Two new Wanderverse contributions to share! As usual, both are freely released under the CC0 1.0 Universal license ๐ŸŽ‰

The illustration above is from "An Education," created by Angie, also known as @gnostiquette. In this vignette, inquisitive human Elm gropes toward grokking the mystique of those most beguiling creatures, goblins.

(Eventually Elm will conclude that he must meet the goblins firsthand, with explosive results. Granted, anything to do with goblins has explosive results โ€” they're simply that fond of blowing things up! But don't fret about context, "An Education" is fun regardless of whether you're familiar with the rest of Wanderverse.)

Angie also composed a rollicking soundtrack to accompany the story. Listener discretion is advised, lest the music rouse an uncontrollable urge to seek out goblin settlements! Tread carefully... otherwise you'll wander into a patch of stink-mines, and those devices are aptly named.

"So, what are you planning to teach me?" [Elm] asked.

"Oh, all sorts of things!" Rhyfedd's eyes gleamed. "You'll have to commit to an apprenticeship, of course, but this world needs true scholars. Otherwise, from time to time, people will just run into bigger and bigger problems that seem insurmountable to them."

He paused, then coughed, then added, "Of course, there's some rules. Firstly, don't bother me while I'm brewing and drinking my tea." He chuckled. "Secondly, there are stupid questions, but if you're here now, you're probably not the sort to ask them."

Elm glanced around again, and this time noticed a huge manuscript lying open on the desk. "What is this right here?"

"That," Rhyfedd answered, "is a question I was hoping you'd ask. It's my compendium of knowledge. All sorts of knowledge. I'm adding to it here and there all the time, so forgive that it's so loosely bound. Need to be able to insert pages and all."

"What does it cover?" Elm asked.

Folks, if you can believe it, that's not all!

Venerable scribe Sam Wilson offers three more chapters of the saga begun by "A gnome, her assistant, and the Nanomancer's apprentice." In this case you'll be somewhat lost if you don't read that dispatch first, though you'll probably still enjoy yourself. Without any further ado...

Chapter 4

"Turn it off! TURN IT OFF!"

"What? How? Where is the switch? What did you even do?"

The smoke inside the lab had grown so thick that even if Dennis had known what had triggered the fire, which triggered the alarm, which as he stumbled around, knocking alembics, flasks, and burners crashing to the floor, now triggered a chemical powder suppression system, he would not have been able to find his way to switch off the wayward machine.

Dana coughed as the potassium bicarbonate blanketed the room, suppressing the flames. "Dennis? Hey! Where are you?"

"Here," came a weak reply. "Hang on. Let me get the window." He spat, all but blinded by powder and smoke. "I knew this would happen," he muttered as he fumbled with the crank that would pivot one of the big plate glass windows open. "Not even five minutes and I burn the lab down."

The smoke cleared quickly, pouring into the upper reaches of the cavern. Dana ran a finger over a cryolite dissection table. "Oh man, this is going to take forever to clean up." She looked around. "You got a broom closet around here somewhere?"

Cleaning up was the last thing on the young apprentice's mind. "Where is the... the thing? The whatsit..."

"What whatsit?"

"The thing. The thing with the things. The holothingy." He pushed aside mounds of fine purple powder in a desperate search for the thing.

"Holo what thingy? Honestly, how am I supposed to help you if you don't tell me what it is you're looking for?" Not, of course, that even had he used the proper term would she have the first idea what the thing in question would look like or how it would operate, of course.

"It's a thing. It's got buttons on it."

"This thing?" She held up a data-slate and pushed the large red button on the front, centered just below the weathered display. A password prompt appeared above the device, hovering in air in front of her nose. "Oh, that's cute." She prodded it and seemed surprised to encounter no resistance.

"Hey, put that down." Dennis ran across the lab toward her. "Yes, that's it. Don't mess with it."

"Fine." She dropped it onto the dissection table. Dennis winced as it struck the chilled surface. "Whatever." She bent over to pick up one of the mechanical servants so that she could dust it off and get a better look at what passed for its face. "Just trying to help. You could at least say thank you, you know."

"Thank you," he muttered. "You can't be so rough with the equipment. Some of this stuff is hundreds of years old, you know." He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye as she peered at the homunculus. "You should put that down too. They don't like being held."

"Oh pish posh. You love it, don't you, little cutie," she made cooing noises at the thing before shrieking and dropping it to the floor. "That thing just bit me." She aimed a kick at it, but it had already scuttled off to resume its scheduled task.

Dennis grimaced as he logged in and navigated to the experiment registry table. He found the entries for Lab #3, filtered by current experiments, and checked the 'status' column. "Oh no."

Dana didn't like the tone in his voice. She knew that he was prone to doubt, worry, and anxiety. She knew that if there was a patch of gloom in an otherwise brightly-lit room, he would be the one to find it. So when, instead of the typical woe-is-me whine, she heard cold, focused alarm, she stopped hunting for the little robot that nipped her and paid attention to Dennis. "What? What's wrong?"

He didn't answer her right away, instead taking a pair of full face masks from a storage rack. "Put this on. Watch me and do as I do." He inverted the straps so they hung limply in front of the visor shield, fit the mask over his face, pulled the straps over his head and tightened all five in a particular sequence. He had to help her a little as she struggled to follow suit. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes," he could hear fear in her voice even through the distortion of the antique voice amplifier. "What's going on? Why do we need these masks?" She tried wiping the condensation from her breath away and seemed surprised and frustrated that it didn't work. "Mine's got smoke on the inside. I can't see."

"Breathe normally. The fog will go away." He pointed to a small storage closet that doubled as a decontamination station. "Wait for me in there. I'll just be a minute."

She put her fists on her hips. "I can't see a gum-flapping thing in this get-up, and if you think there's a chance in the Pit that I'm going anywhere before you tell me what's going on, you are sadly mistaken."

He ignored her and again activated the holographic display from the disc on his wrist. "No, no, no. Oh no. Not that one." Under his mask, his face turned as pale as a cave salamander's belly. "Come on." He grabbed her wrist and yanked her toward the closet hard enough to hurt.

"Ow. Hey." She protested, but followed along. It was unlike him to be this aggressive, so she knew it had to be serious.

He kicked open the butterfly valve for the drain, and pulled on the chain connected to the dry chemical antiviral nozzles. For the second time that day, the pair were doused in powder. "Keep your arms out and your feet apart." Dennis demonstrated, looking like a bedraggled, deranged starfish wedged awkwardly in the cramped room. He glanced over at the display hovering over his wrist and continued to read.

"How long do I have to stay like this?"

"Oh man," he said. "This is bad, Dana." As the last of the antiviral agent sputtered from the dispenser nozzles, he dropped his arms and looked around the room. "I think we're in big trouble."

"Dennis Marphillion Harald. You are going to tell me THIS INSTANT what is going on or so help me I am going to throw you out of that window." Dana struggled to keep her voice from quavering.

The window. A chill ran down Dennis's spine. He bolted back into the lab to find the window open to the outside. The virus. He dashed to the crank handle and spun as if his very life depended on it. The window groaned shut, admonishing him that he was too late.

The window was, of course, correct. The virus had escaped along with the smoke and was already merrily having its horrific way with every living thing in Solace Caverns.

Dennis returned to the decontamination room bearing replacement attire. "Here, put this on. We have to burn our clothes." He placed a crimson robe on a shelf. "Leave your stuff in here and I'll put it in the incinerator."

"Hey, wait," she objected. "Isn't that a little extreme? This is my favorite jacket."

"You like it enough to die for it?"

Dana huffed and pursed her lips. "No." She closed the door in his face and changed as quickly as she was able with the hindrance of the gas mask. When she emerged, she was cloaked in a finely-sewn burgundy robe with gold embroidery at the hem and cuffs. Since it was far too large for her, she had gathered up wads of the surprisingly comfortable material and bound it around her waist with a length of cargo strap. She looked like a child trying on her mother's bath robe. "Don't you dare say a word," she said to Dennis. "I know how ridiculous I look." She was holding the collar shut with one hand. "You owe me a jacket." She stormed out of the closet and sat down on a stool to watch one of the Nanomancer's little servants clear the fire suppression dust from a patch of floor.

While he was changing into a set of robes of his own, Dennis considered what to do next. The virus lab was meant to be impenetrable. The only way in was with the Nanomancer's gene-linked talisman and personal passcode. Containment canisters were resistant to shock, heat, radiation, and corrosion. No alarms had been tripped, nor had any of the lab constructs recorded any unusual activity. Now that he thought about it, the fire made no sense. Where did it start? If it caused the rupture in the sample canister, how did the virus escape into the main lab? If the fire had started in the lab, how did it spread into the secondary containment space? None of this made any sense.

He yelled through the door, "Hey Dana, see if you can find where the fire started."

Dana scowled, hopped down from her stool, and with one hand still clutching the collar of her too-big robes, began aimlessly prowling the lab, not knowing the first thing about fire scene investigation. "What should I look for?"

Dennis was not himself that much of an expert on the topic, but he was better at puzzling through problems than he realized. "Check for the worst damage. It probably burned the longest and hottest where it started." He too struggled with the girth of his robe, though the length quite suited his tall, narrow frame. As he left the decontamination room with a bag full of soon-to-be-incinerated clothes, he wondered aloud, "what should we do about shoes?"

"It looks pretty scorched over here." Dana pulled a small table away from an interior wall. "Near this metal thing."

Dennis tossed the bag down the chute and pressed the appropriate button. Gas belched and a ticking noise signaled that their ragged clothes would soon be ash. "Show me." He made his way to her. Sure enough, the knee-high panel was burnt and twisted, and the impregnated mortarplast above it was almost completely charred away, revealing the steel beams beneath. He peered closely at the damage, taking note of the burn patterns. "That's strange."

"Uh huh." Dana had spotted a crate of clean room slippers and was busy making makeshift shoes for herself. "What is it?"

"The burn patterns." He traced the charred wall with his finger. "They're identical on each side of the wall." He looked over to her and shook his head as he saw her donning her fourth pair of slippers. "If I didn't know better, I'd say the fire started inside the wall."

"Well, that's a relief," she said.

"In what possible sense could that be a relief?" He let a note of annoyance creep into his voice.

"Think about it," she said to herself as she took a few tentative steps in her makeshift shoes. She looked at Dennis. "No one's going to think you set the fire if it started inside the wall. It's not your fault. You won't get in trouble, silly."

The Nanomancer's apprentice suspected that her remark was not strictly true.

Chapter 5

Seventy-five hundred leagues or thereabouts above Gleneldershire, the battle convent Silent Rose hovered invisible, bearing witness to events unfolding below. Holy canticles uttered by the faithful sisters of the Order of the Penitent Thorn filled the control room, drowning the dull electrical buzz of the ancient and sacred machinery that kept the ship safe from the perils of deep space. Glow from the tactical holotable on the bridge cast the features of three battle-toughened nuns into harsh relief.

"Sister Evgenia, what is the status of the rift anomaly?" The tallest of the sisters was also the oldest. The lines etched into her face were those of one who has seen the turmoil of endless war rather than the kindly imprints of smiles or laughter. Her voice carried the stentorian tone of authority, accustomed to issuing orders under enemy fire. She had seen slaughter beyond measure in her time, and ceaseless conflict had taken its unforgiving toll on her.

"It is stable, Sister Neriah. Still holding at point four seven LAU, relative arc-bearing one six five, tack zero zero two. Tunneling positron scans show no sign of additional intrusions." Evgenia was the youngest of the bridge crew, having ascended to the rank of Rassaphore following the Bellephron campaign less than three standard months prior. "Still no IFF signal from the Red Calamity or her escorts."

Sister Neriah kept her eyes fixed on the display. The full nine hundred mile length of New Urland glimmered before her, from the radiation-blasted tip of the Cape of Good Cheer in the north to the rose tinted beaches of Whitehall in the south. She peered at tracking markers, hoping that one of the critical targets would soon reveal the location of the missing bishop. "Sister Meaux, what is the situation on the ground?"

"The assassin-operative reports that the antimutagen pathogen has been successfully released into Area C5 North." Meaux felt a tingling sensation run up her arms from the relay terminal on the display. The targeting computer was teasing her again. She grit her teeth and ignored the sensation. "The artillery specialist is now away from her post. Targeting systems calculate a sixty day window to complete our search before the regional defenses are restored." At her mention of him, the computer sent more electrical impulses up her arms, nearly causing her to cry out.

"Has Adept Morrock analyzed the schematics for that weapon yet?" Sister Neriah's eyes flicked to the spot representing the last remaining wraith cannon along the northern wall of Gleneldershire. She was concerned that the Adept would defy her orders and, citing some obscure centuries-old doctrine, make planetfall to secure lost technology on behalf of his bizarre (though, admittedly necessary) organization, then spend weeks badgering her about how he was not only legally, but morally in the right, and disobeying her unlawful orders was just and prudent, and that he would have little trouble in securing judgment against her in tribunal, and on and on.

Evgenia resisted the urge to correct the ranking sister. Adept Morrock was not analyzing schematics. Rather, he was attempting to reverse-engineer the weapon from what little they knew of its operational capabilities. No schematics for such a weapon existed in any administrative or ecclesiastical data warehouses that they could access. "The Jezeromites transmitted a large packet of data before executing self-destruct protocols. Decryption is still underway."

Sister Neriah scowled. All the necessary conditions to reveal the location of Magos Anatidius had been met, and none of the ship's planetary scanners could find any trace of him. "How long has it been since the antimutagen was released?"

Meaux checked the data display to her right. "Sixteen hours, Sister." The tingling persisted, coming in waves, making her slightly delirious. "The most heavily mutated residents should be experiencing recombinant organ failure by nightfall, local time." She tried in vain to control her breathing and heart rate. The fine hairs on her arms stood on end as the muscles in her legs began to twitch uncontrollably.

"Very well. Notify me when the Magos's apprentice flees the city. I will be in prayer." Sister Neriah turned on her heel and strode out of the room.

"Sister Meaux, are you ill? You look flushed."

"It is nothing, Sister Neriah. The GH-3770 upgrade to the targeting computer have been reacting oddly to my cybernetic implants. That is all. I will report to sick bay at the end of my duty shift for an adjustment." Sister Meaux felt tremors flood her body, and bit her lip to hold back moans.

Chapter 6

Kendra slowly opened her pollen-crusted eyes to reveal a vaguely furry face with a large reticulated trout wriggling in its mouth.

She sat up fast enough to pull a muscle, shrieked, wiped the sleep from her eyes, and put her wire-rimmed spectacles on just in time to hear a familiar purr.

"T.W. Saunders? Is that you?" She groaned as pain from her back started to register. "Burn my biscuits. What are you doing here?" She cringed as the chunky tom dropped the squirming fish in her lap. "You're meant to be back at the tower. What are you doing here, mister?"

Brent was just coming back from the treeline after performing his private morning business, saw the plump feline, and started to shoo it off. "Pss pss pss. Go on. Get on wiv yuh."

Kendra interjected. "Easy now, Brent. This is..." she looked at Mister Saunders, suddenly caught short how she might describe their relationship. "Well, I guess you could say he's my cat. From a certain point of view." The cat flicked his tail and sat with his back to the young human.

"Wot's he doing 'ere, then?"

"Excellent question, young Master Brent." She blinked a few times, then ruffled the fur behind T.W. Saunders's ears. "What are you doing here? You should be at home, you rusty old tom." She delicately set the fish aside. "Turn around, young man. I've got to dress for the day."

Brent blushed, then turned his back and set to rekindling the morning cook-fire. "So's it's fish fer brekky, Miss Kendy?"

"Aye. Did you see any tiptubes by the pond? We might fry some of those up. It would be a shame to dip into our trail rations so early."

"I ken go look, Miss," he said. "Do Gnomes like 'em big or little?"

"Little, please." She preferred the sweet, tender young roots rather than the tough, starchy mature ones. She had often thought it a pity that there weren't more wetlands near her station at the wall. She pulled her breeches and smock on and, satisfied that she was presentable enough for roadside breakfast, said, "there we are. I'm decent, young Brent. Thank you for being such a gentleman."

"Are you feelin' better, Miss? Yuh was a awful mess las' night, you was."

"Fit as a fiddle, thank you." She began attaching the array of tool-belts, bandoleers, and pouches required by her vocation. "Have you checked the dire vixen yet?"

"Jus' done now. They's good appetites."

"Well, that is a relief." With one hand, she drew a knife and began cleaning the trout. With the other, she withdrew a small travel journal and began taking notes.

Brent took note of the incredible ambidexterity. His studies had not included characteristics of the wee folk of New Urland, and he was so surprised that he nearly broke character. "By the gorm..." he checked himself, "blimey, how's yuh do that, then?"

"Fifteen leagues following half-rise departure," she said in a mutter intended for her ears alone, as she also said, "do what now, Brent?"

"Wuh, do to fings at once like that. You's is even talkin' two times at once. How's yuh do that, eh?"

"Ah, yes." She smiled, remembering how limited human cognition could be. "It's nothing, really. All Gnomes can do two things at once." She had to borrow her writing-hand for a moment to hold the filet steady enough to remove the bones in two swift strokes. "It's our brains, you see?"

Brent scowled. He most certainly did not see. "Wot 'bout it?"

"Like other mammals, Gnomes have two-lobed brains. We also have," she thought of how to simplify her explanation to make sense to the boy, "sort of a cord connecting the two sides, just like you, just like every other thinking creature in the land," she arched an eyebrow, "well, with a few exceptions." Some of the Duncroft denizens sported trilateral symmetry, and then there were the Lapulites, whose brain structure seemed to vary by family, if not by individual. Though to be perfectly honest, so few specimens had been closely studied, so no one really knew for sure. "That cord is called the corpus callosum. In humans, it's c-shaped, about this wide," she held her index finger and thumb apart, quickly realized that she didn't have the requisite span, then held both index fingers about ten centimeters apart. "You humans can't turn it off. Your brains talks to each other so much it's almost like having only one."

Brant scratched his head, sincerely puzzled. "You's is dif'rent?"

"Gnomes also have a corpus callosum, but ours is relatively small, and it's surrounded by a gland that allows us to block it from working. We call it Queemop's Gland, named after one of the most famous heroes of our kind." She refrained from mentioning that the particular Gnome in question enjoyed something of a reputation for ill luck and impulsive decision-making.

"Oh, yuh. I's heerd o' him. Broke a wizerd tower in a fars-off land, 'e did."

"That's right. That's part of the dual nature of Gnomekind. Our heroes are as infamous as they are famous." She aimed one eye at the journal and resumed writing. The other eye stayed fixed on the boy. "At any rate, Gnome brains can function independently when we want them to. That's not all. Listen: breakfast was fish, tiptubes, and mountain coffee, and the journey resumed before the sun was at two hands. Queemop's gland operates by releasing an anabolic protease that swells the tissues around the cord, restricting axons' ability to transmit electrical signals between Schwann cells without damaging the myelin sheaths."

"How you do that?"

Kendra grinned. Gnome double-speaking was a trait she had little cause to use over recent decades. Humans tended to find it unnerving. Moreover, she was a bit isolated up there on the wall. She got two supply runs a week, but none of the gofers on wall duty stayed on the job long enough for her to form anything resembling a friendship. Apart from T.W. Saunders, she was pretty much all alone.

Which, as she often told herself, was exactly the way she liked it.

"We Gnomes have two voice boxes," she said. "The lower on is down here at the bottom of the throat," she tapped the area between her collarbones. "The one I usually use is where yours is, here in the middle of the throat." She again tapped the appropriate location. "To speak with the lower larynx, I divert some of the air through my nose. My nose is more sophisticated than yours. I have a cluster of muscles and valves that let me form words the way a mouth does. Granted, it's much better suited to my native language than to humans', but it's yards better than what you tall folk can do."

Brent poked at the tip of his nose, cross-eyed. "Speakin' wiv yer nose, huh? Pretty fancy, Miss Kendor." He began arranging the dire vixen tack for the day's drive. "Why's you gots to do that anyhow? Ain't yuh's worried 'bout saying one fing wiv yer mouf and somefink opposite wiv yer nose?"

Kenrda laughed as she spooned a dollop of hagseed oil into the heavy skillet. "You mean something hypocritical?" The oil quickly liquefied against the hot iron. "I have lived among humans for longer than one of your average lifetimes, and I still find it funny how worked up you get about hypocrisy." The fish hissed and spat as soon as it made contact with the pan. "For Gnomes, it would be odd and somewhat awkward to agree with yourself. I only understand the idea of hypocrisy because I've spent so long living among you humans. Most Gnomes don't even recognize the concept." She added a sprig of coltsboon to the pan. "It's like how you think vulture feathers are plain black."

Brent scowled. "But vulture feathers are plain black," the boy said.

"Right! To you they are. Your eyes aren't adapted to see the broad range of colors mine can," she said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. Humans are a young race. You didn't have to hide underground after the Iocene event. You didn't have to survive several dozen generations with the glow of phosphorescent algae lighting the darkness." She slid a wooden spatula under the fish and with a deft flourish, flipped it over. "If anything, I should envy you."

Brent scowled, convinced he was being mocked for something entirely beyond his control. "Is that why you's so little? Because yuh lived in a cave?"

"Well, Gnomes weren't the only race to take refuge underground. The Elderfolk did too. Have you ever met one of them, Brent?"

He shook his head in the negative. "They's used to come fer the Allsmoot, but I hear Lady Jelspet say one day they's no more need for a 'basadore no more since they's fink thems muties up north is all spent out."

Kendra grimaced. That sounded about right. The arrogant Elderfolk retained ample disdain for the other civilized races of New Urland. Even the Common tongue transliteration of their race-name, Elf, was a bastardization of the first letter of their alphabet. They believed themselves to be the original and rightful inhabitants of the land, and that all other residents were, at best, a nuisance to be tolerated the way one tolerates a fussy child. It's likely that they rescinded their delegate more because they couldn't be bothered to consort with porcine humans than because they sincerely believed that the mutant threat at the Cape of Good Cheer had ended. "Well, they are taller than the tallest human I have ever seen. And rail thin, to boot." She sprinkled some salt on the filets. "I am sure there was some evolutionary pressure responsible for the diminutive stature of us Gnomes, though I cannot endeavor to isolate the specifics."

He pretended to not understand her increasingly cyanotic prose. "Eh? Wot?"

"Fish is ready. Hold out your plate." She slid him a generous portion of trout before helping herself. "Gnomes are short, and no one knows why. Same with the squat-folk. Gnome geneticistsโ€”those are people who study that sort of thing. They think that the squat-folk are descended from humans, the same way dire vixen are descended from the wild vore-fox."

"So wot does vultures look like ta yuh?"

"Sorry?"

"Vultures. Yuh sed they's not black. Wot they look like, then?"

"Oh my. Oh, how they shimmer in the sunlight. The leading edge of their flight feathers are augent, which trails down to a deep ulkite at the tips. They have horndraught bellies and their heads change depending on the viewing angle and time of day. It's quite striking, really."

"I dunno them colors." He was being truthful in that he could not see them. He had, of course, read about the visual acuity of the older races, and knew that to them, the visible spectrum sort of repeated into the ranges humans had access to, with the colors just above violet appearing as sort of a luminescent red, going all the way up to vibrant pearl-purple hues. He occasionally wondered if the biomancers down south in Whitehall could augment human vision to extend into the spectrum available to the older races.

"In a way, I think you should be thankful. Your ancestors never had to suffer underground like mine." She passed him the salt pot. "I mean, there's something about you big folk that seems to work pretty well. Look how big your empires are. Maybe all your fussing over your politicians being self-serving hypocrites is a blessing somehow. Gnomes don't find that sort of thing at all odd or distressing. Of course Lord Chancellor Pibble-di-bonklers is going to stuff his pockets while he's got the keys to the royal treasury. Who wouldn't? If you don't want him to, stop stuffing the vault with so much gold." She was talking faster and faster, a typical trait of her race; one that she had managed to keep at bay in recent years. "Gnomes make no secret of any of this. We limit how much the thane can collect in taxes, so we don't have to worry about the bursar's sticky fingers. That means fewer public works projects, and so our cities therefore remain modest compared to yours. Sure, we have mechanical contraptions everywhere you look, pipes and cables filling the streets and such. But we don't have vast empires. We don't conquer. The largest Gnome city I know of has fewer than ten thousand residents. Ten thousand is a modest population for an ordinary human township."

Brent soaked up a bit of the pan cracklings with a lump of trail biscuit. "Gnomeses mus' not have many babies, then." His tone was matter-of-fact, and it crossed his mind after he spoke that Kendra might have just seen him making a logical leap that his persona should not have necessarily been able to make.

Fortunately for him, she seemed not to notice. "Aye. Most of us are too busy. We don't bond in pairs or live together like humans. When we want to have children, we enlist the aid of a gorpettrievesmundungerlandder which is sort of a semi-automated lottery of sorts. You go to the office, fill out some paperwork about yourself and your ancestry, and the system matches you with up to five candidates. You then have three rounds of interviews, where you eliminate one or two matches each round. Ties are resolved by ritual stumpwhacker combat."

"Wot's a stumpy whacker?"

She held a hand above her head. "It's a springy stick about so long with a hoofcap mushroom attached to one end. The goal is to smack your opponent's mushroom off before your opponent smacks your mushroom off." She finished her meal and started cleaning the dishes. T.W. Saunders discreetly disappeared into the narrow gap between the luggage that had sheltered him on the ride so far. "It is a very silly thing to witness."

"You's ever done it?"

"Done what, a stumpwhacker bout?"

"Uh huh."

"Well, no. Not a real one. Not the mate-pairing one, that is. It's also a children's game. We had artificial stumpwhackers at school. There were even tournaments from time to time. I was never particularly good at it. I can be a bit clumsy." She looked up at him. "Used to trip over my own toes all the time." She smiled ruefully as she finished packing her kit. "I improved my agility eventually, but by then I was well out of school, and the war was on. I got drafted. No time for stumpwhacking when..." she trailed off, unwilling to open the dusty bin containing memories of war. "Come on, let's get the rest of this packed up. I want to get past Gobton by nightfall. If we make good time, we might be able to camp by the Etchlands."

"Pa tol' me 'bout them. They's is sacred lands. We's not s'posta go there. Fey folk live in thems fields."

"Pish posh, Brent." She tied the strap of her aviator's cap under her chin and lowered her goggles. "You're with me. The Gnomes and the Fey have an ancient compact. You'll be under my protection. As long as we don't cross the border, there is no need to worry."

Though Kendra did not know it, there was ample reason for the boy to worry. Perhaps not from the vicious tendencies of Fey creatures in defense of their ancestral lands, but reason nonetheless.

Next installment: "Nanomancing, Commence!"