Chapter 64:

Chapter 64 - Cliff’s Edge


Beretta couldn’t believe she’d actually been excited to come here.

As enchanting as it was in the daytime, the jungle lost a lot of its luster after nightfall. Cute animals and vividly-colored flowers weren’t much to look at in the dark, and her encounter with that snake had opened her eyes to an entirely different side of the Great Jungle; one where little things like her were preyed upon.

The tropical birds and Morgonkeys were gone, and agile predators had taken their place. Beretta could hear them moving all around her as she tried to retrace the party’s steps through the vast, open clearing they’d all traversed so easily an hour before. The girl tried to keep her head down, focusing on the ground. Partly because she wanted to avoid tripping, and partly to avoid the keen, glowing eyes of the unidentifiable creatures stalking her in the dark.

In a situation like this, Beretta couldn’t help but cry. She tried to keep her sobs quiet–no louder than the shuffling of her feet, at least–but it was impossible to hold back the tears. They’d been flowing freely ever since she lost Mimi. It is all my fault! If I had only been quicker…

She sniffed, trying to shove aside her sudden fit of self-blame. She knew it wouldn’t do her any good here; Mimi was gone, and she’d left the vine behind some time ago. Better to direct her energies toward what really mattered:

Getting out.

The sound of a loud snap somewhere up ahead stopped the girl in her tracks. She looked up to find that even her nocturnal ‘friends’ had been unsettled by the sound. They withdrew into the jungle’s thick foliage en masse, retreating from whatever beast had made it. Beretta was tempted to run herself, but she couldn’t bring herself to turn back–not when the way ahead was so well lit. Moonlight spilled in through the canopy above, providing her with more visibility than she’d had since her flight from the grove.

Still, she hesitated. More noises followed the first–more snaps and cracks that hinted at the presence of something powerful moving through the trees just beyond. The girl crouched at the edge of the clearing and proceeded cautiously, eager for a chance to catch her bearings and leave the darkness behind. If this thing was as big and scary as it sounded, she reasoned, maybe it wouldn’t even notice a little girl like her. Soon enough she came to a break in the trees, providing her with a chance to peek around them at the source of the din.

The moonlight was abundant here. Furtively she leaned out, trying to get a good look…

…And nearly found herself crushed beneath the weight of her father’s bloodied frame!

She screamed and thrust herself away from him on instinct. He crashed to the ground and lay there, motionless, for a long moment before she was able to process what had happened. I am back at the grove! she realized. I have done nothing but wander in a circle… And now, this…!?

Father. Even in the dim light streaming from the grove, Beretta could tell that he was bleeding profusely. Was he dead? In obeying his instructions to run, had she left him to his fate?

No. She could see that he was breathing. She rushed to his side and produced Drizzle from where she’d stowed it in her belt, hopeful that she would find it filled now that she truly needed it. To her delight, she found that this was so: the water gun had somehow refilled its reservoir, granting her the power of its healing energies once more.

The girl didn’t question why. She searched along his body for wounds, spraying liberally at every serious injury she could find. “Father! I am here,” she whispered. “I can help! Tell me where it hurts.”

“Berry…” he murmured through swollen lips. “The man… Turu. We fought…”

He coughed and shuddered, prompting Beretta to turn Drizzle on his chest next. Broken ribs? she wondered, squeezing the trigger anxiously as he went on:

“He is a monster. I could… Could not overpower him…”

Just then, she heard gunfire and screaming from the grove.

“Damn it, Morgan, land a hit already!” someone cried. It was Roulette’s voice! Beretta rose with a start, having exhausted her healing waters for the time being.

“Roulette!! They are still fighting him,” she gasped, looking off toward the grove. “I have to help them! Will you be alright, Father?”

“Beretta, no,” he growled, trying to rise from his place on the ground without success. “It is too dangerous. I forbid it!”

The girl shook her head defiantly. “I will not leave them. Rest here, Father. I am going to them.” Then, true to her word, she shoved Drizzle into her belt and sprinted off in the direction of Roulette’s voice.

“Beretta!” he called from behind. “BERETTA!”

She ignored him, barrelling forward through the brush until she emerged at the edge of the timpan grove.

…And the moment she did, she came to wish that she had heeded her father’s warnings.

Turu moved like a whirlwind among the timpans, negotiating the smooth, barkless trees with supernatural speed. He swung from their branches and coiled his limbs around trunks to maintain his momentum, utterly foiling his opponents’ attempts to get him in their sights. Morgan and Roulette ducked and dived to escape his assault as best they could, but even Beretta could tell that they were plainly outmatched… And she understood implicitly that her presence would do little to change that.

She thought of shouting–of doing anything at all to capture his attention–but quickly thought better of it. If her friends were worrying about her instead of themselves, it would only complicate matters. Reluctantly, she settled in to watch. Perhaps, if she was lucky, an opportunity to turn the tables would present itself.

“Can’t you bounce bullets or somethin’?” Roulette hollered, throwing herself to the ground just in time to avoid a forceful kick from Turu. It shattered the branch just above her head, leaving little doubt as to what had been making the violent snapping sounds that drew Beretta back to the grove.

“They don’t bounce so well off wood!” Morgan replied. Indeed, several of the trees looked to have a number of bullet holes peppered throughout their trunks, as if the man had tried–and failed–to use them as catalysts for a trick shot. “If you can’t get somethin’ good out of Lady Luck, we’re sunk!”

Apparently motivated by Morgan’s assessment, Roulette rolled on to her back and cocked her weapon at the Czar bearing down on her. Beretta clenched her fists, feeling a sudden rush of adrenaline. If anyone could get them out of this, she knew it would be Roulette. As dangerous as Turu was, he didn’t have a gun in his hands. All she had to do was squeeze the trigger, and–

She never got a shot off. Turu swung down from the branch above and kicked the gun from her hands so violently that it snapped its gunstrap, sending Lady Luck sailing across the grove! Beretta stifled a gasp and briefly considered running for the fallen firearm… But it was too far; she’d surely be spotted in the attempt.

“Damn it all!” Morgan cried, diving out from behind a timpan to take a few well-aimed shots directly at Turu’s chest. The Czar seemed to have predicted this, though, for he had scrambled back up into the trees long before the bullets had a chance to connect. He stayed out of sight for only a moment before coming down on Morgan like a bolt of lightning, crushing the man’s gun hand beneath his heel.

Morgan yelped in pain, somehow managing to keep his ruined fingers curled around the grip. It didn’t do him any good, though–having successfully disarmed his foes, Turu was free to stoop down and seize Morgan by the neck with impunity.

“You are the reason for all this,” he hissed, lifting Morgan roughly to his feet. “If not for you, I would not be forced to go to such lengths…”

Turu dragged him toward the open edge of the grove, the only side bordered by a sheer cliff.

“Morgan!!” Roulette screamed, rising from her position on the ground to take a run at Turu’s exposed back. It ended poorly for her, though; the Czar lashed out without so much as a glance backward, delivering a kick to her abdomen that launched the girl several feet.

“Before the night is through, you will have made a child-killer of me,” Turu continued, hefting Morgan by the neck until his feet dangled over the edge of the cliff. “You deserve no mercy. In fact…”

Turu squinted at Morgan’s face in the moonlight, as if he were struggling to place a long-forgotten friend. “My memories are closed to me, but… Still, you seem somehow familiar…” The Czar’s eyes appeared to fixate on the trail of white stars in his hair.

Beretta clenched her teeth, overcome with helplessness. She looked between Morgan as he flailed in Turu’s grasp, and Roulette as she struggled to overcome the pain of the Czar’s devastating blow. What could she do, here? What could any of them do?

That’s when the girl noticed something–a tubelike protrusion poking from the bushes to Turu’s right:

A blowgun.

And then, as quiet as a whisper, it dispensed a dart into Czar Turu’s unprotected side.

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