In the village in the eastern foothills of the valley, with the mountains towering all around, the dusk lingered for hours and hours. Despite this, the residents, whether from an affinity for the twilight or simple frugality, preferred to wait until full dark before turning on any electric lights. Through the perennial evening eclipse, it was a valley of unbroken shadows that melded into one another in a barely distinguishable palette of blue, indigo, and violet. The shadows of the mountain crashed downward to break over the shadows of the trees, spreading outward to lap at the shadows of the streets and stores and houses and stables and churches. And like any deep water, this pool of shadows had unique fauna to swim in it.
The name of the town was Aquilonia, and the significance of that name was lost to nearly everyone who lived on the modern earth. But one American tourist, who had arrived by taxi when the sun was still high enough to shine light into the valley, came to learn its secret. And as the sun dipped down below the peaks, Judy Dark walked across the fields.
Three days ago, a small ship between Malta and the African coast reported a strange storm in the night that had threatened to capsize them. The dark clouds had covered the whole sky (how else would the stars be blackened so completely?), and the wind had blown fiercely (what else could cause such a terrible howling?), and the waves buffeted back and forth (why else would it feel, even to the seasoned crew, that the vessel were being raised out of the sea and thrown).
But Luna Moth's Dark-Adapted Eyes revealed a gash in the thin scrim that hangs behind our world. To her, the heavens were filled with an inky iridescence for miles that she followed northeast from the Eye of the Sahara to that small patch of the Mediterranean. She arrived barely in time to see, as clear as under a harvest moon, the behemoth push out of the sky, plunge into the water, and rise again with the ship in its grasp.
With the Cosmic Beams newly bestowed upon her by the Great Goddess Lo, she joined in battle. The sailors holding on for their lives had no way of knowing that the green lightning flashing outside didn't travel downward, from clouds to the sea but parallel to the ocean, from the areolae that burned at Luna Moth's wrist to the swirling core of darkness.
How strange this new power is, she thought, to feel strange after everything I've experienced!
And the creature must not have expected such a power either; a howl from horizon to horizon and it was gone, to mundane and supernatural sight alike.
Finding the beast again was not so easy; there was no further ethereal trail for Luna Moth to follow that night, though she cast far and wide for signs. When the sun rose, it was Judy Dark who continued the search. It's hiding from me, that much is clear. But how does it hide so well? Could it have recognized the powers I'm only just beginning to understand?
And so between the three nights of Luna Moth fruitlessly scouring the sky, Judy Dark spent three days uncovering answers in the places she had been away from too long: dusty libraries, back rooms of museums, and the private collections of antiquarians. Her new Cosmic Understanding, intended to communicate with creatures of other worlds, served well enough to let her scour the Italian news reports and Latin histories. And it all led her to Aquilonia.
Aquilonia was one of the great kingdoms in the forgotten ages of wild magic. It thrived alongside Nemedia, Ophir, and, yes, the queendom of Cimmeria, where the women worshipped the benevolent goddess of the night Lo. But like all of those great realms, its time passed, its people migrated or were overrun, its land withered, and soon, nothing was left but a small valley, with a small village, all but forgotten, yet plagued with periodic calamities. Only four decades ago, the town was leveled by an earthquake, but the people there still remained in the valley; they simply rebuilt, atrophied even further.
Aquilonia! It must be! But what could it be there now? Everything of Aquilonia has been destroyed.
But she knew she'd taken too much time; there were human souls at stake. She couldn't even wait for the night to manifest her full power. He hailed a taxi to take her there as soon as possible.
It was a long way by foot across the sward to the ruins of the old town, but because the twilight did not darken, Luna Moth could not take flight. Judy Dark removed shoes and let them in her left hand as she walked on the short grass. It was quiet, but not so still that she could not hear the wind, or the clicking of beetles, or the cry of a distant eagle.
This place, it feels so . . . natural. No cosmic disturbances or superhuman terrors have touched this earth in centuries. Was I wrong?
But even as she thought this she started to see that she was not alone. Though she could not mark its progress, the sun had not stopped its progress, and the gifts of Lo manifested. She did not know when it happened, that her this-worldly sight expanded to show the people walking with her, but there they were, all around her as she reached the shattered foundations of old Aquilonia. Women, men, children, even dogs and livestock were all around her.
Luna Moth had seen ghosts before, fought them, exorcised them: shriveled, slavering, blistering cold, with elongated limbs that twisted around the trunk of shuddering, shambling hate. They tore at the bodies of the living when they could and the souls of the living when they couldn't, and never let a moment cast that could not be spent in destruction.
But these ghosts were . . . peaceful. A contented peace that should not be possible for a soul still on this plane without a physical vessel. Is it the twilight, she wondered, that lets these shadows linger? She was no longer walking; she drifted forward barely above the ground so that the big toe on her right foot could graze the weeds beneath her. She passed farmers and bakers, children in Sunday finest and women in working clothes. She passed soldiers, some with bayonets, some with swords. Deeper into the foundations of the town, the clothing became rougher, though the fabric dyes were often brighter in the growing darkness.
She came to a wide hole, once a mineral bath that was part of a resort hotel, but was now empty. In it was a woman in long green robes holding a small candle. Luna Moth descended into the earthen pit, and now that the night had truly fallen, the small fire burned like the sun, casting everything beyond the two women into insignificant blackness. Luna Moth hovered in the empty pool. Shoes no longer in her hand, glasses no longer on her nose she was clad in the strange shimmering suit given to her by Lo, meant to protect her through the emptiness of the space between starts. The iridescent green was pristine, and it caught and toyed with the light of the flame before sending it off at wild angles. Across from her, the woman wore a robe made of rough wool, dyed a soulful green; its hem was frayed and caked with mud. Even the facets in the gems of her necklace were worn down, leaving the stones dark.
"Welcome, sister," said the woman.
"Is it true? Are you another acolyte?" Luna Moth asked.
"I am," she said, but added, "No. I was. But I have protected this place for aeons since the mantle passed from me to my sisters, to ultimately rest on your shoulders."
"How? How do you keep this place serene, even in death?"
The woman's laugh burbled all around the walls of the pool. "Oh no, dear child. It is the other way round. I was fortunate to pass my life here, and now it brings me peace, and help to protect this last scrap of the elder world.
"I know the creature you follow. It was birthed by the dark magicks of an Ophirian sorcerer, and I fought him in this valley in the Kingdom of Aquilonia. I killed the wizard, but banishing its horror took all my strength, and I fell here. It came here searching for its old master, but it we were waiting."
They were still in the empty pool, but the pool seemed to hold the entire valley, and the valley was filled with thousands of souls, and the face of each was illuminated by a candle. "We remember the earth as it was, as it has been, as it will be, even as the universe forgets. One day, all that will be left of Aquilonia will be a hole filled with shadows, but it will be enough to keep the world whole."
She reached out to offer the candle. Luna Moth reached out her right hand, that still glowed and thrummed with Cosmic might and wrapped her fingers around it. She felt the stickiness of the wax, and the heat of the flame, and power in her hand subsided so that she could feel her own flesh warmed in the cold night. She grasped it with her other hand. She felt the earth's pull once more and let it bring her feet to rest in the cool mud.
"You will be gone for a long time," said the woman. "Give a moment to remember."
"Remember earth's light," she said.
"Remember earth's shadows," she said.
"Remember earth," they said.
And Luna Moth looked up to see the full moon crest the eastern ridge of the valley, which was empty except for her, and her candle, and the memories of earth.