No Strings Attached
XVI

Miranda had expected a feeling of relief once she started crying, but that never came. If anything, it seemed to make her even more upset. Never before had she shown this kind of weakness, and now was not the best time to be weak. Strength was needed most, and up to that point, she had been the rock of that group. Although she never admitted that to herself, subconsciously she was aware; Isaiah had admitted it long ago.

After allowing herself a moment to shed a few tears, she attempted to calm herself. She pulled back from Isaiah and wiped the tears off her cheeks. Never did she look up to make eye contact; it was bad enough he could tell she was crying so she certainly didn't want him to see how tired she was. A few sniffs and heavy sighs got her breathing back to normal.

Her voice cracked a bit when she started to speak, "I'm sorry, Isaiah. I don't know - "

The warmth of his embrace began to fade to a frightening numbing sensation. Fear in his voice was conveyed but she only caught the first syllable of her name before all sound faded. Darkness overtook her and nausea hit full force. It was a routine that had been done often enough by this point that she was able to fight off all the fear that threatened to plague her.

Color returned and her ears stopped ringing. This time, she was firm on her feet when she appeared in another room, the sight of Isaiah long gone and the steady beat of the radio now a distant memory. Rather than being scared, she was surprised to find that anger was the dominant feeling in her gut. Still, she kept herself calm and took in her surroundings.

The room she found herself in was completely blank. The only piece of furniture was an old wooden chair which looked ready to fall apart. White covered the walls and the tile floor. No windows were present. Light fixtures were nowhere to be found, yet somehow, a bright light was cast across the entire room, leaving no shadows.

She was not alone. On the other side stood what they had been fleeing from all this time, a marionette with its strings cut. The leg that Thomas had broken off was now replaced. A quick glance showed it to be made from an off-white material, the shape resembling that of a human bone. She made sure not to double check, having decided it wasn't that important.

The puppet spoke first. She expected a childlike voice to come from it's wooden mouth, but instead was greeted with a mature commanding tone that inquired, "Why are you here?"

The question took her aback. For a moment, she said nothing. When she did, the frustration was evident. "You're the one who brought me here. Take me back to Isaiah and the others!" she demanded.

"You want to go back to them?" the puppet asked, apparently surprised.

"Of course I do! They're my friends!"

All the puppet could do was laugh. It was menacing, taunting her to say such things again. Her fists balled up as the rage grew within her, yet she calmed herself down. Something inside her told her she wasn't going to beat this thing alone.

The puppet obliged. Or so it appeared. The first to stand before her was Pudge, the blood from his wounds covering his body, the sickly pale color of his face still present, and an immeasurable amount of wrath glowing in his eyes.

The puppet said, "You're friends with the boy that wants to hit you?"

Pudge reeled back and threw a punch at Miranda, which she narrowly dodge. "What the hell, Pudge?!" she screamed at him. Yet he was gone, having faded into nothingness the moment she ducked.

"What of the boy that just wants to touch you?"

Strong arms wrapped around her from behind and she jumped in a futile attempt to escape. The bloodied shirt wrapped around the forearm belonged to Isaiah. Roaming hands groped at her developing breasts, her abs, and down past her belly button when she finally managed to wiggle herself free. When she turned to face him, there was no one there.

Back to the puppet she turned and said, "Stop! Isaiah would never act that way!"

"So long as he has human restraints, you're right. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the raw, animalistic traits. I want to free them. And he is the closest to being free from those chains."

A shiver rattled her to her core. Ever since she had first met Isaiah, she had watched him slowly change, but hadn't they all in some way or another? What other choice did they have, given their circumstances? Regardless, she trusted him completely. No illusions from a talking puppet would ever change that.

"What about the distant girl, the clingy boy? What proof do you have that they even exist? That they're even alive? That any of you are even alive?"

The idea was startling but she remained strong. "No, we're still alive. Being here is proof enough and we're all going to get out of here! Alive!"

To this, the puppet made no motions and seemed to allow her to keep her dream. After a few solid seconds of silence, the puppet announced, "You only have a few more tests left. I'm sure you'll pass them all."

Then, the puppet was gone, having faded away in the blink of an eye. Replacing it was another child, a girl about the same age as herself. Miranda, despite having seen another strange kid shoot at them, still held faith that they could all work together, and took several confident steps toward this newcomer.

Before she could get any closer, the young girl charged her. There was no chance for Miranda to dodge the tackle. Everything was a blur as her body slammed into the ground, effectively knocking the wind of out her. As her core tried to recover, the attacker landed a few punches on Miranda. They were rather weak hits and barely phased her. After about the third hit, Miranda was able to snatch her wrists and prevent anymore hits.

"What are you doing?!" she screamed at this new girl.

"We have to do this to survive!"

Miranda ignored the comment and had managed to throw the girl off of her. Quickly Miranda was back on her feet, just in time to side step another onslaught. This girl that refused to give up looked worn out and tired, her clothes ripped, and blood peppering her face and arms. Whatever she'd been through, it was similar to what they'd gone through. It irritated Miranda that someone would act that way.

After narrowly dodging a few punches, Miranda grew weary. The immense anger in her gut had welled up and was overflowing. There were no thoughts in her head as she grabbed the old, rickety chair in the middle of the room and swung it at this crazed attacker. It struck hard enough that vibrations flew up Miranda's arms and shook her entire body. The rotted wood shattered, as did the bones in the attacker's face and neck.

The attacker slumped to the ground, a few violent twitches being expelled before the body stopped moving completely. Adrenaline was pumping through Miranda's veins so hard and fast that she didn't even register what had happened. The chair was lost from her grip. As she stared at the lifeless eyes that gazed into the unknown, she felt nothing. It was a strange sensation, to see death caused by one's own hand, and have no emotions take hold, no feelings of victory or regret.

The only thought she had was how fragile life is. Its strength is pathetic, really. The fight had ended in less than a minute, simply because she had hit the body at just the right angle to cause catastrophic damage. Death came so easily, so was that why they had always valued life? How precious was life, really, if it was so weak? Diamonds were beautiful, but they were powerful, and it was that combination that made them valuable. Life? It wasn't rare, it wasn't strong, and it was messy and chaotic, certainly not beautiful.

Finally, her thoughts were organized. Somehow, she had a feeling the puppet could see and hear everything. Calmly, she said, "Alright. You can take me back to my friends now."

Her wish was granted.