Ricky Smart was a young explorer and had never visited the Cackaricko Catacombs before. But he knew of the legends surrounding the mysterious burial grounds and all that they supposedly contained. So, despite his wariness of the undead, he was quite eager to accompany the elders of the Castle of Smart when they elected to take him with them to the Catacombs to visit the tomb of the Smart ancestor who had recently passed away.
The two Elders, the matriarch named Street and the patriarch known as Book, marched in front of Ricky up the paved path that led to the Catacombs. The young pioneer held with him his adventurer’s pouch, which contained an energy recovery potion, his crossbow, and a lantern. It also contained, at the behest of Elder Street, a few small tourniquets which she insisted he carry with him when he went adventuring in case he tripped and injured himself. He was slightly nervous but also excited about exploring the grounds that stood adjacent to the old and decaying Cackaricko Church on the small hill overlooking the town.
The two Elders suddenly departed from the path and veered to the right, past one of the many long rows of headstones that stood in the grassy field. Ricky followed them. Eventually the Elders stopped in front of a freshly-carved marble slab that lay flat and level with the ground. They looked down at the stone with reverence, motioning for Ricky to do likewise.
“There she is, Ricky,” Elder Smart said to him. “That’s where your great-grandmother lays now.”
Ricky looked down at the stone and the patch of dirt that surrounded it. “How come there isn’t any grass around it, like with the other tombstones?”
“Because this is freshly dug,” Elder Book informed him. “She was only buried here last week. So the grass was just planted and hasn’t had time to grow yet. All the other gravestones have been here for a long time.”
“Oh okay. I was worried maybe her corpse was possessed of some kind of evil energy that poisoned the ground or something, making it impossible for anything to grow on the surface.”
“No, Ricky. Where on Earth do you get these ideas?”
“Can I explore the rest of the graveyard?”
“Okay, but don’t go too far. Meet us back here.”
Ricky wasted no time in dashing away from the tomb of the ancestor Smart, determined to find for himself what secrets the Catacombs contained. The Elders looked after him wistfully, then back at the memorial they still stood before.
“Honestly, do you think he should be running around this place?” Christopher Smart asked his wife. “He could get hurt. When I was his age, I once knew a kid who dislocated his shoulder tripping over a headstone.”
“He’s nine years old. He needs to get that energy out of his system somewhere,” Jenna Smart answered. “Better here than a place that has a trampoline.”
The Cackaricko Catacombs beckoned to the young explorer with their vast, sprawling grounds that were dotted with bare, darkened trees and lined with headstones of various shapes and states of disrepair. The purple sky hung over him as he examined the premises. Ricky was on the lookout for any creatures of the catacombs who would not be pleased with the intrusion of a living human soul.
The stories he had heard were too enticing to be dismissed as fiction. Supposedly the graves contained horrors of unimaginable evil; creatures that rose from their resting places at sundown and wandered the surface, secret chambers containing decaying bodies and wily spirits, and mazes of darkness that would drive any adventurer to madness. But the legends also alleged the presence of treasures in the graves; wondrous secrets and riches that any explorer worth his salt would venture to find.
Ricky ran down the paved road that ran the center of the Catacombs and bisected it into halves of equal size, until it reached a large tomb in the center of the grounds and encircled it. Then the path continued further into a vast expanse that Ricky could not see the end of from his current position.
He went off the well-traveled path quickly. The rows of headstones that lined the field were what intrigued him enough for him to abandon the relative safety of the asphalt. They each had some interesting engravings on them; information about souls long lost to the world, when they lived, whom they loved and what conquests they had embarked upon. Even the stones that were too faded to read fascinated Ricky; what mysteries were buried beneath them?
He had little time to contemplate the unknown. Just as he was making his way further up the Catacombs, he heard the menacing squawks of birds close by. He froze; his senses heightened. He took out his trusty bow and readied an arrow, determined not to let anything get the jump on him.
It did, despite his best efforts. As soon as he felt the scratch of sharp talons on his back, he whipped his head around to face the beaked beast that was assaulting him.
“Die, feathered freak!” He screamed as he fired a shot at its face, then quickly shuffled away from his attacker as it squawked in pain. He ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction so as not to give it a chance to resume the battle, for he only had a limited number of arrows in his quiver. The graveyard surely had its evil occupants, but he was there for the thrill of discovery and not the hunt. He had no desire to engage them.
No sooner did he reach the next row of gravestones than he heard more angry squawking. His breathing became more labored. Whatever evil was festering in this resting place of souls had surely been awakened, and was making it clear he was not welcome. The squawks continued, becoming angrier and more intense. He readied another arrow.
Suddenly he felt a pinch on his ankle. He yelped in fright and looked down. A young gray wolf, small but frothing at the mouth and staring at him with eyes full of malice, was facing him down.
“Gaaahhhh!!!!!” This time Ricky’s impulse was flight over fight; dashing past the gravestones and up the hill further into the Catacombs and away from where the Elders had shown him the tomb of his ancestor. Surely there was hidden within the tombs a source of all this evil, and he had to find it if he had any hope of survival.
Jenna heard the yelling from her son further down the graveyard and looked up from the ornate headstone she was admiring. She could not see her son at the distance he was from her, but his screams were familiar to her.
“Is he getting into fights with squirrels again?” Christopher asked.
“Either squirrels or crows. When they get too close he shoots them with his little Nerf gun. I tell him to stay away from them and they’ll leave him alone, but he always insists that they’re evil wolves and are out to get him.”
Christopher shook his head. “First thing we do when we get home is cancel our Netflix subscription.”
Ricky escaped from the snarls of the wolf that struck him, but he was now deep into the Catacombs and was no closer to finding the hidden source of all the evil that was corrupting the place. All around him were simply rows and rows of headstones that all looked the same; there were few distinctive markers to be found, and no sign of any entrance to a crypt or passageway. Worse, the angry cries of birds were not abating, and he could no longer see where the Elders were at the front of the graveyard. It was getting late in the day, the sunlight was visibly starting to wane, and the crisp evening air was beginning to set in.
Not knowing or caring what direction to go in, as they all looked equally fruitless, Ricky ran past some older tombstones towards a large mausoleum that he saw in the distance. It piqued his curiosity more as he got closer to it. But suddenly, another wolf jumped out at him, scaring him into the opposite direction as he ran until his legs felt they would soon fall off. Then, his foot suddenly struck a hard slab of marble, causing his whole body to heave forward, launching him like a cannonball and landing him face-first onto the cold Earth. As he crumpled on the ground, he could hear the barking beast getting closer.
He could not bring himself to get up immediately, despite the threat that was approaching. It was only when he opened his eyes and saw what was in front of him that he felt any drive to continue on.
“Ricky!” Jenna yelled, “Where are you? It’s getting dark sweetie, it’s time for us to go now!”
“Mooommmm!!!!” She heard her son scream from many yards away. “Look at what I’ve found!”
“Ricky, we told you not to go too far,” Christopher hollered. “You should not be running around this place!”
“Dad! You have to come see this! Hurry! There are wolves after me!”
Jenna and Christopher followed his yells as best as they could, eventually finding their son laying in front of a small headstone near the back of the graveyard. Jenna examined him and he did not appear hurt, though he was apparently out of breath and looked scared.
“What is it you wanted us to see, Ricky?”
“This!” Ricky pointed at the headstone. “Look at the name that’s on it!”
His parents glanced at the stone, and though the engraving was a bit faded, they could read it easily. It bore the name F. Luther Smart on it, with the dates 1839 – 1864 underneath it, and “U.S. Army” at the bottom.
“Is – is that someone from our family?”
“Is it?” Jenna asked her husband. “Did you have any relatives who served in the Army during the Civil War?”
“I – I don’t think so,” Christopher got up closer to the stone and squinted at it. “On second thought – I think my grandfather did mention an ancestor of his who fought at the Battle of Spotsylvania, though I’m not sure if he was killed there.”
“Did you know his name?”
“No. But, my family’s been in this area for generations. I don’t know of any other Smarts that lived around here.”
“Way to go, Ricky!” Jenna patted her son on the back. “This is a very good discovery!”
The young adventurer beamed slightly. But his smile quickly faded as he glanced around the catacombs and realized that it did not explain the presence of the evil that plagued the grounds.
“Mom!” Ricky jumped up and ran away from the gravestone. “The two of you need to get out of here! I have to rid this graveyard of the poison that plagues this land!”
“Dad said this was an ancestor of his! He died in the war; that means his spirit is restless and thirsty for blood! All those beasts I saw earlier were a warning from him to his descendants to stay away!”
“Ricky come back here, it’s fine, there is nothing evil in this graveyard!”
“It’s all EVILLL!!!” He hurriedly weaved past the rows of tombstones back toward the paved path that bisected the grounds. “I have to cleanse it! I need a shovel!”
“No, Ricky, come back here!” As she chased her son through the cemetery she shot a glance at her husband. “Soon as we get home, the Netflix is gone. HBO Max, too.”