Banditry, first and foremost, takes patience. Not a problem for Garret. He wanted nothing more than to observe the stormjungles of Eko and all its fascinating wilds. Watching from a nest he’d constructed of twine, twigs, and banana leaves, Garret sat still as petrified oak. For two days and two nights, this temporary nest had been his home. He slept and woke here. He ate his rations and expelled his waste here. By now, the animals had forgotten he existed.

Not so for the other two nests, where his clanmates moved without care for disturbing the creatures that surrounded them. Through the night, bioluminescent creatures lit the jungle in ethereal greens and blues. Lightbeetles twinkled in the stretching void. Now, as the Brightdaughter’s dawn broke through the treetops, dappling the ground far below with golden light, the jungle began to wake.

Pouched azears slowly climbed down from the branches of lightwood giants, their frizz of sticky gray fur full of insects that seek warm blood in the night. The cub in one mother azear’s pouch yawned as it poked its head out, then picked hungrily at the food caught in its mother’s fur. Garret could have reached out and touched them but chose simply to watch. Down below, a troupe of rock turtles moved side-by-side through the dense brush, picking clean all the green and leaving behind copious amounts of brown to fertilize the regrowth. That dung attracted a thousand species of insect, including the ones caught in the azears’ fur. Everything was connected, part of a cycle. The Lightmother’s cycle, many said, but Garret knew it had been around long before anyone’s idea of a god polluted the scene. In another life, Garret would have been a biotist, studying the flora and fauna until his part in that cycle came to an end.

In another life. Not in this one.

A low rumble along the jungle floor sent critters scurrying. Some large animal, moving closer. Garret tensed. He tossed a rock to wake Vatten in another nest to stop the old man’s snoring. The old bandit began to grumble, but wisely shut up at the pounding of another huge footstep. A daggerclaw could climb trees and loved nothing more than human meat. If one appeared below, their plans were snuffed. Kerrin spoke of rallying the clan to kill one and use its lair as a permanent base, but Garret knew better. Against a daggerclaw, it was every man for himself. Branches snapped. The creature groaned, and Garret’s eyes went wide. He spat in reverence.

The knuckledragger’s bloated tan belly appeared before anything else. It reached out a giant hand coated in wispy orange fur and pulled a bush full of berries from the ground. It brought the bush to its gaping maw of a mouth and tore free a bite—berries, leaves, sticks, and all.

Garret’s jaw hung as wide as the knuckledragger’s. He thought they’d been hunted to extinction for their soft orange pelts. Yet here one was, enjoying a morning snack as it meandered through the jungle, its free hand dragging along the ground and occasionally scratching its hairless rear.

The creature froze. It slowly looked up toward Garret. Its face looked remarkably human, like a close cousin—one whose mother had lain with a hairy giant, anyway. What kind of intelligence looked out from those bright green eyes? It tilted its head and regarded Garret, then brought a hand up as if to wave.

A bowstring thrummed. Despite its size—the knuckledragger was more than twice Garret’s height—it moved swiftly, lurching to the side to avoid the arrow. It threw the bush at another nest in the tree beside Garret’s own with great force, then bounded away, the whole jungle quaking in its retreat.

The other bandit’s nest exploded into a rain of leaves, but not before Rommec flung himself out and landed next to Garret. The young bandit’s laughter made Garret want to skewer him right then and there.

“Would have been rich if we caught it,” Rommec said, slinging his bow over his shoulder.

Garret got to his feet, grinding his teeth. He spat but held his tongue.

“Aye,” Vatten called, “but we’d be carving it by the time our quarry rolls ‘round. One thing at a time, Rom. That’s what I always say.” The middle-aged bandit stretched his sleep-addled limbs, then scratched his arse in much the same way the knuckledragger had. He bounded from branch to branch through the canopy to join the younger two bandits in their nest. “Thanks for waking me,” he said to Garret. “Thought it was a daggerclaw, did you?” He laughed. “Jumpy, aren’t you, boy?”

“Cautious,” Garret said. “Not jumpy.”

“Sure, sure,” Vatten said, turning around. He whipped his fist around and stopped it just short of Garret’s nose. Garret felt the wind on his face but didn’t flinch. It was an old trick Vatten pulled, and Garret hadn’t fallen for it once. “Reckon I trained you well.”

Vatten did the same to Rommec, who jumped back so far, he nearly fell from the nest. Garret chuckled.

“One of you, anyway,” Vatten said.

“Too scared of scuffing up his pretty face,” Garret said, smirking.

Rommec puffed himself up and got nose-to-nose with Garret. “Say that again. Boy.”

Garret smelled Rommec’s minted breath. Looked him up and down, from his polished boots to his coiffed hair. He could have gutted this slug before he even knew what happened.

Vatten slapped Rommec on the ear. “Doesn’t have to. He’s right.”

Rommec wound up to punch Vatten in a flare of anger, but evidently thought better of it, seeing Vatten’s darkened expression. Anyone who’s lasted as long in the clan as Vatten had to have a ruthless streak.

“Sorry,” Rommec said, then his temper outflanked his wits. “Why do you always favor Garret? I left everything behind to join Kerrin’s clan, and I’d give my life for it. He only cares about himself.”

Rommec was right. Garret didn’t have the clan’s best interests at heart. But was that his fault? He didn’t ask to be taken as a child, forced into this life. He should have been a biotist, but here he was, quarreling in the treetops with these cutthroats, waiting for a cruddy caravan sent by their contact in the city. Anyone who chose this life was an idiot. Garret couldn’t rely on Rommec; it’d only get him killed. As for Vatten… well, Garret didn’t trust him either, but he at least had proved his cunning.

Of course, that only made him more dangerous.

“I’m as committed to the clan as anyone,” Garret lied. Lying was second nature, the only way to survive.

“Prove it,” Rommec said.

“My actions will prove it when the caravan arrives,” Garret said. “Shouldn’t be long now. Why don’t you sit back and see how a real man handles his business? Then you won’t dirty those precious boots of yours. Boy.”

Vatten barked a laugh, sending a flock of bright birds scattering. I slapped Garret across the shoulders. “You remind me of myself when I was young.”

“You did practically raise me,” Garret said.

Not that Garret would call Vatten a good parent. The old man reminded Garret of a sabrederm. Hard-headed, sharp weapons, skin like tough leather. Sabrederms closely attended their calves, until they couldn’t scour enough food for themselves. Then they’d eat their young without a second thought.

Nature is cruel. Why should humans be any different?

Garret tried to imagine himself growing old in Kerrin’s clan, like Vatten, and grimaced. He didn’t want to be cruel, yet staying with the clan would guarantee it. Archery practice every day, until the callouses on his fingers were thicker than bark. Living in ambush nests, watching the natural world, always wondering what his life could have been. Witnessing the atrocities the clan commits in the name of survival. Not much would change.

But the world is always changing.

Garret couldn’t resist that his whole life. He had to change with it. Otherwise, it would eat him alive. He’d never chase his dreams. He’d never be free of the anger inside him…

“What’s going on in that head of yours, boy?” Vatten asked.

Garret prepared another lie, then something caught his ear. The caravan they’d been waiting for? Garret turned his ear and began stringing his bow. Far off, a snapping of twigs. Not down in the brush. Up in the canopy.

Garret crouched. “Something’s wrong.” Silence; the animals were gone. Then, the click of a crossbow being readied. “Hunters.”

Just as Garret pushed  into cover, a bolt pierced the nest and grazed Vatten’s arm, tearing through his sleeve. Two more bolts entered from different directions but missed the three bandits. Garret leaned out of cover and loosed an arrow, taking the reloading hunter in the chest. The hunter’s body drooped, but the metal hooks he wore on his hands and feet secured him to the tree. His weapon fell a hundred paces to the jungle floor and crunched against the shell of a rock turtle.

Garret launched himself out of the nest, grabbed an overhead branch, and swung to a thick bough. His toes curled as if trying to grip the bark with his bare feet, then he kicked off and jumped to another vantage as crossbow bolts filled the empty space behind him. He heard his clanmates scatter, and the snaps of a dozen other crossbows, but no cries of pain. The hunters may not have had the skill of Kerrin’s clan, but their numbers and their tools made them dangerous.

Still, hooked into trees like they were, the hunters were slow. Immobile when reloading since they needed both hands. That made them easy targets. Garret put an arrow through the neck of a hunter aiming at Rommec, then continued flinging himself through the trees. He heard the screams of Vatten’s and Rommec’s targets, but he never stopped moving. Unpredictability kept him alive; stopping was death. Garret landed next to another hunter, whose metal hooks immobilized her. Garret unsheathed his knife, cut the hunter’s throat, and continued past in one fluid motion. He saw this world in patterns; in the branches, the routes available to him were as clearly visible as the deer trails far below.

Landing on a limb that stemmed from a knotted, forked trunk, Garret stopped to catch his breath. His legs protested. His arms felt heavy. Two bolts soared through the split in the trunk, over his head. He returned two arrows and several breaths later, heard two more thumps on the jungle floor.

When Garret looked down, he saw a mule picking its way casually through the brush, avoiding the bodies. Tied to its back, their contact from Graln slumped over, dead. Garret spat. The bastard. He sold them out, then died anyway. The least he could have done was lie to the hunters. The clan never should have trusted him.

The hunters were closing in; he had to move. On the way to another ambush nest, Garret’s fingers slipped, and he banged his shin, stumbling in. Vatten landed in the nest beside Garret as he sat there grimacing and holding his leg.

“Too many,” Vatten said. “We have to flee.”

“They’ll chase us to camp,” Garret said. “If we make it that far.”

“Got a contingency, right here,” Vatten said. He pulled his cloak back and showed Garret the flash powder at his belt.

“And Rommec?” Garret asked.

“He’s part of the plan,” Vatten said, then shouted, “Rommec! Stand down!”

“Stand down?” Rommec shouted back. “They’re trying to kill us!”

Garret looked in the direction of Rommec’s voice and found him crouched in a nearby nest.

“They will kill us if you don’t stop!” Vatten said. “Hunters, you win! We surrender!”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” one of them called, voice muffled by his mask. “Throw down your weapons and we’ll take you peacefully.”

“What’s your name?” Vatten asked. “I’m Vatten. Just want to know we’re dealing with honorable men.”

“Bandits, expecting honor?” The hunter laughed. “Fine, fine. My name is Hellis. I’m commander of this coalition.”

“All right, Hellis,” Vatten said. “We’re coming out. We’d appreciate if those crossbows aren’t pointed in our direction.”

Vatten nodded to Rommec, who threw down his bow in disbelief. Garret’s mind raced. What was Vatten doing? These hunters weren’t going to take anyone alive. The old bandit signaled for Rommec to surrender and stood up himself. Then, he put a hand on Garret’s arm. Garret drew in a breath as the plan became clear.
They weren’t all going to survive.

As soon as Rommec left his nest, with all eyes on him, Vatten unstoppered the vial of flash powder and tossed it toward the hunters. Garret squeezed his eyes shut just before he heard the powder ignite as it reacted with the air.

Rommec screamed as he plummeted to the ground. Garret didn’t look back. He and Vatten fled the nest, trusting the flash powder’s thick, golden haze to obscure their retreat. Only when they were certain no one followed them did they stop.

Garret put his back to a lightwood giant and took heaving breaths. “What was that?” he asked when he was able to speak.

Vatten had the gall to laugh. “Rommec was a hero. Sacrificed himself for us.”

“That isn’t true.”

“Let the boy have a legacy.” Vatten stood, then stretched again as if waking from a peaceful dream. “Let’s get back. Clan’s on the move already, like as not. Don’t want to be left behind.”

Left behind. What would have happened if Vatten happened into Rommec’s nest instead of Garret’s? Would he be the one lying beneath the brush, a meal for the next scavenger who caught his scent?

Garret nodded gravely. He knew what needed to be done. “You go. I need to catch my breath, make sure no one’s following. Best to split up anyway.”

Vatten grunted, then started toward their camp, with no apparent regret.

Neither did Garret feel any regret as he reached into his quiver. He didn’t hesitate as he silently drew back his bowstring. Garret’s arrow took Vatten in the back, straight through the heart. Vatten plunged through the trees, but he was dead before he hit the ground.

Garret spat in disgust. “You stabbed one of ours in the back. Fair’s fair.”

Already, insects swarmed over Vatten’s body. His part in nature’s cycle was finished. Now, his body had another role to play.

“From the dirt we’re born. In death we return,” Garret said. “Thanks for the lesson in trust, old man.”

Upon returning to the campsite, Garret found nothing but desolation. Splintered tree stumps. Scars of blackened fire pits. Discarded trash being carried off by small rodents. Hastily torn-down pickets. None of this was as the jungle should be. As always, the clan turned nature to ruin.

A lookout whistled and Garret joined him above. Garret knew him. Tamm, a new recruit. Another young boy plucked from a broken home.

“Was waiting for you,” Tamm said, voice not yet dropped into a man’s. “What happened? Where’s the goods from the caravan?”

“No caravan,” Garret said. “Only an ambush. Hunters. A coalition, they said. Guy named Hellis calls himself commander. Paid our contact a quick death for selling us out.”

“And the others?”

Garret looked down, face hidden under his hood. “Vatten betrayed us too. Tried to negotiate with them. Thought he could play nice and got a quarrel through the heart. Rommec sacrificed himself so I could get away.”

Tamm’s face contorted. “Rom’s dead?” Garret thought he saw a tear, but the boy quickly wiped it away.

“Aye,” Garret said. “Bad business.”

Tamm sniffled, then straightened up. “Come on. Kerrin’s waiting. He’ll want to know what happened.”

Kerrin. The man who stole Garret from his family, whoever they were. Kerrin’s clan raised him, but they didn’t control him. However scarred his past, it did not define his future. Garret followed the lookout to rejoin the camp, but he resolved one day to leave. He’d find a way to escape, to vanish like a shadow at noon, with not a trace left for Kerrin's men to track him. Then, with the weight of survival off his shoulders, Garret would choose his own path.