by Dominic Deveny-Borg

When I was a boy, few people had commanded my adoration quite like Vensana Kresh. She had everything I desired in youth: prestige that brought nations to their knees, charisma that could charm the most cynical soul, and wealth that could rival mountains in size if gathered in one place. One of the most successful women this world had ever known. 

And now, I was pointing a gun in her face. 

“Sign this document—” I rolled the brass cylinder over “—and we can be done with this nonsense, and save your head in the process.” 

Vensana remained where she was, eyes closed, cross-legged in the verdant garden I now found myself in. A cumulonimbus cloud floated above us, an umbrella of vapor against the riot of sunlight. 

My heart was in my mouth. “Oi, genius. Didn’t you hear? The venerable Lady Kresh of Numinous Dynamics has graciously asked for her birthright. Your signature in ink is all that is needed. I say again: if you comply, you will be spared.”

Vensana’s meditative stance was resolute. “Spare me the honorifics—I named her Adalya; your lordly titles, your sprawling structures of etiquette and power mean little here.” She tilted her head. “But, do tell, what happens if I don’t play along with your petty games? Don’t sign what you ask of me?”

The words of Adalya,—no, her title was Lady Kresh—echoed in my mind: Four days I give you to return with either her signature, or her head. And if not hers, yours shall suffice.

I towered before Vensana’s kneeling form. My glare was so piercing she should have counted her blessings she did not behold it. “I don’t think you understand, lady. Your daughter wants you dead if you don’t sign this. You know, bullet through the brain? Skewered on a pike? All within four days to boot, and I’ve already wasted one getting to this shithole of a valley.”

Vensana, eyes still closed, waved a hand at the cigar-shaped, hexa-wing craft behind me. “Why so angsty? You must have enjoyed your trip here on your NM-42 “Hummingbird,” no? Soaring through the clouds like a god of age-old myth? I know the sound of my four-stroke engine anywhere, the feel of that crank shaft spinning about a dignified axis. Those things don’t come cheap. Did my daughter lend you it? She always boasted such a cultivated vehicular menagerie.”

It was true, what she said. It was Vensana that had designed the first four-stroke combustion engine, something that had garnered her the admiration of the world. When she had disappeared to this valley weeks ago, talk of her disappearance had been on millions of lips across the continent, printed on newspapers, broadcasted over radios, gossiped about in the spheres of Ienoian high society. Hell, her weathered facade even flickered upon new screen-machines they called televisions. 

All that fame, all the power, and Vensana had decided to abandon it all. Which is why I was here. Her company cannot go without its head, and the law demanded ink must be shed in order for ownership to be transferred from mother to daughter.

And if not ink, blood would suffice. 

“Spare me your blabber,” I said, tapping the bronze cylinder with my foot—it contained a contract inked by Lady Kresh herself—”I will give you a final chance: will you sign, or not?” 

Vensana pushed the cylinder away with her foot, “Unfortunately for you, I can no longer be owned by ink or contract. I refuse. Apologies, really.” 

“You refuse?” I feigned a grin. “Oh, I see, I must have misheard. Surely a luminary, a genius, wouldn’t answer so poorly.” 

Vensana chucked. “My my, you are keen. Do tell, how much exactly will you be paid for this little errand?”

“The lands of the former aristocracy, enough coins for several lifetimes. When it comes to your generous daughter, nothing is off the table.” 

When I had first come here to become a rich man, to this “Valley of Silent Understanding,” a land studded with ancient temples and enclosed by high mountain ranges on all sides, I had expected a quarrel: Surface-to-air missiles, blinding flares, saints preserve me, the woman could have armed herself with a bow and tried that out. I heard she was a fan of archery.

Some form of fight at least. This was Vensana Kresh we were dealing with, after all. 

Instead, I had found her in a garden in a state of peace, amongst the bright flowers and buzzing insects sporting one too many pairs of wings. When I had first laid eyes upon her, part of my brain had believed I had stumbled across the wrong woman. Vensana had paraded throughout the continent for years, clad in fine velvets and silks, wearing tall hats as she accepted scientific awards, opened new factories, and made public demonstrations that had thousands flock to catch her ephemeral attention. I had attended all I could, for a country boy. 

And this woman, garbed in what essentially were old rags, was hardly the same as all that. Bravado gone, hair bound, that eternal, knowing smile nowhere to be seen. A creature, goat-like, bearing four, swept-back horns with a bell around its collar, milled about behind her to boot, even now sniffing at the humid air. 

All my life, I had wished to meet her, Vensana Kresh, Mother of a Million Wonders. And yet, if I had explained the conditions of our encounter to my childhood self, who had stood atop shoddy boxes to peek above endless crowds as she passed by, that boy would have thought I was cracking a joke, and a cruel one to boot. 

“I am neither the paparazzi nor one of your fossil-like colleagues; I will not be denied due to your flagrant musings!” 

Vensana scoffed, “I said no: Has the clanking cacophony of the smog-choked cities dulled your senses?”

I reddened, made to respond. 

“Wait, don’t answer that. Even I ask silly questions with apparent answers.” 

She must have heard my teeth scraping together; she opened her eyes, blue as the sky above. They widened in surprise, “Trent Gupin comes into my backyard? The very “Bastard of Blacktown” himself? Saints preserve me, my daughter is truly going all out.”

The younger part of my mind squealed. I ignored it and held my pistol closer. “Do not flatter me. I ask again. Will you choose the easy path, the logical path? Or shall I have to bloody your fine flowers here? Believe me, I am fine with either.” 

Before I could react, she pulled the gun barrel against her brow. “Do it then. Riddle me full of holes so I resemble the fine form of Yeshi cheese—my, my, that is good stuff.”

“So you are mad, are you?” At least I’ll be paid a bucketful by the newspapers for this gossip. 

Vensana clicked twice, and the goat-creature came forward and knelt beside her. She stroked its barren-white fur. “No, I am not mad. Not quite, at least. But the difference—in your mind—may be too abstract to notice.”

My finger hovered above the trigger. “Why are you here, lady? Abandon everything you’ve ever achieved? Millions would kill to have what you had.”

“Is that why you wish to slay me? Foolish. So fixated on the mountain’s peak you forget the view around it.” Her gaze became distant, wandering up to the faraway clouds. “Here, alone, I have found a truth that extends beyond all others. A truth that cannot be granted through riches or power alone.” 

“Which is?” 

“No word in our language—or any other, for that matter—can encapsulate its majesty.” 

The cumulonimbus cloud hovered above us, winds whispering. 

My gun was quivering. “Listen, I’m not here to muse fucking philosophy with you, understand? It’s either your head on the line or mine, and seventy-two hours aren’t going by without a decision made.” 

Vensana inclined her head, a few strands of grey hair coming down around her face. “Then we have much time.” She patted the ground beside her. “You have a fire within you yet. Good. Just like my daughter, you are.” She held out her hands, palms heavenward, “You have come all this way, may as well make good use of it. There is so much to learn in three arcs of the sun, moons and stars.” 

Had Vensana Kresh just invited me to be by her side? My eyebrows fell low. No, shut up. Remember the job.

“I am a veteran of over half-a-dozen conflicts, and I have dragged victory screaming by the throat from every single one. You really think this will be different?” 

“The war you now face is not one of flesh and blood, blade and bone. Your weapons are useless.” 

“Care to bet on that?” I cocked the hammer. 

She smiled. 

Kill her, you cowardly idiot! 

I knew that voice. It roared for blood as men grovelled on the battlefield, clawing at my clothes as they begged for mercy with a gun to their forehead. I heard its bellicose demands when women clutched their progeny to their breast and wept for me to spare them. The voice, delighted when it had its way. When terror was shed so thick you could smell it, taste it in the air. 

Yet now, those deafening demands seemed ineffectual. Vensana Kresh, this woman, this total fucking enigma, exuded none of the fear it enjoyed so much; she seemed to delight in approaching death, if anything. 

My legs grew heavy. A ticket to riches was brushing against my fingertips. Everything I ever wanted and more. I could not afford to let it go.

Why did I hesitate? 

“Who are you?” The words came from my lips, unbidden. 

Vensana gazed at the sky. “Come with me, Trent Gupin. And together, we can learn the answer ourselves.” 

Vensana led me inside her home. As a child, I had seen grainy images of her old workshop back in Ineo: a miniature warehouse of prototype wind turbines, batted steel wings, and early iterations of her famous “Jumping Sparks Engine”. Her desk had been an afterthought, sequestered in a far corner.

Her current abode was far simpler. 

Apart from a modest kitchen, a mattress, and a wall-spanning window, the place was empty. Vensana offered a meal as I observed her space. Goat’s milk (I think?) and rye bread were on the cards. 

My first thought: did she wish to poison me? 

But, the old woman’s face had been remarkably calm, and I can detect betrayal like an owl could spot a mouse twitching in a field of snow. 

I sat, and Vensana delivered the meal. She wasted no time devouring her own. “You like the place?”

I prodded the bread. “I guess.” 

“Once the domain of this valley’s abbot.” She swallowed, expression tight. “He left long ago, probably found some good, honest work in one of those hives of smoke and steam we call cities. Fena, Tikreo, hell, maybe he even set up shop in Nearlek-on-Sea.”

So, now we’re doing small talk? I sipped my milk. Yes, keep her occupied. Unaware. “Clergy, in Nearlek? Doubtful. That place is a den of fools either sowing, stealing, sucking cock or slaying sods—I’m happy I was just doing the lattermost.” I paused. “I did anything to get by after the Chrysanthemum Wars; we were all just former soldiers tossed away like broken toys.”

“Guess you’ve made your way up in the world, eh?” A smile tugged at her lips, but her eyes didn’t sparkle. “But no. I hear disgruntled priests have established a few printing presses in such a dishonest city, crafting picture books of old tales forgotten by most—Bessy, Luminous Lord, how do you keep doing that?” 

I turned, to see the goat-creature had moseyed inside; apparently, that shoddy excuse of a door couldn’t restrict much. 

“She’s a darling, really, if a tad lonely.” Vensana took her by the collar and pulled her back outside. “Few of her kind remain. Centuries of sacrifice for divine insight can attest to that. I believe they called them Monads; mad fools…”

As we consumed our fill, I kept my pistol on the table. I probed the handle once sated with my meal. 

“Uh… when did you arrive here?” I said, distracting myself from the sun that was now beginning to creep towards the horizon. Gods, what are you even saying? 

She shrugged, “Days, weeks: simple spans of time forged by minds obsessed with systems, with the analytical. I care not for such petty labels now. They are but simple constructs, measuring rods in a landscape so much grander.” 

What the fuck am I doing here? I should have been hurtling away at this very moment, her head in a bag and my mind scanning through the catalogue of mansions available for purchase on the golden hills overlooking Fena. “Listen… old woman,” my stare lingered. 

She stared back. A cold breeze drifted through the windows. 

I stood. “You can’t—”

“Bessy!” Vensana cried without warning, snapping the taut atmosphere. “Saints have mercy, what am I to do with you?” 

The monad had barged in once more. 

Vensana shooed her out again. “Enough of this idle chat. Let me show you why we break bread as opposed to each other’s bones.” She kept the door open. “You are a pitcher filled with stagnant water; let us empty you, and refill you with something all the more cleaner. Come.”

We walked through fields of tall grass, beautiful flowers at our feet, floating clouds above. The sights were so saturated I found myself squinting. Vensana walked with a quarterstaff, chimes wrapped around the crown. They tinkled as she strolled. “I do admit, automobile travel would be easier,” she said. 

I cursed my curiosity. As a child, I had read about the first length traversed by a motorised vehicle from the University of Ducan to Fena. 

“Do you still have that first prototype?” I just had to know. “I remember the headlines: The Four Greatest Hours in Modern History. You must have that two-stroke engine around here somewhere.”

“Long gone now, as is the crumbling wagon we strapped it to.” Her lip was as straight as her staff. “My daughter was so excited by the project I had to bring her along with me. Her enthusiasm was infectious, despite my men moaning as the engine broke down thrice. We found ourselves doing maintenance amongst wheat fields; the looks on those farmers’ faces… saints preserve me.” 

“Can hardly imagine imperious Lady Kresh like that: a little girl, starry eyed…” 

“Some things change… others don’t.” Her expression was distant. “Maybe it was her unwavering support that gave me the idea: my two-stroke engine wouldn’t cut it, four-strokes around the crankshaft would repair the issue. So, we bartered with the farmers and took some of their scrap metal. The rest, as they say, can be gleaned in—my, my, Mr Blacktown Bastard, your eyes are gleaming.”

I shook myself, jaw slack. “Sorry—I mean, great, old lady.” Keep it together. “Why are we here?” I said, gesturing about, “surely we are not here simply for a stroll.”

We had crested atop a nearby hill, and Vensana gestured for me to sit. From here, the entirety of the valley could be observed: the distant mountains, the endless sea of grass, the quaint river and the ransacked temples. Like dark, beached whales they were, long since dead and abandoned amongst a world that could no longer support them. 


“Shush.” Vensana brought a finger to her lips. “Don’t talk, but listen. You have asked a great many questions. Let the valley provide the answer I cannot.” 

I sat, closed my eyes. Grass brushed my feet, the fragrance of flowers tickled my nose: Saints Tears, Herrencha, Purple Skirts and… something else I could not identify. Familiar.

“Now what?”

Vensana did not respond. I stole a glance of her: she held herself with a stance of discipline, legs folded beneath her, still as if frozen. She wore a slight smile, eyelids closed lightly, like she was listening to a pleasant song.

I attempted to emulate her stance. As I sat still, eyes closed, the scents of the valley did not suffuse the darkness. I swallowed. All this emptiness… I could not feel its texture. 

A bird squealed overhead, startling me. The void within my mind ceased, giving way to memories as a burst dam does to a roiling sea. I heard gunfire, smelt sulphur and dried blood. A rifle was in my hands, as I crouched with my compatriots in a ditch. People surrounded me, old friends: Earl, Thomas, that little bastard Nefren and his stupid chants despite the roar of war. The whistle of an officer shrilled, and we ran screaming, as gunfire pelted us and warships high above released their payloads onto the play of death known as the Battle of the Alabaster Cliffs. I could still hear the thunderous sound of shells detonating.

I heard laughter, and it was deafening. 

Shrapnel was flung in all directions. Trent! I could still see his face, little Nefren, fallen into the dirt with jagged metal sprouting from his chest. Help me! 

Without warning I stood, the returned sight of the valley startling me. My ears rang with the sound of sirens.

“What is your game here, old fool? Seriously?” I was panting, face crimson. “Have me off and away with the fairies? Forget my dues and come crying back to your daughter for pity?” 

I could still hear that voice, chuckling, forever amused. 

Vensana made a face as if she’d just spilled cold coffee on her lap. “Oh? We have scarcely been here five minutes. Did you not clear your mind correctly? Let it fill like a pitcher yearning for substance?” 

“I filled it alright!” My heart hammered. “But… but it was no drink you’d enjoy.” 

I couldn’t sleep that night, and it wasn’t due to shoddy bedding. Vensana had offered her mattress, but I had opted for the floor with nary a thin blanket for comfort.

Usually, I would have fallen into repose regardless of external stimuli: distant heavy gunfire and raining shells of years gone by had seen to that. But tonight, the issue was not what rumbled beyond, but what thrashed within.

Four days, Mr Gupin. 

Trent, help me! 

This is no battle of blood and bone… 

Why are you doing this? The thought was like a buoy tossed to me as I drowned. Wasting your time humouring this mad woman and her delusions.

I folded my pillow around my ears, as if that would do anything at all. 

After everything you’ve done… 

“Shut up…” I mumbled. 

My mind did not obey. I saw them in a canvas of dreaded memory, victims of wars fought long ago. Of the people killed in the crossfire: fathers, mothers… tiny little children playing with their tiny little toys… They had meant nothing to me. 


My hands scrunched my thin blanket into bundles. I stood. I glided through the dark room and found my weapons. My fingers found purchase around my pistol. I stood before a snoring Vensana. 

My chest rose and fell. 

Kill her! The voice roared within. Be done with this charade! It’s either you or her, remember that? The world has always been as such! My teeth dug so deeply into each other I thought they would chip. 

But yet, when I tried to fire, I saw a face. That of a young boy, enraptured by the world and all it contained. 

I wanted to scream. 

I stumbled back, fell onto my blanket. I held my forehead, and my hand came away lathered in sweat. 

You have been honed for one purpose… and you can’t even do that. 

We climbed a mountain the next day. Vensana, noticing the bags under my eyes, had suggested we surmount Saint Helen’s Repose: the highest peak in the valley. She said nothing invigorated one like an early morning climb. 

My annoyance regarding his suggestion had been obvious, though Vensana would not be dissuaded. She knew I was a good soldier with cultivated stamina: I had climbed over the towering, imperial mountains of the Celsti Dominium, trudged through the swampy bogs of Jerssin and Faldendor, nearly sunk into the devouring sands of the Tez’ju Isles, all while lugging an oversized pack with officers roaring in my face and enemies prowling in the dark. 

Vensana claimed satisfaction, a good place to scream at the world, and, apparently, a nice view to observe while getting ludicrously drunk, were all on offer. 

I wasn’t sure if that last part had been a joke. 

She lent me a thick, striped scarf—one I had seen around her shoulders many times during her reward ceremonies and public demonstrations of old—and we set off.

Vensana carried a sizable pack as we climbed. I had offered to assist, but she had refused. Something about keeping old bones strong and the mind focused on basic needs. 

We foraged off the land as we ascended, Vensana picking blueberries, strawberries, hell, she even foraged some sickly white larvae inside old trunks. Tiny, squirming bastards as large as my index finger. She laughed as she forced me to swallow them. 

I had to admit, they weren’t half-bad. 

The relief offered as we reached the peak was palpable; my limbs now burned with exhaustion, legs like rotten wood that would snap with a second’s more exertion. The air was crisp, clear; I had forgotten it could even be as such after the decades of smog-enveloped cities and sulphur-choked battlefields. 

The lands spread out before us, glazed in sun-gold, more like a depiction wrought by an overly idyllic painter, than a true depiction of reality. A few stars peeked out from the purple heavens, twinkling with faraway radiance.

A feeling came over me. 

I felt light, not even there. All of note, the heavens, the earth, held my tiny soul in a tight embrace. The nations faraway, the obligations, the violence, it all melted away for a brief moment, leaving me unburdened, so free I thought I would float away. 

Then, it all rushed back, and a knot formed in my stomach. The stars were a reminder. A reminder of time passing. 

“You know,” Vensana said, a small, knowing smile on her lips. “I have a tiny vineyard to the east; emerald berries, elderflower and lemon palm are grown in plenty.” She procured two crystal glasses wrapped in cloth and produced a bottle of unlabelled wine. “You game, Mr Gupin?”

“I haven’t touched that stuff in many years, lady. It’s a liquid devil in bottled form, and has provoked actions… most unsavoury.”

“Well,” Vensana said, sitting down and already filling the two glasses with mulberry-red wine. “We ain’t going back down til you have a sip. Trust this old fool on this one.” 

I had trusted her on that one, and now I had a head-splitting hangover that made my younger escapades look tame by comparison.

Still, I had to admit, the night had been fun. Loosened me up a bit. Hell, I had even laughed a few times, my face hadn’t felt those creases in many years. 

The morning of the fourth day, Vensana had shoved a bow into my hand after coffee and cheese. 

“It’s a good method to chase away a lingering hangover,” she chirped outside a dilapidated temple of ancient repute. On the way here, we chatted about all manner of things: the botany of the local plant life, the qualities of modern Ienoian literature (she put my scant expertise to shame), even the weather came up a few times, but I found myself partaking in the topic. 

It really was a beautiful day. 

“This is the axis of the valley,” Vensana said before the storehouse of the arcane. “The stamen amongst divine petals. Such a shame it could not greet us in a more wholesome state.” She gestured to a nearby tree, cloaked in moss. “Each blade of grass and trunk of wood in the vicinity is apparently blessed by the divine,”—she took the bow— “so let’s go about challenging that assertion, eh?”

That stomach-knot again—Today, you decide—but I forced it down.

Vensana went first, loading her bow with an arrow and firing in a smooth motion, hitting the heart of the trunk. 

“Now focus, okay? Breathe in deeply. I’m not here. In fact, nothing is here save you, and that tree.” 

I took her bow, and did what she commanded, my arms stretching in new, uncomfortable ways. I tried to focus, casting away the rest of the universe like blowing away incense dust. 

The void came, but it was quickly filled. Filled with the same old faces, the same old scenarios. The same old death-obsessed imagination, with that voice whispering amongst it all. I snapped myself out of distraction. My aim wobbled, and the arrow hurtled lazily through the air, missing the trunk by a good margin. 

I turned, “I’m no good at this, lady—” 

Vensana was gone. There was nothing but the whisper of the wind, the sights of the valley, the beat of my heart… and a smell. A very familiar smell. 

In my youth, I had read that smells provoked a greater recollection of memory than any other sense. 

I had caught a whiff of magnolia. My mind detached from past woes and hurtled back far, further than it had in years. I beheld an image of my family home in the countryside province of Larain. My mother had cultivated a tight net of magnolia flowers on our front fence, and they always blossomed in the spring air. 

Things were different back then.

A time when the world had been fresh, the sunset splashed horizon rolling onto infinite possibility. My hopes and dreams… they had been as real as the earth beneath my feet. 

I froze. Something was forming in my stomach. A sensation, warmth, travelling up through my body, into my skull. Like what I felt on the mountain prior, but far more potent. 

What was that? 

I hunted for words. Peace? Tranquillity? No. Something more. This world was fat with conflict, between people, between nations, even the mind itself seldom moved forward undivided. Billions of souls clambering for the highest pinnacle amongst it all.

But this feeling, this sensation of warmth, smoothed me out, like a moonlit pool at night without a ripple. Prestige, power, wealth; it was only passing trivialities compared to that. Compared to that feeling of pure… how would I describe it? 

All was within me, and I was within all. 

My mouth hung open slightly. As if I had donned glasses after years of failing eyesight, things had become clear. I loosened my arrow, moving tendons a forerunner to thought. It hit the trunk with a resounding thud. 

“Well done.” 

Vensana was standing in the entrance of the temple.

“What was that?” I blurted out the question without even thinking. “That… that feeling.”

She smiled, but it was different from prior accordances. When she had grinned before, it had seemed only a plastic thing, muscle groups moving in a way to produce a desired effect. But now, it had energy to it, intent. Her eyes smiled with it. “You understand now, don’t you? Why I came here?”

“It is… indescribable,” I breathed. “There is not a word that can encapsulate it…” I held up the bow, seeing new beauty in the tawny grain, a cosmos of appreciation once invisible. “I’ve been disarmed. Completely.” 

She tilted her head, “It’s not exactly one thing, nor is it another. I know.” She gestured to the temple. “We are freshly minted travellers in a new land of sensation. But we are not the first to traverse it.”

“What did you want to be as a child, Trent?”

Vensana posed the question as we entered the temple. The place was long past its best years: the air thick with spent incense, the floors dark with age. Cobwebs arrayed the ceilings, while statues of celestial emissaries and gods stood against the far wall. Save a choice few, all were headless. 

I sighed, “No prizes for getting it right.”

Vensana stood in the centre of the room and knelt down, studying the visages. “An inventor, perhaps?” She smiled wryly. “I bet you had fantastic role models.” She gestured to the statues. “Like these orders long dead, you wanted to apply structure, forms of understanding to nature, no? To put a mask on an incomprehensible body and give it a name?” Her shoulders slouched, “Sure, we are meant to categorise, to form order from the disorder… I spent my life doing as such.” 

I sat beside her, staring at the statues. “I was born in the wrong place for that, sadly; remote hamlets bereft of modern miracles seldom had parents looking upon their children’s idle fantasies with favour.” I felt soft, open. “But then your inventions came, allowing us to traverse a world beyond our tiny realm. I could visit the cities… see you during the parades as your machines drove on by.”

“A shame we never met back then, before intervening decades had you straying the course.”

“I wanted to be like you, Vensana.” The words slipped from my mouth. “Everything you had… it was all I ever wanted. Recognition without bloodshed, destruction forgone for creation… I wish I could turn back the clock and start again.”

For the first time, Vensana’s eyes darkened, her countenance brought low. “You give me too much credit, Trent.” 

I held her gaze. “What?” 

“In the newspapers, on the radio, you heard of my achievements, yes?”

“Wherever your voice was played, I was there…”

“The great Mrs Kresh—mother of the combustion engine, inventor of a million wonders.” She remained silent for a long moment. “But… there is more to it than just one woman.”

I froze. 

“You remember the trip to Fena, yes? With my colleagues… with my daughter?” 


“And we went to that farmer’s warehouse to upgrade the engine, make it work properly?”

I nodded slowly. 

“We came up with a better design, yes. Impressed the entire world. But—” She planted a finger on his forehead. “It was not birthed from this mind.” 

Silence. No… not silence. I heard it, that voice, that bloodthirsty roar at the back of my mind. 

It was laughing. 

“I did not invent the final design…”

“Why are you lying to me?” 

“Listen to me, Trent. I need to say this, you need to witness it. She has every right to be how she is.” 


Vensana wore a mask of emptiness. “At least she learned something from me… eh?” Her tone was hollow, low, a stark twin to her boisterous trumpets of years gone by. “And I got away with it, told her to keep her mouth shut or suffer disownment.” She held my hand. “That’s how much I wanted it, Trent. The fame, the power. I would rob her of her own genius for a penny. Sacrifice my own daughter to the altar of progress to appease the new gods of wealth and adoration.” 

“Stop this… please.”

“I was happy at first, content,” she continued. “But the world could not stop reminding me: What was the first thought behind your new engine, Mrs Kresh? What did the geniuses of years prior miss, Mrs Kresh? Wow, Mrs Kresh, your designs have reformed the entire world! Your service to our people is never ending!”

I was suddenly standing. “This isn’t right! You’re Vensana Kresh! The world’s greatest inventor!”

“I am a fraud.”

“You were my hero!” 

“And I apologise for that. Deeply.” 

And you are a coward, Trent Gupin. 

I took a step back. “No, no… no this isn’t right! None of it is!” 

Vensana got to her feet. “But you understand now, don’t you? What really matters? That feeling, that sensation of overwhelming peace.” She fingered my knuckles. “We are both part of a machine, you and I. A gigantic, shuddering monster miles wide that scrapes across the corpse of this world, devouring everything in its path. It pits us against each other. Turns us into monsters for the sake of fame. I understand that now.” She squeezed my hand, and the voice within me laughed and laughed. “My sole desire is to repent. To save who I can: you, my daughter, everyone who will listen. Together, we can disembark this madness. The machine rumbles by, but we dare to look beyond, at the clouds that roll above in the starry—”

I struck her across the face. 

She fell, blood trickling off her nose. 

“My mind was clearest before you had ever opened your mouth! Your daughter is no monster… she is taking back what is rightfully hers!”

Vensana groaned, holding up a trembling hand. “What will that give you, Trent? Killing me? This will not bring you happiness, trust me, I—”

“I was a fool! A coward to trust you! But no longer… I’ll—”

A bell rang at the door. We both looked up to see Bessy standing there, rectangular pupils staring at nothing.

“Please,” Vensana said, getting to her feet. “Think about what you do next: not for myself, I couldn’t care less about my own skin. But… there is hope for you yet.”

I left the temple. I would decide tomorrow. 

The following night, I dreamt of my hometown. Sun-kissed skies, magnolia on the breeze, my young mind free and untarnished. The world was endless and magical back then, before grim truths came to visit. 

The roar of engines above woke me. Like the skies themselves were being lacerated by godly blades.

I burst outside.

Vensana was meditating in the same spot as I had found her three days ago, Bessy hiding under a nearby tree, her little bell rattling. 

An airship soared above us. It was a monstrous thing; must have been over fifty feet long, armed with twenty-four polymer wings, bearing gargantuan propellers that tore through the delicate clouds. Coated in green and red, the craft bore a rearing silver tiger on its prow, armed with a pearl between its claws: the insignia of Numinous Dynamics. The thundering craft roared over the hut, sending the wind chimes into a flurry.

I acquired my guns from the boot of my much smaller craft, slung my musket over one shoulder. 

I knew who had come. 

The airship descended in the fields only a short distance away, blowing up a blizzard of grass. How had we been found? Nobody save me had ascertained Vensana’s location. 

The fluttering wings died down, the propellers halted in their revolutions. An entrance came down alongside the fuselage. Five men emerged in coordinated formation, and, in the centre of them, grinning like a child who had found a long-lost toy— “Mama!” Lady Kresh cried. Her exuberant gown of sparkling rubies and fine-cut silk flowed like a crimson river. “It is so good to see you again!” 

Vensana, slowly, stood. She glanced at me, then at her daughter. “My sweet, sweet flower. I have missed you…”

Adalya donned a wry grin, running her thin fingers through ornamented hair. “As have I!” She flung a hand at me. “And Mr Gupin! You seem to be keeping well, no? Do tell, what have such a fine pair of fellows been up to?”

I stared at Vensana, and she returned the gesture. We said nothing. 

Adalya’s expression darkened. “No answer? Typical of a cheat and a traitor; caught in sin and with nothing to say.” She cupped her palms and spread her arms out, as if she were presenting a gift. “And yet, what precious harmony you have made. Adorable.” 

I braced myself. “You… how did you find us?”

Her men laughed, and she wandered over to my craft, slapping the bonnet. “Did you really think I’d lend you one of my most prized vehicles with no strings attached? Tut-tut, Mr Gupin. I thought you’d be smarter than this. Smart enough to realise all my works possess automated machinery to track their location. A matter of insurance, you understand.” She took a few steps forward. “But that is not the matter of today’s inquiry. Oh no.”

I held out my pistol. “Lady Kresh, please stay back!”

“Oh? You couldn’t bring yourself to fire before, when you had my mother in your sights. Why should I fear such now? If anything”—her men moved into position around her, bearing muskets— “you should fear me, Mr Gupin. Four days pissing about in this decrepit, empty land, and do you already forget the world you hail from? The contract you signed with your own traitorous fingers while sucking up to me in my estate back north?” Her tone grew mocking. “‘Oh yes, Lady Kresh, I will spare no expense at tracking your cowardly mother down. Oh Lady Kresh, I am unworthy of such a high request! I will do my utmost! Lady Kresh, Lady Kresh, Lady Kresh!’”

Just like her mother she was. 

I stared back at Vensana, then Adalya. “I made a mistake. I know that. You were justified to take back what belongs to you… I was a fool to be a stumbling block to that.”

“Indeed!” She crossed her bangled arms. “But the time for apologies has long since elapsed! You know the conditions of our deal, and you shirked it all the same. You parley with a thief and a liar, Trent Gupin; show some dignity, some sense of decorum!” Her grin was as sharp as a knife. “However! I can forgive these great evils…” She pointed a firm finger at Vensana, expression hard. “Kill her. Kill her now, and I will spare you punishment. I may even give you the riches I promised prior; my mercy comes forth undiminished!” 

“Adalya, my daughter…” Vensana spoke, low and deliberate. “Honour, power… these things cannot give you what you want.”

Adalya’s lip trembled; real emotion now finally exhibited. “They are more than you could ever give me!” Her eyes smouldered. “Do it, Gupin!”

I stared back at Vensana, a great cumulonimbus cloud towering behind him in the sky. This coward, this fool, this masquerading pretender. If my childhood self were here, he surely would have made the right choice, ended this pathetic charade. 

The scent of magnolia wafted through the air. 

Without warning, I spun about, procured my second pistol and fired. The bullets tore through the air and struck two of Adalya’s men upon their brows. They crumbled to the grass underfoot. 

Adalya’s mouth hung open, disbelieving. “FOOL!” She roared to her men: “Kill him!” 

They approached, guns held out towards me. 

I gritted my teeth and shot one in the head, missing the other by an inch. The other fired, maiming me in my right shoulder. I groaned and fell. 

“You can’t run away, you pathetic coward!” The surviving soldier was laughing, yellow teeth arrayed in a giddy smile. “I was in the army too, you know that? Always heard tales of “The Bastard of Blacktown,” how strong he was, how many men he killed, how nobody could slay him.” He stood over me now, gun barrel on my forehead. “And now I’m going to kill him! Oh, how sweet life—”

He suddenly went silent, collapsed into the dirt. An arrow pierced through his skull. 

Vensana was at the front of her hut, bow in hand. She rushed over to me, old countenance crimson red. 

She pulled me up despite her meagre strength, stowed me behind a nearby tree as bullets flew towards us and tore into the trunk. 

“Stay back!” I met her gaze. “You can still run away from all this! You know that? I can take them.” My eyes were hard. “Always wanted to die a soldier’s death, after all.” I held my pistol up to fire, but the muscles of my right arm were too pained to aim effectively. 

Vensana’s stare was intense. “You’re too wounded, let me handle them. I—”

“You’ll die!”

“—don’t fear death. I fear having never realised the truth. Now, I do not need to worry.” She smiled. “I wish you luck in life, Trent Gupin.” 

Before I could stop her, she ran out, an arrow already loaded to her bow. 

A bullet grazed her ear. But her aim remained steady. Another bullet hit the old woman, this time in the chest. 


She groaned, her bow still trained on the man. A sound rattled behind her adversary. A little bell. The foe raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

Bessy stood behind him, staring at nothing. As she always did. The momentary distraction was enough for Vensana. She loosed her arrow. It sailed over, marking her foe atop his brow, killing him instantly. 

Vensana fell, and I ran over to her. “You fool! You absolute idiot!” I cried, holding her head. “You could have escaped this! All this bloodshed!” 

She smiled wearily, trying in vain to halt the blood pouring from her chest. “I f-figured out a name for what we experienced, Trent. That feeling.” 

“Don’t talk! Do you have bandages inside your hut? I can patch you up and you’ll be fine, I promise!”

That smile of hers again. 

“I’m not losing someone else! Not anymore!”

“That sensation… of complete detachment, of peace…” she wheezed, blood streaming from her nose. “I called it nuance. Not one thing… not another… but—”

“—something in between,” I murmured. What was that wetness, in my eyes? That liquid?

Lady Kresh was still near her craft, eyes wide, mouth quivering.

“You got what you wanted, didn’t you?” I screamed: “Leave us be!” 

Despite all the words she could possibly say, no words came. She turned and disappeared into her craft. The engines fired up and it tore into the sky, back into the clouds and over the high mountains, out of sight. 

Vensana held up a bloodstained hand. “Thank you, Trent.” 

Tears were running down my cheeks. “For what? You’re the most successful woman this world has ever known, not me!” 

“Seventy-four years old… and I only began living three days ago.” She held a hand to my cheek. “I am happy I did… so happy…” Her eyes went still. 

My scream echoed through the empty valley. 

I buried Vensana’s body beneath her flower garden. She would have wanted that, knowing her. Bessy joined me in a modest funeral. There were no religious rites on this day. I performed my own ceremony, without words, without instrument. 

Silence, nuance, was all that was needed. 

I destroyed my craft afterwards, covered it in gunpowder with my weapons inside and blew it into a thousand pieces. I recovered from my wounds, mostly, thanks to a few bandages Vensana had stashed away. 

I tended to her garden now, milked Bessy and harvested her vineyard in the east of the valley. 

I meditated in the garden each afternoon. Peace took many weeks to return to me. 

But it did. Eventually.

And whenever I stopped, to think of the world’s wonder, to take stock of its beauty, I would see it, every time I looked up.

A cumulonimbus cloud, towering in the sky, immense and free, soaring over all.

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