False Light, by Adrian Chamberlin

(Download the audio version of this story here — read by David Binks.)

Crouched with his men behind the jagged rock that broke the expanse of the beach, Joss Merlyn peered ahead into the mist-shrouded darkness. He knew it was pointless to listen for the vessel’s approach. The breakers crashing onto the rocks in the bay drowned all sound except for the retreating of the waves on the shingle.

That latter noise sounded like the hissing of some great reptilian creature, hungering for fresh meat. Joss shivered at the thought.

His throat was dry and his eyes stung with the salt spray from the breakers. He felt the icy water soaking into his clothing just as his men did, but it was something else that was chilling him to his very soul.

In all his years of wrecking on the Cornish coast, Joss Merlyn had never known a night like this one – and though he’d never admit it to his men, it scared him.

This fog was no ordinary autumn mist, he knew that. The full moon that had been shining so brightly earlier had vanished, as though God himself had plucked it from the sky.

God – or someone else?

“‘T’aint natural, Francis.” He heard his younger brother Jem mutter to Francis Davey. Both men were crouched beside him behind the rock. He knew Jem was just as uncomfortable as he was, but Davey…well, Francis Davey, the vicar of Altarnun, was a different matter.

“This fog is Devil-sent,” Jem continued, and Joss silently agreed with him. Davey didn’t.

“This mist is a boon to us all, Jem. It is proof that Our Father provides.”

Joss shivered at the vicar’s words. They sounded almost as reptilian as the waves retreating over the shingle. He kept his eyes dead ahead; not to see the approach of the vessel that Francis Davey had promised would come this very night, but to avoid the sight of the vicar’s white skin and piercing red eyes.

Even in this darkness they seemed to glow with an inner luminescence, like one of those strange fish-like things Jem had seen land along the coast last summer. Something that had no right to exist, that Francis Davey had claimed to have come from some unfathomed part of the ocean where the sunlight never fell. He had taken it away, claiming it was proof that God’s power was everywhere – even in the pitch darkness of the abyss. And God alone knew where it was now. Joss shook his head and concentrated on the unsettling blend of white mist and pitch, moonless night before him.

The only thing that scared him more than the fog this night was working alongside the albino Francis Davey.

Joss Merlyn was a big man. Almost seven feet tall, with skin as dark as a gypsy’s – the complete opposite of the albino vicar’s – his huge frame and long arms contained a physical power that made all fear him and obey without question. Few would have believed that it was the vicar of Altarnun who was the mastermind behind this gang who had wrecked countless vessels, murdered the mariners and plundered their ships.

“They’re afraid of me, the whole damned lot of them. Afraid of me, who’s afraid of no man,” Joss had said to Patience’s daughter, who was now staying at his inn on Bodmin. A lie. Patience knew very well that her husband drank out of fear, fear for what the priest ordered him to do. He’d almost damned himself, almost opened his mouth too far to Mary Yellan.

I shut myself in my room and shout my secrets in my pillow…I’ve told you because I’m a little drunk and I can’t hold my tongue.

Thankfully he was not too drunk, had caught himself in time.

But I’m not drunk enough to lose my head. I’m not drunk enough to tell you why I live in this God-forgotten spot, and why I’m the landlord of Jamaica Inn.

All the same, he’d have to watch her very closely. That girl would be trouble, he was certain.

Joss turned to his right and saw the dancing star in the darkness. He grunted in approval and relief, knowing that soon it would begin.

Because this was no star. It danced and swayed in the wind because it was a false light.

A lantern held aloft by one of his men on the highest part of the cliff that sloped to the sea. A beacon of lies and falsehood, one that promised deliverance from the ravages of the hungry sea, and offered shelter and safety. And instead delivered only death.

“See! It comes!” Francis Davey cackled in glee, pointing a skeletal finger to the new light dead ahead of them in the storm-tossed bay.

This new pinprick of light did not dance like the false light on the cliff top. It dipped, remained hidden for a while, and then rose above the blackness of the invisible breakers, as though clawing its way to heaven.

Soon the mast-light of the ship grew larger, and closer to the one on the cliff – one compelled the other, a moth summoned by a candle, and soon they would be a pair of shining white eyes in the mist.

This was the vessel that Davey had promised. This was the full-rigged brig Imboca.

Joss Merlyn held his breath as the brig made contact with the treacherous rocks of the bay.

Now the noise. The ear-piercing shriek of timber splintering, of square-rigged masts and spars twisting and breaking. The triumphant roar of the sea, breakers crashing onto the deck and washing away those mariners that clung for dear life to the slippery sloping surface.

His men waited for his signal. His huge arm was raised aloft, a bear’s paw ready to strike. They stared quizzically at him, wondered why that arm trembled.

It was a sight and a sound he had been used to since childhood, when he was first initiated into the art of the wrecker. The sound of a vessel dying, murdered by the sea, was always accompanied by the human screams of despair from the men on the ship. But this time not one had screamed. Not one.

Shapes bobbed in the tide, hands raised as if in supplication. But still no noise. His hand trembled.

The albino vicar stared at him, and muttered angrily, “Why do you hesitate? Give the order!”

His hand fell. As one, the men of the gang ran screaming like maniacs past the jagged rock and waded waist-deep into the breakers.

For once, Joss Merlyn stayed. Always the first to lead his men to the spoils of the sea like a victorious general, always the first to bring his club crashing down on the head of the first mariner thrown onto the beach, this time he remained behind the rock.

“Not joining your men, Joss?” The vicar’s words were delivered in a suspicious tone.

Joss watched his team snatching at the bobbing wreckage amongst the breakers. The crates were miraculously intact, wooden boxes that had survived the destruction of the rocks and were landed unharmed and whole on the shingle.

“What is the Imboca’s cargo, Francis?” This was not tobacco, this was not the silk or brandy Davey had promised. Those crates contained something else.

“The love of Our Father,” the vicar said with a smile. Joss turned and stared, and saw that the albino wasn’t smiling at him but at the actions of the wreckers. The sailors of the Imboca had been brought to them on the waves.

The clubs of the wreckers were raised, and brought down with a devastating force that was almost equal to that of the sea that had destroyed the brig. For a while Joss saw nothing but the fury and joy of his men as they wiped out the survivors of the wreck, the witnesses of their crime. And then…

Joss started, saw the baffled expressions of his men. No blood splattered their sodden clothing. No red fluid dripped from their clubs. He moved from the shelter of the rock and into the bay.

The mist was fading now, the icy chill of the autumn night fading as dawn cast a weak light upon the carnage of the bay. Joss Merlyn stared in horror at the crushed and pounded skulls of the things that had crewed the Imboca.

These were human in shape only. Each had two arms, two legs, a thickened torso – but that torso was bent forwards, so that these unholy things would only be able to walk in a hunched fashion, their webbed fingers dragging along the deck of the ship they sailed.

The sun was rising, the light stronger. It reflected off their green scales, made them shine like emeralds. On one nearest to him three slits on each side of its neck flared open in unison, like a trio of identical wounds, sucking in a last, shuddering breath of air before the gills relaxed and the creature died. Now Joss Merlyn was glad that the head had been caved in and pounded to a pulp. At least he would be spared the obscene reality of what visage the ungodly creature had possessed. What its eyes would look like when they stared, cold, dead and unblinking at him.

The wreckers stood in the retreating breakers, horrified expressions replacing puzzlement and bewilderment as dawn’s golden light revealed to them the nature of their victims.

Joss turned stiffly to the man who had the answers. The man of God.

Francis Davey was oblivious to the hostile stares fixed on him from the men in the sea. He was hunched over the first of the crates, his fingers pulling the planking free from the nails with an unnatural strength. He was muttering as he threw the wood to one side, pulled with shaking hands at the shrouded items within.

“Cthulhu fhtagn…Cthulhu fhtagn…Cthulhu fhtagn…”

Joss heard splashing sounds behind him, then the thudding of booted feet on the sand. Jem grabbed his shoulder.

“I said ‘twasn’t natural, Joss!” he cried. “These be devils.”

“Aye,” his older brother replied. “Maybe. But the real devil lurks yonder, calls himself a man of God.”

Now Davey had pulled free the shrouds covering the figures. He held aloft the first golden image of something that looked like an octopus, or squid – but no octopus that Joss Merlyn or any of the wrecking crew had seen. No creature could have had that amount of teeth.

The light bouncing off it was strange; it didn’t gleam the way gold should. It was almost as though the golden statue was soaking the natural November dawn sunlight, and then…throwing it back, corrupted. Unnatural.

A false light.

A light that imparted a strange glow to the albino’s sickly white skin, his eyes burning like the polished and faceted rubies embedded in the face of the statue.

And the chilling, beatific smile that broke on Francis Davey’s face was something that Joss Merlyn never wanted to see again. He’d make sure of it.

Take him!” he screamed, his shaking paw of a hand trembling with as much hatred as fear. As his men hurried to obey, he turned back to the flotsam and jetsam on the beach, grunted in satisfaction at the sight of the coils of rope spilling from one of the brig’s crates. He grabbed one, fighting the urge to drop it in revulsion at its slimy texture.

He turned and strode along the strand towards the three spars that had been flung far from the body of the wreck, to form a natural ‘A’ frame in the sand. He smiled grimly as he formed a loop at one end of the slimy rope. Within moments he had fashioned a crude but serviceable noose.

The wreckers dragged the screaming albino over to the makeshift gallows. Joss smiled when he saw that Davey still had the gold statue of that octopus-like thing in his hands. His fingers were rigid, fixed around the wings sprouting from the flurry of tentacles on the creature’s back, as though he was determined to take it to the grave with him. That could be arranged, Joss thought grimly.

“Too far, Francis,” Joss snapped. “You’ve gone too far. You’ve brought the Devil himself upon us – we’ll not kill for the Dark One, nor his foul gold.”

The noose was tightened around the albino’s neck. Even now, watching the other end tossed over the makeshift gallows and knowing what would happen, Davey still would not relinquish his hold on the statue.

Joss himself pulled on the other end of the rope, his huge bulk and strength making assistance from his men unnecessary. When Davey was hoisted a clear five feet in the air he tied the rope around the lower spar and stood back to watch the vicar die.

The wreckers watched in grim satisfaction for a full seven minutes. That’s how long it took for the albino’s legs to stop kicking, for his writhing to slow and cease. And all this time, even though the spars creaked and protested, they remained firm and true, a solid gallows. The light from the autumn sun rose stronger and brighter with each moment that passed.

Davey’s body slumped, but still his hands remained rigid around the gold statue.

“He will take that to Hell with him,” Jem muttered. Joss nodded in silent agreement.

Then he turned to the crew. Behind them the tide continued to batter the remnants of the Imboca. The shrouds had unfurled from the spars and were now moving across the shattered hull of the brig, as though trying to hide the corpse of the vessel from the accusing glare of daylight.

“What now, Joss?” Mark Jarrold, the man who had raised the false light on the cliff top stared at him with searching eyes. “Do we take this accursed gold?”

“Leave it where it lays,” Joss answered curtly. “Let the sea take it – and him!”

He turned and walked along the shoreline, stepping past the opened crate, fighting the temptation to look within. There were things inside that were glowing, with that same hideous, unnatural light emitted by Davey’s carving.

Soon the tide would roll in and reclaim it, he told himself. Banish it to the depths from whence it came, forever dim its false light.

At least now they were free from Davey. Now he, Joss Merlyn, was the true master of the wreckers. He smiled in anticipation of a celebratory drop of brandy in Jamaica Inn.

The wind stiffened, swaying the body of Francis Davey. The rope stretched with its weight, the spars bowing and finally collapsing.

Joss Merlyn’s men halted and turned to stare. Then they turned back, grinned at their true master, and ran on to join him.

The albino vicar had landed face down, his dead hands pressing the icon firmly into his chest.

An icon – an article of faith. For it was faith that had sustained Francis Davey, the albino priest of Altarnun all his life, through the bullying he had suffered in his younger days, the revulsion he had seen on the faces of women, the contempt that had driven him to the church. And to find that even God had no answer for him.

Then he had found a new faith. A promise of life eternal, a life he knew the Christian God could not provide.

The noose unravelled, the green tentacle that Joss Merlyn had taken for slime-encased rope slipping from the albino’s neck. It burrowed under the sand, seeking the light from the buried gold icon that still burned brightly in the darkness caused by Davey’s body.

Francis Davey’s body jerked several times as the tentacle did its work. Then his eyes opened, burning brightly red with the same intensity as those rubies in the gold icon.

He got to his feet and looked downwards at the sand. The icon and tentacle had gone. He smiled, knowing they hadn’t really disappeared. He stroked the sharp-edged bulge in his abdomen and stared at the welcoming darkness of the ocean – and the light beckoning him. Light that only he could see, shining brightly from the depths of the ocean.

He stared at the sickly yellow disc in the sky and sneered.

“False light,” he spat, and made his way to the sea.

Adrian Chamberlin’s works have appeared in Guy N Smith’s Graveyard Rendezvous and the websites Spinetinglers.co.uk, the British Horror Novels Forum and the DF Underground, where he’s a contributing author to the Underground Rising fiction collaboration.  Published and forthcoming works can be found in the following anthologies: Warpigs (John Prescott’s M is for Monster); Winter Sun (Tasmaniac Publication’s sell-out Festive Fear 2: Global Edition); The Bodymen (Dark Continents Publishing’s The Spectrum Collection); Daughters of the Night (HorrorBound’s Fear of the Dark); Wonder and Glory (Static Press’s Monk Punk) and Fishers of Men (Hersham Horror’s’ ALT-DEAD).  He is a founding member of Dark Continents Publishing and his first novel The Caretakers, a supernatural thriller set in a fictional Cambridge College, will be released at the World Horror Convention in Austin, Texas in 2011. He is currently working on his second novel Fairlight.

Visit Adrian Chamberlin’s page at Amazon.com to buy books his stories have appeared in!

If you enjoyed his story, let him know by commenting below!

Story art by mimulux.

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10 responses to “False Light, by Adrian Chamberlin

  1. At the end I was expecting some gills to open up while he hung from the gallow, but the ending was far better I think! Nicely worded with good characters. I could really see it as a film!

    “What the hell were those tentacles even attached to?”

  2. Them friggen murderers of Cthulhu Spawn! To Davey Jone’s Locker with the lot of em…

    Great story. Strong character driven plot! Makes me want a drink of rum. Cheers.

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