The Witching Hour

by Scott Alexander 6y3rd Nov 2013No comments

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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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