The monstrous ogrekin guard took off after Kibb with a bellow, and the party emerged from the trees to creep up on the barn. Melissah detoured to the farmhouse, casting a spell that summoned pillars of ice from the ground that would, with any luck, block the doors.
Foss planted his shoulder and heaved the wooden barn doors open, revealing a wide room with mounds of molding hay, grain stores, and even a large but crude still. He readied his axes as three ogrekin armed with spears looked up from where they were keeping watch. Behind him, Nevis began to sing and gesture, filling the air with hastening magic.
Iozua, bringing up the rear, made a broad two-handed gesture, and the far side of the barn filled with a roiling wall of fire. The ogres yelped as the heat washed over them, then the nearest yelped again as Foss charged, dodging a half-hearted spear thrust to sink both axes into the beast's torso, felling it.
Jori edged around to the catwalk and hurled her starknife, but the second ogre dodged it and both guards rushed at Foss. He jumped back and ducked, narrowly evading their spears. Melissah walloped one with her quarterstaff to little effect, while Nevis the gnome transformed her lute into a sword and hacked away at the other guard, opening a gash on its leg.
Iozua summoned another gout of flames and the fight was abruptly over, Foss taking the opportunity to finish off his final opponent.
“Well, that went swiftly,” Nevis said, wiping her blade clean. “Foss, you are a force to be reckoned with!”
“I think the giant cong-flagration had something to do with our success,” Foss said.
“Yes, my conflagrations are kingly,” Iozua replied, blowing smoke off his fingers.
Melissah peeked back out of the barn door to see if any other ogres had heard the noise, but apart from the increasingly-distant bellows of the guard thrashing around in the underbrush, there was nothing.
Nevis trotted over to the stinking still. “This smells drinkable if we mix it with a little berry juice and some wormwood,” she remarked.
Melissah twitched. “To a gnome, perhaps.” The little folk were renowned for being hardy and foolish, after all. “I don't see anyone coming, maybe try getting the doors open?”
Nevis found a dented brass cup from somewhere and dipped it into the spirits. She took a swallow, frowned, and then began choking and spat out the acrid fluid. “WOOOOOOOooo damn, no.”
“Excellent,” Iozua said. “This party needed someone to make really, really questionable choices. Now we are complete.”
“I aim to please,” Nevis coughed, smiling weakly.
“I wouldn't trust your aim right now,” the wizard replied.
“I wouldn't trust that hooch right now,” Nevis said.
“Or ever,” Jori told her.
Foss heaved away the boards blocking the far door, but it was still very slow to open. Shoving hard, he discovered that the far side of the door was covered in resilient spiderweb that parted only reluctantly. The large, stuffy chamber on the other side of the door was covered in disgusting webs that formed a funnel dropping down into the ground. In the far corners there were square platforms fenced in by wooden beams, forming crude cages. The walls inside the cages were studded with manacles, three of them containing emaciated, unconscious men.
“I can heal the men if you'll keep an eye out,” Melissah said. Iozua took up position next to the outer doors. “Will do.”
Nevis and Foss stepped into the webbed room, watching carefully. The gnome jumped and called out as a spider the size of an elephant emerged from the funnel in the floor and loomed abruptly over her.
“What are you gasping about in there?” Iozua demanded as possibly-venomous slobber dripped from the spider's mandibles onto the gnome's head.
Melissah quickly cast a spell. “Nice giant spider!” she said. It turned to look at her, bulbous eyes seeming to glow in the dark, and then it settled toward the ground.
“Guys, do you need help?” Iozua called. “I heard spellcasting.”
Nevis wiped at the goo. “Woah.” The spider continued its non-attack. “It's okay?”
“It's all right,” Melissah said. “Just . . . don't go crazy. It's still a big bug. I don't control it like a puppet. It will do what comes naturally if you provoke it.”
Iozua was sounding increasingly irritated. “I'm sorry, a big bug? What?”
Nevis peeked out the door at him. “I don't know if you should be happy you missed the spider or not!” The wizard shook his head, bewildered, and turned to watching the door. Foss, seeing that the situation was under control, moved to join him, and Jori followed.
“There's a spider in there. It's frickin' enormous,” Foss explained. “I mean, really . . . frickin enormous. And Melissah just told it to chill out . . . and it did.”
Iozua looked skeptical. “Huh. Nice.”
In the cage, Melissah and Nevis surveyed the injured men. “I've got antitoxins?” the gnome offered.
Melissah used water from her waterskin to wipe dirt away from their injuries. “They don't look like the spider has actually bitten them, they're just beat up and exhausted.”
“Holy hells, they are LUCKY!” Nevis said, casting a still-nervous glance at the spider, which was still watching them. She went bounding out of the room.
“Iozua! Iozua! You have to SEE this thing! It is SO BIG!”
“Nevis!” Melissah hissed. “They don't like rapid movements!”
“IT SLOBBERED ON ME!” the gnome bellowed.
Iozua rolled his eyes. “So, what, dog-sized?”
“Bigger! Like bigger than FOSS!”
“Oh, for pity's sake, if you want to see it, just come see it,” Melissah griped as she concentrated on healing the prisoners.
Iozua shook his head. “Ehhhh . . . I'm fine.”
“It was soooooo COOL!”
One by one, the men staggered out past the docile spider and collapsed on the marginally-cleaner hay in the outer room. Melissah followed them.
“Melissah, question for you,” Foss said rather diffidently.
“What is this thing going to do if we just leave it here, with no ogrekin to control it? Is it going to eat everything in a ten mile area is what I'm asking.”
“It probably won't be good for the surrounding things,” Nevis said.
“Well, it is a hunter,” Melissah said, shrugging. “It'll do what any hunter in the woods would do. But web-spinning spiders generally don't move around that much. If you want, I can try to encourage it to head for less-civilized lands.”
Nevis grabbed Melissah's tunic and stage-whispered. “Ride it like a pony!”
“After you,” the druid whispered back.
“I trust your judgment,” Foss said. “I just don't want the local folk calling for help with a nightmare spider in a year or so.”
“We could put up a sign, like 'Beware the Spider',” Melissah offered. “I'm actually not opposed to burning these buildings down. They're just going to harbor something nasty unless people decide to come live here. But I'd move the spider out first.”
“Did someone say 'burn buildings down'?” Iozua asked.
“Oh dear,” Melissah said. “Now I'm sorry I suggested it.”
“That still should go up a treat,” Nevis announced.
“We should probably find out what's in the house before we go committing random arson,” Melissah said.
“It's targeted arson,” the wizard protested.
Out in the clearer air, the three captives, all apparently rangers, were starting to look a bit more alert. One looked much like Foss, only somewhat lighter in build, with a short, dark beard. One of his eyes was scarred. He matched the description Shalelu had given them of Jakardros. The other two were a large, dark-skinned human, and a smaller, slighter man with blond hair, who even in his current state managed a grin.
“Kibb,” he croaked. “Where's Kibb?”
“He's outside distracting the guard,” Melissah said with as much assurance as she could muster, “but he should be back soon.”
Jakardros looked relieved, but then he frowned. “Who the hells are you guys?”
“The Mayor of Magnimar sent them with me to see what happened to the fort after all the disturbances.”
The blond man, who Melissah vaguely remembered was named Kaven, punched Jakardros on the shoulder. “You don't remember Melissah? The bee lady? You must be getting old to forget a pretty face like hers.” He grinned, white teeth showing through the filth. Melissah produced a weak smile in return.
“I'm glad we found you alive. Shalelu was worried about you.”
Jakardros started to climb to his feet, but couldn't quite manage. “Easy, brother,” the dark-skinned man, named Vale, said. “Take it easy.
“She was worried about me? Truly?” Jakardros asked, his voice thick.
“We have a lot of questions,” Foss said, “but there is still a house full of these beasts. Will you be all right while we go finish this rescue mission?”
“There aren't any more Black Arrows here,” Vale said, grimly. “But if you're going to kill off the Grauls, then gods speed you on your mission.”
Kaven nodded. “We'll be fine. Things have gone pretty well for us so far.” The other two rangers shot him disbelieving looks. “What?”
“I like your optimism, sir,” Nevis said.
Melissah looked at Jakardors for a moment. “The first Graul we encountered had a bunch of Black Arrow patches . . . do you know if the others were . . .slain?”
Jakardros nodded wearily. “My patrol wasn't at Fort Rannick when the ogres attacked. I lost a third of my men trying to retake the fort, and when we retreated south into the Kreegwood we were easy pickings for the Grauls.” He sighed. “I can't imagine anyone's left alive at the Fort. If I'd returned sooner, we could have helped defend the place, but now a forty-five year tradition is dead because of me. Commander Bayden would sooner have died than surrender the fort, so I assume the worst.”
“I would say it's dead because of the ogres,” Melissah said. Kaven reached out and squeezed Jakardros' shoulder.
“You have GOT to stop blaming yourself for this, Jak.”
“We're going to kill them,” Nevis said, “but how many of them are in the house?”
“I lost count of how many Grauls are in that house,” Vale rumbled. “Too many, to be damned sure. Watch out for Mammy Graul, little one. She's . . . she's about the worst thing the gods put upon Golarion.”
“Necromancers, man. What can you do?” Kaven said.
“It sounds like this 'family' has been terrorizing this area for long enough,” Foss growled.
As the party gathered itself to leave the barn, they heard a bellow from the farmstead outside. “Where's this danged ice come from?” The guard was poking, perplexed, at the ice pillar outside the farmhouse's eastern door.
Melissah waved her hands, and the giant spider emerged from the back room, striding across the barn and out of the door. Iozua raised his eyebrows.
“Wait, there really IS a spider?!”
“Told you!” Nevis said.
The guard shrank back in horror for a moment, but then he raised a cruel hooked polearm and charged.
Melissah pointed at the ogrekin. “There's someone for you to play with! Give him a hug!”
“Yeah, give him a mouth hug!” Nevis shouted.
The spider leapt forward and sank its mandibles into the ogre with loud snapping sounds. Screaming, the ogre struck back, tearing the spider's abdomen open with a lucky strike of his hook. It hissed and curled up, falling to the ground.
“NO!” Melissah yelled. She hurled a ball of snow at the ogrekin, and it yowled again.
“Damn, I can't wait to see what'll happen next,” Foss said.
Jori grinned. “Right. This is going to be epic.”
Iozua summoned a sphere of flame around the mutant's toes and it finally fell, smoking and charring. He then directed the sphere toward the eastern door of the farmhouse, neatly cutting a hole in the ice pillar.
“Sorry 'bout your loss,” Foss mumbled to Melissah. “I could tell that thing mattered to you.”
“I'll be all right. But thank you.”
“Right,” he said. “Let's go kill more stuff.”
The door opened into a musty kitchen that reeked of blood and week-old meat. It was thick with clouds of fat, greasy flies. Thumb-sized cockroaches ran along the walls, floor, and ceiling. A thick butcher's block sat under three cruel-looking cleavers that hung from a rack. Bloodstained smocks of thick leather, one still dripping fresh gore, hung on bone spur hooks by the door. A crockery platter of severed fingers and toes sat on a rickety old table next to a basket overflowing with hacked-off hands and feet, all sporting stubs of congealed blood where their digits once were.
Iozua's face went hard. “Never mind. I'll buy the Black Arrows new stuff. I'm burning this place down. Because I am not going in there.”
“I want to go in,” Foss said quietly.
“I dislike having to entertain your weird fetishes,” the wizard grumped.
“I want to make sure this ends. I want to see their faces.”
Nevis pulled a vial from her pouch labeled “antitoxin” and downed it. “I need that just looking at this room.”
Foss gestured, and the party stepped inside, ready, they hoped, for anything.