Is this a spoiler? Not really because I want this tree on the cover. In fact, this scene is a variation of what happened in the first game I played as Darwin. Arlinger and him found evil artifacts and wanted to hide them. Obviously, we thought very hard about making sure it didn’t cause a problem. And . . . Well, this is the result.
“Sleep!” the startled caster shouts with his hands up. The hooded lion crashes to the ground in mid-pounce and he can hear the rest of the pride falling in the grass. “I think I’m getting better. You didn’t get affected this time. Guess my spell was aimed at all of the hooded lions. I didn’t even know the others were around. I’m hungry. Maybe we should have some of the apples I took before we left. They’re in Capple’s sack. Hope he made it home okay.”
“That pony can’t possibly have worse luck than us,” Arlinger laughs as he reaches in to get an apple. The feeling of mush causes him to recoil and he frantically shakes the blackened goo off his hand. “What happened to them? That gunk is making the flames turn green. That can’t be a good thing. I swear, this job is cursed. Sorry, cousin, but I need to rant. We’ve been kicked out of our home, tricked into a fake delivery, lost our food, abandoned by our pony, broke a village, and you now have magic. Aside from that last event, everything else is bad. Are you raising your hand because you know something?”
“I put the bracelet box in the apple bag,” Darwin states before turning it upside down. The foul-smelling goo is about to ooze out, but he swiftly turns the sack right-side up and yanks on the pull strap. “Probably shouldn’t let that stuff out. So, I wanted to clean everything up like you were doing before we went to bed last night. The papers were still on the ground, so I gathered them and put them in the box. There was a pointy glass piece in there, which poked my finger. It didn’t bleed much and I sucked the pain out. You taught me to be smart, so I wrapped the needle in the broken papers then closed the box. I didn’t want you to open it and get hurt, so I put it in the apple bag since you weren’t stealing food from there. Everything worked out fine. Except for the box turning the fruit into stinky mush.”
Rubbing his eyes and yawning, Arlinger takes the bag and holds it closer to the light to find that something inside is twitching. “Definitely cursed and this thing is the cause. We’re not taking it with us. Can’t leave it out in the open because an animal might eat it and turn into a monster. Burning means toxic fumes. Don’t want a person to get it and die. I’ve got it. You’re going to pull fur golems out until you get a few badgers. Have them dig a hole at the base of this tree and we’ll bury this nightmare. Then, we pack up, put out the fire, and walk an hour down the road to find a better place to sleep for the night. Any questions?”
Darwin shakes his head and goes about throwing fur golems out of their bag, but the first three are weasels. Letting the fake animals run into the darkness, he is relieved to get a badger and sends it to dig around the tree’s roots. It takes a few minutes for him to get more of the stronger animals, which results in the camp having a wide variety of furry beasts wandering aimlessly. Letting Arlinger watch over the digging, Darwin hurries to put the fire out by taking dirt from the badgers and tossing it into the shallow pit. It takes several trips for him to reduce the flames to embers and he stands at the edge thinking there is another step. A whistle gets him to turn around and he catches a waterskin, which he promptly empties onto the smoking remains before stomping on the soaked ashes.
“Good-bye cursed box,” Arlinger announces as he drops the sack into the hole.
The opening collapses as soon as the bundle disappears into the darkness, which traps the fake badgers in the earth. A trio of pops tells the halflings that the fur golems have turned back into their original forms. Relieved and tired, they roll up their sleeping bags and swing their backpacks into place. Both stop when they smell a pungent stench and hear creaking branches even though there is no breeze. Illuminated by the blue light of Tavon, the oak shivers and develops a sickly gray color. Branches stretch and twist as if they are trying to flex nonexistent muscles until they stop with a chorus of loud crunches. Acorns fall and burst into puffs of noxious fumes as soon as they hit the ground. For a brief moment, the halflings swear a hideous face emerges from the upper trunk, but it disappears as soon as the shadows shift.
“People are going to be curious about this,” Arlinger admits with a sigh.
“What if you leave a sign?”
“That will make them even more curious about the evil tree.”
“Not if the sign says it’s a good tree.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Carve a note that says it is not an evil tree.”
“That’s . . . Might actually work.”
“People will think the whole thing is a joke and keep walking.”
“I knew it!”
Pulling a knife out of his pocket, Arlinger gingerly approaches the oak and avoids stepping on the exposed roots. He carefully presses the blade into the bark and leans away in case ichor sprays from inside. Nothing happens, so he continues carving the words ‘This is NOT an Evil Tree’ into the trunk. Seeing sludge on the knife, he tosses it into the grass and slowly backs away from the tree. Waving for Darwin to imitate his movements, the halflings leave the tall grass and walk down the road without looking away from the tree. Once they can only see the top, they spin around to rush through the night as fast as they hungry bodies can move.