Cinderella, Jack Sparrow, and Master Gracey entered Tomorrowland and were quickly assaulted by two fuzzy blurs babbling gibberish. Gracey, still floating, held out his hands to help the pirate and the princess to their feet.
"What the bloody hell are those things?" Jack pointed at the blue and pink creatures. He withdrew his sword, only to have it sniffed at and licked. "Are you making untoward advances at my cutlass? It's a sword, not a harlot, and should be afforded such dignity." After wiping it on his shirt, he re-sheathed it, albeit with a curled lip and narrowed eyes.
Cinderella laughed and hugged Stitch and Skippy. "They're aliens, two of Tomorrowland's citizens. This is Stitch…" She gestured to the big-eared blue creature, who waved in turn. "… And Skippy." He waggled his antenna and burbled. She got down on a knee, eager to hear them out. "What's wrong, fellas?"
Leaning in towards Gracey, Jack whispered, "They look like giant roaches."
The aliens continued to chatter and squeak, slipping in random English here and there. "Plant… Big! Monsters!" They took her hands and ran forward, leading her to The Carousel of Progress.
On their way, they passed Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. The sign, however, kept morphing, changing from its current name to If You Had Wings, then If You Could Fly… then Delta Dreamflight… just Dreamflight… Take Flight, and back again, like some mechanical glitch. The Wright Brothers' plane zoomed out and over the Representatives' heads.
Cinderella gasped. "It's like the old rides are fighting to come back."
Stitch and Skippy wouldn't allow the trio time to ponder this, though, instead dragging them towards The Carousel of Progress. When they got there, they found John and Sarah standing frozen and pale in front of their home. Cinderella, Jack, and George's expressions soon matched the couple's. All they could do was stare in awe at the building now covered in vines, lashing tentacles, and snapping green mouths.
"Sarah, dear," John gulped, "did you overwater the ferns?"
She slowly shook her head, unable to come up with a snappy retort. "That…" She pointed at one of the tentacles. "That was what got Jimmy and Patty."
All of them turned and ran to the Arcade. The doors and front windows had been smashed apart, leaving huge shards of glass and jagged metal scattered across the walkway. Store shelves had been tossed aside, merchandise destroyed, and machines broken. Sparks fizzed up from video games and ripped power cords. In the center of it all was a huge, gaping hole. Looking in, they could see a tunnel. It stretched out of the store with no clear end in sight.
Jack Sparrow crouched down and picked up a leaf and a bit of shoestring left at the pit's edge. Long, deep, flat marks, punctuated with hand and foot prints, led into the passageway. "That's interesting." He stood up, took out his sword, and pointed it at the tunnel. "Obviously, the great beastie kidnapped your younglings and dragged them off into the depths of the earth." He fingered his belt, twitched his lips, and jumped into the pit. "Onward then."
John and Sarah quickly followed suit.
"Wait!" Cinderella held out a hand. "It's pitch black in there. You won't be able to see a thing. At least let me get some torches."
"Fine," Jack conceded. "But be quick about it, lass. No telling how far the monster's gotten. Time is of the essence." He sniffed. "Smells like fertilizer in here. It's a well fed plant, so hopefully it's not munching on your offspring."
Sarah pulled back an arm to hit him, but John held her back.
"George," Cinderella turned to Gracey. "I need someone I can trust to stay here and let the others know where I've gone."
Flabbergasted, he looked from the waiting group back to her. "Princess, it's dangerous!"
"I know," she smiled. "But my people are counting on me. I'll be back in five minutes with supplies. It's just a quick trip to Main Street's sword making shop, and flashlights are abundant in the maintenance closets. Skippy and Stitch can keep watch over the hole."
The ghost put a hand to his chest. "And what am I to do? Being dead doesn't automatically make me useless."
"No," she put a hand on his shoulder. "It makes you an extremely valuable asset. Consult with Madame Leota. She might drum up some clues we can use. Wish us luck." With that farewell, she was off for Main Street.
"Easy sailing, Georgie boy," Jack tipped his hat to him. "Contrary to previous disagreements, I must say you're not so bad… for a dead man." He grinned.
George returned the smile. "And you're not quite the cowardly, self-centered scoundrel I mistook you for, Captain." He bowed before vanishing.
Seconds later, the ghost materialized outside of The Haunted Mansion. He was taken aback when he saw a new attachment to his home-a glowing square building half the height of the mansion. Above its doorway was a large sign that read in curling bat and skull decorated letters, "Museum of the Weird."
"That… certainly is peculiar." He decided to leave it unexplored, however, until he met with Leota. She'd probably have an explanation, anyway.
The level of bizarre was kicked up a notch when he stepped inside the house. Expecting stillness, he was greeted with a cacophony of shrieks and screams and laughter. Ghosts he'd never seen before were running about, chasing decapitated heads and severed limbs, flying around the ceiling, and opening and closing hidden panels. Two huge, hairy arms reached through a trick opening in the wall and tried to grab his neck. George swatted at them until they withdrew.
"What, are you all barbarians? What is going on here?"
"Oh, heh-hee, they're just… excited, sir, heh-heh."
George looked around, but couldn't find the source of the voice. "And what the devil is Peter Lorre doing in my house?"
"Who?" The voice was a perfect imitation of the actor. "I'm the Lonesome Ghost, heh-heh, your friendly ghost guide. You're just in time for the wedding, sir. Are you with the bride or the gloom—er, groom?"
"Wedding? What wedding? And if there's any ghost guide around here, it's me! Is this Constance's doing?"
"Constance? I'm afraid I don't know the dear lady, heh-heh. Is she related to the Blood family?"
"Considering all of the in-laws she's gained over the years, who knows?" George pushed past, ignoring chatter about a wedding and celebrity guests. An all too familiar looking vampire "blah!"ed in shock when George stomped through him, making him spill a glass of blood. Next to him, the half-mask wearing Phantom clicked his tongue in disapproval at the Ghost Host's behavior and offered a handkerchief.
He didn't mind the ghosts throwing parties; after all, he was game for any swinging wake. However, he was perturbed by the dozens of total strangers in his home, especially those he was sure were infringing on copyrights. Despite his confusion, it was all familiar in a way, like a memory of a dream, or an early childhood recollection where only fragments could be snagged. This was all getting too bizarre, even for his liking.
From the main hall, he heard someone weakly shouting his name. He ran to the source, finding the coffin ghoul, jiggling the casket's nailed top as he usually did.
"Oh, man," the zombie rasped. "Boy, am I glad to see you! Well, part of you. Lid blocks most of your face." He grunted, giving another shove, and then gave up the endeavor. "Things have been going on out there, man. Stuff that's weird, wild, and freaky!"
"You heard the pandemonium in the foyer?"
"No, in the séance parlor."
George's breath hitched and he stiffened. "What happened?"
"No idea. Heard glass shattering. Shouldn't be out of the usual 'round here, but it gave me the heebie-jeebies. I hope Miss Leota isn't in trouble."
George was already dashing away. His worst fears were confirmed when he stepped into Leota's chamber. There was no sign of the psychic, her glowing, green form gone. Chunks of curved glass littered the table. Candles had been knocked over and tarot cards were scattered. The spell book had been thrown off its stand and now laid face down on the floor. All of the floating instruments were blaring off key notes, adding their own chaos to the scene.
Picking up pieces of the crystal ball, he started to quietly cry. "Oh, dear, sweet Leota…" He didn't wipe away the tears, letting them flow freely. Even the instruments went quiet as if ashamed of their behavior. "You were always my best friend, my greatest confidant." His frown twisted into a snarl. "Whoever did this shall pay. I'll see they hang!" he pounded a fist down on the little tabletop, making the rest of the fragments bounce.
A pained wheeze shoved its way into the darkness. "The coward's way. He chose a coward's way."
"Leota?" He looked at her chair, expecting to see her sitting there.
There was a figure now seated on the cushions, but it wasn't Madame Leota. Instead, a pasty, bone-thin old woman was at the table, vaguely waving her gnarled hands in the air. Her glazed over, pale gray eyes followed something only she could see on the ceiling. "Coward's way, coward's way," she intoned again, slowly weaving from left to right. "He chose a coward's way."
"Who did?" George leaned down, trying to look into her eyes. "What coward?"
She didn't even notice him. "Coward's way… Coward's way…"
Frightened for his friend and frustrated beyond proper social conduct, he gripped her shoulders and shook her. "What are you rambling on about, woman? What coward? Who!"
Above him a new voice croaked, "You'll get no help from Madame Z. She's mad from visions and blind to thee. If you'd like clues, just talk to me."
George looked above Madame Z's cowled head at the back of her chair.
Sitting atop it was a red-eyed raven. It had always been there, but he couldn't recall it ever talking. "He came up from behind, that nasty fiend, and smashed her 'fore she could even scream." The bird's voice was somewhat like Leota's if she had laryngitis. "Then whisked her away to a world of dreams deferred, so sayeth I, the guiding bird."
"Who was this monster? Where is he?"
"His name isn't known to me, for he was gone before I came to be. I'd try the attic for some hints. More clues will be your recompense. Others appeared from his land of limbo, including discarded spooks and a bride who's a bimbo."
The "bimbo" note was a little mean, but George wasn't about to look a gift bird in the mouth. "Then it's off to the attic I must flee. Thank you, bird. You were a great help… to me." He smirked, his mood lighter with the confidence he could rescue his friend.
Children had been snatched, and now a ghost was spirited away. When the dead had to fear for their (non)lives, the night had become very dangerous indeed.
Since Wendell had volunteered to tell the Tiki Room birds, pirates, and other Adventureland natives what was going on, Henry ambled alone through Frontierland. The bear had already visited his beloved Grizzly Hall and was now on his way to Splash Mountain. The closer he got, the brighter the scenery became. It was as if two dozen street lights had all been pushed into the far end of Frontierland and lit with mega-watt bulbs. It was getting louder, too, with hollers, gun shots, and inauthentic Native American war cries coming from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. A train whistle punctuated the racket, but that noise was normal. The other stuff was disconcerting. Henry had never heard it coming from the rollercoaster before.
"Now what in tarnation is all this flim-flam?"
The right half of the mountain was bathed in the glow coming off of a whole other new peak connected to it. It was double the size of Big Thunder, with boxy boats traversing a river that wound around and through it. Humans, including Native Americans, cowboys, and people in all styles of Wild West attire, were scattered around the rocky hills. Some were fighting, others were dancing, and a group of bandits were even trying to rob a bank. There were also farm animals and horses being terrorized by rattle snakes and coyotes.
A sign shimmered into being on the closest directions post. Underneath "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad" appeared "The Western River Expedition."
Henry pushed his claws under his top hat and scratched his head. "Now that don't make a lick-a sense. Western River Expedition got cancelled decades ago." He remembered that, for a while, the enormous would-be attraction had even been listed on park maps until it'd been given the axe. This was due to a mix of reasons, including budget cuts, changes in social awareness, and a demand from guests for the pirate ride that was so popular in California. He scrunched his muzzle in confusion. "This whole mess just keeps getting' weirder and weirder."
In his out-loud musings, he didn't hear the jangles of spurs and sneaky boot-steps behind him. By the time his ear twitched at a faint squeak, a lasso was already sailing over him. He jerked, his arms pinned to his sides with rope. "Hey!" Another hoop dropped down around his neck and tightened, making him gasp and choke.
The cowboy who'd thrown the first lariat tugged hard, trying to pull Henry to the ground. "Looks like we caught us an escaped circus bear! Look at his silly hat!" He laughed, and the rest of his posse joined him.
"Aww," cooed the one who'd tossed the neck noose. "He thinks he's people. Want to try to talk, li'l' feller?" He gave a sharp pull and Henry saw stars. Tongue lolling out and gasping, the bear tore at the ropes.
That was when three new figures stepped up behind the gang. The biggest bounced the end of a hand, or rather, paw-carved club on his palm. The one in the middle curled his lips back, revealing glistening fangs. The smallest of the trio simply grinned and jumped up on the head of the first cowboy, tapping out a fast rhythm with his oversized feet. Right before he would've been grabbed, he sprang onto the head of the second cowboy, laughing at his own mischief. He shoved down the hunter's hat, making him let go of his rope. Then he was bounding again, a brown blur making the cowboys dive into one another in their efforts to catch him.
Henry twisted around, got free, and smiled at his rescuers. Br'er Bear was swinging his club, scaring off a few of the humans, while Br'er Fox snapped his jaws at the others who weren't getting the hint. With Henry's help, they rounded up the remaining men and tied them up with their own ropes.
Br'er Rabbit settled on the sign post, casually leaning against the pole, hands in the pockets of his jeans. "Tch, tch!" his clicked his tongue against his buck teeth. "Where on Earth did y'all learn such bad manners? That ain't how we treat folks, 'round here. Isn't that right, Br'er Bear?"
Br'er Bear growled. "Dat's right. You need to learn how to be more neighborly," he drawled.
"You know what might be a good lesson, Br'er Bear?" Br'er Fox turned to his partner in crime, all of his fangs showing in a huge, hungry grin. "I say we… hang 'em!"
"Nuh-uh," Br'er Bear shook his head. "I say we knock their heads clean off." He waggled his club.
"Skin 'em." The fox licked his lips. "Right before we roast 'em."
Henry stepped forward, feeling a bit of pity as the cowboys trembled. "Now boys, we're not some blood thirsty wild animals…" He dusted off his hat and put it back on.
Br'er Fox looked up in surprise. "We're not? Since when? I'm a blood thirsty wild animal," he thumbed his chest. "A mighty hungry blood thirsty wild animal." He turned back to the gang. "I could sure go for some thigh meat with ribs on the side. Maybe some fried tongue for dessert." He leaned in close to one of the men, and the cowboy let out a girlish squeal.
Two buzzards in undertaker garb started circling overhead. "Don't forget to pluck out the eyes for us," one hissed. "And we're quite fond of dead man's toes," quipped the other. "Dead man's toes! Dead man's toes!" they sang and cackled.
With a proud sniff, Br'er Rabbit thumbed his pink shirt collar. "I knows what we should do! Let's flings 'em in the briar patch."
Br'er Bear scratched his head with his club. "Briar patch?"
Cutting his eyes over at the rabbit, Br'er Fox shot him a fierce, suspicious glare. "Is this one of your tricks?"
"Me, trickin' you?" Br'er Rabbit feigned shocked. "Br'er Fox, you're far too clever for that and you know it! Why, I was suggestin' it because it'd do all the work fo' you. Them thorns would slice 'em real good, sure enough. It'd even give you some nice shish-ka-bobs, and that's real fancy digs right there." He winked at Henry.
Completely oblivious to the quick gesture, the fox licked his lips. His mouth watered at the thought of tasty shish-ka-bobs. "Sounds like a good plan to me. Come on, Br'er Bear," he flung his skinny arm forward and led the way.
Br'er Bear grabbed the end of the rope, dragging the men behind him like a child with a tug along toy. He knit his big brow together in deep concentration. "I still say we should knock their heads clean off."
When the duo was out of hearing range, Henry turned to Br'er Rabbit. "Will they be okay?"
He clicked his tongue twice. "The most they'll get are some scratches, but they'll be fine. Ain't no place safer than my briar patch. My kin'll help 'em get away before that fox figures out they're gone." His buck teeth glinted in the moonlight when he grinned. "Of course, after what they did to you, I don't think I'd mind so much if Br'er Fox got his meal."
"Now, now, you know that's not how we do things," Henry playfully chided. "No one was seriously hurt and that's what matters." He rubbed his still sore neck. "Though I can't thank you enough. You fellers got here just in the nick of time."
"We keep an eye on our own, 'specially when things start gettin' strange." Br'er Rabbit grew quiet, stroking his chin in thought and balancing on his left foot while he scratched his ear with his right. "And that place over there sure is mighty peculiar. Where do you 'spose it come from, Henry?"
The bear shrugged. "I don't rightly know, Br'er Rabbit." For almost a minute, he stared at The Western River Expedition mini mountain range. Another empty boat splashed down a short flume before disappearing into a cave. Those cowboys had definitely come from there; Pecos Bill and his friends had never tried to hurt any of the Frontierland critters. "Y'know, it's almost like seeing a ghost…" He wrinkled his nose. "A ghost of something that didn't really die… because it never really lived."
"Tch tch! Sounds like one of Old Scratch's riddles. Never really cared for riddles myself. Everyone always expects there to be just one answer. If you don't have more than one way to get out of a problem, then you're in deep trouble."
From within the briar patch, howls of pain pierced the night, punctuated by the tearing of branches and britches. "Now lookie here, Br'er Bear, you done got me stuck again—YOW-HOW-HOW!"
Henry chuckled. "Speakin' of trouble…"
Br'er Rabbit shook Henry's paw. "Yeah, I best be goin'. Those mangy critters will be out soon, lookin' to gobble me up." It was said with the most pleasant of tones, as if he looked forward to the chase. "I'll let everyone on Chick-a-Pin Hill know what's going on. If you need anything, Henry, just holler and I'll be there, lickity-split." Hands in his pockets, he casually hopped away, singing to himself and throwing in some whistles where he forgot the lyrics. "Born and bred in a briar patch…"
Before heading to Adventureland to meet back up with Wendell, Henry turned a full three-hundred and sixty degrees to make sure none of those cowboys were around.
George Gracey didn't duck when a bevy of bats flapped right through his face. They fluttered out a broken window. Some disoriented stragglers crashed into a pile of junk, which sent a tower of books and candelabras toppling. He couldn't move; he was frozen in bewilderment.
Between stacks of presents and wedding portraits, more stuff had appeared-dusty old props he could recall from the ride's past decades. Ugly, but familiar, faces sprang in and out of sight. These were the infamous pop-up ghosts who had once called the attic home. They resumed their old pranks as if nothing had ever changed. As startling as they could be, though, the pop-ups weren't what held Master Gracey in stunned silence.
At the other end of the attic, three ghostly brides, all of them with glowing red hearts showing through their white gowns, were arguing. Well, two were arguing. The third, whose face was shrouded completely in darkness save for a pair of yellow eyes, apparently didn't have a mouth, or simply didn't care to debate. She stood at the side, looking from one bride to the other as they shouted, wringing an unlit candle in her thin hands. The silent one, George remembered, had been there until the mid 1990s.
To her right, and doing the loudest shouting, was the third and previous attic bride. She was a young woman, with flowing white hair, and usually a benign disposition. She was also dark blue, but that was neither here nor there. Fans called her "Emily," and she had no qualms with that. Old fashioned, sure, but better than "No Face," like her predecessor.
The woman she was arguing with was a stranger… Or was she? True, she was a bride, complete with veil, and even had white hair like Emily, except it was stringy. Her face was hideous, though. Head practically a skull, her glowing sunken eyes barely illuminated the rotten flesh of her cheeks. It was all George could do to not recoil back in horror with an ungentlemanly "GAH!" at the sight of her. Gross as she was, there was something vaguely familiar about her. He tried to wrack his brain. Their appearance had to do with Leota's disappearance.
The Haunted Mansion's attic had gone through more changes than any other room in the house, yet guests knew a bride had always been there since opening day. The current resident, Constance, was part of that… constant. And of course, the piles of possessions had always been an element of that atmosphere, coated in cobwebs and dabbed with dust. Like the brides, the pop-up ghosts had gone through changes. New mechanics slowed them down when Emily was brought in, and they were given less scary faces and tattered tuxedoes in place of their white shrouds. They'd been there from opening day to until Constance moved in. And where had Constance run off to?
"I'm telling you," the decayed bride waved her bouquet in Emily's face, "this is my attic. I was here first!"
Emily shoved away the flowers, crossed her arms, and cocked her hip. "Well, I certainly don't remember you. Do you remember this worm food?" She looked at the faceless bride, who snapped her gaze down at the candle wick and nervously picked at it.
Ah, now George remembered. The corpse-like bride had been the first to occupy Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion. However, she was quickly replaced with the faceless beating heart bride, who in turn lost her place to Emily, who would soon be booted out in favor of Constance Hatchaway. But that still didn't answer some very important questions.
Striding forward, he made the dead women stop and look his way. "Stop your bickering at once, ladies. Tell me, what's going on? Where is Madame Leota?"
Emily snorted. "Don't know, don't care. I'm just happy to be back in my…" She shot a glare at the first bride. "… attic."
He shut his eyes tight and pinched the bridge of his nose. "What happened to Constance?"
"Oh." Emily twirled a lock of hair and jerked her chin towards the room's exit. "She ran out. This pirate appeared, waving around a cutlass and calling himself Captain Gore. Then he started laughing about chopping up his fiancée and stuffing her in a wall. Well, that apparently set her off."
"Another husband for her collection?"
"No… She took off after him, swinging her hatchet and yelling, 'You like chopping up pretty little girls, huh?'" Emily raised her own arms, pretending to wield an axe. "'Wait 'till you see my hobby!'" She dropped her arms and shrugged. "Even gold digging murderesses…es…murderettes…killers have their standards, I suppose."
Flinging up his hands in exasperation, George moaned, "I've never even heard of this pirate. And I'm not any closer to discovering where Leota is. The bird said I'd find clues here." Suddenly he stopped. Then he blinked. "Of course. All of you are clues, all of you who were once here and later removed. The pirate and the Museum of the Weird were never part of the mansion, though." He furrowed his brow. "What if… But what if they were meant to be at some point?"
As the others watched, fascinated and confused, he paced back and forth. "I remember… Long ago… That raven was going to be another host, which is why he's in almost every room. The idea was scrapped late in the process, right around the time I was created." With a snap of his fingers, he straightened up. "That's what the bird meant when he said 'before his time.' The monster that stole Leota never lasted beyond the ride's planning process. He doesn't know him, I don't know him, and you don't know him," he pointed at the brides, who were by now slowly starting to back away. "He was merely a concept, like Captain Gore and the Museum."
The corpse bride curled her discolored lip. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Perhaps." George tapped the tips of his fingers together. "However, if we discover what brought you back, I believe we'll be on our way to finding the Madame and the monster."
A/N: I wanted to give Imagineer Ken Anderson a tribute with this chapter since I feel he doesn't always get the recognition he deserves for his work on the Haunted Mansion. That might sound sweet, but I didn't realize how much research that would actually entail. In his (excellent) book, The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, ex- Imagineer Jason Surrell covers only a tiny portion of the concepts Anderson came up with for the ride. So for a while, I was trying to scramble bits and pieces of incomplete info together. I have several Disney park books at my disposal, but my greatest reference aid has always been my dear Werecat Boy. Once again, he came shining through and pulled up so many fantastic articles and pieces of concept art to share with me. Thanks to him, not only did I get in my tribute, but more ideas got added and this chapter is a few pages longer than it was originally going to be.
Long note short: Go read Werecat Boy's stuff. It's fantastic and he knows his Disney lore inside and out.