Early the next morning, the group of seven set out. First, they visited the homes of the boys and informed their families that the children would be with Darius and Var on special orders. Kelin’s family had already approved. Pete’s mother wanted to invite the entire group in for breakfast and a talk, but the group didn’t have time for that. She happily sent Pete away with a smile and a tear in her eye, being the somewhat eccentric person she was. Zeick’s mother silently accepted the situation with a sigh. Mai’ou, for her part, was stunned by the whole thing. She managed to voice her approval, after Va’il’s short explanation. He told her that he was going away for a short while, and this time he was actually telling her, and that even the royal guards were coming along. With Darius standing by, Mai’ou could only agree.
The morning was still early when the group left Rising. The seven of them walked at a quick pace. Time passed quickly, so it was noon when they reached the familiar sight of Lake Tershi. They took a little while to eat and rest, and afterwards approached the lake’s edge. Darius pulled a small glass jar out from a pocket.
“I know this has been a very fast pace of events, but is everyone ready for yet another stunning event?” Darius asked with a knowing smile.
“Yeah, of course!” Va’il replied eagerly.
“Please sir, of course we are. The wisdom of ancients is something I’ve longed to hear,” Geon said.
Darius opened the jar and poured a small amount of clear liquid into the lake. He put a lid on the jar and returned it to his pocket. He then stood there, waiting. A few minutes passed in silence.
“What was that?” Va’il asked.
“Saliva. Spit,” Darius replied.
“Spit? Who’s?” Va’il asked.
“That, dear boy, is a secret. Just wait. He should arrive soon. In fact, look at the water,” Darius said.
Va’il looked out over the lake, searching for any disturbances or clues. While he looked, a small wave soaked his feet. It surprised him, since he had been a few feet from the water’s edge. He looked down as another wave came close to his feet.
“Ah, that,” Kelin said.
Va’il looked up. In the middle of the lake, something was rising out of the water. The giant creature caused an even larger wave that forced Va’il and the rest to run away from the lake’s edge. After they had gotten far enough away, they turned and admired the creature that was now making its way to them one giant step at a time. Each of its four legs looked like enormous trees. The shell on the creature’s back was darkened brown with hints of gold and blue. Its head was so large that swallowing Var whole would pose no problem. Va’il knew that such a creature was something to be feared even by the most violent or voracious of lupus. The creature looked down at the group with its large yellow eyes. Then, it spoke.
“Someone called?” The creature’s words echoed loudly throughout the area.
“We did,” Darius said while standing firm. The creature brought its head close to Darius before speaking again.
“And you are? King of Rising? Keeper of the covenant?” The creature spoke much quieter than before, at a volume just right for the circumstances.
“Darius, commander of Rising’s royal guard. I come on the behalf of King Fidel, of Rising,” Darius said stiffly. Even he found it difficult to remain calm when being interrogated by an unquestionably superior being.
“Keeper is required. Proof. I will speak with none other. Give me the lock of hair as proof.” The creature opened its mouth and stuck out a long tongue.
“Proof? Hair?” Darius asked.
“Give me a lock of hair,” it said, then repeated the same motions. Darius quickly pulled a knife out and cut off a small bit of his hair. He placed it on the outstretched tongue.
“Is this what you wanted?” Darius asked cautiously.
“Not right at all. Different,” the creature said slowly, then again stretched its tongue.
“I’m not right. But, hair? Var, you try,” Darius said. Var obliged.
“Not right,” the creature repeated.
“Fidel didn’t mention this,” Darius said with a sigh. He tried remembering what happened many years ago when he last met this creature, but at the time he was too awestruck by the sight to pay attention to what had actually transpired.
“Not right. Different,” the creature said yet again. Darius saw Zeick pulling his arm away and shrugging his shoulders in disappointment.
“What are you doing?” Darius asked with an irritated tone.
“He’s asking for hair, I figured I’d try as well. Maybe he’s got a taste for something different?” Zeick shrugged at Darius.
“There is something more to it. Fidel may know. It might be a riddle of some kind, or other way of proving who we are. A taste for hair? I don’t know anymore, but we can’t take chances,” Darius said.
“What’s the harm? He’s asking. Let’s try something tastier,” Kelin said as he plucked a short hair off Pete. “Even swine have a hair or two, right?”
“Not right,” the creature said.
“Fine, I suppose.” Darius gave in as Geon cut off a portion of his own hair.
“I offer this to the ancient one. You are from ancient times, correct?” Geon asked as he placed the hair on the tongue.
“Not right. I will not answer any other question until the keeper arrives,” the creature said.
“Just the two of us left, Va’il. Let’s see how what reaction mine gets,” Kelin said as he gave a piece of hair to the creature.
“Still not right. One of you is left? Just one more, then I leave,” the creature said.
Va’il took a pinch of hair with his left hand, and used a knife in his right to cut it off. He walked towards the giant turtle, hair in hand. He could smell the creature’s breathe as he got closer. The taste of the lake’s water was the same as the smell of the turtle’s breathe. As he dropped the lock of hair on the creature’s tongue, he remembered when he almost drowned three years ago. One detail he had forgotten made its way to the surface. He had seen something yellow before passing out. The creature’s yellow eyes reminded him of that.
“Acknowledged, you are from Rising. You again, I see.” The creature moved its head towards the ground and then back up in a motion that was supposed to be interpreted as a bow.
“Again?” echoed Darius and Kelin.
“Now I can speak freely. It has been a short time since we last met. You woke me just a little while ago, but disappeared then. Back now, young one?” the creature asked.
“I guess. You must mean a few years ago when I almost drowned here,” Va’il said.
“A few years to you, a couple days to me, it makes no difference. Now, why have you come?” the creature asked. Darius stopped questioning the conversation, and decided to speak up.
“If you don’t mind, we have a few questions to ask, if you can help, and if you know,” Darius said carefully.
“I shall, I will, and I may know. To answer an earlier question, yes, I am ancient, in your terms. Five thousand years ago I lived, and I shall live for that much longer and more. Do you have a question about those times?” True to his word, the giant turtle was speaking much more coherently and quickly than before.
“Then, we will be straight to the point. The maroon, that ancient species, has been destroying cities. We are unable to stop them. Can you tell us anything that will help?” Darius asked.
“The maroon? The ones that aren’t made of flesh?” the creature asked.
“Yes, them,” Darius said.
“Curious. That cannot be right. You must be mistaken. It cannot be the maroon,” the creature said with firmness.
“But it is! They are awake and searching for a way to sleep again,” Geon said.
“Cannot. Otherwise, I have failed. Understand, I am the guardian of the maroon’s sleeping place,” the creature said.
“You are? Where?” Darius asked.
“Below ground. Below Tershi, they sleep. I watch from here,” the creature said.
“But how, then, is it that they are out? Could they have left without you knowing?” Darius asked.
“I doubt they could without me knowing. They will sleep unless disturbed, and I’d know if they were disturbed,” the creature said.
“You’d know? But what if someone walked in through the entrance in the forest? The cave that leads to that room, it wasn’t sealed before I was there, I think,” Va’il said.
“You! Of course, the disturbance back then. But the cave you speak of, it isn’t what you think. It cannot be entered, it can only be exited. It was opened because you were coming, it sealed because you left. Appearances belie the truth, young one. The important thing, is that you were there. My failure is twofold,” the creature said with grief.
“Failure? But how did I disturb it?” Va’il asked.
“I do not know. You should go, see what is there. Fix what happened,” the creature said.
“Wait, but what about the maroon? How do we defend against them?” Darius asked.
“Likely, you will find the answer below. The maroon are a peaceful species. Invulnerable to your weapons though. They just want to sleep. Go now, and find what they are missing. I will take you,” the creature said.