Same Meat, Different Poison
by Sideshow Lew
©2003 Sideshow Lew -- all rights reserved
The door of the tavern banged open, admitting a gust of bitterly cold wind, a swirl of snowflakes, and the gaunt figure of a man in a wolfskin cape. His fierce golden gaze strafed the tavern's occupants. Tall he was, broad shouldered and lean, his face handsome despite its scars. He shook himself, spraying the table of elves nearest the door with half-melted snow. They sneered at him and moved to another table.
"Damn," the traveler, Roth, swore. "I know winter comes early and stays late in the mountain towns, but when I left the foothills a week ago it was the middle of summer." He took off his cape and collapsed into an unoccupied seats. One of the barmaids, a pretty red-haired lass, hesitantly approached and asked for his order.
He eyed her coldly and grunted, "Steak. Just steak. The best you've got. Rare. When I bite into it, I want to hear it moo."
"We have crow, sir. I fear no other beast thrives hereabouts. That will have to suffice. And to drink?"
"Water to drink," she exclaimed. Water was something you bathed in. Even the children here drank beer.
"You heard me, wench. And draw it fresh. I don't want to choke on little snails."
A short, curly-haired man in simple but well-made attire approached the traveler. Roth eyed the newcomer. The man had a look of self-confidence all out of proportion to his youthful face and slight figure. He held a hand up, displaying the tattoo in his palm: a six-sided star with a human eye in the center. The wizard's mark.
"Tyelcaon, Mage of the Radiant Hollows," the sorcerer introduced himself. "I believe you sent for me?"
"Call me Roth," he replied, careful to shake the hand without the tattoo. "Have a seat. I know your time is valuable, so I'll get right to the point. I need help securing a magic item. It is the only thing that can cure me of a curse that's destroying my life. It lies in the Tomb of Haturnach --"
The barmaid, who had come up behind them, gasped and dropped the plate of raw crow she carried. "Haturnach!"
"You know of him?" Tyelcaon prompted.
"Yes, of course," she said. Lowering her eyes, she continued in a hushed voice, "Everyone hereabouts knows the legend. In his youth Haturnach was a great warrior who defeated the terrible Bearcat of Ikazayim and fought beside the Trailblazer Irregulars against Namhsa's army of man-eating plants! He retired here and founded our town almost two hundred years ago. But in his later years he became miserly and grasping. He hated the thought that treasure he fought so hard to amass would go to another who'd done nothing to deserve it besides outlive him. Haturnach put a geas on his servants so that when he died, they would leave and set up traps in his fortress home on their way out. His home is now his tomb, and all his treasures are sealed within. And ever since his death, the village of Blackthorn has been under a curse of perpetual winter."
"I thought this cold weather was rather unseasonable," Tyelcaon said thoughtfully. "No one else has ever come to try and plunder Haturnach's Tomb?"
"Oh, many, good sir. Ever since my grandmother was a little girl. But no one has ever managed to break the spell of winter that entraps us." She raised her eyes and gazed imploringly at the two men.
"Well, don't look to me as your savior," Roth snarled. "I have more important concerns than a little snow. Now, bring me another crow, and quickly. And if I find you've brought me the same meat with the dirt brushed off, I'll --"
Tyelcaon put a gentle restraining hand on Roth's shoulder. The barmaid, sniffling back tears, scooped up the shattered plates and ruined food and rushed back to the kitchen.
"Really, there's no need to be so abrupt with the girl. She's a veritable fount of information."
"I'm sorry," Roth muttered, glaring down at the table. "But she's rather pretty, don't you think?"
Startled, Tyelcaon looked after her. "I suppose. I didn't really notice. Why does that matter?"
"Because if I don't stay mad at her, scare her away from me, I might begin to appreciate her physical charms. And then my curse will strike."
Tyelcaon arched an eyebrow. "Women troubles, eh? I assume you wronged a sorcerer in love? Always a dangerous proposition."
"It was the sorcerer's wife. Lysithea. I was working as a castle guard at the time. Lysithea was beautiful, bored... she took me into her bed. It was fun while it lasted, which was exactly as long as it took for Nornaolos to walk in on us."
"Nornaolos Darklash, the Mage of the Seven Shadows?"
"The very same."
Tyelcaon let out a low whistle. "My friend, you don't do things by half measures, do you? You couldn't just futter any old sorcerer's wife. No, you set your sights on the wife of the world's foremost practitioner of the Unhallowed Arts!"
"I know, I know, I was thinking with the brain in my codpiece instead of the one in my helm," Roth said. "Keep your voice down, will you? Anyways, as you may have guessed, he discovered us in the act and nearly exploded with rage. He screamed that I was a savage wolf ravaging his defenseless little lamb. He was waving his arms like crazy, spewing bolts of pure mana from his fingertips. One hit me, another hit Lysithea. I felt strange all over, but I still managed to drag her out the door and we escaped. Or so we thought."
"He came after his ravaged lamb?"
Roth grinned ruefully. "No, no. After he cursed us he accused her of going through men like a bitch in heat. News to me. Anyways, we got as far away as we could and waited for Nornaolos to come finish us off. After a week or so with nothing further happening we began to feel safe. We planned to move south, start a whole new life together, mayhap raise a family. Then one night in bed in a ratty little tavern we turned to each other for comfort... and the next thing we knew, we transformed. I became a wolf, and she became --"
"Not a ravaged lamb, eh?" Tyelcaon raised his hand. "I get the picture."
"When we changed back, we had a flaming row. Each blaming the other, that sort of thing. She went back to Nornaolos to beg his forgiveness and advised me to do the same. She said the only one who can lift a curse is the sorcerer who put it on you in the first place. Every magical expert I've consulted since told me the same thing. But I'm not going to go on bended knee to that bastard! My only desire is to hold him at sword point while he lifts the curse, then cut his head off and drop kick it through the nearest window." Roth shut his eyes and smiled as he mentally pictured the scene.
"That would be difficult under the best of circumstances. Nornaolos is a powerful sorcerer."
"Yes, I understand that. But with the right kind of back-up I think I could storm his castle and defeat him. It's this werewolf thing that's tripping me up at every turn. Mine isn't a full moon sort of curse. Whenever my natural passions for a woman are aroused, I turn into a wolf." Roth lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. "I'm a normal, healthy man. I can't help being attracted to women, and try as I might, I can't avoid them. Take the last group I journeyed with, a strapping bunch of hairy, murderous fellows, so I assumed my secret was perfectly safe. I told them about the Tomb and its treasure, without telling them my reasons for wanting it, of course, and we almost made it here. Then our little thief, Sab, reveals 'he' is actually Sabriexa, a princess in disguise. Went undercover to defy her father or some such tripe. She rips off her shirt to reveal herself and declares her love for me. Next thing I know, I'm furry and four footed, and my former companions are trying to run me through. I'm lucky I escaped from that one, but I lost all my weapons, my horse, and my money."
Tyelcaon nodded sympathetically. "Well, I can loan you a sword and my pack mule to ride, and we can just subtract my fee from the loot we recover. But what is it particularly about Haturnach's treasure that you think holds a cure for you?"
"The artifact I seek is the only thing that I believe can cure me. What I want is the Ring of Maiden's Tears."
"I've never heard of such a thing."
The barmaid came with a new plate of crow and set it down in front of Roth, who waved her away and lowered his voice even further. "It's a magic ring. It, ah, inhibits a man's instincts. You see? If I don't feel the urge for women, I won't turn into a wolf. I can have my life back, and finally gather together a force to help me take my revenge against Nornaolos."
Tyelcaon's eyes widened. "I see. But why on the green earth would Haturnach want such a thing? A man of such wealth and power, even an elderly one, would doubtless be shrugging the gigglier sex off both arms all day."
"Exactly," Roth said. "According to One-Hand, who told me about Haturnach, the fellow couldn't get any work done for all the girls throwing themselves at him. Running a village isn't an easy job, they tell me, and the constant feminine distractions were hampering him. Plus, he was afraid that in his dotage he'd fall for some conniving wench who'd stab him in his sleep as soon as he wrote her into his will. He specially commissioned the Ring of Maiden's Tears to dampen his desire so he wouldn't be swindled. It was his most valuable possession. That Tomb is said to be riddled with the most fiendish of traps and the Ring itself is guarded by some kind of monster no man has ever defeated."
"Well, it seems fairly straightforward to me," the sorcerer said. "I haven't cast any spells for almost a week, so I'm fully topped up with mana. I don't see any reason why we can't set out at once." He grinned and winked at Roth. "We'll have you bedding the most nubile young dollymop in Blackthorn by tomorrow's dawn."
"Don't even say it," Roth said. His teeth suddenly seemed a bit longer, especially the canines, and a shadow of stubble darkened his jaw. "I can't even think about it in too much detail."
He bent over his plate and snatched the crow up in his mouth, gulping it down with only a few cursory chews, then looked around wildly at the other customers and snarled, an authentic snarl this time, not just a literary device.
"The sooner the better, I see," Tyelcaon said. Dropping a few copper pieces on the table, he grabbed Roth by the arm and ushered him out the door. The cold air and abrupt absence of female company quickly snapped him back to human-normal.
Once his companion's wolfish outbreak was under control, Tyelcaon whistled, and to Roth's surprise a sturdy-looking gray centaur trotted over leading a pack mule by the halter and kneeled on his forelegs before them. Oblivious to the cold, the centaur wore no clothing on his human upper torso, but he did sport an odd saddle of elaborately tooled black leather.
Tyelcaon swung himself into the saddle. There were no reins -- he instead grasped a large ring where the saddle's horn would normally be. Roth attempted to clamber aboard the pack mule, but the animal backed away from him, snorting and rolling its eyes. Even in human form, the taint of the predator was too strong in him. Finally, they had to leave the stupid beast in the tavern's stables and Roth rode behind the saddle on the uncomplaining centaur's sturdy back.
The ride to Haturnach's Tomb was not long, but it was treacherous. Almost two feet of snow buried the path, cloaking ruts and bumps seemingly designed to trip up the average steed. Fortunately, Tyelcaon's centaur was smarter than the average horse, and they arrived just as the setting sun dropped from the western sky. The foreboding outline of Haturnach's Tomb stood starkly against the clouds painted in fading glimmers of fuschia and orange. The two men dismounted and left the centaur at the entrance. The stone walls surrounding the Tomb were tall and sturdy-looking, but overgrown by black weeds, and the rusted iron gate hung askew on its hinges.
Tyelcaon and Roth advanced warily, keeping one eye on the stone gargoyles atop the roof and the garden full of topiary beasts in case either decoration happened to animate and attack. But up close, the gargoyles proved to be pitted and scabbed with lichen, and the topiary beasts were so overgrown it was difficult to distinguish their original species. The massive front doors swung open at a touch, revealing the atrium.
Roth and Tyelcaon exchanged glances, the fighter drawing his sword, the sorcerer's fingertips glowing faintly with the ghostly blue buildup of mana. After a long, rather boring pause, Tyelcaon summoned a sphere of glowing magelight and tossed it gently to the center of the dark room.
The atrium was surprisingly empty. There was no furniture, no suits of armor arranged in rows, no tapestries of maidens and unicorns frolicking in fields of flowers. Even the rich red carpet they expected to find underfoot was missing, its former presence attested to by the strip of slightly less dusty marble flooring where it used to lay. The only decoration in the room was a painting. They walked closer to see, Tyelcaon scooping up his magelight as they went.
At close inspection, it was easy to see why the painting had been passed over by whoever removed all the other furnishing. It was a portrait of Haturnach. One of several, in fact, lining the hallway that stretched into the recesses of the house. All the artist's skill at depicting the man's rich attire, shining jewelry and lavishly appointed surroundings couldn't disguise the fact that Haturnach was a hollow-chested, stoop-shouldered old man with a pleated jowly face, scant strands of white hair barely covering his spotty pate, and rheumy eyes of faded blue.
"Hardly see why he needed the Ring of Maiden's Tears," Tyelcaon commented. Roth bit his lower lip to restrain a nervous giggle. Tyelcaon shrugged and the two cautiously crept down the hallway.
All they found at the end was the kitchen. There were only a few pieces of chipped crockery painted with an unappealing border of daisies stacked under the sink, but from the numerous drawers, shelves, and velvet-lined silverware boxes it was clear the kitchen once boasted a much finer collection.
"Nothing here," Tyelcaon said, turning so his magelight revealed every corner. "Haturnach's geas on the servants must not have included an injunction to leave the silverware. I suppose we should try to find some stairs leading down. People love to put their treasures in the basement, don't they?"
Another few minutes of searching brought them to a promising oaken door bound in iron, which opened onto a spiral staircase leading to unknown depths. Roth, whose patience was beginning to fray, happily took the point as they descended. The stairs were narrow worn and slick with dampness, but otherwise not particularly difficult to descend.
"Where are all the traps? I don't understand it," Roth muttered under his breath as they reached the basement. His eyes ached from straining to see into every shadow, and he started at every drip of water or creaky step. "This place is supposed to be filled with diabolically clever traps, but we haven't encountered anything."
Tyelcaon held his magelight up to a wall and said, "Tsk!"
Roth saw a number of holes in the wall, the kind that arrows were normally fired from. Tyelcaon stuck his dagger in a hole and dug around for a bit, eventually prying out a metal arrowhead.
"That's all that's left," he said, peering into the hole. "The wooden shaft has crumbled away and I daresay the string's long since rotted. These sort of things require regular maintenance. Ah, well. It's been over a hundred years."
"Look at that." Roth strode down the corridor and pointed to the floor. Half a human skeleton was sprawled across the floor. The other half was presumably under the large stone block it lay beside. Directing the magelight up into the ceiling, the two men could see the gap the block must have once occupied, along with a few rusty gears and springs that were all that remained of the trigger mechanism.
"I can understand the purely mechanical traps falling to pieces after a few decades, but what about the magical ones? Haturnach was known to splurge on magical protection. I was sure we'd have encountered a summoned elemental or been turned into toads long before this," Roth said worriedly.
"Yes, that is interesting," the sorcerer said. "Spells must draw mana from somewhere, whether it's the caster's life force, the forces of nature, an entrapped spirit, or whatever. Your curse, for example, is triggered by and feeds upon the energies released by feelings of lust. I suppose most of these spells ran out of energy long ago. But then again, I'm willing to bet there must be something big still active in here, something that's sucking energy from the surrounding forest's lifeweb. That would explain Blackthorn's perpetual winter."
Roth, who understood little of magic, had been walking around and examining the walls during Tyelcaon's explanation. He bumped his elbow on one of the gargoyle-clawed torch-holders. Suddenly part of the wall slid aside, revealing a small chamber. Obviously it was some kind of concealed treasure vault. Tyelcaon entered, raising his magelight high.
"Empty!" he exclaimed. "Someone else got hear first and cleaned it out. Remember what the barmaid said about how well-known the legend of Haturnach's Tomb is? I daresay we're not the first adventurers to delve into it."
Roth shoved him to one side and stared frantically around the room. "Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable." He dropped his sword, slumped to his knees and put his face in his hands. "I pinned all my hopes on that Ring, and now... now..."
Tyelcaon patted his companion's shoulder sympathetically. "Buck up, my friend. I'm sure Haturnach squirreled away his treasure in small deposits all over the Tomb. He was too smart to leave it all in one lump sum where the first adventurers to waltz in could grab the load and run. Besides, remember the frightful monster that's supposed to be guarding the Ring?"
"Probably bones and dust by now," Roth spat, but he grabbed his borrowed sword and stood up again.
"Your situation is rather unique. I'm sure the Ring of Maiden's Tears is not a very sought-after item. Anyone who might have been impelled to pick it up and try it out surely left it behind here. We'll keep looking. There's no hurry. No women here to torment you, after all."
The two men set off again through the labyrinthine basement of the Tomb. Corridor after corridor was filled with broken trap machinery, the remains of former adventurers, and the bones and chitin of long vanquished monsters. They came across several more treasure vaults, but each one had been thoroughly plundered by their predecessors. After the fifth such discovery, Roth's already tightly strung temper snapped.
"This is ridiculous! All these years people have been spreading tales of the terrible Tomb of Haturnach, and what do we find? A bunch of useless traps, a few gnawed bones, and not a single coin!"
"We're not after a coin, we're after the Ring of Maiden's Tears," Tyelcaon reminded him.
"Yes, that's my goal, but what about you? I planned to pay you with the loot from this Tomb."
"Finding the Ring is our main prerogative," the sorcerer said. "Don't worry about anything else right now. We'll figure something out about my payment when the time comes."
Roth blew through his clenched teeth and strove mightily to restrain his temper. After all the time he'd spent as a wolf in the past years he was finding it harder and harder to observe the niceties of human society such as patience and forbearance. He finally turned to Tyelcaon with a weak smile and thanked him.
"No harm done, my friend. I suppose your wolfish nature makes things hard for you. Well, let's be off; there's plenty of Tomb left to explore."
Tyelcaon's a good man to have on my side, Roth told himself. Despite all the disappointment and my bad temper, he's remained cheerful, understanding and supportive. Perhaps he'll join me against Nornaolos when all this is over.
The next chamber they came upon was decorated incongruously as a woman's bedroom. The walls were painted a delicate shade of rose, the marble inlays brightened with gold filigree, and a lady's vanity was strewn with bottles of perfume and face powder as if the occupant had just left. An enormous, magnificent canopied bed with cherubs carved into the headboards occupied the center of the room. Roth stepped toward it a few paces and skidded to a halt. Someone was rising from the bed.
She was beautiful, of course. Waist-length hair of raven hue, flawless dark skin the perfect setting for flashing emerald eyes. Or were those eyes more blue than green, her skin more golden, her hair actually a dark copper as it caught the light? Now her eyes seemed to be almost violet, her skin creamy, her hair curling up and fading to a blonde that was nearly white... the details were unimportant. She was every woman he'd ever longed for, all women in one. All that mattered was her sweetly welcoming embrace.
Roth doubled over, clutching his stomach. With the last fading remnants of his human consciousness, he realized the woman's true nature. A succubus!
The heat spread under his skin as his blood ran like magma, melting his bones. He ripped off his clothes with clawed-tipped hands, revealing the coarse black hairs that pierced his skin and formed a shaggy pelt. His face thrust out into a muzzle, the jaws gaping to reveal jagged fangs.
The succubus standing before him twisted, falling to all fours as if she were his mirror image. Thickets of hair sprung from her darkening skin. Her ears sharpened into points, her forehead fell away, and her lower face bulged out.
As the transformation completed, Wolf-Roth raised his long muzzle and stared at her in confusion.
The succubus could shape herself to any man's desires. But as a wolf, Roth no longer had a man's desires. He had never told Tyelcaon the horrible catch to his transformation. In order to change back to a man, he had to relieve his lusts. But a wolf lusts after a wolf bitch, not a human girl.
The succubus sensed his desire and was trying her best to turn herself into a she-wolf, but she simply couldn't. She was only a minor demon, and her shape shifting abilities were limited. Although she tried to strain herself into lupine form, all she could manage was the shape of an ugly, jut-jawed, hairy woman.
Wolf-Roth laid back his ears and sniffed. This creature smelled of human, with something foul festering below the surface. It was not attractive, and most certainly not a wolf. All Wolf-Roth knew was that this creature was a threat.
Snarling furiously, he threw himself at her. One hundred and fifty pounds of whalebone muscle and sinew smashed into the succubus. His scimitar eyeteeth slashed here and there as he swarmed over the squealing demon like a furry whirlwind, leaving bloody rents in her hide. The succubus struggled to return to her true demon shape, foot-long claws sliding from her hands to slash at the wolf. Her neck elongated like a snake's and her venom-slick fangs stabbed at his neck. Fortunately for Roth, nature had given him protection in the form of a thick ruff and all the demon came away with was a mouthful of black fur.
As the succubus gagged on the wad of fur, Tyelcaon leapt from the shadows, snatched up Roth's sword and brought the blade down on the hideous she-demon's neck. The head rolled off into the shadows as the body slumped, its monstrous form rapidly rotting into what looked like a pile of chopped meat and stinking white slime.
Panting, Wolf-Roth backed away from the demon's corpse and looked up at Tyelcaon. The sorcerer sheathed the sword and knelt, holding his fingers out to the animal. The huge black wolf approached him gingerly, sniffing the outstretched fingers. He locked his golden eyes on the man's for a long moment, then came a few steps closer and allowed Tyelcaon to scratch him behind the ears.
"Well, my friend, we did it. That was a foul trick I played on you, I'm afraid. I suspected the 'unbeatable monster' guarding the Ring of Maiden's Tears might be a succubus. Old Haturnach was a clever one indeed! Of course a succubus was the one monster that a man who desired the Ring of Maiden's Tears would be unable to defeat. Fortunately, I know a bit about the demonkind, and I knew you'd be safest in wolf form, so I hung back --"
Another succubus slithered from the shadows. It had reverted to its true, demonic form, a towering mass of writhing flesh, half snake, half mantis. The monster cradled its sister's head in its forelegs and shrieked with grief. Seeing Tyelcaon, it dropped the head and began shifting to a more human shape. A gust of resentful rage at Haturnach's trick pierced the dullness of Wolf-Roth's animal brain and sent him hurtling toward the demon, every tooth bared, back a-bristle from neck to tail.
But before the wolf could plunge his fangs into the demon's hide, Tyelcaon strode forward and thrust his sword into the unresisting succubus' chest. Man and wolf backed away, gagging at the mephitic stench as the two lumps of corruption putrefied into a stinking pool that nearly covered the chamber's floor. As if the demon's rot was contagious, the fine velvet curtains began to grow threadbare, the gold filigree of the bed tarnished, and the wall's marble inlays cracked and crumbled.
"Damnably clever," the sorcerer said. "He even accounted for the possibility of someone defeating the first succubus, and had another one waiting in the wings! Now we know what sort of spell's been draining the life from Blackthorn all these long years passed. Holding an interdimensional rift open for so long must have taken some powerful spellcasting. I'd love to know who did it."
Wolf-Roth wagged his tail and butted his broad head against Tyelcaon's leg. The sorcerer looked down at him and laughed. "Impatient as ever. I hope that's the last of them, eh, Roth? My poor sword arm can't take much more of this. I'm too long out of practice. Good thing I thought to have the blade blessed before I began this trip! My own magic isn't much good against demons. Well, let's see what our lady friends were guarding. I bet I know. Do you? Do you, boy? There's a good wolf."
Tyelcaon held his cape over his face and skirted the pool, circling to the door at the far end. Wolf-Roth followed, lifting his paws high with distaste and shaking them after each step. The door was not locked.
The treasure room was only the size of a closet. A small silver box rested on a wooden stand. Panting eagerly, Wolf-Roth shoved past Tyelcaon and nosed the box. The man picked it up, opened it, and nodded. Then he glanced down at his furry companion.
"Roth, my friend, the Ring is indeed just where we thought it would be. But I'm afraid it's no use to you in your present form."
The black wolf whined, then swung about and padded back into the chamber. Tucking the box into his belt pouch, Tyelcaon followed. He noticed the pool of corruption was now merely a thick layer of oddly colored dust coating the floor and the room's furnishings had disintegrated into a collection of moldy sticks and rusted fragments of metal. He was just in time to see the tip of Wolf-Roth's brush disappear out the door. Tyelcaon was forced to trot to keep up with the wolf's pace. Wolf-Roth loped through the corridors unerringly, guided by the scents he and Tyelcaon had left in their passing. By the time they mounted the stairs and made it to the front door, Tyelcaon was gasping and holding a stitch in his side.
He paused on the doorstep. They had spent longer than he'd thought inside the Tomb. Already, the grapefruit moon was setting and the first blush of false dawn illuminated the changes in the woods. The drifts of snow had almost melted, revealing tender new blades of grass just emerging from the rich loam. Against the lightning sky, the branches of the trees could be seen to be studded with new forming buds. A robin's call trilled in the distance.
Without a backward glance, the black wolf disappeared into the awakening forest. Tyelcaon waved to him, then whistled his mount over and swung himself into the saddle.
"Where to," the centaur asked.
"Back to town, my friend. Roth will meet us there in his human form. And I'll have a surprise for him."
"A nice one?"
"Well, I'll enjoy it," Tyelcaon laughed.
The morning dawned warm and sunny. The villagers of Blackthorn roamed the streets, delightedly casting off their heavy woolen coats and pointing out the flocks of birds overhead and the thick clusters of brilliant flowers blooming in a village green that now lived up to its name. The long winter of Haturnach's last spell had ended.
Tyelcaon slept 'til the crack of noon. He was halfway through a delicious late breakfast of waffles heaped high with butter and winterberry preserves when Roth came down stairs. He looked quite a bit the worse for the night's activities. His skin was pale as candle wax except for the dark bruises under his eyes, and a half-healed array of puncture wounds thickly crusted with blood decorated his jaw. Apparently the female wolves of the Blackthorn Forest hadn't been in a welcoming mood last night.
He collapsed at the table and asked, "Do you have it?"
With a flourish, Tyelcaon drew the silver box from his belt and snapped it open to reveal the Ring. Two tiny, exquisitely detailed dragon heads of some silvery metal looped around, forming the elegant setting for a large opal that did indeed resemble a crystallized tear. Roth held out a shaking hand, and Tyelcaon surprised him by slipping the Ring onto his finger with a smile.
Roth blinked several times, then made a fist and gazed into the milky depths of the stone.
"Well," the sorcerer prompted. "Do you feel any different?"
"I... I don't know. Not really. There was a brief dizziness, but that's all. I suppose there's no way to tell unless --"
The door to the tavern kitchen burst open and the barmaid ran over to them. She planted herself on Roth's lap and flung her arms around his neck.
"My hero," she gushed, snuggling up against Roth's broad chest. Her warmth breath tickled his ear. "You braved Haturnach's Tomb and released us from the perpetual winter. The villagers of Blackthorn will be forever indebted to you. How can we ever repay you? Perhaps I can think of a way."
Tyelcaon gently but firmly detached the girl from his companion and hustled her back into the kitchen. "Come on, now, back to work. My friend here wants a good breakfast after his hard night. Eggs, flapjacks, and all the crow he can eat. And cook it this time!"
The barmaid darted under Tyelcaon's outstretched arm and swooped down on Roth again. She gave him a quick but ardent kiss full on the mouth, then scampered back to the kitchen, giggling.
Roth cautiously felt his face, searching for the first suggestion of fur or fang. He remained perfectly human. "I'm cured!"
"Not exactly, my friend." Tyelcaon seated himself, steepled his fingers and smiled at Roth.
"But, she was rubbing all over me, and I didn't feel the slightest stirring. Of course it works," he said suspiciously.
Tyelcaon shook his head. "The Ring functions, but not as you thought. I did a little experimentation with it last night. I was skeptical about it's effects. You saw how well Haturnach liked to live. It seemed odd to me he would deny himself that sort of pleasure, even to protect his treasure. The Ring does indeed keep its wearer from being affected by a maiden's attentions, but not by making him dead to them. It simply shifts the nature of one's desire to... something else."
"Something else?" Roth leaned forward and rasped, "What exactly are we talking about?"
"This," Tyelcaon murmured, then kissed him...
The barmaid emerged just in time to see them. "Tall, dark and wolfishly handsome," she sighed to herself. "I should have known. They're always either married, cursed or they don't like girls."
Gasping, Roth sat back and clutched his heart. "How dare you?"
"Did you enjoy it?"
Eyes wild, Roth scrabbled for the sword that should have hung at his side, then balled his fists. Tyelcaon watched him in amusement. Finally, Roth hung his head and quietly said, "Yes. I liked it very much. What was that?"
"Something else," Tyelcaon laughed quietly. "As I suspected, the construction of Nornaolos' spell was rather hasty. You only become a wolf when your passions are aroused by lust for a woman. Other forms of passion do not trigger the transformation. Haturnach's Ring allowed him to enjoy carnal affections without the fear some woman would worm her way into his will and have control over his treasure. A male concubine would have no legal recourse, I'm afraid."
Roth put his head in his hands. "I can't believe it! This is worse than before! Will my curse never be ended?"
"Nonsense," Tyelcaon said sharply. "The reversal of passions is easily undone. Simply remove the Ring and you will feel towards women as you did before."
Roth reached with eager fingers to slip the Ring off, but Tyelcaon clasped his hand and said, "I warn you, my friend, Nornaolos' curse is still active. Without the Ring you will be subject to it once more."
"But I'll be --"
"Like me," Tyelcaon said. "And that's not such a bad thing to be, is it? Better than a savage beast, I'd wager. In all other respects you're the same person, a human being like any other. It's a damn sight easier to conceal this sort of thing from your companions than werewolfery is. I should know, I've been doing it more-or-less successfully all my life. And as a human being, you're free to gather a band of warriors and mages to take your revenge on Nornaolos."
Roth's eyes, still wolf-golden, raised to look into Tyelcaon's own. Shyly, he said, "I hope I can count on you as one of them."
"But of course. I wouldn't leave you like this. As I said, I'm an old hand at this. And you may find, as I have, that this persuasion sometimes gives one the advantage."
Roth shook his head slowly, grinning. "So that's how you managed to resist the advances of the second succubus. I did wonder."
"You know what they say: One man's meat is another man's poison."