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The Witching Hour

On an ordinary evening, Tal Aivon was lively and pleasant. The collection of longhouses and yurts within its tall brick walls shone bright with kerosene – not just torches, real kerosene – and its communal meeting area was noisy with conversation and song. The children would be playing their games, and on the eves of holy days the Lorekeepers would chant their stories of the Lost World, accompanied by lyres and the town’s one decaying gyitar.

Tonight, though, a pall lay on Tal Aivon. The six gates of its tall brick walls were barred and shut, and foreboding warriors dressed in odd combinations of Kevlar and steel armor stood just within them, brandishing their swords. Families locked themselves in their yurts and longhouses, huddled around little kerosene lanterns. In the temple, the priests knelt before the stone idols of St. Christ and St. Mahomet, chanting plaintive prayers for protection.

“I still don’t understand,” Meical Dorn complained, from inside the longest longhouse “what this is all about. “None of the wildlings are anywhere nearby – I should know, I’ve came through two hundred miles of forest to get here – and the only three towns in this area are at peace with you. In Great Rabda, even an impending attack couldn’t make us cower inside like this. I have half a mind to think there’s something you’re not telling me, Fin. Something that might…threaten our deal.”

Fin Lerisas, Chief Lorekeeper for Tal Aivon, sighed. “Nothing that would threaten our deal, Meical. Great Rabda has gold. We have sunblessings. Just stay here long enough for our bankers to figure out the price, and you’ll have timers and mathers and lighters of your very own.”

Meical glanced longingly at the Chief Lorekeeper’s own sunblessing, a timer that stood on the shelf of his private room. 1:52 AM gleamed on its face, with an maddeningly smooth red glow unlike sunlight or moonlight or firelight. Yet Meical knew it was sunlight, or something like. He was the Lorekeeper of Great Rabda. The Lorekeepers of Tal Aivon were far wiser than he – how could they not be with the town’s close proximity to ruined Diteroi and its trove of artifacts from the Lost World – but even he knew how sunblessings worked. You took them outside and the blue tiles on their surface fed on sunlight. Then they worked various miracles. Timers would tell you the time far more precisely than any sundial – invaluable in keeping the schedule of sacred prayer decreed by St. Mahomet. Mathers would add and subtract quantities more quickly than the fastest savant. Lighters would shine at night without wood or kerosene.

Meical had no doubt that the Lorekeepers of Tal Aivon – the wisest on the Great Peninsula – knew of still other sunblessings, ones that mighty but lore-deficient Great Rabda had never heard of. He himself would be happy with anything – even the meanest timer. Of all the millions of wonders built by the Lost World, only the sunblessings still worked, and they were in fiendishly short supply. While lore-rich Tal Aivon had a timer upon each of its six gates, Great Rabda, for all its bountiful gold and grain, had not a single sunblessing to call its own. As its Lorekeeper, it would aid his status immensely if this trade mission was successful and he could bring something back to demonstrate the power of the Lost World and, incidentally, his own importance as keeper of its Lore.

But even his greed for power did not override his concern for his own safety. “I’m serious, Fin. I want to know what’s going on. I can’t deal with a city that won’t even tell me why it’s on high alert.”

Fin Lerisas, Chief Lorekeeper of Tal Aivon and wisest in ancient matters on the whole Great Peninsula, gave another sigh. “If you were not a Lorekeeper yourself, I would not sure such secrets with a foreigner. But if it threatens the deal, very well. Only know that you will be no happier with this knowledge, and that you may not sleep quite as soundly on autumn nights from now on.”

Meical gave a nod, indicating he wanted the old man to continue.

“In Great Rabda you have no sunblessings, and so you must keep the time like wildlings, by watching the course of the sun. Here in Tal Aivon we have six timers, one on each of the city gates, and so everyone down to the meanest peasant knows the time, down to the second. To most, they check the time when they enter the city, and the time when they leave the city, and they never think any more of it. We Lorekeepers are more astute, but not infinitely so. And so it was only forty years ago, in the time when my uncle Derech was Chief Lorekeeper, that we noticed” (and here his voice changed to a whisper) “that there is something wrong with Time.”

“The stars,” he continued “sometimes match the time as told by the timers, and sometimes they do not. At first we thought the flaw was in the heavens themselves, so perfect are the devices of the Lost World. But this so discomfited my uncle that for three months he sat in front of this very timer, handing it off to an acolyte only when he slept. And one night, his watch bore fruit.”

“What happened?” asked Meical, breathlessly.

“Time moved backwards,” said Fin.

“Impossible,” said Meical.

“It was on this very night,” said Fin. “Time, which three hundred sixty four days of the year moves only in one direction, suddenly jumped backwards. And you yourself will witness it.”

He pointed to the timer on his shelf, which now read 1:59 AM. Its red glow suddenly looked unfriendly, even eerie. Even though Meical knew it had to be sunlight at its root, it held none of the wholesomeness of the sun.

And then it changed. 1:59 turned to 1:00.

Meical gasped, and his fingers instantly formed the cross of St. Jesus and then the crescent of St. Mahomet. “Madness!” he whispered.

“Something,” said Fin, “is wrong with this night. It is not always this night – it can come as early as three days before, or as late as three days after. My uncle worked out the formula after several years. But every year, it happens. Time jumps backwards.”

“But why?” asked Meical. “Why would the gods do such a thing? Why would they break the symmetry of the True Time and the heavens?”

“That’s the worst part,” said Fin. “When I was younger, I looked over my uncle’s formula – the one for calculating the day when the time skip would happen – and found what he had missed. The day of the time skip is fixed to the seven day calendar of the Lost World. To the ancients, it would always occur on the same day of the week. Sunday. Their holy day.”

Meical felt his blood run cold. “That’s…some coincidence.”

“Perhaps,” said Fin. “But I don’t think it is a coincidence. The gods are just. They would not play with Time as children play with blocks, picking one up here, then putting it down far away. I think the ancients of the Lost World, the ones who could build the great glass towers, the ones who manufactured sunblessings, the ones who made Diteroi-That-Was – I think they took their magic and threw it against time, and broke it. I think they wanted to become lords of time itself.”

“But they failed,” guessed Meical.

“They created a single hour,” said Fin. “Of the nine thousand hours in a year, all but one were made by the gods, but one was made by Man. What stopped them from creating more, from creating an infinite number of hours, from becoming immortal by arresting the progression of Time? We will never know. But it is my belief that when they saw what men had done, the gods stopped them before they could do worse. Meical, I believe that is how the Lost World ended. A last ditch effort by the gods to save Time itself from the hubris of Man.”

Meical was silent. For all their wisdom, none of the Lorekeepers claimed to know how the Lost World ended. Surely the gods had pulverized it for some offense, but what sin could have been so dire as to doom those magnificent glass towers, those great black roads as smooth as water? Meical looked at the clock, gleaming 1:03 AM, and knew. Knew in his heart that Fin was right.

“There is a day in the very early springtime,” said Fin, “when an hour disappears. The gods are stingy. They would not grant the ancients their victory. What they did with that hour in springtime, I do not know. But their message is clear.”

Meical shuddered again. Like all the inhabitants of Great Rabda, he had told the time with the sun and the stars. But it had always been an approximation, not the to-the-second True Time displayed on the six gates of Tal Aivon. And so in their ignorance they had missed no fewer than two violations of Time, and it had fallen to the people of Tal Aivon alone to guard these terrible secrets.

“You ask why we extinguish our fires and pray this night. Nine thousand hours in the year were made by the gods, but one was made by Man. I cannot help but wonder what walks abroad, during the hour no god made. I cannot help but wonder what spirits awake on the anniversary of the old world’s death. When time itself stands stagnant, what sorts of things breed within it? I prefer not to think about such things. That is why for the past forty years, ever since my discovery, I have knelt with the priests in the temple, and joined in their prayers. With an honored guest such as yourself here, I thought to entertain you instead, to avoid worrying you. Now I see that thought was vain. Will you come to the temple and pray with me?”

And so on the longest night of the year, Fin Lerisas, Chief Lorekeeper of Tal Aivon, and Meical Dorn, Lorekeeper of Great Rabda, knelt in the temple and prayed to St. Jesus and St. Mahomet that time continue, that 1:59 AM be followed by 2:00 AM just as it always had in the past, and that the people be forgiven the sins of the Lost World, which had dared to change Time itself. And lo, at the appointed hour the six clocks on the six gates of Tal Aivon showed 2 AM, and the people rejoiced, and the kerosene lights were lit and the city of Tal Aivon was lively and pleasant once again.

Three days later, Meical Dorn left Tal Aivon minus the gold he had brought but with a sunblessing of his own, a beautiful slate-gray mather that would have the engineers of Great Rabda dancing with glee. They had offered him a timer instead, a beautiful digital timer that even played short tunes at different hours, but Meical had refused. He bore a secret that need not trouble the people of Great Rabda. They would have a mather, and calculate things lightning-quick, and never know that there was a flaw in Time that even the gods themselves could not resolve.

But until the day he died, every so often on chill autumn nights Meical Dorn would look up at the stars and shudder.

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29 Responses to The Witching Hour

  1. Typhon says:

    This is a damn good story.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thank you (and everyone below). I am bad at responding to compliments but I do appreciate them.

  2. PlumberOfNazareth says:

    Post-apocalyptic fantasy with a sprinkle of Lovecraft. I like it.

  3. Roman Davis says:

    I wish you posted in a blog format with thumbsup/ stars/ ratings/ karma. Posting to say ‘this is a really good piece of writing and shows that I have a lot to learn as a writer,” just makes me feel dumb and banal. Shared it on facebook, though. As Typhon said, it’s damned good.

  4. Joe says:

    Great story! Reminds me of the French Revolutionarys tried to impose a ten day week. Apparently even the farm animals groaned about the blasphemy. You got writin skills!!

  5. Ryan Reich says:

    I laughed aloud when I figured out where that was going. Thanks!

    • Paul Torek says:

      Not only is the story drop dead gorgeous, it makes much more sense than the actual history.

      We will all get to say “I knew Scott before he was famous”.

  6. Harvey says:

    I see you still have that spark for interesting fiction. I wish I saw more of it. It’s always been this amazing.

  7. MugaSofer says:

    I guess I’ll join the crowd of people applauding and generally using the comment system as a substitute for upvoting.

  8. Is this in the Raikoth continuity?

    • Konkvistador says:

      You haven’t been reading closely. It is clearly set on Earth. Did the Yurts throw you off?

      • More the aesthetics of naming. Plus it could be some kind of hybrid Earth-Raikoth hybrid, and I was thinking about telluric fields.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Good eyes. “Tal Aivon” is Livonia, as mentioned below, but it also uses the Raikothin city prefix “Tal”. I’m not sure why I did that except that using a pre-existing conlang makes things easier.

  9. Alex Mennen says:

    Great Rabda: Great Rapids
    Diteroi: Detroit
    Tal Aivon: ??

    • Jim says:

      Meical Dorn: Worf

    • Joshua Fox says:

      Following the Michigan theme, Tal Aivon = Livonia. It’s an almost-anagram, which Scott seems to like — viz the title of the blog.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Wow, good job (and same to parent above). I was not expecting people to pick up on that.

        • Andy says:

          I picked up Detroit, being someone with a passion for post-apocalypsii, but I missed the others, since I’m not familiar with the geography of your frozen tundra.
          *stares out at warm Los Angeles autumn and feels deeply lucky*

  10. Mary says:

    The horror of that hour!

  11. Avantika says:

    I do love your fiction. I wish there was more stuff like this.

  12. Andrew says:

    That was very good.

    I’ve always been a sucker for the hook of taking a normal and banal piece of our culture and exploring how alien it might look to an outsider.

  13. Anonymous says:


  14. Doug S. says:

    I once read a short story (“The Boy Who Lost an Hour, the Girl Who Lost Her Life” by Ian Watson) about a boy who doesn’t set his clock back and ends up out of sync with the rest of the world (everyone else has disappeared, except for this one girl who also didn’t set her clock).

  15. Nestor says:

    Heh, yeah, I have an old mobile phone without a SIM I use as an alarm clock and when the time went out of whack* because it was turned off I realized there’s no way to actually manually set it anymore, it just synchronizes with whatever atomic clock the ancients have left ticking in an ancient salt mine.

    * It was confused about the hour but the minutes were accurate, it has since realigned itself with the universe, on it’s own. I find the way mobile phones increasingly do things on their own slightly unnerving.

  16. Berna says:

    Great story!

  17. Amazing story. But alas, I would not be moved to comment if not for sharing a nitpick:

    “If you were not a Lorekeeper yourself, I would not sure such secrets with a foreigner.”

    ‘sure’ should surely say ‘share’.

  18. David Gerard says:

    So the clocks cached their (very) last copy of TZDATA?

    (I used TZDATA and Wikipedia to explain to a non-techie just precisely how gaffer-tape-and-string the plumbing of civilisation actually is.)

  19. Anonymous says:

    A good story. Reminds me of the story about the reaction of WW2 GIs in Britain
    to Double summer time (the clocks were moved 2 hours forward). Looking for a dark nook to make out with their girls they would cry ” Don’t it ever get dark in this darn’d country.”

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