Joel had half-hoped that Gretel wouldn't make it passed the Beast Prince. Why would he just chuck his best warrior to the Grey after all? But, as it happened, the Beast Prince let Gretel across the border, knowing that she was 'running an errand for Snow White'. She also made it passed the Bridge, killing not one, not two - but three trolls to do so. On her own.
So when she showed up on his doorstep - not a hair out of place - Joel sighed and decided that hope is such a sad, sad thing.
“You made it then,” Joel said, trying to act nonchalant, “Brilliant,” he extended an arm mockingly to let her in.
Gretel stared at him for a moment, and then stepped into the living room without saying anything - her armour clinking with her when she moved.
Wolf was sitting in his normal place, a lighted cigarette between his knuckles, and raised a brow at Joel, “Who's your friend?”
“This is...” Joel said, “Snow White's idea of 'help',” he raised his hands in an air-quote, “Gretel, the Big Bad Wolf. Wolf, Gretel.”
Gretel folded her arms, cocked her head to a side and remained silent.
Wolf furrowed his brows, put the cigarette between his lips and took a pull, “Candy-house Gretel?” smoke streamed from his nose.
“Yes,” Joel said.
Wolf tapped his cigarette to make the ashes scatter, “I'm never going to let this go.”
“I know you aren't.”
“So now that you seem to have lived out your silent tantrum since you got back,” Wolf said, “Can you tell me exactly what the hell you and Deadly Ginger Bread Girl are supposed to be doing?” he stood up, stepping on the cigarette to put it out, “And aren't you going to get her a drink or something?”
“I'm not feeling hospitable.”
“And I'm never hospitable, so go and get her a drink.”
Joel rolled his eye, took a quick journey to the cellar. He didn't even know why he disapproved of Gretel. Something about her unnerved Joel, made his head hurt. Joel shrugged off the feeling and brought back a bottle of wine - finding Gretel and Wolf sitting around the coffee-table.
Against his usual rule of not talking and staring in disdain at everyone, Wolf was talking and talking and talking to Gretel.
She smiled slightly at him, but said nothing.
“Really?” Joel said, unsurprised, gripping the back-rest of Wolf's chair and holding the bottle in one hand, “Your hitting on every kingdom's finest warrior? Really?”
“You had your chance, mate,” Wolf laughed, taking the bottle from him, uncorking it with his teeth. He then spat the cork out and took a swig.
Joel folded his arms, “I thought I was offering Gretel a drink.”
“Oh, that,” Wolf waived the remark away, “I lied.”
Gretel laughed silently.
“You'll have to excuse him,” Joel said to her, shaking his head, “He doesn't know what manners are.”
“Oh, and Joelie-boy does!” Wolf retorted.
“Anyway,” Joel said, “Snow's sister, Rose Red, has gone missing-”
“So?” Wolf replied, “You're not a hero. You're a killer. Unless she wants her sister dead?”
“Sorry, go on.”
“Snow suspects that it was Chaos that took her, since she's the most powerful witch in Ever-After. She wants me to go and get her back from Chaos's realm, Kalis.”
There was a long pause.
Wolf stared at Joel, “Okay, so when am I meant to laugh?” he asked.
“It's...” Joel sighed and sat down, “not a joke.”
“Do you even know even know how to find Kalis?” Wolf asked, seriousness suddenly darkening his face, “Or what it's like in there?”
“No,” Joel said.
“So why did you say you'd do it?”
“She said... Snow White said she'd give me money and legitimate stay in her realm and... she said that she could tell me about where I came from.”
“And you're going to Kalis, for just that?”
“Don't you tell me that I don't know what it's like!” Wolf growled, “I've been down that hole. Me. The Big Bad Wolf. And even I barely made it out with my life!”
“You've been to-” Joel held his head, “When were you going to tell me about this?”
“Never, if it could have been helped!” Wolf barked, “Ever since your mother died-”
“Ever since you killed her!” Joel pointed out.
“-I've done everything I could to protect you from that kind of harm.”
“I walk in almost everyday with a broken limb-”
“And you walk into a mirror and it's all fixed.”
“It still hurts!”
“Not the point!” Wolf pounded a fist on the table, “You go to Kalis, Joel, and you won't be the same. Kalis will destroy you and nothing - not me, not your mirror - can cure you after that damn realm is done toying with you.”
“But... But Snow said that if we don't get Rose back, Chaos might come back.”
Something about Chaos's return seemed to deeply disturb Wolf, his eyes became glazed over and faraway. He looked away, silenced. He stood up and walked up to the coat stand.
“Bigs-” Joel tried.
“Shut up, Joel,” Wolf snapped, taking his coat and getting out of the house.
Joel watched him go and then looked back at Gretel, a hand to his forehead.
“What about you?” he asked, “How do you feel about going into the Kalis?”
Gretel looked up at him from where she was sitting, her face impassive for a moment, and then she just shrugged her shoulders slightly.
“Can't you talk?” Joel asked.
She shook her head.
That was strange. The people of Ever-After didn't tend to have disabilities, not unless it was duly connected to their stories (like Jill's brother, Jack, who walks around with a massive dent in his skull). Gretel must be enchanted to not speak. But Joel didn't let it bother him.
“Well,” Joel sighed, “I guess that's what Wolf would call the dream: women who can't talk...”
Gretel made a face like she would punch him.
“Sorry,” Joel said, smiling sheepishly, “There's loads of spare rooms, if you plan to stay over. Make yourself at home. I'm going to see if I can find Wolf.”
Gretel nodded and Joel stepped out of the house, shutting the creaking door behind him.
Joel took a deep breath and stepped into the Dark Forest, following the tracks of a large man's shoes left in the soft, damp soil. Wolf got angry a lot, but rarely because of Joel. Joel trudged through the dark, pulling his clothes around him as the temperature dropped. His teeth chattered and his breath became visible, the mucus in his nose freezing. He looked up, finding consistency in the dark boughs of black-leafed trees.
“Dammit,” he shivered, “Wolf!” he called.
Instead of gruff growling abuse he expected, a scream pierced the air - wrenching and twisting all the nerves in his mind so that Joel dropped to his knees in pain. Then a rustling-clicking sound followed, and Joel could only mutter curses under his breath.
“Wolf!” he cried again.
A cloven-footed creature stepped into view.
“No,” Joel muttered, shutting his eyes, “Not the Devil, no.”
But he looked up to find the fleshless head of a ram with large curled horns upon a man's skeletal body - his feet hoofs and his hands sprouting four long digits but caved in down the middle - and leathery wings sporting from his back, flapping with menace. And whenever it moved its knobbly joints, they clicked in and out of place.
The Jersey Devil looked at Joel through his empty eye-sockets with interest, champing his mockingly smiling teeth together. A whispered, unintelligible voice crept into Joel's ears, making him whine and whimper in fear.
“Wolf...” he whispered.
He felt the Jersey Devil's cold breath on the back of his neck, could hear the chattering teeth, the whispering language that tormented him, when-
The Jersey Devil screamed again, accompanied by a fearsome growl. Joel's head cleared and he looked up to see the Devil slammed against a black tree by a ferocious wolfman. The Devil clicked its visible vertebrae, all the bones refitting as he got up, and stood, facing the wolfman and whispering to him. Wolf bared his sharpened yellow teeth, his brows and hair lengthened into fur and his nails into hardened claws. He snarled at the Devil as it tried to snap at him. Wolf punched the Devil's head down and took him by the horns. The Devil screamed and shrieked as Wolf stamped on its skull trying to wrench its horns out. The Devil's hands found Wolf's foot and clawed at it. Wolf kicked the monster away, and the Devil held its horns as if they ached.
Wolf stomped towards it.
The Jersey Devil raised a hand, “Alright, enough! Enough!” he said in a voice that echoed slightly.
Wolf snarled at Jersey.
“I didn't know the kid was yours,” the Jersey said.
“Get going!” Wolf barked.
Jersey stood, and limped away slowly.
Joel moved away from Wolf slightly. Joel watched as the Big Bad Wolf's hair receded back to normal, and his claws retracted back into finger nails. He shook his head slightly, and Joel saw his teeth lose their edge.
He was just an imposing man in torn clothes and broken shoes.
“You upset me,” Wolf said to Joel, putting out his hand, “That isn't a reason to go kill yourself.”
Joel allowed Wolf to help him up, “Thanks,” he said.
“Next time,” Wolf said, smiling a little, “Keep in mind that Jersey's no trouble but the Slender Man might be.”
Joel nodded, his face blanched.
“You want to know what happened?” Wolf asked.
“What happened when?” Joel asked.
Wolf sat down on the ground and sighed, “Back before Chaos left,” Wolf explained, “Before he made me the way I am.
“You... there was a different kind of you?”
Wolf laughed gruffly, “You sound surprised. I'm hundreds of years old. Age changes a man,” he explained, “Before that... well, I don't remember much before Chaos. I only remember Little Red.”
Joel raised a brow.
“Girl after my own heart,” Wolf said, “except I never knew how to - what do they call it? - woo her. Or, more so, when. So I decided I'd do it when she got out of her house to go to Granny Hood's place. Only, that thing, the thing they call the Creature of Chaos, found me. He did... something to me, put something in me. And then there was just... hunger,” Wolf stared at his hands, “I ate everything in that forest, I remember, that same day. Then I moved off into what they call the Farm, ate all of Bo Peep's sheep, blew down pig stys in a single breath, just destroyed everything. The wolfman became my favoured form,” Joel watch Wolf's nails grow to claws, the edges of his fingernails beginning to bleed with the transformation, “because of the ease of full transformation. It was easier to intimidate, easier to kill, to eat. But I left Red alone. Something... innate stopped me. Something from my previous existence,” he sighed coldly, as if the memory scared him, “Until the day when I thought there was nothing left to eat. I went Granny's house, swallowed her whole. And then I waited for Red,” Wolf paused, “I bit her, broke her arm. And I swear Joel, I can still taste her blood in my mouth, feels the shards of her bones on my cheeks. She screamed in so much pain, in so much agony that I froze in... fear, I think,” Wolf shook his head, “Then the woodsman came, slammed the flat of that axe against my head and knocked me senseless. Then he split my stomach, pulled out Granny, filled me with stones and threw me in the River. The River that flows passed the Grey into Kalis,” Wolf looked up at Joel, “I didn't die, Joel. I lived in that lightless place for years, decades maybe, healing and wandering around. After I lost sight of the River, it felt like I'd never find it again. It's the only way in and the only way out.”
“Bigs...” Joel said, reaching out a hand.
Wolf growled, “If Chaos has taken Rose, we need to get her back, because I never want to hurt Little Red like that ever again.”