PRW Runner-up Tour: Rebirth by Kathleen Palm
Torches blaze to life as I step into warm white sand, my legs shaking with fatigue. My chest sighs with every labored breath. Ragged remnants of a tattered dress hang at my knees. I sweep tangled hair from my face.
How did I get here? Where is here?
I glance behind me into the deepest dark, like my past. For no memory of before this place exists in my mind.
A song twists through the air, bringing my attention to figures wrapped in cloths. Hope flutters in my heart. Maybe they know me.
A crowd gathers, faces shining in the firelight. Dark eyes glimmer from under worn cloths that cover their heads. Wrinkles spread from encouraging smiles. Children peer at me from behind parents’ legs, eyes wide with wonder and pale cheeks dotted with the rosy color of … love.
Do I know them?
As they grow closer, I open my mouth to speak, but press my hand to my chest, as I gasp, failing to form the question. A question in desperate need of an answer.
Who am I?
Their chant strengthens. “Darkness has fallen. Bring us light.” The words weave through the flickering flames.
Panic strikes as warm hands clasp mine. I quiver at their touch, gazing from one face to another. Faces that hold only kindness. They lead me to a path of stone lined with torches, the fire struggling to push away the black. People stand at the edges of the light, heads bowed and arms outstretched. Beyond them white rock walls stretch up, disappearing into the dark.
The place tugs at wisps of lost memories.
“We, the people of Geb, rejoice for you shall enter the dark to save us.”
The dark? My stomach knots in fear. I raise trembling hands to my face and gaze past the visible into the blackness that devours the world.
Save them? I don’t even know myself.
The crowd parts. A broad-chested man approaches, pulling the cloth from his head. Light hair, gradually darkening to blue, falls to his shoulders. “I am Hu. I shall lead your voyage.”
Warmth spreads through me at his voice. I swallow, forcing out words. “Who am I?”
His smile paints his eyes with glee. “You are the Light-bringer.”
A slight woman, with happy wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, offers a new bright yellow dress. “I am Sia.”
I jerk in surprise as she pulls the worn clothes from my body and slides the new garment over my head. I nudge it over the curve of my hips, relishing the fresh scent, the smell of hope.
Sia beckons me to follow. As we walk, people place flowers at my feet.
The sound of rushing water sends joy skipping through my heart. My pace quickens as a longing to join the water swells in my chest. “The river calls.”
Sadness glimmers in Sia’s eyes. “So it does.”
My breath hitches in my chest, a lump catching in my throat.
“Why?” I ask.
Sia bows her head. “You are chosen.”
“So you say.” My voice trembles with unease. Yet I cannot shake the draw of the river.
There is something I must do. A reason for my existence.
I stop on the shore, the people a silent mass behind me. A stocky woman kneels before me, her eyes shining in the dancing flames. She strokes my skin with a soft cloth, wiping away a layer of grime until my golden skin glows. “I am Heka.”
With a gentle hand, she cleans my face. Something tugs on my hair and I turn. A group of girls work their fingers through the knotted mass until my hair lies in a smooth sheet of bright blue over my shoulder. My fingers run along it until reaching the golden tips.
Torches light near the river as a wooden boat floats silently to shore — a plain craft with four bench seats and a large platform adorned with orange flowers and blue grasses.
Hu climbs to the white sand. “I present Set.”
Another man, lean and muscled, his eyes blazing. A jagged scar along his face makes me shiver.
Sia and Heka join them at the river’s edge then all four bow to me then take their places in the boat. I step back, fear crawling along my spine.
Hu reaches his hand to me. “Light-bringer.”
I spin, the need to run racing through my mind. “Where will the river take me?”
Hu steps from the boat and places his hands on my shoulders. “You will see.”
“Who am I?”
“A discovery meant for the journey.”
I stare at the river, its song winding through my mind, hypnotizing me. “One I am destined to take.”
Hu fixes his dark eyes on me. “So it is.”
“Why?” I whisper, fighting the inner force pushing me to the river.
“Without light, Geb and her people will perish.”
I glance over my shoulder. Young and old, the inhabitants of the world stand. Hope clear in their eyes. Darkness seeps into my thoughts.
Save them? I don’t know them.
Hu directs me to the platform, between four burning torches.
The boats rocks as Set pushes us from shore. Panic and fear twist in my belly, but the sound of the river soothes my mind, like a mother singing to their child. This is where I should be.
However, I am no one’s champion. Why should I save them?
I will search for answers to my questions. I will know myself.
The current catches our craft, sending it along its path. Hu, Sia, Heka, and Set stand by the benches. Their simple brown garb billows in the wind.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
Set turns and raises his hands high. “Into the deepest levels of The Afterworld.”
My fingers twist in my hair. “Who am I? Why do I have to save you?”
“Find the light. Find yourself.” Heka chants, her round face shines with strength.
All eyes fall on me. Pity lines their faces.
“Why me?” My fingers curl into fists. They know the answers. Why won’t they speak them?
Set’s dark eyes narrow, wrinkling the long scar tracing the side of his face. “Because you are chosen.”
“So you say.” Anger burns in my gut, mixing with my confusion and fear. I hold no memory of me, yet these people have deemed me their savior. “I do not know you or your legends.”
Set’s lean form tenses. “You will.”
Unease sweeps through me and I turn from the boat and its occupants, but beyond the ring of light, exists only darkness, threatening to swallow me.
Silence crawls out from the black and engulfs us.
My crew stands tall. Focused. Prepared. No worry creases their brows, only determination.
My bare feet shift on the wood platform, trying to keep my balance as the boat rocks, rising and falling. Worry plagues my mind. The questions continue to whirl in my head, demanding answers. I exist in a void of nothing and travel into the darkness of death.
“To find light,” I mutter. But not just that. “To find myself?” My hands clench.
Sia faces me, her face etched with concern. “You must bring light to the world. In so doing, you will learn the truth, you will know everything.”
I stare at her and press my hands to my sides, trying to control the shaking.
But I don’t want to know everything. I want to know me and why the desire to travel the river burns through me.
The wind whispers through the black… cold, uncaring.
“Entrance ahead!” Hu shouts.
A chasm looms, like a mouth of a creature waiting to swallow us. My heart stops and sinks into the pit of my stomach. The river churns, sending drops of water splashing onto my feet. My breath hitches in my chest as the darkness reaches for me. I fight the desire to scream.
Torches send flickering shadows racing across the faces of the crew. Their brows crease in concentration as they man the paddles. Their eyes shine with determination, not panic, as if they have traveled this path many times.
I stumble off my place of honor, swaying as the boat lurches side to side. My hands grip Hu’s strong shoulder to steady myself.
He glances at me. “Light-bringer, only you know the words so we may pass.”
“Pass through what?” I cry. My knees wobble.
Set laughs, running his hand through his hair, blue strands dancing in the breeze. “The gate into The After.”
The water swirls around the boat as my companions fight the current, driving us into the dark. What words? I can’t remember my name let alone words. Panic builds in my mind, blocking out all rational thought.
A massive green-scaled body ripples through the water. Waves crash against the sides of the craft, knocking me to my knees. My palms smack the wooden deck, a package sliding in front of me, pointed sticks and jagged rock edges peek out from under the cloth. Weapons?
“Light-bringer!” Heka’s bright smile appears before me, her hands resting on my shoulders as she helps me stand. “The words. Only you know the magic.”
My mind spins, but through the panic, a thought shines clear. I raise my arms. “Be calm and grant us passage.”
One by one, six giant serpents, each capable of swallowing our boat whole, slither from the water and coil upon the land, three on one side and three on the other. I glance at the bag of weapons then back to the beasts. As we pass, they shriek, and, when my eyes lock on theirs, they quiet. Struggling to breathe, I step backwards and sit on my platform. “How… did I do that?”
“You are the Light-bringer,” Sia says as she frees the weapons from their wrappings.
“I will not use those,” I reply, pointing a shaking finger at the long, stone blades.
Sia’s eyes meet mine. Her lips curl into a knowing grin. “We shall see.”
I pull my knees to my chest as we descend into darkness. The unknown lurks before me. Yet, I spoke the words to control the beasts. Maybe my memories and the key to my future lie within the black.
“The second!” Hu calls, the dark swallowing his voice.
I stand, squinting into the blackness.
The torchlight pushes into the space, touching upon walls that stretch up beyond the point of seeing. Slime oozes down the stones. Two massive wood doors, hanging between the structures, swing open with a croak. Hissing creeps through the air, crawling along my skin like icy fingers.
We float through the opening, the rock walls silent giants on either side. My crew crouches, their gazes fixed forward. With a whoosh, fire explodes around us. Shock races through my mind as heat brushes my skin. A clear thought tumbles from the dark corner of my head. I thrust my arms out, palms up. “Harm none.”
Continuous flames dance over our heads and lap at the edges of the boat, but the heat vanishes. Power tingles in my body as if my flesh will explode. Flashes of light flicker in my mind, sputtering as if trying to ignite a memory. As the fire dies and my mind falls silent.
I gaze at my hands. Confusion swirls in my mind. How had I done that?
“Be wary! The souls are drawn to the light.”
The shout pulls me back to the journey. Hu and Sia scramble to opposite edges of the craft, gesturing at the blackness. I turn. Dim light crawls over the shore, illuminating ghostly forms, wandering at the water’s edge.
“The lost ones,” I mutter. My breath catches as the knowledge leaks from the hidden corners of my mind.
“Yes, Light-bringer. Those who wander forever in the darkness of The After,” Heka says with a bow.
A splash sounds in the distance.
Hu grabs a paddle. “We need to move.”
I step onto my platform and sink to the floor as the others work to outrun the forgotten spirits, drawn to the light, needing to escape. If my memories remain lost, will I become one of them? One after another, bodies wade into the river, making their way to us.
I must learn who I am.
My fingers wrap around a paddle, and I plunge it into the water, pushing us to the next gate. Worry gnaws at my mind as the creatures close.
I gaze at the straining shoulders of my crew, those who will take me to my answers, wanting me to help them. But why should I?
Deformed hands creep over the edge of the boat. I suppress a scream as blank, white orbs that have forgotten what it means to see, appear. Mouths hang open in silent pleas. Whispers creep through the air, touching my ears and trailing along my jaw like unwelcomed kisses. My throat constricts, trapping a shriek. A paddle strikes with a sickening smack, knocking the no longer living thing into the water. Appalled, I stumble back, staring at Set, who delivers blow after blow until finally the onslaught ends and the third doorway is revealed.
“The Halls of Judgment,” Set whispers, narrowing his eyes at the scene.
Judgment? My mind trembles under the weight of the word.
The door slides up, clanking and creaking. Anxiety twists in my stomach. I pace my platform, glancing behind us. I could go back, I owe these people nothing. The force driving me to continue pulses in my mind. I gaze up at the door as we pass. Frustration prickles in the back of my mind. Save the world — a world I don’t know.
“The gates keep the kas from returning to our world,” Sia whispers. I glance at her, despair twists in my heart at the thought of existing as a lost soul.
Set’s raspy chuckle slips into the dark. “And the monsters are meant to keep the living out. Yet, here we are.” His arms extend, a fierce gleam lighting his eyes.
A faint glow flows over the shore where shimmering souls form lines. Waiting. Shuffling forward. Waiting. My nerves shatter and fall away. Everyone waits for something. For light. For answers. For a place in The After.
The faces of my comrades reflect the acceptance flowing from the kas. Someday they will stand in line, hoping to be shown salvation, fearing being trapped in the shadows. I can let them perish now, let the end claim them and their final judgment be declared. The lines fade from view, and Hu gestures ahead. Water crashes against doors made of bones. The sound of the water tugs at emotions buried deep in my mind, calling of life, of peace, of purpose.
Dark weaves through my head, around my heart. Yet my lip does not tremble. My feet set on the floor. “We shall pass into fear.”
Tendrils of smoke reach from the shadows and open the doors like giant hands. Silence flows out from the nothingness and clamps over my mind. Unease trickles along my spine. The torches flicker and die, leaving us in darkness. Heart pounding, I strain to pick up sounds of danger. Water laps at the sides of the boat. The scent of rotting meat makes me gag. A sudden scream sends shivers up my spine.
A cold wind sweeps behind me, bringing whispers.
Bringing doubt. At the end, I’ll discover that I am nothing.
Scrapes and shouts trickle out of the black as the crew searches for weapons, but fear cannot be beaten with stone blades.
A spark of strength burns in my soul, incinerating my doubt. The torches on the boat blaze to life. Black fingers retreat over the edge of the craft. I gaze down at a helmet, resting at my feet. Two glorious curving horns curl from the sides. I place it on my head as we cross the fifth threshold and travel through a fiery inferno.
My finger trails along the curving horns on my helmet. Strength flows in my veins. I could save the people of Geb. But why?
The sixth gate opens with a roar, exposing hairy beasts crowding the shore. Monstrous faces turn to us. Long snouts snort puffs of steam. Powerful legs propel them into the waves.
Hu raises his blade. “Protect the Light-bringer!”
Protect me? Why?I have done nothing for them.
Set’s war cry fills the dark.
The mass of creatures descends upon us. I step to the back of the boat. Claws slash. Cries of suffering and pain echo through the dim light. Blood runs into the river, tinting it with rage. Set attacks with fervor. Hu, Heka, and Sia stab and block, spinning in defense.
My mind fills with memories of pleas for help, prayers. A purpose. My purpose. Like a wisp of smoke, it hovers in my mind then vanishes.
My companions bleed. They put their hearts into every move.
Fighting for me.
The calm river suddenly churns, the sound calling me from the edge of confusion. A wave crashes into the boat, carrying us towards the next door. Monsters screech in frustration as the water rises, drowning them. My crew huff and puff from their efforts. Battered and bruised they had been willing to give their lives for my journey.
Sia plops on a bench, hope shining in her eyes. “We grow closer to the end. Soon you will remember.”
“You will save us,” Heka says, coming to Sia’s side and smiling at me.
My insides flutter at the way they look at me like a savior, but more. The women tunr to each other, checking wounds, sharing words of comfort… of love.
I know love.
A wall of water glistens in the light. The seventh gate. The boat rocks and spins as the current sweeps us into chaos, tipping our craft. Icy water engulfs my head in a rush of confusion. My companions gone in a rush of bubbles.
Familiarity of the pressure, the quiet dark pushes away my panic.
I began in water. Somewhere, long ago, the river had given me life.
I break the surface, gasping for air.
To bring light.
Light always follows the dark. I gaze down at my hands, glowing golden under the waves.
Power. My power.
The light flickers, illuminating a sleek, black body and reflecting in yellow eyes. My chest tightens as if the jaws of this new horror have already caught me.
“The boat!” Hu’s voice rises above the whirlpool. His hand waves to the wooden structure bobbing in the water.
“Serpent!” Sia yells.
Worry creates a hole in my heart as my companions swim towards the boat. Jagged ebony spikes break the surface as it heads for Sia. An ache settles in my heart at the thought of the light in her eyes extinguished forever, of the world without Heka’s smile or Hu’s protective spirit.
I stare into the water the sense of remembering growing stronger. The people of Geb. My people?
“Light-bringer!” Set’s voice booms through the darkness.
A huge reptilian head emerges from the river, mouth open in a hiss. Green venom drips from its fangs. A tail whips out of the water, crashing down on my right. Waves push me away from the boat, from my crew. My stomach knots in fear as it slithers through the waves towards me.
If I never complete the journey, I’ll forever be a blank past and a dark future. Anger burns through my heart, ridding it of doubt. The tail strikes again, a sharp spike slicing the skin on my arm.
I scream, the sound echoing off unseen walls.
Hands grab under my shoulders and yank me from the water’s icy grip. I tumble onto the boat’s floor as Hu and Set face the monster, weapons raised. Heka and Sia force paddles through the water.
“Stay down, Light-bringer!”
My gaze settles on the pointed end of a stick. Shivering, I wrap my fingers around it and pull it to my side. I slam the end onto the floor and push myself up. “No.”
I will fight, for my memories. Flames paint the tense jaws and determined gazes of my crew, the warriors, with flickering strength. I stand next to them, spear raised. My fingers curl and uncurl around the rough weapon as I shift on my feet. My heart pounds.
The serpent strikes. Sharp teeth snap. With mighty growls, Set and Hu swing their weapons. I step back. My arm throbs from the wound. Strange thoughts of pride at my sacrifice weave through my mind. Hissing, the creature brings its tail up from the waves. My chest tightens as I call out a warning, but Set and Hu don’t hear me and continue to jab at its eyes and dodge the monstrous jaws.
A surge of power drives me forward, weapon raised. As the tail descends, I push the two fighters out of the way and duck. Body shaking, I lunge forward and throw the spear. Sparks erupt as it hits the monster’s eye. Holding my breath, I glance at my fingers, the tips glowing gold again. Shrieking, the beast whips its head back and forth before sinking under the waves.
Hu and Set scramble to the side and gaze into the river. Triumphant grins spread across their tired faces as they grab paddles, and join in the effort to find the next challenge. Our frantic paddling settles into a powerful rhythm until the river’s current finds us. We collapse to the floor, breathing hard.
Set bows his head. “Our thanks, Light-bringer.”
His words warm my heart. I saved them. My head whirls with thoughts of protection.
Is this who I am?
“You’re injured, Light-bringer,” Sia calls, rushing to my side. Her hands reaching for my arm, but never touching.
“So I am,” I say. I wipe the blood away and press my palm to the cut. Light flares under my hand, and when I pull it from my arm, the wound is gone.
No shock or surprise registers in my head. I am forever.
I gaze upon the eighth gate, looming over us, anxiety swirling in my belly. “Something bigger waits.”
Hu’s eyes harden. Set weighs his blade in his hand as if he knows what we will face.
I glance at Sia, my mind working to free thoughts from the dark corners. “Twelve passageways through The Afterworld.”
Sia nods. “To find the light.”
“Find myself,” I add. Vague images of water and light do not satisfy my questions. Yet the journey becomes more. My desire for my comrades to survive sparks.
Light crawls across the next gate. A strange calm descends upon me.
I will find the truth. I will save the world.
The final piece of the puzzle. The elusive, unnamable force pushing me. My purpose.
A door made of shadow swings open with a whisper. We glide through the water tinted black by the hate of The After, kept inside by gates and monsters. The dark surrounds us, clings to the very air, our torches incapable of burning it away. As we pass to the next gate, evil thoughts penetrate my mind, stabbing and twisting their barbed fingers.
Once again, my mind finds the magic and a golden glow extinguishes the darkness from our minds. Once again, we pass unharmed.
This makes me happy.
The light touches the ninth portal, created by a mass of bodies. Sickly green skin covers bony arms. Joints creak and pop as the creatures shift, crawling over and under each other. Constant moaning trickles through the air, winding into my head and sapping my strength. Clawed fingers reach for us as we pass.
Set stretches his shoulders and settles into a strong stance. Anticipation ripples along my spine. Souls, once the people of the city on the shore, now twisted, bones broken at odd angles, warped by The After. I stand and stare.
I know this place.
Set points his blade at the shore. Creeping into the water, the kas fix their dead gazes on us. Heads snap from side to side on crooked necks. Mouths hang open in silent screams of desperation. Clambering over each other their pace becomes frantic, their arms reaching.
“They want the light. They think it will set them free,” Hu says.
But the light can’t help them.
The first to approach the boat loses its head as Set swings his weapon with skilled precision. Hu joins, cutting limbs from shoulders. My stomach churns as the stench of rotting flesh climbs into my nose. Heka and Sia jab the attackers back into the rippling water. The sounds of bodies smacking the water and grunts of effort mix into a grotesque song. I pick up a stone blade and it bursts into flames. Shock wraps fingers around my throat. I drop the weapon, which clatters to the floor.
“Help us, Light-bringer!” Sia pleas.
Her voice sets fire to a dark place in my heart, in my memory. The creatures creep into the boat, flopping over the edge. Falling to my knees, I plunge my hand into the water. “Sleep.”
The moaning stops. Twisted limbs straighten as the bodies sink beneath the water.
The boat jerks as the current carries us forward, leaving the horror of mangled bodies behind. Yet they will remain there, forever trapped in terror.
“Thank you, Light-bringer,” Heka says. Streaks of fear line her kind face and I resist the urge to embrace her, to take her from the fight. And not just her. All of them.
They love me.
Set’s ragged breathing calms as he bows his head. “Good fight.”
“The fight is yet to come,” I say, staring at a distant glow. Who I am, who I will become rises up from the darkness of my mind. I stare at the blade sitting by my feet.
“The Tenth,” Hu says, his words hold fear and worry.
I will save them.
Tall gates smolder as if forever burning.
I reach down, grasping the stone weapon in my hand. My mind clears. The path reveals itself. “Apep! I come for you, for the light!”
The door raises, the water underneath steaming. With a roar, fire races along the edges of my blade, but fear no longer lurks in my heart. The flames lick my fingers, but do not burn.
Light blazes before us. Golden coils of a great dragon line the shore. I glance at Set, shifting beside me, stone weapon held firm in his hand. My chest swells with pride in my companion.
I turn to the beast. “I know you, demon.” For I do. I have faced him before, so many times.
A massive head lifts. Three bright blue eyes fix on me. Fear weaves through my body, but instead of crumbling under the pressure, a wall of strength forms around my heart and mind. My breathing calms as I turn to my crew, my saviors.
“The fight is mine. The way is set. I go alone to bring light to you, my people, because I love you, as you love me.”
I jump from the boat, the water splashing around my knees.
“The river will take you home,” I call over my shoulder as I fight through the waves. “This isn’t good-bye!”
My gaze locks on the creature as it uncoils and wraps around me. The dark place of The Afterworld falls away, leaving me standing on a pillar of rock, fiery blade high above my head. A great wind cries in my ears and tosses my hair around my shoulders.
“I will bring light to the people!”
The coils spin faster and faster, blurring together. In a flash, the bringer of death rears his head. My heart bursts with strength. My power renewed by the fight, the journey — one I have taken before. I thrust my weapon, the fire blazing. White hot light pierces the space between Apep’s eyes. A great roar sounds as the creature explodes. I stretch my arms, basking in the glow.
Find the light.
I turn. A simple wooden door hovers in the air. The eleventh door. Meant for me.
“Find myself,” I say, stepping forward. The portal opens. I face a frame, holding a reflection of myself. Curiosity flutters in my mind as a scene unfolds. My mirror-self emerges from water, golden skin glowing brighter and brighter as I rise into the air. Born of the river for the people. My purpose.
Never anything before. Never anything after. It is always. I am always.
The picture fades, leaving darkness. I remove my horned helmet and set it on the ground where shadows sweep it away. A cap made of feathers appears in the air before me, a curved beak protrudes over my face as I settle it on my head.
My hands glow, the light spreading up my arms, to my shoulders as I become what is destined. My chest fills with life. I step through the frame, the final gate, my fear wiped away, my uncertainty gone. Feathers sprout from my back and I leap into the sky.
Forever, I have been. Forever, I will be.
I am the light.
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