CURSE OF THE SEA
The fogbank loomed like an impenetrable barrier, blotting out the moon, stars, and any vestiges of the early morning sun. The seas, which had been choppy, calmed. The crew on the wooden Elf ship, Kite, tensed, not knowing what lay ahead as the ship sliced through gray walls of mist into eerie silence.
Alex stood on the bow as the primary lookout. Moisture condensed on her face and water dripped off her chin. Long ago, she’d proven to the crew that her vision was better than theirs under these circumstances. Pulling her long, black hair from her face, she revealed the blue tufts in her ears, marking her as a young Water Elf. But her ears were rounded like a mortal’s; her eyesight exceptional, that of a Titan. Wiping her face, she grimaced through the discomfort of wet hair, wet skin, and wet clothes, narrowing her blue eyes to pierce through the murkiness.
Alex wasn’t a member of the crew, but a frequent visitor. She’d used the ship several times in her capacity as the Keeper of the Keys for the Council of Elders, so the crew knew her well. The Kite was a small, maneuverable warship in the Water Elf fleet called a coaster, made of Arethus wood for maximum strength with a single mast and a crew of ten, all skilled seamen, blond, good-looking, and formidable warriors, trained in clandestine operations. The crew taunted Crestan, the ship’s captain, about his close relationship with Alex. He didn’t deny it, but cautioned them about teasing her. The sword she wore on her side and the Elfin Blade strapped to her right thigh weren’t for decoration. Alex could be dangerous.
Tendrils of fog wrapped around her head, enveloping her in a shroud. Waving at it only made it close in tighter around her face. She didn’t fear death; maybe she was too young and naïve to worry about it. A shiver ran up her spine; she had trouble catching her breath and her hands felt clammy and cold.
From behind, her grandfather, Lord Odin of the Tree Elves, chanted a spell to lift the fog—his voice clear and strong. Comforted, Alex breathed easier and returned her gaze to search for Seaward Isle, but all she could see was more fog, the curse of the sea.
It should burn off soon.
* * *Faraway on the mortal world of Earth, the American aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford CVN-78, sailed majestically at the head of NATO Exercise Hunter Dawn 2031 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance of nations formed in 1949, sponsored these exercises to maintain readiness and improve cooperation. In 2031, Hunter Dawn was the largest one held in decades, involving fifty ships and submarines from twelve different countries.
From the British Royal Navy, Vice Admiral Sir Malcolm Teller observed flight operations from the carrier’s bridge as a jet aircraft took off. He was in command of the NATO exercise, the first British Admiral to be selected in years. Over the last few decades, the British fleet had scaled back its presence, citing the high cost and continuing economic woes. Still, a few members of the British Parliament pressed for more influence and his assignment was the result. At fifty-one, Teller was the one of the youngest three-star Admirals in the British fleet and the only black man holding that rank. He wasn’t sure if he was setting a new precedent as a black man or following one. It didn’t matter to him.
With contained excitement, the Admiral watched the jet take off—the sound was so loud he felt it to his core. It rumbled and roared like a caged beast. Unbelievable…and the precision! All the sailors and aircraft moved around the flight deck in a magical dance.
Before the launch of the next jet, the captain of the ship, U.S. Navy Captain John Delacruz, stepped up to the Admiral and leaned close to his ear. “I need to show you something in the CIC, Admiral.”
“Certainly. What’s wrong?”
“Follow me, please.” He led the Admiral from the bridge to a locked door for the Command Information Center, known by sailors as the CIC, the heart of naval operations at sea. Access was strictly limited, even to the crew. The Captain entered the security code, bent his head down, and stepped through the watertight door. The Admiral wasn’t quite as tall, but he bent his head just the same. He’d been on enough ships over his career to have old scars on his forehead from these low doorways. The Captain led him over to a radar screen.
“Admiral, this is Chief Petty Officer Lawson. He’ll explain.”
The Chief stood at attention and pressed a button to replay the latest radar images. “Yes, Captain. Admiral Teller, sir, about fifteen minutes ago at zero-nine-thirty hours, we detected a squall line of bad weather heading for the rear of the formation. Our radio operators notified the five ships at the rear and they acknowledged. Once the squall line passed, we attempted to resume radio contact, but there’s been no response. We can’t locate them by radar, either. They’ve disappeared, Admiral…all five ships.”
The Admiral gripped his chest—it felt tight. “We still need verification.”
“I took the liberty of contacting our submarine, USS Casa Grande, to check it out. So far, nothing… no contact.” The Chief pointed to the radar screen as a bead of sweat trickled down his face. “They should be right here, but nothing’s there, sir. It’s like they vanished into thin air.” He replayed the images on the radar screen.
Admiral Teller touched his forehead, not sure he understood the man clearly. “There must be an oil slick or some other debris. There always is.”
“There’s nothing, Admiral.”
“Is there any other way to confirm it?”
Captain Delacruz intervened. “With your permission, Admiral, we can send our helos over the scene to look for debris. They’re already in the air on plane guard duty.”
“Do it.” Admiral Teller took a deep breath but had a sinking feeling in his gut. He ran his hand over his head; guilt washed over him like a tidal wave. He’d ordered the five ships to the rear as part of the exercise. Oh my God, what have I done?* * *
Six months before, Alex had fixed the Elf grid for the Plane of Eledon. The fog indicated the process of restoring the island to the grid was working. But it was already the end of June. Shortly after it began, the Mentors, the Elf Guides, had issued a warning not to use the entry points to the island, but since then, they hadn’t said a word.
Alex agonized over the island’s fate, hoping the people living there survived. When she’d initially repaired the grid six months ago, she didn’t know the process, but then again, no one else did either because it had never happened before. For over a thousand years, the island had been in limbo, part of Eledon and yet not. Encased in a “bubble,” it clung to Eledon by the use of entry points, or wormholes—the situation had been deteriorating until Alex solved the problem. Yeah, right, I fixed it all right. Look at all this fog. Her face went hot with guilt as she glanced back to the bridge, making out her grandfather’s purple cloak and his long, blond hair.
The fog was lifting.
Her grandfather, Lord Odin, the leader of the Tree Elves and a senior member of the Council of Elders, had suggested this exploratory voyage to the island and enlisted the aid of Crestan, the captain of the ship Kite, to sail into the unknown.
“See anything, Alex?” her grandfather asked through cupped hands.
“Nothing. It should be here. Are you sure you used the right spell?” She heard his affirmative response and turned around. Seconds later, a faint image emerged through the fog—a wooden ship sat dead in the water. “Ship ahead!” Alex whirled around. “Crestan, turn now!”
Crestan squinted and waved his hand to the left. “Turn port, forty-five degrees.”
“Port, forty-five degrees,” came the confirmation from the boatswain at the wheel which spun like a top, so fast the spindles were a blur.
“We’re clear.” Crestan breathed a sigh of relief. He recognized the other ship’s markings. “A Rock Elf ship.” Alarmed, he closed his eyes to report it to Prince Darin in Elfspeak, a form of elvish telepathic communication. The Prince was Alex’s cousin, in charge of the Water Elf fleet, the largest in Eledon. He was intensely interested in Rock Elf movements near the island and not without reason.
“Your Highness, this is Crestan. May I speak?”
“Where are you?”
“Near Seaward Isle. We’ve spotted a Rock Elf ship in the fog.”
“Very well. Keep your eyes open for more.”
“Yes, your Highness.” Crestan opened his eyes. The conversation had barely lasted a few seconds.
Alex made out another shape. “There’s another one. It’s really big!” She stood on her tiptoes and extended her hands as high as she could, but her arms weren’t long enough.
“Ahead of us. Can’t you see it?” She pointed up. A large, gray mass blended into the mist, but its straight lines gave away its presence. A klaxon blared.
Crestan gasped as he heard the klaxon and detected the gray hulk, simultaneously. “Right full rudder!” He ran to the wheel to help his boatswain spin it faster. They narrowly missed the ship, but it was so close Crestan could reach out and touch the hull. It was made of metal, not wood. Painted on the side in large black letters was the name HMS Camelot.
“HMS Camelot?” Alex furrowed her brow. “King Arthur didn’t have ships like that.”
Lord Odin came up to her. “What kind of ship is this? It’s made of metal. What’s it doing here?”
“I don’t know, but Camelot was the name of King Arthur’s castle. His ships were made out of wood, like ours.” Alex shook her head. A few years ago, she’d seen his ships on her last visit to the mortal world and had even met the man. “Whose ship was that behind us? The wooden one.” She hoped it wasn’t a mortal ship.
“Rock Elves. I’ve already notified Prince Darin,” Crestan said.
“Oh, no. Do they have a lot of them?”
“At least a hundred. Lord Boulder increased their fleet before he died, but none of their ships are built with Arethus wood.” Crestan bowed to Lord Odin; the Tree Elves had supplied the special wood.
“Unfortunately, we know what the Rock Elves want.” Lord Odin sighed. “They want Seaward Isle.”
The Rock Elves used to live on the island, but abandoned it when it became unstable. Now that it had returned to Eledon, they wanted it back. Neither Lord Odin nor Alex intended to let them have it.
Slowly, the Kite cleared the bow of the Camelot, only to find a flotilla of small rubber boats with men in orange life vests, picking others out of the water. Alex leaned over the bow, her face and black hair still dripping as she surveyed the situation below.
Crestan came alongside. “All stop! Throw out the sea anchor. Begin rescue operations.”
Alex pinched her nose. “It smells like gasoline.” Years ago, she’d witnessed another shipwreck near Seaward Isle with a similar smell. The pungent odor irritated her breathing. Even her grandfather covered his nose and mouth with his cloak.
The crew ignored the smell and focused their efforts on rescuing as many as they could. It was the law of the sea—sailors always helped others in distress, except in battle, but sometimes even then. They lowered a rope ladder and dropped their only lifeboat in the water. As survivors came aboard, Alex handed out towels and blankets and gave them water while her grandfather checked them for injuries.
To Alex’s surprise, the sailors spoke the common tongue, the language spoken on Seaward Isle. Alex approached a middle-aged man with dark eyes and dark hair, graying at the temples. He wore a wet uniform with multiple gold stripes on his shoulders, obviously an officer.
“My name’s Alex. Are you in charge?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Are you hurt, sir? You’re bleeding.” She pointed to his forehead.
“Just a scratch.” He dabbed it with his fingers. “Thank you for your assistance. You said your name was Alex, correct? My name is Captain William Jonas, British Royal Navy. I’m the Commanding Officer of the HMS Camelot. We were participating in NATO Exercise Hunter Dawn 2031. Where are we?”
“You’re off the coast of Seaward Isle. We’re not exactly sure how you got here. This wasn’t supposed to happen anymore.” She cast a concerned glance over her shoulder. “This is my grandfather, Lord Odin—he’s the Tree Elf representative on the Council of Elders.”
Captain Jonas extended his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.” He paused and stared at him. “Did you say Tree Elf?” He laughed. “Marvelous job of makeup. Your ears are even pointed.”
“But I am a Tree Elf, Captain.”
The Captain’s smile vanished as he stared, his mouth ajar. “How did you get here?”
“The correct question is how did you get here? We live here in Eledon. This is the Elf ship, Kite, and this is the captain, Crestan. You’ll notice his ears are also pointed because we’re Elves. Unfortunately, the crew doesn’t speak the common tongue as my granddaughter and I do.”
Upon hearing his name, Crestan saluted Captain Jonas in the Elf fashion with his right hand over his chest and a nod.
“Honored to meet a fellow seaman.” Captain Jonas returned a crisp salute to the brow, palm out, British-style. He swallowed hard. “The common tongue? You mean English?”
“Yes, it’s spoken on Seaward Isle. My granddaughter and I lived on this island for many years, but Crestan and his crew did not. The island was populated by mortals who’d been shipwrecked here, just as you are. But we haven’t had any shipwrecks in years. We just repaired the Elf grid, so this would never happen again.”
“Apparently, it did. So, what do we do now?”
“Let’s get you and your crew to shore and figure this out.” Lord Odin turned away. “Take us to shore, Crestan,” he said in Elf.
Crestan waved two fingers over his head, followed by other verbal commands to his crew.
“Turn two,” Captain Jonas said. “At least that’s the same.” The nautical signal told the crew to begin ship operations, which they did. They raised the sea anchor, lowered the sail, and caught a light breeze.
Once moving, Crestan sent out a distress call, using a pink conch shell. It was a long wail followed by two short blasts, notifying anyone within earshot of the accident scene. The ship sailed ahead, throwing lines over the side to tow the rubber boats behind it.
Alex pointed to the right—the fog was lifting. “Grandfather, there’s more gray ships over there.”
Captain Jonas nodded. “Yes, four more ships from the countries of the United States, France, Canada, and Italy, with over seven hundred sailors including ours. How deep is the water here? And where are you taking us?”
“I don’t know how deep it is, but the city of Agana is just ahead.” Alex pointed forward.
“Agana on the island of Guam? That’s impossible. That’s in the Pacific Ocean and we were in the Atlantic.”
“No, Captain. This isn’t the same Agana. I’m not sure where the name of this city came from, but…you’re not in the mortal world anymore.”
“What do you mean we’re not in the mortal world?”
“You’re in Eledon, the world of the Elves.”
“Impossible!” He stared at Lord Odin. “How did we get here?” His eyebrows raised high.
Alex shrugged. “That’s what we’ve been trying to explain.”
Lord Odin rested his hand on the Captain’s shoulder. “Eledon was created by our Mentors, our guides, when we were sent away from Earth over ten thousand years ago. Our journey took us through a wormhole, so we’re probably quite a distance from Earth.”
Captain Jonas turned pale and touched his forehead. “This isn’t possible.”
“I’m afraid it is.”
“How do we get back…to Earth?”
“I’ll ask our Mentors for help. They can make an entry point to the mortal world, but it can take some time. Meanwhile, we need to take care of you and your crew.”
“How am I going to explain this to them?” The Captain muttered; his eyes wide and mouth open. He shook his head slowly. “Surely this must be a mistake.”