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Mary Stone Publishing

A Taste of… Shadow’s Ritual

Chapter One

Lily Grayson cupped a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle as she slipped through the night, intent on avoiding her fellow Lovecraftian symposium members. Followed by her lover, she headed for a stygian building nestled in layers of shadows, the clattering hum of their group setting up tents, tables, and banners muffling any sound they might’ve made as they left the lighted area.

“Is this the place?” she whispered, wishing she could turn on her phone’s flashlight. She didn’t dare, though. They couldn’t risk drawing attention.

“It should be. I mean, it’s the only cottage close to the venue.”

“The witch’s house! This’ll be fascinating.” Lily’s words came out in a rush, filled with desire as they began feeling their way around the building. “Like the one in the story ‘The Dreams in the Witch House,’ where boarders were housed in the attic erooms then mysteriously die or disappear. And there were reports of people seeing the witch’s familiar, with the face of a man and the body of a rat. It would eat people alive.”

Bryce halted and leaned back slightly. “I don’t think this place has an attic.”

“Don’t be such a downer. It has a peaked roof. The attic doesn’t have to be big.” All the exuberance had left Lily’s voice, leaving it flat and with an irritated undertone.

“Well, the one from the story was big enough to have at least two rooms up there.” Bryce shrugged and continued to pat the wall.

“Where the hell is the door?”
“It should be on the lighthouse side of the building. The stories say the town built the lighthouse to cast a shadow that fell on the witch’s doorstep. I guess it was to chase her off by ruining her garden or something. Witches need gardens to make their potions.”

Lily put her tactile searching on pause and looked up, trying to find the tower that hadn’t been lit in a generation. The moon, wane as it was tonight, was further obstructed by thin clouds ambling across the sky.

“I could’ve sworn the others said the house from the book was up in Salem, where the witch trials happened.” He walked around in a methodical circle. “There’s the lighthouse, so the door should be here somewhere.”

“No, it’s supposed to be down here. The cottage, not the door. There were more witch trials than just the ones in Salem. People think she was the one who summoned the Croatoan demon that killed all the people in the Roanoke colony.” Lily froze as her hand swatted open air. “God, I hope we don’t find anything creepy in the attic. Like a human-faced rat.” Shuffling forward, she stopped when her waist brushed against a heavy chain that creaked as it swayed.

At the heavy clanging, Bryce stepped up beside her. “We don’t need to go into the attic.”

“But that was the whole point of us coming here, wasn’t it? We need to peek inside to see if we can find the witch’s room.”

Lily took hold of the chain and stepped over it. A chill ran up her spine as Bryce joined her. They were standing on defiled ground, where decades of unexplained mysteries had occurred. Then, as if it were another sign from the heavens, the clouds parted, and moonlight crept into the ancient abode.

The room was desolate and unfurnished. It was a large open area with a fireplace on the short side. The white-washed walls were dingy and yellowed but still pale enough to reflect some of the moonlight, so she and Bryce weren’t wholly blind.

“We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do.” Bryce reached for her, drawing her against his body. She giggled as his hands trailed down to grope her butt and pull her closer.

“Is that so?” Lily rose onto her tiptoes, and her lips stopped a breath away from his. “What would your wife have to say about that?” With a laugh, she twisted out of his hold, crossing the open front room to peer into the fireplace, wishing she’d brought a flashlight with her. A rattle echoed down it, but she wasn’t sure if it came from leaves on the hearth or birds taking flight from the chimney. Either way, she couldn’t see anything moving.

“She’s more than ten hours away. Who cares what she’d say?” He snatched at her again, but she danced away with a laugh and stepped into the shadows congesting the back of the one-room building. “It’s not like she’d ever find out about us. We’ve hidden this from everyone for a long time. She has no idea what I’m really doing this weekend.”

“You mean she has no idea what she’s missing out on.” She bit her lip and twirled in place, showing off her body as she stared in fascination at the legendary building. This probably wasn’t the real witch’s cottage from the Lovecraft story. That much was true. But it had its own story, which was intriguing.

This was a witch’s house. A powerful woman who’d been scorned merely because she’d refused to bow to the demands of the rich men in power and give up her home. “I’ve always loved old places like this.”

Bryce grinned and started untucking his shirt. She’d repeatedly proven to him how thrilled she got in other places just like this. It wasn’t just the age of the building and its history that intrigued her.

The legends and myths attached to them were what made her blood run hot. Every supposedly haunted place they could find was like an aphrodisiac, setting the stage for passion and desire that made her forget the rest of her life.

Bryce undid his belt, ready to drop his pants as soon as she said the word.

A loud thump echoed over their heads, and they both froze. Part of the thrill of being together was doing it behind everyone’s backs. Getting caught would spoil their fun.

Lily stared at the ceiling, unable to make out even the rafters hidden above the reflected moonlight on the walls. “What was that?”

Bryce studied the ceiling but shook his head. He reached into his pocket for his phone, but she stopped him from pulling it out. He sighed. “Probably just a ra…um…raccoon.”

“You were going to say rat, weren’t you?” Her teasing tone belied her excited glances as she moved around, continuing to search for any way to get up onto the rafters. “The witch’s familiar.”

Lily had read all about the demon in the form of a rat that did the old witch’s bidding and attacked anyone who trespassed in her home. It fed on her milk as well as the blood and flesh of her enemies.

He snorted. “Familiar is such a weird term for an oversized rodent.”

She couldn’t disagree. Lily hoped her own familiar would be something sexier, like a lion or a fox or a peacock. That wasn’t the point, though.

She ran a finger down the wall. “Do you think she really nursed the rat to give it her power and keep it connected to her like the witch hunters believed?”

“Maybe, but it could be a bird too. Or just a regular rat. There’s nothing to keep vermin out.” He pointed at the doorframe with only a single chain to discourage trespassers. “Let’s explore the back of the room, but I don’t think this is the one from the book.”

Lily sighed and rounded on him. “Maybe this isn’t the house from that specific story, but it does have its own history. Can’t you feel it?” She ran her hands up her torso, watching as the movement transfixed his gaze. Despite his boring reasoning, the power of the place still called to her on a carnal level.

“Oh, I’d like to.” Bryce stepped forward and slid his hands into her hair. Grabbing a fistful, he pulled her forward into a fierce kiss.

It calls to him too.

Lily gasped as he bit along her collarbone and shoulder, pushing the strap of her tank top out of the way and making her twitch. But she wasn’t ready yet and stepped back from him. She wanted to bask in the ambiance of the lore. They had all night, and she planned to tease him while they soaked in the atmosphere. “Let’s explore the house a little more before we explore each other.”

He adjusted the crotch of his pants. “Are you sure? We could always look afterward.”

That was what she liked about Bryce. He might not be as into urban exploration and old legends as she was, but he was so desperate for her that he would do whatever she asked. Even exploring old ruins he had no true interest in. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be home with your sweet little wifey?”

“I’m sure.” Bryce rolled his eyes at her smirk and walked with her deeper into the room. Taboo was what their relationship, if anyone could call it that, was built on. And why she brought up his wife every time.

As they stepped into the darkness, the hard-packed earth seemed to resist the intrusion, pushing back against each step. Lily slid her hands over the wall she could barely see. The interior walls were wooden but coated in something like shellack. Using her nails, she tapped at the coating before trying to scratch it.

Nothing worked. It must’ve been some kind of preservative the town used to protect the historical site the island was named after. While continuing to move her hands across the glassy surface, she bumped into a form jutting out of the wall.

Confusing. But as she explored the area, she found more 3D objects, and her senses told her they were pegs. Most likely wooden pegs anchored into the wall to hang things from, like dresses or belts. Once upon a etime, this might’ve been the witch’s sleeping area.

Now there was no furniture left to define any zone in the room, leaving just an empty shell. That gave her a wickedly wonderful idea and she moved back to Bryce.

“She’s not the adventurous type?”

Their routine was predictable yet exhilarating. Lily pushed all of Bryce’s buttons to get the response she wanted.

“You know Martha’s a frigid prude. That’s why I’m here with you. Because you want to do more than just talk about the neighbors and spread whatever gossip you heard in some mommy group.”

“Poor little wifey poo.” Lily snickered over her shoulder. She didn’t feel in the least bit sorry for Martha, though. What kind of wife would let her husband go all over the country several times a year on his own? She had to know he was cheating on her. If she was indeed a prude, Lily might even be doing the woman a favor by giving her man what he wanted so Bryce would leave her alone.

“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” His hands slipped around Lily’s hips, pulling her ass against his crotch.

“Prudish housewife doesn’t like it when it hurts?” She leaned her head to the side, exposing her neck as she wiggled her butt. Bracing her hands on the wall, she arched her back to rub up against him. This would be the perfect place to do it. Where the witch slept in her inner sanctum.

“Not the way you do.” He accepted her invitation by scraping his teeth down her neck.

She moaned and grabbed his arms wrapped tightly around her, pressing her nails into them. Not as good as raking them down his back, but good enough for now.

Another sound came from above—a thunk on the roof by the chimney.

They both froze.

Lily pushed him back and spun around. Her heart hammered with excitement. In all the haunted locations she’d been to, she’d never experienced anything supernatural before. “What was that?”

“The beating of his heart?” Bryce tried to make light of the situation.

“That’s Poe, not Lovecraft.” The tiny window didn’t provide enough illumination to see into the area they’d just come from. Taking a step forward, she noted an acrid stench that hung heavily in the small structure, turning her stomach. Goose bumps rose along her forearm, and Lily couldn’t shake the feeling that someone, or something, lurked in the unnamable darkness. Despite squinting into the abyss of the cottage, no otherworldly creatures appeared.

“Maybe it’s the pounding of my blood.” He pulled her roughly against him, distracting her. “Or maybe it’s something you set up to make this more exciting.”

That did sound like something she might do, but not this time. She wanted to move around him and check out what was in the rest of the cottage’s shadowy recesses, but the way he was moving his hands over her body was too good to ignore. With a smile, she sank down in front of him, tumbling his pants to his ankles as she dragged her nails down his torso to his thighs and knees.

“Maybe it’s someone from the other side watching us. Wouldn’t that be wicked?”

He glanced over his shoulder and ran his fingers into her hair. “The rest of the group is too preoccupied with setting up camp. And no one else would be out here in the middle of the night.”

“You sure about that?” She teased him with her hands, ignoring how he hadn’t understood her implication. “You know, you’re forsaking the vows you made before God and your family.”

Bryce’s fingers fisted in her hair, giving it a twist.

Loving the pain, Lily fell back on the ground and let her legs fall open. She was still fully clothed, but that could be fixed quickly enough.

“That’s what makes this so damn hot.” His eyes were focused on her as she gestured for him to climb on top of her. “The taboo of it. Knowing we shouldn’t be doing this. And knowing how bad things will go if we get caught. It’s so thrilling.”

With a low groan, he stepped out of the pants pooled around his ankles and moved to follow her unspoken command. She pulled her shirt off. He trailed kisses down her body, and she closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of his lips.

He stopped and jerked up as something hot and wet splattered across her belly.

What the hell? I can’t believe he’s done already! I’m going to kill him.

She opened her eyes, ready to tear into him for not lasting long enough.

But her angry words froze in her throat, replaced by gasps of horror as Bryce’s neck stretched backward, eyes wide and filled with terror. Blood pulsed out in miniature geysers from the long gash in his throat that ran from ear to ear. Warm liquid rained down onto Lily’s abdomen as his mouth opened in a death rattle.

Lily filled her lungs with air to scream, but Bryce’s dying body flopped on top of her, coating her chest, neck, and face in his blood. Her cries for help were muffled even before he was slung from her and a sharp blade tore through her vocal cords.

Chapter Two

We’ve got two dead bodies inside the Old Witch’s Cottage. And from what I heard, it looks like a scene from a horror movie.

Viviane Darby’s description of the witness’s account of the murder victims repeated in Sheriff Rebecca West’s head as she pulled her cruiser into the parking lot of the address she’d been given.

Although she’d just spent a tense thirty hours at the adjacent Noble Lighthouse, this was the first time she’d visited the cottage since the night Alden Wallace had been shot on the nearby dunes. Locke and the late sheriff had hidden in the cottage during her initial confrontation with the Yacht Club goons. Everything that’d happened since then had been a crazy whirlwind that changed the course of her life in ways she never could’ve expected.

Maybe it was something in the water, maybe it was because of tourist season, but since she arrived over a month ago, Shadow Island had been dealing with a lot of craziness. Getting out of her vehicle, Rebecca was filled with a sense of foreboding and wariness just thinking about it all. Like walking on her own grave.

Or maybe it was because of the witch’s curse. Anyone who stepped in the shadow cast on her home by the lighthouse was destined to be cursed, or so the lore went.

It was all stories Rebecca had heard as a child, told over beach campfires and mostly forgotten in the years since. Now she chased real monsters, the ones wearing human faces. She checked over her shoulder to where the lighthouse stood, separating her from the midmorning sun. Best not to think of curses and old wives’ tales right now.

Hoyt Frost, her tall, lanky senior deputy, was waiting for her next to his cruiser. All the station’s cruisers filled the lot.

“What’s going on over there?” Rebecca pointed at the neighboring field, and Hoyt swung around.

Several tents and canopies were set up on an expansive grassy area she’d always wondered about, nowhere near the beach or camping sites. Level and smooth, the field was serviced by the parking lot at the Waterman’s Memorial. Until today, she’d never seen the field used. Now so many people milled around with banners and flags flapping in the light breeze she couldn’t get a good view of what was happening.

Hoyt nodded toward the tents. “That’s the Lovecraft group. They apparently got in late last night and are still getting set up.”

Rebecca frowned as she contemplated the crowds of people carrying boxes and bags, moving up and down open aisles. Tents were set up farther back, with canopies and tables springing up in the area closer to the parking lot. While she’d known this group was coming, she hadn’t paid much attention to the location. That was her mistake.

“I thought it was a convention. Aren’t those usually set up in hotels? Why does this look more like a fair?”

“They might do it that way somewhere else. This is where we set up the conventions that are too big for the hotels or ones that plan to attract tourists and all the consumerism they bring in.” A tug on his hat brim shielded Hoyt’s eyes from the sun. “And from the tables I see going up, that’s clearly what they plan to do. It looks more like a craft show than anything else anyway.”

Wares were being placed on tables at vendor booths. The closest sites had stacks of books, candles, and maps for sale at booths adorned in macabre decorations and some truly disturbing artwork that all seemed to have tentacles as their theme.

“Fans of Lovecraft. I guess that explains why they don’t seem bothered by what we have going on over here.” She gestured at the historic building centered within lines of crime scene tape.

Deputy Darian Hudson gave them a nod as he finished tying his latest line off on a tree.

Rebecca took in the small structure before her. “Do you guys really call this place the witch’s cottage or is that just what you tell tourists? I think I can be considered a local now, so you can tell me the truth.”

Hoyt grunted. “You’re mostly a local, so I’ll let you in on the real story.” He leaned in and peered around in an exaggerated manner before stage whispering, “We real locals actually call this the Old Witch’s Cottage. And yeah, that’s what we’ve always called it.”

She snorted a laugh. “Ah, that makes a lot more sense now. Thank you for clarifying.”

He tapped his hat in a sloppy salute. “No problem, Boss. It’s about time you started learning all our secrets.”

Ignoring his mischief, Rebecca faced the building. “Okay, so this is the cursed cottage of lore. Do you think there’s a link between the name and what we’re here for?”

“God, I hope not.” He stared at a giant, bright purple, tentacle-faced plushy being tied upright to a tent pole. “Whatever the hell that thing is, I don’t want to have to deal with anything even remotely similar.”

She followed his gaze. “That’s a super kawaii Xul’thara.”

Hoyt’s eyebrows came together, and he shook his head in confusion. “Gesundheit?”

She laughed. “It’s a cute version of a god that lives in the deepest ocean. He causes madness because he’s so terrible looking. At least according to Lovecraft, who was the author of several short stories.”

Hoyt acknowledged that sagely. “So someone’s mother-in-law. Got it.”

“Close enough.” Rebecca laughed and led the way over to where Darian waited for them. “Viviane said there are two really icky, messed up bodies in there?”

Darian’s mouth twitched slightly. “Icky? Yeah. You could say that.”

For the first time, she could see the deputy was ashen. His hands clutched at his belt, just in front of his sidearm, and his gaze slid back and forth, not settling on anything. He was spooked and on edge.

“Let’s go see it, then. We can talk literature later.”

Darian nodded and spun around without a word.

She stepped quickly and moved up beside him so she could lower her voice. “You good?”

“I’m good. Just…this is a freak show.” Darian jutted his chin to the side, gesturing toward Locke. He was standing with a tall brunette in cut-off shorts and a striped tank top who he appeared to be keeping upright against the cruiser as she wept.

“That’s who found the bodies. The ambulance is already on the way. She’s not doing well. I’ve seen as bad, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen worse. Certainly not since I returned stateside. Mind your footing.”

The stench of vomit assaulted Rebecca’s nose, and she swallowed hard. There was a pile of regurgitated food next to the post holding a single chain, which acted as a barrier instead of a door. Tall weeds ringed the pole, so it was, thankfully, at least out of sight.

“From her, the woman crying?” She hoped the vomit was hers. If it was bad enough that a seasoned soldier-turned-deputy like Darian had puked from the sight, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to handle it.

“Yeah. She only stopped retching right before you showed up, so we couldn’t get a lot out of her. Not that we needed much. The scene pretty much tells the whole story.”

They stepped past the slick puddle and over to the doorway.

Rebecca didn’t go in. What was visible from the entryway was enough for now. The stink emanating from what appeared to be an abattoir was almost enough to send her running for the bushes.

“Shit!” Hoyt’s startled yelp was unexpected, but she was so shocked she didn’t even flinch as he began batting at the air.

The room was filled with flies and pests swarming around drying splatters of blood that freckled the interior of the small cottage. Tiny piles of orange-yellow globes dotted the floor, and Rebecca prayed they weren’t eggs left by the hundreds of swarming insects.

Though she wanted to turn away, she forced her attention beyond the mess and to the blood-covered bodies propped side by side against the south-side wall. Her brain tried to refuse what her eyes were taking in, and she fought to make sense of what she was seeing. That was never a good thing. It meant her mind was trying to protect her, to give her one last chance to get away before understanding dawned.

She couldn’t do that. It was her job to investigate the horror and make sense of it.

Breathe. Focus. Access. And then catch the bastard who did this.

The woman was shirtless, and the man’s pants were missing, leaving him in his boxers. Both showed definite signs of being dragged to their final positions from the way their clothes were twisted. They’d been positioned so their hands rested with palms facing up next to their hips. Every part of them was covered in bloody spray.

“Where are their heads?”

It was a good question, one Rebecca had been asking herself.

The victims had been decapitated, neck and all, at their collarbones. The blood that had cascaded from the vicious wounds masked the deep slashes covering their bodies.

Almost.

Arms, hands, and legs were decorated in both swirling and straight lacerations. She couldn’t even begin to count the number.

Viviane was right. Headless bodies certainly qualified as horror movie-worthy.

In a world of shadows, a sinister ritual awakens…

Just as Sheriff Rebecca West starts to relax after a harrowing hostage situation, she’s thrown into another demanding case. This one is even more ominous.

Maybe the curse is real.

Shadow Island lore insists that anyone who steps in the shadow cast onto the old witch’s cottage is cursed. But when two bodies are discovered inside the cottage, their heads arranged in a ghastly tableau, Rebecca is more concerned about the real monsters—the human ones who’d commit such an atrocious murder… Read More