Chapter Eight: The Swarm
Time seemed to be excuse itself from Merida's world. She cared not for the hours that passed while traveling with Jack Skellington. He had entertained her with thrilling tales of his time as the master of nightmares in Halloween Town from mixing putrid potions to planning the choreography for a cadaver recital.
Once they entered an evergreen forest, Jack twirled out of sheer joy. He was reminded of a most marvelous night, when he flew around the world and delivered ghoulish presents to children. While his stories were almost hard to believe, Merida enjoyed the vivid imagery.
Jack curiously and impulsively changed the subject to Merida's homeland. She could see the eagerness on his face. And so, she told him about the grassy hills of Dunbroch. She rambled about her culture as best as she could describe it. From haggis to bagpipes, from kilts to castles of stone, Jack was deeply fascinated. He expressed his ardent desire to dress in a tartan outfit and reenact sword fights as an actor. Merida hinted that her family would rather have her invite a wild bear than a skeleton who could talk. Jack insisted however that he could charm any person, alive or dead. Merida snickered and accepted his challenge.
Together, Merida and Jack discovered an abandoned school. An omnious wind howled through the shattered windows. The will-o'-the-wisps gathered at the entrance trail and disappeared. Merida reached for her bow and tried to listen for any suspicious sounds.
"Eureka! The Heartless door must be close," exclaimed Jack, raising an emphatic finger.
"Does yer book mention anything important? Let's have a look," said Merida. Jack pulled out the book from his rib cage and gave it to her. She flipped through the pages and discovered several drawings of yellow-eyed monsters. Most of them bore the Heartless symbol on their body. She likened them to cursed animals, demonic soldiers, or possessed household items. As for finding an answer for their current predicament, Merida did not know where to start.
She flicked her chin upward when she heard the patter of feet and claws from the school. Merida and Jack exchanged suspicious looks. They both heard the same sounds. Merida placed the book into her satchel and nodded to Jack. When he nodded back, they both walked together and headed to the school.
They approached the crooked front doors. Merida pulled them apart, causing them to scrape the concrete step. She stopped, hoping not to cause too much noise. Instead, she slipped through the gap and Jack followed her. Crumbled paper and dead leaves littered the hallway.
Because Jack was much too tall, he had to lower his head and fold his limbs. Merida led the way, creeping past the rusty lockers. She looked to Jack and jerked her head towards the first classroom on his left. She checked each room on her right. Desks and chairs were either smashed, flipped over, or both. As they reached the middle of the hallway, a powerful stench seized Merida nostrils.
"Oy!" Merida tried to hold in her disgust.
"What is that odd aroma?" Jack sniffed. "It would make for a wonderful soup."
"It smells like a heap of horse pies." Merida coughed into her arm.
"It has got to be in this cafeteria." Jack peered into the large room ahead and nodded.
"Where teachers and students gather to dine or socialize," explained Jack.
"Ah. We just call that an eatin' room." Merida shrugged. She turned around and inhaled as much clean air as she could. She then followed Jack into the cafeteria. It had a filthy white floor, covered in discarded food and wrapping. Jack followed the smell and stretched his arm into the kitchen corner.
"Aha!" said Jack. Merida heard a metal clatter.
"Be careful, Jack!"
"I found the pot with the rotten food. I closed it to make it better for you."
"Thanks. But if the doorway is supposed to be 'ere, then where exactly do we need to go?" Merida wandered the spacious cafeteria. Jack snooped behind the counter and explored every nook and cranny. He rose to look inside the kitchen cupboards. Only cobwebs or cans with faded labels.
The setting sun cast its light through the dusty window panes, near the ceiling. Merida shielded her eyes. She could not see her shadow grow tall behind her. It turned thin and long. The head and hair split into two zig-zaggy antennas. It peeled its own body off the floor. The slender shadow came to life and silently approached Merida. Its arm curled back, ready to swing its claws.
"Behind you!" warned Jack. Merida gasped. There was no time to think. She flashed her sword and swung in a full, spinning circle. The shadow had dipped back to the floor. Flatter than paper, it dashed to another open spot of the cafeteria. Merida watched it rise to its feet. Other shadowy creatures emerged from underneath the tables and joined its comrade.
"Looks like we've got a whole batch of beasties to fight, Jack." Merida gripped the hilt of her sword and studied the movements of all the swarming Heartless.
Jack let out a sinister scream, scaring the Heartless away from Merida. This proved to be tactical, giving Jack time to leap over to his royal ally. He crouched low, ready to pounce with a skeleton man's strike.
"En garde, your highness!" cried Jack. He stood back to back with Merida. They focused their attention on the returning shadows. Merida recalled these forms of Heartless from Jack's book; they were Neoshadows, highly evolved forms of the little imps that attacked her castle. The only other word she could remember about them was "swift". She had to keep calm and aim true.
Both Merida and Jack lunged towards their own half of monsters to slay. Merida swung her sword at the closest Neoshadow while Jack came at them with jabs and dancing kicks. Merida growled every time she missed. She countered one attack but the Neoshadows would flatten themselves and retreat. Merida's blade could barely leave a scratch if they were beneath her. She knew she had to hit them while they were standing or in midair. Behind her frazzled clump of red hair, a Neoshadow jumped and spun its whole body, slamming into Merida. She fumbled to her knees and dropped her sword. She fiercely turned back to face her foe with an arrow in her bow.
TWING! It flew sharp and straight but the Neoshadow ducked and slithered back on the floor. Merida stomped her foot and groaned. Meanwhile, Jack could reach the Neoshadows but they clung onto him and pulled him down. He tried to slam them into each other but the damage was minimal. They shook their bodies and surrounded him yet again.
"I can't reach'em!" exclaimed Merida.
"Perhaps we should switch up our style. It takes two to tango after all," said Jack with a smirk.
"What do ye have in mind, Jack?"
"Have you got enough arrows for each one?"
"Aye!" confirmed Merida.
"Then it's all up to your aim. Here!" Jack shot his long arm at the single antennae of one Neoshadow and flung it into the air like tossing a dirty rag. Merida watch it squirm in midair. A cocky grin took over. She fired an arrow into its head. Once it fell, it faded like smoke. Jack let out a hearty laugh and snatched for another enemy. He and Merida repeated this pattern, slaying each Neoshadow. Only one remained. Merida retrieved her sword, climbed to the top of the table and slashed the Neoshadow before it could touch the floor.
As a friendly gesture, Jack raised his thumb to Merida who heaved deeply and laughed. Together, they exited the school through its back doors and stumbled upon a desolate playground.
A disturbing kind of solace took residence in a small plastic replica of a castle. Jack guessed it was some kind of playhouse for children. Merida went over to the dangling swings and then walked under the brittle, climbing bars. The slides lost their color; its paint had already begun to peel. She searched for anything beyond the playground. Nothing but dead grass.
Merida spotted what looked like a hooded child, sitting on a giant play wheel. It was a kind of meager carousel for spinning on its flat side.
"Hey!" Merida called out to the child. There was no response.
"What is it, Merida?" asked Jack. He watched Merida, rushing to the child who had lowered his head. She swung around him and knelt to see his face. She gasped. The child lopped over its limp body. It was not a person but a doll with a painted face.
Suddenly, gears were grinding tightly. Merida was unsure of what it was supposed to be but it came from the center of the wheel. Jack hurried and yanked Merida away.
FW-SHING! By means of a spring trap, the giant wheel snapped in half, crushing the metal handles and the doll.
"I recognize this kind of machinery," revealed Jack, coldly. Merida picked herself up. She did not understand Jack's comment.
BWWSH! The back doors of the school burst wide open. A gargantuan burlap sack waddled outside. Its four corners were pinched and stretched into arms and legs. Somehow, it possessed a fifth corner with a three black spots; two for glaring eyes and one for a large mouth.
"So here I find you! The Pumpkin King himself! And some little girl. At least you managed to save someone." Oogie cackled with a deep throaty voice. He puffed his pudgy belly and sneered.
"How dare you!" shouted Jack. Merida could sense the anger, burning from his chest.
"I'm only in this because of you, Jack! You humiliated me. I found some real friends. They gave me an army of Heartless. All they wanted me to do was sick the Heartless on Halloween Town. Two crows. One Stone. All sweet revenge!" bragged Oogie.
"Enough! You will pay for putting my friends in danger. So out with it! Where...is...the door?" asked Jack, restraining his outrage as best as he could.
"The door?" Oogie pretended to ponder. He spat a long centipede from his mouth like a child blowing his tongue. "Can't say I know what you're talking about."
Merida wanted to clear the fiendish smile off Oogie's face. She fired an arrow. Its sharp tip ripped and scarred Oogie's burlap cheek.
"Don't lie! Tell us where we can find the door that the Heartless use!" demanded Merida.
Oogie covered the rip with his arm and scowled at Merida.
"Don't disrespect me, you pesky brat! Oh Heartless!" called Oogie. A moment of chilly silence lingered.
FWWSHSHSH! Even Oogie gasped when a horde of countless, capsule-shaped monsters burst through the windows of the school. They gathered around Oogie and hovered in midair with buzzing propellers. Merida thought of them as some kind of bee-Heartless.
"Get the girl! I'll deal with 'ol Jack," commanded Oogie. They all darted forward and flew gregariously towards Merida. Jack tried to block the oncoming attack but the Heartless parted their numbers away from him.
"I trained them real good, Jack." Oogie laughed maniacally. He took great pleasure in watching Merida trying to outrun his Heartless forces. She swung her sword to block against them, divebombing like missiles. Jack knew that they only appeared and moved according to Oogie's orders. Jack sprinted over to him and pulled him by the folds of his fat neck.
"Who are you working for?!" shouted Jack.
Oogie giggled and coughed a batch of bugs into Jack's face. Jack let go and tried to swat them away. Ooogie bumped him away with his thick belly.
"The bad boys who felt sorry for poor little Mr. Oogie Boogie." Oogie puckered his lips, feigning sadness. He reached into his mouth and gagged. Jack stood back as Oogie pulled out an ornate pistol. The barrel was crafted into the muzzle of a hound with razor sharp teeth.
"They gave me an early Christmas present too! No receipt needed!" Oogie slipped the tip of his arm around the trigger and aimed for Jack.
BZZZT! A beam of burning red light flew like a laser. Jack twirled away and dodged it.
"Hold still. It'll only tickle." Oogie squeezed the trigger again, only to miss. He growled and fired repeatedly.
BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZT!
Jack bounced, ducked, rolled, flipped, and danced away from each of Oogie's blast attacks.
"Your aim is atrocious!" scolded Jack. Oogie cried in frustration. Jack was ready to lunge and pull the pistol away. Merida cried out from the bombardment of buzzing Heartless. When Jack turned back, just for a moment, Oogie saw this. He knew what to do.
"You're noble, Jack. I'll give you that. Never my style. But I know how to get people like you." Oogie switched targets. His pistol was pointed towards Merida, still stuck in the same spot. She continued to slash her sword to deflect the Heartless. She had no idea about what Oogie was planning.
"Merida! You must move!" hollered Jack. Merida heard him but could not get away. She was surrounded, engulfed in a storm of Heartless. All she could do was hide behind her sword. Jack knew this was not good enough. He had to do something. She still needed to save her home and her family. He had hope for her.
Jack leaped like a frog with his long, springy legs. He landed right in between Merida and Oogie's pistol. He started straight into the blinding red glow.
Merida cried of shock. She dropped her sword and covered her mouth. All the noises of the world, the wailing wind, Oogie's cackling, and the buzzing Heartless morphed into a dull sound, numbing her ears
Her ally and friend, Jack Skellington, stood before her as a coarse, stone statue. This was unlike a motionless corpse that she had assumed him to be from the graveyard. He was cursed. Imprisoned. Defeated. At the very least, he was petrified with a brave look in his hollow eye sockets.
"Jack..." said Merida weakly.
Oogie snapped Merida out of her mind with a roar of laughter. The Heartless backed away, hovering and waiting for their next command.
"Nice guys really do finish last," taunted Oogie. He slowly flopped his fat body over to Merida. She reached for an arrow but flinched when Oogie shook his pistol at her.
"Ha-HA! What a day this has been! I must just bust a seam if I don't stop laughing." Oogie lowered the pistol and gobbled it back up. "I got what I came for. My little trophy. I don't need you. Scram, I say! Or do you want a taste of the Oogie-Boogie-man?"
As Merida tried to raise her bow, the bee-Heartless returned to close in on her.
"Come back when you've made some new friends. I'll have my buzzing buddies show you out!" Oogie swung his arm, cuing the Heartless to attack Merida. She swung away at the few in front of her to clear her escape. She ran as fast as she could. The swarm of Heartless continued to chase her. Oogie remained at the playground where he fiddled with the doll from his wheel trap.
"My stomach is getting a bit rumbly but all the best meals come in good time. Eh, Jack?" Oogie smacked Jack Skellington's stone face and snickered. He continued to amuse himself with Merida, running in the distance. According to his shady eyes, she found refuge inside a remote shack. With a sinister grin, Oogie threw the doll into his mouth. As he munched with his burlap lips, the sky began to thunder and shoot lightning across the gray clouds.
Meanwhile, Merida could hear the passing storm. The flimsy wooden roof seeped with rain. Merida sat in a tight, dry corner. All she could do was bury her face into her crossed arms and agonize over her failures. The wicked weather hammered the sky with no mercy. It lasted for a miserably long time.