On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
I’d love to have you as a subscriber to the weekly free story. You can subscribe via email here. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.
Faine stood on the clifftop, looking out over the turbulent waves far below.
It was a cloudy afternoon, getting closer to evening now, and the promised rain had never quite materialised. But there was the wind, as always. It blew ceaselessly in from the sea, bringing a note of impending winter in both its crispness and temperature, though Faine didn’t feel the cold at all.
Standing a few steps behind him, arms wrapped around themselves against the chill, were three of his current students; two young men and a middle-aged woman. Faine saw them without having to turn around, clear in his mind’s eye. He had spent most of the day with them, not telling them of the field trip until it was time to leave.
Hundreds of miles crossed in a moment, stepping from the warm classroom in Edinburgh to the northernmost shores of the mainland in the blink of an eye. One of the young men had vomited after the transition, which was by no means uncommon — though Faine always found it slightly disappointing. He had been teaching for decades, despite his own youthful appearance, and in his experience it wasn’t a good sign when a potential recruit had a fragile disposition. Not everyone could handle such things.
“Does anyone know where I’ve brought you?” he asked, and he wasn’t surprised when it was the woman who answered.
“John O’Groats,” she said. “I visited here once. For the cycling.”
Faine nodded, still without turning around. The view was desolately beautiful, wild and ominous and indifferent to their presence. He came here often, in odd moments, to think or to find a brief interval of peace. Sometimes, he visited several times in a single day.
“Quite so,” Faine replied. “You’ve also probably noticed the wind, and the tides.”
Now he did turn to face them, and while the woman looked positively freezing, she was bearing it better than the two men. Faine relented, and with a slight shift in his focus of concentration he extended the pocket of warm air which surrounded his body to also envelop the three of them. Their relief was evident on their faces.
“Ahead of you is the most promising location in our fair country for energy generation via wind and hydroelectric power,” Faine said. “There are plans to create a huge offshore field of turbines, amongst other things. It’s a quaint idea. It would work very well, too, as far as the theory goes. But it’s pointless.”
“You don’t think we should be moving to renewables?” one of the young men asked. It was the one who’d vomited, and to whose face some colour was now returning.
“Oh certainly,” Faine replied, keeping his amusement at the man’s impertinent assumption to himself. “What I mean to say is that the idea is pointless here.” He gestured expansively at the dark waves stretching to the horizon, and he watched as his students looked at the scene in quiet confusion, obviously awaiting revelation.
“What’s here?” the woman asked, and now Faine smiled. That was the correct question. It was always the correct question. They had, after all, circumvented conventional physics in order to travel so far for the sake of making a point. The woman seemed to have more of an intuitive understanding of it all. This, too, was not uncommon.
“More of a who than a what,” Faine replied, turning to once again face out to sea. There was no-one else around, not even at the monument a short distance away, where long-distance cyclists would often gather to take photographs of themselves as proof of their endurance.
The other three joined him just a few metres from the sheer drop down towards the ocean, curious and watchful, and clearly unsure what to expect. A solitary gull on an inbound trajectory suddenly wheeled and diverted along the coast, heeding some obscure instinct from before the time of mankind.
Faine inhaled the marine air, pulling it deep into his lungs, letting it serve as a focal point for the subtle shift in his consciousness. His mind reached out, and downwards, until he could perceive the restless waves as almost mathematical constructs on all sides of him. He saw their essence, and he understood without having to try. Then he reached within the water, down inside its molecular construction, and he made the slightest change.
The waves became like glass, transparent to the point of barely being there, rendering all of the vastness of the underwater landscape suddenly and jarringly visible. It was as if the ocean had vanished, replaced with an almost imperceptible mist. Millions or billions of organisms were there, swimming and floating and drifting and lurking, at all depths and everywhere around.
The same young man turned and vomited once again, but Faine paid him no heed. The purpose of their visit was already winding its way up from the sea floor, impossible in its otherworldly scale and appearance. It had lived here for as long as life had existed in the world, and it was wise beyond the dreams of the greatest philosophers that the land had ever produced.
Faine could feel the immediate spike of fear in his students, but that was a part of the lesson too. Curiosity, yes, and always asking the true questions, but doing so with a humility born of pragmatism. Human beings were small and ephemeral, even those who knew the ways of the Fabric.
There was a rumble like distant thunder, and Faine knew it was only in their minds as the creature formally greeted them. It maintained a distance of perhaps three hundred metres, though its size made it seem much closer. It seemed to understand the terror it could inspire in lesser beings, and Faine was also no stranger to it. Its appendages moved with an alien and infinite grace as it propelled itself through the water, though it could also have transported itself vast distances every bit as easily as Faine had. It knew of the Fabric long before humans did, after all.
The creature turned away, seeming to be airborne in the gulf of the hidden ocean, and after a further few moments Faine allowed the sea to return to its customary appearance, hiding away the world below and all that it held.
The fragile young man was on his feet again, and Faine used his mind to take them all back to the classroom they’d left only a little while earlier, far to the south. As the warm, wood-panelled room snapped into place, Faine had the presence of mind to send the man with the weak constitution to the bathroom down the hall instead, then he turned to the remaining two.
Their eyes were a little glazed, clearly reliving the experience they’d just had. Faine cleared his throat to get their attention.
“Nothing is as it seems,” he said. “Nothing and nowhere. That is the first and final principle to hold close to you. Nothing is intrinsically as it appears, and nor does it need to be.”
He held up his hand, with forefinger extended, to emphasise his final point.
“And treat the world with respect, because that respect need not be mutual.”
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
I encourage you to share this story with anyone you think would enjoy it! If you’d like to receive a tale like this via email every week, you can sign up to receive them here.
Thanks for reading.