
The Beast slumped forward, ending his howl. Shaking, he looked down at his black claws and broad hands. Then, he reached down with both hands to feel his crotch. With a grin, he looked back up. “I’m back?”
Sobbing behind her hand, Beauty reached out for him. “My love,” she whispered in a choked cry.
He lifted his hand, the size that would easily dwarf her own. Seeing it brought the memories of the warm pads against her skin, the points that trailed along her shoulder, and the way he could hold her off the ground with his strength.
His eyes shimmered.
Approaching, she breathed in to take in the musky smell that had clung to him before. It was primal and hungry, the shape of the man she had finally gotten back.
She could feel his warmth and the tickle of his fur. Even the rough edge of his claw brought countless memories to slam into her.
Golden light rose around him, just like the day when he had turned into a human.
Daman’s face flickered into a frown. “Something’s wrong—”
With an explosion of golden light, Beauty was thrown back into the cottage as her love was ripped from her grip by the explosion that had formed between the two of them.