Earth was split up into different districts ruled by different Royals. The most prominent Royals were the Old King's three daughters - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella - who each reigned their own districts. They didn't grow up together, each being born to different mothers, but they were very diplomatic with each other now that they reigned as Princesses. At one point, they had all been married to the infamous Prince Charming at the same time, who had been found out when he was coronated as a King in all three districts. He now stumbles around in the dark somewhere in the Grey.
That's what happens to criminals in Ever-After - since no-one really dies.
They pass from the world, exceptionally by unnatural causes, and then are reborn into another family of the same race. No-one new comes around often. Not unless they come through the Grey - which usually meant they stay they also, being abnormalities in the realm.
So criminals and miscreants - Undesirables - are exiled.
Another district was ruled by the Beast Prince and his wife Belle, but it was essentially a militarised one. Made sense: since it was the only exit point from Earth to the Grey.
But all of this was highly irrelevant to Bleeding Joel.
He didn't need to go through the arduous process of lengthy journeys. All he needed was a mirror. Wolf had asked to tag along with him, but with the trolls under the Bridge and the Beast Prince waiting on the other side - Joel had declined.
Things always worked out far more smoothly if you didn't have an aggravated, eight-foot tall wolf tearing everyone to shreds.
It was night when Joel passed through a cracked mirror in a dark alleyway in Snow District, grunting in pain as he climbed out, the cracked glass cutting a small wound through his trousers. He shook himself off and wrinkled his nose at the smell of rotting garbage, before walking up the path to the main road - his boots clipping on the stone pavement. He regarded the tall, wide buildings with mild awe. The home he shared with Wolf was big - bigger than it needed to be - but it wasn't half as pretty as the ugliest house on this street.
Joel shrugged to himself and mumbled, “Now to find Snow White...”
He took a hand-mirror from his back-pocket and looked into it. Blank and plain, showing his own muted reflection. Normal.
“Don't screw with me,” Joel said threateningly.
The mirror sighed and the face of a crooked old man appeared in the glass.
It had been some time since Joel had stolen the Magic Mirror from Snow White herself. Bloody Mary had told him that it was the only mirror in any kingdom that could find anyone, anywhere in a set realm, unless they were guarded against it through enchantment. It used to be a full-sized mirror, but Joel had managed to transfer the dormant mirror-wraith into smaller accommodations for more portable use.
The Magic Mirror had an insufferable way of irritating Joel, however.
When the old man didn't say anything, Joel said, “I need to see-”
“No,” the old man shook his head, “You know the rule.”
“I haven't got time.”
“And I have nothing to lose.”
“Really? Are you asking me to smash you?”
“If you smash me, how will you find whoever you're looking for?”
Joel swore under his breath, but groaned, “Mirror, mirror, in my hand. Show me the fairest in the land.”
The old man furrowed a brow, “Who's screwing with who now?”
Despite himself, Joel laughed, “I'm not screwing. I need to see Snow White.”
“Well, go on then.”
“Are you serious?”
“I'm always serious.”
Joel sighed, “Skin white as snow, hair black as night - show me a mirror near Snow White.”
“Was that so hard?” the old man chuckled and disappeared, leaving the image of the closest mirror to the princess - a full-length mirror in her wardrobe.
“Is it enchanted?” Joel asked suspiciously.
“I only show what can be seen,” said the Magic Mirror.
Joel muttered under his breath, but said, “That's all for now,” and slipped the hand-mirror back in his pocket.
He walked back up to the cracked mirror in the alleyway and tried to avoid the crack as he stepped in. He tried to visualise the looking-glass the Magic Mirror had shown him and ran through to it until a door opened in the infinite whiteness behind all mirrors and he slowed down and slipped through it.
Joel found himself in the wardrobe that smelt heavily of expensive perfume and everything felt soft and silky. He opened the door, stepped out and looked around. The Princess's room was painted a light blue, a double-bed leaned against one wall, see-through curtains trailing around it and a dressing-table sat in the corner with another oval-shaped mirror.
Joel curled his lip in distaste at the slight red sheen it had to it - an enchantment that guarded against spying and essentially trapped any mirror-wraiths that entered it.
That was what happened to the old man in the Magic Mirror. It looked like Snow White was looking to find herself a replacement.
Just then a servant-woman came in, dropped the items in her hands, ran out and screamed.
Joel rolled his eyes irritably and walked out.
As the fifteen or twenty guards came thundering up the steps, their armour clinking and clanking, Joel whistled idly waiting for them. Each of them dressed in royal blue livery drew their swords and waited for a fight.
“I'm Bleeding Joel come to see Princess Snow White,” Joel said, “I believe she is expecting me.”
The guards looked at each other, and then roughed Joel down the steps, through the lavish corridors, to the throne room.
It became clear to him that Snow White's favourite colour was blue.
Joel was introduced by the court-jester and he stepped onto the long rug and beheld the fairest in the land.
Fairytales really did have to stop over-selling.
'Skin white as snow, hair black as night' or 'ebony' in some descriptions - that was how everyone narrated the appearance of Snow White. But her skin was not 'white' - it had a slightly rosy pigment. Her hair was dark, but not as 'dark as night' or 'ebony' - more of a dark brown with highlights of lighter shades. She was still blindingly beautiful, but inaccurate. Joel was disappointed. No-one spoke of her eyes of the deepest ocean blue or the rose-red shade of her full lips, or the elegant neck that held a dark choker upon it. Nor the deep cleavage that she was unashamed to throw around.
Joel would never hear the end of it from Wolf if he told him about this!
Joel laughed inwardly.
Like that was going to stop him.
Princess Snow White rose from her burnished throne and raised the hem of her dark blue dress as she stepped gracefully down the steps. If she was waiting for Joel to bend his knee to her, she was to be sorely aggrieved.
But the princess didn't say anything, she just curled her lip and said his name, “Bleeding Joel,” she had a voice of a stern woman, deep-throated and loud so that it boomed and echoed in the throne room, “thank you for coming.”
“I haven't got time for pleasantries,” Joel replied, “Just tell me what you want, settle a price and I'll be out of your hair.”
“A pity,” Snow White smiled sweetly, “I'd quite come to like you. A man who is not in awe of me.”
“Oh, sorry, did you want me to look somewhere other than your face? Wolf told me it's rude to do that.”
Snow White's left eye twitched, but she kept her calm, “Very well, to business then,” she paced around her room, the length of her garments dragging across the floor, “I don't know what news reaches the Grey, but even you must have heard that my half-sister, Rose Red, has gone missing.”
Joel hadn't, but he said, “So?”
“The perpetrator of this act is a Creature of Chaos sent by Chaos himself. Do you understand what this means?”
“Can you please stop asking questions and just get to the point?”
“It means, Mr Wraith, that Chaos seeks to return to our realm!” Snow White shouted, “If he returns, he will consume everything and destroy all that we have sought to preserve.”
“And why should that bother me?” Joel asked, “I'm an Abomination. My kind would be free under his reign.”
“You honestly believe that? Chaos comes to destroy everything.”
“Wolf told me that he ate best when Chaos was around. And as soon as the Chaos left, a Woodsman split his stomach open, filled him with stones and threw him in a goddamn river!”
“The Big Bad Wolf, Mr Wraith, is an exception.”
“We're all exceptions! We always have been!” Joel said, “That's why we live in the arsehole of the world! That's why we live in the Grey.”
Snow White sighed, “Are you declining the job before I've even offered it?”
“Depends on what I'm getting for it.”
“Oh, I can guarantee a substantial amount of wealth and even a place to stay in my kingdom should you succeed and bring my sister back,” Snow White said, “but also, information about your true heritage.”
Joel paused. After Bloody Mary had taken him, he had never been told which family he had actually belonged to. Up until this point, he didn't think it was important. But now...
“What does Chaos want with Rose Red?” Joel asked, taking more of an interest.
Snow White smiled, “Rose Red, poor dear, was inhibited by a fairy spirit. She is the most powerful witch of all the kingdoms of Ever-After. I don't know exactly what Chaos wants, but I can assume that he seeks her power to make more of his Creatures. You must journey to his realm and bring her back before he can do this.”
Joel looked away, “I'm no saviour.”
“Desperate times,” Snow White said, “I know you have no love for us, but we must still exist for you to resent us. If Chaos comes, that will be at an end. Your friend, the Wolf, will try to kill you as he killed your mother, Bloody Mary.”
“What's his realm like?”
“I don't know. Anyone who has traversed there has never come back and has never been reborn,” Snow White sighed, “but fear not. I will send with you my very able-bodied hand-woman,” a flash of light, “Gretel.”
A six-foot tall woman stood before Joel, and he had to look up to her. She was dressed in full military gear - the red and black colours of the Beast Prince, Joel noted - from her toes to her chin. A large sword hung at her side, and she had luxurious blonde curls and bright green eyes.
“Gretel,” Joel said, “as in Hansel and Gretel? I'm supposed to go with them? What are they going to help with exactly - dislodging the Candy House sitting in the middle of the Grey?”
Gretel furrowed her brows.
“Laugh all you like, Mr Wraith,” Snow White said, “but Gretel is the finest warrior in the Earth kingdom.”
“And her possibly ten-foot-tall brother?”
“He... will not be joining you, I'm afraid,” said the princess.
“A shame. Old fat boy would have made perfect live-bait,” Joel said, turning away from the princess and walking his way out, not caring if Gretel was following or not, “Bloody come on, then. We'd better get moving. Don't want to be late to my own funeral.”