One of the best parts of storytelling is crafting worlds to suit your narrative. This doesn’t just apply to speculative fiction; every story is, in a way, its own world. It’s a place your reader can settle into like a favorite chair – or an iron throne, depending on what sort of world you’re building. 😉
Today is the Winter Solstice, ie: Heartfire in the world of Catalyst Moon. This is the longest night of the year, when the darkness is at its strongest. After tonight, though, the balance of light and dark will tip again, and the light will return.
What follows is a deleted scene from Catalyst Moon: Breach featuring the myth of Heartfire. I chose to remove this scene from the final novel in favor of weaving the myth into the narrative at various points, thus allowing the reader to find the story in their own time. But there’s something to be said in seeing it all laid out in one go.
Enjoy, and stay awesome.
Kali toyed with the hem of her sweater, trying to remember how exactly the tale went, then took a deep breath and began. “They say the world was new. Back then, the gods walked among the trees like mortal men and women, though they were not mortal, of course. But they existed in much the same way as we do now. They quarreled. They laughed. They loved.
“They say Amaranthea, the goddess of all things bright, loved the god Tor. They say Tor loved her as well, deeply, and without reservation.” Of their own accord, Kali’s eyes flickered to Stonewall. He was watching her. She tried not to think about that and continued. “They say all was well for a long time…until the Laughing God saw Amaranthea’s light and wanted to snuff it out. The Laughing God dwells in darkness, you see, and wanted to shape the One’s world similarly.
“One night, while Amaranthea slept, the Laughing God crept to her bower and covered her. They say–”
“Wait,” Beacon broke in. “Sorry to interrupt, but I never understood that part. ‘Covered her?’”
It was Flint who answered. “He raped her.”
“He?” Milo said, frowning. “I thought the Laughing God was neither a man nor a woman, like the One.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Flint said darkly.
“Doesn’t it?” Beacon asked.
Flint shook her head. “The point is, the Laughing God violated Amaranthea. Her light faded. It doesn’t matter how. Now be quiet, frip, and let the mage finish.”
Kali had followed the exchange, but chose not to comment. “As Flint says, Amaranthea’s light faded after the Laughing God had finished with her. She lay alone in her bower for many days, such that the sky remained dark and the world grew cold. At last, Tor, having returned from a task that had sent him far away, came home to his love and found her in deep despair.
“’What has happened?’ he asked, dropping his traveling pack as he knelt beside her.
“Amaranthea, too stricken with grief and shame, did not reply at first, but his presence soothed her heart, and at last he coaxed the tale from her. Upon hearing her account, Tor’s face grew dark with anger and his fists turned hard, like stone. He rose from her side and strode away.
“’Where do you go?’ she called.
“He did not turn as he said, ‘To avenge you.’
“’I have no need for vengeance,’ she replied. ‘Please, stay.’
“But he left. He picked up his pack and journeyed far, all the way to the entrance to the Shadowlands, where they say the Laughing God lives. There, he–”
“Where’s that?” Milo interrupted. “The ‘Shadowlands?’”
“It’s not a real place,” Kali replied. “I think it’s a metaphor. Probably for the ‘darkness within,’ or some such.” Milo stared at her blankly, so she made a dismissive gesture. “It’s just a story. It’s a made-up place.”
“No, it’s real,” he said. “If it has something to do with the gods, it’s real.”
Kali fought the urge to roll her eyes. She had little desire to poke holes in the younger man’s beliefs. Likely, that would happen without any help from her, probably too soon. “Then it’s somewhere very far away from here,” she said. “May I continue?”
He winced. “Aye, of course. Sorry. Here,” he added, holding out the flask. “Your throat must be getting dry.”
She accepted; the whiskey burned her throat, but sent a pleasant warmth through her belly. She took only a small sip, then passed the flask back to him. Milo offered it to Sadira, who refused, though Beacon and Flint each took a drink. Stonewall did, too, after a moment. Rook declined. Milo didn’t drink any, either.
Kali continued the tale. “They say Tor traveled all the way to the Shadowlands alone, on foot, spurred on by the anger in his heart at what had been done to his love. They say he neither ate nor rested, only traveled until he reached the edge of the Laughing God’s home and bellowed a challenge into the black abyss. At first, silence was the only reply, so he called out again, urging the Laughing God to meet him in a fair and honorable fight. At last, a shadow seemed to separate itself from the darkness of the cave, taking the form of a woman with long, dark hair and skin the color of the deepest night.”
“Nox,” Flint whispered. Her blue eyes were very wide and round.
Kali nodded. “Aye. Nox came forth and beckoned Tor with her staff. But he stood his ground and met her eyes and said, ‘Where is your master? Where is the Laughing God?’
“Again, Nox beckoned Tor. Again, Tor demanded to speak with the Laughing God. The goddess beckoned him a third time. Anger had coiled about his heart like a serpent, but he kept his voice from betraying his feelings and instead held Nox’s gaze as he said, ‘I will go no further until I see your master for myself, so that I may avenge what was done to my soul-bonded.’
“He’d supposed that Nox would merely beckon him again, and so prepared to make his way forward without her guidance, but to his surprise, she relented. Nox bowed low and faded into the shadows. They say a voice emerged, then, a voice unlike any he’d ever heard. It filled him from the inside-out, turned his insides into ice and set fire to his blood. It was the Laughing God, whose words are ill luck to repeat and whose language is unknown to us now.
“But Tor heard and understood that the Laughing God had agreed to his challenge. All he had to do was step into the shadows, where the Laughing God promised to meet him in honorable combat. Though Tor had reservations, his conviction was strong as his blade, and he stepped forward until the darkness consumed him, utterly. And he…”
Suddenly it was difficult to speak, for her eyes burned and her throat tightened, and she had to clench her hands into fists to keep them from trembling. Why had this silly story affected her so?
“And he what?” Flint’s voice was soft, her expression rapt. She looked so young. Milo leaned forward intently, gaze fixed on Kali. Beacon watched her, too, as did Sadira. She didn’t look at Stone or Rook.
Instead, she took a deep breath to calm herself. “He was lost.”
Milo sucked in his breath and looked at his sister, who hugged her arms to her armored sides. “What happened, then?” he asked.
“Amaranthea found him, didn’t she?” Flint said, brow furrowing faintly.
Kali nodded. “But not for some time. Tor disappeared for a long while – some say days, others say decades. But eventually, Amaranthea came looking for him. She still grieved, but the thought of losing the one she loved was a worse pain than reliving her own grief in her mind, so she set herself the task of finding Tor. She knew his ways and knew where he had gone, so she journeyed far until she, too, came to the Shadowlands.
“They say she stood at the yawning chasm and looked into the darkness, gathering her courage, before she took a step forward. It was then that Nox appeared, holding her staff across the cave’s entrance as if to block Amaranthea’s passage.
“’Let me pass,’ Amaranthea said.
“Nox only stared at her with eyes like the void, then shook her head, slowly.
“’Please,’ the bright goddess said. ‘I have no quarrel with you. I only seek the man I love – my soul-bonded. Please let me pass.’”
“Again, Nox shook her head.
“Anger bloomed in Amaranthea’s heart. Anger for Tor, at what he’d set out to do so foolishly, so nobly. Anger at Nox, for hindering her path. Anger at herself, for not protesting more when the Laughing God had come to her. But above all of these was anger at the Laughing God, for rending her life so completely. Anger bloomed inside of her heart like the fire before us now, and she felt its power surge through her very bones.
“Amaranthea did not realize the light came from her until Nox reared back in shock, her dark face suddenly illuminated by an unfamiliar glow. Cast in such light, Nox looked older and more frail than Amaranthea had realized, and she felt pity for the other goddess. She glanced down and saw the bright glow burning from her heart – some say the light was gold, others silver, others say pink or red or orange, or all of them together. It matters not. Light poured from Amaranthea, illuminating a path through the Shadowlands. The bright goddess brushed passed Nox and went forward alone and unhindered.
“Time passes differently for the gods than for mortals, so we do not know how long Amaranthea traveled through that shadowed country. But they say it was long enough for her anger to fade; long enough for exhaustion to slow her steps and tug her eyes closed. She found no sign of Tor. She found no one at all–”
“No guards or anything?” Milo broke in. Flint elbowed his side and he winced. “Sorry. Shutting up now.”
Perhaps Kali should have been annoyed, but she could find nothing inside of her but pleasure at the knowledge that the story had captured the audience’s attention so fiercely. It reminded her of playing her viol to an appreciative crowd.
“They say the bright goddess met no others on her travels though the Shadowlands,” Kali went on, giving Milo a warm look to let him know she wasn’t annoyed. “But the longer she traveled, the more tired she became, and her light dimmed. The shadows grew thicker around her. The Laughing God’s desire had come to pass when she’d chosen to descend, for with Amaranthea’s absence from the world, all light faded and the shadows ran rampant.
“They say Amaranthea could feel the despair of Mara, Ea, Llyr, and all of the other gods. She could hear them cry out to her, ‘please return!’ Many times, she made to turn back. But each time, she thought of Tor, her soul-bonded, the love of not just this life, but all lives, and her resolve grew strong again. So she traveled. So her light dimmed and dimmed, and she grew weaker and weaker, until she crawled on hands and knees, groping through the darkness to take her next step.
“They say when her light went out, she collapsed, too heartsick to continue.
“But her hand, which had been extended to feel the way forward, touched something familiar: Tor’s traveling pack. Startled but hopeful, Amaranthea pulled the pack close and began to rummage through, searching for something that she might use. The contents had been crushed, as if under the weight of some heavy stone, so there was nothing but a single candle. It was enough.
“With a final burst of strength, Amaranthea lit the candle. It was a small flame, barely anything at all, but it drove the worst of the shadows back and revealed a trail of blood on the ground, leading further into the darkness. Despair clung to her for a moment, for surely Tor was injured – or worse – but she clutched the candle and began to follow the trail. It led her through the Shadowlands, into they very heart of the Laughing God’s domain. It led her to Tor.
“They say she found him lying at the gates of the Laughing God’s fortress. She thought him dead at first, until she marked the rise and fall of his chest; he was broken, bleeding. But alive. Amaranthea knelt beside Tor and tried to revive him, though she was certain the Laughing God would arrive at any moment and she was not strong enough to fight.
“’Tor,’ she pleaded, touching his face. ‘Please wake up. We must leave.’
“They say after some time, he opened his eyes and regarded her with wonder. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.
“’I came after you,’ was all she could say before a dark, echoing laughter filled the shadows around them, pressing down upon Amaranthea’s heart with dread. ‘Get up,’ she urged Tor. ‘We have to leave at once.’
“I cannot protect you,’ he said. ‘You should leave this place, alone.’
“But they say the bright goddess grew angry again at these words. ‘Enough of that,’ she said, helping him to his feet. ‘You are mine and I am yours. We leave together, or not at all.’
“He acquiesced and leaned on her shoulder, pressing his weight against her. The warmth of his body comforted her, so when the laughter came again, she was prepared. They say the bright goddess drew strength from herself and from Tor, and her heart blazed like the sun, shining upon the Shadowlands enough to cast them into light. They say she caught a glimpse of the Laughing God, who was not laughing now, in the moments before she and Tor hurried back the way she’d come. They say her candle was still lit, but it was love that showed them the way out of the darkness.”
Silence reigned for some moments until, to Kali’s surprise, Flint sniffed once, then swiped at her eyes, blinking furiously. “Ea’s balls, I love that fucking story.”