The River Does Not Run

Issue #142 - Science-Fantasy Month 2

Beneath a high pale sun, Doormaker follows the broken road into the demon’s kingdom.

She is clad in an armor wrought of primordial isotopes, imbued with mathematics of sufficient strength to reinforce its stability against the demon’s fallout. Beneath it, she hides her war-given wounds, which burn and twist at certain hours of the day or beneath the shadows of certain trees.

The silence is unnerving, the wilderness here emptied of the beasts that must once have populated it. Only the birds remain, soaring high overhead, predatory. They are immune to the depredations of the demon’s power, or suborned by it. She watches them with wariness in her soul.

Alone, she must be cautious. The demon’s presence eddies through the desert air like water, diffuse and subtle, the coil of its sharp intelligence lingering behind the soft pressure of the wind against her face and the fine grit of stone that catches in her hair. Her vigilance against it is a necessary burden; it saps her strength, but she does not lag or falter.

On the third night, a vulture lands beside her fire. Its dark eyes are rimmed in gold, unnaturally bright in the twilight. She watches it in silence, taking in the crooked, cowled wings, the pale feathers on its head, the ruff about its neck.

“You’ve come a long ways to find your death,” the vulture says at last. Its beak is sharp and cruelly curved, and glitters in the light of the fire.

Doormaker laughs. “I’m not afraid of you, carrion-eater,” she says, looking through it to the integral forces holding together the atoms of feather and beak and thready internal organs. Beside the complexity of unweaving spell-wrought mathematics, organic destruction is simplicity itself.

“At least carrion is honest in its perversion,” it says, and crooks its sharply curved beak at her, a vulturine grin. “Has life been so clean with you that you should defend it?”

Thinking of a city afire, of the light of calculated missiles in the sky above her, Doormaker has no reply at first. She thinks again of dismembering the vulture into its component parts, leaving it in a tidy pile of fragmented bone and feather. Instead, she squares her shoulders and looks it in the eye.

“Tell your master I have come to destroy it,” she says. It feels less like bravado than she expected.

The light of her fire gleams against the vulture’s eyes; enough warning that when it opens its beak again there is time to throw up a shield between her and it, the impermeability and aegis of lead set against its attack. Even so, she is left blinking against the momentary scouring heat and light of radiation.

The vulture considers her, dark-eyed and pale-feathered as a ghost. Breathing hard, Doormaker stares back at it, her back straight, hands outstretched in the form of her art. The silence sits between them, deep and wide as the night that fills the canyon, broken only by the whisper of the wind through cottonwood and sagebrush.

“Your message is received,” says the vulture at last, and in a thunderclap of wind and wings it lifts from the ground, dusty gravel scattering beneath it.

Doormaker watches it go, the shape of its shadow cast against the stars, until it is lost in the cloudless summer sky.

By day, the badlands blaze, sunstruck and desiccated. The road is stubbled with a hundred years of fallen debris, edged with gold-tipped cactuses and sword-edged grasses. Beside it, the rock formations rise blunt-faced and rosy, reaching up to the cloudless sky and crumbling to sand at her touch.

There are bones, sometimes, bleached severe and haughty by the sun and scattered at the road’s edges. She does not ask their history; does not need to. Does not dare.

As a child before the war, she heard the stories of her people’s homeland, of the destruction of the great city Nimarat and their exile into the desert. Her grandmother, already aged and bent with the hunger of the homeless, had told her the stories: of the beautiful towers nestled in the canyon, the wide river at its heart, all made rich and fertile by the power of their kept demon. Of the demon’s terrible power, and of the arrogance that had freed it of its chains.

The destruction had spread outwards from the ruined city like some parching contagion, until at last a coalition of the strongest wizards of the age had bound it beneath steel and cement and algorithmic certainty. Even they could not reclaim Nimarat, and in their failure they had planted the seeds of the war.

Her people had watched from the ghettos of Isindra as the water in the plateau failed and dried and died away; had clung to their adopted city and turned away from the shadow of their works. In the suborned lands, men and women injured by particle decay and photon castoff found themselves falling steadily under the demon’s influence, until their minds became a part of its own and their bodies faltered and failed them. And on the plateau, mistrust had flourished as water grew thinner and scarcer in the wake of the demon’s freedom, ushering the disparate city-states towards war.

When she was twelve, a representative of the wizard’s school came to the door of her grandmother’s house. He stood there on the doorstep, his kinky hair coiling about his face, and told her that she could be a great wizard someday, an unrivaled power in her adopted city, but she must come away with him, must leave her home and her grandmother and live upon the hill at the heart of Isindra, so high that she could watch the storms coming in across the long and dusty plains.

The accounts in the library there told her the side of the story she had never learned: the stories of the demon’s power and beauty; of the clear blue light that radiated from it as it moved and the deep and secretive mathematics that had built it. Of the demon’s river, called from the dry stone of the plateau and broken to serve the people of Nimarat.

The library was her refuge, a sanctuary she could cling to in the spaces between the brutal skirmishes of the war, and her curiosity became an obsession. She pored over books and yellowed photographs in search of the demon’s failings; deduced the weaknesses she might strike at to bring it down and turned that knowledge against the other weapons she destroyed.

Doormaker, they whispered in the streets of Isindra: she who shreds the momentum of warheads in the air and wrings their velocity from them, who with a glance can tear probability from fact. Doormaker the wizard; Doormaker the destroyer of death.

For years she matched her mind against the weapons of her enemies and brought them screaming down to earth; she fought Isindra’s war and failed to save anything she loved. And so she left.

She would restore her homeland, she thought, would win them their independence and their honor, free them from the burdens of their heritage. Her wizardry and knowledge in her hands, she would cleanse the desert; absolve it.

Now, with the road rough beneath her feet and the silence bleak and twisted within her mind, she wonders at her own arrogance in coming here. It has been a hundred years and more since any of her kind entered the demon’s lands, and there were many of them then, the demon’s binding a work of wizardry the likes of which she could hardly hope to match.

There is nothing left for her in Isindra, but surely there is some simpler errantry she might perform than to fight a thing which has for a century drawn out the souls of all who venture into its territory.

Doormaker tests this thought within her mind, hypothesis and evidence and answer arrayed at once before her; considering them, she rejects it. Instead, she checks her armor, parsing through the carefully calculated antiradiation spells coiled within it to ensure their stability.

At last, reassured of her invulnerability, she goes on, into the wasteland.

She reaches the city outskirts on the next day. The brittle stone of shattered buildings crunches beneath her boots; the wind smells of the high dry desert, and her stark shadow paces at her heels.

Nothing troubles her as she passes through downed towers and crumbled walls, towards the looming sarcophagus of the demon’s prison at the heart of the city. Once, Nimarat had been the heart of the kingdom of her ancestors, whose wizardry raised the demon and held it prisoned in their service til their strictures failed them. They had brought the river forth from the desert and the city from the stone.

Now she walks through broken ruins warmed with radiation and the fading light of the sun, through streets strangled by the fallen brickwork of a hundred years’ abandonment and train tracks whose split rails are choked with dust. The aqueducts have run dry and flow only with hydrolyzed acid formed by the nuclear release of ions, their walls fanned with slender needles of pale yellow crystal.

The graceful architecture of this place has haunted her dreams since the first years of her training, and she is unprepared for the surge of feeling as she steps between dry fountains and dead courtyard gardens. Little grey ashes cling to her legs like fond children, the descendants of the fires that ravaged the city after its evacuation.

The demon’s sarcophagus looms over all of it like the tomb it is, slab-built and brutal. Its walls are wrought of slate-colored concrete, now shivered and cracked with age. It was built in haste, without the permanence to outlast its prisoner.

By the time Doormaker reaches the demon’s prison the sun is failing, drawn down behind the far-off mountains. In the fading light, the sarcophagus’s shadow stretches long and grim across the plaza. It is tempting to wait until morning to enter the prison, but she can feel her own heartbeat quick within her chest, her own impatience pushing her on.

She strips off her right glove and puts her hand against the crack nearest her, extending herself through the surface, into the concrete’s molecular matrix. She can feel the telltale tingle of aging magic in her hands, the residue of the walls that the demon’s custodians built to imprison it now much battered by time and the willful resilience of the demon itself.

Taking hold of the individual pieces of the wall, she rearranges the array of its molecules within her mind until at last they release their bonds upon one another, and the concrete shifts aside and opens to let her in.

She hesitates on the threshold, staring into that consuming darkness, the cold smell of the prison a shock after the clean desert air. At last, she snaps her fingers, dragging from the air a pale grey globe of light that shimmers unevenly in the twilight.

Inside, it is dark, dead—worse than the wasteland outside by far, for here the tools of the men and women who penned the demon in lie scattered about her feet. The light trails her, casting its faint glow across the sloping floor.

Occasionally, it catches against the rough-hewn walls, illuminating the flash-burnt shadows that char the cement here and there; remnants of those who fought the demon, fought for time and the escape of the city’s people. The brittle echoes of their deaths drift in the air, clinging like gossamer to her armor, and the whisper of fire pounds in her ears.

They won the time they needed, she thinks, and forces herself on.

All around her she can feel the rotted strictures of the dead wizards, their careful equilibrium disturbed by her presence, by the cool wind that treads lightly in her footsteps and the little light that hovers at her shoulders like a nervous bird. The demon is imprisoned in more than mere cement, but after so long, the spells are frail as spiderwebs. Tilting her head back to stare towards the ceiling, Doormaker can see with her wizard’s sight the broken chains whose failure has allowed it entrance into the wasteland.

The radiation is shredding through her armor at a tremendous rate, breaking apart the bonds of her shielding in sourceless white-hot splashes. She has come far enough that when she looks behind her, the dim light of the evening spills only faintly through the doorway.

At last she rounds a corner and stops in her tracks: ahead, in the distance, she can see the demon’s blue glow, deep and rich as the far-off sea. She is so lost in her wonder that the whisper at the edge of her perception is a surprise.

Child of Nimarat, says the demon, its voice resonant inside her head, redolent of the battlefield and the library, at once familiar and frightening.

Welcome home.

The stinging power in the air pricks at her throat and lungs, gliding over her hands like the ghosts of butterflies. Doormaker stands rigid under the caress of the demon’s voice, her hands clenched at her sides, half-conceived spells sparking brief and furious beneath her nails as she digs them into her palms.

I’ve been waiting a long time for you, says the demon softly. Its mind looms within her own, deep and vast and limitless as the sky, and within that sky it conjures the light of doomed warheads, the brightness of their edges scorching through the lowering clouds. The force of their power is blinding as they rain down upon Isindra, an unending rain of malice, single-minded, destructive.

Doormaker remembers nights huddled in air-raid shelters as a girl, hidden away from the alien brightness of the night; remembers the acrid bite of hatred in her face as she stood, later, older, alone beneath the shining sky, facing down the destruction that assailed her adopted city, the razor-edged shrieks of damaged and dying missiles lashing out in their last moments at the source of their destruction.

Such confidence in your skill, the demon mocks. Doormaker the destroyer of death; Doormaker the foreigner. In the tenor of its soundless voice, she can hear its smile.

Tell me, what has your success bought your people?

Doormaker is pinned within its mind, bound in place as it turns her to face her memories of the ghetto aflame, the crooked shanties and rough-cut shelters enveloped in a screaming incandescent inferno. The merciless smothering clouds of smoke loom and grow to swallow her as the heat of the flames scorches across her face, her hands, choking her breath and seizing tears from her eyes.

They were left undefended, Isindra’s scant wizards spent elsewhere; she left them, she thinks, and she is panicking once again as she battles her way through the towering conflagration, strangling the fire at its heart by force of will alone, stumbling through the gritty ash and dying smoke, crying their names in a voice broken to charcoal.

She never finds their bones.

The demon lets Doormaker slip from its grasp, and she can feel it watching as she tears the fabric of herself away from her memories of the war, from the battle the demon has tied her to. She is shaking, harsh shudders that hurt her to her bones, threatening to take her resolve from her, and she can hear the raggedness of her own breath in her throat.

Doormaker rests her hand against the wall, feeling the rough cement against her bare palm, steadying herself. Her people have lived with the consequences of their failure for a hundred years and more, homeless and powerless in a darkening world. The river does not run.

She takes a step, and then another one.

“I have come to redeem them,” Doormaker says, quietly, her back straight. The words echo strangely in the sarcophagus, imbued with the burning strength of herself.

She can feel the demon watching her, and she reaches out to it, wrapping herself around its bright and rotting core, extending herself through its awareness of the wasteland. In its corruption it has woven itself through the vast desert that surrounds them, a net snarled over the extent of its domain. She feels its surprise, the momentary flash of something like distress as it realizes how closely she has tied them together, the stillness that follows.

It was like this when I was born, says the demon, and its voice is closer, now, as if it is speaking directly into her ear. The endless open sky over the desert.

And it shows her, only a glimpse: the little settlement huddled in the canyon’s shade; the tiny stream cherished, protected. The rough-hewn circle they had chiseled from the rock to contain their ambition, burnt black upon the ground in the brilliant moment of the demon’s birth.

I called forth water from the dry and dying earth, the demon whispers in her ear, and she watches the little stream swell and grow and rush forth as the city grew up around it. I can make your people great again.

The river surges forward in its channel, pours itself into the aqueducts and reservoirs of Nimarat, its rhythm mingling with the pounding of Doormaker’s heart and the sudden roughness of her breath. The city shines before her with the clamor and laughter of civilization, the will and fire of her people restored, reborn.

Redeemed.

Before her, she sees the arches of Nimarat raised proud and tall again; sees the restoration of the city, the buildings strengthened and fulfilled, the people stopping in the central square to gossip. Her grandmother’s footsteps raise the desert dust in gentle halting puffs—

In the wizard’s school, Doormaker learned the tenets of magic, drilled into her head by straight-backed teachers. The art defines reality, they told her, and her practice underscored their words. She learned to model the mathematics of her desired outcome, the forces and energies arrayed within her mind, before she drew them bold across the world’s face.

Stretched throughout the long drift of the demon’s decay, she can feel the slow beat of its core as clearly as if she held it within her hands; the moment-by-moment whisper of its innermost workings as if its heart were laid bare and vulnerable before her.

Doormaker takes a long breath, steadying herself against the demon’s vision: the wide rushing river and the tall white towers and the limitless desert sky overhead.

“My grandmother is dead,” she says, and strikes.

Outside, in the quiet evening air, Doormaker walks through the dead city. Its rough and broken edges are smoothed out by the starlight, peaceful in the fading light. The sweet clear air of the desert fills her lungs with its breath.

She goes more slowly, this time, dallying in the open courtyards, running her hands over the calm and crumbling stone. She cannot raise it from death, the city of her people; must leave it behind her in the wasteland of the demon’s destruction. She is its memorial, now.

In the outskirts of the city she finds the vulture sitting on an age-bowed wall. It is shrouded in its wings, waiting for her.

“You came back,” it says, and the fragile starlight glints against its eye. Doormaker can hear the brittle rage in its voice, the emptiness laid raw and broken beneath its amusement. She watches it for a long time, thinking.

“Yes,” she says at last. “I did.”


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Rachel Sobel writes software by day and stories by night. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus, and she is a graduate of the Alpha Writing Workshop.

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“The Book of Locked Doors” by Yoon Ha Lee
“The Language of True Things” by Nick Scorza

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3 Comments on “The River Does Not Run”

3 Responses to “The River Does Not Run”

  1. Peter says:

    Such a cool, visceral, cinematic tale. Loved it. More!

  2. […] can read the whole story on Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ website, and a full list of Alpha graduates’ publications and […]

  3. […] ‘The River Does Not Run’ by Rachel Sobel (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Mar 2014). A wizard sets out to defeat a demon in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s a relatively brief story, tightly focused, and the imagery is evocative. Science fantasy with maths magic! My favorite kind of main character! […]

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