Splintered Page 32

“No way,” he says.

I wobble with the boat’s motion, holding on to Jeb’s waistband with one hand and the seat behind me with the other. I peer around him.

At first glance, our intruder looks like a walrus. He has two giant tusks with images of snakes and angry flames carved along the ivory. But beneath rolls of blubber, his lower half is a tangle of slithering octopus tentacles, covered in suction cups. It’s as if someone snapped two different creatures together, creating an octo-walrus. He must weigh over five hundred pounds, and his body occupies most of the boat.

As huge as he is, and with his tentacles hanging half in and out, the boat should be capsized. Jeb and I should’ve been flung like stones from a slingshot as soon as he slithered aboard. Instead, the hull is level and drifting along the shining water as if the creature weighs no more than we do. Wonder what Isaac Newton would have to say about the jacked-up physical laws here?

Jeb nudges me to sit behind him but keeps standing, every muscle in his body tense and ready to snap. “What are you?”

Our uninvited guest scrapes oozing goop from his eyes with the human fingers on the ends of his flippers. “Fair question, elfin knight. I’m an octobenus. Now, let me guess your next question. What do I want? For that, there’s a simple answer. I want to stop the endless suffering in my belly.” Whiskers—long and blond against a cinnamon brown hide—droop under his nostril holes. His tentacles slap the ocean, spritzing us with water.

From the chain at his neck, he opens a locket the size of a cigar box and digs something out. He lays a clam in his palm, carefully holding its shell pinched shut. “Good morning, little sea cabbage,” he taunts it. “Still worried about your family?”

The clam tries to open its mouth in answer. The octobenus repositions his hold to keep it quiet. “Tell you what. If you can stanch my hunger, I’ll set all of them free. Willing to give it a try?”

Although the clam can’t open its mouth wide enough to talk, a pinkish, hatchet-shaped muscle slinks out from the crack—like a malformed foot or arm—patting the enormous creature’s cheek in a final bid for life.

A whimper bursts from my throat. Jeb reaches behind his back and opens his hand. I lace our fingers together.

In a rush of blubber and slobber, the octobenus forces the shell open, seals his mouth around it, and suctions out the contents with a terrible sucking sound. The clam’s excruciating scream echoes in my head, then fades to dreadful silence. I grasp Jeb tighter, trying not to gag.

“Nope. Still hungry. Suppose I’ll be eating your children next.” Our unwelcome visitor laughs, an ugly, grinding sound, then tosses the empty shell overboard. He swats it with a tentacle so it sinks, and the motion makes the boat rock.

Jeb’s fingers cinch around my wrist as he struggles to stay balanced.

“You must be swift with slimy prey like that,” the octobenus says. “They’re tricksters . . . always trying to capture you in their Deathspeak. Can you imagine, being a slave to a clam’s final wish?” He laughs again.

Deathspeak . . . that phrase from the back of Alice’s psych evaluation. I peer around Jeb as the walrusy creature wedges a monocle over his watery left eye.

“Now,” he says, “if you would be so kind as to step aside, Elf, I might get a better look at your ward.”

Jeb’s stance tightens. “Not a chance.”

The octo-freak drops his monocle. “Those bumbling flowers think that your blood has the power to buy me my fill of bivalves!” His shout rattles over us—through us—carrying the scent of fish and death. “But it’s never been an issue of buying them. I’m a hunter. I must capture them. It is my nature. Clams are such crafty creatures, always using their little arms to move about and escape under their beds on the ocean floor. If only it weren’t so dark down there, and with my eyes gone so bad . . . I’m lucky to capture a half dozen before they all hide.” He wipes his mouth with a thick flipper. “But the Wise One owns a magic flute that calls my prey from their hiding places. And now I have a way to barter for it.”

“By offering my blood in exchange,” Jeb guesses.

This can’t be happening. I don’t care how many fights he’s been in at home. Even with a Swiss Army knife, he doesn’t stand a chance against a five-hundred-pound sea monster.

“He’s not a jeweled elf!” I shout from behind Jeb. “He’s human. Look at his ears.”

Jeb squeezes my fingers—a plea to keep quiet.

“Doesn’t matter either way. Jewels and riches mean nothing to the Wise One. But you, little cabbage, he’s desperate for your help. Oh, yes. He’s been waiting years for you to find your way here.”

The statement churns in my head. The flowers said the Wise One is the Caterpillar. So . . . he’s been waiting for me? Maybe the Caterpillar sent the moth and my dark guide to find me and bring me here.

Our captor’s tentacles writhe along the boat’s edges like giant pythons, and the wood creaks. “With you as hostage, I can barter for the flute. He will lay it at my feet for your safe deliverance.”

“You’ll have to kill me to get to her,” Jeb says.

I jerk on his wrist but he ignores me.

The octobenus kneads his flipper-hands. “Ah, a loyal friend. I had one of those, many years ago. He was an artisan. He carved my tusks and crafted a beautiful trunk to hold my reserve of clams. Then I learned he was pilfering my supply. So one night as he slept, I captured him”—the tentacles curl around the boat in demonstration—“and locked him in the trunk with the empty shells. I cast the lot into the ocean to muffle his screams. His bones are fish bait now.”

I bite my lip to keep from screaming.

Our captor laughs. “Dismal, isn’t it? You see, if I would be so callous with a friend, what’s to stop me from killing you? Nothing gets in the way of my belly’s needs.” He runs the thin, pointed end of a tentacle down to the tips of his slobbery tusks. “I will have the girl!”

He thrashes his tentacles and snags Jeb around the waist.

“No!” My arms dart out to hold him. The tentacles rip him away and lift him into the air.

“There’s land . . . to your left!” Jeb shouts as he wrestles with the creature, barely missing the deadly tip of a tusk. The struggle jostles the boat.

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