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All These Wakeful Hours

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Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. Her nose twitches, and all she can smell is metal and rot.

She knows her name. She knows her body and breed. She knows she has a mean right hook. But she has no idea where she is, why she finds the dark to be familiar and the expected state, or even who she is besides a bunny trapped in a - her paws search - metal box. There are what feel like buttons, small mesh holes letting in air, and a tiny red light.

> Press a button.

She pushes a presumed button at random, and there is light and a room, metal and rectangular like her box. The smell of rot permeates the room, as with the box, but there is also - her nose twitches again - cat?

There is a box like the one she climbed out of arrayed against the wall opposite. The room has only one door, with what looks like an access hatch next to it. The door is shuttered, but the access hatch is open.

> Investigate cat scent.

The scent appears to be coming from the second box.

> Investigate box.

It is a metal box like the one she just climbed out of. On the outside is a keypad. Every key is covered in bloody fingerprints.

> Press the buttons.

Ruby tries a variety of combinations, but without knowing the code, all it accomplishes is a series of tinny beeps. It is certainly no London orchestra.

> Examine the access hatch.

The access hatch leads to a room below this one. It is equipped with a ladder. The hatch remains open.

> Descend.

Ruby descends to a room split in half by metal grating. On her side there is, oddly, a tank of fish. One peers balefully through the glass, but the rest seem content to ignore her presence. Below the fish tank is another open access hatch, this one horizontal and just big enough for Ruby to crawl through.

On the other side of the grating stands a leather dummy. Its eyes gleam a malevolent red. Like the fish, it stares at her.

> Holy shit. Run run run.

The leather dummy can't reach her here - and is a dummy - but Ruby's hindbrain does not care. She jumps for the hatch and wriggles through it without bothering to so much as scout the way. Her head has barely cleared the hatch when -

Pain. Pain. Pain.

--

Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Press a button.

A search of her space by feel reveals, in addition to the light, buttons and mesh air holes. She pushes a button at random.

The acrid scent of some sort of gas begins to seep in. She is tired, so very tired -

--

Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur.

> This is bullshit.

Ruby doesn't know where or who she is, but she finds herself unaccountably furious and full of the assurance that whatever is going on, it is ridiculous and awful.

> Press a button.

Ruby mashes a button at random and is blinded by the abrupt flood of light illuminating her metal prison. There are several unpressed buttons, as well as mesh air holes.

> Stare at the buttons suspiciously, attempting to figure out which herald death.

Ruby doesn't know how, but she knows, deep in her heart, that not all of those buttons are useful to her current state of living. Which she might actually find useful, however, she has no clue.

> Call for help.

Ruby pounds on the lid of the box - high-tech coffin? - and shouts for help.

Through the air holes, she hears slow, dragging steps.

> That's good, right? . . . Right? Shit, it's probably the evil dummy. Curl up in a ball and cry.

Ruby doesn't know anything about evil dummies, but those noises fill her with a terrible concern about whatever is making them. She doesn't have enough room to curl up into a ball, but she hunches in on herself and whimpers impotently, trying not to sob and draw its attention.

The slow, dragging steps draw nearer. "Hello?"

> Confirm it's not the evil dummy.

Dummies don't have mouths to speak, not that she recalls any dummies anyway, but all the same, Ruby's taking no chances. She has vague flashes of memory heralding some malevolent creature bent upon her destruction. "What's the password?" she demands.

"Um. Um. One two three, I am not a fish?" The voice sounds incredibly unsure of itself.

Anyone that sounds like that is probably - probably - not an evil dummy intent on rending her limb from limb.

> Ask for help very politely, just in case.

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble, could you please get me out of here?"

"You mean I gave the right password?" The voice is excited. Ruby doesn't want - is kind of afraid - to disappoint it.

"Yes, yes, you did." She pauses. "You do know how to get me out of here, right?"

Surely someone knows what's going on here.

"Uh. Let me just - " There is the noise of dragging steps. "I'll be right back!"

> Wait for help.

Time passes. Ruby has no way to know, but she estimates it's another ten minutes before the dragging steps return.

"I found a list of codes. Do you think they'll work on your keypad?"

> Worth a try.

Ruby tells the voice to go for it.

The first code fills her box with a - strangely familiar - gas.

Ruby is tired, so very -

--

Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Right. Right. Method. Methodical. Do this carefully this time. CAREFULLY explore surroundings.

Ruby discovers by feel that she is in a metal box. It's equipped with air holes, a small red light, and several buttons.

> Go for the light.

Ruby discovers that pressing the red light illuminates the box. She can now see that the buttons are color coded, a red and a blue button gracing the lid and a pink and a purple button decorating the wall to her right side.

She can also see her clothing, a white dress the collar of which is stained a suspicious brown. Her launderer should have probably used more bleach.

> Press the pink button. No, wait -

A buzzing sound fills the metal box.

It sounds almost like hornets are trying to whisper secrets.

> Um. Press it again?

The buzzing ceases before she can discern any real meaning in the oddly soothing sound.

> Press the . . . blue button.

The acrid scent of gas -

> FFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUU.

--

Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light. Something is jabbing into her side.

> Press the red button light thing.

Ruby pushes at the light, illuminating the metal box that entombs her. Air Holes, four buttons, and lots of boring metal are revealed. Propped in her arm and pressed into her side is some sort of wood and metal object.

> Examine the object.

Further examination reveals she is cuddling a scepter, the most gorgeous scepter she has ever seen. Just cradling it, she feels giddy and almost desperately alive.

> Press the purple button.

A simple push of the purple button, and she is free, finally free -

A wave of dizziness washes over Ruby. When she comes back to herself, she is sitting half in, half out of the metal box, sort of - draped over the side. Below one paw lies a scepter on the floor. It appears to be cobbled together from a cane and a carving of an eye.

> What the fuck was that?

Ruby isn't quite sure what came over herself, but she's pleased to note that she feels fine, perfectly fine. Better than fine - Ruby feels on top of the world, as though she has just stepped down from her throne to rule it all.

> Don't touch the scepter.

It's gorgeous, so dazzling that she almost feels compelled to pick it up, but - no, no, it is too pure to be sullied by her filthy rabbit paws.

> Get away from the scepter.

Ruby doesn't want to move, but perhaps she should explore, find a proper place to enshrine this perfect object. Surely it will be there when she returns. After all, she woke with it, and that makes it hers.

> FORGET ABOUT THE SCEPTER.

Ruby doesn’t recall much of anything at all, but she is certain the scepter is something she’ll always remember. How could she forget something so wonderful, so worthy of all her attention? Surely she’s forgotten everything else in anticipation of it coming into her life.

> Ugh, whatever. Go through the portal.

Ruby notices that there is a shuttered metal portal along one wall of the room. Unfortunately, she has yet to master the art of walking through metal, or she would have been free long before now.

Ruby experiences another brief dizzy spell.

[ Eyes and hands and fingers and teeth, so many lovely teeth. The eyes are open and reaching out to lovingly catch her close and consume her, as she has always wanted - ]

Blinking away the disconcerting feeling that she has lost time, Ruby notes that the only other exit is an access hatch leading below. The hatch is open.

> Descend.

Ruby descends.

[ Ruby descends, Ruby descends, Ruby descends into the waiting maw of - ]

This room has, as far as she is aware, three exits. In front of her is a ladder to

[ roots reaching down ]

return to the scepter room. Beneath a fish tank is an access hatch forward. Another access hatch attaches to the ceiling on the other side of the room. Near it is a console with buttons, all the shiny buttons.

> Carefully peek through the fish tank access hatch.

Ruby doesn't see anything suspicious, just glimpses of another metal room.

> Quickly and carefully scurry through.

Moving on all fours is awkward, but if there were a race for fastest awkward crawl-scramble, Ruby is pretty sure she'd win it.

This room appears to be a lounge of some sort. A sofa is arrayed along one wall, a chest along another. The chest looks a fitting place for something as grand as her scepter, a place to keep it safe and sound and unfound by the thieving, reaching hands -

[ the hornets whisper whisper whisper

watch where you are going watch watch watch where

snitches may get stitches, but what does stitches

a stitch in time a stitch in time a stitch saves ]

For some reason, Ruby thinks she can hear children laughing, high and carefree. What an odd notion. This place must be getting to her, or perhaps the separation from her scepter-cane.

> What the fuck.

Ruby blinks and vigorously shakes her head. The sound fades.

But what is she doing gathering wool? There is a citadel to explore!

> Seriously. What the fuck.

Behind her is the access hatch, to her left and right doors. What adventures shall she embark upon today?

> . . . Try the right door.

Ruby jiggles the knob, but it refuses to recognize her right of passage.

> . . . The left door.

What ho! A glorious garden hence. All sorts of pedestals lounge in the foliage, awaiting their proper displays. She has but to match object to pedestal and its beautiful flowers of flesh and orbs and teeth can plant their seed to bloom also in her heart.

> What the fuck. Knock self out and start over.

Ruby feels the urge to lay herself down among the foliage and give her body over to fuel its wondrous growth. But no, no, she has more important tasks than to act in fertilizer's stead. And that can always come later, after all.

> Look for gardening tools.

A pair of thick rubber gloves lay propped next to a pedestal as if to give courage to this thought.

> Equip gloves, retrieve scepter.

Ah, just the thing to cover Ruby's dirty paws and fetch it to adorn its rightful place.

> Place scepter on pedestal.

But which pedestal to place it upon? This is a serious decision, one that requires serious contemplation.

> The tallest one, whatever, I don't even care at this point.

Ruby no sooner places the scepter than it flies, flies away.

All her cries of anguish do not bring it back.

> Good. Cry self to death. Can that happen? That can totally happen. Make that happen.

Her pitiful weeping continues long unabated until finally she draws the attention of a small song-bird. It is covered in raiment of green and white and pulsing red. Its soft warbles calm her heart, settle her spirits, and prepare her to embrace once more this loamy earth.

It reaches forward its beautiful teeth-tongued claws and -

--

Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Press the red light button.

Ruby can now see the metal box that holds her. It contains four buttons, mesh air holes, and Ruby herself.

> Check equipment to be certain that fucked up scepter is gone for good.

Ruby doesn't know anything about scepters - beautiful, beguiling scepters - but her current equipment includes a worn, white dress, a mean right hook, and a thick pair of rubber gloves.

> Equip gloves.

Ruby is already wearing the rubber gloves.

> Press purple button.

The lid of her metal box opens to reveal a perfectly square room. Along the wall across from her is a metal box much like her own, covered in faded brown handprints. To her right is a shuttered metal portal and open access hatch. To her left is an achingly perfect rendering of Ruby herself, ornamented in finest jewels of wood and bone. Dozens of tiny teeth are in place of the bone, but Ruby herself is done up in blood of differing age and thickness.

It really is startlingly gorgeous.

> Erase creepy memory.

Ruby has few enough memories as it is. She certainly doesn't recall anything particularly creepy.

> Take teeth.

The teeth are buried deep in the metal. Ruby hasn't the strength (or strength of will) to prise them out.

> What’s the objective of this game, anyway? Collect as many means of death as possible? Or are we still in the tutorial?

Ruby doesn’t know anything about games or tutorials, but she has the unsettling feeling that around every corner lurks a possible death. It’s not something she’d like to see switch to certain death, however.

> . . . Every corner?

Every. Corner.

> Fffffffff. Help guide?

Ruby is her own guide. Unfortunately, she can’t remember who she is, where she is, or what she’s supposed to be doing. Looks like she’ll have to figure it out on her own via trial and error. Lots and lots of error.

> Fine. Scout access hatch.

Ruby can see a ladder for safety leading to a hard, metal floor. Nothing seems suspicious.

> Descend.

Ruby descends

[ descends descends descends descends]

The room is split in half by a metal grate. The view of the far side is obscured by swathes of white fabric. Ruby's half of the room includes the ladder, an access hatch, a fish tank, another access hatch below this fish tank, and a door.

> Investigate cloth and grate.

The grate appears as sturdy as the metal it's made of. It's difficult to get a clear idea of the cloth without touch, but Ruby suspects it's of similar or the same material as her dress.

> Investigate fish tank.

A brief inspection of the fish tank reveals many tiny fish, darting energetically to and fro. They ignore Ruby's presence.

> When's the last time Ruby ate, anyway?

Ruby doesn't remember eating. She knows what food is, but she can't recall a time she's ever consumed it.

> Yeah, no, we're not gonna keel over of starvation.

Indeed, Ruby does not feel particularly hungry.

> Well, Ruby doesn't have particularly strong survival instincts. Let's eat some of those suckers. Time to prove who is higher on the food chain for once.

Though not particularly hungry - and an herbivore besides - Ruby feels the urge to display her domination over these fish all the same. What better way than to eat their fellows in a show of murderous gluttony?

Ruby scoops out a couple fish and chokes them down.

> Hahaha, yes, feast, gorge yourself on adorable fishy flesh. Gooooooooooorge.

The third fish, Ruby just chokes. Perhaps there's a reason she was an herbivore?

--

Ruby wakes.

She is lying in a metal box, the lid of which is open.

> The fuck this game’s not all about certain death. Sit up.

The box is in a rectangular room. The room contains a barrel, a second box, an access hatch, a portal into another room, and a crying wreck of a hound huddled in a corner.

"It's gone," they wail in the hoarse tones of one who has been non-stop screaming. "It's gone, it's gone!"

> Comfort the hound in attempt to make an ally.

"There, there," Ruby says to the hound once she reaches them. She pats them on the shoulder. "There, there, there."

The hound jerks away, her face - on closer inspection, Ruby is pretty sure they're a she - a mess of terror, horror, and hope. The hound points. "But I killed you! I killed you hours ago!"

> Hug the hound. For friendship!

"Don't be silly! If you killed me, I'd be dead, and I'm feeling pretty alive." Ruby tries to give her most comforting smile. She reaches out her arms to pull the hound into the best damn hug she can, but -

"Z-z-zombie!" the hound cries, ignoring all further attempts at comfort and running screaming from the room in a shuffling, haphazard way that shows she would make a much better zombie candidate than Ruby.

Ruby will not see her again until the hound tears her throat out much, much later.

> What. That is railroading!

But in the meanwhile, there are rooms to explore before that flash of foreboding Ruby experienced can come to fruition! Ruby is feeling pretty confident that maybe, just maybe, she has some time before all the terrible things promised by waking in some sort of high-tech metal coffin can be made good upon.

> Fine, whatever. Trail after the hound.

Ruby walks through the metal portal into some sort of - surveillance room? There are screens and knobs and buttons that presumably do something.

> Press ALL THE BUTTONS.

Ruby really ought to know better (somehow), but she is overcome with the strange urge to mash every button for what it's worth.

It's not such a good idea.

--

Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur.

> BULLSHIT.

She is unaccountably furious.

> THIS IS COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT.

She doesn't know who she is or what she's doing here, but she is pretty sure that when she finds out who is responsible, she's going to show them her mean right hook.

> YOU SAID WE'D BE EATEN BY THE DOG. THOSE BUTTONS SHOULD’VE BEEN SAFE.

Even in the grip of her anger, Ruby has the unsettling feeling that Bad Things await, intent on her destruction when least she expects it (and perhaps most she expects it, too). This only further fuels her rage.

> BUST OUT OF THIS COFFIN WITH FISTS OF RIGHTEOUS FURY.

Ruby attempts to punch her way out of whatever sort of metal box holds her armed only with her anger and mean right hook. She discovers she has insufficient Vim to break this box by paws alone.

In the process, she hits a button, releasing some sort of gas.

--

Ruby wakes.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. She can tell, from feel alone, that she appears to be in some sort of metal box.

There is someone knocking on the lid.

> Knock back. (Please don’t be the hound.)

Ruby knocks back - as best she can remember, and she can't remember much - Shave and a Haircut.

The knocking stops.

> Wait for voice confirmation of non-murderous intent.

Ruby waits but a moment, and the knocking suddenly and vigorously renews.

Actually, it seems less like knocking and more like the pounding of some foul creature determined to wrench open her metal box like a tin can and consume what lies within.

> Shit.

Ruby is definitely old enough to be potty-trained, but such training takes a backseat to bowel-loosening terror and the certainty that her wakefulness will end abruptly and in intense pain.

> I didn't mean - you know what, fuck it.

However terrified she may be, though, Ruby has no intention of offering up her body in a different manner in hopes of appeasing whatever it is that has started roaring and jolting the box back and forth like it's trying to soften Ruby up in anticipation of dinner.

> Search self for weapons.

Ruby is currently equipped with soiled clothing and a mean right hook.

> Cry.

Ruby is already crying from a combination of pants-shitting terror and the pain of flopping about in her metal box like a ricocheting pinball.

The metal box suddenly stops moving.

There is a brief silence.

> Try not to make any noise.

Ruby huddles into herself and tries to make her crying softer, because even if she already has this thing's attention, maybe it will go away if she's quiet enough and someone else sufficiently delicious-looking happens by.

There is a snuffling sound against the side of the box, and Ruby realizes that there are little mesh holes letting air in - and her scent out.

> Wait it out.

Ruby's next twenty minutes pass in a horrified daze. The creature outside her box shakes it a few times, attempts to lick its way through the mesh air holes, and gives a final, rather impressive roar of disappointment. Ruby does not return the sentiment.

It is at this point the knocking resumes.

> DON'T KNOCK BACK.

Ruby returns to her huddled position and decides Shave and a Haircut will only piss the creature off again. As she shifts, Ruby bumps into a button.

Her last thought is to be viciously glad the monster will have to settle for poisoned rabbit. She hopes it chokes on her.

--

Ruby wakes.

She is lying in a dented metal box. The dents look suspiciously like giant teeth marks. She is currently equipped with starch-stiff, bleached-white clothes and a mean right hook.

Someone is poking her with what feels like a stick.

> Take the stick.

Ruby grabs the - her eyes finally come into focus, discarding the brief image of a scepter as illusion - cane currently prodding her. The fox wielding said cane, however, refuses to relinquish it.

> Introduce self.

Ruby introduces herself and is told in turn that the fox's name is Red.

> Hug Red. Maybe it’ll go better than last time.

Ruby has no idea why she would hug a stranger, but she has the strange feeling that she has recently been through an ordeal. She lets go of the cane in order to get a grip on its owner.

Red looks nonplussed by this development.

> Kiss Red.

Ruby is not that kind of girl! At least, not until she knows Red better.

> Get to know Red better.

Red demurs that he is not all that interesting.

> Ask Red if he knows who Ruby is.

"Did you not just introduce yourself?"

> Ask Red if he knows where they are.

Red doesn't answer. Instead, he is staring at Ruby with an unnerving gaze. As she has yet to release him, that unnerving gaze is disconcertingly close.

> Let go.

Ruby releases Red's body, abruptly aware that Red has yet to return her hug, much less give any indication he wanted one in the first place. All the same, Ruby feels somewhat better.

. . . Though that may be the sudden distance she's opened between them.

> Explore surroundings.

Ruby is in a metal room which contains two metal boxes (including her own, dented, teeth-marked one), a metal barrel, a console, an access hatch, and a portal leading to what looks like a security room. The room also contains Red, carrying a cane and continuing to stare at her.

Red smiles. He has quite a bit in the way of teeth. Long, sharp teeth. How big is his mouth, anyway?

At least Ruby can be pretty sure that his teeth don't match the ones marking her box.

> Escape Red's creepy, slasher smile.

Ruby decides to visit the security room. Doing so means showing her back to Red, but hey, the worst he's done so far is prod her awake. (And smile at her. And smile and smile and - )

Ruby walks quickly.

> Explore the security room.

There is a console with buttons and levers and several blank screens. To one side is a locked door and what appears to be a pneumatic tube.

> Ignore the buttons. The shiny, shiny buttons.

Ruby finds the buttons oddly compelling, but with an effort of will resists their allure. That leaves her with the locked doors and levers.

> Fuck those levers, too.

As said before, Ruby's just not that kind of girl.

> Not what - whatever. Go back to the creepy metal coffin room.

Ruby turns back to the previous room, only to be faced with metal shutters slamming down.

> No. NonononoNONONO. No. We are touching neither the buttons nor the levers of death.

Ruby doesn't know why the portal has closed, but beyond the metal shutters she can hear some sort of - screeching.

> Wait. It. Out.

Maybe she can wait it out? Yes, she thinks, readying her fists of fury and mean right hook just in case. She can wait it out.

And if not, maybe she can work out some of her frustration by beating to death whatever creature is emitting those awful screams. The laughter that follows, however - yeah, Ruby's going to try not to mess with whatever's doing that.

Something thuds into the shutters once, twice, and with that second thud the sounds silence. The shutters come back up, revealing a misshapen pile of fleshy lumps, shattered bone, and large, serrated teeth, blood pooled around the - remains - and spread in streaks and spatters throughout the room.

Red stands beside the portal's console, a splash of crimson matting the fur of the right side of his face. He holds the cane loosely in his right hand. A glob of flesh is stuck to the handle.

He is still smiling.

> Shit.

Ruby doesn't have anything left inside of her to release, even were she to feel the urge - strangely absent.

> Um. Smile back?

Ruby tentatively smiles back.

Red's smile somehow widens. Ruby had not known it could do that. (Ruby wishes she still did not know it could do that.)

> Politely ask for the cane.

"No," Red says. "I don't think so."

> Ask why not.

"Why, if I gave it away, how else could I bludgeon in your pretty little head?" Red is still smiling.

> . . .

Red laughs and laughs. "Just kidding!"

Yep. Still smiling.

> Go down the access hatch.

Trying not to look too much like she's fleeing, she makes for the access hatch.

Ruby descends.

[ and descends and descends and ]

She touches down to a room split in half by a large meshed metal grate. There is another access hatch beside the ladder, above which perches a fish tank, full of tiny, malevolent fish. Ruby absently makes a note to poison them later.

On the other side of the grate, a stitched-together bear slumps against the wall.

[ stitches will snitch will snatch away your ]

For some reason, Ruby finds herself wondering if the grate is keeping it in or if it's keeping Ruby out.

> Scout the fish tank access hatch.

The way appears to be clear.

> Speed crawl-scramble of champions!

Ruby scuttles quickly through.

To her left and right are doors. Behind her lies the access hatch.

> Victory pose on couch!

For some reason, Ruby thinks there should be a couch in here, but there is only a metal chest.

Ruby makes do.

Ruby perches atop the chest and waves her fists furiously in the air, as though threatening it to take this moment of glory from her. The air does not dare.

[ no one would dare

you i dare you i dare you

IDAREYOUIDAREYOUIDAREYOUTO ]

> Um. Try the right door.

The right door opens into what appears to be a utility closet. There is some sort of chart that perhaps match up to a button console somewhere, five tubes of quick-dry permaglue, several yards of plain white cotton cloth, a yardstick, and a crowbar.

> Examine crowbar.

Suspicious stains mar one end. Ruby is dead certain this will make an excellent weapon for bashing people over the head. Maybe it will work on monsters, too!

> Equip crowbar.

Ruby hefts the crowbar, feeling pretty good about her decisions thus far.

> Check on Red now that we have a means of defense.

Red is in just the next room over, saving Ruby the climb. He is staring, head cocked, at the caged, limp figure.

> Ask Red who that is.

"Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh." Red places a claw tip gently over Ruby's lips. "Shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhh. You'll wake him." Red's claw tip slips into her mouth, the edge sliding sharply against her tongue.

"Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh."

> BAD TOUCH. BAD TOUCH.

In a turnaround from earlier thoughts and events, Ruby is in complete agreement with herself that she is not that kind of girl.

Several steps back rectify the situation. This still leaves her in some sort of dungeon room with Red and what looks to be a decaying corpse.

Ruby is unsure which is the better company.

> The CORPSE.

The corpse twitches.

> Belay that. Will creeper makeouts grant us protection from the undead?

Any attempts to sidle toward Red to put him between Ruby and the potential zombie threat end in failure. Red has already lost interest and is climbing the ladder up the access shaft.

> WAIT.

"Ruby," he croons her name softly, as if in admonishment for her loud speech. "You already know I am a patient man."

Red ascends. The access shaft closes behind him.

> . . . Maybe that's for the best.

The bear corpse twitches again. Its limbs jerk back and forth in unpredictable, uneven rhythm.

> Or not. Back to the safe room!

Despite the grate separating them and the comforting heft of the crowbar clutched in her paws, Ruby scrambles back through the remaining open access hatch.

The safe room remains unchanged, save that the closet door is now closed.

> Open closet door.

Ruby doesn't think she wants to do that. Something feels - different.

> Open closet door, damn it. I have some ideas for that glue.

Ruby really doesn't want to do that, but - surely the situation can't deteriorate any further. After all, the broken zombie bear is on the other side of the grate, and Red has locked himself and his creepily attractive smile and attractively creepy claws in the room of metal boxes. With all that, plus the crowbar and her mean right hook, even the overwhelmingly unpleasant aura drifting from the closet and coating her skin like the oily mist prefacing a sudden conflagration can't possibly herald anything she can't handle, right? . . . Right?

> Er, maybe I was a bit hasty in my judgment, and we shouldn’t -

Guts squirming in her throat and heart pulsing in her stomach, Ruby opens the door.

[ teeth there are so many teeth

ringed by eyes eyes eyes

waiting welcoming her home

welcoming her welcoming

eye eye i know i know eye eye

EYENOIKNOWINOEYEKNOWINOEYE

EYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYE]

> CLOSE THE DOOR.

Ruby comes to herself huddled against the outside of the closet door, skid marks from heels suspiciously similar in size to her own scrabbling out in front of her. All her weight is pressed in, against her shoulder and back, and she is tired, dead tired, like she has been fighting a battle against the door for hours. Her bones ache. Her forehead itches. There is the strange certainty that something has been taken from her (she has been given something) that can never be taken back.

But - what is she doing here on the floor? Wasn't she going to open the door?

> NO. NO. DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR.

But it seemed - important - somehow.

Her thoughts feel scattered and disjointed, like someone took apart her skull and reassembled it with once crucial pieces left over.

> NO NO NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NO. PADLOCK THAT MOTHERFUCKING DOOR RIGHT THE FUCK NOW.

Ruby doesn't have any padlocks, but - she checks her pockets - she does have a stick of gum and some pocket lint.

> GET RID OF THE GUM YOU CAN CHOKE ON THAT SHIT.

Ruby discards the gum on the floor.

> AND THE POCKET LINT TOO IT'S THE ONLY WAY TO BE SURE.

Distantly, as she finishes emptying her pockets, Ruby hopes there are no laws against littering in this kingdom.

> Aw, man, no, not this kingdom citadel ooo scary magic gardens deal again. There are no scepters in sight!

Ruby thinks that maybe she would like to see a lush summer's garden - or at least something green. Everything is awash in tones of red and brown and black. The shadows seem no kinder for it.

> Reset. Restart. Ruby brain break trophy achieved. Again.

Something draws Ruby back to the beginning, where she first started this strange, exhausting day. Ruby drifts back to the brig, waving absently at the friendly bear capering up and down the walls, licking the bars in a bid for attention. If she had more time, maybe she'd feed it fish.

> Forget the fish. I done fucked up. I done fucked up good.

But time is slipping away from her. Every time she blinks, the bear's in a different position. Best to press on up the ladder.

She knocks on the bars acting as hatch cover and murmurs, "Little fox, little fox, let me come in."

> Rubyyyyy. Come oooooooooon.

As easy as that, the bars slide aside, but then, Red has always been fond of her. Why, how he smiled when she showed him how well the treatment was working.

> Ruby. You've SEEN Red smile.

And what a smile it was! Red really put his whole face in it - with, of course, a little help from her.

> What.

Really, Ruby doesn't want to brag, but she doesn't think she's ever seen him so happy since.

> What.

Red graciously offers Ruby a hand up, then closes the hatch behind her. Red's left hand remains clasped in her own. He always did know how to make a girl feel welcome.

"Oh, Ruby," Red sighs, smiling that beautiful, beautiful smile, their best joint work of art. "Dear, dead Ruby." He stares a while. "You always almost catch me."

> What is going on.

"Almost," Red whispers, that smile drifting closer, ever closer. "Almost."

> Do I get any choice in this whatsoever?

"Almost."

His breath is warm against Ruby's neck.

> Or do I get railroaded into the creeper romance, too?

Ruby can feel Red's mouth on her throat as he swears, "Never."

> Because, really, I'd much rather cage fight the zombie bear.

Red rips Ruby's throat out.

--

Ruby wakes.

> WHAT.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light.

> WHAT THE FUCK. ARE YOU SHITTING ME.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> I THOUGHT IT WAS RUBY GETTING HER BRAIN BROKEN, NOT ME.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> FUCK THIS GAME, MAN. FUCK. THIS. GAME.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> ALL THIS FROM A FUCKING CLOSET.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> I'M SORRY, OKAY. I'M SORRY I OPENED THE CLOSET DOOR.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> I JUST WANTED TO HAVE A FEW LIGHTHEARTED ADVENTURES GLUING THE CREEPER'S PAW TO HIS CANE EVEN THOUGH I FIGURED HE'D BEAT ME TO DEATH.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE FUN.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> STUPID FUCKING ME.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> FINE. FINE. I WILL LISTEN THE NEXT TIME YOU DROP A HINT INSTEAD OF JUST KNOCKING ME ON MY ASS WITH POISON.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> HIT THE RED LIGHT.

In her flailing attempt to make use of her mean right hook in such cramped spaces, Ruby elbows a different button entirely.

--

Ruby wakes.

> Okay.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Maybe I deserved that.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> I just would like something a little less Guide Dang It and a lot less Nintendo Hard, you know?

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Anyway. I will control my anger and channel it all into unleashing unholy hell upon Ruby's apparently numerous enemies.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Maybe I'll finally get to see what the garden room looks like when Ruby's not high as shit.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Worth a try.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Press the red light.

Ruby is lying in a metal box adorned with four buttons, including the red light, and several mesh air holes. She herself is adorned with a sturdy new white cotton dress. Pinned to the front is a note written in what looks to be congealed blood.

The note reads, "You're welcome."

> THE FUCK.

Ruby's eye, unaccountably, twitches. Ruby didn't know she has a tic, but learn something new every day. And with as little as Ruby knows of herself, she has a lot to learn.

> Right. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Ommmmmm. Ommmmmmm.

Ruby inhales deeply, catching the scent of rot and metal, tasting copper on the back of her tongue.

> Press the purple button.

The lid lifts, exposing Ruby to the stark light of an ovular metal room. Across from her is a second metal box. Along one shallow curve is what looks like it could be a love poem written in - her nose twitches - rabbit blood? Then again, it could be detailed and intricate instructions for how to summon an elder god or the latest recipe for bear blood soup - the handwriting's rather scratchy and unreadable. Either way: rabbit blood.

Along the other curve lies a metal portal and its presumed controls. Next to the portal is an access hatch leading into darkness.

> Search self for weapons.

Ruby is currently equipped with a plain dress bleached a bright white, a mean right hook, a note, and a small metal pin holding the note against her chest.

> Remove note, pocket note, wield pin as poorly serviceable weapon.

Ruby brandishes the pin, making a note to find a better weapon soon, in case something out there decides it needs more ink.

> Search room.

Other than the second metal box, the controls, and the wall’s bloody ramblings, there is nothing of interest in the room.

> If buttons didn’t herald death, we could try the controls.

Ruby is perfectly capable of attempting to operate the controls.

> NO.

But Ruby decides maybe they’re best left alone for now.

> For ALWAYS. Scout access hatch.

A ladder leads down. Into the dark.

> Is the metal portal open or closed?

The metal portal is open. It leads to what looks like a security room.

> Explore the security room for weapons or light sources.

The security room contains several screens and an operational console. Next to the console is a makeshift ladder. Next to the ladder is a closed door.

> . . . Ladder?

The ladder looks like it should hold Ruby’s weight.

> Ascend the ladder.

Ruby ascends.

[ and ascends and ascends reaching

always reaching ]

Ruby discovers a small room with only the ladder opening leading to an exit. The walls are covered in a number of scribbles done mostly in red marker, but also blood. The handwriting is different than that shown in the box room and remarkably similar to the note in her pocket. The blood is - probably - not rabbit.

There is a tent pitched across the room. Below the tent is a fox, cane perched across his knees. With one hand, he is scrawling yet more indiscernible musings. With the other, he is digging through a cereal box.

> !!!

“Yes, yes,” the fox says distractedly. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

> Back toward the ladder!

While Ruby does not know why she would abandon the first person she’s seen thus far, something about the fox’s eyes unnerves her. She edges away from the way he watches her every move, his hand writing still, and prepares to leap for the exit.

[ his hand is on her face is on her

cheek is on her mouth is on ]

“But Ruby,” the fox purrs. “You just got here.”

> Down the ladder!

Ruby feels a pang at doing so - after all, somehow, this fox knows her name - but she nevertheless flees back to the security room.

> Check door.

The door is locked.

> Fffffffff. How are we going to get a flashlight?

“Ruby,” a voice calls above her.

> You’re shitting me.

Yes, that is almost certainly the voice of the fox.

> Not going back up there. We’ll take our chances with the dark.

“Do be careful of Daisy,” the voice says.

> Who’s Daisy?

“She won’t remember she misses you in her current state.”

> That’s HELPFUL.

“You’re welcome.”

And with that, the hole in the ceiling closes over and the ladder disappears.

> Go back to the metal box room.

Ruby can’t do that. There’s a figure blocking the metal portal.

> . . . Daisy?

The figure almost looks like a hound, if a hound had eight jagged limbs of bone and pulped flesh, three extra eyes on its torso, a mouth as long as Ruby’s legs, and teeth the size of Ruby’s head. It roars a hello.

> Nooooooooooooo.

Ruby knows denying the situation won’t make the hound from hell disappear.

> Brandish pin in most menacing pose possible.

Ruby holds up the pin and says, “I have a pointy metal object and a mean right hook.” Her eyes narrow. “Don’t. Test. Me.”

Maybe someone who wasn’t an abomination against nature made of teeth, bone, and malice most pure might have found this intimidating. Maybe.

> Blind it with the pin.

Ruby manages to plant the pin into one of the thing’s eyes before it bowls her over. The eight-legged abomination has now pinned her to the floor.

> FISTS OF FURY. MEAN RIGHT HOOK.

Ruby gets in one good punch, shattering its ribs and sinking her fist well into its torso. In turn, the hellhound disembowels her with the four clawed feet not currently holding her down.

> AGHAGHAGH GET IT OFF.

Even were Ruby to gain the strength to move the beast, she’s unable to extricate her arm from what used to be the thing’s ribcage. All the same, she makes a valiant attempt. As she tries (and fails) to hold it back with her left arm, the beast roars once more in her face.

> NOOOOOOOOOO GET IT OOOOOOOOOOFF.

The hound rips off Ruby’s left arm.

> FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF.

It chews, chews, swallows.

> Call for help!

No one can help Ruby now.

> Kick it in its lady parts.

The hound cares little for Ruby’s pitiful struggles. Almost casually, it tears out Ruby’s throat.

She is fortunate not to be conscious as it begins to feast on her entrails.

--

Ruby wakes.

> I’M SORRY ABOUT THE FISH, OKAY.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light.

> PLEASE STOP MAKING THINGS EAT ME.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> I THOUGHT THE POINT OF THIS GAME WASN’T TO SEE HOW MANY WAYS RUBY CAN DIE.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> BUT YOU SURE COULDN’T PROVE IT TO ME.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> FUCK YOU, GAME.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> VERY GENTLY VERY CAREFULLY PRESS THE RED FUCKING LIGHT.

The light reveals Ruby’s temporary bed, a metal box. The metal box contains four buttons, metal air holes, a small red light, and one rather irritable rabbit.

> CAREFULLY PRESS THE PURPLE BUTTON MAKING CERTAIN NOT TO TOUCH ANY OTHER FUCKING BUTTON, YOU HEAR ME.

As the room around her is revealed, Ruby reflects on the fact that she seems to have woken up on the wrong side of the bed today - or maybe she’s this angry by nature. Not remembering anything before her waking, she’s not really clear on this point.

Then again, perhaps anyone would be irate to wake in a dark box after sleeping on cold, hard metal. Who does that?

> DAMN STRAIGHT.

Maybe she’s a vampire.

> . . . Wait. Wait. Does Ruby crave blood?

Then again, the thought of drinking bright, sweet, tasty blood makes Ruby a little nauseous. She’s pretty sure she’s an herbivore.

> I’m getting mixed messages here.

Perhaps the only solution is to attack the next person she runs across and see if drinking their blood comes naturally to her.

> And now you’re just baiting me.

Then again, maybe she’d rather make friends. Helpful friends who won’t abandon her in her hour of need.

> Fuck. This. Game.

But, Ruby decides, they’ll have to stay as friends. She doesn’t know nearly enough about herself to start forming romantic attachments. And as for anything else, well - Ruby’s not that kind of girl.

> Enough taunting! Explore the room.

Ruby is in a hexagonal room. It contains two control panels, six metal boxes including her own, eight doors (one set in the floor), and a large statue of Ruby reaching her claws to the sky. The statue takes center stage in the room. Makeshift lighting is haphazardly pointed at the statue. Cords stretch from every wall, through every door, and from the ceiling as well, determinedly providing enough power to make this the best lit statue this facility has.

> Well. Now we know where all the lights are. Examine statue.

In its left arm, it cradles a malformed fetus. An additional eye perches in the center of its head. Its gaze seems to follow Ruby wherever she walks in the room. The entire thing is formed from what appears to be silly putty. Written at the base of the statue are the words, “Eternal Sleep,” written over and over in differing sizes and hands.

> Examine various exits

Four of the doors lead to a glass pane looking out on water. In one, tiny, beady-eyed fish flit by. In another, a squid with entirely too many tentacles attempts to chew on the glass. The third and fourth are too dark to see anything at all. Two of the doors are shuttered. One is pristine. The other has a number of dents and bloody marks. The seventh door opens on a rusted metal wall. The door in the floor shows only darkness. The last door leads to a security room of some sort.

> Examine squid.

Its teeth go on and on and on, like a picture in a picture in a

[ picture take the picture take

we’re all friends here

take the picture take the take taken

taken it you shouldn’t’ve taken it you

shouldn’t’ve seen you know you should’ve

known you shouldn’t you shouldn’t have no

NO ONE CAN EVER KNOW ]

Ruby decides she doesn’t like looking at the squid. Ruby would like to do something else now.

> Examine fish.

One stares, mocking her. The rest are more polite, darting to and fro without paying her any mind. A few are quite a bit slower than the rest, but gamely try to keep up. Does that one - have a bite mark?

> Examine rusted wall.

If she stares long and hard enough, Ruby can almost make out patterns in the wear. Why, that one looks like a kitty! And standing over it - an adorable bunny rabbit. It’s a bit unfortunate that all the extra rust pooling below the cat looks a fair bit like blood.

> Examine light cords.

They proliferate like roots in an overgrown garden.

> Ack, ignore the lights. Examine the consoles.

So many buttons. So many shiny, pressable, pushable buttons. Surely just one couldn’t hurt - ?

> YES. YES IT COULD. Um. Examine security room.

Wandering through the last open door and into what looks like a security room, Ruby sees that it has two doors, the one behind her, and another to her left. Both are open. In front of her is a larger console than the two in the metal box room, and more monitors than Ruby can imagine ever wanting.

> The door is open?

Both doors are open.

> Scout room through left door.

Through the left door is a large metal room, the sole occupant of which is a bristling male cat. In one hand, he holds a crowbar. In the other, he grips a flashlight. He is staring right at Ruby with wide, startled eyes.

> DON’T HURT US.

The cat says he has no intention of hurting anyone who hasn’t hurt him first.

> Introduce self.

“Ruby,” the cat says says the name slowly, like he’s weighing and measuring her trustworthiness by label alone. Finally, he allows that his name is Tom.

> Examine Tom.

The ruff of Tom’s chin is splattered with blood. A murky black ink spatters the tips of his ears. He is wearing a shirt and slacks, but the shirt is missing its sleeves and the hems of the slacks are tattered. His physique is impressive - one might even say manly. He is wearing a hat made out of what appears to the skin from the head of a bear stitched haphazardly together.

[stitches stitched to stitches

stitched to cover his fear of heights

his fear of hurts his fear of

this is for your own good ]

Slung over one shoulder is a lumpy makeshift cotton bag. Bulges build strange shapes into its sides.

> Ask Tom if he knows where we are.

Tom shrugs. “A hospital? Hell? The weirdest home I’ve ever seen? All I know for sure is I’m not staying.”

> Ask Tom to take us with him.

“Keep your hands where I can see them, and we’ll have no trouble.”

> Tom’s the suspicious sort, I see.

Ruby wonders what’s happened to him to put that shell shocked look in his eyes. She doesn’t ask. Like the fish, Ruby can be polite.

As Ruby ponders, Tom makes for the next door.

> Don’t leave us!

“Keep up,” Tom says, pushing the door open.

> Follow Tom.

Tom moves with surety through the rooms and halls. He walks so quickly Ruby has no chance to examine her surroundings if she wants to dog his heels.

His long stride ends abruptly in what looks like a small clinic. The clinic contains a desk, two cots, and several file cabinets.

Tom begins methodically searching the room.

> Ask what we can do to help.

Tom shuts a desk drawer. “See if you can find any medicine bottles or a syringe.”

> Ask why he’s looking for them.

Tom snorts. “Who knows why half the things in this place are needed to get things working or get someone’s help in turn. The lady wants her meds and a delivery system - that’s what we’ll get her.”

> Search for medicine bottles and/or syringe.

As Ruby rifles through the bedding of a cot, she spots a glint of glass and orange over the side. Ducking under the cot reveals a small stash of med bottles!

> Present stash to Tom.

Tom jerks in surprise and looks up from a medical file. He hurriedly stuffs it in his bag and snatches the bottles. “Good, good. Just - give me a minute.”

> Ask about medical file.

Tom’s eyes narrow. “None of your business.”

> . . . Give Tom his minute, making sure to make no sudden moves.

“Right,” Tom says to himself. “Right. I wonder - he should be around here somewhere.”

Tom takes off again. The only indication he gives Ruby should follow is to leave the clinic door open behind him.

> Follow Tom.

Tom strides forward with a fervid, desperate energy, like something besides Ruby is following him, and it’s all he can do to stay a step ahead, like ahead of him is his only defense and deliverance. In this rush, Ruby manages to take note that they are retracing their path.

They finally come to a stop in the security room.

Tom knocks on the ceiling of the room with the crowbar. “Red! Red, I know you’re up there!”

There is a brief silence.

> Wait with the hope Red isn’t actually there.

Ruby doesn’t know who this Red is, but she finds the name rather foreboding. She’d almost rather not meet them.

Tom stares at the ceiling in consternation. After a moment long, he turns that stare on Ruby. He looks . . . considering.

He knocks on the ceiling again, but this time, he says, “I brought a new friend to meet you!”

A panel in the ceiling draws back just enough to reveal a single eye. “What sort of friend?” the eye demands.

Tom gestures at Ruby to step into view.

> Ffffffff. Well, at least Tom is here to provide a meat shield . . . if he doesn’t kill us. Step forward.

“Ahhh, a lady friend.” Red pops open the panel the rest of the way, sticking his head out to peer at them. Ruby wonders what they look like from his upside down view. “Have you come to ask my blessing?”

Tom flinches at Red’s smile.

> HA. EVEN TOM THINKS RED’S A CREEPER.

“We were hoping to discuss something else with you,” Tom manages. “Could you come down? Maybe walk with us a while?”

> NOOOO, WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DON’T INVITE HIM, HE’LL EAT US.

“Don’t mind her.” Red smiles, and Ruby wonders how Tom can’t see how terrifying Red is. “I don’t think she’s quite over her reunion with Daisy.”

At this, Tom shudders.

“Hmmm,” Red considers. His eyes bore holes into Ruby’s, like he is intent on penetrating her mind and planting suggestions for actions driving at a goal only he can understand.

[ the eyes are windows

close a window open the door

open your mind to truth ]

Ruby blinks, and Red is standing right there in front of her.

“Is she okay?” Tom asks from off to the side. Strangely, he looks far more wary of Ruby than Red.

Perfect,” Red purrs.

> Ask what’s going on.

“We’re going to collect the last item and get the hell out of here,” Tom says.

> Even Red?

“Thank you for the invitation,” Red allows, “but I’ve other things to do. This is but a diversion.”

> Wait, Red actually wants to stay? HERE?

“Why leave?” Red’s smile goes viciously excited. “I’m exactly where I intend to be.”

> . . . Follow Tom.

Tom nods approvingly at this renewed focus and leads the party through the metal portal and into the metal box room. He pauses only to flick on the flashlight, then clambers down the ladder. Ruby makes it down only to see him wrench open a door and disappear through, taking the light with him.

There is a hot breath on the back of her neck.

> AGH.

A paw rests on her lower back, helpfully guiding her through the door.

“You’re welcome,” Red’s voice sounds low and sweet in her ear.

> DOUBLE AGH.

Ruby can see only a little of this room. Tom’s flashlight is perched on the floor, illuminating a box. The box says in bold letters, “DO NOT OPEN.”

Tom is opening the box.

Red’s paw is still on Ruby’s back.

> GO HELP TOM.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Red says mildly.

“You wouldn’t do anything that didn’t entertain you,” Tom grumbles, though he gives Ruby a grateful nod as she helps remove the lid.

In the box is a stitched together bear. It is missing its ears and most of its scalp.

“Hey, buddy, doing okay there?” Tom asks. “I found another couple pieces of you. We can put you back together once we get out of this shithole.”

“Leave me,” the bear mumbles piteously. “M’done for.”

“Hey, now, none of that.” Tom does his best to chivvy the bear out of the box. “We’ll even put your ears back on now.”

Ruby leans into the box to help.

> . . . It’s the nightmare circus parade.

The fur at the back of Ruby’s neck is standing straight out. Her forehead itches, and scratching only makes it hurt worse.

It feels like she is trying to remember something.

Like she is trying to forget something.

Like something she has long-repressed is trying to break free.

Ruby blinks. Ruby blinks. Ruby blinks.

> Stop blinking.

Ruby’s eyes, all of Ruby’s eyes, are open.

Stitches is staring. Tom is staring. Red is staring.

Stitches is crying out as his paws grasp only empty air. Tom’s paws are reaching forward and pulling her in soft and close even as she presses the scalpels deep, deep, deep. Red is smiling smiling smiling all for her.

Their eyes are open, every eye is open. Ruby was once used to darkness, but now she can see, and the world is beautiful. She was dead to the color, but now she has been reborn ever more iridescent than each incarnation previous. Everything is red and blue and brown and throbbing, pulsing, beating with life. Ruby wants, needs, to open every box and set each color free.

> What.

Ruby comes back to herself lying on the floor. There are a cat and a bear sitting on her. A fox - Red, it has to be Red - is laughing at her.

Or maybe he’s laughing at Ruby’s new hat, leaking down the side of her face.

> . . . Hat?

Ruby pats at her newest acquisition and discovers it feels like - ears.

“Have you calmed down now?” Tom asks.

> Uh. I guess?

“Will you give Stitches the rest of his head back?” Tom asks.

> When did we steal Tom’s gristly hat trophy for ourselves?

“Right after we finished sewing it back on,” Tom says grimly.

> Really, Ruby? Really?

“And now she’s talking to herself,” Tom mutters.

“Tom?” Stitches says. “Can I have my ears back now?”

Tom snatches Ruby’s new hat off her head, though he lets her keep the blood that’s soaked into her fur.

“We can sew it back on all the way when we leave,” Tom says. “We’ve wasted enough time already.”

> Are they going to set Ruby free?

“By all rights,” Tom says, “we should stuff you in the box.”

Red finally stops laughing.

“But no,” Tom sighs. “We’re stuck with you.”

Tom and Stitches release Ruby. Ruby notes that Stitches keeps Tom between them at all times.

> Okay, okay, so she . . . stole part of Stitches head. But Ruby is seriously scarier than RED?

Stitches mumbles, “Red’s never tried to put me in the blender.”

> . . . And Ruby has?

“Enough talking.” Tom helps Stitches stand, then offers Ruby a paw up. “We need to move fast and stick together if we want to get out of here. Let’s go.”

> Follow Tom.

Tom leads his way back toward the security room. Once there, he stops and turns to Red. “And the syringe?”

“I’ll hold onto it a little longer,” Red says, lurking behind Ruby.

Tom looks resigned. “Fine.”

He takes off again.

> Follow Tom.

Tom leads the haphazard group through several more rooms and halls. They finally emerge in what looks like an even bigger security room than before. There is a mouse sitting at a desk, hooked into a helmet and all sorts of tubes. A poster on one wall has “Metal Glenn” at the top, and Ruby wonders if that’s the name of where they are.

The mouse says, “You have my items?”

Tom nods.

“Give them here.”

Tom holds out an expectant paw to Red. For his part, Red produces a syringe with a flourish and tucks it behind one of Ruby’s ears. With some exasperation, Tom turns to Ruby.

> This is really the last puzzle piece? Kind of anticlimactic, isn’t it?

“Not really,” Tom grits out. “I’ve fought monsters, nearly drowned, and been awake for days. Now if you please?”

> Give Tom the syringe.

For some reason, Red has shifted himself to the other side of the desk, close to the mouse hooked into the wall. Tom’s eyes have gone wide and shocky again. The syringe lands in his paw and rolls to the floor. Behind him, Stitches is making some weird groaning sound, as if all his worst expectations have come to fruition.

> . . . Turn around.

Standing in the door, its head shifting back and forth and nose twitching, is an eight-legged abomination. It has a hound’s ears, as many eyes and legs as a spider, and what appears to be a scorpion’s tail. One of its eyes has a pin sticking out of it. Its ribcage is partially crushed. Three of its legs drag behind it. Its tail has a long gash running up one side. The tail sways, seeming to track with everyone’s movements.

“You’re back again?” Tom asks.

“Daisy always was tenacious,” Red agrees.

> Aaaaand I jinxed it. Back up.

Ruby backs up until she feels her back hit the desk.

She sees Tom heft his crowbar out of the corner of her eye.

> Check self for weapons.

Ruby is currently equipped with a plain white dress, a mean right hook, and the ability to SEE. She only hopes it will be enough.

> Ready fists and keep Tom and Stitches between self and threat.

For once, Stitches actually seems to be okay with being close to Ruby. He is one step ahead of her in doing his best to keep bodies between himself and the monster hound.

“Why does everything want to eat me?” he mumbles weakly.

> Finally, someone gets me, and we’re all about to be eaten by monsters.

“Pretty sure it would choke on you,” Stitches mumbles.

“Ruby,” Red calls. He hands a pair of scissors across the desk. “Don’t let Tom have them.”

> Like I’d give away any weapons at this point. Equip scissors.

No sooner than Ruby has readied her newly provided weaponry than the hound finally makes its decision. Jumping over Tom and Ruby in an impressive display of athleticism, it lands on Stitches.

> Noooo, Stitches, your sacrifice will not be forgotten!

Stitches struggles weakly in the hound’s clasp. Tom takes this opportunity to go to town on its remaining intact legs.

Red giggles to himself as if this is all a show put on for his amusement.

> Blind its eyes! Blind all its eyes!

With the soundtrack of crunching limbs, Stitches’ sobs, Red’s increasingly maniacal laughter, and the wet, chewy noises of the hound opening up Stitches’ torso, Ruby has a little difficulty concentrating, but at least there are enough eyes to make it hard to miss them all.

> Keep stabbing!

The hound rears back and shakes, as though to clear all the blood from its fur. The motion tosses Ruby and Tom into the walls.

> Fffffff. What does the ability to SEE do?

Ruby doesn’t know if she can deal with the distraction, but she thinks at this point, she’ll take any help she can get, and if she can just SEE -

> No, no, I was just asking -

Ruby opens her eyes and opens her eyes and opens -

> I guess I’m just along for the ride, then.

RUBY CAN SEE EVERYTHING NOW.

> Cut-scene, go?

Daisy has Stitches pressed into the steel floor, her paws questing, her mouth searching, shoving herself deep into his chest cavity, but if she’d just ask Ruby, Ruby could tell her his heart’s in another place now.

Tom stands, tall as trees, strong as oak, and the crowbar is but an extension of himself. He taps Daisy on the shoulder, on her elbow, on her head.

Daisy doesn’t like that.

At least he has her attention now!

> Look for weak points to exploit.

Stitches wears his weak points all over himself. He’s pretty much a walking target. He’s very sweet, but it’s little wonder he’s always coming apart at the seams.

> Not Stitches.

Tom - well, Tom. Tom wants everything, but give a little, and he falls right over.

> Daisy. The hound. Figure out how to defeat her.

Ruby doesn’t know why she’d want to defeat Daisy, but she supposes it is about time to break up this little schoolyard tussle.

Even as they are, they need lungs to breathe. Scissors are no scalpels, but Ruby makes do.

Daisy turns to Stitches in her final moments. She weaves back, forth. Her mouth opens, closes, opens again. Her snout rests against the once-hat that makes up Stitches’ ears. Her last move is to press a paw over his eyes. Her second to last is to lash out with her scorpion’s tail, lancing Tom in the lower abdomen.

> Agh. Help Tom.

Ruby blinks. Her arms are covered in blood. She is holding a pair of lungs in her arms. The lungs are still - mostly - attached to the person they belong to. The hound is slumped over Stitches, who has finally stopped twitching. The hound’s tail is speared through Tom.

Tom stares at Ruby with wide, wide eyes. “No, no,” he says. “I’ve got this.”

He swallows and makes an abortive move to grab the tail.

“Can I just - get some privacy?”

> Turn around to see what Red’s been up to while the rest of us fought for our lives.

Red has a box of cereal. He is eating it.

> Cereal? Really?

Red offers to share.

> Ask Red if there are more monsters like the hound in the building.

“As many monsters as there are occupants,” Red says.

Behind Ruby, there is the squelching sound of Tom removing the stinger-tail from his body.

> Ask Red if there’s a first aid kit anywhere around here.

“Probably,” Red says, putting his cereal away. “But there’s little point these days.”

> Ask desk-mouse if there’s any way to keep the monsters in the facility.

“Why do you think the building’s on lockdown?” She leans forward. “Now. Where is my syringe?”

Behind Ruby, there are a couple wet coughs, then footsteps as Tom walks up to the desk. He has the remains of his shirt pressed against himself with one hand. The other still clutches the crowbar.

“Ruby’s right,” Tom says. “What happens when we leave?”

“Be polite and shut the door behind you,” the mouse drily suggests.

> And it’ll automatically lock?

The mouse is silent a moment. She stares at Tom. “You said, more than anything, that you wanted to be free.”

> I want to be free, too, but what’s the cost going to be? Besides, y’know, a dead bear and some flesh wounds.

Tom looks sick. He glances at what remains of Stitches and the hound, then looks away.

Red has taken out his cereal again.

> Uh, maybe I should’ve put that more delicately. But seriously, there must be some way to keep any monsters from escaping.

“Imagine that,” Ruby tells the mouse, gesturing at the hound, “unleashed on the rest of the world. Surely there’s something more we can do?”

The mouse keeps her gaze on Tom. Reluctantly, she agrees, “There is.”

> Then let’s do that.

“You can be free,” the mouse presses Tom. “You’ve come so far - ”

“No.” Tom shakes his head. “Ruby’s right.”

Tom looks right in Ruby’s eyes, like he really sees her, like he knows exactly who she is inside. “You’re right,” he says. “We live in a world of monsters, and we can’t let them leave.”

Tom lets his makeshift bandage drop. Bracketing his wound is an extra pair of arms, tiny and claw-tipped.

“We can’t leave,” Tom says. He drives the crowbar hard into Ruby’s side.

> What.

“Surely you knew.” Tom barks a laugh like a sob, standing over her body. “You have three eyes.”

> And what happened to not hurting someone who didn’t hurt you first?

“Ruby,” Tom says, voice scraped raw. He gestures at himself. “Where do you think I got these arms?”

> . . . Where?

“At least Red got even. But I can’t - I couldn’t - I could never -” Tom chokes. “You killed me.”

> WHAT?

Tom firms up, face determined, voice calmer now. “You killed me, Ruby,” he repeats. “And you’re not going out that door.”

Red bursts into vigorous applause.

> Um. Status check?

Ruby’s left ribs are broken. It is difficult to breathe. She can taste blood in the back of her throat. Her paws clench around the handle of the scissors, digging in bruises to deal with the pain.

> Right. Meanly scissored right hook to Tom’s gaping wound.

Ruby makes a wild swing from her mostly-prone position. She doesn’t quite reach Tom’s stomach.

“Oh!” Red exclaims. “Even more vicious than I remembered. I give it a ten for hitting below the belt.”

Tom doubles over. He makes no sound.

> She - she REALLY - ?

“I didn’t mean to!” Ruby squeaks, a little embarrassed despite herself. She’d just meant to stop Tom, not - not -

> C’mon, fatality!

Well, Ruby thinks, it’s probably best to kick Tom while he’s mostly down. For one thing, she can reach him down here.

This time, Ruby aims for the throat.

It’s probably only fair that his body falls on her.

> Push him off.

Ruby hasn’t the strength to push him off, not to mention in all the commotion of slitting Tom’s throat, something has - shifted - inside of her. Every movement jars the shards of pain further in her chest.

> Ask Red for help.

Red hops up from the desk and presses a foot to Tom’s shoulder. He gives a careless kick-push.

Ruby would’ve thought she’d breathe easier now, but it seems all the blood bubbling up with every breath is impeding that.

> Ask Red about that first aid kit.

Red smiles almost kindly. “Do you really think that would help?”

> Tom said this is a hospital. Aren’t there any doctors here?

“Doctors? Well. There were. One, anyway.”

> And?

“Tom had to tear Filbert into ten separate pieces to get access to the medical files.” Red takes in Ruby’s dismayed expression and leans in, confides, “He’ll get better.” Red leans back. “But not in time for you, I’m afraid.”

> Is there ANYTHING Red can do?

“I can stay,” Red allows. He crouches next to Ruby’s broken form. “Yes, I think I’ll stay. At least, until Ace arrives.”

He sits and pulls Ruby’s head into his lap. His claws trace soothing patterns in her fur.

“I’ll keep you company until you fall asleep.”

“Red - ?”

--

ENDING UNLOCKED: DEAD DEJA VU: THIS HAS ALL HAPPENED BEFORE [and will all happen again]

“Shhhhh.”

Choking on blood, Ruby asks, “What did I - “

“Shhhhh, shhhhh.” Red strokes the fur over her third eye. “When you wake up, you won’t remember a thing.”

“What am I?”

“You are what we made of you, Ruby.” Red’s paws drift to her cheeks. “We are all what we made of you.”

“You mean - I really am a - ?”

“Shhhhh,” Red says. “Shhhhh, shhhhh. Don’t let it trouble you. Close your eyes. Rest a while. For now, I’ll be right here.”

Ruby lifts one bloody claw to the scars that make up Red’s face. “I did this.”

Red leans into her. “It’s okay,” and Ruby doesn’t know him well, but she knows that he’s lying now. “It’ll all be okay. It’s just a dream.”

Against her will, Ruby’s paw falls. She hasn’t the strength to hold it up anymore.

“A terrible, terrible dream.” Red presses their foreheads together. His paws rest in the hollows of her jaw. “But soon, very soon, this nightmare will be over.”

Ruby wants to believe him. She wants so much to believe.

His words, such beautiful untruths, reach her as a distant promise:

“It’ll be like it never happened at all.”

Ruby closes her eyes.

--

Ruby wakes.

> No. No. I’m not doing this again. Not ever again. Red was right, it was all a bad dream, and Ruby wakes up to a world where she’s not a murderer or a monster or living in some fucked up underwater hospital of horrors.

It's dark, so dark she can't see her paws or even the pink of her nose peeking through her fur. The only thing visible is a small red light.

> RUBY WAKES UP AND IT IS SUNSHINE AND ROSES AND HAPPILY EVER FUCKING AFTER. THE END. NOTHING YOU SAY WILL CONVINCE ME OTHERWISE.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> . . . Go back to sleep, Ruby.

The only thing visible is a small red light.

> Press red light, blue button. Dream some nicer dreams a while.

Gas floods the chamber, and Ruby is tired, so very tired.

(If Ruby dreams, she won’t remember.)

--

Ruby wakes.

>