6. 5 - True Form
Everyone feared the Big Bad Wolf, Joel had been told. They hid in fear of him, offer each other as sacrifices, shiver down to their bones, crying: “The Wolf is coming!”
They wouldn't think so much of Wolf if they had ever heard him sulk, even once.
Joel sighed for the hundredth time as he, Wolf and Gretel crossed the lush green grass away from the Grey. It had been decided that if they were to find the Woodsman, he would most likely be in a place between Earth and the Farm.
But, as to why Wolf was grumbling, Joel had insisted on packing an old revolver loaded with six silver bullets. Wolf hated the fact that Joel would even think of touching the thing. But Joel had made it clear that if Wolf lost his temper in Kalis, he wouldn't be able to calm the animal Wolf turned into with lullabies and scented candles. The bullets wouldn't kill Wolf, but a single round entered into his flesh would knock him out cold.
Joel looked around, “I think we've enjoyed the scenery enough,” he said, taking the Magic Mirror out of his pocket.
Gretel looked over his shoulder, intrigued by the hand-mirror. She reached down and tapped the glass with her forefinger. The old man in the mirror came to view quickly and snapped at her. Gretel felt an unpleasant shock and withdrew her hand, trying to shake away the pain.
“Bleeding Joel!” cried the Magic Mirror, “I will not stand being poked and prodded.”
Joel rolled his eyes, “Mirror, mirror-”
“Uh-uh, young man,” the old man said, “I demand an apology.”
Joel stared at the mirror, “But I didn't do anything.”
“Then have your friend apologise.”
“She can't talk. And you bit her or whatever, I think you're fairly even.”
“Hmph!” the Magic Mirror said, “Apologise, or there will be nothing for me to show you.”
Wolf growled and snatched the mirror from Joel's hand.
“Where is the Woodsman?” Wolf demanded.
The Magic Mirror paused for a moment, but kept a defiant silence.
Wolf raked a fingernail across the reflective glass and the old man shrieked.
“Okay, alright! Good grief! I'll show you!” the old man faded and the image of a little cottage appeared. It was squat but wide enough to have two or three rooms with smoke streaming from the chimney, and the house was surrounded by trees as if it was set in the middle of a forest. There was a single tree stump just outside the cottage's front door, an axe stuck in it.
Wolf handed the Magic Mirror back to Joel, huffed and plodded along - clearly able to recognise the place.
“I've never seen Wolf this pissed,” Joel murmured to Gretel.
She raised a brow.
“Well, I have,” Joel admitted, “but not in a while.”
They then followed Wolf as he made his way towards a cluster of trees called the Woodlands. With Wolf's horrible mood, his grumbling began to escalate as did the weight of his footfall - so that shoe-prints soon became foot-prints, and foot-prints became alarmingly large paw-prints.
Joel didn't say anything, he just followed the marks on the ground and tried his best not to make witty comments or bad jokes to lighten Wolf's mood.
They finally came upon a clearing in the Woodlands which held the little cottage with a smoking chimney and the axe lodged firmly in a lone tree-stump. Joel heard fruitful voices, laughing and teasing each other.
Wolf snarled frustratedly, a deep-throated rumbling that would cause anyone to back up a few steps. His face became more hairy as his temper rose, and his fingernails broke their skin to become claws.
Joel touched his arm tentatively. Wolf snapped his head towards Joel, the look demanding an explanation.
“Maybe I ought to knock?” Joel said, making his words sound more like a suggestion than an order.
Blood spilled from between Wolf's lips - no doubt, his gums bleeding as his fangs came in - but he grunted a little in affirmation.
Joel sighed inwardly, and strode up to the cottage door and knocked twice.
The voices stopped abruptly.
A man cursed, and then there was some shuffling sounds as if someone was putting on clothes in a hurry. The door cracked open slightly and a young-looking woman stood there - golden-haired, blue-eyed and barely-dressed beneath her long red cloak.
“Oh my,” she said, her eyes widening, “You're Bleeding Joel.”
Usually, Joel would have smiled and flirted with the young lady. But this was different.
“Little Red Riding Hood?” he said, trying to ignore the growing agitation that Wolf must be experiencing. He stood in a way that would block Wolf from Little Red's view, “What are you doing here?”
Little Red huffed indignantly, finding the question rude and intrusive, “I'd ask you the same question.”
“I'm here for the Woodsman. Just to ask some questions, nothing else.”
“A likely story,” Little Red said, “Just leave if you know what's good for you. You won't win in a fight against the Woodsman.”
She was about to shut the door, when Joel stuck his foot in, “I told you. I'm not here to fight him. Just to talk.”
Little Red frowned, “Fine,” she said, turning away and calling, “Oh, Woody! Bleeding Joel is here to see you!”
“Good,” chuckled a deep voice, “though, I always thought the dog would come after me.”
A giant of a man stepped out of one of the bedrooms, dressed in a red flannel - the buttons undone - and brown slacks. He had curly brown hair atop his head and a heavy jawline that was clean-shaven. He rolled up his sleeves and stepped towards Joel.
“You really think you can take me on, little buddy?” he murmured to Joel, leaning against the door-frame with one arm.
A growl echoed across the Woodlands and the Woodsman looked up and passed Joel.
“Oh, look, Joel brought pets,” he chuckled, “Gingersnap Girlie and the Big Bad Puppy, how nice.”
Joel saw Little Red become nervous, holding her left arm as if something distressed her.
“Woody,” Joel said in a levelled voice, “We're here for information.”
“What information?” the Woodsman asked.
“We need to know where the River Passed the Grey is.”
“I ain't helping you and your dog,” the Woodsman said smoothly, “that River leads everywhere and nowhere at once. It's how I found myself this mighty fine cutlet,” he jerked his head in Little Red's direction, “Besides, don't you already have the Magic Mirror? Can't you find anyone you want anyways?”
Joel sighed sharply, “What's it gonna take, Woody?”
“I'm not sure I know what you mean, boy.”
“We need to know where the River is. I'm not going to tell you why, I just want the information. What am I going to have to give you to get it?”
The Woodsman smiled, “Gimme the dog.”
Before Joel could respond, Wolf snapped his newly-formed jaws and roared.
“I thought I killed you, mutt,” said the Woodsman, shoving Joel out of the way and striding towards his tree-stump, “Last I saw of you was down that River, floating into the unknown, your guts and gore swimming around you like nobody's business,” he held the shaft of his axe with both hands and prised the weapon out of the wood. He held the weapon over his shoulder, the edge of the blade glinting in the sunshine.
Silver, Joel realised. The blade was made of silver.
“They told me you came back, but frankly I didn't believe them until now,” the Woodsman chuckled, “Guess I'd better amend that, huh?”
“Give Joel what he wants,” Wolf said in a scratchy growling voice, “Or I'm going to have to put you down.”
“You got a shit fucking memory, dog,” said the Woodsman, “That's not how it went last time.”
“This isn't last time.”
“Oi!” Joel called.
The Woodsman turned his head slightly to look at Joel, but he was no longer there. He turned and faced the monster with a start. In Joel's place was a demon, his cheeks splashed with red tears and his fingers growing long and sharp - cracking and pricking like the cracks in a steaming glass teapot. His face and hands became transparent like glass, and a chilling sound left him ever time he breathed - like a shiver. A red mark was on his throat, shaped like a star, and glowed with heat.
“Oh,” the Woodsman said, “This is going to be fun.”
The Woodsman sliced his axe on a horizontal, but Joel jumped up and cut down on the man's arm. The Woodsman cried out, dropping his weapon, and holding his bleeding arm.
Joel dropped in a crouch before him, “I wouldn't be so sure,” he rasped.
Joel used both hands to slice at the Woodsman's legs, but the man backed away. Joel retracted his finger and jumped, delivering a punch to the Woodsman's face and knocked him over. Joel bunched up some of the man's shirt, sitting on his chest, and allowed the fingers on his right hand to grow again, holding the points to the Woodsman's neck.
“Now about the River...” Joel said.
He heard a deep cry, and moved his head just as the axe's blade whistled passed it. Little Red regained her momentum, and was about to swing again when Wolf leapt on her. The woman screamed at the top of her lungs, and Wolf raised his hands to claw her.
Then he froze.
His breathing became more steady, his hair began to recede. Little Red regained her senses, and chopped the axe into Wolf's shoulder. The nature of his form spiked again and he roared in pain. But the silver took its affect. Wolf swayed unsteadily and dropped off Little Red, but before she could get up, Gretel came and stepped on her chest.
“The River,” Joel repeated.
The Woodsman looked at him, and then spat in his face.
Joel touched his long forefinger to the Woodsman's chest, drawing blood without even digging deep and seeding the wound with glass. The Woodsman struggled beneath him.
“You don't want me to make you suffer,” Joel said.
“The River...” the Woodsman started, “It's near Cinder District, right now, on the east side of town. If you go now, you'll find it there. If it's not there, it would have moved off into Beast District.”
“If I don't find it, Woody,” Joel said, bringing his face closer to the Woodsman's, “expect a return visit from me. And not one you'll survive,” he clenched his long, glass hand into a fist and slammed it down onto the Woodsman's temple, knocking him out in an instant...