Chapter Seven: The Graveyard

The will-o'-the-wisps had brought the spunky, red-headed girl to a realm of fog. Beyond the forests, she had traveled for days, even after she was separated from her horse. She had but a few supplies in her satchel, a sheathed sword, her loaded quiver, and her trusted bow. The fog was chilly, soothing to the pasty sweat on her freckled face. After her castle had been taken and her family's forces were defeated by heinous creatures, it was up to her to seek answers. She swatted at the fog defiantly. A single will-o'-the-wisp glowed and wiggled, beckoning her to step into the hazy abyss. 
"Ye better not be toying with me mind," snarled the princess. She tightened the scarred grip on her bow and readjusted the strap of her quiver. With a huff and a brave first step, she entered the fog. At this point in her journey, she was willing to slay any creature that stood in her way. She was unafraid to wander the wilds that tested her. She was Merida of Dunbroch.
The squishy grass under her feet did little to upset the princess. Her green velvet dress had been stained by mud and torn by claws. Merida never cared for the pristine look. It was a recurring issue that her mother, Queen Elinor, would often criticize. As irritating as she had been long ago, Merida would gladly give anything to hear her voice again. The silly noises from her triplet brothers. The stories of her boastful father. They all conjured sweet memories. She thought of her family not in mourning but as motivation.
Just as her patience withered away, Merida finally discovered where the will-o'-the-wisps had meant to bring her. It was a graveyard where they danced in a circle and squeaked like giggling children.
"What am I supposed to find 'ere?" asked Merida angrily. She ambled past the tombstones, covered in dry vines and dew. It seemed like a dead end but Merida explored what she could. The engravings in each tombstone were faded; Merida tried to read them by wiping off the damp dirt. The letters were strange, some looking more like symbols or glyphs. Merida groaned and glared at the whimsical will-o'-the-wisps.
"What am I missing? Gimme a hint, won't you?" Merida marched over to the ghostly lights that flew overhead like frightened fireflies. As they bobbled onward, they came down to what had to be another tombstone. After biting her lip, Merida sighed and trudged after them. Once she arrived, Merida realized that she had stumbled upon an enormous granite monolith, resembling one of the ancient standing stones from her homeland. The impish lights rose high, revealing the entire surface of the ten foot tall relic. 
Merida leaned in for a closer look. She scrunched her face and tried to make sense of the markings, which looked more like the pages of a storybook. Little devils gathered around a massive pumpkin until a fat monster with a floppy head and a stitched mouth hunted them all. The characters were running and fleeing, at least that's what Merida thought. The fat monster claimed a hill with a peak that dipped and curled into a spiral. Perhaps it was symbolism; Merida had never seen a hill like that in her travels. She read the story where it looked like a tall, stick-like man came to challenge the monster. There was no scene of action but Merida found an image of the monster, dissolving into a scattered mess of tiny insects. At the bottom of the monolith, the stick man held a pumpkin where he was praised by the devil-like figures. Merida pondered on who the stick man could be. His eyes and teeth reminded her too much of a skull's face. Was he in fact the hero of this ancient fable?
Merida decided to read the other side of the monolith. It was smooth and blank. She was about to shout back at the will-o'-the-wisps for wasting her time. Her feet struck a long hard object, hidden in the dark green grass. She tumbled forward, rattling the arrows in her quiver. As she grunted and rose to her knees, Merida glanced over to her shoulder to see what tripped her. She flinched and bolted up to her feet. Her sword flashed out of its scabbard and aimed towards the ground. A lifeless skeleton slumped as if the monolith was its pillow and the grass was its bed. She peered into its hollow eye sockets. It wore a tight black suit with thin white lines. It seemed as if this man once had a particular sense of style, indicated by a petrified bat that was worn as a bow tie. 
Merida poked the skeleton with the tip of her gleaming sword. Its jaw opened, appearing to let out a terrified scream. Merida frowned and sheathed her sword. She crouched down and blew air up her forehead.
"Ye dun seem to be busy. Maybe ye can be better 'elp than these useless sprites." Merida shook her mangy head of curly red hair and smirked. She had to find some humor with her predicament. Shrill cries caught Merida's attention. Behind her, the will-o'-the wisps spun madly in circles.
"Dun be such babies! I'm not the one who wanted to go strollin' into some graveyard!" scolded Merida. Two new lights shined from the fog and hovered close together. Unlike the others in pale blue, these twin lights were bright yellow. Slowly, they crept closer. When Merida noticed that the other blue wisps fled and faded away, she pulled an arrow from behind and expertly aimed with her bow. The string was pulled back tightly. One eye closed. One eye on its target. 
"What are ye?" asked Merida under her breath. As she suspected, a creature had arrived and studied her with its pulsing yellow eyes. It slowly left the fog and revealed its demonic form. Its purple body floated with flimsy bat wings. Its cuffed claws and thick legs made it look like some kind of ghoulish jester. What horrified Merida most was its head, severed by the top half of its jaw. Both halves were somehow tethered to stay close together, opening and closing with no hinge. The creature flung its head back with the top half hanging in between its wings. A hideous heart-shaped symbol appeared brightly on its chest. It was outlined in blood red, with a zigzagging "X" marking on the center. Merida immediately recognized the symbol from the night when her castle was besieged. The monsters had slipped through the shadows and attacked the farmers, merchants, and servants. It was a nasty blur of screaming, blazing hay, trembling castle walls. Merida let out a savage cry when she released the arrow, flying fast like a sharp whistle. The floating monster was struck and fell to the ground. Its claws twitched like the tiny legs of a crushed cockroach. 
Six more sets of glowing eyes surrounded Merida and the monolith. She yanked the arrow from the creature's chest, causing its entire body to shrivel into clumps of pitch black smoke. From one target to the next, the arrow was back in between the bow and the string. Merida waited to determine which of the six targets she would hit first. One swooped over to her like a bird of prey. Merida dipped into a somersault while still holding tightly to her bow and arrow. She fired and took it down. Three more came after her. Merida smacked her thick wooden bow against two of the monsters and shot another arrow into the third. While the clumsy two creatures scratched each other, Merida plunged her sword through them both like the proud double kill of a huntress. The remaining two hovered opened their jaws widely and spat fireballs at Merida. After dodging them, she spotted the two creatures ready to unleash the same fiery attack. She loaded her bow and brought down the one on her left. The last winged creature on her right floated higher and coughed a burning ball. Merida twirled away where it slammed against the monolith. She had her next arrow ready to impale its body. Her back was pressed against the engraved symbols. She looked up, down, side to side, and forward. Nowhere to be found. Merida would not underestimate the same sneaky creatures who hide in the fog and move in the shadows. She spun back around the monolith and searched for her last kill. It was gone. She could only see grass, tombstones, and fog. Merida tried not to panic. She listened to whatever sound or clue would help her. 
KR-KR-KR! Bones clicked against each other. Merida was alarmed but confused.
KRSSSSH! A puff of blistering heat rushed to her face. Merida ducked. She then looked up and found the last creature staring down at her. It flapped its wings and gagged, increasing the size of his blazing breath. Merida fidgeted to fix her aim. She could not find the right spot to take it out with one shot. Its raspy mouth inhaled, seconds from attacking.
FWWWIP!
Something thin and black had reached for the winged creature and pulled it away. It was tossed around and around, forming a burning circle. Then, the hidden figure slammed the creature into the wet grass. The fire was doused. Two long arms, like the legs of a spider reached out and ripped the creature in half. Merida watched its body dissolve in a mixed state of awe and horror. One long shadowy pole stepped in front of her, followed by another. They bent low allowing the figure to reveal his face.
"Why hello, young lady!"
It was the skeleton. It moved. It spoke. It saw her.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAH!" screamed Merida. She sealed her eyes shut and drew out her sword. She thrusted it through what had to be fabric. All she could hear were more bones clicking. No one was grabbing her or trying to hurt her. She tried to be calm and figure out what was happening. She cracked one timid eye open. A tall figure had folded his limbs to be close to her height. The tip of her sword was still piercing his suit. Her view went up to the beaming grin on his skull.
"No need to worry," said the skeleton man.
Merida hissed at him. It did not how matter how charming he spoke or how much of a dapper gentlemen he appeared to be. If something is dead, then it should stay dead, buried in the ground or burned at a pyre. It was just too weird and unnatural to accept. Then again, she had been following a trail of ghostly lights that she did not trust completely. Furthermore, she had firsthand experience with a witch's spell that transformed her mother into a black bear. After losing her castle to horrible monsters, Merida loathed these supernatural encounters. She pulled back her sword but kept a firm grip in case he was the deceptive type.
"It appears I'm too good at what I do best. A blessing and a curse, tis the perfect tragedy," said the skeleton man, flaunting his bony wrist away from his body. Merida was perplexed by his poetic tone. It helped to combat the fear and tension in her shoulders.
"A curse? Is that what made ye like this?" asked Merida.
"She speaks? Aha! Most delightful!" The skeleton man crossed his long arms over his chest. He shrunk his eye sockets as if closing his eye lids. He flashed another bright, toothy smile. 
"Huh?"
"Allow me to make a proper introduction. I am Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town!" boasted Jack, springing to his full height. He spread out his arms, as if waiting for applause. Merida gaped at him, acting strangely euphoric for a dead man.
"Allo-WEEN...Town?" repeated Merida slowly.
"Oh ho ho! Your accent is so adorable. But yes. We used to celebrate a most horrifying, ghoulish, spine-tingling, and nightmarish holiday...Halloween! I was the master of monstrosity, the tyrant of terror, and the frontman of fright! We would wait and prepare all year for the festivities. It was all in good fun, I promise you. Not a mean spirit in our haunting home!"
"Then is this place...where you live?" Merida thought that it would not be too odd to expect a talking skeleton to reside in a spooky graveyard.
"Why no! In fact, we're rather...far...from my home," The joy in the skeleton's voice vanished so suddenly. He rested his melancholy skull into his hand. "You see...it all started when one odious fellow went too far. His name was Oogie Boogie. He kidnapped our kind for his meals. I put a stop to his nefarious games and banished him. We believed we were truly rid of him...that is, until Oogie returned. Our town was attacked by these hordes of awful monsters. They came not to celebrate but to bring harm and chaos. We tried to fight back but there were too many of them. They preyed on their victims and stole their hearts."
"Stole hearts?" asked Merida.
"Well yes. That is what the Heartless do. You can see their symbol on their chest. Most have it. Then you have the Shadows. Tiny little imps...all black but with yellow eyes. I thought they were cute but they're cruel." Jack's description alarmed Merida. Her mind raced back in time to when the Shadows invaded her home and brought a cavalry of creatures with knight's helmets and the Heartless symbol, black with red lines.
"So that's what they're called? Those nasty little beasties!" Merida fiercely drove her sword into the grass. Jack gasped. He could see the trauma in Merida's heaving breaths.
"Then you too have crossed their path?" asked Jack.
"They attacked me people. They attacked me family. Are ye saying that they...lost their hearts too?!" barked Merida, twisting the hilt to drill the sword even deeper into the dirt.
"That's what I was told. We had a brilliant scientist back in Halloween Town. Doctor Finkelstein. I came to him when the Heartless first appeared. He had this book that told the tales of the Heartless, creatures from another world. They hunt for the magic that lies in our hearts. But there's never an end to their hunger. Once a home is overtaken by the Heartless, it falls into darkness and takes everyone into it.
"They're vermin, that's what," growled Merida. "But if you say they're from another world, how did they get 'ere?"
"That's what I set to find out!" Jack swung his fist over his chest with pride. "You see, I have a theory about how the Heartless arrived here, uninvited. Someone or something opened a door between their world and ours." He used both hands to emphasize his idea. "Now, I know all about convenient, safe doorways that can allow a person to travel to a faraway place in a moment. Like from my town to your castle, for example. But the Heartless are using another door, a very special door. It's powerful enough to bridge dimensions. Do you understand?"
"I guess so," Merida hesitated to give a confident answer. She knew of the spirit world from ancient lore, which is where the will-o'-the-wisps came from. "So...to stop the Heartless...we have to find the door...and close it?"
"Seal it! Lock it! Stick a thread into a needle and stitch it tight!" confirmed Jack with a jolt of righteousness, surging through his bones. 
"Then what are ye doing 'ere? Is this where the door is supposed to be?" Merida searched frantically, swinging her tangled red hair like vines.
"I regret to say no. I escaped from Oogie and his Heartless minions just before they took over Halloween Town. I was able to take the book that should have the answers. There is still so much to read." Jack reached into his suit and pulled out a thick tome with ripped edges and a flimsy spine. On what Merida guessed to be the cover, the book had a large faded print of a heart-shaped symbol. Jack slipped the book back inside his rib cage and tidied his suit.
"Oh and...sorry about ruining yer clothes," said Merida sheepishly.
"It's quite alright, my dear. I live to be scary but it can backfire sometimes. I wandered for days until I found these little blue flames."
"The will-o'-the-wisps?"
"That's a darling name to call them! Yes, yes! It has a musical ring to it, no? The will-o'-the-wisps brought me here to this monument." Jack gestured to the monolith. "If I only I could give credit to the artist who wished to honor me. I remember feeling very...sleepy."
Merida crouched to inspect the grass where she found Jack earlier. She picked up crumbled petals of what she knew to be deadly night shade.
"That explains it!" exclaimed Jack. "Do be careful. It could put you into a slumber."
"It's fine," Merida reached under her neckline and pulled out a flat, bear-shaped pendant. "Me mother gave this to me. It protects me from magical maladies." 
"How handy!" praised Jack. "And so then, the next thing I knew, I woke up and you were fighting the Heartless. You were truly marvelous! I was going to let you handle them but then that one beast nearly torched your fiery red locks. It was not my intention to steal the spotlight. I do apologize."
"No, no. You were fine. I actually...should be thanking ye, Mr. Skellington."
"You're too kind. You can just call me Jack. But I lack the honor of addressing you m'lady." Jack swiftly dropped into a courteous bow. Merida giggled and gave a slight curtsy. Her mother would have been pleased.
"I am Merida of Dunbroch," answered Merida, affirming honor in her tone.
"Oh, Merida, the beautiful and brave! Would you do me the honor of joining me in my noble quest to stop the Heartless?" Jack knelt and reached out his bony hand. "I understand what it is like to be the last hope for the ones you love. I will not rest until we save both of our homes."
Merida sensed a knightly presence within Jack Skellington. He was more than just a skeleton who could walk or talk. He did save her and offered answers that she had desperately searched for. If Jack wanted to harm her, there was nothing to stop him. Merida had already figured out that she could not easily kill him because of what he was. She thought about what her family would do. Her father might have bashed the bones out of Jack; her mother would be frightfully cautious and spew harsh words. It was totally up to Merida. She believed it would be wise to travel with someone else who shared the same goal and could also fight on his own. 
"I'll take ye offer, Jack." Merida shook his hand, coarse and cold. It was unlike Jack's personality. He shouted with glee and shot his spindly arms in triumph. "But where do we go now?"
"Let's ask our friends!" Jack whistled, summoning the will-o'-the-wisps from the fog. They chirped and bounced over to Jack where they spun around his body.
"They're like wee puppies to their masters," teased Merida. Jack chuckled.
"Now, now. We have an important mission," asserted Jack to the will-o'-the-wisps. They backed off and hovered calmly. "Take us to the door! Let's find their stronghold and slay the Heartless. For the good of Halloween Town, Dunbroch, and other lands!" As Jack pointed emphatically, the will-o'-the-wisps sunk low and formed a trail. Merida expected him to run off in a jolly sprint. Instead, he looked down and waited for Merida to join him. Together, they followed the glowing ghosts. Together, they left the graveyard and its eerie fog.