It was 9:30 in the morning. Ben Taylor sat by a swimming pool, his feet dangling in the water. Ben’s head rested on his clenched fists. His brilliant green eyes were closed. His unruly dark brown hair had not been brushed. Anyone who looked closely could see that Ben was trembling.
At any moment the Physical Education teacher would call Ben’s name. Phil Tanner expected Ben to jump into the swimming pool, do the front crawl to the other side, and return with a backstroke. Ben was not sure he could even stay afloat, let alone do two different strokes across the width of the pool.
The request that he swim across the pool was not unreasona-ble. Ben had been taking swim lessons for three months with his grade nine class. Not that Ben attended very many classes. He usually found some excuse. For a couple of weeks, he had a sniffle that turned into a raging cold just in time for the swim lesson. For a couple of weeks, he sported a thick bandage on his big toe. It covered a scratch, but only Ben and his roommate Denzel Carter knew the truth. Another week he managed to see a dentist when he should have been in the pool. Then the excuse was a sprained ankle. It was a legitimate excuse—he had suffered a mild sprain; however, Ben’s limp was much worse when it was time for swim class. Ben’s excuse this week was that he could not find his bathing suit. This excuse had worked once before, but this time Phil Tanner was prepared. Tanner handed Ben a suit left behind by a previous student: a student three times Ben’s size.
“Allison Sims,” Phil Tanner called. The girl sitting next to Ben slid into the pool. Ben’s mouth went dry. He clenched his hands even tighter, but they still shook. Taylor followed Sims on Phil Tanner’s list of students.
Allison made it look so easy. She swam effortlessly across the pool and back.
“Well done,” Phil Tanner said as Allison gracefully slid out of the water to sit beside Ben once again. She rubbed water out of her blue eyes and looked at Ben with concern. Ben’s eyes remained closed. Allison took one of her copper colored braids in each hand, leaned towards Ben and squeezed. Ben jerked away as cold water hit his shoulder.
“Wake up, Ben,” Allison said. “You’re next.”
Ben said nothing. He was normally tongue tied around Allison, but always worked hard to come up with a witty response. This time he did not even try. His thoughts were consumed with what he would do when his name was called. He was desperate to find an excuse, any excuse to stay out of the water.
Phil Tanner spoke the words Ben was dreading. Ben hesitated, desperately searching for an excuse, but his mind was blank.
“Come on, Benjamin,” barked the teacher. “Into the water! We don’t have all day.”
Ben jumped and immediately knew it was a mistake. He sank like a stone. He came up spitting water, his arms and legs thrashing. Ben’s frantic movement took him slowly forward in the required direction. For a moment Ben had some small hope that he might actually get to the other side. Then the bathing suit slipped down over his bum. Ben grabbed for the suit, but it was impossible to keep his head above water with only one hand free to dog paddle. So Ben did what any sensible person would do. He let go. The swimsuit slid further down and Ben quickly learned it is impossible to kick your legs with a swimsuit wrapped around your knees. Staying afloat demanded that he kick so Ben decided to retrieve the suit after all. Mustering his courage, he bent into the water and reached towards his knees.
It is a simple fact that when one part of the body goes down, another part rises up. None of the eight girls and ten boys missed the fact that Ben mooned them. They pointed, hooted, giggled, hollered, and laughed out loud.
“Girls to the change room,” Phil Tanner ordered. All the girls left, except for Allison.
Ben didn’t hear the laughter. He had more important matters to deal with. He was swallowing pool water and the swimsuit was not cooperating. It was hanging around his knees. Spots gathered in front of Ben’s eyes. His arms and legs were beginning to feel heavy. Everything was going black as he finally kicked off the bathing suit.
Phil Tanner was not watching Ben. He was puzzled as to why Ben was such a poor swimmer. He was counting the absent marks beside Ben’s name in the record book. He muttered, “Taylor, you have some explaining to do,” and slammed the book shut. He needed to speak to the substitute teachers who taught for him when he was away.
“Mr. Tanner! Mr. Tanner!” An urgent voice broke the Physical Education teacher’s concentration. Phil Tanner transferred his atten-tion to Allison Sims, who was standing before him.
“I said girls to the change room. That includes you.”
“But Mr. Tanner, Ben needs help,” Allison persisted. Phil Tanner looked up to see Ben’s borrowed swimsuit floating on the water, but no sign of Ben.
Phil Tanner pushed his record book into Allison’s wet hands, and dove into the pool. In a few quick strokes the teacher reached the swimsuit, jackknifed, and with eyes wide open swam underwater. The teacher found Ben and dragged him to the surface. When Allison saw that Phil Tanner had Ben in tow she did as she was told and left, after giving the record book to one of the boys.
Phil Tanner dragged Ben out of the pool and threw a towel over his naked body. Then the teacher began to press on Ben’s chest. One…and a two…and a three. Water flowed out of Ben’s mouth, but he was still not breathing. Phil Tanner pinched Ben’s nose. He took a deep breath and bent over to give Ben mouth to mouth.
At that moment Ben took a deep shuddering breath. Phil Tanner let go of Ben’s nose, but remained hunched over the boy. That was a mistake. Ben brought up the considerable breakfast he had eaten earlier. It spewed in all directions. Pieces of orange and bacon hung in Phil Tanner’s hair.
There was shocked silence at first, then suppressed laughter from the boys in Ben’s class.
“Everyone to the change room,” Phil Tanner roared after wiping oranges and bacon off his face. When everyone was gone the teacher shouted at Ben. “Tomorrow, before breakfast and every morning after that, I want you here with a swimsuit that fits,” Phil Tanner thundered.
“No…I…don’t wa…” Ben started, unsure of just what to say.
“Failure is not an option for the son of Andrew Taylor,” the teacher continued, without listening to Ben. “You will have another test next Monday and every Monday after that until you pass.”
By the time Ben arrived at the boys’ change room, everyone else was nearly dressed. There was suppressed laughter from everyone but his roommate Denzel. Denzel held a towel towards Ben in his dark hand. His brown eyes were full of concern. “You okay?” he asked.
Ben shrugged as he took the towel; he was afraid words might bring tears.
“Do you want me to wait for you?” Denzel asked. Ben shook his head no.
Ben took a long shower. The water was cool, but Ben did not turn off the tap until the talk and laughter died down and the door banged shut for the last time. When he finally turned off the tap, a clock hanging on the wall told him math class had already started. He rammed one wet leg and then the other into his blue jeans and struggled into his shirt. He picked up his socks, but realizing they would be too hard to put on wet feet shoved them into his gym bag. He threw the gym bag over his shoulder, stuffed his bare feet into his runners and sprinted out the door.
“Ben! Wait!” called a voice, “Are you okay?” Allison was waiting for him outside the change room door. Concern was clearly written on her freckled face.
Ben shrugged. “You’ll be late for math.”
“You too, but I’m sure you could write the test later. Almost dying is a good excuse.”
“Uhgg. I forgot the test.”
“Like I said, you could take the test later.”
“I might, but what about you?” Ben replied, as they left the Physical Education building and ran towards the castle.
Ben and Allison were students at Fairhaven Private School. Fairhaven was a school for students from grade nine to twelve, where it was as important to learn to hang glide and rock climb as it was to learn algebra. Most students had parents and grandparents who attended Fairhaven before them. But there were a few like Allison, who received a special invitation to come. There were only fifty-eight students at Fairhaven. They came from many different countries of origin. Money or the lack thereof was not a barrier as no one paid tuition.
The school was located on its own private island in the Pacific Northwest not far from the small community of Gold River, British Columbia, Canada. Through natural means it could only be reached by boat or float plane. However, many students reached the school by means that were far from natural. There were portals in various parts of the world that brought students to Fairhaven the moment one stepped through them.
As well as the Physical Education building, there were residences for students and teachers, a stable, barns, and chicken coops. There were horses in the stable as riding was part of the curriculum. Most of the island was forested, but the area close to the school had gardens, hayfields and a pasture, as well as sports fields. The school farm grew most of the food eaten in the dining hall. The surrounding ocean provided fresh fish.
The largest building on the island was a small castle made of large gray stones. A pathway led from a small secluded bay to the wide front steps of the ancient building. The stone steps led to two large oak doors. In the basement were the community kitchen, dining hall, and common rooms. On the main floor were classrooms and offices. The second floor had guest quarters and an extensive library. The third floor held a large meeting hall, as well as the office space and residence of Mariah Templeton, the principal of Fairhaven. On the fourth floor there was a small deep pool and a hexagonal shaped room with six walls and six doors. No one was allowed on the third and fourth floors without an invitation.
Ben and Allison stopped and stared when they reached the cas-tle. To Ben’s dismay, the large swimsuit hung out the window. Words in large print said, “Lose something, Ben?”
“Oh no. Now everyone will know,” Ben muttered.
“Everyone was going to know anyway. This is a small school,” Allison responded before sprinting up the stairs.
Ben steeled himself for laughter when he walked through the classroom door, but there was no laughter. Yoko Suzuki was away. In her place was William Smith, a substitute teacher with a permanent scowl on his scarred face.
“No point in asking to postpone,” Ben whispered. “Smith would insist a corpse write the test.”
“And the corpse would if it knew what was good for it,” Allison whispered back.
William Smith glared at them with his one good eye. His other eye was covered by a black patch. Where his left hand should have been there was a hook. William Smith used his right hand to beckon Ben and Allison forward. He growled, “You’re late. Five percent will be deducted from your marks.”
“But…” Allison began.
William Smith, cut her off, “I am being lenient, since I understand Taylor came close to death this morning.” He passed them a copy of the test with his hook.
Ben took his seat behind Denzel, who flashed Ben a quick smile, his teeth white against his dark skin.
As the students finished, they silently filed out of the classroom, until only Ben and Allison were left.
“Time’s up,” William Smith said in his gravelly voice, just as Ben finished the second to last question. Ben and Allison laid their tests on the desk in front of Mr. Smith.
“So I understand you haven’t learned to swim yet, Taylor,” Wil-liam Smith growled.
“I’m not planning to learn,” Ben stated flatly.
“That’s a problem.”
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll just stay out of the water.”
“It matters! You get serious and listen to me. Anyone can learn to swim and that includes you.”
Ben started to turn away, but the substitute teacher grabbed Ben’s sleeve with his hook. “Hear me, Ben Taylor, and hear me good. I don’t want to hear about you missing your swimming lessons. You are not going to disappoint your father. He is my friend and one of the best students this school has produced.”
Ben jerked his sleeve out of the hook’s grasp and sprinted for the door. Denzel was waiting for him on the other side.
“You O.K?” Denzel asked.
“Yeah,” Ben said. “I hope Suzuki is back soon. Smith is just plain scary.”
“Too true! But then there are a lot of scary teachers at this school. And Smith isn’t the only one with battle scars. It’s creepy.”
“I wonder where Suzuki went?” Ben asked.
“Who know? She’s away a lot,” Denzel responded. “So is Tanner and some of the other teachers. I’d like to know where they go and why we have so many substitutes.”
The two friends walked to their next class. Throughout the day, Ben had more than one teacher and several students offer him advice on what to do in the water.
That night Ben had the same dream that he had almost every night since coming to Fairhaven. It was dark. Two moons hung in the sky. His mother had disappeared. Ben was flying through the air, suspended by the claws of a giant scaly bird. Over and over he cried, “Momma, Momma.” Tears ran down his cheeks. The creature holding him gave a piercing cry and released its hold. Ben fell through the air into deep dark water. The cold stunned him. The blackness terrified him. He tried to call his Momma, but no sound came. There was only water. He couldn’t breathe.
Like always, Ben woke with his heart pounding and his fists clenched. His breath came in shuddering gasps. Denzel stood by his bed; hand on Ben’s shoulder, shaking him awake. “For Pete’s sake Ben, see a shrink. Find out what these nightmares mean. I’m tired of waking up every night,” Denzel said in a tired, irritated, but concerned voice.
The clock said it was quarter past two. Ben lay awake, afraid to fall asleep. He did not want to dream again, but by three he was sound asleep.
The next day Ben had the required private swim lesson. It was a disaster. Mr. Tanner had to jump into the pool and fish him out once more.
HIDE AND SEEK
After supper the next day Ben and Denzel went to the library. They watched students go in and out of a part of the library forbidden to them.
“Look,” said Denzel, “Allison is allowed to go in there. Why aren’t we allowed? She’s grade nine and so are we.”
“Don’t ask me,” Ben said, just as a bell rang. He listened for a moment. It was a special bell the grade nine’s had been told to ignore.
“It’s not for us.” Ben said to Denzel.
“I know, but look,” Denzel pointed, as students and teachers filed out of the forbidden section of the library.
The librarian, Olivia Stewart, wheeled her chair out from behind a desk. “The library is now closed. Take whatever books you need. Bring them back tomorrow.”
Ben put his books away. He stood and was starting towards the door until Denzel jerked his arm with such force that Ben found himself sitting back down on the chair.
“What the…” he began. Denzel put a finger to his own lips and dropped under the table. Ben followed him muttering, “This is a bad idea, a very bad idea.” Nevertheless he crawled underneath the table with Denzel.
At the end of the table, Denzel crawled between two bookshelves, then stood and sprinted to the far end of the library. Ben followed. Denzel dropped to the ground and pushed himself underneath a study desk. Ben stood staring down at him as Denzel gestured in silence for Ben to crawl underneath another desk. Ben stood undecided. It was not too late to leave, but he had to make a quick decision. Someone was coming. The steps were getting closer and closer. Someone was checking to make sure no one was left inside the library. Finally Ben made up his mind and dropped to the ground. He pushed himself underneath a second study desk. The footsteps stopped between the desks where Ben and Denzel lay hidden. The footsteps belonged to a trusted grade twelve student, appointed to monitor the halls and make sure the rules were not being broken. Ben held his breath until the feet turned and walked away. After a moment they heard a door close and the library was silent.
“This is a bad idea,” Ben repeated as he climbed out from under the desk. “A very bad idea.”
“Yeah, probably, but at least it’s not boring,” Denzel replied. Be-ing bored seemed to be the one thing in life that Denzel was frightened of, perhaps the only thing, from what Ben could tell.
“Nobody gets a chance to be bored around you,” Ben muttered. “A little boredom would be welcome now and then.”
“Let’s go,” Denzel said. Ben did not need to ask where.
Denzel pushed open the door with its “ENTRY FORBIDDEN WITHOUT SPECIAL PERMISSION” sign and Ben followed him in. They both knew it was a mistake as soon as they stepped through the door. There was a loud clang as the door bolted behind them and the lights went out. Since there were no windows in the forbidden section of the library it was very dark. Ben whirled around and felt for the door handle. It confirmed his suspicion that they were locked in.
“O.K. What are we going to do now?” Ben asked in a squeaky voice.
“Look around,” said Denzel, as he dug into his pocket and pro-duced a small flashlight. He swung the flashlight first this way and then that. The light rested briefly on a sign: Zargon. In the middle of the library were several small tables with books open on them. Denzel walked to the nearest table and ran his flashlight over the books. He picked up one whose cover read, “The Six Worlds: Their Similarities and Differences.” He turned to the table of contents. Listed in alphabetical order were six worlds: Earth, Farne, Lushaka, Mellish, Toregan and Zargon. Denzel turned his flashlight away from the book to the “Zargon” sign. He shone the flashlight around the room and found the other five signs. He turned back to the book and opened it to the section on Zargon.
“The most important difference between Zargon and other worlds,” the book began, “is that dinosaurs and dragons still live on Zargon, while they have disappeared from the other worlds where they once existed.”
That was as far into the book as Denzel, with Ben looking over his shoulder, was able to read. They heard the library door open and close. Denzel turned off his flashlight and put it away seconds before Phil Tanner opened the door of the darkened room. Phil Tanner found them standing in the dark and was unaware of the flashlight in Denzel’s pocket.
“Out! Now!” Phil Tanner thundered. He hustled the boys out. “I will see you tomorrow. And I would count on a very long detention if I were you.”
Ben groaned. Detention meant working in the kitchen—peeling potatoes, loading the dishwasher and washing pots and pans.
The boys were escorted to the stairs and ushered out of the build-ing. They wisely left the castle and went back to their dorm room. The next day the two friends were called into Mr. Tanner’s office and given two months of detention starting that very day. They reported to the kitchen and worked for an hour before and after supper. As they peeled and scrubbed, they talked quietly of what it might all mean.
“There is something going on in this school,” Denzel said, “and I intend to find out what it is.”
“Did you notice that Allison came out of the forbidden section of the library when the bell rang?” Ben said.
“No, I didn’t, but I’m not surprised you did. I think you have a crush on that girl.”
“So what do you think’s going on? Why are there books about imaginary worlds in the forbidden library?” Ben asked, trying to change the subject.
“I think it’s some kind of role-playing game. Maybe everyone gets assigned an imaginary world and becomes a character in that world.”
“So the bell rings when it is time to play?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I’d love to be in on the game.”
“Me too. I wonder how you get an invitation?”
“Maybe Allison will tell us,” Ben said, blushing.
“If you can actually talk to her, she might,” Denzel said.
Over the next few days they tried to talk to the students who were able to go into the special part of the library but were rebuffed. Allison went out of her way to avoid them after they asked several times why Allison could go into the library and they couldn’t and why the bell rang for her and not for them.
Three days later, Ben and Denzel finished their detention in the kitchen and were heading up the stairs to the library when the special bell rang again. They watched as students and teachers filed past them and went up the stairs to the meeting hall.
“Come on,” Denzel said. “Let’s see if Allison will talk to us.”
“She won’t talk,” Ben said. “We’ve already tried several times.”
“Allison, wait!” Denzel shouted.
Allison moved in front of some grade twelve students and contin-ued up the stairs to the third floor. Denzel tried to follow, but two older boys blocked their way. “You’re not allowed on the third floor without an invitation.”
“How do you get an invitation?” Denzel asked.
“You’ll know when you do,” the older student said.
Denzel and Ben stood aside and watched teachers and students climb the stairs into the great hall. There were no other grade nines besides Allison included in the gathering.
“Come on,” Denzel said, “We’re going to find out what’s going on up there.”
“And how are we going to do that?” Ben asked.
“We’re going to look through a window,” Denzel stated.
“I’ll show you.”
Denzel led the way down the hallway. They passed Olivia Stewart, as she waited in her wheelchair for an ancient elevator to take her to the third floor. Denzel led Ben to the math classroom. He opened a window and started to climb through.
“What are you doing?” Ben exclaimed.
“Putting the rock climbing we’ve been learning into practice. Why do you think they teach us these things if we’re not supposed to use them? You comin’?”
“No! Definitely not! I don’t want to break my neck.”
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Denzel said as he stood on the ledge and searched for a handhold.
“Denzel! Don’t do it!” Ben spoke loudly. “Fall and you’ll be dead!”
“Shhhh. I’m not going to fall,” Denzel replied in a loud whisper as he began to climb.
Ben waited, wondering how he would explain his presence in the math classroom if a teacher came in, although that seemed unlikely as they were all on the third floor.
Ben stuck his head out the window and watched Denzel move slowly up the rock wall, carefully searching for and finding hand-holds. When Denzel reached the third floor window, he pulled himself up over the ledge to look in. Ben watched Denzel gasp and his foot slip. Ben was afraid that his friend was going to fall, but Denzel grabbed the window ledge with his right hand. Denzel dangled for a moment before finding a handhold to begin his climb down. Ben helped a shaken Denzel back in through the window.
“Well?” Ben asked when Denzel was silent for an uncharacteristi-cally long time.
“She knew. Miss Templeton knew I was there. She leaned forward and looked right at me, our eyes met. I tried to duck and that’s when I lost my hold.”
“What were they doing?”
“Just sitting around; but someone, I don’t know who, was dressed up as a mermaid. Great costume. Greenish skin, blond spiked hair with green tips. The eyes had no whites. The tail was amazing. It was worth the climb just to get a glimpse of that vision of beauty.”
“Weird!” Ben said. “We might be right. It is a role-playing game. I wonder what world is supposed to have mermaids. I wonder if they assign you a character or you choose it for yourself.”
“I don’t care, I just want in. We need to find out what it takes to join,” Denzel stated.
The two boys hung around the castle. When the meeting ended, they managed to catch Allison just before she entered the girls’ dormitory.
“Allison,” Denzel said. “What were you all doing up there?”
Allison stared at him for a moment, then shook her head, and ran up the stairs. Denzel started to follow, but Ben grabbed his arm.
“You want to have detention till you graduate? Going into the girls’ dorm is one way to make that happen.”
TIME FOR TEA
In the morning, Ben ate early and headed for the swimming pool for his extra lesson with Phil Tanner. The lessons were still not going well. This one was no exception. Ben did not feel comfortable in the pool even when his feet were able to touch bottom. Phil Tanner was waiting for Ben when he left the dressing room.
“I’ve called Miss Templeton, Ben. She wants to see you today after your last class. I told her there is little hope that you will learn to swim. I’m really sorry about that.”
“It’s not your fault. I have always hated the water. I don’t care if I ever learn to swim,” Ben said.
“I care and your dad cares. He is going to be very disappointed,” Phil Tanner said. He paused a moment and then continued, “Your dad and I were roommates. He has been my best friend for over twenty years. I don’t know how to tell him that I couldn’t teach his son to swim.”
Later in the day, Ben walked slowly towards the castle and up the stairs to the reception area on the third floor. Mrs. Topp, the school secretary, sat at a desk near the stairs. On one side of her was the door to the great hall and on the other side was the door into Mariah Templeton’s office and residence. Ben had been on the third floor twice. The first time was when his father brought him to the school. They had climbed the stairs together and Mariah Templeton had come out of her office to welcome him. A week into the school term there was a gathering for students and teachers in the great hall to which everyone was invited. Mariah Templeton spoke to the students. She spoke of the students as chosen ones who would bring light to dark worlds. Ben laughed at her words, until his father had glared at him. Later when he had tried to tell his father how strange Mariah Templeton was his father had been unwilling to listen.
Ben’s father had come back to the school a month later. Andrew Taylor told Ben that he was going away on business, but expected to be back within six to eight weeks. Eight months had passed and his father had not yet returned. The end of the school year was coming and Ben wondered if his father would return in time to take him home.
Andrew Taylor had often gone away on business when Ben was a boy. His grandmother used to take care of him until his father returned, but now his grandmother was dead. Ben wasn’t sure where he would end up this summer, but more importantly he was worried about what had happened to his father.
“Miss Templeton wants to see me,” Ben announced to Mrs. Topp.
Mrs. Topp pushed a button and spoke into an intercom, “Ben Taylor to see you, Miss Templeton.”
“Good! Send him right in,” Mariah Templeton replied.
Ben had never been in Mariah Templeton’s office before. The first thing he noticed was that the high walls were covered in pictures. Some of the pictures had an otherworldly look to them, featuring creatures that only exist in the pages of storybooks. Others seemed to be moving. It seemed that when he looked a second time at a picture the scene had changed. They were the kind of pictures the head of a role-playing society might be expected to have in her office. However, Mariah Templeton did not look like a woman who spent a lot of time playing games.
Mariah Templeton was an elderly woman with gray hair pulled back in a tight bun. Wire rimmed glasses perched on her nose. She wore a dress that had not been in style for over fifty years. Around her neck was a very large pendant. The pendant was gold and covered in Celtic knots that had no beginning or end. The knots swirled in and around six rubies. Such an ornate pendant looked out of place on the plain-looking, elderly woman.
Ben entered the office and stood before the desk where Miss Templeton sat. Across from the principal were two chairs. One of the chairs was a normal, stuffed leather chair with wooden arms. The other was an elaborate golden chair, with a high back. Every inch of the metal chair was covered in etchings and Celtic knots with no beginning or end. In six places there were groupings of precious stones. The chair looked like it belonged in a throne room rather than the office of a school principal. Ben put his gym bag on the floor beside the leather chair and waited for Principal Templeton to invite him to sit.
“Tea, Mr. Taylor?” Mariah Templeton asked in an accent that Ben could not place.
“Um, okay. I mean, yes please.”
“Would you like cream or sugar?”
“Yes, please…both,” Ben replied.
Mariah Templeton poured tea for him, adding cream and sugar. She pushed the cup across the desk towards the elaborate golden chair. “Please be seated,” she said. Ben reached for the cup and started to move it towards the leather chair, but Mariah Templeton stopped him. “Not that one. You must sit on my special chair.”
Ben moved to the metal chair and sat down. It was cold against his back. He felt very uncomfortable in this strange chair. It was too tall and his legs dangled. Mariah Templeton poured herself some tea and then sat staring at Ben.
“You must have inherited that hair from your father,” Miss Templeton said. Ben ran his hand over his unruly hair in a futile effort to put it back into place. “But those eyes are extraordinary. I’ve never seen another Earthling with eyes like that.”
Ben choked on his tea. Miss Templeton made it sound like she’d met green-eyed aliens.
“Those eyes remind me of someone.” Miss Templeton glanced quickly to a picture hanging on her wall. “Interesting,” she said, with a perplexed look on her face.
“I don’t recall ever meeting your mother, Ben, which I find strange,” Miss Templeton continued. “I make a point of getting to know the families of all my students. Do you look like your mother?”
“Dad says I have her eyes.”
Mariah Templeton frowned and glanced once more at the picture on the wall.
“Your father and I met for the first time when he was about your age. He was an outstanding student and has been a friend of the school ever since.”
“Have you heard from my father?” Ben asked.
“No, I haven’t…yet,” Mariah Templeton frowned and her lips tightened, a worried look appearing momentarily.
“He said he’d be back in one month, two at the most, and now it’s been almost eight months.”
“Things sometimes take longer than expected, but I’m sure he’s fine. Your father has handled many challenging situations over the years. He knows what he’s doing and he will be back as soon as possible. Now please tell me about your mother.”
“She died when I was young.”
“That might explain why I don’t remember her. But tell me what you remember.”
“I remember very little that makes sense,” Ben replied, thinking of his recent dreams.
“What has your father told you?”
“My father doesn’t talk about my mother much, but I know he misses her a lot.”
“What was your mother’s name?”
At the name Zinder, Mariah Templeton gave a small gasp and sat up straighter. She stared at the picture she had glanced at earlier. Ben followed her eyes to the picture and saw a dragon looking into a mirror. In the mirror was a woman with red hair and brilliant green eyes.
Ben stared at the picture as he said, “That’s a strange name isn’t it? Dad says she was smart and beautiful, and very brave, and that the only thing I seem to have inherited from her is my eyes.”
“How did your mother die?” Mariah Templeton asked, still looking at the picture.
“Uhhh…” Ben hesitated; he could not remember his father actually saying anything about his mother’s death. It was his grandmother who had told him she had died. “I think—a car accident,” Ben finally said, with no real idea as to why he said it.
The principal took a long slow drink of tea. “So am I to understand that your father raised you by himself?”
“Yes, but my grandmother lived with us until she died two years ago.”
“Ah yes, your grandmother was also an outstanding student. She was the first of your family to come to Fairhaven, and now you might be the last. From what I understand you’re afraid of water.”
“Lots of people are,” Ben said defiantly. “It’s not a big deal.”
“It is here. Our students are asked to take journeys that begin and end with water. The journeys are the whole reason that we have a school here at Fairhaven.”
“Guess I won’t be going anywhere then,” Ben said decisively.
Mariah Templeton ignored him. “Our students undergo a test,” she said. “It is usually given at the end of grade nine or beginning of grade ten, but some take it earlier and others later, depending on when they appear to be ready. There are generally two or three, sometimes more, from every class who fail. I am going to give you that test now. If you pass, you WILL learn to swim. If you fail, we will discuss your future at this school when your father returns.”
Principal Templeton’s words disturbed Ben. He liked Fairhaven. He did not want to leave, but all he said was, “W…w…w..what kind of test?”
“A simple one. But let’s finish our tea first.”
Mariah Templeton asked Ben questions as they finished their tea. Ben had a hard time with the questions as all he could think of was the possibility that he might not be able to return to Fairhaven for grade ten.
“How do you like Fairhaven?”
“It’s great! I want to stay here until I finish grade twelve.”
“What’s your favorite subject?”
“I love the horseback riding lessons. You don’t get that at most schools.”
“How do you and Denzel get along?”
“He’s great. Denzel’s my best friend.”
“Does the food agree with you?”
“Yeah. I like the food.”
“Do you have any idea where your bad dreams come from?”
The last question surprised Ben. He wondered how the principal knew about his dreams. Denzel was the only one who knew and Ben was sure that his friend wouldn’t tell anyone.
“No,” was Ben’s only reply to the last question.
When they finished their tea Mariah Templeton walked around her desk and came to stand beside Ben. She took Ben’s hand and laid her pendant on his open palm. As Ben watched in amazement, the front of the pendant began to move. The front opened up as flowers do to the sun. Inside were three circles: One for the days of the month, another for the months of the year, and the third with the years in a century. An arrow in each of the circles pointed to today’s day, month, and year. Ben did not know what this test was meant to prove, but nothing happened. The arrows did not move.
Mariah Templeton took the pendant out of Ben’s hand and put it back over her neck and returned to her chair.
“Just so. Benjamin, it appears that there is no need for you to learn to swim. You are free to leave and join Denzel in peeling potatoes. Hopefully the two of you will learn to avoid detentions in the future. I will talk to your father when he comes back about where you will go to school next year.” Miss Templeton could not prevent her voice from conveying some of the disappointment she felt.
Ben put his hands on the arms of the chair to push himself out of it. Light began to shine underneath his hands. He tried to remove them, but they seemed to have become stuck to the chair. Soon the whole chair was glowing. Light shone out of every etched line. If he could have Ben would have leapt from the chair, but the light wrapped itself around him and held him in place.
“It appears I was too hasty,” Mariah Templeton said in surprise. “With great pleasure Benjamin Taylor, I tell you this. You have been chosen by the Guardian as were your father and grandmother before you. The dials on my pendant did not move because your first journey is to take place this very moment.”
Ben sat in stunned silence, unable to move or talk. Light streamed out of every etching on the chair and swirled above him and around him. The light seemed to penetrate right through Ben’s body. It flowed through his mouth, his eyes and his ears, and appeared to come back out through the center of his chest.
Mariah Templeton stood with her hands resting lightly on Ben’s head saying words that he did not understand. Ben’s hands felt odd, as did his feet. His shoes suddenly felt too small. Miss Templeton picked up one of his hands and turned it over. Running along each finger and up into the palm were suction cups that reminded Ben of an octopus.
“Ah,” said Mariah Templeton, “you will be able to climb what needs to be climbed and hold fast when you need to.”
As Ben looked down at his body it disappeared from sight.
“And you will be invisible when there is a need. Now what will be your third gift?” Mariah Templeton wondered aloud.
Principal Templeton waited and Ben waited with her. But nothing else happened. The light drew back and disappeared into the etchings. There was silence, then Mariah Templeton exclaimed, “I don’t understand. There should be a third gift. There are always three gifts given.”
Ben stammered, “W…wh…what happened?”
“Good news, Ben. You are to follow in your father’s footsteps. You have been chosen by the Guardian of the Six Worlds to go to a world that is not your own. You should have been given three gifts, but never mind the third gift will likely manifest itself later.”
Ben remained silent.
Mariah Templeton began to chant. “Benjamin Taylor, chosen of the Guardian, you are called to serve justice and peace. Where you go, the Guardian goes. The Guardian will be your companion as you defend and protect the weak, restore peace, and bring hope to the peoples of the six worlds. May the light of the Guardian dwell in you always, and may you be a source of light in those places where shad-ows gather.”
“I don’t understand!” Ben said.
“You will,” Mariah Templeton stated.
Ben wondered if Miss Templeton had put something in his tea to make him hallucinate. He was anxious to leave her office.
“Come Benjamin, it is time to go,” Mariah Templeton command-ed.
Ben stood up with relief. He picked up his bag and headed towards the door he had come through.
“Not that way, Ben. This is the door you need to go through to-day,” Mariah Templeton commanded. She walked to the door behind her desk and opened it. Behind the door was a flight of steps. Ben realized that he was about to find out what was on the mysterious fourth floor of the castle.
Ben followed Miss Templeton through the door and up a flight of steps. At the top of the steps were three doors. Miss Templeton opened the one in the middle and they entered a room with six walls. Each wall had a door in the middle of it, including the one they had come through.
Mariah Templeton took her pendent and laid it on Ben’s open hand once again. Ben watched as the pendant opened up. This time he did not see three circles. Instead of three separate circles pointing to the day, month and year, there was a compass. The needle pointed north towards the door Ben had just come through. As Ben and Mariah Templeton watched the hand on the compass began to move. It turned towards the west and stopped.
“Not that door. I do not want to send you to that world with just two gifts,” the principal muttered. “In fact, I do not want to send anyone else to that world for the time being. Not until I find out what happened to the Zargon Watcher and to…” Miss Templeton stopped, glanced at Ben and did not finish her sentence.
The compass started to move again. It slowed at each of the doors and finally came to rest pointing to a door on the northeast wall.
“Oh dear,” breathed Mariah Templeton. “This is a problem. This is not a good choice for someone afraid of water. And rarely is anyone asked to go without the gift of being able to breathe under water. Maybe I shouldn’t send you at all. And yet, it is clear that the Guardian intends for you to go to Lushaka this very day. I could wait, but lives might be lost. But if I send you…” Again, Mariah Templeton did not finish her sentence. “This is difficult,” the principal continued, speaking to herself. Then she fell silent, as she contemplated the choice before her.
Ben broke the silence. “I should get back to the kitchen and help Denzel.” The principal ignored him.
Ben looked at Mariah Templeton with growing agitation as she stood beside him with her eyes closed trying to decide what to do. Finally, she spoke, “My job as a Watcher is to prepare and send through the portal those that the Guardian chooses. You have been chosen. Therefore, I must send you. The Guardian of the Six Worlds chose you because you have the best chance of success. Even if I do not understand how this can be, it must be so. You must go. Maybe your third gift will come when you step through the portal. I hope it is the gift of breathing under water.”
Ben had come to the conclusion that the principal of his school was a nutcase; however, when she commanded that he follow her to the door on the northeast side of the room, Ben did as he was told. Mariah Templeton opened the door to reveal a stone wall. Ben was relieved. There was no water in sight. He was not going to be expected to step out into thin air.
The brick wall did not faze the principal at all and she proceeded to ask the following questions. “Benjamin Taylor, in the name of the Guardian, will you stand against evil? Will you go and serve the cause of justice and peace? Will you defend the weak against those who would crush them?” Mariah Templeton looked expectantly at Ben.
“Ahhh,” Ben began, wondering what to say. However, Mariah Templeton took his “ahhh” as an affirmative.
“I, Mariah Templeton, Watcher of Earth invite you, Benjamin Taylor, chosen of the Guardian to go through the portal to bring the light of hope, the promise of peace, and the joy of freedom to the people to whom you are now sent. Go forth in the name of the Guardian to bring honor to earth and to your ancestors by what you do.”
“Once your work on Lushaka is complete,” Miss Templeton con-tinued, “you are to return to Earth until the Guardian of the Six Worlds has need of you again.”
Ben just stood there and stared at Miss Templeton in silence.
“The best way to go through the portal the first few times is with your eyes closed; that way you will not be confused by what you see.”
Ben closed his eyes.
“Now,” instructed Mariah Templeton, “step forward and continue stepping forward until you are through the portal.”
Mariah Templeton put her hand firmly on Ben’s back and gave him a gentle push. Ben stepped cautiously forward. He took one step and then another and another. He was puzzled and wondered why he had not run into the wall. Ben took a large step, anxious to hit the wall so that he could show Miss Templeton that people did not walk through solid walls. He desperately wanted to leave. Detention had never looked so good. Ben took a bigger step, sure that this time he would hit the wall, but he did not.
Ben opened his eyes and saw blue sky. He looked down and saw water below him. A look of sheer amazement quickly passed across Ben’s face to be replaced by sheer terror as he fell through the air. Ben’s nightmare was becoming a reality. He was falling from the sky into water.