Splintered Page 33

Choking on more screams, I hold on to the seat to keep from falling. Jeb’s right. There’s something on the horizon. It glitters like black sequins. It could be the island the flowers told us about.

“Go!” Jeb yells. “I’ll hold him off as long as I can!”

He grabs the chain around the monster’s neck. With quick thrusts, he wraps up some tentacles so I can make my escape. One of the tusks slices through the knee of his pants. The sound of tearing fabric reminds me of the clam’s horrible death. I can’t let that happen to Jeb.

We’ll never escape the octobenus in the water. How do we fight back? He has no obvious weakness . . . only a raging appetite.

“Wait!” I drop to my knees in front of him, acting on a sudden idea, hoping it works. “Please, free my friend, and I’ll help you willingly.”

“Al!” Jeb shouts.

“Give your word, nether-girl,” our captor says, his face a blubbery sneer. “You know the rules . . . an oath from our kind cannot be broken, else your power will be lost.”

I don’t know why he’s calling me nether-girl, but I’m willing to use it to my advantage. “I promise to help you.”

“Not good enough,” he says, winding Jeb’s ribs tighter in his tentacles until Jeb groans. “Do it properly. Cover your heart . . . swear on your life-magic. And be very specific.”

I hold my gaze on Jeb’s bluing lips and slap my shaking palm to my chest. “I swear on my life-magic to help tame your appetite.”

With a snarling turn of whiskers, he unwinds his tentacles and releases Jeb so he flops upright into the hull.

I throw my arms around Jeb’s slimy clothes. He keeps me balanced in the boat as we stand together. He’s coughing so hard, I can hardly hear his voice. “You should’ve . . . bailed.”

“No,” I whisper. “We stick together, remember?” Then I turn to our captor. “Mr. Octobenus, I know how to fill your belly. We can give cake to your clams.”

Jeb frowns at me, finally catching his breath.

The creature eases back to his seat on a nest of tentacles, panting and snuffling from the exertion of the fight. “Do you mean you’re offering me some clam cake?”

“No. The cake is for the clams,” I answer. “To stretch your supply until we get you the flute. We have just the thing to grow your clams to the size of dinner plates.” I turn my face to Jeb and mouth the words Eater becoming the eaten.

His face lights with understanding. He drags the backpack toward us. It’s incredible how composed he is after almost getting impaled, crushed, and devoured.

The mutant walrus watches, curious.

Jeb opens the bandana to expose the cake with the words Eat Me spelled in raisins.

The octobenus whoops. “An amplifying pastry! Wherever did you find such a prize? I’ve never personally seen one work. They were outlawed after the Alice incident. No matter, no matter . . .” He opens the box on the chain again. The newest clam wrestles against him furiously.

“Give it here,” the octobenus says. “If this fails, I gore out your mortal friend’s entrails and feed them to the fishes.” Drool seeps down his tusks and fills the carved images in slow, glistening slathers.

“Oh, it’ll work.” Jeb slides the cake across the hull. “I’d stake my life on it.”

“You just did.” The mutant walrus grunts as he bends to pick it up. Breaking off a crumb, he prepares to slide it into the crack of the clam’s shell.

“You’ll need to give it more than that,” Jeb says, inching us toward the edge of the boat, backpack in hand. “As much as you can stuff into its mouth.”

“Yes, yes. Just think of it! Clams as big as dinner plates . . .” Without looking up, he chuckles and breaks off a larger piece. Then, forcing the shell open, he shoves the cake inside and snaps it closed again.

In a matter of seconds, the clam starts to shake along with the boat.

“Now!” Jeb dives overboard with my hand in his. A slap of tentacles grazes my legs, but then the warm water folds over us, and we sink. Jeb dog-paddles in front of me, his hair twirling like sea grass in the blue depths. He tugs on my wrist. I kick upward, my boots and clothes heavy and awkward in the water.

We surface and suck in deep breaths, swimming in place long enough to see what’s happening in the boat. The clam stretches from the size of a makeup compact to that of a Dumpster.

In a strangely graceful display of blubber, fins, and tentacles, the octobenus realizes his misstep and tries to slide overboard. Too late. The giant shell opens, and a hatchet-shaped appendage springs out—as big and powerful as an anaconda. The muscle wraps around the octobenus and draws him into its mouth, slurping up tentacles like giant spaghetti noodles before slamming shut.

The boat buckles and cracks. In moments, the clam sinks into the ocean, leaving only foam and floating debris behind. Waves ripple around the wreckage, an eerily serene ending to such a violent scene.

Jeb holds my wrist and the backpack with one hand while using his other arm in a one-sided breast stroke to propel us toward the black beach.

Something pulls me downward.

I pump my legs until my calves cramp, trying to stay afloat. It’s no use. I let go of Jeb, afraid to pull him down with me.

Swept underwater, I search for what’s anchoring me, terrified a sea creature is to blame, yet there’s nothing there. The weight seems to be centered at my waist, but I’m descending too fast to find it. I flail, arms and legs straining against the downward momentum. My lungs shriek for oxygen.

Jeb appears above me. The backpack descends behind him into the dark depths. I snap my legs and hands into action, clawing at the water. Jeb tries to pull me up by gripping under my arms. I jerk away, fighting him. Or maybe I’m fighting myself. Fighting my fear . . .

His expression is resolute as he grabs me. He refuses to give up, and that scares me more than anything. I shake my head.

Save yourself! my eyes tell him, but he’s too stubborn to listen.

I want to tell him I’m sorry I dragged him into this. Instead, empty bubbles swirl between us.

A hot and heavy ache pushes at my chest. I bat at the water, trying to break through somehow, to make it disappear. My tears mix with Alice’s and every thought blackens at the edges. Jeb’s still pulling on me, but it’s hopeless—we keep sinking.

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