“I don’t think the corpse is sliding in an aggressive manner.”
“The worms were sliding.”
“They were writhing.” — Opilio & Ettorio Iluni
The following morning, Opilio determines to inform his colleagues of the premonition privately. He rouses the other three before breakfast, and explains not only his peculiar pact with the spirits of the land, but that the spirit gave a warning of worms to the north. As they look to the woods, Opilio and Carenza note what appears to be an immense bird moving through the treetops. The three House scions agree to assist Opilio in investigating, then return for a quick breakfast and the opportunity to convince Carpa to take up a vow of silence. Opilio returns to his house and finds his daughter Ambira attempting to get the reluctant sheep out into the pasture. He advises her to let them stay in for a time, and instructs her and her mother to keep to inside work for the day.
The four push into the forest, making for Quercinnarra’s tree. The wildlife seems agitated as they pass, birds crying off-key and small animals running erratically. Opilio searches the turned earth around the roots of a tree, and finds some disturbing signs: a faint gnawing at the roots, a veneer of slime, and a couple of small, dead things somewhat like leeches.
When they reach the dryad’s tree, they find it’s writhing as if in pain, its roots churning the earth around it. A monstrous bundle of feathers and bone in birdlike form roosts up in its branches, and a man in the stained green-and-brown of the Phouthite faithful kneels by one side, his fingers immersed in the roiling earth. As they prepare to engage, though, two worms that rival the size of Kagall’s apes burst from the ground before them.
The worms themselves would be bad enough — they bite with lamprey-like mouths, and each one has a gulletfull of the small leechlike creatures that they spew over their opponents. But the carrion vulture that swoops down further imperils the group, its talons imparting a blinding fever and its shriek resonating with murderous force. The man seems almost ordinary by comparison — but as he closes with them, it’s clear that he’s somehow ill. Vesper recognizes the signs of an infected “missionary” of Phouth, created by a process that conjures a supernatural disease to possess a mortal volunteer. Flies crawl under his skin and leap out to bite those around him, and at one point he pulls aside his breastplate (scavenged from Scarhawk dead) and ensnares Opilio with his own rotting entrails.
The worms fall to hammer and blade. The carrion vulture lasts longer, but Ettorio manages to cut into it even when blinded, and then his vision clears to see it explode in a fount of Vesper’s necromantic power. Finally, the infected missionary meets an ironic end when Ettorio drags him into the thrashing roots — the missionary is unable to escape the Iluni and the peasant’s attentions, and his corpse is finally ground under a massive root.
The tree still shows signs of pain, and poking around the churned earth under its roots, Ettorio finds a belt buckle and Carenza some boot leather. It’s dangerous work, but Ettorio, Opilio and Carenza excavate corpses set at the south, east and west: two bound Scarhawks, treated with unclean rituals, and one of the ancient plague-corpses that seemed to have gone missing from the Sad Mother’s tomb. The final corpse slides free, pulled by an invisible spirit conjured by the Sespech, and the tree seems to return to normal. A portion of its bark opens like an iris, and the dryad Quercinnarra emerges. She thanks the group for their assistance, and offers them some small gifts in return: small fruits of restoration and fortification, and what appears to be a termite in amber. This last she calls “a gift for the chapel’s guardian.”
The four move to Blackharvest Chapel with fresh determination, where they spy the tree that allegedly persecuted Ettorio. It seems to have fruited, its otherwise barren branches hung with black apples. Once they see it in motion, they charge. As Opilio ties it up and is dragged into its branches, Carenza orders Ettorio to strike it with the amber — and he misses in the attempt. Somewhat chagrined, the Iluni scrambles around the guardian as Opilio pulls himself free and Vesper repeatedly strikes at it with her necromantic conjurations. Carenza shouts her order again, and Ettorio smashes the amber against the thing’s trunk. The termite begins to burrow into the tree, injuring it notably before the guardian is able to kill it.
The nature of the things’ fruits becomes apparent as it becomes more severely wounded; several apples fall amongst the four, bursting in miasmic clouds and releasing vicious larvae that quickly swell to the size of small dogs. It lashes out with increasing fury, but its animated deadwood simply isn’t durable enough. The shivering force of Vesper’s banshee and Opilio’s maul wear it down more and more, and finally Carenza’s Uromni blade splits its trunk in half, spilling out its crumbling heartwood onto the soil.