The sun was beginning to set, and only one traveler was left on the King’s Road. There would be no one else to interrupt the bandits at their business.
Tosk watched from his burrow as the aged tortoise ahead took measured steps along the cobblestone trail. High meadows and tall trees surrounded him, and the dip in the road that the tortoise was approaching would blind him to any who happened to be traveling the same path.
Tap tap tap. The tortoise’s walking stick beat out a slow rhythm, sharp against the silence of the evening. Tosk noticed a violet gemstone at the tip of the stick, and his badger’s eyes glinted. He emerged from his burrow and quietly followed the tortoise, wondering what the traveler was carrying in the large backpack he balanced on his shell. The tortoise himself appeared to be old and frail, bent by the weight on his back and the heavy book on his belt. His long white whiskers nearly swept the cobblestones between his knobby knees.
Finally, the tortoise reached the lowest point of the dip. Tosk whistled, and his friends crawled out of their hiding places. Together, the three animals walked steadily alongside the tortoise as though they were fellow travelers.
“Can we carry your bag for you, Grandad?” Tosk asked kindly, showing his teeth.
The tortoise blinked his big round eyes. “Oh my! Didn’t see you there, sonny. Off to Vangaard, is it? Good show!”
Strangely, the old tortoise didn’t appear frightened at all. Tosk’s friends, a fox named Tuft and a Weasel named Totter, looked at Tosk with amusement.
“I really must insist, Grandad,” Tosk said, resting his clawed hand on the pommel of his short sword. “That shell must be heavy enough as it is. And that gem on your stick must make the whole thing unbalanced. Can’t have that, can we?”
“Long way left to the capital,” Totter said.
“Don’t want to put your back out,” Tuft added.
To their collective surprise, the tortoise barked out a mad cackle. “Old Mozebus has far more experience carrying a heavy load than you little snappers do! Oh, he’s been around the whole world, and these gams haven’t failed him yet.”
Tuft looked like she was about to laugh. Totter threw up his paws in silent confusion. Tosk was wondering if “Mozebus” was supposed to be the name of the tortoise or if he was just senile. In any case, he seemed to have no idea that he was being robbed.
The sun was bleeding on the horizon, sinking gradually out of sight. High above, the Dark Moon was beginning to glow.
"What business have you in Vangaard, eh?” the tortoise asked jovially. “Old Mozebus has a mind to sign up for the Arcanium, he does.”
That made the bandits burst into laughter. An elderly tortoise, fighting in the Arcanium? It was a ludicrous image. He’d have to hide in his shell only to be kicked around like a moonball.
As though laughing alongside them, the tortoise cackled again as insanely as ever. His crisp, creaky voice was shockingly high, and echoed through the trees. Tusk and his friends stopped laughing instantly. Someone might hear them and come to the tortoise’s aid.
“All right, fun’s over, Grandad,” Tosk snarled, ripping his sword from its scabbard. The blade glinted in the venomous light of the Dark Moon. Tuft and Totter followed suit, removing a pair of knives and a hatchet respectively. Together they circled in front of Mozebus, blocking his path. There was no way he could outrun them.
“Give us the bag and stick and maybe you’ll make it to the Arcanium with your shell in one piece,” Tosk warned.
Mozebus continued to laugh, this time in a throaty chuckle. He unslung the bag from his back, but rather than fall to the ground, it floated behind him, along with his tattered blue-and-gold cape. For the first time, the bandits noticed the series of arcane runes etched into each scute of his shell. They gleamed in the light of the Dark Moon, along with the gem on the tip of his staff.
“Low-gravity spell,” Mozebus explained with a mad grin. “Takes pressure off the ol’ joints, it does.” Even his beard and the leather-bound book that he had clasped to his belt seemed to move as though floating in water. Had they been doing that this whole time? Tosk wondered.
Totter tried to grab the bag, but his paw floated away from it as though repelled by an invisible field. He looked at Tosk with newfound fear.
“Learned the spell in the Scorched Lands, if I’m not mistaken,” Mozebus mused.
“The… the Scorched Lands?” Tuft asked, the red fur on her fluffy tail standing on end. They’d all heard stories of the wicked things that happened near the fallen Black Shard.
“Oh, you’ve heard of it?” Mozebus asked, grinning broadly with his few teeth that remained. By now the sun had disappeared, and Tosk could swear the tortoise’s giant eyes were glowing like the moon.
“Senile old shell-head’s just makin’ things up to scare us,” Tosk said, though his voice wavered.
“Not at all,” Mozebus cackled. “It’s all true. Now, I don’t remember everything I learned from my time at the Black Shard, but I wrote it all down in my—well, let’s just call it a journal, eh?” He patted the book at his belt. “I’ve got stories in here that’ll make you howl. Care to listen?”
“Let’s just crack his demented head and be done with him,” Totter squeaked. He twisted the handle of his hatchet between two small paws.
“Too dark out here to read, though,” Mozebus muttered as though to himself.
“Do it,” Tosk ordered.
Totter raised his hatchet, when suddenly Mozebus pounded his staff into the road and its gemstone ignited with fiery light. Totter squealed and stepped back, dropping his hatchet and nearly cleaving his tail off in the process.
“That’s better!” Mozebus chortled, flipping open his book and holding his staff like a lamp. “Now let’s see here… Ah, yes.”
While Totter picked his hatchet back up and the others brandished their blades, Mozebus began reading from his book—but what he read didn’t sound like language. It was a guttural, broken series of throaty noises that echoed eerily as Mozebus recited the non-words with mad eyes and a massive smile.
“Kill him!” Tosk shouted. “Kill him now!”
The three animals pounced just as Mozebus finished his recital. He snapped the book shut, and a ripple of arcane energy blasted outward from his body, sending grass, rocks and trees flying with the force of a thousand explosions. The badger, fox, and weasel tumbled away like howling ragdolls, their weapons flung far out of reach as their bodies shrunk smaller.
Gradually, the voices of the bandits became higher, and soon Mozebus was surrounded by three adorable cubs, bundled in the loose clothing of road agents. They yipped and whined in confusion as Mozebus gasped.
“Oh, dear!” he said. “I think I read the wrong page.”
Cackling at his own foolishness, he lifted his bag over his shell and bent down to pat the badger cub on the head.
“Don’t fret, little snapper,” the tortoise cooed. “You’ll be right as rain in two hours.” He straightened, tugging on his beard. “Or… was it two days? Years? Well, rest assured—it’s two somethings.”
The three cubs looked at each other with concern while the old tortoise made his way over the dip in the road. In the distance stood the high towers of Vangaard, as well as the gold-and-blue flags of the Arcanium within.
-Written by Kyle Hubbard