Everyone knows Jack is the master of fright, but when a creature knows as the "Bone Collector" attacks one of Halloween Town's citizens, it's up to Jack to put his courage to the test.
The Bone Collector
For as long as anyone in Halloween Town could remember, the Hinterlands had always been a dark and confusing place. No matter how hard you tried to map the area, each path would twist and turn until you were either back where you started or so deep within the woods, you were never seen again. Although he had five extra heads to guide him, Hanging Tree was having a very difficult time finding his way back to his beloved home. In addition, his hanged men - Flip, Skip, Chip, Rip, and Mo - were not helping matters any.
"I'm telling you, town's that way," Flip exclaimed, pointing to the path in the east.
"We passed there three times!" argued Chip. "Town is south from here so we take that path!"
"Told you we should've stopped and asked for directions," grumbled Mo, who was the smallest of the skeletons.
"Who were we going to ask? A rock?" snapped Rip. "We should've gone with my plan and cut symbols into the trees."
Hanging Tree glared at Rip. "Bite your tongue, Rip! That's highly offensive to us arbor folk!"
"At least we wouldn't be lost," proclaimed Skip. "Why did your Aunt Maple decide to plant her roots clear on the other side of the Hinterlands, anyway?"
"It's not everyday that a tree turns 500-years-old, Skip," said Hanging Tree. "We were all invited to her party and it would've been rude if I had left you behind because..."
"We know, we know," moaned Mo. "Without hanged men, you wouldn't be much of a hanging tree!"
The tree chuckled. "Actually, I was going to say because you all suffer from separation anxiety and would've been crying the minute I cut you from my branches."
"Speaking of separation," said Chip, "Do you mind telling Rip to scootch over? His femur's poking my tibia again!"
Chip shoved his bony neighbor roughly. "Is not! Your tibia is poking my femur!"
"You don't even know what a tibia is!"
Hanging Tree sighed heavily as the other skeletons joined in on the argument. "That's enough!" the large tree roared, silencing the hanged men. "Now listen, you five! All this arguing will not get us home any quicker! Everyone just calm down and study the surroundings carefully. Try to see if anything looks familiar."
Reluctantly, the hanged men grumbled agreements and started to scan the area, looking for any signs of the path they had taken to Aunt Maple's. As Mo strained his eye sockets for the right path, he saw a quick movement in the shadows, as if someone had been running. When he looked, all he saw were barren trees. "Uhh, guys? I just saw something move!"
The other hanged men and Hanging Tree looked in Mo's direction, then all around. "I didn't see anything," said the Hanging Tree.
"We didn't either," said Rip, casting Mo and annoyed glare. "Which means that, once again, little Mosey is seeing things and wasting our time!"
However, Mo wasn't convinced. "No, really! I saw something move! I don't think we're alone out here..."
Before anyone could answer, a strange sound filled the air around them. A rapid whirling sound came from all directions, sending their minds into a panic.
"Wh-what is that?" asked Chip.
"Sounds like a helicopter..." said Rip.
"What's a helicopter doing in Halloween land?" asked Flip.
"Is someone there?" cried Skip.
Hanging Tree turned, scanning the trees for the source of the sound. "Where are you? Show yourself!" Before any of the hanged men had time to scream, a silver blur came hurtling towards them.
* * *
Not far from the Hinterlands, Jack Skellington was tracing his bony finger over the numerous titles on his bookshelf. He had spent the entire day with the Mayor once again going over the plans for next Halloween. Being the Pumpkin King had always been a stressful job for Jack: holding auditions, coming up with new ideas for frights, and going over costume designs was only a handful of what Jack accomplished that day. Right now, all he cared about was settling down in his electric chair with a good book and warm cup of pumpkin cider.
"Let's see," mused Jack as he studied the bookbindings. "Read it...read it...read it, read it, read it...ah, here's one." Jack pulled out a black bound book with red and silver lettering. "The Terror of Captain Bloodhook. Great, I could use a comedy!"
As he was heading to his chair, he looked over to see Zero gnawing away at a curved bone that looked very familiar. Opening up his shirt and jacket, Jack peered inside to see that Zero had snuck off with one of his ribs again. "So that's where it went," he muttered. "Zero!"
The ghost dog looked at his master with soulful eyes and recognized his master's tone immediately. He dejectedly gave the rib to Jack who placed it back in his ribcage. The skeleton just chuckled and shook his head. "You know, Zero, if you need something to chew on, all you have to do is ask." Jack went over to his chair and pulled out a shriveled arm that he kept from the day's prop discussion. He had decided to take it home as a gift for Zero. Seeing his new toy, Zero did a back flip in the air as his master tossed it to him. The ghost dog caught it neatly between his teeth, then floated back down to his bed and continued chewing.
"Boy, what a day," Jack sighed as he sipped his cider and got himself comfortable. "But at least it's over now, eh Zero? Nothing left to do but rest and relax."
Just as he was taking another sip, the wailing cat alarm interrupted his thoughts. In surprise, he spit out his cider, spraying it all over poor Zero. After a few good coughs, he went to the window to see what the problem was. In the town square near the fountain, he saw Hanging Tree flailing his limbs around in a panic, shouting something. Many of the residents had come out to try and calm him down, but the tree looked severely spooked (and not in the good way).
Jack sighed and shook his weary skull. "Never fails. Whenever I get a moment to myself, something comes up. Come on, Zero, let's go see what's wrong."
* * *
Jack made his way through the crowded square as more citizens came out to see the commotion. Hanging Tree was certainly the center of attention, every limb shaking violently. It was hard for anyone to get close without being whacked by one of his branches.
"Please! Somebody help!" he cried frantically. "It was terrible! Horrible! Oh, why did this happen? WHY?"
Thanks to Jack's nimbleness, he was able to get close enough to the tree without being struck by a branch. "Easy there, Hanging Tree!" he said sternly, but with a hint of comfort. "It's all right! You're safe now. Now please calm down before you knock us all unconscious."
Seeing the Pumpkin King standing before him sent a wave of relief over Hanging Tree. "Jack! Oh, thank goodness! You have to do something! It almost got away with them all!"
"With who?" Jack asked. Now that they weren't flailing around, Jack noticed that the hanged men were deftly silent and that there were only four of them. "Hanging Tree, what's wrong with your men? They've never been so...quiet before. And isn't there one missing?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you!" Hanging Tree began pacing as he told the events. "We were walking home from my Aunt Maple's root day party when we got lost in the Hinterlands. As we were trying to find the right road, we suddenly heard this strange sound whizzing sound."
The clown nearby snickered. "He said whiz," he whispered mischievously to Behemoth. Jack silenced him with a scornful look as the tree continued.
"The sound got louder and louder like something was spinning. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a dark figure standing in the shadows. Then WHOOSH! Something flies by my head and before I know it....Mo's gone!"
Jack noticed that all the hanged men shuddered simultaneously. He turned back to Hanging Tree. "Did you see what the figure was?"
Hanging Tree shook his head mournfully. "When Mo was pulled from my branches, the figure disappeared too! Then I heard bones rattling. I was so scared I was rooted to the spot, literally! Then all was quiet and when I looked for Mo...this was what I found!" Hanging Tree reached behind him and there, in a pile in the tree's branchy fingers, were the remains of Mo. Every bone and joint was disconnected and sitting upon the pile was Mo's skull.
All the citizens present gasped in horror at the sight. Even the clown found it disgusting and retched in the fountain. Jack merely stared at the pile of bones held before him. As a fellow skeleton, he could only feel the deepest empathy. "Did you check to see if all the bones were there?"
Hanging Tree nodded. "Yes. I managed to find at least 200 bones. Please Jack! You've got to help him! My hanged men won't be the same without Mo!"
"Yes, I noticed," said Jack looking again at the silent brothers. He then turned to the crowd and pointed to Behemoth. "Behemoth, go the pumpkin patch and get your wheelbarrow. We'll need it to take Mo to Dr. Finklestein's. Willa, Zelda," Jack said, addressing the two witches who ran the Witch Shop. "Take Hanging Tree here and try to whip up something for his nerves."
A worried look came over the tree's wooden face as Jack took the bones and placed them in the wheelbarrow. "It'll be ok, Hanging Tree," the Pumpkin King assured him. "If anyone can fix Mo, the Doctor can. I'll have someone fetch you the moment he has recovered."
* * *
Jack paced back and forth outside the laboratory, recapping the events in his mind. So far, the only clues he had to the crime were a dark figure, a whizzing sound, and some flying object. It wasn't much to go on without Mo's testimony. Zero, meanwhile, was concentrating on Wicca, the stray black cat that lurked around Halloween Town. Wicca had been coming to the laboratory a lot to visit with Sally since she was the only resident who never tried to scare her. Zero watched the cat as she groomed herself on the wall, letting out a small growl whenever they made eye contact. The cat hissed in return.
"Zero, be nice!" snapped Jack, causing the ghost dog to whine as if saying "But I was only playing!"
The door to the lab opened and, much to Jack's relief, Mo was standing before him in one piece, although he still looked frightened. Sally walked beside him with an arm draped over his shoulders, doing her best to comfort him as she led him to Jack.
"Mo!" said Jack happily. "Oh thank heavens! How's he doing?"
Sally looked at the scrawny skeleton sympathetically. "Hard to say. He was missing a few parts, but luckily, the Doctor had some spares. As for telling us what happened, well..."
Mo started to shake violently as he hugged his ribcage. "N-no...s-scared...t-tree...s-scared..."
Jack knew this symptom too well. The same thing happened the last time Hanging Tree's men ran away from him. They were scattered all around the graveyard, shivering and muttering nonsense. "Separation anxiety. All the hanged men suffer from it. They can't stand to be away from Hanging Tree. Let's get him back in his noose and then maybe he'll give us a clear answer."
When Jack and Sally escorted Mo to the town square, they saw Hanging Tree surrounded by other citizens who had come to see what was wrong. The poor tree was bawling loudly while the other hanged men just swayed to the movement of his branches. Even a mug of the witches' snake and spider ale did not ease his pain. Upon seeing Mo, Hanging Tree let out a whoop of excitement and took the small skeleton in his branches, hugging him tightly. The witches had been nice enough to make a brand new noose and, in no time, Mo was once again hanging from his branch. All the other skeletons immediately came back to life (for lack of a better term) and bombarded Mo with questions.
"Mo! You're back!"
"What happened back there?"
"Who was that guy? Wait, was it a guy?"
"You're back in one piece now, right Buddy?"
Jack raised his hands in an attempt to keep order. "Settle down, everyone! Settle down! Let the skeleton speak! Now then, Mo, did you get a good look at your attacker?"
The skeleton shrugged and scratched his skull. "Well, I didn't get that great of a look. It all happened so quickly. I remember seeing a hood and some weird metal thing before I blacked out."
"Perhaps I can shed some light on the matter." The crowd turned to see Mr. Hyde, the town's historian, making his way to the Hanging Tree. Tucked under his arm was a thick book entitled Creatures of Halloween. "When I heard about your encounter, Hanging Tree, I took the liberty of doing some research while waiting for Mo to recover. Now, you said you heard a whirling sound of some sort, like a helicopter?"
Flip nodded. "That's right."
The second Mr. Hyde popped up from under Hyde's hat and asked, "And that the figure wore a dark hood over his face?"
"Uh huh," said Mo.
On cue, the third and smallest Hyde popped out from the second Hyde's hat. "And that it held some strange metal object?"
"For the love of skulls, yes!" cried Skip impatiently. "Do you know who our mystery freak is or not?"
The other two Hydes disappeared under Mr. Hyde's top hat as he flipped through the pages. "It's just as I thought. You were attacked by none other than the Bone Collector!"
Mr. Hyde turned the book to the Hanging Tree, showing a picture of the Bone Collector. It was a dark, hooded figure standing upon a large hill of bones. In its black gloved hands it held a long chain with a sharp sickle at one end. The crowd broke out in low whispers and gasps.
As Jack stared at the picture, a strong chill ran through his bones. If he had a heart, it would have been racing a mile of minute. "B-but that's impossible!" he muttered to himself.
"Yes, the Bone Collector," continued Mr. Hyde, "a being so dark and mysterious that even the bravest creatures fear to face him. It is said that he walks the Hinterlands every night, searching for his next victim. He is called the Bone Collector because, naturally, his victims consist of skeletons." Jack shuddered and prayed that no one saw his moment of discomfort. "Whenever you heard his sickle chain being spun in the air, then it's far too late to save yourself. Letting it fly from his hands, he uses the sickle to latch on to the ribcage of an unsuspecting skeleton, then drags the poor soul into the darkness. When the Bone Collector is finished with you, he leaves your bones in a pile and that is only if you were spared. Many times, the victim is never heard from again. No one knows why he takes the bones. Some say he uses them for horrific spells; others say they are like trophies he mounts on his wall; but most believe that he devours them, crunching each bone and sucking the marrow out of..."
"Thank you, Mr. Hyde!" snapped Jack. "I think we all get the idea!"
"This is terrible!" cried Willa, the tallest witch. "I always thought the Bone Collector was just a legend!"
"It is just a legend," said Jack sternly. "There has never been any hardcore proof that the Bone Collector actually exists. I'm sure this is just some horrible prank..."
"Prank?" cried Mo hysterically. "Hey, I like a good trick as much as the next guy, but I did not find being ripped apart at the joints and left to rot amusing!"
"It is strange that a Bone Collector was seen tonight," mused Mr. Hyde. "The last time there was a sighting was nearly twenty years ago, Jack, when you..."
Once again, Mr. Hyde was silenced by Jack. "We don't need to go into that right now, Mr. Hyde. Let's just focus on this."
The crowd began to murmur, wondering how to handle this turn of events. The Mayor, sporting his happy face, stepped up on the fountain wall and tried to calm the crowd. "Now, now, everyone! There's no need to panic! Jack has been our Pumpkin King for many years and not once has he ever let us down. If he says that there really isn't a Bone Collector, then we should take his word for it. And first thing tomorrow, Jack will go out into the Hinterlands to find this culprit posing as the infamous villain."
Jack turned to the Mayor, shocked. "I will?"
"Of course, Jack," said the Mayor. "You are the Pumpkin King, after all. Nobody can out-fright you."
Jack wrung his hands nervously. "Well, yes, but I really don't think there's any need to..."
"Please, Jack," begged Hanging Tree. "You have to! What if that lunatic tries to sneak into town? You have to protect us!" The crowd burst into agreement, dishing out various pleas. Jack looked among the citizens, knowing that they were right and this was his responsibility.
"Very well," he said softly. "First thing tomorrow, I'll go and investigate. Right now, I think everyone should go back to their homes and get some sleep. Mayor, have the ghosts patrol the town perimeter tonight and keep an eye out for anything suspicious."
The crowd departed, feeling confident that their beloved leader would handle the situation. Sally, however, knew that something was troubling Jack. She always knew. "Jack, is everything ok?" she asked as soon as they were alone in the square.
Jack chuckled nervously. "Of course everything's all right. Why shouldn't it be?"
"I don't know. You just seem upset, that's all. And what was Mr. Hyde referring to? What happened twenty years ago?"
Jack took Sally's hand and patted it reassuringly. "It's nothing you need to worry about, Sally. Really, everything will be all right. You better get back to the lab before the Doctor gets upset."
Before Sally could say another word, Jack was already heading for his house, leaving her alone and confused. She would never say this to anyone, but for a moment, Jack almost looked...afraid.