I’m awake, but I can’t see anything. There’s a sickly taste in my mouth. Water splashes around my feet as I walk. I’m wading deeper. Liquid slides up my shins, my knees, my thighs. I gasp as it hits my stomach. I splay my arms as it sweeps over my breasts. It sloshes against my neck. I’m swimming.
Warm droplets land on my lips, I clamp them shut. My legs and arms stroke through the water, finding a rhythm.
The darkness disorients me. Everything is warm. It’s hard to tell where my skin ends and the water begins. It’s hard to breathe through my nose but when I open my mouth, water splashes in. It tastes bitter. I gasp and thrash my legs. My muscles burn with effort.
How long have I been swimming? How long can I keep going? My fingers dash against the water. Liquid splashes into my eyes. It stings. I want to scream, but if I do I won’t be able to stop. I gulp air, fighting to keep my head up. What if I drown? What if my skin peels off? What if I can’t see, not because it is dark, but because I’m blind? My teeth clamp down, slicing my cheek. The pain brings focus. I can feel. I am still me. I’m in my body. I’m breathing.
Then I see a light. It is dim and far off. The glow holds no comfort, it is too cold and white. I swim towards it anyway. After a long while I make out the edges of my arms, hauling through the water. The light is formless, submerged below the surface. I reach it, sweep my hand into it. It goes out.
Spots of white burn in my eyes. A sob escapes my throat. My arms and legs go limp. I can’t swim any more. Water gushes over my head as I sink. It burns me. I’m raw all over. My mouth flies open to scream. I writhe and flail my legs. My toes scuff through sand. I can stand! My legs judder under me like boneless blubber. Water cascades off my bare skin. I stumble forward and up a bank. I drop to my hands and knees, air coughing in and out of me.
Light grows beneath my fingertips. From the sand? I move my hand and inhale in shock. My skin glows with warm red light. The light spreads through me, warming me, burning away my weariness. Then it fades and is gone.
I rise and stare into the darkness. I spit the last of the sickly taste from my mouth. The drug has done its work. I remember everything now. I know why I’m here and why I braved the acid waters of this underground lake.
Something fierce and joyful condenses in my chest. I know the path forward though I have never been here before.
Sand compresses beneath my feet. It turns to rock. I stub my toe on the first step. There are 300. I count them. The steps flatten into a hallway. Then the sides fall away and I stop. The ledge I’m standing on plummets 30 feet to the cavern floor. I know this, though I cannot see it. Cool air whips through my hair, sweeping through a cavern of immense size. I hear the susurrus of thousands of lungs filling and emptying. This chamber lies far underground, opened but once in a generation.
I spread my arms. The glow starts at my feet. Voices catch and rise in the darkness. The red travels up my calves, my thighs, my abdomen. It warms my arms and breasts, my neck. The flush rises to my face, gleams in my hair, and twists into a crown of molten stone.
A roar of elation and relief crashes around my ears, reverberating around the chamber.
Two figures step from narrow paths in the rock face and drop a robe over me. Lights spring to life, illuminating a cavern that glitters black.
I smile and reach my arms to the people below. It is done. I have passed the ordeal of queens. I am eketeen.