Peter stared at the ceiling: a flat slab sitting atop walls of drab rock and sloppy mortar. The ceiling was dancing. Or was it? Ceilings didn't move. Perhaps it was standing still and he was the one in motion. But no ... he was lying in a bed.
He blinked hard, and his eyes remembered their ache. The sting of dust. The dance of the endless, flat wasteland. The stumbling, sprawling, choking, staggering --
No. He wasn't out there any more. He was lying in a bed, staring at a stone ceiling. Smooth, flat, endless --
No! He wasn't in the wasteland! ... But then, where was he?
He wasn't in the elevator. Peter remembered leaving the elevator. He remembered his shock as the doors opened up. The fourth-floor light had been on, but the fourth floor had always been a stately hallway with a window overlooking Interstate 395's tangle of offramps. The fourth floor had always been filled with the chatter of aides and lobbyists, deals and persuasion. The fourth floor had always been inside.
Yes -- inside. Memory sharpened his vision. He was staring at a ceiling. Underneath it was a windowless stone cabin. His mind's eye saw the single wooden door that held back the wastelands, opposite the fireplace that had earlier burned with a thin, cheerless blaze but was now empty and smelled vaguely of charred meat. There was a table, too, a long one against the opposite wall, full of implements that looked like a craftsman had sneezed and scrambled his toolset together into hammerdrivers and plierdrills and wrenchsaws. Then there was a bed, wooden-framed, with a comfortingly lumpy mattress and pillow; a set of bland wool blankets soothing in their subtle scratchiness; and a human-sized, human-shaped cat staring nervously at the ceiling.
It couldn't have been a coincidence that everything had happened the first day Peter had worked up the courage to accept that he was a therianthrope. He didn't remember the dream, but he remembered waking up from it for the thirteenth night in a row. He remembered, sleep-drunk, the floating sensation of not being in his proper shape -- but being in his right shape, undeniably, somehow -- the feeling of it pulling back away, and finally, the cold realization that in his inner heart of hearts he didn't actually want to let it go, he couldn't, not again. He remembered the rush of adrenaline, the explosion of physical sensations as his brain scrambled to life, the feeling of absolute certainty and secret relief. He remembered shouting, physically shouting, in affirmation: "This is me!"
He remembered being awfully embarrassed in hindsight. And relieved he lived alone.
He was alone now, of course. There was nothing around him but the stone ceiling, its elusive, illusive flatness, the dust, dust -- No! He silently screamed. I'm in the cabin! Focus, Peter! Focus!
Alone? No. This wasn't his cabin. He had been brought here. He remembered warm hands rolling him over, strange and beautiful darkness dancing through his vision. He remembered the vertigo of being picked up, the fragmentary peace of allowing himself to give in to exhaustion.
There was Hope, leaning over the bed, prying open his mouth with one black hand, other clutching a fragile glass tube of liquid, light blue and fizzing. "Must drink, Peter-cat," Hope said --
-- No, he wasn't there. Peter blinked. Another memory. He had to sort it all out. That had been when they first arrived at the cabin ...
No, not right away. There had been introductions first: "Hope? Is that your name? My name's Peter."
What had Hope said before that? Ah, right, answering his question: "Is Hope-cat cabin. On edge of Shadowlands."
Peter squinted. He'd asked where he was. A basic enough question, but it was because what Hope had said first seemed so bizarre ...
Ah, yes. "Is silly for colorless to come back. What for is doing here?"
"Colorless." It was a funny choice of words, given that underneath his drab clothes, Hope's body looked like Peter's feline form was casting a three-dimensional, white-eyed shadow out into space.
Shadows. Hope called himself a shadowcat. He was the only hint of blackness Peter had seen since stepping into the elevator --
Yea, though I walk through the valley of shadowless death --
Peter stifled panic with an effort. That psalm -- that misquoted line -- had ran through his head for a terrorizing eternity out in the Wastes. (The wastelands. No -- Hope had called them the Wastes. That was their name.) He had finally broken down, screamed, and thrown away his cross. Had he really? He touched his neck to be certain: only fur. He remembered thinking: What good was it going to do him here? His faith no longer had any power ... not in Hell.
Hell ... wait. Hadn't Hope said that was wrong? They were in the Shadowlands, and that was different. Why? Peter racked his memory, and a chill passed through him: Hope had never heard of God or the Bible.
They'd argued about it after Peter had recuperated enough to stand and move around. (Wait -- he'd gotten out of bed? Yes. Peter remembered talking, being offered food, huddling by the fire, looking back out into the Wastes. The vial of liquid had healed him and given him a short burst of energy, but then his backlog of fatigue had overcome him. Ah, yes: He had collapsed back into bed when Hope left to hunt.) Well, Peter had argued -- and explained, and interrogated, and struggled. Hope had just asked a few simple questions and left Peter devastated.
Like: "Why Peter-cat want apologize to lord? What Peter-cat do wrong?"
Peter didn't know. He had a short list of near-certain guesses -- but he'd always intuitively figured that being tossed into Hell was accompanied by Saint Peter reading the riot act and specifying a list of unforgivable acts to regret during the endless tortures. The sudden desolation of his punishment felt like it threw everything into question.
Changing into an anthrolynx was the obvious sin. Even when he first changed, there had been the second thoughts. He had stared for fully half an hour at the changes in the mirror -- the golden body fur, the upright ears with delicate black tufts, the ruff of white and black fur under his chin, the yellow eyes and snub muzzle, the lashing tail, the clawed fingers and pawpadded feet -- fighting fear, admiring his own beauty, struggling with the fierce argument between the evil part of his brain that whispered God must have willed it so and the good part that knew the dragon and his beastmen soldiers were going to be God's opponents in the Final Battle.
Walking out of the elevator had settled that argument. It was instant retribution, direct from God, for the hubris to think that such an earnest Christian could get away with joining the Other Side. He had been sent straight to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
Or so Peter had thought. Then Hope had found him, nursed him back to health, shared his home, offered up his bed and clothing. If this was Hell, how was it possible to find such kindness?
Hope had shrugged. "Peter-cat need help. Should help."
Peter stared at the ceiling, mind racing. That hadn't answered the question that mattered. Where had God sent him, and why? And was there an answer to that question that didn't lead to Satanism, heresy, or madness?
He didn't know. The ceiling was dancing. He needed some sleep.
News: Sorry about the update delay. Got awfully distracted last night with webcomics and houseguests, et.al.
With the serial moving into its third chapter, I'm going to scale it back to a more sustainable update schedule -- two updates a week instead of three. I'm ending up doing a lot more editing than I had anticipated, so being less ambitious with posting the already-written material will hopefully give me a chance to spend more time on the actual writing.