Splintered Page 63

“You still look like one of them. I’m betting you don’t go back to normal until we get through that portal. At this point, what do we have to lose?” His hand waits for me.

I grasp it and glance behind us. Clouds of dust consume the slope as the army overtakes the hill. They’ll be at the plateau any second now. I squint against the swirling grit.

Close up, the incline is about three times steeper than the skate bowl’s highest drop in Underland, and I’ve never even scaled the top of that one. We’re so high, my vision swims, and my knees go all buttery.

“Whoa.” Jeb wraps an arm around my waist to balance me.

“Jeb . . .” I hold his wrist. “We’ll get separated.”

“Won’t happen.” He unclips one end of the metal chain hanging from his belt loops. He unwinds it, leaving the other end still locked on his pants. By latching the chain to a ring on my belt, he forms a lifeline. When stretched out, the links allow a three-foot span between us while still providing security.

“Ready?” he asks, looking over his shoulder at our impending captors.

“Yeah.” But my pitching stomach screams, “No.”

Every part of me begs to turn back . . . to run in the opposite direction. But the Jubjub birds screech from behind—as earsplitting as giant pterodactyls from some prehistoric soundtrack—and raise the hairs on my neck.

I slide my foot on top of the wood.

“Now!” Jeb shouts.

My stomach falls as we shove off together and plummet into the checkered depths.



The first half of the drop swoops by in a blinding rush. We stay ahead of our attackers, the wood gliding smoothly over the sand. By tweaking the pressure with our feet and legs, we control our direction and speed. My muscles fall into a familiar rhythm, distracting me from how high we are.

The rush of wind lifts my braided hair to flap behind me. Beneath my erratic pulse, a sense of hope nudges—quiet, easy, and strong. Is this what Morpheus meant by finding tranquility amid the madness?

My tentative smile stretches out to Jeb, and he winks in encouragement. His hair thrashes in black waves around his head. Sunlight glows through the strands like a halo. He’s like some rebel guardian angel.

“We’ll launch at the same time,” he says across to me. “When we hit the other side, we’ll unsnap the chain so we can roll into the landing without getting tangled.”

I nod. A yank at my belt reassures me I’m safe . . . that we’re locked together.

Behind us, the gallops and screeches escalate. Nervousness tugs against my chest. I breathe in dust vapors and stifle a cough, watching the chasm come into view.

The valley on the other side has a clearing of plush grass before the thicket overtakes it. That should cushion our landing and slow our momentum enough that we can get to our feet and scramble to safety.

We can pull this off without any magic. We just have to make our acceleration count this last half . . . gather enough velocity to launch into an ollie that will carry us across the space.

Which means it has to be a straight shot from here on out.

I prep my feet, positioning my back heel to smack against the tail of the board and my front toes to pull up on the nose when it’s time. A bump knocks the bottom of my board, and I bounce slightly, veering off course and losing precious speed. Jeb skirts toward me to coach me back on route. Then the same thing happens to him, his board bucking hard enough that he almost loses his balance.

He guides himself back into place. “Something’s moving under the sand!” he shouts.

Another thump jolts through my feet. Morpheus’s warning of shifting sands whispers in the back of my mind. As Jeb and I struggle to stay on our boards, the black-and-white squares we’ve been sliding on shift, collide, and converge—snapping the terrain into a jagged jigsaw puzzle, as if a thousand tiny earthquakes have buckled the landscape. Déjà vu hits me. It’s just like my dream.

Our boards come to a complete halt where the squares intersect and fold. We slump in place, panting. The queen’s army makes its way toward us, the giant birds picking paths around the uneven surface.

The sun beats down. We’re totally exposed with nowhere to run. Above is the army . . . below a chasm too wide to leap across from a standstill. The first row of riders tops the ridge and stirs a whirlwind of sand, which plumes into a mushroom cloud, then puffs down to envelop us. I cover my nose and mouth. The birds are close enough that their powerful gallops thunder through the wood under my soles.

“Pick up the board and use it for a weapon when the dust clears!” Jeb’s command barely leaves his mouth before I remember the flute. Morpheus said to use it if we needed to gain ground.

He knew this would happen . . .

He’s behind the scenes and pulling strings like he’s always been.

I take the instrument out and lift the mouthpiece to my lips, blowing as I tap my fingers across the holes in a pattern that plays out the melody of his lullaby. Though I’ve never attempted to use a flute—and wind instruments are a completely different animal than string ones—the notes come to me effortlessly.

Jeb gawks, as shocked as I am. If he only knew the half of it . . . how long this song has been dormant inside me.

The tune echoes over the chaos—loud and magical. As soon as the last note fades, a clatter explodes behind our pursuers. In a sweep of dingy gray, a thousand clams come rushing like a landslide over the ridge, carrying the queen’s army on the surge.

The flute slips from my hand and gets whisked away. Jubjub birds who’ve lost their footing, and fallen guards attempting to scale the clams like mountain goats clambering for ledges, are also caught up in the rattling flood. The shells part like the Red Sea on either side of Jeb and me, leaving us untouched. They still remember what we did for them.

We’re not going to be captured, but we’ve already lost our chance at acceleration. We’ll never make it across the chasm now, and the climb back up—with the terrain so jagged—could take hours. I’ve lost track of time in all the excitement. We might’ve been here for hours already.

“Get on your board!” Jeb positions himself in front of me, shouting over the cacophony. “We’re going to jump onto the clams; somehow they’re clearing the chasm . . . we’ll hitch a ride to the cemetery.”

I watch the clams as they fly across the rift to safety by using the jacked-up Wonderland physics to their advantage. They catch the Red army in their momentum and forcibly tilt their shells to chuck the Jubjub birds and guards into the depths like trash from a car window. For a split second, I worry they might do the same to us. But I have to believe they won’t. They came in answer to the flute and are here to help.

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