“Pheh.” Leo capped a jar. He’d only caught six fireflies whose shining butts hardly illuminated the rocks. He glared at the moon. “Some help you are, huh?” The moon just made the ocean glitter.
Leo kept climbing the main island of Sheridan. He was done collecting fireflies. They weren’t worth his time. The real prize was all around him.
He chose a centipede-bush at random by bumping into it accidentally. “Shit!” Thorns caught his Hawaiian shirt. He considered removing his shirt, or at least unbuttoning it, but instead he painstakingly unhooked it from the thorny bush. “This is the stuff.”
He pulled a knife from his backpack. The knife had a totally awesome dragon on its hilt, but that’s not why he bought it from his local mall: its glass blade was a cinch to sneak onto airplanes.
He cut branches from the bush. Thorns nicked his palms. “Aw, c’mon!” He wiped blood on his cargo shorts. “Give it up already!” He reached into the bush and grabbed the ball of centipedes. It wouldn’t budge. He swung the knife with wild fervor. In his haste, he hacked some centipedes in half. “Perfect.”
He pried centipedes from the mutilated bush. He chucked the chopped ones over his shoulders. He stowed the intact centipedes in jars.
As he hacked the next bush, he mimicked Jay. “Oh, please, Leo! Only Virgil Blue can prepare centipedes! Come with me and get bum-fucked by monks! Pft.” He filled another jar with centipedes. “What a joke. The monks aren’t even trying to protect these bushes. They’re just asking for people to steal their shit—it’s their own fault. It’s better that I take ’em instead of some random jack-off. Sheridan needs my business-savvy. They should thank me.”
He kept climbing the island. Surely the best centipedes were near the peak.
He tripped immediately. “Fucking nests!” He was surprised to see a woven nest so high holding two porcelain eggs. “Huh.” Both eggs were painted with lacework signifying matriarchs from Virgil Green’s congregation. “They’d never notice one missing.” He dumped his jar of fireflies, sealed an egg in it, and kept climbing.
When his jars were full of centipedes, he turned to watch the sunrise. He’d worked through the night leaving broken bushes in his path. He felt a contact-high from all the centipedes he’d handled, so the light bothered his eyes. He put his sunglasses back on.
He turned to the peak. The clouds obscuring the island’s summit were so near he could touch them.
“Not supposed to climb past the clouds, huh?” Leo smirked and stuck his arm into the fog. “What a dumb rule. Sometimes the whole island is foggy. How do I know when to turn back? And how could they enforce it? They’d have to follow me, and then they’d just be hypocrites.”
Laughing built courage. He entered the fog-bank. If Sheridan kept centipedes at altitude, what awesome bugs did they hide in cloud-cover?
Above the fog, the island’s terrain was more rough. The slopes were so steep Leo puffed and panted. He hefted himself up cliffs by swinging his legs over ledges and pulling his belly after them. Whatever was up here had to be worth it.
Twenty feet above him, he saw a shape through the fog. Was it a fellow trespasser? Leo considered hiding, but then identified the figure’s waddle: it was a bird, six feet tall with long red tail-feathers. It struggled even more than he did plodding up the slopes.
“Heh.” Leo eventually caught up to it. “You birds would be better off if you weren’t too fat to fly. Climbing is human-work.” He and the bird paced neck-and-neck. “You know, all the nests up here—the eggs in `em are chicks. I mean, girl-birds. I’ll bet guy-birds like you have to let the chicks get ahead, huh?” He grinned. “But not you and me. We don’t let anything hold us back.”
The bird didn’t look at him. Its gaze was fixed on the peak. When it came to a cliff, it flapped both wings. It couldn’t fly, but with infinite effort, it hopped high enough to pull itself over the ledge.
“Whoa.” Leo kicked the cliff with both feet trying to climb after it. “Hey, hey! Wait for me!” He grabbed the bird’s tail-feathers and pulled himself up.
The bird lost its balance and fell from the cliff. Leo watched it roll down the slopes. Each time it tumbled, its wing-bones broke. He heard its distant squawking even after the fog obscured it.
Leo turned to the peak. “I’m not a bully, you’re just a pussy.” To sturdy himself for the climb, he chanted the phrase like a mantra. “I’m not a bully, you’re just a pussy.”
The fog chilled as he neared the top. Thin frost coated the stony heights. He finally came to a dark cave.
“Neat.” He entered the cave without second thought. “I must be the first person ever to get here.”
As soon as he said it, he saw he was wrong. He lifted his sunglasses to make sure the sight wasn’t from his centipede contact-high: there was a human figure in the back of the cave, facing rock wall.
“Yo,” said Leo. “Whaddup.”
The figure didn’t turn. Leo approached. Now he wasn’t sure if it was human or a weird rock. If it was human, they lacked arms and legs.
“Are you there?” asked Leo. “Ew!”
It was certainly human, but their pitch-black flesh disgusted him. Where their arms and legs had been, stumps were marred by bite-marks.
“Ha. Creepy.” Leo bit the figure’s shoulder like a dog. “Rawr!”
The figure turned their head. He had wide-set eyes, high cheek-bones, and a swastika carved in his forehead. “Don’t do that.”
“Whoa!” Leo backed up. “I’m just playing, man. Didn’t think you’d care, you’ve already got bite-marks all over.”
The figure turned, somehow, with what was left of his limbs. “Do you know who I am?”
“Nope.” Leo stuck out a hand. “Henry.”
The figure did not shake—of course he didn’t, he had no hands. “Nemo,” he said. “Oran dora. Please, sit.”