Five allies encircled a cauldron, watching as disasters played out across the surface of bubbling gruel. One moment, a wave of Nonemyr berserkers clad in bone armour and swinging ice-headed hammers descended on a golden army. The next moment, bat-winged lion-creatures fired their tail-spikes at a centaur cavalry. A thousand identical Witch-Princess Naomis charged the enemy horde, swinging black-flamed scornswords and singing choral enchantments of gleeful apocalypse.
“That looks like a bloody big army to me,” said Miles Lorimer, looking at the teeming soldiers, monsters and warlocks seething toward the shining regiments of the Gleaming Principalities. “Didn’t you say the Nonemyr is a single entity?”
“Nonemyr is entropy with malice added,” offered Bruyalle the Crafty. “It takes any form that serves its purpose. We showed up with an army, so Nonemyr became a bigger one.”
“But thanks to the infiltration team, the wind changed, and now it’s stuck as an army.” Jeralzine Stewpot traced a finger through the gruel, temporarily striking out a Nonemyr Draco-Brigadier until the image shifted again.
“My boys,” murmured Flopknot the white rabbit. “My beautiful, beautiful boys.”
“So now what?” asked Friedland the Mighty. “We’re stuck here in Dimension None while they do all the fighting?”
Jeralzine put an arm around Friedland’s broad, hard shoulders. “We’re right where Princess Naomi need us to be.”
Bruyalle leaned in from the other side to embrace Jeralzine. “That’s right. Together.”
Lorimer glared at them across the cauldron. “Together? I met the three of you an hour ago. Are we supposed to bond now, is that it? Forge a magical friendship stronger than hatred and chaos to overcome the forces of evil?”
“For the sake of the universe, I hope not,” said Bruyalle. “You’re an ass.”
Flopknot’s ears shivered as she pulled herself up to her full height, barely coming up to the humans’ hips. “No, Miles, you’re done. We needed your DNA as Overzone CEO to authorise an override on the portal safety protocols. You got us to Dimension None safely. Thank you. You don’t need to stay.”
“What?” protested Miles. “You’re forcing me out, just like that? But what about -?”
None of them ever learned what he intended to complain about. His spot in the circle was suddenly vacant. The scene in the stew shifted to show Miles, pointing at his watch and shouting as a gang of knife-waving gremlins skittered across the battlefield. The scene changed before they reached Miles.
Flopknot looked around at the recreation of a cosy palace kitchen, conjured from Jeralzine’s mind. “What matters?” she asked suddenly. “Nonemyr exists to destroy what moves us. What is that for each of you?”
Friedland the Mighty, the savage warrior who, bare-fisted, once beat a company of Dwarf excavators in their clan drill-suits, scowled. “You want us to reveal our weaknesses, rabbit? What sort of game are you playing?”
“It’s not a game,” Flopknot replied. “I’m asking the only important question left. What matters?”
“Family,” said Bruyalle, staring into the fire beneath the cauldron. Licks of flames reflected off her dark eyes. “Mine didn’t do right by me, so I left to see the world. I didn’t know I was looking for a replacement until I found them.” She squeezed Friedland and Jeralzine’s hands, flashing a wicked smirk at their blushes.
“Didn’t there used to be four of you?” said Flopknot.
“Voxxas was more of a business associate,” shrugged Bruyalle. “Pity he and Lorimer never met. They’d have got on well.”
Friedland looked at the hands resting on his, tiny compared to his spade-like mitts. “I was going to be an artist,” he said. “I was good too. Apprenticed to the portrait painter, Salini Gamliano.”
“The same Gamliano executed by Duke Balepaw?”
Friedland nodded. “The Duke took exception to my master’s talent for capturing likenesses. Gamliano was put to death, his works confiscated and his studio burned. I swore revenge and took up the sword.”
“So that’s why we took so many mercenary jobs in the Vale of Whiskers?” said Bruyalle. “You never said anything.”
“I didn’t want anyone else to carry my past for me,” said Friedland. “Better to put it in a box and lay it down.”
“I’ve dedicated my life to preserving the status quo,” said Flopknot. “Me and my boys, we saw to it the Princes needs were met, and in return they looked after us. Quid pro quo. I thought it was the perfect arrangement, until today. Today cost more than I could afford.”
Jeralzine Stewpot gestured around the likeness of the kitchen. “This is all I ever wanted,” she said simply. “This was a life with simple rules. Orphans at the bottom, doing whatever they were told. Stewpots.”
“Jerzy, that sounds miserable,” said Friedland.
“I’m glad we got you out of there,” said Bruyalle.
“But it wasn’t bad,” explained Jeralzine. “The kitchen masters watched me, they knew I wanted more. They put me to work doing everything until they knew what I was best at. What I most wanted to do.”
“And what was that?” said Flopknot.
Jeralzine indicated the cauldron. “I wanted to tend the stew. I wanted to make sure everyone was warm and had a full belly.”
Flopknot picked up a ladle and dipped it into a depiction of the Witch-Princess Naomis in furious battle. “Get a bowl,” she said. “Eat up.”
Friedland sniffed suspiciously. “Is it safe?”
“Of course,” said Flopknot, looking at Jeralzine. “Because it matters to her.”
Bruyalle asked, “Shouldn’t we be helping, not eating?” But she felt suddenly ravenous, and dipped a spoon into her stew.
“Nonemyr will erode the Gleaming Principalities,” said Flopknot. “It’s inevitable. Unstoppable. But Nonemyr draws its power to corrupt from Dimension None, and now we’ve contaminated Dimension None with Jeralzine’s compassion.”
Friedland gulped from his bowl. “Compassion tastes like carrots and barley.”
Jeralzine said,” But what happens next?”
“Who knows? A fair and just society? A collapse into agrarian utopia? The end of all Principalities?” Flopknot lapped stew from her paw. “Whatever happens, we’ll all need new jobs.”
This week’s melancholy tone is brought to you by the sudden and unexpected realisation that I’m going to miss these characters. Next week is the 100th Friday Flash Fiction story, and I’ll be going for a very different vibe.