However, crying wouldn’t solve any of Miranda’s problems. She took in a deep breath and exhaled. If that white beam of light fired off again, she didn’t want to be in its path. Her legs weren’t responding that well, so she used her arms to pull herself away from the path of destruction before grabbing onto some decorations on the wall nearby, using all the strength in her torso to climb to her feet. The feeling of powerlessness surprised her; she had always thought of herself as a brave individual who’d keep a level head in any situation.

Clanking sounds caught Miranda’s attention, and from across the smooth chasm that had been created by the white light, there was a puppet approaching her. Unlike the earlier puppets she had dispatched, this one had four arms instead of two. Rather than a sword and a shield, the puppet held a gigantic mace, using all four hands to support the unwieldy weapon. In her current state, Miranda didn’t stand a chance. She gritted her teeth and staggered to her staff, picking it up and using it to help stabilize her body.

Although she had escaped from the dragon, it still seemed like it’d be the cause of her death. Other than fear, an ability almost all dragons had, nothing else would explain why her body was fighting her mind. Miranda tightened her grip on her staff and narrowed her eyes at the approaching puppet. No matter what, she was going to fight to the bitter end. Thanks to the massive size of the puppet’s weapon, it was top-heavy. If she could hit the puppet’s legs with a clean sweep, it’d be possible to knock it off balance, giving her a shot at survival.

The puppet walked into striking distance, and Miranda barely tossed herself to the side, pushing off of the ground with her staff. The mace struck downwards, hitting the space where she had just been, a loud cracking sound echoing through the maze as the obsidian tiles exploded from the impact. Unfortunately, due to the stiffness of her body, she couldn’t take advantage of the opening revealed by the puppet’s attack. All she could do was climb back to her feet and steady herself.

The puppet walked towards her again, raising its weapon as it approached. When Miranda was within striking distance, the gigantic mace struck downwards once more. Miranda repeated the same action as before, dodging by pushing with her staff. Her face contorted into a grimace as she lost her footing, falling to the ground in a heap. Thanks to the adrenaline pumping through her body, her stiff legs and arms were shaking now too. To make matters worse, she had even landed on the path of destruction while dodging.

The puppet whirred and clacked as it fixed its posture, raising its weapon off the ground. It approached Miranda, and she swore it smiled at her despite not having a mouth. Instead of smashing Miranda to a pulp with its mace, the puppet positioned itself as if it were a golfer about to hit a ball. It swung its mace in a downward arc, and Miranda barely had time to position her staff in front of her abdomen. The mace collided with the wooden staff, and the staff shattered, shooting splinters into her flesh as the metal weapon collided against her stomach, launching her through the air down the smooth path.

Miranda’s vision flashed, and for a while the only sensation she felt was pain as her body tumbled and rolled, the wooden splinters making their way deeper into her body as her organs rattled inside of her from the impact. When she came to a halt, Miranda vomited out a puddle of blood, almost drowning in the liquid because she was lying on her back. She turned her head to the side, enough for the blood to flow out of her mouth, allowing her to get a breath of air that tasted like iron.

Clanking sounds echoed in Miranda’s hearing as the view in front of her gradually became clear. A small altar lay within arm’s reach, and top of that altar, there was a red pillow with a black orb resting on it. A shadow came into Miranda’s view. The puppet whirred and clacked, the sounds it made eerily similar to laughter as it deliberately stomped towards her. Miranda mustered up the remaining strength in her body and grabbed the black orb, but her hand fell short, tugging on the corner of the red pillow instead. She bent her fingers, dragging the pillow closer, her fingers crawling towards the black orb like tadpoles wriggling into water.

Miranda had seen plenty of orbs during her time spent on the first floor. Different guilds and clans offered them to promising recruits in return for joining them. Unluckily for her, she wasn’t good enough to count as a promising recruit, and it was only after the Virtuous Hand had recruited and gifted her an ironwood staff that she gained the courage to tackle the advancement exam. Miranda’s fingers wrapped around what she suspected to be a skill orb, and an amber light shone from her root bracelet. Knowledge poured into Miranda’s mind as the black orb disintegrated into motes of light that sank into her body.

Her eyes widened, and she followed the instincts she had been granted by the orb. An itchy feeling blossomed in her chest as her mana swirled for the first time. Her shadow rose up, engulfing her body, cloaking her from view. The puppet’s movements froze, and Miranda watched as its head spun a full three hundred sixty degrees around its torso, examining every inch of the room. Her chest burned as if she had held her breath for two minutes despite less than ten seconds having passed. If the puppet didn’t leave soon, then she was sure it’d locate her once she wasn’t able to maintain the skill anymore. The puppet took its sweet time, looking up, then down. It even stopped to scratch its head with the mace, causing a sharp screeching sound to pierce its surroundings.

Miranda’s face contorted as she did her best to suppress the burning in her chest. Right when she was about to take a breath, releasing the spell, a voice entered her ears.

“Is this a toy?”

The puppet whirled around, partially revealing a shirtless man behind it. The puppet swung its mace down, and the man slapped his hand forward. There was a dull thudding sound followed by a crash as the puppet that had sent Miranda to the brink of death was launched into the wall. Miranda exhaled involuntarily, and the shirtless man looked down at her with a pair of eyes that had golden irises and black, slit pupils. For some reason, the dragon fear, which had subsided after she had been knocked around like a golf ball, came back in full force, and a squeaky sound leaked out of Miranda’s mouth. “Meep.”


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