Read Gravediggers Online

Authors: Christopher Krovatin

Gravediggers

GRAVEDIGGERS

MOUNTAIN OF BONES

Christopher Krovatin

Dedication

D
EDICATED IN LOVING MEMORY TO THE
P
INE
C
ITY
D
ANCERS

Foreword

From

The Warden's Handbook

by Lucille Fulci

 

 

Chapter 6: Gravediggers

6.c—On the Law of Threes

 

 

T
he job of a Warden is solitary in its very nature. Only with great concentration can a Warden manage her time and resources enough to complete the task of containment. More so, the Warden's profession requires her to dwell in contaminated zones, which are rarely hospitable to husbands, families, or friends (this only strengthens the superstition that Wardens are inherently cruel and antisocial). Gravediggers, however, almost never travel alone, and are specifically known to come in threes.

Obviously three is an important number in enchantment. Acts of karmic violence are rewarded threefold to those who commit them, and Hecate, goddess of witches, is said to have three faces. But why the law of three seems to apply to these rarely used tools of destruction is still a mystery.

One explanation is that a team of Gravediggers must be flexible in behavior and practices to accommodate the danger it's dealing with, and a group of three people creates a full balance. It is not enough to have simply strength on one side and wisdom on the other; the heart, middleman between mind and body, must be represented. Wardens and Gravediggers alike often forget that the true enemy of the world, the one that they've been trained to fight, is karmically repulsive, a creature as repellent spiritually as it is hideous physically. The three-person system of Gravediggers brings a completeness to their role in the obliteration of evil.

Trios aren't necessarily required for Gravediggers. Often greater numbers mean a greater reach. If it hadn't been for all eleven of the Beane Family, the Great Rising of Cairo would have proven a much more horrific event, and there have always been rumors of certain lone Gravediggers roaming the countryside, destroying evil wherever they see fit (see
Annie Oakely
, p. 126). But one only has to look at the great Gravedigger teams of history—Las Matanzas in 1698, the Laumpreck Triplets in 1780, the Fugue in 1861 and again in 1888, and the Richmond Team in 1914—to see that a three-person formation has become something of a tradition amongst the hunters of the cursed.

This, among other things, has put the Gravedigger class at odds with the Wardens. Wardens are solitary and sage, while Gravediggers are social and reactionary. Members of both camps believe that working together is key—Alex Wuttinger of the Fugue famously said, “Three and a Warden is how it's done”—but often, one group rejects the other.

In fact, many Wardens—this author included—believe this warrior to be outdated and brutal, and are currently in talks to have the Gravediggers disbanded. Too often have Gravediggers, driven by boredom and rage, attacked perfectly contained populations of the cursed. Given recent technological and magical innovations, having random three-person hit squads seems unnecessary. However, since their presence was vital during the darker days of containment, they will be covered in this volume. . . .

Chapter One
Ian

O
kay, that's it, let me out. I'm dying here, people!

The bus doors open, and I'm the first person down the aisle and on the dirt. A blast of warm country air hits me in the face, and just like that, the past two hours of boring bus ride are gone, and I'm in it, man, out in the wild, part of the scenery. There's the other bus slowly spitting out kids, there are the flaking red buildings of Homeroom Earth, but I'm all about what's past that, the swaying lines of trees, the knobby rock outcroppings, the mountains a faded purple-green against the endless blue sky, far off but
totally
climbable.

Everyone else is getting off the bus, stretching, starting to look for bags, but all I want to do right now is stand here and take it in. The Montana countryside in the distance is beyond anything I'm used to back in the Wyoming suburbs, where raccoons are the scariest thing a kid can run into on any given day. This place, though, it's built for me, and it's like every second I'm outside is made up of this whole place, like each time I breathe I'm taking the trees, mountains, rocks, sky, into my lungs, and making my body a part of them, so I take it all in, close my eyes and clench my fists and breathe, breathe,
breathe
.

I'm here! I'm ready!
Let's get going!

“Yo, Ian!” Sean Cunningham and Mitchell West, my basketball buddies, leap out of the bus next to me, Sean broad shouldered and flat faced, Mitchell all rake thin, long limbs, and spiky black hair. They're both grinning, cracking their knuckles and necks, and I can tell they're feeling it, too, the total
hugeness
of being out here, the possibility.

“Dude,”
says Sean, pointing at the mountains in the distance, “we're gonna climb that!”

“Hold me back!” I yell, rushing forward, and they both crack up as they grab my arms to keep me from launching headfirst into the forest. I'm smiling so hard it hurts. For the past two years, I've been able to chill with the other guys on my team only at practice, mostly because they live all the way across town and Mom wants me hanging with PJ all the time, but now,
finally
, me and my teammates have a chance to do something cool together, to
rage
out here in the wilderness.

“We gotta keep our eyes out, though,” says Mitch, pointing a finger at me as we wade through our class and dig our bags out of the bus's cargo hold. “Remember: the Pine City Dancers.”

Sean nods hard. “How long have they been out here?” he asks, clueless.

I've had the whole story memorized since Jeremy Morris from the seventh grade gave us the skinny in the cafeteria last week, but I play along, down to hear Mitch tell it again.

“They disappeared last year,” says Mitch, getting all intense and low voiced. “Whole dance troupe from Pine City, Montana, on a camping trip, bam, just
gone
.”

“What do you think happened to them?” I ask.

“No one knows,” says Mitch. “One year later, they still haven't found any of the bodies.” Sean and I share a glance:
the bodies
. Insane. “The camp made up some kind of lame cover story about why they had to cancel last year's Homeroom Earth, and why there were cops and health officials crawling all over the place—”

“Food poisoning scare, right?” says Sean.

“I think it was a bug infestation,” I tell him.

“All lies,” says Mitchell, looking devious. “They're out there somewhere. In a cave, their flesh rotting away, probably getting eaten by wild animals—”

Sean puts his fingers to his mouth and balloons out his cheeks, and all three of us make barfing noises between laughs.

“Let's make a bet,” says Sean. “If I find the first corpse, you guys owe me a month's worth of dessert.”

“Man, you're such a fatty,” says Mitch. “Fine. If I find the first body, you guys have to call me Papa Mitch for two weeks. Failure to do so results in a dead-arm.” We nod. Sounds fair. “Ian?”

Oh man, do I dare? Been on the tip of my tongue the whole season. It might be too much, but hey, we're hanging, and my pass game has gotten way better in the past month, so why not give it a try?

“Okay,” I say, “if I find the first body, you two have to tell Coach Leider that I should start as point guard instead of Kyle.”

Sean and Mitchell look at each other and whistle, but then Sean says, “Deal.” We all put our fists in the middle, bump them as a triangle, and let out a solid “BOOM!” Now it's settled: I
have
to find the first body.

“Day one of Homeroom Earth: Ian Buckley, our perpetual protagonist, takes part in a male-bonding ritual.”

Oh, great.

I look over my shoulder, and there he is, a sore thumb with a chunky black camcorder attached to his face. Immediately, Sean and Mitch moan.

PJ Wilson stands out
hard
in the wilderness—skinny, short, pale, dark under the eyes. On top of that, there's what he's wearing—a green shirt with a bear on it, a tiny pair of cargo shorts, and some ratty sneakers—and how he smells—sunscreen, bug spray, soap, medicine—that make him a walking target. Oh, and the camera, of course. Can't forget that. Even if I tried.

I've got to keep this situation under control. I can't let PJ take too much guff from my teammates—he's my oldest friend, our parents have known each other forever, and he
is
a good dude at heart—but he's not making it easy on me. Come on, you bring a bunch of guys out into the woods, they're going to get a little crazy, and the first thing they'll do is sniff around for the odd one out of the pack.

“Maybe PJ can come with us,” I say to Sean. “How about it, man? Want to get some footage of dead bodies? Remember I mentioned the Pine City Dancers—”

The lens of the camera comes up to my face. “You're kidding me. You actually believe that ghost story Jeremy Morris fed you? Come on, guys, use your brains.”

I look at Sean and Mitch, smiling like
Can you believe this guy?
But I'm too late. Sean's crouching down, scooping something up in his hands, and then he steps forward and puts the biggest daddy longlegs I've ever seen directly on top of PJ's camera lens.

Of course PJ goes bananas, spinning around and slapping at his camera and squealing while Sean and Mitch laugh their faces off and my cheeks burn. When he's finally sure the bug is gone, PJ looks up at us with those big hurt eyes and that huge sad frown that makes his whole head look like an upside-down U.

This is PJ when the camera's off—sad, frightened,
super
sensitive, totally unable to be normal. I'm worried he's going to have one of his trademark panic attacks, but never mind, he's just furious.

“You morons!” he shrieks. “What if that thing had bitten me? And I could've dropped my camcorder! Do you know how much this costs?”

“Really don't care,” says Mitch.

“Dude, your friend needs to get his situation under control,” says Sean, rolling his eyes.

My teammates stalk off, shrugging and cackling, while I'm left with my lame friend who mutters under his breath and goes over every inch of his camera to make sure it's unharmed. Part of me wants to tell him those guys were jerks, but the other part of me wants to snatch the camera out of his hands and spike it like a football so I can watch its seven million expensive pieces fly all over the forest. PJ pulls a square of paper out of his pocket and scans it. “What are those spiders called again? I want to see if they're on here.”

“A daddy longlegs? They're harmless, man. What's with the sheet?”

“My folks made me a list of things to watch out for while I'm here,” says PJ. He glances around the woods, looking as small and scared as ever. “You don't think there are any spores in the air, do you? My mom gave me a mask, like one of those face masks for surgery. She read this thing about spores in
Growing Boy Magazine
, and how if you wear a mask . . .”

PJ goes on about spores and Africanized bees and grizzly bears, but now I'm back to looking at our surroundings, jacking myself up for my time in the wild. In the distance Coach beckons for us to gather round the fire pit, and I almost sprint over to him.

It's for the best that PJ and I are in different activity groups. Not that I don't like PJ, but it'll let us hang out at our own pace, you know? And I won't get filmed the whole time.

Coach Leider stands by the bonfire pit, a stone-lined hole full of ashes in front of the mess hall. He's dressed in a camo shirt, camo pants, a camo hat, and wow, he somehow managed to find camo boots. The other teachers standing next to him—Mr. Harder, history; Ms. Brandt, English; Señora Alanzo, Spanish; Ms. Dean, biology—look tiny and seriously ungreen. Coach is all bulging muscles, fists on his hips.

“Quiet down, all of you!” barks Coach. “Welcome to Homeroom Earth. For the next three days, you will get some hands-on education about survival in the wild. You
will
frolic. You
will
love nature. We clear on that?”

Everyone grumbles approval. Next to me, PJ salutes, then looks to see if I've noticed. I keep quiet. A few more minutes, and Coach will be leading the guys and me on our wild corpse hunt.

“Now, I know you sixth graders were supposed to do this program last year but couldn't because of a bedbug infestation.” I glance at Sean and Mitch, and they both make hands-to-the-throat choking motions. “First off, I want you to know that we've been assured that all of the bunks have been wiped clean of the bedbug scourge. Second, I need you all to pay attention to the Homeroom Earth counselors, got it? They'll need your complete concentration for the next couple of days. You make one mistake out here, disrespect Mother Nature, and
BAM
”—he points a finger and thumb out like a gun— “she puts you in traction. So stay alert, and this should be fun. Us teachers are
stoked
.” He looks at Ms. Brandt, who grins and rubs her hands together. “All right. Now, allow me to introduce you to your program head, Professor Randy.”

Coach steps aside, and this skinny guy with a scraggly beard and a big brown ranger's cap steps up in front of us. “Hey, guys, welcome to Homeroom Earth! Super- excited to have you aboard! From now on, you're my little deputies!”

I look at PJ and roll my eyes. PJ points a finger at his head and fake-blows his brains out. See, sometimes he's all right.

“Before we get rompin' and rollin', though,” says Professor Randy, “I have to tell you the four main rules of Homeroom Earth, 'kay? Rule one: Don't leave the campgrounds and don't stray from the path. This is a nature conservancy, and there are plenty of animals who won't be all that happy if you stumble onto their den. Got it? Super!”

Yikes, this guy's awful.

“Rule two: No personal electronic devices allowed. That includes cell phones, mp3 players, GPS systems, everything. Cameras are acceptable, but anything more complicated than that needs to stay in your cabin and out of sight.” Some of the preppier kids groan. “Sorry, guys. You'll thank us later when a bird isn't building her nest with parts of your iPad. Rule number three: Drink plenty of water at all times. The air is thin and dry out here, and dehydration is a serious problem. And that leads to our fourth and most important rule: If someone's having trouble, even if they ask you not to say anything, please tell one of your teachers or a staff member. Nothing ruins a good time like a burst appendix. Everyone clear on the rules? Fantastic.”

Up ahead, I can see Sean and Mitchell laughing as they make their way to the bunks, but PJ's like an anchor at my side, weighing me down. I've gotta be patient—once we split into our activity groups, I won't see him again until dinner. It'll be great—PJ's the kind of friend who's okay to hang out with as long as it's not all the time.

“We're still sharing a bunk, right?” he asks worriedly.

“Of course,” I tell him. “I'm not going to flake out on you.” Not that the idea hadn't crossed my mind—

“Buckley! Front and center!” Coach Leider appears next to me, all muscles and camo, a huge smile on top of his massive chin. He sniffs the air and waves his hand in front of his face. “Yikes, Wilson, you
sure
you're wearing enough bug spray? No one ever died from an insect bite, son.”

“That can't be true,” says PJ. “I was just watching
Kingdom of the Spiders
with William Shatner, and they talk about how—”

“You know what I mean,” groans Coach. “Go on ahead, will you? I have to talk to your buddy here.” PJ gives me a nervous glance but keeps walking. Coach and I slow to a stop. He crouches down, and his voice gets low. “How you doing, Ian?”

Uh-oh. Coach Leider doesn't use first names. I've only ever been “Buckley.” Something's up. “Fine, Coach. Excited to get moving. We're going for a hike, right?”

“Here's the thing,” says Coach. “Michael McDermott has asthma, and I'm the only teacher here with CPR training. That means that I have to trade one person in my activity group for one person in Ms. Brandt's. You follow?” I nod. He stares at me for a second—he almost looks sad—and says, “I know you were really excited to be part of my group, Ian—”

Oh.
Now
I get it. “Me?! Why
me
?! Sean and Mitch and I, we have this bet going—I wanted to—we were going to—why
ME
?

He shrugs. “PJ Wilson is in Ms. Brandt's group, and you two are thick as thieves. Right? I figured I'd be sticking you with one of your friends.”

“We're not—” The words can't even come out of my mouth, they feel so lousy.
We're not friends
. It's a lie, but right now, missing out on three days of fun with my basketball teammates, I wish it was true. Ugh. And now I'll have to be filmed through all of this trip. “Fine.”

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