“She has a magic sword and there’s a magic scabbard and they’re married.”
“I don’t have to be a bard to understand that metaphor.” — Carenza Vega and Opilio
After some much-needed time to rest and some peculiar dreams, Opilio returns to Ladona and seeks out the Pale Maiden. There he finds Carenza and Vesper speaking to Carpa, who is hurriedly stuffing a pair of Ettorio’s pants in a rucksack and making his apologies. The former bandit explains that his Iluni master is fine, just fine, but will not be available for a day or two, maybe more, and he will probably need a change of clothing. With that, Carpa departs, and Carenza and Vesper tell Opilio of the recent days’ events. Vesper remains resolute that they must pursue Mescetti and recover the scabbard, and with that the group agrees to set out for Dunsini Rise the next day.
It takes a good portion of the morning to unearth enough information about the plague-town to find a path, so the three leave Ladona by midday. They ride into the the dusk for a bit before reaching a good inn, and Opilio hears voices in the distance that Vesper attributes to leucrotta. The night’s rest and next day’s travel are uneventful, and they shelter in the main room of a tavern in the small village of Vintery.
Opilio wakes in the middle of the night after dreams of frost and a faint buzzing, and notes the trees are stirring many miles distant. Somewhat concerned, he wakes the ladies and explains. The three go outside, and again Opilio hears voices — but these are very close, near the treeline. Vesper sends Chiro to go eavesdrop on the conversation as they remain nearby. The loquacious bat returns, and does his best to explain the particulars: two leucrotta, as she suspected, are lamenting that delicious prey has passed nearby lately but “will have spoiled and be no good to eat.” As the group discusses what to do, the leucrotta apparently hear them. A child screams in the forest, and something goes crashing after it, and Opilio must resist the lure. Vesper says “We know you’re there and what you’re doing,” and the noise stops.
A peculiar negotiation begins at that point, as the three humans bargain with the pair of fey beasts. The leucrotta are apparently impressed with the heroes’ cleverness, and share that the humans they could not prey upon wore metal, and were headed for a place that… spoils the food. For the price of a food offering the beasts offer to guide the three there. Opilio wakes a very surprised farmer, calms him with diplomacy, and purchases two chickens for the princely price of a gold reganti. The two beasts devour every scrap of the birds, and then show the three the way.
The trail leads off the main thoroughfare into an overgrown road, and they find signs of the Gold Hooks having passed that way. The leucrotta depart, and the group arrives in the ruined and overgrown town of Dunsini Rise slightly before dawn. Two sentries challenge them, but Opilio ignores them in favor of the massive, many-trees-in-one oak that dominates one portion of the dale. Carenza threatens the Hooks sufficiently for them to understand the threat, and the group presses forward.
Half a dozen Hooks have emerged from rest or their sentry posts and surround the three as they advance on a small excavation under the tree roots. The faint buzzing that Opilio dreamt of before arises again, becoming louder. To the horror of all assembled, a Gold Hook runs up the stairs screaming, a grotesque fly the size of a lynx clinging to his head, its proboscis pumping a corrosive poison into his flesh. As the unfortunate mercenary falls, more flies come buzzing out of the opening. The things don’t last long, as Opilio channels a great portion of his natural power to destroy several and Vesper and Carenza leap to impale the survivors. Each one explodes in pestilential miasma when cut apart, landing as a husk with no sign of actual innards.
As the miasma dissipates, the vulture-like Vorgasan appears, his mouth smeared with blood, eyes unfocused, and dragging the deceased Mescetti (whose neck has been bitten through) by his hair. Vorgasan babbles about the fever that came upon him, and how it has prevented him from “hiding it any longer.” As he talks, his fingers lengthen into talons and his jaws distend, transforming into something as much ghoul as man. Once the change is complete, “she” arrives — a whirling mass of writhing plasm, the remnants of many plague victims swirling around the slim form of a young woman.
Vesper tells the surviving Gold Hooks to run. She and Carenza strike first at the transformed Vorgasan, while Opilio undergoes a transformation of his own and lunges at the fever-spirit. The peasant throws multiple hammer blows into the coalescing plasm, blasting chunk after chunk away. It responds with pulses of fever and rage, with spawns of the plague-flies, even with dreams of suicide that the group must shake off. Vorgasan tries to tear Carenza apart, but cannot successfully fend off both the swordswomen in his maddened state. The ghost of Styriax intercedes to turn Vorgasan’s attack against the fever-spirit, and the mercenary-ghoul falls shortly thereafter.
As the fever-spirit weakens, the remnants of personality within it begin to turn on one another. Finally Opilio smashes apart the last of its manifestation, and it dissipates. Opilio tends to the unconscious young woman at its core, who has skin like sun-warmed birchbark and dark hair with faint green highlights. Vesper claims the scabbard from Miscetti’s corpse, and immediately feels the spirit of Styriax settle into a more contented quiescence.
Content that the strange fey woman seems safe, the three descend into the area below the tree, where several corpses are strewn about a small chapel marked by another statue of the insect-winged angel of Phouth. Vesper recognizes the statue as the likely focus object for the fever-spirit, and begins the ritual to offer it expiation. The core of the spirit — a mourning woman, full of desperation at watching her children die — refuses to go entirely, instead choosing to settle among the remnant shades that cling to Vesper.
Opilio returns to the young woman as she wakes. She speaks first in a tongue of brook-water and creaking branches, then with less familiarity in Common; she explains that she could not “find her way” back, never knowing where she was or when. Recognizing Opilio as the one who broke through and his hammer as the tool, she offers a beatific touch to its oaken haft. The roots surrounding the stone head come alive and entwine more fiercely around it. She stretches up, kisses the peasant on the cheek, and then dives into the heart of the tree. Carenza offers that it’s probably time to return to Ladona, and the three depart, two of them somewhat altered by the events.