January 12th, 2009

legend of hero

The Wastes: Act IV

Hunter's Outpost

Peter opened his eyes and found himself Hopeless.

The shadowcat was gone. That left only him in the cabin. The same dusty furred body, the same stone walls -- and soon, the same persistent questions tearing through his brain. Peter pulled the blanket up over his head and tried to return to sleep, but it was a lost cause. The covers didn't keep out the Wastes' ever-present soft light, and even when he closed his eyes for some artificial darkness, his racing mind refused to quiet down.

So it was almost a relief when the door creaked open. Peter peeled back the blanket, rolled over, and watched Hope pad in.

Four, Peter immediately thought.

In the unchanging Wastes, the closest thing Peter had to a way of measuring time was to track the shadowcat's arrivals and departures. His brain, hungry for some reference point, had taken to thinking of these visits as days. Four days. It didn't feel like 96 hours had passed -- but it didn't feel like any other number Peter could name, either, and it was better than nothing.

"Good, good," the shadowcat said in a delicate, fluid voice. He was dressed only in a loincloth as featurelessly black as his fur and a drab brown traveling cloak that matched the endless dust of the Wastes. His crossbow was slung over his shoulder, along with a well-worn leather bag that bulged with the results of his successful hunt. "Peter-cat awake again. Feel better?"

"Welcome back, Hope," Peter said, sitting up. "Not really."

Peter glanced down at his body. For all his malaise, he looked good enough -- sleep and the remarkable healing juice had taken care of almost all his physical complaints. However, he still hadn't eaten anything since entering the Wastes. Peter wasn't sure whether to feel more disturbed at the food available to him or at the fact he hadn't starved yet.

He was dressed much more comfortably, too. Hope, on his second visit, had talked Peter into changing clothes. The torn-up dress shirt, tie, and slacks Peter had worn through the Wastes had fit his feline form awkwardly; the vest and baggy pants Hope had given him fit almost as if they had been made for him.

Of course, that only spurred more questions. Was it fate that he had been found by a friend shaped so remarkably similar to his theri form? Chance? Some sort of mirror universe science-fiction thing? Or was God simply playing more games with him?

If so, it wasn't a game he particularly appreciated. Hope had literally given him the clothes off of his back -- and Peter caught himself spending more and more of their time together staring at the shadowcat's athletic outline, fighting off lascivious mental images of entwined fur, dark and light and sweat and musk. Even if that wasn't a hideous sin, it was no way to repay Hope's kindness.

"Peter-cat heartsick?" Hope asked, setting down the sack and weapon on the long table and sitting next to Peter on the bed. "No potion to heal hearts. Wish to be something Hope-cat can do."

"Hope, you saved my life," Peter said, heart pounding. "You've already done much more than I have any right to expect."

"Or ..." Hope said uncertainly. "Did Hope-cat make heartsick?"

Peter froze, caught. He had hoped that the shadowcat hadn't noticed, but despite Hope's struggles with English -- or Kingdomspeak, as Hope called it in his odd portmeanteau pidgin -- Peter's rescuer was a sharp judge of motive.

"Peter-cat look like overthink from talks," Hope clarified.

Peter remembered to breathe. That was true, too, and less awkward. "Yes," he agreed. "I can barely sleep. There's so much for me to think about."

"Hope-cat understand," Hope said. "Peter-cat homeplace is silly. So different. Must be big shock."

That's what he had said last time, too -- and they'd left the conversation hanging. Peter deliberated, reluctant to jump back into theology, but it was becoming clear that the only way for him to find some peace from the questions was to confront them head on.

"Hope," Peter asked, "how do you know what's right and wrong?"

The shadowcat cocked his head. "Peter-cat ask silly questions."

"I do, don't I?" Peter said with a self-conscious smile. He was starting to find it endearing how Hope used "silly" to describe anything bizarre or unexpected.

"Is this again have to do with Prince Jesus?"

"Not Prince --" Peter started to protest, then dropped it. "Yeah, in a way. I'll explain later."

Hope shrugged. "Something right if it make people life better, wrong if it make people life worse."


One of Hope's white eyes quirked wider. Peter sighed. "Humor me. I'm trying to figure all this out."

"Well," Hope said, "make own life better is good. As for help other shadow? Hope-cat think, kingdom nicer when shadows nice to each other. Everyone happier if everyone treat other shadows like everyone treat self."

"That's what the Bible tells us to do," Peter said. "Are you sure you've never heard of it?"

"Answer still no," Hope said. "Peter-cat, why need book to say that? Is common sense."

Peter dodged the question. "What I'm trying to get at is -- how do you know that's what's right?"

"Do not understand." Hope pulled his footpaws up onto the bed and leaned against the wall.

"People are fallible," Peter said. "Nobody's perfect. And you came to that conclusion on your own. What if you're wrong?"

"Um," Hope said, clearly lost. "Then say sorry and try to fix?"

"No, no. If your morals are wrong. If your entire reasoning is faulty."

"So," Hope said slowly, "Peter-cat ask, what if make people life better is not right?"

"Yes, exactly."

Hope shrugged. "Is big silly. How else would work?"

"Well, if everyone got to decide for themselves what makes morality right, other people will have different reasoning from you. Anything could be justified by somebody. Nothing would be evil."

"Big silly!" Hope repeated. "No kingdom if everyone make up rules, just ... chaos."

"Exactly --" Peter started, not expecting to hear that from the other side of the argument.

"Kingdom there," Hope said with some finality. "King change, but kingdom still there. So rules work."

Peter considered.

"Is Peter-cat hungry?" Hope asked. "Can roast flightling."

"I'm ... still trying to get comfortable with that."

Hope abruptly stood up. "Hope-cat forget," he said quietly. "Is sorry."

Peter leapt to his feet too. "No, no, it's not your fault! The rules are just so different here from what I'm used to. Your food is just so ... weird."

The first time he had been offered something to eat, Peter had made the mistake of asking what a flightling was, and coaxed a condensed explanation of shadow evolution out of Hope. Every living being in the Shadowlands started out in the same shadowling form, then got more complex as it grew. After several evolutions, it would ultimately start thinking, speaking, and using tools. Let a flightling grow long enough, and it would become a shadowbird or shadowangel and migrate to one of the aeries to join civilization.

Peter had asked if he could have some vegetables instead. There was wood -- and therefore trees -- in the Shadowlands, but Hope had said there were no plants edible to full-grown shadows. Once Peter realized the implications of this, he had nearly thrown up.

"Hope-cat not know what to say. There no other food. Peter-cat not better without eat."

"I know." Peter looked away guiltily. "Please, cook it. You're right. I've got to just deal with it."

"Peter-cat never say," Hope said, staring at his bag. "Why Peter-cat not want eat flightling? Peter-cat tell Hope-cat about chicken, is same."

"Doesn't it ever bother you that you're eating something that could grow up and talk to you one day?" Peter asked. "Chickens don't do that."

"Flightling not talk. Is same."

Peter sighed. "I'm just trying to answer your question. It's the principle. God says all human life -- everyone with a soul -- is precious, from the moment He breathes life into it. It's a mortal sin to murder people, or anything that can grow up into a person."

"Peter-cat talk of king again --"

"Is silly. King is silly," Peter interrupted. "I know. That's the problem. It's all supposed to make sense! But it doesn't, not here." He took a deep breath. "Look. With all the kindness you've shown me, shadows have to have souls. Okay? And God's omniscient and infallible, so the rules He wrote down apply to every person He created, everywhere across the universe, including here. Right? So why would He make a rule that's impossible for shadows to follow?"

"Do not know," Hope said wearily. "Peter-cat, king make no sense. Tell Peter-cat not eat food. Has whole book of impossible rules. Peter-cat say king love everyone, but he big scary. King send Peter-cat away, but never say what Peter-cat do wrong."

Peter sat in silence, feeling the words tear through the remaining scraps of his faith.

"Hope-cat sorry," the shadow said, sitting heavily on the bed. "Hope-cat not understand. Hope-cat not have answers Peter-cat wants."

Peter leaned back and stared at the ceiling once more. "Neither do I, Hope," he said faintly. "Neither do I."

News: Sorry for the delayed update again -- and on the first day of the brand new Monday/Thursday schedule, too.

To make up for it, I've made this post a long one: nearly double the usual size. That should tide you over until next time, when Peter's questions about faith come to a head.