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Infinite Ripples In A Single Pool

Priya Chand currently lives in the American Midwest. When she's not writing or reading, she enjoys martial arts, swimming, and naps. Find her online at priyachandwrites.wordpress.com.

Dragons are the most magical beings of all. Neither you nor the king consider what this means when you put a spear through the throat of the last dragon, and it chokes to death on its own hot fire and acid-tinged blood.
In the last and therefore most perfect universe, you walk through a dappled glade, hands soft except for the nub on your left forefinger where your pen rests. The trees shiver, once, and you walk faster despite the blister forming on the edge of your pinky toe.
In the universe where you realized what you were doing after it was too late to stop, your charred body lies atop the bones of the country's best warriors, sizzling in the acid trickling out the dragon's side as she gasps her way to death. In his palace of crumbling stone edges, the king gnaws his already bleeding thumb and snaps at his magic mirror. "There cannot be only one Chosen One. Find me another. I command it."
In the universe where you were bravest, your corpse is buried in an unmarked grave next to all the other graves of the chosen children who refused to fight. The dragon swoops over the town, watching for those who would invade her forest, unaware that death is gnawing her belly in the form of unrealized prophecy.
In the last universe your rapid walk turns into a run and you curse your tardiness, seduced by one more chapter, one more book, in the great library among a thousand rustling readers. Here, everyone does as they wish, and here, it is--was--sufficient.
In the universe where prophecies are stillborn, your mother is too afraid to tell her husband of your birth, at the height of the goat moon with no warning, the tail that dropped from your spine when the midwife clamped your cord. You grow up in the woods, semi-feral, and when you are thirteen you come across a strangeness, a scent you follow back to its sulfurous roots.
You stand over the dragon's body next to the king, spear steaming where it's stuck.
"What are you waiting for?" he snarls, but you cannot hear him over the sound of your splintering consciousness, the blots in your vision where thousands of you have been dead for so long, the fading red wash as the dragon sears your skin, over and over and over. Seeking relief, you focus on the only place where the fire is inside your body--
In the last universe, your sideburns and the soles of your feet throb in time with your ragged breath, and still you run as the edges of this glade begin to uncurl, the smell of ash--of humans--rising.
What was the point of killing all the dragons? you wonder, dully, barely able after a lifetime of obedience to pull your thoughts into the shape of a question. The carcass is sprawled across the king's crops, and nothing will grow here ever again. He will take land from the peasants, already struggling on rocky soil, the magic of the kingdom all sucked towards the center. Towards you, your bones like steel and the skin that cannot be burned, courtesy of the king and his wizard.
In the last universe, you-the-scholar reaches the center. You can't waste time but you have to gape: a mound of jewels, uniformly sized rubies scintillating in the light that makes it past the trees, a huge mound--and as your brain slots the shapes into their correct places you realize they are all one with the jagged spines at the top, the scaly head turning towards you.
Something burns on your cheek. You realize it's the dragon's acid, and panic freezes your body, sublimating when you realize it's a small hole in the spell, a hole the size of a salted tear, and the rest of your body is safe so long as you do not cry.
The king watches you, first stiff then relaxed--fatigued--and says, "The spear should be safe now. Take it."
You obey. Of course you obey, even though tiny holes burn both your cheeks, dripping towards your mouth.
The scholarly version of yourself bows deeply. "I needed to speak with you," you tell the dragon.
Her head extends on its long neck past your face. "This was always going to happen." Her voice sounds exactly like the voice of a pleasant older woman, if tinged with foreboding. Her mouth doesn't move, just her nostrils, sniffing the air.
"No. It's not fair," you say, wishing you'd paid more attention in oratory. (It's the universe that's closest to perfection, there are still gaps.)
"Why?"
"You'll, you'll"--,
"Die? Every living thing dies." Although her reptilian features remain unmoved, her tone suggests a gentle smile.
The smell of ash grows stronger.
In the universe where you are most persuasive, a tall woman whose skin has strange red undertones moves into your city room, away from the palace compound. You arrange a job for her at a nearby tavern, to learn what society demands from this form you've convinced her to wear.
One day there's a barfight, and while these are ubiquitous, two of the participants have a blood feud, and the dragon-turned-woman has forgotten she no longer has scales, and catches one of their long knives in her gut.
In the last universe, you say, "I don't care."
The dragon snorts. Her eyes close and she takes a long breath, smoke sidling out the corner of her mouth. "It's almost here, you know."
Your knees shake. First you cared about the magic inside her skin, but facing her, she is a work of art. You don't want her to die, and soon you will realize you should want this even if she weren't magnificent.
This universe, and the other universes, begin folding in on each other.
You consider running, but this is the epicenter, and it's always been too late.
The wizard healed your minor wounds when you returned, but you can still feel the wind blowing through your teeth, skin thinning as the millions of corpses you are in millions of universes retreat towards yourself.
You punch your bathroom mirror and savor your ringing ears. You seize the glass shards with bare fingers, but the spell is in your bones, writ over and over since the king took you in as the child of prophecy, handed over by parents you can't blame for foisting a hungry mouth on the one who takes half their income.
Something shifts in your gut.
It's a great unrolling, the universe's longest carpet, of memories you don't recall making: reading books, living in a world that has no conception of war, no unnatural deaths, where a dragon waits in a glade shrinking around her body, her immortality shredding at last.
You can see it, and this you--the most empathetic, if you'd been allowed to notice--does not reach out to try and stop it. Even though the fragments of universes like shattering plates break inside your skull, and you remember dying over and over until you have to press your hand to your chest to make sure your heart is still beating, and still it pushes through your senses.
Your last thought as you fade out is that you always thought you were chosen to kill.
In the only universe that always/now exists, you sit on your throne and squint at the carved wooden figures on the double doors of your hall, too enormous for the pallid light to reach. The figures are fantastical, dragons and magic and a society of endless harmony.
The guards have brought forth a supplicant, but rulers never look down, for subjects must know their place. Words of the king--your acknowledged father, dead without legitimate offspring--etched by repetition into your bones.
But there are other voices, the pieces of you from the places that once/never existed, scholar's knowledge and sneak's cunning and the bravery of the corpse. What the king did to you in the universes where he existed was wrong, every single time. He wronged many. Some are beyond amends, others are not.
Before the supplicant finishes her message, you raise a hand and send your corps north, to dig wells and build roads among the rocks. You order the supplicant--a peasant, who once had too many mouths to feed--to rise.
You lower your chin to look her in the eye and smile, gently.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 18th, 2022
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