Wolf was less than pleased with the outcome of their visit to the Woodsman's cottage. Naturally. But the small group of miscreants made their way to Cinder District anyway, hoping against hope that no further obstacles would obstruct them from their course. The River Passed the Grey constantly moved - as Wolf had described - so they had to catch it in as short a time as possible.
For two very notorious Abominations, that might have been a problem, it might even have been impossible. But Wolf and Joel had Gretel - any kingdom's finest warrior - and her word (or, rather, gesture) seemed to get them through quickly.
Cinder District was quite the sight, very different to Snow District in many ways. The buildings weren't as tall here, and the roads were covered in ashes from the constantly smoking chimneys. It was said that Princess Cinderella was the most effected by Prince Charming's duplicity and had resorted to 'not caring about anything, ever'. And it was true - she rarely bathed, always wore what would have been her wedding gown - now a figureless, yellowing heap of ugliness - and a moth-eaten black veil covered her face at all times. In the other districts, people gossiped about how Cinderella had set all the clocks in her district to be kept at a minute before the time of her almost-marriage - but this was just gossip. The people of Cinder District had had enough of their neglectful princess, and although the state was still technically under her watch, no-one could give a monkey's backside - even if Cinderella had ordered the clocks to be set. Her dictations didn't matter to any of them, and Cinder District had long been a controlled anarchy: Everyone stayed out of each other's way and went about their business. It made Joel partially grateful that he lived in the Grey.
“So... What now?” Joel asked.
“We located the River, get a boat or swim,” Wolf replied in his gruff voice.
“Woody said that the River was on the east side of town... You don't think that's just his way of sending us to his brother, is it?”
“The Huntsman is different Joel,” Wolf snorted, “I doubt Woody would send us to his less-able brother, who, by the way doesn't possess an axe made of enchanted silver. He's not that cruel.”
“But the Huntsman has a long standing relationship with Peter Piper, doesn't he? You know, the dude with the magic flute?”
Wolf laughed, “Was that euphemism intended?”
“Happy accident,” Joel scoffed.
“Yeah, um, the Huntsman and Piper have a 'thing' - which the people around here tend to taboo - but what's that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing. Just saying, the Huntsman wouldn't be the Huntsman if he didn't know how to lure animals into his traps and snares.”
“You calling me an animal?”
“You, um, are an animal, Wolf.”
Wolf snarled, “I'm just as human as you are.”
“Ew, no. Proudly a mirror-wraith here,” Joel saw Gretel roll her eyes.
She carried forward at a brisk pace, as if to escape their company and conversation.
“She doesn't like you at all,” Wolf remarked.
“She walked away from both of us.”
“Oh. You know it's you, Joel. How could it possibly be me?”
“Big talk coming from you, Bigs.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“You do know that you represent everything a woman fears, right?”
“And who made you an expert on women? I'm the epitome of manliness. You're a wiry runt, who's had less tail than a lynx.”
“Don't make it personal, Wolf.”
“Hmph. You started it.”
They continued their shameless banter all the way to the east side of Cinder, their shoes making prints in the ash like it was black sand. It was a terrifying thing, when the wind took hold and blew the ash about into any pedestrians' eyes and nose. Joel watched the people inside their homes peek at them from their dirty windows before quickly shutting their curtains and disappearing from view.
What a horrible place to live. What a horrible way to live.
Joel sighed, getting tired of walking and bored of the stagnated conversation.
He was about to start arguing with Wolf again when something tapped him lightly on the shoulder.
Joel turned slowly and was greeted with a firm, over-enthusiastic handshake.
“Oh my, you are a sight, Mr Wraith!”
“Peter,” Joel said, hesitating and not really knowing what to say, “Peter Piper, um...”
“Yes, that seems to be the most common greeting around these parts. A pity, this place was so much nicer before the Prince made a mess of things,” Peter said, “But please, please, do come in a sit a while! The Woodsman sent word that you might be heading our way.”
Peter scurried into a house that wasn't comely, but definitely nicer that most of the ones around it. Joel glanced in Wolf's direction with a the-hell-was-that-about? look.
Wolf scoffed and muttered to Joel, “I think he might have a thing for you.”
Joel rolled his eyes and followed Wolf into the Pied Piper's house, noticing the very fine decor and vintage furniture. Paintings with expensively intricate frames hung on the pretty walls, and Joel felt the need to hang his coat on the coat-stand and put his shoes on the shoe-rack. If he had a hat he would have hung that up as well - but he kept his pack full of supplies close to him. Gretel treated the house with a similar kind of respect. Wolf had no such intentions whatsoever.
“You'll have to excuse the hurry, I only just received Woody's message this morning. Hunter isn't home, so if you meant to speak with him, you might have to wait,” Peter said from the pantry. He came in with a tray stacked with biscuits and cakes - and a jar of pickled peppers - and left them on an oval-shaped table in the living room where Peter insisted they all sit.
He was a thin man, appearing taller than he was, looking extremely dapper in his white shirt, black waistcoat and dress-trousers. His black leather shoes gleamed and he wore white gloves. Joel wondered where his tip-staff was.
Peter, though trying his best to appear happy and comfortable, clearly felt uneasy about Wolf. They had had an unpleasant history, before the day Chaos left Ever-After.
“What exactly did Woody tell you?” Joel asked.
“Oh, well, that you wanted something from Hunter,” Peter said, sitting in an armchair, one leg over the other, “Is that... incorrect?”
Joel passed a look at Wolf, “Uh... You might have been misinformed, yeah.”
“Well, then, what are you two Abominations and this lovely young woman doing in Cinder District then?”
Joel didn't see the look Wolf was giving him, “We're looking for the River Passed the Grey. Woody told us it would be here, on the east side of Cinder District. We had something of a spat with him, so he might've notified you to distract us.”
“The River Passed the Grey, what in the Fairy Godmother's name for?”
“Well, Snow White s-”
“Snow White?” Peter said in a small voice.
“Um. Yes...” Joel said with uncertainty.
Peter's eyes narrowed, “That pitiful whore of a princess? I didn't even think an Abomination would work for her voluntarily.”
Joel glanced at Wolf. The man had his head in one hand.
“That snake!” Peter went on, “She banished Hunter and myself on the claim that Hunter had attempted on her life - when really, all Hunter did was refuse her advances. And now we live in this smoking cesspit of a town when stub-nosed, ashen-faced children throw eggs on my door and leave flaming cat litter on my welcome mat. Instead of - for want of a better description - the remarkably fabulous Snow District. It's like she's completely forgotten that Hunter spared her life, once upon a time.”
“Well, I'm sorry for your... inconveniences,” Joel said, “But we really do need to get going.”
Peter stood up and stamped his foot, “If you're going to be helping Snow White in some way or another, I feel I have a responsibility to stop you,” he pulled a small white flute from his waistcoat pocket and held it in both hands.
“Don't you dare make excuses for her!”
“This isn't about Snow White!” Wolf growled, “This is about Rose Red and Chaos.”
Peter's eyes widened and he backed away from Wolf. He put his flute closer to his mouth.
“We've been at each other's throat, we all have our stories,” Wolf said, “But this is different.”
“W-w-whatever do you mean, Mr Wolf?”
“If Chaos breaks Rose, if he uses her magic to come back - it'll mean big problems between me and Red, me and the Farm, me and you,” Wolf put out a hand, “We need to get Rose back. And then think about giving us a call, and we might deal with your Snow problem. For the right price.”
“Oh my,” Peter said, shying away from Wolf, “I'm not quite ready to forgive you, Mr Wolf.”
“That's not what I'm asking.”
Joel stood up, “Let us go. Don't keep us locked in here under your enchanted music.”
Peter looked from Wolf to Joel and back and then sighed, “Very well,” he shook Wolf's hand and then placed the flute in his grasp, “If it will help at all with your... mission, take it. It might not seem as gruesome as some of your other tools, but it is a very powerful weapon. Any person can play it.”
Wolf furrowed his brows, staring at the small flute, and was about to make a snide remark - when Joel jumped in and said, “Thank you, Peter Piper. We'll see if there's any use for it,” he took the flute from Wolf's grasp. It was cold as ice in his hands and Joel packed it away with the rest of his things.
They all went to the front door. Gretel exchanged a handshake with Peter, smiled and walked out immediately.
“Do come by, some other time,” Peter said to Joel and Wolf from the doorway of his home. He looked at the larger man and said, “You're much more... amiable than I remember.”
Wolf looked at Joel and shrugged, “Maybe having the kid around changed things.”
Peter waived away the remark, “Oh, let's not talk children. You know how much I hate them.”
Joel and Wolf said their goodbyes and walked away.
“How does it feel? To have that guy's tiny pipe in your bag?” Wolf scoffed like he'd been holding it in.
“You just wait for the opportunity and then jump on it, don't you?” Joel sighed.
“If you didn't offer me so many opportunities, I wouldn't have to jump on 'em.”
Gretel was some way off and she gestured to them - wildly waving her arms in the air.
Joel and Wolf looked at each other and then sprinted to her. She pointed down to a ditch that began to fill with black liquid.
“That's it?” Joel asked.
Wolf nodded, “That's it.”
“Told you. We either get a boat,” Wolf said. He shoved both Joel and Gretel into the ditch, leaping in after them, “or swim.”