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MAD SHIP

PROLOGUE

A Recollection of Wings

BELOW THE SERPENTS, THE BEDS OF WEEDS SWAYED GENTLY IN THE CHANGing tide. The water was warm here, as warm as it had been in the south before they had migrated. Despite Maulkin's declaration that they would no longer follow the silvery provider, her tantalizing scent hung in the salt water. She was not far away; they trailed her still, but at a distance. Shreever considered confronting him about it, but decided against it. She eyed their leader anxiously. The injuries Maulkin had taken in his brief battle with the white serpent were healing slowly. The gouges disrupted the pattern of his scales. The golden false-eyes that ran the length of his body and proclaimed him a prophet were faded and dull.

Shreever, too, felt faded and dull.

They had come far in search of One Who Remembers. Maulkin had been so confident at the beginning of their journey. Now he seemed as confused as she and Sessurea were. The three of them were all that remained of the great tangle of sea serpents who had begun the migration. The others in their tangle had lost faith in their quest, and had fallen away from Maulkin. The last she had seen of them, they had been following a great dark provider, feeding mindlessly on the unresisting flesh it distributed to them. That had been many tides ago.

'Sometimes,' Maulkin confided to Shreever quietly as they rested, 'I lose my place in time. It seems to me that we have come this way before, done these things before, perhaps even shared these words before. Sometimes I believe it so strongly that I think that today is actually a memory or a dream. I think, then, that perhaps we need do nothing, for whatever has happened to us will occur again. Or has, perhaps, already occurred.' His voice was without strength or conviction.

She flanked him. They undulated gently in the current, finning no more than they must to maintain their position. Beneath them, Sessurea shook his mane suddenly, releasing a thin waft of toxins to alert them. 'Look! Food!' he bugled.

Silver and shimmering, the school of fish came gliding toward them like a blessing. Behind the fish, shadowing them and feeding from the edges of the school, was another tangle of serpents. Three scarlets, a green and two blues they were. The hunters were not a large tangle but they appeared lively and healthy. Their gleaming hides and full flesh contrasted markedly with the slipping scales and sunken sides of Maulkin's tangle.

'Come,' Maulkin bade them, and led them to join the others in their feeding. Shreever made a tiny sound of relief. There would be, at least, full bellies for them. Perhaps the others might even join Maulkin's tangle, once they realized he was a prophet.

Their prey were not separate fish, but a school, silver and glinting, baffling to the eye. They moved as one creature, yet it was a creature that could separate and stream around a clumsy hunter. The serpents of Maulkin's tangle were not clumsy hunters, and all three flowed gracefully after the fish. The other tangle trumpeted warnings at them, but Shreever saw no danger. With a lash of her tail, she drove herself into the school, her gaping jaws engulfing at least three fish. She distended her throat to swallow them.

Two scarlet serpents suddenly turned aside and struck Maulkin, battering him with their snouts as if he were a shark or other mutual enemy. The blue came after Shreever, jaws gaping. With a swift coiling she eluded him, changing direction to dart away. She saw the other scarlet try to wrap Sessurea. The scarlet's mane was distended, spewing poison as he trumpeted obscenities and threats. There was neither sense nor syntax to his curses, only fury.

She fled, shrilling her fear and confusion. Maulkin did not follow. He shook his great mane, releasing a cloud of toxins that near stunned the scarlets. They backed away, shaking their open jaws and pumping their gills as they strove to flush his poisons away.

'What is the matter with you?' Maulkin demanded of the strange tangle. He twisted himself through a spiral, his mane distending threateningly as he rebuked them. He summoned a faint gleam to his false-eyes. 'Why do you attack us like soulless beasts fighting over food? This is not the way of our kind! Even if there were few, fish belong only to the one who catches them, not to those who see them first. Have you forgotten who you are, what you are? Have your minds been stolen completely?'

For a moment the other tangle hung motionless, save for the slight flicks of their tails stabilizing them. The school of fish fled, forgotten. Then, as if the very sanity of Maulkin's words had incensed them, they turned on him. All six converged, jaws wide to display their teeth, manes erect and streaming toxins, tails lashing. Shreever watched in horror as they wrapped him and bore him struggling down to the muck.

'Help me!' Sessurea trumpeted. 'They'll smother him!'

His words broke her paralysis. Side by side, they arrowed down, to butt and lash at the tangle that held Maulkin captive. The other tangle savaged him with their teeth, as if he were prey. His blood mingled with his toxins in a choking cloud as he struggled. His false-eyes glimmered through the rising murk. Shreever cried out in horror at the mindless brutality of the attack. Yet, she found herself slashing at them with her teeth while Sessurea used his greater length to whip at them.

At an opportune moment, Sessurea wrapped Maulkin's lacerated body in his own and snatched him from the midst of the enraged tangle. He fled with Maulkin in his grasp, and Shreever was glad to break off the battle and follow him. The others did not pursue them. In their poisoned frenzy, the other tangle turned upon their comrades, roaring insults and challenges. Their cries were rote sounds, uttered without sense as they tore and lashed. Shreever did not look back.

Some time later, as Shreever smoothed healing slime from her own body onto Maulkin's lacerated flesh, he spoke to her. 'They have forgotten. They have forgotten completely who and what they were. It has been too long, Shreever. They have lost every shred of memory and purpose.' He winced as she nudged a flap of torn skin into place. She sealed a layer of mucus over it. 'They are what we will become.'

'Hush,' Shreever told him gently. 'Hush. Rest.' She twined her long body more securely about him, anchored her tail against a rock to secure them from the current. Entangled with them, Sessurea already slept. Or perhaps he was merely silent and impassive, prey to the same discouragement that gnawed Shreever. She hoped not. She had barely enough courage left to shore up her own determination. Sessurea would have to rally himself.

Maulkin concerned her the most. Their encounter with the silver provider had changed him. The other providers that moved within both the Lack and the Plenty were merely sources of easy feeding. The silver one had been different. Her scent had wakened memories in all of them, and they had pursued her, certain that her fragrance must lead them to One Who Remembers. Instead, she had not even been one of their own kind. Still hoping, they had called to her, but she had not answered. To the white serpent who begged from her, she had given flesh. Maulkin had turned aside from her, proclaiming that she could not be One Who Remembers and they would follow her no longer. Yet, in the tides since then, her scent had always been present. She might be out of sight, but Shreever knew she was no more than a brief journey away. Maulkin still followed her, and they still followed him.

Maulkin gave a dull groan and shifted in her grip. 'I fear it is the last time any of us will make this journey as anything more than beasts.'

'What do you mean?' Sessurea demanded abruptly. He twisted awkwardly until his eyes met theirs. His own injuries were many, though none were serious. A deep score adjacent to one of his poison glands just behind his jaw hinge was the worst. If it had penetrated, his own toxins would have killed him. Sheer luck had kept their tangle intact.

'Search your memories,' Maulkin commanded hollowly. 'Search not just the tides and the days, but the seasons and the years, back decades upon decades. We have been here before, Sessurea. All the tangles have swarmed and migrated to these waters, not just once but scores of times. We have come here to seek those who remember, those few entrusted with the memories of all our kind. The promise was clear. We were to gather. Our history would be restored to us, and we would be led to a safe place for our transformation. There we would be reborn. Nevertheless, scores of times, we have been disappointed. Time upon time, we have swarmed, and waited.

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