|Euthalia in her more usual attire.|
With the brazen noise of another gong-stroke echoing throughout the compound, Vragg hustles the party through the streets towards the palace, terrified at the prospect of being late for the feasting. They hurry through the double doors of the palace just as the sun begins to set, the great, heavy portals booming closed behind them. The dozen, impeccably attired and perfumed females who had earlier scurried away with Merithena, reappear, leading the men to their tables. The females in the party are quietly instructed by these women that they should stand behind and serve their "betters" at dinner.
The feast hall occupies an opulent room in the palace. Three tables in the centre of the hall form a U, with the open end facing the door. The cushions positioned behind the low tables in the centre row remain empty, but at a second gong stroke, a dozen fierce looking warriors attired in their best armour emerge from alcoves and rooms elsewhere in the palace and to take their places upon the eastern cushions. The male party members are led to their own places along the western table. At a third gong, the ancient, wizened form of the Bull Headed King emerges from the inner chambers, sitting himself alone at the centre table. He is soon joined by two skull masked men in dark robes, who recline at either end of the central table. All eyes soon turn to the western window, where the sun cam be seen sinking below the horizon. At the very instant that the last rays of the sun vanish from view, the gong is struck again. Before their eyes, the party watch the wizened little man swell to three times his normal height, weight and girth. Skin reddening, huge, bull-horn grow from his skull until the creature that remains little resembled the frail being it had been just a few moments ago. In a deep, booming basso, the Bull Headed King laughs at his guests consternation, and bids his slaves bring the feast to the diners.
|The Bull Headed King revealed.|
After a few moments, the Bull Headed King comments that his men arealready teaching his "guests" how women should behave in Thyatis. The King nods to the red-bearded man, who sits among the diners at the eastern table. He congratulates Euthalia on once again looking like a civilised woman and compliments her on her serving skills, "suggesting" that she should display the proper meekness by taking wine to his warriors. Seemingly unconcerned, she complies, and somehow manages to restrain her temper when a particularly fiery young warrior pulls her onto his lap with wandering fingers and tries to claim a kiss. Instead of slapping the man, as she would at home, she leaps to her feet and stands, head bowed, while Ki Oman roars for the warrior to keep his filthy hands off his property. The warrior bellows back that men takes what he wants from women in Thyatis and demands to know if anyone present dares to stop him. Half a dozen of the party members -including Ki Oman, Boagris, Andros, Thera and Alexis- all roar their acceptance of this challenge, but it is Ki Oman (the "slaves" avowed owner) whom the warrior charges.
Ki Oman meets him blow for blow in the centre of the feast hall, much to the Bull-Headed Kings loud approval and the intent regard of the skull-masked figures. For a few moments, Ki Oman is able to demonstrate his greater speed and agility, making the young warrior's footwork seem almost clumsy and foolish in comparison. Yet this only serves to focus the raiders rage. For a few tense moments it becomes clear that Ki may have over-reached himself by accepting this challenge from a seasoned warrior. Almost evenly matched, it is by luck alone that Ki Oman emerges victorious. The Bull Headed King bellows and claps, but the raiderss present grew silent. Each watches the corpse of the fallen raider intently until, after a few moments, a spectral figure manifests in the centre of the hall. Hooded and robed, armed with a sickle-bladed sword, the apparition stridse forward to claim it's prize. Reaching into the dead corpse with a skeletal hand, it pulls the warriors eldritch, glowing soul from the still meat of its body. Gratefully, the warriors soul reaches out to the spectre, rapture writ upon it's face - until a brief moment before the pair fade from view, when unparralled joy is briefly replaced by sheer terror.
The assembled raiders and clap and mutter in approval. One of the two Skull-Masked guests announces with satisfaction that the warriors soul has been accepted by Thanatos (Thanatos the PC blanches at this, suddenly very keenly aware of why Merithena has advised her to change her name as well as her gender). Leaving the blood where it has pooled in the floor, the Skull Masked priests dragg the frozen corpse from the hall while the Bull Headed King loudly calls for dancing.
The slave-women take up their instruments, beginning a song of frantic pace and energy. The Bull Headed King claps once again and Merithena -wounded Merithena, as pale as the spectre that so recently left these halls- enters.
[I asked the players for saving throws vs spells at this point. When most failed and I described the effects of their fascination one or two of the older players nodded sagely and muttered "Ah, that's what she is". Once again, they didn't say anything else, to avoid ruining the suspense]
The King's men are on their feet, roaring and cheering this display of stamina, speed and endurance. The Bull Headed king himself nods solemnly, before tossing back his head with deep booming laughter. As his deep voice booms out across the hall, the warriors fall silent.
"It seems the Blood of Kings flows true in you indeed, child. Know that you have pleased me, and your life is spared. For the moment." He tosses his head, bull-like, to regard the woman. "Leave us, all of you."
Merithena rises unsteadily to her feet, almost losing her balance, but the Bull Headed King seems not to notice. As she passes Euthalia, she whispers urgently into the others woman's ear, "Help me, I'm going to fall...."
Thinking quickly, the Priestess takes Merithena by the arm, raising it high. Catching on, Thera takes the other arm. Together, arms held high above their heads, clutching Merithena's hands as though raising them in triumph, they support the exhausted girls weight and carry her from the hall. Only when out sight of the men, down a side passage, does the girl collapse to the floor. Gathering around like clucking hens, the palace women and the party members work together to carry her from the passage to the safety of the Harem, away from the prying eyes of patrolling Palace Guards.
Back at the Feast Hall, the Bull Headed King dismisses his priests and his guards, clearly unafraid of anything the players might attempt to do to him. He offers his thanks for the rescue of his "true blood" and insists that the party must stay as guests in his city until healed of their wounds. Then, in order to repay his hospitality, they must perform a task for him. The Bull Headed King is magnanimous (he makes a point of telling them so) and offers them the choice of three tasks to carry out as they see fit in return for sanctuary in Thyatis.
- Destroy the Harpy nest on his borders which has become a nuisance.
- Enter the fortress of the foul beastman chieftain to dares to call himself the Bull Headed King and slay this usurper.
- Journey to the lair of a being known as the Lamia and offer her an alliance-or failing that, kill her if she refuses.
Meanwhile, within the luxury of the female slave quarters, protected by mute, "cut" Harem Guards, Euthalia, Thera and Andros relax upon silk cushions and tend to the exhausted Merithena. Once alone, she explains to the other women that one day -one day soon- she, like her mother, will be sacrificed to the Great Skull God, Thanatos. That she yet lives is due only to the fact that her uncle wishes her to be as strong as possible before receiving the Skull Gods tender attentions. Had she been found weak, she would be dead long since. Or worse, cast into the breeding pits to be used by the worst of the Bull Headed Kings inhuman servants. She begs the other women to save her from her fate but warns them to be cautious. "No-one", she states simply, "can kill the Bull Headed King. Many have tried. All have died."
At this, Thera angrily demands to know why Merithena insisted on coming back here in the first place? Merithena suggests that the group had to see the Bull Headed King's evil for themselves. To understand that she would make a far better leader for their people. To see the plight of the Thyatian women and, most of all, because it's the only place on the island where weapons, armour and (above all) food are freely to be had. Merithena explains that none of the Thyatian men can be trusted to help her -or the stranded. They enjoy their privileged lifestyles to much to risk the King's ire. Even Bombatta, who claimed to love her, pursued her when she fled the city, intent on bringing her back to the King.
Thera does not seem entirely convinced by this tale -or the girls supposedly pure motives- but stays her voice. For now. However, one thing seems clear to the Paladin. This Bull Headed King has to go.